dec 2016 / last mod aug 2017 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: last great road trip (series), unstoppable renewables (series), solar-derived fuels, anticipating bad vaccine reactions, CYGNSS hurricane-hunter satellites, sections of the Galaxy hostile to life, mega-machines to simulate disasters, downsides of human acquisition of fire, wind turbines help keep farmers afloat, decline of paper checks, and African / Guinean folk healers help formal medicine.

banner of the month



* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR DECEMBER 2016: As discussed by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Heavenly Tax Reform" by Peter Coy, 12 December 2016), incoming US President Donald J. Trump has made a big deal of slapping a punitive tariff of 35% on selected countries, in order to save US jobs.

There is not really much enthusiasm for starting a trade war; anyone with the least real knowledge of economics knows that one cannot throttle imports without throttling exports, and trade protectionism may well cost more jobs than it saves. In addition, it is the consumer who foots the bill for the tariffs, either in paying more for an imported product, or buying a more expensive domestic product; one cannot protect producers, except at the expense of consumers. Congressman Justin Amash (R-MI), tweeted in response to Trump's proposal: "This would be a 35% tax on all Americans -- a tax that especially hurts low-income families. Maybe the slogan should be #MakeAmericaVenezuela."

More tactfully, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) told reporters: "I think there's other ways to achieve what the president-elect is talking about. I don't want to get into some type of trade war."

Trump does properly recognize that the broken American tax code is part of the reason America is losing jobs. House Republicans have a plan to fix it, which they call "A Better Way (ABW)", its foremost booster being House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). The provisions on business taxation in ABW would go a long way toward promoting investment and jobs in the USA -- by getting the basic incentives right, instead of using presidential grand-standing and micro-management. What makes ABW sound very much like a winner is the fact that the core idea in the plan, something called a "destination-based cash-flow tax", is bipartisan. A version was promoted in 2010 by a Democratic think tank, the Center for American Progress.

While there is a faction in Congress that hates taxes on principle, most Republicans and Democrats agree that without taxes, there is no government. They do disagree about how much revenue the tax code should raise, but that's really a difference of opinion over how big government should be. They also have differing ideas about soaking the rich -- but there's a surprising consensus on the basic technical issue of how to raise money while minimizing distortions of incentives to work and invest.

Economists are in broad agreement that America's current tax system is badly broken. A simple rule of taxation is that a low tax rate on a broad base of income is more efficient than a high tax rate on a small base. The USA, however, has one of the world's highest corporate income tax rates, 35% -- but raises less money from it as a share of gross domestic product than the average of the 35 mostly rich countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. US businesses have found ways to avoid taxes by shifting operations or headquarters abroad, or by organizing into entities that aren't subject to the corporate levy. The US is also one of the few countries that attempt to tax domestic companies on their global profits. Perversely, it taxes profits made overseas only when they're brought home, which induces companies to keep more than $2 trillion USD stashed abroad.

ABW reduces the corporate tax rate, and eliminates the global tax. Imports are taxed; exports aren't, except by the importing country. Companies would also be allowed to deduct the full cost of new equipment, software, or structures in the year they were purchased, rather than as they depreciate. Because it taxes based on receipts and outlays as they occur, economists term it a "cash-flow tax". In addition, ABW ends preferential tax treatment for interest payments, an old but unwise policy that induces companies to take on debt. The ABW plan sets the corporate tax rate at 20%; Democrats would like a higher rate, about 25% -- though even at that, corporations will still find much to like in ABW.

Trump has been non-committal on ABW. To the extent that he has expressed specific opinions on tax reform, there's been a clear bent towards reforms that benefit his business interests. Although has made a public fuss about tax reform, he hasn't been particularly explicit on the matter, and he may well let Congress take the lead on the issue. Why not? If Congress comes up with a good tax plan with bipartisan support, he can act as a sponsor, and take credit for it himself.

However, there's always a tug-of-war between factions that ensures disagreement on the fairness of tax, and an inclination of law-makers to tweak and hedge. Nonetheless, there's plenty of room for improvement in the current tax system, and Trump could indeed take credit if the elusive "grand deal" on taxes takes place on his watch, with the prospect of putting the deficit bogeyman down for the count. We'll see.


* As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Wall That Appalls", 12 November 2016), Donald Trump targeted Mexico in his presidential campaign, calling illegal immigrants coming from south of the border rapists and criminals; proclaiming he would build a wall along the border with Mexico, and make Mexico pay for it; and saying he would abrogate the NAFTA trade pact between the US, Canada, and Mexico.

The talk of Mexicans being rapists and such was just campaign rhetoric, if of the lowest sort; and the notion of a wall was absurd. In reality, illegal immigration from the south into the United States has been in decline, and the Obama Administration has been no softie on border security. The threat to kill NAFTA, however, and a threat to impose a 35% tariff on Mexican imports, are more than just bad jokes. The effect would be a painful blow to the Mexican economy.

Ongoing uncertainty over what Trump will do is causing economic jitters. Nobody is willing to guess how far Trump will go, but there are reasons to think he won't abrogate NAFTA. The US has not withdrawn from a trade treaty in 150 years; US businesses will point out that killing off NAFTA will put six million US jobs at risk, since plenty of trade goes the other way.

There are other reasons for a more neighborly attitude. The US needs Mexican cooperation to control drug smuggling and illegal immigration. Under the current arrangement, the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Agency, and other Federal organizations operate freely in Mexico; if Trump takes a hard line against Mexico, the Mexicans will tell them to get out.

Even if Trump takes a relatively soft line with Mexico, much damage has already been done. One Mexican told THE ECONOMIST: "I can't believe that there's racism in 2016." One grows used to Trump, and filters out the trash he talks; but it is good to be reminded that his conduct in the presidential campaign was disgraceful by plan, and he is forever unrepentant. It can then only be said that those Americans capable of embarrassment must express shame and regret, and not grant tacit approval to disgrace.

* One of Trump's biggest challenges as president will be to deal with Islamic terrorism, the prime target being the Islamic State (IS) group. As pointed out in an article from TIME Online ("Yes, Donald Trump Is Making Terrorist Attacks More Likely" by Karl Vick, 22 December 2016), during the presidential campaign, Trump explicitly linked all Muslims to the terrorist faction, declaring: "I think Islam hates us." -- and denouncing the Obama Administration for dodging such declarations.

Counterterrorism experts believe that Trump's them-against-us approach encourages extremists and makes it harder to detect their plots, by discouraging cooperation from moderate Muslims. A top IS official in Afghanistan has found Trump's hostility towards Muslims invigorating: "This guy is a complete maniac. His utter hate towards Muslims will make our job much easier because we can recruit thousands."

Trump's initial reaction to the truck attack on a Berlin Christmas market on 19 December that killed 12 was to declare that the goal of IS was to "slaughter Christians". He soon walked back on the statement, gravely stating: "It's an attack on humanity."

Trump may also be confronted with attacks on a more personal level. As pointed out by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Who'll Pay To Protect Trump's Towers?" by Stephanie Baker, 12 December 2016), Trump has an personal issue relative to terrorism, a big one, that his predecessor didn't have to worry about: Obama didn't have skyscrapers dotted around the world with his name blazed across the top, making them prime targets for terrorist attacks.

Trump facilities stateside are at elevated risk of attack, and now have more security -- but it's the skyscrapers overseas that are the real worry. He doesn't own them, they just use his brand name under license; nonetheless, that still makes them targets. What makes the issue particularly dicey is the question of who pays for security. Does the US government pick up the bill? That would mean spending taxpayer money on protecting Trump's business interests. Does the local government pick up the tab? That would mean providing a service to the US president, which could be seen as a conflict of interest.

In reality, Trump takes a breezy approach to such dilemmas, and for now seems to be getting away with it; conflicts of interest and such neither worry him overmuch, nor do criticisms of him on such matters seem to cause him much damage. That may change in the wake of a bloody terrorist assault on a Trump Tower in a foreign capital.

* In further news of the dark comedy of the UK Brexit, an essay by Andrew Rawnsley in the GUARDIAN Online ("A Half-In, Half-Out Deal With The EU Might Best Serve 50/50 Britain", 18 December 2016) pointed out the division inherent in the narrow vote over Brexit, to lead to observations and a suggestion:


Six months on, that divide is as vivid as ever. There has been no catharsis, no healing. The losers remain sore, which is usual. Stranger is the behavior of the winners. If anything, some of them are even angrier with the world and swell in their paranoia that there is a conspiracy to steal the spoils of their victory. The Outers press the argument that we must all bow before the demos and "respect the will of the British people". To be fair, the In crowd would surely have said exactly the same had won. But what was not resolved by the result, and continues to be a swirl of contention, is how you show "respect" to a referendum result that answered one big question, only to raise many more questions almost as large.

The conundrum is made all the more acute because the result was on such a knife-edge. If the government sought an outcome that aimed to represent the aggregate will of all those who voted, then it would try to negotiate a position that put Britain half in and half out of the EU. To respect the 52-48 margin by which Leave prevailed, they'd aim to be just a little bit more out than in.


The irony is that Leavers have been sore winners, angry about what they won, because they had no real idea of what it was they wanted. Much has been read from both sides of the aisle about the agenda of Prime Minister Theresa May, but Rawnsley wisely cautioned against reading very much into the actions of May, who he described as "erecting walls of opacity around herself." She's just doing what she can in an impossible situation, and trying to avoid walking into traps. If that means throwing Boris Johnson into a trap instead -- is that a problem?

However, Rawnsley's notion of a "50/50" solution sounds vague, possibly a jest, at best; absurd and impossible at worst, EU leadership having made it clear that the UK can effectively buy into the EU package, or go it alone. Confronted with such stark terms, will British voters really want the UK to go it alone -- or for that matter, accept the EU package, while giving up a British role in EU decision-making? Who knows? The longer the matter drags out, and it may well drag out for years, the more absurd it gets.



* WINGS & WEAPONS: As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("NASA To Test Drag-Reducing Inflight Wing Folding" by Graham Warwick, 26 October 2016), Boeing is planning on introducing folding wingtips when the company introduces its 777X airliner -- if just to make sure it can fit into spaces at the airport. Now Boeing is working under the NASA "Convergent Aeronautics Project" to perform a fast-track investigation of the "Spanwise Adaptive Wing (SAW)" concept, in which wingtips are folded in flight to reduce drag, while improving yaw stability and rudder size.

In the SAW concept, the wingtips are flat when lift is needed for take-off, and fold in cruise flight -- whether up or down is not clear. For supersonic transports, they would not only reduce drag, but when folded down would increase lift from airflow compression. This was done in the 1960s on the North American XB-70 Valkyrie bomber, the downward-folding wingtips allowing the tailfins to be cut down, and boosting supersonic lift.

Spanwise Adaptive Wing

SAW is built around torsion actuators made of a "shape-memory alloy (SMA)" that, when heated electrically, "remembers" and returns to its original twisted shape, and in doing so moves the wingtip. Using SMA actuators avoids the weight and complexity of running hydraulic lines through the wing to conventional actuators, electrical wiring being simpler and cheaper.

NASA plans to flight-test the concept at small scale in spring 2017 using a drone. In parallel, the SAW team plans to ground-test a full-scale structure with the SAW mechanism integrated into the wing of an unidentified target aircraft, to pave the way for a full flight demonstration.

* As discussed by a note from AVIATION WEEK Online ("SkunkWorks' Robots Will Inspect LMH-1 Airship Envelope" by Graham Warwick, 2 August 2016), while Lockheed Martin is pushing forward on getting the LMH-1 airship flying -- this machine having been last discussed here earlier this year -- the company is also attending to support systems for manufacture and maintenance of the airship.

