mar 2018 / greg goebel / follow "gvgoebel" on twitter

* This weblog provides an "online notebook" to provide comments on current events, interesting items I run across, and the occasional musing. It promotes no particular ideology. Remarks may be left on the site comment board; all sensible feedback is welcome.

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* UNDERSTANDING AI (16): The ongoing fuss over the threat of artificial intelligence systems eventually giving humanity the boot tends to distract attention from more practical and honestly significant issues with AI. As discussed by an article from THEVERGE.com ("Artificial Intelligence Is Going To Supercharge Surveillance" by James Vincent, 23 January 2018), one of the biggest real worries is that AI will make it much easier to spy on everyone.

Consider the widespread use of surveillance cameras. The more surveillance cameras there are, the harder it is to watch them at all times -- and so it becomes useful to have an AI do the watching, keeping a log of what happens, and alerting a human to something out of the ordinary. What happens when surveillance cameras are as common as streetlights, or maybe even mounted on streetlights? And complemented by a fleet of camera-carrying police drones on street patrol? Each camera would have its own AI, with the AIs networked together to form an "all-seeing eye".

Crimes are going to be very hard to pull off when cameras are everywhere. That's reassuring -- but it's not so reassuring to think that effectively everyone will be under public observation, effectively all the time. The system would be able to track a car by make, paint job, and license plate. The cops could also upload a mugshot to the system so that a suspect could be tracked everywhere. On top of that, there's also the possibility of biases creeping into the system -- for example, marking a group of black teens as troublemakers who actually being good kids.

This is not the present reality, but it's not science fiction, either. Consider the startup company IC Realtime and the firm's flagship product, named Ella. It's a software product, an app and web platform that uses AI to sift through video feeds; IC Realtime calls it "Google for CCTV". Ella can understand natural-language queries with a high degree of comprehension, zeroing in on clips to find, for example, a tabby cat, or a school uniform, or an F-15 fighter jet. Ella also takes feedback from users to refine its searches. With machine learning and lots of experience, Ella is going to get smarter over time. According to Matt Sailor, boss of IC Realtime:


Let's say there's a robbery, and you don't really know what happened. But there was a Jeep Wrangler speeding east afterward. So we go in, we search for: JEEP WRANGLER -- and there it is. Without this technology, you'd know nothing more than your camera, and you'd have to sift through hours and hours and hours of video.


Ella is hosted on Google Cloud; it can search a single video feed, or thousands of them. Users pay a monthly fee for Ella, starting at $7 USD, then scaling up with the number of feeds. IC Realtime is targeting both businesses, at any scale, and individual consumers. As Sailor points out, there are plenty of cameras that have a degree of smarts, but not enough to tell the difference between "a bird and a break-in. No AI. No deep learning."

That's less true all the time, however. Consider, for example, Boulder AI, which sells stand-alone AI cameras, not dependent on an internet connection. The company offers "vision as a service", with founder Darren Odom saying: "The applications are really all over the board. Our platform's sold to companies in banking, energy. We've even got an application where we're looking at pizzas, determining if they're the right size and shape."

For an example, Odom mentions a customer from Idaho who had built a dam and, to meet environmental regulations, had to monitor the number of fish making it up a fish (water) ladder: "They used to have a person sitting with a window into this fish ladder, ticking off how many trout went by. Then they moved to video and someone watching it." The customer contacted Boulder, which came up with an AI CCTV TV system to do the job: "We really nailed fish species identification using computer vision. We are now 100% at identifying trout in Idaho."

As sophisticated as the products of IC Realtime and Boulder AI are, in a decade's time, they'll seem toylike. Basic AI research is ticking along rapidly, computing power continues to grow, and -- last but not least -- training datasets are also expanding at a fast clip, with information technology firms aggressively bulking them up. Two of the biggest datasets for video analysis have been generated by Facebook and YouTube. YouTube's dataset, for example, features more than 450,000 hours of labeled video that it hopes will spur "innovation and advancement in video understanding."

Both Facebook and YouTube need the ability to analyze video streams -- not merely to improve user search capabilities, but also to moderate content. Russian manipulation of the 2016 US elections was a turning point for the two firms, putting them under pressure to detect, identify, and neutralize the Black Hats, while ensuring they don't step on their honest users.

IC Realtime is trying to keep up with changing technology, currently working on new features like facial recognition; a longer-term ambition is to to interpret events in a video stream. Sailor says he's spoken to potential clients in education, who want video systems that can spot signs of trouble among students -- for example pupils clumping together, as if about to start a fight.

Boulder AI is also working on the next generation, for example a system to analyze the behavior of people in a bank, Odom saying: "We're specifically looking for bad guys, and detecting the difference between a normal actor and someone acting out of bounds." The company has been using old security-camera footage for training -- but since such videos tend to be low quality, they've also been shooting their own training video, using actors. While Odom is necessarily not too specific about how the training videos are put together, he did say the obvious, that they provide facial expressions and actions useful to a smart security camera: "Our actors are doing things like crouching, pushing, over-the-shoulder glances."

What is unsettling in this is its inevitability. Schools, for their own safety and that of the students, need a pervasive smart surveillance capability; and for obvious reasons, so do banks. As far as fleets of police drones patrolling the streets go, there's no more a basis for legal objection to that than there is to police cruisers patrolling the streets. The difference is, the drones keep a closer watch. Cameras on every streetlight? If people object to that, then shouldn't they object to streetlights, too? In any case, there's no invasion of privacy in observing what happens in public places. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (6): Section 4 of Article I of the Constitution left the electoral procedures for Congressmen up to the states, subject to Congressional alterations; and specified that Congress must meet at least once a year:


1: The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof; but the Congress may at any time by Law make or alter such Regulations, except as to the Places of chusing Senators.

2: The Congress shall assemble at least once in every Year, and such Meeting shall be on the first Monday in December,5 unless they shall by Law appoint a different Day.


Section 5 outlined general internal rules and procedures for the Congress:


1: Each House shall be the Judge of the Elections, Returns and Qualifications of its own Members, and a Majority of each shall constitute a Quorum to do Business; but a smaller Number may adjourn from day to day, and may be authorized to compel the Attendance of absent Members, in such Manner, and under such Penalties as each House may provide.

2: Each House may determine the Rules of its Proceedings, punish its Members for disorderly Behaviour, and, with the Concurrence of two thirds, expel a Member.

3: Each House shall keep a Journal of its Proceedings, and from time to time publish the same, excepting such Parts as may in their Judgment require Secrecy; and the Yeas and Nays of the Members of either House on any question shall, at the Desire of one fifth of those Present, be entered on the Journal.

4: Neither House, during the Session of Congress, shall, without the Consent of the other, adjourn for more than three days, nor to any other Place than that in which the two Houses shall be sitting.


Section 6 specified that members of Congress would be paid by the Federal government; that, by the "Speech or Debate Clause", they would have a degree of legal immunity; and that, by the "Ineligibility Clause" AKA "Sinecure Clause", they would be independent of the executive branch:


1: The Senators and Representatives shall receive a Compensation for their Services, to be ascertained by Law, and paid out of the Treasury of the United States. They shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.

2: No Senator or Representative shall, during the Time for which he was elected, be appointed to any civil Office under the Authority of the United States, which shall have been created, or the Emoluments whereof shall have been encreased during such time; and no Person holding any Office under the United States, shall be a Member of either House during his Continuance in Office.


