may 2017 / 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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* US GOVERNMENT DOES SCIENCE: While the Trump Administration boldly proposed slashing "non-essential" government functions, notably those that involve scientific research, Congress was not happy about that idea -- and on the first of May, announced that a US government budget deal had been reached, averting a government shutdown. The Trump Administration had wanted to cut funding for:

According to an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("How Science Fares In The US Budget Deal", 1 May 2017), the deal headed off the major cuts to Federal science agencies that Trump had requested -- while a few, including the NIH and NASA science programs, actually got substantial increases. Overall, Federal spending on research and development (R&D) will grow by 5%, to $1.55 billion USD, split roughly evenly between military and civilian R&D. In more detail:

The irony of attempts to slash the science budget is that, if it were cut to the bone, it would have only a modest effect on US government spending, which breaks down as follows:

    percent   category

    24%       social security
    15%       medicare
    15%       defense
    13%       health
    13%       income security
     6%       interest on debt
     5%       veterans benefits
     6%       other
     3%       education

It has been neatly said that the US government is a social insurance program with an army; the "other" category, into which science and regulation falls, is a minor component of government spending. It would be difficult to reduce the budget by more than a few percent by completely killing off the EPA and such, and even more difficult to show that the downstream effects of doing so wouldn't end up costing the country more than was saved.

Although President Trump had been conducting his business in a dignified fashion during April, Congress's denial of his budget request set him off -- all the more so because it denied funds for his wall on the Mexican border, and didn't cut funds for Planned Parenthood. Trump tweeted that a government shutdown might be in order in September, when the budget comes up again.

It is beyond comprehension how Trump could contemplate shutting down his own government, an act much like putting a gun to his own head and taking himself hostage. It is difficult to even think of how he could procedurally do it. Tell everyone not to come into work? Suspend funding? GOP Senator John McCain of Arizona commented that Trump should "think twice before he tweeted". Good luck with that.



* POWER VACUUM (3): A big problem with aggressive electrification schemes for the developing world is that they tend to be heavily reliant on fossil fuels. Yes, that's the cheapest way to go over the short run, while replacing fires and wood stoves that are notorious contributors to local air pollution. However, as China has found out from over-use of coal, the end results may leave much to be desired, as even the poorest countries are beginning to realize. Anita Marangoly George of the World Bank comments: "Why lock [poor countries] into choices that will turn Lagos and Nairobi into Delhi and Beijing?"

As a result, donors are inclined to fund power projects that are green as well as profitable. Some worry that a focus on renewables will saddle poor countries with pricey and intermittent power. For example, a $24 million USD utility-scale solar-energy project in Rwanda generates electricity at 24 cents per kilowatt-hour; industry executives say they could produce it at half the cost using natural gas.

Even Bill Gates -- founder of Microsoft and now a philanthropist -- has his doubts about renewables as the full solution for the developing world. On 22 February 2016, he and his wife Melissa published an open letter that stated solar power and batteries are not enough to meet Africa's energy needs. However, Africa has plenty of possible sources of fairly clean and reliable energy: geothermal in east Africa; hydro in Ethiopia and central Africa; and natural gas in several countries, including Mozambique and Tanzania. Unlike wind and solar power, these can be used for "baseload" power that operates constantly. Gates said: "If you want to attract manufacturing jobs, you can't have intermittent energy. If you want energy at less than 10 cents per kilowatt-hour, that's not some battery connected up to intermittent forces."

Marangoly George says that regional transmission networks are an important part of the solution; if power can be shared over long distances, green energy is more dependable, since some power will always be generated someplace in the network. She adds that in recent wholesale power auctions in South Africa, wind and solar power have been as cheap as other sources of energy. Upcoming auctions in Zambia and Senegal will show if green energy is getting cheaper there as well.

While Gates has a good point to make, there is still a case to be made for the "small is beautiful" approach. The reality is that power grid operators -- who focus on cities and businesses -- and entrepreneurs -- who focus on "off-grid" power to poorer households in rural areas, individually or via neighbourhood "mini-grids" -- are not really working at odds, instead addressing different components of the national energy markets. There are two different but related problems, with different but related solutions.

The entrepreneurs are doing well. M-Kopa -- "M" for "mobile", "kopa" meaning "borrowed", the firm operating in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania -- and Off-Grid Electric -- in Tanzania and Rwanda -- both offer packages of appliances, such as a few LED lights, a mobile-phone charger, and a radio, all powered by a solar panel and a battery. Payments are made by mobile phone. An upfront cost of $150 to $500 USD would be out of reach for most of their customers, so the firms charge in instalments, which are spread out enough to bring the monthly cost below that of buying kerosene for lamps.

User default rates are negligible; if payments stop, the service is disconnected remotely by disabling the box that links the panel to the appliances. Once the loan is paid off, there are no further payments, until a customer invests in a bigger system with more appliances, such as a flat-screen TV. M-Kopa says it is introducing new customers to electricity at the rate of 500 a day.

The trick, the entrepreneurs say, is to convince clients they are buying appliances, not electricity, and to make the appliances ever more sleek and efficient, so that they can operate on the low voltage generated by rooftop solar panels. The next step is to provide low-energy refrigerators that could help customers open small restaurants or grocery stores. Xavier Helgesen, the boss of Off-Grid, says that he tries to reassure the grid operators that he's not a competitor, telling them: "We target your non-profitable customers."

M-Kopa and Off-Grid would have to be bringing in tens of thousands of new customers a day to make a dent in the dark 1.1 billion; but they do show that Africans want electricity, and will pay for it if the financing is adapted to low levels of income. They also show how wireless communications technology can impose discipline on an undisciplined market. These are lessons that the big grid operators might well consider, as they struggle with what might be otherwise seen as an overwhelming task. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (15): In another footnote, an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Remember, Remember", 5 November 2016), showed how Vladimir Putin, if not another Stalin, nonetheless does not appreciate those who don't toe the line. His latest target is Memorial, the country's most respected human-rights group, set up in the 1980s to commemorate victims of Stalin's terror.

On 29 October 2016, thousands of people queued in a park opposite the headquarters of the agency once known as the KGB to read out the names of some of those whom Stalin had executed. The park features a monument to those victims, a large stone brought from the Solovetsky Islands, site of one of the first Soviet labour camps. Volunteers handed out slips of paper with names printed on them, giving a bit of the history of the names, and of their deaths at the hands of the state.

This somber recollection has been held for ten years, but Arseny Roginsky, Memorial's chairman, said he had never seen so many people. The weather was cold and damp, but people were there from mid-morning to well into the night. The names they had time to read were only a tiny fraction of those killed by Stalin. In the peak years of 1937 and 1938, according to Memorial's figures, at least 30,000 people were executed in Moscow, and 700,000 throughout the country.

Memorial is possibly the most successful civic institution created during Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika reforms. Among the founders was Andrei Sakharov, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist and human-rights activist. Another member of the original group was Roginsky, a historian jailed in 1981 for publishing a "samizdat" almanac named "Pamyat (Memory)". By the time of his release in 1985, the word "Pamyat" had become the name of an anti-semitic nationalist movement, so the English name "Memorial" was adopted instead.

In the wars in Chechnya beginning in the 1990s, Memorial investigated and denounced abuses by the Russian army, including killing civilians and torturing detainees. Journalists came to regard the group as a source of information; a few of the group were murdered by nationalist thugs. However, until recently, the group was allowed to pursue its historical activities without legal interference.

Now Putin's government has declared Memorial a "foreign agent" -- once a Stalinist term for traitors, now a legal classification intended to suppress annoying civil-society groups. The foreign-agents law was introduced in 2012; it required any organization receiving money from abroad and engaging in "political activity" to register. Early on, none did; some did get money from foreign donors, which they acknowledged, but they didn't see their efforts as "political".

Roginsky says: "We understand political activity as taking part in a competition for political power." The Kremlin adopted a broader definition, saying that any attempt to shape public opinion or influence government policy was "political activity". In the case of Memorial this included statements objecting to the war in Ukraine and the killing of Boris Nemtsov, an opposition leader; and even opposing the law on foreign agents.

That the Kremlin has labeled Memorial an enemy is not surprising. Unable to deliver economic growth, Putin needs to cook up reasons to keep the population in a constant state of mobilization against external threats; Russia, so the fable goes, is surrounded by enemies, and only Putin can defend the Motherland. History is being re-sanitized, with the crimes of Stalin's regime and the failings of the Soviet regime in general being swept under the rug.

Russian liberals are not caving in easily; the more pressure the state applies to Memorial, the stronger is the counter-reaction. The past few years have seen the birth of a grassroots movement calling itself "last address". Volunteers erect plaques at the final known addresses of those who were arrested in the Stalin years and never returned. Although supported by Memorial, it has no formal organization that can be shut down.

