jun 2017 / last mod jun 2017 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: world after oil (series), manufacturing reinvented (series), power grid development (series), Putin's Russia (series), biologicals, NASA NICER observatory, aquaculture & biofuels, pricing gene therapy treatments, New Horizons probe to another KBO, nanocar race, and green power in the US West.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JUNE 2017: As reported by an article from REUTERS ("Vision And Screwdrivers: Macron And Merkel Converge On Europe" by Noah Barkin, 25 June 2017), the ascent of Emmanuel Macron to the French presidency has immediately led to a close alliance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. It turns out they have much in common -- particularly a confidence in the European vision, coupled with an awareness that it is clearly in need of repair.

In January, while on the campaign trail, Macron said: "As Jacques Delors [once president of the EC] said, for Europe we need a vision and a screwdriver. Unfortunately, we currently have a lot of screwdrivers but we are still lacking a vision."

Macron is taking leadership in articulating and implementing that vision. At a meeting of European Union leadership in Brussels late in the month, in which Macron and Merkel stood side by side at an end-of-summit news conference and sent a message of complete unity. Macron said: "When France and Germany speak with one voice, Europe can move forward. There can be no pertinent solution if it is not a pertinent solution for France and Germany."

Merkel sounded the same upbeat note, if in her typical matter-of-fact fashion: "This press conference shows that we are resolved to jointly find solutions to problems." This is a dramatic change from the disjoint, if not exactly hostile, relationship between France and Germany that has been the norm for over a decade.

However, the question remains of whether the change has much substance. Macron has to make good on his pledge to streamline the French economy and get it firing on all cylinders. On her part, Merkel is facing elections in September. If she wins a fourth term as chancellor -- polls are encouraging on that score, though nobody feels very confident in polls these days -- she'll have to to convince skeptical conservative allies to work with the centrist Macron.

In addition, Merkel is a person of resolute and generally reassuring plod, preferring to make tweaks with the system instead of major changes, as if tightening screws with a screwdriver. Macron, at 39 years old youthful for a leader of a great nation, is full of energy and big ideas -- not on the face of it a good match for Merkel. However, as far as Europe is concerned, the leadership of both the US and Britain has been decapitated, or at least diminished, by their internal disarray, with the end effect of boosting Macron's stature.

In Brussels, Macron made clear that he would confront countries like Poland and Hungary if their Right-wing governments failed to respect European democratic values. He said he would respond in kind if countries like China and the USA do not play fair on trade; and pressed his fellow leaders to be more ambitious in European defense cooperation. In the past, Merkel would have never been so blunt, but in Brussels she backed Macron up to the hilt.

It would seem a good partnership, French energy and German resolve. Not everyone is happy with that idea, one eastern European diplomat saying that if a Franco-German partnership "works too well it is not always the best for the EU. We hope that they will be wise enough to control their speed."

Number 10 Downing Street is not too happy at the prospect, either. Prime Minister Theresa May knows she has a poor bargaining hand with the EU -- walking out doesn't grant very strong leverage -- and EU leadership has not been inclined to cut her much slack. A stronger EU will be even less inclined to do so.

There is also the prospect of the EU taking a more antagonistic line with the US -- Merkel having made it clear that, if American wants to treat EU as a competitor and not an ally, the EU will have to take that into advisement. However, Merkel also knows that US President Donald Trump's foreign policy is personal as well as inconsistent, to put it mildly, and that it is unlikely to endure beyond Trump. She accepts an antagonistic relationship only to the level that Trump establishes one. She also knows that Trump is focused on bark; not so good at bite; and his cultivated unpopularity with Europeans mostly serves to elevate the political standing of the Macron-Merkel partnership as they "make the EU great again".

* As discussed by an essay by "Charlemagne", THE ECONOMIST's European columnist ("Rebuilding The House Of Euro", 3 June 2017), when the euro, the common European currency, was introduced in 1999, it seemed like a breathtaking step toward European integration. Fast-forward a decade, to the fallout from the economic crisis, and it looked more like a curse. Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and Spain were forced into bailouts, with the European Central Bank saying it would pony up with more money if necessary, and the euro didn't collapse.

Although the economies of Europe are healthier these days, the euro is still wobbly, and everyone knows it. At the outset, it offered significant advantages -- no more having to convert currencies when crossing borders, no more having to monkey with exchange rates. However, governments couldn't monkey with the exchange rates either; there wasn't a national currency any longer that could be devalued to improve competitiveness. Governments were also limited by EU rules from taking other unilateral measures to bolster their economies.

The only solution on hand was the bailout, accompanied by belt-tightening. Nobody was happy; creditors didn't like paying out, debtors didn't like austerity. Oddly, this mutual misery led to a political impasse on reforming the euro -- nobody liking the situation, but everyone fearing that changing it would leave them worse off. Emmanuel Macron, however, is a strong advocate of European integration, advancing proposals for reform, and seems to be gaining traction.

Nothing much will happen until after German elections in September -- but it is clear Angela Merkel is inclined to give Macron his hand. Speaking at an industry conference in Berlin before the EU summit, she surprised members of her own party by expressing an openness to reformist ideas. A senior official involved in the meeting said: "That really got people's attention. Paris and Berlin are edging closer than they have been in a very long time."

There's no shortage of ideas for reform. Macron advocates the creation of a budget and a finance minister for the euro zone, with his roots in the banking industry giving him credibility. Another idea is a common deposit-insurance scheme for the European banking system. The Germans have not been enthusiastic about that particular idea, since they fear being stuck with the bill, but there's growing enthusiasm for reform.

Take small steps first, they should build confidence for bigger ones. Polls show strong public support for keeping the euro, and for fixing it. The public restlessness that has taken hold across the world in the last few years does have its opportunities.

* An essay published on TIME Online on 23 June 2017: "Why It's No Longer Possible for Any Country to Win a War" -- considered the question of why, in the post-WW2 world, nobody ever seems to win a war any longer. The author, Yuval Noah Harari of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, starts out by pointing out just how peaceful the world has become since the last of the world wars; now, fewer people die today from human violence than from traffic accidents, obesity, or even suicide. Roughly 5% of people died in wars in the old days, now it's only 1%.

Unfortunately, international tensions and hostilities are growing, with military expenditures rising in pace. There are fears that, echoing the catastrophic rush to world war in 1914, in 2017 some incident in the Syrian Desert or some "damn-fool thing" in the Korean Peninsula might ignite a global conflict. In reality, there's a huge difference between 1914 and 2017. The decades preceding 1914 had been the last great age of imperialism, in which the Great Powers were engaged in a mad scramble to seize more territories. The most successful of the imperialists, Great Britain, controlled a far-flung empire around the globe.

Wars of conquest have gone out of style; modern wars are unprofitable and generally inconclusive affairs. Though some petty dictators and non-state actors remain enthusiastic for war, the major powers don't really even know what a successful war looks like any longer.

The Allies won a resounding victory in World War II; but the development of the Bomb rendered the old military assumptions obsolete. The Soviet Union obtained a "buffer space" in the form of satellite governments in Eastern Europe -- but what did that mean if an adversary could destroy the USSR with nuclear weapons delivered by long-range aircraft, and later missiles? The fact that such an assault on the Soviet Union would be suicide only underlined the absurdity. The Soviet Union had simply acquired a liability; all that was useful to the USSR in Eastern Europe could have been better obtained by diplomatic means.

The Cold War competition between the US and the Soviet Union also led the Americans into profitless wars in Korea and Vietnam. The Bomb, to be sure, meant that the US didn't want to escalate these conflicts; but escalation was also blocked by the fact that wider wars would have been even more unprofitable. The Soviets found out much the same in Afghanistan.

The victory of the US over the Soviet Union in the Cold War owed little to battlefield victories, being much more due to the internal rot and bad leadership of the USSR. America didn't prevail over China in the same way; when China was at the crossroads, Deng Xiaoping took over and revitalized the system. The USSR got Mikhail Gorbachov, who led the system to the ruin to which it had falling since the death of Josef Stalin. The fall of the Soviet Union was a triumph for democratic capitalism over authoritarian statism, but it wasn't really a victory for the USA, since the USSR simply fell apart.

The US did win a resounding victory in the First Gulf War, but was left with the survival of Saddam Hussein. That led directly to the Second Gulf War, which did much to send the Middle East into a state of chaos from which it has yet to emerge. To be sure, the roots of the instability were present before the US toppled Saddam Hussein -- but the American intervention catalyzed the breakdown of such order as had existed before it. The US conquest of Iraq, and of Afghanistan before it, have proven painfully expensive, protracted, and inconclusive.

Contrast the US experience with China, the growing power of our era. Although China is now flexing military muscle, it's primarily to back up diplomacy. China hasn't fought a war since its clumsy invasion of Vietnam in 1979, its rise being driven by economic development. In that respect, China is not imitating the Imperial German and Japanese empires, which were dead ends, but instead the nonviolent Japanese and German economic miracles of the post-1945 era.

The Middle East remains plagued by war, but it's hard to see who has gained much from it. Iran won nothing in the long Iran-Iraq war, and hasn't fought a war itself since. Iran's rise in prominence is mostly due to the US invasion of Iraq -- which neutralized its prime regional enemy, Iraq, and made the US cautious of becoming involved in further quagmires in the region. The author adds:


Much the same can be said of Israel, which waged its last successful war fifty years ago. Since 1967, Israel has prospered despite its many wars, not thanks to them. Its conquered territories are a heavy economic burden and a crippling political liability. Like Iran, Israel has recently improved its geopolitical position not by waging successful wars, but by avoiding getting sucked into the wars that devastated Iraq, Syria and Libya.


The only recent successful war waged by a major power has been the Russian conquest of the Crimea. However, it was mostly made possible because there was so little resistance, either from Ukraine or from the rest of the world. Russia has few other such convenient opportunities. The conquest was primarily driven by Vladimir Putin's desire to impress the Russian public, and it's hard to see that Crimea provides a value to Russia that offsets the fact that the conquest continues to be a diplomatic liability. The conquest of Crimea more illuminates the weakness of the Russian state than its strength.

The Russians have been pioneers in cyber warfare, but it doesn't win wars; it just makes conflict more expensive. Indeed, 21st-century technology has done much to render warfare absurd. In the 19th century, seizing natural resources and infrastructure was profitable; now, trying to conquer countries to seize their high-tech industries would be absurd. There's nothing to be better obtained in warfare that can't be obtained in open trade. On the other side of that coin, high-tech military forces are expensive, and it's hard to get a payoff worth the expense of a war.

All that said, in the end we're stuck with wars, as manifestations of regional instability and failures of the international system of order. Nonetheless, nobody sees any real prospect of a Third World War.



* WINGS & WEAPONS: As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("Tokyo Seeks New Ways To Stop North Korean Missiles" by Bradley Perrett, 19 May 2017), North Korea has been unusually noisy and threatening as of late, mouthing threats and firing off missiles. Japan, not far downrange of North Korea, is considering options for response -- including anti-ballistic missile (ABM) defenses and, more controversially, a strike capability to take out North Korean missiles before launch.

A committee of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party urged both measures on the Japanese government at the end of March. The government has accepted both recommendations, and is now softening up the Japanese public for buying "Aegis Ashore" ABM defense systems, and for acquiring Raytheon BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The government wants to come to a decision by the end of August.

Aegis Ashore launch

A Japanese inspection team has gone to Hawaii to inspect a demonstration Aegis Ashore installation. The Japan Ground Self-Defense Force currently has Patriot PAC-3 systems for ABM defense. PAC-3 is good enough to deal with short-range missiles, but three Aegis Ashore batteries would cover the whole country and be able to defeat longer-range weapons. The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system is an alternative and has been considered by Japan, but it's more expensive than Aegis Ashore. Incidentally, Lockheed Martin builds Aegis Ashore, PAC-3, and THAAD.

The four Japanese Aegis destroyers of the KONGOU class have been upgraded to defend against ballistic missiles, using Raytheon RIM-161 SM-3 Block IA interceptors. Japan's two other Aegis destroyers, of the ATAGO class, are to be similarly upgraded, but with the longer-ranging Block IIA version of the weapon. The KONGOUs are to be refurbished, so they will likely obtain the Block IIA later; Aegis Ashore also uses the Block IIA. The use of shipboard and ground-based Block IIA interceptors, plus PAC-3, would provide multiple layers of defense.

Japan's ABM defense posture will also take into account China, which is enthusiastic for ballistic missiles. Defense considerations necessarily lead to consideration of offensive operations, to take out missiles before they are launched. Japan's defensive posture means that the country has only limited offensive air capabilities, with F-4EJ fighters and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries F-2 with guided bombs, and only limited tanker support for offensive operations.

