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DayVectors

jan 2017 / last mod sep 2017 / greg goebel

* 22 articles including: Putin's Russia (series), unstoppable renewables (series), last great road trip (series), smaller human microbiome & history of microbiome, rising seas threaten Trump Mar-a-lago resort, eye of the chiton, data-security nightmare, life on brown dwarfs & life feeding on radiation, HPV vaccine, solar power for South Pacific islands, and trade protectionism illusion.

banner of the month


[TUE 31 JAN 17] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2017
[MON 30 JAN 17] UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (5)
[FRI 27 JAN 17] PUTIN'S RUSSIA (1)
[THU 26 JAN 17] WINGS & WEAPONS
[WED 25 JAN 17] SMALLER HUMAN MICROBIOME
[TUE 24 JAN 17] TRUMP AGAINST THE TIDE
[MON 23 JAN 17] UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (4)
[FRI 20 JAN 17] THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (9)
[THU 19 JAN 17] SPACE NEWS
[WED 18 JAN 17] EYE OF THE CHITON
[TUE 17 JAN 17] DATA-SECURITY NIGHTMARE
[MON 16 JAN 17] UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (3)
[FRI 13 JAN 17] THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (8)
[THU 12 JAN 17] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 11 JAN 17] LIFE ON BROWN DWARFS?
[TUE 10 JAN 17] HPV VACCINE WORKS
[MON 09 JAN 17] UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (2)
[FRI 06 JAN 17] THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (7)
[THU 05 JAN 17] SCIENCE NEWS
[WED 04 JAN 17] SOUTH PACIFIC SOLAR
[TUE 03 JAN 17] THE PROTECTIONIST ILLUSION
[MON 02 JAN 17] ANOTHER MONTH

[TUE 31 JAN 17] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2017

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JANUARY 2017: Reports of Russian meddling, via the internet or other channels, in the affairs of other countries have become commonplace. As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("Russia Waging Information War Against Sweden, Study Finds" by Jon Henley, 11 January 2017), the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, a high-level foreign policy group, released a study that claimed Sweden had been the target of "a wide array of active measures" from the Kremlin aimed at "hampering its ability to generate public support in pursuing its policies".

The study said Russia had used misleading reports on its state-run news website Sputnik, as well as more covert methods -- including forged documents and fabricated news items picked up by Sputnik and "other sources of Russian public diplomacy" and broadcast to an international audience. The study added that it was hard to trace the origins of the bogus stories, but said they were consistent with Russian strategic objectives to destabilize and discredit the West.

The Kremlin's primary aim, according to the report, is to "preserve the geo-strategic status quo" by minimizing NATO's role in the Baltic region, and keeping Sweden out of NATO. The study identified 26 forgeries that surfaced in Sweden between the end of 2014 and mid-2016. Most first appeared on "obscure Russian and/or Swedish-language websites". Some, supposedly from Swedish decision-makers, used fake letterheads to increase the impression of authenticity.

The paper also identified "troll armies" targeting journalists and academics; hijacked Twitter accounts; and pro-Kremlin NGOs operating in Sweden, as further weapons in the Russian cyber-war. The bogus news and trolling covered a range of categories, such as "crisis in the west", "positive image of Russia", "western aggression", "international sympathy with Russia", "western policy failures" or "divisions in the western alliance". There was clear hostility to NATO and the EU.

The Kremlin has denied all such meddling. Nobody believes a word of it, and by appearances, the Russians don't honestly expect them to; they're just pranking. As far as the "troll armies" go, it is an open question of how much of it is directly supported by the Kremlin -- and how much of it consists of trolls who are effectively collaborating with the Kremlin, out of sympathy with Russian goals.

* In the latest news of Britain's exit from the European Union, on 17 January British Prime Minister Theresa May finally announced her intentions on Brexit -- that the UK would perform a "hard Brexit", severing its treaty connections with the EU. She rejected any compromise position to remain in the EU single market and customs union. Her bottom line was that the UK would take back control of immigration, and partial measures would simply diminish Britain while denying control over immigration.

There were conciliatory remarks in her speech; she spoke behind the slogan "A Global Britain", and expressed a wish for continuing friendly relations with Europe. Unlike the rabid Leavers, she expressed no hostility to the concept of the EU, and made it clear that Britain still needed to cooperate with the Continent on security and other major issues. May gave an optimistic view of the benefits of hard Brexit, hinting at the popular Leaver vision of a "new Britain", in which the UK throws off most protectionist features of the EU and opens its economy to the rest of the world. The vision is of lower taxes, less regulation, and freer trade -- what has been rendered as "Singapore on steroids".

In reality, in accordance with her Brexit mandate, May is not really focused on that vision. She has set immigration control as her priority, even though today's service businesses depend on being able to move people around at short notice, as does high-tech industry. A similar problem arises with her insistence on dodging the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Free-trade deals demand a neutral referee, and don't work without it.

Trying to cut selective deals with the EU isn't going to work anyway. First, EU leadership has made it clear there will be "no cherry-picking" -- meaning favored access to its market for selected industries. Second, the World Trade Organization doesn't accommodate cherry-picking, either. The WTO accepts free-trade deals and customs unions, but only if they embrace "substantially all the trade". Make an exception for one player, everyone else will expect it as well.

May did make it clear that access to the EU single market meant giving up control of borders and laws -- going so far as to state that staying in the single market would mean "to all intents and purposes" not leaving the EU at all. However, she dodged the reality that hard Brexit will impose severe costs. A YouGov poll conducted for for Open Britain, a pro-EU group, finds that even a majority of Leave voters are not prepared to be made worse off in order to control immigration. May similarly put an undue gloss on matters by pointing out that the British economy hasn't done badly since the Leave vote, ignoring the fact that easy monetary and fiscal policy was established to keep the economy afloat, and the more significant fact that Brexit hasn't happened yet.

May suggests that a free-trade deal with the EU might be obtained in two years, but that's a fantasy. Canada's free-trade deal with the EU has taken seven years, and is not yet in force. The divorce from the EU will be painful. The EU would suffer, but its goods exports to Britain are worth only 3% of its GDP; Britain's to the EU are worth 12% of its own GDP. Further complicating the matter, Britain's Supreme Court has judged that the government will not be able to formally start divorce proceedings without approval by Parliament. It is believed likely approval will be forthcoming. Only the minority Liberal Democrats have been pushing for a second referendum, to ask whether the citizens of Britain really want to take the plunge.

Since the vote for Leave was so narrow, it seems strange that there's so little hesitation in Parliament. One suspects that few MPs are inclined to defy the will of the people. However, the Supreme Court decision also stipulated that the "devolved" Parliaments of Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland had no say in the matter. Given a strong likelihood of a new Scots independence vote in the wake of Brexit, the stakes of charging forward on Brexit without a second referendum are painfully high.

Theresa May is trying to make the best of a bad situation, but she may end up being remembered in history as the prime minister who oversaw the disintegration of the UK. It will be several months at minimum before the government can invoke EU Article 50, beginning the divorce process -- and a lot can happen in a few months.

* Thomas Prouza, Czech Republic's State Secretary for European Affairs, gave the EU view of May's speech on Brexit, saying: "We are none the wiser about how the UK proposes to achieve this transition." -- and adding: "Rhetoric ruled the day, with solutions nowhere in sight." He went on:

BEGIN QUOTE:

.. there is no way that the EU can compromise on the fundamental principles that govern it; you cannot have free trade in goods, services and capital without the interlinked free movement of persons.

... Though May's clear commitment to ensuring the rights of current EU citizens in the UK and current UK citizens in the EU is to be respected, it is regrettable that Britain, at this pivotal moment, hasn't turned away from the narrative of EU workers as a dangerous force compromising the UK job market and social systems.

Time and time again, numbers have shown that EU migrants contribute more to Britain's economy than they take out. Constant vilifying friends across the Channel is an odd footing for UK:EU relations going forward, especially as attacks on foreigners in the UK continue -- and ideas, such as forcing British companies to produce lists of non-British employees, continue to float around.

Nevertheless, the aim of the EU never was, is not, and will not be to punish the UK. That is not a position to build a future relationship on. Therefore, I welcome May's initiative to not move away from the historic ties that link the UK to the continent, but to continue our close co-operation in the areas of defense, security and the fight against terrorism.

In these areas, Britain and the EU will be able to make quick agreements. However, other areas will be much harder to get right, especially as the hard Brexit option suggests there is not much interest in compromises that would require May's Conservative Party spending political capital on unpopular issues, including fulfilling the many commitments the UK entered into in the past.

Free trade does not happen by default; it is not the natural state that nations revert to. On the contrary, in order for free trade to flourish, nations must collaborate on ensuring compatibility between their national legal systems, melding their rules and regulations to bring down trade barriers.

BEGIN QUOTE

May's quick visit to the White House to meet Donald Trump on 27 January does not seem to have done her much good. While she got commitments from Trump on the US:UK "special relationship" and the importance of NATO, everyone knows that verbal assurances from Trump aren't worth the paper they're written on. It's not a cheap shot to call him a bald-faced liar; he barely pretends to tell the truth.

Talk of a post-Brexit trade arrangement between the US and the UK was seen as "pie in the sky" by critics, and amounting to little more than Trump's "commitment" to NATO. May's visit was quickly followed by the Trump Administration's malign and bungling travel ban on Muslims, which lent an embarrassing color to May's trip -- bringing up memories of how her predecessor Tony Blair became inescapably identified as George W. Bush's poodle.

* As reported by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("Barack Obama: Justice Served By Chelsea Manning Commutation", by Sabrina Siddiqui and Ed Pilkington, 19 January 2017), one of Barack Obama's last acts as President of the United States was to free Chelsea Manning, a transgender US Army soldier serving a 35-year sentence for releasing classified documents on Wikileaks. She is to be released on 17 May.

Manning, born Bradley Edward Manning, was a former intelligence analyst in Iraq. Manning became disillusioned with the conduct of the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, to place more than 700,000 diplomatic cables, videos, and documents on WikiLeaks on 2010, to soon be arrested. She was convicted on a long list of charges and sent to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Manning became highly controversial, her supporters calling her a freedom fighter and protesting her harsh treatment in custody; while her detractors called her a traitor, and suggested she be shot.

Obama was bitterly criticized for his leniency, but he defended the action as "entirely appropriate". He said: "Let's be clear: Chelsea Manning has served a tough prison sentence. The notion that the average person who is thinking about disclosing vital classified information would think that it goes unpunished ... I don't think would get that impression from the sentence that Chelsea Manning has served."

Obama made it clear that mercy did not imply exoneration: "It has been my view that given she went to trial, that due process was carried out, that she took responsibility for her crime ... and that she had served a significant amount of time. That it makes sense to commute, and not pardon, her sentence."

The incoming Trump administration insists that Manning is a traitor -- which Obama did not deny -- and might try to undo the commutation. However, legal experts say that isn't in the cards. Dr. Jeffrey Crouch of American University, author of THE PRESIDENTIAL PARDON POWER, said that "once clemency is offered, delivered and accepted, pretty much everyone acknowledges that it's irreversible. There doesn't seem to be any dispute about those three steps here."

President Trump has little comprehension of, and less interest in, constitutional niceties -- but his powers are limited by them, whether he cares to recognize it or not. Manning might, however, consider leaving the country for her own safety, since the Right-wing extremist network may well hunt her down. She has sympathizers all over the world who could help her relocate.

Obama, in releasing Manning, declined to comment on an offer by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to face extradition to the US in the wake of the Manning commutation. "I don't pay a lot of attention to Mr. Assange's tweets."

In short, to hell with Assange; now he gets to make his case to President Trump. Since Assange's releases, by his own admission, targeted Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump has some reason to be grateful to Assange; but Trump has also threatened to execute leaker Edward Snowden, should the US get custody of him. Assange would be most unwise to think Trump a friend.

As a general comment on the dangerously ambiguous status of leakers, Obama said: "What I can say broadly is that in this new cyber age, we're going to have to make sure that we continually work to find the right balance of accountability and openness and transparency that is the hallmark of our democracy, but also recognize that there are adversaries and bad actors out there who want to use that same openness in ways that hurt us." The notion of "balance", however, is not one easily associated with the Trump Administration.

* US Vice President Joe Biden, in one of his last acts in the White House, swore in incoming senators, the high point being the swearing-in of Senator John McCain (R-AZ). McCain is obviously not in very close tune with Donald Trump; while Biden is a bit of an American Prince Philip, noted for unexpected ad-libs. Biden swore in McCain, concluding: "May you well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which you are about to enter, so help you God."

McCain replied: "I will."

Then Biden earnestly added: "I have no doubt about it. Thank God you're here. I'm so glad you ran again, I really am." Biden took selfies with McCain's family and clowned around. saying to McCain as he left: "You're the best, John."

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[MON 30 JAN 17] UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (5)

* UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (5): Even if -- when -- Donald Trump pulls out of the Paris Agreement and cuts off the US contributions stipulated in the accord, transfers of money from rich to poor nations to help them fight climate change appear less essential than they once did. It was once a common ploy among poorer nations to, in effect, hold themselves hostage to obtain money from rich nations, saying in effect: pay up, or we won't take measures to protect our environments.

Now these countries are increasingly realizing that they need to act to limit climate change for their own sakes, whether they get help or not. In Marrakesh, 48 of the poorest countries promised to supply their entire energy needs from renewable sources by 2050. Rachel Kyte, a UN energy official, says that many more are looking for help to set up energy-efficiency schemes, and to determine how best to spend what money they have.

Among the developing nations, China is the giant by far in terms of emissions, but few doubt that Chinese leadership is completely serious about dealing with climate change, China's serious environmental problems being seen as a challenge to Chinese Communist Party rule. Thanks in large part to a heavy reliance on coal, air pollution in Chinese cities is appalling: according to research published in 2015, spending a day in Beijing does about the same harm to a person's health as smoking 40 cigarettes.