Roginsky says Memorial now faces three key tasks: "We must not let them kill us; we must retain our dignity; and we must carry on our work." The crowd of people reading the names of the dead, and spread of the plaques on Russian houses says Memorial is not down and out just yet.

* Anna Neistat, a Russian-born director at Amnesty International, writing in TIME Online ("Russia Has Overcome Repression Before" 26 December 2016), amplified on the theme of Memorial's efforts, saying:


... Today, Russia has again become a symbol of repression at home, and aggression and cynicism abroad, most recently through its support of Syria's relentless assault on civilians in Aleppo.

... Political, economic and social change was painful. Russians felt they were losing access to social benefits that they have always taken for granted: free health care, education, housing and guaranteed employment. The freedoms they had gained -- association, movement, assembly, press and many others -- could not entirely make up for this loss of stability.

Russians also had a keen sense of lost national pride, having gone from being a superpower to an isolated nation in economic crisis. In the early 2000s, Vladimir Putin's rhetoric of restoring security and bringing the country back to greatness quickly won hearts and minds of the majority of Russians disillusioned by a decade of a struggling democracy that many viewed as contrary to Russian values.

... There was almost no independent media left in the country and the intensity of state propaganda rivaled even the Soviet days. In recent years, leading international NGOs and foundations have been kicked out of the country. Russian NGOs have been labeled "foreign agents" and forced to close. Activists who dared to protest have ended up behind bars.

... The years immediately following the breakup of the USSR taught me that difficult times bring to light the courage and resilience of individuals and communities who make this change happen. I see it back home in Russia today, where despite the growing repression and daily threats, human-rights activists, lawyers and journalists continue their fight. Their stories are truly inspiring.

Despite having had their staff attacked, prosecuted and even murdered -- despite being branded a "foreign agent," slapped with hefty fines and subjected to an intense smear campaign by the Kremlin-sponsored media -- the human-rights center Memorial, one of the oldest Russian NGOs, continues its daily struggle to protect the victims of abuse. The authorities have not managed to silence the fearless journalists of NOVAYA GAZETA, one of the few remaining independent media outlets. Five of the paper's staff members have been killed, and others receive regular death threats and get physically attacked -- and yet they continue to expose corruption, lawlessness and egregious abuses by police and security officials, and cover some of the most sensitive issues, such as Russia's counterterrorism operations at home and the war in Syria.

I see the same courage and commitment in every place my work takes me. Under the bombs, behind bars, in hiding and in exile, incredible women and men refuse to give up. As I document, expose and support their struggle, I carry with me the memory of a short-lived, and yet in many ways irreversible, Russian spring.





* Space launches in April included:

-- 12 APR 17 / SHIJIAN 13 -- A Chinese Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1104 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "Shijian 13" experimental comsat into orbit. Shijian 13 was built by the China Academy of Space Technology, and had a launch mass of 4,600 kilograms. It carried a Ka-band communications payload, featuring 26 spot beams, to provide Internet connectivity on airliners and high-speed trains; the communications payload had the highest throughput of any comsat China had launched to that time, at up to 20 gigabits per second. Shijian 13 also demonstrated an electric station-keeping system and laser interconnects. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 110.5 degrees east longitude.

Cygnus freighter at ISS

-- 18 APR 17 / CYGNUS 7 (OA-7) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1511 UTC (local time + 4) to put the seventh operational "Cygnus" supply capsule, designated "OA-7", into space on an International Space Station support mission. Along with supplies and mission kit, the freighter also carried 38 Cubesats, including:

The booster was in the "401" configuration, with a 4-meter (13.1-foot) fairing, no solid rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

-- 20 APR 17 / SOYUZ ISS 50S (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 1713 UTC (next day local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 50S" AKA "Soyuz MS-04" crewed space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included Fyodor Yurchikin of the RKA (5th space flight) and Jack Fisher of NASA (1st space flight); the RKA left a seat empty, the Russians having decided to economize by reducing their staffing on the ISS. The Soyuz capsule took a direct-ascent trajectory to the station, docking with the ISS six hours after launch. They joined the "ISS Expedition 51" crew of commander Peggy Whitson of NASA, Thomas Pesquet of the ESA, and Oleg Novitskiy of the RKA.

Chinese modular space station

-- 20 APR 17 / TIANZHOU 1 -- A Long March 7 booster was launched at 1141 UTC (local time - 8) from the Chinese Wenchang launch center on Hainan Island to put the "Tianzhou 1" cargo freighter into orbit, with supplies and fuel for the Tiangong 2 space lab. It docked with the station two days later. It was the first Chinese freighter mission and heaviest Chinese spacecraft ever put into space, with a launch mass of about 13 tonnes (14 tons). It was a major step towards establishment of China's projected large modular space station.



* MITOCHONDRIAL GENOMES: As discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Why Do Our Cell's Power Plants Have Their Own DNA?" by Laurel Hamers, 18 February 2016), it is long been known that the cellular organelles known as "mitochondia", in charge of energy production, have their own genome, distinct from the much bigger cellular genome in our cell nucleus. It is believed that mitochondria were once independent cells that settled down to a symbiotic arrangement with their host cells.

Over time, the mitochondrial genome has shrunk. The nucleus now harbors the vast majority of the cell's genetic material -- even genes that help the mitochondria function. In humans, for instance, the mitochondrial genome contains just 37 genes, versus the 20,000-plus in the nucleus. The puzzle is, why are there any left at all? Defects in the mitochondrial genome can cause rare but crippling diseases that gradually destroy patients' brains, livers, hearts, and other key organs, hinting that we would be better off without mitochondrial DNA.

Iain Johnston, a biologist at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, and biologist Ben Williams of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, modeled the problem, mathematically comparing different hypotheses for the survival of the mitochondrial genome. They analyzed more than 2,000 different mitochondrial genomes from animals, plants, fungi, and protists such as amoebas. They built an evolutionary tree that traced the probabilities for loss of different genes and combinations of genes at particular points in time.

Mitochondria produce energy through a series of chemical reactions that pass electrons along a membrane. Key to this process is a series of protein complexes -- large protein globs that embed in the internal membrane of the mitochondria. All of the mitochondria's remaining genes help produce energy in some way, with the researchers finding that a gene was more likely to stick around if it created a protein that was central to one of these complexes. Genes responsible for more peripheral energy-producing functions, meanwhile, were more likely to be outsourced to the nucleus.

According to Johnston: "Keeping those genes locally in the mitochondria gives the cell a way to individually control mitochondria." Local control means the cell can more quickly and efficiently regulate energy production moment-to-moment in individual mitochondria, instead of having to make sweeping changes to the hundreds or thousands of mitochondria it contains. For instance, out-of-whack mitochondrion can be fixed individually rather than triggering a blanket, cell-wide response that might then throw something else off balance.

John Allen, a biologist at University College London not involved with the study, compares it to responding to a fire. If a single room in a large building goes up in flames, nobody phones the building manager to ask permission to put it out; they grab a fire extinguisher and put it out. Other structures in our cells could also benefit from this type of local control, but mitochondria, with their history as stand-alone cells, are the only ones with their own command center.

Johnston and Williams's model suggests other factors that might be important as well. For instance, genes that encode mitochondrial proteins that are hydrophobic, or water-repelling, are more likely to be made in the mitochondria. If these proteins are manufactured elsewhere in the cell, they can sometimes get stuck in transit, so it can be more efficient to produce them in the mitochondria.



* PROBING THE SOCIETY OF ANTS: As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Gene-Modified Ants Shed Light on How Societies Are Organized" by Natalie Angier, 23 January 2017), biologist Daniel Kronauer of Rockefeller University has loved insects, notably ants, from childhood. Now, he and his research team at the university spend all their working time investigating ants -- specifically assaying the biology and behavior of the clonal raider ant, Cerapachys biroi. They have gone so far as to manipulate the genome of these ants, to probe genetic basis for their social behavior, and how ant social systems work. Kronauer says: "Our ultimate goal is to have a fundamental understanding of how a complex biological system works. I use ants as a model to do this."

Kronauer sees ants in a colony as like cells in a multicellular organism, or like neurons in the brain: any one element amounts to little, but the organized collective is powerful. He says that the advantage to investigating ants is that "you can manipulate an ant colony in ways you can't easily do with a brain. It's very modular, and you can take it apart and put it back together again."

Gene Robinson, a honeybee expert and director of genomic biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, adds: "Social insect colonies are the quintessential complex system, and Daniel has developed a very powerful set of tools addressing big questions of how they operate, and how, in the absence of central control, local interactions can give rise to global patterns."

The researchers want to turn the clonal raider ant into a "model organism", like the familiar E. coli bacterium and Drosophila melanogaster fruitfly. These two organisms have proven of enormous value in the investigation how genes operate or body plans arise during development. In contrast, Kronauer sees the raider ant as providing an opportunity to explore, under controlled conditions, the origin and evolution of animal societies.

