jul 2017 / last mod jul 2017 / greg goebel

* 21 entries including: once & future Earth (series), a world after oil (series), manufacturing reinvented (series), unlimited combat armor, Volvo goes electric, yeasts, cacao, & coffee, printers print tattle codes, dental restorations as a global business, UberAIR in progress, India's biometrics quandary, & scrapping nuclear reactors.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JULY 2017: It may have seemed in 2016 that the Europe Union was headed for collapse, the UK's Brexit being a huge vote of no confidence in the EU. As discussed in an editorial from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK by editor John Micklethwait, previously of THE ECONOMIST ("The Bureaucrats Who Came In From The Cold", 17 July 2017, there were good reasons for pessimism at the time. The euro and the "Schengen Area" of free movement were in chaos, while the single market remained an unfinished work. Europe's economy was in the doldrums, while the Franco-German alliance that had driven the union had collapsed.

Such a difference a year makes, thanks to two things. The first, with supreme irony, was Brexit. It was possible to see at the dawn of Brexit that, if things didn't go well, it would reinforce the EU instead of undermine it -- and things have not gone at all well. As Micklethwaite writes:


The nation that had been Brussels' main critic and the most adept earner of opt-outs from EU projects hasn't so much shot itself in the foot as machine-gunned both legs repeatedly. ... Far from acting as a beacon for other leavers, the chaos the Little Englanders created scared voters in the Netherlands and France into choosing pro-European leaders, while Theresa May's mistaken desire to urge a hard Brexit united the other members of the EU against her. She called an election in June to consolidate that mandate but lost her majority in Parliament and her credibility -- and revived talk of Britain ultimately staying in.

Last month, with Britain's economy turning downward and banks looking at other European capitals, Prime Minister May's Brexit negotiators arrived in Brussels for an encounter with what Monty Python would have described as the "bleedin' obvious". The rules for leaving the EU all favor the club rather than the quitter.

Meanwhile, for all May's bluster about "no deal being better than a bad deal," Britain relies on Europe for some 44% of its exports; for Europe, Britain represents just 9.5%. No deal would be a disaster. May's promise of a frictionless Brexit is impossible, as the main European negotiator has correctly pointed out.


The assaults of American President Donald Trump on the EU have also had the ironic effect of bolstering the union, thanks to Trump's insistence on antagonizing everyone, plus his incoherent and surly notions of policy. Europe's economy is showing more signs of life, while EU leadership has set up a preliminary free-trade agreement with Japan, and made progress in fixing the banking crisis in Southern Europe.

The second change from 2016 was the election of Emmanuel Macron to the presidency of France in May of this year, with Macron being an energetic believer in the EU. It has been the lively Macron who has really raised spirits in Brussels, primarily by forming an alliance with German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- the team-up being named, of course, "Mercron", representing French enthusiasm and German plod -- while driving for economic reform in France and in the core euro zone. Thanks to Macron Chancellor Merkel, who appeared beleaguered a year ago, now has a lively spring in her step. It must be love.

Frau Merkel thinks it over

One of the keys to reform is to establish a stronger banking union. Germans have been very reluctant to accept that step, lest German taxpayers end up supporting weak players like Greece and Italy -- but the alternative is to force destructive austerity on countries that are down on their economic luck, and can't depreciate their currencies. Reform in the EU might well create an EU outer zone that isn't a full partner in the revival, but there's something to be said for flexibility.

However, that is mostly in potential. Macron is new to the French presidency, and though smart, energetic, and disciplined, he hasn't accomplished much yet. Italy remains on the economic and political sicklist; the Germans are not eager to burden themselves with Italy's problems. The refugee problem remains a particular sore point. Overall, there's a lot to be reformed, and progress has been unimpressive.

There is also a danger in taking a punitive approach to Britain, should the UK opt for a "soft Brexit" -- that is, accepting EU conditions in return for access to the single market. As irritated as EU leadership has been with Britain, there's every good reason to come to the least painful accommodation, instead of confirming the worst British Leavers, and many Remainers, think of the EU. The Mercron alliance has a chance of "making the EU great again", and it's not an opportunity that dare be fumbled.

* If the EU project is not in full revival, NATO is looking very lively. As discussed by an editorial from REUTERS ("How Putin Sparked A Western Military Renaissance" by Peter Apps, 20 July 2017), the G20 meeting in Hamburg early in July showed Western countries were still having difficulties in dealing with Russian meddling in their politics. However, the NATO militaries have not been so confused, working collectively and effectively to to confront the actions of President Vladimir Putin and Moscow's aggressive military doctrine.

Three years ago, Russia's war in eastern Ukraine forced NATO militaries to rethink their organization and doctrine. The end result promises to be military renaissance. To be sure, it's early yet, but troops, aircraft, and warships from major NATO states -- most significantly, the USA -- have established a permanent presence in much of Eastern Europe. The US commitment is ironic, since Donald Trump has been publicly lukewarm on NATO; however, the government and its military that he in principle heads are advancing the NATO agenda, and all Trump can do is go along, however inconsistently.

NATO's first priority is defending the most vulnerable northern and eastern European countries, particularly the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Stalin occupied the Baltics during his phony alliance with Hitler; the Russians treat them as if their independence is only temporary. This summer is seeing energetic NATO activity, including anti-submarine and electronic warfare exercises in the North Atlantic, almost daily flights by surveillance aircraft operating in the Baltic, and many other war games from the Black Sea to the Arctic.

Russia's technical skill in the intervention in Ukraine alarmed Western defense strategists. The Russians were able to use drones to perform devastating artillery attacks on Ukrainian forces, while being able to spoof and jam western-supplied drones and other sophisticated combat kit. It was a wake-up call, with major efforts to get ahead of the learning curve relative to Russian forces.

There have been problems with resource allocation -- the expensive F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, being adopted by the US and several other NATO forces, has diverted funds from other significant efforts -- but Russian military power is limited, much smaller than that which NATO could bring to bear against it, and any battlefield edge the Russians may have is all but certain to be temporary.

In its posturing over the last three years, the Kremlin has aggressively used the threat of direct military action, both conventional and nuclear, to intimidate NATO member states, particularly in the East. The intimidation is increasingly proving counterproductive, as NATO and NATO-friendly European states rise to the challenge. Several Nordic and European nations -- Sweden, Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Denmark -- have quietly come together to form the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force. It's a framework that could deploy a substantial, sustainable force to defend the Baltic states. It would still exist even if the US backed out of its commitment to NATO, and that's not likely to happen. Donald Trump's complaints about NATO are being seen for the hot air they are.

Polish Leopard II tank moves out

The reality is that Europe is better defended now than it has been in decades. Vladimir Putin is a paranoid, and isn't happy with more guns pointing to the East; but he has only himself to blame. Having exported antagonism, it has inevitably grown to turn back against him.

* The vote of the UK to leave the EU in 2016 was a major decision with wide-ranging consequences, and was certain to be a difficult project. What made Brexit more difficult was that the vote margin was so slender, and there was no real space, no halfway house, for compromise between Leavers and Remainers. As discussed by an article from TIME Online ("In Britain, a Softer Brexit Is Beginning To Seem Inevitable" by Mark Leftly, 24 July 2017), the pressure of events appears to be forcing the UK towards a halfway house -- that nobody wants.

Prime Minister Theresa May, faced with acting to Leave or Remain, firmly embraced Leave, even though she had voted to Remain. In January 2017, she flatly ruled out a "soft Brexit" -- that is, accepting EU rules to stay in the European Single Market. May correctly pointed that would be the same as no Brexit; it would be the worst of both worlds, retaining the status quo pre-Brexit, except for Britain having no say in how the EU is run.

May's attitude was that she would get the best deal for Britain she could, though the beady-eyed attitude of EU leadership towards Brexit did not give encouragement that much of a deal could be obtained. Very well, if worst came to worst, it was "hard Brexit", economically severing the UK from the Single Market. No halfway house.

May's thinking, in reflecting her perceived mandate, was logical; she was doing the best she knew how in a difficult situation. Unfortunately, she then made a huge tactical error. The Tories having a thin majority in Parliament, May decided to call a general election. The only threat to the Tories was Labour, and polls showed that Labour -- under Jeremy Corbyn, about as bright Red as a mainstream British politician might be -- was likely to take a beating. The problem with such an optimistic viewpoint was that, during chaotic 2016, polls had often proven wrong, for example Brexit having been favored to fail; and given continued chaos, polls might well continue to be proven wrong.

The vote took place on 8 June, and everything went to hell all over again. Labour grabbed seats from the Tories, who lost their parliamentary majority. It wasn't that Corbyn's well-Left-of-center policy proposals resonated strongly with the public, they didn't; it was more that younger Britons, largely Remainers, wanted to give the Tories "a good spanking". The result was a comprehensive muddle, Labour not obtaining a majority, the Tories only clinging on through an alliance with the Northern Irish Democratic Union Party.

Ironically, although Brexit had been perceived as stoking secessionist sentiment, the Scots Nationalist Party did poorly, easing fears of the disintegration of the United Kingdom. With greater irony, the UK Independence Party, the ideological soul of Leave, all but disappeared from the halls of power, and it wasn't strong to begin with. What was particularly surprising was that immigration, which had been one of the original drivers of Brexit, didn't seem to be much of an issue in the election -- possibly out of fatalism, the perception that nobody could or would stop it anyway.

Brexit negotiations began on 19 June; Britain didn't have a strong hand before the election, and had a worse one afterward. EU leadership has had to restrain themselves, not with complete success, from gloating. At that time, Britain was collectively depressed by a fire in the Grenfell Tower apartment high-rise in London on 14 June, in which at least 80 people were killed.

Grenfell Tower fire

The fire had nothing, absolutely nothing to do with Brexit, but the blackened hulk of Grenfell Tower, widely visible in London, contributed to the public sense that things are not going well, and the authorities have lost control of events. THE ECONOMIST sadly pointed out in the 29 June issue -- referencing the humiliating failure of the Anglo-French seizure of the Suez Canal in 1956, discussed here in 2006 -- that Britain has "not cut such a pathetic figure on the global stage since Suez."

One thing that isn't going to happen is another election. Before the 8 June election, a video of a matron named as "Brenda from Bristol" went viral, with Brenda, sincerely appalled, telling a reporter who shoved a mike in her face, asking about the election: "Yer JOKING! Not ANOTHER one! Oh, for gawd's sake ... I can't STAND this!" Two elections that went off the rails? No, not a third election. The general perception is that Brexit will proceed on track.

Will it? Vince Cable, head of the Remainer Liberal Democrat party, suggests an "exit from Brexit", saying: "There's a widely held belief that if the British find [Brexit] isn't worth a candle and would cause too much havoc, then [Britain could remain] and other EU members would probably welcome it." He cautioned: "But the longer this process goes on, the more irrevocable the situation becomes."

The Lib-Dems are effectively a splinter party, and did poorly in the election anyway; Cable, it might be judged, suffers from a case of wishful thinking. Nonetheless, the signs are towards a soft Brexit. Lord Ashdown, a former Lib-Dem leader, matter-of-factly pointed out: "The post-election mathematics means the Government can't get anything but a soft Brexit through the House of Commons."

Lord Ashdown's logic was hard to argue against, since "winner take all" was, with a divided Parliament, no longer in the cards. However, what sense does a soft Brexit make? None. Nobody wants it; it's a bad joke to Leavers, half-baked to Remainers. If the choice between hard Brexit and soft Brexit evaporates, then the remaining choice between soft Brexit and no Brexit becomes, as the saying goes, a no-brainer, no choice at all. In any case, everyone knows Brexit negotiations will be protracted, and a lot can happen before they reach a conclusion. What if there's an economic downturn? Will a British public that's even more demoralized be supportive of continuing on with Brexit?

Who knows? All that's clear is that Brexit has been a train wreck, and only the deluded could claim otherwise. From the western side of the Pond, it's become not so interesting -- because we've got a train wreck in progress here that's commanding all our attention. With Brexit, whatever will be, will be; and it's no longer much of an issue to disinterested foreign observers.



* ONCE & FUTURE EARTH (1): It isn't known when humans began to get curious about the world they lived in. For most of human history, stretching back a hundred thousand years or so, human tribes paid their world no more or less mind than any other animal, taking for granted the land, the weather, the rising of the Sun, the cycles of the Moon, the points of light in the night sky.

Curiosity about the land and sky had certainly emerged by the time humans were building large cities, creating archives of records, establishing civic bureaucracies, and traveling over long distances. Scholars determined the pattern of motions of the Moon, as well as the points of light, the planets, that wandered through the starfields. Voyagers helped produce maps covering ever-widening ranges, with growing detail and accuracy.

In the 4th century BCE, the Greek scholar Aristotle (384:322 BCE), as an component of his work to codify all the knowledge available to him, established faint glimmerings of geological science by describing the composition of the land, and devising a theory -- seemingly trivial from a modern point of view, but a major advance in its time -- that the Earth changes at a slow rate, too slow to be generally observed in one human's lifetime.

