* 21 entries including: European Union (series), Cold War (series), 21st-century economics (series), war against malaria (series), Gaia maps the skies, eyebrow mites co-evolve with humans, green freightships, hardening NYC subways against flooding, new PC adventures, genomics of beer yeasts, Chromebook emergence, and, world getting hotter.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR OCTOBER 2016: The Iraqi government is now engaged in an extended offensive to retake Mosul, the biggest Iraqi city still in the hands of Islamic State (IS) insurgents. The Iraqis have been assisted by US personnel, sent to Iraq to advise and assist, direct raids, enable logistics, and provide security support.
US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter suggested US forces are unlikely to drawdown their presence in Iraq if Mosul is recaptured, as any security gains may be fragile. Carter said during a 22 October meeting with US troops in Baghdad: "We have discussed that with the Iraqi government, and I only start there because it will, in the end, be a decision that we make with the Iraqi government."
General Joseph Votel, head of US Central Command (CENTCOM), said in July that winning the battle is seen as inevitable, with the more important consideration being what should happen after Mosul is liberated -- that there must be a military plan, a political plan, a stabilization plan, and a humanitarian plan.
* The raucous US presidential election of 2016 has taken place against a background of leaks, most distributed through the Wikileaks website, the primary target of Wikileaks being Hillary Clinton and her campaign. Evidence suggests that Russian hackers, presumably backed by the Kremlin, are responsible for much of the leakage. The Russian government has of course strongly denied such accusations, though few believe the denials.
What, then, is Russian President Vladimir Putin is trying to accomplish by this program of break-ins and leaks? Given that Donald Trump is inclined to cozy up with Putin, it might seem that Putin wants to get Trump elected, to have an America friendlier to Russia. The smart money in Russian studies judges that off the mark; Putin doesn't want America as a friend. The USA is much too convenient as an enemy, a threat to justify his heavy-handed rule, and to scapegoat for Russia's economic problems, by blaming them on sanctions to evade their roots in misrule.
Putin's goal is, it is believed, simply to sow confusion, weakening America to make it more difficult for the USA to exert pressure on Russia. The exercise also has the effect of discrediting democracy, making his authoritarianism look better in contrast. In any case, relationships between the US and Russia, not good now, are likely to get worse in the next administration.
* The senior editor of Wikileaks, and its founder, is an Australian named Julian Assange. In 2012, when he was in the UK, the Swedish government wanted his extradition for questioning in a rape case; fearing that the US government would extradite him in turn when he went to Sweden, he got asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he lives today. Assange has made his hostility to a Clinton presidency clear -- he didn't like Clinton's military assertiveness while she was Barack Obama's secretary of state -- and has been trying to influence the US election through a program of leaks.
Some find Assange heroic; however, in this season of leaks, public patience with leakers is wearing thin. If he were to burglarize the accounts of private individuals, who would judge him anything but a miscreant? Why is burglarizing the Democratic National Committee anything better? And burglarizing the US government is called called "spying"; there isn't a legal system on the planet that doesn't unambiguously make that a crime. Had Assange simply criticized the US government, that would be one thing; but he has declared cyber-war on the US, or in other words picked a fight with a much bigger and very dangerous adversary that has, can have, no sympathy with his motives, and is not going to forget him. The only relief Assange can have on that score is that it is likely, if not completely certain, the US government will remain within the bounds of international law in attempting to get their hands on him.
The question remains open as to how much the leaks involved Russia -- but that ambiguity cuts both ways. Assange didn't do the break-ins himself, Wikileaks just provided a conduit to distribute the materials to everyone, including hostile governments. There's no ambiguity that this amounted to complicity; the ambiguity is that he is unable to show that he is not a tool of the Kremlin. Indeed, it is in the nature of leaks that they are dodgy sources of information; the media and others who seize on leaks have no way of knowing what is true and what is not, except by asking the targets for validation. The targets are now increasingly refusing to acknowledge leaks. Why should they? It would be no more than collaborating in their own persecution. Hillary Clinton's campaign, after being pushed around for months, is now standing firm, and refusing to take the bag when the media tries to hand it to them: You like that bag? Keep it.
Will governments start feeding phony leaks to Wikileaks to discredit it and muddy the waters? Why not? Maybe they're doing it now. It's all bootleg to begin with, who could be faulted for simply making it more obviously so? Why not prank the pranksters? What's to lose? Assange, in attempting to raise questions about the integrity of governments, can't avoid raising questions about his own integrity.
Incidentally, the Wikileaks materials provide interesting insights into Hillary Clinton. For starters, one of her prime objectives is "two sensible, moderate, pragmatic political parties." Obviously she wants that to further her evil ambitions. In a 2013 address, she also commented:
Politics is like sausage being made. It is unsavory, and it always has been that way, but we usually end up where we need to be. But if everybody's watching, you know, all of the back-room discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So, you need both a public and a private position.
There was some fuss about that remark, but only among the naive or those with an axe to grind. Nobody with sense believes that politicians are, can be, or should be perfectly forthright, any more than a salesperson is. They are in an advocacy position, and cannot be expected to provide a balanced argument. Of course, there remains the rule: "Never lie; you get caught lying." A sufficiently smooth politician can spin the facts as necessary without stumbling into outright falsehood. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton is a notably awkward politician.
* However, Clinton has been ably assisted by Barack Obama and his wife Michelle. Barack Obama has been in prime form, exploiting the vulnerability that Trump has become to Republicans. On Sunday, 23 October, Obama was in Las Vegas, blasting Trump for saying he will silence reporters and throw his opponents in jail without due process, adding that Trump "apparently has not heard of the 1st, 4th and 14th Amendments." He challenged Republicans: "Why do you support him?! Why didn't you offer him your pocket constitution?!"
Obama took particular aim in the speech at Nevada Congressman Joe Heck, now running for the Senate: "Now that Trump's poll numbers are cratering, suddenly [Heck] says: 'No, I'm not supporting him.' TOO LATE! You DON'T get credit for that!" Rising to the occasion, Obama led the audience in a chant: "WHAT THE HECK?! HECK NO! HECK NO!"
Obama's approval ratings are now high, at about 55%. Michelle Obama, in the meantime, has been leveraging off her own considerable popular appeal -- a recent poll gives her public approval rating as about two-thirds of the populace -- to directly attack Trump for his misogyny. Although she and Hillary Clinton apparently haven't always been on the best terms, they're now campaigning together, putting on a united front as 8 November approaches.
In reality, the campaigning can only make a marginal difference. The election was effectively decided months ago in the minds of voters. The only variable is the need of the Clinton campaign to convince voters who won't vote for Trump to get out and vote for her -- instead of voting for splinter candidates, or staying home.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE EUROPEAN UNION (3): At the outset, pushing matters much beyond a limited European economic community was not in the cards. For instance, a proposal was made in 1950 to create a European army as an alternative to West German rearmament under NATO, which had been created the previous year. During the Korean war, misleadingly seen as a sign of menacing Soviet ambition, the idea made progress. The problem was that six governments found it hard to agree on how a European army should be run; in particular, French Gaullists hated the loss of sovereignty, though America threatened an "agonizing reappraisal" of relations if France voted against the defense treaty. The US wanted Europeans to shoulder more of the load for their own defense -- but, in August 1954, after the Korean war was over, the French National Assembly rejected the European Defense Community by 319 votes to 264.
The same fate almost befell negotiations to broaden the Coal & Steel Community into the European Economic Community, a free-trade area known as the "common market". At a conference in Messina in 1955, the French agreed to consider the plan only after a desperate late-night session between the enthusiastic Belgian delegate and his reluctant French colleague. A year later, the French prime minister, Guy Mollet, was still wavering. True to France's perpetual concerns about where its energy would come from, Mollet wanted an agreement on nuclear power (known as Euratom), but he was unsure whether the common market was a price worth paying.
On 6 November 1956 Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first post-war chancellor, visited Paris in an attempt to persuade the French to embrace the deal. He might have failed had it not been for the fact Anthony Eden, the British prime minister, telephoned Mollet during their meeting to say that Britain, under pressure from the Americans, had called off its joint military operation with the French and Israelis in Suez. Mollet was furious; Adenauer seized the opportunity: "Europe will be your revenge."
It would be a funny sort of revenge, however, since the Americans consistently believed in European integration; a stronger, peaceful Europe meant less of a burden on the USA, and besides -- dealing with a mob of bickering European states was a damned nuisance. Writing in 1948, the American diplomat George Kennan summed up the view in Washington: if Germany were restored without European integration, there would be a German attempt to dominate; if Germany were not restored, there would be domination by Russia. America required a strong, prosperous Europe that resolved the German question, and worked to that end. Without US support, the enterprise might have failed.
Monnet was also critical to getting the ball rolling. Born in the department of Charente in western France, he left school at 16 and went to work in the family cognac business in London. Later he became deputy secretary-general of the League of Nations, served a stint in Shanghai and, during the Second World War, acted for the British in Washington -- John Maynard Keynes judged that Monnet's success at procuring arms and equipment shortened the fighting by a year. Both America and Monnet wanted European integration; Monnet was able to call on his formidable American diplomatic and political connections to help clear away obstacles to his plan.
What was entirely impossible for Monnet to do was to turn politicians into true believers. Charles de Gaulle, whom Monnet suspected of bugging his phone, was an early and enduring skeptic He dismissed Europe as "ce machin" -- "this contraption" -- and rejected anything that diluted the power of national governments. De Gaulle's shadow lingered over European integration long after the general retired to rural seclusion in Colombey-les-Deux-Eglises in 1969. In the early 1970s, the French foreign minister, Michel Jobert, asked Edouard Balladur, later to be finance minister and prime minister, what the term European Union actually meant. Balladur replied: "Nothing, but then that is the beauty of it."
Today the European project is seen through the haze of the 1980s, at a stage when the original Common Market had attracted new members in the north -- Britain, Ireland, and Denmark -- and in the newly democratic south -- Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Jacques Delors, another French finance minister, oversaw a burst of integration during his tenure as president of the European communities. It brought the single market, the European Union, limits on the scope of governmental vetoes, extra powers for the European Parliament, and eventually the single currency. The collapse of the Warsaw Pact and, later, EU membership for the former Communist countries only cemented the impression that Europe's advance was the way of the future.
It suits the EU's devotees and its critics alike to treat the strengthening and deepening of the Delors years as a default condition. The period conforms to the founding myth of an ever-closer union run out of Brussels by a powerful bureaucracy, something devotees treat as inevitable and critics as conspiracy. In fact, Delors was the exception. His achievements were possible chiefly because the member states wanted to use the EU machinery as a way of catching up with the economic liberalization that was bearing fruit in America and Britain under Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. For her part, Thatcher went along; she saw the single market as the sort of Europe that Britain wanted. Reagan had no reason to oppose it.