Section 7 defined how Congress, through the "Origination Clause" AKA "Revenue Clause" generates a law; with the law then, as per the "Presentment Clause", handed to the president; and the president then, as per the "Order, Resolution, & Votes Clause" either signing or vetoing it, the veto only being overridden by a two-thirds vote of the entire Congress:


1: All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.

2: Every Bill which shall have passed the House of Representatives and the Senate, shall, before it become a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approve he shall sign it, but if not he shall return it, with his Objections to that House in which it shall have originated, who shall enter the Objections at large on their Journal, and proceed to reconsider it.

If after such Reconsideration two thirds of that House shall agree to pass the Bill, it shall be sent, together with the Objections, to the other House, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that House, it shall become a Law. But in all such Cases the Votes of both Houses shall be determined by yeas and Nays, and the Names of the Persons voting for and against the Bill shall be entered on the Journal of each House respectively.

If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.

3: Every Order, Resolution, or Vote to which the Concurrence of the Senate and House of Representatives may be necessary (except on a question of Adjournment) shall be presented to the President of the United States; and before the Same shall take Effect, shall be approved by him, or being disapproved by him, shall be repassed by two thirds of the Senate and House of Representatives, according to the Rules and Limitations prescribed in the Case of a Bill.





* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from WIRED.com ("Skype's Rolling Out End-to-End Encryption For Hundreds of Millions of People" by Lily Hay Newman, 11 January 2018), early in the year Microsoft announced that the company's Skype voice-IP service would now offer end-to-end encryption for audio calls, text, and multimedia messages, through a feature named "Private Conversations". Skype is using the open-source "Signal Protocol (SP)" to implement encryption, ensuring that only the devices sending and receiving in the conversation have unencrypted access to them. Servers can have no access to the contents of the message.

Early on, Skype was regarded as a secure service, since it incorporated strong encryption and a decentralized peer-to-peer network. However, after Microsoft bought up Skype, users noticed subtle changes in Skype's operation; the most privacy-conscious users began to avoid it, worrying that it might be aiding third-party and government wiretap surveillance.

Private Conversations is intended to reassure users that their conversations are protected. At the outset, Skype doesn't support video chat; and of course, though it protects the contents of communications, it doesn't hide "metadata", such as when a conversation takes place, and how long it lasts. According to Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the digital rights group the Electronic Frontier Foundation:


You still have to decide if you trust Microsoft with your metadata, but that's a decision you have to make with every encrypted communications service. When companies like Skype make these kinds of changes, I think it's important to applaud them for going in the right direction, while still reminding them that there is more that needs to be done.


Since a provider has to know the metadata for its own operations, it can't be truly kept secret. The question of how much access the law has to the metadata is one the law is going to define, not the providers. Skype had been left behind in the race to give users secure communications, but is now trying to catch up. The relatively high public profile of Skype means it can have a lot of influence; but it also places a burden of proof on Skype to show that its secure communications really are secure.

* As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Computer Chip Mimics Human Brain, With Light Beams For Neurons" by Matthew Hutson, 20 June 2017), "artificial neural networks (ANN)" are on the leading edge of computing, being the subject of intensive research. Work has focused on ANN chips with electronic analogues to neurons, and on streamlined digital processors that can readily emulate neurons in software. However, there is a third option, an "optical neural network (ONN)" -- in which light beams are used for neural computations.

An ONN is attractive because light beams are fast and can be processed in parallel by optical elements; ONNs also tend to be energy-efficient. ONNs are not a new idea, but in the past they've mostly been lab setups, consisting of tabletops full of precision mirrors and lenses, nothing that resembles practical systems. Now, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge have managed to build an ONN in the form of a microchip.

The MIT chip is fabricated from silicon; it simulates a network of 16 neurons in four "layers" of four. Data enters the chip in the form of a laser beam split into four smaller beams. The brightness of each entering beam encodes input data, while the brightness of each exiting beam represents output data, a "solution".

While in transit through the chip, the paths of light cross and interact in ways that can amplify or weaken their individual intensities. These interference effects crossings simulate the way a signal from one neuron to another in the brain can be intensified or dampened based on the strength of the connection. The beams also pass through simulated neurons that further adjust their intensities.

The researchers then tested their optical neural network on a real-world task: recognizing vowel sounds. When trained on recordings of 90 people making four vowel sounds, a traditional computer simulating a 16-neuron network was right 92% of the time. The ONN was right 77% of the time -- but the researchers believe that it can do as well as or better than a computer simulation, while it's also faster and more efficient.

Alex Tait, an electrical engineer at Princeton University who is working on similar technology, says:


Part of why this is new and exciting is that it uses silicon photonics, which is this new platform for doing optics on a chip. Because it uses silicon, it's potentially low cost. They're able to use existing foundries to scale up.


The study's two primary authors, Yichen Shen, a physicist, and Nicholas Harris, an electrical engineer, both of MIT, believe their technology could have applications in data centers, autonomous cars, and national security, providing ANNs orders of magnitude faster than existing designs, while drawing orders of magnitude less power. The two are starting up a company and want to have technology on the market by the end of the decade.

* There was a buzz going around a few weeks ago about Amazon.com's Alexa smart speaker generating spontaneous fits of laughing. One report from Twitter described it as unnerving: "Lying in bed about to fall asleep when Alexa on my Amazon Echo Dot lets out a very loud and creepy laugh ... there's a good chance I get murdered tonight." Another commented: "So Alexa decided to laugh randomly while I was in the kitchen. Freaked us out. I thought a kid was laughing behind me."

don't worry about the laughing

While this sounds like pranksters at work, it was more a joke Amazon was playing on itself. After investigating, Amazon engineers found out Alexa was suffering from false positives, thinking it had got the command: "Alexa, laugh." The reports of users being baffled by the laughing suggests they were exciteable and not inclined to do a bit of research to figure out what was going on.

In any case, Amazon's engineers changed the command to something more distinctive and recognizable: "Alexa, can you laugh?" -- with Alexa responding: "Sure, I can laugh." -- and then laughing. Yes, there's always another bug in the system.



* US NUCLEAR RENAISSANCE: As discussed by an article from AVIATIONWEEK.com ("The Pentagon Wants Its Nuclear Tomahawks Back", 17 January 2018), the Obama Administration had begun an effort to update America's nuclear arsenal. As revealed in a draft of the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review leaked by the HUFFINGTON POST, the Trump Administration is ratcheting the effort another step up, significant elements of the new plan being reviving production of plutonium cores for new warheads and reintroducing a sea-launched cruise missile.

The plan states that America will respond to the growing might of the nuclear forces of China and Russia, as well as emerging threats from North Korea, by modernizing its elderly nuclear arsenal of Cold War-era bombers, submarines, missiles and nuclear-qualified tactical fighters. The plan intends to accelerate modernization programs set in motion by the previous administration, including the:

The effort would also reverse Obama-era arms reduction initiatives by restoring the Navy's nuclear cruise missile capability, and retaining the air-delivered B83-1, the US's last megaton nuclear bomb. To counter Russia's "significant advantage" in nonstrategic nuclear weaponry and enhance the range of military options against China and North Korea, the Pentagon will also retrofit "a small number" of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) with a low-yield nuclear warhead, and obtain a modern sea-launched cruise missile.

The new policy leaves open the door for the Navy to obtain more than the dozen COLUMBIA-class submarines originally planned. The Pentagon also wants to start an effort in 2020 to find a replacement for the Trident D5 fleet ballistic missile, which is now being life-extended for service on the OHIO- and COLUMBIA-class boomers.

