oct 2017 / last mod mar 2018 / greg goebel

* 22 entries including: once & future Earth (series), South Africa versus AIDS (series), DNA mass storage (series), drone control via cellphone network, Apple iOS 11 security refinements, greenhouse farming in Alaska, fetal immune system, first aid superkit, European volcanic winter 822 CE, apps for food stamps, and US fire season 2017.

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* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR OCTOBER 2017: As discussed by an article from ECONOMIST.com ("The World's Most Powerful Man", 14 October 2017), American presidents in the postwar period have been conscious of their role in global leadership -- or at least they were, up to now, Donald Trump having decided to turn his back on multilateralism.

Why Trump has done so can be discussed elsewhere; for present purposes, the significant fact is that Chinese President Xi Jinping has moved into the vacuum left by Trump's exit. To be sure, the USA still has the biggest economy and by far the biggest military, but Xi now has the highest profile on the world stage. To back up his international stature, Xi has the strongest control over China since Mao Zedong -- and unlike Mao's China, Xi's China is a global economic powerhouse.

On his many foreign tours, Xi presents himself as an advocate of peace and friendship, a calm voice of reason. He has been aided in this performance by Trump, whose noisy contempt for internationalism makes Xi look all the better as he proclaims himself a champion of globalization, free trade, and the Paris accord on climate change. Xi knows how to play the world stage; the fact that China has the planet's biggest stockpile of foreign cash lends the performance weight. His "Belt & Roads Initiative" -- possibly it sounds better in Chinese -- projects the investment abroad of hundreds of billion of dollars of China's money to build railroads, ports, powerplants, and other infrastructure to encourage growth. That was the kind of leadership America demonstrated with the postwar Marshall Plan for western Europe, and it was not so ambitious.

Xi is also flexing China's military muscle. This year he opened China's first foreign military base, in Djibouti. In July, he sent Chinese warships to maneuvers with Russian vessels in the Baltic Sea. Official Chinese policy denies any offensive intent, saying that Chinese power-projection are to support peace-keeping, anti-piracy, and humanitarian missions. As for the artificial islands with military airstrips created in the South China Sea, they are described as "purely defensive".

Such reassurances are not entirely convincing. Unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, Xi has no interest in making trouble for its own sake to subvert democracy and destabilize the West. However, China is hardly above bullying its neighbors -- Southeast Asia, Japan, India -- and Chinese leadership remains committed to returning Taiwan to the mainland, which the Taiwanese clearly do not want to happen.

Domestically, it's not so easy to see that much difference between Putin and Xi. What limited tolerance there was for dissent in China in the past has become much more limited under Xi, with dissidents being handed tough prison sentences. Meanwhile, the government pumps more money and resources into public surveillance, and demands control over the mainstream of economic life. Xi draws ever more power unto himself, while establishing a cult of personality -- one not so remotely as grotesque as Mao's, but nonetheless unsettling.

Foreign governments, not wishing to rock the boat any more than necessary, generally turn a blind eye to China's civil-rights abuses. Precedent suggests that Xi will step down in 2022; but will he, like Putin, cling to power at any cost? The cost may ultimately be domestic instability, and high-handed treatment of other nations. The world does not want an isolationist United States or an autocratic China -- but it seems to be getting both.

* On 5 October, the Pentagon announced that four US Army troops serving in the African country of Niger had been killed in an ambush by Islamists. The incident brought to light the shadow war the US has been conducting in Africa. The US intervention there began in 2004, under the Bush II Administration, and has continued through the following administrations.

The Obama Administration committed troops to Niger in 2013, in support of the French intervention in neighboring Mali; at last report, there were 645 US troops there, operating two drone bases and conducting training of Niger troops. They're not supposed to be getting into firefights, but there are Islamist incursions from Mali, and US troops can easily end up in the line of fire.

The US Special Operations Command Africa is involved in twenty countries on the continent, with a fifth of SOCOM's forces committed there -- about 17 times more troops than were there a decade ago. While the White House keeps Congress informed, neither the White House nor Congress says much about the issue. There' bipartisan support for taking on Islamists; nobody sees much political advantage in challenging American military involvement in Africa, so nobody says much about it. However, if more things go go wrong -- and given the untidiness of the situation, they are sure to -- keeping a lid on the situation is going to be difficult.

* As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The Bull Market In Everything", 7 October 2017), in an assertive bounce-back from the Great Recession, markets are now booming -- not just the stock markets, but also bonds, property, bitcoins, almost everything bought and sold. While everyone knows the simple rule that "what goes up must come down", few think markets are going to come down soon, and so the band plays on.

Nonetheless, there is real cause for caution. In his classic book THE INTELLIGENT INVESTOR, first published in 1949, Wall Street guru Benjamin Graham, advised that sensible investment needed to reflect a "margin of safety" -- that a stock purchase should factor in the possibility of errors, bad luck, everything going wrong at once.

True, the gradual climb of global stockmarkets, credit, and property over the last eight years does not suggest a wild roller-coaster ride; nothing like the "roaring 20s" that led up to the stockmarket crash of 1929, or the dotcom frenzy of the late 1990s. Nonetheless, it was only at the peak of those two bubbles that America's S&P 500 index been higher as a multiple of earnings measured over a ten-year cycle. Now creditors give little thought to collateral, property prices are sky-high, and even dodgy cryptocurrencies are enjoying a rave-up market.

Such excitement masks two underlying causes for concern. First, one of the main underlying support for the boom is very loose monetary policy. Central banks have kept short-term interest rates low from the start of the Great Recession, and have further bought up trillions of dollars of government bonds through "quantitative easing (QE)" -- a process in which a central bank buys up government bonds from financial institutions with money the central bank simply makes up from nothing.

QE sounds like a dodgy measure, simply printing money being the classic driver of inflation. It could mean inflation, but in the present case, it hasn't. The simplistic, glib, and usable answer is that it is done in the face of deflationary pressures to null them out, and it appears to have done so. The rise in asset prices is also being driven by the growing health of the global economy, itself aided by the low interest rates. Low interest rates also have a knock-on effect on asset prices -- for example, stocks look more attractive for the return on investment if bonds don't pay off. Warren Buffett, a big fan of Ben Graham, said that stocks would look cheap in three years' time if interest rates were one percentage-point higher, but not if they were three percentage points higher.

However, low interest rates are another thing that tends to drive inflation; get more cheap money flowing, it tends to devalue money in general. It hasn't, which reflects the bewildering complexity of economics: everything is connected, sometimes indirectly, to everything else, and sorting out causal relationships is tricky. It appears that inflation has been held down because the aging population is saving more, setting aside money for retirement. The pressure towards expansion of the money supply is balanced by a slowdown in demand for money. In addition, wages are stagnant and not driving inflation for the moment. In short, there's not much going on that presents a threat to the current status quo.

The problem is that, in such unpredictable times, any sort of a crisis could arise to switch the boom into a recession; and given that central banks are currently using extreme measures like QE, they don't have further tricks to play if things go wrong. As a result, loose monetary policy is coming to an end. The US Federal Bank raised interest rates twice in 2017, and is now selling off bonds, turning off the QE pump. Central banks elsewhere are following. It's all being done gradually, lest the economy be pushed into recession.

The primary margin of safety lies with banks and investors. In boom times, they tend to turn to debt-financed leverage to magnify gains; but leverage also can magnify losses. Bank capital needs to be increased in regions where it is too low; banks have tended to complain about government regulation to ensure they have adequate capital, but it's simple prudence. As for investors, they need to remember another simple rule: "The higher you fly, the farther you fall."



* SOUTH AFRICA AGAINST AIDS (1): As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("South Africa Ushers In A New Era For HIV" by Linda Nordling, 13 July 2016), in 2000, the International AIDS Conference was held in Durban, South Africa -- the siting being appropriate because South Africa was in the grip of a massive AIDS pandemic, 2,500 South Africans dying from AIDs in the week of the conference alone. In the face of official opposition -- South African President Thabo Mbeki was a notorious HIV denialist -- the conference pushed the use of the new anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs, which had already demonstrated they could save the lives of those infected with HIV, to help HIV-positive South Africans.

In 2016, the International AIDS Conference returned to Durban, to find that things had changed for much the better. AIDS denialism is effectively a thing of the past in South Africa, and about half of the country's 7 million people infected with HIV are on ARVs -- the biggest such program in the world. Improved access to ARVs is largely responsible for a leap in South Africa's average life expectancy at birth, from 53.4 years in 2004 to 62.5 in 2015. Mother-to-child transmission has fallen from a high of 30% in the early 2000s to just 1.5%.

That's greatly encouraging, but much more needs to be done. South Africa still has millions of citizens who need ARVs, and the rate of new infections remains depressingly high, especially among young women. Even in the present, administering the ARV program has strained the public-health system, with the stress certain to increase as South Africa moves toward the target of getting all HIV-positive citizens on ARVs.

Doctors and medical researchers see South Africa as a laboratory for research on the war against AIDs. They are investigating how long-term exposure to the drugs and to HIV itself affects health; what happens to people who reach middle or old age after decades on the treatments; and whether children who are exposed to HIV and ARVs in the womb might face health problems even if they do not contract the virus.

Such research is of much more than academic interest, since a global push is on to get ARVs to everyone on the planet. As discussed here in 2015, the United Nations UNAIDS body has set a target known as "90-90-90": by 2020, 90% of people living with HIV should know their status; 90% of those diagnosed should be on ARVs; and 90% of those on ARVs should have undetectable levels of the virus. South Africa has been a proving ground for ARV programs.

The literal poster child for the effort is a young woman named Thembisa Mbhobho, who adorns a giant mural that greets motorists as they turn off the N2 highway to enter Cape Town's Khayelitsha township. The mural reads: "There is life beyond HIV". Mbhobho was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 2008; she started taking ARVs in 2014. Today, the virus is so well suppressed in her body that it doesn't show up in blood tests, reducing her likelihood of passing it on. She enjoys it when people recognize her from the mural, or from the television advert that she featured in to encourage people to learn their HIV status. "They motivate me, they say I must keep it up." Her five-year-old son is HIV-negative, thanks to the drugs Mbhobho was given while pregnant and in labor. She hopes he'll be a pilot or a lawyer.

South Africa's progress against AIDS has not been easy. The first community treatment program began in 2001 in Khayelitsha, but because of hostility of Thabo Mbeki's government, it was camouflaged as a "feasibility study". There were doubts that poor South Africans, many of whom barely knew what a watch was, would be diligent in keeping to the ARV schedule. In reality, it turned out that adherence and treatment outcomes were better in African cohorts than in the United States1. In 2004, when South Africa started to offer free access to ARVs through the public-health system, just under 50,000 citizens got treatment; by 2007, the number was more than 380,000, and today it's well over 3 million.

