feb 2017 / last mod sep 2017 / greg goebel

* 20 entries including: Putin's Russia (series), mapping the brain (series), unstoppable renewables (series), EPA reviews auto emission standards ahead of Trump, direct pay model for medical care, protein structures from metagenomic studies, Republicans versus ObamaCare, cities versus air pollution, and manufacturing jobs in irreversible decline.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR FEBRUARY 2017: As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("A Conservative Climate Solution" by John Schwartz, 7 February 2017, somewhat startlingly, a group of Republican elder statesmen is not only declaring that human-driven climate change is for real, but is even calling for a carbon tax.

The group -- led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, with former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, and Henry M. Paulson JR, a former secretary of the Treasury -- says that taxing carbon pollution produced by burning fossil fuels is "a conservative climate solution" based on free-market principles. Baker met with White House officials to discuss the proposal.

In an interview, Baker said that the plan followed classic conservative principles of free-market solutions and small government -- even saying he thought Ronald Reagan would have liked it: "I'm not at all sure the Gipper wouldn't have been very happy with this."

At an initial price of $40 USD per ton of carbon dioxide produced, the tax would raise an estimated $200 to $300 billion USD a year, with the rate scheduled to rise over time. The tax would be collected where the fossil fuels enter the economy, such as the mine, well, or port; the money raised would be returned to consumers in what the group calls a "carbon dividend" amounting to an estimated $2,000 USD a year for the average family of four.

It is unlikely that the Trump Administration will do any more than give a polite nod to the idea; and then, only if they're feeling uncharacteristically polite. Nonetheless, the push for a carbon tax from Republican notables is a big deal, effectively unprecedented. Despite a scientific consensus on the matter, Republican politicians are not inclined to admit that human activities are causing climate change -- even though some quietly say they know climate change is for real, they're just too fearful of their voters to say so publicly.

A survey taken just after the 2016 election by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found that 66% of registered voters supported a carbon tax on fossil fuel companies, with the money used to reduce personal taxes. The party breakdown for that support was 81% of Democrats, 60% of independents, and 49% of Republicans. Even among Trump voters, 48% support taxing fossil fuel companies.

Baker said it was time for the Republican Party to engage in the discussion of global warming beyond simple denial. "It's really important that we Republicans have a seat at the table when people start talking about climate change."

* In related news, an article from BBC WORLD Online ("New UN Climate Chief: Action On Warming Unstoppable" by Roger Harrabin, 25 February 2017), the United Nations now has a new climate-change chief -- former Mexican diplomat Patricia Espinosa. Espinosa is of course concerned about what actions the Trump Administration will take relative to climate change, but feels that action to deal with the problem will continue in any case.

At the end of February, she came to Washington DC to talk with Trump's Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson. She suggesting that a US withdrawal from the ongoing climate talks process completely would be more damaging cutting funds to the US clean energy program. The US pumps about $4 million USD a year into the program, and sometimes tosses in an extra $2 million USD voluntarily.

Espinosa obviously is not hopeful that Trump will exercise any prudence on climate change; indeed, being both Mexican and female, she can hardly expect Trump to give her words a hearing. However, she says the rest of the world will carry on if America drops out, and asked if the US really wants to relinquish the role of global leadership on the issue to China. "The transformation has started. I think it's unstoppable."

* As discussed by an essay from THE ECONOMIST ("Jaw, Jaw", 28 January 2017), during the 2016 US election campaign, Donald Trump made a big fuss about China as America's economic adversary, saying that China was giving the USA a bad deal on trade. THE ECONOMIST actually agreed with Trump on that score, if not for the same reasons.

Trump accused China of manipulating its currency; THE ECONOMIST said that was true -- but only to keep the yuan from falling too quickly, not to bolster exports. Nonetheless, Chinese President Xi Jinping is no enthusiast for China as an open economy:


Favored Chinese firms benefit from subsidized financing and rent. China keeps tracts of its economy off-limits to foreign investors as it pumps money towards its own champions; it has, for example, earmarked $150 billion USD to nurture its semiconductor industry. Those who are allowed in are often required to hand over their intellectual property.


It was similarly noted here last year that China has done an about-face on previous resistance to genetic modification of food crops, encouraging its own industry -- while raising challenges to GM crops from other nations. In addition, as discussed here in 2015, while the Chinese national internet, sealed off behind the "Great Firewall", is primarily focused on maintaining social control, it also protects China's domestic internet firms.

What should Trump do in response? There are things he shouldn't do. First, trying to tie trade to political issues, such as Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea, is a blueprint for failure. It's hard enough to get an agreement between rival states to begin with; trying to agree on two contentious issues at once is a non-starter. Second, initiating a trade war would be counter-productive to US interests, since the Chinese would immediately retaliate by moving against imports of US jetliners, and other American products sold to China.

Trump's best option is to make use of the system that supports international free trade that the US did much to establish in the first place. The international trade bureaucracy is actually highly effective; the Obama Administration brought 16 complaints against China to the World Trade Organization (WTO), and didn't lose a case. Along the same lines, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal among Pacific Rim nations, pushed by the Obama Administration, was in part set up with an eye to gaining leverage over China, by setting up an enhanced trading system. China would have an incentive to get access to markets via the TPP, but would have to play by the rules to do so.

What's the likelihood of Trump heeding such advice? Nobody would bet on it. Trump is contemptuous of the international system that the US set up after World War II, saying it hobbles America. He's already pulled the US out of the TPP. Nothing he does suggests he is capable of considered, patient action. Given the chaos in the White House, hopes for constructive action by the Trump Administration are not great. The most hope is that the damage won't be so severe as to be irreparable by the next administration.

An editorial from THE ECONOMIST on the eve of Trump's inauguration suggested that though there is method to Trump's madness in international relations, it still remains madness:


The idea running through Mr. Trump's diplomacy is that relations between states follow the art of the deal. Mr. Trump acts as if he can get what he wants from sovereign states by picking fights that he is then willing to settle -- at a price, naturally. His mistake is to think that countries are like businesses. In fact, America cannot walk away from China in search of another superpower to deal with over the South China Sea. Doubts that have been sown cannot be uprooted, as if the game had all along been a harmless exercise in price discovery. Alliances that take decades to build can be weakened in months.

Dealings between sovereign states tend towards anarchy -- because, ultimately, there is no global government to impose order, and no means of coercion but war. For as long as Mr. Trump is unraveling the order that America created, and from which it gains so much, he is getting his country a terrible deal.


* The article on the repeal of ObamaCare run here this month stated that there were only two options in a US universal health care program -- a taxpayer-supported program, or an "individual mandate" for all to buy health care. Actually, as discussed by another article from THE ECONOMIST ("High Risk By Name", 28 January 2017), there is a third option, sort of, that has been used by a number of US states; and can work, sort of.

It's called "high-risk pools". Instead of saying everyone has to get insurance to cover people with pre-existing conditions, healthy citizens can buy insurance or not as they please. Those who do have pre-existing conditions are segregated into their own market, with caps on how much more insurers can charge them, and subsidies provided to help pay for their health care.

35 US states have run high-risk pools, the biggest and most successful being the Minnesota Comprehensive Health Association (MCHA). It was established in 1976, and provided good -- if not unlimited -- coverage to 27,000 Minnesotans with pre-existing conditions in 2011. The high-risk pool paid premiums that were 25% higher than the norm, with a levy on other insurance plans making up the shortfall. The fact that employer's insurance plans were included in the levy made the increment in premiums bearable.

The problem is that not all states have done so well with high-risk pools. In some places, premiums for high-risk patients are twice the norm -- and there may be enrollment caps, with only a portion of high-risk patients able to sign up. Even with MCHA, the premiums end up being difficult to handle for those who make just enough money to be ineligible for Medicare.

In short, if the US is to have universal health care, high-risk pools seem like a half-measure. As was said previously, the Republicans are stuck, finding it difficult to accept universal health care, but reluctant to discard it. The prospect is that they will take a troublesome situation and make it worse -- instead of converging on something that works. The only silver lining is that they know, if they do make it worse, they'll pay for it. The longer they equivocate over the issue, the more reality will sink in.

* It's probably sinking in with a vengeance now. Republican members of Congress who went home to town meetings the week starting with President's Day, on 20 February, found them populated with citizens who were most unhappy with the blind Republican drive to kill off ObamaCare, without having defined a replacement. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) got a double-barreled load of wrath from one Rose Mudd Perkins of Georgetown, Kentucky:


And the last I heard, these coal jobs are NOT coming back! And now these people don't have the insurance they need, 'cuz they're POOR! And they worked those coal mines, and they're SICK! The veterans are SICK! The veterans are BROKEN DOWN! If YOU can answer ANY of that, I'll sit DOWN and SHUT UP ...


McConnell endured the bitter tirade with a paralyzed expression on his face; one had to feel at least a bit sorry for him. President Trump, in response to the unsettled town meetings, sent out a Twitter tweets: "The so-called angry crowds in home districts of some Republicans are actually, in numerous cases, planned out by liberal activists. Sad!"

That message suggested that Trump's repeated statements of support for a universal health care plan can't be taken very seriously -- but so what else is new? In any case, since even most Republicans know, whether they admit it or not, that Trump "makes stuff up", the tweet could not have been very reassuring.

More moderately, other citizens at the town hall meetings said: "Don't repeal ObamaCare, fix it." That seems to be the common sentiment: a Pew poll dated 23 February 2017 gave 54% approval of ObamaCare, that being a high, with 25% more saying the law needs fixing, and only 17% saying it should be summarily junked. There's not really much distinction between "approve" and "fix", since those who approve would hardly object to improvements -- both being statements of support for the principle of universal health care. Even among Republicans, 54% say the law should be retained or fixed.

It seems about time for a Republican to have the nerve to get up in front of Congress and say: "Let's not kill off ObamaCare, let's work with the Democrats to get it working better." Given voter pressure to that end, it wouldn't seem to be asking for so much -- but is anyone willing to break Republican ranks? The first one to do so may well begin a rush. Most politicians understand that occasionally having to eat crow is part of the job.

* The Trump Administration is having continuing difficulties as well. In mid-month General Mike Flynn, Trump's national security advisor, was forced to resign because, before the inauguration, he gave assurances to a Russian contact that the Trump administration would relax sanctions on Russia after taking office. That was followed by a NEW YORK TIMES report of contacts between Trump campaign personnel and Russian intelligence operatives during the election season.

Where that goes remains to be seen -- but it should be noted that praise for Trump in Russian media, superficial and forced to begin with, is now gradually sliding back to the norm of America-bashing. After all, in the Soviet era a president like Trump, a surly fat-cat capitalist, would have been an irresistible target for Red propaganda. Vladimir Putin, finding it unlikely that he can get anything out of Trump, will find it more useful to play him up as an enemy. This is reassuring to Americans who found Trump's flirtation with Putin sinister and unsettling.

Although Trump is noted for his contemptuous refusal to accept facts, the strong and widespread resistance to his pro-Putin policy, whatever policy it is actually supposed to be, seems to be convincing him that it's a non-starter. There was never any real popular support for it in the first place, except for hard-core Trump voters following his lead.

Indeed, if anything can actually get through to Donald Trump, the fall of General Flynn appears to do have done it, suggesting to Trump that he is not bullet-proof. It also suggests that Vice President Mike Pence is making his influence in the administration felt, Pence having been a major player in the Flynn drama. Precisely in what way is not clear -- but it is clear that, while Trump could and did fire Flynn, he could not fire Pence.

Flynn has now been replaced by Army Lieutenant General Herbert Raymond "HR" McMaster. McMaster is a highly-respected officer, a bit of a "defense intellectual", along the lines of Marine General Jim Mattis, Trump's defense secretary. There were effectively no objections from either side of the aisle in Congress over the appointments of Mattis and McMaster. They are seen as much more reassuring than Flynn -- who was inclined to parrot hysterical trash and conspiracy theories he picked up off the internet, an alarming trait in a three-star general -- and may represent a steadying hand on the erratic Trump.

Experience with Trump gives little cause for optimism on that score -- but again, the dismissal of Flynn, who shared Trump's inclination towards hysterical thinking, did seem to hurt. In addition Trump, who is not inclined to respect the opinion of others, does seem to respect the opinion of generals. Mattis and McMaster also do have a lever on him, in that they can threaten to resign if they become too unhappy with the way things are being done in the White House. Having accepted their appointments, that would be "going nuclear", they would only do so if things went completely out of control; but that is a threat that Trump would find it hard to ignore.