Aristotle's protege Theophrastus (roughly 371:287 BCE) carried on the tradition, his works including ON STONES, in which he characterized minerals and ores -- that is, metal-bearing minerals -- while also devising a classification scheme for rocks and gemstones. His classification scheme was ad-hoc, but he wrote down a great deal of practical information, being used as a reference into the Middle Ages.

Although primitive peoples long believed the Earth was flat, once people began to range over the seas for trade, the curvature of the Earth became obvious, with big mountains falling below the horizon as ships went further out to sea. A century after Aristotle, the Hellenic scholar Eratosthenes (roughly 276:195 BCE), the chief librarian of the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, established the science of geography with his work GEOGRAPHIKA, which mapped out the world as it was known to him, developing a map grid system of meridians and parallels, which is still in use today.

As or more significantly, Eratosthenes was the first to come up with an estimate for the size of the Earth. He knew that on the day of the summer solstice, the Sun was directly overhead at Syrene -- modern-day Aswan, Egypt -- to the south of Alexandria, but the Sun cast a shadow to the north from a stake in Alexandria. Using a little geometry, Eratosthenes determined the diameter of the Earth to about 15% of its true value, which was an impressive achievement given the tools available to him.

There was no great advance in geological science for centuries after the classical Greek period, though works on the subject were produced by the Roman soldier-scholar Pliny the Elder (23:79 CE), the Muslim scholar Abu al-Rayhan al-Biruni (973:1048 CE); and the Persian scholar Ibn Sina (981:1037 CE), well-known in Europe as "Avicenna".

* It was not until the 17th century that developments in geology began to pick up pace. Ironically, the impetus originally came from Biblical scripture, with scholars attempting to validate the history of the Earth as described in scripture, notably the Great Flood of Noah. The definitive work on geology in this era as A NEW THEORY OF THE EARTH, published in 1692 by the English scholar William Whiston (1667:1752). While some of this scholarship consisted merely of selectively sorting through the evidence to confirm beliefs in the Great Flood and other Biblical events, in other cases there was a sincere curiosity about the history of the Earth at work. Whiston, incidentally, was a respected scholar, and was harassed as a theological noncomformist.

A consequence of these early investigations was a refined focus on the Earth's "strata" -- the wide-ranging and generally consistent layers of rock into which the surface of the Earth was arranged. One of the pioneers in "stratigraphy", the systematic analysis of strata, was the Danish polymath Nicholas Steno (1638:1686), also a Catholic bishop who was eventually granted sainthood. In his DISSERTATIONIS PRODOMUS of 1669, Steno defined the four basic principles of stratigraphy:

With these principles, stratigraphy became one of the first "time probes" of the Earth. Steno, in consideration of stones that appeared to be shark's teeth, suggested that they really were shark's teeth, and considered means by which such "fossils" could have been created. That was a significant step in the development of "paleontology" -- the study of past life, representing a hybridization of biology and geology -- with fossils having been generally dismissed to that time as freaks of nature, possibly having fallen from the skies. Steno is regarded as one of the founders of the modern science of geology. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* WINGS & WEAPONS: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online blogs ("The Army Gets Back in the Ship-Killing Business" by Jeremy Hsu, 1 March 2017), the "Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS)" AKA "Attack'Ems" is a standard weapon in the US Army's artillery force -- based on a tracked launcher carrying two ATACMS missiles, with a range of about 300 kilometers (190 miles) maximum. Early variants of the missile were unguided, using a cluster-munition warhead to compensate for inaccuracy; but GPS guidance was added in later variants, which could be fitted with cluster or unitary warheads.


ATACMS is out of production, but still in inventory. In 2016, the US Army announced that a new variant capable of attacking ships would be implemented out of existing stock. That would presumably involve fitting the missile with a radar seeker, and possibly with a semi-armor-piercing unitary warhead. How the missile launcher would be integrated into a targeting system is not clear.

The intended target for the antiship ATACMS is clearly China, which is building up a large navy. In a war scenario, US allies in the Far East would be able to use the missile to, say, deal with a Chinese naval threat such as an invasion force. A mobile ATACMS launcher would be able to strike at Chinese warships, while being long gone from its firing position by the time the Chinese could respond. The launchers would also provide a deterrent less vulnerable than a carrier task force, the traditional means of projecting a force threat against China.

The scheme follows that described in a 2013 RAND report sponsored by the US Army that suggested "the strategic placement of anti-ship missile systems" could help deter open conflict by "significantly raising the cost for China," or actively "interdict warships" or "be used to form a full blockade of critical waterways in times of war." It also mirrors the efforts of China to field mobile land-based antiship missile launchers in quantity to deal with the US naval threat.

* As discussed by an article from IHS JANE'S 360 ("Textron Systems Finalises G-CLAW Development" by Robin Hughes, 6 March 2017), in the latest news of small smart munitions, Textron Systems is now pushing the "Guided Clean Area Weapon (G-CLAW)". G-CLAW is a munition of conventional configuration, being a blunted cylinder with four pop-out tailfins. It has a mass of 22.7 kilograms (50 pounds), including a 9.1-kilogram (20-pound) warhead. The blast-fragmentation warhead is built as an armor-penetrating shaped charge, with a fragmentation sleeve that generates 4,300 fragments, to make sure everyone gets their fair share of fragments. The munition is effective against soft targets, up to light armored vehicles.

G-CLAW features a fuze with impact, delay, and airburst options. Midcourse guidance is by GPS-INS, with a laser-homing terminal seeker. It has a modular design to permit updates with new guidance / seeker systems or warheads. The munition is handled and launched from the "Common Launch Tube (CLT)"; for G-CLAW, Textron put together a launcher with three CLTs stacked vertically, side-firing out the door of a Cessna Caravan turboprop launch aircraft -- a G-CLW being ejected tail-first, to orient itself after its tailfins deploy.

G-CLAW launcher

The triple CLT launcher can also be ganged in two or three, for six or nine munitions of any sort that is handled in a CLT. The G-CLAW completed trials in late 2016; it appears that development was sponsored by the US Special Operations Command. Incidentally, the "clean" adjective in the G-CLAW designation indicates that the munition is designed to have a low dud rate, and so not require troublesome clean-up after the fighting is over.

* As discussed by another article from IHS JANE'S 360 Online, the US Navy is now making use of the Army's AGM-114L-8A Longbow Hellfire anti-armor missile as a surface combat weapon, performing vertical test firings of the missile using the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) "Surface-to-Surface Missile Module (SSMM)".

The intent for Hellfire support is to deal with attacks by swarming small attack boats, with multiple Hellfires ripple-launched to deal with the swarm. The test shots were performed from the LCS USS DETROIT, with seven out of eight hits scored on a set of maneuvering small boat targets, the single miss being due to circumstances outside the responsibilities of the fire-control system.

naval Hellfire

Little was said about the fire-control system; the radar-guided Longbow Hellfires of course have to be directed by the fire-control system, which must also be able to engage multiple targets simultaneously. The Hellfire is expected to go into service on the LCS fleet from 2018. Incidentally, "Hellfire" is supposed to be an acronym for "HELiborne, Laser, FIRE & Forget)" -- but that sounds like a "backronym", made up after the fact.



* UNLIMITED COMBAT: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Modern Gladiators", 23 April 2016), one-on-one combat remains a popular spectator sport. Now it is being properly brought into the 21st century, thanks to "Lorica" full body armor, from an Australian firm blandly named Chiron Global.

There is nothing new about full body armor, of course, but the Lorica is not grandfather's body armor. Made primarily of high-impact kevlar polymer reinforced by carbon composite material, it only weighs 19 kilograms (42 pounds), and is flexible enough to impose little penalty on agility, fighters able to perform aerial cartwheels in their combat. It is also wired with sensors that report on the effectiveness of a blow: was it enough to break a bone in an unprotected opponent, or even enough to kill? Obviously a kill blow wins the bout -- while nobody gets seriously hurt.

Scoring is done by 52 sensors, which measure various forces at a rate of about 10,000 times a second, allowing blows to be detected and analyzed. The data are wirelessly transmitted to a computer to calculate the injury that the blow would have inflicted on an unprotected fighter. Since there's not all that much science on the connection between blows and injury, Chiron researchers intend to carry out experiments, attacking pig cadavers with weapons such as flails, arrows, and ninja stars.

Some of the Lorica's joints are protected only by a dense foam without a rigid shell, which grants mobility to a fighter -- but also means that some blows are out of bounds, and the edges of weapons must be blunted. Company officials say the Lorica helmet can protect against the concussive injuries that now concern many in contact sports, but that remains to be seen. Since it gets hot in the suit, bouts only last 90 seconds, the fighter then taking a break to be cooled by compressed air, blasted through a network of silicone tubes in the suit.

Justin Forsell, one of the co-founders of Chiron, says that the Lorica enables a telegenic new sport. A series of test fights using the system was staged in Wellington, New Zealand, in March 2016. The first official fights, which are being branded as the "Unified Weapons Master", are to follow, though there appear to have been delays.

Unified Weapons Master

Martial arts from different cultures, such as Japanese swordsmanship and Chinese staff fighting, will be pitted against each other. Shen "War Demon" Meng, a Beijing fighter who used a particularly ruthless form of kung fu known as "eagle claw" in the Wellington trials, believes the system lends an air of super-hero to the martial arts. He also liked the fact there was less need for a referee to have to step in and stop the fight to prevent injury, and that reviewing the fight data afterwards was good for improving his technique.

Less than 24 hours after the first video of the test fight appeared online, an official at the Pentagon's Special Operations Command phoned Chiron to ask about obtaining some suits. Four more armies have since made similar requests; military forces believe the suits can be used to teach close-quarter combat. Soldiers, of course, like to play super-hero, too.



* ELECTRIC VOLVO: In early July, the Volvo car company of Sweden made an international splash by announcing that, from 2019, every new car model the firm turns out will run at least in part on electric power. Volvo boss Hakan Samuelsson announced in a statement. "We are determined to be the first premium car maker to move our entire portfolio of vehicles into electrification."

That definitely got global attention, but as suggested by the title of an article from WIRED Online ("Volvo's Electric Car Plan Isn't as Bold or Crazy as It Seems" by Aarian Marshall, 6 July 2017), there was less than met the eye. True, between 2019 and 2021, Volvo will roll out five battery electric models, along with hybrid vehicles. This does seem daring, since electric vehicles (EVs) and hybrids are, at present, only a small percentage of the auto market, and for good reasons. Batteries are expensive and heavy, and EVs need charging infrastructure; on top of that, cheap fuel prices have been draining momentum from the drive to kick the petroleum habit.

Volvo Electric C30 prototype

However, taking a wider view changes the picture considerably:

On that view, going electric is a no-brainer, with Volvo just being a bit farther ahead of the power curve than the competition, working to get a market advantage. Costa Samaras, who studies alternative energy at Carnegie Mellon University, says: "There's a big branding benefit to being first. By announcing the end of the internal combustion engine, Volvo can plant a flag and hopefully attract some investment and talent."

A quick trip around the world illustrates the business environment that Volvo faces. Europe was once enthusiastic about clean diesel engines to bring down CO2 emissions, but in 2015 Volkswagen got caught cheating on pollution standards, while researchers began to proclaim that clean diesel wasn't so clean after all. Compared to 2011, diesel sales are down 20% in France and Belgium, and 45% in Norway. Big cities like Athens, Paris, and Madrid have announced they will ban diesel cars by 2025; France just announced it aims to stop sales of diesel and gas vehicles by 2040. On top of that, the European Union intends to implement new and aggressive CO2 emissions limits in 2020.

In China, on the other side of the Old World, drivers purchase half the world's EVs, with the government dictating that EVs must make up 12% of sales by 2020. China's automakers are enthusiastic about EVs and hybrids, with Volvo infected by the enthusiasm -- although Volvo was once owned by Ford, it was acquired by Geely of Hangzhou in 2010.

Other carmakers the world over are moving towards EVs. More than 30 fully electric vehicles are available on the international market, including models from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, and of course Tesla -- and there's no shortage of hybrids on dealer lots. Although the Trump Administration is retro in its disdain for green technologies, big American automakers are becoming enthusiastic for EVs and hybrids, including Chevy's $30,000 USD Bolt EV, and Ford's hybrid police car.

The big companies, however, operate on long timelines, taking five to seven years to come up with a new car. Indeed, Volvo still plans to sell gas-burners, with existing models only updated to EV / hybrid configuration when they're rethought, unless they're simply discontinued. Still, Volvo is relatively small, with a smaller product line to update. The company delivered over a half-million cars in 2016, which isn't so much when BMW and Mercedes-Benz each sold more than 2 million. The biggest players like Volkswagen and Toyota move 10 million cars a year.

Volvo also has an advantage in that it is an upscale brand. EVs and hybrids cost a premium, but Volvo buyers tend to have the money, and usually have garages where they can charge their vehicles at night -- or even work at firms that offer charging as a job benefit. Even in the USA, where derision of EVs is more common than elsewhere, EVs and hybrids have a prestige that makes the increment in cost much more bearable.