The EU never represented a grand architecture; it was makeshift. Other Europes might have emerged from the postwar chaos, but the one that actually happened has proven oddly durable. The EU of today is made of governments that squabble and bicker and backslide -- but that's actually how it started. Even if some countries are ready to give up certain powers from time to time, others are not, and nothing happens without a consensus. Leaders rarely act without a crisis to drive them -- or differently put, they have to focus on the worst crisis of the moment, and let the others take care of themselves -- and as a result their remedies are often ad-hoc and inadequate. Such is politics. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: The idea of using high-flying, long-endurance drone aircraft for communications relay, persistent surveillance, monitor forest fires, and other applications has been around for decades, but so far not much has actually been accomplished. As discussed by an item from WIRED Online blogs, it appears the idea is starting to reach critical mass, one particular piece of evidence being work by European aerospace giant Airbus.
Airbus has now performed the first flight of its "Zephyr T" solar-powered drone. The drone is a prototype for what the company calls "high-altitude pseudo-satellites", providing much of the capability of satellites at much lower cost, and also providing a closer view of the terrain below than satellites.
The Zephyr T follows in the steps of earlier long-endurance drones, tracing back to the NASA "Helios" solar-powered flying-wing drone. It performed its first flights for NASA in 1999, though it was lost in a crash in 2003. It reached altitudes of 29,270 meters (96,000 feet) and could stay in the air at least 24 hours.
Airbus started working on pseudo satellites in 2008, aiming to fill the "capability gap" between satellites in orbit and the low-altitude, limited-endurance drones of the day. In 2010, the earlier "Zephyr 7", originally developed by the UK's Qinetiq defense-research organization, broke the world record for longest flight without refueling -- 14 days. After that, the company decided to move on to commercialization with two new models, the "Zephyr S" and "Zephyr T". The British Ministry of Defense will receive the first two S models, which will likely be used for surveillance.
Airbus has flown a quarter-scale model of the Zephyr T, which will extend the 25-meter (82-foot) wingspan of the Zephyr S to 32.9 meters (108 feet). The Zephyr T will also be much larger, 136 kilograms (300 pounds), than the 64.8-kilogram (143-pound) Zephyr S -- and will have a payload capacity of 20 kilograms (44 pounds), enough for a lightweight but capable surveillance or relay payload. The two drones are clearly similar in appearance, but the Zephyr S has one tail, while the well bigger Zephyr T has two tails. Both drones will cruise at 19,800 meters (65,000 feet), and have endurance of up to a month. The two drones have downturned wingtips, which substantially improve flight efficiency at their low cruise speeds. Power storage for operation at night is something of a challenge.
After decades of slow motion, long-endurance drones appear to be finally ready for take-off, with a number of firms now working on the technology. Facebook is developing a solar drone named "Aquila", which would fly for three months at a time to provide Internet access to remote areas. Exactly when the future will arrive in earnest remains to be seen.
* The Lockheed Martin Hercules cargolifter has been used as a close-support gunship since the Vietnam War. The fourth generation of Hercules gunship, the "AC-130J Ghostrider", is a significant asset to the USAF Special Operations Command (AFSOC); it features side-firing 30-millimeter automatic cannon and 105-millimeter gun, the ability to launch small guided munitions such as the GBU-176 Griffin missile or GBU-39 Small Diameter Bomb, and a combat avionics system for targeting the munitions.
Now the AFSOC is evaluating a combat laser system to the AC-130J, with a testbed to be flying by 2020. The laser system would replace the 30-millimeter cannon; it would provide an ability to strike ground targets without necessarily revealing the presence of the launch platform, and would also provide defense against surface-to-air missiles. AFSOC brass envision the laser system initially being mounted on the side of the aircraft; that's not an optimum position, a belly mounting having an all-around field of view, but the side-mounted system will be easier to field in a hurry.
* The Mexican Navy has now acquired a drone, the Arcturus JUMP 20, for coastal surveillance, primarily for environmental purposes. The JUMP 20 appears, for the most part, to be a conventional fixed-wing drone, with a high wing and a tee tail, driven by a 190-cc gasoline piston engine with a tractor propeller. The JUMP 20 has a span of 5.64 meters (18 feet 6 inches), a length of 2.87 meters (9 feet 5 inches), can carry a payload of fuel and sensors of 27 kilograms (60 pounds), and has an endurance (depending on ratio of fuel to payload) of 9 to 15 hours.
What makes the JUMP 20 interesting is that it has a boom under each wing, with a rotor, driven by an electric motor, at each end -- in effect, it's a cross between a fixed-wing drone and a quadcopter. It takes off using the four rotors, which are fixed in place fore-&-aft once the tractor prop takes over, and then transitions back to the rotors for landing. The JUMP 20 is designed for generally autonomous operation under austere conditions. The idea of such a hybrid actually seems obvious, at least in hindsight, and this is likely to become a common drone configuration in the future, being another manifestation of the push towards aircraft with multiple electrically-driven prop systems.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CO-EVOLUTION OF MITES & HUMANS: Eyebrow mites, Demodex brevis, were mentioned here in 2014. As discussed then, they're microscopic arachnids, relatives of spiders and ticks, and make a living on our face. They reside in hair follicles and sweat glands -- their elongated bodies giving them a neat fit in their homes, where they feed on dead skin cells. They're usually harmless, indeed seem to be necessary for skin hygiene.
An entry from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("What The Mites On Your Face Say About Where You Came From" by David Schultz, 14 December 2015) focused on Demodex folliculorum, a similar species of mite with similar habits. A study has now shown that people of different ancestry carry different subgroups of D. folliculorum, and that the mites' distribution throughout the global population reflects how our species has migrated and evolved over the course of history.
In order to investigate the diversity of the mite population, researchers collected samples from 70 human hosts. The participants were from a range of backgrounds, with European, Asian, African, and Latin American ancestries. The team analyzed DNA from the mitochondria in the cells of the mites. The mitochondrion is a cellular organelle, derived from a symbiotic single-cell organism in the distant past, with its own small genome; it is much easier to sequence mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) than the much larger genome in the nucleus of the cell, and so mtDNA is often used for examining relationships between subspecies or closely-related species.
The results revealed four distinct groups, or "clades", of mite mtDNA, labeled "A" through "D", with ancestry apparently determining what mite clades are found on a subject. Pie charts of the proportions of the four clades were strongly consistent along ancestral lines. People of African descent, for example, had a mixture of all the different types, while people of European descent tended only to have mites from one group.
The researchers estimate that the last common ancestor of the four mite clades lived more than three million years ago, meaning all four groups predate modern humans, and the two species have evolved in parallel. Given that humans arose in Africa, it seems that ancestral humans had all four clades, with some of them diminishing or dying out as humans migrated elsewhere.
The researchers also found that an individual's mite population remained stable for years, and that it didn't change when the individual moved elsewhere. In addition, the mite profiles were passed across generations -- a second-generation person of African descent living in Europe will most likely retain the mites of ancestors, instead of acquiring a European profile. That seems a bit puzzling, but human populations differ in skin hydration, hair follicle density, and lipid production; it appears that there has been a co-evolution between mites and hosts, with differences in host skin conditions accommodating different sets of clades. Ancient Europeans, for example, may have acquired mutations in their skin that strongly favored the D clade over A, B, or C.
This is the first study using the mites to investigate human history and behaviors. Other research -- especially on lice -- has attempted to obtain similar insights about human history, but the mites appear to have greater genetic diversity: even people with the same ancestry had subtle differences in their mite profiles, with the most similar profiles coming from individuals within the same family. Some of the sample sizes are small and more work remains, but the results are seen as very promising.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GAIA MAPS THE HEAVENS: On 19 December 2013, a Soyuz booster was launched from the ESA space center at Kourou, in French Guiana, to put the "Gaia" stellar astrometry mission into space. Gaia, discussed here at the time, was placed at the Earth-Sun L2 libration position, gravitationally balanced between the Earth and Sun, to begin precisely mapping the positions of tens of millions of cosmic objects on a daily basis.
As discussed by an article from Nature.com ("Milky Way Mapper: 6 Ways The Gaia Spacecraft Will Change Astronomy" by Davide Castelvecchi, 9 September 2016), the first Gaia map was released on 14 September, showing the 3D positions of 2,057,050 stars and other objects, and how those positions have changed over the past two decades. That's nothing more than a sample; when the five-year mission is complete, the Gaia map will contain at least a billion objects, the map being a thousand times more extensive and at least ten times more precise than any such effort that preceded it.
The initial release is expected to result in hundreds of papers. Some groups have planned "Gaia hacking" and "Gaia sprint" events, in which researchers will collaborate to dig into the Gaia data. The extensive precision stellar astrometry data is expected to yield insights beyond the mere location of such objects. A list of studies of the data are being initiated:
In the end, the total volume of Gaia data will be so immense that it will load down the science computing cloud, and take decades to sort out. It is conceivable that an astronomer might devote an entire career to the return from Gaia -- spending a life exploring the Universe through digital data.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DEFEATING MALARIA (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Breaking The Fever", 10 October 2015), malaria kills about 450,000 people each year, most of them African children -- 90% of the fatalities from the disease are in sub-Saharan Africa. Ironically, this is good news; the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that better control prevented the deaths of 3.9 million African kids between 2001 and 2013.
Since 2000, the death rate from malaria has fallen by almost half. More than a hundred countries have eliminated it as a health threat. The WHO believes that malaria cases and deaths could both fall by another 90% in the next 15 years. In 2015 year, heads of state from East Asia endorsed plan to make the region free of malaria by 2030. The Gates Foundation, one of the major drivers of antimalarial research and control efforts, believes it can be eradicated completely by 2040.
Malaria has killed people since before the dawn of history. In 1900, it was endemic in almost every country on Earth, and throughout the first half of the 20th century, it killed 2 million people a year. Progress to date has not just been due to money, but also imagination, persistence and political will. Eradication would save millions of lives and trillions of dollars in lost productivity and health costs, mostly in poor countries.
However, the past history of the battle against malaria is not entirely encouraging. A global eradication effort begun in 1955 did greatly reduce malaria deaths over the following decade. However, the effort lacked depth, and funding dried up as malaria deaths fell, with the disease roaring back. Those working on the eradication effort warn against complacency.