While Japan is obtaining 42 Lockheed Martin F-35 Strike Fighters, the Tomahawk is the preferred offensive option. Japan has considered obtaining it for over a decade; interest now seems much more serious. The Tomahawks would be carried on Japanese Aegis destroyers. The missiles would have the range to hit any target in North Korea, and would be very hard to intercept, being small and hugging the terrain. However, they have little ability to hit mobile targets like mobile missile launchers. If Japan acquires the Tomahawk, it would become the third country to do so, after the US and the UK.

* As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("Nine-Passenger Hybrid Turboprop May Be On The Way" by John Croft, 2 February 2017), Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University -- a Florida institution, well-known in the aerospace industry -- is now working on a nine-seat hybrid-electric turboprop aircraft. The research consortium was established in 2016 by aerospace professor and researcher Pat Anderson.

As envisioned, the hybrid aircraft would compete with well-known turbine singles like the Pilatus PC-12 and Daher-Socata TBM. The fact that the effort is not just a student project is underlined by the reality that the consortium includes Textron Aviation, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls-Royce, Hartzell Propeller and the Argonne National Laboratory's Center for Transportation Research -- a facility Anderson says is the "US place to go for battery technology and hybrid road vehicles." Textron is now getting ready to fly its Cessna Denali single-turboprop aircraft, and clearly has interest in a hybrid follow-on.

Anderson says the studies showed that hybrid configurations could provide 9% better direct operating costs compared to a legacy turboprop. He adds that while direct operating costs tend to be more important for US customers, the low noise of electric aircraft is of high importance to European customers. A purely electric aircraft was judged impractical, batteries not having sufficient energy density to provide adequate range.

Anderson says the prototype aircraft will have at most four electric motors engines, but more like one or two. It will not feature the advanced "distributed propulsion" schemes being investigated by NASA, with a litter of electric motors and props arranged over the wings, tail, and elsewhere. The aircraft will be based, as much as possible, on off-the-shelf components. Embry-Riddle has already build less ambitious electric and hybrid aircraft.

* As reported by an article from COMBAT AIRCRAFT ("China's New Missile Could Out-Range US Weapons" by David Axe, February 2017), those who keep track on China's military technology noted with interest a photo that emerged in November 2016 of a Shenyang J-16 fighter -- a Chinese derivative of the Russian Sukhoi Su-27 -- carrying a very long range air-to-air missile (AAM).

Other than the photo, there are few specifics of the "PL-XX" AAM -- as it has been informally dubbed by observers. Eyeballing the image of the missile on the J-16 fighter suggests it has a length of about 6 meters (20 feet) and a diameter of about 30 centimeters (a foot). It has cruciform control fins on the tail, but no other flight surfaces.

Contrast this with the US AIM-120D AMRAAM, which has about 60% of the length and diameter of the PL-XX; the AMRAAM also has cruciform wings in mid-body, along with cruciform tailfins. Maximum range of the AIM-120D is estimated at 145 kilometers (90 miles). The PL-XX is in a size class with the Russian Vympel K-100 AAM, which was developed a quarter-century ago, though it never reached production. It had a range estimated at 300 kilometers (186 miles), like twice that of AMRAAM.

Assessments of the PL-XX suggest it would be launched at high altitude, to streak under rocket power at Mach 6 up to stratospheric heights, coasting towards a target and then diving at high speed on a target. It is believed to have an active-array radar seeker, backed up by an optical / satellite-based navigation system -- well exceeding AMRAAM, or any AAM known to be on the US drawing boards, in sophistication.

The question remains of how effective the PL-XX really is. Attacking an aircraft from over the horizon leads to difficulties with identification; nobody wants to hit an airliner by mistake, much less a "friendly" aircraft. The Chinese are working on long-ranging, high-altitude drones to address that problem, but they would be vulnerable. Does it matter so much that the PL-XX outranges AMRAAM? Given that the tactical environments in which the US might have a military confrontation with China would involve the use of land- and sea-launched long-range surface-to-air missiles, it is not clear that the US would obtain any real advantage from an equivalent long-range AAM. The PL-XX might be seen as simply an attempt by China to address the asymmetry between Chinese and generally superior US forces; a very-long-range AAM may well make good sense for China -- but not so much for the US.



* BIOLOGICALS GAINING GROUND: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs by Sarah Zhang ("Good Riddance, Chemicals: Microbes Are Farming's Hot New Pesticides", 21 March 2016), although the chemical fertilizers and pesticides greatly increased agricultural yields, they are held under increasing suspicion. The result is that some have been looking to nature for alternatives.

Where? Anyplace they can: in plant extracts, soil microbes, spider venom. It may sound a bit like scavenging, but work on such "biologicals" is hardly retrograde or low-tech. From pesticides to growth stimulants, carefully-designed, naturally-derived products are attracting both startups and heavyweights like Monsanto, Bayer, and DuPont, with billions of dollars being pumped into the field. One analyst comments that biologicals are "approaching critical mass. This is a new frontier for crop protection and crop management."

Biologicals have only recently become fashionable, but they are not a new idea. Organic farmers have long used a bacterium named Bacillus thuringiensis as a "natural" pesticide; ironically, the gene for its insect-killing toxin is also genetically engineered into most corn and cotton grown in the US, meaning it has become "unnatural". In any case, the industry would love to find other agriculturally useful biologicals, along with the genes that certain bugs can use to generate them.

Alas, although soil microbes are an obvious place to look, doing so is not easy. There are many different such microorganisms, and assessing them all is monster task. Companies with deep pockets are jumping in. In a partnership with Novozymes, Monsanto is testing 2,000 bacteria isolated from soil around the world. The company is looking for bacteria that can keep insects, weeds, and fungi at bay, along with micro-organisms that could boost the growth of the plant. Robb Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer, compares the approach to what's going on in medicine: "The human microbiome has been a breakthrough for human medicine. I think the crop microbiome will become a breakthrough for crop production."

Other agritech giants, such as Bayer and DuPont, are also sifting through microbial zoos. In addition, smaller firms such as BioConsortia, NewLeaf Symbiotics, and Indigo Agriculture have proliferated in the race to find "biostimulants", which like fertilizers boost plant growth, but are not synthetic. They're looking at extracts from seaweed or peptides from other plants. One of the attractions is that biostimulants are lightly regulated, by a patchwork of state laws, not the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Marrone Bio Innovations (MBI) takes a different approach, working on "biopesticides", which do fall under EPA regulation. However, since naturally derived pesticides are generally perceived as safer, the EPA usually requires fewer tests of them. A chemical pesticide might take three years to get environmental approval; a biopesticide, half that time. Biopesticides are also certified for organic farmers, who make up the bulk of MBI's customers. Mainstream farmers are becoming interested as well: The EPA is currently re-assessing a popular class of chemical insecticides called "neonicotinoids" for their impact on bee health, and its already proposed restricting their use during bee season.

MBI has four biopesticides on the market for use against insects, nematodes, fungi, and crops. All of them are derived from intensive screening of 18,000 bacteria back at the founding of the company. The company is now working on a microbial herbicide to round out its suite of products.

For now, the hunt for useful biologicals tends toward the brute-force. Many micro-organisms are examined; few seem useful, and characterizing those that are is difficult. Current techniques for metagenomic analysis don't help very much. However, nobody underestimates the ingenuity of genomics system designers, and it's a good bet improved tools will become available in time.



* NICER IN ORBIT: On 3 June 2017, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to send a Dragon cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). As reported by an article from NATURE.com ("Neutron Stars Set To Open Their Heavy Hearts" by Elizabeth Gibney, 31 May 2017), one of the significant items carried by the Dragon capsule was NASA's "Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER)" experiment, to be mounted on the ISS to perform observations of neutron stars.

A neutron star is a collapsed star, maybe the size of a mountain, but with a mass of about two Suns -- the gravitational field being so strong that atomic structures collapse, the result being a superdense object. The collapse of the progenitor star sets a neutron star to spinning rapidly. The spin can sometimes be observed as a periodic X-ray pulse generated by "hotspots" on the magnetic poles of the neutron stars, where infalling matter violently impacts the surface. Since the magnetic poles are not necessarily the same as the rotational poles, the spin flashes the hotspots in and out of our line of sight on a rapid basis. Neutron stars emitting such X-ray pulses are accordingly known as "X-ray pulsars".


NICER is built around an "X-Ray Timing Instrument (XTI)" -- a box about the size of a dorm refrigeration, with an array of 56 simple X-ray "telescopes" mounted on its front, the box being pointed using a gun-type mount attached to the ISS. NICER's observations of pulsars will allow it to determine the exact size of neutron stars. The size is important, since a bigger star suggests a stiff core that is relatively able to withstand gravity's compression. A smaller, more compact star, in contrast, would mean a soft interior, in which neutrons could be dissolved in a sea of their constituent quarks. A more exotic proposal suggests the core is made of 'hyperons', which incorporate heavier 'strange' quarks within them.

Zaven Arzoumanian -- science lead for NICER, an astronomer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, which is conducting the NICER experiment -- says that understanding the core will also help to determine how much a neutron star can weigh before gravity overcomes pressure and it collapses into a black hole. In addition, a better understanding of neutron-star structure will improve models of what happens when two neutron stars fall into each other.

NICER's 56 X-ray "telescopes" are actually better described as "concentrators". They use "grazing incidence" optics; X rays will tend to be absorbed if they hit a surface at a right angle, but they will "skip" off a surface if they hit it at a small grazing angle, like a flat rock tossed over the surface of a pond. The concentrators have simpler optics than a true X-ray telescope, which has twin sets of concentric grazing-optics mirrors, one feeding the other, the two featuring precise curvatures to obtain a good focus. The NICER concentrators, in contrast, use concentric sets of 24 metallic-foil truncated cones, with flat surfaces; they don't get a good focus, but they don't need to, since the array is concerned with measuring pulse timing -- the locations of the pulsars are already known.

NICER concentrator

Each concentrator feeds a silicon detector that, coupled with a precision timing system, allows determination of the arrival time of the X rays to about 100 nanoseconds. The detectors can also determine the spectrum of X-ray energy obtained, while the large collecting area of the array gives it good sensitivity. There's a star tracker under the concentrator array to get NICER on target, with a GPS receiver ensuring that location of NICER is precisely known. The pointing system is able to maintain a stable lock on a neutron-star target.

NICER will determine the radii of neutron stars by observing how their intense gravitational fields bend the X rays they emit. NICER will of course spot an X-ray beam when a neutron star sweeps the beam across the instrument's line of sight; less intuitively, NICER will still be able to detect the beam when it's facing away, since the intense gravitational field of the neutron star bends the X rays backward. Observations of the intensity of these "bent" X-rays gives hints about how strong a neutron star's gravitation field is, revealing the star's mass-to-radius ratio. The mass itself can be derived by observations of the timing of the X ray pulse and its intensity, allowing the radius to be determined.

As a secondary mission -- the "Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology (SEXTANT)" -- NICER will observe ten X-ray pulsars to characterize their pulse signals for use in deep space navigation. Each pulsar has distinctive pulse timing, and so they could be used as "beacons" to allow a spacecraft to triangulate its position -- sort of like a cosmic GPS. A "Modulated X-ray Source (MXS)" was developed for NICER testing; there's thought of flying MXS to the ISS to demonstrate of a high-bandwidth "X-ray Communications System (XCS)", with NICER as the receiver.

The Goddard-led mission team for NICER includes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and commercial partners, who provided spaceflight hardware. The Naval Research Laboratory and universities across the United States, as well as in Canada and Mexico, are also collaborating in the project.



* MANUFACTURING REINVENTED (2): One of the difficulties in outsourcing low-value manufacturing operations to poor countries is that the operations often involve final assembly, requiring hand labor. Putting the components that make up a product together is what most people think manufacturing is all about -- but that often is only a minor element in the production process, and doesn't add much to a finished product's value. This is even true for a machine as elaborate and expensive as a jetliner. Estimates suggest that putting together an Airbus jetliner in Toulouse accounts for a mere 5% of the added value of manufacture. Along the same lines, assembly in China accounted for just 1.6% of the retail cost of early Apple iPads.

Most pre-production value added comes from research, design, & development; and setting up manufacturing processes, meaning building a system to build a product. Add to that the expert management of the world-spanning supply chains that bring together the components for final assembly. Once the product has been made, taking products to market and after-sales repair and service add still more value. The vision of the assembly line as the be-all and end-all of manufacturing was always simplistic, and has only become more so.

Disposal is also now becoming an important part of the manufacturing process. Environmental legislation is requiring companies to ensure the proper disposal or recycling of products after they have outlived their usefulness. Carmakers have to make sure that the batteries for electric cars are not thrown away, while white-goods firms are required to recycle old fridges, washing machines, and other appliances.

