apr 2017 / last mod sep 2017 / greg goebel

* 20 entries including: Putin's Russia (series), rethinking the FDA (series), Ford Police Responder Hybrid cop car, bumblebees solve puzzles, rethinking chemical safety, China's bikeshare mania, entropy & complexity, pot is big business, C02 emissions from solar-cell fabrication, and Chinese LHAASO cosmic-ray observatory.

banner of the month



* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2017: As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("ISIS Faces Exodus Of Foreign Fighters As Its 'Caliphate' Crumbles" by Martin Chulov, Jamie Grierson, and Jon Swaine, 26 April 2017), the Islamic State (IS) insurgent movement, having carved out a so-called "caliphate" out of Syria and Iraq, is now crumbling under the hammer blows of its adversaries.

Foreign fighters and sympathizers are abandoning IS and trying to enter Turkey, with at least two British nationals and a US citizen joining an exodus that is thinning out the ranks of the terror group. Dozens of others have fled in recent weeks, being caught as they tried to cross the frontier; nobody knows how many others evaded capture.

A spokeswoman for the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office said: "We are in contact with the Turkish authorities following the detention of a British man on the Turkey/Syria border." It is understood Turkish authorities released the British woman from custody, although she could still face charges. Prosecutors in the country are seeking sentences of between seven and a half years and 15 years for the British man and the American if convicted.

The Briton could also face charges if he is extradited back to the UK. Any UK citizen arrested for fighting for IS may face charges under the Terrorism Act, which carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment. Those returning from Syria or Iraq will automatically have their cases reviewed by police to assess how much of a threat they may pose and what crimes they may have committed.

Sources within IS have acknowledged that the group's ranks in its last redoubt in Syria have rapidly shrunk as a ground offensive has edged towards Raqqa and Tabqa in the country's northeast, where foreign fighters had been extensively deployed over the past four years.

Officials in Turkey and Europe say an increasing number of IS operatives who have joined the group since 2013 have contacted their embassies looking to return. Other, more ideologically committed members are thought to be intent on using the exodus to infiltrate Turkey, and then travel onwards to Europe to plot acts of terror.

In Mosul, meanwhile, the Iraqi-led fight for the west of the city has stalled, with ISIS recapturing some districts it had lost in recent weeks. It remains entrenched in the north-west of the city and in lands between Mosul and Raqqa, from where the ISIS leadership is believed to have largely withdrawn for the nearby city of Deir Azzour and the town of Mayadeen.

* As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Copy That, Langley", 28 March 2017), events during April suggested that US President Donald Trump's policies on the Mideast and Islamic terrorism are no radical departure from those of his predecessor, Barack Obama. Nonetheless, to no surprise, Trump is not following Obama's script in every detail.

The Trump Administration has loosened the guidelines Obama set for drone strikes and targeting killings in locales not counted as war zones, such as Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. While Obama authorized extensive use of drones to kill terrorists -- particularly al-Qaeda groups in Pakistan's North Waziristan -- he became uncomfortable with the unrestricted use of such tactics. Obama set up a checklist of four principles for such strikes:

These rules were prudent, but they meant targets could easily get away if the window of opportunity was narrow. Under the Trump Administration's loosening of the rules, avoiding civilian deaths will no longer be an overriding priority. A place that fails to qualify as a war zone may be designated "an area of active hostilities" where rules of engagement can be relaxed.

Obama used this label to authorize strikes against IS in its Libyan base, Sirte; Trump has already agreed to a Pentagon request to apply the description to three provinces of Yemen, which have subsequently been heavily pounded. One attack on 2 March against the Yemeni al-Qaeda affiliate comprised 25 strikes by piloted and drone aircraft -- nearly as many as in all of 2016. In addition, the CIA can once again perform strikes, instead of using drones only to gather intelligence. A CIA strike killed Abu al-Khayr al-Masri, a son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, in northern Syria in late February.

Trump has also been sending troops to help in the fight against Islamic State. with 400 Army Rangers and Marines dispatched to northern Syria, both to help the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their coming assault on the IS stronghold of Raqqa, and to deter Turkey, a NATO ally, from attacking the SDF. That brings American ground forces in Syria to 900. Another 2,500 troops will soon be on their way to Kuwait to join the fight.

Will the CIA and military find the relaxation of restrictions welcome? It might seem so, but the relaxation comes with some significant downsides. Why, in the first place, would the CIA want to perform their own strikes? The agency can work hand-in-glove with Special Operations Command, and let them "break things and kill people" -- that being a clear military prerogative. In the second place, if anything goes seriously wrong in a strike, the people in charge of the operation know perfectly well they may end up twisting in the wind. If one thing has been clearly established by Donald Trump in his presidency so far, it's his readiness to deny executive responsibility for the actions of his subordinates. The sign on the desk reads: THE BUCK DOESN'T STOP HERE.

* In more positive news, according to Reuters, after a phone conversation between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray said on 17 April said that relations between the United States and Mexico have seen "enormous progress" since the Trump took office. Videgaray said the call, which was initiated by Pena Nieto and lasted about 20 minutes, was focused on the upcoming talks over "renegotiation and modernization" of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which defines a trade bloc between the US, Canada, and Mexico.

Videgaray was being tactful, since relations had hit rock bottom, due to the vitriol in Trump's campaign over illegal Mexican immigration and Mexico's "unfair trade practices". Trump had made threatening noises about killing off NAFTA. However, following a recent leak that suggested he was about to do so, which provoke loud objections from both sides of the aisle in Congress, he announced that NAFTA would be renegotiated instead.

That is not entirely unwelcome to the other two partners in NAFTA, since it will allow them to bring up and clarify issues of concern to them as well -- and could well result in a refinement of the current NAFTA order, satisfactory to all. Diplomacy, at its best, works that way. No date has been set for a summit, but Videgaray said: "I believe that all the conditions to reach a good negotiation exist, that will suit Mexico ... and that is also good for the region, for both Canada and the United States."

Trump's handling of the matter suggests he is refining his tactics. He didn't come right out and officially state, as president, he would kill NAFTA, but instead simply hinted at it through leaks and remarks, obviously to see what kind of reaction he got. While talk of killing off NAFTA was part of his campaign rhetoric, if he renegotiates it instead, he will be able to rightfully declare a win -- even if the changes are largely cosmetic in nature. Good enough.



* WINGS & WEAPONS: Drone aircraft are a growth industry these days, including "optionally-piloted" aircraft that can either be flown by a pilot or fly as drones. There are, however, a lot of older aircraft that weren't built to fly themselves, and would have to be rebuilt at great expense to add the capability.

Or maybe not. As per an article from WIRED Online blogs (Inside DARPA's Plan To Make Old Aircraft Autonomous With Robot Arms" by Jack Stewart, 2 November 2016), the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is investigating the straightforward approach: literally put a robot in the pilot's seat, under the "Aircrew Labor In-Cockpit Automation System (ALIAS)" program.

Aurora Flight Sciences -- out of Manassas, Virginia, and one of the two prime contractors in ALIAS -- is developing a robot with an arm, the base of which sits in the co-pilot's seat, that pushes and pulls on the controls, using its cameras to read the dials and readouts like a human pilot. Aurora's Jessica Duda says: "It's intended to be fully capable, if the pilot became incapacitated. The vision is to allow the pilot to become more of a mission manager."

After successfully controlling a Diamond DA-42 and a Cessna Caravan, the arm and eyes are learning to fly a Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter. The Aurora robot is only one aspect of ALIAS, however, the overall objective being to develop an automated flight system that can execute a mission from take-off to landing, with little to no human intervention. An aircraft could be instructed via, say, a tablet computer, to perform a flight mission. The software is a big issue, but the bigger issue is getting the system to work with legacy aircraft.

Sikorsky is the other prime and is not using a robot arm, instead installing actuators to move the various controls. It requires more mechanical hacking into the aircraft, but it doesn't take up the copilot seat. Sikorsky does also use a vision system to keep an eye on the dashboard -- as well as the human in the pilot's seat, in potential allowing the robotic system to respond to gesture commands, or recognize that the pilot has been incapacitated. As with the Aurora system, commands are provided by tablet. Igor Cherepinksy, who runs Sikorsky's autonomous flight operation, says: "We'll have several modes of operation. They'll include a 'take me here mode' with a 3D map. You just click and say go."

Sikorsky has tested their system on an S-76 helicopter, as well as a Cessna Caravan. Both companies will have to work with the Federal Aviation Administration and military agencies before their systems enter widespread use.

* Bell Helicopter has now unveiled a concept for a new naval "tilt-rotor" drone, the "V-247 Vigilant", in anticipation of a US Marine Corps requirement for a ship-based armed drone. According to Bell, the V-247 would carry sophisticated sensor, electronic warfare, or communications-control systems -- not to mention weapons -- to serve as a ship-based companion aircraft to the Bell-Boeing MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft and the Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II vertical take-off strike fighter.

Bell V-247 Vigilant

Although the USMC hasn't committed to any such requirement yet, preliminary roadmap documents suggest a technology demonstration in 2018 and initial operational capability in 2026. Bell has not yet selected a power plant for Vigilant, but wants one in the 3,750 kW to 4.475 kW (5,000:6000 SHP) range. The V-247 will have an "open architecture" to permit mission customization, with three internal bays that could carry sensors, fuel, sonar buoys, radar, a homing torpedo, or Hellfire / JAGM missiles.

Bell developed an earlier tilt-rotor drone, the Eagle Eye, in the 1990s, but nobody bought it, and the exercise was abandoned. It is unclear if the Vigilant owes anything to the Eagle Eye; it is clear that the V-247 is a bigger and more capable design.