As is well-known, the disease starts from the bite of a mosquito infected with the protozoan Plasmodium parasite, which injects a small number of the parasites into the human victim's bloodstream. About 40 different species of Anopheles mosquito, found all over the world, act as hosts for the types of malaria that infect humans. The parasite migrate to the liver, where they multiply rapidly; and then infect red blood cells, to proliferate through the bloodstream. Flu-like symptoms emerge when the parasites break out of the blood cells, one to four weeks after the bite. Other mosquitoes can then be infected by the parasite when they bite an infected person, to infect other humans in turn.
Five types of malaria are a threat to humans, the biggest killer by far being Plasmodium falciparum. Plasmodium vivax is well more widespread, though much less lethal; but it tends to remain dormant in the liver, causing occasional relapses that weaken the victims and renders them more vulnerable to other infections. The other three types are little more than nuisances.
The Plasmodium parasites have acquired tricks to spoof the human immune system, which is why P. vivax victims suffer periodic relapses; it also makes developing a vaccine troublesome. Worse, up to 85% of people infected with malaria do not show symptoms, and the parasite can lay dormant for months or years after an initial infection before emerging. Testing for a latent infection is tricky, and there's not enough kit to do it to go around.
Worse, the Plasmodium parasites have become increasingly resistant to drugs used to treat them. Strains of P. falciparum resistant to chloroquine, once a common antimalarial drug, developed independently in several countries in the 1950s and 1960s; now they are everywhere. The drug treatment of choice today -- artemisinin-based combination therapy (ACT) -- is used against P. falciparum, and reduces malaria deaths in children by more than 96%. However, ACT-resistant parasites have emerged in Southeast Asia, some of them resistant to almost all antimalarial drugs.
Add to these problems the facts that the Anopheles mosquitos have become increasingly resistant to insecticides. DDT was once used to kill them off; it has become ineffectual. African mosquitoes are developing resistance to pyrethroids, which are used to treat bed nets -- which have proven highly effective at reducing malaria infections -- and are used in two-thirds of the house sprayings in areas at risk. Resistance to two or more insecticides has developed in nearly two-thirds of malarial countries worldwide. The trend seems likely to continue. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE EUROPEAN UNION (2): The Treaty of Paris was made possible by an unrepeatable, galvanizing set of circumstances born of two world wars and the new Soviet threat. In May 1947, Winston Churchill asked: "What is Europe? A rubble-heap, a charnel house, a breeding ground for pestilence and hate."
The war in Europe had killed 36.5 million people; in many countries, more civilians had died than soldiers. Infrastructure had been badly damaged; hunger was widespread. The Treaty of Paris would have been impossible without this dismal scene. The post-war desolation was unlike anything since the Thirty Years War of the 17th century, a religious insanity that killed a similar share of the continent's population. The Treaty of Westphalia, signed at that war's end in 1648, shaped how Europe view conflicts for the next three centuries: states should not interfere in each other's domestic affairs; the way to contain conflicting ambitions was by maintaining a balance of power.
That became more troublesome over time. In the 18th century, Britain forged its constituent countries into a United Kingdom with global reach. Revolutionary France then became the first nation to mobilize all the state's resources to the waging of war; Napoleon leveraged off that mobilization to lead his Grande Armee in the conquest of the Continent. As the 19th century progressed, nation-states consolidated their power, creating national identities among peoples who had in many cases been citizens of small principalities and such. Compilations of folklore, tales of illustrious forebears, genealogies of language and theories of race were all put to work reinforcing these identities. The historian Norman Davies wrote: "The educated, multilingual cosmopolitan elite of Europe grew weaker; the half-educated national masses, who thought of themselves only as Frenchmen, Germans, English or Russians, grew stronger."
After 1814, Germany invaded France five times; in 1914 and 1939, antagonisms and ambitions of European nation-states with colonies on almost every continent twice dragged the whole world into war. In that context, although it seems surprising in hindsight, it appeared terrifyingly plausible in 1945 that Germany would rise again as a "Fourth Reich". Fear of Germany was compounded by fear of the Soviet Union, especially after the USSR backed a communist coup in Prague in 1948.
This was the context for the Treaty of Paris: all across Europe, governments had failed. Some European countries had embraced fascism; others had crumbled; war had become total, Europe becoming a gang-fight on a monstrous scale. Societies were worn down by hunger, exhaustion, and fear. Governments desperate to ensure peace sought to extend their care of ordinary people. They had to ensure the good life to factory workers so they would not be drawn to communism, and to farm workers so they would not be drawn to fascism -- as they had been when agricultural economies collapsed in the 1930s.
The French had the strongest vision of the way forward. French prosperity required West German raw materials; France had depended on German coal since the 1890s, and by the 1930s had become the world's largest coal importer. At the same time, Germany had to be kept from starting another war. In 1945, Charles de Gaulle felt the best way to meet these goals would be to put the coal and steel industries in the Ruhr and Rhineland permanently under French control; France would guarantee its own safety by making sure West Germany remained an agrarian state.
The Americans and the British, though they toyed with the idea, emphatically rejected it. It made no sense to economically prop up a feeble West Germany, all the more so because it was flooded with ethnic-German refugees that had fled, or been evicted from, Eastern Europe. Worse, a poor, suppressed West Germany might well either rebel or fall under Soviet influence. As a fallback, in 1946 and 1947, France flirted with the Soviet Union about an alliance in the East, an old strategy based on the balance-of-power logic of the Treaty of Westphalia -- but Josef Stalin had his own agendas, and they didn't mesh with those of the French.
That left only one real alternative. In 1949 Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, drove forward with Monnet's plan for a Coal & Steel Community. The scheme was a trade treaty with a twist. It created a High Authority, which stood above the six governments, to administer its provisions; all the participants were equal and the pact was open to new members.
European myth-making would present Schuman's initiative as a bold new vision, but it was much more like a last resort. It was far more tentative than far-reaching. The idea of European union had a long history -- Victor Hugo had talked of a United States of Europe as early as 1849, and there were hundreds of proposals for such an entity between the world wars. Next to almost all such schemes, the Treaty of Paris, with its focus on schedules of heavy-industrial output, was as dry as coal dust.
Partly, that was due to the fact that the agreement was between sovereign states, marked by traditional rivalries between each other, that only wished to cooperate to the extent they saw it in the national interest. What else would have been the case? However, grand schemes to remake society had also been tainted by Naziism and Bolshevism. In the Second World War Albert Speer, Hitler's chief architect, had drawn up plans for a pan-European political order. Pierre Pucheu, executed for his role as a senior administrator in Vichy France, had called for a single currency. Dreams had turned out to be nightmares; utopias were out of fashion. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for September included:
-- 01 SEP 16 / AMOS 6 (FAILURE) -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster blew up on the pad at Cape Canaveral during a test firing, taking the Israeli "Amos 6" geostationary comsat with it.
-- 08 SEP 16 / INSAT 3DR -- An ISRO Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark 2 booster was launched from Sriharikota at 1120 UTC (local time - 5:30) to put the "Insat 3DR" geostationary weather satellite into space. Insat 3DR had a launch mass of 2,211 kilograms (4,874 pounds); it carried an imager operating over six bands, from the visible to the infrared, to image weather patterns, as well as a sounder to take atmospheric profiles. The satellite had a ten-year design life. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 74 degrees east longitude.
-- 08 SEP 16 / OSIRIS-REX -- At 2305 UTC (local time + 4) on 9 September, NASA launched the "Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx)" asteroid sample-return mission from Cape Canaveral on an Atlas V booster.
OSIRIS-REx had a launch mass of 2,110 kilograms (4,650 pounds), and was built by Lockheed Martin. Along with the asteroid sampling system and sample-return capsule, the probe's instrument suite includes:
Following an Earth flyby on 22 September 2017, OSIRIS-REx will rendezvous with the asteroid 101955 Bennu -- a carbonaceous asteroid with a diameter of about 490 meters (1,600 feet) -- in August 2018, to begin three years of observations. After selection of a landing site from the mapping data, the probe will collect up to 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) of samples in July 2020, to begin the return journey to Earth in March 2021. The sample capsule will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere on 24 September 2023, with the capsule being recovered at the Utah Test & Training Range. The Atlas booster was in "411" configuration, with a four-meter (13.1-foot) fairing, one solid rocket booster, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.
-- 13 SEP 16 / OFEQ 11 -- An Israeli Shavit booster was launched from Palmachim Air Base at 1438 UTC (local time - 2) to put an "Ofeq 11" optical surveillance satellite into space. Although initial difficulties with the space platform were reported after it made orbit, they were resolved.
-- 15 SEP 16 / TIANGONG 2 -- A Long March 2F booster was launched from Jiuquan at 1404 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "Tiangong 2" mini space station into orbit. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 8,615 kilograms (19,000 pounds), a length of 10.4 meters (34 feet 1 inch) and a maximum diameter of 3.35 meters (11 feet). The Tiangong ("Heavenly Palace") station featured two modules:
Experiments carried on Tiangong 2 included a gamma-ray detector to measure the polarization of radiation from cosmic gamma-ray bursts; a quantum-communications experiment; and environmental monitoring instruments. Along with new payloads, Tiangong 2 improved on Tiangong 1 by having better crew accommodations, as well as the ability to re-stock and refuel from "Tianzhou" cargo spacecraft. Tiangong 2 was intended mostly for technology validation and had a design lifetime of two years. The "Shenzhou 11" crewed space capsule was to follow the station into orbit to deliver a crew about a month after launch.
The launch also included a microsatellite named "Banxing 2", intended to maneuver near the station in space, using an ammonia-gas propulsion system, and take photos with a high-resolution camera. The booster was the "2F T1" subvariant, with larger liquid-fuel strap-ons and a bigger payload shroud than a standard 2F booster.
-- 15 SEP 16 / PERUSAT 1 & SKYSAT x 4 -- A Vega booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 0143 UTC (previous day local time + 3) to put into Sun-synchronous orbit the "PeruSat 1" civil Earth observation satellite for the Peru's "La Comision Nacional de Investigacion y Desarrollo Aeroespacial (CONIDA)"; as well as four "SkySat" civil Earth observation satellites for Terra Bella of Mountain View CA, a subsidiary of Google INC. Terra Bella was previously SkyBox Imaging.
PeruSat 1 was built by Airbus Defense & Space; it had a launch mass of 430 kilograms (948 pounds), an optical imaging system with a resolution of 70 centimeters (27.5 inches), and a design life of ten years. The four Terra Bella satellites were built by Space Systems / Loral, and each had a launch mass of 110 kilograms (242 pounds), with an imaging system featuring a resolution of a meter (33 inches). They joined three others in orbit -- one launched in 2013, 2014, and earlier in 2016 -- with the new satellites numbered "4" through "7", more informally being named "R2D2", "Luke", "C3PO", and "Leia". Six more are to be launched in 2017.