One big problem is that South African HIV victims, despite information campaigns and free drugs, often don't try to get treatment until they are badly off. Gilles van Cutsem, medical coordinator for Medicin Sans Frontiers in South Africa, says: "In Europe, when ARVs came along, the hospital wards emptied of people who were severely ill. When we started our HIV program in Khayelitsha, the waiting room was full of sick people in wheelbarrows. There is less of that now, but people are still coming in very sick." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ONCE & FUTURE EARTH (12): As understood by modern cosmology, the Universe came into existence about 13.7 billion years ago in the "Big Bang", as superhot, all-pervasive plasma. Eventually the plasma sorted itself out into atoms, which condensed under the influence of gravity into stars and, from the stars, galaxies. There were no planets as we might define the terms, since all that was created in the Big Bang was hydrogen, a little helium, and a smattering of lithium. There were clouds of gas and stars in the early Universe, as well as small balls of hydrogen that were too small to begin thermonuclear fusion and shine as stars.

Among this first generation of stars, however, were very large stars that lived relatively short lives, synthesizing heavier elements, to then tear themselves apart in supernova explosions, scattering the heavier elements to the cosmos. The remains of dead stars, such as dense white dwarfs and denser neutron stars, also occasionally collided, a process also thought to generate heavy elements.

The enhanced mixture of elements in space gathered in clouds, still mostly hydrogen but enriched with heavier elements, that might then collapse into new stars, as well as planets orbiting around them. About 5 billion years ago, our Sun and its planets were formed in this fashion, with the Sun's hydrogen eventually being squeezed by gravity into nuclear fusion, hydrogen being transformed into helium in the Sun's core and releasing energy as it did so. The four inner planets -- Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars -- were rocky worlds, the warming Sun having blown away their hydrogen and other light gases. The four outer planets -- Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune -- were far enough away to retain their hydrogen, becoming gas giant planets.

In the result, there was also an "asteroid belt" of small rocky bodies between Mars and Jupiter -- Jupiter's gravity having prevented a planet from forming in that region -- plus a realm of icy bodies, the "Kuiper Belt", beyond the orbit of Neptune. A sphere of comets, which are dirty snowballs of ices, surrounds the "Solar System", this "Oort Cloud" extending deep into space. Occasionally small rocky objects fall to Earth as "meteorites" -- to become objects of considerable scientific interest, since they are as a rule unchanged from the days of the creation of the Solar System.

Originally, there were many small bodies in the Solar System, but they gradually consolidated by collisions into the planets. The Earth and its Moon represent a puzzle in the formation of the planets, since they are nearer in size to each other than any other planet and any one of its moons in the Solar System. The Earth's Moon is the fifth biggest moon, only smaller than Jupiter's moons Ganymede, Callisto, and Io, plus Saturn's moon Titan.

The origin of the Earth's Moon was long a puzzle. In 1878, George Howard Darwin (1845:1912) -- Charles Darwin's son -- proposed that, when the Earth was young, molten, and spinning very rapidly, the tidal forces of the Sun caused a lobe of the Earth to separate, becoming the Moon. Some later suggested the Pacific Ocean marks where the Moon separated from the Earth. Another idea was that the Earth and Moon formed separately, with the Moon being captured by the Earth when it chanced too close to it. A third theory suggested that the Earth and Moon formed together, by accretion of small bodies.

From 1969 to the end of 1972, the USA conducted six Moon landings under the Apollo program, with a dozen astronauts walking on the Moon, collecting samples to be brought back to Earth for analysis. It had already been known that the Moon, with only 60% of the average density of the Earth, couldn't have an iron-rich core like the Earth's. Studies of the Moon samples revealed two other facts:

Those three facts permitted sorting through the options for the formation of the Moon. The low density, due to the lack of iron, had always worked against the accretion theory; if the Earth and Moon had formed together, then they should have the same average density. The rarity of volatiles could not be fully explained by their tendency to escape into space from the airless Moon with its low gravity. Nonetheless, the Moon was too similar to Earth to be an unrelated body.

Darwin's fission theory seemed the closest fit, but nobody could show how such a thing could have happened; the basic physics of the scenario simply did not work. However, in the mid-1970s, the notion arose that, while the Earth and Moon might not have spontaneously separated, they might have been knocked apart by a massive impact event. By the mid-1980s, the "Big Thwack" theory had become the accepted wisdom. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* WINGS & WEAPONS: The notion of using magnetics to launch artillery projectiles goes back to World War II. As discussed by an article from JANES.com ("USN Recharges Railgun Science And Technology Effort" by Geoff Fein, 7 June 2017), the notion of using electromagnetics to launch artillery projectiles goes back to World War II. The most prominent scheme is the "railgun", in which magnetic fields produced by high electrical currents accelerate a metal armature, attached to the base of a projectile, between two rails carrying the current to launch projectiles.

The US Navy has long conducted railgun research. The primary attraction is the high muzzle velocities a railgun can achieve -- on the order of 8,000 KPH (5,000 MPH), meaning long range and fast time to target. The difficulty is the high levels of power involved, which aren't impossible for a naval vessel since it has power generation systems, and the fact that such high currents, high accelerations, and thermal stress are tough on the hardware.

The USN is not at present asking for money to field their "electromagnetic railgun (EMRG)" system onto a naval vessel, but has asked for funds to continue development, as part of a broader effort to come up with "Innovative Naval Prototypes (INP)" that could be the basis for operational systems.

Tom Boucher, the Office of Naval Research program manager for the EMRG, says that the operational system is envisioned as a 32 megajoule (MJ), 10 round per minute railgun with a long-life barrel. Boucher said: "We have been working through technical areas to make sure that can happen. Much of this work is being done at the subsystem level and components and then we are bringing them together as we go."

* Airliner in-flight entertainment (IFE) systems, discussed here in 2008, have become a norm for airlines, with big investments in the latest technology. As discussed by an article from ECONOMIST.com ("Take Your Tablet", 25 January 2017), American Airlines (AA) has decided to take the next step in IFE: get rid of it.

AA's latest batch of Boeing 737s will not have built-in IFE. Instead, fliers will take their smartphones and tablets, and use the airliner's wi-fi for connectivity. AA estimates that 90% of passengers do so anyway. The server on each airliner will provide movies and other resources for free, with access to the wider internet provided for a price.

Anybody might suspect, given the nickle-&-dime mindset of airlines, that resources on the server won't be free in the future. Maybe they will; but it's not hard to download games, music, and videos to a smartphone before a trip, and there's no sense in charging for movies and the like if people don't bother to buy them. The only question is whether AA will make sure each seat has a USB charger plug. One would hope so; distributing the wiring should not be too burdensome for airlines.

Failing to provide charging capability would be discouraging the use of smartphones and tablets, the left hand working against the right -- but such things do happen. More positively, airlines might provide a standardized app for accessing inflight resources -- or at least encourage developers to come up with one.

* Over the years, airlines have been continuously shrinking seat space in economy class. Sooner or later, something was going to have to give, and as discussed by an article from REUTERS.com ("US Government Ordered To Solve 'Case Of The Incredible Shrinking Airline Seat'" by David Shepardson, 28 July 2017), on 28 July 2017, Judge Patricia Millett -- of the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia Circuit -- told the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to take another look at an advocacy group's claim that shrinking airline seats are putting passengers at risk.

The FAA had previously rejected the group's argument that seat space was important in getting off the plane in an emergency. Judge Millett, writing for the three-judge appeals panel, bluntly replied: "That makes no sense." -- adding that the reasoning being the FAA response was like doing "a study on tooth decay that only recorded participants' sugar consumption", but did not look at brushing and flossing.

Economy-class seat pitch has decreased from an average of 89 centimeters (35 inches) in the 1970s to 79 centimeters (31 inches), and in some airplanes to 71 centimeters (28 inches). Average seat width has narrowed from about 18 inches (46 centimeters) to 42 centimeters (16.5 inches) over the last decade. A bill under consideration in Congress would require the FAA to set minimum seat sizes on US airlines and a minimum distance between rows to "protect the safety and health of airline passengers."

ED: I'm not sure the airlines would be all that unhappy about a minimum seat size. The crunch on seat size is being ruthlessly driven by competition, with each airline trying to keep up with the others in a race to the squeeze. Once they were stuck with a hard limit, they would no longer be under competitive pressure to go smaller -- and they might then compete on quality of service.



* CELLDRONES: As discussed by an article from WIRED.com ("To Make Drone Deliveries Work, AT&T Is Tapping Into the Cell Network" by Eric Adams, 6 September 2016), we've clearly entered the drone era -- but drones are, as far as the general public is concerned, mostly toys for the time being.

One of the difficulties with popular drones at present is that they only work on a line-of-sight basis; to be really useful, they will need to be able to cruise over extended "skyways" with little or no supervision. Fortunately, there's already a communications system to support long-range drone flights: the cellphone network.

Qualcomm and AT&T are now collaborating to create a system for long-range drone operations, based on current 4G LTE and future 5G networks. Future drones, according to this vision, will have high-bandwidth cellphone modem to allow communications via the network for guidance and status -- though the drones will have GPS navigation as well, to allow them to traverse "dead spots" in the network. According to Paul Guckian, Qualcomm's head of engineering: "There are a lot of great, innovative ideas for drone use out there, but we first need new technology that proves that the devices can fly safely over populated areas and in the national airspace."

Guckian is already familiar with the interface between cellphone systems and aviation, having worked on wi-fi systems for commercial airliners, and helping to evaluate potential interference problems with aircraft avionics. This background will help him in establishing drone communications networks, because it will necessarily involve government licensing, safety protocols, and commercial validation.

To those ends, Qualcomm and AT&T are conducting a long-term test and data-acquisition program at Qualcomm's main R&D campus in San Diego, having obtained Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorization to conduct drone experiments on the site. Qualcomm engineers are testing consumer drones equipped with AT&T's LTE cellular modems, and a Qualcomm drone development system -- which uses high-fidelity sensor processing, precise localization, autonomous visual navigation, and 4K videography to boost an operator's situational awareness in flight.

The partnership makes sense. Qualcomm has been active in robotics, while AT&T, which works with 19 top automakers, understands cellular wi-fi systems in moving vehicles. Engineers are working to assess technical issues, while determining how to operate within controlled airspace -- areas run by the FAA's air traffic control system -- and in transitions between controlled and uncontrolled airspace. These drones need to detect and avoid other aircraft, using Qualcomm's camera and sensor tech, and to receive and follow commands from air traffic controllers to change direction, altitude, or their entire flight path. Of course, the drones in the system will need more range, since few of them can currently stay aloft as much as a hour.

