oct 2021 / greg goebel

* 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. To keep up with new postings, follow gvgoebel on twitter.

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[WED 20 OCT 21] COVID-19 & EVIDENCE (4)
[WED 13 OCT 21] COVID-19 & EVIDENCE (3)
[WED 06 OCT 21] COVID-19 & EVIDENCE (2)


* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (173): In early 2020, the Trump Administration signed a conditional peace agreement with the Taliban, calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops by May 2021 "contingent on a guarantee from the Taliban that Afghan soil will not be used by terrorists with aims to attack the United States or its allies." 5,000 Taliban were released from lockup, while US forces were withdrawn. The Taliban agreed not to attack American forces while they were being pulled out, but continued their attacks on Afghan government forces.

By April 2020, COVID-19 cases were ramping up in the USA, in fact all over the world. Trump continued to try to minimize the problem, indeed politically weaponize it. Most of the early outbreaks were concentrated in Democratically-controlled cities and states, with the Trump Administration attempting to shift the blame for whatever problems the pandemic caused to the Democrats.

The next month, a second national crisis arose. From well before Trump took office, there has been running urban demonstrations under the banner of "Black Lives Matter (BLM)", protesting police brutality against black folk. The demonstrations took place every time the police killed an unarmed black person, and occasionally turned violent. On 25 May, police in Minneapolis, Minnesota arrested George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man, on suspicion of passing a counterfeit $20 USD bill. A policeman named Derek Chauvin kept Floyd pinned down with his knee on his neck for almost 10 minutes, and killed him. There was a wave of demonstrations all across the USA, with considerable violence in some big cities like Chicago and Milwaukee. Chauvin, incidentally, would be later convicted of murder.

Trump's reaction to the wave of agitation was to call for suppression. Some cities, such as Seattle and Portland, Oregon, had nightly demonstrations that often got rowdy; a fence was put up around the White House to block demonstrations in Washington DC. Trump talked of sending the armed forces in to suppress the demonstrations, a suggestion that the military brass firmly rejected. He did send DHS personnel into Portland, where they did very little good and were withdrawn after a few months.

On 1 June, in particularly controversial act, Trump went to Saint John's Episcopal Church, not far from the White House, after protesters had been cleared from the area, where he was photographed clumsily handling a bible. It was muddled in all respects; Trump apparently wanted to show defiance against the demonstrators and support religion, but he simply looked awkward. There was a widespread perception that he had ordered the clearing of demonstrators just for the photo-opportunity, but it was later shown that they were going to be cleared out anyway. It made no difference; it was a public-relations disaster for Trump.

Trump's inconsistent messaging on the pandemic was also a disaster. He often contradicted, even encouraged attacks on, his own medical experts, and disparaged preventive measures, such as wearing masks. The Trump Administration did fund work on the fast-track development of vaccines to combat the pandemic. Trump had always played up the health of the US economy on his watch, contrasting it with Obama's economic record -- which was dubious, since the economy was on the same track it had been through Obama's second term. The pandemic brought the economy to its knees, dimming Trump's hopes for re-election.

On 18 September 2020, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg died of cancer. Democrats had been dreading the prospect, since it meant that another conservative justice would be appointed to the Supreme Court. That came to pass, with Justice Amy Comey Barrett appointed a month later. The Democrats were particular angry over the appointment -- since the Republicans had stalled the nomination of Merrick Garland before the 2016 election, saying it was too close to the election to confirm him. This concern unsurprisingly evaporated when it came to confirming Barrett. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for September included:

-- [03 SEP 21] FIREFLY ALPHA TEST FLIGHT (FAILURE) -- A Firefly Alpha light booster was launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California at 0159 UTC (next day local time + 7) on its first test flight. It exploded 2 minutes 29 seconds after launch.

The two-stage Alpha booster was designed to place up to 1 tonne (1.1 tons) into a low-altitude orbit, or up to 630 kilograms (1,388 pounds) of payload into a 500 kilometer (310 mile) high Sun-synchronous polar orbit. The first stage was powered by four Reaver rocket engines, generating a total of 734 kN (748,30 kgp / 165,000 lbf) of thrust. The second stage was powered by a Lightning engine, generating 66.7 kN (6,800 kgp / 15,000 lbf) thrust. The engines are fueled by kerosene and LOX. The Alpha launch vehicle is about 29.75 meters (97.6 feet) tall and measures about 1.8 meters (6 feet) in diameter.

For this first test flight the rocket was carrying a suite of educational, artistic, and research payloads. The company offered free launch capacity through a program Firefly calls the "Dedicated Research & Education Accelerator Mission (DREAM)".

Firefly Aerospace is based in Cedar Park, Texas. It was previously named Firefly Space Systems before entering bankruptcy. The renamed company emerged from bankruptcy proceedings in 2017 under new ownership. Noosphere Ventures, a Menlo Park, California-based firm led by managing partner Max Polyakov, now funds Firefly's rocket development program.

Firefly expects to sell an Alpha launch for $15 million USD per flight. Firefly's projects beyond the Alpha launcher include the Beta rocket, which will use upgraded engines to haul heavier payloads into orbit. Firefly also has ambitions for a robotic lunar lander, a space tug powered by electric thrusters, and a reusable spaceplane. Along with its pad at Vandenberg, Firefly is also developing a second launch site would be located at the disused Complex 20 launch pad at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida.

-- [07 SEP 21] GAOFEN 5-02 -- A Long March 4C booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0301 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "Gaofen (High Resolution) 5-02" civil Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous low Earth orbit. Gaofen 5-02 carried a payload of six instruments, including a hyperspectral imager to track variations in land cover and water clarity, plus payloads to track air pollution and greenhouse gases. It had a design life of eight years.

-- [09 SEP 21] CHINASAT 9B -- A Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1150 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "Chinasat 9B" geostationary comsat into space. The satellite was built by the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation (CASC) and based on the DFH-4E bus. It had a launch mass of 5,500 kilograms (12,000 pounds), a payload of Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was to be placed in the geostationary slot at 101.4 degrees east longitude to provide direct broadcast services for radio and TV transmission, digital film and digital broadband multimedia systems.

-- [09 SEP 21] RASBEG N1 (COSMOS 2551) -- A Soyuz 2-1v booster was launched from Plesetsk at 1959 UTC (local time - 3) to put the "Razbeg N1" satellite into orbit for the Russian Ministry of Defense. Razbeg N1 was a small-sized military optical reconnaissance satellite. The payload was built by the Russian corporation NPP VNIIEM. It carried a camera built OAO Peleng, a company from Belarus. This camera had a maximum ground resolution of 90 centimeters (35 inches) while operating in the panchromatic mode.

The Soyuz 2.1v was one of the variants of the Soyuz 2 booster built by the Progress Rocket Space Center in Samara, Russia. Development began late in the 2000s, the booster being originally designated "Soyuz 1". Unlike prior variants of the Soyuz rocket, including the Soyuz 2.1a and the Soyuz 2.1b, the Soyuz 2.1v has an updated first stage, which uses a single NK-33 engine and the four-nozzled RD-0110R.

These two engines replace the four side boosters with the RD-107A and the RD-108A on the first stage on other Soyuz variants. Along with the planned Soyuz 5, it is the only Soyuz booster not to feature a "Korolev Cross", which occurs when the four side boosters separate during ascent.

The NK-33 rocket engine was designed and built by the Kuznetsov Design Bureau, originally for the N-1 rocket for the Soviet lunar program. The engine runs on Liquid Oxygen and RP-1 Kerosene and operates in the staged combustion cycle. The NK-33 engine first flew on the Antares-100 rocket as the Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ-26. Antares now uses the RD-181, and the NK-33 engine is being phased out of Russian launch vehicles.

After the remaining stockpile of NK-33 engines is exhausted, the first stage of the Soyuz 2.1v will shift to the RD-193 engine. An RD-0124 engine powers the second stage on the Soyuz 2.1v. The stage is identical to the third stage on the Soyuz 2.1b. Instead of having the option of using the Fregat upper stage, as is the case on other Soyuz-2 rockets, the Volga upper stage is offered on the Soyuz 2.1v.

-- [14 SEP 21] ONEWEB 10 -- A Soyuz 2.1b booster was launched from Baikonur at 1807 UTC (local time - 5) to put 34 "OneWeb" low-orbit comsats into space. OneWeb plans to put a constellation of hundreds of comsats into near-polar low Earth orbit, at an altitude of about 1,000 kilometers (600 miles).

-- [16 SEP 21] SPACEX CREW DRAGON INSPIRATION 4 -- A SpaceX Falcon booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0256 UTC (previous day local time + 4), carrying a "Crew Dragon" space capsule. It was the first all-private, all-civilian orbital mission, named "Inspiration4". Led and funded by billionaire Jared Isaacman, the Inspiration4 mission was intended to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Isaacman was joined on the three-day mission by Hayley Arceneaux, a 29-year-old physician assistant at St. Jude, pilot and science educator Sian Proctor, and Chris Sembroski, an engineer from the Seattle area selected in a charity competition. The Inspiration4 mission did not dock with the space station. Instead, the crew orbited the Earth for three days at a relatively high orbit. They splashed down in the Atlantic off of Cape Canaveral to safely complete their flight.

-- [20 SEP 21] TIANZHOU 3 -- A Long March 7 booster was launched at 0710 UTC (local time - 8) from the Chinese Wenchang launch center on Hainan Island to put the "Tianzhou 3" freighter capsule into orbit, on the second supply mission to the Tiangong space station. It docked with the station 7 hours later.

-- [27 SEP 21] KUAIZHOU 1A SMALLSATS x 6 -- A Chinese Kuaizhou 1A (KZ1A) booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0619 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "Jilin 1 Gaofen 02D" Earth remote sensing satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit. It had a launch mass of 250 kilograms (550 pounds), and could obtain imagery with full-color resolution better than 76 centimeters (30 inches) and a multi-spectral resolution better than 3.1 meters (10 feet). It was the fifth in the series to be launched, including two launch failures.

The Jilin 1 satellites were all built by Chang Guang Satellite Technology. Other Jilin-1 satellites launched to date include two Jilin 1 Kuanfu 01 series spacecraft, built to provide high definition video from orbit, and one Jilin 1 Guangexe A optical imaging satellite. Currently, there are 16 Jilin 1 spacecraft in orbit. The company plans to have approximately 138 Jilin satellites in orbit by 2030, to provide a global revisit time of 10 minutes.