Although there is a perception that environmental regulations are bad for business, that's simplistic as well. Regulations are simply attempting to ensure that the life-cycle cost, including external diseconomies, is factored into the sales price. Yes, it is likely to raise the price to the consumer, but the consumer also may find it convenient, when buying a new product, to have the old product it replaces hauled off without any fuss. In addition, regulations push companies to design products to be more easily recycled, and collaborate to establish organizations to perform the recycling efficiently. A good case can be made that the increment of price of environmental regulation adds value for everyone concerned.

Official statistics have not kept up well with the evolution of the value chain, with what counts as "manufacturing" being a moving target. It's not just a question of changes in job categorization; it's also that manufacturing companies increasingly outsource things like marketing, accounting, and services to other firms. If, for example, a factory outsources canteen services to a contractor, then officially that manufacturing facility has lost workers, even though there may be the same number of heads under the roof. The contractor, in supporting the manufacturing operation, is still adding value to the end product. The company obtaining the service doesn't need to set up a system to perform it, with the service provider operating more efficiently; and, when downsizing occurs, the company doesn't have to fire anyone, just terminates the contract.

Only a handful of company functions can no longer be outsourced. Elements of RDD and product testing are now sometimes handled by service companies; service companies carry much of the load in accounting, logistics, cleaning, personnel management, and IT services. Production is readily outsourced. Apple and ARM, a British chip company recently acquired by SoftBank of Japan, own no factories, farming out production to other companies. They make their money from design, distribution, and services associated with their products. A committee of the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) is evaluating whether such firms should even be classified as manufacturers.

A study published in 2015 by the Brookings Institute, a US think-tank, estimated that the 11.5 million American jobs counted as manufacturing work in 2010 were outnumbered almost two to one by jobs in manufacturing-related services, bringing the total to 32.9 million. Studies elsewhere in the developed world give similar results.

To further muddy the distinction between manufacturing and services, manufacturers are increasingly seeing themselves as service providers. In the 1980s Rolls-Royce, a UK manufacturer of jet engines, began to promote "power by the hour" -- providing an engine, servicing, and maintenance at a fixed cost per hour of flying time. By turning manufacturing into a service, Rolls-Royce was able to obtain more stable revenues from customers than by just selling jet engines to jetliner builders. In addition, services tend to have higher profit margins than the goods themselves.

Add to this the fact that, in the 21st century, industrial goods are increasingly internet-enabled, meaning the manufacturer has a two-way connection to the product through its service lifetime. The manufacturer not only monitors the status of any one product, and provides updates when necessary; but can monitor the entire product base to spot defects and problems, with corrective actions taken to ensure most customers get a fix before they need it.

With the increasing robotization and internet connection of cars, the automotive industry is gradually evolving towards providing "mobility services" instead of simply selling cars. Nobody will need to own a car to get around -- instead obtaining transport as needed, via a subscription service and smartphone.

While manufacturing is increasingly automated, technology is making the business built around the product much more elaborate and sophisticated, giving new opportunities for high-paying jobs. The problem is that these new jobs demand new skills -- and, as industry continues to evolve at a faster rate, will continue to demand new skills through a worker's career.

That means governments providing support for education -- particularly for the technological improvement of education -- as well as support for retraining workers, and relocating them to new jobs. Simply bullying companies that want to move jobs overseas is backwards thinking, as is shutting out foreign workers with skills that manufacturers cannot find at home. Policies that protect production-line workers over investment in automation will end up making American industry less competitive.

It would make no more sense to obstruct the push towards increasing automation than it would to pressure people to abandon PCs and calculators, insisting that they use typewriters and slide rules instead. The 21st-century industrial environment does clearly present challenges; they will not be addressed by attempting to turn the clock back to the previous century. It is an impossibility. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* A WORLD AFTER OIL (3): The big oil companies not only have to worry about finding oil and selling it; they also have to worry about their investors. If the oil companies themselves are not all that concerned about climate change, their investors are not so complacent.

In September 2015, at a dinner at Lloyd's of London, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, addressed the insurance industry on climate change. He made it clear he was going to be serious, and then went nuclear on the oil industry. His message had two parts:

Oil company executives were aghast. Ben van Beurden, CEO Royal Dutch Shell, accused financial regulators of trying to "weaponize financial markets against oil and gas". Patrick Pouyanne, the boss of Total, said Carney should "take care of the pound, not the oil industry."

Such a response was understandable, but myopic. There's been a change in attitude towards oil companies by governments, financial regulators, and investors that has become more evident since the Paris climate-change agreement in December 2016. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), America's stockmarket regulator, has investigated whether ExxonMobil, America's biggest oil company, has valued its untapped reserves appropriately in light of declines in of oil prices, and potential regulatory action on climate change. The Trump Administration is, of course, not going to push on ExxonMobil -- but the company has also faced probes by New York's attorney-general, Eric Schneiderman, on accusations that the company has tried to cover up climate change.

Activist shareholders have had strong support from mainstream investors in efforts to press oil companies to explain how their businesses will handle full-scale decarbonization. Total, Shell, and BHP Billiton -- a coal and oil company -- quickly issued reports in reply that outlined scenarios for a move to deal with 2C warming. US oil firms have not, in general, been so responsive, saying the "magic of the market" would be enough to address the problem.

That's a lame answer, and investment firms haven't bought it. Hundreds of them, with trillions of dollars of funds, have committed to addressing climate change -- which is not a mindset at all compatible with oil companies trying to ignore the problem and hoping it will go away.

Bevis Longstreth, a former SEC commissioner and climate activist, says that investment firms influence other sectors of the investment community. Local governments are beginning to phase out their oil and gas investments. It reminds him of the rush to disinvest from big companies that traded with South Africa under apartheid in the 1980s: "It's like getting out of the theater when you smell smoke." Even if only a minor portion of the investment community is making an issue of climate change, that's enough to make life very difficult for oil firms.

The oil companies can make a case that much of the excitement is overblown. The SEC's investigation of ExxonMobil for gaming the value of oil reserves was on shaky ground; it's hard to determine reserves, about as hard to determine prices and markets, and so there's no reasonable way to tell fraud from error. As far as Carney's worries about stranded assets go, it's not a very realistic concern as far as the oil companies go. Countries like Saudi Arabia may have reserves estimated to last 70 years, but oil companies' proven reserves are only likely to last 10 to 15 years -- meaning they will be pumped out by the time measures to address climate change start to seriously bite.

Even with those caveats, the oil companies still have cause for fear. Mark Lewis of Barclays -- one of the advisors to the task force set up in response to Carney's recommendation -- says that if measures to stop climate change are fully implemented, oil-company revenues could fall by more than a staggering $22 trillion USD over the next 25 years, more than twice the predicted decline for the gas and coal industries combined.

Lewis sees a warning in the troubles of European utilities, hit by government action to phase out coal and nuclear power. They have suffered such a devastating collapse in their share prices in recent years that some of the biggest, including Germany's E.ON, have been forced to divest their fossil-fuel businesses. If the big oil companies discuss climate-change risks openly, they may be able to manage the transition to the new world more gracefully. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for May included:

-- 01 MAY 17 / NROL-76 (USA 276) -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1115 UTC (local time + 4) to put a classified spacecraft payload for the US National Reconnaissance Office into orbit, the mission being designated "NROL-76", AKA "USA 276". This was the first SpaceX launch for the NRO. The nature of the payload was not announced; it was placed in a low, high-inclination orbit, and may have been a radar imaging satellite.

The booster first stage performed a proper soft landing at Cape Canaveral. That made 10 successful Falcon soft landings out of 15 tries; for ground landings at Cape Canaveral, it was the 4th try, all of which have been successful. Cape Canaveral landings are only possible for relatively light payloads going into low orbit.

-- 04 MAY 17 / SGDC, KOREASAT 7 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2150 UTC (local time + 3) "Geostationary Defense & Strategic Communications (SGDC)" and "Koreasat 7" geostationary comsats into orbit.

Both satellites were built by Thales Alenia Space. SGDC provided X-band and Ka-band military and civil communications services for the Brazilian government and Visiona Tecnologia Espacial, a joint venture between EMBRAER and Telebras. It had a launch mass of 5,735 kilograms (12,643 pounds), a payload of 57 Ka / X-band transponders, and a design life of 18 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 75 degrees west longitude to provide coverage to Brazil.

Koreasat 7, owned by KTsat of Seoul, had a launch mass of 3,680 kilograms (8,113 pounds), a payload of Ku / Ka-band transponders, and a design life of 21 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 116 degrees east longitude to provide a range of communications services to South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Indochina and India.

-- 05 MAY 17 / GSAT 9 -- An ISRO Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark 2 booster was launched from Sriharikota at 1157 UTC (local time - 5:30) to put the "GSAT 9" geostationary comsat into space. GSAT-9, also known as the South Asia Satellite, was developed by India provide services to members of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC).

GSAT 9 in launch preparation

The GSAT 9 space platform was a 2,230-kilogram (4,920-pound) satellite based on ISRO's I-2K bus, with a payload of 12 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 12 years. It also hosted a "GPS Aided GEO Augmented Navigation (GAGAN)" payload. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 48 degrees east longitude to support education, medical, disaster management, and communications efforts, as well as international cooperation between the member states.

-- 15 MAY 17 / INMARSAT 5 F4 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2321 UTC (local time + 4) , carrying the "Inmarsat 5 F4" geostationary comsat into orbit. It was the fourth satellite in Inmarsat's Global Xpress network. The satellite was built by Boeing Space Systems, being based on the BSS 702HP platform. It had a launch mass of 6,070 kilograms (13,380 pounds), a payload of 89 Ka-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. The Falcon first stage was in expendable configuration and was not recovered, the payload being too heavy to leave enough fuel for recovery.

-- 18 MAY 17 / SES 15 -- A Soyuz ST-A booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 1154 UTC (local time + 3) to put the The "SES 15" geostationary comsat into orbit for SES of Luxembourg. The satellite was built by Boeing, being based on the BSS 702SP platform, with an all-electric propulsion system. It had a launch mass of 2,302 kilograms (5,075 pounds); a payload of 16 Ku-band transponders, along with a high-throughput 10 GHz relay payload; and a design life of 18 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 129 degrees west longitude to provide Internet connectivity for airline passengers, as well as support government, networking, and maritime customers across North America. SES 15 also hosted a payload for the FAA's Wide-Area Augmentation System for air navigation.

-- 25 MAY 17 / ELECTRON IAT -- A Rocket Labs Electron light booster was launched at 0420 UTC (local time - 12 ) from a facility on the Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island on its first test flight. The Electron is designed to carry small spacecraft into orbit. The flight was designated "It's A Test (IAT)", and did not carry a payload.

-- 25 MAY 17 / EKS 2 (COSMOS 2518) -- A Soyuz 2-1B booster was launched from Plesetsk at 0634 UTC (local time - 3) to put the "EKS (Tundra) 2" early warning satellite into highly elliptical Molniya orbit for the Russian military. It was assigned the sequence designation of "Cosmos 2518)". The nature of the payload was not announced, but its orbital parameters and other details suggested a missile launch warning satellite. EKS is a Russian acronym that translates to "Integrated Space System". The EKS satellites replaced Russia's Oko early warning system, which had its last satellite launch in 2012. The first EKS space platform was launched from Plesetsk in November 2015.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Space-Weather Forecast To Improve With European Satellite" by Elizabeth Gibney, 18 January 2017), we live under the persistent threat of solar "coronal mass ejections" which, as discussed here in 2100, could fry satellites and damage power grids all over the world. If we were able to get even a few minutes' advance warning, systems could be shut down to protect them from damage. Shutting them down would be troublesome, but not remotely as troublesome as having to rebuild them.

The European Space Agency (ESA) hopes to send the probe to the stable orbital position known as as the "Lagrange point 5 (L5)" -- in Earth's orbit, equidistant from Earth to Sun -- by about 2023, where it would provide a side-on view of CME streams. Probes have been placed that the "L1", gravitationally balanced on the line from Earth to Sun, but the L5-based probe would be able to better characterize the CME from its emissions. It would also be able to observe events on the surface of the Sun that might hint of trouble. An L5 craft would see the Sun's rotating surface four to five days before one at L1 would.

Initial funding was provided in a meeting in Lucerne, Switzerland, in December 2016. The rest of the funding will be requested in 2019. There is some debate over whether the probe will be placed at L5 or L1, but NASA is considering placing a probe at L1, in which case the ESA will opt for L5.



* ACQUACULTURE & BIOFUEL? As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("Abu Dhabi Pilot Project Tests Aquaculture-to-Biofuel System" by Graham Warwick, 7 March 2016), while there are attractions to biofuels, there's been some difficulty in figuring out an effective way to do it.