The LMH-1 will have about 7,435 square meters (80,000 square feet) of envelope; helium tends to leak easily, and it is troublesome to make sure it doesn't, requiring inspection on both the outside and the inside of the envelope. Lockheed Martin has developed a robot, named the "Self-Propelled Instrument for Damage Evaluation & Repair (SPIDER)", to do the job.

SPIDER repair robot

SPIDER, which looks a bit like a fancy computer mouse, has inner and outer halves that magnetically couple through the airship envelope, and traverse the inflated hull together. The outside half shines a light on the surface of the hull, with the inside half using light sensors to check for light leaking through pinholes. If a pinhole is found, the inside half patches it, then send before-&-after images to a central processing station to verify the repair.

The patch scheme works something like an automatic label applicator. SPIDER was developed using 3D printing, using off-the-shelf components. Lockheed Martin officials say that about a half-dozen SPIDERs will be able to check an LMH-1 envelope in about five days. It takes ten days to do it manually, and it isn't convenient to perform manual checks during production. SPIDER will be used during final assembly, as well as during major maintenance checks.

* The Poles, confronted with an increasingly surly Russian bear to the East, have been building up their forces, obtaining foreign-built weapons, as well as building up their own. Poland's Air Force Institute of Technology (Instytut Techniczny Wojsk Lotniczych / ITWL) -- a scientific and research organization supervised by the Polish Ministry of National Defense -- has unveiled a new vehicle-launched surface-to-surface mini cruise missile, intended to hit fixed and mobile battlefield threats at long range.

ITWL's turbojet-powered "Pirania" is in late stages of development, preliminary to production and fielding, initial operating capability being expected in 2017. It resembles a US Tomahawk cruise missile, being an "aerial torpedo" with pop-out control surfaces in configuration, though it is much smaller. It has a diameter of 20 centimeters (7.9 inches), a length of 2.2 meters (7.2 feet), and a weight of about 80 kilograms (175 pounds). Flight parameters are given as a speed of about 500 KPH (310 MPH), a range of 300 kilometers (185 miles), and an operational altitude between 20 meters (65 feet) and 3,000 meters (9,850 feet).

Pirania cruise missile

The Pirania is tube-launched -- presumably from a wheeled transporter, though a trailer-type launcher is possible as well -- using a rocket booster, with the missile deploying its two wings and four tailfins after launch. Midcourse navigation is provided through a Global Positioning System / inertial navigation system package, with terminal attack directed by a miniature synthetic aperture radar (SAR) payload featuring a moving target indicator capability. ITWL is also working on an imaging infrared / ultraviolet seeker over the longer run. No doubt the Bear grumbled menacingly in response to this development, but so what else is new?



* FOREWARNED: As discussed by an entry from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("How To Identify A Bad Vaccine Reaction Before It Happens" by Jon Cohen, 4 January 2016), the common public fear of vaccines is greatly exaggerated -- but it is true that they can, infrequently, cause bad reactions in some patients. A study suggests that it may be possible to identify patients who are prone to bad reactions to vaccines before they are vaccinated. The research also may suggest means of creating vaccines that are more effective and have fewer side effects.

The study focused on a flu vaccine, created in response to a 2009 pandemic cause by an unusual viral strain that originated in pigs. The researchers monitored the immune responses of 178 people in the United Kingdom before and after they received the vaccine. Roughly 20% of the participants reported medium to high levels of minor side effects, all of them transient.

To see whether these reactions had a genetic basis, the researchers looked at a wide range of immune system genes. They assessed which genes were expressed -- turned on -- before and after the flu shot. People who reported higher levels of side effects had higher levels of expression of genes associated the immune system's "B cells", which make antibodies, both before and after receiving the vaccine.

Immunologist Adrian Hayday of King's College London, who led the study, says the findings were "wholly unexpected". The researchers also found that flu vaccination on younger and older people produced different gene expression patterns, presumably because the older people had once been infected with a related viral strain, which altered their immune response.

Of those test subjects who had more side effects, a detailed analysis showed they had larger numbers of a type of a B cell associated with "autoimmune" reactions -- although B cells normally produce antibodies to attack invaders, some aberrant lineages will produce antibodies that attack host tissues. Why this is so, the researchers were not able to say, but they emphasized that the vaccine did not produce the aberrant B cell lineages; they were there all along.

One of the difficulties with vaccines is that they are generally administered to otherwise healthy people, which is one of the big reasons vaccines get a bad rap. Vaccinations are usually no problem, and so there's an inevitable inclination to focus on the infrequent cases where problems show up -- and blame them on the vaccine. Once vaccinated, people are unlikely to get the disease they were vaccinated for, so they find it hard to balance the adverse reaction against a benefit. Hayday believes that simply warning people that they are likely to have a mild bad reaction will reassure them; if they balance that against protection and go ahead with the vaccination anyway, they will have less remorse in doing so.

Think of it as knowing the price ahead of time, instead of being unpleasantly surprised by it. He says: "Vaccines do make a number of people feel sick, and it's much more likely we'll get compliance if we can say to those people: 'Don't worry about it, nothing lasting will happen, and the quid pro quo is you'll develop lasting immunity to the disease.'"

The findings may help refine designs of future vaccines, and could influence the hot field of cancer immunotherapy, where researchers are struggling to figure out why treatments succeed remarkably in some patients, and fail in others. Hayday says: "We are moving helter-skelter toward a massive application of cancer immunotherapeutics, and we have to understand a lot better what is underpinning the variability of responsiveness, so that we can apply those therapies in a rational and grounded way."



* CYGNSS IN ORBIT: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("NASA Microsatellite Mission Could Breathe New Life Into Hurricane Prediction" by Paul Voosen, 8 December 2016), traditionally the United States has probed hurricanes and typhoons by sending "hurricane hunter" aircraft into them. The aircraft can only reach so far, however, and flying into a cyclonic storm can be dangerous.

On 15 December 2016, NASA launched a constellation of eight mini-satellites, the "Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS)", to monitor hurricanes from space. The $157 million USD mission is the first in the agency's "Earth Venture" program -- which is focused on low-cost, quickly built, and riskier missions using smaller satellites.


The CYGNSS satellites don't do their job using their own sensing system; instead, they monitor the signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites. The scientific payload aboard each CYGNSS satellite consists of a "Delayed Doppler Mapping Instrument (DDMI)", made up of a GPS receiver; three L-band antennas; and a processing unit, the "Delay Mapping Receiver (DMR)". Two of the antennas are Earth-facing to pick up GPS signals reflected and scattered by the ocean surface, while the third is zenith-pointing, allowing the spacecraft to receive reference GPS signals from the GPS constellation.

The microwave instruments carried on low-orbit weather satellites can't penetrate clouds and storms, but GPS signals have wavelengths long enough to cut through; they bounce off the surface of the sea, allowing the CYGNSS network to determine surface roughness of the sea, and so wind speeds. The technique has been thoroughly validated by air and space experiments.

Although the CYGNSS satellites won't be able to "see" the ocean roughness as well as the planes, the greater area coverage more than makes up for it -- according to Christopher Ruf, an atmospheric scientist and engineer at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The mission is under the direction of the department of climate and space sciences and engineering at the university, being one of the first NASA Earth science missions to be run out of a university, instead of a NASA center. Ruf, CYGNSS's principal investigator, says:


Things happening in the center of a hurricane, right now, are just about impossible to measure from satellites for two reasons One is there is a lot of rain in hurricanes, and you can't see through heavy rain with satellite remote sensing techniques ... The other is that things in the middle of a hurricane tend to change a lot more quickly than the things that are far away from it. [Other] satellites don't pass over the same place often though to see those rapid changes.

Those are the two things that we're trying to overcome through CYGNSS: measurement through rain, and measurement more often.


The CYGNSS constellation was put into orbit by an Orbital Sciences air-launched Pegasus XL booster, dropped from the Orbital Stargazer Lockheed L-1011 Tristar jumbo jet, flying out of Cape Canaveral. The satellites were built by the Southwest Research Institute (SWRI) in San Antonio TX; each weighs only 29 kilograms (64 pounds). Once deployed in orbit, they unfurled solar panels extending about 1.7 meters (5.5 feet) across.

CYGNSS ready for launch

The little satellites don't have a thruster system, their orientation being controlled by reaction wheels. Being in low Earth orbit -- at an altitude of 510 kilometers (320 miles) -- a satellite's orbital velocity can be adjusted by tipping it so that the solar panels face flat along the space platform's line of flight, the trace atmosphere causing deceleration and the proper orbital adjustment. Once the constellation is properly spaced, each satellite will be about 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) apart, their tracks taking them between 35 degrees north and south latitude, the hurricane belt, on each hour-and-a-half orbit of the Earth.

In recent decades, the accuracy of hurricane forecasting has improved considerably, especially when it comes to predicting the path of a storm, but predictions of intensity -- the maximum sustained winds in a cyclone -- have not kept pace. Winds vary from place to place in a storm, and a hurricane hunter aircraft only catches a component of them. There is also uncertainty about how the winds are fueled by the warm ocean. Frank Marks -- who leads hurricane research at the Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) facility in Miami FL -- says that GYGNSS should significantly improve intensity forecasts.

Beyond hurricane forecasts, CYGNSS could help measure wind speeds under dense tropical rain clouds -- which could lead to a better understanding of how clouds form, and how rising temperatures may shift their abundance. Similarly, it could help scientists studying wind bursts in the western Pacific Ocean that are tied to the "Madden-Julian Oscillation", a set of storms that periodically marches around the equator, influencing global weather patterns.

CYGNSS is a demonstration, not an operational mission; the system cannot perform real-time analysis of hurricanes, and the mission is scheduled to only last for two years. The spacecraft could easily last five years, however, and won't re-enter for seven to nine years. If CYGNSS works out, it is likely to lead to an operational system.



* UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (1): US President-Elect Donald Trump has now put forward Scott Pruitt, the attorney-general of the state of Oklahoma, to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Pruitt has vowed to dismantle environmental rules and is currently involved in a legal effort by 27 states to overturn Barack Obama's clean power plan, the president's policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Democrats have vowed to stand tough on Pruitt's confirmation, with hopes that some moderate Republicans, who in some cases have reasons to dislike Trump, will lend assistance.

As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Clean Power Is Too Hot For Even Trump To Cool" by Matthew Philips, 21 November 2016), even if Pruitt obtains confirmation, there will be limits to how much he can hinder US development of renewable energy. It's acquired too much momentum to stop.

On 4 November, Walmart announced a major plan to increase its investments in renewable energy, pledging to power half its operations from wind, solar, and other renewables by 2025, and to cut the carbon footprint of its operations by 18% over the same period. Ten days later, Microsoft made its biggest wind-power purchase agreement ever, with a deal to buy 237 megawatts of electricity from turbines in Kansas and Wyoming to run data centers in Cheyenne.

Even if the Trump Administration attempts to tear down Obama's clean-energy policies, US companies are going to keep on investing in renewable power. Thomas Emmons -- a partner at Pegasus Capital Advisors, a private asset management firm focused on sustainable and alternative investments -- doesn't see government opposition as any big obstacle: "I think fears of a negative impact of Trump on renewable energy are really overblown."

One reason is timing. The biggest economic incentives for clean energy are Federal tax credits for solar and wind projects. Both were set to expire at the end of 2015, prompting a surge in investments as companies raced to get in under the deadline. In December, Congress unexpectedly extended both credits -- for solar until 2021 and for wind until 2019 -- as part of a deal to lift the 40-year-old ban on US oil exports.