SLBM launch

Additional boomers and a new missile for them are long-term considerations, clearly beyond the horizon of the current administration. Over the shorter run, the Trump Administration plans to order the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration to scale up production of new plutonium pits -- the "active ingredient" of a Bomb -- to "at least" 80 per year by 2030, compared to zero today. Most of America's plutonium pits were produced in 1978-89 and have been refurbished for additional years of service.

The Congressional Budget Office existing plans to sustain and modernize all three components of the nuclear triad will cost about $1.2 trillion USD over the next 30 years: $800 billion USD for operations and sustainment and $400 billion USD for modernization projects. The Trump administration's push to accelerate existing plans, while adding a low-yield nuclear warhead and modern sea-launched cruise missile will substantially increase that sum.

The Trump Administration's nuclear-weapons policy is an extension, not a reversal, of that of the Obama Administration, a response to the efforts of China and Russia to update their nuclear arsenals. The idea is to tell adversaries that they can't intimidate the US; to that end, the Trump Administration is not going to adopt a "no first use" policy, which had been considered by the previous administration.

The USA, in reality, is never going to fire off a nuke first. The entire arms buildup is entirely for psychological effect. The Trump Administration's push for "more usable" nukes doesn't indicate plans to use nukes, just to give the US more cards to play in the global nuclear chessgame. Nonetheless, the nuclear arms race was always absurd, with enormous sums spent on weapons that nobody dared use. A fair case can be made that, in the face of nuclear weapons buildups elsewhere, the US is compelled to respond; but in doing so, it appears that the only sensible long-term goal -- to eventually put the Bomb on the shelf -- has been mislaid.



* ENERGY MARKETS & BLOCKCHAIN: As discussed by an article from REUTERS.com ("As Energy Markets Evolve, Blockchain Powers Up" by Jeremy Wagstaff, 22 December 2017), while the bitcoin crytocurrency is now going into convulsions, the "blockchain" scheme underlying bitcoin -- a "distributed ledger" of a series of cryptographically-protected transactions -- is catching on in a range of applications.

For example, energy startup companies have been using blockchain to support electricity sharing in microgrid trials from Texas to Tasmania for a year or so. Now they're moving on to commercial projects, leveraging blockchain for payments and trading on a city-wide or even national scale. According to Stephen Callahan, Vice President, Energy, Environment & Utilities, Global Strategy, at IBM: "What the internet did for communications, blockchain will do for trusted transactions, and the energy and utilities industry is no exception."

Blockchain solves two important problems in the online world: ensuring that transactions can be performed without participation of a trusted intermediary -- no need for lawyers -- and, on the other side of that same coin, ensuring that those transactions can't be tinkered with later. The energy sector has entered an era of change and diversification, with inevitable fragmentation and chaos. Blockchain is a tool that can handle the increasingly elaborate and decentralized transactions between users, large- and small-scale producers, retailers, traders, and utilities.

Along with the ability to keep a robust account of transactions, blockchain's use of "tokens" -- allocations of resources certified by a blockchain -- also offers a way to reward users for saving energy; and provides support for small-scale transactions between individual users with solar panels who are both producers and consumers, known as "prosumers". The ability to add "smart contracts" onto a blockchain also makes it possible for actions to generate automatic transactions down to the lowest level, where meters and computers could autonomously reconcile supply and demand.

According to Daniel Sieck of US law firm Pepper Hamilton: "The prospect of being able to track particular electrons via a blockchain as they move onto or off the energy grid has captured the imagination of many companies."

The World Energy Council predicts that "decentralized / distributed" energy will grow from 5% of the market today to 25% in 2025. Although some big players like Shell, BP, and IBM have dabbled in blockchain, they're not all that serious about it for the present, being labeled "blockchain tourists". The real action in the present is with startup companies:

Energy startups raised about $200 million USD from ICOs in 2017, with a dozen more ICOs planned for 2018. Obstacles remain, including entrenched incumbents, and public worries about blockchain. To be sure, suspicions of blockchain are nowhere near as strong as those against the dodgy cryptocurrencies -- but it's still a largely unproven technology, and there's a bit of taint by association. Tony Masella, an energy consultant at Accenture, believes that blockchain-driven energy markets will emerge in a gradual evolution. Like the network protocols in the early days of the internet, blockchain "will drive dramatic transformation of the energy industry and unlock value" for everyone involved. "But it will not do so overnight."



* UNDERSTANDING AI (15): An article on the rise of multicore processors was run here in 2011 -- providing hints that multicore processors with diverse cores were likely to become important for emerging artificial intelligence systems. As discussed by an article from ENGADGET.com ("What Do Made-For-AI Processors Really Do?" by Cherlynn Low, 15 December 2017), processors with AI capabilities are now increasingly common -- with Apple, Qualcomm, and Huawei having developed mobile chipsets with built-in facilities to support application machine-learning abilities.

Huawei launched its "Kirin 970" in 2017, saying it was the first chipset with a dedicated "neural processing unit (NPU)". Apple followed with the "A11 Bionic" chip, which drives the iPhone 8, 8 Plus, and X, with Apple claiming the chip features a neural engine that is "purpose-built for machine-learning." Late in the year, Qualcomm announced the Snapdragon 845, which partitions AI tasks to the most suitable cores.

These chips are all based on the concept of "heterogeneous computing" -- originally meaning a chip with different kinds of processors, using one processor for performance when it's needed, another for low power when performance isn't needed, and so sparing battery life. Contemporary smartphones often use the ARM big.LITTLE architecture, which takes exactly that approach.

The Kirin 970 and A11 Bionic take this concept a step further, by assigning machine-learning and such to dedicated neural units, which can execute such tasks rapidly, with relatively little power consumption. On the Kirin 970, the NPU takes handles tasks like scanning and translating words in pictures taken with Microsoft's Translator, the first third-party app to have been optimized for this chipset. Apple's A11 Bionic uses a neural engine in its GPU to speed up Face ID, Animoji, and some third-party apps.

The Snapdragon 845 doesn't actually have a dedicated neural unit; it appears to be a typical contemporary heterogeneous multicore chip with optimized software tools, and possibly some minor hardware tweaks. The Snapdragon 845 can use its digital signal processor (DSP) core to handle running tasks that require a lot of repetitive math, like listening out for a verbal cue; activities like image-recognition are better managed by the GPU.

It's difficult to see, particularly in the absence of well-established benchmarks, if Qualcomm is any worse off than the competition, and it's not so easy to see if the neural cores of the competition are much more special than what the Snapdragon 845 has. In any case, the use of AI cores offloads the CPUs of devices, improving performance. The AI cores also allow tasks that might have otherwise been farmed out to cloud to be run on the phone, which also enhances performance, as well as security.

Assignment of AI cores to specific tasks is not performed automatically by the operating system; applications developers use supported libraries like Google's TensorFlow, or more specifically its Lite mobile version, to determine which cores do what task. Qualcomm, Huawei, and Apple all work with the most popular software toolsets like TensorFlow Lite, and Facebook's Caffe2. Qualcomm also supports the newer "Open Neural Networks Exchange (ONNX)", while Apple provides a set of tools via the company's Core ML framework.

Multicore systems with AI cores are such a new technology that nobody has really done much of significance with them as of yet. However, nobody working in the field is skeptical of their value. AI means smarter and more convenient products, and the promise of innovative applications that are still to be invented.