One of the keys to the usefulness of the raider ant as a lab animal is its adaptability; it's not fussy about living conditions. Kronauer says: "It's a 'weedy' species. That's true of a lot of model organisms -- they have a global distribution, they're good at invading disturbed habitats, and they're good at being raised in a lab."

To probe the social life of the raider ant, researchers can use a range of approaches. They knock out or edit ant genes, and see how the ants respond. They trace the workings of the ant brain radioactively-labeled neurochemicals. They measure ant movements by fractions of a millimeter as the insects walk over finely calibrated grids traced in ceramic. They overfeed the ants, and starve them; they mix and match ants of varying age, life experience, and transgenicity. They paint the ants in multiple colors, so individuals can be tracked.

Kronauer's been working with the ants for over five years now. There were problems early on, most significantly a mite infestation. Kronauer says: "It came out of nowhere and killed off 80% of the colonies. I went home and told my wife: we're done."

Now the operation is humming along with, well, antlike efficiency. Kronauer says his students and postdoctoral fellows designed everything from scratch: software, tracking devices, the incised mazes. He explains: "They're engineers, code writers, neuroscientists. Me, I'm just the guy who knows about ants."

Kronauer knows a great deal about ants, having spent years in the field investigating them, working with slave-making ants in Arizona and army ants in Costa Rica. However, he got frustrated with only being able to observe: "They move, you follow. You can't really do experiments." Doing experiments was problematic, since ants typically didn't thrive in the lab, producing colonies down the generations. Then he found a handful of papers on the obscure clonal raider ant, and realized he could start doing experiments.

The most familiar of the world's roughly 12,000 species of ants are the fully "eusocial" ants, in which many sterile female workers do all the chores, a single large queen lays all the eggs, and a smattering of male ants, or drones, supply the sperm. Clonal raider ants are different: there are no permanently designated workers and queens. Instead, all the ants in a colony switch back and forth from one role to the other.

About half the time, they behave like workers, gathering food for their young -- generally, by raiding the nests of other ants and stealing their larvae. The rest of the time, they go into queen mode and all colony members lay eggs together. Furthermore, there are no male raider ants: the eggs develop parthenogenetically, without sperm, creating phalanxes of genetically identical female clones. This flexible conduct and genetic uniformity are what makes the raider ant such a good test subject.

After sequencing the genome of the raider ant, the researchers found that it had an unusually large suite of one class of odorant receptor genes, suggesting that raider ants are even more dependent on smell than other ants. The researchers then used gene knockout techniques to eliminate that category of odorant receptors from some ants, then observed the results. While the knockout ants could find food, and indeed had healthy appetites, they became solitary, suggesting that the diversification and specialization of olfactory receptors were keys to the evolution of ant sociality.

The researchers have also exploring the biochemistry of caretaking, determining which signals prod ants to leave the nest and find food for their young. They believe that volatile pheromones exuded by newborn larvae stimulate the brains of adult ants to begin generating the hormone inotocin -- the ant's equivalent of oxytocin, well-known for its role in promoting nurturing behavior among mammals. For raider ants, an inotocin surge energizes the urge to venture forth and start plundering, and ants with the greatest number of inotocin-making neurons were the most energetic.

The social life of raider ants is highly regular, operating on a synchronized cycle: now everyone lays eggs, now the eggs hatch into larvae, now the adults shut down their ovaries and instead attend to the hungry young. In each state, they ants have chemical recognition cues to indicate they are in that state. Should an ant continue to lay eggs after everyone else has stopped, it will be dragged out of the nest by ants acting as police, and torn to pieces.

Why the harsh treatment for non-comformism? Kronauer compares the the police ants to the body's immune system, and the non-conformist ant to cancer: "An ant colony faces similar problems as a multicellular organism. You can't have components that don't respond to regulatory cues and start to replicate out of control."

Corina Tarnita, an associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University who has worked with termites and microbial communities, is very impressed with Kronauer's work: "His system is unbelievably promising for anyone who wants to study social behavior. You can ask, what are the basic ingredients, the elementary operations that nature has used repeatedly to produce societies -- whether you're talking about ants, slime molds, baboons, or even the very first human societies."



* POWER VACUUM (2): A survey of energy for the developing world was run here in 2010. A follow-up article from THE ECONOMIST ("Power To The Powerless", 27 February 2016) pointed out that of the over seven billion people on this planet, over a billion, about equivalent to the population of India, have no proper access to electric power. The biggest numbers of those in the "dark regions" without electricity are in rural southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In sub-Saharan Africa, although the number of people with access to power has increased over the past decades, population growth means that the number of people without power has been increasing faster. All of sub-Saharan Africa, excluding South Africa, uses less electricity than New York state.

A handful of entrepreneurs are trying to provide widespread access in the dark regions to clean, cheap energy with local power systems, metered and paid for by mobile phone. They are primarily focused on rooftop solar panels that charge a battery at night; they are targeting private customers in rural areas, who don't need a lot of electricity, and who have little prospect of being hooked up to the electrical grid. However, the innovative business models, marketing, and payment schemes also hold lessons for grid firms seeking to provide power to businesses and urban households.

Trying to extend grids in poor countries is difficult, governments and utilities lacking the money to make the investment in infrastructure. Customers are also part of the problem, in that they often don't want to pay for electricity. Customers who don't pay their mobile-phone bills will have their phones disconnected; electricity is harder to cut off, and easier to pirate. According to Michael Greenstone, an energy specialist at the University of Chicago: "The real threat to energy access is that energy is not treated as a private good, but as a right. And the problem with a right is that no one wants to pay for it."

There are efforts underway around the world to change such attitudes, using persuasion and technology. In parts of Delhi, India, a utility has encouraged women to convince neighbors to pay their bills in order to secure better service for all. Greenstone is part of a project, funded by the International Growth Centre -- a global research network with headquarters in London -- that's looking for ways to encourage people to pay for electricity in Bihar, where 64 million people are without power. That's 64% of the population; Bihar is the darkest of all the Indian states.

Bihar actually has plenty of generating capacity; the problem is that it only gets paid for a bit more than half the power it provides -- the rest being pilfered, unmetered, or unbilled. The results have a taste of the absurd. The state power company has promised to provide electricity to "feeder" areas of 2,000 to 3,000 households that pay at least 60% of their bills. In a few randomly selected areas, it will increase the supply of electricity in proportion to the share of bills that are paid.

It is not exactly grasping capitalism to ask customers to pay for what they get. A little 21st-century automation would help do the job. Greenstone believing that what is required are pre-paid electricity meters for households. These are like coin-fed meters found in low-income housing in the developed world, but can be topped off by mobile phone.

Uganda has similar problems in building up its electrical grid, which connects to only 15% of the population. Uganda has been an early adopter of pre-paid meters. Selestino Babungi, the head of Umeme, the country's only grid operator, says that half its 800,000 customers use pre-paid meters. Before 2005, when it won the distribution contract, theft was ordinary; about 38% of electricity was "lost" because of illegal hook-ups or non-payment; some big businesses even flew in Indian engineers to rig their meters. By making payments easier for clients and installing an automated system that detects when a meter is tampered with, the firm has brought the cheating down to 18.5% -- not good, but much better than it was.

Umeme officials believe that higher revenues will help the company reach its goal of tripling the size of its distribution network to handle additional power soon to be generated in Uganda. Babungi says that most will go to industry and agribusiness, creating jobs that bring more people to the income level where they can afford to connect to the grid and buy household appliances that consume more power. More prosperous customers are likely to be better payers.

Uganda's government wants to provide electricity to everyone, but placing priority on providing to regions where jobs will be created as a result has solid precedent. Vietnam launched its post-war electrification in the rice-growing regions of the Red river and Mekong river deltas, helping the country to become one of Asia's biggest rice exporters. That done, it then moved on to less immediately profitable regions. Access to the grid was under 50% in the late 1980s; now it is effectively universal. Thailand and Costa Rica, which also quickly electrified rural regions, both prioritized areas where the potential for commercial development was higher. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (14): If Vladimir Putin has turned modern Russia into a sort of criminal state, he has done with the overwhelming approval of the Russian people, who by a rating of more than 80% support him as the "strong leader" who stands up to the "enemy", America. At the same, Russians have no illusions about the leadership class, which is seen as corrupt, amoral, and callous. The people were enthusiastic about the annexation of Crimea, but dodge taking responsibility for it. They like Putin's military assertiveness, but only as long as Russia doesn't get into a real war -- somebody might get hurt.

A survey conducted by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and the World Bank suggested a longing for a return to Soviet rule, or something like it. The irony is that is generally what Putin wants to do, but he's just not big enough to fill Stalin's jackboots. Putin's government is in denial, putting up an authoritarian front against modern challenges, with no vision of the future other than a continuation of the backwards policies of the present.

