nov 2016 / last mod aug 2017 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: European Union (series), defeating malaria (series), last great road trip (series), blockchain (series), air pollution in China & India, digital signatures, sorting through Hillary Clinton's emails, research into decay of bodies, printed electronics, soil's immune system, NSO Group, and progress towards understanding RNA world.

banner of the month



* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR NOVEMBER 2016: Those of us on this side of the Pond who had been following Brexit, the alleged exit of Britain from the EU, were distracted by local events during this last month, but in Britain the saga continues.

On 3 November, Britain's high court judged that the government of Prime Minster Theresa May did not have the authority to activate Article 50 -- the clause in the EU charter defining exit from the union -- without authorization from Parliament. The government argued that it did, that the referendum that approved Brexit granted authority to the government to do the job. Critics replied that the referendum was only advisory, and that Parliament would have to make the decision. The high court sided with the critics.

Exactly how this plays out remains entirely unclear, nobody having any substantial idea of what Prime Minister May's agenda on Brexit really is; she's been nicknamed "Theresa Maybe". She says no more than necessary about her intentions, simply repeating her government's commitment to executing the will of the people -- "Brexit means Brexit!" -- so many times that few are inclined to ask her to say it again.

Theresa May

Possibly that is the point of the exercise, but why ask why? May's actions are opaque, and on consideration, they might as well be accepted as such, there being no utility in probing further. In a situation without precedent for Britain, feeling her way forward may be the only sensible thing that she can do. Her government has a directive from the citizens, and so she has a duty to push on. If the exercise is then derailed, she will have kept her promise to the British people. What May really anticipates as the outcome is effectively irrelevant.

Having Parliament in the command seat might derail Brexit; once May gets an outline of a deal with the EU, she can call elections, then put the issue to a Parliamentary vote. May says she doesn't want to do that, but opacity comes into play again: if she adamantly refuses to relinquish control over Brexit until she's forced to, nobody could claim her government stabbed Brexit in the back, and the abject collapse of Brexit would discourage any attempt to bring Brexit back from the dead.

Similarly, May has rejected calls for a second referendum, a notion that has been endorsed by ex-Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major. Opacity comes into play once more: yes, a re-hash of the first referendum would be asking for trouble; but it would make sense to get the outline of a deal, say it's that or no Brexit, and then put it to the British people for a vote. Since the deal would almost certainly leave the UK worse off than staying in the EU, the outcome would not be in doubt. Those who voted for Brexit would encounter reality, to say: "This isn't what I expected." With the reply: "What DID you expect?"

* And that leads to British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, previously mayor of London, one of the noisiest voices calling for Brexit. In an article in THE GUARDIAN, Jean Quatremer -- correspondent of the French LIBERATION newspaper, reporting from Brussels -- took a dim view of "BoJo", with edited-down excerpts of the article repeated here for their considerable amusement value:


It is quite some diplomatic achievement by Johnson to have succeeded in uniting, as never before, the 27 remaining members of the European Union -- including Germany and the Netherlands -- who are all now firmly together in deciding to do the UK no favors whatsoever. It will be a "hard Brexit", not because that is what Theresa May wants, but because her future ex-partners consider they have no choice, faced with a Great Britain so resolutely indecisive.

Johnson has deeply annoyed his continental partners by displaying, firstly, his complete ignorance of the union. According to his very personal interpretation of the European treaties, it is "bollocks" to say that the four fundamental freedoms -- free movement of people, goods, services, and capital -- are inseparable. In November, he said: "Everybody now has it in their head that every human being has some fundamental God-given right to move wherever they want." For Johnson, here there can of course be a "dynamic trade relationship and we will take back control of our borders, but we remain an open and welcoming society."

How convenient. German finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble had already called out Johnson on such remarks in September, saying: "We'll happily send Her Majesty's foreign minister a copy of the Lisbon treaty. He can then read about the fact that there's a certain connection between the single market and the four freedoms. At a pinch, I can talk about it in English."

Schaeuble reiterated on 18 November that there "will be no a la carte menu. There is only the whole menu or none." His Dutch colleague Jeroen Dijsselbloem hammered the message home, saying Johnson is spouting stuff that is "intellectually impossible" and "politically unachievable".

The British foreign secretary adds clumsiness to ignorance. His quip that the Italians would sell less prosecco to Britain if the UK were not able to stay in the single market not only led to a diplomatic row, but underlined his appalling insensibility: if the EU risks losing access to a market of 64 million Brits, Britain will lose access to a market of 440 million Europeans.

And last but not least, Johnson, who himself raised the spectre of hordes of Turkish citizens arriving in the UK if Turkey were in the union, now steps up as as the most ardent defender of Ankara joining the EU -- even as Turkish President Recep Erdogan ramps up repression. That has proven more than the normally placid Manfred Weber, leader of the conservative EPP group in the European Parliament, could take, Weber saying: "I can no longer respect this. When you want to leave a club, you have no say anymore in the long-term future of this club."

The well-known French screenwriter Michel Audiard coined a phrase in the early 1960s that applies perfectly to Johnson: "Les cons, ca ose tout, c'est meme a ca qu'on les reconnait." Translation into English is not entirely straightforward, but a good rendering is: "Idiots will try anything -- that's how you know they're idiots."


The blessedly past US presidential election season having reinforced the truth that predictions are always difficult, particularly of the future, it is impossible to say whether Brexit will happen or not. The journey to the conclusion of the matter, which resembles a crash in slow motion, does promise to be entertaining, if fraying on the nerves.

Boris Johnson

As for Boris Johnson, May's opacity makes it hard to know if the certainty that he would antagonize EU leadership was a factor in elevating him to foreign minister -- and more broadly, if he was handed enough rope deliberately, or if that's just the way things are working out. The question's irrelevant; just as long as he hangs himself in the end.

* As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN Online ("Colombia To Sign New Peace Deal With FARC Rebels Despite Ongoing Objections" by Sibylla Brodzinsky, 24 November 2016), it seemed in October that the war between the Colombian government and FARC rebels, which has gone on for half a century, was at an end, the two sides having devised a peace agreement.

It was then shot down by a public referendum. Critics said the deal was too soft on guerrilla commanders responsible for war crimes and rewarded them by allowing them to run for public office, along with a list of other objections. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos did not give up, however, working to revise the peace agreement so that it could go through. Santos, who was awarded the 2016 Nobel Peace Prize, and FARC leader Rodrigo Londono AKA "Timochenko", signed a revised peace agreement, with modifications to more than 50 points, on 24 November. The second signing was much more low-key than the first.

Juan Manuel Santos

Opponents of the new peace deal maintain that the most crucial points were left unresolved, and demanded a tougher deal. The response was that there was no more room for negotiation, and the critics would never be happy no matter what was done. The failure of the first peace deal led to sporadic outbreaks of violence, with Santos warning Colombians: "Every day that passes there is a risk of new incidents. Lives have been lost and there are many more at risk."

The new accord was sent to Congress for ratification; Santos was not going to try a second referendum. There were public complaints over the bypassing of the public vote, but the government and the FARC countered they did listen to voters, and made appropriate adjustments. Colombians are not very happy with the deal, but there is little spirit of opposition to it. Analyst Sandra Borda with Jorge Tadeo Lozano University in Bogota tweeted: "This is what there is. This peace or no peace. No one can come out of this disaster with a sense of triumph."

2016 has been a year, not so much of global public rebellion, as of petulance, of citizens making demands of governments without concern for practicality. One may hope that the public mood in the coming year will be one of resignation -- of course, resulting in a cheap cynicism about government, which was exactly what was in evidence before, but possibly leading to a more realistic mindset among the people, and a more reasonable appreciation of the fact that the leadership has to live in the real world.

* An essay from THE ECONOMIST ("You're US Government Property", 12 November 2016) elaborated on the ongoing case of Edward Snowden, an NSA contractor, formally in the employ of Booz Allen Hamilton, who released reams of secret NSA data, to end up hiding out in Moscow. Although Snowden has claimed his leaks were in the public interest, were he to be extradited back to the USA to face judgement, he would be tried under the Espionage Act, which does not permit any appeal on that basis.

Edward Snowden

However, even if he could, it wouldn't help him. As mentioned here in September, America's House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence has published its own verdict on Snowden, with the report calling the leak "the largest and most damaging public release of classified information in US intelligence history." It endangered troops and agents overseas and undermined defenses against terrorism. The vast majority of the documents Snowden leaked had nothing to do with the privacy of American citizens. Instead, they revealed details of how the NSA spies on non-Americans, including foreign leaders, who do not enjoy constitutional protection.

The committee says that America may have to spend hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars to mitigate the damage. There were also indirect costs. Private companies were embarrassed by being shown to co-operate with the American authorities, while the leak may lead people and companies to worry about their security if they deal with the USA.

To add to the precariousness of Snowden's legal position, the committee found that he made little or no attempt to raise his concerns with his superiors. If they had proved unsympathetic, he could have gone to the NSA's inspector-general, or to the committee itself. Beyond that, he could have written an article on NSA's domestic-surveillance efforts and quietly distributed it to US media outlets for publication -- that would have been a breach of security, but not remotely on the same scale as what was actually done. Snowden's boss at the NSA, Steven Bay, also worked for Booz Allen Hamilton; he lost his job over the leak. Bay says that Snowden's revelations were really nothing of the sort:


All of the "domestic-collection stuff" that he revealed, he never had access to that. So he didn't understand the oversight and compliance, he didn't understand the rules for handling it, and he didn't understand the processing of it ... In my mind, Ed's not a hero.


Snowden, in short, faces a bleak future. He has been generally forgotten by the public, his only friends being a hard-Left clique that has no power to help him against the wrath of the US government. The support of Oliver Stone buys him nothing. Snowden, in effect, arbitrarily decided to elevate himself above the law, to decide the government had no right at all to conduct secret intelligence-gathering; of course it does, the only question being of limits. The authorities have every good reason to be angry with Snowden, and are not going to forget him.

For now, Snowden is tolerated as an exile by Vladimir Putin; once his usefulness to Putin has ended, he is then all but guaranteed to spend the rest of his life in a Federal prison. It is not easy to imagine what grand juvenile conceit drove Snowden to indiscriminately steal all of the NSA's secrets that he could get his hands on, and then broadcast them to the world, to all of America's enemies; but it is clear that he made a irreversible decision that sent his life down a dead-end street.



* DON'T BREATHE THE AIR: As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("Clouds Of Filth Envelop Asian Cities" by John Vidal, 22 November 2016), the winter air in Tehran is often foul, but for most of a week in mid-November, it could hardly be breathed. A dense, toxic smog made up of traffic and factory fumes, mixed with construction dust, burning vegetation, and waste cloaked buildings, choked pedestrians, forced students home, and filled hospitals. Many of the city's 15 million inhabitants fled if they could, but more than 400 people died.

One resident of Tehran said: "It is a dreadful situation. You see a lot of elderly people in trouble. People get confused. You get worried about the children. People do not know if schools are going to open. People want to leave but they cannot. The worst thing is you can't escape or do anything about it."