In any case, it seems the revelations from the TIMES were leaked by government intelligence services; they did not take kindly to being denounced in Trump's Twitterstorms. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) said that Trump's shots at the intelligence services were "really dumb", adding: "They have six ways until Sunday to get back at you."

History is in fast-forward right now. I was dreading checking news in the morning for a while, but now I'm looking forward to it, observing the stumblings of the extreme Right: "This just keeps getting better and better!"



* MAPPING THE BRAIN (2): The convoluted folds covering the brain's surface form the cerebral cortex, a pizza-sized sheet of tissue that's folded up to fit into our skulls. The sheet, roughly three millimeters thick, is made up of a series of repeating modules, or "microcircuits", comparable in some ways to the array of logic gates in a computer chip. Each module consists of approximately 100,000 neurons arranged in a complex network of interconnected cells. Evidence suggests that the basic structure of these modules is roughly the same throughout the cortex. However, modules in different brain regions are specialized for specific purposes such as vision, movement, or hearing.

Researchers haven't been able to make much progress to date on these modules, since up to now, they've only been able to deal with hundreds of neurons at a time. New technologies designed to trace the shape, activity and connectivity of thousands of neurons are finally allowing researchers to analyze how cells within a module interact with each other; how activity in one part of the system might initiated or dampen activity in another part. Vogelstein says: "For the first time in history, we have the ability to interrogate the modules instead of just guessing at the contents. Different teams have different guesses for what's inside."

The MICRONS researchers will focus on a part of the cortex that processes vision. David Cox, a Harvard neuroscientist who heads one of the IARPA teams, says: "Vision seems easy -- just open your eyes -- but it's hard to teach computers to do the same thing."

Each team is starting with the same basic idea for how vision works, a well-established theory known as "analysis by synthesis (ABS)". According to this idea, the brain makes predictions about what will happen in the immediate future, and then reconciles those predictions with what it actually sees. The power of this approach lies in its efficiency -- it requires less computation than continuously recreating every moment in time -- though it can mislead us into thinking we saw what we were expecting to see.

The brain might execute ABS any number of ways, so each team is exploring a different possibility:

All three teams will monitor neuronal activity from tens of thousands of neurons in a target cube of brain. Then they'll use different methods to create a wiring diagram of those cells. Cox's team, for example, will slice brain tissue into layers thinner than a human hair and analyze each slice with electron microscopy. The team will then computationally stitch together each cross section to create a densely packed three-dimensional map that charts millions of neural wires on their intricate path through the cortex.

With a map and activity pattern in hand, each team will attempt to find basic rules governing the circuit. They'll then program those rules into a simulation, and see how well the simulation matches a real brain.

Tolias and collaborators already have a taste of what this type of approach can accomplish. In a recent paper, they mapped the connections between 11,000 neuronal pairs, uncovering five new types of neurons in the process. Koch says: "We still don't have a complete listing of the parts that make up cortex, what the individuals cells look like, how they are connected. That's what [Tolias] has started to do."

Among these thousands of neuronal connections, Tolias's team uncovered three general rules that govern how the cells are connected:

Using just these three wiring rules, the researchers could simulate the circuit fairly accurately. Tolias says: "Now the challenge is to figure out what those wiring rules mean algorithmically. What kinds of calculations do they do?" [TO BE CONTINUED]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (5): Russia's boom came to a halt when the financial crisis hit in 2008, with the economy contracting by 10% from the peak of 2008 to the trough of 2009. The subsequent recovery has been driven by higher government spending to prop up consumption. Between 2010 and 2014, the economy grew by only 3% a year, even though revenues from oil exports were 70% higher than during the oil boom of 2004:2008.

The economy remained largely dependent on natural resources, and private enterprise was not the real beneficiary. Policy was devoted to the enrichment of the state leadership; the regime created a corporatist state that suppressed competition. Between 2005 and 2015, the share of the state in the economy doubled, from 35% to 70%. The Russian economy then fell into recession. In 2015, GDP shrank by 3% to 7% and real disposable income fell by 10%. Capital investment has been declining steeply in the last few years, with the decline accelerating after after Russia's attack on Ukraine in 2014.

The people running the economy are competent, well-educated technocrats, such as the head of the central bank, Elvira Nabiulina; but there is only so much they can do. A devaluation of the ruble against the dollar failed to stimulate the economy, while rendering imports unaffordable.

The slump in the oil price and Western sanctions have aggravated the downturn, but did not cause it. Growth started to slow down in 2012 and 2013 when the oil price was still high, and before the invasion of Ukraine. The root causes are state control over Russia's markets, established with rules that are kept opaque, and enforced in an exploitative fashion.

As an upper-middle-income country, Russia can develop only if its economy is integrated with the rest of the world -- but Putin regards the outside world with suspicion and hostility, foreign investment in Russia being discouraged. Domestic investment has fallen as well; Russian businessmen have stopped investing in their own country mainly because they see no future.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, many people hoped that once liberated from communist ideology and enjoying a free market, Russia would be able to make good use of its immense natural and intellectual resources. Yegor Gaidar, prime minister in 1992 and the architect of the Russian reforms, was among the few who realized that the market alone could not solve Russia's fundamental problem: the close association of political power and property. In an article published two years before he took charge of the economy, he wrote:


A market [by itself] does not answer the key question of who is supposed to benefit from the results of economic production; it can serve different social structures. Everything depends on the distribution of property and political power.


One of the core flaws of the old Soviet regime was its great hostility to the concept of personal property, and its correspondingly great belief in the privilege of the state -- easily translated into the privilege of the state elite. Although the 1991 revolution overturned the political and economic system and led to the sale of state assets, it did not sufficiently separate political power and property.

Given past history, that was no surprise. Stalin's crash industrialization and urbanization was designed to create a militarized autarky at a total disregard for cost, financial or human, on the basis of plans that were not necessarily well thought-out. Factories were built in cold and inaccessible places, using forced labor. The output of those factories was often worth less than the input in energy and materials. After Stalin's death they were kept going by oil and gas money.

The factory managers, known as "red directors", traveled to Moscow to haggle with the relevant ministries for resources. They employed millions of people and had enormous lobbying power. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the only way to keep them quiet was to sell them their factories, which meant that much of industry remained in the hands of the old elite. Gaidar reckoned that was a price worth paying to prevent civil conflict.

Unfortunately, many of these companies were on life-support, only surviving if their energy and transport costs were subsidized. For example, Yukos, once Russia's largest oil firm, was forced to sell 70% of its oil in the domestic market -- but its buyers could not afford to pay an open-market price, they piled up huge debts that in the end had to be written off, according Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the company's former owner.

In 1992, Gaidar's government had no choice but to act urgently to stop the country from falling apart. Putin has had no such excuse. When he first took over, oil prices were rising and there was broad political support for reforms -- but Putin chose instead to maintain the unstable status quo. Sweeping reform would have been difficult in any case. Russia had endured authoritarian rule for all its history, and had no real knowledge of anything else.

Douglass North, a Nobel prize-winning economist, and his colleagues have written that in Russia, as in many other countries, access to valuable rights, economic activities, and resources is determined by privilege enforced by the political and military elites. This system, which North calls a "limited-access order", relies on the ability of the elites to control "rents" -- from land, raw materials, or jobs for cronies. Its main objective is to preserve stability and prevent uncontrolled violence by giving those elites access to streams of rent.

The problem is that the state control was greatly weakened by the fall of the USSR. Putin has been trying to regain that control by centralizing it around himself, neutralizing rival centers of power; and undermining the rule of law that emerged, but did not take deep root, under Yeltsin. Putin has enjoyed at least temporary success in this exercise. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* WINGS & WEAPONS: The US Marines are determined to get the maximum use out of their MV-22B Osprey tilt-rotor transport. To that end, in October 2016 Bell-Boeing -- the collaboration that builds the aircraft -- awarded a contract to Cobham Mission Systems of the UK to develop a palletized aerial refueling system that will allow the Osprey to act as an inflight refueling tanker.

Osprey tanks up Hornet

The "V-22 Aerial Refueling System (VARS)" will use a modified version of Cobham's existing FR300 Hose Drum Unit (HDU). The contract follows investigatory work going back to 2013, with operational capability expected in late 2019. The short development cycle is due to the fact that the FR300 HDU is a well-established system; the first version of the FR300 was designed in the 1960s, and there are now about 450 units in use worldwide, according to Cobham officials. The Lockheed Martin C-130 Hercules is the best-known platform that uses the FR300. Proof-of-concept tanker trials with the Osprey have already been performed, presumably with an existing FR300 haywired into the Osprey.

The production Osprey VARS will be a "roll-on / roll-off" system, easily installed and removed as needs require. It will require some modifications to the MV-22B for use -- including changes to allow the refueling hose to be deployed regardless of rear door position, and electrical system changes to allow the VARS to be used in both rotary- and fixed-wing flight modes. The changes are not seen as extensive or, by aerospace standards, expensive. Bell-Boeing is also considering other special-mission configurations of the Osprey -- such as surveillance, electronic warfare, or command post -- but there's been no action on such yet.

* Big technology corporations, having some resources to spare, are fond of coming with futuristic technology scenarios. European aerospace giant Airbus is particularly keen on such, and has concocted a scheme for drone-connected cities, under the "Vahana" project.

Vahana vision

Users arriving in a city at, say, an airport would use a smartphone or such to book a seat on a "CityAirbus" or "zenHop" drone, then fly to then proceed to their destination, a "zenHub" helipad. Luggage would be delivered by another service (yes, "zenLuggage"), with the system protected from malicious hacking by, of course, "zenCyber".

Airbus has been working on the CityAirbus multi-rotor, electric aircraft design, though the firm has only released vague artist's concepts. Airbus is also working on a drone delivery service and plans to start testing it at a Singapore university by mid-2017. The cargo-laden vehicles fly automated routes in "aerial corridors", dropping off a cargo and sending a delivery notification to the customer.

The delivery drone system is seen as a stepping stone to the CityAirbus drone taxi service, validating technologies and promoting public acceptance. Drones are too new for people to feel so trusting about riding in them -- though flying is easier to automate than driving, since an air vehicle doesn't exist in an environment of continuous physical obstructions. In addition, drone technology is already well advanced, with nobody seeing major obstacles to its refinement.

Nonetheless, Airbus would first launch the passenger service with pilots, then go on to autonomous aircraft once regulations and technologies such as "see-and-avoid" are in place. It is never clear how seriously such future scenarios can be taken; but corporations do find them useful, both for promotion and for cooking up innovative ideas. Even if a scenario is unrealistic, elements of it may prove useful.

* In closely related news, as reported by an article from WIRED Online ("Inside Uber's Plan To Take Over The Skies With Flying Cars" by Alex Davies, 27 October 2016), ride-sharing giant Uber is now poised to take a big step forward -- into the air. According to a recent white paper released by the company, within a decade Uber will be hooked up to a network, named "Elevate", of on-demand, electric / hybrid-electric vertical take-off aircraft to provide an air taxi service, with prices competitive to ground transport.

Uber isn't planning to create Elevate on its own, however, instead acting as a catalyst to bring together private and government parties to make it happen. Once it happens, Uber will do what the company now does with cars: enrolling pilots, connecting them with its massive customer base, advising on routes, and collecting its share of the fare. Uber projects fares comparable to ground transport.

The electric planes are not seen as a major problem; there's plenty of them in the works, and progress is rapid. The big obstacle is the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which at present doesn't have a framework to certify commercial electric aircraft, and has never certified a civilian VTOL plane. Even that's not seen as a show-stopper, because the FAA works on a consensus-based standards system -- allowing industry to come up with rules to govern new types of aircraft, with the agency reviewing and tweaking the plans for approval. That's how the FAA created the "Light Sport Aircraft" class, which ushered in new designs like Icon's snappy A5 seaplane.