-- 26 SEP 16 / SCATSAT 1, SMALLSATS x 7 -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 0342 UTC (local time - 5:30) to put "ScatSat 1" spacecraft into a near-polar Sun-synchronous orbit. It carried a Ku-band radar scatterometer to determine sea-surface roughness, which can be used to determine wind strength and direction. The data on sea winds is expected to be particularly useful for predicting and analyzing tropical cyclones. The flight also included seven other, smaller payloads:
* GREEN FREIGHTERS? As described by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Building Greener Ships, to Keep the Sea From Rising" by Henry Fountain, 8 December 2015), the 222-meter (730-foot) long PERLA DEL CARIBE, being built in San Diego, looks like a conventional midsize container ship. However, cutouts in the superstructure reveal two steel tanks, 27 meters (90 feet) long and painted lime green. The two tanks store about 3.8 million liters (a million US gallons) of liquefied natural gas (LNG), chilled to -160 degrees Celsius (-260 degrees Fahrenheit). LNG will be be the primary fuel of the vessel when it goes into service in 2016, shuttling between Jacksonville, Florida, and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
While LNG has been used for some ferries and other vessels, this ship and a second, identical one, the ISLA BELLA, which went into service on the same run in 2015, are the first container ships to use the fuel. Cleaner-burning LNG, consisting largely of methane, can reduce carbon dioxide emissions by roughly 15% to 20%, compared with the heavy tarlike "bunker fuel" used on most ships. Peter Keller -- the executive vice president of Tote, the shipping company that built the two vessels at a cost of about $350 million USD -- commented: "We came to a decision that rather than putting band-aids on things, we should look for ways to address core issues of maritime emissions."
Environmentalists and others say that emissions from maritime transport represent a problem. As a percentage of worldwide carbon dioxide emissions, the contribution from shipping is relatively small -- about 2.6% of the global total in 2012, the most recent year for which firm data available. However, its contribution is likely to grow, as shipping grows and emissions from other sources falls. According to a report from the European Parliament, maritime shipping could account for a sixth of emissions by 2050.
Since shipping is mostly conducted out of sight of land, it hasn't been given much attention, with environmentalists saying it is almost unregulated. The shipping industry and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), the United Nations agency that is responsible for regulating it, disagree. Maritime shipping is, according to the IMO, the most efficient form of bulk transport on the planet, and standards to improve efficiency in new ships went into effect earlier this year. An IMO spokesperson says those standards are subject to regular review, and could be tightened "if the technology supports that."
Fuel, even for the largest vessels, can run to 50% or more of operating cost, which means shipping companies have a big incentive to improve efficiency, which as a strong rule means reducing emissions. Many shipping lines have adopted efficiency improvements, which can include relatively straightforward steps like polishing the propeller or coating the hull with paint that inhibits the growth of algae and other organisms, to more extensive and expensive work to improve engine performance, reshape the bow or add fins or ducts to the propeller.
There's even been work on generating a film of bubbles to reduce the friction of a ship plowing through the seas. Another approach, the "Flettner rotor", which involves tall cylinders that spin the wind, was invented nearly a century ago, with a few ships using them to augment propulsion.
One simple way to improve efficiency is just to slow down, which can reduce emissions by more than half. Such "slow steaming" was widely adopted by shipping lines during the global economic slowdown from 2008. However, shippers are also under pressure to get goods to market quickly, and shipping lines only carry about 60% of ocean-going cargo. With other types of shipping -- including bulk carriers of oil, grains and other commodities -- the shipowner passes the fuel cost on to the company that is chartering the vessel, so there is less incentive for the owner to make improvements.
The IMO's efficiency standards apply only to new ships, not the approximately 70,000 existing commercial vessels; and since ships are often registered in countries like Panama and Liberia, partly to avoid stricter regulations elsewhere, there's an inevitable lack of transparency in their operation. Environmental groups believe that the industry needs to be regulated more carefully, with emission targets placed on shipping operations.
The IMO is not enthusiastic about such proposals, seeing that such a dramatic effort would effectively cripple the shipping industry. Tristan Smith, a lecturer and researcher at University College London, says ships could realistically be expected to cut fuel use and emissions by about 50% percent through various efficiency improvements, including slow steaming. He adds: "But to continue to improve beyond that is a real challenge."
The two LNG container ships do produce less carbon dioxide, but much of the reason for going to LNG was to reduce emission of pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, which causes acid rain, as well as nitrogen oxides and particulate matter, or soot, which can cause health problems. Those pollutants are now regulated for shipping within coastal zones of North America and Europe, and may eventually be more tightly controlled.
LNG is not a perfect solution from a CO2-emissions standpoint. It is still a fossil fuel, if a cleaner one; and since the LNG won't ignite on its own, the engine must still burn a small amount of diesel oil, known as "pilot fuel", reducing the environmental benefits. There's also concerns that unburned methane may escape from the vessel; since methane is about 20 times more potent a greenhouse gas than methane, there are concerns that such "slip" might negate the reduction in CO2 emissions.
On top of that, the LNG tanks have double walls of thick steel with an insulation layer between them, making them far more expensive than fuel oil tanks, and the equipment to handle and vaporize the supercold LNG is elaborate and costly as well. However, Peter Keller of Tote says the company was expanding its use of LNG, converting ships that it uses for its other large cargo business, between Washington state and Alaska: "Whether it's the Caribbean or Alaska, everyone is concerned about the environmental aspects."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* PLUGGED UP: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("You Have No Idea How Hard It Is to Waterproof NYC's Subway" by Laura Bliss, 25 August 2016), when Superstorm Sandy hit New York City in October 2012, NYC's subway system took a beating, with floods of seawater pouring down subway entrances, manholes, and thousands of other openings into the underground spaces. The South Ferry Station was thoroughly trashed -- it's still being rebuilt -- and nine tunnels were flooded, the bill for damage coming to billions of dollars. The disruption of the transit system imposed huge indirect penalties on NYC commerce as well.
Since that time, the NYC Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) has been working through about $4 billion USD, mostly obtained from Federal disaster funds, to repair train yards and subway tunnels, as well as harden them against a repeat of Sandy. Much has been completed, but more remains to be done. In July, much to the frustration of subway riders, the MTA announced plans to shut down the L Train for 18 months from in 2019 in order to repair outstanding Sandy-related harm to the Canarsie Tunnel. These are New Yorkers; they're not inclined to the reasonable.
New Yorkers have taken much less notice of another major effort: the MTA's work to "waterproof" the subway system. That's not trivial, since it means plugging up every vulnerable walkway, vent, and manhole when a storm hits. MTA has worked with ILC Dover -- best-known as a maker of spacesuits for NASA -- to come up with a flood-proof stairwell barrier that draws inspiration from both window shades and spacesuits.
It's called a "Flex-Gate" -- a soft cover that sits spooled in a container off to one side of a subway entrance, ready to be deployed across the entrance along tracks. It's made of two layers, with a facing side made of impermeable fabric, backed by a Kevlar web layer. It can be put in place in less than ten minutes. Previously, entrances were plugged by pulling aluminum planks out of a store-room and sliding them into receptacles to plug up a doorway. It was effective, as far as sealing went, but it was very clumsy to implement in an emergency.
Flex-Gates have already been installed in 14 subway station entrances, with a total of over 60 to be in place by the end of 2016. They're mostly around lower Manhattan, which is at the highest risk of flooding, but certain coastal stations in Harlem and Brooklyn will also be kitted up. Larger "Portal Flex-Gates" are in the works, which will function like garage doors to seal off rail and vehicle tunnels. MTA has also tested another ILC Dover product, the "resilient tunnel plug", which is effective an inflatable "cork", stowed in a wall container, that can seal off a subway tunnel.
The magnitude of the MTA's challenge can be appreciated from the fact that the subway system has an estimated 5,600 street-level openings vulnerable to flooding. About 450 manhole covers are being fitted with diverters to drain off water, while MTA engineers are considering options for what to do about street-level vents. It's not just the quantity, it's the fact that the subway system is at least as much haphazardly evolved as designed. MTA spokesperson Kevin Ortiz says: "Some parts of our system are 111 years old. We have different-sized staircases and vent covers. There is no one-size-fits-all approach or mechanism."
MTA officials don't believe they are close to having completely hardened the NYC subway system against floods, but say they have made big strides since Sandy, and the next big storm will not be as damaging. Other cities with underground systems have taken note of ILC Dover's technologies on show in NYC, with inquiries from Boston, San Francisco, and Shanghai. US infrastructure has been neglected in the first place, with climate change aggravating the problems; it is past time to get things fixed.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* 21ST-CENTURY ECONOMICS (3): If the free-market model is the general rule of the world today, that has by no means ended the debate over inequality, with schemes continuing to be propose to rectify the imbalance of society. As discussed in an editorial by Free Exchange, THE ECONOMIST's rotating finance columnist ("Basically Unaffordable", 23 May 2015), the idea of a "basic income" -- a regular payment to which all citizens are entitled, should they out of work -- may sound utopian, but it is actually being taken seriously, to a degree. Switzerland conducted a referendum in June for the notion that all citizens would be entitled to a basic income of 2,500 Swiss francs ($2,700 USD) a month; the proposal was shot down by a 3:1 vote, but the idea is still being floated elsewhere.
It's not really anything new. Tom Paine, likely the most radical of America's Founding Fathers, suggested in a 1797 pamphlet that all citizens were entitled to a share of the planet, and proposed that everyone be given a flat payment of $2,000 USD in today's money -- about half a year's wages for a laborer -- on their 21st birthday.
The Left, of course, likes the idea, seeing it as a way of ensuring a minimal equality, and it is becoming more compelling as production becomes increasingly automated, reducing the utility of the working class while accelerating the creation and concentration of wealth. As early as 1964, an economist named James Meade envisioned this quandary, and it has become much more vivid in the 21st century.
The Right, surprisingly, also likes the idea, or at least economists on the Right do. A basic income would replace troublesome means-tested welfare payments, and reduce the bureaucracy required to administer the program, while giving poor citizens the right to conduct their lives as they please. The well-known conservative economist Milton Friedman suggested doing away with welfare, establishing instead a basic income, along with a flat tax.
The idea is not so ridiculous as it sounds, since income taxes typically have a basic exemption, meaning a certain minimal amount of income is not taxed. This is close to, if not the same as, a free grant from the government. However, that exemption isn't big enough to equal anything resembling an income, and funding any comprehensive basic income program would be financially prohibitive. Rough calculations of the Swiss proposal suggested it would cost SFr 197 billion ($210 billion) a year, or 30% of GDP; it would have dragged down the economy, impoverishing the collective, making citizens worse off overall.