Tehran is not alone: a combination of atmospheric conditions, geography, and the start of the winter heating season usually traps urban air pollution from October to February across a great swath of Asia. However, the 2016:2017 season is shaping up to produce some of the worst smog episodes in nearly 20 years, even though cities in the region have been trying to reduce traffic and factory emissions.

dark sun of Delhi, India

As temperatures fall and people turn to burning waste to keep warm, pollution levels have been 15 to 20 times the UN World Health Organization (WHO) safe levels in three Indian cities -- Delhi, Varanasi, and Lucknow. Traffic was banned and construction projects had to be stopped in Beijing, as a dense layer of filthy air descended on northern China. In Kathmandu, Nepal, and Kabul, Afghanistan, where pollution is readily trapped in the cities' valleys, the hospitals have been full of people suffering respiratory and cardiac illnesses.

The number of cars has tripled in Tehran and many other growing Asian cities in the past decade. The authorities know there is a problem -- they would be hard-pressed not to -- and that the public is growing ever more outraged, but the situation remains difficult.

Efforts are being made. Beijing, notorious for its air pollution, has gone farther than any other big Asian city to clean up, the city pledging in 2014 to spend $76 billion USD to address the problem. After being shamed ahead of the 2008 Olympics, Beijing relocated some of its most polluting factories and closed its coal-fired power plants, largely replacing coal heating with natural gas. However, despite throwing financial and political resources at the problem, this November Beijing authorities were forced to issue an "orange" pollution alert, the second highest.

New research confirms India to be more polluted than China for the first time, showing there 3,283 premature deaths a day in India in 2015 as a result of particulate matter and ozone pollution, compared to 3,233 in China. This compares with a just over one thousand a day in Europe and the US combined. Data collected from more than 770 sources and analyzed by almost 2,000 collaborators in 125 countries show that the number of deaths linked to bad air rose 24% in ten years in India, making 2015 the worst year on record. However, in China air pollution deaths have roughly stabilized on 2005 figures. Beijing has successfully removed tens of thousands of old vehicles and cut out nearly 40,000 tonnes of pollutants a year. New Delhi, by contrast, is still struggling to enforce a ban on diesel vehicles.

Capital cities like Delhi and Beijing have money and political clout to tackle pollution within their boundaries, but can't do much about "trans-boundary" pollution that may originate hundreds of kilometers away, even in other countries. During November, India blamed Punjabi farmers in Pakistan burning stubble for much of Delhi's pollution.

Smaller Asian cities aren't in much better shape. India has half of the world's twenty most polluted cities, according to the WHO. Most Asian cities also have very limited ability to monitor pollution, meaning they can't give citizens real-time warning of episodes. While China has 1,500 online stations monitoring particulate pollution in 900 cities, India has only 39 stations in 23 cities; more than 70% of the stations showed pollution above safe limits.

smog-shrouded Harbin, China

The authorities do understand that air pollution is killing more of their people than wars, undermining economic development, and creating a dangerously unhealthy urban populations. A 2016 study by the World Bank found that in 2013 China lost nearly 10% of its GDP, India 7.7%, and Sri Lanka and Cambodia roughly 8%, because of air pollution. According to the WHO, more than one in ten deaths a year across the world are now associated with air pollution, from both household and outdoor sources, and 85% of people worldwide are exposed to pollution that exceeds WHO air quality guidelines for particulates,

UNICEF, the UN children's agency, calculates that 300 million children now live in areas with highly toxic levels of outdoor air pollution. Says Anthony Lake, UNICEF's executive director: "No society can afford to ignore air pollution. We protect our children when we protect the quality of our air. Both are central to our future."



* THE BLOCKCHAIN GAMBIT (3): Bitcoin was effectively designed for a specific purpose, and has a number of limitations. There is now a push to forget about bitcoin and develop a general system for distributed ledgers, not specifically focused on cryptocurrency. A startup named Coin Services has developed "MultiChain", a "build your own blockchain" platform, to this end. Not only does MultiChain support a wide range of blockchain applications, it also provides support for either public blockchains, like bitcoin; or private blockchains, open only to vetted users. A private blockchain would not require the same level of security as a public blockchain.

Although bitcoin was intended to perform an end-run around the mainstream financial system, bankers have become very interested in private blockchains, as a means of keeping tamper-proof ledgers. In an irony relative to the rebel spirit of bitcoin, that would make it easier for the banks to comply with regulatory requirements on knowing who their customers really are, and watching out for money-laundering.

However, banks have a more fundamental reason to be interested in blockchain technology. Banks are now highly computerized, but the procedures remain effectively as they were in pre-digital days. Payment systems are generally centralized: transfers are cleared through the central bank. When financial firms do business with each other, the hard work of synchronizing their internal ledgers can take several days, which ties up capital and increases risk.

Distributed ledgers that settle transactions in minutes or seconds could do much to solve such problems. They could also save banks a lot of money, billions of dollars a year once the technology is mature. Obviously, given the volumes of transactions performed by banks, they would require blockchain technology much more weapons-grade than bitcoin, but banks are already working on standards for it.

One of them, UBS -- originally the "Union Bank of Switzerland", though it's not rendered as such these days -- has proposed the creation of a standard "settlement coin", the name obviously borrowing from bitcoin. The first order of business for R3 CEV, a blockchain startup in which UBS has invested alongside about two dozen other banks, is to develop a standardized architecture for private ledgers.

Banks are only a start. All sorts of companies and public bodies are afflicted with hard-to-maintain and often incompatible databases, plus the high transaction costs of getting them to talk to each other. A distributed-ledger system named "Etherum" is now being designed that will, thanks in part to an embedded programming language, allow users to write very sophisticated smart contracts. Etherum's designers envision that it could be use to implement what amount to autonomous digital organizations, with sets of rules and automatic implementation of consequences of those rules.

Where will it end? Ledgers that no longer need to be maintained by a company, or a government, may in time lead to new ways in which organizations work -- with new expectations of what they will do, and what they no longer are needed to do. For those who see that as too fuzzy and radical a vision, they may be content to have distributed-ledger systems that guarantee what someone owns is actually theirs. [END OF SERIES]



* THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (2): The first two days of my road trip were going to be the toughest, since I had to cover a lot of ground, and I was also going "uphill" two time zones. On figuring out schedules, I realized there was no way I was going to get things to work unless I got on Eastern time, two hours earlier than Mountain time here in Colorado -- so in mid-September, I set my clocks up two hours, meaning when I got up at 5:00 AM, it was actually 3:00 AM in Loveland CO. I wanted to make sure I had my sleep schedule on the level before I took off.

The last week of September was frantic, trying to get prepared for the trip while I kept up with my normal work, and made sure that taking eight days off wouldn't put me too far behind in my efforts when I got back. Even though I was under the gun, however, I decided at the last moment to make a change in my PC configuration.

I had set up OneDrive on my three Win10 PCs, which gave them all a shared directory tree, with everything in the directories uploaded and backed up online. I found out there was a OneDrive app for Android, and thought it would be useful to share files with it as well. On coming to that conclusion, I decided to segregate all the active work directories on my PC to OneDrive, leaving materials that were stable under the Users directory tree. It was more work than I could really spare under the circumstances, but I felt it would ensure that anything I needed was available. However, I would find out later that I wasn't quite right.

* I got up early on on Monday, 3 October -- even relative to the fact that I was two hours ahead of Loveland time -- and hit the road. The first leg took me out from Loveland, past Greeley, Colorado; then to North Platte, Nebraska. I got to North Platte just before sunrise, to refuel and eat breakfast at McDonald's. I had a Sausage McMuffin With Egg and a milk, which was my standard breakfast on the trip. I was planning on having family track my movements on the road, making sure my elderly mom didn't worry that I was in trouble somewhere. I tried to log onto McD's wi-fi, but couldn't figure out how to do so -- something to puzzle out.

Getting back on the road, going east, I saw something strange in the dawn: six contrails in the sky, reaching for altitude, like they were in some very dispersed fingertip formation. They almost looked like they were heading for orbit. Military transports on an exercise? The pattern quickly dispersed, my judgement being that they were morning airliner flights out of an airport to the north. The highway went through endless farmlands, marked by spaces of deciduous trees and, more so, by cornfields. Wind turbines began to become more common as I made my way east; there hadn't been so many when I had passed that way, some years before.

One of the things that I was worried about before I left was that my right knee had been bothering me, and keeping my foot on the gas pedal for long periods of time aggravated the problem. I figured out after a while on the road that I could move my seat forward, and that changed the angle of my knee to eliminate the problem. It left me a little scrunched in, making it troublesome to get my left foot on the clutch very quickly, so when I got into city traffic, I would move the seat back again. My knee wouldn't be a problem, and would stop bugging me presently.

Nebraska wind turbines

I refueled in mid-day, then got some shots of wind turbines in cornfields. The first stop was the Strategic Air & Space Museum west of Omaha. It's a middling sort of air museum, I'd been there before; I'd canvassed it on earlier trips, and didn't really get much more out of the photo session than I already had. The missiles out front are photogenic, as is the SR-71 Blackbird in the atrium -- but the inside shots turned out poorly, the museum being too dark, even with low-light mode. That should have given me warning for the next day, but I didn't get wise.


It was only a short trip down the road to Omaha, Nebraska, where I stopped at the Henry Doorley Zoo. It was a fair zoo, nothing spectacular; it was warm, and as might be expected for such circumstances, the animals were mostly snoozing. They had a "ski lift" running over the animal areas, and I had been expecting that to give me good shots, but it didn't pay off that well.

The zoo did have a very nice desert environment in a geodesic dome. I got a shot of a roadrunner there, a bird I didn't have in my photo collection; it was caged inside mesh, but after I got home I managed, with substantial work, to retouch the mesh in front and in back of the bird out, giving me an excellent shot. I was amused by the Halloween decorations being set up; zoos put on Halloween events, and I would see much the same in the other zoos I visited later.

roadrunner at Omaha Zoo

I had done a bit of preplanning for places to eat while on the trip, and I had lined up a Fazoli's restaurant in Council Bluffs, across the Missouri River in Iowa. Fazoli's is a low-end Italian restaurant, maybe one step above a fast-food joint, but I like their spaghetti and meatballs. I made my way there without too much trouble, and ordered the spaghetti deluxe -- with meatballs, Italian sausage, and mushrooms. It was okay, but I preferred the spaghetti with meatballs.

I got back on Interstate 80 then cruised east to Des Moines, Iowa, to spend the night at the Hampton Inn there. I had a bag full of rags behind the front seat, and wiped down the car before I settled in for the night. Even pressed for time, I don't like traveling in a funky car. Having done that, I showered, cleaned up, logged my trip expenses in a spreadsheet, logged my bank charges for fuel and such, archived the photos I'd taken -- putting them on my notebook computer and on a flash drive I had on a neck lanyard -- then got to bed. I would repeat that ritual, with little variation, every evening. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* WINGS & WEAPONS: Textron Systems is now preparing to introduce its "Fury" small precision-guided munition (PGMs). The Fury has been demonstrated in all-up trials, with the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) interested in obtaining a small batch for field evaluation; SOCOM currently needs to rebuild depleted stockpiles of small PGMs. Textron's European partner, Thales, is also in discussions with the UK Ministry of Defence concerning the Fury.