Elevate the future

Uber's talking about a ten-year timeframe to get Elevate operational, which seems like a stretch -- since it envisions manufacturers, operators, helipad managers, plus local and Federal government all coming together to get the system to work. Uber does have a leg up; unlike other futuristic forms of high-speed transportation, such as maglev trains and Hyperloop, most American cities already have the infrastructure to run flying cars. The US has nearly 6,000 helipads, most of them privately-owned; all that would have to be added is recharging systems.

The Elevate scheme also dovetails neatly with the push towards drone delivery networks -- indeed, the electric planes will ultimately be fully automated, though they will be piloted at first. Elevate may well share its traffic with supply drones, with efforts underway to get such drone networks set up.



* HARDENED TARGET: As reported by an article from WIRED Online blogs by my favorite gearhead, Alex Davies ("EPA Locks In Fuel Economy Rules So Trump Can't Rip Them Up", 13 January 2017), everyone knows that automobiles pollute the air, and so it has become the thankless job of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to try to regulate automobile emissions.

US President Donald Trump is certainly not planning to thank the EPA for doing its job -- and so the agency, ahead of Trump's inauguration, performed a "midterm review" of existing standards for auto emissions. The review concluded the standards were fine as they were, and they will remain in force through 2025. Of course, if Trump gets two terms, that will be when he leaves office.

EPA administrator Gina McCarthy commented in a letter announcing the decisions: "The development and deployment of advanced technology conventional gasoline engines has happened consistent with a robust vehicle market, more rapidly than we predicted, and at costs that are comparable or slightly lower than we predicted." She says the standards haven't affected vehicle sales, which are booming at present.

The back-story here is that in 2012, the Obama Administration issued standards for the first major update of fuel efficiency standards since the 1970s. By 2025, cars would have to nearly double their average fuel efficiency -- which of course means halving their emissions -- and deliver, on average, more than 50 miles per gallon (MPG). Incidentally, the arcane figurings involved translate that to a real-world figure of 36 MPG.

The auto industry agreed to the standards -- with the condition that by April 2018, the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) do a thorough review of the rules, and tweak them if they proved onerous or flatly unworkable. The review would have been an easy way for the Trump Administration to overturn the standards, and so it was moved up. Now, to take action, the Trump Administration will have to amend the Clean Air Act, under which EPA makes the rules. That would be tough; Senate Democrats have the numbers to block legislation by filibuster.

What about a full review of the standards? That would demand a technical assessment report; a period of public comment; a proposed determination; and a final determination -- plus documenting all the research those elements were based on. It would take years, and at the end any weakening of the standards would mean a lawsuit from the many parties who want to see the current standards enforced. The EPA made sure its position was backed up by rigorous data showing the standards will benefit public health without inflicting undue pain on the industry.

To make things more complicated, the EPA only deals with emissions, and doesn't set the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, those being controlled by the NHTSA. That agency has finalized standards through 2021, and should produce its final thoughts on 2022:2025 within the next year or so.

Could the NHTSA be used as a lever against the EPA rules? Possibly, but it would also be difficult, the two agencies having worked in harmony on fuel / emission standards. Yes, one hand might be used against the other, but the strength of the EPA position makes the NHTSA position stronger as well. Throwing the standards into confusion without a prospect of clarification would not be welcomed by the auto industry.

Barack Obama was much criticized for his generous use of executive privilege, in pushing the CAFE standards and other environmental measures; but given congressional obstruction of the White House, it was either exercise executive privilege, or do nothing. Yes, any actions of executive privilege can be easily undone by the next executive -- but having established the CAFE standards, they cannot be forgotten. Even if a Trump Administration did relax the standards, it's a good bet the next administration will reinstate them -- or they might even be replaced by tougher standards. Auto manufacturers might well prefer the devil they know.

Of course, the Trump Administration has the option of simply refusing to enforce the standards, but the auto companies will still be stuck with them. Cars are produced by a global industry that has to plan years in advance -- with the knowledge that the lax attitude towards enforcement is not at all likely to last -- selling to markets overseas that may have tough emission and fuel-economy standards of their own. If America's auto firms don't keep up, they'll be left behind by foreign competitors who have pumped resources into more fuel-efficient cars. Donald Trump is a person who thinks in terms of walls around nations; they're a fantasy, and to the extent they aren't, they're much more troublesome than they appear.



* DIRECT PAY FOR MEDICAL CARE: As discussed by an article from TIME Online ("What Happens When Doctors Only Take Cash" by Haley Sweetland Edwards, 26 January 2017), when 68-year-old Art Villa of Helena, Montana, needed a knee replacement, he found the local hospital was asking $40,000 USD -- but only for the knee replacement itself, not for anything else involved. How much the rest would amount to was not clear.

Then he heard about the Surgery Center of Oklahoma (SCO), which operates a website that lists prices for its procedures, the prices covering all aspects of the treatment. Setting and casting a broken leg? $1,925 USD. The trick is that SCO is "cash-based". The operation doesn't get involved with the mechanics of insurance or much in the way of paperwork. Keith Smith -- who co-founded the SCO in 1997 with fellow anesthesiologist Steven Lantier -- explains: "We say, 'Here's the price. Here's what you're getting. Here's your bill.' It's as simple as that."

On investigation, Villa found out that SCO would do his knee replacement for $19,000 USD, half of what he would expect to pay in Helena -- and that price included air fare to the SCO facility in Oklahoma City, plus medications and physical therapy. SCO would also cover the costs of unforeseen complications.

SCO's business model is called "direct pay", and it's similar to "concierge care", discussed here in 2011. The model has been traditionally been seen as associated with the wealthy, but as discussed in the 2011 article, it's been moving down the economic scale. It is attractive to people with high deductibles, since it may be much cheaper than their deductible limit.

Self-insured companies, like the trucking & storage firm where Villa is the chief administrative officer, are also interested in the lower costs of direct pay. The Oklahoma state public employees' insurance fund, which covers 183,000 people, likes SCO and other operations like it. In 2015, the fund announced that if patients went to a traditional hospital, they would be liable for deductible and co-payment; go to a cash-based provider, the fund would cover it all.

Exact statistics on the number of cash-based providers are hard to find, but Smith and Lantier claim their numbers are exploding. In Oklahoma City alone there are roughly three dozen centers that are all or partly cash based, specializing in everything from radiology to oncology. There are thousands of them across the country. Given the uncertainty in the future of the US health-care system, their numbers are certain to grow.

Villa got his new knee on 17 January 2017, to spend ten days at the Marriott Residence Inn in Oklahoma City, recovering from the operation. He got visits from SCO staff, who gave him kit such as pain meds and an ice machine, along with instructions for recovery. He was very pleased, saying: "I've really never experienced this quality of care."

The US health care system seems like capitalism reflected in a warped mirror, in which price transparency has been suppressed. Hospitals have baroque billing models, devised by accountants, in which the patient has no clear idea of how much a treatment will ultimately cost. Different providers may end up charging wildly different prices for the same procedure; in fact, some providers will charge different insurers different prices. Some providers say it's impossible to set prices in the first place, since medical procedures aren't normal consumer products.

Smith and Lantier didn't buy that. They asked their fellow doctors how much compensation was expected per procedure, factored in necessary expenses such as surgical equipment and medical implants, then added a 10% to 15% profit margin. Since SCO doesn't fuss with insurer or government paperwork, administrative overhead is minimized. Smith says: "Finding an average price doesn't require complicated math. It's arithmetic." Since posting the price list eight years ago, they've adjusted it twice, reflecting experience -- both times to lower rates.

The only real difficulty with cash-based care is how it fits into a universal health-care system. It's typically much cheaper than hospital care, but still far too expensive for people who don't have much money. Figuring out what to do about that isn't Smith and Lantier's problem; but they can still say they can be part of the solution.



* MAPPING THE BRAIN (1): As discussed by an article from QUANTA magazine online ("A Map of the Brain Could Teach Machines to See Like You" by Emily Singer, 6 April 2016), if we take a pre-schooler to the zoo, she has no problem recognizing that the long-necked creature nibbling leaves is a giraffe, even when she's never seen one before. She's seen one in a favorite picture book, and that's enough for her to know what the beast is -- even though the picture book only gives her a fixed two-dimensional cartoon, while the living giraffe changes shape, from ambling to lying down, and looks different from every angle.

It has long been recognized that tasks that are easy for computers are hard for humans, and tasks that are easy for humans are hard for computers. Computers can perform computations far better than humans can, and can sequence through procedures much more reliably and much faster. Humans, however, can recognize an animal even if they've only seen a single picture of it, possibly a cartoon; while a computer will have to sort through a database of giraffe images, shown in many settings and from different perspectives, to be able to reliably identify a giraffe.

Visual identification is one of the arenas where humans easily beat computers. We're also better at finding relevant information in a flood of data; at solving unstructured problems; and at learning without supervision, as a baby learns about gravity when she plays with blocks. According to Tai Sing Lee, a computer scientist and neuroscientist at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pittsburgh: "Humans are much, much better generalists. We are still more flexible in thinking and can anticipate, imagine and create future events."

An ambitious new program, funded by the federal government's intelligence arm, is working to bring artificial intelligence (AI) more in line with our own mental powers. Three teams composed of neuroscientists and computer scientists will attempt to figure out how the brain performs such feats of visual identification, then make machines that do the same. According to Jacob Vogelstein, who heads the program at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA): "Today's machine learning fails where humans excel. We want to revolutionize machine learning by reverse-engineering the algorithms and computations of the brain."

Each of the three teams is modeling a chunk of the human cerebral cortex in unprecedented detail. In conjunction, the teams are developing algorithms based in part on what they learn. In completion, each of those algorithms will be given an example of a foreign item, and then required to pick out instances of it from among thousands of images in an unlabeled database. "It is a very aggressive time-frame," said Christof Koch, president and chief scientific officer of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, which is working with one of the teams.

Koch and his colleagues are now building a complete wiring diagram of a small cube of brain -- a million cubic microns, totaling one five-hundredth the volume of a poppy seed. That's orders of magnitude larger than the most-extensive complete wiring map to date, which was published in June 2015, and took roughly six years to complete.

By the end of the five-year IARPA project, named "Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks (MICRONS)", researchers intend to map a cubic millimeter of cortex. That may not sound like much, but that comprises about 100,000 neurons, 3 to 15 million neuronal connections -- "synapses" -- and enough neural wiring to span the width of Manhattan, if untangled and laid end-to-end.

Nobody has come close to reconstructing a piece of the brain at this level of complexity so far, but smaller-scale efforts have shown that such maps can provide insight into the inner workings of the cortex. In a recent paper, Wei-Chung Allen Lee -- a Harvard neuroscientist who is working with Koch's team -- and his collaborators mapped out a wiring diagram of 50 neurons and their linkages. By pairing this map with information about each neuron's job in the brain -- some respond to a visual input of vertical bars, for example -- they derived a simple rule for how neurons in this part of the cortex are anatomically connected. They found that neurons with similar functions are more likely to both connect to and make larger connections with each other than they are with other neuron types.

The implicit goal of the MICRONS project is technological; IARPA funds research that could eventually lead to data-analysis tools for the intelligence community, among other things. However, a much-improved understanding of the organization of the brain will be needed first. Andreas Tolias -- a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine who is co-leading Koch's team -- likens our current knowledge of the cortex to a blurry photograph. He hopes that the unprecedented scale of the MICRONS project will help sharpen that view, exposing more sophisticated rules that govern our neural circuits. Without knowing all the component parts, he said, "maybe we're missing the beauty of the structure." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (4): 820 kilometers (510 miles) east of Moscow, on the Volga River, lies the city of Innopolis -- the first new city to appear since the fall of the USSR. It was founded in 2012 as an IT park and a model for the sort of modernization that Dmitriy Medvedev, Russia's prime minister and before that its president, had proclaimed a top priority for the state.

Innopolis is a symbol of Russian ambition to enter the 21st century. Designed by Liu Thai Ker, the chief architect of Singapore, it has a university where 350 students are taught in English. Just half an hour's drive away is Kazan, the capital of Tatarstan, an oil-rich republic that has recently adopted a new 15-year strategy to turn itself into a hub of innovation and growth.

Innopolis has contemporary town houses, playgrounds with wi-fi, and a large swimming pool. Igor Nosov, its manager, holds an American MBA. The city's free economic zone is dominated by a circular office building for high-tech firms. There is just one thing in short supply: the firms themselves. So far, the building has only about a dozen occupants. Says one of the Tatar officials: "Well, we've built a collective farm. Now we need the farmers."