The state of Alaska grants each citizen an annual payment -- about $1,900 USD in 2014 -- from its oil fund, but few countries have any such benefit, and in fact most of them are in tough financial condition right now. The basic income is a very interesting idea that deserves further discussion, but any discussion would have to address its significant drawbacks, and it's not likely to happen any time soon, except in the most constrained fashion.
* Another editorial, this one by Noah Smith from the BLOOMBERG VIEW website ("Star Trek Economics", 3 August 2015) -- amplifying on the notion of "trekonomics", discussed here in June -- explored what might happen when technology finally ensures that we don't have to work for a living, as per the vision of the STAR TREK series:
No one is doing business. There is almost no one buying and selling, except for a few species for whom commerce is a form of traditional religion. Food and luxuries are free, provided by "replicators" -- machines capable of creating essentially anything from pure energy. Recreation, provided by virtual reality, is infinite in scope. Scarcity -- the central defining concept of economics -- seems to have been eliminated.
If we can arrive at a more sustainable world, Smith continues, automation and other advanced technologies will ensure that nobody needs to lack for anything:
Current world annual gross domestic product per capita, in purchasing power parity terms, is only about $13,000 -- enough to put food on the table and a roof over one's head. What happens when it is $100,000, or $200,000? It would seem ridiculous to limit this incredible plenty to a few people. When the world gets rich enough, a trivial tax on the rich would be enough to provide everyone on Earth with a basic income that would allow them to lead lives of leisure.
Karl Marx believed that the Industrial Revolution had changed the basic rules of economics, that the unequal system of capitalism would give birth to the egalitarian system of communism. To the extent that people tried to put his ideas into practice in the 20th century, they proved hopelessly, even dangerously, unrealistic. However, maybe Marx simply was too far ahead of his time, unable to imagine an Industrial Revolution so dramatic that it could ensure a living to everyone.
What happens then? Marx's steam-age communism doesn't seem to mesh well with "trekonomics"; others see it as a libertarian future. It's hard to say exactly how such a world of plenty would work, because it's so far beyond our horizon. It certainly does pose the question of what we will do with ourselves. If the answer is: Anything we want! -- will that be a problem? [END OF SERIES]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE EUROPEAN UNION (1): The vote by Britons to leave the European Union on 23 June has resulted in a crisis for the EU. As discussed by an extended essay from THE ECONOMIST ("Between The Borders", 18 June 2016), the origins of the crisis were rooted in a certain inability to understand what the EU is, and what it is not; what it does, what it can do, and what it cannot do.
On 18 April 1951, ministers from West Germany, Italy, France, and the three Benelux countries sat down in the French foreign ministry to sign the "Treaty of Paris" -- the founding document of what, four decades later, would become the European Union. Officially, it was a scheme to manage the production of coal and steel, but in reality it was effectively a Franco-German peace accord. The treaty was physically implemented to reflect its focus on European unity; Jean Monnet, its father, described it as a document printed in France on Dutch paper with German ink, organized in a binding from Belgium and Luxembourg, decorated with a bookmark woven from Italian silk. Monnet did not add that, because the negotiations had been so frantic, the sheet of paper the ministers actually signed was blank.
The proper verbiage could be added later. From the viewpoint of 1951, the exercise proved remarkably successful. The community started out with six members, four languages, 177 million people, and (in 2014 money) $1.6 trillion USD in annual output. By the beginning of 2016, the EU had 28 members, 24 languages, 505 million people, and a GDP of $19 trillion USD.
The Treaty of Paris has evolved, in the 21st century, into a unique supranational form of government. The EU has a court, a parliament, an executive and a president -- several presidents, actually. It has proven a grand success in one major respect: in a continent whose history is written in blood, the idea of France, Germany or any of the large European states taking up arms against each other has become unthinkable.
However, all is not well with the EU. A common currency never envisioned at the outset has proven a source of controversy. Unemployment in the euro zone has been at about 10% or more since September 2009; among the young it hovers at around 20% across the EU. A flow of migrants comparable only to the post-war displacement of peoples is closing borders and deepening divisions. Euroskeptic parties are rising across the continent, including in Germany. In May, in Austria a far-Right, anti-migrant, Euroskeptic candidate only just missed being elected head of state. Britain's vote to leave the EU has dealt the community a painful blow.
Only a few years ago, books were being published with titles like THE EUROPEAN DREAM and WHY EUROPE WILL RUN THE 21ST CENTURY. Today Jan Zielonka, professor of European politics at Oxford, reports that when he talks to European policymakers, he is "stunned by their skepticism". In May the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, lamented that "in former times, we were working together ... we were in charge of a big piece of history. This has totally gone." Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has gone farther, saying "the idea of one EU state, one vision ... was an illusion."
Tusk was correct, but the truth is that "the idea of one EU state" was always an illusion. The myth has grown up that the community's ultimate goal, to be gradually achieved over decades, was to subordinate the nation-state to a greater European order. In the words of Vaclav Klaus, a former prime minister of the Czech Republic, countries would "dissolve in Europe like a lump of sugar in a cup of coffee".
It is true that Monnet, a visionary, did dream of a European superstate -- but politicians got on board the community because it served their enlightened national interests. The pooling of sovereignty found in the Treaty of Paris, and then the Treaty of Rome which created the European Economic Community in 1957, was designed to save the nation state, not erase it. Europe's governments never had any intention of subordinating their powers in any essential way to the community.
Monnet's scheme was an answer to the problem of Germany: too large to co-exist as a first among equals, too small to dominate its neighbors without resort to force. To prevent a third general European war, either Germany would need to be broken up, or it would need to be tamed by alliance. The first option was impractical, while second proved remarkably successful. Today, thanks to unification and EU enlargement as well as its powerful economy, Germany runs Europe. The Germans no longer have any inclination to impose their will on their neighbors by force, but Germany does have a will, and in one way or another, it will influence the future of Europe. [TO BE CONTINUED]NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: A research group at Harvard University under Federico Capasso made a technological splash by designing a planar optical lens, using microscale fabrication technology, that provides high-quality images. The lens appears to work by diffractive techniques; it consists of a substrate of transparent quartz, on which millions of titanium-dioxide pillars -- each tens of nanometers across and hundreds of nanometers high -- have been fabricated by microlithography techniques.
The pattern of pillars on the "metalens" was carefully determined by a computer program, to allow the planar device to work like a traditional lens. Capasso says: "The quality of our images is actually better than with a state-of-the-art objective lens."
Capasso adds there is nothing particularly challenging in fabricating the microlens, and its materials are not expensive. While the team's demonstration lens is only 2 millimeters across, there should be no problem in scaling up the lens size, with product price being far less than that of conventional lenses of similar capability. Capasso sees cellphone cameras as a primary target. He further envisions the lens being used in security cameras, cameras for industrial purposes, lightweight optics for virtual-reality headsets, and even contact lenses. Capasso says: "We can make these on soft materials."
The team has also worked with silicon, which does well in the infrared. Different classes of lenses, even lenses with unique functions, could be produced by defining new layouts with computer.
* As discussed by an entry from WIRED Online blogs ("How This Magical 16-Lens Camera Will Actually Work" by Tim Moynihan, 23 October 2015), digital cameras seem like a mature technology these days. People add new features or refine old ones, but this year's camera is not so different from last year's camera.
The Light company, out of the San Francisco Bay area, is now rethinking the digital camera with the "Light L16". It doesn't look at all like a traditional camera; it looks like a big black cellphone, with an irregular-seeming pattern of 16 circles on one side, each being a separate camera sensor -- none bigger than a smartphone sensor, each with a plastic lens. It can match the capabilities of a professional-level digital SLR camera, taking high-resolution images, allowing depth of field to be altered after taking a shot, in low light, with a zoom range of 35 to 150 millimeters.
Each camera sensor has a resolution of 13 megapixels. Five of the sensors stare straight out the camera through 35-millimeter lenses; the other eleven actually stare towards the sides of the camera, with the scene in front of the camera shunted to them through programmable mirrors, through five 70-millimeter and six 150-millimeter lenses. While the plastic lenses are cheap, they yield good images.
There's a trade-off in digital cameras between number of pixels, the size of the pixels, and the associated size of the sensor. Increasing the number of pixels doesn't necessarily improve image quality unless the size of the pixels is increased -- small pixels mean noise -- but a bigger sensor means more overhead and cost. The L16 uses a set of imaging sensors with modest resolution, each with a cost of about three bucks each, working collectively to produce a high-resolution image, the collective being established by smart software.
The L16 does not use all 16 of its camera sensors to take any one shot. The most that it will use at one time is ten, the number depending on focal length. At 35 millimeters, its widest-angle field of view, all five 35-millimeter cameras fire. The images captured with each of those sensors slightly overlap, which allows the camera smarts to stitch together a seamless image.
It also helps line up the shots for an additional five-camera capture, the camera being able to use the parallax of the five images to judge the depth of a scene, with the programmable mirrors for the other 11 camera sensors selectively adjusted to fill out the image at various levels of zoom. The end result is a 52-megapixel raw image, which ends up taking from 30MB to 50MB of memory.
Since the images of the individual sensors are meshed together in software, that gives tremendous flexibility in post-processing. All the shooter will need to do is specify exposure time, if an automatic value isn't desired; other things like depth of field, sensitivity, and dynamic range can be specified after the shot is taken. Light's researchers are still determining what can be done in post-processing. Exactly how the L16 will pan out in practice remains to be seen.
* WIRE Online blogs gave some space to the Ryobi garage-door opener, calling it "seriously cool"? A garage-door opener?
Well, yeah; it's for the toolie who has everything. It's top-of-the-line, being very quiet, and comes with two remotes and two keypads; it also has a retractable power cord with three outlets, and battery backup so the door will keep working if the power goes out ... yes, getting the door open during a power failure is a pain.
That's only for starters, however, the Ryori device being billed as a "garage entertainment system". It has a wi-fi link that allows it to be controlled by a smartphone app, so users can see if the door is open or closed, and open or close it remotely. Users can also add modular components: a bluetooth speaker, adjustable fan, a carbon-monoxide detector, and a laser warning system to assist in parking. The base unit runs to about $250 USD, going up to twice that with all the bells and whistles.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NEW PC ADVENTURES 2016: Although I have two notebook computers that run Windows 10, I was chafing because my old Compaq tower desktop couldn't -- primarily because I wanted to run Win10 apps, and the old desktop couldn't be upgraded from Win7. Besides, it was six years old, and had seen plenty of hard use; I didn't have confidence that it would stay running much longer.