China's progress in dealing with emissions is evident; in fact, slowing economic growth and falling demand for coal in China mean that it may already have passed the high point of emissions, about 15 years ahead of the date it promised under the Paris deal. Some observers believe Chinese authorities deliberately set conservative targets, knowing they would be easily achieved. That doesn't mean the government is indifferent to reducing emissions; by 2020, China plans to have tripled its solar capacity -- already greater than that of any other country -- to 143 gigawatts (GW). For comparison, in 2014 the world's entire installed solar capacity came to 181 GW.

A Chinese government push towards renewables would necessarily establish Chinese firms as leaders in a fast-growing, and profitable, global market. While Donald Trump postures over unprofitable coal-mines, China could be taking a commanding lead in batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines.

The renewables boom is accelerating; costs have come down considerably in the last few years, and with growing economies of scale, will fall further. Although government subsidies in some places, including the UK, are being cut, renewable energy sources are becoming more commercially attractive. In some places, offshore wind energy costs just half as much as it did three years ago; and solar installations in the world's sunniest spots now offer power at less than 3 cents per kilowatt-hour, cheaper than even the most economical gas plants.

The volatile price of fossil fuels also makes them less attractive when planning new generating capacity. Nobody seriously doubts that fossil fuels are heading into diminishing returns; in contrast, a long-term strategy based on renewables can look forward to lower costs.

For India, too, cheaper renewable energy will be extremely valuable. Around 300 million of its people, mostly in rural areas, have no electricity supply, and can greatly benefit from off-grid solar installations. India has pledged to install 175 GW of renewable capacity by 2022, most of it solar. That would mean doubling solar capacity every 18 months or so, but the country is more or less on track to meet that goal.

Indian officials and businessmen working on renewable energy say the country's plans will not be affected if the US pulls out of the Paris Agreement. The same sentiment is echoed elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, surprisingly, has announced new efficiency schemes for energy and water, which will make it easier to cut huge subsidies to both, and thereby force demand down further. Indonesia is also cutting subsidies for fossil fuels; until recently, these absorbed a bigger share of public spending than either health or education.

When the Copenhagen climate talks collapsed in 2009, Chinese indifference was widely blamed. Chinese officials now look forward to their country being a leader in global environmental efforts -- though the Chinese, having partnered with the US on pushing through the Paris Agreement, would prefer that America stay on as a partner. However, if the US pulls out, at least for the duration of the Trump Administration, China is going to push on, as will most of the rest of the world. The USA will be back, guaranteed. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 27 JAN 17] PUTIN'S RUSSIA (1)

* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Our American Cousin", 12 November 2016), when Russian law-makers found that businessman Donald J. Trump had been elected President of the United States, they burst into applause; Russian state-controlled media was similarly pleased. Trump had made his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin apparent through the campaign, and called for joining hands with Russia. Putin said he welcomed the opportunity to restore "full-fledged relations with the United States."

Trump's win was portrayed in and out of Russia as a coup for Putin. A USA friendly to Russia might well recognize Russia's annexation of Crimea, drop sanctions, and provide guarantees for a Russian sphere of influence -- somewhat along the lines created at Yalta in 1945. If that's expecting too much, Putin could take comfort in the scene of an America bogged down in dissension and political infighting. Putin's government is authoritarian, controlled by the security services; a powerful USA under the control of liberal democracy represents an implied reprimand to his rule, and he can take pleasure in watching its diminishment.

Russian hardliners are happy, Russian liberals distraught. Russia's smaller neighbors are fearful of an arrangement between the US and Russia that sells them out, a scenario unpleasantly reminiscent of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet pact.

However, a Trump victory may not prove as big a win for the Kremlin as it might seem up front. TIME correspondent Davide Monteleone in Moscow, later reporting on the public reaction to the Trump inauguration, found little interest: "Most of the people I know here refuse to watch TV, nor did they have any intention of following the inauguration ceremonies in Washington ... nobody seemed interested in the topic when I asked."

Monteleone judged such media promotions of Trump as "PR events", suggesting the superficiality of Russian enthusiasm. It is even harder to see much enthusiasm on this side of the Pond. After all, previous US presidential administrations had attempted rapprochement with Russia, Barack Obama entering the White House with an attempt to perform a "reset" -- which went nowhere. As Winston Churchill observed decades ago: "Russia fears our friendship more than it fears our enmity." For Putin, the US is a convenient enemy, useful for justifying his heavy-handed rule. His view of relations with the USA is as a zero-sum game, that for Russia to win, the US must lose.

ALL HAIL VLADIMIR PUTIN, THE SAWDUST STALIN

Cooperation isn't really in the cards. Nobody can really figure out why Trump claims to like Putin so much. On the geo-political chessboard, Russia has little to offer the US; any deal struck with Putin would cost too much and buy too little. Putin can't figure it out either, which translates into distrust, aggravated by Putin's insecurities over an America so much more powerful and influential than Russia. Putin will assume that Trump is either up to some trickery, or that he is a fool -- neither attitude being one that could foster a good relationship.

Should the two men meet face to face, they are unlikely to get along well. Both men lie often and easily; Putin will sensibly assume Trump is lying, while Trump will not take being lied to with good humor. Putin is necessarily uncomfortable with Trump's friendly gestures; he can't trust them, but doesn't want to reject them just yet. Hillary Clinton would have been a much more convenient president, being both predictable and easily demonized.

There's another unpleasant implication for Vladimir Putin in the election of Donald Trump, in that it was another manifestation of the global populist backlash against the status quo. Putin and his cronies have been in power for the better part of two decades; Russians who see people elsewhere rising up against the established order might well get ideas. Even some Russian opposition activists see Trump's election as subversive to Putin's state.

On the home front, Trump's overtures to Putin have been causing him trouble. Trump reacted angrily to a report from US intelligence services that Russia meddled with America's election -- as well as he might, since that calls into question the legitimacy of his election. That in itself is not such a real worry to Trump, since nobody is effectively challenging the legitimacy of his election. However, it places Trump in an awkward position as he enters office; and his reaction has been to bluster.

Trump simply dismisses the Democrats, indeed all but jeers at them, knowing they are implacably opposed to him. The Republicans have been highly supportive of Trump, but that's only a marriage of convenience -- that is, they are agreeable as long as Trump is agreeable to the Republican agenda. The Republicans are liable to turn against him if he becomes a clear liability to them. Should Trump go so far as to, say, recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, things are going to happen in Congress.

Russia ends up being lost in all the furor, reduced to a supporting role in a black comedy. However, Russia has not gone away, will not go away, and the USA will have to deal sensibly with Russia. To do so will require a better understanding of the unpleasant way things work there. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 26 JAN 17] WINGS & WEAPONS

* WINGS & WEAPONS: Although there were complaints when the production of the US Air Force's F-22 Raptor air-dominance fighter was cut off, with talk of lobbying to put it back into production, the protests were overblown. In reality, combat aircraft wear out in a few decades, having exceeded their airframe lives, and have to be replaced -- and, of course, by improved machines. Why put an old aircraft back into production, instead of buying a new and better one?

As a case in point, the Pentagon is now investigating a "Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD)" fighter to follow the USAF and US Navy Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and the USN's Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet. In May, the USAF released an "Air Superiority 2030 Flight Plan", outlining a program integrating mates cyber warfare, electronic warfare, and even space capabilities to advance the state of the art in air-to-air and air-to-ground warfighting. As far as NGAD went, the plan envisioned that it would be stealthier and have more range than current platforms.

next-generation fighter concept

The stealth issue is that low-frequency radars can still detect stealthy aircraft, if not target them at all well; defeating them might involve some sort of deception jamming, and not necessarily a stealthy airframe. The range issue might be addressed by inflight refueling by a stealthy tanker able to penetrate adversary airspace. That lends an interesting color to the USN's development of the MQ-25 Stingray carrier-based drone, discussed here last June, primarily as a tanker -- which seemed something like a curious bring-down for a development program that started out to generate a stealthy drone strike aircraft. In any case, NGAD is strictly an investigation; what happens, who knows?

* Incidentally, while the primary mission of the MQ-25 is supposed to be mid-air refueling, other roles haven't been ruled out, with the Pentagon sending out a feeler to industry in August for payloads the Stingray would carry in the "intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR)" role. The "request for information (RFI)" stated:

EGIN QUOTE:

ISR capability will be evaluated to the extent in which it can be incorporated within the tanking trade space. ISR capabilities may include maritime domain awareness via signal intelligence (SIGINT), automatic identification system (AIS), and electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) sensors.

END QUOTE

It seems the emphasis, as per the RFI, is on a "small, lightweight EO/IR sensor suite that can track small boats and combatants through a thick maritime atmosphere" -- with the focus on an off-the-shelf solution. That makes a great deal of sense, because existing sensor turrets are available with almost any capability one might reasonably want, and are being continuously refined, allowing platforms to upgrade to a more capable turret later.

There is the question of whether the Navy really sees the MQ-25 as a tanker first and foremost, or just sees that as a way of selling a multi-role drone aircraft to Congress. That's an idle question since, if queried on the matter, the Navy would insist that it's all on the level.

* As discussed by an item from AVIATION WEEK Online ("US Air Force Wants Stealthy, Laser-Shooting Next-Gen Tanker" by Lara Seligman, 28 September 2016), along with the NGAD fighter, the Air Force is also considering a next-generation inflight-refueling tanker -- even though the new KC-46 tanker hasn't entered service yet.

Dedicated tanker aircraft have, to this time, generally been modifications of airliners or cargolifters. Air Force planners are now starting to worry about the possibly of tankers being detected and destroyed by very-long-range Russian or Chinese anti-aircraft missiles, crippling US offensive capability. In the future, will there really be any such thing as "protected airspace"?

As a result, the next-generation "KC-Z" tanker may be a departure from the past, being stealthy, armed with defensive lasers to shoot down missiles, and capable of autonomous operation. Concepts for the KC-Z at present are drawing off the Air Force Research Laboratory's (AFRL) "Speed Agile" concept demonstration, a collaborative effort conducted by AFRL, NASA, Boeing and Lockheed Martin from 2002 to 2012 to consider a stealthy, short-takeoff-and-landing airlifter. The KC-Z might also leverage off Lockheed's "Hybrid Wing Body (HWB)" -- a manta-ray-like flying wing and Boeing's "Blended Wing Body (BWB)" -- like the HWB forward, but with a more conventional rear section -- which are concepts for a more fuel-efficient next-generation airlifter. Neither was designed to be stealthy, but they are seen as suited to it.

The USAF will introduce the KC-46 into service in the last half of 2017, with 179 tankers currently planned. The service had planned to pursue a "KC-Y" acquisition starting in 2024, followed by a KC-Z in 2036. However, service brass are now thinking about leapfrogging KC-Y for a next-generation KC-Z. Alternatively, KC-Y could just be a modernized KC-46. The KC-Z would likely come online in the 2030:40 timeframe.

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[WED 25 JAN 17] SMALLER HUMAN MICROBIOME

* SMALLER HUMAN MICROBIOME: As reported by an item from Nature.com "Scientists Bust Myth That Our Bodies Have More Bacteria Than Human Cells" by Alison Abbott, 8 January 2016), it is a well-established truism that our bodies contain about ten times more cells of bacteria and other human microbiome commensals than there are cells in our body itself.

However, researchers in Israel and Canada have demonstrated that this truism is untrue, determining the ratio is more line one-to-one. A "reference man" -- one who is 70 kilograms (154 pounds), 20:30 years old, and 1.7 meters (5.6 feet) tall, contains on average about 30 trillion human cells and 39 trillion bacteria, according to Ron Milo and Ron Sender at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, and Shai Fuchs at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, Canada. The numbers are approximate -- another person might have half as many, or twice as many, bacteria -- but far from the 10:1 ratio commonly assumed.

The 10:1 myth persisted from a 1972 estimate by microbiologist Thomas Luckey, which was a credible but not definitive study. In 2014, Milo, Sender and Fuchs decided to re-estimate the number by reviewing a wide range of recent experimental data in the literature, including DNA analyses to calculate cell number, and magnetic-resonance imaging to calculate organ volume. Incidentally, the vast majority of human cells are red blood cells.

The researchers say a particular difficulty in Luckey's work related to the concentrations of bacteria in our guts. Luckey estimated that guts contain around 10^14 bacteria, by assuming that there were 10^11 bacteria in a gram of feces -- and scaling that up by the one-liter volume of the alimentary canal, which stretches from the mouth to the anus. However, bacteria are heavily concentrated in the colon, which has a volume of 0.4 liters, and it appears Luckey also over-estimated the number of bacteria in a stool sample. The new analyses gives the ratio for an average man as 1.3:1, with a wide range of variation.

* In other microbiome news, as discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, while it has proven a matter of great interest that we host a community of micro-organisms that are essential to our personal health, a closer look at that community, the "microbiome", shows it features, like ecosystems in any context, an element of competition and antagonism among its members.

Andrew Goodman of Yale University and colleagues have found that gut bacteria continually wage war on their neighbors, possibly as a way to stake out space. The team injected different strains of Bacteroides fragilis, a species of gut-dwelling bacteria into mice that lacked their own microbes. When they analyzed the rodents' stools over time, they found evidence that the strains were attacking each other.

Different strains of B. fragilis inject different combinations of toxins into neighboring bacteria. Bacteria within the same strain are immune to the toxins secreted by their strain-mates, but other species or strains of bacteria can be killed, giving the attacking strain more room to spread out. The toxins are only effective at short range, however -- which can be seen as a form of "limited warfare" that prevents local clashes from disrupting the entire community, resulting in its extinction.

* In still more microbiome news, as discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Microbes In Our Guts Have Been With Us For Millions Of Years" by Ann Gibbons, 21 July 2016), a new study shows that we've had most our gut microbes for millions of years, but also shows that we lost some of them that persist in our great ape cousins. That might help explain some human diseases, and possibly even obesity or mental disorders.

One of the basic questions in microbiome research is whether we obtained our microbiome from the environment, or from our ancestors. A study of fecal bacteria across all mammals suggested that the microbes are more likely to be inherited than acquired from the environment; but other studies have found that diet plays a major role in shaping the bacteria in our guts.