* As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("The Army's First New Pistol in 35 Years Features A Modular Design" by Lily Hay Newman, 24 January 2017), the US Army is phasing out the standard-issue Beretta M9 9-millimeter automatic pistol after 35 years. It is being replaced by the SIG Sauer P320, that weapon having won the Army's "XM17 Modular Handgun System" competition. Beretta competed with an improved "M9A3", but the Army wanted a fully modular sidearm. Besides, the M9 had not been popular in service, troops reporting it jammed too often.

The P320 is a German design, having been introduced to the market in 2014. Although it is available in a range of calibers, the "M17" variant being obtained by the US Army is chambered for the 9-millimeter NATO standard round -- a variant of the classic 9x19 Parabellum round. The pistol will be obtained in both full-size and compact versions.

M17 automatic pistol

The M17 is fully ambidextrous, with safety and slide-catch levers on both sides -- plus a vivid orange "loaded chamber" indicator, and a flap scheme to prevent dirt from fouling the machinery. It uses a double-column magazine, the standard magazine accommodating 17 rounds, an extended magazine accommodating 21 rounds; the M9's magazine could only accommodate 15 rounds. The M17 has a Picatinny rail under the barrel for fit of lasers and lights, plus a threaded barrel for a silencer. It features interchangeable grips to accommodate different sizes of hands -- more of a necessity now than it was when the Beretta was introduced, because there's more women in the Army.

As is typical for US buys of weapons, the M17 will be produced in the USA, in a factory in New Hampshire. In principle, this "build American" policy is to ensure regular supply of weapons, but everybody knows it's really more about making sure American workers get jobs, and keeping Congress happy. Whatever; it's the normal way of doing business, and few complain. The Army plans to buy at least 280,000, and possibly as many as a half-million, M17s.



* COPS DO HYBRIDS: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online, ("Ford's First Hybrid Cop Car Is One Mean, Green Machine" by Jack Stewart, 10 March 2017), the Ford Motor Company made something of a splash at the 2017 New York Auto Show with the "Police Responder Hybrid Sedan" -- a Ford Fusion hybrid jazzed up for cop duty.

Like the Fusion, the Police Responder is powered by a 105 kW (140 HP) two-liter four-cylinder piston engine, mated to a 35 kW (47 HP) electric motor fed by a 1.4 kWh lithium-ion battery pack. The vehicle has front-wheel drive, with an electronically-controlled continuously variable transmission. It features a beefier oil cooler for the piston engine, and an uprated cooling fan for the battery pack.

However, its primary performance difference from the Fusion is that the control software has been tweaked to add a "Pursuit Mode", with Ford saying the Police Responder "automatically switches to maximum performance -- with the engine and battery working at peak acceleration levels -- when needed." The regenerative braking system has been enhanced to provide stronger braking and accordingly higher charging levels.

The Police Responder is intended for urban policing, however, not high-speed freeway chase. That's the job of Ford's "Police Interceptor", based on the Ford Taurus. Incidentally, the majority of Ford's cop car sales these days are of the "Police Interceptor Utility", based on the Ford Explorer SUV.

Other features of the Police Responder include:

The Police Responder is not, by default, fitted with the lights, sirens, spotlight, radio, or other kit required for a fully operational cop car -- it has wiring and fittings to allow such to be installed as desired. Although the front seats are armored to prevent the occupants from being knifed from behind, there's no mesh between the front and back, that being also seen as an aftermarket addition.

The center section of the dashboard is empty, with a removeable cover, to allow installation of user-specified gear. The center station between the front seats has been similarly stripped down to allow gear to be installed there as desired, with the transmission dial, electronic parking brake, and USB port moved to a new section at the bottom of the center console. The 12 VDC power system has been enhanced to provide more power for accessories.

The Police Responder is "pursuit rated" as per the requirements of the Los Angeles Police Department and the Michigan State Police. It certifies that a police vehicle can handle car chases at various speeds, and has the ability to deal with such obstacles as curbs and flooded intersections.

Ford Police Responder

Despite all the enhancements, the Police Responder gets 38 MPG -- close to the 42 MPG of the Fusion Hybrid. Assuming usage of 32,000 kilometers (20,000 miles) a year, two shifts per day every day of the year, almost five hours of idling a day, and a fuel price of $2.50 USD per gallon, Ford estimates that the Police Responder will save almost $3,900 USD a year over a conventional cop car. It also has relatively low noise and vibration levels, which will be appreciated by officers on long patrols.

Deliveries of the Police Responder Hybrid Sedan to police departments will begin in the summer of 2018. Ford announced the Police Responder Hybrid as part of a broader initiative to introduce an ambitious new range of hybrid, pure-electric, and self-driving vehicles within the next few years. By 2020, the company will be producing hybrid versions of the Mustang and F-150 pickup, and a new fully electric small SUV with a estimated driving range of at least 480 kilometers (300 miles).



* INVENTIVE BEES: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Bumble Bees Are Surprisingly Innovative" by Virginia Morell, 23 February 2017), there's a tendency to see insects as little more than "meat robots", operating completely by instinct. However, bees are known to have emotions -- the term "angry bee" is understood by all -- and, for social bees, follow the simple social dynamics of living in a hive. They also have surprisingly sophisticated learning behavior -- one example being their ability to optimize their route for collecting pollen from flowers, as discussed here in 2013.

Researchers have found that they can learn to pull a string to get a sugar reward by observing another bee perform the task. Pulling a string is a simple mechanical action, not so different from tasks they perform in the wild, like pushing or pulling on flower parts to gain access to pollen. Olli Loukola, a behavioral ecologist at Queen Mary University of London, decided to take a step beyond bees pulling strings, wondering "if bees could learn to do something with an object they had never encountered in their evolutionary history."

Loukola and colleagues decided to get bees to forage for sugar water by moving a small, yellow ball to a specific target -- an indirect action, with little resemblance to what they do in the wild:

Following "orientation", each bee was then challenged to move one of the three balls to the target within five minutes. The ten bumblebees that watched a sister perform the task were the most successful. They also solved the task faster than those that watched the ghost, or didn't see a demonstration -- though some of the bees who hadn't watched a sister perform solved the task on their own.

bumblebee on the ball

The bees also demonstrated inventiveness in handling the task. While bees that watched other bees push the ball to the target, they instead learned to pull the ball while walking backward. In addition, the researchers changed the "rules" of the ball game by changing ball colors and arrangement; the bees could still figure out the puzzle. According to Lars Chittka, a behavioral ecologist also at Queen Mary University of London who participated in the research, the study "puts the final nail in the coffin of the idea that small brains constrain insects."



* IF IT'S NOT BROKEN (6): Coal miners who have lost their jobs due to government hostility against coal are obviously going to be upset about being out of work, but regulations prejudicial against coal were passed because it is a particularly "dirty" fuel, and everyone knows it. Conservatives try to ignore or dismiss the "external diseconomies" of coal -- but a visit to polluted Chinese cities would prove to them that such external diseconomies are only too real. As the IPI paper said:


EPA proposed controls for hazardous air pollutants, such as mercury, from industrial boilers in 2010. EPA estimated the rule would generate between $25.2 and $65.5 billion USD in annual net benefits, including up to 8,000 premature deaths avoided per year. By comparison, the agency estimated a cumulative, net employment effect on the regulated industry of between -4,000 and +8,300 jobs, with a central estimate of +2,100.


In other words, somebody's going to suffer either way -- but if it comes down to balancing thousands of jobs lost versus the same or greater number of premature deaths each year, it's not much of a choice. Factor into this consideration that many of the workers who lost their jobs could have been disproportionately among the victims. The public health benefits of environmental regulations tend to wildly outweigh the employment and compliance costs.

Conservatives are inclined to assume that economic and employment benefits and losses are "real", while public health is a "social" benefit -- just a fiction entertained by Left-wing tree huggers. Public health is, in fact, an economic issue, but it's not easily seen by those who aren't downrange of the toxic waste: out of sight, out of mind. Policy-makers have to make a more balanced decision -- and if it ends up killing off jobs, set up programs to help those who have lost their jobs get new ones.

"Regulations kill jobs" is just sloganeering. Environmental regulations may eliminate some jobs, while moving them from one industry to another, or one region to another. They can have short-term effects on employment; but by and large, they simply don't have any substantial long-term effects on US employment. It is certainly worthwhile to have a discussion of the costs and benefits of environmental regulations -- though in reality, those who set up the regulations are generally careful to spell out the costs and benefits, with those considerations ignored by the critics.

ED: It must be added that it is common for critics of government regulation to say that it's a waste of taxpayer money -- but is easy to find articles online for "where your tax dollar goes". The upshot is that the Federal budget is dominated by entitlements and, secondarily, the military, along along with veterans benefits, servicing the national debt and funding the operation of the government. All the rest is about 10% of the budget, with regulation being no more than 3% of the budget. Other common whipping-boys are government science and medicine -- about 2% -- and foreign aid -- about 1%.

It would also require a laborious analysis for each specific case in those buckets to show that killing them off would not end up costing more than it saves. If everything in the "other" category was cut completely, the reduction in the tax burden would hardly be noticeable. It has been said, with considerable justification, that the US government is "a social insurance system with an army."

In further related news, an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("Trump's Promise to Cut Business Regulations Faces History" by Michael Bruno, 24 February 2017), inspected Donald Trump's campaign promise to reduce the "flood" of government regulations supposedly tying down American business. The difficulty is that Trump will be hard-pressed to make the rate of regulation any lower than it already is.