Will they come? Russia has long been preoccupied with technical modernization, but the exercise has always had very mixed results. At the 2016 Saint Petersburg Economic Forum, Herman Gref, the chairman of Sberbank, Russia's largest state bank, asked a simple question: "Can Russia compete?"

The answer supplied by an American participant, Loren Graham -- a historian of science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- was somewhat longer. As Graham pointed out, there is a difference between invention and innovation. Russian scientists and engineers were pioneers in the development of the electric light, laser, and hydraulic fracking, yet again and again, the country failed to reap any economic windfall from its scientific brilliance.

The reason, Graham explained, was not a lack of technical and business talent; it was the hostile social, political, and economic environment. Russia's authorities build expensive innovation cities, "but at the same time they prohibit demonstrations, suppress political opponents and independent businessmen, twist the legal system and create a regressive, authoritarian regime ... They want the milk without the cow."

Gref did not disagree. In 2000 the liberal economist, then aged 36, was picked by Putin to draft a ten-year economic program and lead reforms. At the time, Gref wrote:


The centerpiece of the new social contract is the primacy of the citizen over the state. The country has a unique chance provided by political stability, appetite for reform and rising oil prices to renew itself. Unless that chance is used, economic regression is inevitable, threatening not only social stability but the existence of Russia as a state.


Exactly what went through Putin's mind, if anything, when he read the assertion of "the primacy of the citizen over the state" is not known, but he signed off on Gref's plan and hired Andrei Illarionov, a libertarian economist, as his adviser.

Events were encouraging for a time. During the first eight years of Putin's rule, the economy grew by an impressive average of 7%, kickstarted by a 70% ruble devaluation in 1998. As state finances and economic rules became more stable, the market reforms of the 1990s began to have an impact. From the mid-2000s, soaring oil prices stimulated further growth -- mainly in the services and construction sectors -- but also fueled imports, and the economy started to overheat. [TO BE CONTINUED]



[05 JAN 17] CN XC / LONG MARCH 3B / TJS 2 -- A Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1518 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "TJS 2" experimental comsat into orbit. Few details were released, suggesting it was actually a military mission.

[09 JAN 17] CN JQ / KUAIZHOU 1A / JL-1 -- A Chinese Kuaizhou 1A booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0411 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "JL-1" Earth-imaging platform into near-polar Sun-synchronous orbit. The JL-1 satellite, also known as "Lingqiao 3", was designed to gather high-definition video for land resource and forestry surveying, environmental protection, transport, and disaster prevention / relief applications. JL-1 was part of the "Jilin" constellation of commercial Earth observatories, joining an initial set of spacecraft launched on a Long March 2D rocket in October 2015. The Jilin satellites are built and operated by the state-owned Chang Guang Satellite Technology Co LTD.

Kuaizhou 1A launch

Two experimental CubeSats named "XS-Y1" and "Caton-1" were also flown. According to Xinhua, the XY-S1 and Caton-1 were experimental satellites to test technologies of low-orbit narrow-band communication and VHF Data Exchange System (VDES), respectively.

This was the third launch of the solid-fuel Kuaizhou ("Speedy Vessel") booster, which was derived from military ballistic-missile technology; and the first commercial launch, carrying a new deployment system for multiple satellites. Kuaizhou 1A can deliver satellites of up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds) into low-altitude orbits. Commercial Kuaizhou launches are conducted under the auspices of Expace, a subsidiary of China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp (CASIC), established in February 2016. Expace charges around $10,000 USD for each kilogram of payload on Kuaizhou launches.

[14 JAN 17] US-C VB / FALCON 9 FT / IRIDIUM NEXT 1:10 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 Full Thrust booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 1754 UTC (local time + 8) to put ten "Iridium Next" low-orbit comsats into space. Each weighed 860 kilograms (1,896 pounds). The first stage performed a controlled landing on the SpaceX drone barge.

[14 JAN 17] JP UC / SS-520-4 / TRICOM 1 (FAILURE) -- A JAXA SS-52-4 booster Japan's SS-520-4 rocket -- a modified sounding rocket with an added third stage -- was launched from Uchinoura at 2333 UTC (next day local time - 9) on a demonstration flight with the TRICOM 1 satellite, a three-unit CubeSat with a store-&-forward communications system and an imaging camera. The booster's second stage did not ignite, and the payload fell to Earth. The Uchinoura site, previously known as Kagoshima, is used for launching sounding rockets, including the S-310, S-520, and SS-520 vehicles.

[21 JAN 17] USA CC / ATLAS 5 / SBIRS GEO 3 (USA 273) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0042 UTC (previous day local time + 5) to put the third "Space Based Infrared System Geosynchronous (SBIRS GEO 3)" missile early-warning satellite into orbit for the Pentagon. The SBIRS GEO constellation was intended to replace the long-standing "Defense Support Program (DSP)" geostationary early-warning satellite network. The rocket was in the 401 vehicle configuration with a 4-meter (13.1-foot) fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

[24 JAN 17] JP TG / H-2A / DSN 2 -- A JAXA H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 0744 UTC (local time - 9) to put the "DSN 2" geostationary military communications satellite for the Japanese Ministry of Defense. Owned by DSN Corporation -- a joint venture between SKY Perfect JSAT, NEC Corporation, and NTT Communications -- the DSN 2 satellite provided X-band communications services for Japanese military forces. DSN 2 was the first Japanese military comsat.

[28 JAN 17] RU KR / SOYUZ ST-B / HISPASAT 36W-1 -- A Soyuz ST-B booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 0103 UTC (previous day local time + 3) to put the "Hispasat 36W-1" AKA "AGW" geostationary comsat into orbit of Hispasat of Madrid. It was based on the "SmallGEO" platform, developed by OHB and the European Space Agency, this being the first launch of a SmallGEO satellite.

SmallGEO was designed to provide a European solution in the smaller telecom satellite market. The SmallGEO family of satellites is defined by a range of configurations for different missions, such as telecommunications, Earth observation and laser-communication applications, from a geostationary orbit. Clients can specify chemical, electrical, or classical propulsion. Satellite launch mass can vary between 2,500 and 3,500 kilograms (5,510 and 7,715 pounds), with payloads ranging from 300 to 650 kilograms (660 to 2,205 pounds). OHB is now also working on the SmallGEO projects EDRS-C, Electra and Heinrich Hertz.

Hispasat 36W-1 had a launch mass of 3,343 kilograms (7,370 pounds). It carried a payload of 20 Ku / 3 Ka band transponders. Hispasat 36W-1 was placed in the geostationary slot at 36 degrees west longitude to provide a range of telecommunications services to Spain, Portugal, the Canary Islands, and South America.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The Falcon 9 flight that launched a set of Iridium satellites last month was the first of eight SpaceX currently has scheduled for Iridium, in an effort to modernize a constellation of satellites that's almost 20 years old. The majority of Iridium's satellites were launched between 1997 and 1999, with replenishment launches taking place in 2000 and 2002.

Iridium's original constellation was launched by an international fleet of rockets. Sixty were launched in groups of five by Boeing's Delta II boosters, flying from Vandenberg Air Force Base in its 7920-10C configuration. Eleven of these launches took place during the initial deployment of the constellation, while the twelfth was a replenishment launch in 2002. A further twenty-one satellites were launched in three groups of seven by Russian Proton-K / Blok DM2 booster from Baikonur. The remaining satellites were launched in pairs. Six of these pairs flew aboard China's Chang Zheng 2C/SD rocket from the Taiyuan. The Chang Zheng 2C/SD was a three-stage version of the Chang Zheng 2C, developed specifically for the Iridium launches. The final two pairs of satellites were launched in 2000 and 2002 by Russian Rokot/Briz-KM boosters.

For the second-generation constellation, Iridium is focused on the SpaceX Falcon 9, with six ten-satellite launches and two five-satellite launches booked. The first five-satellite launch, in early 2018, will also carry the two GRACE-FO gravimetric research satellites for a NASA-led international scientific partnership. Iridium had also planned to launch some satellites on ISC Kosmotras' Dnepr rocket, but Dnepr's future is uncertain due to political issues; Iridium appear to have canceled their contract with Kosmotras.

The Iridium constellation employs sixty-six satellites in low Earth orbit, in six planes of eleven spacecraft, to provide worldwide mobile communications. The constellation was originally planned to use seventy-seven spacecraft, being accordingly named after the metal Iridium, Element 77. Initially funded by Motorola, the high initial setup cost of the constellation -- estimated at around $5 billion USD -- combined with slow customer uptake and inability to offer any service until the full satellite fleet was in orbit, led to the bankruptcy of the original Iridium SSC in 1999. In 2009, TIME magazine described the failure of Iridium as one of the "ten biggest tech failures of the last decade".

Iridium Satellite LLC, later Iridium Communications, was formed in 2001 buying the company for a fraction of the value of its assets. The first-generation Iridium satellites were contracted by Motorola, with Lockheed Martin developing the LM-700A bus upon which they were based. The 689-kilogram (1,520-pound) satellites had a design life of eight years. However, the youngest satellite in the constellation has now been on orbit for fourteen and a half years.

The unique arrangement of the first-generation satellites' communications antennas caused the unexpected phenomenon of Iridium Flares, a visual effect where sunlight reflects off of an antenna in such a way that the satellite's brightness, when observed from a specific location on the ground, briefly far exceeds the brightest stars. Any satellite with reflective surfaces can flare, but none with the frequency and predictability of Iridium, whose flares can normally be forecast to the second. The next-generation satellites are not expected to flare in the same way their predecessors do. Once Iridium-NEXT is operational, the first-generation satellites will be de-orbited.

The Iridium constellation also attracted attention in 2009 when the Iridium 33 satellite collided with Kosmos 2251, a Russian Strela-2M communications satellite that had been launched in 1993. The collision produced a cloud of debris from both spacecraft in orbit, and left Iridium 33 inoperable; Kosmos 2251 was already derelict at the time of the accident.

Thales Alenia Space is the prime contractor for the Iridium-NEXT constellation, which will consist of eighty-one satellites including ground spares. Original plans called for sixty-six operational satellites, six on-orbit spares and nine ground spares. However, with the cancellation of the Dnepr launch -- which was to have carried two satellites -- only seventy are currently manifested to fly.

Iridium-NEXT comsat

Assembly of the satellites is being conducted by Orbital ATK, using a production line facility set up at their facility in Gilbert, Arizona. The total cost of the program has been estimated at around $3 billion USD.

Based on the "Extended Lifetime Bus (EliteBus-1000)" platform, each Iridium-NEXT satellite has a mass of 860 kilograms (1,900 pounds) and a design life of ten years, although Iridium hopes the spacecraft will continue in service for at least fifteen. ELiTeBus is an extended-lifespan version of Thales' Proteus bus and has also been selected by Iridium's competitor, Globalstar, for their second generation of satellites. Each Iridium-NEXT spacecraft is equipped with L- and K-band transponders, communicating with handsets via the L-band, while providing crosslink to other satellites and downlink to ground stations via Ka-band. Iridium's crosslink capability allows each satellite to relay communications through the spacecraft in front and behind in the same plane, and to its counterparts in adjacent planes.

As a member of the Hosted Payload Alliance, Iridium has provided for each satellite carry an additional payload of up to 54 kilograms (120 pounds), which can draw 90 to 200 watts of power from the parent spacecraft and integrate directly with the Iridium constellation for communications. All Iridium-NEXT spacecraft are equipped with Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B) receivers, to be used to establish a worldwide monitoring system for air traffic. These payloads will be operated by Aireon LLC, a partnership between the Canadian government and Iridium.

Fifty-eight satellites will also carry an exactView-RT payload for exactEarth, consisting of an Automated Identification System (AIS) receiver to relay tracking data from ships at sea. Both the ADS-B and AIS receivers are manufactured by Harris Corporation. Additional hosted payload space is available for Earth observation, scientific and commercial payloads. A single payload can be carried, taking up all available space, or alternatively smaller "SensorPOD" units can be carried. The SensorPOD is designed to be a standard-class hosted payload, similar in concept to the free-flying CubeSat standard.

