sep 2017 / last mod feb 2018 / greg goebel

* 21 entries including: once & future Earth (series), hunting for nukes (series), China's authoritarian internet (series), commercial science ballooning, Android Oreo security enhancements, viruses as part of lichen symbiosis, climate change & Hurricane Harvey, disarming a supervolcano for green energy, cyberwar diplomacy, GTech FIDO program trains dogs to handle tech, and European healthcare systems.

banner of the month

[WED 06 SEP 17] FIDO CALLS 911


* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR SEPTEMBER 2017: Somehow squeezed into the news of hurricanes, earthquakes, and nuclear saber-rattling for this last month, on 24 September Angela Merkel was re-elected to a fourth four-year term as Chancellor of Germany. That was not unprecedented; Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, her mentor, both served four terms.

Merkel had considered not running, after her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) did poorly in earlier polls -- but picked up steam during 2017, and was encouraged to run again. However, the unstable global political environment was reflected in the election, since Merkel's conservative bloc only won 33.2% of the vote, the party's worst showing since 1949. The rival center-Left Social Democratic Party (SPD) also did poorly, obtaining only 20.8% of the vote.

There was a surge of support on both the hard Left and the hard Right, notably with the anti-immigration Alternative for Germany (AfD) winning 13.1% -- bringing a hard-Right party into the Bundestag, the parliament for the first time in more than half a century. Merkel had previously led with support from the SPD, but SPD leaders announced they are now in opposition. Without the SPD, Merkel's only apparent path to a majority in the Bundestag is a three-way tie-up with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens -- known as a "Jamaica" coalition, because the black, yellow and green colors of the three parties match the Jamaican flag.

Germany is coping with the arrival of large numbers of refugees and other new migrants; with Russian hostility; and strains on the European Union from the British decision to leave the EU in 2016. The AfD has risen in influence from the tensions. The party was established in 2013 by a group of Euroskeptic academics, surging in popularity following Merkel's 2015 decision to open German borders to over 1 million migrants, most of them fleeing war in the Middle East. The other parties elected to the Bundestag all refuse to work with the AfD, which says it will press for Merkel to be "severely punished" for opening the door to refugees and migrants.

* In other elections, as reported by REUTERS.com, on 25 September the Kurds of northern Iraq voted on a referendum for Kurdish independence, with 93% of the vote going YES. More than 3.3 million people, or 72%, of eligible voters turned out for the vote.

Reaction from the Iraqi government in Baghdad was highly negative, with the government demanding that foreign governments close their diplomatic missions in the Kurdish capital, Erbil. Foreign airline flights to Kurdish airports were suspended on the order of the Iraqi civil aviation authority. A delegation from Iraq's armed forces went to neighboring Iran to coordinate a military response. The Turkish government, which fears the influence of an independent Kurdish state on Turkey's own Kurds, has threatened sanctions, though nothing has happened so far. The United States and major European countries also strongly opposed the referendum, which they described as destabilizing at a time when all sides are still fighting against Islamic State militants.

The vote is not binding, being instead meant to provide a mandate for negotiations with Baghdad and neighboring countries over the peaceful secession of the region from Iraq. The Kurds say the referendum acknowledges their contribution in confronting Islamic State after IS chased off the Iraqi Army in 2014. Iraq's Kurds have been close allies of the USA since Washington offered them protection from Saddam in 1991 -- but the Americans have long encouraged the Kurds to avoid unilateral steps so as not to jeopardize the stability of Iraq or antagonize Turkey. In any case, even after Iraq gets completely rid of Islamic State, the place will continue to be a problem child.

* More locally, the government in Washington DC is now attempting to come to grips with tax reform. As discussed by an article from ECONOMIST.com ("The Government May As Well Write Shareholders A Cheque", 9 September 2017), it's going be complicated. One issue is the pile of cash US firms keep in foreign subsidiaries, now estimated to amount to a staggering $3 trillion USD. The US government would dearly like to get a piece of that action.

If the money is brought home, it becomes taxable, with funds paid to foreign governments cut from the bill. However, repatriating the money is not likely to do the USA much good. Shareholders will probably get a windfall, but nobody else would benefit. The reason to believe so is that it's been tried before. In 2004 Congress enacted a tax holiday, with firms being handed a bargain tax rate of 5.25%, instead of the usual 35%, on repatriated profits. Advocates claimed the money would promote an investment boom, even though the government's own economists said it wouldn't happen. The wonks were right; over $300 billion USD came home, but the only result was a payout to stockholders of 60 to 92 cents on the dollar. The deal had come with conditions to prevent such an outcome, but they were easily circumvented.

Republicans are trying a different approach this time around, envisioning a switch to a "territorial" tax system, like those found in the rest of the developed world. That means taxing only profits earned at home, removing the incentive to offshore foreign earnings. Fine -- but what about the $3 trillion USD already offshored? Although the White House claims repatriating the money would mean billions in investment, the results would likely be the same as in 2004. There are three reasons that would be so:

Given the lack of much in the way of a realistic public payoff, it is absurd for the government to want to get taxes out of offshore cash -- then try to bring it back home by cutting the taxes on that money to the bone. The Trump Administration is talking about a 10% tax. That would simply amount to another windfall for shareholders.

There's no sense in going too low. A higher rate would help pay for tax cuts on future earnings -- which actually would be a clear win for businesses. A low rate would simply encourage tax-avoidance dodges -- a study having shown that offshoring money picked up at a significant rate when when Congress started debating a second repatriation tax holiday in 2011.



* WINGS & WEAPONS: The very first Lockheed (now Lockheed Martin) C-130 Hercules turboprop cargolifter performed its maiden flight on 23 August 1954. It's still going strong in the 21st century, with the initial flight of the latest version, the "LM-100J", performing its initial flight on 25 May 2017 -- meaning the Hercules has been in production for over 60 years.

The LM-100J is a civil version, following the earlier "L-100", which was produced from 1964 into 1992, with 115 delivered. Although a civil model, the L-100 was sold to military forces around the world, including Argentina, Ecuador, Gabon, Indonesia, Libya, Peru, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

The LM-100J is effectively the same as the modern military C-130J Super Hercules, which features a stretched fuselage and many other refinements compared to the original C-130. However, the LM-100J lacks specific militarizations -- such as secure communications, datalinks, defensive countermeasures, or any weapons capability. According to Lockheed Martin officials, that reduces cost of the LM-100J, compared to the C-130J, from about $100 million USD to no more than $70 million USD.


Lockheed Martin decided to revive the civil version of the Hercules because military budgets around the world are currently shrinking. As with the L-100, the LM-100J is targeted at civil applications such as oversized cargo transport; oil dispersion & aerial spray; oil and gas exploration; mining logistics operations; aerial firefighting; aerial delivery; medevac & air ambulance; humanitarian relief operations; personnel transport; austere field operations; and search and rescue. Also as with the L-100, smaller military forces that don't need particular military optimizations may find the LM-100J attractive -- and it can certainly be enhanced with advanced kit to a degree, such as a sensor turret for search and rescue missions.

* In more news of the C-130 ("LM Launches Production SOF Variant Of C-130J For Export" by Peter Felstead, JANES.com, 21 June 2017) Lockheed Martin launched another new variant of the Hercules, the "C-130J-SOF" at the Paris Air Show in June. As its designation implies, it's intended for special operations forces -- being the first Hercules tailored for that role to be sold for export.


The baseline C-130J-SOF is in an ISR configuration, featuring:

Options above the baseline include:

No mention was made of a "derringer door", capable of launching two light guided munitions in Common Launch Tubes; it would be handy and not hard to implement, so one might think it a future option. In any case, the C-130J-SOF only includes gunship operations as part of its repertoire; it's being sold as a multirole machine, with capabilities including armed surveillance, psychological operations, airdrop resupply, inflight or ground refueling, personnel recovery, humanitarian relief, as well as support of SOF personnel in field operations.

* In yet more news on the C-130, if at a much more focused level of detail, as discussed by an article from AVIATIONWEEK.com ("Drag-Reducing Microvanes Finally Make It To The C-130 Hercules Fleet" by Graham Warwick, 30 May 2017), attentive airline passengers may notice tiny "vanes" on the wings or other surfaces of the aircraft, clearly to perform some aerodynamic function.

One of the functions of such "microvanes" may be to reduce drag. Cargolift aircraft are not the most aerodynamic of flying machines, with the big upraised rear fuselage being a significant source of drag from air vortexes swirling around it. Startup company Metro Aerospace is now shipping 18 sets of microvanes to cut down that rear-fuselage drag to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), to be fitted to the RCAF's C-130J Super Hercules machines.

Each set includes 20 microvanes of composite construction, generated by 3D printing; ten microvanes are adhesively attached to the rear fuselage on each side of the cargo ramp, with the vanes reducing drag by an impressive 3.3%. The microvanes can be customer-installed, and only properly fit in the exact locations where they are to be placed.

Each set costs about $90,000 USD, easily paying itself back in fuel savings in a year, given a thousand hours of flight time. Half that flight time give break-even in 14 months. Reducing drag also means running the inboard engines at a slightly lower throttle setting, increasing their lifetimes.

Lockheed Martin had originally designed the microvanes, but didn't get them to market, presumably because there didn't seem to be enough profit in it. Metro was established by venture capitalist firm Catalyze Dallas in 2016, expressly for the purpose of exploiting useful innovative technologies that aerospace firms can't justify bringing to market on their own. Metro licenses the microvane technology from Lockheed Martin, and has obtained Lockheed Martin engineering assistance with the microvanes.

Australia, which also flies the Super Hercules, is interested in a buy as well. Lockheed Martin offers the microvanes in the company catalog. Metro is also interested in microvanes for the Airbus A400M and C295. The US Air Force has flown a Boeing C-17 with the microvanes, but results from the tests are not available yet.



* SCIENCE BALLOONING AS A BUSINESS: As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Commercial Balloons In The Stratosphere Could Monitor Hurricanes And Scan For Solar Storms" by Adam Mann, 22 June 2017), high-altitude balloons have been used for scientific research for decades. The US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) has been flying balloons since 1982, when it took control of the US National Scientific Ballooning Facility. The office flies over a dozen balloons a year, with a typical mission hauling an astronomical observatory to the top of the atmosphere, at a fraction of the cost of a satellite launch.

World View Enterprises of Tucson, Arizona, and Raven Aerostar of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, are seriously trying to make a business out of scientific ballooning. Planetary scientist Alan Stern, World View's chief scientist, says the sky is literally the limit for the company's science balloons: "You want to put a telescope up? You want to do atmospheric monitoring? You want to study the sun? You want to look down on the oceans or land? Across these and a whole series of other research fields, there are just immense applications."