-- [27 SEP 21] SHIYAN 10 (FAILURE) -- A Long March 3B booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0820 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "Shiyan 10" satellite into orbit. It was a classified payload. It made orbit, but then quickly failed.

-- [27 SEP 21] LANDSAT 9 -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Vandenberg SFB at 1812 UTC (local time + 7) to put the "Landsat 9" Earth remote-sensing satellite into low-Earth Sun-synchronous orbit for NASA and the US Geological Survey, with the mission under the control of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. Built by Northrop Grumman, Landsat 9 continued the series of Landsat images of Earth dating back nearly 50 years. The booster flew in the "401" vehicle configuration with a four-meter (13.1-foot) fairing, no solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

Landsat 9

The Landsat program began in 1972, with nine launches in all since then, one of them a failure. They included:

Landsat 9 was a near-identical twin of the Landsat 8 satellite. Both satellites were based on the Northrop Grumman LEOStar 3 satellite bus. Onboard the satellite were two instruments for Earth observation, both similar to ones flown on Landsat 8:

Landsat 9 replaced Landsat 7, launched in 1999, taking its place in orbit and joining Landsat 8. Both satellite orbits will be eight days out of phase, meaning that Landsat 8 and Landsat 9 will be able to take images of an area every eight days, similar to current operations with Landsat 8 and Landsat 7.

Along with Landsat 9, Atlas V also launched four CubeSats, carried by the "Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter (ESPA) Flight System (EFS)". EFS is a US Space Force project to demonstrate the capability of integrating and delivering secondary payloads to orbit on an adapter ring. There were two military and two NASA CubeSats:

The two NASA CubeSats made up the 34th "Educational Launch of Nanosatellites (ELaNa)" mission conducted by the agency. The Landsat program is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC).


[WED 20 OCT 21] COVID-19 & EVIDENCE (4)

* COVID-19 & EVIDENCE (4): One of the problems with putting together systemic reviews is that it may not be easy to find reviews on a particular issue: clinical trials may not be clearly tagged in databases, and those conducting clinical trials often having little concern for those who want to review the trials. Julian Elliott -- who directs Australia's COVID-19 Clinical Evidence Taskforce, based at Cochrane Australia, Monash University in Melbourne -- says that, in many cases, it's like researchers who produce a precious artifact simply throw it into the desert, with the reviewers having to play archaeologists to sift it out of the sand. Elliot says: "It sounds completely insane, doesn't it?" he says.

Gabriel Rada is trying to fix things. In the course of the pandemic, he has compiled one of the largest repositories of COVID-19 research in the world, containing more than 410,000 articles as of early May 2021. The team uses both automated and manual methods to trawl literature databases for research, and then classify and tag it -- for example as a randomized controlled trial. The goal is for the database, named "COVID-19 Living Overview of Evidence (L·OVE)", to be the master resource for evidence syntheses.

Using this and other sources, groups including Cochrane have been developing living systematic reviews. Reed Siemieniuk had produced such reviews before, and helped to assemble a group to put together one on COVID-19 therapies. The international team, with over 50 people at last notice, searches the literature daily for clinical trials that could change practice, to organize the findings into a living guideline that doctors can refer to at a patient's bedside, and which is used by the WHO.

Janita Chau -- a specialist in evidence-based nursing at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, and co-chair of a network of Cochrane centers in China -- says: "It's a very good concept." Chau believes it's important to compile the evidence now, instead of seeing interest in it fade away with the disease itself, as she saw during the SARS outbreak in 2003.

Isabelle Boutron -- an epidemiologist at the University of Paris and director of Cochrane France -- is co-leading another large-scale living evidence synthesis named the "COVID-NMA Initiative", which is mapping where registered trials are taking place, evaluating their quality, synthesizing results, and making the data freely available as quickly as possible. Boutron wants to help researchers get in touch with evidence-synthesis specialists from the start to help define and structure trials. She says: "We're really trying to link the different communities."

Those working on living review systems want them expanded. That's one focus of "COVID-19 Evidence Network to support Decision-making (COVID-END)" -- a network of organizations including Cochrane and the WHO that came together in days in April 2020 to better coordinate COVID-19 evidence syntheses and point people to the best available evidence. The group continues to refine its strategy.

As the world hopefully moves into a recovery phase, Jeremy Grimshaw -- who co-leads COVID-END -- suggests that the best thing to do is establish a global library of a few hundred living systematic reviews that address issues ranging from vaccine roll-out to recovery from school closures. He says: "I think there's a strong argument that you'll get more bang for the buck if, in selected areas, you invest in living reviews."

The pandemic has demonstrated that, under pressure of a crisis, evidence-based medicine can falter badly. However, an insistence on rigorous studies led to problems of its own. In the UK Trish Greenhalgh -- a health researcher and doctor at the University of Oxford -- expressed her unhappiness at those who wanted bullet-proof evidence from randomized controlled trials before recommending the widespread use of face masks -- even though there was a wealth of casual evidence that masks could be effective and, unlike an experimental drug, that they posed little potential harm. The UK was a late-comer in mandating face masks on public transport.

David Ogilvie -- who works in the field at the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge UK -- has been similarly criticized an extreme focus on rigorous studies. In the standard paradigm of evidence-based medicine, researchers collect evidence on a therapy from randomized controlled trials until it gets the green or red light. Unfortunately, it may turn out that rigorous trials are unethical, impractical, or infeasible. In practice researchers have to assess a range of different evidence -- surveys, natural experiments, observational studies and trials -- and mosaic them together to give a picture of whether something is worthwhile, then keep track of how well it works in practice. Ogilvie says: "You have to get on and do what we can with the best available evidence, then continue to evaluate what we're doing."

There is, in short, both a science and an art to evidence-based medicine. There is also the problem that decision-makers may not care about it. The COVID-19 pandemic has frighteningly demonstrated how ideologically-driven politicians, picking up on disinformation spread on Twitter and dismissing the advice of health experts as biased and fraudulent.

It's hard to know what to do about such obstinacy, but leaders in the field are getting their heads together to see what can be done -- with a virtual meeting organized by Cochrane, COVID-END, and the WHO to get together in October to compare notes and seek solutions. Karla Soames-Weiser is optimistic, saying: "I really believe that we will come out of this crisis stronger."

Simon Carley, meanwhile, is still treating COVID-19 patients in Manchester, and struggling with the push for dubious miracle cures like ivermectin. He says last year has been exhausting and awful, "seeing young, fit, healthy people coming in with quite horrific chest X-rays and not do terribly well."

However, he still is impressed by the difference the evidence can make: "When results come out and you see that dexamethasone is going to save literally hundreds of thousands of lives worldwide, you think: 'That's amazing'." [TO BE CONTINUED]



* LAB LEAK? As discussed in an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Why Many Scientists Say It's Unlikely That SARS-CoV-2 Originated From A 'Lab Leak'" by Jon Cohen, 2 September 2021), the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 are not precisely known. From early on the pandemic, there was a notion that it came out of a "lab leak" from a facility in Wuhan, China -- which got a lot of attention after US President Donald Trump played it up. Given the source, the research community was inclined to discount the idea, one group of researchers calling it a "conspiracy theory" in a letter to THE LANCET, and the World Health Organization (WHO), after investigation, dismissed a lab accident as "extremely unlikely".

However, the lab leak hypothesis got new life in the spring of 2021, with a number of researchers saying it should be taken more seriously, and new US President Joe Biden ordering an investigation. The investigation was thorough; it concluded that while the lab leak hypothesis couldn't be disproven, the odds were that the virus had a purely natural origin.

The only way investigation could go any further was through cooperation with the Chinese in checking over the Wuhan facility's records -- and the Chinese, having given assurances that there had been no leak at the facility, were annoyed at being told they needed to be audited. Chinese vice health minister Zeng Yixin said such demands showed "disrespect toward common sense and arrogance toward science."

The only thing that has been keeping the lab leak hypothesis going is the lack of cooperation from the Chinese; it's hard to make much of that, since it's typical of Chinese behavior these days. The research community doesn't see further investigation as much worth the bother, because existing evidence -- including early epidemiological patterns, SARS-CoV-2's genomic makeup, and studies on animal markets in Wuhan -- makes it far more probable that the virus, like many emerging pathogens, made a natural "zoonotic" jump from animals to humans.

There are actually three facilities in Wuhan that investigate viruses, including the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV), which has long specialized in studying bat coronaviruses, and two smaller labs that also handle those viruses. Lab workers can get infected; SARS-CoV, the coronavirus that causes severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), has infected researchers as many as six times after the global outbreak of that disease ended in July 2003. Since the labs do field studies, the researchers could also have picked up the virus elsewhere, and brought it back to Wuhan.

Shi Zhengli, the lead bat coronavirus scientist at WIV, denies that anyone at the lab fell ill around the time SARS-CoV-2 emerged, adding that personnel had been tested and came up negative. Still, in January 2021, just before Trump left office, a secret US intelligence report stated that three WIV researchers "sought hospital care" in November 2019. The intelligence report lacked detail and authority; it went nowhere.

Virologist Robert Garry of Tulane University finds it hard to believe that a Wuhan lab worker picked up SARS-CoV-2 from a bat and then brought it back to the city, setting off the pandemic. As a WIV study of people living near bat caves showed, transmission of related bat coronaviruses occurs routinely. He asks: "Why would the virus first have infected a few dozen lab researchers?" The virus may also have moved from bats into other species before jumping to humans, as happened with SARS. But again, why would it have infected a lab worker first? "There are hundreds of millions of people who come in contact with wildlife."

Garry adds that the loci of the original outbreaks were several Wuhan markets. A lab worker with COVID-19 would have had to make "a beeline not just to one market, but to several different markets. You can't rule it out, but then why the markets? Why not a soccer game or a concert or 100 other different scenarios?" The lab leak scenario is plausible, but no more than that, and it's impossible to single it out from many other plausible causes.

Shi said in 2020 that her lab had more than 2000 bat fecal samples and anal and oral swabs that tested positive for coronaviruses. However, the lab had only isolated and grown three viruses over 15 years -- viruses are not easy to culture -- and none closely resembled SARS-CoV-2. There is also no evidence that WIV was keeping live bats infected with the virus. Some have questioned her truthfulness, but several scientific collaborators outside China have high regard for her integrity.