The vision is that the drones will be autonomous, but need a human-intervention option, with continuous data streams being sent back for in-flight monitoring. The system will need to be highly automated, since there's no way that humans could monitor such large swarms of drones individually. While cargo transport is a high-profile application, drone networks will be capable of less structured tasks, such as search-and-rescue missions, mapping, exploration, and environmental monitoring.



* APPLE THINKS SECURITY: As discussed by an article from WIRED.com ("Apple’s iOS 11 Will Make It Even Harder for Cops to Extract Your Data" by Andy Greenberg, 11 September 2017), Apple Corporation is highly focused on data security, and its new iOS 11 for the iPhone accordingly adds features to keep the Black Hats out. Of course, that also means it's harder for the authorities to get in, too.

iOS 11

Security researchers and forensic analysts who reviewed pre-release versions of iOS 11 say it includes security features intended to make extracting the data from a seized phone far more difficult without the phone's six-digit passcode. Apple made two significant changes:

The changes to moving data from a phone to a PC will make it harder to perform forensic analysis on the phone. Indeed, they will significantly reduce the amount of data police can access on seized phones, even if the cops can unlock the phone.

In recent versions of iOS, an iPhone plugged into an unfamiliar computer would ask owners if they were willing to trust that new machine before exchanging data with it. For these iPhones, the cops could simply plug an iPhone into a PC, compel an owner to touch the iPhone's display, and then download its contents for inspection by forensic analysis software. The courts, incidentally, have judged criminal suspects can't plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to provide their fingerprints, as they may with a password or passcode. This is because a fingerprint, like a face, is not privileged information.

With iOS 22, iPhones will require not only a fingerprint, but the phone's passcode to download the iPhone data. Data residing on the phone can be accessed selectively, but it can't be downloaded wholesale in a SQLite embedded-database format, making analysis troublesome. In addition, although the SQLite database may contain records of deleted messages or the deleted messages themselves, they can't be obtained manually from the iPhone.

This change means that US Customs & Border Protection can't simply download all the contents of an iPhone during a border crossing, and then conduct an inspection at their leisure -- which the law allows them to do. With iOS 11, they can poke around on the iPhone manually, or they can seize the iPhone and poke around on it at their leisure; though that's not something they can make a real habit of doing.

As for improvements in lockdown, iOS has a new feature called "SOS mode". Tap the phone's HOME button five times, and it will produce a new lockscreen with options to make an emergency call, or provide an owner's emergency medical information. However, SOS mode also disables TouchID, and so a passcode will be needed to unlock the phone.

SOS mode is not actually driven by an urge to make life more difficult for the authorities. That's not Apple's goal, the company having always rightfully insisted they are focused on protecting their customers from the Black Hats. It is more intended to enhance phone security in light of another new iOS 11 feature: face recognition access, which is convenient but by no means highly secure. SOS mode allows an owner to drop the convenience in favor of security when the situation demands it.

The authorities may not be so happy with granting users such discretion; but Apple, with fair cause, believes that customers both want and need security. That is not a belief the authorities can seriously challenge, and Apple has good cause to think they will eventually figure out that citizens can't get security by undermining security.

* ED: I wasn't familiar with "SQLite", so I looked it up online. It's a C library that allows embedding a lightweight SQL-class database system in an application -- say, a smartphone. Putting what amounts to a proper database management system in a smartphone seems like overkill at first glance; but a modern smartphone is more capable than a mainframe computer of the 1980s, and the management of emails can be a substantial task. I'll have to write an intro to SQLite for the blog.



* DNA MASS STORAGE (3): Computer scientists Luis Ceze, from the University of Washington, and Karin Strauss, from Microsoft Research in Redmond, Washington, got the DNA mass-storage bug after a visit to the UK in 2013, where they heard Goldman discuss his work. Strauss says: "DNA's density, stability and maturity have made us excited about it."

On their return to Washington state, the two began investigations with their University of Washington collaborator Georg Seelig. One of their chief concerns has been another major drawback that goes well beyond DNA's vulnerability to errors. Using standard sequencing methods, there was no way to retrieve any one piece of data without retrieving all the data: every DNA string had to be read, which was intolerably cumbersome.

The team outlined a solution in April 2016, at a conference in Atlanta, Georgia. The researchers start by withdrawing tiny samples from their DNA archive, then use the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to pinpoint and make more copies of the strings encoding the data they want to extract. The proliferation of copies makes the sequencing faster, cheaper and more accurate than previous approaches. The team has also devised an alternative error-correction scheme that the group says allows for data encoding twice as dense as the EBI's, but just as reliable.

As a demonstration, the Microsoft–University of Washington researchers stored 151 kB of images, some encoded using the EBI method, and some using their new approach, in a single pool of strings. They extracted three -- a cat, the Sydney opera house, and a cartoon monkey -- using the EBI-like method, getting one read error that they had to correct manually. They also read the Sydney Opera House image using their new method, without any mistakes,

At the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, computer scientist Olgica Milenkovic and her colleagues have developed a random-access approach that also enables them to rewrite the encoded data. Their method stores data as long strings of DNA that have address sequences at both ends. The researchers then use these addresses to select, amplify and rewrite the strings using either PCR, or the gene-editing technique CRISPR–Cas9.

The addresses have to avoid sequences that would hinder reading, while also being different enough from each other to stop them being mixed up in the presence of errors. Figuring out how to do this, and avoiding problems such as molecules folding up because their sequences contain stretches that recognize and bind to each other, was not trivial, requiring intensive calculations. Ultimately, the team was able to come up with a set of formulas that made creation of an encoding scheme much easier.

While researchers investigating DNA memory believe in the potential of the idea, none feel the technology is close to ready for practical use. To be worthwhile, the size of the data files will have to be increased by many orders of magnitude. Speed of storage and reading will also have to be massively increased, and cost greatly reduced. All anybody has done so far is proof-of-concept experiments; nobody's made anything that even resembles an operational system.

On the other side of the coin, nobody sees any fundamental obstacles on the road to an operational system. Microsoft is continuing to pump resources into the technology, while EBI's Goldman says: "Our estimate is that we need 100,000-fold improvements to make the technology sing, and we think that's very credible. While past performance is no guarantee, there are new reading technologies coming onstream every year or two. Six orders of magnitude is no big deal in genomics. You just wait a bit." [END OF SERIES]



* ONCE & FUTURE EARTH (11): Once exposed on the surface, rock suffers various processes of weathering from thermal cycling, wind, precipitation, waves, streams, or the action of organisms, to be ground down into particles. The particles may accumulate in river deltas or such. Over time, the sediments may re-consolidate into sedimentary rock. Sedimentary rock is usually stratified, that is, they have layers, that can be distinguished by differences in color, particle size, or internal arrangement.

The best-known sedimentary rock is sandstone -- which, as its name implies, was formed from sands, being glued together by various mineral cements. Sandstone doesn't actually have a specific composition, again being a product of sands -- but since sands are often quartz, sandstones are typically rich in quartz. Deposits of sandstones tend to reflect their origins: for example, sandstones created by a meandering river will reflect its course,

Sandstone is actually the second most common sedimentary rock, the most common being shale & mudstone -- which are derived from clays and silt muds, shale being noted by its easily split layers. There is also the similar siltstone and mudstone; as well as loess, which is derived from accumulations of airborne dust. Going to coarser grains, there is conglomerate -- pebbles or even boulders glued together -- and breccias -- which are conglomerates of small angular stones. Like sandstone, these rocks are variable in composition.

Other sedimentary rocks include chalk, which is formed from deposits of the calcium carbonate shells of sea creatures; limestone, formed from coral reefs or chemical precipitation of calcium carbonate; and coal, which was formed from deposits of vegetation in the distant past. There are also evaporites, in the form of salt deposits.

* Metamorphic rock is derived from pre-existing rocks, which have undergone metamorphosis under the influence of high temperature, pressure, and chemical action. They are often formed deep in the Earth, in processes that generate new minerals and crystal structures. The best-known metamorphic rocks are slate and marble.

Slate is generally dark gray, though it may be tinged with other colors. It is a derivative of claystone and the like, the result of deep underground compression. It is, as well known, easily cut into slabs, and often used to make roof tiles.

Marble is of highly variable color. It is derived from limestone, with deep underground heat reforming carbonate minerals into the characteristic marbled patterns. It is of course widely used as a decorative stone. Other metamorphic rocks include amphibolite, eclogite, gneiss, granulite, hornfels, migmatite, mylonite, phyllite, quartzite, schist, serpentine, and skarn.

* All forms of rock may contain fossils, the remains of organisms of the past. Organisms may be covered by volcanic ash, or be trapped in sediments; rock containing fossils may be buried and become metamorphic rock. Fossils are most commonly associated with sedimentary rock -- for example, the famous Burgess shale of primordial organisms in Canada. Fossils discovered in metamorphic rock are often unsurprisingly distorted.

Meteoritic rock is a bit tricky to classify, since it wasn't produced by earthly geological processes. The majority are referred to as "chondritic", referring to the particles, or "chondrites" -- mostly of silicate minerals -- interspersed through the meteor. Of the remainder, some are similar to terrestrial igneous rock, while some are of iron-nickel composition. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for September included:

-- 07 SEP 17 / OTV 5 (USA 277) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1400 UTC (local time + 4) to put the Air Force "X-37B" AKA "Orbital Transfer Vehicle (OTV)" AKA "Air Force Space Command 7 (AFSPC 7)" AKA "USA 277" unmanned spaceplane testbed into space. This was the fifth flight of the OTV. Only two OTVs were built, so this vehicle had flown previously; it seems the two rotate on an "even-odd" basis. The Falcon 9 first stage performed a successful soft landing at Cape Canaveral.


-- 11 SEP 17 / AMAZONAS 5 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 1923 UTC (previous day local time - 6) to put the "Amazonas 5" geostationary comsat into orbit for Hispasat of Madrid. The satellite was built by Space Systems / Loral, being based on the SS/L 1300 bus; it had a launch mass of 5,900 kilograms (13,000 pounds), a payload of 34 Ka / 24 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. Amazonas 5 was placed in the geostationary slot at 61 degrees west longitude to provide broadband, television, corporate network and other telecommunications services over Mexico, Central America and South America for Hispasat of Madrid.

-- 12 SEP 17 / SOYUZ ISS 52S (ISS) -- A Soyuz-FG booster was launched from Baikonur at 2117 UTC (next day local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 52S" AKA "MS-06" crewed space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included commander Alexander Misurkin of the RKA (second space flight), NASA flight engineer Mark Vande Hei (first space flight), and NASA astronaut Joe Acaba (third space flight). The Soyuz capsule docked with the ISS upper Poisk module six hours after launch, with the three crew joining the ISS Expedition 53 crew of commander Randy Bresnik, cosmonaut Sergey Ryazanskiy and European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli.