The "Integrated Seawater Energy & Agriculture System" project by the Sustainable Bioenergy Research Consortium (SBRC) -- led by Abu Dhabi's Masdar Institute of Science & Technology, founding members including Boeing, Etihad Airways, and process developer Honeywell UOP, as well as General Electric, Safran, and Abu Dhabi oil refining company Takreer -- takes an integrated approach to biofuel production as a element of an acquaculture system. The pilot project pumps ocean water into fish and shrimp ponds; nutrient-rich wastewater is then used to irrigate salt-tolerant halophyte plants, which clean the water as it drains into a mangrove wetland, and back into the ocean. The halophytes and mangroves then provide biomass for energy.

The pilot facility was formally opened on 6 March 2016. Darrin Morgan, director of Boeing's sustainable biofuels strategy, comments: "For the past five years we have been tending to the science side. Now we take all those studies, carbon life-cycle calculations, performance and economic analyses -- all of which indicate positive things -- and put them to the test."

The scheme is not so much focused on biofuel production as it is on acquaculture, which as Morgan points out, is already a big business: "It is larger than open-ocean fishing and growing at 8% a year. The problem that has not been solved is what to do with the waste. In many places it is not treated, and pumping large amounts of nutrient-charged effluent into natural watersheds creates an ecosystem problem."

Instead of building sewage treatment plants to handle the effluent, the Abu Dhabi project will clean it using an artificial ecosystem that can produce biofuels. In addition to the fields, ponds and pumping station above ground, there is an instrumentation infrastructure underground to measure flows, the accumulation of nutrients at certain points, disease vectors, and other information needed to determine viability. All power input is from the Sun; according to Morgan: "The facility is off-grid and self-contained. At commercial scale, we expect these systems to be in places, in developing economies, without robust power grids. So we are starting off with that in mind."

The pilot facility and can simulate ecosystems and environments in regions other than just Abu Dhabi's. The four aquaculture ponds and eight fields of different types of halophyte plants will be connected in different ways to find the best combinations. Some of the halophytes are perennial and some annual, requiring seeds to be planted each year. Biomass from the pilot facility will be converted to jet fuel and other products using different process pathways, both established and innovative. Nobody sees the pilot plant as a basis for a commercial facility; it is instead a proving ground to determine options for commercial facilities.



* HOW MUCH FOR A MIRACLE? An article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Just How Much Is a Medical Miracle Worth?" by Caroline Chen, 6 April 2017), investigated the pricing policies for new, highly innovative and effective drugs. Pharmaceutical companies are inclined to charge a high premium for such drugs, which has led to public outrage. On examination, the issue isn't black and white.

Start with Sofia Preibe, a teenager with a genetic defect that is slowly causing her retinas to deteriorate. By the time she reaches adulthood, she will be blind. Now a gene therapy for a similar form of blindness is expected to receive US Food and Drug Administration approval in 2017, and her mother Laura Manfre thinks there may be some hope after all. She says: "We don't really care what it costs," she says.

How much a medical miracle does cost turns out to be a sticky question. What's a fair price for an effective treatment for a dire affliction when nothing else is available? A hundred thousand dollars? A million? Ten million? Who pays, and how? Spark Therapeutics INC, which developed the gene therapy to cure a rare form of childhood blindness known as "RPE65-mediated inherited retinal disease", is now confronted with this issue.

Significantly, Spark's treatment for retinal disease is a one-shot: once the treatment is complete, the patient should be cured and done with it. That ends up being something of a problem. The more typical model in US health care involves managing symptoms with prescriptions that insurers pay for monthly, such as cholesterol-lowering Lipitor or the acid-reflux drug Nexium. They are generally taken over a period of many years, and don't provide a permanent fix.

That can pile up into a lot of money, but health insurers are accustomed to it. They are not accustomed to paying a lot of money up-front for a one-shot treatment, even if it's well cheaper when the long run is considered. Mark Trusheim, a visiting scientist at MIT's Sloan School of Management, says that insurers are "used to paying rent for health, and we're asking them to buy a houseful of cure."

And then there's the problem with public reaction. In 2015, Gilead Sciences INC introduced a cure for hepatitis C at a price of $84,000 USD for a three-month treatment, amounting to $1,000 USD a pill. Jim Meyers, a senior official at Gilead, says that $84,000 USD hardly seemed an outrageous price; it was in the ballpark with existing treatments, and "there wasn't a payer we spoke to in market research that felt a price in the $80,000 to $85,000 range wasn't acceptable."

However, the drug proved well more popular than Gilead officials anticipated, thanks to an endorsement by the American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases. About three million Americans have hepatitis C, and they clamored to get the drug right away. That's when the trouble began. Meyers says: "We started to see a flow of patients well above what any of us anticipated, and a price that made eminent sense to payers suddenly didn't make sense."

Instead of being praised for working a miracle, Gilead was pilloried for ruthless greed. Meyers says the backlash has had a discouraging effect on drug research: "The publicity, scrutiny, the payers first accepting then reacting, the Senate Finance Committee. I've heard: WHY BOTHER?"

Spark CEO Jeff Marrazzo sees his company as breaking new ground in many ways. The treatment would be the first gene therapy approved in the USA -- making it a pathfinder for other "medical miracles". Gene therapy moves beyond traditional pharmaceutical research, which has reached diminishing returns, with big advances being infrequent. Spark has spent about $400 million USD to develop the treatment, so Marrazzo believes that the firm appropriate compensation for the work, and the big risks involved. The company is researching court cases involving loss of sight. He asks: "How has our judicial system awarded for damages in the case of patients who have lost their vision? That's basically everyday Americans sitting on a jury, and answering this question in a way that you can't purely do with hard and fast economics."

Much hangs on the answer. Get the compensation schemes right, Marrazzo says, and more transformative medicines, more one-shot cures, will become available. One idea being considered to deal with the compensation problem is to spread payments from insurance companies to drugmakers over years, like an annuity. Another is to have a money-back guarantee, so if a drug or treatment stops working for a patient, the manufacturer have to refund at least part of the payment. Payback contracts -- "value-based pricing", as the industry calls them -- are already in use in Europe. In the USA they're a trickier proposition, because there isn't a single payer with which to negotiate and patients may switch insurance plans throughout their lives.

Jean-Jacques Bienaime, CEO of BioMarin, suggests that laws need to be established to allow patients to carry a reimbursement obligation with them when they change jobs or insurers, to make drugmakers still get their money. paid. BioMarin is working on a gene therapy for the blood disorder hemophilia, now in trials; Bienaime argues it is easily worth millions of dollars per patient for a cure: "The average cost of severe hemophilia A is about $500,000 a year, so $1 million upfront would cover two years -- that's not much, if they're healed for life."

MIT's Trusheim is leading a working group to explore financing models for miracle drugs, using examples in the housing market and activist hedge funds. Trusheim has suggested that the Federal government could simply buy out a startup with a brilliant new drug; that sounds like a bit much, but his group is also exploring other options, such as government grants or prizes to companies -- or volume-purchase commitments such as those used by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in developing nations, which guarantee manufacturers that a minimum amount of a drug will be bought if they successfully develop it. Trusheim's group plans to publish its recommendations in early 2018.



* MANUFACTURING REINVENTED (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("They Don't Make 'Em Like That Any More", 14 January 2017), it is fashionable these days for politicians to fuss about manufacturing, and to decry the decline of employment in manufacturing in developing countries.

The problem is that the politicians have an antiquated notion of how 21st century manufacturing works. Processes that used to be tightly held together are now strung out across the world, while processes that used to be separate are tightly linked. Assembling parts into cars, washing machines or aircraft adds less value than once it did; design, supply-chain management, aftercare, servicing and the like add much more.

Once modern manufacturing is properly understood, official statistics then appear to be understating its health, and that the decline of manufacturing in the developed world has been overstated. Nonetheless, the problems remain. The transformation of 21st-century manufacturing have changed the number, nature, and location of the jobs that it offers. There are still plenty of jobs in manufacturing, but many of the good jobs for the less skilled are gone forever.

Mass manufacturing is different from other sectors of the economy. Manufacturers are more likely to be exporters; and given that they compete in a wider market, tend to be more productive than non-exporting firms. Such firms also tend to have, given the bigger market, higher sales volumes, meaning lower capital costs per unit sold. Those two factors tend to mean higher wages.

In 20th-century manufacturing, better wages were offered. Factories brought cadres of modestly skilled people together with massive capital equipment that cost owners dearly when idled by strikes. Unionization helped those workers win a large share of the value generated by industry.

In the last decades of the 20th century, this model came unraveled. Shipping became cheaper and more efficient, while information technology advanced by leaps and bounds. That meant there was less and less reason to have all of a manufacturing business -- from design to production to sales -- under one roof. Manufacturers learned to coordinate longer and more complicated supply chains, allowing various activities to move to other countries, or other companies, or both. Information technology helped ensure that the different components still worked together.

On another path, information technology led to computer-aided design and ever-increasing automation of production. The end result was the gradual downsizing of unskilled labor in manufacturing. In Britain, manufacturing's share of employment had remained at about a third of the workforce from the 1840s to the 1960s. Now, it's about a tenth. In the late 1940s, manufacturing similarly accounted for one in three non-farm jobs in America. Today, it's one in eleven. Even in Germany, which remains very strong on manufacturing, only one in five workers is in that sector.

Official statistics tend to exaggerate these declines, but they're still for real; tens of millions of jobs have evaporated. With the increase in productivity, prices fell, and manufacturing's share of GDP fell as well. In the meantime, in developing countries like China, the number of people employed in manufacturing skyrocketed -- with many working for the same firms that were employing fewer people in developed countries.

It is only too easy for politicians to point to this "jobs transfer" as drain on the nation, but it wasn't exactly a transfer. Companies were using technology and new practices to efficiently partition their operations. Routine work, a low-value part of operations, was easily moved to poor countries with cheap labor; had they been able to take the high-value parts of operations, they would generally be in business for themselves. The jobs can't come back home, since they're not cost-effective there. There is no putting the genie back in the bottle.

The UN Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) estimates that, in 1991, 234 million people in developing countries worked in manufacturing. By 2014 the number was 304 million, while there were only 63 million manufacturing jobs in the rich world. However, the sixth of the workers in the developed world added two-thirds of the total final value; the other five-sixths, only a third. The developed-world workers were ten times more economically productive. With international competition exerting pressure on profit margins, businesses had no choice but to improve productivity. That meant more consumer choice and low-priced products, but it also meant fewer jobs. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* A WORLD AFTER OIL (2): Welcome to Midland, West Texas -- sometimes known as "Texarabia", the heart of America's born-again oil boom. It seems that every plot of land in that area has a pumping unit on it, drawing oil from deep underground. One does not have to go very far north, however, to see even more impressive farms of wind turbines, spinning elegantly over the Texas flatlands. One might think Texas oilmen resent or mock the turbines -- but if so, it's not a universal sentiment, one of them saying: "I think these new technologies are a wonderful thing."

Either way, there's money in energy in Texas. The oil industry suffered when the Saudis drove the price of crude down by unrestrained pumping; it's generally recovered, with billions being poured into oil exploration and exploitation. There's no general sentiment that the oil party is going to end soon in the industry, past predictions of "peak oil" having a custom of being wrong. M. King Hubbert, the most prominent of peak-oilers, predicted back in 1956 that global oil supply would never exceed 33 million BPD -- but it is currently 97 million BPD. According to British Petroleum (BP), proven global oil reserves have risen by 50% in the past 20 years, and at current rates of production would last about 50 years.

The climate-change threat means that current production levels will need to fall; and the faster, the better. Although there's no short-term prospect of oil going away, even a modest shift toward renewables and electric vehicles would mean existing infrastructure would be faced with a shrinking market, That means comparably shrinking profits; the result is to focus on the short term, and extract oil at the lowest possible cost, without worrying overmuch about the long term.

Royal Dutch Shell, the Anglo-Dutch supermajor, pulled out of the Arctic because drilling there would be too expensive. Shell officials say they expect peak demand to take place within the next 5 to 15 years -- and so are concentrating on the potentially cheapest deepwater reserves in places like Brazil where investments can be recouped within that time frame.

However, the richest reserves are in the hands of OPEC countries; some Western oil firms are instead turning to natural gas to bring in profits. In 2016, Shell completed a $54 billion USD acquisition of BG, a British producer of natural gas and oil, bringing gas close to half the company's energy mix. From a technical point of view, gas is more troublesome than oil, demanding more up-front capital investment, and offering lower profits. Nonetheless, the mid-term future for gas seems more promising than that for oil.