Much speculation about the pandemic's origin has centered on six men who developed severe respiratory illnesses in 2012 after clearing bat feces from a copper mine in Mojiang, in China's Yunnan province. Three died. Shi and co-workers investigated, with blood samples from the miners showing no evidence of coronaviruses or antibodies to them. Had evidence of SARS-CoV-2 showed up, that would have been proof of a natural origin, so the researchers had no motive to lie.

Another fuss has been made over "gain-of-function (GOF)" studies, which deliberately create pathogens that are more virulent or more transmissible to humans than their natural cousins. It is obviously a controversial idea; Shi says the lab did create chimeric viruses to make them easier to culture, but the resulting strains were not more dangerous than their natural cousins. Anthony Fauci, head of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which helped fund the study, told Congress it does not qualify as GOF research under NIAID's guidelines.

Many scientists contend that SARS-CoV-2 can't be a lab concoction because no known virus is close enough to have served as its foundation. Garry points out: "Nobody has the sort of insight into viral pathogenesis to design something as really devious as SARS-CoV-2." It is said that "evolution is cleverer than we are", able to generate unpleasant surprises, and human modifications are unlikely to be more than tweaks. While some of the molecular features of SARS-CoV-2 have been played up as suggesting a lab origin, there are no features of the virus that aren't found in its wild cousins. The Biden Administration's intelligence report concluded there was no reason to believe the virus had been genetically manipulated, and that it was certainly not created as a bioweapon.

The open-air market origin hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that samplings of the markets in Wuhan not long after the outbreak of the pandemic showed the virus was everywhere. The markets sell animals for furs, with fur being very popular in China -- often from foxes and raccoon dogs, both canids, both easily infected with SARS-CoV-type viruses. The Chinese have been conducting their own investigations on the origin of the virus, but haven't released much information yet. Chinese authorities have been pushing back on the lab leak hypothesis by claiming the virus came from outside China. That's understandable, but not credible.

Bats are the prime suspect for the natural origin of SARS-CoV-2 -- but so far, no coronaviruses that seem closely related to it have been found in bats. That's not too surprising, since bats seem to be hosts to a wide range of coronaviruses. There's also a suspicion that SARS-CoV-2 made its way to humans via intermediate hosts, with investigation of suspects in China and Southeast Asia.

Infectious disease epidemiologist Gregory Gray of Duke University has long-standing collaborations in China, Malaysia, and Vietnam that he hopes will help track down the origins of SARS-CoV-2, but he says that won't happen quickly, and adds: "Those who are not patient are not really interested in the truth."



* THE WEEK THAT WAS: As discussed in an article from REUTERS.com ("Analysis: Inflation Revival Is A Victory, Not A Defeat, For Central Banks" by Balazs Koranyi, 13 October 2021), there's been much concern over inflation as of late -- but it appears that central bankers are actually welcoming it. Central banks are always walking a fine line between inflation and deflation, with the "sweet spot" leaning towards mild inflation.

Through the massive government spending of the past few years, central bankers believe they've hit the sweet spot. While Japan remains in the low-inflation doldrums, the current rise in price pressures should allow central banks to scale down easy-money policies and not have to worry about the global economy staying afloat. The current inflation rise does present risk, but the comparisons with with 1970s-style stagflation -- in which prices and unemployment rose together, along with little or no growth -- are exaggerated.

Current inflation rates do look troublesome. Price growth is already over 5% in the United States and could soon reach 4% in the euro zone, well more than central bankers like, and at levels not seen in over a decade. However, policymakers see this as largely a temporary surge caused by the global economy's bumpy post-pandemic reopening. European Central Bank (ECB) board member Isabel Schnabel said: "The current inflationary spike can be compared to a sneeze: the economy's reaction to dust being kicked up in the wake of the pandemic and the ensuing recovery."

The transient high inflation will fade, though it is likely to settle back at a higher level than was the case before the pandemic. Central bankers like that idea, one saying anonymously: "These are the perfect conditions, this is what we worked for." Central banks were leery of raising interest rates, but that's what's happening in a number of countries -- including Norway, South Korea, and Hungary -- while the US Federal Reserve, the Bank of England, and the ECB have made clear that a move is coming.

Stagflation? Probably not. Wage rises, a precondition of inflation, remain anemic in Europe, and are holding below the inflation rate in the United States -- the push for a higher minimum wage in the USA doesn't appear troublesome. Labor unions have become weak, and to the extent they retain power, they are also concerns other than wages, such as leisure time and job security. Labor activism is unlikely to result in a wage-price spiral, as it did in the 1970s.

Zooming energy prices are also unlikely to cause much damage, since energy's share in overall expenditure has dropped over recent decades -- US economic output for each unit of energy has more than doubled since 1975 -- and the world has plenty of experience in managing life with oil prices above $80 USD a barrel. Economist Carsten Brzeski of ING, a multinational financial services company, says:


Economies have become much less dependent on energy, both in terms of private consumption and in industrial production. Any increase in energy prices, as unwelcome as it is for producers, consumers and central bankers, does not have the same economic impact as it did in the '70s.


Central banks are keeping careful track of the shifts in direction of the global economy. Most of them were given more independence because of the inflation in the 1970s, and they are entirely alert to the dangers of surging inflation. French central bank Governor Francois Villeroy de Galhau says: "We should be vigilant without being feverish,"

Few are also saying that the current high inflation has to be temporary. Atlanta Fed President Rafael Bostic says: "Indicators do not suggest that long-run inflation expectations are dangerously untethered -- but the episodic pressures could grind on long enough to unanchor expectations." As with so much else in economics, there's an emotional factor involved: how long is too long?

Central banks also have to struggle with the huge debts run up by governments during the pandemic. US debt is around 133% of gross domestic product, while in the euro zone the level is around 100% -- both up from the mid-70% range just over a decade ago. Japanese debt is over 250% of GDP. Central banks have been keeping interest rates low to ensure that the debt is manageable, central banks may be forced to choose between living with higher inflation or higher borrowing costs that choke growth. Slovak central bank chief Peter Kazimir says: "At the moment we're the finance ministers' best friends, but that's not going to last forever."

* One Nick Carmody -- a psychotherapist with a law degree, out of Denver -- wrote a set of tweets on the mindset of the Trump movement, which is worth repeating in an almost criminally edited form here:


The "brilliance" of white nationalist Steve Bannon -- arguably the most significant of Donald Trump's "enablers" -- is that he has convinced tens of millions of people to believe that destroying democracy is a noble and patriotic objective, as long as it occurs while chanting "America First".

I've been reluctant to use the word "cult" terminology to describe Trumpism, since it's a cliche that tends to trivialize the behavior. However, it's getting ever harder to avoid the word. In the era after the Trump presidency, Trumpism seems to be settling into two overlapping but identifiable wings of an authoritarian movement. Possibly more importantly, the cult of Trumpism appears to be mutating.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about an anti-mask school board protest. After watching the video, I observed how the protest felt like a tailgate party with "casual fans" who barely know anything about football, but were there for camaraderie and to "belong". The post-Trump movement is not fully about Trump anymore. Trump is a cartoon figure, a symbol of white grievance. He was the right person at the right time to step up to the role; now he's a figurehead, a mascot, for the larger authoritarian populist movement. He doesn't run it; he doesn't run anything, he has no capability of doing so.

There is also a second group of supporters, fans, who only care about Trump to the extent that he furthers their political agenda. They don't think highly of him, and they don't think highly of the "superfans" who idolize him -- even as they condemn the Left for sneering at the "superfans" as "deplorables". The "serious" political wing of Trumpism excuses his depraved behavior because he has "good policies". The political Trumpists typically still publicly root for Trump, even though they don't care about him; they bought the ticket, they're staying on the ride.

The political Trumpists are actually taking their cue not from Trump but from Steve Bannon, since he articulates their insensible, undemocratic, unpatriotic impulses. I recently had a conversation with someone who is a lifelong Republican, has a military background, and as recently as 2019 was aggressively disputing that income gap disparity was larger than any point in the 50+ years of tracking that information. This was as a "chamber-of-commerce Republican", pro-capitalism defense of Trump's 2017 corporate tax cuts. In a later argument, I was accused of being anti-corporation -- an implicit accusation that I was an anti-capitalism, pro-socialism liberal.

His mindset reflects the toxic effect that Steve Bannon and FOX's Tucker Carlson have on US society:

-- and Carlson fawning over Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban. My acquaintance said he had been "activated" by Bannon. In earlier conversations, he had defended the white-nationalist Proud Boys -- though, in the wake of the Capitol riot, he muted that, simply endorsing taking on "antifa terrorists". He still went on to praise Viktor Orban, it appears taking the cue from Carlson.

His mindset was that of an "authoritarian follower". Studies suggest that such followers make up as much as a third of any population, though under normal circumstances they're not so noticeable. When an authoritarian comes along, they are indeed "activated", having been roused out of passivity to assert beliefs that they previously kept under wraps. Having got a fix, they become addicts, justifying their addiction, quick to jump on to the most preposterous conspiracy theories in support.

Bannon has not only effectively branded an anarchistic attempt to destroy America as "America First", he's amassed and potentially "activated" millions of followers. The Capitol Riot was evidence of this. America First is unpatriotic, a new Secessionism, even less credible than the original. It is anti-democracy, with contempt for fair elections, and a willingness to cross any line to win. It is against the rule of law, taking on law enforcement officers and judges who stand in the way; it is, despite its invocations of the Constitution, deeply unconstitutional. It is, to an extent and peculiarly, even anti-capitalist, insisting that businesses have no right to impose any limits on the Trumpist mass.

Confronted with a pandemic that has killed over 700,000 Americans, America First stands inflexibly against public safety and personal responsibility. It's a perfect storm of emotional immaturity, arrested development, and the idolization of "freedom" to the point where the "right to ignorance" and the "freedom" to put others at risk is equated with "liberty". It is, unfortunately, a path whose only real goal is national destruction -- an anarchism that doesn't even pretend to consider the new order that is to follow. Its incoherence suggests it has no long-term future, but how much damage will it do before it goes away?




* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (172): In March 2019, Robert Mueller finally released his report on Russian interference in the 2016 election -- concluding the Russians had interfered, that there were suspicious contacts between the Russians and the Trump campaign, but that there was no provable collusion between the two. Although the report hinted at obstruction of justice by the Trump White House, Justice Department rules dictated that was beyond the brief of the investigation. Trump proclaimed total victory from the Mueller Report, even though it specifically stated: "No exoneration."