Volvo's move towards EVs also positions the firm as a partner in booming robocar development. Electric power works well for robocars; in urban settings, range isn't such a problem, and operators of robocar fleets will see charging up instead of tanking up as very economically attractive. In short, Volvo's seen the future, and is just trying to get a step ahead in the rush. The competition is likely to get tough, and any advantage that Volvo can get is for the good.



* MANUFACTURING REINVENTED (5): As discussed by a related article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Retreat Of The Global Company", 28 January 2017), while manufacturing has gone global, there has been a countervailing retreat of multinational corporations.

That's surprising, since US fast-food chains like Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) and McDonald's are global icons, recognized everywhere. However, on a global basis, they're past their peak, their share values having lagged the US stock market over the past half-decade. Yum, the owner of KFC, had peak profits in 2012; now they're in decline. In 2016, Yum gave up in China and spun off its business there. Early this year, McDonald's similarly sold a majority stake in its Chinese operation to a state-owned firm.

The multinational corporation is going out of style. Multinational corporations -- defined generally as firms that get over 30% of their sales outside their home region -- still do have clout; they direct the flows of goods, services and capital that brought economic globalization to life. Though multinationals account for only 2% of the world's jobs, they own or orchestrate the supply chains that account for over 50% of world trade; they make up 40% of the value of the West's stock markets; and they own most of the world's intellectual property.

However, the 21st century is catching up with them. Multinational corporations are stereotyped as ruthless and far too powerful by the Left; in reality, they are more often clumsy and overextended. Activists find fault with them. Politicians have been increasingly targeting them, for example zeroing in on profits such firms sequester outside their home regions, out of the reach of taxes.

A quarter of a century ago, multinationals looked like the way of the future. They were nothing new in concept; indeed, some like Shell, Coca-Cola, and Unilever had histories spanning the 20th century. However, these traditional multinationals, for the most part, were loose federations of national businesses, not that much more than a shared brand name. The new multinationals aspired to be companies with global reach.

There was talk in business schools about strategies for establishing multinational corporations, but in practice they operated opportunistically -- enthusiastically buying rivals, courting customers, and opening factories when they saw the chance. Although the trend began in the developed world, it soon caught on with big companies in developing countries. The result was a feeding frenzy: 85% of the global stock of multinational investment was created after 1990, after adjusting for inflation.

In 2006 Sam Palmisano, the boss of IBM, announced that "globally integrated enterprise" run as a unitary organization and not a federation, would transcend all borders as it sought "the integration of production and value delivery worldwide". However, at that time, the signs were not good. Starting with the Seattle demonstrations of 1999 onwards, anti-globalization activists had been protesting the growing reach of "globally integrated enterprises", blasting them as irresponsible powers unto themselves.

After the boom, the bust. In 2016 multinationals' cross-border investment is estimated to have fallen by 10% to 15%. Although cross-border supply chains are fundamental to the global economy, they have stagnated since 2007. The proportion of sales that Western firms make outside their home region has shrunk. Multinationals' profits are falling, and the flow of new multinational investment has been declining relative to GDP. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* A WORLD AFTER OIL (6): Is the oil age really coming to an end? In some places, it already has. In the early 1970s, the Scots city of Aberdeen was swept up in an oil rush, with Texan "roughnecks" arriving to exploit North Sea oil, spreading money lavishly around town in the process. Oil prices collapsed in 1986, and the Texans effectively disappeared. The cycle of boom and bust has been repeated in Aberdeen; in 2012 it had more multi-millionaires per 100,000 people than London, and the world's liveliest heliport, taking workers to and from the rigs.

Then another oil-price crash hit in 2014, and the lights started going out. There was still plenty of oil under the North Sea; the problem was diminishing returns, that it was no longer competitive to extract that oil. After despairing, the locals are trying to adapt. There may be more oil to be had in the North Sea, but the sense is that it's past time to get off the oil roller-coaster. The booms don't happen as often, the busts keeping getting worse. EV charging stations are popping up in the city.

Oil industry veterans acknowledge that high-cost oil regions like Scotland's North Sea, Canada's oil sands and the Russian Arctic may be in trouble -- and they know the current glut isn't going to last, with shortages appearing after it fades. They foresee a revival after that; those with the most to gain will be producers in places with low-cost, abundant oil such as the Middle East, America's Permian basin, Brazil's pre-salt fields and parts of West Africa.

The question is: what happens then? How long can the cycle of boom and bust be repeated? It is becoming too difficult to endure now. Throw in the prospect of declining demand for oil makes the scenario even more troublesome. The problem, of course, is not just for the oil companies, but also for countries economically dependent on oil production. The social stresses now evident in troubled petrostates such as Venezuela and Nigeria are a hint of things to come.

Even if there's plenty of oil left, the business of extracting, refining, and selling it is headed for a fall. End of the road? No. Near Aberdeen, firms such as Royal Dutch Shell are decommissioning parts of the spectacular network of rigs and pipelines installed in the 1970s. It's not a trivial task; it wasn't trivial to build such systems in the first place, and environmental considerations ensure it's not all that simple to get rid of them. There is clearly a business opportunity, at least over the mid-term, for oil firms that have that know-how.

Beyond that? Statoil, the Norwegian state oil company, has a clear vision of the future. In 2016, Statoil acquired a lease to build the world's largest floating wind farm 24 kilometers (15 miles) off the coast of Peterhead, north of Aberdeen. Each of its five six-megawatt turbines will be tethered to the seabed on a floating steel base, enabling it to operate in deeper water than a conventional turbine embedded into the sea floor. That means access to stronger winds farther offshore, making it cheaper to produce electricity. Statoil is also working on projects to capture CO2 and store it under the sea floor. Having pumped carbon out, there's a certain symmetry in pumping it back in.

Some energy companies are investigating biofuels. At the North Sea port of Rotterdam Neste, a Finnish refiner, ships in waste fats from the world's slaughterhouses and converts them into biodiesel for the haulage and aviation industry. The biodiesel costs more than regular diesel, but under EU rules member countries' fuel mix must include 10% biofuels by 2020. Neste's boss, Matti Lievonen, says that in 2012 90% of his company's operating profit came from refining fossil fuels. Now renewables account for 40%.

Statoil and Neste are at the leading edge of the pack. More conservative firms are focusing on extracting gas, and see a more sustainable future in pumping oil for petrochemicals. The IEA estimates that petrochemicals will raise demand for oil by almost 6 MBPD in the next 25 years. Ironically, oil companies are pushing governments to establish carbon taxes; most of the oil firms can see the writing on the wall, and carbon taxes aren't such a problem if they're consistently implemented across the fossil-fuel industry. After all, consumers will foot the bill in any case -- though carbon-tax schemes envision rebates to consumers to make the taxes "revenue neutral" -- and that carbon taxes will help squeeze out coal. Governments haven't been all that enthusiastic yet.

Ultimately, it will be consumers who decide the fate of oil, by embracing energy efficiency, renewable energy, and rethought transport systems. Back at the dawn of the auto age, governments did take steps to help promote the use of motor vehicles, such as paving roads, but it was wild consumer enthusiasm for the Ford Model T that ended the dominance of horse-drawn transport -- and streets littered with horse manure. We can see glimpses of a future beyond oil, in which people don't feel a car is an absolute necessity, relying instead on a subscription service to a network of robot EVs.

Instead of just being a means from getting from place to place, a car may well be a mobile office or entertainment center. Who knows? All science-fiction visions of the future look quaint and unimaginative fifty years on. That, in itself, gives a basis for not merely hoping for, but expecting as inevitable, a future beyond oil. [END OF SERIES]



* Space launches for June included:

-- 01 JUN 17 / MICHIBIKI 2 -- An H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 0017 UTC (local time - 9) to put the "Michibiki (Guiding) 2" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the second spacecraft in the Japanese "Quasi-Zenith Satellite System" -- which will ultimately include four satellites, to provide GPS augmentation for Japan and neighboring countries, ensuring that GPS works in mountain valleys and cities with towering buildings.

Michibiki 2 was made by Mitsubishi Electric Corporation. It was placed in an orbit with an inclination of 44 degrees, with a perigee of about 33,100 kilometers (20,500 miles) and an apogee of about 38,500 kilometers (24,000 miles). The result is that Michibiki's ground track follows an asymmetric figure-eight pattern stretching from Japan to Australia as it alternates north and south of the equator. Michibiki 2 is at near-zenith, or almost straight up, in the Japanese sky for about eight hours each day. With the launch of two follow-on satellites and the single spacecraft already in orbit, the four-station constellation will permit continuous coverage of Japan.

-- 01 JUN 17 / VIASAT 2, EUTELSAT 172B -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2345 UTC (local time + 3) to put the "ViaSat 2" and "Eutelsat 172B" geostationary comsats into orbit. The ViaSat 2 satellite was built by Boeing Satellite Systems and was based on the BSS 702HP bus. It had a launch mass of 6,418 kilograms (14,149 pounds), a payload of Ka-band transponders, and a design life of 14 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 69.9 degrees west longitude to provide Ka-band services supporting high-speed internet connectivity across North America, Central America, the Caribbean, and northern South America on airplanes, ships, and on land.

Eutelsat 172B was built by Airbus Space, and was based on the Airbus E3000e bus. It has a fully electric propulsion and station-keeping system, being the first European satellite with such a feature. It had a launch mass of 3,351 kilograms (7,828 pounds) and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 172 degrees east longitude to provide a range of communications services, including high-throughout Ku-band services for in-flight wi-fi and connectivity for airline passengers in the Asia-Pacific, along with regular Ku-band and C-band transponders for video broadcasting, corporate networks, and cellular backhaul.

03 JUN 17 / SPACEX DRAGON CRS 11 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2107 UTC (local time + 4), carrying the 11th operational "Dragon" cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS), docking with the station two days after launch. The capsule had been previously launched in September 2014, to be refurbished after landing. The first stage of the Falcon 9 booster performed a soft landing at Cape Canaveral; this was the fifth successful landing there out of five attempts, and the 11th successful landing of a Falcon first stage out of 16 attempts.

-- 05 JUN 17 / GSAT 19 -- An ISRO Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark 3 booster was launched from Sriharikota at 0229 UTC (local time - 5:30) to put the "GSAT 19" geostationary comsat satellite into space. GSAT 19 was built by ISRO; it had a launch mass of 3,136 kilograms (6,913 pounds), a payload of Ku / Ka-band transponders, and a design life of ten years. It was placed in geostationary orbit over India to support television broadcasts, data networks and other broadband services over India. It also carried a radiation-monitoring instrument to observe the space environment in geostationary orbit.

This was the first "all-up" launch of the GSLV Mark 3, which has twin large solid-rocket booster, and almost twice the lift capacity of the preceding GSLV Mark 2. The GSLV Mark 3 can place about 8 tonnes (18,000 pounds) into low Earth orbit.

-- 08 JUN 17 / ECHOSTAR 21 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 0345 UTC (local time - 6) to put the "Echostar 21" geostationary comsat into orbit for EchoStar Mobile LTD. EchoStar 21 was built by Space Systems/Loral in Palo Alto, California, and was based on the SS/L 1300-series satellite bus. It had a launch mass of about 6,900 kilograms (15,200 pounds) -- making it the heaviest commercial payload ever flown on a Proton booster -- and a design life of 15 years. It featured an S-band payload to provide mobile broadband services over Europe, being placed in the geostationary slot at 10.25 degrees east longitude.

-- 14 JUN 17 / PROGRESS 67P (ISS) -- A Soyuz 2-1a booster was launched from Baikonur at 0920 UTC (local time - 6) to put the "Progress 67P" AKA "MS-06" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It docked with the ISS Zvezda module two days later. It was the 67th Progress mission to the ISS.

-- 15 JUN 17 / HXMT -- A Chinese Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0315 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "Hard X-ray Modulation Telescope (HXMT)" space observatory into orbit. The satellite had a launch mass of 2,800 kilograms (6,175 pounds) and carried three X-ray telescopes -- operating in the high, medium, and low X-ray ranges. HXMT was to conduct an all-sky survey, as well as targeted observations.


Although the instruments were called "telescopes", they were really detector arrays with collimators, with no magnifying capability. Compared with previous X-ray astronomical satellites, HXMT had a larger detection area, broader energy range and wider field of view. The launch also included three microsatellites:

-- 18 JUN 17 / CHINASAT 9A (FAILURE) -- A Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1612 UTC (next day local time - 8) to put the "Chinasat 9A" geostationary comsat into space. The satellite was built by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and based on the DFH-4 bus. It had a launch mass of 5,100 kilograms (11,245 pounds), a payload of Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was to be placed in the geostationary slot at 101.4 degrees east longitude to provide provide direct broadcast services for radio and TV transmission, digital film and digital broadband multimedia systems. There was an upper-stage failure and the satellite did not reach operational orbit.