The more forward-looking oil companies are cautiously toying with renewables and other "green" technologies. The French Total firm has bought battery and solar-power businesses; Shell officials would like to emulate Statoil, the Norwegian national oil company, which plows oil profits into lower-carbon technologies. Although Britain's BP ended up regretting its high-profile "Beyond Petroleum" slogan, the company's forays into solar power ending poorly, the firm is now cautiously investigating wind power. Company officials at these firms say that once the future of energy becomes clearer, they may have to invest tens of billions of dollars to develop new energy businesses.

They are likely to have problems adjusting. Oil has been a cash cow, with high profits once a field has been developed. Nobody sees such a generous return with renewables, and it's hard to see how they could easily reposition a huge oil business to renewables. If they did make the transition, they would in effect become something like electrical utility companies, where nobody expects boom business. They would also have to interact more with consumers, and they're not used to doing that.

The Saudi government is concerned about the future "beyond petroleum", and would like to use an initial public offering for Saudi Aramco to bankroll it. The offering is expected to bring in up to $150 billion USD, with some of it put into a massive sovereign-wealth fund that will invest in technologies to cope with the end of oil.

While some American oil companies have been accused of working to deny climate change, it seems the more general attitude is to keep their heads down and try to ignore the issue. They weren't keen on the Obama Administration's drives to limit climate change, often claiming "the magic of the market" would take care of things. There's something to be said for that, the replacement of coal by natural gas in the USA having come about by changing market forces much more than government policy.

Nonetheless, although American oil companies may be relieved by the Trump Administration's belligerent dislike of environmental regulation, they would be foolish to see that as any more than a temporary reprieve. It's not a question of if the oil age will end; it's just a question of when, and failing to prepare for change is unwise. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Catch Wave Power In Floating Nets" by Zhong Lin Wang, 8 February 2017), Professor Zhong Lin Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology has a new idea for extracting electrical power from the waves, using nets studded with little generator spheres.

Wave power is attractive because of the extent of the oceans, and in some places there are always waves. However, so far wave power has been bit player in the renewables scene, being relatively expensive. Contemporary wave-energy collectors are based on big, heavy electromagnetic generators that are made up of propellers, magnets and metal coils. Anchoring the generators is troublesome, and the unpredictable, relatively slow movement of waves is not a good match for power generation by such schemes.

In contrast, Wang's research group has been investigating "tribo-electric" power generation systems, which leverage off the static charges that build up when certain materials are rubbed together; for example, when a rubber comb is polished with a wool cloth. If materials that conduct electricity poorly, such as paper, glass, or plastics, are rubbed together, they create static electrical charges on their surfaces. The tribo-electric charge can be drawn off via electrodes. Moving two strips of dielectrics -- materials that can hold opposing charges on opposite surfaces -- together or apart causes a pulse of current to flow.

Wang's Georgia Tech group has tinkered with tribo-electric gadgetry, ranging from medical sensors driven by heartbeats, to mats that generate electricity for lighting, health care and security. Wang says that tribo-electric power, deriving its energy from friction, is is more efficient and cheaper than alternatives such as "piezoelectric" power, in which certain materials generate a static charge when they are squeezed. Wang's tribo-electric gadgets can generate electricity with 50% conversion efficiency, while piezoelectric gadgets only achieve 10% efficiency.

Wang sees a big opportunity for tribo-electric power in wave-power systems. His wave-power system would involve nets with spherical floats, acting as "nanogenerators", each about the size of an orange. The sphere is made of a dielectric material, with a ball made of another dielectric material rolling around inside it, to build up a static charge from wave motion. The spheres would be watertight, and partially filled with air to make sure they float.

The nanogenerators would use cheap, readily-available materials, such as polytetrafluoroethylene, rubber, polydimethylsiloxane, silicon, fluorinated ethylene propylene, kapton, and metal foils -- aluminium, copper or steel. They should have a ten-year operational life before they need to be replaced and recycled. The amount of power generated is proportional to wave action, with each nanogenerator producing a few milliwatts.

The Georgia Tech researchers have built a demonstrator net with an area of four square meters and 400 nanogenerators. In principle, 1,000 nanogenerators spaced at 10-centimeter intervals in a cubic meter would power a lightbulb; a square kilometer could generate enough electricity for a town. The power could be sent to shore over a cable, or used locally -- to power lights, navigation system, purify or desalinize water, or even split hydrogen for fuel. There are of course many practical issues in the fabrication and deployment of the nets; the practical feasibility of the scheme remains to be determined, but research continues.

* Amazon released its "smart speaker", the Echo, in 2014. It didn't just play music; it also responded to voice commands, addressed to its "Alexa" system, to control lights and appliances, select music playlists, keep a to-do list, check the weather, order pizza, and much more.

As discussed by an article from WIRED Online ("Amazon's Echo Show Gives Alexa the Touchscreen It Needed" by David Pierce, 9 May 2017), Amazon has gone to the next step and introduced "Amazon Show", which is effectively an Echo with a touchscreen display. It is still primarily a voice-input device, but it also permits touch input, and provides a display of relevant data.

Amazon Echo Show

Really, there's nothing much Echo Show can do that a tablet with a nice speaker and a long-reach voice input system couldn't do -- but instead of cobbling all that together and getting the proper apps to work, Echo Show provides a neat "plug & play" solution. It's focused on the same sort of applications that the original Echo was, it just provides another dimension to them. It's an attractive idea, though a bit spendy at $229 USD; at half that price, Echo Show would be an intriguing household appliance. Want to watch videos under voice command? Want to have a video call with a friend? Keep it clean, now.

* As discussed by an article from WIRED Online ["Rooftop Solar Panels Are Great for the Planet - But Terrible for Firefighters" by Eleanor Cummins and Nicole Wetsman, 30 May 2017], when firefighters arrived at a burning home in Manchester, New Hampshire, in the dark hours of the morning of 27 January 2017, half the home was burning. Although fire-fighting is not a profession that breeds complacency, at first things seemed routine. The firefighters got the people out of the house, then moved to put out the blaze.

If they hadn't noticed before in the dark and confusion, they then ran into a complication: the roof of the house was covered with solar panels, obstructing them from cutting holes in the roof to let heat and smoke escape. They finally managed to find an open area on the roof that let them cut a hole. They put out the fire, though the residents lost their cat.

Residential solar power has been on a roll in the USA. In 2009, only 30,000 American homes had solar panels; by 2013, that number had jumped to 400,000. That has presented a challenge to firefighters. Peter Lynch, chief of training at the Vermont Fire Academy, says that firefighters, as it typical of professionals, never really stop thinking about their work: "If you're driving down the road with a firefighter, more than likely, they're looking at the next building saying: If we needed to save this building, how would we do it?"

Structures with solar panels throw firefighters a curve. The panels don't just get in the way of cutting holes in a roof; they also may be generating power -- and so firefighters can't shut off the power, which they normally do for obvious safety reasons. The panels at the Manchester house had a shut-off switch, but solar panel systems aren't being designed with fire codes in mind. That needs to change, with the firefighting community figuring out the angles in parallel.

Work to that end has been done from early in this decade. In 2011 Bob Backstrom, a fire hazard research engineer, led a project funded by the Department of Homeland Security to investigate the problems posed by solar panels to first responders. He says: "We acknowledged their concerns before a major event took the life of a firefighter."

The study established obvious risks, like that of spraying water over active solar panels. It also revealed subtler problems: illumination vehicles, used to provide lighting for night fire-fighting operations, can actually energize a solar panel system. In 2012, the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the International Code Council (ICC) started to add language concerning solar panel system installation into their fire codes. Now, fire and electrical codes require enough space between panels for firefighters to walk, and rapid shut-off systems to power down panels. Codes released this year add a requirement for clear signage on all photovoltaic panels and wires, so firefighters know what's going on.

However, the NFPA and ICC codes are simply models; counties adopt them voluntarily. Not all counties are using the latest codes, and some are using codes a decade old. In some places, solar hasn't caught on much and so the older fire codes are not a big problem -- but solar is growing, and it's getting to be more of a problem everywhere.

Solar panel manufacturers are generally responsive to the needs of firefighters, attempting to keep up with the latest standards. The standards continue to evolve, for example to address solar-power battery backup systems -- and the latest solar technology that looks like roof tiles, and might not be noticed by firefighters in a crisis. Manufacturers and firefighters are now establishing working groups to make sure nothing's overlooked. The firefighters aren't making unreasonable demands on the manufacturers, and in return they're eager to do what needs to be done to ensure the safety of firefighters.



* NEW HORIZONS GOES BEYOND: The NASA New Horizons was launched in 2006, to perform a flyby of Pluto on 14 July 2015. The rate of data transmission from the probe, so far from the Sun, was very slow, and complete download of the data from the flyby wasn't achieved until 25 October 2016. It was the first set of close-up observations to be obtained of one of the minor planets of the "Kuiper Belt", in the outer fringe of the Solar System.

As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("New Horizons Team Prepares For Another Flyby" by Frank Morring JR, 11 May 2017), that wasn't the end for New Horizons. It was given a mission extension, with the project team -- of John Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL), working for NASA -- preparing for a second flyby of a "Kuiper Belt Object (KBO)", designated "2014 MU69", with the flyby to take place on 31 December 2019.

New Horizons

Preparations for the flyby include the assistance of the Earth-based astronomy community. 2014 MU69 is a "cold classical KBO"; according to New Horizons chief investigator Alan Stern, about a third of such objects observed from Earth have moons, and one has rings. That raises the threat of collision. In early June, dozens of astronomers in two-person teams spread out across South America and Southern Africa to watch MU69 transit a star, checking for any "flickering" of the star before the occultation that would NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a large infrared telescope carried in a Boeing 747, also took part in the observations. Results are not in yet.

Stern says there's only one chance to get it right: "We're the only spacecraft in the Kuiper Belt. We're the only one planned to go to the Kuiper Belt. I expect that there will be more missions, but they're not going to be returning data in the 2020s."

New Horizons is in standby right now, having been powered down on 7 April after sending home its its data take from Pluto -- along with observations of the Kuiper Belt space environment using its dust and plasma instruments, and distance shots of other Kuiper Belt objects -- at a few thousand kilobits per second. In September, it will power back up to collect data on the environment within the Kuiper Belt, and then sleep again until May 2018, when preparations for the second flyby will begin.

New Horizons is funded for an extended mission until 1 May 2021. If the probe seems still up to it, Stern says the team will apply for another mission extension after that. Right now, they're getting ready for the MU26 encounter. The flyby may be as close as 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) if there are no orbital obstructions -- an order of magnitude farther away if there are.

Right now, the Hubble Space Telescope is being used to track MU69 to ensure New Horizons is on target, with the space platform making occasional course-correction burns. Come September 2018, the probe will take over, using its Long-Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI) to track MU69 and scan for obstacles. By that time, MU69 should have a name as well as a designation, NASA planning to kick off a naming contest this fall.

Stern is eagerly waiting for the last day of 2019: "On flyby day, we will swoop right down and study the surface geology, the surface composition. We will map both of those. We'll look for a coma -- an atmosphere -- and any other signs of active processes that are going on. We'll search for satellites. If there are satellites, we'll map them as well."

As with Pluto, NASA's Deep Space Network (DSN) will ping MU69 with radio signals after New Horizons passes by for bistatic radio-occultation measurements of any atmosphere that may be present. It's such a small target as to make the procedure very tricky. The DSN will also obtain the data from the flyby -- which will take about 6 hours to reach Earth, as opposed to the 4.5 hours for the Pluto flyby. The data download will take about two years.

MU69 is effectively unchanged from the days of its creation. Says Stern:


All the small KBOs are the building blocks of the dwarf planets but also the giant planets. It is so cold out there that it's essentially a deep freeze. It's like an archaeological dig in the origin of the Solar System because everything is just frozen. It might look like a comet or an asteroid, but every time we go to a new class of object we find ourselves scratching our heads. New Horizons is not only going to do a flyby of a new class of object with MU69, but also the farthest flyby, the farthest exploration, in the history of humankind.




* NEW JERSEY SHORELINE BLUES: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK Online ("The Jersey Shore Would Rather Fight Flooding With Walls Than Retreat" by Christopher Flavelle, 4 May 2017), climate change is creeping up ominously on the inhabitants of the shoreline regions of New Jersey. Hurricane Sandy of 2012 was a warning; in Stafford Township -- north of Atlantic City, on Barnegat Bay -- 3,000 homes were destroyed. Most of the residents stayed and rebuilt.

Worse is to come. John Spodofora, mayor of Stafford Township, wants to build a long, wide berm to protect the citizens. The first problem is that the berm would cost $100 million USD, which the township doesn't have; Spodofora is hoping the state or the Federal government will fund it. The second, bigger problem is that, even with the berm, the 5,000 homes it supposed to protect will be flooded out anyway. Spodofora doesn't feel he has any alternative to pushing the berm: "There's no areas of my town that I can say aren't worth protecting."