World View CEO Jayne Poynter and her husband, Chief Technology Officer Taber MacCallum, were aerospace professionals, having earlier worked on space life support systems. In 2012 they joined up with Stern, previously the chief scientist of the NASA New Horizons Pluto flyby probe mission, to create World View. The company's first project was to develop the balloon that took Alan Eustace, a Google executive, to 41 kilometers for a record-breaking parachute jump.

The World View crew originally thought that the company would be all about hauling rich tourists to the edge of space. However, as the firm began to conduct test flights of human-rated gondolas, researchers started inquiring if they could piggyback small instruments on the flights. MacCallum recalls asking them: "Doesn't NASA do this for you?"

With the reply: "Yeah, but NASA takes years and it's too expensive; could you guys fly this one?"

MacCallum didn't need much convincing, since his father was a gamma-ray astronomer who did balloon experiments. World View began flying science instruments, and now has a backlog of dozens of customers. According to MacCallum: "We're seeing expanding interest in something we didn't even think existed a few years ago."

World View can fly payloads much more quickly and cheaply than NASA, but right now, their balloons, which are about 30 meters (100 feet) across, can't lift more than 50 kilograms (110 pounds). NASA's premier "superpressure" balloons are more than 100 meters (330 feet) across, and can carry much larger payloads, floating at stratospheric heights for months.

World View and Raven Aerostar have an edge on NASA, however, in that their balloons are steerable. The stratosphere has persistent winds, traveling in different directions at different altitudes. Using power generated by solar panels, they can transfer lifting gas from the main envelope to a reservoir compartment, allowing a balloon to go up or down to access winds in the desired direction. Leveraging off weather databases, the companies can fly a balloons reliably to wherever they like, or even allow it to hover over one site in a figure-eight flight path.

Scott Wickersham, general manager of Raven, sees automatic controllability as "opening up a new frontier for balloons." Raven, which has long manufactured balloons for NASA and commercial customers, is already selling controllable balloons to Google, which is using them in Project Loon, which projects using a network of balloons to provide internet access. Controllable high-altitude balloons could provide warning of flash floods or wildfires; to sense the soil and vegetation with laser scanners and imagers; to probe winds, clouds, and storms with radars.

World View calls their balloons "Stratolites", for "stratospheric satellites". Such controllable balloons are actually superior to satellites in most respects, not merely because they are cheaper, but because they are closer to the targets below that they are keeping an eye in the sky on. Of course, commercial science balloons will also be used to continue traditional balloon space observations.

World View is still working on improving the payload and endurance of their balloons; NASA remains well ahead for the moment. NASA encourages the commercial balloon companies, with some reservations. According to Deborah Fairbrother, a NASA engineer in the balloon program: "We're excited but also concerned. We've got some very stringent NASA requirements for our safety, and public safety, and we just want to make sure they're doing it safely."

That just means making sure rules and procedures are in place. Those working on flying commercial science balloons see no obstacle to success, and envision a future where high-altitude balloons are just another familiar technology -- with applications that haven't even been imagined yet.



* REINFORCING ANDROID: As discussed by an article from WIRED.com ("Inside Android Oreo's Quest to Protect Your Phone" by Lily Hay Newman, 1 September 2017), enhanced security is one of the features of the upcoming "Oreo" release of Google's Android mobile OS. However, that's no more than an ongoing evolution of Google's security campaign.

Android security starts with the Google Play appstore. Most users assume that apps downloaded from Google Play are safe, and they usually are; but the Black Hats are clever, and they can sometimes sneak bad actors in past the store's screens. That's where Google Play Protect comes in. Protect operates on Android mobile devices to see if they're acting up, performing billions of checks a day. Protect is not news, but it's now being refined, in particular to focus on highly-targeted malware -- booby traps that are focused on specific high-value marks and not widely distributed. The ability to spot threats down in the noise strengthens Android security in general.

Android Oreo

Nonetheless, Protect still can't catch everything. One particular source of trouble are Android apps that aren't downloaded from Google Play, which are far less safe. Up to Oreo, a user could set a flag to enable downloads from outside of Google Play, and do so without Android bothering to ask. With Oreo, now users get an "are you sure?" prompt every time they try to download from an "Unknown Source".

The Android security team also casts a net beyond the limits of Android, surveying the internet to track the evolution of malware, and to identify malicious systems. The company's security staff gather industry data, also have established relationships with third-party organizations, like banks, to share information on cyber-security.

One of the growing threats is ransomware, or locking up a device unless a user pays up. It's a small threat right now, but getting bigger. Android already had a defensive advantage because it "silos" apps into their own individual "sandbox", with limited access to the rest of the Android system. Android security staff has found ransomware that exploits holes in sandbox security, with Oreo now plugging them up. The staffers say they haven't yet seen ransomware that can completely take over an Android device.

One problem with Android is that vendors who use it on their devices like to tweak it to their own unique needs, which complicates updates. Right now, most Android users have versions that are at least two years old. Some vendors will not support upgrades to older devices. The result is that security enhancements have limited reach. In response, Android's security team has worked with a number of vendors to establish a more robust update system.

That effort has a small footprint at present, with only a relative handful of devices covered -- but Oreo has a new featured named "Project Treble", which involves a neat partition between Android and vendor's custom features. Treble will allow the baseline OS and the vendor-specific enhancements to be updated separately. This partitioning has also resulted in enhanced sandboxing, resulting in further improved security.

One of the results of the war between Android security and the Black Hats is that, as various aspect of the OS are reinforced, attacks inevitably shift focus. In 2014 only about 4% of Android attacks targeted the core kernel of the OS; by 2016, the count was up to 44%. It's not easy to get into the kernel, but once it's been compromised, the entire Android system is. Of course, kernel security is now being reinforced -- but it would be unwise to think Android will ever be perfectly bullet-proof.



* HUNTING FOR NUKES (3): Nations working on covert nuclear programs assume they're being watched, and try to keep a low profile. North Korea helped keep its centrifuge facility secret by using mostly black-market or domestically-manufactured components. Iran has also indigenized its nuclear program, mining uranium domestically and building centrifuge rotors with carbon fiber, not the special steels normally used.

Uncovering such "dark" programs requires casting a bigger net; the Pentagon is building a powerful computer system, named "Constellation", to do the job -- the system being described as a "fusion engine" that sifts through wide-ranging data. For instance, computers can comb through years of satellite photos and infra-red readings of buildings to detect changes that might reveal nuclear facilities. Constellation aims to increase the value of such nuggets of information by linking them with other findings. For example, the whereabouts of nuclear engineers who have stopped teaching before retirement age become more interesting if those people now happen to live within commuting distance of a suspect building.

Photographs and thermal infrared readings from satellites only reveal so much. With help from North Korea, Syria disguised construction of a nuclear reactor by assembling it inside a building in which the floor had been lowered; observers would judge the structure to be too short to accommodate a reactor. For cooling, water pipes were run to a reservoir near a river. The reactor was discovered by human intelligence; the Israelis bombed it in 2007, before it could be completed.

Some chemical emissions, such as traces of hydrofluoric acid and fluorine, can escape from even well-built enrichment facilities and, with certain sensors, have been detectable from space for about a decade. However, detecting signs of enrichment via radiation emissions requires using different types of devices, and getting much closer to suspected sources.

The energy levels of emissions of neutrons and alpha, beta, and gamma radiation provide an accurate fingerprint of the class of materials involved, revealing if they are bomb-grade. The problem is that detectors can't get enough of a signal unless they are only a few dozen meters away, and lead can be used to reduce such emissions to a trace, at most. None of the 20 confirmed cases of trafficking in bomb-usable uranium or plutonium has been discovered by a detector alarm.

Ground-based detectors are becoming more sensitive, and better algorithms screen out naturally-occurring background radiation. They are also much easier to use, iPads being used to handle the user interface, with little need for training. Range is still poor; it might be extended to about a hundred meters in a decade or so, but that depends on advances in "active interrogation" -- the bombardment of an object with high-energy neutrons or protons to produce other particles which are easier to pick up. However, the high-energy neutrons could be harmful to stowaways hiding in the cargo under inspection.

Decision Sciences, a California firm spun out of the US Los Alamos National Laboratory in America, has developed a detector system -- built around 16,000 aluminum tubes containing a secret gas to record the trajectory of muons, which are charged particles that occur naturally in the atmosphere, and which pass harmlessly through people and anything else in their path. Materials do alter the path of a muon in different ways; by measuring the deviations in muon trajectory, a computer can identify, in just 90 seconds, plutonium and uranium as well as "drugs, tobacco, explosives, alcohol, people, fill in the blank" -- according to Jay Cohen, the company's chief operating officer. Such a wide-ranging detection ability will make the machine's five-million-dollar pricetag more acceptable to border inspectors. A prototype is now in test.

Other groups are also working on muon detectors. Another approach involves detecting neutrinos, which are produced by the Sun and nuclear reactors, and seeing how they interact with other forms of matter. Since neutrinos are largely indifferent to the presence of matter in their path, such a detection system could have a very long range; but neutrinos are, by the same coin, very hard to detect, and a detection system would have to be built on the borders of a country under surveillance to allow the neutrinos from a covert reactor to be picked out of the neutrino noise.

* As discussed here in 2015, once nuclear facilities have been discovered and made available for inspection, as in Iran, the job of monitoring them falls to the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). IAEA inspectors employ seals, surveillance cameras, and an array of instruments to do the job.

In an earlier day, cameras recorded on videotape, which was prone to breaking. Modern digital cameras are much more reliable, and they can be programmed to take additional pictures when movement is detected or certain equipment is touched. Images are encrypted and stamped with sequential codes, ensuring that tampering will be detected.

The inspection technology is being continually refined. The Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission has built a prototype hand-held spectrometer for determining if traces of uranium collected on a cotton swab and illuminated with a laser emit a spectral signature that reveals enrichment beyond that allowed for generating electric power.

Lasers can also reveal other signs of enrichment. A decade ago inspectors began scanning intricate centrifuge piping with surveyor's lasers. A change between visits can reveal any reconfiguration of the sort necessary for the higher levels of enrichment needed for bomb-making. However, the IAEA cannot inspect computers, and countries under surveillance can veto the use of some equipment.

Could nuclear weapons be built in secret today? Some experts say no; others say it is difficult, but not impossible. Iraq's use of a process called electromagnetic isotope separation, to enrich uranium for bombs before the 1991 Gulf war, remained undetected for years. That was because analysts were not looking for signs of an inefficient 1940s process that was so low-tech it did not require any telltale imports.