Will Trump attempt to roll back the extensions? That would be problematic, since wind power has done much to keep farmers economically afloat in the Midwest, and also provide struggling county governments a tax windfall. Not only would that undercut Trump's focus on helping the little guy, the Midwest is also a Republican stronghold. Wind power is now becoming as cheap or even cheaper than other sources of power. Trying to derail the credits would buy Trump little, and potentially cost him. Trump pays attention to the bottom line.

60% of Fortune 100 companies have renewable-electricity or climate change policies, and 81 companies globally have committed to get 100% of their energy from renewable sources, according to BLOOMBERG NEW ENERGY FINANCE (BNEF). Companies tend to invest in renewable energy in one of three ways:

Since 2008, US companies have signed agreements to purchase more than $10 billion USD worth of wind and solar power -- about 10 gigawatts, enough to run almost 2 million US households for a year. BNEF expects that pace to rise over the next decade. Nathan Serota, a clean-energy analyst at BNEF, says: "A Trump presidency does not lower our expectations for the growth of the corporate renewable-energy market. If anything, a less ambitious stance on renewables at the federal level could encourage corporations to pick up the slack even further."

With the US government providing less support, more businesses may decide to sign long-term purchase agreements. That way, renewable developers have guaranteed customers, ensuring they can finance new projects. These agreements are emerging as the preferred way to invest in clean energy. Locking in electricity prices for up to 15 years, the deals let companies hedge exposure to volatile natural gas and coal prices, which have historically determined wholesale power prices in the US. This is operating on the assumption, clearly true over the long run, that hydrocarbon fuels are going to continue to become more expensive, while renewables are going to keep on getting cheaper.

According to Mindy Lubber, president of Ceres, a nonprofit sustainability advocate organization: "Companies are investing in sustainability, not because they're making a political statement, but because they have a fiduciary duty to protect shareholders and make money."

Even if Trump backtracks on Obama's commitment to the Paris climate accord and his signature Clean Power Plan (CPP), it's unlikely to influence investment decisions. Serota says: "Renewable developers weren't building a business model premised on the CPP."

On 16 November, 300 US businesses, including General Mills, EBay, and Intel, called on Trump to support the Paris accord. Amy Myers Jaffe -- executive director for energy and sustainability at the University of California at Davis -- commented in an email: "The sustainable investing trend has global momentum and big players such as Goldman Sachs and Bill Gates, Corporate America has lots of millennial customers, and they want to buy from companies with sustainable supply chains and a commitment to renewable energy. I don't see that changing."

Trump's instincts tilt towards the extreme Right; he is disinterested in details and specifics, assessing information on the basis of its convenience to him. It might be expected he will be more pragmatic in practice; he reverses himself without difficulty, and may very well reverse himself on climate change, if he sees it in his personal advantage to do so. However, if he doesn't, no force in the world will affect his decisions in the slightest. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (6): Friday, 6 October, was to be my trip into Washington DC. I was a bit worried about taking the bus from Dulles into town, fearing I would get mixed up -- but no, it was very straightforward, taking the Hilton bus to the airport, with the loading area clearly marked. No problems.

I cruised into DC -- it had been years since I'd been on a bus -- and got off at L'Enfant Plaza mall, to walk north to the National Mall. It was early, the museums were all closed, so I walked west towards the Lincoln Memorial on the south end of the mall. I was a little surprised to find that the pathways were generally packed dirt, not paved. I did a side walk south towards the Jefferson Memorial, but it was a good distance away, across heavy traffic, so I just took zoom shots across the water. It looked like like a depressing mausoleum anyway.

I then backtracked and walked west to get pictures of the World War II memorial -- which also looks like something out of a cemetery -- and then the Lincoln Memorial. The memorial building wasn't so interesting in itself, but there was a fair crowd of people there, including many Asians, I would presume Chinese. I got plenty of shots of the people there; funny, I never used to be very interested in people shots.

Lincoln Memorial

That done, I headed back east, skirting the north side of the mall, to get to the Vietnam War memorial, first getting shots of a little Chinese girl feeding the squirrels. The memorial there, the "Wall", was the most interesting thing I saw in my circuit. It's a low black wall marked with all the people we lost in Vietnam; somehow, it radiates the sorrow of war, almost overpowering even though I had seen it before, and was resisting. The various memorials left there by kin and friends only added to the power of the thing.

The Wall

It was a relief to move on, with the quiet then disturbed by a racket of sirens and flashing lights of police cars on the streets to the north. What was that all about? I shrugged and kept on going, getting shots of the White House and the Washington Monument; I was tempted to walk over to the White House, but it was a good distance away, and I figured it was largely walled off by trees anyway, preventing a close look. I don't like high-security places in the first place, and avoid them.

Next shots were of the afro-American history museum, officially the "Smithsonian National Museum of African American Culture", which was a very interesting building in appearance; then I went further east to get shots of the Capitol Building -- I didn't get close to it, either, just took some zoom shots -- and then looped back to the NASM building. It wasn't quite time for it to open, so I sat down on a park bench and played with my smartphone. I was surprised to find the entire National Mall is wired for wi-fi, but I had problems emailing; the Alto system found the location suspicious, and asked to send a verification email to an alternate account. Since I didn't have another account on the phone, that shot me down. I made a mental note to add one later.

Not a problem, since the NASM building then opened. I hadn't eaten breakfast, so I made a beeline to the MacDonald's there. It was an unusual McD's, set up for high volume, with a limited menu; I had wanted to get a Sausage McMuffin With Egg, but I had to settle for two cheeseburgers. Funny sort of breakfast, but good enough; I didn't feel so hungry after I was done.


It didn't take me too long to canvass the air museum. The site on the National Mall isn't as big as that at Dulles, and is more oriented towards kids. It was okay, I got some good shots, but it wasn't more than okay. Getting done earlier than I expected, I wondered what to do next, and decided to visit the afro-American history museum -- I was mostly interested in getting shots of artworks. However, when I got there, I found very long lines, with a ticketing system; I didn't want to spend the time waiting, so I satisfied myself taking a few pictures of the crowd. It was mostly if not entirely black folk, including a gang of schoolkids in uniforms, clowning around like schoolkids do.

black history museum

For want of better to do, I decided to visit the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. However, the black girl rummaging through my kit bag found my little folding toolkit -- pliers, knife, file, and so on -- and asked her supervisor, who looked in the class of the black NCOs I'd taken orders from in the Army: "Toolkit, is this okay?"

Supervisor shook his head: "No." Funny, didn't cause my any troubles at NASM. I said: "OK."

The supervisor asked: "Gonna take care of that?"

"Naw, I'm leaving." I supposed I could have stashed it under a bush, but it wasn't worth additional bother. The girl was still rummaging through my kit bag -- ENOUGH already, give it back! Well, nothing left to do but go back to L'Enfant Plaza and catch the Metro 5A bus back to Dulles. I went through the central Smithsonian grounds, however, and in compensation for the dead ends I had just encountered, I found a very nice garden section, a placid area in a busy city.

Smithsonian garden

I got a slice of pizza at L'Enfant Plaza, which wasn't all that tasty, and finally got on the Metro 5A bus. Payment for the ride was through a bill machine, required exact change. A young hipster couple got on, the guy with long hair in a ponytail plus a goatee, who found out to his dismay that he had to have exact change. I piped up: "You need change?"


"I got change." I had deliberately accumulated small bills before I left Loveland to handle such circumstances. I got up to the front of the bus, swapped a $20 for a $10 and two $5s. "You need more fives? I've got fives."

"No, I've got fives."

"Need some ones?"

"No, I'm okay."

"OK." That was fun. The couple was interesting, speaking what sounded like a Slavic language with each other, I would guess Russian. The girl was plainly dressed but a real looker, like a Slavic video star, petite with dark hair and dark eyes.

And so back to Dulles, then to the Hilton. The photo haul proved okay, though the National Mall pictures went better than the NASM shots. I finally got to bed. I had been a bit chilled the night before, but I had a big towel in my car; I got that, along with two bath towels from the hotel room, and used them as additional covers. Next time, I take along three big towels; towels always come in handy in various ways. Sort of like Arthur Dent in THE HITCH-HIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY: "Man, he's got his towel together!" [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SPACE NEWS: Space launches for November included:

-- 02 NOV 16 / HIMAWARI 9 -- A Japanese H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 0620 UTC (local time - 9) to put the "Himawari 9" geostationary weather satellite into orbit. The satellite was built by Mitsubishi Electric, with assistance from Boeing. It had a launch mass of 3,490 kilograms (7,700 pounds), a design life of 15 years, and three payloads:

Himawari 9 was placed in the geostationary slot at 140 degrees east longitude. This was the 31st flight of the H-2A.

-- 03 NOV 16 / SHIJIAN 17 -- A Long March 5 booster was launched from the new Chinese Wenchang launch center on Hainan Island at 1243 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "Shijian 17" satellite into orbit. This was the booster's maiden flight, and second launch from Wenchang.

The booster configuration for this maiden flight featured four strap-on boosters. Total length of the vehicle is 56.97 meters (186.9 feet); it has a lift-off mass of 869,000 kilograms (1,916,000 pounds) and a lift-off thrust of 10,572 kN (103.7 kgp / 228,700 lbf).

The first stage length is 31.02 meters (101.7 feet), with a diameter of 5 meters (16.4 feet); it is powered by two YF-77 rocket engines, burning LOX-LH2. The YF-77 engine was developed for the Long March 5 family by the Academy of Aerospace Launch Propulsion Technology (AALPT). It is the first high-thrust cryogenic engine developed in China. The YF-77 provides 700 kN (68,700 kgp / 151,400 lbf) thrust in a vacuum, a quarter less thrust than that at sea level.

Long March 5

The strap-on boosters have a length of 26.28 meters (86.2 feet) meters and diameter of 3.25 meters (10.7 feet); each is powered by two YF-100 engines, burning LOX-kerosene. The YF-100 is also a new-design engine, built by AALPT, with a vacuum thrust of 1,340 kN (136,600 kgp / 301,200 lbf), sea-level thrust being 10% less.

The second stage is 12 meters (39.4 feet) long, with a diameter of 5 meters (16.4 feet). It is powered by two restartable YF-75D engines, burning LOX-LH2. The YF-75 engine powers the upper stage of the Long March 3A/3B. It has a vacuum thrust of 88.26 kN (9,000 kgp / 19,840 lbf).

The LM-5 booster was fitted with the new "YZ-2 (Yuanzheng-2 / Expedition 2)" re-ignitable upper stage, developed by CALT specifically for use on the LM-5. YZ-2 was designed as a "space tug" to place payloads into orbit, eliminating the need for the payload to have a primary propulsion system. The YZ-2 was 5.2 meters (17 feet) in diameter and had a launch mass of 1,800 kilograms (3,970 pounds). The LM-5 payload fairing for this flight had a 5.2-meter (17 foot) diameter and a length of 12.5 meters (41 feet).