Environmentalists don't find that attitude encouraging, saying that building walls against the rising Atlantic Ocean is futile. What to do instead? They say that people should be encouraged to move inland, and let the sea take back the vulnerable areas. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), having spent over $278 billion USD on disaster relief in the last decade, is coming around to that point of view. In March, Bob Fenton, FEMA's acting administrator, bluntly told a meeting of state emergency directors: "We need to move out of threatened areas."

Sea levels on the Jersey coast are projected to rise by about 30 centimeters by 2030, almost twice that by 2050, according to a 2016 report by Rutgers University. Ken Able, director of Rutgers's marine field station, says that there's no hope of saving the property of those living on Barnegat Bay: "The only thing that's going to be around in 50 years, on a high tide, are the bridges."

The field station is housed in a converted 1930s US Coast Guard station at the southern tip of the bay. Able says the road to the station floods so often that Rutgers will eventually have to move the building. On Long Beach Island, across the water from Stafford, Joseph Mancini, mayor of Long Beach Township, has told homeowners on the bay to raise the steel walls at the edge of their property, from 1.5 meters (5 feet) above the water to 2.1 meters (7 feet). Mancini thinks that would be good to hold out for another 40 years -- but the wall only covers the bay side of the island. On the ocean side, the Army Corps of Engineers just finished a huge system of dunes and berms that cost $232 million USD, funded by the federal government. Mancini says: "It's a hell of a deal."

Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a New Jersey environmental group, says walls aren't the answer. One problem is that rising sea levels cause streets to flood from underneath as storm drains back up, which walls can't prevent. The walls cost a lot of money, and all they really provide is a false sense of security. Says Dillingham: "The fundamental ecological idea that people cannot get through their heads is that coastal systems are dynamic. You cannot hold them in place, which is what all this is about -- trying to hold them in place so we can have houses on them."

Dillingham believes that the only real solution is a gradual retreat: clearing out and demolishing homes in phases, keeping ahead of the rising water. The trick is in persuading people to leave. After Sandy, the Federal government gave New Jersey $300 million USD to buy homes vulnerable to storms and flooding. Under the program, called Blue Acres, cooperative homeowners get the pre-Sandy value of their home, which is then demolished, leaving the land undeveloped. However, Blue Acres requires local government participation, and many haven't bought in. Blue Acres has spent only about half the money since 2012 -- and nobody on Barnegat Bay has moved.

The locals just don't want to. Floods are occurring more often in the shoreline areas, but some homeowners are inclined to shrug it off, calling it "minor tidal flooding". They don't believe the seas are rising fast, though many of the homes will be flooded out by 2030. One, Jim Brennan, isn't so confident, saying it's not unusual to be stuck for days when the flooding gets bad. Local government has elevated roads and improved storm drains, but Brennan doesn't see that as a long-term solution. He points out to the waters of the bay: "It doesn't change that."



* POWER VACUUM (6): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Rise Of The Supergrid", 14 January 2017), the Oklahoma panhandle is flat and breezy. It's not the most inspiring scenery in the world -- but it's ideal for wind power, and wind farms have been springing up there.

The region is also relatively unpopulated, meaning there's not such a local demand for the electricity produced by the wind turbines, and so it needs to be exported. Work is now beginning on a long-range high-voltage line some 1,100 kilometers (700 miles) long, running from the panhandle to the western tip of Tennessee. At its output terminal, the "Plains & Eastern" line will provide 4 gigawatts (GW) of power to 9 million electricity customers of the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Traditionally, long-haul high-voltage lines run on alternating current (AC), but the Plains & Eastern line uses direct current (DC). The idea behind a high-voltage line is to convert electrical power at low voltage and high current to high voltage and low current; resistive losses in the line are proportional to the square of the current, so doubling the voltage cuts the current in half and the power loss by four. However, although high-voltage AC can be achieved through a power transformer, AC suffers losses from the inductance of the line, and through other mechanisms. DC doesn't have such problems.

The Plains & Eastern Line is the first long-distance ultra-high-voltage direct-current (UHVDC) connection in the USA, using voltage-booster systems based on high-power solid-state switches known as "thyristors". However, the technology is already on the move elsewhere. UHVDC is becoming particularly important as the world shifts towards renewable energy. Renewable energy is inconstant in any one locale; solar doesn't work at night, the wind doesn't always blow. A wide-ranging "supergrid" would be able to shunt power from any locale with an excess to one with a deficit. The wider-ranging the network, the more constant the overall level of power generation.

Long-distance UHVDC lines also have other advantages. The lines themselves are cheaper to build, since they only carry two conductors -- not three, as its normal for long-distance triple-phase AC lines -- and the conductors don't have to be as hefty.

The US is a late-comer to UHVDC. Asian countries are well ahead, China in particular. China has a sort of advantage of not having a well-developed existing power grid, meaning the Chinese can use the latest to grow the system. There's an imperative to do so, since most of the population is in the east -- while coal is in the far north and northwest, hydropower is in the southwest, while wind and solar are in the Gobi Desert in the northwest.

China got started with UHVDC began in 2010, with the completion of an 800,000-volt line from Xiangjiaba dam, in Yunnan province, to Shanghai. This line has a capacity of 6.400 GW (equivalent to the average power consumption of Romania). The Jinping-Sunan line, completed in 2013, carries 7.2 GW from hydroelectric plants on the Yalong river in Sichuan province to Jiangsu province on the coast. The biggest line under construction, the Changji-Guquan link, will carry 12 GW, half the average power use of Spain, over 3,400 kilometers (2,100 miles), from the coal- and wind-rich region of Xinjiang, in the far north-west, to Anhui province in the east. This line will operate at 1.1 megavolts.

China's national electric utility, State Grid, plans to have 23 point-to-point UHVDC links operating in China by 2030. Having acquired obtained substantial expertise in UHVDC, State Grid is now working in the global marketplace. In 2015, State Grid won a contract to build a 2,500-kilometer (1,550-mile) line in Brazil, from the Belo Monte hydropower plant on the Xingu River, a tributary of the Amazon, to Rio de Janeiro.

Other countries have installed or are installing UHVDC lines. They're a lot of work and expense -- but in the long term, UHVDC offers the promise of a global power grid that will allow renewable energy resources to be shunted from where they are in excess to where they are needed. By mid-century, the challenge of clean energy likely will not appear to have been as formidable as it is seen now. [END OF SERIES]



* A WORLD AFTER OIL (1): As discussed by a survey from THE ECONOMIST ("Breaking the Habit" by Henry Tricks, 26 November 2016), at the beginning of the 20th century, the biggest environmental challenge facing the world's cities was horse manure. In London in 1900, roughly 300,000 horses pulled cabs, omnibuses, carts, and such; New York City had about 100,000 horses. When it was damp, the streets were a foul mess -- and when the Sun came out, so did the flies.

At the first international urban-planning conference, held in New York City in 1898, manure was at the top of the agenda. Nobody had a clue as to what to do about the problem, and the conference ended early. However, in 1908, the first production Model T automobile rolled off Henry Ford's production line in Dearborn, Michigan. By 1912, cars outnumbered horses in New York City, with the last horse-drawn streetcar in Manhattan retired in 1917 -- less than ten years after the introduction of the Model T Ford.

National infrastructure for cars was still weak at that time, but by 1960, the United States had been linked by an interstate highway system, with filling stations and auto shops in easy reach of motorists. That was only the most visible manifestation of the petroleum revolution. Coal drove the industrial revolution of the 19th century; oil was the driver of the continuing industrial revolution of the 20th century, not only providing the basis of rapid ground transport, but also of industrialized agriculture, air transport, and space transport. In addition, oil provided a feedstock for a staggering range of products based on plastics and other synthetics.

Oil retains its dominance over the world economy -- but even as the automobile was conquering the world, the associated problems were starting to build up: traffic congestion, appalling rates of accidents, air pollution, an unstable dependence on oil-producing nations. By the early 21st century, the accumulations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels were clearly leading to a rise in global temperature and the melting of icecaps, underscoring in bold lines the reality that the era of oil was inevitably drawing to a close.

So great is the current dependence on oil that suggesting a future without it is denounced as fraudulent, a sinister conspiracy to sabotage the workings of the world. Of course, there was much the same inability in 1900 to visualize the world after the horse; but within a few decades, the horse had been reduced to a largely recreational item.

Admittedly, kicking the habit is a huge challenge. The International Energy Agency (IEA), a global forecaster, says that to come close to limiting the global increase in temperature to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, oil demand will need to peak in 2020 at 93 million barrels per day (BPD), just above current levels. Oil use in passenger transport and freight would drop over the next 25 years, to be replaced by electricity, natural gas, and biofuels.

The Paris Agreement was bitterly denounced by Greens because it didn't go far enough to reaching those goals; but with the determined fall in price of renewable energy, batteries, and such, they now seem in reach. A paper from Bernstein, an investment-research firm, concluded: "Whether or not you believe in climate change, an unstoppable shift away from coal and oil towards lower-carbon fuels is under way, which will ultimately bring about an end to the oil age."

Cheap but dirty coal, while retaining the largest share of the mix, is in decline. Natural gas has the smallest share, but its use is growing, since it relatively clean. Oil, though it doesn't have the biggest share, has the most significant one. It is the world's most-traded commodity, with about $1.5 trillion USD exported every year. Half of the Global Fortune 500's top ten listed companies produce oil, with unlisted Saudi Aramco bigger than them all. Changes in the oil market affect the world economy and the fate of nations -- creating turmoil, but also helping to drive towards a world beyond fossil fuels.

Western oil companies have found it difficult to face the prospect of a world in which they are obsolete. In the US, public officials are are investigating ExxonMobil, the world's largest private oil company, over whether it attempted to cover up the risks of climate change. Shareholders in both the US and Europe are pressuring oil-company executives to devise credible plans for a post-oil future. The economic instability of the oil industry presents the threat -- or promise, depending on one's point of view -- that the oil industry will collapse long before petroleum reserves run dry.

It is not surprising that there's been so much resistance to the science of climate change, since the new vision represents such a massive change in mindset. Through the oil era, the central preoccupation was where to get oil. Colonial powers fought wars over access to oil. The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) cartel was set up by oil producers to safeguard their industry.

In the 20th century, the worry was over "peak oil", the time when oil production would pass its peak. Now Daniel Yergin -- an oil history, a winner of the Pulitzer prize -- poses a different question: "There is a pivot away from asking: 'When are we going to run out of oil?' -- to: 'How long will we continue to use it?'"

It's not a question of "peak oil" any more, it's one of "peak demand". Oil to fuel trucks, airplanes, and ships -- as well as to make plastics -- will be needed for some years to come. However, in the majority of developed countries, vehicle-emissions standards have become tougher, with ever more stringent demands for better mileage. Air pollution and congestion in big cities are driving countries like China and India to look for alternatives to traditional road vehicles, powered by gasoline and diesel.

Car firms like Tesla, Chevrolet and Nissan have announced plans for long-range electric vehicles selling, with subsidies, at a reasonable if not modest, price of $30,000 USD. In addition, around the world the correlation between energy and GDP is weakening. At the rate things are are going, we may well expect a tipping point away from fossil fuels in the next decade. However, many in the energy industry have no patience with talk of "peak demand". In the US, they cannot believe a nation so dependent on the automobile will alter ways of doing things at any speed, and in general they don't see demand as collapsing any time soon.

Some oil companies are hedging, investing more in natural gas, and working on batteries and renewables. That may not be enough. Rabah Arezki, head of commodities at the International Monetary Fund, says the world may be "at the onset of the biggest disruption in oil markets ever." Will the oil industry embrace the challenge, or hope it will go away if they ignore it? Will investors in the oil industry be more accepting? And how readily will consumers, in both rich and poor countries, adapt to new circumstances? [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("How The Panda's 'thumb' Evolved Twice" by Jane Qiu, 16 January 2017), it is well-known, at least for those familiar with biology, that the giant panda has an evolutionary modification of a bone in its wrists that give it a rudimentary "thumb" of sorts, used to help it strip down the bamboo shoots on which the panda feeds.

It is not so well-known that the little red panda, another bamboo-feeder but not a close relative -- their most recent common ancestor was about 40 million years ago, with the giant panda being a form of bear, while the red panda is more closely related to ferrets -- has a similar "thumb", used for the same purpose.