A chart given in the article gave the number of new Federal regulations established per year as roughly 7,500 a year in 1976. It declined to 6,500 a year at the end of the Carter Administration, and then dropped precipitously in the Reagan Administration, to 4,500 a year in 1986. In the Clinton Administration, it blipped back up to about 5,000 a year in 1996, to then fall again during the second Clinton Administration and the Bush Administration, to about 3,600 a year in 2006. The rate rose slightly in the first Obama Administration, to fall once again in the second Obama Administration to about 3,400 a year in 2015. At no time in the Obama Administration was the rate of new regulations close to that at the end of the Reagan Administration.

There's a perception that regulations are established at whim by government bureaucrats, but the reality is that regulations are broadly established by acts of Congress -- and it will take acts of Congress to get rid of them again. There's been suggestions that Congress establish an Office of Regulations to review the clarity and effectiveness of regulations, but it would be able to do no more or less than streamline the existing regulatory system.

Trump's blasts against regulation are mostly theatrics; his predecessors in the Oval Office also pushed back on regulations, with some success, and it's hard to think of how Trump, whose ignorance of how Washington DC works is manifest, can improve on them. Trump sees theatrics as a superior reality, and charges forward without too much concern for facts. This is obviously not going to work out well; what he does when he finally comprehends failure, nobody knows -- not even himself. [END OF SERIES]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (12): The Russian news site BUMAGA (PAPER) is lively and popular, speaking of the good life to urbane young Russians. According to Anna Kosinskaya, its co-founder and editor: "We modeled it on VOX and THE BOSTON GLOBE." When it began in 2012, it was on a shoestring; now it makes money from advertising.

Kosinskaya is in her mid-twenties, with no memory of the Soviet Union. She lives in a part of Saint Petersburg well equipped with trendy lofts, fashionable bars, and high-class eateries. Although she's not rich, she is well-traveled. Her generation of educated, urban young Russians has little in common with the cowed Homo sovieticus of the older generation. In 2011, youths took to the streets to protest against rigged parliamentary elections; it was the first election in which Kosinskaya was able to vote, and she found the corruption of the process an affront.

Kosinskaya was ten when Vladimir Putin became Russia's president; she say: "I liked him. He was young and energetic." The economic boom helped create the open ways of the new generation. However, she gradually became disillusioned, and in the disorders of 2011 she found her friends being packed away in police vans. Why? All they wanted was for the state to respect its own laws.

The 2016 parliamentary elections passed without incident, or for that matter much interest. Alexei Navalny, one of the leaders of the 2011 protests, says people no longer care about politics -- and that some of them have responded enthusiastically to Putin's contrived nationalism, joining into the chant against America. Those left behind feel isolated, Kosinskaya saying: "Many of my friends feel as though we have gone into internal exile."

Until recently, young Russians did not recognize themselves as an intelligentsia -- but they now believe they have something to offer that is otherwise lacking in Russian society, on the lookout niches where they can apply their skills and knowledge. Putin may be a heavy-handed strongman, but he is no Stalin; he sees no need, and possibly does not want, to oppress the Russian people. As in China, if the people don't challenge the authority of the state, they can do pretty much as they please.

Russia's modern intellectuals have got involved in cultural projects. Public lectures by notable scholars, both Russian and foreign, on subjects from urbanism to artificial intelligence gather mass audiences, with tickets to such talks selling out within hours. Every night dozens of events take place in Moscow and other cities. Book fairs attract queues to rival those for pop concerts. Kosinskaya says: "If you are not learning something outside your work, you are a loser."

Philip Dziadko, a grandson of Soviet dissidents and human-rights activists, and a group of friends have launched a popular multimedia education and entertainment project called "Arzamas", a name borrowed from a 19th-century literary society of which Pushkin was a member. The subjects range from Elizabethan theatre and medieval French history to the anthropology of communism and the mythology of South Africa.

Some time back, Arzamas organized an evening lecture about Joan of Arc, including a recital of medieval music, at Moscow's main library. Dziadko says: "We thought it would be attended by a few intellectuals. But when we turned up 15 minutes before the lecture, we saw a long queue of young people and hipsters trying to get in."

They aren't turning away from the consumerism of the previous decade, so much as augmenting it. Just as Russian people were suddenly presented with a vast choice of consumer goods, they now have a large array of intellectual pursuits to choose from. And while Russia's government can impose a ban on imports of Western food, in the internet age, shutting down the spread of knowledge is much harder.

The main producers and consumers of these enlightenment projects are young Westernized Russians, who feel they are part of a global culture. While not visibly politicized, at least for now, they rightly perceive themselves as resisting the isolationism and willful obscurantism imposed by both state and church. The reaction of the authorities takes many forms, from banning modern-art shows to organizing anti-gay campaigns, promoting creationism, and attempting to deny abortion rights.

The generation of Russians that came of age in the 1960s were the seed of the new Russia that followed the downfall of the USSR. Their revolution was painfully incomplete; but a new generation of intellectuals is emerging that wants a better state of things. For now at least, the educated urban class does not pose a serious political threat to Putin -- but when they are attending, in some numbers, lectures on topics such as "the return of ethics" and "public lies", it is clear that the spirit of reform is merely dormant. It has not disappeared. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for March included:

-- 01 MAR 17 / NROL-79 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 1749 UTC (local time + 8) to put a secret military payload into space for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The payload was designated "NROL-79". The payload was apparently a dual-satellite "Naval Ocean Surveillance System (NOSS)" spacecraft, used by the Pentagon to spot, characterize, and track maritime shipping by their radio emissions. It was thought to be a third-generation INTRUDER-series NOSS payload. The booster 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.

-- 02 MAR 17 / TAIKUN 1 -- A Chinese Kaituozhe-2 (KT-2) booster was launched from Jiuquan at 2345 UTC (previous day local time - 8) to put the "Tiankun-1 (TK-1)" experimental satellite into orbit. TK-1 was intended to evaluate a new small satellite bus, with payloads for remote sensing, communications, and technology evaluation. This was the first launch of the KT-2 booster, a solid-fuel light launcher. The KT-2 has three stages and can put a 350-kilogram (770-pound) payload into low Earth orbit.

-- 07 MAR 17 / SENTINEL 2B -- A Vega booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 0149 UTC (next day local time + 3) to put the "Sentinel 2B" optical imaging Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit, for the European Space Agency and the European Commission.

Sentinel 2B was built by Airbus Defense & Space. It joined an identical twin satellite launched in June 2015 for the "Copernicus" program -- a space network that will eventually consist of at least 15 spacecraft scanning the planet with radar, optical, infrared, microwave and laser instruments. The Sentinel 2 satellites are the Copernicus program's optical component, specializing in mapping land surfaces, monitoring crops and forests, and detecting pollution in lakes, streams and coastal waters.

Sentinel 2B

Sentinel 2B's orbit was positioned 180 degrees away from Sentinel 2A, giving the combined scans of the two satellites a revisit time of at least five days -- three days at Europe's latitude, and as short as a day for parts of Scandinavia and Canada.

-- 16 MAR 17 / ECHOSTAR 23 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0600 UTC (local time + 4) to put the "EchoStar 23" geostationary comsat EchoStar Corporation. The space platform was built by Space Systems / Loral and had a launch mass of 5,600 kilograms (12,345 pounds). The weight of the satellite meant that the Falcon 9 first stage didn't have enough fuel to perform a soft landing, and so it was not recovered. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 45 degrees west longitude to provide direct-to-home television broadcast services over Brazil.

-- 17 MAR 17 / IGS RADAR 5 -- A JAXA H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 0120 UTC (local time - 9) to put an "Information Gathering Satellite (IGS)" radar-imaging military surveillance satellite into orbit.

-- 19 MAR 17 / WIDEBAND GLOBAL SATCOM 9 (USA 275) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0018 UTC (previous day local time + 4) to put the US Department of Defense's "Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) 9" AKA "USA 275" geostationary comsat into space. Canada, Denmark, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and New Zealand helped fund the space platform, to obtaining shares in the US military satcom system bandwidth.

WGS 9 patch

WGS 9 was based on the Boeing BSS 702 comsat bus; the satellite had a launch mass of 6,000 kilograms (13,200 pounds), carried a payload of Ka / X-band transponders, and had a service life of 14 years. A tenth satellite will be launched in 2018, to complete the WGS constellation as planned. The booster was in the "M+ (5,4)" configuration, with five solid-rocket boosters and a payload fairing with a diameter of 4 meters (13 feet 2 inches).

-- 30 MAR 17 / SES 10 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2227 UTC (local time + 4) , carrying the "SES 10" geostationary comsat. SES 10 was built by Airbus Defense & Space, with a launch mass of 5,280 kilograms (11,645 pounds). It was placed in the geostationary slot at 67 degrees west longitude, to provide video services to Latin America. This was the first re-flight of a Falcon 9 first stage, this one having flown before on 8 April 2016, with the re-flight ending with another perfect touchdown on the SpaceX barge.

Falcon 9 1st stage landing

The payload fairing was also recovered; it had a thruster system and used a parasail to fall into the Atlantic. Only half of it was actually fished out of the sea; but since each fairing set costs about $6 million USD, it is definitely worthwhile to try to recover it.



* NAVIGATING THE CHEMICAL SAFETY MINEFIELD: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("A Crystal Ball For Chemical Safety" Tania Rahesandratana, 12 February 2016), chemical researchers are stuck with a burden to demonstrate that new chemicals are safe. Now, a software tool has been unveiled to help them navigate the minefield, in the form of a huge database of safety information that will allow users to compare new chemicals to existing compounds with similar structures, helping to identify and flag potential hazards.