The Fury is not seen as a replacement for the US Hellfire anti-armor missile, which weighs about a hundred kilograms (220 pounds); the Fury only weighs six kilograms (about 13 pounds). It is an intelligent weapon, able to hit moving targets, with the ability to take out light armored vehicles -- if not a main battle tank or hardened fixed position. Textron is creating a rack that will mount three Furies and interface with a Hellfire missile launch rail.

* The British Brimstone anti-armor missile was developed from the Hellfire; the two look much the same, but the Brimstone is a new design that simply uses the same form-factor as the Hellfire. European weapons producer MBDA is now proposing an evolved version of the Brimstone for the Boeing AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopter, now being obtained by the British Army.


One of the advantages of the Brimstone over the Hellfire is that the Brimstone can be launched from "fast mover" jets, while the Hellfire can only be air-launched by helicopters and prop aircraft. The latest spiral development of Brimstone, the "Brimstone 2", has now entered service with the British Royal Air Force's (RAF) Tornado GR4 multi-role combat aircraft, and will eventually be carried by the Typhoon FGR4 aircraft and Reaper MQ-9A drone.

The initial Brimstone used millimeter-wave (MMW) guidance; it was followed by the "Dual-Mode Brimstone (DMB)", which used MMW and semi-active laser (SAL) guidance. Brimstone 2 improves on the DMB by featuring:

Brimstone 2 also introduces an enhanced version of the dual-mode seeker; as well as improved autopilot algorithms increase the missile's engagement envelope -- providing for an increased high off-boresight engagement capability, and significantly extended range for low-level release.

The evolved version being proposed by MBDA for the AH-64E will feature:

There has been no commitment to the next-generation Brimstone yet, but the British military has been enthusiastic about the weapon, and has consistently driven its improvement.

* The US has similarly been very enthusiastic over laser-guided versions of the classic 70-millimeter unguided rocket, finding the relatively small laser-guided rocket (LGR) an excellent weapon for the current "dirty little wars", having a cost less than that of more powerful guided weapons, and also inflicting less unwanted "collateral damage" on innocent bystanders.

Aculeus LGR

Now the French Army Light Aviation (Aviation Legere de l'Armee de Terre / ALAT) is acquiring an LGR based on the classic 68-millimeter unguided rocket. The Thales / TDA Armaments 68 Aculeus LGR will be carried on ALAT Airbus Tiger gunship helicopters. Trials of the Aculeus began in 2013, with fielding expected in the 2019 timeframe. Given the popularity of the 68-millimeter rocket, the Aculeus is likely to see wider service.



* DIGITAL SIGNATURES: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Has The Hand-Written Signature Had Its Day?" by Nicola K. Smith, 1 November 2016), the ceremonial signing of major documents has a long and venerable history, with the pens used for signing ceremonies becoming important mementos. US President Lyndon Johnson reportedly used more than 75 pens to sign the landmark Civil Rights Act in 1964. One, an Esterbrook, was given to Dr. Martin Luther King JR.

The era of historical pens is gradually coming to an end. On 1 July 2016, the European Union implemented new rules for electronic signatures, giving them the same legal weight as their "wet", ink-based, written counterparts. The new "European Identity and Trust Services (eIDAS)" regulation has effectively put an end to a confusing patchwork of laws for electronic signatures, making them consistent across every EU country.

"Digital certificates" that can establish identity have been around for years, but the signing of legally-binding documents has remained firmly in the pen-&-ink age, with such documents shuttled around through the mails. According to Mark Greenaway, director of digital media at software firm Adobe, Businesses have been slow to adopt electronic signatures because "until now, there has been no legal framework or regulation which properly defines them."

Estonia was a leader in paving the way to the new age of digital ID and authentication. Every resident over the age of 15 has an ID card protected by a personal identification number, and containing a digital signature. That enables them to access government services, digitally sign documents, and vote electronically in parliamentary elections. Estonians have had digital ID cards since 2002, and about 1.2 million people use them. They can use their smartphones for ID as well.

Anna Piperal, managing director of e-Estonia Showroom at Enterprise Estonia, says: "I'd rather not spend precious time on administration. There is no value in that." She adds: "We still like to meet and talk, discuss, but not sign papers in stacks and spend a fortune printing and scanning."

It is estimated that digital signatures save about 2% of Estonia's GDP every year. Piperal says: "It makes business administration easy. For example, you can start a company in just 18 minutes."

Other countries have followed Estonia in moving towards digital signatures. Legalesign of the UK has just launched an online witness product, enabling business people to sign contracts by typing their name, signing with a mouse, or uploading their signature. The signature is made in the presence of a witness, and the ID of the signatory is verified over email. The final document is tamper-proofed using an encrypted digital certificate.

The attachment to hand-written signatures remains strong, but they are a very weak form of authentication, being readily forged. Jon Geater, chief technology officer at Thales e-security, says: "A [written] signature is simply weak evidence that somebody agreed to do something. It is not exactly unique or special, nor does it prove particularly well that a person was genuinely present or consenting."

Digital signatures, in contrast, whether based on blockchain technology -- which relies which relies on a consensus agreement before verifying a signature -- or password-based digital signatures, are much more secure. Geater says: "Modern digital technology provides considerably greater assurance that a piece of information was genuinely approved or agreed." That allows business relationships to be "described, enforced and verified without the unnecessary involvement of superfluous middlemen, and with much greater levels of proof."

Astrograph pens

The signing of important documents will continue, but it will increasingly be for theater, the digital signature being the one that counts. Politicians will continue to hand out pens as mementos, and companies will continue to produce artistic pens to support the show. Consider Swiss company Caran d'Ache, which recently collaborated with watch and timepiece brand MB&F to create its limited edition Astrograph pen -- with 99 precision components and in the shape of a 1950s rocket-ship, for about $20,000 USD. It's very nice, but one might prefer to wait for the cheap plastic Chinese clone.



* DAMNED EMAILS: One of the recurring nightmares of the now-past US presidential election campaign was the long-running frenzy over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton's emails. When she was secretary of state, the email system of the State Department was in considerable disarray. Clinton, who it seems is a technological klutz, decided to handle emails on a personal server -- with her opponents making a massive fuss over the matter. Clinton's attempts to cover up the blunder with fibs simply aggravated the situation.

On 5 July 2016, FBI Director James Comey cleared her on criminal charges on the emails, though he did give her a sharp rap on the knuckles for her incompetence, calling her "extremely careless". The Republicans still continued to make a fuss over the matter, though to no particular effect. However, on 28 October, Comey announced that further emails, obtained from the investigation of Anthony Weiner, the husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin -- Weiner having been busted for sending inappropriate emails to minors -- relevant to the Clinton email case, had come to light, and needed to be inspected.

Although Comey had said no more than that the emails were going to be reviewed -- one suspects he came forward because the news was likely to be leaked by anti-Clinton elements in the FBI, leaving the bureau flat-footed -- the Republicans saw the announcement as a "smoking gun". The crowing turned to rage on 6 November, when Comey announced that the emails had been reviewed, and there was nothing in them to require modification of the 5 July announcement.

As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Yes, Donald Trump, the FBI Can Vet 650,000 Emails in Eight Days" by Zach Gibson, 6 November 2016), Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump fulminated: "You can't review 650,000 emails in eight days! You can't do it, folks! Hillary Clinton is guilty!"

His supporter, retired Army Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, helpfully did the math in a Twitter tweet: "IMPOSSIBLE: There R 691,200 seconds in 8 days. DIR Comey has thoroughly reviewed 650,000 emails in 8 days? An email / second? IMPOSSIBLE!"

If Hillary Clinton is a technical klutz, it's obvious that she isn't alone. It was not as if Comey had read them himself; not only was the task delegated to subordinates, but the FBI has plenty of sophisticated search and filtering tools to help with the job. Jonathan Zdziarski -- a forensics expert who's consulted for law enforcement and worked as a systems administrator -- says: "This is not rocket science. Eight days is more than enough time to pull this off in a responsible way."

WIRED spoke to a former FBI forensics expert who said he's personally assessed much bigger collections of data, and done it more quickly: "You can triage a dataset like this in a much shorter amount of time. We'd routinely collect terabytes of data in a search. I'd know what was important before I left the guy's house."

In the Weiner case, forensics experts say, the job might have been very easy, since only a portion of the emails taken from Weiner's laptop PC had anything to do with Clinton. Anybody who wasn't a technical klutz could sort them out by filtering the "from:" or "to:" lines. Any reasonably sophisticated emailer could do it easily, cutting the number of relevant emails down considerably.

Next, the FBI could easily sort out duplicates of emails previously examined, then discard them in turn -- and, in fact, it is believed they were almost all duplicates. The duplicates could be spotted by their message IDs -- a unique alphanumeric identifier for each email.

Assuming there were duplicates that had different message IDs, possibly having been pasted into replies or forwarded, the FBI could use a forensics tool like "Encase" or "AccessData Forensics Tool Kit" to make cryptographic "hashes" of full messages, or chunks of them. Hashing converts portions of text into shorter character strings that uniquely represent the text: running a hash function on that same text will always produce the same short string of characters, but any tiny change in the text produces a different hash string. Checking for duplicates could then be reduced to comparing hashes, which is easy to do.

The FBI also has tools to screen for classified material. Of course, common sense applies as well, with the FBI able to discard threads of messages that were clearly irrelevant. Zdziarski says: "I could look at it and say: This block of 100 messages is all about Podesta's pot roast recipe, so we'll ignore all of those."

The FBI, not surprisingly, declined to comment to WIRED about the vetting of Weiner's emails, but the cybersecurity and forensics community described the task as almost trivial -- not quite a no-brainer, but not particularly challenging either. In fact, some observers wondered why it took so long to do the job.

Beyond the technical issues, there's the issue of what Comey was doing in announcing the new emails. While there were loud screams that he was trying to influence the election, there's no reason to question his integrity; he was just in a position where he was going to be hanged whatever he did, and he had to walk a tightrope to cover himself and the bureau. No doubt, he also considered it likely the news would be leaked by anti-Clinton elements in the bureau.

Complaints that the FBI was manipulating the election were particularly dubious -- because it was obvious the public had largely made up their minds on who to vote for months before. It might have pushed the vote over the edge for Trump in a very narrow election, but that could also be laid to any number of other of Hillary Clinton's perceived defects, for example her gender. There were many reasons, good and bad, to dislike Hillary Clinton; misogyny was far from the only one, but it was there nonetheless.



* THE BLOCKCHAIN GAMBIT (2): At the present time, well more than a 100,000 transactions are added to the bitcoin blockchain every day, with the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars changing hands, and the distributed ledger reaching tens of gigabytes in size. Bitcoin mining is performed by members of the network on the basis of the profit motive: the miner that is first to come up with the solution to the puzzle gets 25 bitcoins, worth several thousand dollars -- the exact translation to dollars being highly variable.

This variability is one of the difficulties with bitcoin; it's a very unstable currency. In addition, the number of bitcoins has a ceiling that will be hit sooner or later. However, it is hard to cheat on the system, and the log of transactions is robust. Each new header contains a hash of the header of the previous block in the blockchain; which in turn contains a hash of the header before that; and so on, all the way back to the beginning. This concatenation of blocks is, of course, why it's called a "blockchain". Any alteration in a block will alter its hash, breaking the blockchain.