* The Falcon 9 booster has two stages, being fueled powered by RP (kerosene) and LOX. The first stage is powered by nine SpaceX Merlin engines, plus a vacuum-optimized Merlin engine on the second stage. The Falcon 9 FT variant used in the Iridium launch was a third-generation design:

* As for the SBIRS launch last month, SBIRS is a system of satellite sensor platforms operated by the United States Air Force, primarily intended to give early warning of missile launches. The SBIRS spacecraft are also tasked with missions described as "technical intelligence" and "battlespace awareness", using their sensors to identify and analyze the signatures of events producing infrared radiation, and to collect data on the conditions of battlefields to aid strategic planning.

SBIRS uses a combination of dedicated SBIRS satellites in geosynchronous orbit, plus and "SBIRS-HEO" packages on three National Reconnaissance Office signals intelligence satellites in highly-elliptical, high-inclination "Molniya" orbits. A low Earth orbit component to the program was originally planned, but it was canceled, to later evolve into the "Space Tracking & Surveillance System (STSS)". The SBIRS program is operated by the US Air Force's 460th Space Wing, based at Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado.


The US has operated early warning satellites since the 1960s, beginning with the "Missile Defense Alarm System (MIDAS)". The MIDAS satellites augmented ground-based radar systems such as the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System (BMEWS), providing longer-range detection which allows missiles to be identified earlier in their flights. MIDAS was effectively a prototype system; of the first six, three were lost to launch failures and the remaining satellites all failed within a day of launch. It was not until MIDAS-7 launched in May 1963 that a missile detection capability could be demonstrated -- with the satellite tracking various US launches including Atlas, Minuteman, Polaris and Titan missiles.

A dozen MIDAS launches were performed in all. Although MIDAS was not a useful operational system, it did pave the way to the "Defense Support Program (DSP)" -- originally "Integrated Missile Early Warning System (IMEWS)" -- warning satellites. Unlike the low-orbit MIDAS satellites, the DSP satellites were placed in geostationary orbit. There were three generations of DSP satellites, with a total of 23 satellites put in orbit:

The SBIRS program was begun in the 1990s to replace DSP. The first satellite, USA-230 AKA SBIRS-GEO-1, was launched from Cape Canaveral by an Atlas V booster in May 2011. A second satellite, USA-241 AKA SBIRS-GEO-2, was deployed in March 2013, also on an Atlas V.

SBIRS-GEO-3 was the fourth SBIRS-GEO satellite to be built; the third satellite, which is expected to launch as SBIRS-GEO-4, was built first and placed into storage. SBIRS-GEO-3 was available for launch, and there was no sense in going through the trouble of pulling SBIRS-GEO-4 out of storage and putting SBIRS-GEO-3 into storage instead. Two more satellites are on order, to bring the SBIRS-GEO constellation up to six spacecraft.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor for the SBIRS program, under a contract originally awarded in 1996. The SBIRS-GEO satellite is based around the company's A2100M satellite platform, with launch mass of about 4.5 tonnes (5 tons), and a design life of at least twelve years.

The SBIRS-GEO satellites carry two infrared imagers, one of which scans the disc of the Earth, while the other is able to focus on specific target areas. The imaging payload was developed by Northrup Grumman, which in 2002 acquired TRW Incorporated, the prime contractor of the earlier DSP program.



* FROM THE GENOME, VISUALIZE PROTEINS: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Hundreds Of Elusive Protein Structures Pinned Down From Genome Data' by by Robert Service, 19 January 2017), proteins are long-chain biomolecules, made up of 20 different types of amino acids. It's not so hard to figure out the sequence of amino acids that make up the chain; but it can be very hard to figure out how that chain folds up on itself, with the folding configuration being very important for protein function.

protein model

Determining how a protein folds is often done with heavy computing power, but a new study used metagenomics -- genetic assays of entire populations of microbes -- to do the job. The research predicts 614 protein structures, representing 12% of the estimated 5,211 protein families for which structures are not known, protein families being groups of closely related proteins.

The nucleic acid sequence of a gene coding a particular protein defines the corresponding sequence of amino acids in a protein. That's not at all enough to define how the protein folds up as it is synthesized in the cell. The number of possible configurations is astronomical; given some knowledge of the rules by which proteins fold up and a lot of computer time, it has been possible to figure out the 3D structures of relatively small proteins. However, for bigger proteins, the number of variables makes the computation intractable.

In the 1990s Chris Sander, a computational biologist now at Harvard University, suggested that gene sequence data could help out. His reasoning was subtle. It is specific interactions between particular pairs of amino acids in the chain that provide "crosslinks" for the protein. Any mutation in the gene that disrupts a crosslink, by affecting either amino acid, may disrupt the proper assembly of the protein, with possibly fatal results for the organism. Mutations in the gene that affected other amino acids not involved in crosslinks would not necessarily have such dramatic consequences.

In rare cases, genetic mutations might affect both amino acids involved in a crosslink simultaneously, preserving the interaction and permitting the orderly assembly of the protein. Evolution would necessarily screen for such tandem mutations. Sander's big idea was to use metagenomics to compare the gene sequences for proteins shared between many different organisms to spot such "co-evolved" sequences. A knowledge of the linkages that define the 3D structure of a protein greatly reduces the computer time needed to figure out how the protein folds.

Some years ago, separate groups led by Sander and David Baker, a biochemist at the University of Washington in Seattle, demonstrated that the idea worked; from that time, they've been able to pin down structures for a few dozen proteins. Baker says: "The limiting thing was getting more sequence data."

Baker's group has now obtained a trove of such genomic data from separate metagenomic studies. By sorting through the sequence data, they were able to track enough co-evolving amino acids to determine the structures of 614 proteins, each one representing an entire family of proteins for which no structures had been previously determined. Working from these structures, computational biologists should be able to model the structures of thousands of related family members.

With the growing number of metagenomic studies, the opportunities for exploiting that data to determine protein structures is wide-open. However, right now the limiting factor is the lack of any single repository of metagenomic data. Putting together such a repository is obviously a goal of the metagenomics community; the power of metagenomics is derived from the range of genomes obtained -- the more genomes, the better -- and they'll get there in time.



* CATCH THE BUS: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Uhmm ... Care" by Peter Coy, Sahil Kapur, & Zachary Tracer, 9 January 2017), the Republicans have been charging forward on dismantling ObamaCare, the Obama Administration's universal health-care plan for the USA. The election of Donald Trump has finally given the opportunity to kill ObamaCare off ... but on closer inspection, it's not proving to be the opportunity they were expecting.

Everyone knows that ObamaCare is troubled. Insurance premiums have soared, rising 25% or more in the last year. Some insurers have dropped out of the government-organized health exchanges because they were losing money. Critics of the program say it is in a "death spiral".

The reality is that ObamaCare now appears to be headed for stability. The trick is that ObamaCare was designed as a program to give all Americans health care. There were two options, and only two options: either run health care as a taxpayer-funded program and give it to everyone, or require that everyone get insurance themselves.

The requirement that everyone get insurance meant insurers had to accept clients with pre-existing conditions without charging them extraordinary rates; and that everyone had to buy insurance to make sure the funds were there to take care of everyone. That's how insurance works. There could be no "free riders" on the system, meaning people who didn't bother to get health insurance until they got to the age where they were worried about their health -- or actually got sick, and then had to be accepted by insurers because of the pre-existing condition clause.

The painful price increases aside, the program does seem to be working in getting more and more Americans on health care. In addition, it was the most desperate people who signed up early on, from 2013, placing the greatest load on the system; those signing up today are generally healthier, and impose less of a burden. The cost growth stands to level out.

The core problem with ObamaCare, as far as the Republicans are concerned, is the "individual mandate" for all to buy insurance. ObamaCare defined a stick and a carrot to drive the individual mandate: those who didn't buy health insurance would be hit with a tax penalty, those who did would get a tax deduction. Poor folk would get assistance. Although the tax penalty has been slow in getting people to sign up, it is getting tougher each year, pressuring more to sign up.

The Republicans hate the individual mandate -- but without it, the system simply does not work. The Republicans are conflicted, uncomfortable with the notion of universal health care, a notion labeled as "socialist"; but even more uncomfortable with denying health care to millions of Americans, while being unable to propose any credible way it could be provided without the individual mandate. All gimmicks they have proposed so far have been dodgy.

There's also the problem that the ObamaCare Act included taxes to support the program, and killing off ObamaCare will cut off that government revenue. On top of that, Donald Trump has long been an advocate of universal health care, and continues to be one. He has also, as one might expect, characteristically shady on specifics, giving cause to smell a con game -- but his endorsement of universal health care has only made the bind for Republicans that much tougher.

Even some Republican members of Congress have expressed concerns about repealing ObamaCare without having a replacement available, though it will take several years to come up with an alternate plan. Barack Obama, by simply establishing a national health care program, changed the ground rules of the debate, placing the Republicans in a difficult position. It's called the "pottery barn rule": you break it, you own it.

All through the Obama Administration, the attacks on Obama grew ever more strident and fantastical. Now the Republicans have to take ownership, and are finding themselves at a loss. They've pushed the Democrats to join with them to remodel national health care; the Democrats, of course, have replied they will gladly improve the current health care plan, but have no intention of dismantling it.

It seems most plausible -- if not at all certain, nothing being certain any longer -- that ObamaCare will survive, with some of its more generous provisions trimmed off. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) expressed a grim satisfaction with the discomfort of the Republicans: "Bring it on. They don't know what to do. They're like the dog that caught the bus."



* UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (7): As a final comment in this series, as reported by an article from the UK Press Association ("Electric Cars And Cheap Solar 'Could Halt Fossil Fuel Growth By 2020'", 2 February 2017), a recent report by the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London and the Carbon Tracker Initiative concluded that, given the latest cost-reduction projections for the green technologies, and the Paris Agreement to cut emissions, solar power and electric vehicles are "game-changers" that could leave fossil fuels stranded.

According to the report, polluting fuels could lose 10% of market share to solar power and clean cars within a decade. A 10% loss of market share was enough to cause the collapse of the coal mining industry in the US, while Europe's five major utilities bled red ink between 2008 and 2013 because they did not prepare for an 8% increase in renewables.

Big energy companies are seriously underestimating the low-carbon transition by sticking to their "business as usual" scenarios which expect continued growth of fossil fuels, and could see their assets "stranded", the study claims. Emerging technology, such as printable solar photovoltaics, could bring down costs and boost take-up beyond projections.

According to Luke Sussams, a researcher at Carbon Tracker: "Electric vehicles and solar power are game-changers that the fossil fuel industry consistently underestimates. Further innovation could make our scenarios look conservative in five years' time, in which case the demand misread by companies will have been amplified even more."

The cost of solar has fallen 85% in seven years, and the report finds panels could supply 23% of global power generation by 2040 and 29% by 2050. By 2035, electric vehicles could make up 35% of the road transport market, and two-thirds by 2050, when it could displace 25 million barrels of oil per day.

Under such a scenario, coal and oil demand could peak in 2020, while the growth in gas demand could be curtailed. It could also limit global temperature rises to between 2.4C and 2.7C above pre-industrial levels, while more ambitious action by countries than currently pledged, along with falling costs of solar and electric vehicles, could cut warming to 2.1C to 2.3C.

However, the report also shows that cutting carbon from the power sector and road transport may not be enough to achieve international climate targets, so emissions reductions from other sectors such as heating buildings and heavy industry will also be needed. It should be noted that there is plenty of activity in both those sectors. [END OF SERIES]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (3): The collapse of the USSR meant a transformation of Russia. The creation of private ownership generated industries that didn't exist before, such as private banks, restaurants, and mobile-phone networks. For whatever the limitations of the Putin regime, it is still much more free than the old Soviet state. Citizens are allowed to make money, consume, and travel on a scale unprecedented in Russia's history -- consuming not just more goods and services, but critically more culture and information.

Although the state controls television, it is either unable to control the internet or is disinterested in doing so, while radio and print still have a bit of freedom. Even Alexei Navalny, an opposition politician and anti-corruption blogger, says that "despite the curtailing of political and civil freedoms, the past 25 years have been the freest in Russian history." While Russians, in the face of a heavy-handed government, have increasingly given up on political assertion, they are finding other ways of expressing their views.