New processes that may be harder to trace are also emerging, notably laser enrichment -- a subject discussed here in 2011. If it becomes practical, it may be possible to enrich fuel to make a Bomb with less elaborate kit than demanded by centrifugal separation. With so many states after the Bomb, the means to detect their efforts will have to keep on improving in pace. [END OF SERIES]



* ONCE & FUTURE EARTH (8): Native elements make up about 20 elements -- not counting free gases in the Earth's atmosphere -- that occur in a relatively pure form in nature, though they are generally found in impure forms as well. There are three groups of native elements: metals, semi-metals, and non-metals. Metals make up three groups in turn:

Other metals, including mercury, tantalum, tin, and zinc are also sometimes found in a native state. There are two groups of semi-metals, members of each group sharing a common structural arrangement:

Carbon, in the form of diamond and graphite, and sulfur are the most significant native non-metals.

* Sulfides, which include most of the ore minerals, consist of one or more metals combined with sulfur. Common sulfides include:

There are also the related sulfarsenides -- with arsenic replacing some of the sulfur -- such as arsenopyrite (FeAsS); and the sulfosalts, such as enargite (Cu3AsS4). They are relatively obscure and of no great economic importance, so they are not mentioned further here.

* The oxides are oxygen-bearing minerals. Water ice, H2O, can be thought of as an oxide mineral, though liquid and gaseous water are not regarded as a mineral; silicon dioxide, SiO2, could also be classed as an oxide mineral, though as a practical measure it's labeled a silicate. More conventional oxide minerals feature metals connected to oxygen, including:




* Space launches for August included:

-- 02 AUG 17 / OPTSAT 3000, VENUS -- A Vega booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 0158 UTC (next day local time + 3) to put into orbit the "Optsat 3000" high-resolution reconnaissance satellite for the Italian military, and the French-Israeli "Venus" environmental satellite to monitor the health of vegetation and test an experimental plasma thruster system.

Both satellites were built by Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI). Optsat 3000 had a launch mass of 368 kilograms (8.11 pounds). It was the first Italian optical surveillance satellite, joining a set of Italian radar satellites already in orbit. The primary payload was a Jupiter remote-sensing imager developed by Elbit of Israel, with a resolution of a half-meter (20 inches).

Venus was a 50:50 collaboration between Israel and France. It had a launch mass of 264 kilograms (582 pounds); its payload was a "superspectral" color imager, operating in 12 bands from blue to infrared. It was to be used to track plant growth, snow cover, glacial movements, and sediments in coastal estuaries with the Venus satellite. A software algorithm was developed for the Venus mission to remove clouds and aerosols from the satellite's imagery. The satellite also carried an experimental Hall-effect thruster. This was the tenth flight of the Vega booster.

-- 14 AUG 17 / SPACEX DRAGON CRS 12 -- A SpaceX Falcon booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1631 UTC (local time + 4), carrying the 12th operational "Dragon" cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). The Falcon 9 safely performed a ground soft landing, an event which has now become routine for Falcon 9 launches. The capsule docked with the ISS Harmony module two days later. Major payloads included:

The capsule also carried five smallsats to the ISS for deployment later, four of them being CubeSats -- three flown under the NASA "Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELANA) XXII" program, one commercial:

-- 16 AUG 17 / BLAGOVEST IIL -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 2207 UTC (next day local time - 6) to put the "Blagovest 11L" geostationary comsat into orbit. The satellite was built for the Russian military by ISS Reshetnev, being based on ISS Reshetnev's Express 2000 satellite bus. It had a payload of C / Ka-band transponders and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 45 degrees east longitude to provide high-speed Internet, television and radio broadcast, and voice and video conferencing services for Russian domestic and military users.

-- 18 AUG 17 / TDRS M -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1229 UTC (local time + 3) to put the NASA "Tracking & Data Relay System (TDRS) M" geostationary data relay satellite into orbit. The satellite had a launch mass of 3,450 kilograms (7,610 pounds) and was built by Boeing Satellite Systems, based on the BSS-601 satellite bus. It was the last of the third generation of TDRS satellites, with 12 in all put into space, the constellation having been operational since 1983. The rocket was in the "401" configuration with a four-meter (13.1-foot) fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

-- 19 AUG 17 / MICHIBIKI 3 -- An H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 0529 UTC (local time - 9) to put the "Michibiki (Guiding) 3" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the third space platform 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. The satellite was built by Mitsubishi Electric.

-- 24 AUG 17 / FORMOSAT 5 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 1851 UTC (local time + 7) to put the "Formosat 5" satellite into near-polar Sun-synchronous orbit for Taiwan's National Space Organization (NSPO).

Formosat 5

Formosat 5 was built by NSPO and had a launch mass of 475 kilograms (1,050 pounds), with a design life of 5 years. It was the first Taiwanese minisatellite, earlier Taiwanese satellites having been nanosats like CubeSats. It carried two payloads:

The first Formosat was launched in January 1999 by Lockheed Martin's Athena I rocket. Formosat 2 was launched by a Taurus rocket in May 2004. At the times of their launches, Formosat 1 and 2 were named ROCSAT-1 and ROCSAT-2 respectively -- "ROC" of course meaning "Republic of China" -- acquiring their new names in late 2004. Although only designed for a five-year operational life, Formosat 2 completed twelve years of service before a malfunction in June 2016 forced its retirement two months later. Formosat 5 replaced Formosat 2.

These satellites were replaced in April 2006 by the six-satellite "Formosat 3" constellation, AKA the "Constellation Observing System for Meteorology Ionosphere & Climate (COSMIC)". COSMIC was a joint mission between the Republic of China and the USA, these satellites being launched by a Minotaur I booster. A replacement constellation, "Formosat 7" or "COSMIC 2", is to be lofted by the second Falcon Heavy launch, scheduled for 2018.

There was no "Formosat 4", possibly because the Chinese word for "four" is "si", which is also the same word as "death", and so it is unlucky. Formosat 5 was a ridiculously small payload for a Falcon 9 launch. The problem for SpaceX was that NSPO had bought a launch on the SpaceX Falcon 1e light booster, which was retired, forcing SpaceX to use a Falcon 9, at a hefty loss, to put Formosat 5 into orbit. SpaceX planned to launch a large set of nanosats along with Formosat, but scheduling problems prevented that from happening.

-- 26 AUG 17 / ORS 5 (SENSORSAT) -- An Orbital Sciences Minotaur 4 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 0604 UTC (local time + 4) to put the "ORS 5" AKA "SensorSat" satellite into space for the US military's "Operationally Responsive Space" program. ORS 5 had a launch mass of 140 kilograms (310 pounds), being placed in a low Earth orbit over the Equator to telescopically inspect satellites in geostationary orbit.


ORS-5 was built by the Lincoln Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology The launch also included three US government CubeSats, including two Prometheus CubeSats for the Los Alamos National Laboratory and a CubeSat for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Specifics of the CubeSats were not revealed.

-- 31 AUG 17 / IRNSS 1H (FAILURE) -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 1330 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the eighth "Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)" spacecraft into orbit. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 1,425 kilograms (3,140 pounds); it had a design lifetime of 12 years. This was to be the final launch for the baseline IRNSS constellation, with three of the satellites to be placed in geostationary orbit, and four placed in a geostationary-type orbit with an inclination of 29 degrees. However, the payload fairing didn't separate, and the satellite could not be deployed. The booster was in the "PSLV XL" configuration, with six augmented solid-fuel strapon boosters.



* THREE MAKES A LICHEN: As discussed by an article from NYTIMES.com ("Two's Company, Three's a Lichen?" by Steph Yin, 21 July 2016), it has long been known that lichens are a symbiotic association between fungus and algae. A recent research paper now suggests there's a third symbiont involved, known as "basidiomycete yeast".

Lichens come in various sizes, shapes, and colors, but they can be commonly found as leafy tufts or crusty patches on bark and rocks. The current definition of a lichen is that it is a symbiosis between a fungus and a photosynthesizing alga or bacteria. The alga or bacteria provides food through photosynthesis, while the fungus provides protective structures -- which also gather moisture, nutrients, and an anchor to the environment.

Toby Spribille -- a lichen expert at the University of Graz in Austria, and the lead author of the new paper -- says lichens are one of the oldest and most successful symbioses in nature: "When people say they study lichens, it is like saying they study vertebrates. That is how diverse and evolutionarily deep lichens are."

The story of the discovery of the role of yeasts in the lichen symbiosis began in Montana. Spribille was curious about two species of lichens that are known to consist of the same fungus and alga, but appear wildly different. One of the lichens produces a substance, known as "vulpinic acid", that gives it a yellow color; the other lichen is dark brown. He discussed the matter with John McCutcheon, a professor of biology at the University of Montana, who uses genetic sequencing to study symbiosis. The two scientists gathered lichens and looked for genetic differences in the symbiotic fungus and alga known to be shared by both species. Confirming previous studies, they found nothing that would explain the difference.

Casting a wider net, they conducted a more general genomic analysis of the lichens, to find the yellow lichen with vulpinic acid had a much higher number of genes belonging to a basidiomycete yeast. That strongly suggested the yeast had an influence on the symbiotic arrangement, which led to the question of whether the yeast was found in other lichens.

Widening their net further, the two researchers screened other species of lichens, to find that different species carried genetically distinct basidiomycete yeasts. In addition, when they took one species in Montana and compared it with the same species in Europe, they found that the basidiomycete yeasts also stayed the same -- which strongly suggested that the species of yeast was highly specific to the species of lichen, not just obtained from the lichen's environment.

In the end, the two scientists found that basidiomycete yeasts were a universal feature, present in lichens on six continents. Their next task is to determine precisely what roles the yeasts play in the lichen symbiosis. The work is not only seen as significant in the understanding of lichens, but also in appreciating the elaborations of symbiotic relationships. No matter how much we learn about nature, it still surprises.

* In related science news, as discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Forest Fungi Form A Hidden Carbon Superhighway" by Patrick Monahan, 14 April 2016), it has long been known that trees partner with underground fungi, the trees giving the fungi carbon pulled from the atmosphere, in exchange for hard-to-extract nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. It now turns out that such mycorrhizal fungi create an underground network that shuttles the carbon between trees, even those of different species. This discovery shows that forests are much more networked than previously thought.

Using a crane that towered over the Swiss forest canopy, researchers spent five years pumping carbon dioxide over five Norway spruce trees (Picea abies). The gas contained a specific mix of isotopes that allowed the carbon to be tracked as it moved through the trees, and the fungal network that connects the trees. The researchers discovered that an estimated 40% of the carbon in a tree's fine roots comes from its neighbors -- and can migrate up the trunks, where it builds structures like bark. The researchers estimate that on a yearly basis, the fungal network provides almost 4% of the carbon those trees pull annually from the air. The network provides a degree of collaboration that allows forests to better endure droughts and other misfortunes.



* CLIMATE CHANGE & HURRICANE HARVEY: As discussed by an article from WIRED.com ("How Climate Change Fueled Hurricane Harvey" by Eric Niiler, 28 August 2017), Hurricane Harvey bore down on the Gulf Coast in late August, pouring down rain for which "torrential" was an understatement, and flooding out the city of Houston, Texas.