To investigate the question, Andrew Moeller -- a postdoc at the University of California in Berkeley -- decided to assess the microbiomes of the great apes. Moeller examined gut bacteria isolated from fecal samples from 47 chimpanzees from Tanzania; 24 bonobos from the Democratic Republic of the Congo; 24 gorillas from Cameroon; and 16 humans from Connecticut. He and colleagues from the University of Texas (UT) in Austin examined a single rapidly-evolving gene commonly found in the gut bacteria of apes, including humans, the gene acting as a rough "clock".

It turns out that most of our gut microbes have been evolving along with us for a long time. Moeller found that two of three major families of gut bacteria in apes and humans trace their origins to a common ancestor more than 15 million years ago. As different species of apes arose from this common ancestor, their gut bacteria evolved with each species in turn, to adapt to differences in the diets, habitats, and diseases in the gastrointestinal tracts of their hosts. The different microbiomes became finely tuned to help to help train our immune systems, guide the development of our intestines, and even modulate moods and behaviors. After the ape species diverged, some also lost distinct strains of bacteria that persisted in other primates, likely another sign of adaptation in the host.

The researchers then performed a second analysis, comparing the same gene examined in the first analysis between the people from Connecticut and a group of people from Malawi. They found that the bacterial strains from these Africans diverged from those of the Americans about 1.7 million years ago, corresponding to the earliest exodus of human ancestors out of Africa. Moeller believes that microbiome analysis can be used to trace out early human and animal migrations.

Interestingly, the Americans lacked some of the strains of bacteria found in Malawians -- and in gorillas and chimps -- which fits with the general reduction in gut microbiome diversity that has been observed in people in industrialized societies, possibly because of better hygiene, or changes in diet and the use of antibiotics. The loss of these strains may be having a negative effect on health.

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[TUE 24 JAN 17] TRUMP AGAINST THE TIDE

* TRUMP AGAINST THE TIDE: US President Donald Trump has made it entirely clear he doesn't buy the notion of human-caused climate change -- but as discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Trump's Tax Bill For Global Warming" by Michael Smith and Jonathan Levin, 19 December 2016), climate change is knocking at his own door.

Welcome to Mar-a-Lago, Trump's oceanfront club above billionaire's row in Palm Beach, Florida. Climate change may not be a concern to Trump, but it is to Palm Beach municipal officials. In 2016, the town overhauled twelve pumping stations to push storm runoff up a huge pipe to the Intracoastal Waterway under a 20-year, $120 million USD infrastructure plan to deal with increased rainfall and street flooding, among other issues. Palm Beach's system can now handle almost 380 million liters (1 million gallons) of runoff a minute. Palm Beach Town Manager Thomas Bradford doesn't make a fuss about the matter: "I just deal with the reality that sea levels are rising. I don't want to rile people up about it."

Anybody with a concern for details might find the facts enough to get riled up about. A bike path along the Intracoastal Waterway floods when the full moon and high seas cause "king tides", which have grown more intense. Brackish water bubbles out of the ground, forced up by pressure on the water table from rising sea levels. According to Palm Beach County's online climate-change mapping tool, the back quarter or so of Mar-a-Lago's grounds will flood if sea levels rise 60 to 90 centimeters (two to three feet). The town has updated the local construction code to require higher seawalls around homes built on the water because of the threat of higher seas.

In 2015, Palm Beach county set up a department dedicated to handling climate change, and hired Natalie Schneider, a marine policy and planning specialist, to be its first climate-change and sustainability coordinator. This year, the county will add two more people to her department. Schneider says, with some understatement: "These are all very complex issues that I know some people have trouble understanding. We're anticipating the extremes will get more extreme, and we have to get everyone engaged in preparing for that."

Palm Beach County has not been afflicted by mass hysteria; public officials in Florida's coastal regions all know how low-lying the terrain is, and all know the seas are slowly, persistently, rising. Since 2010, the county has participated since 2010 in joint planning with neighboring Broward, Miami-Dade, and Monroe counties under the Southeast Florida Regional Climate Change Compact. According to a report produced by the group, sea levels in the region could increase from the 2010 mean level as much as 18 centimeters (7 inches) by 2030, and 60 centimeters (two feet) by 2060.

Over a half-billion dollars worth of property in Palm Beach County is vulnerable to even a 30-centimeter (1-foot) rise in sea level. That concerns Robin Bernstein, a Mar-a-Lago member who's president of an insurance brokerage: "Three feet of water-level change would severely impact us." She has faith in the new president, however: "What I trust in Donald Trump is that he will look at all sides of an issue. He will surround himself with the best and the brightest people and find ways to come up with creative solutions to combat today's and tomorrow's problems."

John Morgan, director for environmental services in Delray Beach, south of Palm Beach, places no weight on the prospect of Trump facing reality. Morgan estimates the town sees 30 to 45 days a year of street flooding caused by king tides; it used to be just a few days a year. Like Palm Beach, Delray is spending millions of dollars to install special valves and pumps to keep rising seas out of storm sewers, and there are plans to raise seawalls. Morgan says: "Sea-level rise is happening, and we have to adapt. And I'm sure that the folks at Mar-a-Lago are going to want to adapt, too."

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[MON 23 JAN 17] UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (4)

* UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (4): While the Trump Administration may not find it easy, or worthwhile, to kill off many of the environmental measures established by the Obama Administration, some of Obama's efforts are vulnerable. They include a handful passed as executive orders -- for example, one that mandates the energy-efficiency standards of Federal agencies.

In addition, any regulation issued between Trump's election and his inauguration could be frozen, at least temporarily. Incoming administrations often threaten to revoke such "midnight regulations" -- but rarely do so, to avoid the trouble of having to replace them, as they must. However, Trump has no attachment to tradition, when he even knows the traditions exist, and there's no saying he won't move against Obama environmental measures, such as a rule issued on 15 November to control leaks of methane from oil and gas operations on Federal lands. Then again, Trump might not think it worth his bother; there's not much theater in it, and it would buy him little.

With Republic control of the White House and both houses of Congress, Republican congressmen could take action against Obama's regulations as well. Under a rarely-used law, the "Congressional Review Act", Congress can revoke any rule, with a majority vote, within 60 congressional working-days of its issuance. Since Congress has not been very active in recent months, it could in theory scrap all regulations issued since the spring of 2016.

The only variable is that the Republicans have a narrow majority in the Senate, and it wouldn't take many cross-overs of Republican senators to turn a majority vote in the other direction. Not all Republican congressmen like Trump's style or agenda; he is potentially more of a liability to the Republican Party than an asset to it. The Republic Party is solidly backing Trump for now, but that's because he's seen as a wedge to push the party agenda. If he crosses the Republicans, and he's perfectly capable of doing so, resistance may grow.

Obama's most important environmental regulation is the Clean Power Plan, which seeks to limit carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power stations. It is considered crucial to America's chances of fulfilling its commitment under the Paris accord to cut its emissions, by 2025, to 26:28% below their 2005 level. Trump has promised to scrap the plan. It is currently stayed by the Supreme Court while a legal challenge by 27 states and some companies is considered in the Federal appeals court in Washington DC. If that court rules against it, the Trump Administration would of course not appeal. If it is upheld, its challengers would appeal to the Supreme Court, where the Trump Administration might refuse to defend it. If it makes it through the Supreme Court, the Trump EPA could probably rescind and replace it.

However, even if the Trump Administration does, as would a good bet, overturn the Clean Power Plan, that would not persuade many electricity companies or states to reverse the shift they are already making towards renewables and away from coal. The growth of renewables has helped cut America's emissions from power generation by around a quarter since 2005. The main reason for that progress, an abundance of cheap shale gas, pulls the rug out from under another piece of Trump bluster: his empty promise to revive the coal industry.

America's shale-gas revolution has made generating electricity from gas almost as cheap as generating it from coal; if the prospect of future environmental restraints on coal is factored in, gas is the better deal. To be sure, Trump is not going to push for any restraints on coal, but neither can he ensure that the administration that follows his will be so lenient -- and building a coal-fired power plant requires long-term planning, focused beyond the time that Trump could possibly be in office. Nobody would think the investment worth the risk.

Coal is on the run anyway. Gas is catching up and passing coal for generating America's electricity. 94 coal-fired power-stations closed in 2015, with about half that many shuttered in 2016. Trump's promise to open public lands for coal exploitation cannot save coal. Indeed, in trying to boost coal, he won't be able to avoid hindering natural gas and renewables.

In the optimistic view, the environmental damage caused by a one-term Trump Administration may be limited. The pessimistic view is that Trump may regard environmental regulation as an easy target, working hard to demolish it to please his supporters. Then again, like Trump, his supporters are more concerned with appearances than realities, and environmental regulation is generally popular with Americans. Trump is fighting against the bureaucratic and popular tide in taking on environmental regulation.

In addition, should Trump withdraw from the Paris Agreement, that would weaken his bargaining position in every other international bargain he might wish to make. James Cameron, the chairman of the Overseas Development Institute, a British think tank, suggests that might pressure Trump into staying in: "If you renege on deals, you don't get the one you want next time."

However, Trump has strange notions of diplomacy; though he loudly proclaims his belief in "America First", that oddly translates into the rejection of the idea that the US should maintain a position of global leadership -- somehow seeing that as America passively accepting exploitation by inferior nations. Trump appears to see diplomacy as a zero-sum game, that America can win only if others lose. Nobody will be surprised if he does pull out. That would slow down progress on emissions control.

Signatories to the Paris agreement have until 2018 to work out how to tally up the results of their environmental efforts; in 2020, they will assign themselves set new, hopefully tougher, targets. Without American involvement, the process will likely be less robust, more secretive, less ambitious, and subject to more fudging. The agreement also stipulates that by 2020, $100 billion USD a year is supposed to be available, most of it for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and the rest for helping countries to adapt to climate change. Rich countries are to foot most of the bill, and that will be more difficult if America pulls out.

Just three days before Trump took office, Barack Obama did manage to transfer $500 million USD to the "Green Climate Fund" set up under the Paris Agreement, adding to an earlier $500 million USD transfer. That still leaves $2 billion hanging from the near-term US pledge; nobody is expecting Donald Trump to pony up. Once Trump is gone, will the US pick up where things left off? It seems reasonable to think so, but that remains to be seen. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 20 JAN 17] THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (9)

* THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (9): I got out of Independence, Missouri, early on the morning of Monday, 9 October, going through Kansas City. Although I had dodged toll roads going out, it turned out there was one going into Topeka. It was only a few bucks, not a big deal -- though when I checked my wallet after paying, I thought: Didn't I put a $50 bill in there this morning? If so, it wasn't there any more.

I checked around the car thoroughly to see if I'd dropped it; no joy. I knew weariness was coming into play on me after being on the road so long, so I thought I might not have put a $50 bill in my wallet after all. Still, just on the thought that I'd lost it, I tallied it into my trip expenses.

Colorado sorghum fields

I was eager to get home in any case, and there wasn't much to distract me. I did stop in flatlands of Kansas to get panoramic shots of the desolation, and in eastern Colorado to get fields of sorghum, backed up by wind turbines. Incidentally, unlike the northerly route I took east, the crops were more diverse coming back -- not just corn, but also sunflowers, sorghum, and some other crops I didn't recognize so easily. I was tired, the trip was dull; I had a plastic tub on the passenger seat with various kit, and passed the time figuring out how many pens I had in it, and if they were all operational. Turned out that I had ten working pens. I wondered how I had accumulated them.

The only excitement I had was when I stopped in Fort Morgan, Colorado, to fuel up and have a snack. I was rummaging around in my bathroom kit, and somehow by a freak slashed open the tip of my left thumb on my shaving razor. It wasn't that painful, but it took about 15 minutes to get the bleeding to stop. It would heal up in about ten days.

Since my route took me by Denver International Airport and I was making good time, I decided to stop and try planespotting from the top of the parking garage as an experiment. I did make the mistake of trying to park in the garage instead of the external lots; it was hard to find parking in the garage, but there was no problem with getting into the parking garages from the external lots. The photoshoot was okay, but it was the wrong time of the day; I was shooting west into the descending Sun, and the photos were backlit. I didn't realize until later that I would have had good shooting from the mirror parking garage on the east side of the terminal.

runway traffic at DIA

After that, back home north to Loveland. I didn't realize just how punchy I was until I found that I completely missed my usual exit from Interstate 25 to Loveland, and ended up at the next exit to the north -- which I didn't even recognize as first. Geez, I must be more tired than I think. I didn't think at the time that was a dangerous condition to be in when dealing with freeway traffic. Never mind, I got home in reasonable time to unpack. It was nice to sleep in my own bed.

On checking email later, I found I had received one of the oddest messages I had seen in a long time. The author claimed to be an ex-pilot, saying he had criticisms of one of my ebooks -- and that if he wrote a bad review, I would never sell a copy again. I replied: "Oh no! I'm so skeered!" I repeatedly asked him what his problems with the ebook were, but he just complained that I wasn't treating him with the respect he deserved, to which I thought: "Oh, but I believe I am." He finally went away in a huff.

* I had to account, in the end, that the trip was a disappointment. I had hoped to substantially enhance my photo collection, but the payoff was unspectacular; the visit to the USAF Museum, which was supposed to be the most significant stop, was a total bust. I took over 3,000 raw photos in all; they only yielded a few hundred "keepers", and maybe a handful of photos that I honestly thought were really good.

The trip was also too rushed; it would have been preferable to spend two days at the National Mall, for instance. However, stretching the trip out another day or two would have made it more tiring and expensive as well. The real bottom line was that there was little memorable about the trip. Oddly, the most memorable elements were my contacts with people, like the Russian (?) hipsters on the bus in DC. This is strange because I'm a solitary sort, with little interest in associations with people. It seems I've learned to like dealing with people -- at least in an arm's-length fashion -- to the extent that I've become more of a wiseguy as I've got older.

Anyway, I really wasn't too discouraged; on cleaning up the photo haul, I determined I'd picked up about 30 useful shots a day for the eight days of the trip, which was nothing to be complain about. Trip planning and execution had also gone well. There were a few mishaps, not more in number than I might have expected, and those that were due to failures in planning provided instruction for the future. I picked up a lot of smartphone tricks, and other gimmicks like the travel pack and projection clock worked out nicely. I came in well under budget for the trip, even though I was inclined to spend if I felt the need.