Russia's regional diversity, its growing inequality, and the contrast between the urban middle classes and the paternalistic periphery will remain causes of tension. As Dominic Lieven, a British historian of the Russian empire, observed:


For most of Russian history ... aggression was the same thing as survival. In the 20th century Tsarist and Soviet Russia smashed itself to pieces by competition first with the Germanic bloc in central Europe and then with Anglo-Americans. The limited recovery of Russian power under Mr. Putin cannot hide the fact that Russia is weaker than it has been in the last 300 years.


Putin knows he has a problem and is looking for ways to change the system while retaining personal power, to deal with the problems of elections and legitimacy. He may seek, while retaining his sham conflict with the West, a degree of economic liberalization -- but Putin will be aware that, as Alexis de Tocqueville said, the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform. Putin ends up clinging to his bogus war with America as his best card, but is it one he can continue to play indefinitely, without Russians getting wise to the fact that they are being had?

Putin's deepest problem is his denial that he himself is a problem. The Russian empire had been overdue for transformation back in 1914, but Tsar Nicholas II's insistence on ruling like an absolute monarch made it impossible. In the 1930s Stalin managed to hold the empire together by extreme violence. After the Soviet Union finally fell apart in 1991, the new regime gave federalism a chance for a decade -- but once Putin took charge, he reverted to the same anachronistic methods that had led to decline and political upheaval at earlier points in its history. He has chosen a model of failure.

As the trajectory of Russia stands at present, its only prospect is of further decline. Putin will not live forever; what follows him is impossible to say with any certainty -- but it is possible to say that the weak edifice he has created has, one way or another, no future.

* As a footnote to this series, an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Edgy Allies", 26 November 2016), described how America's unfortunate 2016 presidential election had raised tensions in the Baltic states, living in the shadow of a grumpy and unstable Russian Bear. During the campaign Donald Trump, now US president, gave indications of wanting to give up on NATO, while simultaneously establishing a mutual admiration society with Vladimir Putin. Trump's toadying up to Putin seemed bizarre, since few Americans have any liking for Russia's president. Trump, being devious, obviously had some agenda.

Or did he? Trump, nothing that resembles an intellectual, may not have had an agenda that makes sense to anyone but himself, or with much connection with reality. George W. Bush thought he could bridge the gap with Putin, but Bush's term ended with the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia. Barack Obama pursued a "reset" with Russia, but left office with things worse than ever. One fundamental problem is that Russia amounts to so little as a trading partner; in 2016, US trade with with Russia was worth about $38 billion USD; trade with China was over 16 times that, more than $659 billion USD. An Estonian official said: "It's hard for me to see what Russia could offer the US."

While Putin welcomed Trump's overtures, there's no way Putin trusted him; Putin is not a trusting person, and nobody with sense trusts Trump. The In addition, as discussed above, Putin's regime derives its strength from anti-Americanism, and so he does not want a rapprochement with the USA. Winston Churchil said in the middle of the last century: "Russia fears our friendship more than our enmity."

That is just as true today. Following US interventions in Syria in April 2017, Trump's talk of a deal with Russia stopped, as it could have been expected to; Trump has also clearly recognized that a friendship with Vladimir Putin is not merely impractical, but politically dangerous. Unfortunately for Trump, he's already got his fingers dirty with Russia, and cleaning them off is promising to be indefinitely troublesome. However, that is another story. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As reported by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Baby's First Virtual Assistant" by Felix Gillette, 9 January 2017), toy-maker Mattel has now unveiled a "smart" baby monitor named "Aristotle". The gadget will help purchase baby kit, read bedtime stories, soothe infants to sleep, and teach toddlers foreign words.

Aristotle is much like Amazon.com's "Echo" smart speaker, but targeted at substantially younger users. It consists of a HD camera and a voice-controlled "tower', the size of a lava lamp, that can light up in different colors. The tower contains a bluetooth / wi-fi speaker, and can respond to spoken commands.


Aristotle is driven by a Qualcomm CPU and a Microsoft operating system. It can be programmed to help lull a restless baby to sleep with a lullabye, white noise, or a reassuring soft nightlight. It sends data on nap times and diaper changes, and can play question-&-answer games with baby, with help from the Msoft's Bing search service -- glowing green for a right answer, red for a wrong answer. Data can be encrypted to keep out snoopers. List price is given as $300 USD.

* As discussed by an article from IEEE SPECTRUM Online ("A Chip to Protect the Internet of Things" by Stephen Cass, 22 Dec 2016), an increasing range of technologies are now being networked into an "internet of things (IoT)", which of course has led to efforts to hack into the IoT. Amazon.com and Microchip Technology have collaborated to develop the "AWS-ECC508", an add-on chip intended to provide device security for IoT-enabled devices -- or at least within the context of Amazon's developers to use Amazon's cloud-based infrastructure for the IoT.

Consider, for example, a smart lightbulb using current technology. The lightbulb might upload its state (ON, OFF, whatever) to a cloud service operated by the lightbulb maker, and that information would update the lightbulb owner's smartphone app the next time the app is opened. The owner could then use the app to turn the lightbulb on or off as desired, sending the command via the cloud service.

This chain is vulnerable to hacking, with a Black Hat able to trick the lightbulb into accepting false commands, possibly being commandeered to make trouble; trick the cloud service into accepting false data from the lightbulb, or false commands from the owner; and trick the owner into accepting false data from the cloud service.

Those making IoT devices have been slow to recognize the threat, not seeing that anyone would feel IoT devices were worth targeting, and not wishing to add cost to their products. However, a recent hacking campaign used IoT devices as slaves to perform further attacks, meaning the era of complacency is over.

The AWS-ECC508 provides end-to-end security between the IoT device and the cloud infrastructure. It does this by leveraging Amazon's mutual authentication system, which verifies the identity of the cloud service and the device before any data or commands are accepted. The identities are based on cryptographic keys; the AWS-ECC508 can generate its own keys that Amazon will accept as authentic.

The AWS-ECC508 relies on an "elliptic curve cryptography" algorithm, not the better-known RSA algorithm, which underpins much of the security on today's Internet. RSA requires more computing horsepower and is not as well suited to cheap IoT devices. The chip is also designed to resist hardware attacks, such as removing the casing to probe the circuitry or operating it outside normal operating voltages. The chip will cost well less than a dollar in bulk buys.

* Although it might seem that controlling the free exchange of thought on the internet would be difficult, the Chinese government has put pumping resources into doing so, and enjoyed success at it. As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("China Cracks Down On VPNs, Making It Harder To Circumvent Great Firewall" by Olivia Solon, 23 January 2017), China has now moved to crack down on "virtual private networks (VPN)", to prevent internet users from circumventing the "Great Firewall".

The Great Firewall is the Chinese government's sprawling surveillance and internet surveillance and content-control system that prevents people in China from accessing certain websites and pages. Some 171 out of the world's 1,000 top websites are blocked, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter.

VPN services can provide a "hole" through the Great Firewall to allow Chinese users to access banned websites. The nation's ministry of industry and information technology announced a 14-month "cleanup" of internet access services, including making it illegal to operate a local VPN service without government approval. The ministry announced: "China's internet connection service market has signs of disordered development that require urgent regulation and governance."

"Disordered development" -- such a marvelous bit of Newspeak! David Gorodyansky, CEO of Anchor Free, which make the Hotspot Shield VPN, found the announcement unsettling: "People and companies use VPNs to protect their privacy when it comes to things like health, wealth, and family." VPNs are well more secure than the open internet because they shield a user's IP address, making it harder to track a user, and also encrypt the web traffic. Gorodyansky says: "We make everything as secure as your banking site."



* FLYING WITH VOXELS: As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("Digital Aircraft Structures Could Reduce Weight, Save Fuel" by Graham Warwick, 21 December 2016), a team of NASA, academic, and industry researchers are now working on a shape-changing or "morphing" wing, under the "Mission Adaptive Digital Composite Aerostructure Technologies (MADCAT)" project, part of NASA's Convergent Aeronautics Solutions program.

The morphing wing structure is a lattice made up of small, lightweight, composite "volume cells" or "voxels" -- a term inherited from 3D modeling. These simple subunits can be joined together to create a morphing wing that can change its shape seamlessly without using moving control surfaces. So far, the team has built a morphing wing with a span of 127 centimeters (50 inches), and tested it in a wind tunnel.

The wing has the lattice voxel structure and a skin made of overlapping sections of flexible material that act like feathers or scales, sliding across each other as the wing flexes, maintaining a smooth surface. A torque tube attached at the tip and actuated at the root continuously twists the wing along its span, providing roll control without moving flight control surfaces. A toylike subscale morphing-wing drone named "MADCAT v.0", has been flown. The research team is now moving on to a larger, more capable subscale drone, the flying wing "MADCAT v.1", to be tested in a wind tunnel by the end of the two-year project in September 2017.