-- 09 NOV 16 / XPNAV 1 -- A Chinese Long March 11 booster was launched from Jiuquan at 2342 UTC (next day local time - 8) to put the "X-ray Pulsar Navigation (XPNAV) 1" satellite into orbit, to test spacecraft navigation using pulsar signals. It was to provide mapping of signals from 26 pulsars, for the construction of a pulsar navigation database. XPNAV 1 had a launch mass of 240 kilograms (550 pounds) and was built by the Chinese Aerospace Science & Technology Corporation (CASC) Fifth Academy. The launch also included:

This was the second launch of the Long March 11 (Chang Zheng 11) booster. It is a relatively small solid-fueled quick-reaction launch vehicle, developed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). It has four stages, the last stage having a reaction control system for orbital maneuvering. It has a length of 20.8 meters (68.2 feet), a diameter of 2 meters (6.6 feet), a lift-off mass of 58,000 kilograms (127,900 pounds), and can put a 350-kilogram (770-pound) payload into sun-synchronous orbit. It can be fitted with two different payload fairings, with diameters of 1.6 or 2 meters (5.25 or 6.6 feet).

-- 11 NOV 16 / WORLDVIEW 4 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 1830 UTC (local time + 7) to put the "WorldView 4" Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit for DigitalGlobe. The satellite was built by Ball Aerospace and was based on the Ball BCP-5000 satellite bus; it had a launch mass of 2,810 kilograms (6,200 pounds), with the payload being a multi-spectral imager with 29 channels and a best resolution of 30 centimeters (1 foot). Design life was seven and a quarter years.

Worldview 4

It was the fourth WorldView satellite, and joined six other DigitalGlobe satellites in orbit. The launch also included a set of seven CubeSats, deployed under a mission designated Enterprise, sponsored by the National Reconnaissance Office:

The booster was in the "401" configuration, with a 4-meter (13.1-foot) diameter fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

-- 11 NOV 16 / YUNHAI 1 -- A Chinese Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan at 2314 UTC (next day local time - 8) to put the "Yunhai 1" Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit. Few details were released of the mission.

-- 16 NOV 16 / GALILEO 15:18 -- An Ariane 5 ES booster was launched from Kourou at 1306 UTC (local time + 3) to put four "Galileo" navigation satellites into orbit, bringing the total number of satellites in space up to 18. The four satellites in this launch -- Antonianna, Lisa, Kimberley, and Tijmen, named for winners of a European children's drawing contest -- weighed roughly 715 kilograms (1,575 pounds); they were built by OHB System in Germany, with Surrey Satellite Technology of the UK supplying the navigation payloads. The complete Galileo constellation will consist of 30 satellites along three orbital planes in medium Earth orbit, including two spares per orbit.

-- 17 NOV 16 / SOYUZ ISS 49S (ISS) -- A Soyuz-Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur at 2020 GMT (next day local time - 4) to put the "Soyuz ISS 49S" AKA "MS-03" crewed space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included commander Oleg Novitskiy of the RKA (second space flight), flight engineer Thomas Pesquet of the ESA (first space flight), and astronaut Peggy Whitson of NASA (third space flight). The capsule docked with the ISS two days later, the crew joining the ISS Expedition 50 crew of Shane Kimbrough, Sergey Ryzhikov, and Andrei Borisenko.

-- 19 NOV 16 / GOES-R -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2342 UTC (local time + 5) to put "GOES-R" AKA "GOES 16", the first next-generation geostationary weather satellite for NASA and NOAA. GOES-R was built by Lockheed Martin and had a launch mass of 5,192 kilograms (11,466 pounds). It was the first of four to be launched through 2024. The booster was in the "541" vehicle configuration with a 5-meter (16.4-foot) fairing, four solid rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.


-- 22 NOV 16 / TIANLIAN 1-04 -- A Long March 3C booster was launched from Xichang at 1524 UTC (local time - 8) to put the fourth "Tianlian 1" geostationary space communications satellite into orbit. It was developed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), being based on the civil DFH-3 comsat and was primarily intended to support manned Shenzhou space missions. It followed launches in 2008, 2011, and 2012.



* THE GALAXY'S BAD NEIGHBORHOODS: As discussed by an entry from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("The Most Likely Spots For Life In The Milky Way" by Ramin Skibba, 9 December 2015), conditions in large parts of our Galaxy, the Milky Way, are not very friendly to life.

To support life as we know it, planets must have liquid water and orbit in the right place, the "habitable zone", in their stellar systems, not too close and not too far from their star. Similarly, life will not emerge or survive for long where exploding stars are common, since they will burn off a planet's ozone layer and exposing any surface life to deadly ultraviolet rays.

A recent study, from researchers led by physicist Duncan Forgan of the University of Saint Andrews in Fife, UK, assessed the quality of the Milky Way's neighborhoods. The research team used computer simulations to model an entire Milky Way-like galaxy and its neighbors, the Andromeda and Triangulum galaxies. They then simulated the distribution of gas, stars, and planetary systems within those galaxies, with the simulation then tracing out billions of years of their history, while mapping out their evolving habitable zones.

Observations from NASA's Kepler space telescope strongly suggest that it is ordinary for stars to have planets. For every type of star in the simulations, the researchers estimated the probability that terrestrial planets would form, some of which might be Earth-like, or might be as inhospitable as Mercury. They also estimated the chance that a giant planet as large as Neptune would form near the star, since it would prevent the formation of potential earths in the habitable zone. In addition, they analyzed the likelihood of short-lived life-friendly worlds that happened to be in stellar systems too near to dying, exploding stars.

Not surprisingly, the simulations show that that potentially habitable planets are more likely to remain so if they form in areas far from dense conglomerations of stars, where more supernova explosions occur. In the Milky Way and other spiral galaxies, the most dangerous regions are in the galactic centers, while the more diffuse spiral arms pose fewer hazards, and so are more hospitable to life. Earth lies near the inner edge of this galactic "habitable zone".

The scientists modeled not just the stars, but also the evolution of the galaxies themselves. Over billions of years, gravity pulls neighboring galaxies together, just as the Milky Way and Andromeda are now drawing together. The researchers found that when galaxies collide, the habitable zone is disrupted, and then gradually settles back to its general trend: stars at larger distances from the galactic center have higher chances of hosting planets hospitable to life.

In addition, the simulations covered objects beyond the Milky Way's spiral arms. These included filamentary streams of stars -- remnants of galactic collisions -- as well as small "satellite" galaxies orbiting the Milky Way. These objects turn out to have "pockets of habitability", suggesting interesting targets for extrasolar planet searches using next-generation technologies.

According to astronomer Neil Gehrels of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Habitable planets face additional threats missing from this research, including radiation spewing from gamma ray bursts, which are rarer and more intense than supernovas; there is also some uncertainty in the rate and effect of supernovas. However, Gehrels endorses the study, saying "their basic idea has got to be right that there are regions in our galaxy where there's too much star formation going on."



* DISASTER MACHINES: As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("These Disaster Machines Could Help Humanity Prepare For Cataclysms" by Warren Cornwall, 14 July 2016), on 17 January 1994, an earthquake struck the Los Angeles area, centered on the community of Reseda. 57 people were killed, thousands injured, with tens of billions of dollars in property damage. It became known as the "Northridge" quake, where much of the worst damage occurred.

In its aftermath, a report commissioned by Congress warned that the country needed a more systematic approach to studying how to reduce damage from earthquakes. The US National Science Foundation (NSF) replied with the $82 million USD "Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation", the money funding a construction spree at 14 sites around the country. Another $200 million USD paid for operating the sites through 2014. That included UC San Diego, which introduced the world's largest outdoor shake table in 2004.

Since its construction for $10 million USD, the shake table has rattled a four-story concrete parking garage, a wind turbine, and a five-story concrete building complete with elevator and stairs, among other things. The tests have shown that special inserts can increase resilience by allowing a building to move over its foundation, and that modular concrete floors can behave erratically unless given additional reinforcement. The tests also show how tall, wood-framed buildings fail, and how reinforcements can strengthen old brick buildings.

In addition to the San Diego facility, the projects funded under the original program and its successor, the "Natural Hazards Engineering Research Infrastructure (NHERI)", include North America's largest wave flume for studying tsunamis at Oregon State University in Corvallis; the world's largest university-based hurricane simulator at Florida International University in Miami; and, at UC Davis, the world's biggest centrifuge for making scale models mimic the stresses on tons of buildings, rock, and dirt-crucial information for assessing how structures will weather earthquakes and landslides.

These test systems were not built big as an end in itself; it's just that small-scale simulations can only reveal so much. For example, the way soil particles stick together, an important factor in landslide risks, depends on how much mass is pushing down on them. Similarly, it's almost impossible to build accurate, tiny versions of rebar, the steel rods that hold reinforced concrete together. Similar difficulties arise with measuring how hurricane-force winds interact with a building. Forrest Masters, a wind engineer at the University of Florida in Gainesville, says: "You can't take a real building and scale it down to one-tenth and put it in a wind tunnel. The physics doesn't work."

Masters directs his university's component of of NHERI. That includes a machine capable of subjecting 5-meter (16-foot) tall walls to the air pressures found in a 320 KPH (200 MPH) hurricane, and a wind tunnel whose floor can be modified to see how different terrain influences the way wind interacts with structures.

These disaster machines are not trivial to put together. The San Diego shake table is driven by oversized hydraulic cylinders, containing tens of thousands of liters of hydraulic fluid, driving an array of sliding metal plates. Joel Conte, an engineering professor who oversees the shake table operations, says: "The real world, you cannot count on it. You cannot say: 'Oh, I'm going to sit and wait for the next earthquake in front of this big building, and I'm going to invest a lot in sensors.' You may have to wait 30, 40, 50 years. So you produce an earthquake."

Conte likes to show visitors his "greatest hits" video. A four-story wood building twists and splinters to the ground. A parking garage teeters back and forth like a rocking chair. A split screen shows two identical rooms filled with hospital beds and medical equipment. One is in a building outfitted with padded foundations that help it absorb an earthquake's shock; the other isn't. As the video runs, beds in the regular building suddenly lurch back and forth before toppling over. In the other, they barely move.

In a recent test, the shake table was used to see how a building six stories tall made from lightweight steel performed during and after an earthquake. The test was being done in phases, the structure being given several shakes -- and then set on fire, quakes often resulting in fires. As a finishing touch, it was given an aftershock, to see if it collapsed. The test wasn't just of interest to academics, sponsors of the test including manufacturers of the steel construction parts, the insurance industry, and state government.

Conte is now lobbying California state officials for a $14 million USD upgrade that would allow the machine to run even more realistic tests. Right now, it can move only back and forth in two directions; new hardware would add up-and-down, side-to-side, and diagonal motions, enabling it to move in every direction -- like the world's biggest shake table, an indoor facility in Miki, Japan.

Researchers are trying to go one step further, by mating physical tests with computer models. James Ricles, a civil engineer at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, says such "hybrid" simulations can test massive structures too big to fit inside any test facility. His lab, which is part of the NSF network, tests well-understood parts of a structure with computer models, but stages physical tests for parts that the models can't handle.

Ricles's lab simulated the behavior of an elevated highway during an earthquake by physically testing the concrete columns while testing a virtual model of the bridge deck in a computer. He recently applied the same strategy to testing a design meant to allow a steel building to rock back and forth instead of than bend during a quake. A four-story chunk of the building stood in the lab; the rest of it existed only in the microprocessors of a computer.

While the earlier NSF program focused on big testing platforms, the NHERI initiative is putting more money into the virtual side. The University of Texas, Austin, won $13.7 million USD to build a data repository and software platform to store information from years of field tests. In the future, engineers should be able to tap data in the digital repository to boost the accuracy of their computer models. And NSF will soon issue an $11 million USD award for a computational modeling and simulation center.