In April 2019, the House Oversight Committee issued subpoenas asking for financial details from Trump's banks, Deutsche Bank and Capital One, and his accounting firm, Mazars USA. Trump responded with lawsuits that effectively blocked the disclosures.

In August 2019, a whistleblower filed a complaint with the Inspector General of the Intelligence Community concerning a 25 July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump pressured Zelensky to open an investigation on Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, who had been on the board of a dubious Ukrainian firm. There was actually no reason to accuse Hunter Biden of wrongdoing, but Trump wanted to smear Joe Biden, who was then lining up for a 2020 presidential run. Trump hinted at withholding US aid to Ukraine if Zelensky didn't cooperate.

The call was part of a campaign of meddling in Ukraine to further Trump's interests. In retaliation against the accusations of Russian meddling in favor of the Trump campaign, Trump and his people had concocted a tale of Ukrainian interference, with incoherent reference to a server computer system supposedly operated in Ukraine by the US Crowdstrike service, which was falsely claimed to be a Ukrainian front operation.

House Speaker Pelosi initiated a formal impeachment inquiry on 24 September 2019. Testimony of witnesses was damning against Trump, with the articles of impeachment passed by the House and handed over to the Senate in December. Senate Republicans allowed the impeachment proceedings to run, but did not allow calling witnesses, with the Senate trial to use evidence accumulated by the House investigation. Even that was damning enough when the trial began in mid-January 2020, and Trump's lawyers didn't seriously contest the charges -- blandly saying that abuse of power was not an impeachable offense.

To no one's surprise, Senate Republicans did not vote to convict Trump, aside from the single exception of Utah Senator Mitt Romney. Congressional Democrats had to push the case, since they had to protest Trump's misdeeds, and needed to get them on the record for consideration later. Trump felt emboldened by his acquittal in the Senate trial, and began a purge of those perceived as disloyal by the White House, with their places taken by Trump loyalists.

Roughly in parallel with the Senate trial, Trump ordered a drone strike that killed Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Quds Force, which conducted military operations beyond Iran's borders. The killing was controversial; previous US administrations could have taken out Soleimani had they wished to, but didn't see that it would have been constructive to do so. The Iranians retaliated by launching precision missile strikes against US bases in Iraq.

Also in parallel with the impeachment drama, an outbreak of the COVID-19 respiratory disease, caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus, began in Wuhan, China. At first, there were hopes that it could be contained in China, but the first cases appeared in the USA in late January, with a national public health emergency declared at the end of the month. Trump tried to ignore the pandemic at first, publicly saying it wouldn't amount to anything -- announcing in February that it wasn't worse than the flu, that it was under control, and the emergency would soon be over. It was only getting started. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed in an article from CNN.com ("Why You Could See Subtle Changes To Your Smartphone's Design" by Samantha Murphy Kelly, 5 August 2021), new generations of smartphones are always emerging. The upcoming generation of smartphones may have an enhancement not noticeable at first sight: a "right to repair (RTR)".

Companies, notably Apple, have been criticized for using schemes to discourage repair of their products -- such as using non-removable memory or batteries, or sealing devices with special glue. The companies, of course, argue that they only want to make sure products are properly repaired.

The Federal government isn't buying it. In July 2021, US President Joe Biden asked the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to set RTR rules preventing manufacturers from imposing restrictions on independent device repair shops and DIY repairs. New regulation would prohibit such practices and require smartphone manufacturers to make parts, tools, repair manuals, and diagnostics for out-of-warranty repairs more readily available to third-party businesses. Pedro Pacheco, a senior director at market research firm Gartner, says:


In many cases, the price to fix a smartphone or computer is close to, if not more than, replacing it all together -- a strategy that encourages people to buy new devices rather than fixing them. This needs to change. Manufacturers will need to make design choices to keep the cost down to repair devices.


The FTC, which has been substantially empowered in the new era, replied that the agency would "root out" unfair repair restrictions on phones, fridges, tractors, and other product. This push has also gained traction among regulators in Europe.

Along similar lines, European regulators are now pressing for all smartphones and other gadgets to use the USB-C data / recharging connector -- much to the distress of Apple, which doesn't want to lose the control that its Lightning connector buys it. The regulation hasn't been passed yet, and won't be until 2024.

* As discussed in an article from BBC.com ("Electric Trucks Can Compete With Diesel Ones" by Matt McGrath, 9 April 2021), while electric passenger cars are a growth market, electric trucks are currently only seen as practical in urban environments, not for long-haul trucking. The conventional wisdom is that they would have to carry too much of a load of batteries, reducing their ability to haul freight. However, a study from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) says that if fast charging networks are built for trucks, they would be more cost-effective than diesel trucks. More generally, the study says that with fast charging, the advantage for electric vehicles increases with size.

Around 7% of global carbon emissions are generated by heavy transportation trucks. While Tesla and other manufacturers have taken small steps into this market, they haven't made much of a dent so far, and skeptics doubt they will get much farther because of the size and expense of battery packs. The SEI study suggests that oversized battery packs aren't necessary if fast charging is available. Lead author Bjoern Nykvist of SEI says:


It doesn't really matter [about] the size of the battery pack in the truck. You really just need more power from the charger. The key here is that, basically, a heavier vehicle consumes more energy. The more energy you consume, the more saving potential there is. So, a very heavy truck uses more diesel per kilometer than a lighter one, but that's also a big savings potential if you can switch to electricity.


This seems a little counterintuitive, but the researchers put together a model in which an electric track operated for 4.5 hours, then charged for 40 minutes using a fast charger system. The economics were superior to those for diesel when everything was factored in. In addition, since heavy goods transportation is focused on main roads, ports, and terminals, it's likely that a smaller number of chargers would be required than is needed for electric cars, which traverse sprawling urban road networks.

Of course, as is the case in general for renewables, there's a chicken-&-egg problem, in that we don't have the fast charger network yet. Clearly, governments will need to push for it to happen, in much the same way that the Eisenhower Administration pushed through the US interstate highway system in the 1950s. Not everyone is convinced electrics are the way to go, there being much interest in hydrogen fuel. However, hydrogen does pose major challenges, and electrics may simply be more practical.

* As discussed in an article from NEWATLAS.com ("Mahle's Cheap, Highly Efficient New EV Motor Uses No Magnets" by Loz Blain, 12 May 2021), one of the limiting factors in the push towards greater use of electric vehicles (EV) is the need for rare-earth minerals like neodymium for the magnets in the motors that drive the EVs. There is a limited supply of rare earths, and at present China is in effective control of the market.

However, it is possible to ditch permanent magnets and use electromagnets instead. There's nothing new about such induction motors; they have traditionally been relatively complicated and expensive, because they require an external power source and a bit of fancy circuitry to get started spinning. German company Mahle has now developed an induction motor for electric vehicles that promises to be as cheap, compact, and efficient as magnetic motors.

Mahle motor

One of the traditional problems with induction motors is that they use electrical contacts to transfer electricity to the rotor, the rotating element, and the contacts tend to wear out. Mahle instead uses wireless induction, so no contacts. Mahle engineers also say that the level of control in their induction motor, as compared to a magnetic motor, allows the motor to operate at high efficiency at all speeds. Mahle also says the motor should readily scale from small to large EVs.


[WED 13 OCT 21] COVID-19 & EVIDENCE (3)

* COVID-19 & EVIDENCE (3): Researchers have known for years that a great deal of medical research is wasted, largely because of poorly-designed trials -- and also a failure to examine the medical literature, with the result that researchers end up chasing avenues already known to be dead ends.

Most of the trials that sought quick fixes for COVID-19, when they weren't simply fraudulent, were just too small to get useful results. They would have been useful if they had been collaborations, as was done in the handful of mega-trials conduction to help deal with COVID-19, SOLIDARITY has enrolled nearly 12,000 people with COVID-19 in more than 30 countries.

The UK RECOVERY trial -- which was launched quickly in March 2020, at the onset of the pandemic -- is seen as a model for how to conduct a good trial under pressure. One of its keys was to keep things simple, using a short consent procedure and one outcome measure: death within 28 days of being randomly assigned to a treatment or control group. The trial enlisted almost 40,000 people at 180 sites; it showed that hydroxychloroquine was worthless for treating COVID-19, while the steroid dexamethasone clearly reduced death rates. Practices changed almost overnight.

Researchers see one big lesson, in that countries need more large-scale national and international clinical-trial protocols ready to go before a pandemic hits, instead of trying to wing it when the crunch is on. Kar Tikkinen says: "We will learn a lot of lessons from this, and I think RECOVERY has set the standard."

It takes a certain amount of discipline to keep to protocol. Simon Carley said that early in 2021, he treated a man with COVID-19 who desperately wanted to be treated with monoclonal antibodies -- but at Carley's hospital, the only way to get the treatment was by enrolling in RECOVERY. The randomization protocol assigned him to receive standard care, not monoclonal antibodies. "Which was tough -- I still think it's the right thing to do," says Carley, adding that the patient recovered anyway. RECOVERY has determined that monoclonal antibodies checked so far are effective in cutting risk of death in people hospitalized with severe COVID-19.

Research on the pandemic, good and bad, has been turned out at a tremendous rate, with the effect of generating mass confusion. In response, evidence syntheses were turned out in quantity as well as governments, local authorities, and professional bodies hastily commissioned them.

Gabriel Rada -- who directs the evidence-based health-care program at the Pontificial Catholic University of Chile in Santiago -- runs a giant database of systematic reviews in health called "Epistemonikos" -- a Greek term meaning "what is worth knowing". It now contains nearly 9,000 systematic reviews and other evidence syntheses related to COVID-19. However, to no surprise, many of the syntheses are junk or repetitive themselves. Earlier in 2021, Rada found 30 systematic reviews for convalescent plasma, based on only 11 clinical trials, and none of the reviews had included all the trials. He counted more than 100 on hydroxychloroquine, all out of date.

There's a need for coordination. One possible solution lies in PROSPERO, a database set up in 2011 in which researchers can register their planned systematic reviews. Lesley Stewart, who oversees it at the Centre for Reviews & Dissemination at the University of York in the UK, says that more than 4,000 reviews on COVID-19 topics have been registered so far. The PROSPERO team asks researchers to check the database before beginning on a review, to see whether similar work already exists. Stewart wants to find ways to identify the most important questions in health policy and treatment, prioritize them, and make sure that researchers generating and synthesizing evidence are focusing on them.