-- 23 JUN 17 / CARTOSAT 2E, NANOSATS -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle (PSLV) was launched from Sriharikota at 0929 UTC (local time - 5:30) to put the "Cartosat 2E" high-resolution Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit. It had a launch weight of about 725 kilograms (1,600 pounds) and carried visible-range cameras, with a best resolution of 60 centimeters (2 feet), on a five-year mission.

Cartosat 2E launch

Cartosat 2 is a series of space platforms for civil and military use. The first of the series, the civilian "Cartosat 2", was launched in January 2007. The first dedicated military satellite, "Cartosat 2A" was launched in April 2008, followed by "Cartosat 2B" in July 2010. Three satellites were then launched in a year: "Cartosat 2C" on 22 June 2016, "Cartosat 2D" on 15 February 2017, and Cartosat 2E on 23 June. All were launched on the PSLV.

Like its predecessors, Cartosat 2E carried a panchromatic imager, along with a multispectral imaging system that was flown on the two previous satellites. The spacecraft was based on ISRO's IRS-2 bus, with a launch mass of 712 kilograms (1,570 pounds), and a design life of five years. The space platform is three-axis stabilized, using reaction wheels, magnetorquers and hydrazine-fuelled reaction control thrusters. Power was provided by twin solar arrays, charging two lithium-ion batteries. The solar arrays could generate 986 watts of electrical power for the spacecraft. Cartosat 2E was a civilian satellite. A follow-on "Cartosat 3" series is to be launched from 2018.

The launch also included 30 smallsats:

The eight remaining payloads were part of the "QB50" program, an international collaboration to deploy scientific instruments into low Earth orbit aboard a large constellation of CubeSats. The "QB50-PL" mission, as this PSLV launch was designated within the project's context, followed the launch of twenty-eight satellites to the ISS aboard Orbital ATK's OA-7 CYGNUS freighter, the SS JOHN GLENN, in April, from where they were deployed between 16 and 26 May. The PSLV launch provided the satellites with an orbit at a slightly higher altitude, and with much higher inclination, than those deployed from ISS.

QB50 satellites carry either one of three standard instrument packages, or a technology demonstration payload to support potential future missions. The three standard instruments include an Ion-Neutral Mass Spectrometer (INMS); a Flux-Phi Probe Experiment (FIPEX); or a Multi-Needle Langmuir Probe (mNLP). The eight QB50 satellites included two technology demonstrators:

The other six QB50 CubeSats consisted of three sets of two, divided among the three instrument packages:

The PSLV XL is the most powerful PSLV configuration, with six strap-on solid-rocket boosters.

-- 23 JUN 17 / COSMOS 2519 -- A Soyuz 2-1v booster was launched from Plesetsk at 1804 UTC (local time - 3) to put a secret satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit. The space platform was given the designation of "Cosmos 2519". It may have been a geodetic studies satellite.

-- 23 JUN 17 / BULGARIASAT 1 -- A SpaceX Falcon booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1910 UTC (local time + 3) to put the "BulgariaSat 1" geostationary comsat into orbit. It was built by Space Systems / Loral, had a launch mass of 3,669 kilograms (8,089 pounds), a payload of 33 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years.

It was placed in the geostationary slot at 1.9 degrees east longitude to provide direct-to-home television broadcast and data communications services over southeast Europe for Bulsatcom. It was the first geostationary communications satellite owned by a Bulgarian company. The first stage of the Falcon performed a successful landing at Cape Canaveral; the touchdown was rough, but the stage was undamaged. This was the second time a Falcon 9 first stage was recovered twice.

-- 23 JUN 17 / IRIDIUM NEXT 11:20 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 2025 UTC (local time + 7) to put ten "Iridium Next" satellites into orbit for Iridium Communications. The first stage performed a soft landing on the SpaceX drone ship; it was the second time a Falcon first stage had been recovered twice.

The ten Iridium-NeXT satellites that were aboard Falcon 9 were the second batch of spacecraft to be launched towards a constellation that will ultimately consider of 66 satellites, plus on-orbit spares. The Iridium-NeXT constellation will replace the current constellation, which was launched between 1997 and 2002.

The first-generation Iridium constellation consisted of 689-kilogram (1,520-pound) LM-700A satellites manufactured by Lockheed Martin. Ninety-eight satellites were built, of which ninety-five were launched. The satellites were designed to provide eight years of service; however, most of the original constellation was still in service, if degrading, when Iridium-NEXT launches began.

Iridium has ordered eighty-one second-generation Iridium-NeXT satellites to replace its entire fleet at a cost of around three-billion USD. In orbit, the constellation will have six planes of eleven satellites, orbiting at an altitude of 778 kilometers (483 miles / 420 nautical miles) and a near-polar inclination of 86.4 degrees.


The spacecraft are being constructed by Thales Alenia Space and Orbital ATK. Orbital is undertaking final assembly of the spacecraft in Gilbert, Arizona, while Thales is the prime contractor and has provided the ELiTeBus-1000 platform upon which they are based. Also known as the "Extended Lifetime Bus", this is a derivative of the company's Proteus bus with an increased lifespan of at least ten years. Iridium intend to operate their new constellation for fifteen years.

Iridium spacecraft carry an L-band communications payload to transmit and receive data from handsets, while Ka-band transponders are used both to transmit data to and from ground stations and to establish crosslinks between satellites. The crosslink capability allows the spacecraft to route calls anywhere in the world without needing to use intermediary ground stations to downlink the data and uplink it to the next satellite.

-- 28 JUN 17 / INMARSAT S-BAND HELLAS-SAT 3, GSAT 17 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2215 UTC (local time + 3) to put the "Inmarsat S-band / Hellas-Sat 3" and "GSAT 17" geostationary comsats into orbit. The Inmarsat S-band / Hellas-Sat was built by Thales Alenia Space and had a launch mass of 5,780 kilograms (12,742 pounds).

Inmarsat S-band / Hellas-Sat 3 was built by Thales Alenia Space, and was based on the Spacebus 4000C4 platform. It had a launch mass of 5,780 kilograms (12,742 pounds), and a payload of 44 Ku-band / 1 Ka-band / 1 S-band transponders. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 39 degrees east longitude and supported the European Aviation Network (EAN), delivering high-capacity wi-fi connectivity to airline passengers throughout Europe, on behalf of Inmarsat of London; it also provided direct television broadcast services over Europe and Africa for the Greek operator Hellas-Sat.

GSAT 17 was built by ISRO. It had a launch mass of 3,477 kilograms (7,665 pounds) a payload of C-band & an S-band transponders, plus a meteorological payload and a search-&-rescue payload. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 93.5 degrees east longitude to support national communications services over India for the Indian Space Research Organization.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The loss of the Japanese Hitomi orbiting X-ray observatory early was a great disappointment for the Japanese space program -- but the Japanese space agency JAXA has now committed to flying a partial replacement mission. The "X-ray Astronomy Recovery Mission (XARM)" will launch no earlier than the spring of 2021.

NASA is a junior partner in XARM, pronounced "charm", with the US space agency to X-ray telescopes and a spectrometer instrument for the mission. While Hitomi carried four instruments to observe cosmic objects at high energies, XARM will only carry the two instruments operating at lower energies -- the Soft X-ray Imager and the Soft X-ray Spectrometer. The Soft X-ray Imager is a Japanese instrument, but NASA provided the telescope; NASA was primarily responsible for the Soft X-ray Spectrometer.

The Soft X-ray Imager on XARM will have improved resolution over the instrument on Hitomi. XARM will not have an extendable 6-meter (20-foot) boom like Hitomi, since it was only needed for Hitomi's instruments operating at higher energies. The European Space Agency is also a minority partner in XARM.



* YEASTS MAKE THE DIFFERENCE: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("A New Brew", 2 April 2016), humans have been making wine for millennia, but until modern times, they didn't know they had enlisted yeasts in the fermentation of grapes. That yeast can now be found in every vineyard on Earth.

The processing of coffee beans and cacao, the feedstock for chocolate, also involves fermentation and yeasts. However, while the yeasts involved in wine-making are genetically very similar, those used processing of coffee beans and cacao are high genetically diverse. This fact may well open the door to a new range of flavors to please coffee-drinkers and chocolate-lovers.

Coffee came out of Ethiopia in the 6th century CE, disseminated throughout the Middle East by Arab traders, to then spread elsewhere; it arrived in the New World in the 18th century. Cacao went the other direction, having originated in the Amazon, being widely cultivated in Central America before Hernan Cortes brought it to the Old World in 1630. As Europe consumed more coffee and chocolate, merchants began to establish vast plantations any place the plants could be cultivated. In the first part of the 17th century, Dutch traders transported a Yemeni coffee plant to Holland; shortly thereafter, they began cultivating its descendants in Sri Lanka, Java, and Reunion. Other trading nations spread coffee where they could, and it is now a mainstay crop in many of the world's poorest nations. Cacao went a similar route, and is now grown in 33 tropical countries.

Aimee Dudley of the Pacific Northwest Diabetes Research Institute in Seattle, and Justin Fay of the University of Washington and their colleagues, got to wondering if the yeasts associated with cacao and coffee followed these plants from their places of origin, just as yeasts had followed wine from the Middle East. To investigate, they collected unroasted cacao beans from 13 countries, including Colombia, Ghana, Madagascar and Papua New Guinea; and unroasted coffee beans from 14 locations, including Ethiopia, Honduras, Indonesia, and Yemen. Having collected the samples, the researchers then examined the yeasts found on the beans -- using yeasts found on grapes in the same locales as experimental controls.

They found that, although all vineyard-yeast strains are very similar genetically, there is tremendous diversity among the yeast strains associated with cacao and coffee, with the variation in strains correlated to geography.

For example, all cacao beans collected from Venezuela had closely related strains of yeast that were distinct from those found on Nigerian and Ecuadorean beans; the same was true for the yeasts found on coffee. The country of origin of coffee or cacao beans could be determined by genetic analysis of their yeasts.

Why the diversity? It seems to be due to procedures. There are several reasons why wine yeasts are so similar. Oak barrels are often exported from an established winemaking region to an area of new cultivation, and these serve as reservoirs of yeasts native to the original location. Winemakers also have a long history of using starter cultures of yeast from places that have traditionally produced wines, ensuring that local yeasts are kept out. In contrast, the use of starter cultures is very rare in the processing of cacao and coffee, where growers tend to rely upon the species of yeast found locally.

The researchers believe this diversity of cacao and coffee yeasts means there is the potential to create new flavors by using a strain from one location in another, the researchers reckon. The yeasts of a Hawaiian coffee bean could, for example, be used to ferment beans being grown in Uganda; or the yeasts from Haitian cacao beans could be used with cacao grown in Ghana. Will the results be any good? Try it and find out.



* TATTLING PRINTERS: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Why Printers Add Secret Tracking Dots" by Chris Baraniuk, 7 June 2017), the Trump Administration has been beset with leaks, and has been working to plug them. On 3 June 2017, agents of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation came to the house in Augusta, Georgia, of Reality Leigh Winner, a government contractor, and arrested her. She was charged with leaking a secret US National Security Agency (NSA) document to the online news site THE INTERCEPT.

The FBI was able to trace the document to a specific color printer to which Winner had access. The document was marked by patterns of faint yellow dots, invisible on casual inspection, that gave the serial number of the printer, along with the time and date the document was printed. Such "microdots" are not news to security researchers and civil liberties advocates. The Feds haven't actually said anything about the microdots on the document, but all those familiar with microdots easily recognized and deciphered them.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital-rights advocacy group, maintains a list of color printers known to generate them -- including printers from Brother, Canon, Casio, Hewlett-Packard, Konica, Minolta, Mita, Ricoh, Sharp, and Xerox. The EFF also has tools to help decipher them. Tim Bennett, a data analyst at software consultancy Vector 5, says that microdots aren't necessarily malign: "People could use [microdots] to check for forgeries. If they get a document and someone says it's from 2005, [the microdots might show] it's from the last several months."

The art of secret messages, known as "steganography", has been around for a long time, the classic example being invisible ink. During the Cold War, messages were also sent as highly reduced images of text that had to be read with a microscope. Much the same "microtext" technology is still around today. Some companies, such as Alpha Dot in the UK, sell vials of permanent adhesive full of pinhead-sized dots, covered in microscopic text containing a unique serial number; the dots allow a stolen item to be traced. Banknotes also have security features, such as patterns of colored threads.

Steganography of digital files is a lively business these days. Suppose we have a image file with 16-bit values for the color dots in the image; we could set the least-significant bit of each value in the file to "1" or "0" to encode a message, and nobody would notice any difference in the image. Alan Woodward, a security expert at the University of Surrey, points to "Steganographic Nature Of Whitespace (Snow)" which adds spaces and tabs at the end of lines in a piece of text. The particular number and order of these white spaces can be used to encode an message. The Snow website says that spotting the message is like trying to "see a polar bear in a snowstorm".

Woodward points out that microdots aren't the only way to track a document. "Organizations such as the NSA have logs of every time something is printed, not just methods of tracking paper once printed. They know that people know about the yellow dots, and so they don't rely upon it for traceability."