* As discussed by a somewhat related article from TIME.com ("Your Future Smart Car Could Use AI To Help You Drive" by Lisa Eadicicco, 8 January 2018), at the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show, chipmaker Nvidia showed off two new AI software platforms for robocars. The first, "Drive IX", is intended to support the development of AI copilots that interpret both exterior and interior sensor inputs to assist the driver.

Drive IX, for example, could observe the driver with a camera, and take action if the driver is getting drowsy. The copilot could also provide an alarm if it spots a pedestrian, and the driver is looking someplace else. Drive IX will support gesture and voice-based control schemes as well.

The other platform, "Drive AR", will support augmented reality-based interfaces for cars that provide notifications and highlight points of interest. Nvidia's new Xavier processor will support Drive IX and Drive AR, with the company saying the Pegasus computer module based on the chip would be capable of Level 5 autonomy -- meaning a vehicle without a steering wheel, accelerator pedal, or mirrors. Of course, that's not saying Level 5 is going to happen in the near future. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (5): Article I of the Constitution established the Congress of the United States, with Section 1 -- the "Vesting Clause" -- declaring:


All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States, which shall consist of a Senate and House of Representatives.


Nine other sections followed; Sections 2 through 7 of Article I are most conveniently discussed together. Section 2 defined the structure of the House of Representatives:


1: The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.

2: No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.

3: Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three.

4: When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.

5: The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers; and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.


Section 3 similarly defined the structure of the Senate:


1: The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, chosen by the Legislature thereof, for six Years; and each Senator shall have one Vote.

2: Immediately after they shall be assembled in Consequence of the first Election, they shall be divided as equally as may be into three Classes. The Seats of the Senators of the first Class shall be vacated at the Expiration of the second Year, of the second Class at the Expiration of the fourth Year, and of the third Class at the Expiration of the sixth Year, so that one third may be chosen every second Year; and if Vacancies happen by Resignation, or otherwise, during the Recess of the Legislature of any State, the Executive thereof may make temporary Appointments until the next Meeting of the Legislature, which shall then fill such Vacancies.4

3: No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.

4: The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided.

5: The Senate shall chuse their other Officers, and also a President pro tempore, in the Absence of the Vice President, or when he shall exercise the Office of President of the United States.

6: The Senate shall have the sole Power to try all Impeachments. When sitting for that Purpose, they shall be on Oath or Affirmation. When the President of the United States is tried, the Chief Justice shall preside: And no Person shall be convicted without the Concurrence of two thirds of the Members present.

7: Judgment in Cases of impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.





* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by a release from the University of Texas Austin / UTA ("Why Poison Frogs Don't Poison Themselves", 21 September 2017), it's an obvious evolutionary gambit for prey species to become toxic, so nothing wants to eat them. However, evolution is blind, nothing is obvious to it, it simply goes in whatever directions it does.

Besides, becoming toxic poses a difficulty. For example, consider the little "poison dart frogs" of the jungles of Latin America. Each is loaded up with a mix of deadly neurotoxins, with the frogs being brightly colored to proclaim: YOU DON'T WANT TO EAT ME. The quandary is: since the frogs are so loaded up with toxins, then why don't they poison themselves?

bumblebee poison dart frog

UTA researchers probed this question by studying a subgroup of the poison frogs that use a neurotoxin named "epibatidine". It's a toxin that, when ingested by a predator along with a frog, binds to receptors in the predator's nervous system, jamming neural impulses, causing seizures and possibly death. The UTA researchers found that small mutation in the frogs -- a change in just three of the 2,500 amino acids that make up the neural receptor -- renders the toxin ineffective in a frog. In addition, precisely the same change appeared independently three times in the evolution of these frogs.

Working with partners in Ecuador, the UTA researchers collected tissue samples from 28 species of frogs -- including those that use epibatidine, those that use other toxins, and those that are not toxic. The researchers then sequenced the gene that encodes for the neural receptor for all 28 species, to construct an evolutionary tree for the gene.

The neural receptor normally accepts signaling molecules involved in cognitive processes such as learning and memory. Epibatidine mimics these molecules, binding to the receptor and strongly activating the neuron. It turned out that frogs that generate epibatine have a minor mutation that disrupts the binding of epibatidine, without rejecting the normal signaling molecules.

Neurotoxins can in principle be used as powerful painkillers, though it's proven difficult to handle the side effects. This study is a step towards a better understanding of how the neurotoxins work, and how they can be better put to good use. Incidentally, the relationship between epibatidine and the receptor mutation leads to the possibility that the mutation occurred first -- as a "neutral" mutation that did no harm and no good -- and then led to frogs that generated epibatidine with no harm to themselves.

* As discussed by an article from WIRED.com ("With Designer Bacteria, Crops Could One Day Fertilize Themselves" by Megan Molten, 14 September 2017), modern agriculture is supported by fertilizer production -- which is an energy-intensive process, and also leads to problems with run-off of fertilizer into watercourses. Farmers and consumers would be better off to minimize the use of fertilizer.

Legumes -- peanuts, peas, and many types of beans -- don't need so much fertilizer, because they host a group of microbes called "nitrogen fixers" that grow in the root hairs of their host plants, forming knobby nodes and converting free nitrogen in the soil to ammonia, the most significant component of fertilizer. Most of the world's biggest food crops -- corn, wheat, rice -- don't provide much or any support for nitrogen fixers.

In the era of genetic modification (GM), why should that be a problem? Couldn't GM microbes be developed that can do the job for any plant? Seeds could be coated with them before shipment to farmers. German biochem giant Bayer has now established a joint venture with Gingko Bioworks, a Boston-based synthetic biology startup, to do just that.

The joint venture will be run out of Ginkgo's new automated DNA foundry and Bayer Crop Science's R&D center in West Sacramento. Bayer's science team has already started screening its extensive microbial library for candidates to ship to Boston. The target is a microbe that can perform nitrogen fixing, but is also hardy -- able to stand up to production handling, and to survive without water for a long period of time, then activate when it gets wet.

To complicate matters, most nitrogen fixers don't culture well in a petri dish. It's one of the ironies of microbiology: pathogens tend to culture easily because they have to thrive in host organisms whose immune systems are trying to kill them off, while benign microbes need more agreeable environments. Worse, nitrogen fixation is tricky. At least 20 genes code for the proteins directly involved in turning free nitrogen into ammonia, and the process involves associated metabolic pathways. To make matters even more troublesome, not much is known about the interactions of nitrogen fixers with their immediate environments. What makes them thrive? What shuts them down?

Evolution works over deep time, with the relationship between legumes and nitrogen fixers honed over millennia. Can the scheme be tweaked to work with wheat, rice, or corn? Ginkgo co-founder and CEO Jason Kelly says: "That's going to be one of the core challenges of this. But what we have going for us is that the plant really wants this nitrogen, and historically that's the right scenario for symbiotic relationships arising. Evolution is on our side."

* As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Surfing Fin–Embedded Sensors Collect Coastal Data", 8 September 2017) author Jon Cohen got to mix science with surfing by hitting the California waves -- with a surfboard featuring a sensor fin.

The fin was developed by engineer Phil Bresnahan and coastal biogeochemist Tyler Cyronak, both of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, and both surfers. With financial help from a New York City–based nonprofit named the Lost Bird Project, the two brewed up a surfboard fin crammed with a temperature sensor, a GPS receiver, a circuit board with a microcontroller, a Bluetooth chip, and a rechargeable battery. They hope to later add sensors pH, chlorophyll, salinity, and oxygen. For the moment, it's a pilot project, with 50 "smartfins" loaned out to surfers.