Besides, I'd only decided to make the trip because I figured I might as well do it and be done with it. I would have gone sooner or later, and it was unlikely it would have worked out much better; in fact, given how much trouble one can get into on a long-range trip, it could have worked out much worse. I knew that this would be my "last great road trip", and it was. Eight days on the on the road was tough. Trips will be regional, running from three to six days, tops. I was thinking of taking an air trip to revisit the National Mall -- but if so, not soon. Four years from now, to bring in the new era? [END OF SERIES]

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[THU 19 JAN 17] SPACE NEWS

* Space launched for December included:

-- 01 DEC 16 / PROGRESS 65P (ISS / FAILURE) -- A Soyuz-U booster was launched from Baikonur at 1451 GMT (local time - 6) to put the "Progress MS-04" AKA "Progress 65P" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. The spacecraft did not make orbit.

-- 05 DEC 16 / GOEKTURK 1 -- A Vega booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 1351 UTC (local time + 3) to put the "Goekturk 1" reconnaissance satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit for the Turkish military. Goekturk 1 had a launch mass of 1,060 kilograms (2,337 pounds), and a design life of seven years. It carried an imaging system with sub-meter resolution.

-- 07 DEC 16 / RESOURCESAT 2A -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 0454 UTC (local time - 5:30) to put the "Resourcesat 2A" remote sensing satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit. Resourcesat 2A was the third in the Resourcesat series; it had a launch mass of 1,235 kilograms (2,723 pounds), a payload of three imaging systems, and a design life of five years. The payloads of Resourcesat 2A were generally the same as those of the two space platforms before it, the instruments including:

All three cameras operated in multiple spectral bands; all three could perform observations in green, red and near-infrared light. LISS-3 and AWiFS had an additional short-wave infrared band.

ResourceSat 2A

The Resourcesat spacecraft, along with the Cartosat and Oceansat programs, are the successors to ISRO's Indian Remote Sensing (IRS) series of satellites which were initially launched in 1988. The first two satellites, "IRS 1A" and "IRS 1B", were launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome aboard Soviet Vostok-2M boosters, these being the final flights of that series.

A third satellite, "IRS 1E" AKA "IRS P1", was derived from an engineering model built alongside the original satellites and intended as a relatively low-risk payload for the PSLV's maiden flight in September 1993; the PSLV didn't make orbit. The "IRS P2" satellite was launched successfully on the PSLV's second mission in October 1994, as a demonstrator ahead of a second-generation pair of satellites. These two satellites, "IRS 1C" and "IRS 1D", were launched in 1995 and 1997, the first aboard a Russian Molniya-M/2BL booster, and the second aboard a PSLV. The PSLV's fourth stage under-performed, leaving IRS 1D in a lower-than-planned orbit.

Another experimental IRS satellite, "IRS P3", was launched by a PSLV in March 1996. The "IRS P4", "IRS P5", and "IRS P6" satellites, launched by PSLVs in May 1999, May 2005, and October 2003 respectively, initiated the Oceansat, Cartosat, and Resourcesat series of spacecraft. Resourcesat was the direct follow-on to the primary IRS satellites. Despite being designed for a five-year mission, IRS P6 remained operational at last notice, flying alongside its replacement, "Resourcesat 2", which was launched in April 2011. Resourcesat 2A was the replacement for Resourcesat 2.

-- 07 DEC 16 / WIDEBAND GLOBAL SATCOM 8 (USA 272) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2353 UTC (local time + 5) to put the US Department of Defense's "Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) 8" AKA "USA 272" geostationary comsat into space. WGS 8 was based on the Boeing BSS 702 comsat bus, with an ion-drive propulsion system. The satellite had a launch mass of 6,000 kilograms (13,200 pounds); carried a payload of 10 Ka / 8 X-band transponders, with a spot beam associated with each transponder, along with full-Earth communications beam; and had a service life of 14 years.

The satellite was the second "Block II Follow-On" spacecraft in the USAF WGS program; it provided increased downlink channels and bandwidth, raised from 6 gigabits per second to 11 gigabits per second. The current WGS constellation includes:

Ten WGS satellites will be launched in all, replacing the aging Defense Satellite Communication System (DSCS); each WGS satellite has an order of magnitude more bandwidth than the entire DSCS network. The 9th WGS satellite will include Canada, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and New Zealand as partners.

-- 09 DEC 16 / HTV 6 -- An H-2B booster was launched from Tanegashima at 1326 UTC (local time - 9) to put the sixth "H-2 Transfer Vehicle (HTV 6)" AKA "Kounotori (White Stork) 5", an unmanned freighter, into orbit on an ISS resupply mission. HTV 6 was built by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and had a launch mass of 15,875 kilograms (35,000 pounds), including 3,855 kilograms (8,500 pounds) of payload.

HTV 6

The payload included seven CubeSats, including three 1-unit satellites (ITF-2, FREEDOM, WASEDA-SAT3); two 2-unit satellites (STARS-C & AOBA-VELOX III); and two 3-unit satellites (EGG & TuPOD, TuPOD releasing two TubeSat satellites after release). In more specifics:

HTV 6 docked with the ISS Harmony module four days after launch. After HTV 6 was left the station on 20 January 2017, it performed the "Kounotori Integrated Tether Experiment (KITE)", deploying a 700-meter (2,300-foot) "electrodynamic tether" for seven days, as an investigation of de-orbiting technology.

-- 10 DEC 16 / FENGYUN 4A -- A Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1611 UTC (next day local time - 8) to put the "Fengyun 4A" geostationary weather satellite for the China Meteorological Administration. Fengyun 4A -- the name means "Wind & Cloud" -- had a launch mass of 5,300 kilograms (11,700 pounds) and had a design life of five years; it was the first satellite in a second-generation series of Chinese geostationary weather platforms, featuring three-axis stabilization instead of spin stabilization.

The primary payload was an imaging camera that could take pictures of clouds and storm systems in 14 bands, as opposed to five on the first-generation Fengyun 2 satellites. Fengyun 4A can take full-disk Earth images every 15 minutes, twice the rate of earlier spacecraft in the Fengyun series, and snap spot views every minute. Fengyun 4A satellite also introduced a lightning-detecting camera and a vertical infrared sounding instrument to probe temperatures, moisture, ozone and atmospheric instability at different altitudes. The space platform was placed in the geostationary slot at 99.5 degrees east longitude.

-- 15 DEC 16 / CYGNSS -- An air-launched Orbital ATK Pegasus XL rocket, carried by the Orbital Stargazer aircraft flying out of Cape Canaveral, was launched at 1337 UTC (local time + 5) put NASA's "Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS)" mission in orbit. The CYGNSS mission's eight mini-satellites used GPS signals to study how tropical cyclones grow stronger over warm ocean waters. The mission was described in detail here last month.

-- 18 DEC 16 / ECHOSTAR 19 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the "Echostar 19" geostationary comsat into orbit to provide high-speed internet services for HughesNet in North America. The satellite, which was also known as "Jupiter 2", was built by Space Systems / Loral; it had a launch mass of 6,765 kilograms (14,915 pounds) and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 97.1 degrees west longitude. The booster was in the "431" configuration with a four-meter (13.1-foot) fairing, three solid rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

-- 20 DEC 16 / ERG -- A JAXA Epsilon booster was launched from Uchinoura at 1100 UTC (local time - 9) to put the "Exploration of Energization & Radiation in Geospace (ERG)" satellite into orbit to investigate the Van Allen radiation belts, and study the origins of geomagnetic storms. Once in orbit, ERG was named "Arase", after a river near the space center. The satellite had a launch mass of about 365 kilograms (800 pounds), and included a set of instrument to study of plasma, particles, waves and fields in Earth's radiation belts.

Epsilon ERG

ERG was meant to complement the two NASA Van Allen probes, launched in 2012, in assessing Earth's radiation environment. This was the second flight of Japan's small Epsilon booster; this launch featured an uprated second stage, giving the booster 30% more lift capacity.

-- 21 DEC 16 / TANSAT -- A Chinese Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan at 1522 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "TanSat" CO2-mapping satellite into orbit. TanSat had a launch mass of about 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds), and a design life of three years; "tan" is the Chinese word for . The instrument payload included:

A ground system was developed to support TanSat, obtaining and correlating the satellite data along with ground-based systems. TanSat was funded by the Chinese Ministry of Science & Technology (MOST), and built by the Shanghai Institute of Microsystems & Information Technology (SIMIT).

TanSat launch

The National Satellite Meteorological Center) of CMA (China Meteorological Administration (NSMC) funded the ground segment and data analysis. The leading role of funding in the satellite development was performed by the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS). The project also had international participation with the University of Leicester and the University of Edinburgh in the UK.

-- 21 DEC 16 / STAR ONE D1, JCSAT 15 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2030 UTC (local time + 3) to put the "Star One D1" and "JCSAT 15" geostationary comsats into orbit. Star One D1 was built by Space Systems Loral, and was based on the SSL 1300 comsat bus. It had a launch mass of 6,433 kilograms (14,182 pounds), carried a payload of C / Ku / Ka-band transponders, and had a design life of 15 years. The satellite was placed at 84 degrees west longitude to provide TV, internet, corporate network and cellular backhaul services over Latin America for Embratel Star One of Brazil.

JCSAT 15 was also built by SSL, and based on the SSL 1300 platform. It had a launch mass of 3,400 kilograms (7,500 pounds), and a design life of 15 years. JCSAT 15 was placed in the geostationary slot at 110 degrees east longitude to broadcast pay TV programming over Japan for SKY Perfect JSAT Corporation.

-- 28 DEC 16 / SUPERVIEW 1,2 -- A Long March 2D booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0323 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "SuperView 1" and "SuperView 2" Earth observation satellites into Sun-synchronous orbit for Siwei Star CO LTD, a subsidiary of China Aerospace Science and Technology (CAST) Corporation, a government-owned entity. Also named "GaoJing", the satellites provided sub-meter high-resolution images for civilian and commercial customers in China and internationally.

The SuperView satellites each had a launch mass of 650 kilograms (1,235 pounds), and were based on the CAST3000B satellite platform. The two satellites were designed to collect high-resolution optical grayscale imagery, with a resolution of about 50 centimeters (20 inches). They could also obtain color imagery with a resolution of 2 meters (6.6 feet). The data was to be distributed by Beijing Space View LTD, a sibling entity to Siwei WorldView. Siwei WorldView, incidentally, is a joint venture between Siwei Surveying and Mapping Technology CO LTD, Navinfo, and DigitalGlobe, the Colorado-based owner of the WorldView and GeoEye commercial Earth observation satellites.

Two more SuperView satellites are scheduled to launch in mid-2017. Siwei WorldView aims to have a fleet of more than two dozen Earth observation craft in orbit by 2022, including 16 SuperView-type optical satellites, four platforms with improved optical imaging capabilities, four X-band synthetic aperture radar satellites, and multiple video and hyperspectral imaging spacecraft. The launch also included the "BY70-1" double-unit CubeSat, an educational / amateur radio satellite from the China Center for Aerospace Science and Technology International Communications for school education and amateur radio.

There was a launch system anomaly, which placed the satellites into lower-than-planned orbits. However, they were able to quickly raise their orbits, presumably at the expense of reduced operational lifetime due to the fuel consumption.

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[WED 18 JAN 17] EYE OF THE CHITON

* EYE OF THE CHITON: The eye represents a showcase for evolution; there is a wide range of different approaches, some radically different, to the construction of eyes in different organisms. As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Crystalline Eyes Of Chitons Inspire Materials Scientists" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 20 November 2015), the marine mollusc known as the "chiton" has its own unique take on the eye.

The chiton is a small, nondescript, slow-moving beast, with a plated shell that makes it look something like a pebble. A close inspection of the shell shows that it is studded with up to a thousand tiny eyes, each a bit smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Study of the eyes show that, despite their small size, a chiton can perceive images with them, not just light or dark; and also shows that they are made of the same material as the chiton's shell.

lined chiton

Chitons move sluggishly over rocks or reefs in the intertidal zone, clamping down to the surface when threatened by predators such as birds and fish. They have proven very successful, with a history going about about a half billion years, and a thousand species inhabiting wave-swept shores around the world.

Only about 100 species of chitons have eyes, and until a decade ago, researchers thought the eyes too tiny to be very useful -- all the more so because all chitons have other light-sensitive structures, known as "megalaesthetes". However, a few years ago Daniel Speiser -- now a visual ecologist at the University of South Carolina, Columbia -- decided to figure out just how well chitons could see. When he blocked light with black circles, the animals clamped down, suggesting they were detecting images. Speiser says: "The eyes let the chiton distinguish an actual object, say a predator, from a passing shadow."

Speiser and his colleagues reported on the chiton eye in a 2011 paper. One particularly remarkable finding revealed in the paper was that, in contrast with the protein lenses found in most animals, including humans, chiton lenses are made of "aragonite", the same calcium carbonate mineral that makes up their shells. Following up the report, Matthew Connors and Ling Li -- two graduate students in materials science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- decided to perform a careful analysis of the chiton eye.

Using high-resolution microscopy and X-ray techniques, along with computer modeling, Li and Connors found that the oblong lens is made of large crystals, aligned to allow light through relatively unimpeded. Up to 100 photo-sensitive cells form a retina below the lens. When the researchers suspended isolated lenses in water, they found that they could project surprisingly recognizable images of a fish. Although the number of light-sensitive cells in the retina of any one eye is small, the large number of eyes suggests the chiton actually obtains a fairly detailed vision of the world around it.

Chiton vision comes at price, mechanical testing demonstrating that the lenses create weak spots in the chiton's armor. The eyes are protected to a degree by protrusions around them; but the chiton cannot acquire larger or more sophisticated eyes without compromising its shell. Andrew Parker of the Natural History Museum in London says: "Sometimes we assume nature is perfect, but more often than not, it is a perfect compromise."