Winner was naive; she would have been better off to have scanned the document, then blurred the scan slightly to erase any subtle marks, and burned the original. There have been complaints about printers using microdots, some claiming they are violations of human rights, but it's obvious that people and organizations have a right to ensure validation of documents. Ted Han at cataloguing platform DOCUMENT CLOUD says: "There are things that governments should be able to keep secret." -- but he adds: "I hope that folks think about their operational security and also about how journalists can protect themselves -- and their sources as well."



* MANUFACTURING REINVENTED (4): Taking another angle on 21st-century manufacturing, an article from REUTERS ("'Bad' Foreign Firms Drive US Manufacturing Jobs Revival" by Lesley Wroughton and Howard Schneider, 30 June 2017) went Down South, to observe the manufacturing boom there -- thanks to foreign investment.

It is true that manufacturing in the US is in long-term decline, but the decline is to a degree an artifact of the growth of other sectors of the economy -- and in fact, US manufacturing has enjoyed a bit of absolute growth in recent years. Although Donald Trump made a great fuss about "unfair" foreign competition in the 2016 election campaign, Federal jobs data shows that out of 656,000 new manufacturing jobs created between 2010 and 2014, foreign direct investment was responsible for two-thirds of the number. Although more recent relevant jobs data isn't available, over $700 billion USD in foreign capital has poured into USA over the last two years.

Foreign companies that have spent billions on US factories are now worried that Trump will undercut their investment with protectionist measures. Trump's tough rhetoric on free trade helped him win the Northeastern and Midwestern Rust Belts in the 2016 election -- but it didn't go over that well with companies and local leaders in the South, where much of the recent uptick in manufacturing jobs has taken place.

The South did go strongly for Trump, but Southern leadership has also spent decades trying to bring in foreign companies through carrots such as flexible labor laws; financial incentives; plus investment in ports, roads, and other infrastructure. The result has been new auto plants from Kentucky to Georgia, plus a new Airbus plant in Mobile, Alabama.

For a prominent example, consider the factory at Spartanburg in South Carolina. German carmaker BMW invested $8 billion USD in a 1.2 million square foot (11.15 hectare) assembly plant there, BMW now being the largest single exporter of cars by value from the USA. At a recent ceremony over BMW's latest X3 sports utility vehicle, South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster -- a Republican and Trump supporter -- was enthusiastic about BMW: "The presence of this company changed everything in the trajectory of our state."

BMW CEO Harald Krueger said the carmaker would invest another $600 million USD in Spartanburg over the next four years, adding 1,000 jobs to the 9,000-strong workforce, while spending another $200 million USD on employee training and education. However, Donald Trump is not impressed, having complained about BMW's plans to build a plant in Mexico. Trump has a particular gripe with Germany, saying the Germans were "very bad" on trade and selling too many cars in the USA.

German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel replied to Trump's accusations that the "US needs to build better cars." Of course, BMW doesn't dare trade shots with the President of the United States -- but the company is hedging bets by retooling factories in South Africa and China to build volume models like the X3 SUV, reducing its dependence on Spartanburg. Oliver Zipse, a manufacturing head at BMW, said:


We will build the X3 not only in Spartanburg, we will split it into South Africa and then to China, so we will have some flexibility to produce cars somewhere else. If something happens at the political level -- which we don't know yet -- we are able to have a flexible response.


The Trump Administration, not noted for speaking with a single voice, claims to welcome foreign investment. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross attended the opening of a new Samsung plant in South Carolina, said that the USA "is becoming an even stronger destination for global businesses looking to grow."

Southern leadership, however, knows it's been largely been their own efforts that have promoted foreign investment in the region. Coastal port authorities and cities have invested heavily to make their channels and docks adequate for shipments to and from China and Mexico. Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina who has often sharply criticized Trump, said protectionism would undermine those accomplishments and hurt American workers. At the X3 ceremony, Graham said: "Negotiate a trade agreement with Europe, modernize NAFTA, don't tear it up. We're going in the wrong direction. We need more trade agreements, not less."

Graham noted how low-cost competition from China and Mexico destroyed South Carolina's once thriving textile industry -- with the state then reinventing itself as a manufacturing hub, bringing in firms like BMW or French tire maker Michelin. The port city of Charleston, South Carolina, was similarly devastated in the 1990s, when a US Navy base shut down, with 20,000 jobs wiped out. Local officials worked to bring in foreign investment, and now the port and the city are humming. Mercedes-Benz is expanding its operations in the area, while Volvo is now working towards the opening of its first North American plant.

Local development officials feel they are on a roll, but worry that the Trump Administration could derail it. Claire Gibbons, director of global marketing at the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, said the administration's proposed new tariffs, tougher immigration rules, and stricter reviews of foreign investment projects would be a "doomsday scenario" for the region: "This is an education opportunity for us all, for the people making the decisions that don't understand the ramifications." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* A WORLD AFTER OIL (5): In developing nations such as India and China, air pollution has reached nightmare levels -- India having a particular problem with indoor air pollution in poor households, where wood and dung are burned as fuel, a practice that kills hundreds of thousands of Indians. India is now attempted to subsidize the burning of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) in poor households to get them off wood and dung, and make sure LPG is available to them.

The oil companies are pleased to hear that, seeing India as a growth market. The IEA says that India, which currently consumes less energy per person than Africa, will become the engine of global growth in oil demand by the mid-2020s as its economy grows and its population becomes the biggest in the world. China is another encouragement for the oil industry. Over the past decade, it has accounted for 60% of the world's growth in oil consumption, being one of the main drivers for the gradual rise in oil prices, until they collapsed in 2014.

The IEA, in forecasts that assume the 2C global-warming target will not be met, estimates that by 2040, China will consume 4.1 BPD more than it does now, and India 6 million BPD. Other emerging markets are also expected to consume more oil as economic growth boosts demand for mobility and petrochemicals. The research firm Bernstein predicts that the number of vehicles around the world will double, to two billion, over the next 25 years. Use of air transport in both China and India is similarly booming.

Since India imports most of its petroleum, that sounds like good news for the oil industry, if not for climate change. However, appearances may be deceiving. Right now, only about 1 in every 200 Indians owns a car, which is about the same ratio as the USA during World War I. Dharmendra Pradhan, India's petroleum minister, doesn't believe that India should follow America's trajectory: "Why should we do things the same way as other countries? Why should we think the car is the only form of transportation? We want to develop our own model."

Concerns over air pollution, urban congestion, and energy security in both China and India give both nations good reasons to find their own path. China made it clear in signing the Paris Agreement that it was serious about dealing with climate change; India is also agreeable, if not quite as enthusiastic.

India still relies on coal for 58% of its basic energy needs. It hopes to reduce its dependence on oil (28% of the mix) by 10% by 2022, and plans to double the share of natural gas from 7% to 15%. It intends to rely increasingly on liquefied natural gas (LNG) instead of oil, with plans to lay 15,000 kilometers (9,300 miles) of pipeline. Nonetheless, India is going to be heavily reliant on coal for electrical power generation in the mid-term.

As for vehicles, the prospects are somewhat different, with the government pushing natural gas as a vehicular fuel. In New Delhi, all public transport, taxis, rickshaws, and many private cars have been converted to compressed natural gas (CNG), which is cheaper and cleaner than diesel or gasoline. There are the problems that it takes more time to fill up a CNG vehicle than one powered by liquid fuels, and there are not enough pumps. The government is also developing LNG as an alternative to diesel in long-distance trucking, working with Tata, the country's largest conglomerate.

In the meantime, India plans to use bamboo and other natural products to produce biofuels such as ethanol to blend with gasoline. In recent years it has scrapped subsidies for diesel and gasoline, and by 2020 it hopes to tighten up the fuel-efficiency standards for the country's vehicle fleet. It's a big job but nonetheless, India's demand for oil may be more constrained than the industry hopes.

The story is similar in China. Although car sales have been booming, there's still only one car per eight Chinese, a ratio comparable to that of the USA in the 1920s. The Chinese government is now establishing laws to limit emissions and specify vehicle efficiency. Like India, China is promoting LNG for long-distance buses and trucks, and CNG for light vehicles. The most noticeable factor in China's vehicle market, however, is the electric bike, which crowd the streets of China's big cities.

The IEA estimates there's about 200 million of them in China at present. The government has done nothing to promote them; they're a free-market solution to the transport problems of Chinese who can't afford a car. City authorities in Beijing and elsewhere are cracking down on them and even considering bans, because they see them as a nuisance for cars and pedestrians. Nonetheless, EVs in general seem to be a good fit for China's polluted cities -- though they will demand a great expansion in Chinese renewable energy sources to be a truly clean solution. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online ("Self-Driving Cars Won't Just Watch the World -- They'll Watch You" by Jack Stewart, 13 February 17), robocars have to be wired via sensors and cameras to watch the road around them -- but it turns to important for them to watch the driver as well. According to Anuj Pradhan, a human-factors expert at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute: "We are making tremendous progress in instrumenting vehicles to know everything that's happening around them, but there are just not enough sensors looking at the driver inside the car."

The issue is that, while automotive automation is advancing by leaps and bounds, nobody sees a reliable, fully-autonomous vehicle as right around the corner. For the foreseeable future, although an automated vehicle can handle routine driving conditions, it can't reliably handle road construction, bad weather conditions, or other unexpected circumstances. It may have to call on the person at the wheel to take control -- even though, with the car doing the routine driving, the human is inclined to nod off.

One of the ironies of this line of thinking is that the distractions that are so dangerous when driving a "dumb" car -- like texting, or watching a video on a smartphone -- are actually beneficial in a partly-autonomous vehicle. That's because somebody who is texting is alert, and able to react to changed circumstances much more quickly than someone who has nodded off.

Basic driver monitoring systems have been around for over a decade. In 2003, Volvo introduced the "Intelligent Driver Information System", which monitors steering wheel and pedal inputs, and whether the turn signal is on -- suggesting the driver is engaged in a maneuver, and shouldn't be bothered by a phone call for the moment. For the most part, however, such systems have focused on checking to see if the driver has dropped out. Some models will flash an icon of a steaming cup of coffee if steering inputs start wandering, and it seems like the driver could be nodding off; Toyota has used a camera to watch the driver's eyelids.

Volvo warning sign

Australian company Seeing Machines says its gaze-tracking technology will allow cars to be co-drivers, not only monitoring whether the driver is awake or not, but able to realize that the driver hasn't seen something the car knows is there. Industry supplier Pioneer wants to monitor heart rate; Harman is working on tech that measures pupil dilation, aiming to understand cognitive load.

In a sense, a car will obtain a degree of control over the driver. It will be able to know if the driver is doing something wrong, and provide a louder alarm if the driver seems distracted. The car could offer to engage autonomous systems if the driver is tired, and the road presents no obstacles. Driver monitoring raises privacy concerns -- there's a limit to how much data a driver wants to share with the world, continuous video being clearly beyond the pale -- but it also implies legal issues, with the recorded trail of a driver's actions being relevant in an accident trial. In any case, we can expect a future in which cars keep a watchful eye on the person behind the wheel, and we'll have to figure out how to cope.

* An article from WIRED Online referenced a "SmartDeviceLink (SDL)" standard, which would allow a smartphone or tablet communicate with a car's digital systems. The Ford Motor Company originally came up with the idea, introducing it as "AppLink" in the 2013 Ford Fiesta. Applink quickly evolved into an emerging open-source standard, SDL, supported by multiple vendors.

SDL is a standard set of protocols and messages that connect smartphone applications to a vehicle "head unit" -- that is, the car's digital systems directly accessible to driver and passengers. It's a two-way connectivity, with the smartphone app able to send commands to the head units, as well as receive commands from the car's "user interface", such as a touch screen display, embedded voice recognition, steering wheel controls and various vehicle knobs and buttons.


In short, apps will be able to control car systems, or the car systems will be able to control the app. SDL doesn't seem to be very far along just yet, its potential remaining largely untapped. Personally, I would find it interesting for cars to be sold with a relatively "dumb" automotive electronics suite, with a user able to buy a tablet to provide the smarts.

* As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("This 20-Cent Paper Pinwheel Could Transform Medicine In The Developing World" by Lindzi Wessel, 10 January 2017), the "button whirligig" is an ancient toy, going back thousands of years, in which a string is looped through two holes of a button, with the button spun by holding the ends of the loop in two hands, then stretching and relaxing the loop.

Now it's being put to use as a cheap centrifuge for use in the developing world. Centrifuges are a basic tool in biomedical analysis, being used in particular to separate the components of blood. They're expensive, however, costing thousands of dollars, and not well-suited to field use. Cheap human-powered centrifuges have been built, but couldn't come close to the speed of commercial centrifuges, which can run at up to 100,000 RPM.