The intent of the exercise is to collect data on coastal zones, that data being a matter of interest for researchers who monitor the health of sea life–rich reefs, the mixing of atmospheric gases by breaking waves, riptides, pollutants, and the ocean's absorption of heat from global warming. Remote sensing from, say, satellites doesn't track natural activity in the near-coast regions very well. Surfers can do the job, and it's a surprisingly widespread practice. Even in the UK, not noted as a surfer's paradise, there are enough surfers to perform tens of millions of observations a year.



* FIGHTING ROBOCALLS: As discussed by an article from WIRED.com ("The Robocall Nightmare Is Only Getting Worse -- But Help Is Here" by Lily Hay Newman, 20 November 2017), the plague of robocalls from sleazy telemarketers has reached a flood level, with billions of bogus calls afflicting Americans every month, tens of millions a day. It's been getting worse. The "Do Not Call" list has been around a long time, but it doesn't deter crooks -- the most it does is make it clear they're crooks who are blatantly flaunting the rules.

In November 2017, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced new rules that allow telephony providers to block some connections that appear to be robocalls before they get to end users. It's a welcome move, but not a complete solution. According to Jim McEachern, a senior technology consultant at the communication industry standards body ATIS: "It's a worthwhile thing to be doing, but it's not the be-all and end-all. The catch is that if you start blocking numbers that have [certain properties], then the robocallers will just spoof different numbers."

The FCC allowed telecom companies to block calls from:

That should put a dent in robocalls for a while, but the scammers will adapt. McEachern says that the Canadian Radio-Television & Telecommunications Commission put in such rules some years ago; they helped, but hardly fixed the problem.

The FCC also acknowledged that the new rules could cause problems, notably blocking legitimate calls; the FCC recommended that providers come up with schemes for convenient reporting and resolution of such difficulties. Some of the FCC commissioners also were concerned with the provision allowing providers to charge for blocking. Verizon has been charging $3 USD per month for a robocall blocking service since June 2017, though other companies like T-Mobile and AT&T have so far offered blocking services for free.

In addition, fraudulent robocalls are only part, if a big part, of the problem, but end users also get unwanted calls from banks, debt collectors, and other financial institutions. There's been disagreement over whether such organizations have the right to call without consent, or continue to call when they've been told to cease and desist.

The FCC has been cracking down on robocallers on the basis of existing regulations. In August 2017, the agency fined Philip Roesel and his company Best Insurance Contracts INC more than $82 million USD for making a total of 21.5 million robocalls, in violation of the Truth In Caller ID Act. Roesel's company was making hundreds of thousands of calls a month, riding on unassigned phone numbers and spoofed caller ID information.

Along with the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) is fighting robocalls, having initiated a new information-sharing initiative with telecoms in August 2017. It's nothing radical; the FTC merely sends consumer complaints about obnoxious phone calls to the telecoms to make sure everyone has the list of flagged phone numbers the FTC is constantly collecting.

More imaginatively, the FTC has also run a series of "Robocall Challenges," awarding thousands of dollars in prize money to projects like call-blocking apps. Popular anti-robocalling services like "RoboKiller" and "NomoRobo" both came out of the FTC challenges. Such apps often collect blacklists of robocalling numbers for blocking -- but many also have a mechanism to pre-answer suspicious calls before they ring through, assessing the voiceprint of the person in the recording, or the tricks the scam call is using to try to game the system, then enhancing their protection accordingly.

Block lists are a wall approach, a dimwit defense that just begs to be circumvented. ATIS has been working with the Internet Engineering Task Force, a standards body, on a smarter approach. The goal is to create interoperable standards that can be adopted by all mobile and VoIP calling services to do cryptographic digital call signing, so calls can be validated as originating from a legitimate source, and not a spoofed robocall system.

The scheme is built aroud "Secure Telephony Identity Revisited (STIR)" and "Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs (SHAKEN)" frameworks. They're based on digital certificates using public-key cryptography. STIR defines the construction and transmission of a digital signature for an outgoing call, while SHAKEN defines the security protocol using STIR.

The idea is that telephony service providers will have private and public encryption keys. On receiving an outgoing call, a provider will validate the call, then send a digital certificate, encrypted with the provider's private key. At the receiving end, SHAKEN uses the provider's public key and the certificate to validate the call. SHAKEN can't be faked by spooked calls; it's now in testing.

The main problem is that SHAKEN can't be used on landlines with older signaling protocols. It is a step in the right direction, however, and everyone realizes the problem will have to be addressed one step at a time. The will seems to be there. McEachern says: "It's in everyone's interest to figure this out. We're getting to the point where the consumer doesn't trust the telephone network, and that's bad for everyone."

ED: I long ago decided the phone network was a necessary evil. I turned off the ringer on my phone, and almost never pick up unless I'm expecting a call. When I do pick it up, most of the time it's spam. I find it absurd that the phone isn't just another facility on my PC, like email, where it's under much better control. I also don't like having to pay a surcharge for the phone; I don't for email, that's part of my ISP service, and I value email much more than the phone. I'm drifting towards a purely digital solution with Google Voice & Skype, but that may not be easy to achieve. I'll see.



* AMAZON DOES HEALTHCARE? Online retail giant Amazon.com is moving into the US healthcare system, having recently decided to peddle pharmaceuticals -- to then link up with two other giants, holding company Berkshire Hathaway and financial firm Morgan Chase, in a joint venture to provide healthcare for their million-plus employees. As discussed by an article from HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW ("What Could Amazon's Approach to Health Care Look Like?" by Robert S. Huckman , 6 February 2018), the entry of the aggressive and relentlessly innovative Amazon into the discouraging swamp of the US healthcare system offers possibilities for improvement.

Skeptics suggest that Amazon, a newcomer to healthcare, won't be able to budge the bloated and inert US medical sector. Optimists, of course, see no cause to be so pessimistic. The alliance between Amazon, Berkshire Hathaway, and Morgan Chase has deep pockets, and a lot of business expertise. More significantly, Amazon has a near-fanatical dedication to customer satisfaction -- not a mindset deeply in evidence in the US healthcare sector -- and Amazon customers are, by and large, indeed satisfied.

The company has focused on a number of successful strategies and tools to achieve that goal. First, Amazon has made transactions with customers seamless and reliable. In 2005, the company introduced "Amazon Prime", a scheme in which customers could get two-day delivery on products for a set yearly fee. Before then, customers had to juggle shipments to save costs; it was a pain for customers, it was a pain for Amazon. Prime, by establishing an "all you can eat" model, encouraged customer loyalty -- enhanced by offering perks, such as an "Amazon channel" video download service, providing a selection of video series and movies.

In 2007, Amazon similarly introduced "AmazonFresh", which provides same-day delivery of groceries in certain big cities. Amazon could bring the same convenience to healthcare, cutting through medical bureaucracy to make patients feel the system is serving them, not treating them like pigs at the trough. AmazonFresh raises the possibility of Amazon providing same-day delivery of prescriptions as well.

Amazon's acquisition of Whole Foods has also given the firm a "bricks & mortar" outlet chain that could offer basic health care services, like those provided by CVS MinuteClinic or Walgreens. Those precedents suggest that Amazon wouldn't be breaking any new ground in this respect, but Amazon would certainly be competitive, and likely to up the game. Primary health care is the least expensive part of the healthcare system, but has the biggest payoff.