-- 22 SEP 17 / GLONASS M (COSMOS 2522) -- A Soyuz 2.1b booster was launched from Plesetsk at 0232 UTC (local time - 4) to put a GLONASS M navigation satellite into orbit. It was #52 in the GLONASS sequence, and assigned the series designation of "Cosmos 2522".

-- 24 SEP 17 / NROL-42 (USA 278) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 0549 UTC (previous day local time + 7) to put a secret military payload into space for the US National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The payload was designated "NROL-42". It was apparently a TRUMPET-class signals intelligence satellite, possibly for communications interception, the space platform being put into a high-inclination, highly-elliptical "Molniya"-type orbit. The booster was in the "541" vehicle configuration with a five-meter (16.4-foot) fairing, four solid rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.


-- 28 SEP 17 / ASIASAT 9 -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 1852 UTC (next day local time - 6) to put the "AsiaSat 9" geostationary comsat into orbit. The satellite was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SS/L 1300 satellite bus. It had a launch mass of 6,140 kilograms (13,536 pounds), a payload of 32 Ku-band / 28 C-band / 1 Ka-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years.

AsiaSat 9 was placed in the geostationary slot at 122 degrees East longitude to provide additional capacity, enhanced power and coverage for direct broadcast, video distribution, private networks and broadband services across the Asia-Pacific region for AsiaSat of Hong Kong.

-- 29 SEP 17 / YAOGAN 30 x 3 -- A Long March 2C booster was launched from Xichang at 0421 UTC (local time - 8) to put the secret "Yaogan 30" payloads into orbit. It was a triplet of satellites -- including Yaogan 30-01, 30-02, and 30-03 -- possibly for military signals intelligence.

-- 29 SEPT 17 / INTELSAT 37E & BSAT 4A -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2156 UTC (local time + 3) to put the "Intelsat 37e" and "BSAT 4a" geostationary comsats into orbit. Intelsat 37e was made by Boeing Satellite Systems, being based on the BSS-702MP platform. It had a launch mass of 6,437 kilograms (14,193 pounds), a payload of C / Ku / Ka transponders, and a design life of 15 years. The high-throughput Intelsat 37e satellite was part of Intelsat's "Epic" fleet. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 18 degrees west longitude to provide broadband, video and mobile communications services to the Americas and western Europe. It replaced Intelsat 901, launched in 2001.

Ariane 5 ECA launch

BSAT 4a was built by Space Systems / Loral for Broadcast Satellite System Corporation, being based on the SS/L 1300 comsat platform. It had a launch mass of 3,519 kilograms (7,760 pounds), a payload of 24 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 110 degrees east longitude to provide direct-to-home video services to Japan, including 4K/8K Ultra HD services.



* FARM ALASKA: As discussed by an article from ECONOMIST.com ("Greenhouses Turn Alaskans Into Farmers", 24 August 2016), nobody would think Alaska as a farmer's paradise. Glaciers in the state cover 300 times more acres than farms do. Only 5% of the food consumed is grown locally, compared with 81% nationwide. The growing season is short and summer temperatures chilly. Fruit trees, in most parts of the state, are seemingly impossible.

Well, maybe not so impossible, thanks to the "high tunnel": a greenhouse consisting of a curved metal frame with plastic sheeting stretched across it. The US Federal government has been providing funding to encourage development of greenhouse farming in Alaska; the idea is to extend growing seasons and improve soil health, with the program open to farmers across the country. High tunnels have been set up on the tundra of western Alaska, as far north as Fort Yukon on the Arctic Circle -- but the exercise has had a particular impact on Homer, a town of about 5,000 people 320 kilometers (200 miles) south of Anchorage, where residents have set up over 120 Federally-funded greenhouses, more per capita than anywhere else.

high tunnel Alaska

Kyra Wagner is the head of the local Soil & Water Conservation District, a minor partner to the US Department of Agriculture, which funds the effort. Wagner has been a champion of the high-tunnel program since it began in 2010. She says the greenhouses don't merely extend the growing season, they are "climate extenders ... Pretty much, you've gone to southern California."

Homer's greenhouse farmers enthusiastically produce tomatoes as well as sweetcorn, eggplant, peaches, nectarines and kiwi fruit -- with yields at least a quarter greater than those obtained elsewhere in open-air agriculture. Some of them never really had an ambition to be farmers; the husband-&-wife team of Don and Donna Rae Faulker, previously a carpenter and high-school biology teacher respectively, now run Oceanside Farms alongside Homer's main drag. Donna Rae says: "We always liked gardening, then everything kept growing."

The couple put up their first tunnel in 2009. Each of the tunnels is 9.75 x 21.3 meters (30 x 70 feet) in size. They grow corn, tomatoes, grapes, strawberries and leeks, among other things. Now they harvest about 225 kilograms (500 pounds) of vegetables each week.

Alaska is a land of fishermen, oilmen, tugboat captains, and gold miners. Farming once had little hold there, but now that's changing. Since the start of the Federal program, the number of farms registered with the state has nearly doubled. Local restaurants have begun shaping their menus around what neighboring farms can grow. Homer's hospital subsidizes the cost of produce boxes from nearby farms for its employees, and encourages patients to buy from them. Alaska has long imported its food from elsewhere, but the high tunnel has help Alaskans to declare an increasing degree of food independence.



* FETAL IMMUNE SYSTEM: As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Eye-Opening Picture Of Fetal Immune System Emerges" by Heidi Ledford, 14 June 2017), the human immune system is extremely elaborate, and much remains to be understood of it. It was long thought that a fetus in the womb didn't have much or any of an active immune system, relying on the mother's immune system for protection. However, new research shows that by the 13th week of gestation, a fetus indeed has an active immune system.

In the second trimester, the fetus is coming together rapidly -- developing skin and bones, the ability to hear and swallow, and working on its first bowel movement. It also now appears to have a functioning immune system, one that can recognize foreign antigens, though it's not so inclined to take the offensive.

A developing fetus is continually exposed to foreign proteins and cells, which are transferred from the mother through the placenta. For whatever reasons, this exposure is unusually intensive, as compared to most other mammals. That's why lab studies using mice on the fetal immune system proved misleading.

Jerry Chan, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the KK Women's and Children's Hospital in Singapore, got interested in the fetal immune system as a by-product of his work on developing stem-cell treatments and gene therapies for genetic disorders in developing fetuses. Chan and his team wanted to know if there was a developmental stage at which such treatments could be given without provoking the immune system against them.

Chan teamed up with immunologist Florent Ginhoux at the Agency for Science, Technology & Research in Singapore to study dendritic cells -- immune cells that break down foreign material, then present fragments of it to other immune cells called T cells. Some T cells are then activated, using the antigens provided to deal with a threat. The researchers found that human fetuses have functional dendritic cells by 13 weeks of gestation. However, although these dendritic cells are much like those of adult humans, they have a somewhat different behavior: instead of providing targets for T cells to attack, they are more likely to activate a special class of T cells, known as "regulatory T cells", which suppress immune response.

That makes sense, because most of the foreign antigens the fetus obtains are from the mother, and a strong response to material antigens would very likely disrupt the development of the fetus. The fetal immune system, then, is not just an immature version of its adult counterpart, but plays its own role.

This research could have major implications -- for example, explaining the reasons for some miscarriages, and conditions such as "pre-eclampsia", associated with abnormal immune responses to pregnancy causing up to 40% of premature births. Organ-transplant surgeons have long been particularly interested in how a developing fetus and its mother tolerate one another, without an immune-system exchange of fire. Insights into that process could lead to schemes to suppress the immune system's response to transplanted organs.



* DNA MASS STORAGE (2): The very first person to use DNA as a mass-storage medium was artist Joe Davis, in a 1988 collaboration with researchers from Harvard. The DNA sequence, which they inserted into the E. coli bacterium, encoded just 35 bits, establishing a 5x7-pixel image of an ancient Germanic rune representing life and the female Earth.

Today, Davis is affiliated with George Church's Harvard lab, which began to explore DNA data storage in 2011. The team's original motivation was to use data encoding as a lever to reduce the cost of DNA sequencing. Church carried out proof-of-concept experiments in November 2011 along with Sri Kosuri, now at the University of California Los Angeles, and genomics expert Yuan Gao at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.

The team used many short DNA strings to encode a 659-kB version of a book Church had co-authored. Part of each string was an address that specified how the pieces should be ordered after sequencing, with the remainder containing the data. A binary zero could be encoded by the bases adenine or cytosine, while a binary one could be represented by guanine or thymine. That flexibility helped the group to design sequences that avoided reading problems, which can occur with regions containing lots of guanine and cytosine, repeated sections, or stretches that bind to one another and make the strings fold up.

They didn't have error correction in the strict sense, instead relying on the redundancy provided by having many copies of each individual string. Consequently, after sequencing the strings, Kosuri, Church and Gao found 22 errors, about one per 30 kB -- intolerable for reliable data storage.

Meanwhile, at the European Bioinformatics Institute, Nick Goldman, Ewan Birney, and their colleagues were similarly using many strings of DNA to create their 739-kB data store, which included an image, ASCII text, audio files, and a PDF version of Watson and Crick's iconic paper on DNA's double-helix structure. To avoid repeating bases and other sources of error, the EBI-led team used a more sophisticated scheme than the Harvard group:

They still lost two of the 25-base sequences -- ironically, part of the Watson and Crick file -- but Goldman felt the exercise proved the concept of using DNA for long-term data storage. As a measure of just how long-term, he points to the 2013 announcement of a horse genome decoded from a bone trapped in permafrost for 700,000 years: "In data centers, no one trusts a hard disk after three years. No one trusts a tape after at most ten years. Where you want a copy safe for more than that, once we can get those written on DNA, you can stick it in a cave and forget about it until you want to read it." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ONCE & FUTURE EARTH (10): Of course, minerals are generally found as rocks. Classification of rocks is very tricky, since they are combinations of minerals in different configurations. A particular type of rock may have widely varying characteristics; and there may be different types of rock that are similar to each other.

There are three classes of rock: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. Igneous rock is produced from the solidification of magma, viscous hot rock generated by volcanic processes. The flowing rock originates in the lower crust to upper mantle, at depths of about 50 to 200 kilometers. Igneous rocks may be formed under the surface of the crust, in which case they are called "intrusive" or "plutonic"; or they may be formed on the surface, in which case they are called "extrusive" or "volcanic". Magma extruded onto the surface is called "lava". Underground plutonic deposits are referred to, in order of decreasing size as batholiths (which can extend over wide areas), stocks, sills (generally horizontal), and dikes (generally vertical).