The work of Connors and Lee has suggested to other researchers avenues for armored eyes, or distributed vision systems -- one idea being pursued envisioning a network of tiny eyes in the skin of robots. Peter Fratzl, a materials scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids & Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany, believes the research into the chiton eye may yield benefits: "Nature has reached some very clever material solutions that we can harness. It allows you to dream about implementing similar kinds of ideas into technical systems."

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[TUE 17 JAN 17] DATA-SECURITY NIGHTMARE

* DATA-SECURITY NIGHTMARE: As discussed by an editorial from THE ECONOMIST ("Breaching Point", 24 December 2016), 2016 was the year when the data-security problem became intolerable. Barack Obama and the CIA accused Russia of electronic meddling in an attempt to help Donald Trump win the presidency. Details emerged of two massive data breaches at Yahoo; one, in 2013, affected more than a billion people. Other highlights include the hack of the World Anti-Doping Agency; the theft of $81 million USD from the central bank of Bangladesh; and the release of personal details of around 20,000 employees of the FBI.

The data-security problem has been obvious for decades, but it's just continued to fester. One of the problems is that the basic technology of the internet was designed largely by academics, who didn't worry much about data security. Another issue is that software developers and computer-makers are usually not blamed for assaults on their equipment, which weakens the incentives to get security right.

Things are likely to get worse. The next phase of the computing revolution is the "internet of things (IoT)", in which all kinds of everyday objects, from light bulbs to cars, are based on embedded computers connected permanently to the internet. Most of these gadgets are wide open to exploitation, all the more so because many of the companies making them are not computer firms. IT companies have accumulated decades of hard-won wisdom about cyber-security; people making smart refrigerators haven't a clue about it.

In November 2016, cyber-security researchers uncovered malware that could take control of any smart light bulbs within 400 meters (1,300 feet). Nobody would think that, on the face of it, hacking into a light bulb would be worth the trouble; but the light bulbs are self-contained computers with wireless connections, and they can be organized into remote-control "botnets" that can be used to flood websites with bogus traffic, suppressing them. Routers, the electronic boxes that connect most households to the internet, are already a popular target of bot-herders. With self-driving cars now approaching the starting line, the potential for hacking gadgets is becoming downright frightening.

Companies do have an incentive to improve security -- and some, like Apple, take it very seriously. However, consumers often don't make an issue of data security, and many company executives don't understand the problem. In addition, improving security means sharing information, but many firms don't want to let anyone else know when they've been hacked, since it makes them look bad.

Of course, when the market can't do the job, the government can facilitate. Security researchers like to make a comparison with public health, where one entity's negligence can harm everyone else -- which is why governments regulate everything from food hygiene to waste disposal. Some governments are moving toward minimum computer-security standards, and to fine firms that fail to comply. The IoT has also revived the debate about ending the software industry's long-standing exemption from legal liability for defects in its products.

The big problem with government regulation is that it is often fragmented. Several US states have sets of rules that may, in some cases, conflict with each other; businesses would prefer consistent Federal regulations. Indeed, global coordination would be even better, if harder to achieve. There's also the problem that, should laws be changed to increase liability for software and computer manufacturers, the result may be to stifle innovation. Obviously, some consensus has to be obtained to get anywhere. There's also the problem that, should laws be changed to increase liability for software and computer manufacturers, the result may be to stifle innovation.

Rule-makers can, however, set reasonable minimum expectations. Many IoT devices cannot have their software updated, which means that security flaws can never be fixed; products should not be able to operate with factory usernames and passwords. No software program can be made impregnable, but liability laws can take into consideration the efforts of firms to stay on top of data security. For now, however, the hackers are on a rampage, and likely to stay on it until a better state of things can be obtained.

ED: I should add that the past year suggested that the use of the internet to spread trash represented another aspect of the data-security problem. This issue is particularly tricky, because of the need to maintain freedom of speech. I believe there will be a debate over what needs to be done to at least contain the flood of trash polluting the internet. Trash filters on web browsers? They have porn filters, why not? And it might be appropriate for media outlets that have comment sections to moderate them more strictly -- or, failing that, get rid of them, instead of operating a sanctioned propaganda outlet for the fringe.

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[MON 16 JAN 17] UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (3)

* UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (3): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Up In Smoke?", 26 November 2016), a UN climate-change conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, that ended on 18 November was shadowed by the election of tycoon Donald Trump to the US presidency on 8 November. During the campaign, Trump had called anthropogenic global warming a "hoax", saying he would abolish the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and pull America out of the 2015 UN agreement to curb greenhouse-gas emissions adopted by 190-odd countries in Paris.

The Paris Agreement, which came into force in November 2016, includes a commitment to limit the increase in the global average temperature to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (2C) above pre-industrial levels. Given that the world has already warmed by approximately 1.2C, this is very ambitious -- all the more so because 2016 proved the hottest year on record.

The measures the signatories said they were adopt were generally modest. Most were self-proposed and voluntary cuts to their emissions of carbon dioxide, in particular those caused by deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. Most developing countries, which produce around 65% of global carbon emissions, promised to restrict their emissions to levels that, assuming natural gas continues to substitute for coal and the cost of renewable energy continues to fall, may require no special effort. India, the world's third-biggest producer of greenhouse gases, pledged to increase its use of energy from renewable sources -- though India's emissions are still likely to rise steeply.

By the end of the Marrakesh summit, some of the Trump-driven anxiety had faded. Trump had made public remarks wavering on pulling out of the Paris Agreement; to be sure, anyone familiar with Trump knows perfectly well he has no problem issuing wildly contradictory statements, but his obvious fondness for bluster suggests that, in practice, his actions may not be quite so drastic.

Then again, they may well be -- nobody knows, possibly not even Trump. More significantly, the Marrakesh meeting suggested that, even if America pulled out of the Paris Agreement, it would continue on track without much of a hiccup. As well as the overall target, the accord includes many useful provisions, on climate finance, technology sharing, and the role of forests, for example. Synergies may help countries make faster progress than they believe they now can.

Past climate deals failed in part because they tried to impose mitigation targets on reluctant countries, instead of allowing each country to decide for itself what is reasonably achievable. The Paris Agreement, by contrast, is sufficiently loose in its structure and modest in its aims to be survive the withdrawal of the USA. By most measures, climate action passed a tipping-point in 2016.

American and other officials in Morocco weren't inclined to think Trump would really take rash actions. Liu Zhenmin, China's vice-foreign minister, asked America not to shirk its environmental responsibilities; the UN's early climate negotiations, he noted, had been supported by two Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The Chinese comments were ironic, since China had been a laggard in climate-change action up to the Paris Agreement.

For what it's worth, public concern about global warming is growing in America; 64% of Americans say they are worried "a great deal" or "a fair amount" about it, and 71% say America should not withdraw from the Paris Agreement -- including a majority of Republicans. As for scrapping the EPA, the share of Americans who appreciate the breathable air and drinkable water the agency helps to safeguard is no doubt even higher. The Trump Administration will not be able to conceal actions hostile to the EPA, since they will be leaked to the media immediately.

Furthermore, abolishing the EPA would require legislation that Democratic senators, though in the minority, could block. The main subsidies for wind- and solar-power generation, which made up two-thirds of new generating capacity last year, also appear solid. They were extended in 2015 by a Republican-controlled Congress; windy red states such as Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas are among their main beneficiaries.

Trump could try to remove greenhouse gases from the EPA's remit, though that would require the Supreme Court to reverse itself on a ruling from 2007. Or he could rescind environmental regulations brought in by Barack Obama, though that would be troublesome. Many of them were mandated by legislation and have been tested by litigation, acquiring a legal standing of their own. For example, in order to get rid of a rule that curbs the amount of mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants, Trump's EPA boss would have to issue, in effect, an alternative more to Trump's liking, then defend it against legal challenges from environmental campaigners.

That could take years. The central difficulty for Trump is his indifference to, often contempt for, specifics and facts. While he can talk trash to the public and get away with it, talking trash to the courts is a losing game. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 13 JAN 17] THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (8)

* THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (8): I left Dayton on the morning of Sunday, 8 October. The road construction that had confounded me the evening before ended up funneling me onto I-70 eastbound, but no worries, I knew there was an exit not far down the road to turn around -- it was the wrong exit I had taken the night before, and got me lost.

I cruised through Indianapolis, heading for Saint Louis. I don't recall much of this leg of the trip, other than a fuel stop in Terre Haute, suggesting that weariness was setting in. In any case, the drive went quickly, and I was soon able to see the Saint Louis Gateway Arch coming up in the West.

I wasn't sure I wanted to visit the arch; it was downtown, and I didn't want to fight city traffic. Besides, I had to go to a separate location in town to get tickets to ride to the top, and that sounded like too much time, too much trouble. In any case, as I got over the Mississippi, I didn't see any signs directing me to the arch -- suggesting no particularly convenient way existed to get to it, and I would end up squirreling around downtown. Pittsburgh had been enough; I kept on driving, to get to the Saint Louis Zoo.

Although it was a little convoluted to get to the zoo, I had no real problems. It was somewhat packed, being a nice pleasant weekend, with the parking lots crowded. Incidentally, the Saint Louis Zoo doesn't charge admission, though the zoo does charge for parking, and also for some special attractions.

capybara

It's a very nice zoo, extensive and with nice gardens. I got a fair number of shots, particularly of antelope -- though the only shot I got that was particularly special was of a capybara, sort of a giant muskrat. They had a trio, Dave Hylla's Good Times Band, playing Oktoberfest-type and other music. As I was winding up the tour, I suddenly remembered something I didn't want to forget before I left.

I asked a staffer: "Don't you have a memorial to Marlon Perkins here?" Back in the 1960s, when he was curator of the Saint Louis Zoo, he had a well-known nature TV show, MUTUAL OF OMAHA'S WILD KINGDOM, and was something of a revered pop-culture figure in that era. I said: "People of my age sort of grew up with Marlon Perkins: 'This is Marlon Perkins, with MUT-ual of Omaha's WILD KINGDOM!'"

She laughed. It took me a bit of searching, but I found the memorial. It was a bust of Perkins in a neatly-arranged garden, really a nice tribute to the little fellow. I had to think that most of the visitors didn't know who he was. In his time, everyone knew who Marlon Perkins was; he was a lively, chipper, nerdy little guy, fitting the modern term of "adorkable".

Marlon Perkins memorial

I made my way out of the zoo and got back on the freeway, heading west out of town. By evening, I was on the other side of the state at Independence, Missouri, to make my night stop at the Hilton Garden Inn there. It was tricky to get to it, but unlike the previous night, I didn't take any false steps. One more day, and I would be home. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 12 JAN 17] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from Nature.com ("Google's AI Reasons Its Way Around the London Underground" by Elizabeth Gibney, 13 October 2016), the Google-owned company DeepMind, in London, has developed an artificial intelligence (AI) system that can navigate the London Underground subway system by inspecting maps.

The system is based on an artificial neural network (ANN) with an associated external memory. An ANN consists of layers of highly interconnected "neurons" that, on being fed inputs of interest, build up "weighting" on the neurons that determine if they will be activated or not, depending on given inputs. The memory system allows the DeepMind ANN to learn much more quickly than an ANN without a memory. While there's nothing so very new about software that can navigate a subway system, the DeepMind ANN figures it out a map on its own, without any predefined rules.

London Underground

The DeepMind system -- which company officials call a "differentiable neural computer" -- first trains its neural network on randomly generated map-like structures, in the process learning how to store descriptions of these relationships in its external memory as, well as answer questions about them. Confronted with a new map, the DeepMind system can write these new relationships, such as connections between Underground stations, to memory, and recall it to plan a route.

The DeepMind AI system used the same technique to tackle puzzles that require reasoning. After training on twenty different types of question-and-answer problems, it learned to make accurate deductions. For example, the system deduced correctly that a ball is in a playground, having been informed that "John picked up the football" and "John is in the playground". It got such problems right more than 96% of the time. The system performed better than "recurrent neural networks" -- which also have a memory, but one that is in the fabric of the network itself, and so is less flexible than an external memory.

While the DeepMind scheme has only been tried on simple problems so far, it is seen as a great step towards systems that involve making inferences from huge amounts of data. Such a capability would have great application in science, business, and public security.

* As a follow-up to the series on "natural food" run here last year, as discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("Animal-Free Dairy Products Move A Step Closer To Market" by Tom Levitt, 13 September 2016), a San Francisco-based startup company named Perfect Day is working towards introduction of a milk substitute, derived from genetically-modified yeast and plant nutrients.

Sales of milk alternatives such as soy, coconut, almond and more recently pea milk are expected to grow to more than $10 billion USD 2019. However, until now, milk substitutes haven't put a dent into traditional milk and dairy production. Perfect Day co-founder Ryan Pandya says: "The alternatives for yogurt, cheese, and icecream are so bad that people don't even want to try them. Many people have been switching to more plant-based diets, but when you have to give up cheese, you think: 'Omigod, my life sucks, I love pizza!' If you try to make cheese out of pea milk, you will be sorely disappointed."

Perfect Day claims their product will be identical in taste and nutritional value to cow's milk. The missing element in traditional milk substitutes is milk protein. To make their synthetic milk, Perfect Day inserts cow DNA into yeast, and adds sugar to create milk proteins through fermentation. These milk proteins are then combined with sugar, fats, and nutrients to create the final product.

Pandya says: "We're taking plant nutrients and transforming them into animals proteins the same way that cows do, using the same milk proteins as found in cow's milk -- but much more efficiently, because we're using a yeast cell, not a 2,000-pound animal."

Perfect Day products

He adds: "Many people initially go: 'Oh, is this like lab or test-tube milk?' -- but that's wrong. There are no test tubes in our fermentation process, it's just like brewing craft beer. The meat folks are trying to invent technology that doesn't exist today, but our milk is made through techniques in use for more than three decades."

Perfect Day said it plans to launch a cheese, yogurt, or ice-cream product by the end of 2017, with milk following later. It will be priced similar to organic dairy, but the company expects to quickly have a lower cost of production than milk. The company will not actually be able to call the product "milk", however, since the US Food & Drug Administration specifies that a product named "milk" has to actually been milked from a cow, or other animal.