In a recent study, Wei Fuwen and Hu Yibo, conservation geneticists at the Chinese Academy of Sciences' Institute of Zoology in Beijing, and their colleagues, produced the first genome sequence of the red panda and compared it with the giant panda genome. This comparison turned up a list of 70 genes that showed signs of evolutionary change in both species.

red panda

Two of the genes, DYNC2H1 and PCNT, are important for limb development, and mutations in these genes can cause bone and muscle abnormalities, including extra digits, in mice and humans. Both pandas also share single amino-acid changes in the proteins encoded by DYNC2H1 and PCNT that are not found in 60 other mammal species. The researchers suspect these changes could have helped produced the "thumbs" of both pandas.

More work will be needed to confirm the suggestion, but it is nonetheless suggestive that the same adaptive feature arose from much the same changes to much the same genes. Of course, there may not be that many genetic options for getting to the panda's thumb. Wei adds that seven other genes on the list, some related to providing vitamins and amino acids that the body cannot produce, may have helped the pandas survive on bamboo, which is not all that nutritious.

* As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Colliding Stars Will Light Up The Night Sky In 2022" by Daniel Clery, 6 January 2017), a team of astronomers that began observations of a very tightly-wound binary star system designated KIC 9832227 believe the two stars will fall together in about five years, creating a spectacular "red nova".

They determined the timeframe by observing the gradual speed-up of the two stars in their mutual rotation. It is unusual to be able to predict cosmic cataclysms in such a near timeframe. They are continuing to monitor KIC 9832227 to firm up the date -- which will become a matter of considerable interest to amateur astronomers as the time draws close.

* Modern astronomy has long conducted wide surveys of the sky. As reported by an article from NATURE.com ("Universe Has Ten Times More Galaxies Than Researchers Thought" by Davide Castelvecchi, 14 October 2016), the latest survey of all the galaxies shows the observable Universe contains about two trillion galaxies -- more than ten times as many as previously estimated.

This is the first major revision of the count in two decades. From the mid-1990s, the working estimate for the number of galaxies in the Universe has been around 120 billion. That number was based mainly on a 1996 study named "Hubble Deep Field2", in which researchers pointed the Hubble Space Telescope at a small region of space for a total of ten days, so that the long exposure would reveal extremely faint objects.

That view encompassed galaxies up to 12 billion light years away, which appear to us as they existed less than 2 billion years after the Big Bang. Astrophysicists then counted the galaxies within that narrow field of view, then extrapolated the number to the full sky -- under the reasonable assumption that it would look similar in all directions -- to get the figure of 120 billion.

However, there weren't enough galaxies in the Hubble Deep Field image to account for the density of matter distributed throughout the Universe. The implication was that the missing matter was in the form of galaxies too faint to see, as gas and dark matter. Astrophysicist Christopher Conselice -- of the University of Nottingham in the UK, a co-author of the latest estimate -- says: "We always knew there were going to be more galaxies than that. But we didn't know how many existed because we couldn't image them."

More recent deep-field studies conducted using Hubble and other telescopes allowed Conselice and his collaborators to count visible galaxies out to distances of 13 billion light years. The researchers were able to plot the number of galaxies of a given mass that corresponded to various distances away from Earth; they then extrapolated their estimates to account for galaxies too small and faint for telescopes to pick up, and calculated that the observable Universe should contain 2 trillion galaxies.

Conselice says that theorists had expected the number to be even higher; he and his collaborators now plan to look into the discrepancy. At present, researchers can directly observe only about 10% of the 2 trillion galaxies. However, that will change in two years, when Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope. The Webb should also be able to see much further back in time, and observe how galaxies started to form.

The study should help obtain an improved understanding of galaxies by refining simulations of galaxy formation and enabling more detailed assessments of how they grow. Since the observations of distant galaxies only shows them as they were in the past, many of the galaxies included in the new estimate no longer exist, having merged into larger galaxies, so the number of galaxies that actually exist now is expected to be much lower than 2 trillion.



* NANOCAR RACE: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Drivers Gear Up For World's First Nanocar Race" by Davide Castelvecchi, 19 April 2017), in April six teams met at Toulouse for a new French Grand Prix: racing nano-sized "cars", each consisting of a single molecule, a length of 100 nanometers (nm) -- about a thousand times smaller than the width of a human hair -- in 36 hours, on a laboratory track held in a vacuum and chilled to a few degrees above absolute zero.

The contest was played up as the world's first nanocar race, the aim being to get people excited about nanotechnology and molecular machines, according co-organizer Christian Joachim, a chemist who works at the Centre for Materials Elaboration & Structural Studies in Toulouse, where the event took place. The 2016 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, awarded to creators of nanomachines, generated greater interest in the field. Joachim and Gwenael Rapenne, a chemist at the University of Toulouse-Paul Sabatier, then came up with the contest following Joachim's interview by a journalist -- Joachim noticing how much more interested the journalist was in nanocars than in most else of what was discussed. Joachim says that the Nobel prizewinners worked mainly with large numbers of molecules in solution, while the researchers in the race focused on the interactions between single molecules and solid surfaces.

Of course, racing nanocars isn't itself a practical endeavor, but the contestants saw it as a way to advance the science -- obtaining data on how their molecular nanocars interact with surfaces, which could have insights into development of improved catalysts. Over the longer run, it might well lead to development of mobile "nanobots" to, say, deliver drugs precisely to targeted locations in the body.

The nanocars didn't have motors; they were driven by electrons obtained from the tip of a scanning tunnelling microscope (STM), with each jolt moving a molecule a fraction of a nanometer at a time -- meaning a 100-nanometer track was a long distance for them. By the rules, the STM tip could not be used to push the molecules along. The different teams approached the job from widely different angles:

Chemists have previously created tiny nanocars with wheels and axles, as well as molecular rotors and switches. However, cars on the nanoscale behave nothing like their real-life counterparts; at such scales, electrostatic forces dominate and random thermal vibrations constantly shake molecules around.

The Toulouse laboratory has an unusual STM with four scanning tips -- they typically only have one -- which allowed four teams to race at the same time, each on a different section of the gold surface. Two other teams, in the US and Austria, raced by remote control, using STMs in their own facilities. The race was conducted methodically, with each team giving their nanocar a jolt, then taking three minutes to scan the track with the STM. The end product of the race was an animation, in much faster time than the real race. The competition was won by an Austro-American team -- which kept their molecule a secret. Obviously, they don't want the competition to get the jump on them in the next race.



* THE WEST IS GREEN: The Trump Administration is now pushing forward on rolling back Barack Obama's environmental initiatives, with a particular interest on reviving coal production. As discussed by an article from HIGH COUNTRY NEWS ("Trump Can Scrub the Clean Power Plan, But the West Will Stay Green" by Elizabeth Shogren, 28 March 2017), the only comment to make in reply is: "Good luck with that."

Possibly the most significant of the Trump Administration's anti-environmental actions is the order directing the Environmental Protection Agency to undo the Obama Clean Power Plan, which was designed to slash greenhouse gas emissions from the electricity sector 32% below 2005 levels by 2030.

Among Western states, the Clean Power Plan would have required the most significant reductions in Wyoming, Arizona, Colorado, and Montana, where coal still generates a large component of the electricity. Other states in the West have already reduced greenhouse gas emissions from the electric power sector by shifting from coal to renewable energy and natural gas -- and the West Coast states are enthusiastic about going further. A recent announcement by the governors of California, Washington, and Oregon, as well as mayors of the largest cities in those states, read:


Through expanded climate policies, we have grown jobs and expanded our economies while cleaning our air. Too much is at stake -- from our health and safety to our jobs and livelihoods -- for us to move backwards."


California is the heavyweight in the power equation for the US West. The state uses 40% of the West's electricity, and also has the West's most ambitious renewable energy mandate -- 50% by 2030. California's electricity sector is part of a cap-and-trade program that aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020, and another 40% by 2030. Those targets make a difference beyond its borders, since Calinfornia imports 20% of its electricity from states like Nevada and Wyoming, and that power has to meet California standards. Other Western states are continuing to push forward as well:

Given the rapidly declining costs of renewable energy, these targets are realistic. Yes, they've been boosted by renewable energy credits -- but so far, the Trump Administration hasn't targeted the credits, possibly because wind power has become economically important in many Republican states in the central USA. Then again, given the slapdash operation of the Trump Administration, it's perfectly possible that the issue has been given no consideration. Along with the push for renewables, Western states are setting up mandates for adoption of energy-efficient appliances, with policies to require electric utilities to set up programs to reduce electricity consumption.

Coal -- cornered by natural gas, renewables, and government regulations -- is on the way out. In early 2017, the owners of the West's largest coal plant, the Navajo Generating Station, announced plans to close it in 2019. The only remaining coal plants in Oregon and Washington are slated to shut down. Montana's Colstrip is due to close two of its oldest units by 2022. Even before the Navajo Generating Station announcement, the Western Utility Coordinating Council projected last year that by 2026, less than 19% of the region's electricity will come from coal.

California has been influential in helping shut down coal in the West. Patrick Cummins -- senior policy advisor for the Center for the New Energy Economy at Colorado State University in Fort Collins -- commented that California has "had a huge impact on all coal retirements that have already occurred and the ones planned in the coming years."

While the Trump Administration can't turn the clock back from renewables to coal, there is no doubt that neutralizing or abandoning the Clean Power Plan will sap momentum from the drive to green energy, since there will no longer be a Federal mandate to overcome Republican opposition at the state level. Nonetheless, the Trump Administration's efforts cannot bring renewable energy to a halt. Even if Barack Obama's environmental initiatives are put on hold, they've nonetheless been articulated; they will not be forgotten, and in a new day, they will be established once again. Those making long-term investments in energy infrastructure know this, and it factors into their decisions. The Trump Administration, attempting a return to an imagined past, has no leverage on the future.



* POWER VACUUM (5): At present, South Africa is particularly bullish on renewable energy, the country having implemented about a hundred wind and solar projects over the past four years, as prices fell below that of coal, and construction lagged on two new massive coal plants. South Africa's renewables effort is data-driven, in large part due to the efforts the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR), a national lab in Stellenbosch. CSIR researchers have put together high-quality planning maps for large-scale wind and solar development and grid expansion.

Starting with data on the energy resources, the researchers assessed development scenarios, factoring in such elements as proximity to electricity demand, economic benefits and effects on biodiversity. Working from the CSIR data, the South African government designated eight "Renewable Energy Development Zones" that are close to consumers, and to transmission infrastructure, and where power projects will cause the least harm to people and ecosystems. The zones cover an area of about 80,000 square kilometers (30,900 square miles), about the size of Scotland; they have been granted streamlined environmental authorization for renewable projects and transmission corridors.

The biggest challenge for African energy development is money. According to the World Bank, meeting sub-Saharan Africa's power needs will cost $40.8 billion USD a year, equivalent to 6.35% of Africa's gross domestic product. African governments do not have that kind of money -- and so attracting private investment is crucial to progress. Unfortunately, investors tend to see African countries as risky, due to government bureaucracy, occasional corruption, and the weak infrastructure.

South Africa is also in the lead for schemes to reassure ing investors. In 2011, the government established a transparent process for project bidding called the "Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme (REIP4)". The program has managed to attract billions in investment to develop many gigawatts of wind and solar. Investors have given REIP4 high marks, one saying: "I would describe the risks in South Africa as far less than the risks in England in investing in renewables."

For countries not so attractive to investors, the World Bank Group launched the "Scaling Solar" project in January 2015, which includes several components:

Zambia, Senegal, and Madagascar have now initiated solar power projects under Scaling Solar, with other African countries now following.

However, renewable energy projects are constrained by Africa's weak power distribution system. Many Africans are off the grid, and there are few trunk lines to move power long distances. Villages and urban slums, with modest power requirements, are moving towards small-scale local solar and wind installations that can meet their needs. However, for industrial development and power supply to large urban areas, there's no substitute for the grid.

A long-range grid, connected by high-voltage DC trunk lines, is essential for renewable energy, since it's inconstant; if power fades in one region, it has to be obtained from another with a surplus. Renewable energy also benefits from large-scale energy storage -- as well as "smart grids", that can selectively trim power to different users in sequence to deal with a shortfall.

Building up Africa's power grid is also going to require money, lots of it. Despite the challenges, those engaged in development of Africa's electrical network are optimistic, seeing prospects along with the challenges. They also see it as something that must be done, one saying: "We cannot just accept in the twenty-first century that hundreds of millions of people are left out." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (17): The only one of the five Central Asian nations to overthrow a ruler has been Kyrgyzstan. There have been two revolutions there, with presidents and their families fleeing the country, taking with them huge fortunes looted from the public treasury. The current president, Almazbek Atambayev, is seen as a whimsical and erratic leader, with the country's politics described by outside observers as "perpetual low-grade chaos". Ethnic unrest has plagued the country, with hundreds killed in the worst outbreaks.