Second, Amazon has mastered the art of passive data capture -- keeping close track of what its customers buy, while asking them for only the most essential data. Privacy advocates don't like the way Amazon tracks customers, but the customers usually don't mind; Amazon uses the data to give them better service, and knows better than to misuse the data. The company's new Amazon Go store in Seattle extends passive data capture into the offline world. Customers swipe their phones on entry, with cameras and other sensors keeping track of what they pick up; they just walk out the door, and are automatically billed.

Consider applying the same thinking to healthcare. A patient could simply walk into a clinic, swiping a phone on entry, with the visit carefully recorded and assessed; there's no need to write up a report, the system keeps track of everything, with the doctor and patient able to retrieve an automatically-generated report at the conclusion of the visit. In a hospital, tracking the movement of patients could show occupancy level and utilization of operating rooms -- data useful for long-term management, or for daily scheduling of staff work and patient appointments.

That leads to data analysis, the third element that Amazon can bring to healthcare. The company not only knows what each customer buys, it also knows how customers make their purchases: What purchases are difficult? Which ones are straightforward? If there's a difficulty, where's the bottleneck? Amazon will naturally be able to acquire comprehensive data on individual patients -- medical history, genome, relevant personal habits -- and just as naturally be able to pick out patterns from its customer base.

The fourth element follows the third in turn: the company's Zen ability to leverage work conducted for its own business into a customer business. The best-known example of this was the creation of Amazon's cloud computing unit, Amazon Web Services (AWS). At a 2003 strategic retreat at Amazon, company executives suggested that, having developed information technology (IT) systems for its own use, was presented with a opportunity to provide the same services, using cloud computing, to smaller and younger internet companies on a "pay-by-use" basis.

The scheme was attractive to internet startups because they not only didn't have to set up their own in-house IT systems, they didn't have to pay for anything more than they needed. AWS, while not Amazon's biggest money-maker, does a boom business. One of the big problems with US healthcare is the lack of standardization and interoperability of patient records; not only could Amazon impose standards on the industry, but could by the exact same coin also provide IT services that healthcare providers would find more attractive than trying to handle such by themselves.

What was particularly intriguing about Amazon's jump into cloud services was that, at the outset, the company did not have any more than a general notion of exactly what services customers needed. Amazon talked to the customers, the customers explained what they wanted, with Amazon then tailoring its services accordingly. Amazon is in much the same position relative to healthcare. The company has no real experience in the sector; all the company's executives have at present is a set of ideas to try.

That may end up being a prescription for failure; but it's at least as easy to think it may be a revolution, long past due, for America's dysfunctional healthcare system. How matters play out promises to be interesting.



* UNDERSTANDING AI (14): Augmented reality appears to be another wide-open frontier for AI technology. Mobile apps like Snap, a messaging app, and the interactive game Pokemon Go pioneered widespread use of AR, but they only hinted at what might be made of it. AR's advocates see it as transformational, turning the internet into an experience accessed through a computer or smartphone display, into an integrated flow of data in the course of one's daily activities -- with AR devices offering capabilities such as real-time translation and facial recognition.

Big tech firms are only getting warmed up to AR. Google and Apple have launched AR software-development kits, hoping to encourage developers to build AR-infused apps to run on their platforms. Google got too far ahead of the learning curve with Glass, which flopped commercially; the company backtracked, but did not give up on the technology. Microsoft has developed a VR headset, named "HoloLens", but it is an expensive niche product. Facebook and Apple are believed to be planning offerings of their own. So far AR hasn't been a big winner, but nobody is discounting its long-term potential.

Another frontier that has big promise, but hasn't yet taken off, is autonomous vehicles. Tech firms are cruising the roads to build up proprietary road datasets to support robocars, while using computer vision to allow cars to recognize signs, other cars, and obstacles. Given that the global car market flies at an altitude of about $10 trillion USD, it's no wonder there's so much interest -- and AI developed for cars is likely to have a wide range of other applications, in drones and other robot systems.

Different companies are taking their own approaches. China's Baidu is working on a robocar operating system, following the model of Google's Android for mobile devices; it's unclear how Baidu plans to make money at it. Alphabet has its own robocar effort, as do Uber, Tesla, and a number of startups. Established carmakers, on the defensive, are investing as well, though seems Apple has scaled back its car ambitions.

The push into robocars is just another example of how tech firms see AI as an enabling technology across the board. The big tech firms are so committed to AI that Alphabet, Apple, Microsoft, and others are now developing their own "AI chips" -- instead of buying them from silicon vendors like NVidia, which currently owns the AI chip market, the company's hardware being used in a wide range of AI-oriented projects. In developing their own hardware, Alphabet, Apple, and the others are faced with the "standards dilemma": do they try to keep their hardware proprietary to keep competitors from getting an edge off their work, or do they attempt to establish standards that will boost the market as a whole?

An inclination to keep the hardware proprietary leads to the question of if big tech will grab more power by taking a lead in AI. They've got the mass, skills, and money to take a domineering lead -- Google having been particularly aware of that fact, getting in early, pioneering applications of AI technology, and obtaining a pool of talent. At the same time earlier revolutions, like the personal computer revolution of the 1980s, led to the ascent of new players, like Apple, that were more agile than and out-maneuvered the existing giants, like IBM.

There does seem to be an understanding among the giants that trying to create a walled garden in the AI world won't be to anyone's benefit over the longer run. Along with publishing papers, many companies today make their machine-learning software libraries open source, available to rivals and independent developers. Google's library, TensorFlow, is particularly popular. Facebook has open-sourced two of its libraries, Caffe2 and Pytorch.

Open-sourcing has a benevolent aspect, but it's also enlightened self-interest, ensuring that the libraries get a lot of debugging. The publicity is all for the good as well. There are concerns that the owners of the libraries will start charging for them down the road; but there's no big concern over it. Everybody involved is so busy trying to stay on the leading edge in the present to worry too much about a future that's too open-ended right now to predict. That, of course, ends up being a worry in itself. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (4): The Consitution starts with a memorable preamble that eloquently distills the motives for its creation:


We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.


It wasn't just an exercise in eloquence; it flatly stated that the authority of the Constitution was derived from the citizens of all the United States. Although none of the states conducted referendums for approval, the people of the states voted for the delegates to the conventions, and a number of states relaxed their voting restrictions to increase the pool of voters. No state limited voting rights beyond the restrictions normal to that state.

While the Articles of Confederation had defined the central government as deriving its powers, such as they were, from the states, the Preamble of the Constitution made no mention of the states. State legislators were perfectly aware that they had been bypassed. In Virginia, Patrick Henry had zeroed in on the phrase "We the People" and the absence of reference to "states" to proclaim: "This government is not a Virginian, but an American government."

That was exactly correct, the Preamble having gone on from that to proclaim "a more perfect Union" -- not a confederacy of sovereign states, but truly a "United States", under the direction of a central government. The model in mind was the union of England and Scotland into Great Britain in 1707. Advocates of the new government, labeling themselves "Federalists", reassured doubters that the states would not simply disappear, instead becoming building blocks of an American union of states, the states retaining significant rights.