ED: Although GM haters will not be the least bit impressed by Pandya's claims that his product is not some sort of "Frankenfood", they can do no more than fuss. Despite the fact that GM yeast is the critical element in the production process, Perfect Day will not have to state their product is GM. Nobody will consume the yeasts, they will just consume cow milk proteins, which will be exactly the same as if they had come from a cow. To muddy the waters over GM protest further, the Perfect Day product will be more environmentally benign than cow's milk, not requiring huge dairy farms to turn it out.

* In further adventures of fabricated foods, an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Biotech Wants to Make Fake, Sustainable Shrimp Out of Algae" by Brendan Cole, 29 July 2016), discussed the effort to create ersatz shrimp.

Americans consume vast amounts of shrimp, but raising them tends towards the environmentally untidy, some estimates showing it has a bigger footprint than the production of beef. Biotech startup New Wave Foods is now working on a sustainable replacement for shrimp, using red algae to create a substitute. Dominique Barnes, CEO and co-founder of the company, says: "What we try to do is look at the molecular structure of shrimp to understand what gives it textural components like elasticity." The final product is a mix of algae and plant proteins; it promises to be much more sustainable.

This isn't the first effort to develop ersatz shrimp; earlier efforts to do so did not fare well. According to Barnes: "One hurdle that I do see is in our perception of algae. When I talk to people, usually they're like: 'What are you talking about? This is pond scum.'" She says that algae is more commonly used in food than people think: "You probably already consumed something this week that has an algae ingredient." New Wave Foods has a challenge, to make their product tasty and cheap; if that can be done, there are no show-stoppers towards commercial success.

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[WED 11 JAN 17] LIFE ON BROWN DWARFS?

* LIFE ON BROWN DWARFS? As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Alien Life Could Thrive In The Clouds Of Failed Stars" by Joshua Sokol, 2 December 2016), there is a class of celestial objects that are too big to be called planets, many times more massive than Jupiter; but too small to become stars; they're known as "brown dwarfs". Being hard to spot, their existence was only verified recently; from the samplings obtained so far, there may be a billion of them in our Galaxy.

A study has now suggested that layers of the upper atmospheres of brown dwarfs could have temperatures and pressures resembling those on Earth, and could host micro-organisms that ride on thermal updrafts. This vision expands the concept of a "habitable zone" -- of worlds that might harbor life -- to include a vast population of worlds that had previously gone unconsidered. According to Jack Yates, a planetary scientist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, who led the study: "You don't necessarily need to have a terrestrial planet with a surface."

Sun, brown dwarf, Jupiter

For decades, biologists have known about microbes that drift in the winds high above Earth's surface. In 1976, pop-star astronomer Carl Sagan extended the notion of atmospheric life by imagining the kind of ecosystem that could evolve in the upper layers of Jupiter, fueled by sunlight. He envisioned sky plankton, small organisms he called "sinkers". Other organisms in his menagerie were balloon-like "floaters", which would rise and fall in the atmosphere by manipulating their body pressure. Following Sagan, astronomers have also considered the prospects of microbes in the carbon dioxide atmosphere above Venus's inhospitable surface.

Yates and his colleagues knew that some "cold" brown dwarfs -- not strongly illuminated by a central star, or free-floating in space -- have surfaces roughly at room temperature or below; lower layers would be very comfortable. In 2013, astronomers discovered WISE 0855-0714, a brown dwarf only seven light-years away that seems to have water clouds in its atmosphere. The researchers decided to investigate the sizes, densities, and life strategies of microbes that could manage to stay aloft in the habitable region of an enormous atmosphere of predominantly hydrogen gas. Sink too low, they are crushed or cooked; rise too high, they freeze.

The study concluded that small sinkers like the microbes in Earth's atmosphere, or even smaller would have a better chance than Sagan's floaters. However, much depends on the weather: If upwelling winds are powerful on cold brown dwarfs, as seems to be true in the bands of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, heavier creatures can carve out a niche. In the absence of sunlight, they could feed on chemical nutrients. Observations of cold brown dwarf atmospheres reveal most of the ingredients Earth life depends on: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, though possibly not phosphorous.

So far, only a few dozen cold brown dwarfs have been discovered, though statistics suggest there should be about ten within 30 light-years of Earth. These should be good targets for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will observe in the infrared where brown dwarfs shine brightest. After it is launched in 2018, the JWST should reveal the weather and the composition of their atmospheres. According to Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC: "We're going to start getting gorgeous spectra of these objects. This is making me think about it."

Faherty says that the spectra could reveal traces of life through microbe by-products like methane or oxygen, and screening the observations from confounding effects. There is the issue of how life might arise in an environment that lacks the water-rock interfaces, such as hydrothermal vents, which are regarded as prime candidates for where life arose on Earth. Possibly life might arise on dust grains, or possibly it could arrive as a hitch-hiker on an asteroid. However, all that remains speculative until traces of alien life are finally discovered.

* A tangentially related article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Alien Life Could Feed On Cosmic Rays" by Jessica Boddy, 7 October 2016) suggested that denizens of alien worlds might have sources of energy not used by most of the Earth's organism.

The case in point is a microbe found deep in a gold mine in South Africa named Desulforudis audaxviator. This rod-shaped bacterium lives 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) underground in a habitat generally missing the necessities of life elsewhere: light, oxygen, carbon. Instead, the "gold mine bug" gets its energy from radioactive uranium in the depths of the mine.

Researchers wonder if alien life could use the same trick. Dimitra Atri -- an astrobiologist and computational physicist who works for the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle, Washington -- is fascinated by the microbe: "It really grabbed my attention because it's completely powered by radioactive substances. Who's to say life on other worlds doesn't do the same thing?"

Most of the organisms we are familiar with subsist on sunlight, via photosynthesis, or by eating other organisms. D. audaxviator instead exploits the radiation from decaying uranium nuclei, which breaks apart sulfur and water molecules in the stone, producing molecular fragments such as sulfate and hydrogen peroxide that are excited with internal energy. The microbe then draws in these molecules, draws off their energy, and excretes them. Most of the energy produced from this process powers the bacterium's internal and reproductive processes, but a portion of it also goes to repairing damage from the radiation.

Atri thinks an extraterrestrial life form could use a similar scheme, using the energy from galactic cosmic rays that, after being thrown out of a supernova or other mega-violent cosmic process, flood the Universe. They don't affect us on Earth, because the planet's magnetic field and atmosphere prevent them from reaching ground. Planets like Mars with thin atmospheres, and possibly a weak magnetic field as well, are much more exposed to cosmic rays.

Atri does note that cosmic rays don't deliver as much energy as sunlight, so they would only be able to support small organisms, along the lines of D. audaxviator. However, he ran simulations that showed the exposed worlds of the Solar System would get enough cosmic rays to predictably keep organisms alive. He thinks that Mars is the best candidate, in large part because of its thin atmosphere: "It's funny, because when we look for planets that contain life currently, we look for a very thick atmosphere. With these life forms, we're looking for the opposite."

Atri wants to bring the gold mine bug into the lab and see how it responds to cosmic radiation levels equivalent to those on Mars, Europa, and others. That data would give him more clues to whether this kind of organism could survive beyond Earth. He says: "I always think of Jeff Goldblum in JURASSIC PARK: life finds a way."

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[TUE 10 JAN 17] HPV VACCINE WORKS

* HPV VACCINE WORKS: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("A Decade On, Vaccine Has Halved Cervical Cancer Rate", 29 August 2016), the world's first cancer vaccine was administered in Australia ten years ago. Since then, the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine has been introduced in 130 countries, and halved the number of new cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine also protects against cancers in the throat and mouth in both men and women.

Gardasil HPV vaccine

The vaccine was developed by a research team led by Professor Ian Frazer, director of the Translational Research Institute in Brisbane, Australia, and the late molecular virologist Dr. Jian Zhou. The researchers used used genetic engineering to build a virus replica as the basis for the vaccine. HPV is a very common virus that lives on our skin and other areas of the body; it is a wart virus, sexually transmitted, that can lead to cancers. Frazer says:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Most people get rid of the virus themselves without knowing they've contracted it, but 1% of the population that get it get persistent infection that lasts over five years. If they do that, they've got a very good chance they'll get a cancer. We know that 170 million doses of vaccine have been given out. If you do the sums on that, one in a hundred people were going to get a cancer that could kill them.

END QUOTE

Frazer believes the vaccine could eradicate cancers caused by HPV within 40 years: "It helps not only control cervical cancer but also the oropharyngeal cancer -- the cancers inside the mouth that are caused by these viruses. If we vaccinate enough people we will eliminate these viruses because they only infect humans. And in Australia there's already been a 90% reduction in infections in the 10 years the program has been running."

Frazer adds that the vaccine is continuing to be refined: "We're moving from a vaccine that protects against two common strains of the virus that cause cancer to a vaccine that protects against nine common strains. If we get that rolled out we will eventually get rid of all cancers that get caused by this virus."

* Of course, the HPV vaccine has run into anti-vaccine hysteria. As discussed by a more recent article in AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Critics Assail Paper Claiming Harm From Cancer Vaccine" by Dennis Normile, 21 December 2016), two groups of health researchers have asked the journal SCIENTIFIC REPORTS to retract a paper published by a Japanese research team, published on 11 November 2016, that cast doubt on the safety of the HPV vaccine.

The paper described impaired mobility and brain damage in mice given an HPV vaccine -- but they were given doses a thousand times greater than that given to people, along with a toxin that makes the blood-brain barrier leaky. David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, Michigan -- a medical blogger well-known as "Orac", who often takes on anti-vaxxers -- wrote: "Basically, this is an utterly useless paper, a waste of precious animals."

Despite the fact that over 170 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been administered and have proven effective and safe, there have been worries about its health effects. In several countries, girls have complained of debilitating symptoms, reminiscent of chronic fatigue syndrome, after vaccination. Following such reports, the vaccine rate among women in Japan plummeted. More than 90% of Danish girls born in 2000 received at least one vaccine dose, but that rate has dropped year by year. Ireland also saw a drop in vaccination rates in 2015 and 2016.

Japan is at the front line of the struggle. In April 2013, Japan's health ministry added the vaccine to its recommended list and offered it for free. Uptake was robust, a survey showing that that roughly 70% of girls born between 1994 and 1998 completed the three-dose vaccination course. That enthusiasm went into decline when, in the spring of 2013, a number of media outlets in Japan reported on alleged side effects: difficulty in walking, headache, fatigue, poor concentration, and pain. That June 2013, the health ministry suspended its recommendation until an investigation could be made.

In January 2014, a ministry panel concluded that there was no evidence for a causal association between the HPV vaccine and the reported adverse events. Given so many doses, some coincidences between vaccinations and unrelated health problems were guaranteed. The European Medicines Agency and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come to similar conclusions. Epidemiological studies indicate that the symptoms reported by the vaccinated girls are found at equal rates in nonvaccinated populations. Despite that, Japan's health ministry has not re-instated its recommendation; the government will pay for the shots, but doesn't encourage local authorities to perform them. The vaccination rate has fallen to near zero. The health ministry says a decision on renewing the recommendation is under review.

One of the authors of the paper, Toshihiro Nakajima of Tokyo Medical University, has defended the methodology used, but critics have not been placated. A letter from David Hawkes, a virologist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and two colleagues was scathing, saying the paper "lacks a clear methodology, adequate controls to control for bias, descriptions of results consistent with the data presented, or enough information for this study to be reproduced."

As with the great majority of anti-vaccine campaigns, the hysteria keeps on rolling, even as continued use of the vaccine demonstrates its safety and value. However, with HPV vaccination in effective suspension in Japan, the country is unlikely to to see any reduction in its current 9,000-plus cases of cervical cancer and 3,000 deaths each year. The controversy in Japan has also given encouragement to anti-vaxxer groups elsewhere.

* In further related news, as discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("France Most Skeptical Country About Vaccine Safety" by Jon Cohen, 8 September 2016), a survey of vaccine safety involving more than 65,000 people around the world -- conducted by a team under anthropologist Heidi Larson of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine -- found that, on the average, 12% of citizens do not believe vaccines are safe. There was great variation between nations, however, with Bangladesh having the least skepticism, 0.2%, and France having the most, 41%.

Larson says that France has experienced "anxiety" about suspected but unproven links between the hepatitis B vaccine and multiple sclerosis, with the French also afflicted by the manufactured controversy over the HPV vaccine. France similarly had strong reservations about a flu vaccine hastily produced combat the pandemic of H1N1 flu in 2009.

Russians had the greatest skepticism about the importance of vaccines for children: 17.1%. Bosnia and Herzegovina had the most serious doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines, with a 27.3% of respondents saying they were not. These numbers were about three times the global average. The effect of religious beliefs on confidence in vaccines was ambiguous, with confidence varying greatly from region to region for the same faiths. In the USA, 8.8% questioned the importance of vaccines for children, 13.5% were not convinced they were safe, 9.6% had doubts about effectiveness, and 10.5% had concerns because of their religious beliefs.

The difference in general confidence between Bangladesh, where infectious diseases are common, and France, where they are not, is striking. Larson says unfounded safety concerns about vaccines persist because people are searching for clear causes to mysterious diseases such as multiple sclerosis and autism. There's also the popular suspicion of "experts" at work -- people commonly being suspicious of the assurances of the authorities. Larson suggests that vaccine education might be more thorough, but doesn't believe there is any cure-all: "We need to get our heads around the fact that we're never going to get 100% compliance. We're struggling to keep it where it is."

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[MON 09 JAN 17] UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (2)

* UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (2): An article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Weak Federal Powers Could Limit Trump's Climate-Policy Rollback" by Justin Gillis, 2 January 2017) elaborated on the limits of a Trump Administration's attempts to undermine the Obama Administration's efforts to deal with human-caused climate change.

It might have seemed that Donald Trump's election to the US presidency in November 2016 would have had a chilling effect on investment in renewable energy. However, in mid-December, the Federal government opened bidding on a tract of the ocean floor off New York State as a potential site for a huge wind farm. Interest from the bidders was so lively that the auction went through 33 rounds and spilled over to a second day.