It was apparent before the pandemic that evidence syntheses took too long to produce and went quickly out of date, with the pandemic making those problems much too obvious. Cochrane's traditional median time to produce a review is more than two years, which is simply not good enough when new research is flooding out. During the pandemic, Cochrane cut the time of some reviews to three to six months. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* FINNS FIGHT FAKE NEWS: As discussed in a report from CNN.com dating from 2019 ("Finland Is Winning The War On Fake News" by Eliza Mackintosh), Finland shares an extended border with Russia, and has long endured barrages of Russian propaganda. However, in 2014 -- after Moscow annexed Crimea and backed rebels in eastern Ukraine -- the Russians moved the propaganda war into cyberspace.

Jussi Toivanen, chief communications specialist for the prime minister's office, said it is hard to determine the exact number of misinformation operations to have targeted the country in recent years, but most focus on issues like immigration, the European Union, or whether Finland should become a full member of NATO -- an idea the Russians don't like at all.

As the trolling ramped up in 2015, President Sauli Niinisto called on Finns to take charge of the fight against disinformation. A year later, Finland brought in American experts to advise officials on how to recognize fake news, understand how it goes viral, and develop strategies to fight it. The education system was also updated to emphasize critical thinking. The approach seems to be working, and now other countries are looking to Finland to help solve the trolling problem elsewhere. Toivanen said:


It's not just a government problem, the whole society has been targeted. We are doing our part, but it's everyone's task to protect the Finnish democracy. The first line of defense is the kindergarten teacher.


The school curriculum was revised in 2016 to prioritize the skills students need to spot the sort of disinformation that has polluted recent election campaigns in the US and across Europe. Schools have recently partnered with Finnish fact-checking agency Faktabaari (FactBar) to develop digital literacy "toolkits" for elementary to high school students. Educational exercises include examining claims found in YouTube videos and social media posts, comparing media bias in an array of different "clickbait" articles, probing how misinformation feeds on readers' biases, and even getting students to writing fake news stories themselves. One high-school student said: "It's very annoying having to fact check everything, not being able to trust anything ... or anyone on the internet. I think we should try to put a stop to that."

Some working on the educational front wonder if the Finnish approach will work well elsewhere. Jed Willard -- director of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Center for Global Engagement at Harvard University, who was hired by Finland to train state officials to spot and then push back back on fake news -- decided that the Finns would be best off developing a strong national narrative, instead of trying to debunk false claims.


The Finns have a very unique and special strength in that they know who they are. And who they are is directly rooted in human rights and the rule of law, in a lot of things that Russia, right now, is not. There is a strong sense of what it means to be Finnish ... that is a super power.


The small and largely homogenous country consistently ranks at or near the top of almost every index of quality of life -- happiness, press freedom, gender equality, social justice, transparency and education -- and so it is hard for foreign trolls to find antagonisms to exploit. Home-grown trolls are rare. The Finns are also enthusiastic readers, and national media is both conscientious and respected. However, Finns are also exposed to international media, which it is distrusted.

Jessikka Aro -- a journalist with Finland's public broadcaster YLE who has been heavily targeted by trolls for her work investigating Russian interference -- said:


Facebook, Twitter, Google / YouTube ... who are enablers of Russian trolls … they really should be regulated. Just like any polluting companies or factories should be and are already regulated, for polluting the air and the forests, the waters, these companies are polluting the minds of people. So, they also have to pay for it and take responsibility for it.


Facebook, Twitter, and Google, which are all signatories to the European Commission's code of practice against disinformation, say they have taken steps to deal with disinformation, including working with fact-checkers to spot fake news, as well as cracking down on fake accounts. Anybody who's dealt with them knows perfectly well their screening is leaky.

Aro was a pioneer in fighting the trolls in Finland, beginning investigations in 2014. It made her a target of a smear campaign, accused of being a CIA operative, a secret assistant to NATO, a drug dealer, and deranged Russophobe. She got some relief when in 2018, the Helsinki District Court handed down harsh sentences to two pro-Putin activists on charges of defamation -- Ilja Janitskin, a Finn of Russian descent who ran the anti-immigrant, pro-Russia website MV-Lehti, and Johan Backman, a self-declared "human rights activist" and frequent guest on the Russian state-run news outlet RT. It was the first time that an EU country had convicted those responsible for disinformation campaigns, drawing a line between extreme hate speech and the pretense of free speech.

Other EU states, and Singapore, have talked to the Finns about what they can do to fight back. In the meantime, the Finns continue to deal with the trolls, Toivanen saying:


A couple of years ago, one of my colleagues said that he thought Finland has won the first round countering foreign-led hostile information activities. But even though Finland has been quite successful, I don't think that there are any first, second or third rounds, instead, this is an ongoing game. It's going to be much more challenging for us to counter these kinds of activities in the future. And we need to be ready for that.




* THE WEEK THAT WAS: As discussed in an article from NBCNEWS.com ("China Tries To Wear Down Its Neighbors With Pressure Tactics" by Dan De Luce, 10 April 2021), China is flexing its military muscle, attempting to assert territorial claims in the region by using pressure tactics designed to push its territorial claims, employing military aircraft, militia boats and sand dredgers to dominate access to disputed areas. Shots are not being fired, but Chinese actions are meant to intimidate, with intrusions of Chinese combat aircraft into Taiwan airspace becoming regular occurrences.

Taiwan has a modern air force, but it is much smaller than China's, and the intrusions have worn down pilots and aircraft. The Taiwanese have become less inclined to send up fighter aircraft, instead "painting" the intruders with radars controlling surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries.

The same approach is evident in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, with Taiwan, the Philippines and other governments struggling to fend off China's numerous maritime militia boats, coast guard vessels, and navy vessels ships venturing into disputed territory. A senior US defense official said the Chinese are "trying to grind them down."

Off the coast of the Philippines, for example, a flotilla of Chinese maritime militia have taken up station around the disputed Whitsun Reef in the Spratly Islands, ignoring demands to leave. By refusing to budge, the large group of boats is effectively controlling access to a wider area that lies inside the Philippines' exclusive economic zone.

The Philippines are greatly outgunned by Chinese military power, but Manila has tried to rally international support against Beijing's presence, and leveraged on its relationship with Washington DC. The White House has responded repeatedly, one State Department spokesman saying: "As we have stated before, an armed attack against the Philippines armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty."

Vietnam is similarly being squeezed by China's creation of islands with bases in the South China Sea, implying a threat against maritime access to Vietnam's ports. That clearly rankles the Vietnamese, who have a long history of friction with China. Both sides remember that when they last clashed, in 1979, the Chinese got the worst of it -- which led China to modernize its forces. The Chinese are almost daring the Vietnamese to take action.

The US Navy has established a high profile in the region, with movements of submarines and a carrier task force. After high-level discussions with the US, the Chinese have cut back on air intrusions against Taiwan for the moment. On 9 October, Chinese President Xi Jinping denounced Taiwan's inclinations towards separatism, though he said that China would seek "peaceful means" of reunification -- which recent experience suggests means "all measures short of outright war." The Chinese promise of "one country, two systems" rings hollow, because they've said the same thing about Hong Kong, the oppression there suggesting Beijing really wants "one country, one system".

The Taiwanese understand that, with Taiwanese President Tsai Ingwen rejecting Chinese "coercion", asserting Taiwanese sovereignty and democracy, and pledging a defensive buildup. Tsai said that Taiwan will not "act rashly", then added:


But there should be absolutely no illusions that the Taiwanese people will bow to pressure. We will continue to bolster our national defense and demonstrate our determination to defend ourselves in order to ensure that nobody can force Taiwan to take the path China has laid out for us. This is because the path that China has laid out offers neither a free and democratic way of life for Taiwan, nor sovereignty for our 23 million people.


Beijing issued an irritated statement in response: "This speech advocated Taiwan independence, incited confrontation, cut apart history, and distorted facts." It is difficult to see that China will back down on Taiwan, but continuing on course will mean further escalation.

* On Monday, 4 October, Facebook and its system of apps were knocked offline for six hours. The rest of the week wasn't much better for the firm; the next day, a whistleblower named Frances Haugen who had worked for Facebook testified to Congress about the diseased company culture there -- saying that Facebook harms children, sows division, and undermines democracy in pursuit of breakneck growth and "astronomical profits."

Haugen told Congress that Facebook consistently chose to maximize growth instead of implementing safeguards, while it kept to itself internal research that illuminated the harms of Facebook products: "The result has been more division, more harm, more lies, more threats and more combat. In some cases, this dangerous online talk has led to actual violence that harms and even kills people."

Before Haugen left Facebook, she copied thousands of pages of confidential documents and shared them with lawmakers, regulators and THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, which published a series of reports called the Facebook Files. Her testimony to Congress was highly credible, since she was obviously intelligent, articulate, professional, and organized. She claimed that Facebook was never forthright when outsiders tried to probe the company: "Facebook chooses to mislead and misdirect. Facebook has not earned our blind faith."

Haugen urged lawmakers to examine the algorithms that drive popular features, like the main feeds in Facebook and Instagram. The algorithms reward engagement: comments, "likes" and other interactions, it is spread more widely and is featured more prominently in feeds. The engagement-based formula is biased towards the distribution of rage, hate, or disinformation, Haugen, however, was against breaking up Facebook -- since the separated components would work as a network that would maintain the status quo.

The anger against Facebook is often incoherent. Both Democrat and Republican politicians rage at it, but they are short on realistic solutions, and sometimes work at cross purposes: Democrats, for example, would like to suppress trolls such as antivaxxers, while Republicans insist that there should be no "censorship" of even the most toxic trolls. In addition, many of Facebook's problems are those of the internet in general, particularly trolling and "fake news". Certainly, its share price doesn't seem to be hurting much, undergoing healthy growth.

However, Facebook may be nearing the point of no return, becoming a corporate pariah like big tobacco, faced with slow decline in all respects. Possibly some minor tweaks in company culture is all that's needed to turn Facebook around. One aspect of that might be to get a new public face: CEO Mark Zuckerberg tried to respond to fury this last week with reasoned statements, only to meet a wave of contempt and ridicule. Possibly it's undeserved, but Amazon's Jeff Bezos has recently kicked himself upstairs, to leave management of the company in less controversial hands. Zuckerberg could think it a liberation to do the same for himself.