The overwhelming fury of the hurricane immediately led to the question of if the storm was connected to global climate change, with two answers: "No." -- and: "Absolutely yes." No, hurricanes happen every year, and they can't be blamed on climate change; but yes, the damage caused by Harvey was clearly aggravated by climate change. According to Katharine Kayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock: "The hurricane is a naturally occurring hazard that is exacerbated by climate change. But the actual risk to Houston is a combination of the hazard: rainfall, storm surge and wind, the vulnerability, and the exposure."

She adds that Houston was a particularly vulnerable target: "It's a rapidly growing city with vast areas of impervious surfaces. Its infrastructure is crumbling. And it's difficult for people to get out of harm's way."

There are two aspects of the influence of climate change on Hurricane Harvey. The first is that the temperature of the sea water in the Gulf of Mexico is gradually increasing. Coupled with an unusually hot August, that meant more water evaporated to fuel the downpour on Houston. According to well-known climate researcher Michael Mann of Penn State University, there's a relationship known as the Clausius-Clapeyron equation that says there's a roughly 3% increase in average atmospheric moisture content for each half a degree Celsius increase in temperature. That means a 3% to 5% increase in moisture just from the gradual warming of the Gulf of Mexico.

The second is that rising seas unavoidably mean bigger storm surges. The seas are about 18 centimeters (7 inches) higher than they were 30 years ago, and sea level rise is not slowing down. Of course, the buildup of Houston over the decades also aggravated the flooding, with concrete and asphalt unable to soak up water as did open land in the old days. Such defenses as had been built to protect Houston proved entirely inadequate.

One big puzzle that remains is why Harvey effectively came to a stop over the Texas coast, remaining there to pour down rain instead of moving inland and dissipating. This change in wind pattern was originally noticed in 2010. Does it have anything to do with climate change? Nobody knows. Climate researchers think the pattern will return to normal in the future -- but since they don't know why it happened, they can just as well expect it to come back eventually. Worse than Harvey may be in store.

* A related article from WIRED.com ("Above Devastated Houston, Armies of Drones Prove Their Worth" by Aarian Marshall, 4 September 2017), mobility in flooded Houston is a problem -- which means that commercial drones have proven valuable in reacting to the disaster. While the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restricted Houston's airspace from commercial drone activity lest it interfere with relief operations, but the FAA has also issued dozens of authorizations to operate drones -- if at altitudes no greater than 120 meters (400 feet), with the drones remaining in line of sight.

Oil and gas companies have accordingly used drones to inspect their infrastructure, such as power lines, and fuel tanks. Union Pacific Railroad similarly has used drones to inspect rail yards and bridges. Drone pilots for Fort Bend County, south of Houston, have flown sorties to inspect roads, bridges, and water treatment plants, while other local governments have used drones to check for fire hazards and potential environmental problems.

Insurance companies are flying drones to tally up claims. Claims adjusters at Allstate insurance can get real-time video from drones sent straight to their desks. Justin Herndon, a spokesperson for the company, said: "We're going to be there for a while."



* HUNTING FOR NUKES (2): After the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, the US poured money into developing software for counter-terrorism. The network analysis software developed in consequence performs "data mining"; when fed with information, such as people's e-mails, schooling, web surfing, phone calls, banking transactions, and purchases, the programs try to finger potential terrorists. A person could pop up on an intelligence agency's radar by, say, downloading podcasts of a radical Sunni cleric; visiting the city where that cleric preaches; and then taking calls from a town held by Islamic State.

This same class of software is being used to monitor clandestine nuclear programs. Software used for this task include "i2 Analyst's Notebook", from IBM; "Palantir", from a California firm of the same name; and "ORA", which was developed with Pentagon funds at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) in Pennsylvania, CMU being a center for development of intelligent software.

According to Kathleen Carley, who heads ORA work at CMU, the package has crunched data on more than 30,000 nuclear experts' work and institutional affiliations, research collaborations, and academic publications. ORA keeps an eye out for changes: scientists recruited into a weapons program are likely to stop publishing. ORA will also scan credit-card records that can reveal, say, when a suspicious number of doctors specializing in radiation poisoning are moving to the same area.

Network analysis software uses combinatorial mathematics -- the analysis of combinations of discrete items -- to score individuals on criteria including:

Network members with high between-ness and low degree tend to be central figures: they have access to lots of people, but like many senior figures, may not interact with that many. Their removal throws a wrench into the machinery. Five or more Iranian nuclear scientists assassinated in recent years -- Israel's Mossad intelligence service is the prime suspect in the killings -- were likely targeted with help from such software.

Network analysis can also evaluate objects that might play a role in a nuclear program. Building nukes is not easy, and involves the use of specialized technologies; such technologies represent "chokepoints" that can be monitored. For example, only a few firms produce special ceramic composites for centrifuges, and only handful of companies will process the material. Several countries, including Japan and Russia, use network analysis systems. Japan's intelligence apparatus does so with help from the Ministry of Economy, Trade, & Industry, which assists in deciding which "dual use" items -- with both peaceful and military uses -- should not be exported.

Obtaining intelligence and crunching it takes time. Suspicious patterns may only emerge after a ship has left port, and so a ship may have to be intercepted and searched at sea. Speed of analysis is picking up, however, thanks to improved technologies; software to translate conversations into text, that can be read by computer, has proven very valuable, with the quality of translation continually improving.

Network analysis software isn't perfect. It was originally designed to finger terrorist suspects, not to identify people working in a covert nuclear program. Such people are well outnumbered by terrorists, and so the networks tend to be relatively sparse. Even at that, however, crunching all the links in a network demands supercomputers, with the demand on computing power growing rapidly as analysts find more types of data -- such as details of metal or chemical imports -- that could be used for clues.

Those concerned with privacy and limits on intelligence-gathering also recognize the open-ended sweep for data from all over the world inherent in network analysis as their worst nightmare. Intelligence organizations can then reply that rogue states getting the Bomb represent a much bigger nightmare. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ONCE & FUTURE EARTH: We live on the lithosphere, and so we have a much more detailed understanding of it than the other components of the Earth. The oceanic crust is thinner and denser than the continental crust, about 11 kilometers at most. The cycling system of continental drift ensures that there is no oceanic crust more than 200 million years old.

The continental crust can be up to 70 kilometers thick, though the greatest thickness only occurs under young mountain belts. The lighter continental crust floats amidst the denser oceanic crust, and the continents are not drawn down into the subduction zones that swallow up the oceanic crust. That means the continents have portions of crust that trace back to the early history of the Earth -- though the continents have also been modified over time by volcanoes and other processes.

The crust is composed of minerals -- chemical compounds produced by natural but usually not biological processes -- organized in the form of rock -- solid aggregates of one or more types of minerals. There are several thousand known minerals, with about a hundred, the "rock-forming minerals", being the primary components of rock. A mineral is characterized by its properties such as chemical composition and behavior, crystal structure, density, hardness, color, lustre, and so on. Minerals are broken down into classes, with the primary classes being:


   1:   silicates
   2:   native elements
   3:   sulfides
   4:   oxides
   5:   hydroxides
   6:   halides
   7:   carbonates
   8:   sulfates
   9:   phosphates
   10:  nitrates
   11:  borates

Since oxygen and silicon are the predominate elements in the Earth's crust, the silicates are the dominant class, covering about 90% of the minerals. Silicates are distinguished by a silicon-based atomic group, most usually the "orthosilicate" group, or "[SiO4]4-" -- though there are variant silicate groups with different oxygen ratios, and even "hexafluorosilicate", based on fluorine, "[SiF6]2-".

There's a lot of variation in silicate structures, but instead of wading through the thicket, it's easiest just to list the most significant silicate mineral categories:

Other silicates include kaolins, aluminosilicates which are used in ceramics and as fillers in paint; vermiculites, an aluminosilicate is used in sound and thermal insulation; talc, either Mg3Si4O10(OH)2 H2Mg3(Si03)4, a soft mineral used in talcum powder, and for manufacture of heat-resistant materials; and serpentines, which are magnesium silicates, including asbestos. Beryls, of the basic formula Be3Al2(SiO3)6, are well-known as gemstones, variants being aquamarine and emerald. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from WIRED.com ("Running Delivery Trucks on Trolley Wires Isn't as Crazy as It Sounds" by Jack Stewart, 20 March 2017), electric vehicles (EVs) are all the rage these days -- but their market penetration is still small. The trucking industry has certainly failed to come on board. Although EVs are quiet and don't have tailpipe emissions, they have limited range, and require a lot of time to recharge their battery packs.

German manufacturer Siemens, best known in the transport world for trains, and Swedish truck manufacturer Scania are taking a page from the past history of electric transport, having developed a hybrid electric truck that obtains power from overhead cables like a classic electric bus or trolley. These hybrid trucks are now being tested on a two-kilometer (1.25-mile) stretch of highway in Gaevle, Sweden; an overhead cabling system is now being installed alongside a stretch of the 710 and 405 highways in Los Angeles.

In the Swedish trial, a truck is fitted on top with an extensible power coupler -- pantograph -- to engage the power lines over the right lane. If the driver wants to pass another vehicle, engaging the turn signal withdraws the pantograph, with the truck then cruising on diesel power. The truck does have a battery, but it's only good for a few kilometers; the vehicle also has regenerative coasting and braking, but it's fed back into the power lines, not into the battery.

going electric

The scheme is well-suited to high-volume trucking corridors around cities, including ports and such, where high volumes of truck operations tend to produce a lot of air pollution. The trucks aren't directly generating emissions while on electric cruise, and they are quieter; the big downside is that the apparatus is ugly. However, the scheme has plenty of attractions, a big one being that it's nothing really new, and is known to work effectively.

* As discussed by an article from REUTERS.com ("US Banks Launching Answer To Peer-To-Peer Payment App Venmo" by David Henry and Anna Irrera, 12 June 2017), Paypal's Venmo mobile payments app has achieved prominence in a rapidly evolving environment. Rather than be left behind, five of the largest US banks have now introduced a mobile payments app and system named "Zelle".

The founding group expects Zelle membership to swell to over two dozen banks and credit unions within a year. Zelle will allow the clients of the banks to send money to each other instantly -- that is, "person-to-person payments" -- using a smartphone, simply using a recipient's mobile phone number or email address to make the payment. Zelle has an edge over Venmo, which immediately alerts users that a money transfer is in progress, but takes time to shift funds between bank accounts. Bank clients who obtain Zelle may not notice much new, as compared to the existing bank payment apps; but transfers will happen more quickly, because the member banks are linking to each other. The member banks are being careful to transition to Zelle in a gradual fashion, to keep from bewildering clients.