The voxel building blocks are skeletal cubes, injection-molded from different materials, such as carbon fiber in a polyetherimide thermoplastic matrix. Carbon fiber has high specific stiffness. Combining voxels with different material characteristics allows the lattice structure to be designed to achieve a specific deformation when morphed.

According to project officials, while a full-size commercial aircraft structure can comprise 6 million components, with 1 million unique designs, voxels permit construction of a comparable aircraft with 1,000 or fewer component designs, with more flexibility and variability than with 1 million designs. Assembly of a voxel-based structure is a new frontier; the team is looking at robotic assembly, using miniature robots that would crawl along or inside the structure as it takes shape. Assembly with voxels opens up new options, permitting highly flexible construction -- with some resemblances to 3D printing, if at a much coarser level of granularity.

The modular structure also provides for greater ease of disassembly and repair; a structure could be repaired by replacing damaged voxels. When no longer needed, the structure could be broken down into its component parts, which could then be reassembled into something different.

The MADCAT group includes NASA's Ames and Langley Flight Research Centers, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of Alabama, Michigan State University and University of California-Santa Cruz. Aerostructures manufacturer Spirit AeroSystems and controls specialist Moog INC are also involved.

* As discussed by another article by Graham Warwick from AVIATION WEEK Online ("It's From Airbus, It Flies, But It's Not a Plane", 7 March 2017), Airbus has generated yet another sci-fi "future flight" dream scenario -- having come up with a modular ground-air vehicle concept named "Pop.Up", developed in collaboration with automotive design house Italdesign.

The Pop.Up system involves a two-seat self-driving passenger capsule that can be mated electric-powered ground or air modules. The capsule could also hook up to trains or other transport. The Pop.Up capsule is a carbon-fiber cocoon 2.6 meters in length, 1.4 meters high, and 1.5 meters long (8.5 x 4.6 x 4.9 feet). Hooking up the passenger capsule to the battery-powered ground module, which is 3.1 meters (10.2 feet) long and has a carbon-fiber chassis, gives a composite vehicle with a weight of 200 kilograms (440 pounds). It provides 60 kilowatts of drive to the rear wheels, and has a range of 130 kilometers (80 miles).

For high-speed hops, the passenger capsule disengages from the ground module and is picked up by the air module -- which looks like a giant quadcopter, with four ducted contra-rotating rotors and 136 kilowatts of drive power. The air module is 5 meters long and 4 meters wide (16.4 x 13.1 feet), with the composite vehicle having a gross weight of 600 kilograms (1,320 pounds).

Airbus Pop.Up

With Pop.Up, users would plan and book a trip with an app, with the system handing back the optimum solution as based on timing, traffic, cost and rideshare demands. The ground and air vehicles would follow the trip plan autonomously. One a trip is completed, the ground or air vehicles then return on their own to a recharging station. Recharging takes a quarter of an hour. The passenger capsule might also hook up with other modes of transport, such as rail systems.

Pure sci-fi? Maybe, but it's hard to discourage companies from speculating. Even if the grand design scheme doesn't pan out, useful ideas may fall out of it. In the meantime, Airbus is pursuing two projects to demonstrate less daring electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing urban air vehicles: the single-seat "Vanaha", to fly in 2017, and the four-seat "CityAirbus", at the end of 2018.



* CRIME DECLINES: Although much was made of crime and public safety in the 2016 US presidential election, in fact crime rates have been on a general decline over the globe. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("On Britain’s Safe Streets, How Low Can Crime Go?", 7 January 2017) examined the fall of crime rates in the UK, with lessons for elsewhere.

According to the official Crime Survey for England and Wales, since the mid-1990s the number of crimes has more than halved. Vehicle theft has dropped by 86% and burglary by 71% since 1995; violent crime has dropped by two-thirds and robberies by more than half. Even the financial crisis that began in 2007, with its resulting cuts to welfare and public services, didn't stop the decline.

Explanations range from the declining value of items once stolen, such as televisions, to better policing and improved security. "Ram-raiding", a once-common crime in which criminals crashed cars or vans through the front of shops or banks and then looted them -- an extrapolation of the classic British tradition of "smash & grab" -- is mostly a thing of the past, according to Nick Tilley, a criminologist at University College London, since it didn't prove all that hard to install barriers in front of such establishments to foil such attacks.

Phone theft increased as smartphones took off, but it has since faded as owners figured out how to track and disable their stolen devices. The proportion of Britons reporting their phone stolen fell by half between 2009 and 2016. Robberies of bus drivers have largely evaporated as well, since card payments and cash-drop boxes mean they no longer carry much money. Bus robberies dropped by over 50% between 2013 and 2015, paralleling the reduction in number of cash payments. As electronic payment continues to become more common, robberies for cash will continue to fall off.

Even where crime persists, thanks to precautions, it's generally not as troublesome as it once was. Pubs and clubs now give drinkers venturing outside receptacles made of plastic or toughened glass, which breaks into blunt little cubes instead of jagged shards. That's cut the number of severe injuries, particularly to the face, inflicted by drunken brawlers. Before the drinks industry switched to toughened glass in 1997, 13% of violence between strangers involved the use of glasses or bottles; a year later, it dropped to 4%.

However, the decline in crime in Britain appears to have slowed. In 2014 through 2015, the decline was 13%, but it was only about 1% in 2016. In fact, some crimes are growing: car theft and pickpocketing has been creeping up, while stalking and harassment have rising dramatically. Tim Newburn, a criminologist at the London School of Economics, believes the leveling-off is due to the delayed effects of the financial crisis. In times of hardship people steal more; burglaries have increased. Financial stress also tends to promote domestic violence, which has been on the increase.

It may also be a case of diminishing returns: the reduction rate in crime had to slow down eventually, for any number of reasons. Still, further declines in crimes are possible, and not just because of more use of electronic payment and better countermeasures; the falling crime rate has acquired a momentum of its own. Stealing cars is often seen as a "gateway crime", a starter effort that can lead to more serious crimes. The falling rate of car thefts mean fewer young people are turning to crime. The percentage of those aged 18:24 in Britain's lockups fell from 26% in 2011 to 17% in 2016. Those that are released are less likely to be busted again.

However, older cons are becoming more likely to commit crimes after release. It is the older, more professional crooks that are behind the recent rises in certain crimes. While car theft in general has been falling, sophisticated thefts of expensive cars by skilled criminals have increased.

Studies in the USA suggest that men over 40 today offend at a much higher rate than men of that age did a couple of decades ago. Today’s middle-aged crooks learned their trade in the 1980s when crime was relatively easy, and have carried on offending. Since it's older crooks who are behind such crimes, that suggests crime rates are likely to fall further as these criminals age and go out of circulation.

* As discussed by a related article from BBC WORLD Online, ("Officers Rue The Return Of US 'War On Drugs'" by Joel Gunter, BBC News, 18 April 2017) the Trump Administration is now ramping the "war on drugs", which was initiated by Richard Nixon almost a half century ago. Over the following decades, Nixon's successors in the White House pushed on with the effort, but it proved harder than envisioned.

Arrest rates soared and mandatory minimum sentences sent young men, particularly black men, away for long stretches behind bars for low-level offenses. Then as violent crime rates fell under George W. Bush and prisons became clogged, prosecutions eased; the "war on drugs" clearly needed to be rethought. However, Attorney General Jeff Sessions is not big on rethink, recently stating in a speech: "We will enforce our laws and put bad men behind bars."

Tim Longo, who served with Baltimore police between 1981 and 2000, doubts from experience that reviving the war on drugs is a good idea: "The people we put away were low-level drug users, not violent criminals. We were casting a wide net and catching a lot of people, but most of what we got were guppys and minnows. The people responsible for the homicides, those were the sharks."

Between 1980 and 2015, the number of people in US prisons for drug offences increased more than tenfold, from 40,900 to 469,545, and the average sentence more than tripled. The majority of them were low-level offenders with no previous criminal record -- and to the extent that crime levels fell, there was no reason to think that locking them up had much to do with it.

Norm Stamper, who started as a beat cop in San Diego in 1966 and retired in 2000 as police chief of Seattle, saw the mass incarcerations as socially disruptive, bad for communities, bad for the image of the police force: "We were told to hit the streets and make arrests, anything that counted was good. And we sent a lot of people from our community to San Quentin. We sent non-violent drug offenders away for 20 years to life under mandatory minimum sentences. Millions of them."

Stamp says he is "heartsick" at hearing Jeff Sessions wants to revive the old, failed policies: "We spent $1.5 trillion on this war and drugs are now more available, at higher potency, than when Nixon stood up and made his proclamation. Now we have Jeff Sessions quoting Nancy Reagan, saying we've all gone soft. It's all so retrograde it's frightening. We weren't going soft -- we were just starting to get smart."