However, although the Federalists didn't emphasize it, they never tried to conceal or deny the fact that the Constitution included no provision allowing a state to withdraw from the United States. During the proceedings of the New York convention, skeptics of the new order had tried to install an escape hatch, seeking the right to secede if the new order proved unsatisfactory. After impassioned debate, with Alexander Hamilton leading the Federalist camp, the provision for secession was trounced -- the New York convention deciding to ratify on the assurance that the state's suggestions for amendments be fully considered.

Ratification was to be all-or-nothing; there could not be "a more perfect Union" if a state could arbitrarily leave in a snit. If a state wanted to leave, it would have to be with the assent of the Union. As reported in the papers, the attitude of Hamilton and John Jay, who was also involved in the New York convention, was that "a reservation of a right to withdraw ... was inconsistent with the Constitution, and was no ratification."

* In any case, the Preamble went on to establish the "mission statement" for the new United States, which was to "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity ... " This was only superficially like the mission statement of the Articles of Confederation, with the new government having a much less limited set of objectives:

It must be emphasized that, at the outset, the Constitution rested heavily on the concept of "States' Rights". While the Federal government called the shots on the actions for the United States as a collective, the ability of the central government to intervene in the internal affairs of the individual states was very limited. The states would never have agreed to the union had it not been so.

The Preamble, again, was a mission statement; it did not articulate any rights or responsibilities -- and was indeed not at all specific, being declarations of very broad principles open to interpretation. It has been invoked to this day in support of multiple principles in conflict with each other. It has never had much legal standing, though apparently it has been cited by the judiciary in rejecting ridiculously frivolous lawsuits.

The specific rights and responsibilities were outlined by the Articles that made up the rest of the Constitution, as well as the Amendments attached to it. It did, however, provide the underlying basis for the entirety of the Constitution, through assertion of its validity. For that reason, the Preamble is sometimes referred to as the "Establishment Clause".

The greatest significance of the Preamble lies in its first three words: "We the People". For all the grand reverence placed on the Framers in later times, the document did not begin with: "We the Framers". The men who created the Constitution saw themselves as agents of "the People", executing their will -- and though all those men had agendas, there is no reason to doubt they were sincere in their motives.

This distinction is not at all trivial, since it means that the question of: "What did the Framers intend?" -- is, if not irrelevant, less significant than the question of: "How does the Constitution serve the People?" Today, the Framers are all dead; but the collective of the people endures. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ANOTHER MONTH: As discussed by an article from THEVERGE.com ("Dreamscape Immersive's ALIEN ZOO Takes Guests To An Interstellar Jurassic Park" by Bryan Bishop, 23 February 2018), a Los Angeles startup named Dreamscape Immersive is now pushing forward to construct a public virtual reality entertainment system, the initial offering being titled ALIEN ZOO. It's now playing at the Westfield Mall in the city.

Visitors enjoy the experience in groups of up to six -- $20 USD a head in the pilot outlet, with tickets current sold out weeks in advance. After checking in, they're each given a head-mounted display, along with small trackers on hands and feet. Having kitted up, they enter the virtual world to stand on a platform that will take them on a 12-minute trip through an alien zoo on an orbital station, seemingly floating through an exotic landscape while they interact with, or defend themselves against, the inhabitants of the zoo.


ALIEN ZOO is the first product of the company, which was founded by former Disney Imagineering chief creative executive Bruce Vaughn, along with Hollywood producer and former DreamWorks president Walter Parkes. Their idea was to combine VR with physical sets, props, and sensations to give a holodeck-like experience. The wind blows on the visitors, while the platform rumbles as it "flies" through the air.

Dreamscape Immersive is not the only company working on such schemes, but the company is one of the most ambitious, seeing the possibility of outlets everywhere. While the past history of "digital theme parks" is not encouraging, it's simply not that expensive to set up an outlet, particularly as off-the-shelf VR gear gets cheaper. The active area is only about 18 square meters (200 square feet) in size, and the props to support the experience are not expensive -- a fan to produce wind, for example. Any bare-bones mall outlet can handle it.

Of course, it might be nice to have a TV observing the active area, so visitors can amuse themselves watching recordings of what they were actually doing during their visit to an imagined world. It doesn't require a permanent facility, any outlet with a big enough room will do the job.

Dreamscape Immersive officials want to expand the zoo, bringing in more zoo exhibits, meaning a visitor will only see a portion of them on any one visit. According to Parkes: "Think of it like the wild animal park, and right now 40 percent of it's built, and they're bringing people in -- but soon there's going to be the polar enclosure. The zoo is going to be that: build out other sections, so you could come back and take another route."

The company is planning more outlets, and is also working on other VR experiences. Again, Dreamscape Immersive may end up being just another novelty, to be discarded once the initial thrill wears off. Then again, it might become a feature of natural history museums and the like, as with IMAX theaters, with producers turning out new VR experiences on a regular basis.

* Going from there, regarding adventures with my XBOX 360 / Kinect game machine last month, I finally got my copy of DISNEYLAND ADVENTURES. As mentioned, it provides a virtual Disneyland that players can explore, with "mini-games" -- 18 in all -- taking the place of the rides.

It took me a little while to get comfortable with the game. One of my biggest problems was figuring out how to exit properly, so I didn't have to simply turn off the XBOX -- to then be compelled to go through the time-consuming game setup again. I finally realized it was the standard Kinect alert: stand straight up, hold my left arm out at an angle, and a command screen will interrupt the game, allowing me to leave. Incidentally, I also hadn't realized that Kinect uses voice commands; I've been playing with them a little bit, but I need to understand the command system better.

The running around Disneyland is amusing, it's a fairly-well developed virtual world -- though it's troublesome to keep from bumping into people. Yes, they do get out of my way when I bump into them, but it still feels rude. However, the running around amounts to a game for kids, with them having encounters with Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck, collecting tokens as they do so. Although I may explore the grounds further, it's not much fun for adults.

I was after the mini-games anyway. I figured out that, after going through setup, I could hold both arms up and get a menu, one selection being a map that could take me to particular attractions and their associated mini-games. When I bought the game, I was primarily curious about the Space Mountain attraction -- which is, for those not familiar with it, an indoor roller-coaster that goes through dizzying starfields. It's a modest coaster, but the props are spectacular.

I figured the mini-game would be something like space surfing. It was no disappointment, though I actually got to ride a space scooter through warp gates, asteroid fields, and space battles. The only problem is that it's not very arduous; I need to check out some of the other mini-games to see if they give me a better workout. With 18 games, that should give me a lot to explore. It seems I can use voice commands to select a destination or a game; I'll have to give that a try.

Space Mountain

Incidentally, the only avatars available in the game are, not surprisingly, kids. That made me uncomfortable; I'm an old bachelor, and us folk know to be nice to kids, but keep them at arm's distance -- for good reason, even an appearance of impropriety with kids can be very bad news. I found I was more uncomfortable with the boy avatar than the girl, so I cooked up a cute little blonde girl, dressed in black stretch pants and a light sweater. I found out that had a feminist angle, that it was something of a mind shift for an old guy to be taking the role of little girl.

I had been running the games off of the XBOX CD drive, but it took too long to load installments of the game. I plugged in an 8GB flash microdrive and installed the DISNEYLAND ADVENTURES game on it. It was a bit tricky to figure out how to install; the XBOX hand controller is the tool for the job, one simply highlights the game icon on the XBOX display, then presses the "X" button on the controller to get to a menu that includes an INSTALL selection. Game loading time got a lot faster. Incidentally, I still have to keep the game disk in the DVD drive, no doubt as an anti-piracy measure.