The research effort was led by toxicologist Thomas Hartung of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Maryland. Hartung is enthusiastic about the result: "You could imagine that, before even synthesizing a chemical, a chemist puts the structure into the [tool] to ask if it's safe."

Such predictive screening could help companies and government regulators cut down the need for lengthy, expensive animal testing by identifying obviously toxic chemicals from the start, and suggesting safer alternatives to existing compounds. Tina Bahadori of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in Washington DC is impressed: "We are very enthusiastic about what [Hartung's team] has done." The EPA has also been working on computational toxicology. However, Bahadori warns that structural similarities, although promising, are only "one piece of the puzzle" in assessing a compound's safety.

To construct the screening tool, Hartung's team dug deep into what he calls a "gold mine" of data collected by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). Under a 2007 law named "Registration, Evaluation, Authorization & Restriction of Chemicals (REACH)", the agency requires companies that produce or import at least a ton of a chemical per year to submit detailed safety information on that substance. Those ECHA submissions are chunks of text, which are troublesome to analyze on a large scale.

The researchers tackled that problem by using software to extract text from 816,000 ECHA documents, covering some 9,800 chemicals. Next, they analyzed the safety findings, and organized compounds by their effects. They found that about 20% were labeled as skin sensitizers, for instance, and 17% irritate eyes. Finally, they generated a visualization, a map, to display the toxicological properties of the chemicals, and cluster them by their structural similarities.

Hartung points out that some clusters are clearly problematic, suggesting that they're not good options for further experimentation -- saving time, money, and possibly the lives of millions of lab animals. There have been other efforts along such lines, but none derived from such a comprehensive database. The approach does have clear limits. Bahadori says that in some cases, what really matters is not only a chemical's structure, but also how organisms are exposed and respond to it.

Biomedical researcher Andre Nel -- who studies the safety of nanomaterials at the University of California, Los Angeles -- is a bit skeptical: "The idea that we're going to do this based on similarity of structure is overly simplistic." Nonetheless, he believes it is a good place to start.

Another difficulty is that, although ECHA's safety reports are public, the companies that registered the chemicals own the data in the reports, which could complicate Hartung's plans to share his database with other researchers, and create a spinoff company that would help clients screen new chemicals. Hartung is currently negotiating with the ECHA on the issue, agency officials saying they are sympathetic to his ambitions, but also want to make sure that rights are respected.

Hartung is not ungrateful with what he got from ECHA -- though he does suggest that the agency could require that the data obtained from companies follow structure and standards that would make it more useful. There does seem to be a general drift in the chemical community that better and greater access to data is a good thing, but nobody's seeing that issue as being resolved any time soon.



* CHINA DOES BIKESHARE: As reported by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("Uber For Bikes" by Nick Van Mead, 22 March 2017), China has become very enthusiastic about bikeshare schemes; of the 15 biggest bikeshare networks, 13 are in China. Hangzhou, an hour west of Shanghai by bullet train, has the biggest in the world -- almost 85,000 bicycles, almost twice as many as its nearest rival, five times the number of shared bicycles in London -- though Hangzhou is the same size as London. The bikes in Hangzhou get hundreds of thousands of rides per day.

In many other big Chinese cities, though, it's not the sturdy, official public hire bikes that attract attention: it's the hordes of brightly colored "dockless" share bikes, parked anywhere riders care to leave them. They're the consequence of a commercial battle between a host of startup companies, competing for territory and customer loyalty.

These firms follow a model called "Uber for bikes". Users get an app for a smartphone that tells them where to find a bike; they then unlock it by scanning a QR code on their phones, or employing a combination they have been sent. After finishing the ride, they can leave the bike in any public place.

There's been a mad rush into the market. In less than a year, Mobike alone flooded the streets of 18 Chinese cities with an estimated million new bikes, with at least 100,000 of their trademark orange-and-silver bikes in each of the cities of Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen, and Guangzhou. Mobike -- co-founded by Hu Weiwei and Davis Wang, former head of Uber Shanghai -- keeps on expanding the footprint, going on to build up bike fleets in Changsha, Hefei, and Tianjin. Mobike is backed by Chinese internet giant Tencent, a recent deal with Apple supplier Foxconn has doubled Mobike's production capacity to 10 million bikes a year.

Mobike bikes

Competitors include Ofo -- which began in 2015 as a Peking University project, and now claims 10 million users in 33 cities for its bright yellow bikes -- as well as Bluegogo, Xiaoming, and at least a dozen more, with new startups jumping in.

The manufacturing hub of Quangzhou, a day's train ride to the southwest, shows the strain of the exercise. The dockless share bikes are everywhere, often blocking the pavement around shopping malls and metro stations. Defective bikes, missing saddles or with broken locks, are simply dumped in flowerbeds or bushes. The accident rate for bicyclists is also painfully high. However, the strain demonstrates Chinese enthusiasm for bikeshare. In the era before China's economic boom, the bicycle was China's most popular method of personal transport. With prosperity, Chinese wanted to buy cars, and bicycling faded. Now bikes are back with a roar.

The bikeshare revolution is also being exported, with Mobike launching in Singapore. Rival Bluegogo, taking a cue from Uber, controversially began operations in San Francisco without official permission; the city has issued warnings and may take restraining action. Ofo is sending bikes to Cambridge, with rumors that Mobike is targeting London, Birmingham and Manchester.

The wild expansion of dockless bikeshare suggests a bubble -- but though there is certain to be shakeout, the idea is not going to go away. China's problems with traffic congestion and air pollution make a single-minded reliance on the car impractical. The dockless bikeshare firms are working with the cities to address the difficulties with the proliferation of bikes; Shanghai, for example, is setting up "bays" that are simply rectangles with a bike icon, painted on the ground, giving a hint to not simply abandon a bike anywhere.

Traffic safety issues are also being addressed, while the companies are refining their ability to track and retrieve defective bikes. The problems are growing pains; the Chinese, inclined to energetic enterprise, see them as such, and are addressing them. The system is going to work.



* IF IT'S NOT BROKEN (5): The title of another related article, from VOX Online (by David Roberts, 2 March 2017), posed the "Do Environmental Regulations Reduce Employment?" -- and went on to answer: "Not Really."

The extreme Right is convinced that environmental regulations impose a great burden on the USA, and mean lost jobs. That sentiment has been repeated so often that it seems like an evident fact. A study from the Institute of Policy Integrity (IPI) -- an arm of the New York University School of Law -- suggests otherwise.

The first reality is that the impact of environmental regulation on the US economy is minor. Businesses are generally controlled by other factors, such as management, demand, competition, resource depletion, and technological obsolescence. Businesses are always rising and falling; they rise, grow old, and die. This is a basic reality of free-market capitalism, with conservative free-market enthusiasts pointing to it as one of the reasons the system works as well as it does.

Conservatives believe that "artificial" constraints through government regulation -- as opposed to the traditional restraints like demand and competition -- are pernicious, amounting to nothing but economic sabotage, accomplishing nothing but stifling commerce. There is actually little credible evidence that environmental regulations have a major effect on long-term aggregate employment.

True, they may have a severe impact on jobs in a particular sector, but as long as macroeconomic conditions are favorable, new jobs will emerge. For instance, pollution standards might reduce employment in coal mining and coal-fired power, but demand for electricity will pull those jobs into either pollution remediation or alternative energy sources. Conservatives also declare the flexibility of the capitalist system a sign of its health.

It should be pointed out, however, that though there are certainly good reasons for the government to promote renewable energy, job creation isn't really one of them; if environmental regulations don't dent aggregate employment, they don't really boost it much, either. Renewables being a growth industry, they do have a positive effect on employment, but it more a transfer of jobs that are dying out to jobs that have growth potential. The paper concludes that "overall effects on employment are not a major issue for environmental policy."

So where does the claim that "environmental regulations kill jobs" come from? It's not derived from data, instead being obtained from models put together by conservative economists. Models can be no more correct than their underlying assumptions, and the conformance of their results to the real world. Anything can be proven in theory, it's just a question of the selection of the underlying assumptions; if their results can't be validated by real-world observations, theory doesn't amount to anything. The IPI study pointed out:


In one revealing example, the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity estimated that two EPA rules on power plant emissions would trigger a 1.4 million job loss; meanwhile, using a different model and different assumptions, the Political Economy Research Institute predicted the same two rules would generate a 1.4 million job gain.


The reality is that there would not be much effect on total employment. It is still true that, even though aggregate employment isn't much affected by environmental rules, they may have a big effect on particular businesses and communities -- coal being, again, a good example, environmental regulations having done much to help put coal production into terminal decline. Coal miners are not likely to be comforted by the idea that a regulation that leads to loss in coal mining jobs will also help create wind manufacturing jobs. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (11): The Russian annexation of Crimea was followed by meddling in eastern Ukraine. There, Putin had different objectives. He wasn't interested in annexing territory, but to fabricate a conflict that would undermine Ukraine's territorial integrity and its motion towards the West. While in Crimea Russia relied on a disenchanted population nostalgic for the Soviet era, in Donbas it was supported by the core of Yanukovych's voters, who considered the government in Kiev illegal. However, Russia's operations in both Crimea and eastern Ukraine were limited in scale, hinging on a power vacuum in Kiev. As Alexander Nevzorov, a Russian journalist, wrote: "Crimea was taken not from a strong, rich and brave country but from a wounded, bleeding and motionless one."

Samuel Charap of the International Institute for Strategic Studies says that if Russia had attempted to deploy its "little green men" -- soldiers in unmarked green uniforms -- in Western Ukraine, for example, "they would have likely been hanging from the lamp-posts, not leading an armed insurgency." Even in Donbas, Russia had to use its conventional military force to stop the Ukrainian army from defeating the Russian-armed rebels. Charap believes there is nothing in such operations to suggest Russian interest in a fight with NATO, all the more so because Russia would be painfully outmatched.