Zelle banking app

The five banks are JPMorgan, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, US Bancorp, and Capital One Financial. The Zelle network was established by an industry consortium called Early Warning Services LLC. Establishing Zelle was troublesome because the banks are competitors -- but they were forced to cooperate because of the rapid growth of digital payment apps like Venmo or Apple's Apple Pay. Although they are latecomers, the banks do have an edge, in that they have far more funds than the digital upstarts, which only processed in 2016 an estimated fifth of the funds handled by traditional banks. The Zelle group expects the number of member banks and credit unions to grow to two dozen in a year.

* Access to water in African villages is poor, with only 5% of rural Africans having piped water. They're reliant on pumps, which don't always work; about a third of them are out of order at any one time. Aid organizations have come up with many schemes to improve the situation, though most haven't worked out well. As a follow-on to the notion of a wireless-enabled pump, discussed here in 2012, an article from ECONOMIST.com ("A Better Way To Provide Drinking Water In Rural Africa", 4 March 2017) discussed a promising new scheme from a UK startup named "eWATER".

The firm has now installed over a hundred solar-powered water pumps in Gambian villages, with access controlled by cellphone. The water is not free; villagers have to buy a ration from a shopkeeper -- at a rate of only about a penny for 20 liters (5.3 US gallons) -- with the account depleted with each "withdrawal" at the pump.

The pay-for-use model ensures that villagers don't waste any water, but more importantly most of the money is reserved for repairs. The cellphone system generates notifications to the pump service network when a pump goes down, with a mechanic dispatched to perform repairs. The villagers like the model, a survey showing they would willingly pay five times that much for water, as long as broken pumps get fixed within three days. Currently, villagers may have to wait weeks for repairs.



* HARNESSING A SUPERVOLCANO: The menacing threat of "supervolcanoes" has been discussed here in the past, most notably in 2005. The eruption of a volcanic caldera, like that underlying America's Yellowstone National Park, would cause widespread devastation from ashfall, and global crop failure from years of bad weather. There are around 20 known supervolcanoes on Earth, with major eruptions occurring on average once every 100,000 years.

The immediate question arises: if a supervolcano appeared ready to blow, could we bore down and release the pressure safely? That seems like a pipe dream, but as reported by an article from BBC.com (NASA's Ambitious Plan To Save Earth From A Supervolcano" by David Cox, 17 August 2017), a team of researchers at the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) looked into the issue, and think it could be done.

Brian Wilcox -- of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), at the California Institute of Technology -- commented: "I was a member of the NASA Advisory Council on Planetary Defense which studied ways for NASA to defend the planet from asteroids and comets. I came to the conclusion during that study that the supervolcano threat is substantially greater than the asteroid or comet threat."

The NASA researchers investigated, and concluded that cooling a supervolcano would defuze it. A supervolcano the size of Yellowstone generates heat at the rate of that of six industrial power plants. Yellowstone now leaks about two-thirds of the heat coming up from below into the atmosphere, via water which seeps into the magma chamber through cracks. What's left behind builds up in the magma chamber towards an inevitable explosion. The NASA researchers believe that if they could increase the rate of heat transfer from the to the atmosphere by 35%, the apocalypse would be called off.

One approach would be to pump large quantities of water into the ground as a coolant, but that's problematic. According to Wilcox:


Building a big aqueduct uphill into a mountainous region would be both costly and difficult, and people don't want their water spent that way. People are desperate for water all over the world -- and so a major infrastructure project, where the only way the water is used is to cool down a supervolcano, would be very controversial.


The researchers came up with a different plan, proposing instead to drill about 10 kilometers into the supervolcano, then pump water at high pressure down the borehole. The heated water would circulate back up at a temperature of about 350C (660F) -- to be used to run a geothermal power plant. Although the cost of the scheme would be about $3.5 billion USD, Wilcox believes it would pay for itself:


Yellowstone currently leaks around 6 GW in heat. Through drilling in this way, it could be used to create a geothermal plant, which generates electric power at extremely competitive prices of around ten cents per kilowatt-hour. You would have to give the geothermal companies incentives to drill somewhat deeper and use hotter water than they usually would, but you would pay back your initial investment, and get electricity which can power the surrounding area for a period of potentially tens of thousands of years. And the long-term benefit is that you prevent a future supervolcano eruption which would devastate humanity.


The drilling would have to be done carefully. Drilling into the top of the magma chamber might actually cause an eruption, and so the researchers concluded it would be best to drill in from the sides. In any case, energy could be obtained from the supervolcano for centuries, even millennia. The same approach could be used with all other supervolcanoes on Earth. According to Wilcox:


When people first considered the idea of defending the Earth from an asteroid impact, they reacted in a similar way to the supervolcano threat. People thought: "As puny as we are, how can humans possibly prevent an asteroid from hitting the Earth?"

Well, it turns out if you engineer something which pushes very slightly for a very long time, you can make the asteroid miss the Earth. So the problem turns out to be easier than people think. In both cases, it requires the scientific community to invest brain power and you have to start early. But Yellowstone explodes roughly every 600,000 years, and it is about 600,000 years since it last exploded, which should cause us to sit up and take notice.


Geologists see no reason to think that the Yellowstone caldera is getting ready to blast again, and believe that signs of it becoming unsettled should give decades of warning. Nonetheless, it's gone off many times in the past, and there's no doubt it will go off again in the future.



* GENTLEMEN'S AGREEMENT: There is nothing that seems much more absurd than rules of warfare -- but there's nothing more necessary, either. As ugly as warfare is, it gets even uglier if neither side concedes to any rules. As discussed by an essay in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("We Need Cyberwar Rules of Engagement Now" by Leonid Bershidsky, 20 July 2017), there's an immediate need for rules of engagement to address the rapidly emerging battleground in cyberspace.

The bitterest confrontation in cyberspace at the current time is between the USA and Russia. It may seem that the animosity is so great as to rule out discussion; but during the Cold War, when the animosity was often as great, the Americans and the Soviets conducted diplomacy that ultimately led to significant arms-control agreements. If an agreement can be hammered out between the two powers, it could lay the groundwork for other bilateral deals -- say, between the US and China, which also feud in cyberspace -- or a multilateral convention.

The first thing that needs to be done is simply to lay out basic definitions. What constitutes an "attack", as opposed to a nuisance tactic? What retaliation is proportional to a particular attack? There's no way to have a discussion unless everyone is speaking the same language.

An informal, but earnest, effort to provide such definitions has already been made. Early in 2017, NATO's Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence released the second edition of the "Tallinn Manual" -- a detailed study of current international law as it applies to cyberwarfare. The Tallinn Manual is the product of a group of academics and international law experts under the direction of Michael Schmitt of the US Naval War College. They began putting together the manual in 2009, in response to Russian cyberattacks on Estonia and then on Georgia during the brief Russo-Georgian conflict. The manual now includes over 150 rules, for example:

The Tallinn Manual is not binding in the slightest, it's just a set of proposed rules for diplomatic discussion. As per the manual's rules, the interference US intelligence services attributed to Russia in America's 2016 presidential election -- spying, propaganda, criticism, and so on -- were not illegal, since they did not directly interfere with the election. However, stealing the emails of Democratic Party officials would be illegal, since it was a violation of the right of privacy. The US would be allowed to take broadly defined "countermeasures", as long as they did not violate human rights.

According to THE WASHINGTON POST, US President Barack Obama ordered his intelligence service to place "implants" in Russian networks "important to the adversary and that would cause them pain and discomfort if they were disrupted." The Tallinn Manual suggests that would be a disproportionate response, defining such an action as a "cyberattack", or cyber operations "reasonably expected to cause injury or death to persons or damage or destruction to objects." If a cyberattack shut down a power grid or disrupted communications, it would be an attack on civilians; overkill.

Putin has denied interfering with the US election, saying that the actions may have been of "patriotic Russian hackers" not connected to the Russia state. The denial was not believed, and the Tallinn Manual calls it an evasion it in any case: Russia would be obligated to put a stop to the malicious cyberspace actions of "patriots" operating out of Russia.

The difficulty with the idea of talks between the US and Russia is that Vladimir Putin is widely regarded in the USA as a liar whose word cannot be trusted in any circumstance. Certainly, the Trump Administration is so compromised -- for valid cause or not -- with Russia as to render discussions extremely difficult. However, if nuclear agreements were possible with Soviet leaders, a cyber agreement with Putin may be possible as well.

Even an agreement lacking in teeth constrains the actors, forcing them to either do the right thing, or be internationally branded as liars. After the 2014 shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine, Putin felt compelled to work with the Dutch Safety Board's investigation. When he refused to accept the board's conclusions, it was a global disgrace for Russia, and helped European nations maintain a united front on Russia sanctions. Once again, there's a serious bottom line in establishing rules between combatants: if they don't agree to some rules, it is a tautology to point out they have no concept of rules at all.



* HUNTING FOR NUKES (1): North Korea's recent binge of nuclear tests has put global nerves on edge -- underlining the importance of arms limitation, and the surveillance needed to enforce it. As discussed by an article from ECONOMIST.com ("Monitoring Nuclear Weapons", 5 September 2015), efforts to restrain the nuclear arms race have often hinged on the ability to detect cheating on arms-control agreements. Decades of effort have now made cheating very difficult.

North Korea detonated its first nuclear weapon in 2006. It had a yield of only about a kiloton of TNT, about an eighth of the yield of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, but the vibrations were recorded half a world away, in central Africa. Modern seismic sensors are sensitive enough to distinguish between a distant nuclear detonation and, say, a relatively nearby building being blown down by conventional explosives -- according to Lassina Zerbo, head of the Preparatory Commission for the Comprehensive Test-Ban-Treaty Organization (CTBTO), the international organization that seeks to enforce the agreement ratified, to date, by 163 nations.

The CTBTO operates 170 seismic stations worldwide; 11 underwater hydro-acoustic centers detecting sound waves in the oceans; 60 listening stations for atmospheric infrasound -- low-frequency acoustic waves that can travel long distances; and 96 labs and radionuclide-sampling facilities. The network continues to grow, though it has already established global coverage. To back up the CTBTO network, the US Air Force flies instruments on GPS satellites and Defense Support Program surveillance satellites that can spot and locate surface nuclear detonations. Zerbo says that it is now impossible to test even a small nuclear weapon in secret anywhere on Earth.

Once a Bomb has been tested, however, it is too late. According to Ilan Goldenberg, a former head of the Iran analysis team at the Pentagon, once a country has the Bomb, there's not much other governments can do to prevent that country from making more. In a report issued in 2015, the Defense Science Board -- a Pentagon advisory body -- concluded that more countries are after the Bomb than at any time since the end of the Cold War.

In that context, the deal signed with Iran in July 2015 to restrict its nuclear program was significant -- not just because it curbed Iran's nuclear ambitions, but also those of Saudi Arabia and Iran's other Sunni-Arab rivals. The deal depended on Iran agreeing to an unprecedented level of monitoring of its nuclear activities.