I decided to put the default KINECT ADVENTURES game on the flash drive, too, but there wasn't enough space on the flash drive. I figured I'd get a 16GB USB 3 flash drive; the XBOX ports are only USB 2, but I thought it would be best to make completely sure the flash drive wasn't any bottleneck in drive performance. However, I finally realized that I'd bought a set of 16GB USB 3 flash drives a few months back for no other reason than they were cheap, and seemed like a nice thing to have. I plugged one of them into the XBOX USB port, and installed both games on it. Hey, I figured they'd come in handy, and they did.

The XBOX 360 / Kinect is dated technology. It'll keep me happy for a while, but eventually I'll have to move up to something more interesting. Virtual reality games? I'll see what happens. Something to look forward to.

* February is, of course, a short month, which means I have to scramble to get things done. Late in the month, I looked in the cabinet under my bathroom sink, and found water seeping into it. After puzzling for a while, I finally realized that the toilet next to it was seeping into the floorboards.

Oh dear, I'd been going around with that toilet for over a quarter century -- some problem would crop up, and I'd have a challenge to figure out how to fix it, the fix not always being obvious. Now I was worried about flooring repairs, too, which was certain to be real pain.

Anyway, the first thing to do was get a new toilet -- so I went to Home Depot and bought a Kohler Cimmaron elevated toilet. Next problem was getting it installed, a problem aggravated by the fact that NE Colorado had just had a cold snap, and plumbers were out of the office, fixing busted pipes. I was having problems finding a plumber, and the ongoing seepage was only going to make matters worse the longer the problem went on.

I did get a plumber named Kyle from Ace Hi Plumbing in Loveland to come out on Friday afternoon. Along with the seepage, there was the problem that the base on which the old toilet was mounted was broken, and it wasn't possible to bolt the new toilet to the base. Kyle managed to brush my worries away: all he had to was mount a new "step-up" base on top of the old one, and then everything was right with the world. I was back up and running by the evening. The seepage didn't seem to have caused much damage, and would dry out.

I was thinking the whole fiasco would cost me over a thousand dollars, but it came in under $450 USD, so I was happy in the end. The Kohler toilet is functionally much the same as the old one -- it's a gravity flush toilet, an elderly technology -- but with small refinements. It has a more modern float mechanism, but I'd installed much the same in the old toilet in the course of repairs. It has a new "canister" valve mechanism in place of the troublesome old flapper valve, inclined to leaking and improper closure; I'll have to look it over to figure out how it works. Most significantly, it had a smaller reservoir tank, meaning less water per flush, the bowl being clearly designed to be more efficient.

Kohler Cimmaron toilet

So how did it get a strong flush with less water? As it turned out, the old bowl just had a round hole in the bottom, but the new toilet had a sluice channel -- which made flushing more straightforward, and in fact wouldn't work well with much more water. It didn't flush quite strongly enough at first, but I screwed the float up to ride higher in the tank, and also discovered that it's throttled, I hold down the handle for longer to get a stronger flush. Ah, the things that excite a home-owner! In any case, I'm glad to be rid of that troublesome old toilet.

* As for the Real Fake News for February, it began with an intense discussion in the Senate over raising the government debt limit, with Senate Democrats finally agreeing to a long-term deal that will keep the government running for two years. The Democrats were accused of "caving in" and not holding out for a deal on immigration -- but clearly Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer doesn't like the idea of using a government shutdown to get what he wants. Such extortion would reflect badly on the Democrats, alienating moderate voters. The moderate voters are the ones to worry about: the sorehead Left has no sensible alternative to voting Democrat.

The budget deal was played up as a victory for bipartisanship, but then the Republicans took a hard line on immigration, as did the White House -- with President Trump making threatening noises about deporting the "Dreamers", illegal immigrants brought to the USA as children and raised here. The tough rhetoric of GOP members of Congress may have been something of a show, setting the stakes high at the outset of the game. Yes, the Democrats are clearly in a disadvantaged position in the contest, but nobody really knows how the immigration debate is going to play out.

In the meantime, the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the 2016 US election continued, in the face of attempts by the White House and House Republicans to discredit it. They don't seem to be working, and were overshadowed when Mueller indicted 13 Russians on 16 February.

However, that event was overshadowed itself by a massacre at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on 14 February. The school was attacked by 19-year-old Nikolas Jakob Cruz, who went through the halls with an AR-15 assault rifle, shooting indiscriminately, with 17 killed and 14 wounded. At first, the national reaction was business as usual: outrage, followed by the usual declarations of useless principle by politicians, with no push for action.

The politicians did not factor in the kids from the school, who began a public campaign for tougher gun control laws, pointedly embarrassing politicians who echoed the National Rifle Association's (NRA) inflexible line against gun control. President Trump waffled on the issue, talking about gun control, then attacking the idea, and even proposing that high-school teachers be armed -- an idea which did not go over well with most high-school teachers.

The gun-control debate in Congress has, to no surprise, settled into yet another impasse, but the Parkland kids haven't shut up, with public outrage growing against the NRA. Right-wing trolls attempted to claim the kids were actually "paid actors", which raised hoots of derision, and led to the removal of a video by conspiracy-monger Alex Jones from YouTube. After years of going nowhere, the gun-control debate is now acquiring fearsome momentum. The issue will be hot in the upcoming mid-term elections.

Trump was also fumbling with embarrassments, such as an authenticated $130,000 USD payoff to a porn star named Stormy Daniels, to keep her from blabbing about an affair with Trump. One Karen McDougal, a Playboy playmate, came forward with a tale of another affair with Trump. Such things are by no means a surprise at this late date; indeed, we've got so used to them that most of us just shrug.

A survey of historians released during the month ranked Trump as America's most insignificant president, bumping up James Buchanan -- William Henry Harrison also ranked low, but that was because he only lived a month in office. Barack Obama jumped up to 8th place, no doubt continuing to look better by contrast with his successor. The poll was something of a shrug as well: it's obvious the Trump, to the extent he will be remembered, will be seen in dead last place in presidential ranking by future generations. That doesn't concern either Trump or his fans, but over the long run that doesn't matter.

In the present, Trump's approval rating hovers in the range of 35% to 40%, his disapproval rate in the range of 55% to 60%. That's reached a steady state, the moving average being flat, and likely to remain so. His supporters aren't going to budge, and neither will his detractors. That is actually encouraging for his detractors, because an effective 3:2 ratio in their favor in a majoritarian society says who's going to be politically holding the cards.

Underlining the disorderliness of events, late in February the US Supreme Court refused to annul a lower-court ruling that blocked the Trump White House from deporting the Dreamers for the time being. It appears that SCOTUS simply wanted to make sure the White House would not be able to pressure Congress by holding the Dreamers hostage, giving Congress breathing room to come to an agreement on a matter in need of legislative clarification. That was followed on the last day of the month by the news that Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law and one of his advisors, had been denied a security clearance -- a great embarrassment to the White House, if not to Trump, who knows no embarrassment.

The circus in the White House is a bit of a distraction. It's not so much that Trump is a bad leader, as he is the "un-president", no leader at all. The US has been decapitated, with a disorderly Right-wing mob haphazardly determining policy. The real issue all along has been the rise of extremism in the Republican Party, and the struggle against its pernicious effects on national policy. There being nothing much else for a bystander to do, the inclination is to tune it out. It is difficult, however, to think nothing of consequence is going on. Events have a momentum, it is just impossible to know where they are taking us.