The best-known igneous rocks are basalt and granite. Basalt is a dark fine-grained rock, which may be either extrusive or intrusive; most of the ocean floor is composed of basalt, but it is also found in land regions shaped by volcanic activity. It is largely composed of pyroxene, olivine, and plagioclase, along with oxides such as magnetite and ilmenite. It may contain large crystals, usually of olivine or plagioclase; it may also contain "vesicles", or what were once gas bubbles, which may become filled with carbonate, zeolite, or agate.

Flows of lava that cooled into basalt are often divided into distinctive jointed columns. Over time, it may weather to pale green, brown, or gray; if oxidized, it may become red-colored. It has long been used as an ornamental stone, and is also used as an aggregate for stylish concretes.

Granite is an intrusive rock, known for its toughness, formed by the cooling of magma deep in the Earth's crust; it may be found in vast batholiths, only gradually being brought to the surface by uplift and erosion. Granite is made up of silica-rich minerals such as quartz, feldspar, plus smaller amounts of mica and amphibole; it's about 70% silica and more than 10% quartz. It may incorporate large crystals of feldspar and quartz.

The color of granite is highly variable, ranging from white to red, pale green or blue, or black, depending on the exact mineral composition and the texture of the rock. Of course, it has long been an important building stone -- hard to quarry, but with good load-bearing properties.

There are also intrusive igneous deposits composed mainly of large crystals -- generally quartz, feldspar, and mica -- that have an overall composition like that of granite, these deposits being known as "pegmatite". However, they may have high enough concentrations of rare minerals such as boron, beryllium, and lithium. They also are sources of gems.

Other igneous rocks include:

Volcanic eruptions can produce rock in ashes, ranging from fine dust to pebbles, and in the form of pumice, which is rock full of gaseous bubbles. Pumice can be so light that it can float on water. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Hurricane Maria swept over Puerto Rico late last month, wreaking devastation on the island, effectively destroying the rickety electric power distribution system there. That presents an opportunity. Elon Musk of Tesla quickly stepped forward to suggest that the island might consider going solar.

Musk has been promoting a number of wild ideas as of late -- ballistic rocket spaceliners, New York City to Shanghai in a half hour? -- but in this case, he makes sense. As discussed here early this year, solar has been used to electrify tropical islands in the Pacific that were traditionally dependent on importing fossil fuels for power, which was expensive and troublesome. That's how Puerto Rico has got its electricity, and utility bills there were unsurprisingly very high.

Tesla has set up a solar power system on the Hawaiian island of Kaui -- but Kaui is only about a sixth the area of Puerto Rico, and only about a 50th of Puerto Rico's 3.4 million people. All that means is thinking bigger, and Musk always thinks big. Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosello quickly replied: "Let's talk." It would seem that the job is big enough that Tesla would need some help; wind turbines might help do the job, and reduce the energy storage requirements by being able to generate power at night.

The storm also knocked out cellphone communications. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, is proposing its Project Loon controllable high-altitude balloons -- mentioned here last month -- as a means of getting the phone system back into operation. It doesn't appear anyone's done the numbers yet, but since a balloon has a very wide signal footprint, it might be cheaper to use the balloons as a permanent solution.

* As discussed by an article from WIRED.com ("In the Age of Trump, China Eyes Electric Car Dominance" by Jack Stewart, 23 April 2017), anybody interested in electric vehicles might have enjoyed the Shanghai Auto Show early this year, where everyone making electric vehicles (EVs) put their work on display.

Audi revealed the E-Tron Sportback concept, possibly a Tesla Model X competitor. Volkswagen unveiled the Crozz, part of the company's all-electric apology tour for the firm's emissions-fraud fiasco. Chevy, Buick, Renault, Citroen, and Jaguar showed off EVs, as did Chinese players, such as Denza, Chery, Lynk & CO, and Nio. In contrast, the roughly parallel New York International Auto Show showcased internal-combustion power, such as Volkswagen's new big Atlas SUV -- to be introduced in the US with a V6 engine as the only powertrain option.

That difference in emphasis suggests a shift in auto industry focus. Over the previous decade, the US has been a front-runner in EV adoption -- with the Tesla EV series, the Chevy Bolt, and a big market for the Nissan Leaf. That was because of regulations encouraging their adoption. The Trump Administration is turning the volume way down on EVs; to be sure, California continues to keep up the pressure on electric vehicles, and that may be enough to keep industry on their toes. However, China still seems like a more promising frontier.

The Chinese government is offering credits and rebates, driving impressive EV sales; with the government also considering mandating that electric and hybrid cars must make up 12% of each manufacturer's sales by 2020. That is not just because of worries about climate change, or even of nasty Chinese urban smog; the Chinese see an opening to become global market leaders.

However, they have much more to do to get there. Although a handful of Chinese companies sell electric trucks and buses overseas, no Chinese maker of EV passenger cars has entered the export market. There are many small firms making cheapo electric cars, their business being driven by government subsidies, as well as sales to city-dwellers who have to jump over legal barriers to buy an internal-combustion car, but can buy an EV without much restriction.

The consequence is that Chinese EVs tend to be junk. The government is trying to discipline the industry, but it's still well away from having any export potential. Shaojun Zhang -- who studies the Chinese auto market at Tsinghua University in Beijing -- comments: "It would be quite difficult for Chinese EV manufacturers to catch up with international giant manufacturers soon."

Nonetheless, international demand for EVs is growing, in large part because Europe is pushing tougher auto regulations. Interest in EVs is also growing in the US, despite the Trump Administration's contempt for the technology. Still, there's a lot of inertia, there being few EVs among the auto population at present, and some car companies are simply making EVs to keep the authorities happy, with no intent of pushing them. If the growing momentum can be sustained, however, China may well become the international leader in EVs.

* In related news, as discussed by an article from REUTERS.com ("Diesel's Disgrace Brings Hybrids-For-All In Race To Electrify" by Laurence Frost, 22 September), at one time European automakers were focused on fuel-efficient diesel cars to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions. The winds have changed on diesel, and now it's got a dirty reputation.

At the Frankfurt auto show, carmakers showed off their latest electric vehicles (EV), but nobody expects EVs to become a mass-market phenomenon just yet. However, the event also showcased new technology, from suppliers like Valeo and Delphi, for implementing 48-volt "mild hybrid" vehicles. By quadrupling the 12-volt standard for conventional car electric systems and allowing an upsized starter motor to help power the drivetrain, complementing the combustion engine, it's relatively straightforward to turn an existing gasoline-powered design into a hybrid.

The motor delivers a useful, quick torque boost and recovers braking energy to recharge a battery, with no need for the big battery pack needed by EVs or full "plug-in" hybrids. A mild hybrid will also include a 48:12 VDC converter module to provide 12 VDC to dashboard auto systems -- and may also incorporate an electric supercharger, providing boost power with a smaller engine. Eventually, incrementally improved efficiency will be achieved by selective cylinder deactivation at cruise speeds, and by integration of the 48 VDC motor with the car's drivetrain.



* FIRST AID SUPERKIT: In the category of "seemingly mundane but surprisingly sophisticated technologies", an article from WIRED.com ("The Cadillac of First Aid Kits Could Turn Civilians into Life-Savers" by Robbie Gonzalez, 28 August 2017) focused on the "Comprehensive Rescue System (CRS)" from startup company Mobilize Rescue Systems.

At first glance, the CRS seems like no more than an unusually complete first-aid kit, with a weight of 7.7 kilograms (17 pounds) -- not merely with ordinary things like gauzes, bandages, and ointments, but more serious items like tourniquets and chest seals. However, the CRS is "smart", featuring an iPad embedded into its lid, the tablet being loaded up with an interactive app containing about 1,600 pages of triage and emergency-response decision trees, created by a team of emergency-medicine physicians and responders, as well as military medics.


The app is designed to be as user-friendly as possible, running a naive user through prioritized menus, focusing on the most serious injuries first. The app connects to the stores in the kit through color-coding, with the most critical stores being the first at hand.

Collin Smith -- who heads the Energy, Mining, & Construction Industry Safety Program Colorado School of Mines -- has long experience in mine rescue and mine rescue training. When the CRS was introduced in 2016, he immediately recognized its potential: "On remote job sites, a paramedic is almost always more than 20 minutes away. And depending on the injury, you may not have 20 minutes."

Certainly, employees can be trained in first aid, but if it's not something they concern themselves with regularly, they tend to forget it. They won't have the opportunity to refresh their memories when an emergency comes down, Smith saying: "In a high-pressure scenario, you might not remember what you were taught six months ago, so it helps to be guided through it."

Traumatic injuries have killed more than two million US civilians since 2001; they're the leading cause of death among Americans below the age of 47. About half those deaths occur at the site of injury, or while the victim was being taken to the hospital. Studies suggest that about a fifth of those deaths might have been prevented had the victims received immediately first-line care -- which is why Mobile Rescue developed the CRS.

Smith and his three-person team of emergency medical specialists evaluated the CRS, seeing if its instructions tracked those of recommended practice, and then ran through "let's pretend" sessions to see how the CRS would work when confronted with various scenarios. According to Smith: "The kit handled everything we threw at it."

Smith has now adopted the CRS for his training course, and is encouraging its adoption through the mining industry:


Something like this, especially for remote locations, could be as valuable as fire extinguishers of sprinkler systems, when it comes to increasing your probability of survival. It's a big deal. I would not be surprised if you saw something like this become standard at job sites in the future.


The CRS has been approved by the US Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) and the American National Standards Institute, which opens the door to sales anywhere: offices, schools, malls, airports. However, it doesn't come cheap: $2,250 USD for a hard-case model, $1,750 USD for the more portable soft-case. Mobilize Rescue does sell a "bare essentials" kit for $180 USD, with the app running on a user's smartphone.



* A TIME OF WINTER: As discussed by an article from ECONOMIST.com ("A Song Of Ice And Fire", 22 July 2017), Europeans found the summer of the 821 CE unusually wet and cold, leading to a poor harvest. The troubles were only beginning; the following winter was frigid, with blizzards burying villages, and rivers like the Danube, Rhine, and Seine freezing over so solidly that they could be crossed on horseback. They had never frozen over in living memory.

The cycle was set for the next several years, with poor growing conditions in the spring and summer, followed by harsh winters, the result being famine and disease. Monks wondered if God was angry with humanity. Now Ulf Buentgen of the University of Cambridge in the UK has determined the suffering was caused by the volcano now known as Katla, on the island now known as Iceland.