Stephen Mahin, a structural engineer at UC Berkeley involved in the research, is particularly enthusiastic about digital simulation. Advances in machine learning and cloud computing, he believes, will lead to models capable of simulating not just single buildings, but entire communities. Subjecting them to "virtual disasters" could then enable researchers and government officials to grasp the region-wide effects of a major quake or storm and decide which measures today would prevent the most damage.

Mahin says: "In 20 years, you can model a whole city in a very complicated way ... this analysis can help mitigate the damage from future natural disasters."

ED: This brings to mind the Discovery Channel MYTHBUSTERS show, in which Adam Savage and Jamie Hyneman engaged in amusing debunkery, often involving "test to destruction". The Mythbusters were immortalized by Savage and Hyneman's Law: "Blowing stuff up is fun. Blowing stuff up in the name of science is AWESOME!"



* FUEL FROM THE SUN REVISTED (3): A footnote to the article previously outlined in this series discussed how Stuart Licht and his colleagues have reported a variation on their solar reactor technology can be used to produce solid carbon nanofibers. When they added trace amounts of nickel, copper, cobalt, or iron to their electrolysis cell, the metals formed tiny islands on the cathode that then served as landing sites for thousands of split-off carbon atoms to insert themselves and quickly grow into long, thin fibers. Such carbon nanofibers are used in fabricating composite materials; they could be worth up to $25,000 USD per tonne.

A small New Jersey-based company named Liquid Light is working to commercialize technology for converting CO2 into ethylene glycol, a commodity chemical, most stereotypically used as anti-freeze, with a $27 billion USD annual market. Another company, Skyonic, recently opened a demonstration plant in Texas that turns CO2 into baking soda, hydrochloric acid, and bleach.

Such commodities aren't produced on a scale like that of transport fuels, so generating them from atmospheric CO2 can't put a dent into climate change. However, the technology might well be a profitable business in itself, and Matthew Kanan suggests that such processes might be a "stepping stone" to synthesis of fuels. He admits: "I'm a technology optimist."

* As another footnote, an item from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Microbe-Linked Solar Panels Are Better Than Plants At Converting Sunlight To Energy" by Robert F. Service, 2 June 2016), discussed a more recent exercise in sunlight-to-fuel technology -- a new solar panel that leverages off catalysts and microbes to convert 10% of captured solar energy into liquid fuels and other commodity chemicals.

The work got its start in 2011, when researchers led by Dan Nocera, a chemist at Harvard University, created an artificial leaf that used energy from sunlight to split water into oxygen and hydrogen gas (H2) -- as discussed here in 2011. H2 can then be run through a fuel cell to produce electricity, but it has a very low energy density, requiring big tanks or smaller but stronger compressed-gas tanks.

Several research teams followed up by combining the H2 with the carbon in carbon dioxide to produce energy-dense liquid hydrocarbons. In 2015, for example, Nocera's group reported that it developed a hybrid system that used bacteria and electricity to produce together H2 -- generated by electrolytically split water -- and the carbon from CO2 into isopropyl alcohol AKA isopropanol (CH3-CHOH-CH3).

The problem was that the catalyst used to produce hydrogen, a nickel-molybdenum-zinc alloy, also created reactive oxygen species, molecules that attacked and killed the bacteria. To avoid that problem, researchers were forced to run the system at abnormally high voltages, resulting in reduced efficiency. They could only get a conversion efficiency -- sunlight energy to fuel -- of 3.2%.

Nocera and his colleagues have replaced the nickel catalyst with a new cobalt-phosphorous alloy catalyst, which does not make reactive oxygen species. That meant a "dramatic increase in efficiency," according to Nocera. Their new hybrid setup can convert 10% of the energy in sunlight to a variety of chemicals and fuels, well above the efficiency of plants.

While the idea of producing fuel directly from sunlight, water, and CO2 in the air is attractive, Nocera cautions that solar fuel has a long way to go before it can be regarded as a commercial proposition: "It's very hard to make this competitive with digging [oil] out of the ground." Nonetheless, he sees the technology, as it is now, as useful in the niche of providing fuels and chemicals to billions of poor folk who exist "off the grid". Establishing the technology on a small-scale, niche basis would provide a stepping-stone to wider use. His team is already working in India, where he is negotiating with researchers to pass along the intellectual property for the new method. [END OF SERIES]



* THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (5): On the morning of Thursday, 6 October, I left Washington, Pennsylvania, to cruise south into West Virginia, and then east into Maryland. It was really a pleasant trip through the hills, rolling down into misty rural valleys, glowing in the sunrise.

I got to Frederick, Maryland, and turned south towards Dulles International Airport. That involved some squirreling around on back highways; I didn't get lost, but I did have to stop and get my bearings. I ended up at the Steven Utvar-Hazy Annex of the Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum. It's free, but I did have to pay for parking.

Hurricane & P-61 Black Widow at NASM

It's a big air museum, if not nearly as big as the USAF Museum. In any case, I canvassed the place thoroughly, taking shots in both normal and low-light mode as insurance. The lighting was better there, and the photo haul would prove more satisfactory. After working my way through the facility, I emailed family from the McDonald's in the facility. By that time, I had figured out how to get into McD's wi-fi easily -- I learned there was a banner to let me log in -- and I had also found the convenient Alto mailer for Android.

Alto is from AOL, and is quite tidy. I had tried gmail on the smartphone, but it had one big problem: it used the Android contacts app to store and access email addresses, and since I wasn't actually using the smartphone as a phone, that was overkill. The contacts app was a pain to use; all I wanted to store was an email address and the associated name. Alto provided its own email list, and was no bother. I also got to like the way smartphones provide word hints when tap-typing, with the hints adapting with experience.

It was about mid-afternoon when I got done, and I decided to do some plane-spotting, the museum being slightly to the west of one of the runways. I sat down on a curb at the outskirts of the parking lot, and got quite a few pictures, there being a lot of air traffic. There was little unfamiliar coming in, however; I had seen an Airbus A380 super-jumbo descending while I was in the McDonald's -- I didn't have one in my photo collection -- but I didn't see another one. I did manage to get a Lufthansa 747 near the end of the session.

Lufthansa Boeing 747

After finally getting tired of planespotting, I made my way to the Dulles Hilton, to check in. Examination of the photo haul showed I'd done much better than at the USAF Museum, mostly because the interior lighting was better.

I rarely stay in a Hilton, and would have stayed in the Hampton Inn to the south -- but the rates were better, which was puzzling. I had got a room for impaired visitors, with the bathroom set up for people in wheelchairs or the like; it finally dawned on me that they had been hard up for impaired visitors, and so were unloading those rooms at reduced rates. I didn't much care for the bathroom layout, in particular because the shower pressure was low, and in fact I didn't particularly like staying in a Hilton. The staff were nice enough and it was certainly clean, but it was too stuffy for me. However, I couldn't complain too much, since the rates were the lowest on the trip. I did manage to get to bed early.

Later examination showed the picture haul was good -- I got some reasonable shots inside the museum, and the planespotting went well. It was overcast and the aircraft shots seemed drab as a consequence, but they looked better after tweaking with brightness, contrast, and such. I still wish I'd got a shot of an A380. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: While Google's Glass video glasses were, if not exactly a non-starter, at least not really ready for prime time, that hasn't prevented Snap -- previously SnapChat -- from now introducing video glasses, named, of course, "Specs" -- or "Spectacles", for the long-winded.

Actually, Specs are video sunglasses, coming in three colors, with a small camera built into the upper left and right corners of the frames. Tap a button near the left camera, and Specs records for 10 seconds. Additional taps get 10 more seconds each, up to 30 seconds at a time. To stop recording sooner, press and hold the same button. The Snaps can be transferred via wi-fi or bluetooth to a smartphone.


An inward-facing LED indicator goes on to tell the user that the camera is shooting, while an outward-facing indicator tells everyone else that the camera is on as well. It takes circular images with a 115-degree field of view. Snap says Specs should run for a day on a charge, and also come with a charging case to give a week's worth of use. List price is about $130 USD.

ED: Specs has some attractions, though I would only really be interested in a still picture capability, and the circular images are a turn-off. Of course, they could be easily trimmed to a rectangular format, at least if the field of view is wide enough. A good idea? I do like the idea of being to discreetly take photos at will -- and, if Specs catches on, we could expect to see a wide range of styles that permit discreet photography. Still, we'll see.

* In more consumer tech, Nintendo is now coming out with the "Switch" hybrid game console, which will be released in the spring of 2017. At the core, it's a portable game tablet; a mini hand controller, called a "Joy-Con", slips into each side of the tablet, allowing them to be slipped out for dual play. Take the Switch home, slide it into a dock, and it's a home game console that works on the big screen and conventional wireless controllers. Games are provided on Nintendo DS-style cartridges.

Nintendo Switch

Nintendo has not yet announced the price and has been mum on specs or details. However, the company sure that the world knew how many partners had been lined up, including major publishers such as Ubisoft, EA, Activision and Sega, as well as smaller developers including Telltale Games and PlatinumGames.

* As discussed by an entry from WIRED Online blogs ("This New Electric Bus Can Drive 350 Miles on One Charge" by Aarian Marshall, 12 September 2016), one of the difficulties of electric vehicles (EVs) is that they require a hefty and expensive battery pack. As vehicles get bigger, the heft and the expense become less of an objection; and EVs are quieter, less polluting, and cheaper to operate and maintain. That makes them a good fit for urban fleet vehicles.

A case in point is the new Catalyst E2 series of passenger buses from Proterra, which will hit the streets in 2017. Not only does it have the latest conveniences, it also has a minimum range of 560 kilometers (350 miles), enough for a full day's operation in many locales. It can then be recharged overnight.

Catalyst E2

The Catalyst E2 has battery pack the size of a mattress that can store up to 660 kilowatt-hours. Lightweight material construction also extends range, as well as a regenerative braking system that shoves electricity back into the batteries when the bus comes to a stop. Nobody could claim the Catalyst E2 is a real world-changer, however; buses account for only a tiny fraction of total US emissions, and they are only as clean as their ultimate source of electricity. Nonetheless, a system can only really change a piece at a time; change enough of the pieces, change the system.



* LIVING WITH FIRE: As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Smoke, Fire, & Human Evolution" by Steph Yin, 5 August 2016), the human taming of fire, which took place at least 400,000 years ago, was at least as important, maybe more so, than the invention of the wheel. Fires gave warmth, light, and protection, while cooking made foods easier to digest.

Of course, fires meant problems as well. Smoke could be hard on the eyes and lungs, while food coated with char encouraged cancers. Congregating around the fire also made the transmission of diseases easier. While there's been considerable research on the evolutionary advantages humans acquired along with fire, there's been less focus on the evolutionary downsides.

That's changing. Two recent studies have advanced theories on how negative consequences of fire might have shaped human evolution and development. In the first scientists identified a mutation in modern humans that allows certain toxins, including those found in smoke, to be metabolized and neutralized. The same genetic sequence was not found in other primates, including ancient hominins such as Neanderthals and Denisovans.

The researchers believe the mutation arose in response to breathing in smoke toxins, which can increase the risk of respiratory infections, suppress the immune system, and disrupt the reproductive system. Gary Perdew -- one of the authors, a professor of toxicology at Pennsylvania State University -- suspects the mutation may have given our ancestors an edge over Neanderthals.

The second study suggests that with fire's benefits came with a particularly nasty downside -- that fire might have helped spread tuberculosis by bringing people into close contact, damaging their lungs and causing them to cough. Using mathematical modeling, Rebecca Chisholm and Mark Tanaka, biologists at the University of New South Wales in Australia, simulated how ancient soil bacteria might have evolved to become infectious tuberculosis agents. Without fire, the probability was low; but when the researchers added fire to their model, the likelihood that tuberculosis would emerge jumped by several orders of magnitude.