A recent study by the Brennan Center, a criminal justice thinktank, suggests in more detail that throwback policies would be counterproductive. The study examined 14 major theories behind the fall in violent crime between 1991 and 2013, and found that mass incarceration had no effect. Much more significant, according to the study, were an aging population, changes in income, and decreased alcohol consumption -- very much along the lines, as discussed above, of the changes that have led to reduce crimed rates in the UK.

Since law enforcement does primarily rest on local authorities, there is likely to be a push-back against heavy-handed Federal policies. Sessions is also down on drug decriminalization and legalization, which is almost certain to lead to Supreme Court challenges. Second-guessing SCOTUS is dodgy -- but certainly the states will have good cases to make. There is no way of saying what the legal environment in the USA will look like in a year's time, but it can be said that it is not likely to look much the way Jeff Sessions thinks it will.



* POWER VACUUM (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("A World Turned Upside Down", 25 February 2017), renewable energy is a transformative technology, turning the older ways of generating electricity on their head. Not only are renewables non-polluting, at least after the infrastructure is established -- the cost of infrastructure has been relentlessly falling -- but they provide power, in effect, for nothing but infrastructure maintenance.

That, on the face of it, hardly sounds like a problem. The problem is that renewable energy is a disruptive technology, a new way of doing things, that turns the old energy business model on its head. Attempting to establish an energy-generation system based on renewable energy in place of an existing energy system not generally based on renewables leads to several big difficulties:

In short, electricity companies embracing renewables may end up shooting themselves in the foot. This was the case for Germany's biggest electricity providers, EON and RWE, both of which split in two in 2016 to separate their traditional power-generation apparatus from the renewable apparatus.

The far-off vision of a fully-functional renewable energy system foresees local power grids linked into a continental "supergrid" by highly efficient, ultra-high-voltage direct-current trunk lines -- along with electrical storage systems, and adaptive electrical distribution systems that allow users to control their power use, trimming back when electricity is less available and more expensive.

However, although the technology to do the job is available, getting from here to there is going to be painful. It's neither undesireable nor impossible; disruptive technologies have emerged before -- for example, in the way internet telephony undermined the classic model for phone companies of charging steep long-distance rates. With modern internet hookups, it's not that much more expensive to call around the world than it is to call across town. This was wonderful for consumers, not so wonderful for phone companies, but they had no choice but to adapt. Movement towards high-bandwidth 5G cellphone services promises a second-generation revolution that will be just as disruptive. Similarly, the move towards robot cars means disruption of the transport industry as we know it today.

In the face of encroachment of renewables, energy companies will have to adapt as well. However, they won't be able to do it without a fundamental rethinking and restructuring of the energy business, with governments required to set up an appropriate regulatory system. How well they do with the task remains to be seen. We'll get to a renewable-energy world; it's just a question of how long it will take, and how much pain will be involved. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (13): When Boris Yeltsin left his office for the last time, at the end of 1999, he famously told Vladimir Putin: "Beregite Rossiyu!" -- meaning "take care of Russia" or "preserve Russia". A fine sentiment, but what Russia was Putin supposed to take care of?

Under Yeltsin, the most defining characteristic of the new Russia was that it wasn't the old USSR, which the people of Russia had come to detest. Yeltsin and his clique attempted to establish not a new identity for Russia, but a linkage to the old Tsarist state -- borrowing many of its symbols, including its flag. The Soviet period, in this vision, was an aberration, an unfortunate diversion that had interrupted the course of Russian history.

That was not a basis for an honestly new beginning, all the more so because the old communist leadership class retained its economic and often its political power; Yeltsin himself was a former Communist Party boss. How could a new national mindset emerge from people who kept, to some lesser or greater degree, the old mindset? Yes, the new oligarchs who in the 1990s took over the heights of the Russian economy and the media did have the appearance of an elite -- but they were largely self-interested, with no deep sense of responsibility for their country. Confronted with the failures and in-fighting of the new ruling class, Yeltsin selected Putin as his successor in 2000, at a time when Western consumer culture began to penetrate Russia.

Putin was, at the outset, neither a liberal nor a Stalinist. He published a manifesto on the eve of the new millennium to declare to the Russian people the value of a strong, centralized state. An opinion poll in January 2000 found that 55% of the population expected Putin to return Russia to the status of a great and powerful country; only 8% thought he would bring Russia closer to the West. Today, half the population believes that Putin has indeed restored Russia's position as a great power -- which is why his personal approval ratings are high, while those of the government in general are dismal.

Putin took the next logical step, plugging the old Soviet state back into the heritage of the new Russian state. Soon after coming to power he ordered the restoration of the Soviet anthem, which had been abolished when the Soviet Union collapsed, though the lyrics were updated. Some liberals found that a worrying sign, but most Russians shrugged it off as a sop to old communists. Nobody thought there would be a return to Stalin's ugly state.

Putin, to a degree, thought differently. He saw the 1990s not as a time of freedom and progress to a new order, but of chaos and decay. Putin cared nothing for communism as such, but he did desire a return to an overbearing central government. To that end, he eliminated all alternative power centers -- ending direct regional elections, imposing legislation from the center across all of Russia, and installed his own representatives in the regions. Russia ceased to be a federation. Putin took Stalin as his model, believing that the only way Russia could be held by centralizing economic resources and political power, and that the security services are the best tool for achieving that end.

Putin, in short, had accepted a political doctrine that had demonstrably proven a dead end. Although there were those Russians who thought Russia would work far better as a decentralized state, a "united states", he rejected the idea, invoking the Soviet victory in World War II as the zenith of Russian power. The sanctification of that victory, and Stalin's role in it, has become the main ideological foundation of Putin's "velvet Stalinism", disguised as patriotism -- an old mix of Russian Orthodoxy, state nationalism, and autocracy.

Unlike Stalin, however, Putin is not a rapacious tyrant. Although he has resorted to oppression and selective violence, both at home and abroad, he is neither willing nor able to re-impose Stalin's absolute rule and reign of terror. His system uses more subtle methods of control and manipulation such as rigging elections, demoralizing or co-opting the opposition, and -- most importantly -- using television as a propaganda tool. Russians can surf the internet and get news from the outside world; but it is drowned out by the loud volume of state propaganda.

The anti-Western, particularly anti-American line works very well because Russian citizens want so much to believe it. It's insecurity at work; rather than concede failure and weakness, it is better to have a sinister and powerful enemy to blame and hate. Putin is standing up to the big bully, getting applause every time he tweaks the nose of the USA. To Putin, the world is a zero-sum game: for Russia to gain, America must lose, or at least be made to appear to lose. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("The Genes That Make Seahorses So Weird" by Rachel Lallensack, 14 December 2016), seahorses among the strangest of the bony fish in appearance and habits -- the males are the ones that bear the young. Now the seahorse genome has been sequenced -- specifically, the genome of the male tiger tail seahorse (Hippocampus comes).

It turns out the seahorse mutated at a faster rate than other lines of bony fish, suggesting they were under intense selection pressure. The seahorse genome has a number of significant changes in comparison to more conventional bony fish -- for example, it lacks most of the genes that influence enamel development; instead of teeth, its jaws have fused into a tubular snout and tiny mouth, suitable for slurping up food from the sea floor.


H. comes also has a poor sense of smell, with few smell-related genes, and lacks the genes for pelvic fins. However, it is well-endowed with a gene named Pastrisacin, associated with male pregnancy: the seahorse genome contains six copies of it.

* As discussed by another article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Mystery Glow That Lit Up The Night Sky In 992 CE Explained" by Daniel Clery, 7 December 2016), on a dark winter night of 992 CE, the northern skies lit up, one chronicler in Saxony -- modern-day Germany -- wrote that "light like the Sun shone from the North." Another from Ulster in Ireland wrote that the heavens were "blood-red". Of course they were witnessing auroras, the northern lights, which had been stimulated to a very high level by an extremely powerful solar flare, or "superflare" on the Sun, showering the Earth with high-energy particles.

A few years ago, researcher noticed there were spikes in the levels of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 in tree rings found all around the world at the same time. Such an enhanced level of C14 could be caused by cosmic rays hitting the upper atmosphere and converting nitrogen-14 -- a normal constituent of air -- into C14.

Were the anomalies due to solar flares, or from some other celestial event? Some studies hint at reports of unusual auroras shortly before the biggest C14 spikes in 774:775 CE and 993:994 CE. To investigate researchers canvassed written records around the time of the later spike and found eight aurora sightings recorded in Saxony, northern Ireland, and the Korean peninsula, between October 992 and January 993.

Working from the geographic reports to determine how far south the auroras were seen, the researchers concluded that the solar storm of 992:993 was stronger than any recorded since detailed monitoring began in 1957, but likely not as strong as the well-known Carrington event in 1859, which knocked out telegraph networks worldwide. While in the 990s the storm produced little more than a nice light show, if it struck today it would likely devastate our technologically dependent society, frying satellites and knocking out Earthly power grids.