It might seem possible for Alice to alter the latest header, say to revoke a payment to Bob, and insert it into the bitcoin network, but that's not workable, since that would requiring that she perform mining faster than the rest of the bitcoin network can; if she can't, the blockchain will be updated, and the header she's concerned with won't be the latest any longer. She could only get away with the trick if she controlled a simple majority of the computers on the bitcoin network, which is most unlikely.

Bitcoin is designed as an "open platform", meaning that its technology can be freely adapted to other purposes besides a purely digital currency. Any kind of asset can be handled via a blockchain. A startup named Colu has developed a mechanism to "dye" very small bitcoin transactions, AKA "bitcoin dust" by adding extra data to them so that they can represent bonds, shares or units of precious metals.

A blockchain can protect land titles, an application mentioned at the outset of this series; it can, in fact, provide a secure registry of anything worth tracking closely. The additional data for the items to be tracked can be folded into blocks and locked into the blockchain. Applications are available or in development that can protect luxury goods, for example to identify precious stones if they are stolen; to store personal information; and to notarize documents. This leads to the notion of "smart contracts", that execute themselves automatically under the right circumstances. Lighthouse, for example, is a decentralized crowdfunding service. If enough money is pledged to a project, it all goes through; if the target is never reached, none does.

Blockchain technology comes on like a daring new frontier, but will it work beyond bitcoin and a few niche applications? What works for such may not be able to support thousands of different services with millions of users. The bitcoin network can only handle about seven transactions per second; in contrast, there are thousands of transactions per second for a specific brand of charge card in the USA. There's also the issue that, by design, bitcoin is computation-intensive, and so energy-intensive -- it might be loosely said that bitcoins are backed by energy. How much energy the bitcoin system uses is arguable, ranging from the power consumption of, say, 150,000 homes, to almost ten million homes. If blockchain technology becomes more widespread, the power burn will increase proportionately.

To be sure, in the early days of browsing the web, there were predictions that, as everyone crowded onto the internet, it would come to a screeching halt -- but surfing the web is now effectively universal, there was no internet doomsday. Mining computers, optimized for the task and energy-efficient, are becoming available, and less energy-hungry mechanisms have been proposed. Work is also being performed on an extension to bitcoin named "Lightning" that handles small transactions without all the overhead.

There is the difficulty that bitcoin, at least in its implementation, is "crowdsourced", meaning a crowd controls bitcoin. Getting a consensus is particularly troublesome because bitcoin enthusiasts tend towards the contrarian: say they need to do something, they'll be inclined to do the opposite. Currently, there is a civil war raging over block size, one faction arguing that larger blocks will promote concentration in the mining industry, the other faction saying that the system is headed for a crash. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (1): A few years back, I learned the USAF Museum at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, was planning to build a fourth hangar that would accommodate aircraft that had been stored in the "back room" on nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. I travel to take pictures; I had visited the USAF Museum in 2004 and got many good pictures, but now I had more skill and better gear, so a visit to the museum would, hopefully, yield more and better pictures to replace the older ones.

In the 2004 trip, I went on to see the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum (NASM) in Washington DC, that not being so much farther from Colorado than Dayton, Ohio. Why not do take the same trip again? That was just an idea until the fourth hangar was completed and stocked in the spring of 2016, and then I got to thinking more seriously about it. I had misgivings about the trip; spending a long time on the road can be grueling, even a bit hazardous -- besides, I was still trying to organize photos from back to 2012, and wasn't keen on adding another pile that would keep me in that loop for maybe another year or more.

I finally decided that, given I would do it anyway eventually, I might as well do it and be done with it, and also didn't think that fuel prices would be as cheap in the future as they are currently. I finally sat down and worked out, through some iterations, a trip schedule:

I started doing prep early on, figuring out routes from Bing online maps, coming up with cost estimates, and buying some gear I thought I could use on the road. Route planning was the most time-consuming. I suppose if I had a navigation system in my car, it wouldn't have been so troublesome, but even if I had such gear, I would still want to know exactly where I was going. With modern online map systems, that can be done. The only problem is drowning in detail, since I ended up making dozens of screen dumps of maps and aerial views that were a pain to organize. The aerial views turned out to be very handy, giving me an idea of what a particular destination looked like.

Since referring to the dumps while driving would be troublesome, I wrote up instructions for each step of the journey on 3x5 index cards for quick reference. I also wrote a card with the daily agendas, including travel distances, and a card with a list of projected fuel stops -- 15 in all, including one when I got back home to Loveland, Colorado.

One of the things I bought was a travel backpack, with many pockets and plenty of capacity; I thought to use it as something of a portable desk / drawers / closet, just toss everything loose into it, and make a habit of sorting it out in the evenings. I tried it on a trip to Spokane, and it seemed to work very well.

projection clock

Another little thing I picked up was a new digital alarm clock. One of the problems in traveling is that it's not always easy to see clocks during the night while sleeping in a hotel room, making getting up on time a bit dodgy. It may also be confusing to set the alarms on an unfamiliar hotel alarm clock. The new alarm clock was about the size of a pencil box, with big red digits -- but also had a little projector that pivots up and down on the left side, to shine the time on the wall, the ceiling, drapes, whatever. I tried it out at home, and found it worked very nicely. It had battery back-up so it would keep time after I unplugged it and put it in the travel pack. It also had a USB charger socket on the back that turned out to be handy, with enough drive to charge up any of my USB gadgets. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launch activity during October was light:

-- 05 OCT 16 / SKY MUSTER 2, GSAT 18 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou at 2030 UTC (local time + 3) to put the "Sky Muster 2" AKA "NBN 1B" and "GSAT 18" geostationary comsats into orbit.

Sky Muster 2 provided high-speed Internet services for Australia's National Broadband Network (NBN). Sky Muster 2 was built by Space Systems / Loral, being based on the SS/L 1300 satellite bus; the space platform had a launch mass of 6,405 kilograms (14,120 pounds), and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 145 degrees east longitude.

Sky Muster 2 was, of course, the second in a series of comsats for NBN, the first Sky Muster having been launched on an Ariane 5 in September 2015. The two comsats provide, with their 101 spot beams, high-speed internet connectivity for Australia and offshore territories. Users can expect download speeds up to 25 megabits per second, and upload rates of up to 5 megabits per second. NBN is backed by the Australian government to make sure all Australian citizens, including those in the remote Outback, have access to high-speed internet.

GSAT-18 was built by India and had a launch mass of 3,404 kilograms (7,504 pounds). It had a payload of 48 C / Ku-band transponders and was placed in the geostationary slot at 74 degrees east longitude.

-- 16 OCT 16 / SHENZHOU 11 -- A Long March 2F booster was launched from Jiuquan at 2330 GMT (next day local time - 8) to put the "Shenzhou 11" manned space capsule into orbit, carrying two "taikonauts" to the Tiangong 2 mini-space station. The crew included Commander Jing Haipeng (third space flight) and Flight Engineer Chen Dong (first space flight). The space capsule docked with the Tiangong station two days after launch. It was the first crewed Chinese space mission in three years.

Shenzhou 11

-- 17 OCT 16 / CYGNUS 5 (OA-5) -- An Orbital Sciences Antares booster was launched from Wallops Island off the coast of Virginia at 2345 UTC (local time + 4) to put the seventh operational "Cygnus" supply capsule, named "OA-5", into space on an International Space Station support mission. This was the return to flight of the Antares booster, following a two-year hiatus due to a crash in 2014. It docked with the space station six days later, on 23 October; the long delay was due to potential conflicts with a Soyuz crewed space capsule mission, launched on 19 October.

-- 19 OCT 16 / SOYUZ ISS 48S (ISS) -- A Soyuz-Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur at 0805 GMT (local time - 4) to put the "Soyuz ISS 48S" AKA "MS-02" crewed space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included vehicle commander Sergey Rizhikov (first space flight) of the RKA, flight engineer Andrey Borisenko (second space flight) of the RKA, and NASA astronaut Shane Kimbrough (second space flight). They docked with the ISS upper Poisk module two days after launch, joining the ISS "Expedition 49" crew of commander Anatoly Ivanishin of the RKA, Japanese astronaut Takuya Onishi of JAXA, and NASA astronaut Kate Rubins, who were launched to the ISS on 6 July aboard the Soyuz MS-01 spacecraft.



* WORM FOOD REVISITED: Forensic study of the decay of cadavers donated to science, in order to assist crime scene investigation, was discussed here in 2015. An article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Thousands Of Unexpected Microbes Break Down Our Bodies After Death" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 10 December 2015) discussed a recent study that extended such research into new territory -- showing that, no matter where we're buried, the same bacteria, fungi, and other small organisms in the soil take apart our bodies, as if they were just waiting for our corpses to arrive. The findings could have important implications for forensic science, including helping police better pinpoint time of death.

Compared with plants, decaying animals are a highly enriched source of nutrients such as nitrogen and carbon. According to George Kowalchuk -- a microbial ecologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who was not involved with the study -- corpses represent a "gold mine" for microbes. He adds that, although we've long known that scavengers such as buzzards, raccoons, and blowflies do some of the dirty work of breaking down dead bodies, we are only now learning the significant role of microbial decomposers.

To find out just what role they play, evolutionary biologist Jessica Metcalf, of the University of Colorado in Boulder, set out to survey the microbes in, on, and around corpses. She started out with mice, putting 126 bodies into individual containers with soil from three places: a short grass prairie and a sub-alpine lodgepole pine forest in Colorado, and a desert in Texas. Over the next year and a half, she sampled microbes on the decaying mouse skin, in the guts, and in the soil. With the help of colleagues from the Sam Houston State University Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science Facility in Huntsville, she also tracked the decay of four human cadavers donated to science -- two placed outside in winter, and two placed outside in spring.

Identifying the microbes was troublesome because many cannot be cultured in the laboratory. To figure out which ones -- including worms and fungi -- were present, researchers at the University of California, San Diego, performed metagenomics analysis, developing sophisticated software to sort out the mixture of gene fragments into distinct sets of organisms.

The findings show that most of the microbes responsible for decomposition come from the soil -- not from the gut, as had been suspected. In addition, no matter the soil type, the weather, or the presence of other scavengers, the microbes are the same. That suggests soils may contain a more or less "microbial seed bank"; that is, a certain set of microbes existing in very low quantities until a nutrient-rich corpse arrives, with their population then exploding.

Furthermore, the study shows that the microbial community changes through time in a predictable way. The decomposers were barely detectable at the beginning of the experiments, and the soil around each corpse supported what seemed to be very different sets of organisms. However, soon after the corpses ruptured -- caused by the activity of gut microbes -- their native microbial community was replaced by oxygen-loving microbes from the air and soil. These once-scarce decomposers then underwent a population boom; the set of microbes shifted through time, with nitrogen-recyclers starting out as dominant, fungi and nematode worms getting a foothold in later stages of decomposition.

After tracing out the different shifts of decomposers on the mice, and seeing the same shifts operating on the humans, the researchers built a computer model using the mouse data to see whether the microbial composition could be used to trace back times of death, using the humans as a test case. The model matched data very closely, meaning the mix of microbes found associated with a decaying corpse could help pinpoint time of death. Forensics experts sometimes use the presence of insects, such as blowflies, to estimate time of death -- but microbial succession promises to be much more accurate. It might even reveal the traces of a corpse that has decayed away completely.