Iceland has many volcanoes, with Katla being among the biggest. It currently lies buried under 700 meters (2,300 feet) of ice. The last time it went through an eruption powerful enough to break to the surface was in 1918. Records kept by Icelanders show it has erupted many times before that -- but there are no records for 821 CE, since the island wasn't settled by Norsemen until 870 CE at earliest.

It is now well-known that volcanic eruptions pour particles and gases into the atmosphere that can have climatic effects -- the most notable gas in that respect being sulfur dioxide, which forms sulphate aerosols after being thrown up into the sky. The sulphates reflect sunlight back into space, resulting in cooling of the Earth below. It has long been suspected that the harsh weather of 821 CE and the years following was due to a volcanic eruption. Ice cores extracted in Greenland support that idea, ice layers corresponding to those years being enriched in sulphates.

In 2003, flooding in Iceland exposed a forest buried since before the settlement of the island, with investigation showing they had been buried sometime around the 9th century CE. Buentgen assembled a research team to investigate the forest, with a particular focus on the rings in the trees that marked their yearly growth.

The researchers were particularly interested in a mysterious atomic marker found in trees from a certain era around the world. The rings associated with the year 775 CE all have twenty times the normal level of carbon's most common radioactive isotope, carbon-14. This appears to have been due to a solar superflare or other energetic event, bright auroral phenomena associated with the event have been noted in documents from that time. Buentgen's team found the marker, with inspection of rings grown from that time showing the forest was buried 47 years after the 775 CE event, or 822 CE.

As determined by the direction in which the trees in the forest had been knocked over, the burial event appears to have been a flood from the melting and sudden rupturing of Myrdalsjokull, the glacier that overlies Katla. Since the glacier is 35 kilometers (22 miles) away, the flood must have been enormous. It appears the initial eruptions in 821 CE merely weakened the glacier, with further eruption in 822 CE causing it to break loose. The eruptions passed; summers returned to Europe. Today, Katla sleeps fitfully. Should it awaken in earnest again, the results will be catastrophic -- and there is nothing we can do to stop it.



* DNA MASS STORAGE (1): As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("How DNA Could Store All The World's Data" by Andy Extance, 31 August 2016), the modern digital era has meant torrents of data covering every activity. The flood has been particularly strong in the sciences -- for a prominent example, in the number of genome sequences that continue to pile up.

In 2011, Nick Goldman -- a group leader at the European Bioinformatics Institute (EBI) in Hinxton UK -- was chatting with colleagues about how genomic and other biomolecular data might be best stored. Half as a joke, the question came up in the bull session: "What's to stop us from using DNA to store information?"

There was a sudden realization in the group that there wasn't anything to stop them from using it. On consideration, a DNA memory would not be very easily accessed; it would take hours to store the data, hours to retrieve -- while the same data could be recovered from a hard disk in a blink of an eye. However, DNA could conceivably achieve data densities orders of magnitude greater, making it very useful for long-term archiving.

Following the realization, the group of researchers began scribbling on napkins and such, trying to see if the idea was at all practical. The most apparent problem was error rate: DNA synthesis and sequencing led to mistakes of up to 1 in 100 nucleotides, which was entirely unacceptable for data archival purposes. However, error-correcting schemes were well-established in the digital world; the group quickly determined that error correction could be implemented for DNA mass storage, and could reduce error rates to acceptable levels.

Goldman and his EBI colleague Ewan Birney took the idea back to their labs. Two years later, they announced that they had successfully used DNA to encode five files -- including Shakespearian sonnets and a snippet of Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. By that time, biologist George Church and his team at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, had unveiled an independent demonstration of DNA encoding. The EBI demonstration encoded more data, a total of 739 kilobytes (kB), which would hardly put a dent into the storage capacity of an ordinary flash memory stick.

In July 2016, when researchers from Microsoft and the University of Washington announced they had stored 200 megabytes (MB) in DNA. That was still puny relative to a flash stick, but it was a jump in capacity of three orders of magnitude.

Microsoft sees DNA mass storage as a possible way of dealing with the impending data crunch. Counting everything from astronomical images and journal articles to YouTube videos, the global digital archive will hit an estimated 44 trillion gigabytes (GB) by 2020, a tenfold increase over 2013. As discussed here in 2014, magnetic tape has enjoyed a resurgence as quantities of data skyrocket -- but according to David Markowitz, computational neuroscientist at the US Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA) in Washington DC, even mag tape won't be able to keep up.

Markowitz says it is possible to imagine a data center with an exabyte, a billion gigbytes, on tape drives, but the cost of building and operating the center over ten years would run to about a billion USD. He thinks DNA offers a solution: "Molecular data storage has the potential to reduce all of those requirements by up to three orders of magnitude." If information could be packaged as densely as it is in the genes of the bacterium Escherichia coli, the world's storage needs could be met by about a kilogram of DNA.

Sounds great in theory, but there is the small problem of getting it to work -- challenges including reliably encoding information in DNA; retrieving only the information a user needs; and synthesizing coded nucleotide strings cheaply and quickly enough. Work on the technology is starting to pick up steam, however. The Semiconductor Research Corporation (SRC), a foundation in Durham, North Carolina, that's supported by a consortium of chip-making firms, is backing DNA storage work, while Goldman and Birney have UK government funding to experiment with next-generation approaches to DNA storage; they are planning to establish a start-up company to build on their research. In April 2016, IARPA and the SRC hosted a workshop for academics and industry researchers, including from companies such as IBM, to direct research in the field. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ONCE & FUTURE EARTH (9): The halides are based on the halogen elements, for example fluorite (CaF2) and halite (NaCl). Fluorite isn't particularly significant, but halite is -- it's rock salt, chemically the same as table salt.

* The carbonates are based on the CO3 unit, examples including:

* The sulfates are based on the SO4 unit, the most important of them being gypsum (CaSO4.2H2O). It is found in contiguous, granular, and crystalline forms. It has long been used in building plasters. Anhydrite (CaSO4) is a dessicated form of gypsum; anhydrite is sometimes used in cement, and in soil conditioners.

* The phosphates are similarly based on the PO4 unit. The most prominent phosphate mineral is apatite, or CA3(PO4)3(F,Cl,OH); it is variable in form, making it hard to identify, and is mined for phosphate fertilizer, and for use as a chemical feedstock. Turquoise, CuAl3(PO4)4(OH)8SH2O, is not as useful, but is more familiar, the bluish mineral having long been used as a semi-precious stone.

* The nitrates are based on the NO3 unit. They are rare, effectively only being found in the Atacama high desert of northern Chile, where they are accompanied by the even rarer iodates, based on the IO3 unit. The best-known is niter (KNO3) or saltpeter, a traditional component of black powder. The Chileans used to mine it heavily as a fertilizer, but it was largely displaced by ammonia derived from the atmosphere via the Haber process.

* The borates contain boron, and are relatively scarce. The primary example is borax, or Na2B4O3(OH)4.8H20, which is formed by the evaporation of water in salt lakes, or as effusions from volcanic eruptions. It has a messy crystalline form, crumbling into powder if dried out thoroughly. It is commonly used in the chemical, soap, glass, and food industries.

Other minor mineral groups include:



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from ECONOMIST.com ("Safer Sex", 6 May 2017), the intra-uterine device (IUD) got a bad reputation early on, no thanks to a badly-designed IUD, the Dalkon Shield, that led to uterine infections. Now, the IUD is a reliable and safe means of contraception.

A nongovernmental organization (NGO) named International Partnership for Microcides (IPM) is taking the IUD one big step further, having developed an IUD that not only prevents conception, but guards against HIV. The IUD is in the form of a small silicone ring that contains levonorgestrel, a contraceptive, and dapivirine, an anti-HIV drug.

The IUD is primarily targeted at the developing world, where there's a demand both for contraceptives and for defenses against HIV. The IUD is inexpensive and discreet; a woman can use it without her partner knowing about it, which is big deal in places where there's a bias against contraceptives. Initial trials are only focusing on safety; efficacy trials are somewhere down the road.

* One of the iconic sets examples of evolutionary science is Darwin's finches -- the finches of the Galapagos Islands that, though obviously all of a common stock, have variations in bill structure fitting their particular lifestyles. As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Darwin's Finches Have Nothing On These Chameleons" by Joshua Rapp Learn, 31 March 2017), the revealing variation of Darwin's finches are matched by that of the Bradypodion genus of dwarf chameleons of South Africa.

These lizards are also of a common stock, but have a diversity of head forms -- some wide, some tall, and some covered with scaly head or chin frills. Researchers investigated the diets of 14 of the 17 known dwarf chameleon species, to find the size and shape of a chameleon's head matched its preferred diet:

The chameleons living in South Africa's Fynbos plains are also smaller than their forest-dwelling cousins, possibly due to living in an environment where there's less food available. The comparatively colorful forest variants are likely the ancestral root of the species, which diversified as Africa's southern forests shrank.

* Another article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Radar Spots Trillions Of Unseen Insects Migrating Above Us" by by Elizabeth Pennisi, 22 December 2016), radar observations have now provided insights into the behavior and staggering biomass of the Earth's insects.

Using radars tuned to track insects, British researchers have followed aerial insect migrations across the southern UK, with ten years of data showing movements of 2 to 5 trillion insects a year, amounting to several thousand tonnes of biomass, that may travel up to hundreds of kilometers a day.

In the 1970s, British entomologists began to use mobile radars to assess movements of locusts and other pests in developing countries. By the late 1990s, they had implemented a permanent upward-facing radar system, based at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK, that automatically logs insects of different sizes.

Insect migrations are commonly known, for example the migrations of monarch butterflies. However, they've been traditionally seen largely as incidents, and not given a quantitative examination. This new work suggests they are common -- and that such migrations of insects, their bodies laden with nitrogen and phosphorus, could be moving significant amounts of key nutrients across the Earth. In one early discovery with the system Jason Chapman, now at the University of Exeter in the UK, and colleagues found that certain large butterflies and moths that live in northern Europe in the summer and in the Mediterranean in the winter take advantage of favorable winds for their migrations.

Now Gao Hu, from Nanjing Agricultural University in China, Chapman, and colleagues have assessed data from 2000 to 2009 collected in Harpenden and two other UK radar sites. The radars tracked medium-sized insects -- hoverflies, ladybird beetles, and water boatmen -- and large ones -- hawk moths, painted lady butterflies, and aquatic beetles -- flying between altitudes of 150 meters and 1,200 meters (490 to 3,930 feet). Balloon sampling flights were used to obtain estimates for smaller insects.