Russia has an energetic urban middle class which, until recently, was wealthier than its equivalents in Eastern Europe. Russia's cities, with their cafes, cycle lanes, and shopping streets, don't look very different from their European counterparts. A new generation of Westernized Russians born since the end of the Soviet Union has come of age. The children of the Soviet intelligentsia -- a vast educated professional class that supported Gorbachev -- dress, eat and behave differently from their parents' generation. They don't have the plod of the people of the old Soviet state; they have a spring in their step.

Many young, educated Russians owe their good lives to a decade of economic growth that began in 1998, to end with the economic crisis in 2008:09. The crisis exposed the defects Putin's model of governance. While economic growth recovered fairly quickly, trust in Putin's government declined sharply -- from 35% at the end of 2008 to 20% in early 2012, while support for Western-style democracy shot up from 15% to 30%.

Those who hoped for economic and political modernization pinned their hopes on Dmitry Medvedev, who served as president from 2008 to 2012. The Russian elite wanted him to stay in office second term, but in September 2011 he announced that Putin, who was then prime minister, would resume the presidency, while he, Medvedev, would become prime minister. Medvedev indicated that this job swap had been planned right from the start of his presidency. Many people felt they had been had; Putin had become an undisguised African-style "Big Man", a president-for-life.

When three months later the Kremlin blatantly rigged parliamentary elections, people took to the streets, demanding the same sort of respect as citizens from the state as they were enjoying as private customers at home and abroad. They wanted Russia to become a European-style nation state -- an idea formulated by Navalny, who had galvanized the protests through social media. His definition of the governing United Russia as a party of "crooks and thieves", and the mood of protest, spread across the country.

Putin was rattled and angry -- but having witnessed the failure of the 1991 coup, he knew that tanks were not the answer. He instead decided to exploit the deep roots of Russian nationalism, presenting Russia as a state under siege by foreign enemies, the United States being the foremost of the demons. In 2014, Putin annexed Crimea. Grandstanding worked: protests stopped and Putin's personal approval ratings shot up from 60% to 80%. By attacking Ukraine after its own revolution in 2014, Putin persuaded his country and its neighbors that a revolt against his regime would lead to bloodshed and chaos.

The Soviet Union was a big, clumsy giant of ham-fisted ideals, undermined by unrealism and corruption. Corruption remains, but Putin is not constrained by ideology, and his state is a devious maze of smoke and mirrors, untainted by any ideals. Elections are held not to change power, but to retain it; licensed "opposition" parties are manufactured by the Kremlin; Medvedev's modernization was a fraud.

Fraud permeates the regime to the bottom. In 2014 Russia put on a big show, the costliest winter Olympics ever staged, in Sochi on the Black Sea. The host country's athletes got the largest number of gold medals, not least thanks to a massive doping operation in which the FSB swapped urine samples through a hole in the wall between an official laboratory and a secret one next door. That caused many Russian athletes to be banned from the 2016 Rio Olympics. In the same way that Russia has been doping its athletes, its state media have been doping the population with military triumphs and anti-American propaganda, conveying an artificial sense of strength. However, unlike those sport victories, Russian violence in Ukraine and Syria is no fake.

Putin's restoration project worked because the collapse of the USSR was incomplete. The "deep state" -- the remains of the Soviet and even Tsarist systems, their institutions, economic structure, and social practices -- which went dormant during the first post-Soviet decade, has been revived and strengthened by the current regime.

Still, if the legacies of the Soviet and pre-Soviet eras cannot be erased, neither can the quarter-century since the USSR ceased to exist. The conflict between a modern lifestyle and the reactionary political restoration under Putin, exposed by the protests of 2011:12, has been suppressed, but only for the time being. Putin cannot truly turn back the clock. The question is whether the future of Russia is one of further decline into chaos and undisguised tyranny, or of a modern, federalist nation state. Either way, the Putin regime has no more future than those of the Tsar or Stalin. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online ("After Probing Tesla's Deadly Crash, Feds Say Yay to Self-Driving" by Jack Steward, 20 January 2017), on 7 May 2016, one Joshua Brown of Ohio, traveling in central Florida, was killed when his car slammed into a tractor-trailer rig turning across his path. This sort of thing is, unfortunately, a daily occurrence in the USA; what made Brown's death of widespread concern was that he was driving a Tesla Model S electric vehicle -- which has a semi-autonomous "Autopilot" driver-assist system. The car was in Autopilot mode when the accident occurred, with neither the driver nor the Autopilot hitting the brakes.

Tesla Model S

That raised concerns over the safety of Autopilot. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) opened an investigation into how Autopilot works and its role in the Florida crash. The effort involved NHTSA sending a Special Crash Investigations Team to Florida, and to the scene of another, non-fatal, Tesla crash in Pennsylvania. The team did track testing in Ohio, putting a 2015 Tesla Model S -- the same model Brown drove -- through a set of exercises to see when it would, and wouldn't, brake automatically. Investigation crews, including attorneys, also collected data from Tesla on how its systems operate. The NHTSA has now published its findings: "A safety-related defect trend has not been identified at this time, and further examination of this issue does not appear to be warranted."

In other words, Autopilot had worked precisely as advertised. This was a relief to the Tesla Motors firm, and to the robocar industry in general. Semi-autonomous and driver assistance technologies are more than a big potential source of revenue for automakers; they're also the most promising way to cut into the more than 30,000 traffic deaths on US roads every year. Current systems are not perfect, but they are already saving lives.

NHTSA's goal was not to determine the cause of the crash -- that's the job of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is running its own inquiry -- but to give Tesla's Autopilot a good wire-brushing. The examination showed that of Tesla cars on the road, those with its Autosteer technology, which can keep the car within clear lane markings, crashed 40% percent less frequently than those without.

The circumstances of the Florida accident, NHTSA found, were outside the capabilities of the Autopilot and Automatic Emergency Braking (AEB) systems. The truck was cutting across the car's path instead of driving directly in front of it, which the radar is better at detecting, and the camera-based system wasn't trained to recognize the flat slab of a truck's side as a threat. NHTSA noted that, Tesla does an adequate job warning its customers that the Autopilot system demands their supervision, that their hands should remain on the wheel and their eyes on the road.

Tesla updated its own technology, via an over-the-air software push, after the Florida fatality. The system now uses more data from the in-built radar, not just the camera, to spot obstacles. Its newer vehicles come with a whole new suite of sensors designed to push the boundaries again -- and to eventually go beyond driver assistance, and allow fully autonomous driving. The Tesla Autopilot is still no more or less than a collection of driver assistance technologies, including active cruise control to control speed, and steering to keep the car in its lane. It is, however, a big step towards a fully-autonomous car.

* WIRED Online blogs has been giving space to the ideas of Charles Bombardier, an industrial designer and a member of the clan behind the Bombardier Corporation of Canada. In one of his latest concepts -- devised in collaboration with Indian designer Ashish Thulkar -- is a condominium tower with large balconies that will serve as drone landing pads.

Drones could deliver cargoes to a condominium unit, or be used for personal transportation. The designers that few would actually own drones, they would just be able to call them up with a smartphone, like a taxi. Of course, there's a general traffic-management issue underlying the scheme; the drones would have to be under the control of some sort of "smart skyway" system. There's also the issue of safety on a high balcony; presumably, railings would retract or tilt when a drone landed or took off. Practical? No saying that, but it sure is a pretty idea.

drone balconies

* Another concept Bombardier is pushing is the "Cyclotron", a robot electric motorcycle -- which take cues from TRON lightcycles, and from Daniel Kim / Lit Motor's C-1 electric motorcycle concept, discussed here in 2012. Like the C-1, the Cyclotron is fully enclosed, electric-powered, and uses a gyrostabilization system to stay upright. Unlike the C-1, it doesn't have user controls as such, with the two passengers facing each other in tandem seats.

It would be bidirectional, with no "front" or "back"; there would be butterfly doors on each side. It's not like we'll see it any time soon, but it does give an answer to an interesting question: what happens to motorcycles in the robocar future. There's also the related question of what happens to bicycles -- but since they can't be significantly robotized, it appears the traffic system will just have to be adjusted to accommodate them.



* TACKLING AIR POLLUTION: The problems of air pollution in cities such as Tehran, Delhi, and Beijing were discussed here in November 2016; as discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("Breathe Less, Or Ban Cars" by Beth Gardiner, 15 December 2016), different cities are taking different approaches to mitigate the problem.

For example, when smog descended on London in December 2016, the authorities warned those with health problems to avoid strenuous exercise -- or, in other words, that they ought to breathe less. Meanwhile, as Paris suffered a similar attack of air pollution -- its worst in a decade -- officials took more active measures, waiving charges for public transport and restricting the number of cars allowed on roads, alternately barring those with odd and even license plates.

Simultaneously, Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo joined officials from Madrid, Athens, and Mexico City in announcing plans to get all diesel vehicles off the roads by 2025. Diesel is particularly dirty transport fuel, emitting far greater amounts of hazardous nitrogen dioxide and pollution particulates than gasoline. Unfortunately, diesel vehicles were fashionable for a time, being encouraged by authorities as reducing emissions overall -- which has generally been judged a blunder.

Jonathan Grigg -- a consultant pediatrician at the Royal London Hospital and professor researching pollution's effects on children at Queen Mary University of London -- says it's been a disaster: "If you're going to design something that would effectively deliver a toxic substance into the lungs, you couldn't do better than the diesel soot particle. We need to get the current polluting, toxic diesel fleet off our roads as soon as possible."

London Mayor Sadiq Khan has introduced a new system of air quality alerts at bus stops, Tube stations, and roadsides. The mayor also announced a doubling of funding for reducing pollution, and is introducing measures including charges for the dirtiest diesel cars entering central London from 2017; an acceleration and expansion of the city's "Ultra Low Emission Zone"; tighter standards for heavy vehicles; and a cleanup of buses. However, Khan doesn't have the authority to ban diesels outright, and has called for the government take urgent action, including a diesel scrappage scheme.

Berlin is a notable exception to the tale of the diesel disaster afflicting much of Western Europe. It has cleaned up its own fleet, installing pollution filters on buses and garbage trucks, and imposed tough rules on heavy goods vehicles. A strict emission zone bars older diesel vehicles, while rates of car use, which are already among the lowest in Germany, have dropped even further in recent years. Public transport is efficient and easy to use. As a result, levels of the finest and nastiest particulates, the "ultrafines", fell 70% in just three years. Environmentalists are pushing for a plan, now under court review, to require diesel cars to meet even stricter standards to enter Berlin and other German cities.

Krakow is, in contrast, a bad example, having the worst air in Poland, one of Europe's most polluted countries. Every winter, heavy smoke wafts out of chimneys and blankets the city as residents burn coal in antiquated to keep their homes warm. After a long legal fight, the city is now moving forward with a ban on burning coal for home heating, to take effect in September 2019.

skies of Krakow

New York City has also targeted heating systems. After an analysis found that 1% of buildings burning the dirtiest kinds of fuel oil were producing more soot than all the city's traffic, officials made plans to gradually ban their use, and to help landlords convert. The change is is already credited with saving hundreds of lives each year. It's just one piece of New York's air quality strategy, which also aims at slashing greenhouse gas emissions 80% from 2005 levels by 2050.

Los Angeles, a city almost built on the car, has also pushed hard to clean up its air. While it is still among the country's worst, the wretched smogs that once afflicted Los Angeles are a thing of the past. Joe Lyou, president of California's Coalition for Clean Air, says things are far better than they were: "We've made incredible progress, we can see the mountains in Los Angeles, when those of us who grew up here never could when we were young." Back in the 1960s and 70s, "you couldn't go outside, you couldn't breathe", on the worst days.

The dramatic improvement is the result of the toughest air quality regulation in America. Inspectors even check the shelves of stores for paints that are banned because the chemicals that drift off them contribute to smog. A statewide crackdown on dirty diesel trucks and a push to expand use of zero-emission vehicles have also done much to help.

In addition to the decades of regulation that have made American cars 99% cleaner than they were 40 years ago, cities like New York and LA have benefited from the disinterest of American motorists in diesel cars; they account for only about 2% of passenger cars in the US.