* I inherited a set of Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA) from my father, one of them with Wells Fargo. Every year, I have to take a Required Minimum Distribution (RMD) from the inherited IRAs, or have problems with the taxman. This year, I asked for some changes to the way Wells Fargo handled the IRA RMD; communications didn't go well, and things got totally broken.

That's all neither here nor there, but to fix things I was emailed a form in PDF format to get the RMD straight again. I was to fill out the form and either fax or mail it back. My first question in consideration of the exercise was: Do I need to print this thing out, or can I fill it out digitally on my PC? With the answer: Why would I print it out if I didn't have to?

It wasn't convenient to edit the form in PDF format, but after puzzling things over, I figured there was likely a free online conversion utility to get the form into PNG files that I could handle in a paint program. A little searching led me to ONLINE2PDF.com, with a web page that made the conversion easy.

Filling out the form with a paint program was generally straightforward, except for adding my hand-written signature. I already had a scanned image of my signature, but it was small and cluttered; I scaled in up considerably, redrew it, and screened out the clutter to come up with a nice signature that I could paste into the form. I needed to attach a voided check to authorize direct bank deposit of the RMD, but I also already had a scan of that, so I just pasted that into the form, too.

While I was doing all this, I was thinking I would fax the files back to Wells Fargo instead of mailing them -- but I don't have a fax modem. I got to wondering if there was some way to email to a fax machine; more searching indicated there was, but it required emailing to an online fax service to get it done.

As it turns out, there's a confusing number of online fax services. They generally have "free" offerings, but of course they came with restrictions, and none could handle the five-page form I had for free. I finally settled on FAXZERO.com, which allowed me to send a fax for $2.09 USD, paid via Paypal. I could've sent the pages still in PNG format, but I figured it was more convenient to use PDF, so I used ONLINE2PDF.com to convert back again. I handed FAXZERO.com the PDF file, paid my $2.09 USD, with FAXZERO.com emailing me a few minutes later that the fax had been delivered.

It was fun figuring out workarounds to get around handling paper, though this was primitive: really, shouldn't we be able to do all of this sort of paperwork online? Sure, it will need robust multifactor ID -- but that's coming, possibly in the not-too-distant future. Anyway, in a few days I'll call up Wells Fargo again and see if I've got everything straight. I've had enough hassles with the company as of late that I'm not sure it will be. Hey, ya'll want I should sic Liz Warren on ya?

On the positive side, on getting into my Wells Fargo online account -- I never had before, and getting a login was a bit dodgy -- I found out that I had been underestimating the size of the IRA in their hands by about $10K USD. It was a little like finding $10K USD I'd left in a coat pocket. So ... I guess I can't complain.

* As another petty item, I'd been wanting to figure out some way of attaching a hand strap to my Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra camera phone. Since I use it as a camera, my handling of it is riskier than with my other phones, with the attendant chance of dropping it into a hole or to be damaged. I don't want to do that with a thousand-dollar smartphone.

I found a ten-buck smartphone strap kit on Amazon.com and decided to give it a try. It turned out to be simplicity itself: there was a plastic pad I slipped inside the phone's armor case, the pad having a nylon strap with an eyelet ring that went out the USB socket hole. I had to clip off the little awkward "door" in the armor case over the socket hole, but I didn't like it anyway, so no loss. I could then clip on the hand or neck straps provided with the kit. I got three pads, so I could fix up some of my other phones as well. The only trouble in the exercise was getting the armor case off the phone -- it's a tight fit -- but otherwise I am happy with it.



* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (171): Trump's dubious past did not disappear after he became president. His Trump Foundation, under pressure from the New York attorney general's office, folded up in late 2018. A year later, the courts would order him to pay millions in restitution for misuse of the foundation's money, in part to finance his presidential campaign.

In accordance with his self-created image as a dealmaker, Trump was fond of personal foreign diplomacy -- notable in the case of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, Trump setting up a summit meeting with Kim. Kim was obviously flattered by the attention, with Trump proclaiming that he had broken new ground, that no other US president had met with a North Korean leader. It was pointed by observers that no other US president thought it was wise to do so, and the summit meetings with Kim -- there would be three in all -- went nowhere. There were fears that Trump would give a green light to North Korea's nuclear weapons and missile programs, but sanctions on North Korea remained in place. It is unclear if Trump ever even thought of dropping sanctions. Ultimately, Kim realized that Trump was only interested in photo opportunities, and the North Koreans irritably cut off further personal discussions with him.

Trump had a particular axe to grind with China and Chinese President Xi Jinping, doing much to demonize China -- which wasn't that hard to do, because distrust of China in the USA was growing across the political aisle. Trump began a trade war with China, with the governments of the two countries raising tariffs in tit-for-tat exchanges. Trump was in fact very fond of trade wars, engaging in them at a lower level with American allies in Europe and the East Pacific. He was very concerned with trade deficits, and wanted to bring manufacturing back to the USA. His efforts to those ends had little success -- in part because he was fighting economic trends that no president could have controlled, in part because of his own misunderstandings. His concern for trade deficits ignored the great American surplus in services -- while demonstrating little concern for budget deficits. He also fussed about currency wars, reading into foreign monetary policies malign intent that generally wasn't really there.

In the Mideast, Trump was a particular friend of Israel, relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. He was also a friend of Saudi Arabia, heavily supporting the Saudi war in Yemen. He also continually tightened sanctions on Iran, imposing unacceptable conditions on their withdrawal.

Trump spent much of his time in office in rallies, pumping up his supporters. It was like he never stopped his presidential campaign. They were loud, noisy, insubstantial events, mostly feeding his ego. Although Trump proclaimed there would be a "big Red wave" of conservative states in the 2018 mid-term elections, the Republicans lost badly in the House, losing control of it, and suffered losses in the Senate, though they retained control. House Democrat Leader Nancy Pelosi became Speaker of the House again; she'd always taken a dim view of Trump, but as Speaker she would become a particular gadfly of the person she called the "impostor president".

One ongoing problem for Trump was that Congress wouldn't fund his border wall. As a result, in December 2018, Trump engineered a government shutdown that for 35 days, being the longest in US history, with 800,000 Federal employees laid off. Congress did not budge; Speaker Pelosi hit back by calling off Trump's State of the Union address, citing security concerns. It was Trump's belief that the public would blame Congress for the shutdown, but he was shouldering most of the blame. He finally conceded defeat. He got his State of the Union Address -- though Speaker Pelosi, sitting behind him, theatrically ripped up her copy of it.

Nonetheless, Trump continued to press for his border wall, with Congress approving a funding bill that included $1.375 billion USD for 88 kilometers (55 miles) of border fencing, enhancing the existing barriers. He also declared a national emergency to get billions more funding, but was only able to get about half of it. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported in an article from NEWATLAS.com "Yale Study Identifies Those At Risk Of Breakthrough COVID-19 Infections" by Rich Haridy, 9 September 2021), there's been much fuss about "breakthrough" infections in subjects vaccinated against COVID-19. In the first place, no vaccine is bullet-proof; in the second, the breakthrough infections are not that common.

Yale University researchers have now published a study that characterizes subjects most vulnerable to breakthrough infections.

The study, published in THE LANCET INFECTIOUS DISEASES, inspected about 1,000 hospitalized COVID-19 patients admitted to the Yale New Haven Health System between March and July of 2021. Only 54 of those admissions were fully vaccinated, confirming the effectiveness of the vaccines.

Of those 54 patients, about half were completely asymptomatic, having been admitted to hospital for other reasons and their COVID-19 status only being discovered up through incidental SARS-CoV-2 testing. Fourteen patients ended up being critically ill, requiring oxygen support, and four ended up in intensive care -- with three of them finally dying of the virus.

The median age of those 14 severely ill COVID-19 patients was 80, and they were marked by pre-existing co-morbidities. Twelve of those patients were suffering cardiovascular disease, nine were overweight, seven had diabetes, and seven had some sort of pre-existing lung disease.

Chun Hyung, senior author on the study, says the great majority of fully vaccinated patients infected with SARS-CoV-2 experience very mild disease. Chun commented:


These [breakthrough] cases are extremely rare, but they are becoming more frequent as variants emerge and more time passes since patients are vaccinated. Identifying who is more likely to develop severe COVID-19 illness after vaccination will be critical to ongoing efforts to mitigate the impact of these breakthrough infections.


The study was performed before the Delta COVID variant was prevalent. Chun says it is not clear how Delta will change matters, but:


It's clear that the vaccines are highly effective, and without them we would be facing a much deadlier pandemic. As effective as the vaccines are, with emerging variants and increasing cases of breakthrough infections, we need to continue to be vigilant in taking measures such as indoor masking and social distancing.


* As discussed in an article from SCIENCENEWS.com ("Neutron Stars May Not Be As Squishy As Some Scientists Thought" by Emily Conover, 20 April 2021), as mentioned here some months back, there has been a spurt of discoveries about superdense neutron stars, thanks primarily to the "Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER)" instrument on the International Space Station (ISS).

NICER array

Now NICER observations of the most massive known neutron star find that it has a surprisingly large diameter, confounding earlier thinking about neutron stars. The extreme conditions of the highly compressed interiors of neutron stars are not well understood, with possibilities that they may contain exotic forms of matter -- for example, free quark particles, which are an impossibility under more normal conditions. It is, however, understood that conditions should become more extreme as neutron star mass increases.

Greater mass should, on the face of it, mean greater compression, and so a more massive neutron star might have a smaller diameter than a less massive one. Compressibility is dependent on interior composition: a neutron star will be more compressible if its core contains free quark particles than if they remain bound up as components of neutrons. In short, the ratio of neutron star diameter to mass should provide clues as to the internal composition of neutron stars.

Researchers accordingly used NICER to determine the diameters of pulsars -- rapidly-spinning neutron stars that emit regular radio pulses. In 2020, NICER found that a pulsar with a mass about 1.4 times that of our Sun's had a diameter of 26 kilometers (16 miles). They then went on to determine the diameter of the most massive known neutron star, with a mass about 2.1 times that of the Sun. They found that it had about the same diameter, one estimate setting it at 25 kilometers, the other at 27 kilometers. Astrophysicist Sanjay Reddy of the University of Washington in Seattle, who was not involved in the research, says: "This is a bit puzzling." He believes the finding suggests that, in the interior of the neutron star, while quarks are no longer confined within neutrons, they still strongly interact with each other.