Belarus, another Slavic, Russian-speaking country that was one of the founding members of the Soviet Union, could also be a target. It is ruled by Alexander Lukashenko, often called the "last dictator in Europe"; so far Russia has kept him going with gas subsidies -- but should the Kremlin sense that Lukashenko's grip is weakening or that he is turning towards the West, he will become expendable.

According to Alexander Golts, a Russian military analyst, the perception of a Russian military advantage rests on two main elements. One is unpredictability and surprise; Putin is not really constrained by anyone or anything. The other, due to the success of the modernization program, is that Russia can deploy well-trained, disciplined and equipped troops. Defense spending has increased by 30% in real terms since 2008. Russia has about 80,000 elite troops that can be sent into combat within hours.

Nonetheless, Russia's military has little depth. One big problem is the shrinking population of Russia; according to its own estimates, in 2016, it was able to increase its forces by only 10,000 men, barely enough for one division. It also needs to be careful to minimize casualties, which go down badly with a population that is being presented war as a TV entertainment. The number of people who supported Russia's military invasion in Ukraine declined from 47% in June 2014 to 25% a year later, according to the Levada Center.

Russia's military-industrial complex is unable to produce anything close to Soviet volumes of hardware -- but the country's relative economic and military weakness compared with NATO makes it more of a threat than less. The only way Russia can compensate for the gaps in its conventional forces is to invoke the threat of nuclear strike.

After the annexation of Crimea, Putin said he had been ready to use nuclear arms to defend his country's "historic territory". After Russia showed off its long-range cruise missiles in Syria, Putin said that it was prepared to use its powerful weapons if its national interests were infringed upon, hinting that they might be nuclear-armed if necessary. America's "impudent behavior" would have "nuclear consequences", according to the fulminations of one of Putin's chief propagandists.

After Stalin's death the Soviet Union was ruled by a generation of leaders who, having emerged as victors from the Second World War, didn't want a another big war, and sincerely afraid of nuclear weapons. They were also restrained by the collective power of the Politburo, which had ousted Nikita Khrushchev not long after he recklessly dragged the Soviet Union into the Cuban missile crisis.

Putin, on the other hand, is not subject to any checks and balances, and has no particular aversion to war. His initial popularity as president rested on the war he had waged against Chechnya in 1999, with his sagging ratings were restored by the war in Ukraine. Yet Putin would not unleash a war for ideological reasons; he will continue to present his actions as defensive. What he is ultimately after is a new pact along the lines of the Yalta agreement after the Second World War, which would create a buffer zone between Russia and the West.

In the absence of such a deal, Putin will continue to confront his perceived enemies by both non-military and military means. Western sanctions only reinforce his determination. The end result is a stalemate between Russia and the West, neither willing to directly attack the other, with communications effectively broken down. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("Google Unveils Android O, Promising Better Battery Life" by Alex Hern, 22 March 2017), Google has now announced "Android O (AO)", the next version of Android -- sorry, no cutesy candystore name just yet -- and released details to developers so they can get started updating their apps. AO has a wide range of improvements, some petty, some significant.

The most significant improvement is a refined approach to dealing with background apps, which Google says will improve battery life for mobile Android hosts like smartphones. Apps are now automatically limited in what they can do in the background, in three specific areas: background services, location updates, and implicit broadcasts.

Location, for example, will only be updated a few times each hour, while background services -- programs that run continuously to do things like check inboxes while the user is in another app -- will now be closed automatically after a short period. These are ideas lifted from Apple's iOS, the two operating systems having been converging since their inception: Android once had no limits on what apps could do in the background, while Apple once banned every background process that it didn't create. Other changes include:

Finally, "adaptive icons" that vary with the Android version in use. Well, okay.

* While the world might seem to be entirely divided between Intel-architecture and ARM CPUs, they don't rule the roost off this world. Consider the GR740 multi-core CPU, developed by Cobham Gaisler in Sweden and manufactured by France-based STMicroelectronics. It's a radiation-hardened chip, designed to shrug off space cosmic-ray impacts and otherwise tolerate the harsh space environment.

The GR740 features four LEON4 cores, the LEON4 being the latest generation of a series of chips starting with the LEON2-FT, developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) in the late 1990s. The ESA has continued to promote development of this "rad-hard" chip line.

The LEON series are 32-bit CPUs, based on the Scalable Processor Architecture / Reduced Instruction Set Computer (SPARC RISC) developed by Sun Microsystems in the late 1980s. Sun is history, but the SPARC lives on as a public standard, used on Earth in high-end servers and supercomputers. It appears the LEON series obtain radiation-hardening by adding extensive error detection and correction.

* As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Cryogenic Storage Offers Hope For Renewable Energy" by Yasmin Ali, 10 December 2016), the world's biggest cryogenic energy storage plant has been built at a site near Manchester in the UK.

The facility stores power from renewables or off-peak generation by chilling air to -190 degrees Celsius (-310 degrees Fahrenheit), liquefying it. When the liquid air warms up it expands, by a factor of about 700, and can drive a turbine to generate electricity. The 5-megawatt plant near Manchester can power up to 5,000 homes for around three hours.

The company behind the scheme, Highview Power Storage, believes the technology can be scaled up for large scale use with green energy sources. For now, the main approaches to grid energy storage are pumped hydropower -- water pumped "uphill", to be run back through a hydropower dam -- and battery banks. However, hydropower depends on specific geographies, and batteries are too expensive for large-scale energy storage. According to Gareth Brett of Highview Power:


Our technology is a bit like a locatable version of a pumped hydro system. Anywhere that needs large scale long-duration storage, that might be to help integrate an offshore wind farm, a system like ours can help achieve that. Five megawatts is a bit small for this technology; anything from ten megawatts and up is the sort of scale we're talking about. We've already designed a plant that can do 200 megawatts -- 1,200 megawatt-hours -- that's enough to keep a city going for 6 hours.


Highview Power's demonstrator plant is next to a landfill gas generation site. The large insulated tanks sit across the road from a collection of gas engines. These engines burn methane gas produced from decomposing rubbish to generate electricity. The waste heat from this process is captured and used to increase the efficiency of the cryogenic process.



* ENTROPY & COMPLEXITY: Most people are familiar with the term "entropy", but it is widely thought to mean "disorder". As discussed by an article from QUANTA Magazine Online ("'Digital Alchemist' Seeks Rules of Emergence" by Natalie Wolchover, 08 March 2017), that's not completely untrue, but it is highly misleading -- as illustrated by a conversation with Sharon Glotzer, a condensed-matter physicist who now leads a research team at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

Glotzer uses computer simulations to study "emergence" -- another term that, if not in such widespread use as "entropy", is also not commonly understood. It's really not a difficult idea; all it means is that when a set of elements, each element having simple properties, is brought together into a system, that system may exhibit properties or behaviors not evident in any one of its elements. The classic example is "swarm intelligence"; for example, the orderly structure and operation of an ant nest, based on the simple behaviors of individual ants. Bird flocks also may exhibit such "emergent" order, not being mere disorderly mobs of birds, even though each bird is only doing what comes naturally to it.

In the late 1990s, when Glotzer was a young researcher at the National Institute of Standards & Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, she led work on early computer simulations of the "phase transitions" of molten liquids about to harden into glass -- the simulations revealing strings of fast-moving atoms tracing their way through otherwise chaotic material. Similar flow patterns were later also observed in granular systems, crowds and traffic jams. The work suggested the utility of simulations in discovering emergent phenomena.

In 2009, Glotzer and her group at Ann Arbor showed that entropy, instead of representing disorder as popularly assumed, can actually promote emergent organization. Simulations based on the assembly of tetrahedral particles showed they spontaneously assembled into a "quasicrystal" -- a three-dimensional structure consisting of a number of basic elements, in arrangements that never precisely repeats. Glotzer admits that this defies popular intuition, but says popular intuition is wrong:


We typically think entropy means disorder, and so a disordered structure would have more entropy than an ordered structure. That can be true under certain circumstances, but it's not always true, and in these cases, it's not. I prefer to think of entropy as related to options: the more options a system of particles has to arrange itself, the higher the entropy. In certain circumstances, it's possible for a system to have more options -- more possible arrangements -- of its building blocks if the system is ordered.

What happens is the particles try to maximize the amount of space that they have to wiggle around in. If you can wiggle, you can rearrange your position and orientation. The more positions, the more options, and thus the more entropy ... And what these systems want to do is space out the particles enough so that it maximizes the amount of wiggle room available to all the particles.

Depending on the particle shape, that can lead to extremely complicated arrangements. So particles like tetrahedra ... evolve to states that allow them to wiggle in more ways and therefore have higher entropy.


She says that organization emerging from entropy had been established before, for example little plates and rods, but nothing had been found before that was as elaborate as the quasicrystal:


When we did this tetrahedra computer experiment and got out what is still today the most complicated entropically stabilized structure that anyone has ever seen, that really changed the way people looked at this. So then my group started studying every shape under the Sun. We just started throwing all kinds of convex shapes onto the computer, and we just kept getting a crystal structure after another after another, some that were very complicated.

In 2012 we published a paper ... where we studied 145 different shapes, and showed that 101 of them self-assembled into some kind of complicated crystal. Since then, my group has done tens of thousands of different shapes. We published one paper with 50,000 shapes in it.

... One of the things we've noticed is that there are some design rules. For example, when ... polyhedra have big, flat facets, they want to align so that their facets are facing each other -- because this gives more wiggle room, more ways of arranging the particles. But if you have lots of facets that are all differently sized, then it's harder to predict. You might end up with a glassy system or a jammed system instead of an ordered structure.