Even China, whose wretched air the World Health Organization says helped kill more than a million people in 2012, has begun to confront its crisis. Beijing has used license plate restrictions to limit the number of cars, and set out plans to keep the oldest and most polluting vehicles off roads when air is especially bad. More importantly, the government has harnessed public anger over pollution to pump billions of dollars into wind and solar power, becoming the world's biggest investor in renewable energy. Officials have even begun canceling plans for new coal-fired power stations.

India, with air that is possibly even worse, has been less aggressive. Prime minister Narendra Modi's government blames the Congress party that preceded him for letting pollution run out of control; but Modi's government has done little better. In November 2016, Delhi's 20 million people suffered through the worst smog episode in 17 years. Officials temporarily shuttered a coal-fired power plant, halted all construction and demolition work, shut down many diesel power generators, and closed 1,800 schools for three days, as particulate levels soared to 28 times the recommended maximums. Tehran did the much the same in a roughly parallel attack of air pollution, in which a heavy blanket of smog killed 412 people in 23 days.

In a time of reactionary politics, environmental controls are a convenient whipping-boy for economic problems, but it's amnesia at work: when the problem seems to be fixed, it is then forgotten. There are, however, plenty of places on the Earth that provide unpleasant reminders.



* NO TURNING BACK THE CLOCK: As discussed by an essay from THE ECONOMIST, ("The Manufacturing Jobs Delusion", 4 January 2017), Donald Trump has been hammering on US automobile manufacturers and other companies to keep jobs in the United States. This, however, is theatrics, like trying to exterminate swarms of mosquitoes by chasing after them with a flyswatter: one can energetically swat mosquitoes all day long, but it doesn't put a dent in the swarm. Under pressure from Trump, Ford agreed to keep 700 jobs in the USA -- but GM announced roughly in parallel 3,300 lay-offs, almost five times greater than the Ford additions.

Employment in US manufacturing is in long-term, irreversible decline. In 1979, the zenith point for American manufacturing jobs was reached at 19.5 million. The recession of the early 1980s brought a decline, but the number of manufacturing jobs remained more or less level at about 17 to 18 million through the 1980s and 1990s. Manufacturing jobs then began a persistent fall after the end of the century, with the 2008:2009 recession leading to a steep decline, at just under 11.5 million in early 2010. Economic recovery has promoted some growth, to a peak of 12.3 million in early 2016 -- but since then, the job numbers have returned to their downward drift.

The loss of manufacturing jobs has little to do with US economic policy, with the same downward trend being demonstrated all across the developed world. America's share of global manufacturing value added fell 12 percentage points between 1993 and 2014, but Japan's share fell 14 points over the same period. The 31% decline in manufacturing employment in the USA between 1990 and 2014 compares with a 25% fall in Germany, 33% declines in France and Sweden, 34% in Japan, and 49% in the UK.

The decline in manufacturing jobs in the developed world was effectively inevitable. High-paying, low-skill manufacturing jobs were an historical anomaly, driven by a postwar economic boom, and the undeveloped state of non-industrialized economies. The development of the rest of the world and the globalization of commerce eventually began to erode the cozy, lopsided, postwar economic order. China hasn't "stolen" manufacturing jobs from the US; they are just no longer cost-effective in America. The Chinese are experiencing growth in manufacturing jobs because typical Chinese pay is low. We might be able to get the jobs back if we paid Chinese wages, but that's not going to happen.

It wouldn't work, even if it were tried. Industries like cars and steel tend to be cyclical, expanding for a time to then suffer from overcapacity. Right now, US car sales are booming, but sooner or later the boom will come to an end. That means manufacturers competing more fiercely for fewer sales, with the dual incentives to cut cost and add features. Cutting costs means, effectively, automation. Routine industrial jobs are increasingly being phased out, with robots taking over. Adding features means, increasingly, more gadgetry and software, with jobs for software jockeys, but not for assembly-line workers.

In general, work in services is taking over from manufacturing. The service sector contributes more than 30% of value added in American manufacturing, and more than 40% in France and Italy. For the manufacturing jobs that are left, immigrants tend to be keener on taking low-paying work than native-born, and the locals resent the competition. In the UK, the share of low-skilled manufacturing jobs has fallen since the 2008 recession while foreign-born workers comprise 17% of the total.

Today, manufacturing jobs comprise only 10% of the total number of jobs in the USA, compared to 26% at the peak in the 1970s. Slapping manufacturers who export jobs with punitive tariffs is nonsensical in a world of global value chains; every dollar of Mexican goods exported to America contains 40 cents of American goods embedded within it. All trade protectionism can do is disrupt the machinery of the economy, with the potential of losing more jobs than the handful that are retained -- while consumers pick up the tab for tariffs, or by being forced to buy uncompetitive domestically-made products.

It is a truism that producers can only be protected at the expense of consumers. The producers being protected by tariffs are effectively those that cannot compete in the world market, and possibly in terminal decline. They attempt to survive on public subsidies -- penalizing industries that are globally competitive in doing so by ensuring retaliatory tariffs from foreign nations -- the subsidies, in effect, being extorted by holding their workers hostage.

Markets have responded cheerfully to Trump's ascent to the White House, though his weak grasp of economics, not to mention all the other competencies for his position, poses problems for the future. He continues with tweets and theatrics, the result being a sort of "crony capitalism", with businesses seeking his favor. Trump clearly enjoys his starring role in the US economy -- but it is difficult to see that his economic policy is sustainable, or even deserves to be called a policy.



* UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (6): As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("India Plans Nearly 60% Of Electricity Capacity From Non-Fossil Fuels by 2027" by Michael Safi, 22 December 2016), India is increasingly bullish on renewable energy -- with the Indian government saying that the country will exceed the renewable energy targets set in Paris in 2016 by nearly half, and three years ahead of schedule.

A recent ten-year energy blueprint projects that 57% of India's total electricity capacity will come from non-fossil fuel sources by 2027; the Paris Agreement target was 40% by 2030. The new forecast reflects increased private sector investment in renewable energy projects through 2016. The plan also indicated that no new coal-fired power stations were likely to be required to meet Indian energy needs until at least 2027. This snub to coal is likely to discourage Indian mining investments overseas.

This is a well more aggressive plan for India than that discussed here in 2015. India's energy minister, Piyush Goyal, has been appealing to wealthier nations to invest in renewable energy projects. There hasn't been much response, but India was able to obtain capital from the domestic and overseas private sectors in the past 12 months. Softbank of Japan is planning to invest $20 billion USD in the Indian solar energy sector, in collaboration with Foxconn of Taiwan and Indian business group Bharti Enterprises.

The largely French state-owned energy firm EDF has also announced it would invest $2 billion USD in Indian renewable energy projects, with company officials saying they were impressed with the enormous projected demand -- the majority of India's people currently have limited or no access to electricity -- and the "fantastic" potential of Indian wind and solar power -- solar power being an obviously attractive option in such a sunny land. Adani opened the world's biggest solar plant in Tamil Nadu early in 2015, while the Tata energy conglomerate announced that it intended to generate as much as 40% of its energy from renewable sources by 2025.

Tim Buckley -- a director at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis -- says that said India's "absolutely transformational" forecast was also driven by refinements in technology that has cut solar power cost by 80% in five years. Buckley says: "India is moving beyond fossil fuels at a pace scarcely imagined only two years ago. Goyal has put forward an energy plan that is commercially viable and commercially justified without subsidies, so you have big global corporations and utilities committing to it."

The new energy plan forecasts that, by 2027, India will generate 275 gigawatts of total renewable energy, along with 72 GW of hydropower and 15 GW of nuclear energy. Nearly 100 GW would come from "other zero emission" sources, while improvements in energy efficiency will reduce the need for capacity increases by 40 GW over ten years. Although India had been moving towards greater reliance on coal power, Buckley says about 50 GW of coal power projects being developed in India would be "largely stranded" under the forecast.

* In related news, an article from THE GUARDIAN ("China Builds World's Biggest Solar Farm" by Tom Phillips, 19 January 2017), China has now opened up the biggest solar park in the world in Qinghai province, on the Tibetan plateau. Construction of the park was begun in 2013; the operational park covers about 27 square kilometers (10.4 square miles), has almost four million solar panels, and produces 850 megawatts of power.

Wind still only accounts for about 4% of China's power, while solar only accounts for 1% -- with the rickety power distribution system being a particular bottleneck for expanding the use of renewables. However, the Chinese push towards renewable energy is picking up steam, and may give the country a leg up in the international clean-energy trade. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (2): THE ECONOMIST ran an extended survey on modern Russia by Arkady Ostrovsky in the 22 October issue, which was worth summarizing here.

* On the morning of 19 August 1991, Muscovites woke up to news of a coup. Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union, was detained in Crimea, "unable, for health reasons, to perform his duties". Power had been seized by a group of hard-line Communists, the chief of the KGB security service, and senior army generals, who declared a state of emergency. Tanks rumbled through Moscow; the TV studio, having been seized by the KGB, was playing Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" on a loop.

It was a last, desperate attempt to save the disintegrating Soviet empire. However, on the day of the coup not a soul came out to support the regime. Instead, tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets to build barricades. Boris Yeltsin, the first democratically elected president of Russia, then a subordinate part of the Soviet Union, called for resistance. The KGB'S special forces were told to attack the Russian Parliament, the epicenter of the opposition, but nobody wanted to give a written order. Two days later, three young men were crushed under a tank; a few hours after that, the troops were withdrawn, and Gorbachev returned to Moscow. Excited crowds marched to KGB headquarters and pulled down the statue of its founder, Felix Dzerzhinsky.

That was the end of the Soviet Union, one of the defining events of the 20th century. However, a survey by the Levada Center, Russia's leading independent pollster, shows that half the overall population and as many as 90% of young Russians know nothing about the events of August 1991. Modern school textbooks barely mention them. Russian officials used to lay flowers at a small monument to the three young men killed by the tanks, but even this modest gesture stopped in 2004.

In 2016, liberals were banned from marching to the place of their victory 25 years ago. There was a small festival that attracted a few hundred people who watched a stylized performance of "Swan Lake" and a documentary from those days. Shot in Saint Petersburg, the cradle of the Bolshevik revolution, it showed a vast, peaceful crowd in the main square watching the death throes of the Soviet empire. The camera also captured a young Vladimir Putin by the side of his boss, Anatoly Sobchak, then the mayor of Saint Petersburg, who had defied the coup. A demonstrator was heard to shout: "When we get rid of the communist plague, we will again become free and we won't have to fight [a war] again."

The revolution of 1991 meant the collapse of the regime Josef Stalin had built, and put 15 countries on the map where there had previously been only one. Unfortunately, like many revolutions in history, it was followed by a restoration. The tsar the Kremlin most admires now is Alexander III, who on taking office in 1881 reversed the liberalization overseen by his father, who was assassinated, to impose an official ideology of Orthodoxy, nationalism, and autocracy.

Stalin has been revived as well. Oversized portraits of him line the roads in Crimea, proclaiming: "It is our victory!" The two main pillars of the Soviet state, propaganda and the threat of repression, have been restored. The KGB, which was humiliated and broken up in the aftermath of the coup, has been rebuilt as the "Federal Security Service (FSB)", which has become the main vehicle for political and economic power. The secret police is once again jailing protesters and harassing civil activists. In September 2016, the Kremlin designated the Levada Center a "foreign agent", which could be the end of it. Television has been made into a venomous propaganda machine that encourages people to fight "national traitors" and "fifth-columnists". Boris Nemtsov, a liberal politician who once represented Russia's hopes of becoming a "normal" country, was murdered outside the Kremlin in 2015.

After nearly a decade of economic growth spurred by the market reforms of the 1990s and by rising oil prices, the Russian economy has descended into Soviet-era stagnation. Competition has been stifled, while the state's grab of the economy has doubled. The military-industrial complex -- the core of the Soviet economy -- is once again seen as the engine of growth. Alternative power centers have been eliminated. Post-Soviet federalism has been emasculated, turning Russia into a monolithic state.

Reactionary restoration at home has led to aggression abroad. Russia has invaded Georgia and Ukraine, two of the most democratic former Soviet republics. It has intervened in the conflict in Syria, propping up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. It has attempted to undermine Euro-Atlantic institutions, backed Right-wing parties in Europe, and tried to meddle in America's presidential election -- and it is once again using the threat of nuclear arms to intimidate the West.