Concerns over Iranian cheating have persisted in the Trump Administration, but for the moment the deal is still on. North Korea has repeatedly dodged efforts to monitor its nuclear program, though no attempt to do so there was remotely as thorough as that being imposed on Iran. It is also difficult to hide the uranium-enrichment facilities required to churn out Bomb-grade materials. However, according to Goldenberg, there's not much that can be done to prevent a group of researchers from performing theoretical work, using computers disconnected from the internet. He adds that it doesn't help that A.Q. Khan, a metallurgist who made Pakistan's nuclear weapons, circulated his designs.

Fortunately, the tools to detect clandestine nuclear weapons development have been steadily improved -- ranging from spy software that scans through electronic communications and financial transactions, to scanners that can detect even heavily shielded nuclear material.

Western intelligence was mostly clueless about the network Khan built to traffic bomb expertise and equipment, until Libya, a Kahn client, surrendered its program in 2003. That was then; Ramesh Thakur -- a former UN assistant secretary-general, and now head of the Center for Nuclear Non-Proliferation & Disarmament at the Australian National University in Canberra -- says that it would be very difficult for anyone to get very far peddling nuclear secrets, thanks to "network analysis" software. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE ONCE & FUTURE EARTH (6): The elemental composition of the Earth is as follows:


    iron:       34.6%
    oxygen:     29.5%
    silicon:    15.2%
    magnesium:  12.7%
    nickel       2.4%
    sulfur       1.9%
    titanium     0.05%

The Earth is geologically active, with obvious volcanic activity that also contributes to climate, and has a well-differentiated structure. It is covered with a cold, solid layer known as the "crust" or "lithosphere", which is roughly 40 kilometers thick, though the thickness varies considerably from place to place.

The lithosphere is divided into about a dozen tectonic plates, which are rigid in themselves but can move relative to each other, driven from one side by upwellings of rocky materials from the mid-ocean ridges of undersea volcanoes, and pushed slowly back down into the Earth at the other side into oceanic trenches. These subduction zones tend to generate volcanic activity above their "far side", in the direction of the ocean floor subduction.

Traditionally, the lithosphere has been seen as the topmost of a set of layers, with each layer having somewhat different compositions and seismic properties. The layers become increasingly hot with depth and are plastic or semi-fluid, down to a solid core where the temperatures run at about 5,000 degrees Celsius. The heat is left over from the formation of the planet, boosted by the decay of radioactive isotopes contained in the mantle and the core. The layers are arranged as follows from the top down:


   lithosphere:        0 to 40 kilometers
   upper mantle:       40 to 400 kilometers
   transition region:  400 to 650 kilometers
   lower mantle:       650 to 2,700 kilometers
   D" layer:           2,700 to 2,890 kilometers
   outer core:         2,890 to 5,150 kilometers
   inner core:         5,150 to 6,378 kilometers (to the center)

The structure of the interior is complicated, the popular models being simplifications. It is known that the core is primarily iron and nickel, with the inner core being solid and the outer core liquid. Interestingly, the magnetic poles of the Earth are not aligned with the Earth's axis of rotation and drift perceptibly year by year -- and as noted, they flip over every now and then.

It's actually been 780,000 years since the last flip, and it seems likely a flip will occur sometime in the "near" future -- that is, sometime over the next few thousand years. There's been some fuss over the prospect of a magnetic field reversal, but on a geological time scale it happens all the time, and there's no evidence in the geological record that it causes much trouble to the biosphere.

The instability of the Earth's magnetic field seems to be due to turbulent patterns of flow in the fluid outer core, which may be related to the fact that the core spins slightly faster than the outer shell of the Earth, advancing maybe a quarter to a half of a degree per year. Incidentally, the magnetic field produced by the outer core remains mostly trapped there; only about 1% of the magnetic energy escapes to provide the Earth's external magnetic field.

The magnetic field of the Earth has interesting interactions with the flow of particles from the Sun, known as the "solar wind". The magnetic field funnels the solar wind down to the poles, resulting in "auroras", the ghostly veils of light seen at high latitudes during strong solar activity. It also traps solar particles in a pair of concentric, doughnut-shaped belts, known as the "Van Allen radiation belts". The inner belt extends from 7,600 to 13,000 kilometers above the surface of the Earth, while the outer belt stretches from 19,000 to 41,000 kilometers.

* The Earth has a single large Moon, broadly similar in geological composition to the Earth, but airless and lifeless. The Moon has a diameter of 3,480 kilometers, is 81 times less massive than the Earth, and orbits the Earth at a distance of 384,403 kilometers once in a little more than 27 days.

The Moon's rotation period matches its orbital period, and so it keeps one side always facing the Earth. This neat synchronization is due to the differential gravitational force, or "tides", of the Earth on the Moon, which slowed down its rotation to this stable state. The Moon of course similarly causes tides on Earth that are slowly lengthening the Earth's day. More visibly, they cause the Earth's oceans to rise and fall by a number of meters on a daily cycle.

The Sun also has a tidal effect on the Earth's oceans, though one that is less significant than that caused by the Moon. However, at some times the two tidal effects will work together, causing high "spring tides", named because the waters "spring up", not because they happen in the spring. If the two work against each other, they cause low "neap tides". [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Watching Plants Grow Has Never Been This Exciting" by Patrick Monahan, 20 March 2017), the optical microscope is a venerable technology -- but now a group of researchers has brought it up to date, automating a microscope so that it can track the growth of organisms at the cellular level in real time.

As a demonstration, the researchers observed the growth in the root tips of Arabidopsis thaliana plants -- A. thaliana, a little weedy flowering plant and a popular "lab rat" -- growing in a plate, with the microscope set on its side to observe the plate. The system involved computer control with custom software, lasers and special lighting, and digital imaging. The plants were also placed in a rotating plate to observe how changing gravity affects their growth.

They also observed cellular growth in zebrafish (Danio rerio) embryos. The videos from these observations are a fascinating watch. The researchers released the software for their system, giving anyone who wants to duplicate it a leg up on the effort.

* As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Are Methane Seeps In The Arctic Slowing Global Warming?" by Randall Hyman, 8 May 2017), there has been considerable concern over the increased natural emissions of methane as the world warms -- methane being a much more potent "greenhouse gas" than carbon dioxide, it promises to accelerate the warming.

However, new research suggests that, in some compensation, increases in oceanic methane emissions can lead to reductions in carbon dioxide emissions. Much to the surprise of scientists involved in climate research, studies conducted off the coast of Norway's Svalbard archipelago suggests that where methane gas bubbles up from seafloor seeps, surface waters directly above absorb twice as much CO2 as surrounding waters.

On a molecular basis, methane traps about 30 times as much heat as CO2, but researchers know relatively little about its role in the global carbon cycle. Most atmospheric methane comes from biological sources -- such as cattle digestion, or bacteria living on decomposing litter -- or from the burning of fossil fuels. In the ocean, methane bubbles up from deep seeps, being often stored in icelike crystal lattices of water called hydrates. When hydrates "melt," due to changing temperatures and pressures, the methane is released, to percolate upward towards the surface, and then into the atmosphere.

To find out just how much methane the Arctic Ocean was sending into the atmosphere, biogeochemist John Pohlman of the US Geological Survey in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, set out to measure the gas close to the ocean surface above known methane seeps near Svalbard during the Arctic summer. They were surprised to find little methane; they were even more surprised to find that surface water CO2 levels dropped when their survey ship went over a seep.

Pohlman believes that, when combined with other data -- sudden drops in water temperature, plus increases in dissolved oxygen and pH at the surface -- the lower CO2 levels were signs of bottom water upwelling and photosynthesis. The researchers concluded that forces that are pushing the methane bubbles up are also pumping nutrient-rich cold waters from the sea bed to the surface, fertilizing phytoplankton blooms that soak up CO2.

In fact, further analysis suggests that nearly 1,900 times more CO2 is absorbed in such zones than methane emitted; the atmospheric benefit from CO2 sequestration is about 230 times greater than the warming effect from methane emissions. However, Pohlman warns against over-generalizing from this research; it certainly does not mean climate change has been called off. The effect was only observed in a particular location at a particular time, and methane seeps elsewhere may not have such benign effects. In particular, the research was conducted in the Arctic summer; during the extended polar night, photosynthesis drops to nearly nothing, and methane emissions wouldn't be offset by CO2 sequestration.

* As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Mining Threatens Chinese Fossil Site" by David Cyranoski, 20 April 2017), in the late 1990s paleontologists began to discover well-preserved fossils of sponges and embryos of other unusual animals -- dating to around 600 million years ago, during the "Pre-Cambrian" eon -- at a site in the Doushantuo geological formation in the Weng'an region of Guizhou province in southern China.

These discoveries challenged the theory that almost all major animal lineages emerged during the "Cambrian explosion" some 540 million years ago. The site is rich in minerals that preserve soft tissues and cellular structures -- which leads to a big problem, in that phosphate mining is now destroying the fossil beds at the site. Dave Bottjer, a palaeobiologist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, estimates that just 5% of the site's fossils have been recovered. Bottjer says: "We may never find a comparable site and may lose the chance to truly understand early animal evolution on Earth. If nothing is done, it will be a great loss."

Phosphate mining preceded the fossil discoveries, and to an extent helped bring the initial fossil discoveries to the surface. Unfortunately, the mining has accelerated to the extent of wiping out the fossil beds. On a visit to Doushantuo in April 2017, palaeontologist Zhu Maoyan of the Nanjing Institute of Geology & Paleontology was appalled to find a fossil site, opened in 2015, completely stripped of fossil-bearing sediment by phosphate mining. The locale that produced the area's first fossils had been destroyed years ago; and third key fossil-hunting area, which produced most of the new fossils found in the formation in the past 15 years, was buried by a landslide caused by mining in 2014.

Zhu and his colleagues organized a workshop, held on 2:3 April 2017 in Weng'an, with international attendance. The exercise managed to persuade local government officials to order a halt to the mining while a strategy is considered. Options for the future include selection of alternate sites for mining; setting up a reservation, a national geological park, 1.2 square kilometers in size; and to have miners work in conjunction with scientists.

Chinese researchers have some confidence they can prevail. The publicity surrounding the fracas over the mining has a potentially big downside, in that it may draw mercenary Chinese fossil-hunters to the site to loot it for black market sales. However, since the fossils are of small and not notably differentiated organisms, they may not have much commercial potential.


[WED 06 SEP 17] FIDO CALLS 911

* FIDO CALLS 911: As discussed by an article from CNN.com ("Your Dog Could Call 911 In An Emergency" by Jacqueline Howard, 21 June 2017), Melody Jackson -- associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, director of the animal-computer interaction lab at the Georgia Institute of Technology -- believes there's no reason that dogs, who are generally entirely comfortable with living with humans, can't make use of human technology.