A team of researchers under bioengineer Manu Prakash of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California -- Prakash having previously developed a cheap paper microscope, the "Foldscope", discussed here in 2015 -- decided to investigate alternatives. They collected more than ten spinning toys, from tops to yo-yos to gyroscopic wrist exercisers, and used high-speed cameras to clock their speeds. Most did not turn out to be very promising, Prakash saying: "We amassed a graveyard of spinning toys."

The whirligig did seem to have potential, but it posed a problem, in that nobody had ever developed a detailed model of its operation. The Stanford researchers performed computational modeling to see just how the whirligig really worked. They discovered, among other things, that twisting the strings into tightly clumped coils was key to storing energy that allowed for a maximum rate of spinning with minimal power. Prakash says: "The way the strings wind and unwind, they exploit a really interesting principle of 'supercoiling'. These supercoils ... let it go far beyond its geometrical limits."

After about six months of work, the researchers came up with a whirligig centrifuge, spun up by pulling it between sticks, attached by strings to a paper disk that holds tiny tubes of blood. The "paperfuge" was clocked at an impressive 125,000 RPM, and was capable of separating plasma from blood in 90 seconds.

With refinements, the paperfuge should have more applications than simple plasma separation. For example, in a pilot test, users isolated malaria parasites from blood for detection under a microscope with 15 minutes of spinning. Commercial centrifuges can't do much better. Prakash is pushing forward on field trials, having signed on with a nonprofit health care organization called Pivot in Boston to test the paperfuge in a region of rural Madagascar. He is optimistic that it will prove highly satisfactory.



* DENTAL RESTORATIONS AS A GLOBAL BUSINESS: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("US Dental Labs Are Gritting Their Teeth" by Jared S. Hopkins, 24 April 2017), it is not necessarily obvious to patients that their dentist's office is connected to a global network of suppliers.

Implants, crowns, and bridges made in places like China, Vietnam, Mexico, and the Philippines make up as much as 40% of the $8.5 billion USD market for dental restorations. They sell for a fraction of US prices, and are very profitable for group practices and the private-equity backed networks that now employ about 18% of American dentists. Foreign competition, as well as new technology, has contributed over the past decade to the closing of about half of America's dental labs.

Restorations -- classified as medical devices by the US Food & Drug Administration -- have been manufactured overseas for decades, along with prosthetic hips, plastic heart valves and defibrillators. Imports now account for 30% of the US medical-device market, running to a business worth $44 billion in 2016.

The demand for foreign-made dental restorations has been driven in part by consolidation of the US dental industry. About 40% of dentists now work in group practices , AKA "dental support organizations (DSO)". Private-equity companies invest in the DSOs, purchasing practices and centralizing back-office duties like payroll and marketing. They often pay bonuses to dentists that give them incentives to buy cheaper restorations -- and their size gives them clout in negotiating prices.

Plants in places like China, the leading exporter of dental restorations to the US, may run 24 hours a day, with hundreds of workers turning out thousands thousands of dental restorations in that time. Meanwhile US labs dwindle, along with the technicians they employ. In 2008, there were about 12,250; today there are about 7,200. Now, crowns that cost hundreds in the US can be bought overseas for about $25 USD -- with the workmanship as good or better than American-made product.

The current US administration has been talking about trade protection measures; some in the business call that happy talk. According to Gary Iocco, owner of Minnesota's ten-lab Dimension Dental Design, says that foreign restorations are so cheap that anything short of a 300% tax would still allow them to undercut home-grown products: "It's a tough world to make money in the dental laboratory."

Trade protectionism would also mean steeper prices to patients for dental restorations. As production technology improves, imports to the US are likely to decline; 3D printers can already make the metal cores of crowns, and it's only a matter of time before they can also make the porcelain coating. Once labor costs cease to be a major factor in fabrication of dental restorations, there will be less incentive to buy foreign products -- though it will still mean US workers out of jobs.

It's already happening. Dennis Lanier, general manager of Lab 2000 in Columbus, Georgia, said overseas competition prompted his business a decade ago to use more machines. "We had to either go digital or go out of business. We at one time had 49 employees and we did less work than we are doing now with 12."



* UBERAIR IN PROGRESS: An article by Graham Warwick from AVIATION WEEK Online ("Uber Plans 2020 VTOL Air Taxi Launch In Dallas And Dubai, 25 April 2017) provided an update on rideshare giant Uber's "Elevate" AKA "UberAIR" scheme for urban air taxis -- discussed here earlier this year -- saying that Uber plans to launch the scheme in Dallas and Dubai in 2020. The company has also hooked up with partners, for development of the technology and infrastructure.

According to Uber CEO John Langford, the concept for the UberAIR vehicle is a two-seat, electrically-powered, multirotor aircraft with a weight of about 680 kilograms (1,500 pounds). It has eight rotors, in contra-rotating pairs, for vertical take-off / landing (VTOL), and a pusher prop for forward flight at speeds of up to 200 KPH (125 MPH). The "e-VTOL" aircraft features autonomous flight guidance technology from Aurora's Centaur optionally piloted aircraft, and the perception and collision avoidance system developed under the U.S. Office Of Naval Research's AACUS program, discussed here in 2013.

Uberair aircraft

UberAIR operations will begin with piloted aircraft, but move over time to optionally piloted and eventually fully autonomous flights. Uber's initial goal is for flying in its e-VTOL aircraft to be twice as safe as driving a car. Aurora Flight Sciences, Bell Helicopter, EMBRAER, Mooney, and Pipistrel Aircraft of Slovenia are all working on air vehicles along such lines:

Another Uber partner is Chargepoint, which operates the biggest electric-vehicle charging network. Chargepoint is developing a charger that will enable rapid turnaround of the e-VTOL aircraft, providing utilization rates needed to get passenger-mile costs lower than that of car ownership.

Uber has also teamed with the cities of Dallas and Dubai to launch its UberAIR service. Four sites have been selected for vertiports, the first being the new Frisco Station development in north Dallas, where the Dallas Cowboys team headquarters now resides, providing an initial customer base. A 52-kilometer (21-mile) UberAIR flight from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Frisco Station will take 6 minutes, versus 70 minutes for the UberX private-car service, at a similar price of about $1.32 USD per passenger-mile.

Uber has also partnered with Dubai's Roads & Transport Authority to jointly investigate pricing models, VTOL routes, network optimization, and candidate locations for vertiports, the goal being to perform demonstration flight in conjunction with the World Expo there in 2020.



* MANUFACTURING REINVENTED (3): An article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Factories Won't Bring Back the American Dream" by Michael Schuman, 8 June 2017) ran over similar ground to the ECONOMIST article run in the previous installments in this series -- the article starting with a 2016 call from president-elect Donald Trump to Apple INC chief executive officer Tim Cook. The message from Trump was BUILD AMERICAN, Cook being told: "One of the things that will be a real achievement for me is when I get Apple to build a big plant in the United States, or many big plants."

Trump and his economic advisors believes that America's economic woes, real or more significantly imagined, can be solved if factories come back home, after being foolishly relocated to cheaper locales like China and Mexico. In his inauguration speech, Trump said: "We will bring back our jobs. We will bring back our dreams."

The problem is that Trump is dreaming, period. Factories simply don't, can't contribute as much to the economy as they once did. Trying to regain manufacturing's past glories is likely to hurt consumers, not help them. True, Americans tend to think that manufacturing underlies economic strength, that the US should produce more steel and cars. Trump thinks so, calling steel "critical to both our economy and our military." In April, he signed an executive order that hinted at curbs on steel imports. Peter Navarro, Trump's unconventional economic advisor, is of the same mind, saying: "One of the goals of the Trump administration is to reclaim all of the supply-chain and manufacturing capability that would otherwise exist if the playing field were level."

While Navarro has good academic credentials as an economist, his colleagues in the academic community generally regard him as hysterical. It is true that US manufacturing is in long-term decline; it was less than 12% of GDP in 2016, compared to 26% a half-century earlier. Nonetheless, Trump's claim that "we don't make anything" is nonsense.

The decline in US manufacturing is relative, the shrink being due to the growth of non-manufacturing components of the economy. The US remains a production powerhouse, accounting for almost 19% of global manufacturing, behind China's 25% but bigger than Germany's and Japan's shares combined. US manufacturers are still extremely competitive in high-tech and hard-to-duplicate products -- for example, Boeing jetliners. The US economy is currently in good shape, generally better than the rest of the world.

The reality is that the true value in products is no longer in manufacturing them. Instead, it's in research, design, and development (RDD); branding; and post-sales support services. Stan Shih, the founder of Acer INC of Taiwan, came up with the "smile curve" in the early 1990s to illustrate this phenomenon. The smile curve tracks the product from conception to market along its horizontal axis, the value of the corresponding activity on the vertical axis. The curve is high on both ends, the initial RDD and the customer service having high value, but bottoms out on the middle, product manufacture having low value.

It's just a question of supply and demand. The talent necessary to conceive, brand, and market a new product is much harder to come by and more expensive than the skills to manufacture it. The integration of giant emerging economies such as China and India into global supply chains increased the number of available low-cost hands to assemble products, dropping the cost, and so value, of making a product even further. According to Ann Harrison, management professor at the Wharton School and co-editor of the book THE FACTORY-FREE ECONOMY, there's "a lot of supply for the actual manufacturing, but not a lot of supply for creating the next Google or Apple."

Consider the Apple iPhone. In a 2010 study, the Asian Development Bank Institute dissected an iPhone, and figured that the process of assembling it in China accounted for 3.6% of its production cost. The remaining 96.4% was paid to the parts suppliers, while Apple, as the creator, raked in the profits. Apple does little manufacturing itself, but its net income in the last fiscal year was 21% of revenue, while its share value is high. Apple employs 80,000 people in the USA.

Apple's Tim Cook has made concessions to Trump's nagging, but they're effectively cosmetic. In early May 2017, Cook announced that Apple would invest a billion dollars in advanced manufacturing; but never said that Apple would build and operate the plants. Apple has invested $200 million USD into Corning INC, which makes the glass for iPhones. Cook understands that Trump is all about theater, and knows that theater is good enough for Trump.

The loss of factory jobs in the USA does hurt, since factory workers laid off from jobs are not likely to get jobs that pay as well again. However, manufacturers are under an imperative to automate, or go out of business; a factory can turn out product with far fewer workers than were needed 50 years ago. While employment in US manufacturing is on a continued decline, absolute output has been growing.

Trump may be able to encourage manufacturers to move factories back home with carrots, such as a corporate tax cut; but to bring home supply chains from China and Mexico, where it's cheaper and more efficient to make some things, he'd have to use sticks, such as taxes and tariffs on imports. The end effect would be to hit consumers in the pockets, while hindering US exports as other nations took protective measures in retaliation. Such efforts might well cost jobs, in particular harming struggling American retailers. In addition, if US manufacturers were pressured into bringing factories home, they would invest more into automation to maintain profitability, with the end result of phasing out even more manufacturing jobs.

Trump is focusing on the wrong part of the smile curve, the middle; he would be better off to focus on the ends, where the real value lies. That would mean upgrading the skills of the US workforce by fostering education and reducing education costs, while encouraging foreign investors to start their next big ventures in Silicon Valley, not Shanghai. Encouraging free trade would help US businesses to be more competitive and profitable in the global marketplace.

Nobody expects any of that to happen while Donald Trump is in office. The most that can be hoped is that, confronted with political inertia and resistance, he won't do too much harm. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* A WORLD AFTER OIL (4): While there has been talk of "peak car", a time when auto use peaks and then starts to decline, like "peak oil", it's proven a moving target. The decline in car purchases in the USA turned out to be due to economic troubles and expensive fuel; now that the economy is in better shape and fuel is, for the time being, cheap, and car sales have boomed in the USA.

More than half the world's oil is used for transport, and of that, 46% goes into passenger cars. Fortunately, the rebound in car sales hasn't meant a comparable bump up in emissions -- thanks to by dramatic improvements in fuel efficiency in the US and elsewhere, driven by standards such as America's Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE), the EU's rules on C02 emissions, and those in place in China since 2012.

The International Energy Agency says that such standards cut oil consumption in 2015 by an impressive 2.3 million BPD. Should the entire world begin to conform to comparable standards, the savings would eventually be 4.3 million BPD, which is comparable to the crude output of China. Some forecasters project that the demand for gasoline will fall in the next decade or so, even if the world's vehicle fleet continues growing.

Occo Roelofsen of McKinsey, a consultancy, goes farther. He hasn't given up on the vision of "peak car", seeing that the shift towards electric vehicles (EV), self-driving cars, and car-sharing will put vehicular consumption of fossil fuels on a downward track within a decade, with the decline accelerating rapidly. Officials of the US Department of Energy (DOE) are banking on that shift, saying that the "deep decarbonization" called for in the Paris Climate Agreement demands it. One official said: "We can't decarbonize by mid-century if we don't electrify the transportation sector."

Enthusiasm for EVs has long had its ups and downs. While cleaner in themselves than vehicles with internal-combustion engines, the battery packs for EVs are expensive, have limited range, and cannot be recharged quickly. In addition, EVs aren't all that clean if they get their electricity from fossil-fuel plants; in fact, they may not be as clean as the most efficient vehicles using internal-combustion engines. They have traditionally also been well more expensive. At present, EVs make up only a tenth of a percent of the global car fleet.