After the emergence of the new Russia in 1991, there were great hopes that Russia would become a Westernized, democratic, free-market country. That didn't happen; what happened instead was Vladimir Putin. He was originally chosen for the top job by Yeltsin, Russia's first president, not least for being on the "democratic" side in 1991. When Putin came to power in 2000, he was expected to take the country forward. Instead, he has used Stalin as a guide.

It was naive to think that after 74 years of Soviet rule, and several centuries of paternalism before that, Russia would rapidly emerge as a functioning Western-style democracy. However, Russia's relapse into an authoritarian corporate state was not inevitable, being the result of choices by the country's elite at each successive fork in the road. The product has been unfortunate; but the future presents choices as well, and it remains to be seen what will be made of them. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Meteorites Pummel The Moon Far More Than Expected" by Alexandra Witze, 12 October 2016), according to a study by Emerson Speyerer -- an engineer at Arizona State University in Tempe -- meteorites have created at least 222 impact craters in the Moon's surface in the past seven years. That's a third more than previous estimates, and suggests that lunar outposts may need protection against space rocks.

craters of the Moon

Although most of the craters on the Moon's surface were formed millions of years ago, space rocks and debris continue to create new ones. 2011, a team led by Ingrid Daubar of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena CA compared some of the first pictures taken by NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which launched in 2009, with decades-old images taken by the Apollo astronauts. The scientists spotted five fresh impact craters in the LRO images. Then, on two separate occasions in 2013, other astronomers using Earth-based telescopes spotted bright flashes on the Moon; LRO later flew over those locations and photographed the freshly formed craters.

LRO has taken about a million high-resolution images of the lunar surface, but only a fraction cover the same portion of terrain under the same lighting conditions at two different times. Speyerer's team used a computer program to automatically analyze 14,092 of these paired images, looking for changes between the two. The 222 newfound craters are distributed randomly across the lunar surface, and range between 2 and 43 meters (6.6 feet and 141 feet) in diameter.

Along with the fresh craters, Speyerer's team found more than 47,000 'splotches', formed when material gets kicked up by the main impact and rains down -- sometimes tens of kilometers away. It was known that lunar impacts are common, but a bit of a surprise that they are that common. Says Speyerer: "It's just something that's happening all the time."

* An article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Squid Are Thriving While Fish Decline" by Nicholas St. Fleur, 24 May 2016) pointed out that, while oceanic fish populations are in dramatic decline, the populations of cephalopods -- squids, octopus, and cuttlefish -- are growing.

Caribbean reef squid

Zoe Doubleday -- a marine ecologist from the University of Adelaide in Australia -- and her colleagues came to that conclusion after compiling the first global-scale database of cephalopod population numbers, spanning from 1953 to 2013. It included historical catch rates for 35 cephalopod species, including the Japanese flying squid, the giant Pacific octopus and the common cuttlefish. Doubleday says: "Cephalopods have increased in the world's oceans over the last six decades. Our results suggest that something is going on in the marine environment on a large scale, which is advantageous to cephalopods."

Why so? Doubleday suspects that climate change and overfishing are two causes. Warming oceans, while detrimental to some fish, may be creating beneficial growing conditions for some cephalopods, and overfishing could potentially reduce the numbers of fish that prey on cephalopods. Doubleday believes that further research will give insights into the human impact on the global marine ecosystem.

* As reported by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Blue Leaves Help Plants Get Extra Energy From Sun" by Robert F. Service, 24 October 2016), it is obvious that the leaves of plants are generally green, due to the selective absorption of the chlorophyll in the chloroplast cells that use sunlight to keep the plant going.

However, not all leaves are green. A team of researchers in Britain has assessed a species of shade-dwelling begonia with blue leaves named Begonia pavonina that arranges light-absorbing components in its leaves to boost their light absorption. Typically, chloroplasts contain membrane-bound compartments called "thylakoids" that stack on top of each other in a somewhat haphazard arrangement. In B. pavonina, however, this stacking is far more regular, creating what are known as "photonic crystals".

These crystalline arrays strongly reflect blue light, giving the leaves an iridescent glow -- but more importantly, they concentrate the more abundant green and red wavelengths of light on the leaves' energy-absorbing apparatus. The result is that B. pavonina's leaves soak up as much as 10% more energy than other low-lying forest dwellers. under the thick canopies of Malaysian forests where B. pavonina lives, that extra energy gives the plant an edge against its competitors.



* ANOTHER MONTH: As reported by an article from Reuters ("Fake US Embassy In Ghana Shut Down After 10 Years Issuing Visas", 4 December 2016), Ghanian authorities have busted a fake US embassy in Ghana's capital Accra. According to the US State Department, the fake embassy was "run by both Ghanaian and Turkish organized crime rings and a Ghanaian attorney practicing immigration and criminal law." The investigation also revealed a fake Dutch embassy.

Turkish citizens who spoke English and Dutch pretended to be consular officers at the fake embassy. The crime ring issued fraudulently obtained but legitimate US visas and phony identification documents, including birth certificates at a cost of $6,000 USD. The raid also yielded fake and real documents for about a dozen other countries. The gang bribed government officials to help and to look the other way.

The real US embassy in Ghana is a prominent and heavily fortified complex in Cantonments, one of the capital's most expensive neighborhoods. The fake embassy was housed in a run-down, pink two-storey building with a corrugated iron roof. An American flag flew outside, with a portrait of US president Barack Obama inside. The criminals did not accept walk-in appointments, instead advertising on billboards in Ghana, Togo and Ivory Coast, bringing in clients from across west Africa to Accra where they rented them hotel rooms in nearby hotels. Never underestimate the resourcefulness of crooks.

* My DSL internet connection began to time out on an increasingly regular basis, so I contacted the service provider. They promptly got a tech out to check, and he discovered that the neighborhood DSL multiplexer box was going south. We were both mystified as to why I was the only person complaining, but I suggested that the error rate had been creeping up gradually -- like playing "gaslights" -- and I was the first to lose patience. Some of the error symptoms were strange, to the extent that I wondered if the multiplexer box hadn't been infected by malware. No way I had of knowing, but that led to phase two of the problem.

I had been given a spare DSL modem / wi-fi hub during an earlier troubleshooting session, and swapped it out during initial troubleshooting. A few days later, I tried printing to my wireless laserjet printer, and it didn't work. Oh right, I had to configure it with the new address of the wi-fi hub. Alas, I couldn't figure out any simple way to do that, so I went prowling on the internet to download tools and drivers.

I found a download site that claimed to be for HP printers, and downloaded what I thought was a laserjet driver. Imagine my surprise on installing, and finding I had a sensationalistic program named "Driver Assist" that told me I had all kinds of drivers that needed replacing, and it would do it for me.

Oh dear, I just got burned. I promptly uninstalled it, and then later ran a full malware scan on my PC. On investigating online, it appears Driver Assist is more of a nuisance than a real threat, trying to badger suckers into buying a real version -- don't think so, the fake was bad enough -- or at least suckering them into giving up their personal information. Moral of the story: as careful as I am, even I get nailed at times. Oh, and again, never underestimate crooks.

I still couldn't figure out any convenient way to get my printer to work over wireless, though I thought there probably was one -- but then I got to thinking that it wasn't worth the bother, and left it hooked up to the PC over USB. I needed a long cable, but I had spent a bit of money a few months earlier to buy a set of USB plug converters for another purpose, and I was able to splice together two cables from my stockpile to do the job. No more messing around with the printer.

Incidentally, while I was troubleshooting the problem, the support person at my service provider tipped me off to a very useful web page, which provides a speed test for my internet connection. Such things are not unusual, but this item is convenient and handy. I've taken to using it several times a day, just to get a handle on the general performance of my internet connection. Normally, it's 1.5 MBPS download, 840 KBPS upload, with about 55 milliseconds latency. Upload can vary somewhat, latency more so.

* Americans are now living through the most bizarre period in their history since the Civil War. Every morning after I get up, I check the news on my smartphone to see what outrage or lunacy has come out of the White House. The challenge, for the next four years, is to keep a level head, to not fall into anger, whining, or dejection.

To that end, the little nice things end up seeming that much more valuable. I contribute a bit of money to my local Humane Society every now and then -- hey, I like animals. As a gift in response, the Humane Society sent me an envelope with a pair of socks in them. They were vivid blue, with multi-colored paw prints spotted all over them. That made my day; I wear them with pride. They're lightweight, they won't last too long, but they are most comfortable.

Humane Society socks

There's also clearly an element of humor in the strangeness of things, very strongly demonstrated by Mark Hamill -- who went from his career in STAR WARS to work in cartoon voice-overs, most notable of the Joker in the 1990s BATMAN ADVENTURES animated series. Hamill is now having great fun rendering Donald Trump's over-the-top tweets very appropriately as the Joker -- the results can be found at audioBoom / Return of the Trumpster. Hamill says he hasn't had such good dialogue since he was doing BATMAN ADVENTURES.

* I don't deny for an instant that matters are troublesome, and are certain to stay that way for the duration, but I am finding dark humor in it. It's reminiscent of when I was going through Basic Combat Training (BCT) at Fort Ord in California in the fall of 1972. Fort Ord is north of Monterey Bay, and features a very fine sandy soil. When it rains, the mud is something to talk about.

My BCT company was going through the barb-wire obstacle course one day, crawling under barb-wire and into a trench. It was raining energetically that day, so the course was a sea of mud. We were put into parallel lines, with the first rank throwing themselves into the mud, leaving the rest of us to think: Our turn next.

I finally got to the front of my line, facing the mud. I looked at the trainee to the left of me, a kid named Clem, and he looked back at me; we both grinned, obviously thinking: Screw it! When we were told to GO, we both literally threw ourselves into the mud -- BANZAI! -- laughing as we were soaked the skin and covered with mud. We were still laughing when we got to the trench, and crawled into it; my boots hit Clem in the head when I fell over the edge, but he was wearing a helmet, so no problem.

So, if the path ahead is mud, might as take it for what it's worth -- and at least it's not remotely as bad as the Civil War. It's not even as bad as the mud. Incidentally, there was a pop song making the rounds at the time titled: "It Never Rains In California". When I heard it after that, I would think: Oh yeah, right.

As far as the Trump circus goes, there's not much I can do but watch, though I am doing so attentively. It's certainly interesting, and I think after it's all over and done with -- once the rubble has been cleaned up, it's going to seemed damned funny, if in a twisty sort of way. There is also the grim satisfaction of watching Trump driving full speed ahead down the road the wrong way. The Right has been drifting farther and farther to the extreme over the last 25 years, and there's just as much satisfaction in knowing, whether they like it or not, they're on his bus.

* An article from THE GUARDIAN ("Black Humour Is Sign Of High Intelligence" by Jamie Doward, 28 January 2017) suggests that I should have no apologies for having a good sense of dark humor. A study in the journal COGNITIVE PROCESSING has found that intelligence plays a key role in the appreciation of dark humor. A team of researchers at the Medical University of Vienna studied 156 people, observing their reaction to dark humor cartoons, and then investigated correlations to other personality features.

The group with the highest sick humor appreciation and comprehension scored the highest in verbal and non-verbal IQ tests, were better educated, and scored lower for aggression and bad mood. Two other groups had moderate appreciation of sick jokes; both had average intelligence scores, but one group had bad moods and high aggression levels, while the other had positive moods and moderate aggression scores.

Traditionally, those who like dark humor are characterized as being grumpy and maybe a bit sadistic, but the Austrian researchers suggested that an appreciation of dark humor was a "complex information-processing task", and bad attitudes don't lend themselves to an enjoyment of it. It is my observation that mean-spirited people don't have much of a sense of humor, relying on sneers and derision instead. One of my favorite jokes to tell creationists is: "Did you hear about the bus full of evolutionists that went off a cliff? It was a great tragedy -- four seats were empty!"

The fun part is that it doesn't register on them one way or another, they just continue with the sneers and derision. It is an interesting question as to why humans evolved with a sense of humor. Does it really serve any function? On dealing with the humorless, it seems very plausible that it does; people lacking a sense of irony or the absurd can do the most ridiculous things without a second thought. The only conclusion in response is: They're slow, they don't get the joke. An appreciation of irony is an ability to recognize: what is wrong with this picture? -- and those who can't see what's wrong with it easily get themselves lost, while refusing to admit they are lost.

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