* As discussed by yet another article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Cement Soaks Up Greenhouse Gases" by Warren Cornwall, 21 November 2016), the production of cement generates a considerable amount of carbon dioxide. To make cement, limestone (calcium carbonate) is turned into lime (calcium oxide) by baking it at temperatures above 1,000 degrees Celsius (1,800 degrees Fahrenheit). The conversion releases large amounts of CO2; an equal amount is produced by the burning of fossil fuels used to heat cement kilns. Cement production is believed to produce about 5% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

However, the mortar, concrete, and rubble from demolished buildings can gradually absorb CO2 through a process called "carbonation". As CO2 from the air enters tiny pores in the cement, it encounters a variety of chemicals and water trapped there. The reactions that follow convert the CO2 into other chemicals, including water. This had been known for some time, but nobody had ever estimated how much CO2 was removed from the atmosphere but this process.

A team of Chinese scientists, including physicist Zhu Liu, now at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, decided to investigate. They eventually teamed up with Steve Davis, an earth systems scientist at the University of California, Irvine, as well as other American and European researchers.

The research group compiled data from studies of how cement is used around the world, including the thickness of concrete walls, the quality of concrete used in different structures, the life spans of concrete buildings, and what happens to the concrete after the buildings are torn down. The scientists also visited construction sites around China -- the world's biggest producer of cement -- to get more accurate estimates of a variety of factors that influence how much CO2 the cement absorbs. That included everything from the size range of concrete rubble and how long it was left in the open air, to how much cement was used in thick concrete versus thin layers of mortar spread on walls, where it's more exposed to CO2.

The field data and observations were backed up by lab studies, including calculations of the carbonation rate in mortar and concrete in different settings -- for example buried, in the open air, and shut in a room. The accumulated information was factored into a computer model, with variables tweaked to see what effect they had on the output. The bottom line is that cement soaks up almost half of the CO2 emitted by the conversion of limestone to lime.

This was not stop-the-presses news for climate change, but it did suggest future options for cement production -- primarily in reducing the amount of fossil fuel needed for cement production, or sequestering the carbon released. There is the possibility of changing cement formulations to absorb more CO2, but that remains a speculative idea.

* Incidentally, this last month AAAS SCIENCE Online, without remark, dropped online comments for the "free" pages on the website. What a relief! They were just forums for trolling by climate change deniers, creationists, and other riffraff. I would twit them a bit on occasion for fun -- but it's much more fun to see them go away. Online commenting is now in retreat: go home, trolls.



* INDESTRUCTIBLE: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Bendy Bugs Inspire Roboticists" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 12 February 2016), few have failed to notice just how robust cockroaches are; step on them, and they just scuttle off and hide. Less obviously, bees and wasps are always banging into things as they fly around; but they just fly off, their wings undamaged.

Obviously, these insects have acquired tricks to allow them to shrug off impacts, and those tricks might come in handy in human-designed machines. Says Harvard University roboticist Robert Wood: "Bend but not break is a lot of what happens in these insects. We're trying the same thing to see if we can have similar robustness in our robots."

The traditional approach to making machines tougher is to simply reinforce and armor-plate them. Cars do take a more Zen approach, absorbing impacts by crumpling, sacrificing structure to protect the occupants. Insects do cars one better; according to David Hu, a mechanical engineer at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, nature "has come up with a tactic that we don't have: Crumple and then keep on going."

To answer the question of why cockroaches can shrug off being stepped on, integrative biologist Robert Full at the University of California (UC) in Berkeley, and doctoral student Kaushik Jayaram ran cockroaches through successively smaller slits and tighter tunnels, while filming them with a high-speed video camera. They also placed weights of up to 100 grams onto different parts of the bodies of the insects to see how they collapsed.

They discovered that when the 9-millimeter-tall Periplaneta americana roach comes up to a slit three millimeters or less in height, the insect first probes the slit with its antennas, and then jams in with its head and front legs, the back legs splaying out as they push; in a second, the roach has popped through the slit.

Stacey Combes, a biologist at the University of California in Davis says that the roach's ability to get through tight spots "goes far beyond any other animals that we have measured, except maybe the octopus." However, the octopus -- a model for the "soft" robots some roboticists are working on -- can't match the speed of the cockroach. Full says there's nothing all that unique about the cockroach among the arthropods: "Not only insects, but crabs, spiders, and scorpions are pretty good at going anywhere, and are pretty indestructible."

Jayaram and Hills' study reveals that the cockroach's secret lies in the structure of its exoskeleton. It consists of hard but bendable plates -- capable of efficiently transmitting energy to its legs -- connected by elastic membranes that allow the plates to overlap as the insect compresses. Thanks to spines that give traction when its legs are splayed, a cockroach has plenty of motive power to quickly get through a squeeze.

Andrew Mountcastle, a Harvard postdoc researcher, has similarly found that a blending of hard and soft parts allow bees and wasps to shrug off collisions. Using high-speed video, he found that wasp wings actually buckle during collisions, then snap back into place. He also noticed that the wings have a small patch of an elastic protein named "resilin" about two-thirds of the way down the wing. He and Combes suspected the patch works as a hinge.

To test the idea, Mountcastle mounted a wasp on a rotational motor, and hit the wing over and over, to find it repeatedly shrugged off the impacts. When he splinted the wing so it couldn't buckle, the wing quickly wore down. He and Combes also found that many insects have a similar hinge, but that bumblebee wings use a different approach: the veins that support the bee wing are concentrated close to the body, resulting in a flexible wingtip that can bounce off obstacles with less wear and tear.

Researchers are already tinkering with robotic applications. Jayaram has built a 75-millimeter-tall robot, with a roach-like collapsible exoskeleton and legs with "spines" that work both in the uncompressed and compressed positions. According to Jayaram, it can squeeze to one-half its height and still move five to ten times faster than soft robots. Such robust designs seem well-suited to earthquake and other disaster rescue applications; the design principles may also prove useful for machine design in general, increasing sturdiness without a significant weight penalty.



* THE SNAKEBITE CHALLENGE: As discussed by another article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Antivenom Made From Nanoparticles Could Eventually Treat Bites From Any Snake" by Robert Service, 20 December 2016), more than 100,000 people, mostly in Africa and Southeast Asia, die each year from venomous snake bites. 4.5 million people a year are bitten by snakes, with almost 3 million of them suffering serious injuries, such as the loss of a limb. Different types of snakes produce different types of venoms; typically, effective antivenoms are available for venomous snakes -- but a victim may not have access to an antivenom, or might get the wrong one.

beware snakes

Producing antivenoms is also not easy. To obtain an antivenom, an animal -- typically a horse -- is injected with diluted venom from a particular species of snake, with the animal's immune system generating antibodies against the venom. Blood is then drawn from the animal, and the antibodies extracted from the blood, to be then distributed as an antivenom. This makes antivenoms expensive, and also unprofitable. The antivenoms also have to be refrigerated, which complicates distribution and availability.

A team under Ken Shea -- a chemist at the University of California, Irvine -- has now now devised nanoparticles that can neutralize a range of common venoms in test-tube studies, as a step towards the first-ever broad spectrum antivenom. This group has previously devised nanoparticles that can bind to a primary toxin in bee venom, known as "melittin", and remove it from blood. However, in their current research, they wanted to devise particles that could bind to a range of toxins.

Their target was a family of toxins known as "PLA2 proteins". Snakes produce hundreds of varieties of different PLA2s, which range from mildly toxic to deadly neurotoxins. PLA2 proteins normally lodge themselves into cell membranes; Shea and his team started out with the idea that nanoparticles made from lipidlike molecules that resemble those in cell walls might bind to a wide range of PLA2 proteins.

The researchers spread their bets by constructing a set of nanoparticles, not just one. They assembled a variety of different polymer building blocks with different chemical functions -- such as having an acidic appendage, an alkaline sidearm, or being able to create a network of weakly interacting hydrogen bonds. They then put the components together in different combinations and concentrations, and formed them into small, porous polymer nanoparticles.

They mixed their nanoparticle brew with a cocktail of PLA2 molecules, to identify the nanoparticles that bound the PLA2s the best. They went through repeated cycles to optimize the nanoparticle set, to finally end up with nanoparticles that bound tightly to the PLA2s. Of course, there was the risk that they might also interfere with molecules needed by a host for healthy operation -- no effects without side-effects -- but tests have demonstrated they don't strongly bind to anything but PLA2. This is not so surprising, given the open-ended diversity of protein structures, no two different structures being likely to be closely similar to each other. If two proteins were functionally identical to each other, in the course of evolution one or the other would be broken by mutations, and die out.

The research team is still evaluating the effectiveness of their nanoparticle brew. If it seems effective enough, the researchers will move on to nanoparticles to deal with other components of snake venom, and then to human trials. Shea says: "Eventually we'd like to have a cocktail of two or three or four nanoparticles optimized against the principle protein toxins."