Nonetheless, all the indicators for EVs are moving right and up. Battery costs have fallen by 80% since 2008, and though the rate of improvement may be slowing. EV sales in 2015 rose by 70%, to 550,000; they fell in America, probably because of low fuel prices, but tripled in China, which became the world's biggest EV market. Chevrolet has introduced its affordable Bolt EV, while Tesla -- traditionally focused on the high end -- will soon introduce its more affordable Model 3.

Countries that have offered hefty incentives to switch to EVs have seen rapid growth in their use. Norway, for instance, offers lower taxes, free use of toll roads and access to bus lanes. Almost a quarter of the new cars sold there are now EVs; Norway is highly reliant on hydropower, so EVs there truly are minimizing emissions. The Electric Vehicles Initiative (EVI), an umbrella group of 16 EV-using nations, has pledged to get to 20 million EVs by 2020.

The IEA says that meeting the 2C limit specified in the Paris Agreement would mean 700 million EVs on the road by 2040, which would mean a dramatic boom in sales. Given the Trump Administration's unconcealed contempt for environmental measures in general and the Paris Agreement in specific, that might seem unrealistic. However, if the Trump Administration won't do anything to support environmental initiatives, it is also too unfocused and inept to stop them, either.

California and some other US states are continuing to push environmental measures, and EV technology seems to be picking up steam on its own, though not quite to the level that renewable energy has. Kingsmill Bond of Trusted Sources, a research firm, sees an accelerating market for EVs as plausible, maybe likely; once sales reach a tipping point, investors would have an incentive to jump in and throw their weight behind EVs. Bond recommends: "Investors should not rely on the phlegmatic approach of historians who tell them not to worry about change." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Physicists Have Finally Created A 2D Magnet" by Katherine Bourzac, 12 June 2017), the number of two-dimensional (2D) materials has accumulated since the discovery of graphene -- single-plane graphite -- in 2004, with research labs coming up with single-atom-thick semiconductors, insulators, and superconductors.

Now researchers have come up with a 2D magnet, something that had been argued as impossible. Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, a condensed-matter physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, and Xiaodong Xu, an optoelectronics researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle, had been investigating 2D magnetics before they met in 2016, and decided to collaborate.

The two researchers focused on a compound known as "chromium triiodide" (CrI3). CrI3 had potentially useful magnetic properties, and it's a crystal made up of stacked sheets that can be separated using the "Scotch tape method" -- a way of making 2D materials by using adhesive tape to peel off ever thinner layers.

chromium triiodide

Like refrigerator magnets, CrI3 is a "ferromagnet", possessing a permanent magnetic field, thanks to the aligned spins of its electrons. CrI3 is also "anisotropic", meaning its electrons have a preferred spin direction -- in this case, perpendicular to the plane of the crystal. These properties let Xu and Jarillo-Herrero to suspect that chromium triiodide would retain its magnetic characteristics even when reduced to a single sheet.

Jarillo-Herrero's lab group grew CrI3 crystals and obtained single- and multi-layer sheets, with Xu's lab then inspecting the samples using a sensitive magnetometer. The researchers found that not only was a single atomic layer of chromium triiodide magnetic, but also that this property emerged at a relatively warm temperature, about -228 degrees Celsius. Above that temperature, thermal disruptions disrupt its magnetic properties.

They also found that a two-layered sheet of CrI3 isn't magnetic, but when a third is added the substance becomes a ferromagnet again. According to the researchers the material remains magnetic if a fourth layer is added, but gains other properties the researchers say they're still investigating. Jarillo-Herrero wants to layer the 2D magnet with a 2D superconductor and see what happens. In a magnet, the electron spins are all aligned; in a superconductor, they're arranged in opposed pairs. He asks: "Does the superconductor destroy the ferromagnet, or does the ferromagnet destroy the superconductor? It was just not possible to do this experiment before."

Other researchers are working on 2D magnets as well. Physicists would like to find a 2D magnet that, unlike CrI3, works at room temperature and doesn't have to be protected from oxygen, which would make it useful for electronic devices. Right now, CrI3 could have applications as a research tool.

* There is a certain lurid fascination in the elaborations of the occupation of parasitism -- the adaptations of parasites often demonstrating a certain evolutionary ingenuity. As discussed by an item from AAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Crypt Keeper Wasp Is A Parasite Of A Parasite" by Lindzi Wessel, 24 January 2017), this is particularly evident with the "crypt keeper wasp (Euderus set)" -- a parasitic wasp that targets another parasitic wasp, the "crypt gall wasp (Bassettia pallida)".

While parasitic wasps typically parasitize caterpillars and other arthropods, the crypt gall wasp parasitizes plants, laying eggs in the stems of certain oaks. The presence of the larvae induces the oak to create compartments, or "crypts", around the larvae that protects them, until they molt into mature wasps, and chew their way out -- to seek out oaks and begin the cycle all over again. The crypt gall wasp can be a lethal pest to species of oaks not adapted to tolerate it.

The newly-discovered crypt keeper wasp exploits the crypt gall wasp by depositing eggs in the crypt. When a crypt gall wasp tries to bore its way out, the crypt gall wasp larva, having taken control of the crypt gall wasp, commands it to stop, just as it emerges from the stem. The larva then devours the crypt gall wasp from the inside out.

The crypt keeper wasp "freeloads" off the efforts of the crypt gall wasp; the crypt keeper wasp has trouble getting out of the crypt on its own. Further research is being conducted to determine just how the crypt keeper wasp manipulates its host. A genetic analysis of the two species should also be interesting: is the crypt keeper wasp an evolutionary derivative of the crypt gall wasp? It would be an interesting trick of evolution if the crypt gall wasp spawned off its own worst enemy.

* As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Citizen Scientists To Rescue 150 Years Of Cosmic Images" by Elizabeth Gibney, 24 March 2017), the astronomy community has a long history of amateur involvement -- which has now been taken a step further with "Astronomy Rewind", in which volunteers digitize, map, and bring online observations featured in papers from journals of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) dating back to around 1850.

Astronomy Rewind is hosted on the "Zooniverse" platform, a citizen-science web portal with more than a million volunteers. Contributors, five per page to ensure reliability, identify image types and check the text that gives the orientation, scale, and coordinates of each object. Once they got started, they processed thousands of images in a single day, which the organizers figured would take months.

The primary value in the effort is to obtain more data on time-variable celestial objects, such as "runaway" stars ejected from star clusters, and "recurrent novas" -- white dwarfs that undergo explosive bursts every now and then, only about ten having been identified in our galaxy.

It would be nice to have access to old data, but the AAS didn't go digital until the mid-1990s, and such older data has previously been put online isn't stored in a way that makes it easily searchable and accessible. The project is also expected to provide insights into the history of astronomy over the past 150 years, by providing a trail of what interested past generations of astronomers.



* INDIA'S BIOMETRICS QUANDARY: India's Aadhaar (Foundation) biometric database -- discussed here earlier this year -- is the biggest in the world, permitting identification of 90% of the country's population, more than a billion people. Aadhaar seems like a technological marvel, using fingerprints or other biometric data to make personal identification quick, easy, comprehensive, and reliable.

As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Aadhaar: Are A Billion Identities At Risk On India's Biometric Database?" by Soutik Biswas, 4 May 2017), Aadhaar has also illustrated of the difficulties with such far-ranging biometric databases. Political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta believes that Aadhaar has changed from a "tool of citizen empowerment to a tool of state surveillance and citizen vulnerability".

Over the past eight years, the Indian government has collected fingerprints and iris scans from more than a billion residents and stored them in a high security data center. In return, each person has been provided with a randomly-generated, unique, 12-digit identity number. Previously, most Indians did not have any ID. Only a few percent have passports; only about a sixth have a driving license. The rest have long been penalized by the fact that they cannot easily prove who they are.

The Aadhaar number was introduced so they can now, in principle, identify themselves without difficulty. States have been using the number to administer government pensions; scholarships; wages for a landmark rural jobs-for-work scheme; benefits for cooking fuel to targeted recipients; and distribute cheap food to the poor. Indians will soon need the number to receive benefits from more than 500 of India's 1,200-odd welfare schemes. Banks and private firms have begun using it to authenticate consumers: a new telecom company snapped up 100 million subscribers recently by verifying the customer's identity through the number. People are using the number to even register their marriages registered.

Sounds great, but the Aadhaar number is also generating uneasiness. Nikhil Pahwa, editor and publisher of Indian news site MEDIANAMA, says the Aadhaar number, is "being forcibly linked to mobile numbers, bank accounts, tax filings, scholarships, pensions, rations, school admissions, health records and much much more, which thus puts more personal information at risk."

A new law makes it compulsory for Indians to use the number when filing income tax returns, in order to improve compliance and to eliminate fraud. The law has been challenged in India's Supreme Court, lawyer Shyam Divan telling the justices: "My fingerprints and iris are mine and my own. The state cannot take away my body." Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi replied that the "right to one's body was not an absolute right", adding: "You can have right over your body, but the state can restrict trading in body organs, so the state can exercise control over the body."

It would seem the government has a strong case -- but there's the problem of security. The fears are not without some basis in fact. The government has assured that the biometric data is "safe and secure in encrypted form", and anybody found guilty of leaking data can be punished. Unfortunately, there have already been a number of leaks of details of students, pensioners and recipients of welfare benefits involving a dozen government websites. A report by the Center for Internet and Society claims that over a hundred million -- possibly far more -- IDs of pensioners and rural jobs-for-work beneficiaries have been leaked online by government schemes.

Mukul Rohtagi told the Supreme Court the furor over the leaks is "much ado about nothing", saying: "Biometrics were not leaked, only Aadhaar numbers were leaked. It is nothing substantial. The idea is biometrics should not be leaked."

There's also the problems of fraud and error. The government has admitted that it has blacklisted or suspended tens of thousands of service providers for helping create "fake" identification numbers or not following proper processes. In 2015, a man was arrested for getting an identification number for his dog. The government admits that it has found millions of the numbers suffered from incorrect data, dodgy biometrics and duplication, and had to be deleted.

Nandan Nilekani, the technology tycoon who set up the program popularly known by its acronym UIDAI, believes concerns about the safety of the biometric database are exaggerated; that the system is secure; that the Aadhaar ID number has cut wastage, removed fakes, and curbed corruption. He recently told a reporter: "It's like you are creating a rule-based society. It's the transition that is going on right now."

Still, Pratap Bhanu Mehta has written that the lack of a "clear transparent consent architecture, no transparent information architecture, no privacy architecture worth the name [India doesn't have a privacy law], and increasingly, no assurance about what exactly you do if the state decides to mess with your identity" could easily make Aadhaar a "tool of state suppression". It seems likely that Aadhaar will survive; but it will require a framework of new laws and customs to make sure it works for Indians, and not against them.



* SCRAPPING THE REACTORS: As discussed by an article from REUTERS ("Radiation, Risk, & Robots: Ripping Out A Reactor's Heart" By Christoph Steitz and Tom Kaeckenhoff, 12 June 2017), about 200 nuclear reactors around the world will be shut down over the next quarter century, mostly in Europe, according to the International Energy Agency.

That means a lot of business for the half-dozen companies that specialize in the hugely difficult job of dismantling nuclear plants. These firms -- including GNS, Areva, Rosatom's Nukem Technologies Engineering Services, and Toshiba's Westinghouse -- are increasingly using robots and other advanced technologies to do the job, that being a dramatic advance in an industry that up to now has primarily relied on electric saws.

The most rapid advances are being made in the difficult area of the reactor core. A programmable robot arm developed by Areva has reduced the time it takes to dismantle some of the most contaminated components of a plant by 20% to 30%, compared with traditional techniques.

New technology is being introduced not just because it is better for the job, but because the business of dismantling reactors is highly competitive, meaning slim margins -- and of course risky, there being many things that can go wrong, possibly disastrously, when dismantling a reactor. Tearing down a nuclear power plant can take decades and cost a billion euros -- $1.1 billion USD -- depending on size and age. However, it also means a revenue stream over a long period of time. According to Thomas Eichhorn, head of Areva's German dismantling activities: "We're not talking about the kind of margins Apple is making on its iPhone. But it's a business with a long-term perspective."

The 1970s were a great age of reactor construction. The primary goal of the design effort for these facilities was to keep radiation contained at all costs. Not much thought was given to their disposal, which poses a set of difficulties:

Mundane tasks like taking down the outer walls of a plant can be subcontracted to ordinary construction firms. Dismantling the reactor core is the biggest challenge. All the companies involved in the work have begun using robots and software to navigate their way into the reactor pressure vessel, where the radioactivity is the worst. The vessel can be can be as tall as 13 meters (43 feet) and weigh up to 700 tonnes (770 tons). It is sequestered deep inside a containment building that is built as a sphere to ensure its 30-centimeter (1-foot) thick steel wall can withstand a core catastrophe.