More work needs to be done. With support from the National Institute of Justice, the research arm of the US Department of Justice in Washington, Metcalf and her colleagues will study corpses at facilities across the country, during all seasons, in different soil types, to see whether the microbes are the same and follow the same pattern of succession. The researchers believe that the metagenomic analysis procedures they are developing in this work will have applications in forensics, and other fields, as well.



* PRINTED ELECTRONICS: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("On A Roll", 30 July 2016), 3D printing has been advancing by leaps and bounds, and becoming a significant element of high-tech industry. However, while 3D printing works well enough for mechanical widgets, it doesn't do so well with electronics. 3D printers can produce electronic circuit substrates, and lay down devices as sandwiches of different layers -- but they can only build things one at a time, or in small batches.

There's much more interest in fabricating electronic substrates using the same basic technology as for the high-speed rotary presses used to churn out newspapers, magazines, and books. Printed electronics are already being produced commercially. Emerson & Rewick of Accrington, Lancashire UK, was founded in 1918 to make wallpaper-printing equipment. Now the company is producing the "Genesis" range of printers to turn out electrical devices.

The latest in the Genesis series is roughly the size of a shipping container. It prints out on long rolls of material, called "webs"; once printed, the items are cut out, just as printed pages are cut by guillotines for binding into magazines or such. One customer wants to print some of the main components of a new generation of smartphones.

Modern roll-to-roll printing technology is fast and efficient; some of the fastest web-offset presses, in which an inked image is transferred to another roller and then to the surface being printed, can turn out more than 20 newspapers a second. Flexographic presses, which use a flexible relief image on a cylinder to print things such as packaging, can cruise along at 500 meters a minute (30 KPH / 18.6 MPH). Such methods have already been adapted to print basic electronic circuits, by replacing conventional graphic inks with conductive inks that can carry an electric current.

The new Genesis machine does more than just print out circuit substrates, however. It puts sequential coatings onto webs of material such as plastic film, flexible glass, and metal foil. Some coatings conduct; some insulate; some are semiconductors; some emit light. The Genesis system is modular and adaptable, with special carts the size of a large oven plugged into it reconfigure it for different applications:

Such processes are necessarily performed in a vacuum. It's all very high-tech, but company officials say the Genesis machine isn't really all that different from a conventional graphics press.

As with a conventional press, managing the flow of the web through the machine is critical, since a break might destroy a whole reel of devices. Printing electronics requires special formulations of ink -- often made with silver, which is an excellent conductor, but expensive. Tawfique Hasan and his research group at Cambridge University is working on alternative inks, based on flakes of graphene -- flat flakes of graphite. Hawsan says it promises to be much cheaper than silver, but still conductive enough for applications such as disposable biomedical sensors, or packaging that can track and authenticate a product. Graphene ink could also be used to make electrodes for printed batteries.

Hasan and his colleagues have demonstrated flexographic printing of conductive graphene ink at more than 100 meters a minute (60 KPH / 37 MPH). They are working in collaboration with Novalia, a firm in Cambridge that has produced several printed touch-sensitive products, including a musical keyboard and interactive posters. They have also established a company named Inkling Cambridge to develop and commercialize electronic inks, coatings, and paints.

One idea Inkling is tinkering with is a "smart" wallpaper. In addition to graphene ink, the smart wallpaper would use either organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs) or quantum dots -- crystals of semiconducting material just a few atoms across. Both emit light when excited by electricity, so wall coverings printed with such materials could be used to illuminate rooms.

Other organizations are working on printed electronics. Taiwan's Industrial Technology Research Institute plans to open a roll-to-roll line in 2017, to make OLED lighting panels for display screens, decorative lighting, signs, and exterior car lights -- printed on rolls of plastic film or ultra-thin flexible glass. The institute says the system will incorporate seven separate processes, including coating, baking, and etching, into a single roll-to-roll machine. Right now, such processes require separate machines, and do not operate in a continuous flow.

A number of groups are working on printed solar panels that could be easily applied to roofs, or built into roofing tiles. A class of crystalline materials named perovskites is seen as very promising, with potential efficiencies of over 30%. Perovskites have to be sealed off from moisture, but that is not seen as a great challenge.

Although inkjet printing is not traditionally associated with roll-to-roll printing, David Bird and colleagues of the of the Centre for Process Innovation (CPI) -- a British government-backed organization that helps companies commercialize new technologies -- has developed an inkjet system that can print copper circuits onto rolls of plastic at a rate of 17 meters a minute, the circuits being used for things like sensors and radio antennas.

As Bird points out, printing of any sort at speed demands good quality control; if something goes wrong in high-speed roll-to-roll fabrication, it means a lot of waste before the problem is spotted. Cameras can be used to monitor the process, but they don't work so well with transparent layers; another scheme uses reflected light to spot depressions that might indicate an uncoated spot.

Printed electronic systems tend to be relatively simple, the technology not being capable of to fabricating chips with billions of transistors. If such chips are required, they have to be added later. However, Ma Zhenqiang of the University of Wisconsin-Madison and his colleagues recently fabricated a flexible transistor that operates at 110 gigahertz -- making it fast enough to use in almost any electronic application. To make this transistor, Ma used an electron beam to etch shapes just ten nanometers wide in a mould that was then employed to form the transistor's circuitry in an ultra-thin flexible silicon membrane.

As the mould can be re-used, Ma reckons his method could easily be scaled up for roll-to-roll processing. Even though printing cannot fabricate electronic systems comparable to those manufactured by chip producers -- there's still a lot that can be done with a few hundred or few thousand transistors, and printing them out promises to be dirt-cheap.



* THE BLOCKCHAIN GAMBIT (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Great Chain Of Being Sure About Things", 31 October 2015), in developed countries we tend to take property rights more or less for granted. We believe we have clear title to the house that we own, and are not going to be thrown out of it tomorrow for no predictable reason. In the undeveloped world, land registries are often badly managed, sometimes undermined by corruption. This lack of secure property rights is an ongoing source of social insecurity and injustice. It also makes it harder to use a house or a parcel of land as collateral, frustrating investment.

It isn't easy to see any connection between this issue and bitcoin -- a "digital currency", implemented as a sophisticated cryptographic system, often used by malcontents and internet-savvy criminals. However, the "blockchain" scheme underlying bitcoin has applications far beyond digital currency. Blockchains allow the creation of trusted records of who owns what that are both reliable and difficult to corrupt. As a result, countries where land registries are in a state of disarray are becoming interested in blockchain technology.

Other applications for blockchain and similar "distributed ledgers" range from thwarting diamond thieves to streamlining stockmarkets: the NASDAQ exchange will soon start using a blockchain-based system to record trades in privately-held companies. The Bank of England, not known for technological enthusiasm, seems excited when it comes to distributed ledgers, concluding in a 2014 memorandum that such are a "significant innovation" that could have "far-reaching implications" in the financial industry. Blockchains are also the darlings of the political fringe -- libertarians, for example, believe they will increasingly replace state regulations with robust private contracts between individuals.

The blockchain was originally invented by Satoshi Nakamoto, the pseudonym of the anonymous creator, or creators, of bitcoin, which was introduced to the world in a 2008 paper. To work as cash, bitcoin had to be able to change hands without being diverted into the wrong account, and could not be spent twice by the same person. The bitcoin system had to be decentralized, with no supervision by a "trusted third party (TTP)", such as the banks that stand behind conventional payment systems.

The blockchain replaces the TTP. The bitcoin blockchain is a ledger, a database, that contains the payment history of every bitcoin in circulation, providing proof of who owns what at any time. It's called a distributed ledger because it's replicated on thousands of computers -- bitcoin "nodes" -- around the world, making it available to all concerned parties. However, despite its openness, it is also trustworthy and secure. The blockchain's integrity is guaranteed by a combination of mathematical subtlety and computational brute force built into its "consensus mechanism", which is the process by which the nodes agree on how to update the blockchain to reflect bitcoin transfers from one person to another.

Suppose that Alice wants to pay Bob for services rendered. Both have bitcoin "wallets" -- software which accesses the blockchain in somewhat the same way as a browser accesses the web, one significant difference being that it doesn't identify the user to the system. The transaction begins with Alice's wallet proposing that the blockchain be modified to show Alice's wallet a little emptier and Bob's a little fuller.

The proposal propagates over the network, with the various nodes checking their ledgers to see if Alice actually has the bitcoin she now wants to spend. If she does, specialized nodes named "miners" will bundle Alice's proposal with other approved transactions to create a new block for the blockchain.

This involves repeatedly feeding the data through a cryptographic "hash" function, which renders the block down into a hash -- a string of digits of a given length. A hash function is designed to give a hash that is distinctive to each block, even if the data in two blocks only differs in a single bit. The hash is a one-way street: there's no way to reconstruct the data from the hash.

That hash is placed, along with some other data, into the header of the proposed block. This header then becomes the basis for a laborious mathematical puzzle, which involves using the hash function yet again. There's no easy way to solve the puzzle; it can only be done by brute-force trial-&-error. Across the network, miners grind through trillions and trillions of possibilities, seeking the answer.

When a miner finally locates a solution, other nodes quickly check it -- solving is hard, but checking is easy -- and each node that confirms the solution updates its blockchain ledger accordingly. The hash of the header becomes the new block's unique identifying string, and that block is now part of the ledger. Alice's payment to Bob, and all the other transactions the block contains, have now been confirmed. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE EUROPEAN UNION (5): As a footnote to this series, the question might be asked: what, exactly, is the European Union?

In response, THE GUARDIAN published an article ("What Is The EU?" by Mark Rice-Oxley & Pamela Duncan, 9 June 2016) giving an outline of exactly what constitutes the EU. In short, it's a half-continent of 500 million people, an alliance of 28 countries, a cluster of institutions in Brussels, the world's biggest trans-national economy, a collection of treaties, and a never-ending succession of summits.

In more detail, the EU economy is the world's biggest, at about 14 trillion euros. About 1% of that is devoted to an annual budget of about 144 billion euros. The EU includes a set of institutions, at least a dozen, the most important being:

There are, as mentioned above, 28 member states, in order of their joining: Belgium, Luxembourg, Netherlands, France, Germany, Italy; Britain, Denmark, Ireland; Greece; Spain, Portugal; Austria, Finland, Sweden; Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Cyprus, Malta, Poland, Hungary, Slovenia; Bulgaria, Romania; and Croatia.

Only one territory has ever voted to quit the community: Greenland in 1985, six years after a referendum, before the formation of the modern EU. It might be argued that Algeria was a member of the EEC as it was a part of France until gaining independence in 1962.

The EU has changed its name and purpose over the years, reflecting moves towards closer integration. The European Coal and Steel Community, founded in the early 1950s essentially as a tariff-cutting initiative, was joined by, and later merged with, the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957. The European Community came into being in 1993 at the same time as the European Union, an umbrella organization whose name rapidly became the preferred term of reference.