I had established an austere budget and hadn't the money to upgrade right away, but on reviewing my finances over the past few years, I decided I could revise my budget to be more flexible. I still had to wait a few months to meet savings target, but I finally broke down and bought an Acer ACX-703 mini-tower PC for about $350 USD, including an extra 4 GB RAM card. Although it cost effectively the same as the Compaq, it was substantially more powerful, with a 2.41 GHz quad-core CPU, compared to a 2 GHz dual-core CPU, a 1 TB hard drive instead of 500 GB, and (with the RAM card) 8 GB of RAM instead of 4 GB.
I knew that getting the new PC set up would be troublesome -- and it was, knocking a full day out of my work schedule. The first problem, a big one, was that I put in the extra 4 GB RAM card, and the PC wouldn't boot. I yanked the extra RAM card and continued with the install, while trying to troubleshoot the RAM card installation at intervals. To make a long painful story short, after a few days of faffing around, I finally despaired of getting the thing to work -- and decided, in desperation, to switch out the RAM card the PC came with and plug the extra RAM card in its place. It booted. I played another hunch, putting the default RAM card in the auxiliary socket, and it booted fine. I'm an experienced trouble-shooter; this sort of thing doesn't surprise me too much.
That was the worst problem. Since I'd already come up with a procedure for porting my desktop system to my two notebooks, most of the rest of the installation was straightforward, if time-consuming. Where it fell down was in trying to get the Win10 email app to work. I had been having problems with the Windows Live emailer on Win7, and figured the new Mail app on Win10 would clean things up.
I was 100% wrong. The Win10 app is very brain-dead, delegating maintenance of email address lists to another app, which was very hard to use. I decided to look around for a free email utility, and quickly found Mozilla Thunderbird. It's been around for a long time, but I had never thought to look for it. In any case, I downloaded and installed it, and it worked perfectly well.
Another problem was that Windows Explorer didn't have any real capability to set colors, with everything in black and white. I found that hard on my eyes, so I looked around for a utility again, and found the "QTTabBar" toolbar. It was easy to install, but configuring was a bit tricky. It seemed like text was disappearing from Windows Explorer panels I hadn't selected, but it turned out the background color I set it to, gray, was the same as the de-selected font color. OK, I changed the font color and all was OK. I also had to make sure I set "Compatible Folder View" in the QTTabBar setup menu before I set colors, and then reboot the PC.
Next, once I had the system from my old PC set up on my desktop, I wanted to add to it the few Win10 apps I had already installed on my notebooks, particularly the Lexis Audio Editor. That led me to the next problem, which was the fact that, over time, I had by bumbling set up two different accounts in the Windows Store. I got hung up on conflicts between the two accounts, and could not get account information from one to another. That problem ended up solving itself; somehow, all my account information finally migrated to my current account, likely due to my fussing around giving the system a clue to make the connection, and I didn't have to worry about the old account any more.
The last big problem in installation was getting my wireless laserjet printer to work. It was painful, until I realized the installation program on the CD that came with the printer was broken; I didn't recall it was broken before, possibly it just didn't like Win10. I downloaded the installation program from online, and got the printer to work in short order.
Other than various tweaking, and making sure all three of my Win10 PCs were in a common state, that was the end of the installation. The new PC is very zippy, by the way. There was the problem of what to do with the old PC; after some exasperation, I managed to do a clean install of Win7 on it, wiping out all my old files, and added all the OS updates I could find. That done, I donated the computer to a shop that handed old but workable PCs off to poor folks.
I did find that the keyboard that came with the Acer was uncomfortably small -- nice for occasional use, not so good for full-time use -- so I kept the Logitech keyboard I had been using with the Compaq, and donated the original Compaq keyboard along with the old desktop. So, now I'm cooking with Win10 -- as well as Android on my new BLU smartphone -- and don't think I'll need more serious computing hardware any time soon. I am thinking of getting a Win10 hybrid tablet with detachable keyboard, but no rush, when my budget permits I might get a older "remainder", if simply as a toy to play with. Or maybe I'll get a ChromeBook ... I'll see.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GENOMICS & BEER: The genomics revolution, still in its early days, continues to expand its domain rapidly. As reported by an article from Nature.com ("Ale Genomics: How Humans Tamed Beer Yeast" by Ewen Callaway, 08 September 2016), geneticists have now traced the evolution of the yeasts used to make beer. By sequencing the genomes of nearly 200 modern strains of brewer's yeast, the research reveals how, over hundreds of years, humans transformed the wild fungus Saccharomyces cerevisiae into a range of strains tuned for particular brews.
Yeast generates the alcohol and CO2 bubbles in beer by its booze and bubbles by fermenting sugar, while generating hundreds of chemicals that suggest flavors such as banana or cloves to a drink. Brewing yeasts differ in their production of such metabolites, and in other traits such as their tolerance to alcohol.
A team led by geneticist Kevin Verstrepen at the University of Leuven and the Flanders Institute of Biotechnology in Belgium, sequenced the genomes of 157 S. cerevisiae strains used to make ale and other fermented products, including wine, sake, and bread. The evolutionary tree of the yeast strains revealed distinct families of yeast used for making wine, bread, and sake -- along with two distantly related groups of ale yeast, including strains from Belgium, Germany, Britain, and the United States. Verstrepen's team is now using genomics to churn out new strains of beer yeast.
Beer has been around for a long time, with a 5,000-year-old Sumerian tablet showing its group consumption, while pots of similar age from western Iran and northern China hold residues of beer ingredients, including barley and fermentation by-products. Verstrepen originally expected the ancestors of modern brewing yeasts to date back thousands of years -- but it turned out that modern yeast strains only became established in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Earlier beer production, it seems, was based on yeasts that were not carried over in production over the long term.
This, Verstrepen says, coincides with a period in Europe when beer-making moved from homes to pubs and monasteries. He believes early professional brewers took yeast with them when they moved around Europe and even to the New World: US beer strains, for instance, are closely related to British strains. Brewers did not actually isolate yeast strains until much later, in the late nineteenth century -- but Verstrepen thinks they may have inadvertently shaped the genomes of yeast by brewing each new batch of beer on top of the dregs of the last one. Through this practice, brewers might have slowly selected yeast strains that perform well and produce desirable flavors.
An independent study by a team under Jose Paulo Sampaio -- an evolutionary geneticist at the New University of Lisbon -- came to many of the same conclusions as those found by Verstrepen's team, after sequencing 28 beer yeast strains. However, skeptics have suggested that Verstrepen's team envisioned an evolutionary rate 50 times faster than that found in other studies. Verstrepen replies that yeast does in fact mutate rapidly when exposed to alcohol, which is something of a toxic waste product to the fungus.
Although all the industrial yeasts bore signs of human influence, the beer yeast genomes were the most dramatically altered. Beer-making strains carry variations and duplications in genes involved in consuming maltose and maltotriose, the main sugars in beer. Most of the beer yeasts had variations that limit production of 4-vinyl guaiacol (4-VG), which generates clove and smoke flavors that many beer drinkers dislike. One exception was yeast used in German wheat beers called "Hefeweizens", which typically smell of cloves. The genomes of these strains contain stretches of DNA, including the genes that make 4-VG, that seem to originate from wine yeast. Verstrepen thinks that these strains are hybrids of yeasts used to make ales and wines.
As for future strains, Verstrepen's lab has come up with a new strain that features high alcohol tolerance, but does not produce 4-VG. The lab has also come up with a genetically modified yeast with very high-levels of chemical that yields the taste of bananas -- though Verstrepen has been careful not to give GM variants to brewers just yet.
However, the CRISPR-Cas9 genetic modification technique is so easy to use that home brewers, who tend to be a dedicated lot, with access to a biotech lab might well start tinkering with GM yeasts on their own. If the yeasts themselves were carefully filtered out of the brew, the beer would not, at least by US rules, even have to be identified as a GM product. Not to worry; if it happens, it won't be right away.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* 21ST-CENTURY ECONOMICS (2): Although the free-market model has done much to raise a good proportion of the world's population out of poverty, it did suffer a major setback with the economic collapse of 2007. As discussed in an editorial by Buttonwood, THE ECONOMIST's rotating financial columnist ("Advancing, Not Retreating", 8 August 2015), the Left believe that the crisis showed capitalism is in fact outmoded, and that modern information technology will undermine it further.
In a book titled POSTCAPITALISM, author Paul Mason suggests that the "sharing economy", in which outright ownership of goods is de-emphasized, with consumers sharing rides or temporary lodgings through coordinated networking. Long-time "monkey-wrencher" Jeremy Rifkin, in his book THE ZERO MARGINAL COST SOCIETY, talks even more grandly about "the internet of things, the collaborative commons and the eclipse of capitalism."
However, on closer inspection, 21st-century information technology seems to be more democratizing capitalism than shutting it down. After all, sharing systems are simply a way of streamlining transactions between providers and renters, and can only in a loose sense be regarded as "communalization" of resources. As discussed here in 2015, the internet has revolutionized the selling of used books, while ebooks are turning traditional publishing on its head. Similarly, online photo-sharing sites have revolutionize the business of photography, as discussed here in 2012.
The example of ebooks and photo-sharing shows that the new technology does undermine traditional business models -- but the expectation is that money will be made in the new order eventually. Rightly so, because if a project doesn't make some sort of money, it won't persist. It might end up being a lot of money; Google started as a free internet-search business, but has become a corporate juggernaut. While the economy still remains heavily based on physical goods, it is has become ever more based on "software" of all sorts, ranging from operating systems to applications software to games to video and audio entertainment. The new business models also can, in some cases, reinforce the old -- if downloading entertainment is cheap, people are still willing to pay top dollar for live performances.
Another new-economy effect is that the old idea of lifetime employment is fading. More people will follow "portfolio careers", switching from one employer, or even industry, to another as the economy changes. They will have to keep on picking up skills, and monitor the flow of information to find opportunities to sell them. Employees are becoming less important; people will take jobs as they are available, then move on to another one.
That instability means workers cannot rely as much their parents did on a pension plan, instead contributing to a retirement account. That places much more burden, not only on their prudence, but also on the management of their retirement account in the context of the global economy. Information systems will help, but they will also provide opportunities for fraud. The future, in short, has promises and insecurities. The insecurities could push society to the Left; but that doesn't seem to be happening in the new economy. [TO BE CONTINUED]START | PREV | NEXT | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (130): President Eisenhower couldn't do much in his last weeks in office but tie up loose ends. One was to deliver a farewell address, which was broadcast to the nation on 17 January. It was one of Eisenhower's most memorable speeches:
Three days from now, after half century in the service of our country, I shall lay down the responsibilities of office as, in traditional and solemn ceremony, the authority of the Presidency is vested in my successor ...