The observations also revealed another puzzle about neutron stars. Pulsars emit beams of radiation rays from two hot spots associated with the magnetic poles of the pulsar. That suggests the hot spots should be on opposite sides of the neutron star, but for both of the neutron stars observed by NICER, the hot spots were in the same hemisphere. That's not entirely news, but it's still good data. NICER astrophysicist Anna Watts of the University of Amsterdam says; "It implies that we have a somewhat complex magnetic field."

* As discussed by an article from NEWATLAS.com ("Scientists Knit New Artery Grafts Out Of Collagen And Synthetic Fibers" by Michael Irving, 30 September 2020), heart attack patients often need replacements for damaged or blocked sections of coronary arteries, which are usually transplants of their own leg veins. Now researchers have knitted a prototype graft out of hybrid synthetic and biological yarn, creating a scaffold around which the host's cells grow to repair the artery.

Currently, defective coronary arteries are replaced with an artery taken from someplace else in a patient's body. However, this is troublesome to do, and some patients don't have satisfactory alternative arteries available. Researchers from North Carolina State University and Case Western Reserve University decided to investigate alternatives. Lead researcher Zhang Fan says: "There is a need to find an alternative solution for this kind of patient. That's why we're looking to use tissue-engineered vascular grafts."

The researchers wound two types of fibers into one hybrid yarn, and used a circular knitting machine to form it into an artery replacement. One fiber was collagen, while the other was a synthetic fiber made of polylactic acid. The resulting artery substitute was able to expand and contract just like a normal artery. However, the implant is not intended to be permanent; it is instead a scaffold on which the host's own endothelial cells, which normally line the interiors of arteries, stick and grow.

The collagen helps adhesion, with the hybrid yarn improving adhesion by an order of magnitude, compared to an earlier version made up only of the synthetic material. Ultimately, the scaffold degrades into harmless components and are absorbed into the body. The artificial artery is not yet ready for operational use; it is, for one thing, too porous and leaks blood. However, nobody sees any show-stoppers in the effort.


[WED 06 OCT 21] COVID-19 & EVIDENCE (2)

* COVID-19 & EVIDENCE (2): While Iain Chalmers was directing a pioneering study on evidence-based medicine, a group of doctors led by David Sackett at McMaster University in Hamilton, Canada, was devising a new approach to teaching medicine, with an emphasis on critically scouring the medical literature to inform their decisions. The term "evidence-based medicine" emerged in 1991, being later defined as the "conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making decisions about the care of individual patients".

Evidence-based medicine is much more popular now. Many doctors use evidence, along with their clinical expertise and patient preferences, to figure out what to do. Systematic reviews are conducted, in which researchers apply standard methods to analyze all relevant, rigorous evidence to find answers to questions. Reviews may include "meta-analyses", meaning structured compilations of sets of studies on a medical issue, such as clinical trials. Tens of thousands of systematic reviews are now published every year.

This approach is not unique to medicine of course, with organizations working in areas ranging from education to conservation turning out evidence syntheses, which can have a lot of impact on policy-makers. Karla Soares-Weiser -- editor-in-chief of the Cochrane Library, a system of medical / health databases based in Tel Aviv that evolved out of the Cochrane Collaboration -- says that, if given conflicting studies, an evidence synthesis "has the power to identify important conclusions about what works that would never be possible from assessing the underlying trials in isolation."

Jeremy Grimshaw -- a senior scientist and implementation researcher at the Ottawa Hospital Research Institute -- says that the rise of evidence syntheses has been "an invisible and gentle revolution." He adds that once people get to like it, "it's very hard to do anything else."

At least that was true before COVID-19 hit; the pandemic brought the dodgy operators out of the walls. Simon Carley compares the scene before and after the arrival of the pandemic to a choice of meals. Before it hit, physicians wanted their evidence like a gourmet plate from a Michelin-starred restaurant; after it hit, it was if doctors were staggering home from a club after ten pints of lager and would wolf down any old evidence from the dodgy burger van on the street. Carley says:


They didn't know where it came from or what the ingredients were, they weren't entirely sure whether it was meat or vegetarian, they would just eat anything. And it just felt like you've gone from one to the other overnight.


Kari Tikkinen -- a urologist at the University of Helsinki who has run clinical trials -- was similarly shocked in early 2020 to talk to physicians who were so confident that untested therapies such as hydroxychloroquine were effective that they questioned the need to test them in clinical trials. Tikkenen called it "hype-based medicine" -- with hydroxycholoroquine being a perfect example. The craze for the drug began with a criminally-flawed trial conducted by a French master quack named Didier Raoult, with a paper on it leaked to Fox News. The paper then got the attention of US President Donald Trump, who broadcast it enthusiastically to the world. Reed Siemieniuk -- a doctor and methodologist at McMaster University -- says of the rush towards dubious cures: "It very quickly got ahead of us, where people were prescribing any variety of crazy choices for COVID."

To be sure, at the time doctors were desperate to find weapons to fight COVID-19, and there was something to be said for trying things to see if they might work. However, nothing could be known for certain in the absence of proper trials, with Tikkinen saying that most of the trials were too small and too poorly organized to accomplish anything useful. The bungled rush for cures did much more harm than good.

Of course, out of the chaos, proper trials began to emerge. Tikkinen leads the Finnish arm of SOLIDARITY, an international clinical trial of COVID-19 treatments coordinated by the World Health Organization (WHO). SOLIDARITY conducted a thorough study of the efficacy of hydroxychloroquine to fight COVID-19, to conclude in mid-2020 it was worthless. That was pretty much the end of hydroxychloroquine, though claims for it linger. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* BIDEN'S SOLAR PLAN: US President Joe Biden is pushing an ambitious "green" agenda, one facet being a push towards solar power, with the US Department of Energy (DOE) released in September 2021 declaring that solar power could generate up to 45% of the US electricity supply by 2050, compared to less than 4% today.

According to a commentary by Joshua D. Rhodes, Research Associate, University of Texas at Austin ("Biden's Proposed Tenfold Increase In Solar Power Would Remake The US Electricity System"), the "Solar Futures Study (SFS)" considered the energy status quo, with its reliance on fossil fuels, and rejected it as a nonstarter in the face of climate change. The only option then is decarbonization -- meaning a shift to low-carbon and carbon-free energy sources, with an update of the electrical grid to support renewable energy.

The renewable approach would demand about 1,050 to 1,570 gigawatts (GW) of solar power in 2050, which would meet about 45% of electricity demand. For perspective, a gigawatt of generating capacity is equivalent to about 3.1 million solar panels or 364 large-scale wind turbines. The remainder would come from wind, nuclear, hydropower, biofuel, , geothermal, and combustion turbines run on zero-carbon synthetic fuels such as hydrogen. Energy storage capacity would grow at about the same rate as solar.

Solar is the most attractive renewable energy source because it has achieved low costs, and most of the USA has lots of sunshine. Wind, hydropower and geothermal resources aren't so evenly distributed. To be sure, it would make sense to develop, say, wind power in regions where wind is persistent -- but distributing that power from those regions would mean building more high-voltage transmission lines.

The SFS estimates that producing 45% of America's electricity from solar power by 2050 would require deploying about 1,600 GW of solar generation -- contrasted with the 103 GW of solar power capacity today, with the current grid providing 1,200 GW of electricity. The report envisions most of the solar power generated by large utility installations, with about 10% to 20% generated directly by residences, businesses, and other facilities.

Incidentally, while the report believes most of the utility-scale installations will use solar panels, it also asserted there would be a place for solar-thermal turbogenerator power. However, solar panels have become so cheap that solar-thermal does not appear to be competitive any more. In any case, the required capacity would demand solar panels over an area of roughly 44,000 square kilometers (17,000 square miles) -- about the same area as the states of Massachusetts and New Jersey combined, though that would still only be about half a percent of America's land mass. Such a large-scale installation would demand a long-term political commitment, as well as an adequate supply of solar panels. Improvements in efficiency would reduce the scale.

The SFS also states that the US will have to expand its electric transmission capacity by 60% to 90% to support the levels of solar deployment that it envisions. Building long-distance transmission lines is politically troublesome, especially when they cross state lines, and the Federal government would need to set up an expedited authority to get it done. One possible solution is gaining traction: building transmission lines along existing rights of way next to highways and railroad lines, which avoids the need to secure agreement from numerous private landowners.

Moving to a grid dominated by renewables will require utilities and energy regulators to rethink the old way of matching supply and demand. The future grid will require more power transmission and energy storage, along with "smart power" usage in which customers shift the times when they use power to periods when it's most abundant and affordable. It also will demand better coordination between North America's regional power grids, which aren't well configured now for moving electricity seamlessly over long distances.

In 2020, natural gas, coal and oil provide about 80% of primary energy input to the US economy, including electric power generation. That proportion is persistently falling, but it still means replacement of a massive amount of infrastructure. Resistance to change is not going to disappear. The Biden Administration plans to use the Clean Electricity Payment Program, a provision in the multi-trillion budget plan pending in Congress, to create incentives for electric utilities to generate more power from carbon-free sources.



* THE WEEK THAT WAS: According to an article from REUTERS.com ("Taiwan Says Needs Long-Range Weapons To Deter China", 27 September 2021), China insists that Taiwan is part of China and will be repossessed -- by force if need be, with ongoing probes of Taiwan's defenses. Taiwanese in general are not fond of the idea, and have become less so with the heavy-handed actions of the Chinese government in Hong Kong.

In consequence, Taiwanese Defense Minister Chiu Kuocheng told Parliament that China represented a "severe threat", with the government proposing extra defense spending of about $9 billion USD over the next five years to upgrade Taiwan's defenses. Chiu said: "The development of equipment must be long range, precise, and mobile, so that the enemy can sense that we are prepared as soon as they dispatch their troops."

President Tsai Ingwen has made improving Taiwan's defenses a priority, to turn the island into a "porcupine" that would be intolerably expensive to attack. The Taiwanese are acquiring medium- and long-range missiles as a deterrent, though details are not being publicly released.

Chiu said that the priority in a Chinese attack would be Taiwan's command and communications abilities. "On this the Chinese Communists' abilities have rapidly increased. They can disrupt our command, control, communications and intelligence systems, for example with fixed radar stations certainly being attacked first. So we must be mobile, stealthy and able to change positions."

[ED: The Taiwanese, with American assistance, can pursue "asymmetric" warfare, developing missiles to deal with more expensive Chinese air and sea assets, as well as striking deep into China if need be. Might we see a drive for a regional defense alliance along China's Pacific perimeter? Might we even see a Taiwanese unilateral declaration of independence? If so, how would that work out?]