Principal landmarks along the way include the common agricultural policy -- an enormous subsidy program -- established in 1962; the removal of all internal tariffs (1968); the Single European Act (1987), which committed members to removing all remaining barriers to a common market by 1992; the Maastricht treaty (1993), which paved the way for the single currency; and the Lisbon treaty (2009), which overhauled the institutions.

EU nations must be democracies with high levels of tolerance of liberty, equality, minorities, rule of law and respect for human rights. Other more informal values include embracing each other's national cuisines, bureaucracy, cafe culture, acronyms, simultaneous translation, and Beethoven's ODE TO JOY -- the EU anthem.

The EU is not:

As this series has shown, the EU is not and cannot be the answer to anything. It is a multi-national institution, and a generally successful one that hopefully will persist long into the future.



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from TIME Online ("The Robot Taxi Takeover Is Already Beginning in Singapore" by Annabelle Liang, 23 September 2016), the robocar revolution is taking off in Singapore -- well, sort of. Autonomous vehicle software startup nuTonomy, a spin-off from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has made rides on its self-driving taxis available to the general public in Singapore for free, expanding a first-in-the world run that was initially invitation-only.

The Singapore trial was originally limited to a 6.5-square kilometer (2.5-square mile) business and residential district called "One North". The test area has been doubled by the government. The approved route does not include any highways. Riders can hail a robotaxi through Grab, the equivalent of Uber in Southeast Asia, which has struck up a partnership with nuTonomy.

The exercise is not a commercial introduction by any means, instead being a public experimental test of a robotaxi system, intended as a first step to a commercial system. The taxis, which are modified Renault Zoe and Mitsubishi i-MiEV electrics, have a safety driver in front who is prepared to take the wheel and a researcher in back who monitors the car's tech. Passengers ride free for the moment, but they have to be older than 18, book in advance, and sign a liability release form. There are six cars in the system, the number being expected to double by the end of 2016. NuTonomy plans to have a full robotaxi service, without human drivers, by 2018. We'll see.

* Australia has embraced the Global Positioning System (GPS) and other satnav systems, but it turns out that coordinates in the local map system and those provided by GPS are off by well more than a meter. The problem is that, thanks to continental drift, Australia is moving about 7 centimeters northward a year. That creates problems for robocars and other vehicles that rely on GPS coordinates. On 1 January 2017, the country's local coordinates will be shifted north by 1.8 meters. This is an over-correction, to ensure that Australia's local coordinates and GPS coordinates will align in 2020. A new system will be implemented at that time that will not require further adjustment.

* In other location system news ... as discussed by a note from THE ECONOMIST ("Addressing The World", 2 July 2016), we tend to take street addresses for granted, failing to realize that much of the undeveloped world doesn't have any such thing. How does one find a particular hut in an African village?

In the age of GPS location, that should be achievable -- but GPS coordinates are unwieldy. Chris Sheldrick, boss of What3Words, a firm based in London, has a better idea. He divides the Earth's surface into 9-meter-square blocks, and then gives each block a name, consisting of trios of randomly selected, unrelated words. For example, one patch of Siberia, is called, in English, "mirroring.surrendered.epidemics" -- though the patch of ground has nothing in particular to do with mirrors, surrenders, or epidemics. It also has nine other names in other languages, including Russian. It is much easier to remember and deal with than GPS coordinates.

The world grid defined in this scheme requires about 57 trillion addresses -- to be precise, 56,764,364,951,858 of them. 40,000 words can provide 64 trillion three-word combination. Furthermore, places at sea have only English addresses, reducing the number of required words in other languages to 25,000, that being enough to nail down all the places on land. For any language, words are selected for their familiarity, with rude-sounding words and homophones -- words that sound the same -- thrown out.

Mongolia's postal service uses the scheme. It has also come in handy in the favelas, slums, of Rio de Janeiro. A firm named Carteiro Amigo had been delivering letters to residents of Rio's favelas since 2000, with residents paying for the service and describing how mail should be delivered. Carteiro Amigo has adopted the What3Words scheme, and is finding it much more efficient.

According to Peter Atalla -- CEO of Navmii, a London-based maker of navigation apps that use What3Words as part of their toolkit -- the utility of the scheme is not restricted to the undeveloped world. One out of every ten Navmii searches uses a What3Words address; it's not just that the three-word locations are easy to handle, they can also direct others say, a specific entrance instead an entire building, or to a picnic spot instead of the whole park. Another UK outfit, Direct Today Couriers, another British outfit, reports that converting standard addresses into What3Words ones has dramatically reduced the number of missed deliveries. It's an idea whose time has come.



* THE SOIL'S IMMUNE SYSTEM: As discussed by an article by Carl Zimmer from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Scientists Hope to Cultivate an Immune System for Crops", 16 June 2016), the world's crops are under persistent threat from crop diseases and pests. Farmers have long used pesticides to keep the threats under control, but pests tend to build up resistance to pesticides, and pesticides aren't seen as environmentally benign in any case.

Some researchers are now learning more about the natural defenses of plants, discovering that the complex microbial world in the soil may protect plants, much like our immune system protects our bodies.

Scientists have known about "suppressive soils" for decades. In 1931, a Canadian scientist named A. W. Henry discovered the spores of the "common root rot" -- a fungus that afflicts wheat crops -- in a range of soil samples. Despite considerable efforts, Henry couldn't get the spores to grow well, until he tried sterilizing the soil, with the spores then proliferating. Although Henry didn't understand the matter very well, the microbiome in healthy soils keeps pathogens at bay.

Today, researchers are cataloging a great number of diverse species that live underground, and they've discovered some of the ways in which these fungi, bacteria, and other organisms fight pathogens. However, they are still a long way from learning how this environment operates, since life in the soil is so complex. Mark Mazzola, a plant pathologist at the US Department of Agriculture, says: "We don't have a firm grasp on what it is and what it's doing."

In a recent paper, Mazzola and Jos Raaijmakers of the Netherlands Institute of Ecology noted parallels between soil immunity and our own immune system. Our immune system has two major components: a general defense against invaders, and focused attacks on specific pathogens. Soil microbes seem to rely on a similar two-pronged strategy.

When soils are loaded with microbes, they use so many nutrients that it's hard for a lethal blight or other pathogen to gain a foothold. Some may manage to survive, but they don't flourish and attack plants. When scientists heat up soil and kill its native microbes, pathogens begin to take over, growing on the nutrients in the soil and eventually attacking plants.

Along with this general defense, soil microbes can also target individual species of pathogens. A strain of Pseudomonas bacteria, for instance, can protect wheat from a fungal disease called "take-all root rot". The bacteria are drawn to the damaged roots of sick plants, where they feed on the nutrients leaking out. As they multiply, the bacteria produce a compound toxic to the fungus, which brings a fungal outbreak to a halt.

Some of the precision weapons made by soil microbes already are appearing in the store. It possible to buy spores of a fungus called Trichoderma, for example, that attack another fungus that causes Pythium root rot. However, only a handful of such products are available; efforts to employ soil microbes to protect plant health have rarely proven successful. Mazzola believes that the high failure rate is due to the fact that soil microbes exist in a dense ecological web, depending on many other species for their well-being. Taking a disease-fighting microbe out of one ecosystem and dropping it into another may leave it struggling to survive among strangers. Soil immunity is generally not the work of just one species.

The plants themselves are a factor in understanding soil immunity. Experiments have shown that when pathogens attack a plant, it responds by releasing chemicals into the soil that attract a number of microbial species. As those microbes gather around the plant, they release compounds that can kill a pathogen. Mazzola believes that farmers will need to cultivate an ecology of soil microbes along with their plants to obtain protection.

In their own research, Mazzola and his colleagues added seed meal -- the mashed-up husks of mustard and canola seeds -- to apple orchard soil. They found that the seed meal encouraged the growth of certain soil microbes, and they in turn protected the apple trees from disease-causing fungi and nematode roundworms. Two years after adding the seed meal to the orchards, the researchers found that the ecology of the microbes had changed. New species of protective fungi and bacteria had taken over, and the original ones had become rare -- but the soil still continued to defend the trees.

Another potential strategy would be to breed crops that do a better job of summoning the microbes they need. Experiments have already revealed that various strains of wheat and apples attract different combinations of microbes to their roots. Mazzola thinks that it may be possible to breed plants that send out a call to bring the best defenders to their side. He says: "We're breeding for yield or color, but we're not breeding for resistance."

Just how effective such an approach to defending crop plants could be remains to be seen; the research is in its infancy. However, there is no doubt that a more sophisticated understanding of the complexities of nature is the path of the future, and will have a big payoff.



* SHADOW WARRIORS: As a follow-up to the series on the Apple Wars run here earlier this year, an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Who Are The Hackers Who Cracked The iPhone?" by Dave Lee, 26 August 2016), focused on the mysterious "NSO Group".

The Apple Wars involved a confrontation between the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Apple Corporation, with the FBI insisting that Apple break into a phone that had been used by a deceased terrorist, with Apple refusing to do so. The confrontation was defused, if only temporarily, when the FBI announced that a third party had cracked the iPhone. The third party was later tentatively identified as the NSO Group of Israel.

The NSO Group is secretive in its activities, only being revealed in glimpses. When Ahmed Mansoor -- a citizen of the UAE, a lawyer with a human-rights agenda -- received a message on his iPhone offering to provide him with information on torture in UAE prisons, he was suspicious. Having been imprisoned by the government for speaking his mind, he was in the crosshairs, and he could sense a booby trap when he saw one. He passed the message on to the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which works on cyber technologies relative to civil rights, and security company Lookout.

The message was indeed a booby trap; had Ahmed Mansoor stepped on it, the malware would have stolen all the private data on his iPhone, and would have been able to tap the microphone and camera. Analysts at Citizen Lab and Lookout found the malware extremely sophisticated, and were able to detect signs that the NSO Group was behind it.

Not much is known for certain about NSO Group, with any picture of it based on educated conjecture. It is sited in Herzliya, an attractive city north of Tel Aviv that is known as being a cluster of tech start-ups, and appears to have been founded in 2010. The group is believed to have been funded by the elite 8200 Intelligence Unit, an Israeli military-funded scheme for start-ups -- believed in turn to have been heavily involved in providing expertise and funding for Stuxnet, a cyber attack on Iran judged a joint operation between the US and Israel.

It is also known for a fact that the NSO Group is owned by US-based venture capital firm Francisco Partners; neither the NSO Group nor Francisco Partners answered queries from the BBC. NSO Group officials say they create tools to fight crime and terrorism; security researchers label the firm a "cyber arms dealer". In response to claims NSO Group was behind the cyber attack on Ahmed Mansoor, company officials said the firm "sells only to authorized governmental agencies, and fully complies with strict export control laws and regulations." They also said that they have no control over how their customers used the tools.

The attack was based on not one but three "zero-day" vulnerabilities -- that is, gaps in the iPhone's defenses that Apple didn't know about. It is not easy to find one zero-day vulnerability; it is remarkable to find three, suggesting the people behind the malware were very sophisticated. The messages received by Ahmed Mansoor linked to servers set up by the NSO Group for its customers, and also referenced "Pegasus", which is a known NSO Group spyware product.