Since such a cocktail would consist of synthetic polymers, it would likely be cheap to make and wouldn't need to be refrigerated. That would leave the problem of making sure antivenoms were available to all who might need them -- but that's a good problem to have.

* In a closely-related article from WIRED Online blogs ("Bacteria Are Brewing Up the Next Generation of Antivenoms" by Megan Molteni, 20 March 2017), antivenom researcher Daniel Dempsey got started in his profession when he was a grad student performing research in the jungles of Costa Rica, when he encountered a fer-de-lance, a particularly lethal venomous snake. Dempsey got away unscathed -- but locals told him stories of friends and relatives who weren't so lucky. Although there is an effective antivenom for the fer-de-lance, in some cases victims died because it wasn't available quickly enough.

As mentioned above, the use of horses and such to produce antivenom is troublesome and expensive. Dempsey's San Francisco-based startup company, named "Venomyx", is one of a number of new startup companies, both in the US and Europe, that are using 21st-century biotech to address the problem. Dempsey's company is using the well-known Escherichia coli bacterium to synthesize the mix of antibodies that make up an antivenom.

To pull off this trick, they first they injected a llama with sub-lethal amounts of snake venom. After sequencing the DNA of her antibody-creating B cells, they built a library of the antibodies those genes encoded -- and then observed which of the antibodies bound most tightly to venom toxins. Armed with this data, E. coli were genetically modified to produce the appropriate antibodies for antivenoms. Why use a llama? Because their antibodies are more similar to those of humans than those of horses or sheep, whose antibodies can set off bad human immune responses.

Advanced methods of producing antivenoms are all very well and good, but the critical path is getting antivenoms out to those who need them, a situation complicated by the traditional need for refrigeration. Leslie Boyer -- founding director of the University of Arizona's VIPER Institute, which focuses on venom research -- says: "Good antivenoms can be made really affordably, $14 or $20 a vial. But it's the distribution costs that make the situation untenable."

Dempsey believes that in a few years from now, when his shelf-stable, horse-free antivenoms are ready to be fielded, the work of people like Boyer will save many lives of people who, at present, are almost defenseless.



* ANOTHER MONTH: On my wanderings online, I ran across an image of a brightly colorful plastic elephant on a beach. On investigating, I learned about the "Ocean Sole" organization of Nairobi, Kenya. Ocean Sole cleans up plastic litter that washes up from the Indian Ocean onto Kenya's beaches -- the litter including, it seems, a fair number of flip-flops.

Well okay -- as the optimistic phrase has it, pollution is nothing more than a misplaced resource; with hundreds of thousands of flip-flops available, Ocean Sole decided to turn them into artworks, anything they could dream up. Erin Smith of Ocean Sole says: "Making products out of flip-flops is endless. If you can imagine it, you can make it."

Ocean Sole turns out products ranging from key rings and bracelets to furniture and sculptures. Much of their wall art showcases animals such as lions, bison, pandas, gorillas, and endangered species around the world. Their most notable designs are called "grand masterpieces," which are sculptures that can reach lifelike proportions -- for example, a giraffe sculpture 5.5 meters (18 feet) in height. Ocean Sole has received requests to make large-size interactive chess pieces for boutique hotels.

Ocean Sole pays people daily to clean the beaches. It's year-round work, and fair employment for people coastal towns. A new priority has become maintaining the waterways around Kenya, which when clogged with trash, blocking the flow of clean water for villages and local communities. Currently, Ocean Sole is focused on cleanup in Kenya, but Smith has visions of taking their operation to a global level: "Our dream is to take the Ocean Sole concept all over the world where flip-flop pollution is wreaking havoc on human and marine life."

Ocean Sole

* With regards to the Trump Administration, things were relatively quiet in April, or at least not too startling. In response to the use of nerve gas against civilians by the Syrian government, President Trump ordered a cruise missile attack on a Syrian airbase. How could he have been more conventional? For decades, US presidents have used cruise missiles to make a point. The attack also, unsurprisingly, did nothing to make Vladimir Putin happy -- which simply underlined that Trump's flirtations with Putin had nowhere to go, and are being sidelined.

The other realities underlined in the Syria strike are that the Trump Administration will find it no easier to deal with the chaos in Syria than the Obama Administration did -- and that Army General HR McMaster, Trump's national security advisor, and Marine General Jim Mattis, the defense secretary, are flexing their muscles, exerting influence in foreign and military affairs. Rumor has it that McMaster is a particularly astute bureaucratic knife-fighter. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, a low-key figure, also seems to be growing in influence.

In other encouraging signs, Trump has established rapport with Chinese President Xi Jinping -- personal relationships seem to mean a great deal to Trump -- and has been working with Xi to try to keep North Korea under control. Something's going on in Pyongyang, the level of agitation and provocation radiating from there having reached a level that nobody who deals with the region recalls in all their experience. North Korea has long been a crisis waiting to happen; it may happen soon, but who knows?

Closer to home, Trump has signaled that he is not out to deport all illegal aliens, taking a benign line on those who came to the USA for a better life, while focusing on the troublemakers -- a policy not so much different from that of the Obama Administration. The Trump Administration seems to be settling down into a groove like that of any other center-Right US presidency. In a recent interview with Reuters, Trump dropped the bluster and bullshit, becoming a sympathetic figure:


I loved my previous life. I had so many things going. This is more work than in my previous life. I thought it would be easier. You're really into your own little cocoon, because you have such massive protection that you really can't go anywhere. I like to drive. I can't drive any more.


However, Trump is noted for going off on unpredictable tangents, and not everything went smoothly for him during April. Threats to withdraw Federal funding from "sanctuary cities" that refused to cooperate with deportations were blocked by the Federal judiciary -- Trump's loose-cannon tweets having been a factor in the judicial decision. Ivanka Trump, visiting Germany at the invitation of Chancellor Angela Merkel, was booed at a meeting on women's rights, thanks to the bad reputation of her father when it came to the treatment of women. It was a particular exasperation for Merkel, who has been trying to stabilize the relationship between the USA and Germany, when Donald Trump has done so much to destabilize it. There's also a lot still hanging fire:

Climate change promises to be a sleeper issue: while it doesn't seem like it's on the first rank of political concerns, the harder the Trump Administration pushes against efforts to deal with it, the harder it will push back. Of course; it's reality, it's big and ugly, it's not going to budge. The interesting question is of what will happen when Donald Trump realizes that fact. He's not stupid -- often ignorant, yes, but not stupid -- and he will turn around on a dime, not thinking twice about it. I would bet that he will, I just don't know how long it will take.

* Other aftershocks of 2016 -- the "dumpster fire year" -- reverberated elsewhere:

News outside of France has been paying some attention to Macron's wife Brigitte; they first met when he was 15 and she was 39, being one of his high-school teachers. Somewhat surprisingly, the French being so notoriously casual about romantic relationships, the disparity in age seems to have raised eyebrows there -- though Emmanuel Macron has sensibly replied that it's about the same disparity as that between Donald and Melania Trump, with the genders reversed.

I am sympathetic; Brigitte is 64, we're the same age. She's pretty well-preserved for 64; I'd like to see what she looked like at 39. I would say I'm pretty well-preserved too -- but then, I started with less.

* With regards to the killing of my two ash trees in my back yard last month -- sacrificing them before they were done in by the Colorado emerald ash borer invasion -- I went out and bought a Homelite electric chainsaw -- 16-inch blade, less than $100 USD along with a bottle of oil -- and brought them down.

I hadn't used a chainsaw since I was a lad. I had forgotten what a beast a chainsaw is, an accident waiting for a time to happen. My first session was problematic, being somewhat clumsy with the thing, often throwing the chain. I got fairly well-versed in putting it back on, though I put on it backwards once, doesn't cut so well in that condition. My second session went better, and in fact I made short work of the trees. Taking them to the Loveland city recycling center in my little Toyota hatchback promised to be troublesome -- I could take a load a week, I thought it would take me all summer -- but breaking the trees down into little pieces showed the volume was misleading. I'm almost done.

I decided to replace the two ashes with catalpa trees -- the catalpa being an exotic-looking tree, with huge leaves that give good shade, very long seed pods, and spectacular white flowers in the spring. I was planning to get two saplings next spring, but then I got to thinking that I could just get seed pods from the catalpas in my neighborhood, and raise them from seeds. I checked around online, and found a nice set of instructions on how to raise catalpa seedlings.

catalpa tree

I pulled seed pods from the neighborhood trees, accumulated a ziploc bag full of seeds, then got plastic pots and potting soil. I'll plant the seeds in mid-May, after I make my spring Spokane trip; they have to be kept watered, so I couldn't just leave them for a few days. I wasn't just trying to be cheap in growing my own, though that was part of it; it just promised to be satisfying to raise them from seeds.

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