* As much as people love to hate Amazon.com, as discussed in an article from The Motley Fool ("Amazon Is Winning the Battle for Workers" by Parkev Tatevosian, FOOL.com, 27 September 2021), the company is effective. The global COVID-19 pandemic has led to a worker shortage, caused by the pandemic and knock-on factors, such as the need to stay home to care for kids or elders. While the pandemic continues, thanks to vaccination and vaccine mandates, people are returning to jobs -- if not fast enough to keep up with current demand.

Amazon, however, is winning the employment battle, having hired a staggering 450,000 workers since the beginning of the pandemic. Partly its boom was a direct result of the pandemic, since online sales were on a roll with people stuck in lockdowns -- while it wasn't in lockdown itself, being generally able to keep the pandemic under control at its facilities. Amazon sales in fiscal 2020 were 37.6% higher than fiscal 2019, with revenue surging from $280 billion USD to $386 billion USD.

More business meant more hiring. With people put out of work elsewhere, there was no shortage of people wanting to sign on. The company also courted them, offering paying for workers' college tuition, higher hourly wages, sign-on bonuses, and other enticements. Amazon's offer to pay employees' college tuition came after rivals Walmart and Target made the same announcement. On the face of it, it sounds benign, and it is, but of course it reflects a practical agenda: the companies can benefit because a college degree takes several years to complete, potentially keeping the employee with the company in the meantime.

On 14 September, Amazon announced it wanted to hire 125,000 employees in the USA at an average starting pay of $18 USD per hour, reaching as high as $22.50 USD per hour in some locations. Amazon also offers sign-on bonuses of up to $3,000 USD in some locations, plus qualifying employees receive health benefits from the first day of hire. Most of these jobs will be as warehouse employees at fulfillment centers -- entry-level positions requiring little skill, but highly regimented and not particularly exciting. With good pay, hundreds of thousands of new workers still think Amazon is giving them a good deal, and retaining workers is not such a problem.

* As discussed in an article from REUTERS.com ("Explainer: How US Regulators Are Cracking Down On Cryptocurrencies" by Michelle Price, 24 September 2021), while Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies seemed at one time like a greedy fad that would, like other economic bubbles of the past, quickly collapse and go away, instead they appear to be going from strength to strength, with a market now valued in trillions of dollars. Governments are suspicious of cryptocurrencies, suspicious enough to start cracking down on them. China has now banned all crypto trading and mining, sending the crypto markets tumbling.

Global financial regulators worry that the rising tide of privately operated currencies could undermine state control of the financial and monetary systems, increase risk to the financial system, promote financial crime, and cheat investors. The USA has not banned cryptocurrencies yet, but President Joe Biden's regulators have formed up to consider the issue, the players including:

* Kareem Abdul-Jabbar -- a towering National Basketball Association superstar in his prime, with a strong scholarly and literary bent -- finally got fed up enough with antivaxxer lunacy to pen a particularly eloquent and pointed essay titled "Why Athletes Need to Lead the Drive to Vaccinate", suggesting that the antivaxxers in the sports domain need to be leashed in. It is worth posting an edited-down version here:


A couple of years ago, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the world the way the Chicxulub meteor collided with the Earth 66 million years ago, wiping out 75% of plant and animal life, including dinosaurs. If it were up to those contemporary dinosaurs refusing to get vaccines or denying the seriousness of the global pandemic, we'd lumber toward extinction like the previous custodians of the Earth.

Despite my decades of fighting the kind of voluntary ignorance that allows racism to still have such a stranglehold on our country, I've maintained a cautious optimism about people. I believe when given the opportunity most want to do the right thing. But that optimism has been greatly tested these past few months as I see so many people refusing to protect their families, their communities, and their country.

Let's start with these facts: 4.55 million people in the world have died from COVID-19, 688,000 of them in the USA. So far, more than 42 million Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, with about 120,000 more new cases each day. COVID-19 has changed how we live, how we work, how we play, how we interact with family and friends. It has pummeled the economy with daily body blows, some of them below the belt.

And yet, we rise. We rise because we have the intellectual ability to learn from the past and we have the instinctual drive to protect our children and preserve humanity. The world has faced the cruelty of pandemics in the past. Each time we study, we analyze, we devise solutions. We do this through science. And each time, science has to fight the ignorance of the people it is trying to save as vigorously as it fights the diseases killing them. It's like diving into the lake to save a drowning man who refuses to take off his ankle weights. Worse, he's holding onto his children while he's sinking.

And yet, we rise. We rise because we refuse to let that man drown, even if it's his fault. Even if he wants to. Which is why it's so shocking and disappointing to see so many people, especially people of color, treat the vaccination like it's just a matter of personal preference, like ordering no onions on your burger at a drive-thru. While I can understand the vaccine hesitancy of those who have been historically marginalized and even abused by the health care system, enough scientific documentation has been given to the public to set that past behind us for now.

Athletes and other celebrities have a public platform to help alleviate this crisis and to save lives. To not take on that responsibility harms the sports and entertainment industries, the community, and the country. Those who claim they need to do "more research" are simply announcing they have done no research, because the overwhelming consensus of immunologists and other medical experts is that the vaccine is effective and safe. This position only perpetuates the stereotype of the dumb jock who's only in sports for the money. It dehumanizes the victims as nothing more than political fodder.

The anti-expert stance that anti-vaxxers take reveals the fuzziest of thinking. Everyone expects scientists to solve all of our main problems: global warming, cancer, Alzheimer's, ETC -- unless these same experts tell us we have to actually do something to help fix the problems. Then we stop trusting them. But I assure you that when an athlete has a broken leg or heart attack or their child is in an accident, they don't say to the doctors: "Don't do anything until I do more research." They beg the medical experts to help.

The dark reality is that those who promote hesitancy and "more research" have blood on their hands. Worse, the kind of conspiracy theories and pseudoscience pundits spread is the kind of selective "science" that white people used to justify enslaving black people. Racism, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia all thrive in the addled minds of flat-Earth thinking. For Black athletes or entertainers to give this same anti-vax pseudo-science any oxygen is to allow the other crackpot theories to co-exist that justify marginalizing others.

If individual athletes can't muster the courage to do the right thing, then the NBA and every other league governing body must step in and mandate vaccinations for players, coaches, and staff in order to protect the team, the fans, and the community. Players are free to choose not to get vaccinated, but they should have the courage of their moral convictions to sit out the season, sustained in the righteousness of their choice. They've already proven they are not team players.

We must all step up to help each other, not just because it's practical for our survival, but because it's a shared value that enriches us. Isaac Hayes said it straight in his SHAFT theme: "Who's the cat that won't cop out when there's danger all about?" We can place no trust in those who tell us there is no danger. We rise.


Clinton meets Kareem

Vaccine mandates are spreading in the USA, but not fast enough. One can hope that by the end of October, they will be comprehensive, and Americans -- like it or not -- will have to show their vaccination passes. From now on, we get to act like grown-ups.



* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (170): Trump donated all his presidential salary to various charitable causes. However, when he spent time at his resort facilities with his entourage, the government was billed for expenses, more than making up for the loss of salary. Trump brought family into the White House, with his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner became his assistant and senior advisor, respectively. He moved his business interests into a revocable trust run by his sons, Eric and Donald JR, and Trump Organization cronies. The separation between the White House and Trump's businesses was indistinct, and led to considerable criticism. Ironically, over time, those who had been dealing with the Trump Organization began to distance themselves from it, due to Trump's controversial actions.

Publicly, Trump took a noisy position against all things judged "liberal", being opposed to gun control, abortion, and diversity. He conducted a campaign against transgender members of the armed services, his measures being opposed by the military brass, and ironically doing much to promote public sympathy for transgenders.

Trump took a chainsaw to Federal regulations. Early on, he signed Executive Order 13771, which directed that for every new regulation administrative agencies issue "at least two prior regulations be identified for elimination." There was only so much he could dismantle; although Trump had made much of promoting "beautiful clean coal" during the campaign, coal was in permanent decline, and nothing he could do would change that. The effect of the order was more to interfere with the Federal bureaucracy. One particular objective of the Trump Administration was to get rid of California's regulatory carve-out for auto emissions -- but the administration, despite ongoing efforts, was never able to do so.

An even more important objective was to get rid of the Affordable Care Act -- Obamacare -- but when the Republicans tried to kill it off in May 2017, a handful of Republicans crossed the aisle and prevented it. The Republicans were able to get rid of the individual mandate, and the Trump Administration did all they could to interfere with the operation of the ACA. While Trump repeatedly said he had a plan to replace the ACA, nothing that resembled a real plan ever emerged. More important was to pass a tax cut, which was done with the Tax Cuts & Jobs Act of 2017, widely perceived as being a "tax cut for the rich". The Trump Administration defended the cuts on the basis of the weary "trickle-down" theory; in reality, deficits climbed.

The dirty presidential campaign of 2016 continued to dog Trump. At the outset of his administration, US American intelligence agencies -- the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA -- jointly stated with "high confidence" that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election to favor the election of Trump. In March 2017, FBI Director James Comey told Congress that "the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government's efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. That includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia's efforts."

Trump reacted angrily to the FBI investigation, and concocted a conspiracy theory to counteract it -- claiming that the Obama Administration had spied upon and infiltrated his campaign, attempting to sabotage it. The pretext for the theory was the investigation by the FBI of Russian influence in the Trump campaign; there was never anything else to support Trump's story, but he would never give it up, and the scenario would become ever wilder over time. He continually pressured Comey to drop the Russia investigation; when he wouldn't, he fired Comey in May 2017, blandly acknowledging that it was because of the Russia investigation.

It was typical of Trump to "say the quiet part out loud". Weeks later, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller, a former FBI director of the FBI, to serve as special counsel for the DOJ investigating "links and/or coordination" between the Russian government and Trump's campaign.

In foreign relations, Trump treated US allies with visible contempt, on the basis that America's deals with its allies were one-sided and not to the USA's advantage. At the same time, he toadied up to Russian President Vladimir Putin, for reasons that never became very clear. Trump had been raised to step on those beneath while ingratiating himself with those above him -- if only as long as served his purposes to do so. More specifically, Russia had helped Trump get elected, and could well be expected to help get him re-elected. [TO BE CONTINUED]