Glotzer has also been giving some thought to the origins of life, suggesting that a focus on chemical bonding may be inadequate, that entropy and self-organization may help unravel the puzzle: "I can take a bunch of objects and put them in a little droplet and shrink the droplet a little, and these objects will spontaneously organize." Tackling the origins of life remains a future project for Glotzer, however.



* POT IS BOOMING: As discussed by an article from TIME.com ("The Number of Pot Jobs Could Triple in the Years to Come" by Sean Williams, 30 December 2016), the legalization of marijuana is leading to a boom in the pot industry. In 1995, marijuana was outlawed in all fifty states; now there are 28 states with legal medical cannabis laws and eight recreational weed states.

A Gallup poll showed that support for marijuana legalization is at a new all-time high of 60% in 2016, up from 25% in the mid-1990s. A CBS News poll in 2015 showed 84% of Americans favored legalization of medical marijuana. Legalization of medical marijuana is a big step towards legalization for recreational use; and the more states that legalize, the stronger the impulse for the rest to legalize as well.

Business analysts estimate that legal marijuana sales could soar from $6 billion USD today to $50 billion USD by 2026 -- a compound annual growth rate of almost 24%. Pot industry employment is similarly booming. Currently, the marijuana business employs about 150,000 Americans. Growth estimates suggest that number will double or triple in the near future.

Job opportunities in the cannabis industry extends beyond just growing, processing, and bud-tending at the retail level. There's no shortage of other jobs in the field, for example in security -- banks don't like to deal with marijuana-based businesses, so they are overly dependent on cash -- as well as courier and delivery services, regulation, web and software development, consulting, and marketing. Pay of course varies, but managers and shop owners can easily make six figures under good circumstances. CNBC notes that about 400 students have enrolled in a 12-course program offered by the Northeastern Institute of Cannabis in Natick, Massachusetts.

However, there are still obstacles -- most importantly, cannabis is still illegal at the Federal level. The Feds haven't shown much inclination to step on the pot trade in the states in the past; the Obama Administration waffled on the matter. Nonetheless, the fact that pot is still regarded as illegal by Washington DC is why banks are so shy of dealing with the pot business. The illegal status also means that pot businesses can't take Federal tax deductions that regular business can.

To compound the nervousness of bankers, although Donald Trump has come out firmly in favor of medical marijuana, and suggested the states should have the right to handle the pot issue without interference from Washington DC, that's not the opinion of his pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions. In the Senate, Sessions was one of the biggest opponents of marijuana legalization. The Trump Administration is proving to be unusually chaotic, so nobody knows what's going to happen.

Anything the Trump Administration might do would be troublesome. If the Feds come down on the pot industry, the Federal judiciary is going to get involved; Trump has already suffered defeats at the hands of the judiciary, and may not want to be handed another one. The Feds could, more mildly, change marijuana from a "schedule 1" drug, meaning illegal, to a "schedule 2" drug, allowing it to be prescribed by physicians. That sounds nice on paper, except that it then places weed under the regulation of the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA would have the power to control marketing and packaging of medical cannabis products, and might well perform inspections of marijuana grow farms to ensure they're meeting THC consistency and grow quality standards from batch to batch. This is a difficulty for the administration, since one of Trump's campaign platforms was to cut back Federal regulation, the FDA being a particular target of his wrath.

Trump has been finding out that trimming back Federal regulation is harder than it looks, and so the FDA may well get involved anyway. What's really ugly for pot growers in FDA oversight is that, if marijuana is used for medicinal purposes, it then must be run through clinical trials to show that it is medicinally effective and safe. That could be a brake on the industry. Until all these issues are addressed, the future of the pot business in the USA may not be smooth sailing.



* IF IT'S NOT BROKEN (4): A related article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Pharma's Worst Nightmare" by Doni Bloomfield, with Hui Li, 23 January 2017), took a different angle on the US Federal government's relationship with the pharmaceutical industry -- as a consumer, not a regulator.

Pharmaceutical company executives were originally happy with the election of Donald Trump, seeing him as friendlier than Hillary Clinton, who had been highly critical of the industry. They started to get nervous on 11 January, when Trump said that the pharmaceutical industry was, with their inclination towards predatory pricing, "getting away with murder." He suggested the companies should bid for government business.

That hardly seems like a revolutionary proposal, since the government often procures through bids, for example in the defense sector. However, the US government, unlike other rich countries, doesn't regulate the price of drugs, with the result that US drug prices are overly expensive. Drug manufacturers would like to keep it that way.

The US government spent almost $200 billion USD for health programs in 2016. Medicaid, the program for the poor, gets fixed rebates from drug makers; but Medicare, the program for the elderly, is prohibited by law from negotiating on price, with the result that Medicare spends much more on drugs than Medicaid, with Medicare accounting for about 30% of all prescription drug spending in the US. The Department of Defense and the Veterans Administration do, by law, get rebates, and can negotiate for lower drug prices; but Medicare can do nothing but allow health insurers and providers to negotiate on their own.

Pharmaceutical company officials of course say the system works fine, that health insurers and providers have plenty of clout in negotiations over prices. They are still perfectly aware that the Federal government would have much more clout, and would be able to drive more painful bargains. The drug companies are accordingly ready to fight back.

The pharmaceutical companies have hundreds of lobbyists in Washington DC, and pump tens of millions of dollars into campaign funds each year. Neither party in Congress seems all that interested in rocking the boat. Andy Slavitt, acting administrator for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Service, says that if Trump decides to take them on: "God help him. He's not wrong, but you need ... a fair amount of stamina if you are going to deal with the pharmaceutical industry on this particular topic."

Trump hasn't helped his case by relying on his customary bluster, saying while he was on the campaign trail in 2016 that he could save $300 billion USD from Medicare through price negotiation -- though that's twice as much as Medicare spent in 2015, indeed almost as much as the $330 billion USD now being spent on prescription drugs in the USA each year. Trump's push for cheaper drugs also runs foul of his loud distaste for imports, his criticism of the drug industry on 11 January including: "They supply our drugs, but they don't make them here, to a large extent."

Trump wants to bring drug manufacturing back to the USA, but trade data shows that only about a quarter of the drugs sold in the United States are imported, and they're not focused on the high end of the business. America gets most of its low-value drug chemicals -- called "active pharmaceutical ingredients" -- from China and India; their production involves a high level of pollution and runs on low margins, meaning it would be unprofitable to bring that industry back to the USA. It would certainly mean higher prices for consumers.

According to Shao Yan, CEO of Hong Kong-based China Grand Pharmaceutical & Healthcare: "Moving manufacturing industries across the board back to the USA is an ideal, a dream, but if it's forced, America would be lifting a rock to hit its own feet." Shao says that it would make sense for the USA to cultivate its high-end pharmaceutical industry, "but if you move resource-dependent industries like generic-drug manufacturing back to the US, it may not be beneficial or create jobs for ordinary people." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (10): Russia's 2008 war in Georgia was successful, but demonstrated many deficiencies in Russia's dilapidated armed forces. Immediately after the conflict, Putin instituted a high-priority military modernization program. US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sensing that relations with Russia were on a downward spiral, attempted to "reset" American relations with Russia.

It was a forlorn hope; to Putin, America was an only too convenient enemy. When protests broke out in 2011:2012, Putin accused Clinton of spurring protesters on: "She set the tone for some actors in our country and gave them a signal ... They heard the signal and with the support of the US State Department began active work."

There is no negotiating with a paranoid; Putin, feeling the winds of change, concluded that they were being generated by America. Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy wrote:


America and Europe encourage political and economic change as a matter of course in their foreign policies. The essence of Western political systems extends to promoting democracy and liberal markets abroad. [But to Putin,] Western-style democracy and open markets are a clear threat to a Russian political system that thrives as a closed one-body network and an economic protection racket.


In Russia's new military doctrine, signed by Putin at the end of 2014, popular uprisings against an oppressive regime were classified as a military aggression that warranted a military response. In January 2013 Valery Gerasimov, then newly appointed as chief of staff, had spoken about a new type of warfare that Russia had to face.


The emphasis in methods of struggle is shifting towards widespread use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures ... Overt use of force, often under the guise of peacekeeping and crisis management, occurs only at a certain stage, primarily to achieve definitive success in the conflict.


The revolution in Kiev in the winter of 2013:14 that overthrew Viktor Yanukovych was perceived by the Kremlin as an escalation of hostilities by the "enemy". In response, Russia's heavy-handed propaganda campaign -- which portrayed Ukraine's post-revolutionary government as fascists -- paved the way for its own special forces in Crimea, allowing them to stage a coup, overthrow the legitimate government, and appoint its place men who quickly called an unconstitutional referendum on joining Russia.

While much has been made of Kremlin's fondness for sneaky "hybrid" warfare, Putin's attitude is: You started it. To Putin, Russia's actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine merely mirrored Western "hybrid" tactics, including special forces, disinformation, and mobilization of the protest potential of the local people. The annexation of Crimea was bloodless, enabled by psychological warfare and greased by bribery. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from AP ("Saving The Pangolin", 20 November 2016), the pangolin is the Old World's answer to the new world armadillo, more or less effect an armor-plated ant-eater -- but instead of the armadillo's shell, the pangolin has overlapping scales, the creature rolling up into an armor-plated ball when under threat. However, it is endangered by poachers, since its meat is considered a delicacy in Vietnam and some parts of China, while its scales are used in traditional Chinese medicine. Wildlife contraband, including pangolin scales and meat, is is concealed among vast numbers of shipping containers that leave Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, Mombasa in Kenya and other African ports every year.