In the end, the winning bidder offered the Federal Treasury $42 million USD -- ironically, more than twice what the government got in August 2016 for oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Even more ironically, the winning bid was from Statoil, the Norwegian oil company. Statoil, instead of trying to pretend climate change isn't happening, is now trying to position itself for a post-oil future.

Trump's dismissal of renewable energy flies in the face of the reality that, on the global stage, more than half the investment in new electricity generation is now going into renewable energy -- more than $300 billion USD. Wind power is booming in the United States, with the industry adding manufacturing jobs in states under Republican control. "Wind-farm technician" is projected to be the fastest-growing occupation in America over the next decade.

Granted, Trump's election is clearly an obstacle to the global drive to deal with climate change. Although he has made conciliatory remarks about the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit emissions, he has proposed stacking his cabinet with climate-change deniers, suggesting the conciliatory remarks are a smokescreen. However, once Trump enters office, he will find that the Federal government actually has relatively little control over American energy policy, and particularly over electricity generation.

America's natural-gas revolution was mostly driven by new technology and high energy prices; it did much to supplant dirty coal, and there is no lever in the Oval Office that Trump can pull to reverse that. The limitations of White House power were a source of frustration for the Obama Administration, but now environmental advocates see the silver lining. More than half the states have adopted mandates on renewable energy, and efforts to roll them back back haven't done well. In a recent development, Governor John Kasich of Ohio, a Republican, vetoed a rollback bill.

As mentioned earlier in this series, the Federal government offers significant subsidies for renewable energy, which were extended in 2015 last year in a deal that gave the oil industry some favors and that passed Congress with many Republican votes. The subsidies are "grandfathered", in that they will decline and go away after five years -- since they're going to go away in any case, there's less incentive to kill them off abruptly. Should Trump try to do so, he will be reminded that the Republican majority in the Senate is narrow, and that there are a number of prominent Republican senators who are very fond of renewables.

For a prominent example, take Charles E. Grassley, the senior senator from Iowa, which gets a lot of its electricity from wind power -- at last notice, going on 40%. Tom Kiernan -- the head of the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group -- thinks highly of him: "Senator Grassley has been and continues to be an extraordinary leader and champion for the wind industry."

Kiernan has little fear that Trump will dampen enthusiasm for renewables. By the association's estimates, $80 billion USD of wind industry investment is now in the pipeline for the USA. Kiernan says: "We are creating jobs throughout America, good-paying jobs, and we think President-elect Trump will want that to continue."

In short, Trump has plenty of good reasons to embrace renewables, and few good reasons to work against them. However, to meet the climate goals embodied in the Paris Agreement, the US will need to develop renewable energy at an increased pace; renewables still only carry a small fraction of America's energy burden. Although a Trump White House may not be actively hostile to renewables, few would expect to see much enthusiasm there, either -- but fortunately, there is still considerable enthusiasm among the states.

California, as a major example, is pushing forward to address climate change. California has clout, for example being able to enforce fuel-economy standards on vehicles sold there; although the Trump Administration has been talking about canceling the fuel-economy standards set by the Obama Administration, California will retain them in any case. California by itself would be enough to ensure vehicle manufacturers try to stick to the Obama fuel-economy regulations; other states are likely to add their weight as well.

Governor Jerry Brown, in a statement in which he said California will deal with the Trump Administration to find common ground, also said that California has its own agenda: "We will protect the precious rights of the people and continue to confront the existential threat of our time -- devastating climate change." That means an emphasis on renewables. In 2015, Brown signed into law a bill to bring the state's use of renewable power to 30% by 2020, and 50% by 2050.

Indeed, there is likely to be champions for renewable energy in the Trump Administration itself. Although Rick Perry -- previously governor of Texas, and now Trump's candidate to run the Department of Energy (DOE) -- has stated on record he would like to kill off the DOE, the record of his actions suggests a different story. While he was governor, natural gas production climbed 50%, while oil production soared by 260%. However, the growth of the wind industry under Perry's tenure was even more dramatic, growing from only 116 megawatts of production in 2000 to over 11,000 megawatts in 2013.

If Texas were a country, it would rank as the fifth biggest largest producer of wind power in the world, supplying Texas with approximately 10% of its electrical power needs. Texas outranks California in wind power -- though oddly for such a sunny place, Texas lags in solar power. In addition to promoting wind generation, Rick Perry's administration promoted the growth of transmission infrastructure needed to carry that wind energy from its source in the Panhandle and western part of the state to major consumer centers. In a 2009 speech, Governor Perry said: "Texas is the very picture of a state aggressively seeking its future in alternative energy, through incentives and innovation, not mandates and overreaching regulation."

It is difficult to second-guess Trump's thinking; although shrewd, he is nothing that resembles an intellectual, his thinking being centered on egocentric consideration of near-sighted self-interest. Having no other fixed principle, he easily reverses himself. The Reagan Administration was inclined to staff Federal agencies with administrators hostile to the agencies they led -- but then found that many became infected with the "River Kwai syndrome", to transform into defenders of the agencies they were supposed to bring to heel.

Rick Perry may prove a responsible and dynamic boss for the DOE -- and who knows? Trump, if convinced that sensibility and national interest fits with self-interest, may be perfectly happy with that. We'll see. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 06 JAN 17] THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (7)

* THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (7): On Saturday, 7 October, I began the trip back home. I got out as early as I could, both because it was going to be a long day, and also because I really didn't like the Hilton and was glad to leave. In any case, I traced my route back to Washington, Pennsylvania, then went north to Pittsburgh to visit the zoo.

I was apprehensive of the traffic network through the central city, at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, since it looked like a tangle of freeways that would be easy to get lost in. Indeed, I hit the wrong turn and ended up in downtown Pittsburgh. Well OK, I thought, cities with rivers tend to have a drive along the river, and I figured all I had to do was drive east on the one paralleling the Allegheny, which would take me to the city park upriver, and the zoo. Trying to get back onto my original track promised to get me even more lost.

There were two problems with this, the first that it was much farther to the city park than I thought, and the second that the street paralleling the Allegheny -- Butler Street -- was hardly a boulevard, being rather narrow and congested, like a side downtown street. I got to thinking I was going in circles, so I stopped at supermarket to get help. I talked to an older woman working in the bakery, showing her a map on my smartphone; she was very helpful, and I was particularly impressed that when she wasn't sure of something, she would say so. Intellectually cautious; I like that.

Anyway, it turned out I was on track, Butler street was the right way to go. It was actually hard to get turned around in Pittsburgh, since the place is so hilly; although I couldn't actually see the Allegheny from Butler Street, I could see it the valley it was running through. The only real issue was that the streets were narrow and not well-marked. It was something I had known from driving about Back East decades back -- that due to the long history of these cities, the road networks tend to be more tangled and congested than Out West, where the cities are newer and better laid-out. That history also meant Pittsburgh looked run-down; a lively place, but one that had seen better days.

I did make it to the city park, to have to squirrel-cage around a bit to find the zoo, but I didn't have too many problems. It turned out to be a fairly small and unimpressive zoo. The most interesting thing was all the Amish running around, families playing with their kids on slides and such. Most of the kids were having fun, but I had to get a shot of a little Amish girl who was standing to one side, as if she had misgivings about the playing around.

little Amish girl

The aquarium was nice -- not so much for the aquatic exhibits, but because it had something of a jungle environment inside of it. I got a few other nice shots, particularly of a snoozing clouded leopard. The zoo was nonetheless not worth the bother to see, the road network making it truly a bother. I didn't spend too long there, getting back on the freeway to head back to Washington, Pennsylvania.

clouded leopard

I didn't feel so bad about the fumble getting to the zoo on trying to get out of town, because the road network is so mixed up. I got dumped off the freeway into a tangle of city streets, making me wonder if I was lost, so I stopped in a parking lot to get my bearings. I was actually on track -- the road system really was that jumbled.

I finally got out of town, to stop some miles down the road to fuel and eat. I had pre-planned a stop at a Panera Bread restaurant, having been wanting to try one; it wasn't so easy to find it either, further testimony to the fact that driving Back East can be a pain. The Panera Bread restaurant was okay, but not really to my taste.

I hit the road west, driving through Wheeling, then on to Dayton for my night stop. This was the only time I got obnoxiously lost on the trip. I dropped the ball; there were two Hampton Inns nearby, and I got the exits for them crosswired. That led to about a half-hour of driving around a maze of country roads near the Dayton Airport; much to my frustration, I ended up actually being able to see the sign for the Hampton Inn, but due to the limited connectivity of rural roads, could not get to it in any straightforward fashion.

I finally backtracked and got on a main drag to take me towards the motel -- but then, entirely to my exasperation, got half-trapped in street construction. After I got through that and got on the side street to the hotel, I found it a roundabout and poorly-marked route. By the time I got to the Hampton Inn, I was in a very acid mood. The black girl at the desk was apparently new to the job and, though conscientious, somewhat inept, but I managed to keep from exploding in her face. The motel room only had a shower, not a bath as is my preference, but the water pressure was good and the water hot, so no worries. I tidied everything up and got to bed -- about time. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 05 JAN 17] SCIENCE NEWS

* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online "Dim Nearby Galaxy Is Nearly 100% Dark Matter" by Sid Perkins, 25 August 2016), in 2015 astronomers discovered a dim -- but as it would turn out, extraordinarily dense -- galaxy, designated "Dragonfly 44", that may be almost entirely dark matter.

Dragonfly 44 lies about 300 million light-years from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices, and is part of the Coma cluster of galaxies. From its visible appearance, Dragonfly 44 has only about 1% the number of stars of our Milky Way galaxy. However, observations of the orbits of the stars in Dragonfly 44 show it has a mass of about a trillion Suns, similar to the mass of the Milky Way -- which implies that it is about 99.99% dark matter. Further observations of this anomalous galaxy may provide insights into the nature of dark matter.

* As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Ice Volcano Spotted On Ceres" by Eric Hand, 1 September 2016) the NASA Dawn probe, since 2015 in orbit around the minor planet Ceres in the asteroid belt, has spotted an "ice volcano" or "cryovolcano" on body's surface.

Although cryovolcanoes probably exist on Pluto, and there are hints as well on Saturn's moon Titan, this peculiar, 4-kilometer-tall mountain on Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, is the first whose existence has been confirmed. A scarcity of craters on nearby surfaces suggest an eruption by "Ahuna Mons", as the mountain has been named, in the recent geological past, within about 200 million years. Researchers suspect that salts help lower the melting point for ice, deep underground where it is warmer, allowing brines to rise up as a "cryomagma". They also say that an impact basin on the other side of Ceres -- a 280-kilometer (175-mile) wide area called "Kerwan", may have sent shockwaves through Ceres and triggered the eruption.

Ahuna Mons

Dawn has clearly identified water ice on Ceres, and has acquired evidence of clay minerals, which require water. Although Ceres has many small craters, it lacks major impact basins -- suggesting an upper crust of mixed rock and ice, with a viscous layer of ice underneath, with the bigger impact basins relaxing away over time.

* As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Virus Stole Poison Genes From Black Widow Spider" By Paul Rincon, 12 October 2016), it is well-known that viruses will occasionally pick up genes from bacteria they infect,

The virus, known as "WO", infects a well-known bacterium named Wolbachia, which infects insects and spiders, and is known to have a diversity of effects. WO obtained a gene that codes for "latrotoxin", the venom used by black widow spiders, which breaks down the cell membranes of eukaryotes -- organisms with cells featuring nuclei, including animals, plants and fungi. The researchers suspect the virus uses latrotoxin to enter animal cells and reach the bacteria that it targets. It may also enable the virus to exit animal cells.

During its life cycle, the WO virus is exposed to the internal environment of insect and spider cells; the researchers found other genes in its DNA that may help the virus evade animals' immune systems. Incidentally, this article commented: "The chunks of arachnid DNA were probably stolen by the virus to help it punch through animal cells."

Oh right, the virus thought: "Gee, this gene sure looks like it would come in handy for punching through the walls of animals cells -- nobody's looking, I'll just snatch it and run!" Philosopher Dan Dennett, in his writings on evo science, does make a fair case for granting "intentionality" to mindless things like viruses -- sure, no problem in saying the virus uses the venom gene to penetrate animal cells to get at the target bacteria, it's genetically adapted to do so -- but I think even Dennett would see the silliness in the idea of deliberate "theft" by a virus.

As Dennett knows perfectly well, that's a ridiculous take on how evolution works. In reality, the virus picked up the gene by an anomaly in its replication process; it was just that the virus that had the venom gene then propagated better than its siblings that didn't have the gene.

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[WED 04 JAN 17] SOUTH PACIFIC SOLAR

* SOUTH PACIFIC SOLAR: As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("South Pacific Island Ditches Fossil Fuels To Run Entirely On Solar Power" by Eleanor Ainge Roy, 28 November 2016, the little island of T'au in American Samoa has just declared "energy independence", by installing more than 5,000 solar panels and 60 Tesla power packs.

Although there is a lot of bickering over the cost-effectiveness of solar power, nobody on T'au had any doubts, since the 600 islanders had traditionally been powered by diesel generators, requiring imports of fuel. When bad weather interfered with shipments, homes, government buildings, and water pumps could be shut down. The shipments were not only expensive, but threatened environmental calamity if a fuel ship were to capsize in a storm.

Construction of the 1.4-megawatt micro-grid began in 2014, and was immediately bogged down by poor weather, transport delays, and technical difficulties. Utu Abe Malae, executive director of the American Samoa Power Authority, says: "It has been really hard. The ferries to the island would often break down, so then we'd have to flag down nearby fishing boats to transport the solar panels, and then they'd have to pass the panels to row-boats to reach the island. Nothing about this project went smoothly at all."