When Apple was made aware of the vulnerabilities in its iPhone, it acted quickly, patching the problem in 10 days and handing out an update to all of its users. Absolutely nobody believes they've found all the vulnerabilities; no doubt the updated iPhone iOS has already been breached.



* DEFEATING MALARIA (2): Malaria being a hard target, more money will be needed to wipe it out. At one time, the military was the prime driver for research against the disease, in order to support operations in tropical regions; now charities and governments of developed countries pay for the struggle. In recent years, their contribution has grown dramatically, accounting for 82% of the $2.7 billion USD spent on control and elimination in 2013.

The largest single source is the "Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB & Malaria", which pools cash from developed countries, the private sector, and charities. Between 2002 and 2013, the Global Fund spent $8 billion USD battling malaria. The US also spends lavishly, both through donations to the Global Fund -- $1.35 billion USD in fiscal 2015 -- and through other aid programs, including the President's Malaria Initiative -- one of George W. Bush's under-sung efforts, launched in 2005 and now with an annual budget of $674 million USD.

However, the Gates Foundation estimates that to eradicate malaria, funding needs to double between now and 2025, when costs are expected to peak at $6 billion USD a year. The foundation puts the total cost of eradication at $90 billion USD to $120 billion USD between now and 2040. If that sounds like too much to pay, the foundation estimates the total economic benefits of eradication from productivity gains and health savings in the same time period at more than $2 trillion USD.

As well as paying for current schemes, some of the cash goes to developing new tools to ensure that malaria will stay down for good. Work is underway in three broad categories:

FIRST: Renewed drives with existing treatments. Treating everyone in a village or region with antimalarial drugs can be effective. It tends to work best on settled populations, which may explain why its biggest success has been on a small island: Aneityum in Vanuatu. Nine rounds of mass drug treatment in 1991 helped eliminate malaria there. That lasted until 2002, when the disease was re-introduced, prompting another round of treatment that wiped it out again. There has been some success in Myanmar as well.

SECOND: New treatments. Research & development spending on drugs, vaccines and basic research more than quadrupled between 1993 and 2013, reaching $550 million annually. Several candidates to supplement artemisinin are in the pipeline, but they will not be ready for release for many years. Nine additions to the array of insecticides are in development, but none will be on the market for at least three years.

There has been major work on a vaccine -- most of it frustrating, since the Plasmodium parasite has acquired devious means of evading the immune system. A vaccine, named "RTS,S", has passed clinical trials, and is waiting for WHO approval. It was developed by pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline and the Malaria Vaccine Initiative, an American non-profit organization. The vaccine works, but not all that well, having been shown to cut malarial episodes among small children by about a third. To make real headway, a vaccine needs to be about twice as effective.

An alternative approach, being pursued by researchers at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in Baltimore, Maryland, is to genetically modify the Anopheles mosquito to resist the malaria parasite. Matings in the wild would spread resistance through the mosquito population, though a mass release is at least five years away. The new CRISPR gene-editing scheme would help malaria-resistant genes spread much faster through mosquito populations. It can allow a gene on one of the two chromosomes inherited by a mosquito to copy itself to the other, ensuring that all offspring inherit it.

Researchers are tinkering with another technique in JHU's giant greenhouse in Zambia: feeding mosquitoes sugar laced with a bacterium that blocks their ability to pass on malaria. A fungus with similar properties has also been discovered.

THIRD: improved surveillance and diagnosis. Given proper diagnosis, people treated for malaria are less likely to develop the transmissible form of the parasite; correct diagnosis prevents overuse of antimalarials, slowing resistance; and better surveillance improves the focus of antimalarial efforts by, say, giving priority to spraying and bed net distribution in areas where the disease is widespread.

For countries at the threshold of elimination -- defined by the WHO as those with less than one diagnosed case of malaria per 1,000 people at risk per year -- strong surveillance systems are essential to preventing the disease from making a comeback. Workers not only need effective diagnostics; they need a reporting system to make sure a potential outbreak is not overlooked.

Smart software can help, too. Google and researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, have developed a prototype of a tool that uses weather, landscape and epidemiological-surveillance information to predict which villages are at high risk of malaria in certain months of the year, to make sure they're first on the list for insecticide spraying and other preventive measures.

Tracking mobile populations that could carry the disease across borders would help as well. Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland and South Africa, which aim to eliminate malaria by 2020, are now setting up a regional co-ordination system with their northern neighbors that will include a joint reporting system, routine sharing of information on patterns of transmission in border regions and screening at border crossings.

* All this is very well and good, but it's not going to stick unless there's follow-through. In the late 1960s, malaria rates had been brought close to zero in India, Pakistan, Haiti, Myanmar and dozens of other poor countries. Unfortunately, donors, governments and health systems declared victory too soon: their attention wandered, funding dried up and, over the next two decades, malaria came back.

Things are better now. The work of 50 years ago relied mainly on a single insecticide -- DDT -- and a single plan implemented across countries. Now the work has much more depth. Nonetheless, as rates of malaria infection fall off, there is inevitably an inclination to cut back funding. The war against malaria will not be won unless there is the political will to carry it to the end. [END OF SERIES]



* THE EUROPEAN UNION (4): Advocates of a strong European Union like to look back to a golden age when statesmen were fired up by a common purpose. However, to the extent there was such enthusiasm, it was held mostly by the elite, and there was always less to it than met the eye.

There is, indeed, a widespread if not universal sense among Europeans that they are indeed Europeans -- certainly, French or German or Dutch or Italian first, but with a European identity after that. Nonetheless, the idea of a stronger political union between those nationalities has weakened in the face of the euro crisis. There was a time in the 19th century when Italy and Germany forged national identities out of patchworks of little states; but that is something beyond the capabilities of the bureaucrats of Brussels.

The EU has something that looks like a flag but which, according to Luuk van Middelaar, a Dutch historian, is officially a "logo", because the member states balked at flag-hood. The European Commission directed the publication of the text EUROPE -- A HISTORY OF ITS PEOPLES in eight languages in 1990, only to receive complaints from the various nationalities that the book slighted them in petty ways.

Early on, after the fumblings over a European army, the European experiment focused on the basic politics of of tariffs and trade, not the high politics of grand strategy. It was an exercise in technocracy, which did not need much support from voters, who didn't pay it much mind. It was Jacques Delors who shifted up the gears -- beginning in 1986 with the "Single European Act", the first ambitious reworking of the Treaty of Rome. This created a single market, with consumer protection and product regulation. Six years later, the Maastricht treaty, an attempt to deepen the union as a response to the perceived crisis of German unification, provided for an end to the franc, the lira, and the escudo. When the eastern countries joined the EU, the rules on freedom of movement brought Polish plumbers and Romanian roofers into everyday contact with Parisians and Londoners.

The EU was no longer invisible to the public. There was a push to establish the European Parliament as a unifying element, but it has never had much popular support, nor is it widely seen as effective. From 2001, the EU attempted to establish a constitution to make the union a covenant of the peoples of Europe, not a deal stitched up by the leadership -- but the constitution ran to 500 pages of mind-numbing bureaucratese. In 2005, voters in the Netherlands -- much to the surprise of the leadership -- loudly rejected it. It was then attenuated into the Lisbon treaty; voters in Ireland rejected it, with Ireland then bullied into ratifying it.

In short, the EU does not derive its powers from the enthusiasm of Europe's citizens. It does have benefits, of course, big ones; most significantly, it's helped keep the peace among Europe's warring states -- in the 21st century, most citizens have forgotten Europe's long-running "Era of Warring States" -- and opened markets, as well as lent weight in negotiations for everything from climate change to Iran's nuclear program. Unfortunately, Europeans have come to take peace for granted, while the EU ends up being a handy scapegoat for an imperfect world.

Where does this leave the EU? There is no real push to dissolve the union; but the idea that the EU represents a potential European "supernation", never realistic in the first place, has evaporated. The EU is in need of refining its trajectory, a process made more difficult by the general lack of enthusiasm for the concept -- making it even harder to address the problems of the euro crisis and immigration. However, Eurosceptics who see the EU as a house of cards are likely to be disappointed, too. When faced with an unavoidable choice, leaders usually find a compromise to tide themselves over until the next crisis. They value the EU greatly, and they rightly fear the consequences of its failure.

As ever, France and Germany will play an outsize part in deciding whether the deep problems of migration and the euro culminate in the development of a new stability, or in collapse. The EU supernation is only one vision for a European Union; others view the EU as an "agora", a common civil space where the members interact and collaborate. Again, many Europeans see no conflict between their identities as citizens of their own states and identity as Europeans; and a union that respects that duality, as well as recognizes its tensions, is likely to endure. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: The international discussion on measures to control refrigerants that contribute to climate change was last mentioned here in 2015. As reported by an article from Nature.com ("Nations Agree To Ban Refrigerants That Worsen Climate Change" by Jeff Tollefson, 15 October 2016), the other shoe has now dropped, with representatives of 197 nations -- at a United Nations meeting in Kigali, Rwanda -- signing an agreement to control such refrigerants on 15 October.

The agreement is a major expansion of the 1987 Montreal Protocol, which was intended to halt the destruction of the Earth's protective ozone layer by the refrigerants known as "chlorofluorocarbons (CFC)". That treaty led to the introduction of new refrigerants called "hydrofluorocarbons (HFC), but it turned out they were very potent greenhouse gases. The Montreal agreement has now been enhanced to commit signatories to obtain a new generation of refrigerants that are safe for the climate as well as the ozone layer.

Researchers project that HFCs, if left unchecked, will contribute up to 0.5 degrees Celsius of warming by the end of the century -- the contribution instead becoming negligible if countries stick to the Kigali agreement. The pact comes amid a flurry of international activity to address climate change. On 6 October, the UN's International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) struck a deal intended to slow the growth in emissions from international aviation; a day earlier, the European Union formally adopted the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The ICAO agreement has been seen as too weak, while the Paris agreement is a collection of voluntary pledges. The Kigali agreement, in contrast, follows in the tracks of the Montreal Protocol, which has proven highly effective. The chemical industry was able to develop viable alternatives to the chemicals in question; developed countries then jumped in first, and help pay for developing countries to make the conversion later. Much of the debate in Kigali centered on how much time developing countries have to make the transition. Although the USA and other developing countries pushed for fast implementation in Kigali, the final deal relaxed the timetables for countries like India and other developing countries.

* As discussed by an time from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("This Bee Lives On The Edge -- Of An Active Volcano" by Devi Shastri, 29 July 2016), organisms have a way of acquiring adaptations to the toughest environments.

Pollination ecologist Hilary Erenler, of the University of Northampton in the UK, had been visiting, generally as something of a working vacation, the Masaya volcano, outside the Nicaraguan capital city of Managua, to study neotropical butterflies. Much to her surprise, she also found a small solitary bee, Anthophora squammulosa, nesting in the heaps of volcanic ash on one patch of Masaya.

It wasn't a very nice place to nest, the environment being marked by very high temperatures and nasty acid rains; nothing else grew there. Erenler decided to launch a formal study of the bee, recruiting other researchers and citizen-scientists from around the world. The first item of business was to determine how many bees there were in the population. Wearing gas masks while hunting for nests, the final tally was from 1,000 to 2,000 bees.