Tuberculosis has been killing people for a long time, rivaling the impacts of wars and famines. Today, it kills 1.5 million people annually. It is believed that tuberculosis arose at least 70,000 years ago. Chisholm and Tanaka believe that fire might have helped spread other airborne diseases, not just tuberculosis: "Fire, as a technological advantage, has been a double-edged sword."



* FARMERS LOVE THE WIND: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Wind Is The New Corn" by Jennifer Oldham, 10 October 2016), wind power is the fastest-growing source of energy in the USA. It is having a transformative effect on low-income rural areas, in ways not seen since the Federal government gave land to homesteaders in the 19th century.

Commodity prices have plunged, leaving farmers struggling; wind has helped fill the gap, saving family farms. Richard Wilson's family has owned their Colorado cattle and wheat ranch since 1948. Declining income presented him with the prospect of selling off parcels of it -- but then, he discovered wind. Now he leases his land for about three dozen wind turbines, run by the Golden West Wind Energy Center outside Colorado Springs. Wilson says: "We weren't making enough money to sustain ourselves. Now we're in a position where we can operate our farm for another generation at least."

For others, turbines generate six-figure incomes that have allowed them to retire from the labors of farming. Ed Woolsey is a fifth-generation Iowa farmer, and one of the players in Crosswinds Energy Project -- a community collective that manages ten turbines and sells the power they generate to rural electric cooperatives. Woosley says: "One turbine has changed my life. Before, I raised corn and soybeans and cattle. Now I don't; I'm a wind farmer."

wind & corn

Woolsey leases his farm to others to cultivate. Neither he nor Wilson would disclose how much they earn, but landowners who sign lease agreements with wind companies typically get between $7,000 and $10,000 USD per turbine each year. The more than $100 billion USD that companies have invested in wind power in low-income counties -- where about 70% of wind farms are located -- has helped double assessed land values in some of the poorest parts of rural America. That's provided a much-needed infusion of local tax revenue that's being used to rebuild schools and pay down debt.

A five-year extension of a Federal tax credit on wind production, passed at the end of 2015, should accelerate the construction of turbines. The credit pays wind power producers 2.3 cents for every kilowatt-hour of electricity generated for a ten-year period. Estimates suggest that incentive should help double US wind power capacity to 167 gigawatts, enough to power 50 million homes, by 2030. It is similarly estimated that by that time, landowners are expected to bring in as much as $900 million USD a year by leasing land to wind developers.

Critics of renewables zero in on the use of tax credits to promote them, but wind turbines are a tax gold mine. For some towns in Illinois, where localities levy the nation's highest property taxes on wind turbines, getting a wind farm is a literal tax windfall. Kevin Borgia, a renewable-energy advocate, says: "A two-megawatt turbine is valued at $720,000, and often 150 are built at once. Suddenly, little communities have 150 $720,000 homes."

In Oklahoma, wind farms are projected to return $1 billion USD in property taxes to counties and school districts over a 40-year period. Increased tax revenue has already helped the state weather the decline in the oil sector and allowed some school districts to forego state funding. Of course, those inclined to complain about tax credits are often then just as inclined to complain about property taxes -- no stone left unthrown -- but those who make profits off of wind turbines can't complain too much. In Colorado, annual payouts totaling as much as $10,000 USD per turbine meant farmers could weather falling crop prices without having to sell off land.

Iowa got 31% of its power from wind in 2015, more than any other state. Annual lease payments of about $17 million USD helped some avoid foreclosure as they prepared for a record corn harvest that could drive receipts to a painful ten-year low. Tim Hemphill, an Iowa corn and soybean farmer, gets about $20,000 USD a year for leasing land for turbines. Hemphill says: "A few years ago corn was $7 a bushel. Now my cost to raise it is $4.20, and [the price] could fall to $2.70. It's going to break a lot of people."

Wind, in another plus, is also keeping down power prices across much of rural America. In the eleven states that produce more than 7% of their power from wind, electricity prices fell 0.37% from 2008 to 2013 -- while nationwide, power prices were up 7.7% during that period.

More wind projects are in the works. Michael Nolte, a farmer who sits on the Franklin County IA board of supervisors, says: "This is our financial future." In 2016, the board voted to lower property taxes after it paid off a bond used to fund $18 million USD in road and bridge improvements. Surrounding counties had recently been forced to close bridges that could no longer support heavy farm machinery, and there was no money to fix them. Says Nolte: "It's helping us survive and maintain services, whereas other counties have had to make cuts."



* FUEL FROM THE SUN REVISTED (2): An electrolytic cell used to crack CO2 contains two electrodes -- the anode, maintained at a positive potential, and cathode, maintained at a negative potential. At the anode electrode, water molecules are broken up into electrons, protons, and oxygen, which bubbles away. The electrons and protons pass to the cathode, where CO2 molecules are split into CO, and oxygen atoms that combine with the electrons and protons to make more water.

The cathode usually has a layer of catalysts to help with the splitting. Currently, the best catalyst is gold. In the 1980s, Japanese researchers found that electrodes made from gold had the highest activity for splitting CO2 to CO of all the low-temperature schemes; then in 2012, Matthew Kanan, a chemist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and colleagues found that making their electrode from a thin layer of gold divided into nanosized crystallites, cut the electricity needed by more than 50% and increased the catalyst's activity tenfold. The boundaries between the gold crystallites appear to promote the reaction.

However, gold is much too expensive for a large-scale industrial process -- but alternatives are now being found. In 2014, researchers led by Feng Jiao, a chemist at the University of Delaware (UD), Norwalk, reported that catalysts made from silver nanoparticles do almost as well; in 2015, they reported in that even cheaper catalysts made from tiny zinc dendrites are also proving highly effective at cracking CO2 into CO.

Catalysts that could be even cheaper are in the works. Researchers at UC Berkeley recently reported they had made a highly porous crystalline material out of organic ring-shaped compounds, with a combination of cobalt and copper atoms at their core. When layered atop an electrode and dunked in a water-based solution, the porous materials split CO2 molecules into CO at a rate far above most other room-temperature catalysts. In 2014, Kanan and his colleagues reported that electrodes made of nanocrystalline copper could bypass the need for syngas, allowing the direct synthesis of a range of more elaborate liquid fuels, such as ethanol and acetate, at unprecedented efficiencies.

Instead of using solar power to generate electricity that is then used to crack CO2, some researchers are working to use sunlight to do the job directly. Most such work centers on using light-absorbing semiconductors, such as titanium dioxide-based nanotubes, to generate CO, methane, or other hydrocarbons. So far, such schemes aren't very efficient, typically converting less than 1% of the energy in sunlight into chemical bonds. Some researchers have done better by exploiting ultraviolet light, but that's cheating in a sense, since the lower-energy light is wasted. More encouragingly, a team under Joel Rosenthal, a chemist at UD Newark, reports they have developed a bismuth-based photocatalyst that converts 6.1% of incoming visible light energy to chemical bonds in CO.

Kanan warns that there's no prospect of solar fuels competing with liquid fossil fuels for the foreseeable future. However, Paul Kennis, a solar fuels researcher at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, suggests solar fuels may have their niche. Denmark, for example, already produces some 30% of its electricity from wind farms, and is on track to reach 50% by 2020. When the wind really comes up, the nation's wind turbines can generate as much as 140% of the country's electrical requirements. The excess energy is shunted off to neighboring Germany, Sweden, and Norway -- but there isn't demand elsewhere, that excess has nowhere to go. Kenis suggests the Danes could use that power to make fuels and other commodities. Though we're not in the era where we have excess energy right now, we should not assume that the problems of tomorrow will be the same as the problems of today. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (4): Wednesday, 5 October, was to be the most significant part of the trip, with a visit to the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio. I had a navigation problem leaving the Hampton Inn: the motel was just west of the complicated intersection of I-70 and I-465, and instead of heading west to get on to I-70, which would have been the smart thing to do, I went east, which ended up getting me shunted off on I-465. It wasn't a problem, since I quickly realized my error and corrected it -- but I had to quickly scoot all the way across the lanes of I-465 to get onto I-70, and that wouldn't have been possible if the traffic had been heavy. Fortunately, it was early and dark, so traffic was light.

I cruised out I-70 and then took I-75 south to Dayton. I overshot the exit to the museum -- it wasn't that well marked -- but no worries, I got off the freeway, looped around and was quickly on track, having no further troubles getting to the museum.

I went through the security screening to get in -- I had a little fixed-blade knife on me, mostly useful for opening packages, and had to go back and put it into the car. That done, I set out taking pictures right and left, canvassing the museum's four hangars. I had greatly underestimated how big the place was; I thought it would take me an hour and a half to cover it, it took me more like three, and I was weary by the time I was done. Even my arms were tired from taking pictures.

XB-70 at USAF Museum

I wanted to get to the Columbus Zoo that afternoon, so that left me pressed for time. I got back on I-70 and headed east; I had considered stopping to eat before I went to the zoo, but I knew I didn't have time. When I refueled in Urbana, Ohio, I had a snack -- my usual snack, a Milky Way caramel-chocolate bar, and a cherry or vanilla-cherry pepsi from a stash I had in a bucket in the back of my car. OK, that's gauche, but I'm addicted to pepsi. I had a cup for the pepsi when I bought the candy bar at the convenience stop, and as I always do, asked the clerk: "Mind if I get some ice?"

He was a colorful character, easy-going sort, looked like a hefty over-the-hill biker with a gray beard, and replied: "Sure, go ahead. Got your own cup?" I held it up. Never had anyone refuse me. I had my snack and got back on the road.

I got to the outskirts of Columbus, and got on the beltway north, the zoo being in the northern suburbs. I didn't have any troubles until I got off the beltway and hit the suburb streets, getting a bit mixed up. Actually, I knew where I was going, but I got confused by direction signs to the zoo, not realizing the route wasn't all that well marked. If I hadn't tried to follow the signs, I would have got straight there.

fountain at Columbus Zoo

Anyway, the Columbus Zoo is as impressive as it's said to be, big and well laid out. It also has an adjoined theme park, Zoombesi Bay -- though the theme park was idled while I was there. Indeed, as I made my way through the zoo, it was somewhat idle as well, not many visitors, animals mostly taking their ease. It was nice in itself, more Halloween trappings in evidence, and I did pick up good pictures of a leopard and a red panda.

The zoo had a big, elaborate bonobo -- dwarf chimpanzee, actually they're not all that small -- environment with a glassed section, the glass section featuring of all things a kid's slide! Unfortunately, no bonobos were using the slide, which would have made my day. There was a mama bonobo playing with her baby in the glass section; I got some shots of them, with the mama giving me a clearly annoyed glance.

savannah environment at Columbus Zoo

The zoo had a particularly impressive, big savannah environment, where I picked up a set of nice shots, and a central pond with a fountain. I finally made my way around it, then left and got back on the beltway, heading east. I had been coasting on the sugar fix I'd taken earlier and was now very hungry -- but I had expected that to be the case, and lined up a Fazoli's down the road. I got a plate of spaghetti and meatballs, wolfed it down, then continued on my way. Although the traffic was congested, I was feeling very mellow after that meal, and it didn't bother me at all.