T'au solar array

Solar engineers from contractors Tesla and SolarCity flew out from California to help oversee construction of the micro-grid, and 15 local men were employed in construction process. Five of those fifteen locals -- previously low skilled, odd-job men on the island -- are now solar power technicians managing the grid. Associate Professor Ashton Patridge, from the faculty of engineering at Auckland University in New Zealand, says that Ta'u provides a model for further use of solar power in the South Pacific:

BEGIN QUOTE:

It is fantastic what they have done, and they should provide a working model for other Pacific island countries to study, as most get six to eight sunshine hours a day, 1,000 watts per square meter -- which is a resource that is otherwise wasted. The cost of setup for solar is high and there has been a push-back against that -- but it is ideal if governments absorb that cost, especially for these remote communities that would otherwise be totally reliant on non-renewable energy sources.

END QUOTE

With cyclone season approaching, when heavy rain and grey skies can be daily occurrences, Malae said he was interested to see how the solar panels held up -- but was not worried about maintaining the electricity supply, since the battery array could store enough to power the island for three days.

While the power bills of the islanders remain the same -- around $80 USD to $100 USD per month for an average household -- Malae said the reliability and self-sufficiency of the new system had been a cause of celebration. Neighboring Ofu and Olosega islands plan to follow suit, with their own micro-grids to be in operation in 2017.

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[TUE 03 JAN 17] THE PROTECTIONIST ILLUSION

* THE PROTECTIONIST ILLUSION: As a follow-up on the series on free trade run here in 2016, an editorial in THE ECONOMIST ("Why They're Wrong", 1 October 2016) discussed how, from the 19th century onward, improvements in long-range transport increasingly established a world economy. Far-sighted leadership realized that attempts to wall off national economies from the rest of the world with tariff barriers would restrict prosperity, not enhance it; trade was not a zero-sum game. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, trade protectionism resurged, with the only result of increasing the pain and slowing recovery. In the postwar era, the lesson was learned, with a renewed and largely successful push towards a global economy.

The lesson now seems to have been forgotten, with such a high level of public resentment against globalization as to make politicians fear to mention the word. It's just one symptom of a pervasive anxiety about a more open world, interconnected by rapid transport and networking, where events on one side of the planet may have a powerful effect on the other. Britain's Brexit vote reflected concerns about the impact of unrestrained migration on public services, jobs, and culture. Big businesses are assailed for dodging taxes by off-shoring profits.

There's some truth to these critiques, and more should be done for those who lose out in an open global economy. However, there is a stark difference between sanding off the rough edges of globalization -- and scrapping it, without a realistic consideration of the alternatives. It is hysteria to think that globalization is a scam that benefits only corporations and the rich, that exploits the people and the environment for self-centered gain.

For starters, consider the vast improvement in global living standards in the decades after World War II, which was underpinned by an explosion in world trade. Exports of goods rose from 8% of world GDP in 1950 to almost 20% a half-century later. Export-led growth and foreign investment have brought hundreds of millions out of poverty in China, and transformed economies from Ireland to South Korea.

Western voters, of course, are not necessarily all that encouraged by the emergence of new economic powers like China and India. Nonetheless, they should not ignore that they benefit from free trade as well. Firms that do business on the world stage are more productive and pay higher wages than those that serve only the domestic market. Half of America's exports go to countries with which it has free-trade deals, even though their economies account for less than a tenth of global GDP.

In contrast, protectionism may well cost more jobs than it saves, and definitely hurts consumers: it is an economic truism that one cannot protect producers without hurting consumers, and it is the consumer who ends up paying for tariffs -- either by paying more for imports, or more for protected domestic products. Protectionism hurts the poorest consumers, who have little money to spare, much worse than it hurts the wealthiest.

A study of 40 countries found that the richest consumers would lose 28% of their purchasing power if cross-border trade was shut down; but those in the bottom tenth would lose 63%. The annual cost to American consumers of switching to non-Chinese tires after Barack Obama slapped on anti-dumping tariffs in 2009 has been estimated at around $1.1 billion USD -- amounting to a pricetag of over $900,000 USD for each of the 1,200 jobs that were "saved".

The more visible sore point in openness is migration -- but on the balance, migrants help their host countries much more than they harm them. For example, European immigrants who arrived in Britain since 2000 have been net contributors to the exchequer, adding more than 20 billion pounds ($34 billion USD) to the public finances between 2001 and 2011. No statistics have showed immigrants to the UK to be more inclined to crime and anti-social conduct than the native-born. In addition, foreign direct investment delivers competition, technology, management know-how, and jobs.

Yes, there are losers in globalization, and too little has been done to help them. Possibly a fifth of the six million or so net job losses in American manufacturing between 1999 and 2011 resulted from Chinese competition; many of those who lost jobs did not find new ones, and those who did often ended up earning much less. With hindsight, politicians in Britain were too complacent about the pressures that migration from new EU member states in Eastern Europe brought to bear on public services.

Capital transfers, though not a source of much public uproar, have often proved damaging, not least in the euro zone's debt-ridden countries. It is true that global economic exploitation is not inherently friendly to the environment; but the idea that the world would be a better place if capitalism were not hindered by regulation, or the mirror idea that economic power should be granted to a cadre of benevolent commissars, only thrive in the world of crackpots.

More could be done to fix the problems. The USA spends a meager 0.1% of its GDP, one-sixth of the rich-country average, on policies to retrain workers and help them find new jobs. On migration, it makes sense to follow the example of Denmark and link local-government revenues to the number of incomers, so that strains on schools, hospitals, and housing can be eased. Harmonizing tax policies on multinational firms would give countries greater command over their public finances; similarly, a collaborative approach to damping out volatile capital flows would restore mastery over national monetary policy. As far as global environmental regulation goes, major steps have been taken, though much more needs to be done.

There are answers to the problems. They may not be easy to achieve, but protectionism is not an answer -- it's a problem in itself, doomed to failure. Alas, with public hysteria gone so far off the rails, leadership willing to fight the tide has yet to emerge.

ED: On 14 December 2016, US President-Elect Donald Trump met with tech industry leaders, including Apple's Tim Cook, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, and Tesla's Elon Musk, with Trump telling them: "I'm here to help you folks do well." There were underlying tensions in the meeting; the majority of the tech leadership backed Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, and they felt targeted by Trump's blasts on US industries off-shoring their manufacturing. The industry leaders were, however, interested in Trump's promises to rationalize corporation taxation -- for which a fair case can be made, since the current system encourages the off-shoring of profits, as mentioned above.

As far as moving manufacturing back to the USA went, that was more problematic. Apple could very plausibly move production of iPhones to the USA to serve the domestic market, leaving production in China to serve the rest of the world. However, doing so would generate few jobs for Americans, since the plants would be highly automated; there would be few nonskilled jobs, except for the custodial staff. Indeed, a Trump Administration push to return manufacturing to the USA might, at least as one benefit, do much to boost factory automation technology -- which ironically would mean even more unskilled workers displaced over the long run. The postwar era in which unskilled workers could make good livings for themselves was an historical anomaly-- and like it or not, the fact is that it is over.

OF COURSE I'M CONFUSING

Nobody can really second-guess Trump. His mindset is theatrical; his notions of facts are directed by convenience, and he easily reverses himself when convenient. If he can bring manufacturing back to the USA, even if it doesn't really change the status quo in any serious way, would he not then simply declare victory? We'll see.

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[MON 02 JAN 17] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: It's another year now, and time to review 2016.

There was little excitement in consumer tech in 2016; one interesting development were smartphones with dual cameras in them, permitting a degree of zoom capability. Will we be seeing smartphones with quad cameras in them? Virtual reality technology has bounced back, but it may be just a flash in the pan.

3D printing continued on a roll, though home use remained its least significant aspect. Artificial intelligence research was big news in 2016, though it was mostly applied to tools behind the scenes, not consumer technology.

Smart cards also finally became established for purchases in the USA, with smartphone transactions beginning to make an appearance, while online security for charge card transactions tightened up. Although there was some excitement in previous years for the bitcoin digital currency scheme, it is now apparent that it was never anything more than a toy -- though the "distributed ledger / blockchain" underlying bitcoin is getting a lot of attention for use in various applications.

Food technology made considerable strides in 2016, with a number of startups working on synthetic meats and similar products, though so far none have made a commercial breakthrough. In addition, in a fit of sanity the US Congress passed a GMO labeling bill that covers all the bases, if in such a way as to make GMO-bashers unhappy. Genetic modification was on a boom in general, with the CRISP-Cas9 genetic modification technique taking the biotech / bioresearch world by storm.

Robocars were still big news in 2016, though nobody has really commercialized them yet; they're not ready for prime time. Nonetheless, Tesla does now offer an "Autopilot" system that does freeway driving with minimal supervision. Tesla's electric vehicle (EV) offerings, as well as the Chevy Bolt, has revived the prospects of EVs, which appeared to have been on the fade. Battery pack prices have been decreasing at a steady pace, though the range problem with EVs remains to be addressed.

What happens with EVs as personal vehicles remains to be seen, but EVs ar definitely on a roll with buses and other heavy fleet transports. This in a year when fuel prices were held artificially low, inflicting pain on those developing alternative fuels; fuel prices were rising again by year's end.

Civilian drones were big business in aviation, with a push, not yet realized, to use them for cargo transport, with a corresponding effort to set up drone airway systems. There was also a continued push for electric or hybrid-electric civil aircraft, though they're still mostly in the lab. There was further work on highly efficient next-generation airliner designs.

Space activities were lively in 2016, with China flying a number of innovative space platforms -- the Quantum Science Satellite (QSS), which was a test system for a global quantum-encrypted communications network; DAMPE, to search for dark matter radiation signatures; and XPNAV 1, to map out pulsar signals for space navigation. China also introduced a new series of Long March boosters.

The European Space Agency launched a pathfinder for a space-based interferometer constellation, intended to detect gravity waves -- with the ground-based LIGO interferometer system detecting gravity waves for the first time. There being a Mars launch window open in 2016, the ESA also launched the "ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO)" to the Red Planet; unfortunately, a small demonstrator Mars lander named "Schiaparelli", launched with ExoMars TGO, suffering a landing system fault and crashed.

As far as politics go, there's hardly much need to reflect on 2016, nor would it be so welcome if I did ... Brexit, Trump, Putin, need I say more? Well, I can say a bit more about how high a profile data-security issues -- emails, leaks, and leakers -- took in events, with the year ending as the US and Russia were engaged in an effective cyber-war. A squabble between the FBI and Apple on the encryption of an iPhone taken from a slain terrorist was more or less forgotten in the fuss. It won't be forgotten for long, since the quarrel over the right of citizens over strong encryption has on been deferred, not resolved.

Data security is going to be a big issue for the incoming Trump Administration -- the Obama Administration has imposed sanctions on Russia, with Congress screaming for more -- and an issue possibly not one Trump's not eager to tackle. Then again, who knows? Trump reverses himself at convenience, and he may not feel so casual about hacking once his administration is the target.

Oh, and lest we forget, 2016 was the hottest year ever, another factor the Trump Administration may not be eager to deal with -- ironically handing leadership on climate change to China, who in Trump's vision is America's evil rival. Renewable energy, however, was on a roll in 2016, with prices continuing to decline while deployment ramps up. In any case, 2017 is a new year, and we can only hope it will damn well be better than the last one.

* On Christmas day, I was hobbling around the house with my cane. But to a degree, I didn't mind.

I get up early, about 0330 AM. I had a star projector in front of the house as a Christmas decoration; it can't be run indefinitely without damage, so I run it on timer for some hours from the evening to after midnight, and then run it again after I get up. After rising on the day before Christmas, I turned it on, set it to flashing, and went back to the bathroom. I came back into the kitchen -- but didn't see the stars shining through the front window. Wot?

I looked out the window, and after puzzling a moment, realized the projector was gone; somebody had obviously made off with it. Annoyed, I went outside to investigate -- and noticed somebody casing the Christmas decorations from a neighbor's house. I shouted: "Hey YOU!"

He took off running, dropping an armload of Christmas decorations in the street. I didn't have shoes on, just plastic clogs and socks, but took off in hot pursuit, screaming abuse and dire threats at the top of my lungs. I meant the threats; I was furious. I would have taken him on if he'd been twice my size, or even armed: If I can't take you out, you'll have to show me why not.

I finally pulled a muscle in my right ankle and fell down, still screaming threats. Further pursuit being impossible, I limped back towards my house. A neighbor fellow, stout working-class sort without a shirt on, had come out to figure out what the fracas was all about, and asked: "What's going on?" I explained, pointed out where the thief had gone, and went back to my house.

I had noticed that there was a car idling in the street, but it didn't register with all the excitement -- Damn, should have got the license number. I called 911 and reported somebody out stealing Christmas decorations. I then tried to get my morning back in order -- but while I was doing that, events were proceeding on another track.

My neighbor had seen the car, and followed after it in his truck. His pickup had a flasher; when he saw a copy, he turned it on, and the cops tracked down the kids. The dispatch at the station told me: "We got them. Everyone here cheered when they heard the news."

I wish I had been able to see them busted. The cops dropped by my house with the recovered Christmas decorations, but my projector wasn't there. I told them: "The thief dropped a bunch of stuff in the street, I'll check later. Geez, wotta stupid crime. These things don't have any resale value." Worse, my projector operates by remote, and the remote was in the house; without the remote, it was nothing but a paperweight.

I found my projector lying in the street; it has a metal casing and was undamaged by being dropped. I set it back up again. My ankle swelled up painfully, so I finally got around to dropping two ibuprofens -- funny stuff that, doesn't do much for minor pains, works really well for major ones. I did my morning calisthenics surprisingly well for having a dysfunctional leg. I figured it would mend pretty quickly, muscle healing faster than ligaments, but I don't think it will be mended until well into February.

On consideration, after the adrenaline wore off, it seemed like a sad thing. Obviously they were kids with some problems, and their homes could not have been happy over the holidays. I could only hope that if if they got busted doing something silly, it would prove a good object lesson before they moved on to doing something really dangerous. Looking like idiots to the other kids around them would be something to remember. Then again, maybe they can't learn.

I trust a healthy and prosperous new year to all. It's certainly going to be an interesting one.

Thanks to four readers for donations to support the websites last month. They are very much appreciated.

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