Over the span of a decade, the radar system tracked over 1,300 mass migrations in the daytime, and almost 900 at night. The streams of insects moved south in the fall and north in the spring; they followed favorable winds, moving at a surprising average speed of 58 KPH (36 MPH). Silke Bauer -- an ecologist at the Swiss Ornithological Institute in Sempach, not involved with the study -- says the insects "have an idea of where they want to go to, when they want to go, and what winds are good [is] surprising for these tiny creatures."

This study is only a starter; more comprehensive observations need to be obtained from a far-flung network of sites. A European initiative is tracking birds using weather radars, and its scientists hope to get the funding to monitor insects as well. Zoologist Eric Warrant of Lund University in Sweden says the research is not trivial: "If, due to human influence, a large fraction of the [insect] migrant population is wiped out, it might have catastrophic consequences for those particular ecosystems."



* APPS FOR FOOD STAMPS: The use of phone technology to help low-income folk in the developing world has been discussed here many times in the past. As discussed by an article from WIRED.com ("Startups Are Finally Taking On Food Stamps" by Tonya Riley, 6 September 2017), it's an irony that low-income folk here in the USA are still stuck in the dark ages. Registering for housing assistance or getting food stamps means obnoxious paperwork, standing in line, and sitting through interviews. Keeping track of benefits is troublesome and inefficient.

That's starting to change, as tech outfits focus on what they can do to bring dusty social programs into the 21st century. One of the prime targets is the US "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)", which provides food stamps to 43 million Americans. Mobile software startup Propel -- founded by Jimmy Chen, previously a manager at Facebook -- now offers a smartphone app for "electronic benefits transfer (EBT)" named "FreshEBT", which allows food stamp users to keep track of their balance, and enter shopping lists to see what can be bought. According to Chen:


One of the things we noticed is that the food stamp office is full of hundreds of people waiting in line and a majority of them have a smartphone in their hand. Social services had in some ways lagged behind what technology could do.


While smartphones might seem a luxury for low-income citizens, we're so dependent on data today that they're really a necessity for the 10% of Americans who have no other internet access. Those making less than $30,000 USD a year are 13 times more likely to be smartphone-dependent than those making more than $75,000 USD a year.


At last count, FreshEBT had 250,000 users, and Propel is seeking funding for expansion. It's only one of the many firms focused on public sector services. Some states have obtained websites and apps to help low-income citizens, but the states aren't organizationally or technically in the best position to take on the task. That shifts the issue to the private and nonprofit sectors, with states awarding contracts to establish public-private partnerships.

For another example, the nonprofit Code for America (CFA), which was founded in 2009 to bridge state and local governments with developers and designers, had started out working on apps to deal with community issues, such as fire hydrants that needed to be shoveled out after a snowstorm. California's SNAP program then attracted CFA's attention because it worked so poorly: in 2014, almost half the eligible residents weren't getting benefits, one of the lowest rates in the USA.

CFA-sponsored developers began work on a solution in 2013, leading to the CFA "CalFresh" app. Much of the challenge was simply to refine procedures. For example, the SNAP application had 200 questions; CFA workers cut to a questionnaire that could be completed in ten minutes. They suggested to one county SNAP director that a form might be dropped, since no other county used it, with the director not knowing the form was still in use. CFA worked with community organizations and SNAP clients to identify chokepoints, then find fixes. Program officials send out renewal notices to clients via text message, while CFA has a bilingual helpline, handling queries over SMS.

Jimmy Chen of Propel similarly ran into unexpected obstacles in getting FreshEBT to work. Chen had originally wanted to streamline the SNAP enrollment process -- but on canvassing Philadelphia grocery stores, his people found that about 80% of the potential clients were already signed up. The big problem for the clients was checking their account balances; all they had was a very clumsy phone call-in system. FreshEBT gave them what amounted to a mobile-banking app for their food stamp accounts.

Chen wants to make money by selling advertising on the app to grocery stores. CFA's app already features coupon and rewards partnerships with several major chains -- though CalFresh work is currently supported by contracts with the state of California. Both outfits feel their products are valuable. In a study with Duke University, Propel discovered that average SNAP recipients spent more than 80% of their SNAP benefits within the first nine days, and ran out day 21. However, when given an in-app tool that showed them a weekly budget instead of the entire balance, users managed to stretch their monthly balance by two days. No doubt the apps are getting smarter in scheduling use of food stamps, and providing gentle suggestions on what to buy with them.

Lyndon Jackson, founder of Panacea -- which is working on yet another SNAP EBT app -- has a personal interest in the issue, both he and his lead developer having grown up on food stamps. They've been testing their app with family and friends. According to Jackson: "When I was talking to some of these people, it was very exciting, because basically they had been ignored."



* TIME OF FIRE: The US West has had a devastating fire season, smoke choking towns and even halting civil aviation flights in some cases. As discussed by an article from CITYLAB.com ("How Bizarre Is This Year's Wildfire Season, Really?" by Joe Eaton, 15 September 2017), the fires bring up the question: do they have anything to do with climate change? The author spoke with Philip Higuera, a professor of fire ecology at the University of Montana in Missoula, to get the answer: NO and YES.

Certainly, things have been tough, particularly in Montana, the worst-hit of the Western states, but Higuera doesn't see it as anything all that new:


In the Northern Rockies, we had a very large fire year in 2012, in 2007, in 2000, and to an extent in 2003. In this region, 1910 remains the record-setting fire season. If we surpass that, I would be surprised. Events like these are not common on a year-to-year scale. On the other hand, when you look at the role fire plays in ecosystems, you have to look at a longer timescale, and these rare events are what's expected every once in a while.


The fires were the consequence of drought, Missoula having had the driest July and August on record, and the third-warmest July and August. Under those circumstances, fire was to be expected, and the fires were also certain to be hard to put out. The greatest risk of fire is to those in the wildland-urban interface, with Higuera pointing out:


If you are living there, you should know that you are living with a much higher risk for exposure to wildfire. And part of the job of educators and US Forest Service outreach is to make that risk known. Eventually insurance companies will also get on board. Floods are obviously on insurance companies' radar front and center. Wildfire is still not frequent enough that they design programs around it.


So people living in the forested perimeters of urban areas have it coming to them? Higuera doesn't agree:


Every place on our planet has some natural phenomenon that is not friendly to humans. If you live on the East Coast, you are going to experience hurricanes. If you live in the Midwest, you are going to experience tornadoes. If you live across forested regions in the West, you are going to experience wildfires. We need to develop in a way that is cognizant of these processes -- that is not ignorant of the way the planet, and the environment you live in, works.


If the fires are unavoidable and overwhelming, then isn't it futile to spend so much effort and money to try to put them out? Higeura replies the goal of "no fires" is a non-starter. These ecosystems burned regularly in the past, before human habitation; they can be expected to burn in the future. Does that mean, as some have suggested, we should just let wildfires burn? Higuera says that's a judgement call:


It really comes down to what you can afford to burn and what do you want to protect. If the fire is in the wilderness, that's great. If it's burning toward a community, that's not so good.


What about those who claim that more logging should be permitted to clear trees, and so help prevent fires? Higuera replies:


I don't think that holds water. That is based on the assumption that fires are occurring because there is more fuel available to burn than in the past. That's generally not what's driving this. It's the drought. It's true that if cut, there is less fuel in the forests. But in a lot of cases, there is what's called slash -- woody debris -- left on the ground that will carry fire across the forest floor, which is what you need for it to spread. The simple answer -- if you want to eliminate fire, then pave it. There will be no fire.


Finally, is climate change responsible for the tough fire season? NO and YES:


We can't say this individual fire was because of climate change. We can't say this year was because of climate change. But these types of years are what we expect to see more frequently. I heard an analogy that I think is useful. If a baseball player is using steroids and hits a home run, can you attribute that home run to steroids? You can't -- but you know that at some point some component of that was brought to you by this artificial input to the system.


In short, we're not going to see anything we haven't seen before -- but we're going to see more of it, thanks to climate change.

ED: I was surprised on my trip through Montana from Loveland to Spokane not to see any burned areas, but then I got to doing some figures, and determined that the burned area was no more than about half a percent of Montana's entire land area -- and this was a bad fire season. Even if we assumed only a quarter of Montana's area is open to wildfires, that fires occurred randomly in that area, and that we had the same rate every year, the cycle time for fire renewal of the area would be 50 years at minimum.

Maybe there's something to be said for a methodical program of controlled burns, though they have an unfortunate tendency to become uncontrolled burns. That is not to minimize the problem, certainly the smoke is dreadful; just to fit things into perspective.



* ANOTHER MONTH: Elon Musk seems to be on a rampage these days, coming up with ever wilder proposals each month. His latest is a scheme to use rockets on suborbital trajectories to get passengers from any one place on Earth to another in less than an hour.

fly Elon?

It's a cool idea -- ridiculous, yes, but still cool. Even the sketchiest considerations of cost and safety torpedo the scheme immediately, and there's also the issues of how well passengers would adapt to high-gee accelerations and decelerations, and periods of free fall.

The exercise reminds me of being a kid in the 1960s, reading wild Sunday-supplement visions of the future. In the 21st century, they tend to appear perfectly laughable. Of course, the past had little inkling of the marvels of technology we do have: "Oh no! I left an 8 GB drive in my pants pocket when I sent them to the dry cleaners!"

* I usually drive from Loveland, Colorado, to Spokane, Washington, in August to get together with family -- but events, particularly the wildfires raging through the US West, delayed the trip into the last half of September. One factor was that my brother had flown his Beechcraft from Spokane to Seattle, and couldn't fly back, since the visibility was too poor to permit safe flight.

I left Loveland in the dark hours of Tuesday, the 19th, intending to drive straight through to Spokane. I was expecting a lot of smoke along the way, but the weather had turned damp, and I saw hardly a trace of fire along the way. Indeed, in southern Montana, the mountains were capped with snow. I thought I saw hills in the Wyoming badlands that had been burned off, but on the return trip noticed they were just covered with dark scrub forests.

On my lackluster tour back East about a year ago, I had been hoping to drive through colorful fall foliage -- but I was too early. However, while driving through the Crow tribal reservation in southern Montana, the town of Lodge Grass, down in a valley, was decked out in in bright seasonal colors. I stopped on the way back to get shots.

pleasant valley, Montana

The airport at Missoula, Montana, is always very busy in fire season, tending to resemble a military forward base, with air tankers and military helicopters much in evidence. I dropped by on the way through in hopes of finding something interesting to shoot, but the fires were out, and everyone had gone home. The one interesting thing was that Neptune Aviation, which operates air tankers out of Missoula, had largely phased out their old Navy P2V Neptune air tankers in favor of BAE 146 jetliners adapted to the fire-fighting role. One of the old Neptunes has now been set up as a "gate guard" at the airport.