It didn't delay me much, either, and I was quickly back eastbound on I-70. I got into the hill country as the sun was going down, passed through Wheeling WV in the dark -- road construction making the transit through town somewhat nerve-wracking -- and soon arrived at Washington, Pennsylvania, to check into the Hampton Inn there. It was a little tricky to get to it, the road network being less than straightforward and the area hilly. That should have forewarned me for later.

On inspecting the photo haul from the Air Force Museum in my motel room, I was very disappointed. I took hundreds of photos, with the expectation that a tenth of them might be worthwhile -- but when I sorted through the photos later, I threw most of them away in disgust; I couldn't stand to look at them. I think I might have been able to tweak some of those that I threw out into something acceptable, but it hardly seemed worth the bother, when they still would have been inferior to what I already had.

On comparing with the photos I took in 2004 -- which, at least for those that I had kept, were much superior -- the main problem was that the museum had changed its lighting system. In 2004, some of the hangars had been fully illuminated; in 2016, none of them were, with illumination of aircraft by spotlights. Not only was it too dark to take good photos, but the glare of the spotlights also blasted "holes" in the images. It seems the general illumination was hard on the aircraft.

The low-light mode on my Lumix camera was simply not up to the job. It had worked perfectly well in the Pima Air Museum during my 2014 Arizona trip, but Pima's interior exhibits were well-illuminated. Given the lighting conditions at the USAF Museum, it was unrealistic to think I could have got better pictures than I had in 2004, no matter what I had done. I also found the haul from the Columbus Zoo to be skimpy, but that wasn't such a problem; zoos are always hit-or-miss, depending primarily on the cooperation of the residents. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Astronomers Witness Slow Buildup And Smoldering Aftermath To Explosive Stellar Climax" by Daniel Clery, 17 August 2016), the stellar explosions known as "novas" are associated with binary star systems, in which an active star is losing hydrogen to its inert white dwarf partner. Once the buildup gets heavy enough on the white dwarf, a fusion reaction takes place, increasing the brightness of the white dwarf by about 10,000 times.

Novas are thought to repeat every 10,000 to a million years. However, data on how the binaries behave between eruptions -- particularly just before an outburst -- is, to no surprise, scarce. Now, a team of astronomers has collected observations in the six years before and seven years after a recent nova, known as "Nova Centauri 2009". They were lucky; they weren't studying the nova, they just happened to be investigating that particular region of the sky.

Theoretical studies suggest that, after a nova explosion, the system does not just go back to square one immediately. Instead, the explosion heats up the active companion star for several centuries, causing an increased rate of hydrogen transfer to the white dwarf. This scenario has now obtained support from observations by the Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) telescope in Chile. The observations revealed that in the years before Nova Centauri exploded, it showed short, irregular increases in brightness typical of a low-hydrogen transfer rate. In the years after, the pair was two orders of magnitude brighter and very steady. The nova is now fading back to its hibernating state -- where it will remain until it goes off again.

* As discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Why Did A Humpback Whale Just Save This Seal's Life?" by Erik Stokstad, 22 July 2016), in 2009 marine ecologist Robert Pitman -- of the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) Southwest Fisheries Science Center in San Diego CA -- was in the Antarctic, when he observed several killer whales stalking a Weddell seal on drifting patch of ice.

The orcas managed to set up a wave that knocked the seal into the water -- but they weren't able to close in for the kill, since two humpback whales showed up and interfered. A wave threw the seal onto the chest of an upturned humpback, which used its flippers to keep the seal from falling off -- until the seal was able to find safety on another ice floe. Pitman later said: "I was shocked. It looked like they were trying to protect the seal."

It's no surprise that humpback whales will energetically defend their own calves, or other humpback whale calves, when attacked by killer whales, driving off the orcas with their flukes or fins. Pitman was curious about how common it was for humpbacks to help other species; he posted a request for information on a marine mammal listserv. He received 115 descriptions of encounters, many from commercial whale-watching trips, which sometimes included photos and videos. In 90% of the killer whale attacks when humpbacks got involved and the prey target could be identified, it was another species.

humpbacks with an attitude

By all indications, humpbacks do not pass up an opportunity, any opportunity, to bully killer whales. Altruism has always been a bit of a puzzle for evolutionary science; on the face of it, it doesn't necessarily seem consistent with "survival of the fittest". Pittman doesn't see the humpback behavior as puzzling: "I think they just have a simple rule: WHEN YOU HEAR A KILLER WHALE ATTACK -- GO BREAK IT UP." It's possible that the humpbacks have sympathy with targets of killer whale attacks; it's much more evident from behavior that humpbacks like to make life miserable for orcas.

* As discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Long-Range Seabirds Could Improve Weather Forecasting" by Jessica Boddy, 25 July 2016), the wandering albatross can soar over the oceans on vast aerial treks; the bird has been known to fly more than 16,000 kilometers (10,000 miles), equivalent to the distance from New York City to Sydney, Australia. Researchers got to wondering if the wandering albatross -- and other oceanic wind-riders, such as the Laysan albatross and the streaked shearwater -- might be useful for mapping wind speeds over the sea.

The scientists traveled to nesting sites in Hawaii, Japan, and India, taped tiny GPS trackers on 19 different birds, let them loose, and eventually logged more than 500 hours of total flight time. By comparing the flight speeds of the birds over ground and water, the researchers concluded that they could accurately calculate wind speeds wherever the seabirds flew, with data from buoys and other instrument stations providing corroboration. Buoys and weather stations do measure oceanic wind speeds in some areas, but it would take immense resources to efficiently cover as much distance as a seabird. Knowledge of oceanic winds should help improve weather forecasts.



* CHECKING, OUT: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Where Paper Checks Go -- For Now", by Richard Partington, 31 October 2016), the venerable check is on its way to extinction.

Welcome to Intelligent Processing Solutions (IPSL) in Northampton UK. Every night, lorries full of checks arrive for processing, to be swiftly processed by IPSL staff. However, everyone doing the work knows they'll be looking for another job soon enough, since in 2017 British banks will start accepting digital images of checks, eliminating the need for hand processing.

US banks started adopting digital check handling several years ago. Of course, the advance in automation means loss of jobs. One recent estimate suggested that automatic of Britain's financial-services industry could cut half the jobs from the financial-services industry within the next decade, Carl Frey -- an academic at the University of Oxford who's studied technology's impact on employment -- says: "Finance is one of the most skilled industries susceptible to automation. There tend to be fewer and fewer traders; ATMs have relieved bank tellers of some of their work; and you're likely to see a lot fewer people processing checks in 10 years."

The check dates back to 13th-century Venice and still moves a lot of money. In Britain, almost 560 million checks accounted for 500 billion pounds in payments in 2015. The checks would form a paper mountain the height of London's Shard skyscraper. In the USA, 18 billion paper and electronic checks with a total value of $26 trillion USD were paid in 2012, according to the most recent Federal Reserve survey.

IPSL -- a joint venture of Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds Banking, and US software company Unisys -- handles about 80% of the checks used in the UK each year. It employs a staff of 1,800. Once checks are received at IPSL, they're sorted according to which bank the money goes to, then scanned into a computer system. That requires people to feed the scanning machine, to correct scanning errors, and to spot check fraud. They catch fraud attempts worth about 150 million pounds each year.

A little less than half of UK consumers sent at least one paper check for payment in 2015, but check usage in the UK has been falling about 13% per year. Says an IPSL official: "We've been managing a declining product for some time, so we know how to handle redundancies, and our staff know there are going to be some more radical changes ahead."

As paper checks fall off, the Northampton site ramps up handling of digital images. They're currently taken by consumers on smartphones, while banks plan to scan checks at branches, and provide businesses with the technology to do so themselves. Reducing the number of people handling checks is just one way banks are seeking to lower operating costs as low interest rates crimp income on lending.

Banks including HSBC and Royal Bank of Scotland are eliminating tens of thousands of employees in such areas as call centers, IT operations, and retail banks. Call it harsh, but it's business. Nobody hires personnel unless they need them to do the job, and there's no obligation that they do so; mandated job supports would be even crazier than mandated price supports, with their notorious distortions of markets. There is a problem -- but it's not the problem of businesses, which are simply doing what they must to keep customers happy, and stay in business. It's the problem of government to support retraining the unemployed, and their transfer to viable jobs.



* 21ST-CENTURY HEALERS: As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("Healers Cure Mistrust In Guinea's Health System After Horrors Of Ebola" by Ruth Maclean, 28 September 2016) the poor African country of Guinea was hit hard by the Ebola virus: the recent outbreak killed more than 11,000 people up to its end in June 2016.

Guinea lacks doctors and nurses, and as a consequence most Guineans rely on traditional folk healers, who generally get their remedies by foraging in the forests. They are believed to have magical powers and enjoy unquestioning trust. This trust proved crucial during the Ebola outbreak, when traditional healers were persuaded to refer patients to treatment centers, and were taught how to stop it spreading. Now the government is considering trying to integrate traditional healers into the healthcare systems in Guinea, to help fight other diseases including malaria, cholera, meningitis and measles. Their primary role will be surveillance.

The Ebola plague terrified everyone who went through it. Doctors and nurses were dying, medicine ran out, clinics closed their doors; family members would suddenly die horrible deaths. Strangers in alien-looking protective suits would come to take away the bodies, failing to give them the respect in their disposal that should have been given them by custom. With nothing else available, the people fell back on traditional healers.

However, there was little they could do, and in fact could make things worse -- contracting the disease themselves, and passing it on to patients. One study found that an explosion of Ebola cases originated from a well-known healer who had tried to treat the virus and died. Then, 14 women caught the disease at her funeral, just over the border in Sierra Leone, and spread it throughout their communities.

Fakoly Kourouma, the president of a local association of healers, says: "People always start with us. During Ebola, I called all of the traditional healers and told them that if someone is sick, to see if it's Ebola and send them to the hospital. People were scared of the hospitals, though. We tried to convince them. Sometimes I took patients there myself."

Now, many healers are used to passing patients on to the hospitals, and they do it for other diseases they cannot treat. Referring patients to health centers, was troublesome for the healers, since it took work and money away from them. However, Kouroma says the healers don't always see themselves in competition with the health services, though his rationale is dubious: "The hospitals can treat some things we can't, and vice versa. If someone puts a curse on you, we can treat you -- the hospital can't. If you have a broken leg, we put something on it and touch it and a few days later it's fixed."

That suggests challenges in bringing traditional healers into the health-care system. The emphasis in educating the healers has been on straightforward things, such as hygiene, elementary treatments, and such isolation of patients as can be achieved. They learned enough to save the lives of many people in their communities, and sometimes themselves.

One traditional healer, Laye Mamady Doumbouya, had a narrow escape. One night in 2014, at the height of the plague, Doumbouya's household had been asleep for hours when a patient arrived, brought by friends. He says:


I told them that I didn't have enough space in my house, so I couldn't accept him that night. They spent the night in their car, and when I woke up in the morning I noticed that they were still there. So I sent my sons to look for medicine leaves in the bush so that I could treat him, but by the time my sons came back, the man had already died.


The man, it turned out, had fled his from home after his mother died from Ebola, and he was a listed contact. Doumbouya had never seen anybody with Ebola before, though he had heard of the disease; his precaution of not touching the man and not letting him in the house probably saved his family, who were quarantined immediately. He says: "Luckily, none of my family got sick, but we were victims of stigma. Neighbors avoided my family, and people stayed away from my wife when she went to the market."

Guy Yogo -- UNICEF's deputy representative in Guinea, who is working with the government to bring the healers into the health care system -- says the Ebola outbreak was so out-of-control that it undermined faith in the health-care system: "For people to start using the health system again, trust will have to be rebuilt. People wanted good answers about Ebola -- why was there this disease, and why couldn't the health workers deal with it? Ebola was a really scary disease."