Enter the giant pouched rat of Africa -- last mentioned here in 2014. The pouched rat has the virtues of a sensitive nose and docility; it is also easy to train, and inexpensive to maintain, which have led to its use in sniffing out mines and sensing tuberculosis in human patients. Now ten to 15 giant pouched rats are being reared in Tanzania to detect pangolin remains, as well as smuggled hardwood timber. In time, it may be expanded to find hidden elephant ivory and rhino horn.

pangolin in defensive ball

The Endangered Wildlife Trust, a South African group leading the project, said the trial "builds on the use of scent detection by dogs, but will take advantage of the rats' added agility and ability to access the container vents, which would provide the most air from the container, and potentially the most scent. Alternatively, the rats will detect scents sampled onto a filter through the vents."

The young rats in the project will start with "socialization training", which means being carried around on people's shoulders and in their pockets, being driven around, and generally getting used to sights and sounds, according James Pursey, one of the project officials. Then comes "click and reward" training in which the rats are fed a treat whenever they hear a clicking sound, and they'll eventually learn to link the gamey smell of pangolin scales with edible rewards. Later, the intensity of the pangolin smell will be reduced and other smells will be added to confuse the rats.

The ultimate aim is to train the rodents to scratch or linger over the pangolin or hardwood aroma for three seconds, tipping handlers to a possible find. Handlers can send rats with leashes and harnesses into hard-to-reach areas, potentially with small cameras attached to their backs. If the training goes well, it could still be another year or so before the rats finally get to work. They'll stick to cargo inspection instead of, for example, checking out people's luggage in airports. Travellers, Pursey said, wouldn't be "particularly enamored" to have vermin crawling on their belongings.

The US Fish & Wildlife Service has provided $100,000 USD to help fund the trial, seeing it as potentially "an innovative tool in combating illegal wildlife trade."

* As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("The Biggest Digital Map of the Cosmos Ever Made" by Dennis Overbye, 29 December 2016), in 2010 the "Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS)" went online on the summit of Haleakala, a dormant volcano on the island of Maui in Hawaii. Over the next four years, it imaged the entire sky visible from its perch a dozen times, in in five colors of visible and infrared light.

At the end of 2016, the astronomy team that operates Pan-STARRS released the first results from that survey. Their big data universe lists the positions, colors, and brightness of three billion stars, galaxies, and other celestial objects -- amounting to a total of two petabytes of data. This "Universe in a box" now resides in the Mikulski Archive for Space Telescopes -- named for Barbara A. Mikulski, the retiring Maryland senator and space champion -- at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore where any astronomer can get access to it.

The Pan-STARRS team plans to release a new catalog this year, to show how the sky changes from year to year. One of the objectives of the sky survey is to plot the orbits of asteroids, in part to see if they pose a threat to Earth; the sky survey will also be able to discover supernovas and other rare violent events while they are in progress.

Pan-STARRS telescope

Pan-STARRS is the biggest digital sky mapping effort done to date, but the "Large Synoptic Survey Telescope" now being built in Chile by the National Science Foundation will eventually eclipse it -- surveying 37 billion galaxies and stars, producing 15 terabytes of data every night for ten years, following its completion in 2022.

* As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("'Thinking Soil' Made Of Bacteria Could Keep Buildings From Collapsing" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 27 October 2016), it is generally assumed when buildings are constructed, the ground will not shift out from underneath. Sometimes it doesn't, with unfortunate consequences.

Researchers in the UK think that genetically-modified (GM) microbes might help head off such problems. Inspired by undergraduates who made a concrete-repairing bacterium -- dubbed "BacillaFilla" -- for a synthetic biology competition, a research team has been working on "biocement", a material that custom-built soil microbes would produce in response to the changing pressures in soil to help shore up the ground under a structure's foundations.

In the course of this effort, the team grew a common gut bacterium in surrogate soil, a "hydrogel" shaped into a cylinder. They subjected the bacteria-laden hydrogel to pressures up to ten times that experienced at sea level, to then identify 122 bacterial genes that increased their activity by at least threefold by the pressure change.

The team then modified the bacterial genome so that the regulatory DNA responsible for activating one of these genes was attached to a gene for a bioluminescent protein; the more pressure exerted on the microbe, the more intensely it glows. The researchers have developed a digital model that predicts how the microbe will react to forces, such as water pressure, transferred through soil under a building foundation Eventually the researchers plan to replace the glowing protein gene with genes that make biocement, the result being a "thinking soil" that will provide a self-constructing foundation for buildings, keeping them safe.



* SOLAR CELLS & CO2: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Shine On", 10 November 2016), everyone knows that solar panels do not emit greenhouse gases. However, it does take energy to make them in the first place, particularly for melting and purifying the silicon from which solar cells are made: silicon's melting point is 1,414 degrees Celsius (2,577 degrees Fahrenheit), not so much less than that of iron. Electric furnaces are used to do the melting, and for the most part these days, the electricity comes from fossil fuels.

One might imagine a day when renewables increasingly shoulder the job, but might it be a losing proposition if it takes more fossil fuel to make them than their energy production will compensate for over their lives? Some critics of renewable energy claim solar panels are not merely oversold, they are simply a futile waste of resources.

Wilfried van Sark, of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and colleagues decided to investigate, tallying up the energy needed to make all the solar panels set up around the world between 1975 and 2015, determining the emissions associated with them; and contrasted that with the energy obtained by the panels to determine emissions "break-even". This was not the first such analysis performed, but it was the first to take account of the fact that production of solar cells has become more efficient over time, requiring less energy.

The researchers obtained data on solar panel installations from the International Energy Agency, and obtained information on the amount of energy required to make solar cells from dozens of published studies. The amount of emissions required per unit of energy varies from place to place; since China relies heavily on fossil fuels, it costs twice the emissions as it does in Europe.

The bottom line is that solar panels made today are responsible, on the average, for the production of about 20 grams of CO2 per kilowatt-hour over their typical lifetime of 30 years. In 1975, it was at least 20 times that much. This is partly due to improved technology and processes, partly due to economy of scale, the energy required for production tending to decline with the size of the production batch. Emission payback time in those days was like 20 years; now it is two years. A model constructed by the researchers show that, for each doubling of the world's solar capacity, the amount of energy needed to produce them has dropped by around 12%, and the amount of emissions produced by from 17% to 24%.

Not only that, but the more renewables provide the power for fabrication, the more emissions are cut -- though renewable energy sources are generally still a minority factor. In any case, the models suggest that, as a minimum, "break-even" took place in 1997. There is a range of possibilities for the break-even date, but in any case, the range ends no later than 2018. At that time, nobody will be able to complain that solar panels generate more emissions than they save.

* In related news, American entrepreneur Elon Musk has unveiled the latest product offering of his Tesla company -- a textured-glass solar-power roof tile, which serves both as roofing and as a solar energy collector. It's not that new an idea, but previous offerings haven't done well. Musk claims his tiles are well superior to those of the past, and will be available in a range of styles.

Demonstrations show them to be very difficult to visually distinguish from standard roofing slates, due to a special coating -- developed by Tesla in collaboration with 3M Company -- that acts as a "micro-louver", so that sunlight only reaches the solar cells in the tile via direct angles, rendering the tiles opaque from shallow angles.

Tesla solar tiles

Musk did a "drop test" during his personal demonstration of the tiles, saying: "It's never going to wear out, it's made of quartz, it has a quasi-infinite lifetime." He also claims they have superior insulation qualities. Of course, everyone knows Musk is a huckster, he wouldn't deny it himself, but he can often back up his claims. He said little about pricing, except that the cost of the roof would be less than a conventional roof plus solar panels.



* CHINA WATCHES THE COSMIC-RAY SKY: As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Chinese Mountain Observatory To Probe Cosmic-Ray Origins" by David Cyranoski, 15 March 2017), highly-energetic particles from deep space -- "cosmic rays" -- are continually falling to Earth. They rarely if ever reach the ground, instead producing cascades or "air showers" of particles produced by the collisions, marked by the faint blue light known as "Cerenkov radiation". Some of the most powerful, the "ultra-high energy cosmic rays (UHECR)", are millions of times more powerful than particles accelerated in the most power human-made particle accelerators.

A number of observatories have been set up to observe these air showers. Work on the latest, the "Large High Altitude Air Shower Observatory (LHAASO)" began early this year at a site on Haizi mountain, near Daocheng in Sichuan, close to Tibet. The observatory -- covering an area of about 1.3 square kilometers (half a square mile) and with a pricetag of 1.2 billion yuan, about $174 million USD -- was approved after an environmental assessment showed it was not a threat to the threatened white-lipped deer and other animals in a nearby nature reserve.

According to Giuseppe Di Sciascio -- a particle physicist at the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) in Rome -- the LHAASO "will be the leading project to clarify questions of cosmic-ray physics." Di Sciascio is one of a number of physicists in the international community who hope to collaborate in studies performed at the LHAASO.

The high altitude of the LHAASO -- about 4,400 meters (14,400 feet) -- gives it a better view of air showers than cosmic-ray detector arrays at lower altitude. Along with cosmic-ray particles, the LHAASO can also pick up high-energy gamma rays, up to the peta-electron-volt (10E15 EV) range.

Cosmic-ray particles are influenced by magnetic fields as they travel through deep space, and so it is hard to figure out where they come from; gamma rays are not affected by magnetic fields, and so observing both particles and gamma rays together may give hints on where the particles really come from. Cao Zhen -- project director for LHAASO and an astroparticle physicist at the Institute of High Energy Physics in Beijing -- says: "Gamma-rays can point straight back to the source."