Under the "Facilitating Interactions for Dogs with Occupations (FIDO)" project, Jackson's lab has been working on a touchscreen computer display for dogs, with dogs being trained to call for assistance if their owner collapses, or calls for help. Jackson says: "The dog could go over to a touchscreen and touch a series of icons on the touchscreen and call 911 with your location. We think that, literally, this could change lives, make lives so much better, and be a life-saver."

Jackson, who also is a dog trainer, sees no difficulty with the idea:


What we realized a few years ago is that service dogs and working dogs in general have a lot of information that they need to impart to their handlers. A medical alert dog may need to summon 911 for their person who is having a seizure. Or a military working dog might need to tell their handler what kind of explosive they just found. The dogs had no way reliably to do this. So we started focusing on technology to allow working dogs and specifically service dogs to communicate.


Jackson and her team have trained her border collie, Sky, and other dogs to use a TV-sized touchscreen, pushing three buttons with the nose when they hear the command "help." Pushing the buttons will tell the controlling computer to call a family member, a doctor, or 911, as programmed by the user. The buttons on the touchscreen are blue and yellow, since dogs are colorblind and may not be able to distinguish other color pairs. Three buttons in the proper sequence are used to reduce false alarms, caused by a dog idly nosing around on the display.

Under FIDO, the Georgia Tech researchers have also developed wearable technologies, in the form of vests, for dogs to use to communicate with humans. The vests feature either a chew toy for the dog to bite on command, or a braided rope for the dog to tug on command. Both actions activate a sensor in the toy or rope; they signal a computer in the back of the vest to make a phone call; send a text; or broadcast an audio message to say, ask passer-bys for help.

Fido calls for help

For example, some seizure-alert dogs are trained to sense the onset of a seizure, push their handlers against a wall to support their fall and then lick the face of their handlers during the seizure. Jackson says:


But what if that dog could not just do all of that, but reach around and tug a sensor on their vest that calls 911, with their GPS location, and also has a speaker that says, "Excuse me, my handler is having a seizure; please stay back."

We want to be able to let these dogs communicate with humans very specifically and very clearly so that even a person who isn't a dog trainer will understand what's going on. If the dog runs up to you and a speaker says" "Excuse me, my handler needs your attention; can you please follow me," OK, that's clear.


The Georgia Tech researchers aren't ready to go commercial with their FIDO technology yet. The prototypes are sturdy enough, but don't have enough battery life, and are still prone to accidental activation. However, the researchers feel their technology is the way of the future for work dogs and the people they serve.



* EUROPE'S DIVERSE HEALTHCARE SYSTEMS: As discussed by an article from ECONOMIST.com ("The Expanding Universal", 12 August 2017), America's Republican Party, now in power after the elections of 2016, has inherited the responsibility for the US healthcare system -- and so far, has made a botch of repairing it. After the last botch in the exercise, Senator Mitch McConnell, the GOP Senate majority leader, blamed congressional Democrats, McConnell sneering that they wanted a "single-payer" system, which he called "socialized medicine ... a government takeover of everything -- European healthcare."

McConnell has long had a reputation for wiliness, but it has now become obvious that he has been over-rated, one item of evidence being that he didn't appear to know a thing about Europe's healthcare systems, or even understand the terms he was using. For starters, a single-payer system is socialized health insurance -- not "socialized medicine". In many countries with single-payer systems, such as Canada, most medical providers are private, profit-making businesses. It may not even mean that the government is the sole insurance provider; in many countries with single-payer insurance, it co-exists with health-insurance industries supplying supplemental policies for those who want extra coverage.

Nor is single-payer health insurance synonymous with "European healthcare", since a number of European countries -- including Switzerland, the Netherlands, and an out-of-the-way place named Germany -- have universal coverage obtained through a mix of private for-profit / not-for-profit insurers. It is all the more surprising that Senator McConnell does not realize this because Germany has basically had this model since the late 19th century, when it was implemented during the administration of the notoriously Leftist Chancellor Otto von Bismarck.

In reality, European healthcare has three distinct forms:

Germany falls somewhere between the second and third models: most citizens are covered by government-administered schemes, but those earning above a certain threshold can choose to buy private health insurance. America's Affordable Care Act -- "ObamaCare" -- follows the third model, but not as well as do the Netherlands and Switzerland; the US is weak on subsidies and enforcement of the individual mandate, with the result that about 10% of Americans don't have healthcare coverage. In Switzerland, it's less than a percent.

ObamaCare is actually only a component of America's bewildering and inefficient healthcare system:

The very complication of the US healthcare system translates to higher costs; America burns up 8% of health spending on administration, versus 2.5% in Britain. The resulting US healthcare system soaks up about 17% of GDP without even covering everyone, while no European system costs more than 12% of GDP. Worse, on the average, the US underperforms Europe in maintaining the health of citizens.

At the moment, the GOP is stalled, if not completely defeated, in its attacks on the US healthcare system -- and one can hope that, given time, Republican members of Congress may honestly start to consider ways of improving America's healthcare system, instead of trying to undermine it. Like it or not, the only choices are for the government to provide universal health insurance; or regulate and subsidize the insurance industry to do it, keeping the system afloat with an individual mandate.

On the bright side, once Congress gets serious about healthcare reform, they will find "European healthcare", instead of a bad example, a useful source of inspiration. After all, no matter what scheme Congress considers, some European country has probably tried it; and, as a rule, one of them works as well as another. On the other side of that coin -- they all work better than what the USA has.



* CHINA'S AUTHORITARIAN INTERNET (3) To make online surveillance work, the Chinese government has to match users of devices with the digital footprints they leave. As a result, laws passed in 2012 and 2016 require internet firms to obtain their customers' real names and other personal information. However, there are lots of fake registrations, while the government doesn't seem to know how to deal with the use of encryption by citizens yet -- there's been no attempt at a blanket ban yet, and given the need of citizens for personal security online, may never be.

The emerging social-credit system builds on this history of monitoring and control. Lists are central to the project, and the Chinese authorities like to keep lists. China's tourist authority keeps a no-fly list for bad-mannered travelers, who can be banned from going abroad for up to ten years; while the Cyberspace administration keeps a "white list" of favored media firms that may sell their articles to other outlets. There are many others.

The list at the heart of the social-credit system is known as the "judgment defaulter's list", made up of those who have defied a court order. If people or companies have a contract dispute, or if couples are fighting over a divorce or child support, the parties can go to a civil court for judgment. If the losing parties then default on payment, they are put on the list. Names of offenders are displayed on an electronic ticker display outside courthouses. According to China's supreme court, there were 3.1 million defaulters on the list at the end of 2015.

Keeping tabs on defaulters might not seem all that unreasonable, but China takes it to an extreme. The list is very long, and is made available to dozens of government departments and party organizations, all of which can apply their own sanctions to defaulters. People on the list can be blocked from:

There are restrictions on offenders joining or being promoted in the party and army, and on receiving honors and titles. If the defaulter is a company, it may not issue shares or bonds, accept foreign investment, or work on government projects. Penalties are liberally applied. In short, people are given serious criminal punishments without being put on trial.

The published guidelines for the social-credit system suggest the defaulter's list is only a start, a basis for a much bigger and more comprehensive system, a "master list" that subsumes all existing lists to keep tabs on everyone. Citizens will be blacklisted for a wide range of "untrustworthy behavior", such as: "conduct that seriously undermines ... the normal social order" as well as "assembling to disrupt social order [and] endangering national defense interests". Anyone who irritates the authorities is going to be blacklisted.

True, in the West, Google, Facebook, data-brokers and marketing companies in Western countries, all hold vast quantities of personal information without causing serious harm to civil liberties, at least not so far. However, although protections on personal data are imperfect in democracies, there are effectively none in China. The government has established laws to grant itself unrestricted access to almost all personal data -- and those inclined to protest are now often thrown in jail. Chinese internet companies give the authorities any data they want, and know better than to protest.

While privacy concerns for big-data systems are an important issue in democracies, China's big-data systems are being designed with a deliberate disregard for privacy. There are effectively no constraints on the government in the matter, with the government being a creature of the CCP. In 2016, for example, the CCP China Electronics Technology Group, one of the country's largest defense contractors, was given a contract to design software to predict terrorist risks on the basis of people's job records, financial background, consumption habits, hobbies, and data from surveillance cameras.

How far is that from digitally hunting down dissidents? Even if the system is limited to spotting terrorists, it is likely many innocents will be caught in the net. Western intelligence agencies have tried to use data-mining schemes to identify individual terrorists, but the exercise has problematic, due to an excess of "false positives".

That problem hinges on the quality of the data and the ability to analyze it. That question is even more relevant to the social credit system. Big-data projects everywhere -- such as the attempt by Britain's National Health Service to create a nationwide medical database -- have fallen down due to the inability to sift bad data out of the system. The difficulty is much worse in a country of 1.3 billion people. However, cyber-criminals would still find it a juicy target. Data analysis is at least as troublesome; assigning credit scores, for example, is notoriously unreliable.

The Chinese government is perfectly aware of these problems, having allowed an extraordinary amount of forthright discussion on them in state-run media, as if testing the waters. The discussion have suggested that legal protections need to be improved, and that the system should not be arbitrary and capricious. One Yang Gengshen, in a commentary in BEIJING TIMES, said: "I have never opposed the establishment and improvement of a credit-information system. I am only against using credit to expand the power of the strong and further compress the space for civil rights."

The social-credit system is not ready to fly yet; the technology is not in place, and the government has doubts over how far-reaching it will be. However, many of the pieces are in place for an overbearing digital police system: the databases; the digital surveillance; the system of reward and punishment; and the we-know-best paternalism. Even as the system is discussed and debated, it will come together and acquire a life of its own. [END OF SERIES]



* ANOTHER MONTH: I've always found arranged marriages an interesting institution. Yes, they're largely out of the question in Western society, but marriages in the West don't necessarily do well, and arranged marriages don't always do badly.

However, that's a detached evaluation. Pakistan-born Nashra Balagamwala, after working for the Hasbro games company in New York City, decided to construct a board game named ARRANGED! as something of an unflattering simulation of how arranged marriages work, with cardboard figurines moved over the playing board. According to Balagamwala: The gameplay involves a matchmaker trying to chase down all these girls, and get [each one] married off to any and every boy she can find, while [the girls] try to escape ... "

The gameplay is controlled by cards that either allow draw a girl towards marriage, or give her an avenue of escape. Balagamwala says that she has relatives who are happy with their arranged marriages -- but also had a friend of underwent a lightning marriage to a young man who turned out to be gay, and another who was effectively imprisoned and starved by her family until she agreed to an arranged marriage. Balagamwala promoted her game on Kickstarter, and quickly got enough money to go to production.


On talking about arranged marriages with Desis -- South Asians -- one may get a range of opinion. However, if the subject turns to dowries, it is inclined to go bitter. Dowries are a racket, they're widely hated, but since there's money involved, it persists.