Yogo believes traditional healers can help restore confidence: "They are the first-line counselor in communities. The community believes they hold some sort of divine power. They are well-respected, and they've been effective helping us lifting resistance and rebuilding trust in the communities."



* FUEL FROM THE SUN REVISTED (1): The notion of converting the carbon dioxide (CO2) in our atmosphere to fuel using solar power was discussed here in 2010; an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Tailpipe To Tank" by Robert F. Service, 10 September 2015), took another look at the subject.

Chemist Stuart Licht -- of George Washington University, in Washington DC -- has been trying to use the Sun's energy to convert CO2 to hydrocarbon fuel. His process, which also involves water as a feedstock, generates hydrogen (H2) and carbon monoxide (CO), which then can be used to synthesize hydrocarbon fuels. He isn't the only researcher working on such technologies, but his process is one of the most efficient developed so far.

At present, there's no prospect of competing with fossil fuels, but Licht, and others in the field, feel they are making excellent progress. A particular attraction of "solar fuel synthesis" is that it is not affected by the biggest problem of solar power, the fact that the Sun doesn't shine at night. Fuel could be produced during the day, with the shop closing at night.

In effect, the task amounts to running combustion in reverse, transforming energy from the Sun, or other renewables, into chemical bonds. This is precisely what plants do, of course, but they don't do it very efficiently, only converting about 1% of the sunlight falling on them into chemical energy.

The obstacle is that CO2 is a very stable, unreactive molecule, meaning it requires substantial energy to tear it apart. Chemists do so by pumping in electricity, heat, or both. The first step in this process is usually tearing off one of CO2's oxygen atoms to make CO. That CO can then be combined with H2 to make a combination known as "syngas", which can be converted into methanol -- a liquid alcohol that can be either used directly or converted into other valuable chemicals and fuels. Such "Fischer-Tropsch synthesis" has long been used to produce liquid fuels, using feedstocks such as natural gas.

Licht, who calls his solar-generated mixture of CO and H2 "sungas" uses both heat and electricity produced by the Sun to do the job. His setup is based around a commercially-available "concentrator" photovoltaic cell, in which a lens focuses intense sunlight onto a solar cells. Concentrator cells are expensive, but efficient, with 38% conversion efficiency.

The electricity is sent to electrodes in two electrochemical cells: one that splits water molecules, and another that splits CO2. Meanwhile, much of the remaining energy in the sunlight is captured as heat and used to preheat the two cells to hundreds of degrees, a step that lowers the amount of electricity needed to split water and CO2 molecules by roughly 25%. According to Licht, as much as 50% of the incoming solar energy can be converted into chemical energy.

Studies suggest that Licht's process could be economically competitive in maturity, but there are a number of big IFs in that conclusion. Licht's charge-conducting electrolyte uses lithium; supplies of lithium are limited, and could prevent massive scale-up. The high temperature at which Licht's system operates also requires robust construction that drives up cost.

That means a push towards reducing temperatures. One such scheme is already in commercial operation. In Iceland, a company named "Carbon Recycling International" opened a plant in 2012 that uses electricity produced by geothermal energy to create syngas, which is then converted into methanol. Of course, few places are as blessed with geothermal energy as Iceland, so work is underway to find catalysts to allow CO2 to be broken down with less energy. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (3): I got up early at the Hampton Inn in west Des Moines on Tuesday, 4 October, to get on the road to Indianapolis, Indiana. It wasn't so far a drive, but I wanted to get there early enough to see the Indianapolis Zoo. I refueled and ate breakfast at a McDonald's in Iowa City. There was a Walmart store nearby, so I stopped there and bought a new wallet, my old one showing excessive wear. I bought a fabric one; I don't like leather very much, and it was cheaper anyway. It the only extraneous item I bought on the trip.

The drive across southern Illinois was uneventful, cruising through flatlands, cornfields, deciduous forests. The number of windmills declined as I went east. I got to the Indianapolis Zoo at about 3:30 PM; the ticket clerk warned me the zoo closed at 4:00 PM, but I knew that usually zoos don't chase people out for an hour after closing time. I told the clerk that, she checked with others, and they said was the case.

Indianapolis Zoo

Actually, I needn't have worried about having enough time, since the Indianapolis Zoo is small, and I canvassed the whole thing in about 45 minutes. It's very well furnished for its size, however. It has a sea lion tank, which is nothing unusual for zoos, but also a dolphin tank, which is. I had some amusement at the giraffe paddock: a youngster was eyeing me expectantly, obviously expecting to be fed, while its elders were indifferent, knowing it wasn't feeding time.

waiting to be fed

The zoo had a very nice orangutan enclosure, which almost looked like a modern-style church, with a steeple. There was also a small roller-coaster of sorts -- it had suspended gondolas, resembling those used on an aerial cable tramway, instead of coaster cars, which puzzled me. It wasn't in operation at the time, leaving me wondering how it worked in practice. Halloween decorations were again much in evidence.

orangutan house at Indy Zoo

I got maybe about two dozen "keeper" shots out of the Indy Zoo -- not great, but nothing to complain about. That done, I got back on the freeway to get to the Hampton Inn, East Indianapolis. That took me through the center of the city at rush hour, and I knew it would be troublesome; it was. I negotiated the freeway traffic OK, but I was so distracted by the rush that I didn't notice the turnoff for I-70 eastbound. I ended up in a parking lot in northern Indianapolis, trying to figure out where I was.

It was at that time I found out using OneDrive on the smartphone was, if not exactly a mistake, was at least operating under a misunderstanding. I assumed it downloaded the contents of the OneDrive online folder to the phone. That would have been no trouble, since there was well less than a gigabyte in my OneDrive online, and I had an auxiliary 32 GB flash chip in the phone -- that's a ton of storage for most purposes. I figured I could check the maps I downloaded to the phone, even though I wasn't hooked up to wi-fi, but I couldn't find them on the phone.

It turned out, on later investigation, that OneDrive on Android doesn't store files on the phone, it just gives access to the online storage. Since I was only using the phone with wi-fi, that didn't help me out of my jam. One can select files from the online storage to download onto the phone; had it been possible to select entire directories, that would have worked perfectly well, but it wasn't possible. The OneDrive crew is working on that; I'll try again in a year or so.

Fortunately, I was still able to find maps I had otherwise stored on the phone -- I could have got them out of my notebook PC in the back if it had come to that -- and was able to figure out how to get to the Hampton Inn in east Indianapolis. I had to struggle with traffic for a bit, but it wasn't worse than, say, Denver. It was what I call LEVEL 4 traffic, meaning frustrating, but not like LEVEL 5 traffic, meaning terrifying.

I ate at a McDonald's, then made my way to the Hampton Inn, to go through my evening drill. I was running a bit late, but at least I was in the Eastern Time Zone, and not out of sync with the clock any more. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ANOTHER MONTH: On 8 November, being nervous about the presidential election, I decided to take the day off and go shoot photos in Denver. I figured that would work better than being jumpy all day.

I drove down in the morning, making sure I got there after 9:00 AM, when the rush hour would be fading. My first stop was Denver International Airport, out on the prairie to the east. It's a bit of a chore getting there, made more so by road construction. In any case, I parked in the west economy lot, and made my way to the top of the parking garage, where I could get a good view of the west terminal area.

It was pretty good shooting, at least in terms of targets, though on examination I would find the shots suffered from thermal distortions. It doesn't have to get very warm for the air to rise from the tarmac and ruin shots; it's best to shoot on a crisp chilly day. I did get a reasonable shot of a Beech 1900D airliner, which is what I was really after, so no worries. I also got nice shots of the DIA terminal itself, which is photogenic.

DIA terminal building roof

While I was taking shots, a group of women and children from a religious commune -- wearing old-fashioned farm clothes -- came to the end of the parking garage to check things out themselves. The three kids were cute; I was also amused to watch one of the women, in her old-fashioned clothes, talking on a smartphone.

enjoying the view at DIA

I couldn't stay too long, because my next stop was the zoo, and I had to leave the airport in enough time to avoid the mid-day rush hour. I got out on schedule, but I forgot to check exactly what exit to take downtown, and fell somewhat short of target. No worries either, I just squirreled around on back streets and got there, with little time lost.

I made a circuit of the zoo -- I've been there a dozen or more times, so I know my way around. It was a sunny, mild day, so the animals were active, and I got some good shots -- gerenuk antelope with hornbill, dall mountain sheep, red river hog chewing down on its daily veggies, okapi, sea lions, and striped hyenas. They were nothing new, except for the striped hyenas, which I hadn't noticed before. Hyenas give me the creeps; big predators like lions and tigers have some grandeur, but hyenas are just plain killers, and look like them. There was a window from an observing area into the hyena enclosure -- some kids dashed up to the window, startling a hyena, which raised the hackles all along its back. It had looked nasty enough before; it looked well nastier then.

striped hyena at Denver Zoo

There were decorations of sorts around the zoo, large representations of fish, anemones, and the like made out of waste-basket trash. They didn't do anything for me, they just looked like organized piles of trash. In any case, having canvassed the zoo, I went back to the airport to get shots off the west runway, having found a good place to do it some years back. There wasn't much activity, though I did get a few shots of aircraft taking off.

My day tour done, I went to a Fazoli's Italian restaurant in the north of Denver and got a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. Going to Denver that day was a good idea, since as I was eating the anxieties over the election I had managed to avoid came back. I even found myself, to my amusement, shedding tears into my pasta. I did get a fairly nice set of shots, maybe about twenty "keepers", which is a good day's work.

* I refused to check election news when I got home that evening, preferring to wait until morning, when things would be resolved. I was hoping for the best and expecting the worst, but the results still knocked me back hard on my heels. That was odd, since never in my life have I got the slightest bit upset over an election. Exactly what happens next, who knows? Trump's totally unpredictable, he banks on it, being willing to reverse direction without thinking twice about it. It's going to be interesting, if nerve-wracking, to watch.

Incidentally, as far as local-state elections went, they went fairly well, being much more par for the course. Although, to my disappointment, a local tax increase for schools didn't pass, nor did a big hike in cigarette taxes, there were satisfactory wins:

Colorado being a centrist state, Democrats won both congressional votes. Being Democrats was not such a big deal to me, it was just that both the Republican candidates were more or less nutjobs -- one more, one less. The Democrats did improve their position; their minority was marginal, and they gained two seats. I think the tilt back will continue, since the fickle voters tend to turn against the party in power. The politicians of the opposition are inclined to promise magic answers; once called on to perform, they can never meet the unrealistic expectations they have set.

* In any case, I came out of the election with a change in mindset. I wasn't radicalized; I just had a sense of patriotism, that what the USA -- and its system of government -- stand for is worth standing up for. That sense necessarily came along with contempt for the wreckers, the troglodyte Right and the anarcho-libertarians, who are mindlessly trying to tear it all down in a fit of petulance.

Barack Obama leaves the White House on a high note, the contrast between him and his successor being stark. I always wondered just how much the mindless hatred focused on Obama had to do with skin color. After this last ugly election, the answer's obvious: "A lot."

* I suppose I should apologize for readers for running the same installment of the European Union series twice, which I didn't notice until I cleaned up the blog archive for November. I was wondering how I would fill the hole left in the series by eliminating the redundant entry, but no worries -- THE GUARDIAN had a nice little summary of the basic features of the EU, which I easily tidied up and inserted as a footnote to the series.

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