The observatory includes four sets of elements:

Of course, the detectors are linked together to coordinate observations. Sciascio says that LHAASO could establish the maximum energies that cosmic events in the Milky Way can produce, because the array's detection capabilities reach the highest energy ranges thought to be emitted by such events. LHAASO should have enough elements in 2018 to begin preliminary observations, with the observatory to be completed in 2021.



* ANOTHER MONTH: In news of "internet of things one is not so likely to think of", a Canadian firm named Standard Innovation got notice for its "We-Vibe" vibrator -- a sexual stimulation device, nothing unusual as far as that goes, but driven by with "We-Connect" smartphone app. Why? To allow "being with the one you love" over long distance.

What put Standard Innovation's product in the news was that the company collected usage data from the We-Connect app; the result was a class-action suit. The company protested that they weren't spying on anyone, they were just compiling marketing statistics, but the courts decided against them, and compelled the firm to cease and desist, as well as pay off aggrieved customers. Enough said. No pictures.

* That was a small item in the news, there being enough political uproar during March to drive most else off the radar of public attention. At the outset of the month, the Trump Administration issued a sanitized Muslim ban -- well, not supposed to be called that -- with the courts issuing an injunction just before it was to go into effect. The injunction is not permanent, but it isn't a good bet to think it will be reversed.

The month was far more dominated by the Republican attempt to overturn the Affordable Care Act, better known as "ObamaCare". This was actually more the baby of Republicans in Congress, with President Trump lending his support. The alternative plan by the GOP was thrown together in great haste, features including cutbacks in health benefits and a proposal to raise the limits on what insurers could charge senior citizens.

It was obvious well beforehand that any attempt to roll back health benefits was going to lead to resistance. One could expect citizens coming forward to tell their representatives: "Without ObamaCare, I would be dead." -- and to no surprise, that's what happened, see here in February -- the only surprise being how shrill and vehement the protests were. The prospect of raising insurance rates on senior citizens inevitably mobilized the powerful American Association of Retired Persons against the bill.

Despite President Trump's attempts to push House Republicans to vote YES, the bill was so obviously a nonstarter that it was abandoned without putting it to a vote. There were Republicans who thought the bill was a lousy deal for their constituents; however, it seems the core of the resistance was from the "Freedom Caucus", a group of 29 sorehead House Republicans, who were opposed to any universal health plan. The exercise showed that Republicans in Congress neither need President Trump's approval, nor fear his wrath; more significantly, it showed that the long-deferred Republican civil war is now surfacing.

News media asked the question: has the Republican Party forgotten how to govern? Even some GOP members of Congress admitted that, after so many years of "no stone left thrown" against the Obama Administration, the Republican Party was having trouble taking positive action. Two business analysts, on assessing the stock market boom following Trump's election, judged it a bubble, saying that the GOP-dominated Congress was like a junior high school run by the students.

* By the end of the month, the Trump Administration was moving against Barack Obama's initiatives to deal with climate change -- an exercise that is certain to run into at least as many obstacles, but it's too early to notice the sparks yet. The Trump Administration also released a budget proposal that envisioned a military buildup, funded at the expense of the State Department, the EPA, and all other "useless" government functions. It was seen as little more than a publicity stunt, made entirely of straw, there being limited enthusiasm on either side of the aisle in Congress for such a troglodyte vision of how the US government should be run.

In the meantime, concerns over the Trump Administration's connections to Russia continued to simmer -- with Trump attempting to muddy the waters by claiming, without evidence, that Barack Obama had illegally wiretapped him during the presidential campaign. As baffling as that was, of course there was a method to the madness: Trump used that as springboard to assemble a conspiracy theory of a "deep state" left behind by Obama in the government to thwart the Trump Administration.

Obama, being no dummy, was at last notice vacationing on a private island in French Polynesia, leaving him well off the scene and making Trump's attempts to smear him an uphill struggle. Obama's always been a globetrotter, no doubt is enjoying his travels, and will likely stay away from home until things settle down in the USA. No sense in being the target of a flurry of wild accusations; it's easier to shine on them from seclusion, half the world away. Obama can take satisfaction in watching Trump frustrate himself in trying to overturn Obama's actions; for as Obama knows, and Trump does not: You can't beat something with nothing.

CNN commentator Fareed Zachariah, in all frustrated earnestness, hit the nail on the head:


The president is somewhat indifferent to things that are true or false. He's spent his whole life bullshitting. He's succeeded by bullshitting. He has gotten the presidency by bullshitting. It's very hard to tell somebody at that point that bullshit doesn't work, because look at the results, right? But that's what he does. He sees something, he doesn't particularly care if it's true or not, he just puts it out there. And then he puts something else out.


As a perfect example, Zachariah pointed to the ridiculous counter Trump produced in response to the consternation over claims that Obama wiretapped the Trump campaign:


All we did was quote a certain very talented legal mind, who was the one responsible for saying that on television. I didn't make an opinion on it. That was a statement made by a very talented lawyer on Fox.


Zachariah found it appalling that Trump would use the bully pulpit of the presidency to disseminate fraudulent claims, and then insist: "I was only quoting somebody else." Zachariah said that Trump was not only "degrading the office of the presidency, he is degrading all these people around him. Sean Spice is having to humiliate himself every day ... because the president doesn't relent."

* Of course, the comedians are continuing on a roll, finding the Trump Administration an endless source of caustic humor. On FULL FRONTAL, comedienne Samantha Bee suggested that although Trump was fumbling everything mightily, he should not be underestimated: "He's got the might of the Russian Army behind him!"

As far as the budget went, Bee said: "Distilling Trump's spittle-flecked campaign jeremiads and incoherent revenge fantasies into policy isn't an exact science, and if it were an exact science, this budget would defend it."

In response to the claim of Mick Mulroney, the Trump Administration's budget director, that the budget proposal was no different from a family making cuts here and there, Bee said: "Families routinely tweak their budgets by canceling their kids' education, throwing out all their books and medicine, selling their smoke detectors and redirecting all their money to guns, ammo, and a moat stocked with alligators."

Stephen Colbert of THE LATE SHOW said that the GOP healthcare bill had "a pre-existing condition: everybody hates it." In response to House Speaker Paul Ryan's expressions of confidence in the doomed healthcare bill, Colbert said: "You sound like the most optimistic person in the Donner Party."

On THE DAILY SHOW, Trevor Noah compared Trump to a magician who could never finish a trick: "Ladies and gentlemen, as you can see, I've placed this lady in a box. All right, let's move on." On THE TONIGHT SHOW, Jimmy Fallon reported that Trump was planning to take the injunction on the Muslim ban to the Supreme Court: "And if they block it, he says he's going to take it to the Justice League."

A certain weariness has begun to set in with the humorists, however. Alec Baldwin, whose impersonation of President Trump has gone viral, feels the joke is getting old, and he'll have to give it up presently. That leaves the prospect of ongoing outrages from the White House that fall, leaden and wearying, on the bruised shoulders of the public. The stream of events centered on the White House has taken on a surreal aspect, it's hard to call it real news any longer.

There's an element of play-acting in the struggle -- one example being the emergence of the late Carrie Fisher / Princess Leia as a symbol of the anti-Trump resistance. Eh, so why not? I don't have problems with a bit of geekiness, and public demonstrations against Trump do serve the useful function of informing the world that enthusiasm for the Trump presidency is by no means universal among Americans.

Yeah, there's only so far the play-acting goes; Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), the most prominent member of the "resistance" to Trump in Congress, has made it clear he will work with the White House on how to best serve the American people. That has the unstated implication that Schumer will push back on Trump's sleazy tricks. One can at least hope that Schumer is politically savvy enough to see that the GOP's uncertainty in Trump, and also divisions in the Republican Party, provide an opportunity to form a centrist coalition that can finally get the Federal government rolling again. If Trump accomplishes nothing else in his presidency, he can at least prove valuable as a common enemy.

* While the slow-burning political crisis goes on in the USA, on the last of March I was confronted with a personal crisis of sorts. I'd planted two ash trees in my back yard to shade my house some years back, and they were finally starting to grow up. Unfortunately, there were tales in circulation of the "emerald ash borer" beetle spreading in Colorado -- this beetle being a Chinese import that is devastating to ash trees.

I had been keeping an eye on developments, but I finally got a Loveland city news release that described how the ash borer had destroyed the ash populations of Boulder to the southwest, and was certain to reach Loveland soon. The city was working on a crisis management plan, to cull out most of the several thousand ash trees on city property, with a few possibly preserved using persistent pesticide treatments.

As for those on private property, citizens are only now starting to wake up. I had to think of what to do with the two ashes in my back yard. While there has some work on biological control of the ash borer, using parasitic wasps or fungi, it hasn't paid off well yet -- and I had no idea of if or when it would. My trees were just about ready to leaf out, and they would be harder to dispose of once they did; birds might nest in them as well, with the nests lost when I took the trees down. Any continued growth would also make them harder to dispose of. Besides, once the big die-off starts, the city recycling facility will certainly be swamped with the corpses of ash trees, with disposal complicated by quarantine considerations.

On evaluating the angles, I concluded the two trees would have to go, immediately. I sharpened my axe, and the next morning ringed them both. I have never felt such regret at killing plants -- but on the positive side, once I'd made up my mind and committed to action, I had no further qualms. I'll take them down a tubload at a time; I'm planning on buying a small electric chainsaw to help with the job.

Of course, I'm going to replace them -- I'm actually kind of looking forward getting a fresh start with two new trees -- but it will take well into summer to get rid of the ashes, and I won't be able to replant until the spring of 2018. That will give me plenty of time to think things over.