We now stand ten years past the midpoint of a century that has witnessed four major wars among great nations. Three of these involved our own country. Despite these holocausts, America is today the strongest, the most influential, and most productive nation in the world. Understandably proud of this pre-eminence, we yet realize that America's leadership and prestige depend, not merely upon our unmatched material progress, riches, and military strength, but on how we use our power in the interests of world peace and human betterment.
Throughout America's adventure in free government, our basic purposes have been to keep the peace, to foster progress in human achievement, and to enhance liberty, dignity, and integrity among peoples and among nations. To strive for less would be unworthy of a free and religious people. Any failure traceable to arrogance, or our lack of comprehension, or readiness to sacrifice would inflict upon us grievous hurt, both at home and abroad.
Progress toward these noble goals is persistently threatened by the conflict now engulfing the world ... We face a hostile ideology global in scope, atheistic in character, ruthless in purpose, and insidious in method. Unhappily, the danger it poses promises to be of indefinite duration. To meet it successfully, there is called for, not so much the emotional and transitory sacrifices of crisis, but rather those which enable us to carry forward steadily, surely, and without complaint the burdens of a prolonged and complex struggle with liberty the stake ...
Crises there will continue to be. In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties ... But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration: the need to maintain balance in and among national programs, balance between the private and the public economy, balance between the cost and hoped-for advantages, balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable, balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual, balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future ...
A vital element in keeping the peace is our military establishment. Our arms must be mighty, ready for instant action, so that no potential aggressor may be tempted to risk his own destruction. Our military organization today bears little relation to that known of any of my predecessors in peacetime, or, indeed, by the fighting men of World War II or Korea.
Until the latest of our world conflicts, the United States had no armaments industry ... But we can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense. We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions. Added to this, three and a half million men and women are directly engaged in the defense establishment ...
Now this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every Statehouse, every office of the Federal government ... In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist ...
Akin to, and largely responsible for the sweeping changes in our industrial-military posture, has been the technological revolution during recent decades. In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex, and costly. A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of, the Federal government.
Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields. In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research. Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity. For every old blackboard there are now hundreds of new electronic computers. The prospect of domination of the nation's scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present -- and is gravely to be regarded.
Yet, in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite. It is the task of statesmanship to mold, to balance, and to integrate these and other forces, new and old, within the principles of our democratic system -- ever aiming toward the supreme goals of our free society.
Another factor in maintaining balance involves the element of time. As we peer into society's future, we -- you and I, and our government -- must avoid the impulse to live only for today, plundering for our own ease and convenience the precious resources of tomorrow. We cannot mortgage the material assets of our grandchildren without risking the loss also of their political and spiritual heritage. We want democracy to survive for all generations to come, not to become the insolvent phantom of tomorrow ...
Disarmament, with mutual honor and confidence, is a continuing imperative. Together we must learn how to compose differences, not with arms, but with intellect and decent purpose. Because this need is so sharp and apparent, I confess that I lay down my official responsibilities in this field with a definite sense of disappointment ... I wish I could say tonight that a lasting peace is in sight.
Happily, I can say that war has been avoided. Steady progress toward our ultimate goal has been made. But so much remains to be done ... Now, on Friday noon, I am to become a private citizen. I am proud to do so. I look forward to it. Thank you, and good night.
The next day, 18 January, Eisenhower had his 193rd and final presidential press conference, praising Congress, wishing Kennedy well, and emphasizing some of the things he had said the night before. When asked about his warnings against the excessive influence of the "military-industrial complex", the president commented:
... some of this misuse of influence and power could come about unwittingly but just by the very nature of the thing. When you see almost every one of [US] magazines, no matter what they are advertising, has a picture of the Titan missile or the Atlas or solid fuel or other things, there is becoming a great influence, almost an insidious penetration of our own minds that the only thing this country is engaged in is weaponry and missiles. And, I'll tell you we just can't afford to do that.
Eisenhower also managed to inject a bit of humor:
REPORTER: Mr. President, have you come to a firm decision on the value of the ... no third-term amendment?
PRESIDENT: A funny thing, ever since this election the Republicans have been asking me this. [Laughter]
If Eisenhower had ever considered a third term, he hadn't taken the idea seriously; two terms were plenty for him. The dispersal of power in the US political system, in which even the president is only in charge to a constrained and contested extent, tends to erode the will to cling to office. It was time to retire, with Eisenhower leaving behind careers in the military and government, to be remembered as one of the most popular presidents ever.
[ED: END OF SERIES. I do intend to eventually come up with a COLD WAR document, but it has become clear that it is unrealistic to persist in weekly postings of it for the next five years or so. It is simply unmanageable and so being discontinued.]START | PREV | COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("Antibacterial Soaps Banned In US Amid Claims They Do More Harm Than Good" by Alan Yuhas, 2 September 2016), in early September the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA) banned antibacterial soaps. Dr. Janet Woodcock, director of the FDA's center for evaluation and research, said that certain antimicrobial soaps may not actually serve any health benefits at all, declaring in a statement: "Consumers may think antibacterial washes are more effective at preventing the spread of germs, but we have no scientific evidence that they are any better than plain soap and water. In fact, some data suggests that antibacterial ingredients may do more harm than good over the long term."
The new rule applies to any soap or antiseptic product that has one or more of 19 chemical compounds, including triclocarbon, which is often found in bar soaps, and triclosan, often in liquid soaps. It does not affect alcohol-based hand sanitizers and wipes, which the FDA is still investigating, or certain healthcare products meant specifically for clinical settings. The FDA has given manufacturers a year to change their products or pull them off shelves.
The FDA had been considering the rule since 2013, in the wake of studies that suggested they might affect human hormones, or change natural resistance to bacteria. Manufacturers were asked to back up their health claims, but they were unable to provide relevant data, when they answered at all.
Triclosan can be found in 93% of liquid soaps labeled "antibacterial" or "antimicrobial", according to the FDA, though some companies, including Proctor & Gamble, have already begun phasing the chemical out of products. There are partial triclosan bans in the European Union and Minnesota, but the chemical remains common in toothpaste, as it is believed effective against the bacteria that cause gum disease.
Professor Patrick McNamara, who has conducted research on antimicrobial, says he believes "there is no added benefit to having these antimicrobial chemicals in soaps".
He added: "After these chemicals are used in our homes, they go down the drain to wastewater treatment plants and eventually to the environment where they can select for antibiotic resistance genes. In short, triclosan and triclocarbon present a risk towards propagation of antibiotic resistance. Since they do not offer added benefits when washing hands, their use is not worth their environmental risk.
* In related news, as per an article in THE GUARDIAN ("UN Agrees To Fight 'The Biggest Threat To Modern Medicine': Antibiotic Resistance" by Amanda Holpunch, 21 September 2016), the entire membership of the United Nations has signed a declaration committing them to work to head off antibiotic resistance. This was only the fourth health issue to be the subject of a UN general assembly meeting, the other three having been HIV-AIDS, non-communicable diseases, and Ebola.
It is estimated that more than 700,000 people die each year due to drug-resistant infections, though it could be much higher because of inadequate global tracking of the problem. Awareness has risen over the past decade, thanks to studies of the issue -- as well as by advocacy by health officials, such as Britain's chief medical officer, Sally Davies, who said: "Drug-resistant infections are firmly on the global agenda but now the real work begins. We need governments, the pharmaceutical industry, health professionals and the agricultural sector to follow through on their commitments to save modern medicine."
Signatories to the UN declaration committed to encouraging innovation in antibiotic development, increasing public awareness of the threat, and developing surveillance and regulatory systems on the use and sales of antimicrobial medicine for humans and animals. In two years, groups including UN agencies will provide an update on the superbug fight to the UN secretary general.
* As reported by NATURE.com ("France Launches Massive Meteor-Spotting Network" by Traci Watson, 10 June 2016), on 28 May French researchers formally launched an unprecedented campaign to catch meteors, an effort that will rely on thousands of volunteers to comb the ground for bits of space rock. The "Fireball Recovery & Inter-Planetary Observation Network (FRIPON)" already includes 68 cameras that scan the skies for shooting stars, with 100 cameras to be in place by the end of 2016, making it one of the biggest and densest meteor-spotting networks in the world.
Meteorites are effectively bits of the Solar System that fall to Earth, where they can provide insights into the origins, evolution, and current state of the Solar System. FRIPON's goal is the collection of one tracked meteorite per year from the French landscape. In contrast, the similar but smaller Spanish Meteor Network, has only claimed two meteorites in the past 12 years.
The French network's cameras are very densely and evenly spaced, sitting roughly 70:80 kilometers apart at laboratories, science museums, and other facilities, giving enough coverage to permit reasonable estimates of where meteors land. FRIPON is also fully connected and automated, the first such network to be so. If a camera spots a meteor track, it sends a message to a central computer in Paris. If two or more cameras spot the fireball, FRIPON scientists receive an email describing where it was seen. Eventually, the email will also include the meteorite's probable landing zone, pinpointing it to an area roughly 1x10 kilometers in size.
Once the landing zone has been boxed in, then it gets down to mobilizing volunteers to search the box. Scientists will do the searches initially, but the expectation is that an army of interested citizens will be recruited to search for meteorites. That means a fairly big army, since experience shows that only about one in a thousand volunteers will show up for a search, so the objective is to get hundreds of thousands of volunteers. Searches are likely to be most difficult in the extensive forests of northern France -- but FRIPON organizers believe the exercise will still pay off. It's not like it couldn't do well better than tradition: only one meteorite was recovered per decade in France during the 20th century.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GOING CHROME: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("How Chromebooks Are About to Totally Transform Laptop Design" by David Pierce, 9 September 2016), when Google introduced its first Chromebook laptop in December 2010, the response was not entirely enthusiastic. The initial "Chromium" model was heavy, rubbery, and black; although Google officials admitted the hardware was mostly for evaluation of the software, there was also a lack of enthusiasm for the software. "Chrome Operating System"? What operating system? It was just a laptop that ran a web browser, and that was it.
Okay, if this was madness, there was definitely a method to it. Chromebooks outsold Macs for the first time in the first quarter of 2016, and according to Google, US schools buy more Chromebooks than all other devices combined -- putting a big dent in Apple's long-standing domination of the educational market. Chrome laptops are poised for further growth, now that they can run all the millions of apps in the Google Play Store, with the apps working just as they do on Android phones. Google officials have been making a pitch to business for using Chromebooks, and the company is releasing a new generation of Chromebooks.