Neptune gate guard at Missoula airport

Other than that, not much to the trip. I bought a lightweight Yamaha piano box and am now taking it on my travels; I wrap it up and it fits neatly against the back seat of my Toyota. I get some good feedback on my playing from relatives, but maybe everyone has tin ears. I mostly take it along because I can get too dependent on playing my bigger Yamaha at home, under exactly the same circumstances every day, and then find that my skill falls off when I perform outside my normal comfort zone.

* The real fake news from Washington DC for September took some surprising turns -- though given the fact that surprises have become ordinary, maybe they shouldn't be so surprising. The first surprise, early in the month, was when the Trump Administration said that the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, established by executive order during the Obama Administration, would be phased out. DACA gave a path towards US citizens for illegal immigrants hauled here as children; sending them "back home" when the US was the only home they knew seemed malign.

The surprise was that President Trump told Congress that they should pass legislation to reinstate DACA. It turned out Trump hadn't wanted to rescind DACA, but his hand was forced by a clique of conservative state attorney generals, in collaboration with a conservative judge. On the face of it, there doesn't seem to be much reason DACA can't be transformed into a proper law that isn't so easily challenged, since even House Speaker Paul Ryan, nothing that resembles a liberal, spoke in favor of it. However, getting action out of Congress these days is proving troublesome.

The next surprise was on 6 September, during a White House meeting between Trump and Congressional leaders on the debt ceiling authorization. GOP leadership wanted to kick the problem out a year and a half, to beyond next year's mid-term elections, while the Democratic leadership -- Chuck Schumer of the Senate, Nancy Pelosi of the House of Representatives -- insisted on three months. Much to the astonishment of Schumer and Pelosi, Trump finally cut off discussion abruptly and said: "Let's do that."

GOP leadership was appalled, since Trump had simply handed the Democrats a powerful lever without obtaining any clear advantage in doing so -- except to inform the GOP that if they couldn't get things done, he would cut a deal with the Democrats. GOP leadership were apparently further annoyed when First Daughter Ivanka Trump dropped in to the meeting, perceiving her as no more than a tourist who had no business being there. However, whatever else might be said about Donald Trump, he dearly loves his kids, and is indulgent with them. Senators don't like it? Too bad.

The political focus then shifted to Congress. While a Senate healthcare committee under GOP Senator Lamar Alexander pushed for a bipartisan plan to get ObamaCare running more smoothly, GOP Senator Lindsey Graham then started yet another push to "repeal & replace" ObamaCare -- with the Alexander effort then going flat. It seems unlikely that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was at all happy with Graham's effort, knowing that it was unlikely to fare any better than earlier attempts, while Congress had other things to get done.

It didn't fare any better, with sorehead Right senators saying they wouldn't vote for the plan because it was too liberal, and moderates saying it was too harsh. In the wake of the collapse of Graham's effort, Alexander's bipartisan effort revived. It doesn't appear too hopeful right now, all the more so because Trump has flatly said he intends to sabotage the administration of ObamaCare -- oblivious to the fact that, having made it publicly clear that he was going to do so, he was going to take the blame for it.

However, what if Trump can be convinced that rescuing America from the ObamaCare "disaster" will put him in a heroic light? He's not committed to ideology, after all. That seems an obvious card for the shrewd Chuck Schumer to play. Schumer has an additional boost in dealings with Trump because the two have known each other for decades -- indeed, Trump donated to Schumer's campaign fund at one time. However, that remains to be seen.

With healthcare off the front burner for the moment, the focus has now shifted to the Trump Administration's tax plan. The Trump Administration had been promoting the plan without providing details; once the plan was released, it demonstrated a certain focus on tax cuts for the wealthy, with no concern for budget deficits, and no earnest attempt to conceal the lack of concern. The White House indifferently claimed that the cuts would promote economic activity that would eventually make up the shortfall in government revenue -- but nobody really takes the "supply-side economics" argument all that seriously these days, not even those proclaiming it, and the economy is doing very well in the first place. The bottom line is that Trump wants to pay less taxes, and there's not much more to it than that.

There is a general consensus on both sides of the aisle in Congress that the tax system needs to be cleaned up; the corporate tax rate is seen as too high, encouraging offshoring of profits. However, the Democrats are unified in resistance against piling up the budget deficit. Not all Republicans like the idea either, and it seems there is a majority in favor of, at last, fiscal responsibility. The USA was sold a bill of goods on deficit spending in the Reagan and Bush II Administrations -- are we going to be sold a bill of goods a third time? Again, what happens remains to be seen.

In meantime, Trump continued an exchange of verbal blasts and saber-rattling with North Korea's Kim Jong Un over the current frenzy of North Korean missile tests. Worries were expressed in the media that Trump was toying with the prospect of nuclear war; yes, that was a concern, but in reality it seemed more like a barking contest between the two leaders. Although North Korean leaders are vicious and paranoid, they know perfectly well that going nuclear would result, literally, in their extermination.

There are tales of Kim attempting to get intelligence on Trump from Western diplomatic contacts, but the bottom line for the North Koreans should be obvious. As one Chinese policy wonk described Trump: "He has a big mouth." The ironies, of course, are that Trump isn't finding North Korea any easier to deal with than his predecessors; and that, in Kim Jong Un, he's found an opponent who's as full of it as he is.

On a smaller scale, Trump got into a feud with National Football League players who knelt when the national anthem was played, instead of standing at attention. There was considerable public disagreement over the matter, but it didn't seem like it should have been at the top line of the president's priority list. However, nobody was very surprised at the president's overblown Twitter tweets on the issue -- they're not news.

What was news was when Health & Human Services Secretary Tom Price resigned at the end of the month, Price having become mired in a scandal over taking private charter flights on the taxpayer's dime. Still, there's been enough turnover in the White House that such events aren't a surprise any more, either.

On top of that, the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico in mid-month left the Trump Administration fumbling to respond, with the volume of criticisms going way up. It was not so hard to sympathize with the White House on the matter, since the storm so overwhelmed the island that any administration would have been hard-pressed to respond. Nonetheless, Trump greatly undermined his case by sending out tweets proclaiming what a great job was being done in helping out Puerto Rico -- while the news media continued to report just how desperate things really were.

As CNN pointed out, to Trump reality is whatever he wants it to be. In response to protests from San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, Trump accused her of "poor leadership" and taking orders from Democratic leadership to be "nasty to Trump". Trump added that Puerto Ricans expected "everything to be done for them." As for the ugly reports coming out of Puerto Rico, they were fabrications of the "fake news media". Trump was simply playing up to his hard-core supporters -- hey, Puerto Ricans speak Spanish, they aren't real Americans, right? -- and almost welcoming the wave of criticisms his conduct produced. The squabbling got up to speed on the last weekend of September.

* In the background of affairs in Washington DC, this month Hillary Clinton published her memoirs of the 2016 presidential campaign, titled WHAT HAPPENED. Clinton's book has been strongly criticized for blaming everyone but herself for her defeat; but she was careful to point out the many errors in her campaigning.

However, Clinton does believe she would have won, had she not been taken down by dirty tricks. She's not happy with Senator Bernie Sanders, who attacked her and the Obama Administration from the Left as too friendly with Wall Street; but in the end, Bernie did campaign for her, and the majority of his supporters voted for her. It was either her or Trump, after all. Her more specific gripes include:

Clinton's ongoing critics have called her memoir self-serving, the whining of a sore loser. Didn't she really lose, they ask, because she couldn't push a substantial agenda? In reality, she was stuck defending the status quo, and could do no more than propose tweaks. Besides, it is obvious that her citations of reasons why she lost the election are perfectly accurate. Donald Trump's campaign was all about lies -- not the usual fibs of politicians, but preposterous lies -- and the wildest smear jobs. Trump's campaign was not about serious economic policy; it was about: "LOCK HER UP! LOCK HER UP!"

Whatever the actual deficiencies of Hillary Clinton, given the abuse poured on her, it's hard for an objective bystander not to feel sympathetic to her. Sanders' supporters insist he would have won, had he run; but the Trump smear machine left him strictly alone while he was attacking Clinton. Had Sanders won the primary instead of Clinton, Trump would have turned the smear machine on him; and no politician so distinctly Red in color as Bernie Sanders would have survived. Sanders had a message that Trump's supporters simply did not care about; they were too focused on burning Clinton at the stake.

* That leads to the next issue. The Democrats are in the weakest political position they've been for decades. Can they rally? Much has been said of the current divisive tensions between moderate and extreme Democrats. Yes, there's been noisy quarreling, but does it really amount to anything? In places where the sorehead Left is thick on the ground, they will elect those they like; it is certainly apparent that the people who elected Senator Liz Warren think the world of her, and will keep electing her to office. In places where moderates are stronger, they'll push moderate candidates. The soreheads will complain, but it will amount to nothing.

Once it gets down to a presidential choice in 2020, the argument is going to get very loud -- but it can be assumed that the moderates outnumber the soreheads nationally, and they will select a moderate candidate. Sure, the candidate will rhetorically trim to the Leftward winds, and may have a extreme vice presidential candidate; but since the alternative would be another Republican presidential win, the soreheads will have no choice but to vote for the moderate Democrat candidate. They're crazy, but they're not that crazy.

However, that's down the road. The immediate concern is the mid-term election next year. The optimistic view for the Democrats is to make gains in both the Senate and the House. By the luck of the draw, not many GOP seats are open in the Senate in 2018, meaning limited opportunities for gains. To be sure, since all the Democrats in Congress have been there since 2012 at longest, meaning they were elected after America's "hard Right turn" in 2010, it seems unlikely there's much threat of them being replaced by Republicans.

As far as the House goes, the Democrats need to get about 25 seats to regain a majority. Is that a lot? In 2010, the GOP picked up over 60, crushing the Democrats; and the average change of seats between parties for the last 81 midterms was 30. The cycle is that the petulant voters tend to turn against the party in power. Trump's persistent public approval ratings hover at the low end of Barack Obama's, and Trump is unlikely to gain much ground: while his hard-core supporters are not going to budge, neither will any of the people who don't like him. Although public support for the Democrats is not strong, the Republicans are even worse off.

And then, of course, Barack Obama is going to be throwing his considerable weight behind Democratic candidates -- ably assisted by his popular wife Michelle. Michelle, incidentally, stepped out this month with an energetic defense of Hillary Clinton, saying that women who didn't vote for Clinton "voted against their own voice."

The sorehead Left will probably have to stop calling Obama a fascist: "You want Trump to win?" Of course, it's not even November 2017 yet, and what happens in a year's time from then is any guess. After 2016, nobody feels too confident of betting on anything that might happen.

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