* Of course, the big trivial news for August 2017, at least here in the States, was the total eclipse of the Sun that swept across the USA on the 21st. I didn't pay it too much until the day approached.

A neighbor gave me a set of eclipse-watching glasses, just dark films in a cardboard frame. I got to thinking I might be able to take shots through the films and tinkered with it, but they wouldn't focus. On consideration, I should have thought to buy a cheap filter from Amazon.com. I'm sure they were a hot item at the time.

On the morning of the 21st, I started going out at about 1030 AM, just after the start of the eclipse, once about 15 minutes. After a while, I ended up over at my neighbor's house, the show being too distracting to allow me to do much else. Although I wasn't able to get a shot of the eclipse itself, I found that the leaves of a tree made a good set of "pinhole cameras" that allowed me to get a shot of a scattering of eclipse images on a patio.

casts of the eclipse

Northeast Colorado was not quite on the track of total eclipse -- that was north in Wyoming -- but the Sun was reduced to a thin golden ring. It felt like evening, the Sun just having gone down, with the warmth of the day cooling noticeably. It passed; the light returned, and I went back about my business.

* As for the month's real fake news, the ongoing comedy-drama in the White House began the month with Marine General John Kelly taking firm charge as President Donald Trump's chief of staff. After evicting Wall Street financier Tony Scaramucci, Kelly went on to put fear into White House staffers, establishing protocols for their access to the president, and keeping a lid on the back-biting among them. It couldn't be honestly banned, of course, but it was possible to impose discretion on it.

In the meantime, Congress finally adjourned for the summer, the Republicans having been humiliated by their inability to "repeal & replace" ObamaCare. Trump, true to form, had to rub it in, denouncing the Senate GOP and Senate Majority Leader McConnell for the failure, with McConnell responding in kind, if more tactfully. Nobody expected that General Kelly's arrival in the White House meant any substantial restraint on Trump, and it clearly hasn't.

What it did mean was the consolidation of a power center around "the generals" -- Chief of Staff Kelly, Defense Secretary / Marine General Jim Mattis, and National Security Advisor / Army General HR McMaster. It was obvious early on as senior military brass arrived in the White House that there would be conflicts between them and extreme-Right elements there, most prominently Trump strategic advisor Steve Bannon. Towards mid-month, rumors were circulating that Bannon's days in the White House were numbered. There were also tales of intense debate on the administration's Afghanistan policy -- on the question of whether to pull out, or reinforce US involvement.

However, all such considerations dropped abruptly into the background on 12 August. A gang of armed neo-Nazi white supremacists came to Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the removal of a Confederate monument. Counter-protesters gathered, leading to an unruly confrontation, if by no means a riot -- but then, one of the white supremacists drove a car into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing one Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal, and injuring 19 others. In response, Trump announced:


We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence, on many sides. On many sides. It's been going on for a long time in our country. Not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. This has been going on for a long, long time.


Those wearily familiar with Trump's rhetoric might not have paid it much mind, judging it mealy-mouthed rubbish as usual, but it set off a national storm. As comedian John Oliver put it, it would have been the "easiest thing in the world" for a US president to denounce Nazis, but Trump "couldn't be bothered". How grievous an affront it was might be argued; but it simply could not be defended, and wasn't consistent with the office of president.

Corporate bigwigs on Trump's business councils promptly resigned, with Trump then disbanding the councils. The president's public approval ratings dipped to 33%. The incident decisively broke resistance against removal of the old "Jim Crow" monuments, with a number of Southern cities having them hauled off immediately. The days of the rest are numbered.

On Friday, 18 August, the other shoe dropped on Steve Bannon, Trump announcing his dismissal. On Monday the 21st, Trump then announced that, though his instincts had been to withdraw from Afghanistan, he had been persuaded that the US could not afford to pull out, and that incremental forces would be committed to brace up the reeling Afghan army. Honestly, would any president have decided differently? On Tuesday the 22nd, Trump went to a campaign-style rally in Phoenix, Arizona, even though the mayor, fearing violence after Charlottesville, asked him not to come.

There was a little rowdiness in Phoenix, but no battle as was feared. Trump, however, was in prime form, doubling down on his statements about Charlottesville, denouncing the removal of the Jim Crow monuments; threatening to shut down the government unless he got funding for his Mexico border wall; saying he was likely to kill off the NAFTA trade pact after all; blasting Arizona Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake, both outspoken critics of the president; and, as usual, complaining about the "fake news media".

Congressional GOP replied that a government shutdown wasn't in the cards; the threats to kill off NAFTA were ignored by Canadian and Mexican negotiators in the NAFTA talks, who recognized them as the bluffs they were. Commenters in the news media, contrasting the presidential tone of the announcement on Afghanistan on Monday with the hot gas in Phoenix on Tuesday, wondered if Trump was working according to a devious plan, or if he was simply winging it. It was hard to know if that question was rhetorical or naive; Trump simply does whatever he feels like doing at the moment, guided by gut instinct, disinterested in facts, oblivious to self-contradiction or broader consideration.

To effectively cap off the month, on late in the day on Friday, 25 August, the White House issued three statements:

Issuing the statements late on Friday was clearly to ensure that there was as little media discussion as possible, with Hurricane Harvey, then bearing down on the Texas coast, providing additional cover. Harvey proved as devastating as feared, usefully dominating the headlines.

In any case, the military brass hardly appeared pleased by the transgender ban. It seems unlikely the brass have much consideration for transgenders; but the brass knows that discriminating against them can accomplish nothing but tie the services up in knots until, in the end, sensible policies are instituted. What guarantees trouble is that the US military already has a non-discriminatory policy on gays; which means that either gay tolerance will be revoked as well -- don't think so -- or the anti-transgender policy will be a non-starter. The ACLU promptly filed a lawsuit against the policy, with more excitement clearly to come.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio had become notorious for discriminatory actions against Latins, so much so that the Arizona courts put an injunction on him, ordering him to cease and desist. He didn't, and so he was convicted for contempt of court. Trump's pardon of Arpaio did not go over well with Senators McCain and Flake, senior GOP in Congress, and Arizona state officials -- who had reason to fear a backlash from Arizona Latins. The courts remained quiet; it appears the judges felt they'd made their point, and saw no good reason to get into a barking contest with Trump.

As for Sebastian Gorka, he left in a snit, complaining that himself, Bannon, and other extreme-Right advisors in the White House were being "systematically undermined". To which the response would be: "You say that as if it were a bad thing." It was obvious that the contest between the generals and the crackpots in the White House was no contest at all; the crackpots were handily outgunned in all respects.

Steve Bannon made it clear that he would battle against the "president's enemies" -- meaning Bannon's enemies which, considering that the most powerful of them are the generals, puts Bannon in the position of taking on the military. He may well think twice about doing so. The military has the highest public prestige of all US government elements, and anyone taking reckless shots at the armed services is certain to regret it.

* Things went quiet again the next day, the 26th, which was marked by a Leftist demonstration in San Francisco. Ironically, the demonstration had been originally been planned by a Rightist group, Patriot Prayer -- but they had to call it off, out of fears that it would draw alt-Nazis, and due to firm resistance from the public authorities. Patriot Prayer officials felt they hadn't been treated even-handedly, but anyone making a public demonstration these days has to be blind not to realize it's asking for trouble. The Leftist demonstration went off generally peacefully, but it's hard to be confident that future demonstrations, by Right or Left, are going to be so harmonious.

As far as the White House goes, it seems to be settling into a cycle of periods of quiet then broken by outrage and outcry, on a roughly monthly basis. The outbursts seem to be getting worse; admittedly, that's due to the public reaction becoming more sensitized each time around, but it also appears that Trump can't help from turning up the volume.

Where will it end? On 16 August Tony Schwartz, who ghost-wrote Trump's 1987 memoir ART OF THE DEAL, suggested in two tweets that it would end soon:


The circle is closing at blinding speed. Trump is going to resign and declare victory before Mueller and Congress leave him no choice.

Trump's presidency is effectively over. Would be amazed if he survives till end of the year. More likely resigns by fall, if not sooner.


Wishful thinking? Arguably, but there are a number of interesting considerations. For one, the generals, most particularly Chief of Staff Kelly; if Trump does something that Kelly finds totally unacceptable, he will have no choice but to resign. However, if Kelly does so, it is likely that Mattis and McMaster will resign as well. If all three decide they need to resign, then there's no reason they wouldn't gather up allies among the senior officials of the administration, and tell Trump to resign. If he's not fit to be commander-in-chief, they would be derelict in their duty not to take action.

Among the senior officials would be Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is closely tied to Defense Secretary Mattis -- and indeed, the formidable Tillerson comes across as something like a general himself. That would be an idle thought, except for a comment Tillerson made to anchor Chris Wallace on the TV program FOX NEWS SUNDAY on the 26th. Following discussion of American values as part of diplomacy, the exchange took a startling turn:


RT: I don't believe anyone doubts the American people's values,

CW: And the President's values?

RT: The President speaks for himself.


Those inclined to shrug off Trump's Charlottesville comments as nonsense as usual could not shrug off Tillerson's remark. Is there any other example in American history of a secretary of state announcing publicly, on the record, that the president's word cannot be taken at face value? White House comments were muted and evasive, as well they might be. Trump would be politically suicidal to publicly take on his own secretary of state. However, given Trump's track record, nobody would be too surprised if he did.

What Tony Schwartz pointed out is that Trump is dishonest and proud of it. Trump is perfectly aware that his business dealings are not likely to tolerate close examination, and that special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation of the president's activities is highly likely to turn up dirt, maybe a lot of it. Indeed, Trump's refusal to cleanly divest himself of his business interests on moving into the White House put him into a legal dirty zone at the outset.

That leads to one more consideration -- of Vice President Mike Pence. Pence has jumped through hoops to validate his loyalty to Trump, but if Pence is convinced that Trump has to go, he'll be the one to break the news to the boss. Trump will of course react angrily, but Pence can then offer to give Trump a pardon. Confronted with a political dead end too obvious for even Trump to ignore, he might well consider that the best deal he can get. He could then claim he had cleaned out the swamp in Washington DC; his work completed, he was going home in triumph. Pure Trump.

Yes, that would be a shabby deal and Pence would have to eat it, but the reality is that it would be worth it: it's not so important as to how Trump goes, just as long as he goes. However, that leads to another reality, that Trump is not so much a problem as a symptom of a problem, in the form of partisan and extremist politics. If he leaves, the war simply shifts into a different gear. While Mike Pence is a far more substantial person than Donald Trump, it is unlikely that Pence would be a popular president, and he would not resolve the crisis.

It was easy to see on 9 November 2016 that political and social tensions brewing for decades were going to come to a head in the Trump Administration. It was also impossible to know exactly what would happen.