Chrome essentially started out in 2006. At that time, Google was working on Windows apps -- yes, back then Google supported Windows, generating a toolbar plug-in for Internet Explorer, and a Desktop Search app that indexed a PC's contents. Windows seemed like a pain, however; for example, it could take minutes for a PC to boot up. Why all this bother, if all a user wanted to do was run apps? A few people on the Google development team started hacking around on an old netbook computer in the office, trying to strip out everything that wasn't really needed. It didn't take them that long to come up with a Linux-based system that booted in ten seconds.
And so Chrome was born. Felix Lin, now Google's VP for all things Chromebook, came to the company to, in effect, turn the Google Chrome browser into an OS that would make computing more accessible to more people. That didn't just mean making them cheaper; it meant tearing out the settings, options, icons, buttons, and toolbars to allow the large component of the world's population to use them.
When the first Chromebooks hit the streets in 2010, the computer-literate were appalled. Where were provisions to check out the system properties? How were power settings established? They weren't real computers; Chrome was mocked for being "just a web browser".
But why, Chrome developers asked in reply, did people need to control their power settings? Most people could get along fine with the defaults; and maybe to the extent they wanted control, the OS could provide a smart assistant to do the job. People could do all they wanted with the web browser, with storage handled in the online cloud -- where files wouldn't be lost if a PC went down, and users could to access their personal resources from any Chromebook. Indeed, they could get at those resources from any PC with any OS, as long as it had a web browser.
Schools quickly jumped on board: they liked the fact that Chromebooks were cheap, easy to administer, and worked well for multi-user environments. Businesses then decided they liked the idea as well. The Chrome gang is now out to convert everyone else.
They did miss a trick, however. The Google Chrome and Android efforts were disjoint, and it seems to a degree competitive; the Chrome team was caught flat-footed when Android took off. However, the two groups did work for the same company, and the Chrome group quickly saw that Android, or at least Android apps, were a gold mine for Chrome. A Chrome engineer threw together a virtual environment that allows Android apps to work on Chrome, With more work, it hit the streets -- and now Chrome is not "just a web browser", it's a big smartphone. It doesn't require much computer literacy to use a web browser; it doesn't require any more to use a smartphone.
A Chromebook is lacking many of the items found in smartphones -- GPS, near-field interface, fingerprint reader, and so on. Some of those bells and whistles are irrelevant on a laptop, but some are necessary to get apps to work. Not a problem, at least over the long run: Google maintains a precise spec on what a laptop must to do to be called a "Chromebook", and the document is clearly edging towards requiring that future Chromebooks have GPS, NFC, a fingerprint reader, and so on.
Will Chrome take over? The computer-literate are still leery of an OS that doesn't want to give them control, and leaves them heavily dependent on online resources. There are, however, vast numbers of people who don't care, and who find the lower cost and simplicity of Chromebooks irresistible selling points. Besides, even though Android is idiot-proof, or at least tries to be, it does have a fairly comprehensive system settings scheme -- and it's not hard for those who like more control to find apps, such as file managers and shells, to get their hands dirtier. Since Chrome is now more or less Android for the bigger boys, what applies to Android is likely to apply to Chrome.
What makes Chrome particularly attractive is that small Chromebooks are very cheap, cheaper than ordinary smartphones. It's too early to say the future is Chrome; but neither is it possible to rule it out.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GETTING HOTTER: As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("NASA: Earth Is Warming At A Pace 'Unprecedented In 1,000 Years'" by Oliver Milman, 30 August 2016, Gavin Schmidt -- director of US National Aeronautics & Space Administration's (NASA) Goddard Institute for Space Studies -- announced that the Earth is warming at a rate not experienced within the past 1,000 years, at least, making it "very unlikely" that the world will stay within a crucial temperature limit agreed by nations just last year.
Although 2016 has not yet ended, it is clear it is breaking temperature records, with the average global temperature peaking at 1.38 degrees Celsius (2.5 degrees Fahrenheit) above levels experienced in the 19th century, disturbingly close to the 1.5C (2.7F) limit agreed in the landmark Paris climate accord. July was the warmest month since modern record keeping began in 1880, with each month since October 2015 setting a new high mark for heat.
Schmidt says that records of temperature that go back far further, obtained from analysis of ice cores and sediments, suggest that the warming of recent decades is out of step with any period over the past millennium:
In the last 30 years we've really moved into exceptional territory. It's unprecedented in 1,000 years. There's no period that has the trend seen in the 20th century in terms of the [rise in temperatures]. Maintaining temperatures below the 1.5C guardrail requires significant and very rapid cuts in carbon dioxide emissions or co-ordinated geo-engineering. That is very unlikely. We are not even yet making emissions cuts commensurate with keeping warming below 2C.
Temperature reconstructions by NASA, using work from its sister agency the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, found that the global temperature typically rose by between 4C to 7C over a period of 5,000 years as the world moved out of ice ages. The temperature rise clocked up over the past century is around 10 times faster than this previous rate of warming. The increasing pace of warming means that the world will heat up at a rate "at least" 20 times faster than the historical average over the coming 100 years.
To gauge temperatures before modern record-keeping, climate researchers use proxies taken from ancient layers of glacier ice, ocean sediments and rock. They can gauge greenhouse gas levels stretching back more than 800,000 years, but the certainty around the composition of previous climates is stronger within the past 1,000 years. While it's still difficult to compare a single year to another prior to the 19th century, a NASA reconstruction shows that the pace of temperature increase over recent decades outstrips anything that has occurred since the year 500 CE.
* As discussed by an item from Reuters ("Coastal Land Expands As Construction Outpaces Sea Level Rise" by Alistair Doyle, 25 August 2016), according to the Dutch research group Deltares our planet has has gained coastal land equivalent to the size of Jamaica, over the past 30 years, with human construction outpacing erosion caused by rising sea levels.
The increase in coastal area was due in large part to expansion of ports off China, construction of luxury resorts off Dubai, and land reclamation in the Netherlands. A total of 33,700 square kilometers of land was added, while sea level rise and lost 20,135 square kilometers, with locales such as Vietnam and the Mississippi delta in the US showing high rates of loss. Using satellite data and Google Earth, a report from Deltares says coastal regions had gained a net 13,565 square kilometers (5,237 square miles) of land since 1985, roughly the size of Jamaica.
According to Fedor Baart of Deltares: "We expected on average the coast to shrink ... as sea level has risen. But the coasts are actually growing. We have a huge engineering power. [Off China] the coastline all the way from Hong Kong to the Yellow Sea has almost been redesigned."
It is estimated that seas rose 20 centimeters (8 inches) over the past century. While this news was greeted with jubilation by climate-change deniers, the facts remain that the seas are rising; the rate is likely to increase; the ultimate effect will be the deep inundation of the Earth's coastal areas; and the ability of humans keep out the sea is likely to fall behind as sea level rise accelerates.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: For those who like to be geeky with style, the website Fun.com sells superhero suits. There are several options:
They're not badly priced at about $250 USD each. Usually, such specialty items cost an arm and a leg. If I saw one I liked, I might buy one for Halloween, when I came into a bit of extra money. I was tempted with the Iron Suit -- but it's really not my style.
* A Saudi teenaged girl living in Germany named Rayouf al-Humedhi, 15 years old, has proposed making another sort of statement, suggesting that The Unicode Consortium -- a non-profit corporation that reviews and develops new "emojis" -- support a "headscarf" emoji. The idea gained the backing of the co-founder of online discussion forum Reddit, Alexis Ohanian. A member of a Unicode subcommittee replied to her suggestion, offering to help her draft a formal proposal. If approved, her emoji will be available in 2017.
Oddly, despite the fact that there's plenty of prejudice against Muslims on this side of the Pond, only soreheads here would object to the idea of a headscarf emoji. It is more controversial in Europe, some seeing the headscarf as a sign of Islamic backwardness, even terroristic. One wonders what seems the stranger notion: that people would object, or that there will come a time when nobody will object.
* I had started contributing computer time to the BOINC distributed supercomputing effort back in 2010, originally starting out running BOINC on an old Windows XP notebook. It started having hangups due to disk errors, and so I switched over to my Samsung Galaxy Android tablet, which only has a flash drive. I've been letting it run 24:7:365 since then, and more or less forgot about BOINC.
After setting up a new Win10 PC, I got to thinking I might want to get BOINC back under control. I checked the Galaxy tablet, and found that of the five different projects I had chosen to run, two were stilling clicking away, one was idle, one had been inadvertently disconnected, and one had been ended. I shrugged, cleaned things up, and decided to add more projects.
That turned out to be tricky, though having been through it before, it wasn't complete news. BOINC is an umbrella scheme for projects from different organizations, and so adding projects to run means signing up for each one of them. I went through my existing accounts and made sure they had consistent usernames and passwords, and then started to add more accounts.
This is supposedly a bit simpler nowdays because BOINC has added a "BOINC Account Manager (BAM)" page, where one can select a set of projects and sign up for them in block. However, this quickly led to further difficulties, since I found out that some of the projects wouldn't run on an Android platform like my tablet, at least at the present time. I tried to shut down my accounts for the projects, but it turns out that is simply impossible to do, it seems because the project management systems are too stupid to adjust for it -- even though I wasn't running, could not run, the projects.
OK, so I would just forget about them -- except for the fact that BAM still kept the listing for an inactive project. OK, nuts, I'll just set up a link list to the projects, and forget about BAM, since it only adds complications. The lesson was that BOINC was put together by academics who were, for the most part, not professional programmers, and was not comparable to a salable product.
What else might I have expected? In any case, along with my Galaxy tablet, I decided to install BOINC on my new BLU / Amazon smartphone. I don't use it more than a small fraction of my time, so it might as well be getting something done when I'm not using it. I leave it plugged into a USB charger, and it sits there, crunching away day and night.
* In September, I inventory things that need to be fixed or updated -- sort of a carry-over from the "back to school" tradition -- with one task being to replace batteries in flashlights and such. No use hanging on to them until they're dead; replace them once a year, and have flashlights that are likely to work.
I have a large police-baton flashlight that I've had for decades and keep in my car. I wanted to replace the batteries, but while I was pulling out the old batteries, I got to thinking: Shouldn't somebody be making LED replacements for flashlight incandescent bulbs?
Although Walmart didn't have any such thing, they were easy to find on Amazon.com. I bought a high-intensity LED bulb; it was on the expensive side, but it was something that would probably outlive me. It did seem brighter than the old lamp, and I'm sure it has less drain on the batteries. Everything old is new again.
* Thanks to one reader for a donation to support the websites last month. That is very much appreciated.COMMENT ON ARTICLE