France's Areva has won a contract to dismantle the pressure vessel internals at Vattenfall's 806-megawatt (MW) Brunsbuettel nuclear plant in Germany, the contract also including an option for the Swedish utility's 1,400 MW Kruemmel site. Areva is planning to leverage, for the first time, off its new "AZURo" programmable robot arm, with company officials believing that they will obtain an advantage in what is the world's largest dismantling market -- following Germany's decision to close all its last nuclear plants by 2022, in response to the Fukushima disaster.

Brunsbuettel power plant

AZURo operates under water because the liquid absorbs radiation from the vessel components, reducing the risk of leakage and contamination of the surrounding area; the chamber is flooded before its work begins. Areva spends a slightly higher proportion of its sales on R&D than the competition, but other players in the business are working on advanced tech as well -- such as a snake arm with a laser cutting head from the UK's OC Robotics, and laser-based dismantling technology from France's Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (CEA).

The difficulty of the dismantling process is also promoting development of modeling software that maps out the different levels of radiation on plant parts, making it easier to calculate the most efficient sequence of dismantling, with the more contaminated elements being typically dealt with first, as well as helping to determine what storage containers will need to be obtained.

GNS is using such software to help to dismantle the German Neckarwestheim 1 and Philippsburg 1 reactors, using its software to plan the demolition. The company also hopes to supply its software services for the dismantling of PreussenElektra's Isar 1 reactor and aims to expand to other European countries. Atomic energy was a grand dream that ended in a great disappointment; but even at that, it offers opportunities to those who will put it to rest.



* ANOTHER MONTH: This last month I ended up ordering Berk Breathed's cartoon anthology BLOOM COUNTY EPISODE IX: A NEW HOPE. In 2015, Breathed decided to revive his 1980s BLOOM COUNTY comic strip, publishing in Facebook. I had thought it was inspired by the Age of Trump, but Breathed said no, it was the death of Harper Lee, Pulitzer-prize winning author of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, that provoked it. Lee had been a fan of BLOOM COUNTY way back when, and had written Breathed fan letters -- they were, it seems, addressed to his Opus the penguin character -- and had begged him not to let the strip die.

Breathed did so anyway. He liked his work but didn't like the grind, and was always late. On realizing that Lee had never followed up TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, Breathed was inspired to resurrect BLOOM COUNTY, to find he had no trouble turning it out. Not surprisingly, Breathed has put in nods to other 1980s comic strips, notably CALVIN AND HOBBES:

"Back from the dead after 25 years!"

"DEAD?! Then we must be ... ZOMBIES!"


* In other comical news, in response to the revelation on the INFOWARS website -- run by conspiracy troll Alex Jones -- that NASA was running a pedophile slave colony on Mars, a NASA official had to reply: "There are no humans on Mars."

Knowing trolls, of course the reply would be: "You can't prove there aren't!" So THERE! Journalist Megyn Kelly, having left Fox News for NBC, got into some trouble when she interviewed Jones this last month; she didn't really go that soft on Jones, but there was still an outcry that she was promoting him. Oh well, all for the good, the lesson being that showing any mercy to trolls is asking for trouble, and it is best to make sure they get it every time.

* Speaking of trolls and comedy -- it's hard to think of it as real news -- after months of uncertainty, at the beginning of June US President Donald Trump withdrew America from the Paris Accord on climate change. The withdrawal left the US diplomatically isolated on climate change. This was admittedly discouraging, but it was certainly no surprise, nor will it amount to much. The Trump Administration will find it difficult to overturn the core measures implemented by the Obama Administration to deal with climate change; and businessfolk who like the Trump Administration's lax attitude towards regulation on the issue are still going to realize that the next administration is unlikely to be as lax -- particularly since the US is likely to rejoin the Paris Accord in the era after Trump.

Nobody's going to invest in a coal-fired power plant on that basis. Even as the dust was settling, billionaire Michael Bloomberg -- the UN Secretary-General's special envoy for Cities and Climate Change -- declared to the UN that "We Are Still In", announcing: "Today, on behalf of an unprecedented collection of US cities, states, businesses and other organizations, I am communicating to the United Nations and the global community that American society remains committed to achieving the emission reductions we pledged to make in Paris in 2015."

The question was floated in the wake of the decision to pull out: What does Donald Trump really think about climate change? A silly question; Trump is disinterested in facts, the issue means nothing to him. While Trump is often called a hypocrite for his quick willingness to reverse himself, that's really not the right word. He just says whatever comes into his head that feels right to him, indifferent to realities, oblivious to self-contradiction. He makes the right noises that please his supporters, but they would be pleased by any noises he makes; everyone else knows it's noise and means little.

The withdrawal from the Paris Accord was followed presently by a "cancellation" of Barack Obama's open policy towards Cuba. In reality, it was just a trimming back, with a handful of sanctions restored but the general policy unchanged. That was a warmup to late in the month, when the GOP went forward again on the "repeal and replace ObamaCare" exercise once more. That matter remains in the air; enough to say for the time being that polls show the GOP effort to be widely unpopular with the American public.

More to the point, GOP moderates don't like the bill as is because it's too harsh, while conservatives don't like it because it's not harsh enough. That means any attempt to change the bill to please one faction will antagonize the other. President Trump's involvement in the exercise has so far been unhelpful, for example suggesting that Congress ought to just repeal ObamaCare, and then worry about a replacement. The only reply to that would be: "You must be kidding."

In the meantime, the rumbling over Trump and Russia continues, though it's not going anywhere in particular. President Trump is also continuing his custom of going nasty on reporters and such in his daily tweets -- and has been conducting a tweet offensive against Barack Obama on every pretext he can think of, for example saying: "Obama colluded with Russia!"

Some in the news media has been wondering why Obama has been so muted in response, the only reaction to the tweets being occasional low-key statements by an Obama spokesman to set the facts straight. Asking why Obama has been so meek is another silly question: it's because he's not stupid. Trump is merely trolling Obama, scoring points with Trump fans who hate Obama in any case, and irritating everyone else who notices. Trump cannot do Obama any harm, and Trump would like nothing better than for Obama to snap at the bait.

No doubt Obama feels some annoyance, but he knows Trump gains nothing of substance from the exercise. It can be said that effectively nobody who didn't vote for Trump in 2016 is going to decide it will be a good idea to do so in 2020 -- and no doubt at least a few, maybe not a lot but a few, of the people who did vote for Trump in 2016 are now thinking they made a mistake.

Oh, and late in the month Trump's claim that there had been massive voter fraud in the 2016 election resurfaced. It had seemingly been forgotten as just another bit of Trump bluster, just being a sore winner because he lost the popular vote. However, the "Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity" was established in May, which then demanded that states hand over detailed voter information.

The demand didn't go over well, with 27 states refusing to comply. Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes said: "This commission was formed to try to find basis for the lie that President Trump put forward that has no foundation." Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann was blunter concerning the commission's request: "They can go jump in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi is a great state to launch from."

Trump of course complained, tweeting: "What are they trying to hide?" Six months into the Trump presidency, it has become obvious, to everyone who matters in Congress, that Trump is painfully unqualified for his job, and is unlikely to learn how to do it much better. His top priority is sending out obnoxious tweets, and he barely sees any farther than that.

It is difficult to see any change in the situation, at least before the 2020 elections; Democrat talk of impeachment is just hot talk, there being no real prospect of it happening. However, at the same time, the current state of affairs is not sustainable. Our people in Congress are trying to maintain appearances as best they can because they don't have any choice, but something may happen that simply derails everything.

Who knows what? The USA never having been in a situation really like it, there's no saying what will happen. I can say for myself that I am sympathetic to the discomfort of our folks in Congress, but it's also obvious they're not very familiar with trolls, and are being taken by surprise by Trump. I am very familiar with trolls myself, and nothing that Trump does honestly surprises me. He consistently meets my lowest expectations.

* I've got a lot more into tweeting myself, but not at all for the same reasons, and certainly not with the same methodology. I used to hang around on the Amazon science forum, twitting creationists and the like -- but Amazon finally clamped down and kicked out everyone who blinked wrong, it appears as preparation to getting rid of the forums. I don't know why Amazon runs them anyway; they've just been a hangout for trolls.

I've long had a strange impulse to post to forums, counter-trolling trolls; it's not a good use of time, but I always ended up going back. After some floating, I ended up on the comment section of the British GUARDIAN newspaper. The GUARDIAN is Left-of-center, but it runs interesting articles. Of course, I had to post comments, only to find the comments section strongly inclined to the looney Left.

I finally got to the point where I had to comment: "If I didn't read the GUARDIAN, I would have never known that Hillary Clinton lost the election because she was too Right-wing; that Barack Obama is a corporate-controlled fascist; and the coming generation is bright Red in color."

And then I commented: "Politicians have this saying: HOW DOES IT PLAY IN PEORIA? The sorehead Left, it seems, has never been to Peoria. I have. I don't recommend it as a vacation spot."

I didn't bother to read the replies, since I knew exactly what they would say. However, the last straw was when I ran into a Putin troll, saying: "There is no evidence of Russian hacking. None." I really don't like those people, so I called him a liar -- and got moderated for it. What? You don't have a problem with somebody telling baldfaced lies, but it's not OK to call them lies?

I finally realized that the GUARDIAN heavily relied on REUTERS material, and it was a lot less bother just to use the REUTERS website instead -- REUTERS doesn't have comments, incidentally. I haven't gone back to the GUARDIAN since, and in fact put a block on that website so I don't do it by accident.

A lot of the commenters on the GUARDIAN site were Yanks. Here in the USA the election of Trump has energized the sorehead Left -- but the Left doesn't seem to realize, or for that matter care, that their base of support hasn't really grown. This was underlined during the month by a bitterly contested election in Georgia for a House seat, with Democrat Jon Ossoff facing off against Republican Karen Handel. Ossoff put up a tough fight, but Handel won in the end. That wasn't really a surprise, the district in question having long gone Republican, and there was some satisfaction that Ossoff got as close as he did.

The bizarre thing is that the sorehead Left insisted that Ossoff would have won if he hadn't run as a moderate Democrat, that he would have been better to have flown well farther to the Left. That was deranged: "In GEORGIA?! What have you been smoking?" One sees in the fury of the sorehead Left against Hillary Clinton a need for a scapegoat; by blaming the election defeat on her, which is certainly fair to a degree, the soreheads can delude themselves that there's broad support for their agenda among the American public. Only they could believe so.

I honestly doubt the 2018 mid-terms will change the political landscape much; it seems unlikely that voters will be much inclined to dump an incumbent and switch parties either way. However, the war between GOP moderates and soreheads is heating up dramatically, and that well may be a big factor in 2018. Primary challenges are more significant in House than in Senate races.

Anyway, after a lull I got the itch to post again, and found a general science forum to comment in. That didn't last at all long, since it turned out that it was populated by trolls and cranks. One was saying that science has proven there was life after death; I replied: "Yeah, and science has proven that Mickey Mouse lives at the North Pole of Mars with his elves."

The conversation, such as it was, went on in that vein -- until a moderator sent me a message saying that my caustic remarks could get me banned, saying that of course I wouldn't talk like that to someone's face. I replied:


Yes, I DO talk like that to people's faces. If they aren't embarrassed to throw baloney in my face like that, I'm certainly not embarrassed to call them on it. And if you're saying I have to take trolls and crackpots seriously, I can't do that. I'm not refusing; I don't know HOW.


I tried to figure out how to delete my account, but couldn't, so I emailed the moderator: "How do I delete my account? Online help doesn't." I ended up being locked out. Well OK, that works too.

Foolish nonsense both ways, really. I was a little surprised that forum moderators would have no problem with people talking ridiculous trash, then would object to it being mocked as the trash it obviously is -- but I finally realized it was a pseudoscience forum, a crackpot magnet. Who else was going to post to a generalized science forum? It takes a certain failure for somebody with a grade-school comprehension of physics to rattle away in public about physics it would take a doctorate to understand; and then angrily complain when called out as a fake.

I finally set up a second Twitter account, and am now posting several times a day. Whatever itch I've got, it scratches it, with far less stress and overhead. It's really just a life log, keeping a daily trail that I can check back on over time. Nobody pays much attention to it, and I'm good with that.

* Incidentally, to set up the new Twitter account, I had to use a security code texted to my phone. Since I have a landline phone, that didn't work so well. After some fumbling around, I finally discovered Google Voice, which allowed me to set up a new phone number, forwarded to my landline phone, with the new number supporting text messaging and voicemail transcription.

That was a tidy solution. I thought of using Google Voice to support phone calls over wi-fi, but that turned out to be more bother than it was worth. The landline phone does the job for voice calls, and if I want to communicate over wi-fi with a smartphone, I'd use email anyway. PS -- before I move on, some words of wisdom relative to Murphy's Law that I just picked up:


THE 50:50:90 RULE: If you have a 50:50 chance of getting it right, the probability is 90% that you'll get it wrong.


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