Some wonder whether Central Asia would be better off to aspire to a stable autocracy, instead of fumbling with an unworkable democracy. This is, however, a fake choice, because the alternative to unworkable democracy is even more unworkable autocracy. For most of the citizens, life is tough, and in fact worse than it was under Soviet rule. Parviz Mullojanov, a political analyst in Dushanbe, the capital of Takikistan, is blunt: "In any central Asian country, if there was a referendum on some kind of integration project that would basically be a new Soviet Union, at least two-thirds of people would vote for it."

One of the difficulties faced by the Stans is that, during the Soviet era, much of the technical expertise -- doctors, teachers, engineers -- were Russians, and they mostly left after the fall of the USSR. Many professional Uzbeks, Kyrgyz and Tajiks also left for Russia, taking advantage of easy citizenship programmes in the 1990s. They left behind societies with poor healthcare and broken-down education systems. Grandparents tend to be better educated than their grandchildren across much of the region.

The industrial infrastructure also fell to pieces, Medetkhan Sherimkulov saying: "Our factories were well developed and were high class by [Soviet] Union standards, but of course they couldn't compete with European and Chinese factories. So as soon as the union collapsed, and we lost that integration and that planned economy market, everything was in trouble."

With so little at home, young men have had to migrate, usually to Russia, to do unskilled labor to send money home to sustain their families. Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan have natural resources that provide revenue, but in the other three countries, remittances from migrant workers are what keeps the economies afloat. In Tajikistan, they account for around half of GDP. Across the region, thousands of men depart each day to Moscow and other cities across Russia, where they work in grim conditions with few labor rights, for poor salaries that are nevertheless much better than they could expect at home.

Borders are another problem; they were set up in the Soviet era according to a bureaucratic logic, and have little rhyme or reason. They cut through communities, and there are enclaves of one state inside another. The town of Sokh, for example, is part of Uzbekistan, but fully surrounded by Kyrgyzstan, and its 20,000 population are almost entirely ethnic Tajiks. The people of Sokh can hardly step out of town without being harassed. There are also concentrations of Russians, leading to fears of another Russian land grab, like the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.

The most explosive factor in the mix is radical Islam. Traditionally, Central Asian societies were Islamic, though religion was strongly discouraged in the Soviet period. In the newly independent states, Islam has re-emerged, but the paranoid regimes frown on any kind of conservative Islam. In Turkmenistan, beards have been banned and attendance at mosques discouraged; while in Tajikistan, police keep a watchlist of veiled women and men with long beards.

To zero surprise, violent extremism is emerging. An Islamic State video released in 2015 claimed to show dozens of young Kazakh boys receiving training and instruction at a terrorist training camp, presumably in Syria. Terrorist attacks are starting to grow in number. Most dramatically, the chief of Tajikistan's Omon riot police Gulmurod Khalimov disappeared in 2016, to resurface in an IS propaganda video promising to hunt down and kill Americans.

The governments have used the emergence of radicalism as a pretext to go after moderates and dissenters, harassing them and locking them up. Even moderate criticism can lead to jail sentences, or worse. It's a vicious cycle: government repression breeds extremism, extremism breeds government repression. In Osh, the second city of Kyrgyzstan, lawyer Khusanbay Saliyev is handling hundreds of cases for possession of extremist literature. He says he believes about 90% of them to be fabricated by paranoid and greedy authorities, concluding: "There is torture and repression, and it has the opposite effect, pushing people into the arms of the radicals."

The dictatorships of central Asia are now at a crossroads. On the surface, they appear more or less stable -- but they are rotten inside, undermined by poverty and mismanagement. According to Parviz Mullojanov: "Even in the best-case scenario, central Asia has very problematic and difficult times ahead. The economics are not working any more." [END OF SERIES]



* ANOTHER MONTH: After the last time I went to Disneyland, in 2012, I didn't think I'd have any reason to ever "do Disney" again -- but I was underestimating The Mighty Mouse. Now Disney is building a STAR WARS land at their theme parks, which seems enough to get me to go to Disney California again.

As far as another trip to Florida went, I wasn't enthused at all about that idea after the humdrum road trip I took to Washington DC last year. However, it appears that Disney Florida will take the STAR WARS experience one step further, with a hotel providing an "immersive" STAR WARS experience -- not just props and style, but attractions built in, and live-action presentations. That's still not enough to get me to go the extra mile to Florida, all the more so because that sounds expensive, and I tend to see hotels as a place to hide out in and recuperate when I'm on the road anyway. I don't need the fussing around there.

Mickey does STAR WARS

However, it also appears Disney Florida is expanding its Animal Kingdom to create an environment from the planet Pandora, out of the AVATAR movie. I've never seen AVATAR, and that's still a long ways to go, but it does sound intriguing. Since none of Disney's STAR WARS facilities are likely to be open for business before 2019, I have time to think things over.

* As for the ongoing magical mystery tour in Washington DC, the month of May started out with President Donald Trump firing FBI director James Comey. Exactly what the motivations for doing so were remains puzzling; what is no puzzle is how the incident fed the flames of agitation over possible connections between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. Was Trump attempting to cover his tracks with the firing?

For what it's worth, Trump said in response that he had been dissatisfied with Comey's handling of the Hillary Clinton email investigation. Comey's handling of the matter had indeed been problematic; it was irregular of Comey to say that criminal charges shouldn't be pressed, and then strongly criticize Clinton for "sloppy" handling of the email server. That was in effect passing a judgement on her without allowing her to defend herself. Comey might well have simply echoed Clinton's own comment that the email server had been a mistake, and left it at that.

That, of course, was not Trump's concern in the matter. It was obvious that he didn't like Comey saying that criminal charges should not be pressed on Clinton, Trump having complained about that in the past. Incidentally, in response to the firing of Comey, the sorehead Right came out of the woodwork to demand that criminal charges be pressed -- though that would be a great blunder for the Trump Administration. The emails were a curse on Clinton; by attempting to take further action on the matter, Trump would be taking the curse upon himself, to get bogged down in a ridiculous sideshow that had nowhere to go, instead of furthering his presidential agenda.

It seems unlikely there is much in the Russia connection. However, it has to be remembered that Richard Nixon was not brought down by the Watergate building break-in, but by his increasingly desperate attempts to cover it up. Trump seems determined to do everything to make himself seem as suspicious as possible in the matter. He seems oblivious to the First Rule of Holes: WHEN YOU'RE IN ONE, STOP DIGGING.

Trump is clearly oblivious in complaining that he is being unfairly treated, when he spared nothing in making an issue of Clinton's emails. He is also oblivious to the fact that appearances of impropriety, even when unsubstantiated, can easily be fatal in politics. During the presidential campaign he broke rule after rule of customary political propriety, putting on a performance that would have been career suicide for a conventional politician -- and boasted that he was getting away with it. No, nothing is forgotten in politics. Trump hasn't honestly defied the laws of political gravity. A fall from a height does no injury; it's the sudden stop at the end that's the problem.

* During the last half of the month, Washington DC went relatively quiet as Trump took a nine-day trip to the Middle East and Europe. It didn't get off to a bad start, with Trump talking moderately about Islam in Saudi Arabia and pushing for a strong front against Islamic State, with no diplomatic fallout in consequence. Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of the book ISLAMIC EXCEPTIONALISM, commented: "The bar was so low that it would have been quite a feat to not clear it. All Trump really had to do was avoid saying something offensive about Islam, and he did that."

There was a buzz when, at two arrivals, Donald tried to take Melania Trump's hand, but she flicked it off. Sign of a discordant relationship? It seems not; Melania is much more sensitive to social issues than Donald is -- she could hardly be much less -- and he typically follows her cues in such matters. In other places, they did hold hands, so the message in the brush-offs appears to have been: Not here, this isn't the time and place.

In a less ambiguous exercise in body language, when Trump shook hands with new French President Emmanuel Macron, it turned into a contest of strength, with the knuckles turning white. Trump was the first to release. Macron, it appears, is just as strong-willed as Trump, if nowhere near as belligerently insecure.

The last days of the trip involved talks with European leaders and they did not go well, in large part because Trump refused to endorse the Paris Accord on climate change. On returning to Washington DC, he also returned to his traditional bad habits of irresponsible tweeting, accusing Germany of refusing to honor NATO commitments and of shorting the US on trade. German Chancellor Angela Merkel publicly suggested that Europe could no longer look to the USA for leadership, saying "we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands." That was extraordinarily blunt language from the normally cautious Merkel.

Incidentally, Macron defeated his nationalist-populist rival Marine Le Pen in the French presidential election by 66.1% to 33.9%, effectively 2:1 -- and that with many of the petulant French Left refusing to vote for him, or even voting for Le Pen. That doesn't seem too surprising; the urbane French seemed unlikely to fall for Le Pen the way Americans fell for Trump. There are concerns that the French political establishment will frustrate Macron. Possibly so, but he seems to be getting off on the right foot, notably giving Vladimir Putin a stiff personal reprimand on Russian attempts to interfere in the French election, as well as other Russian failings. Putin lamely denied everything.

* The Trump Administration seems to be going nowhere in a hurry; there's such an air of unreality to events in Washington DC that nothing in it feels like real news. The critics have been merciless. Callum Borchers, editorializing in THE WASHINGTON POST, listed the chain of leaks damaging to the White House during May, and suggested the word "leak" wasn't quite appropriate -- "gusher" would be more descriptive. He cited a comment by Jack Shafer of POLITICO in mid-January as precisely apt:


As Trump shuts down White House access to reporters, they will infest the departments and agencies around town that the president has peeved. The intelligence establishment, which Trump has deprecated over the issue of Russian hacking, owes him no favors and less respect. It will be in their institutional interest to leak damaging material on Trump.


Anybody with the slightest political sensibility could see that government organizations would respond to White House attempts to jerk them around with leaks -- but the extent of the leaks is nonetheless surprising. In another critical comment Alan G. Hassenfeld, boss of the Hasbro (Hassenfeld Brothers) Toy Company, told an international conference:


Right now in America, we don't know what the rules of the game are. They are changing constantly. Right now we don't know whether we are friendly with Mexico, whether we are friendly with Canada, whether we are friendly with China, whether we are friendly with Russia.


Hassenfeld said that all that was coming out of the White House was "white noise and smoke." As far as Trump's notions of bringing back jobs to the USA went, he said: "Even if they did come, we've all learnt how to automate, we're all spending money to innovate."

That, damning as it was, paled compared to the comments of John Boehner, previously Speaker of the House of Representatives, who told an energy conference late in the month that he liked Trump's foreign policy, but otherwise his presidency to date was a "complete disaster". He added that he had been friends with Trump for 15 years: "But president? I just never envisioned him in that role."

Boehner added that Republican efforts at tax reform were "a bunch of happy talk", and that their healthcare reform exercise was equally a mirage: "Republicans never agree on health care."

He later clarified his remarks, but the clarifications came across as a non-apology that retracted nothing. It appears that Boehner, having been forced out of Congress by the sorehead Right Freedom Caucus, has adopted a "good riddance" attitude towards his previous career, saying: "I wake up every day, drink my morning coffee and say: HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH! HALLELUJAH!"

He doesn't want any more of it, and certainly does not want to be president: "I drink red wine. I smoke cigarettes. I golf. I cut my own grass. I iron my own clothes. And I'm not willing to give all that up to be president."

* The comedians have continued their assaults on Trump. Seth Myers was notably caustic: "Trump is worse than Nixon. He's shameless Nixon. Nixon famously said: 'I am not a crook.' Trump's basically saying: 'I am a crook and there's nothing you can do about it, and in fact I'm having three scoops of ice cream.'"

John Oliver describes the Russia agitation as "stupid Watergate", saying that the connection seems at least plausible because the Trump Administration always makes the worst decisions possible: "Paper or plastic? Whichever kills more birds. Favorite Beatle? It's got to be Yoko."

However, it is becoming obvious the comedians are running out of steam, at least unless -- until? -- Trump fully implodes. An article from TIME Online by Sandra Sobeiraj Westfall more interestingly considered what Barack Obama thinks of Trump. To be sure Obama, following the tradition that ex-presidents do not snipe at their predecessors, has been careful not to publicly criticize Trump -- but insiders say that Obama did privately call Trump a "bullshitter" after talking with him following the election.

Yeah, so what? Obama had called him "unfit," "woefully unprepared" and "unacceptable" during the campaign, and the ordinary reaction to anyone describing Trump as a bullshitter would be: "You DON'T say!" Another insider gave a read on what Obama thinks now, reflecting of Obama's characteristic positivism: "He's deeply concerned with what he's seen. But he's also optimistic and heartened that citizens aren't just watching it happen, but engaging with neighbors and elected representatives at town halls."

Michelle Obama got one up on her husband's private comments, however, suggesting in December that she should start wearing mourning clothes: "I'm going all black for the next couple of years."

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