The next question was: what were the bees eating? Single female bees dig cell-like nests nearly 30 centimeters (a foot) into the side of the volcano, where they lay their eggs. They then collect pollen and nectar to deposit in the nest for the developing larva to eat after they hatch. Although bees of the genus Anthophora are generally not all that picky about the plants they pollinate, analysis of the pollen in the nests of A. squammulosa showed it was almost exclusively from a single plant -- Melanthera nivea, a tough wildflower that can survive the volcano's acid rainfall.

That makes a great deal of sense: bees adapted to an extreme environment are likely to pollinate plants also adapted to an extreme environment. Evolution is all but certain to exploit niches, with the A. squammulosa bees having no competition for their food supply. The extreme environment also generally walls out predators and parasites, as well as plants whose roots might break up the bees' nests. On the downside, it's a marginal sort of existence, and any major change in the environment could drive the population to extinction.

* In other bee news, according to an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Virus-Infected Plants Are More Alluring To Bumble Bees" by Dianne Lugo, 11 August 2016), a study has shown that bumblebees are more inclined to pollinate tomato plants infected with the cucumber mosaic virus (CMV). The researchers released the bees into spaces containing either normal tomato plants or those with CMV, to find that the bees liked the smell of the infected plants better; they were more likely to visit them, and spent more time buzzing around them.

CMV alters the gene expression of the tomato plants it infects, stunting their growth and warping their leaves; it can lead to severe crop losses. The virus also appears to have stumbled, in the usual fashion of evolution, onto a modification of the plants that make them smell better to bumblebees, who then become vectors for the virus. The researchers believe that humans might leverage off the change in smell to encourage better pollination of plants -- or might be able to genetically modify tomatoes to make them more attractive to bumblebees than infected plants, damping the transmission of the virus.



* PROBING THE RNA WORLD: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("A Newly Made RNA Strand Bolsters Ideas About How Life On Earth Began" by Robert F. Service, 15 August 2016), our genomes are defined by the sequence of codes in the double-stranded DNA molecule -- with the partner single-stranded RNA molecule helping execute the instructions from the genome.

All modern cells need DNA and RNA, plus proteins, to replicate. In the 1960s, researchers wondered if there were progenitors to modern cells that were simpler. RNA seemed like it might have been the starting point. RNA can store genomic data -- it is used in the genomes of some viruses, most notably HIV, the cause of AIDS -- but, unlike DNA and like proteins, it can act as a catalyst to speed up certain chemical reactions. Researchers also discovered early on that RNA is at the core of several modern enzymes critical to life, such as the ribosome that builds proteins. The idea that RNA came first became known as the "RNA world".

Researchers have now synthesized the first molecules of RNA that are capable of copying almost any other RNAs. Ironically, the new RNA copiers still can't duplicate themselves, which would have been required to get life rolling -- but if future improved versions can do so, they could become the basis for synthetic micro-organisms that model those that preceded life as we know it.

The experiment was performed by Gerald Joyce, a chemist at the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego CA -- and David Horning, his postdoc student. In modern cells, RNA is synthesized by an enzyme, a catalytic protein, named "RNA polymerase (RNAP)", which copies strands of DNA into their RNA equivalent. In 1993, researchers led by Jack Szostak at Harvard synthesized an all-RNA version of RNAP -- also known as an RNAP ribozyme -- which joined two small pieces of RNA on a separate template RNA strand. Since then, Szostak's team and other have refined their RNA copiers. In 2014, for example, researchers in the UK reported isolating an RNAP ribozyme capable of stitching together RNAs up to 200 nucleotides long, again when matching them up to a template strand.

These were very interesting experiments, but as Joyce points out, they were contrived and finicky -- only able to copy certain sequences of nucleotide bases, the building blocks of RNA and DNA, and those sequences don't do anything very interesting. Joyce and Horning decided to come up with a more versatile RNAP ribozyme, using a well-known technique known as "in-vitro evolution":

After 24 rounds of this test-tube evolution, in which the two researchers successively raised the bar for what a RNAP ribozyme had to do to be successful, they ended up with one named "24-3 polymerase". That RNA strand, they report, can copy almost any other RNA, from small catalysts to long RNA-based enzymes. It could churn out indefinite numbers of copies of any of those other RNAs, making it the first RNA version of the polymerase chain reaction, a widely-used technique to make copies of DNA.

Reaction to the experiment in the molecular bioscience community has been enthusiastic, though it was seen more as a big step in the right direction than a solid confirmation of the RNA world. 24-3 polymerase's tightly-wound structure prevents it from being able to copy itself; and it took 25 years to get that far, suggesting that nobody should expect rapid further progress.

Joyce agrees, and also points out that even if an RNA world preceded the rise of DNA and proteins, it may well have been preceded itself by earlier forms of biochemistry. Nonetheless, Joyce and Horning are pushing on towards a derivative of the 14-3 polymerase that can copy itself. If they can do so, the RNA world will have stepped out of the realm of speculation, with the door open to further investigation.



* ANOTHER MONTH: The US election of 2016 is now stumbling its way to its end. I've already voted with my mail-in ballot, getting it done quickly, then going to the Motor Vehicles Department in Loveland to drop it off. As far as my vote for president ... well, I discussed that yesterday, enough already.

For senator and congressman, I had to give more thought to the matter -- but it didn't turn out to be that much thought. As for senator, Democrat incumbent Michael Bennet was up against Republican contender Darryl Glenn. It was actually Glenn's ad against Bennet that made me choose Bennet -- the ad denouncing Bennet for the supporting the Iran nuclear deal (so do I), and saying that Glenn believes in "America First!" Wotzis? Everyone in the US government believes in "America First", just not necessarily "Last" and "Always".

As for the House race, it was Democratic incumbent Jared Polis against Republican contender Nicholas Morse. Although Polis is somewhat to the Left of me, I looked over Morse's web page, and found that his positions were well to the Right of me -- to the extent I could figure them out, since they were expressed in annoyingly high-flown and vague language. The one that struck me the most, however, was his commitment to "end interference of government between church and state."

Huh? I was baffled. I hadn't heard of any problems, what was the deal? I finally came to the conclusion: He's talking in code. What he wants is one of these hokey bills intended to allow discrimination against gays. Of course Morse was talking in code -- so to speak -- since Polis is gay. I didn't know that the first time I voted for him; he didn't make an issue of the matter, I never thought to check -- and when I did find out recently, I shrugged and moved on.

It was less the discrimination than the silly talking in code that annoyed me. Actually, the entire concept of such bills is silly. A prototype of sorts of such bills was put forward, unsuccessfully, in Colorado in the 1990s, with a big fuss in consequence. I finally got the text of the bill and read through it -- then howled with laughter. Crackpots are fond of tapdancing and obfuscation; when they cook up legal documents, they don't realize all such obfuscations do is provide more opportunities for legal assault. I told a colleague: "This thing is a lawyer's dream! Even I can see it's more holes than bricks! It would be in court the moment it was passed!"

Local and state referendums were the most interesting. A few of the measures I had mixed feelings about and didn't vote on, but I voted YES on:

I've always considered myself a centrist, but in this election season I had to admit I was a liberal. The Troglodyte Right has gone so far off the rails that I can have no sympathy with their views. It may be interesting to see if the center-Right re-asserts itself after the election, but I'm not banking on it. The Loony Left did also re-assert itself this year, but it's clear they're not in the driver's seat among the Democrats. I'm angry and sick of the whole thing, hoping for the best; bracing myself for the worst.

Incidentally, while I was depositing my ballot at the city Motor Vehicles Department drop box, I noticed a dubious-looking woman skulking around the drop box. I thought it puzzling, to wonder later if she was a self-appointed "election monitor" for Donald Trump. Who knows?

* Some years back, I set up three separate websites, on the assumption that traffic would grow over time. It didn't, and I decided to consolidate the three websites into one, saving myself hosting fees. Originally, I thought I would put the DayVectors and Vectors sites into subdirectories of AirVectors -- but then a reader tipped me off to subdomain names, a notion that I had vaguely noticed before, without it registering. It sounded like it might be troublesome at first, but it turned out that Fatcow, my website host service, provided a simple utility to do the job. I used it to create the new websites:

  dayvectors:  dv.airvectors.net
  vectors:     vc.airvectors.net

On uploading files to the new subdomain sites, I was able to see the web pages; but the images wouldn't show. I tried one thing and another, but they wouldn't show. I contacted Fatcow support; the support person, who was clearly not very technical, asked around, and then told me I had to hard-code the name of the subdomain into the image references in the HTML pages.

It took me a little while to get my brain wrapped around that. Once I did, I replied firmly in the negative: "That would destroy the portability of my websites." Besides, if there had been such a difficulty, it would seem unlikely that I would be the first person to encounter it, and Fatcow support would have documented it. I prevailed on the support person to escalate the matter to technical support.

A few hours later, I was poking around elsewhere, and noticed a reference to hotlink protection. A light went on in my head: "That looks like hotlink blocking." After thinking it over for a while, I finally decided to turn off hotlink blocking, on the basis that hotlinking was really not much of a problem. With the two subdomain websites running, I created sets of forwarding pages to upload to the old websites, effectively abandoning them. I figure I'll kill them off early next year.

I still had to make sure the new websites were working properly. One thing I had done was eliminate hard-coded references between the websites, accessing them through redirection files instead. A redirection file is a little HTML file that contains a URL; when a web page accesses the redirection file, it's then automatically sent off to the web page designated by that URL. Eliminating the hard-coding means I can change links between websites just by updating the redirection files, without changing any of the web pages.

First priority in testing was to make sure the redirection worked. On trying that, I ran into a problem I had encountered before: if I change a redirection file, there's some sort of caching that prevents a web page invoking the redirection file from noticing the redirection file's been changed with a new URL; the web page keeps sending me off to the old URL. Clearing cache doesn't seem to work, and doing that is a pain anyway. However, I discovered, almost by accident, how to get around the problem:

I had a few other problems, mostly fumbling, but they were resolved. That left me with checking to see that all the pages on my websites had been uploaded properly -- having changed the redirection scheme, I had to replace all the pages on all three websites. Checking also meant making sure I hadn't overlooked anything, and in fact, on inspection, it proved I had: Oh right, I have to update the custom Google search boxes for the new websites.

That meant logging into Google, establishing a configuration for a search box on a particular web page, and then obtaining HTML code for it. I added the ability to search just for images, and also for voice input -- that last meant little to me personally, but somebody might use it. Having gone to an improved configuration, I also updated the search box on the AirVectors website, though I didn't have to.

Finally, I had to check all 1,200+ plus web pages on my websites to see that they were there. It only took me a few days; I just skimmed through them, but I did find a few bugs to fix. Everything's okay now -- though it did take some time to get the new Google search working. I thought it would take a few days for Google to index the new websites, but it took about ten, finally working on the last day of the month. I had set my expectations lower after a few days of not getting results; I was surprised when it did finally work.

* I had been in the habit of daily checking for reviews on my Amazon Kindle ebooks. They're generally flattering, but after getting a few that weren't so flattering, I had to realize a few things:

Now I only check reviews if I feel like it. I have more worthwhile things to do with my time.

* Thanks to three readers for a donation to support the websites last month. That is very much appreciated.