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

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

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[WED 25 APR 18] SMART CONSTRUCTION
[THU 24 APR 18] EU GDPR FOR DATA RIGHTS
[MON 23 APR 18] LEFT BEHIND (2)
[FRI 20 APR 18] AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (10)
[THU 19 APR 18] SPACE NEWS
[WED 18 APR 18] DIVERSE RIBOSOMES
[TUE 17 APR 18] THE AMAZON EFFECT
[MON 16 APR 18] LEFT BEHIND (1)
[FRI 13 APR 18] AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (9)
[THU 12 APR 18] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 11 APR 18] THE SYNESTHESIA PUZZLE
[TUE 10 APR 18] IPHONE ECONOMICS
[MON 09 APR 18] UNDERSTANDING AI (18)
[FRI 06 APR 18] AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (8)
[THU 05 APR 18] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 04 APR 18] SMART SPEAKERS FOR MEDICAL CARE
[TUE 03 APR 18] POWER SHIFT
[MON 02 APR 18] ANOTHER MONTH

[WED 25 APR 18] SMART CONSTRUCTION

* SMART CONSTRUCTION: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("3D Printing And Clever Computers Could Revolutionise Construction", 3 June 2017), the chapel at King's College in Cambridge, UK, completed in 1515, is a marvel of Gothic style. The ceiling is particularly impressive, an elegant web of stone as seen from below -- and far stronger than it looks.

Building such structures was meticulous, highly-skilled work; too complicated and expensive for modern structures. They may be poised for a comeback, however, with computer-aided design and 3D printing permitting the design and construction of elaborate structures that combine style with utility and low cost.

As an example, consider a facility south of Doncaster in the UK run by Laing O'Rourke, a construction firm. The facility turns out precast concrete elements; it includes a system named "FreeFAB", one of the biggest 3D printers in the world, with a nozzle moving about a gantry 30 meters long, 3.5 meters wide, and 1.5 meters tall (98 x 11.5 x 4.9 feet). FreeFAB doesn't print concrete; instead, it prints forms made of a special wax for precast panels. The panels are for Crossrail, Europe's biggest construction project, which is digging a new east-west railway line across London.

FreeFAB is the first 3D printing tech used in a large construction. There have been efforts to print concrete directly, but laying concrete down in layers tends to weaken it, possibly leading to delamination. The precast elements produced by the wax molds don't have that problem. FreeFAB, designed by Australian architect James Gardiner, allows automated construction of highly elaborate molds. The molds that FreeFAB turns out might take more than a week to build using traditional methods; FreeFAB turns them out in three hours. FreeFAB also generates less waste, since unlike traditional molds, the wax can be recycled and re-used. It took Gardiner three years to find a wax that can be printed, milled, and recycled.

The FreeFAB system is still being debugged, with the facility turning out precast elements using molds produced by FreeFAB or by traditional methods as necessary. If it can be made to work well enough, Laing O'Rourke plans to spin the facility off as a separate company.

Philippe Block, an architectural engineer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, would be a natural customer for the firm. Block makes floors that have the flowing, veined look of biological membranes. Only a few centimeters thick, their elaboration bring to mind the chapel ceiling at King's College. They are lightweight, with only about a third of the mass of a typical floor slab, but very strong, being in the form of shallow vaults, in which compression paths distribute the load.

the artistic architecture of Philippe Block

Block is now collaborating with Gardiner on a demonstration building in the Zurich suburbs, with FreeFAB being used to print molds for pouring floor segments. Gardiner has further ambitions, thinking of using ductal concrete -- reinforced with steel fibers that make it lighter than concrete reinforced with steel rods but just as strong -- to build lightweight bridges that could cross rivers in a single span. That's a project for the future, but the pieces are coming into place.

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[THU 24 APR 18] EU GDPR FOR DATA RIGHTS

* EU GDPR FOR DATA RIGHTS: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG.COM/BUSINESSWEEK ("It'll Cost Billions for Companies to Comply With Europe's New Data Law" by Jeremy Kahn, Stephanie Bodoni, and Stefan Nicola, 21 March 2018) on 25 May 2018, the European Union's "General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)" will go into effect, to protect the data security and privacy of EU citizens.

The GDPR took a decade to put together and applies to any business, anywhere on Earth, that handles the personal data of European residents. The rules cover almost everything that can be linked to an individual: addresses, charge card numbers, travel records, web search history, computer ID codes, biometric data, and so on.

The world's 500 biggest corporations are expected to spend a total of $7.8 billion USD to comply with GDPR. Businesses must appoint an EU resident as liaison with regulators, and many larger companies are required to designate a "data protection officer" responsible for compliance. Microsoft has 300 engineers working to ensure that its software is GDPR-compliant. At Krones AG, a 15,000-employee German maker of bottling equipment, almost 60 people are involved in GDPR preparations.

Julian Saunders -- chief executive officer of Port, a UK startup selling software to assist companies in privacy control -- says GDPR compliance is painful: "The bigger an organization is, the bigger a nightmare it is." Many companies outside Europe didn't see it coming until it was almost upon them, and tech industry observers don't believe even half the companies will be GDPR-compliant by the end of 2018.

The difficulties in compliance are greatly aggravated by the fact that many of the law's provisions remain ill-defined. What, precisely, is the difference between "consent" and the "explicit consent" GDPR demands for sensitive data, like criminal records? Similarly, although companies can claim a "legitimate interest" in data that outweighs privacy concerns, how is that legitimate interest defined? Certainly, if Amazon.com sells product to customers, the company has a perfect right, indeed a necessity, to keep a detailed record of the sale -- and of course knows better than to tell the world about it. However, what about a company that supports itself via targeted advertising? Without the ads, the company is out of business.

The GDPR imposes a list of other requirements:

Courts have been debating EU privacy rules for two decades; GDPR only promises to intensify the debate. Wim Nauwelaerts -- a lawyer with Sidley Austin in Brussels, says each country has enough discretion under GDPR to lead to a lot of differences -- forcing companies with operations across Europe to comply with a chaos of different regulations. Nauwelaerts asks: "What was the purpose, then, of having a GDPR in the first place?"

* In very closely related news, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was grilled by Congress on 10 and 11 April. Facebook is under severe pressure, mostly due to the fact that political advertising company Cambridge Analytica mined millions of Facebook accounts without users' consent, and used the data to boost the Trump campaign.

In reality, the grilling was more like a light toasting, Zuckerberg sailing through the inquisition effectively unharmed. The first problem with the event for Congress was that the hearing had a high public profile, and so there were many members of Congress in attendance -- meaning no one of them had the time to interrogate Zuckerberg in much detail. More significantly, many of them didn't know enough about the issues to ask sensible questions. Senator Orrin Hatch (R:UT) asked: "How do you sustain a business model in which users don't pay for your service?"

Zuckerberg replied, keeping a straight face: "Senator, we run ads." Some of the clueless comments of the old geezers of the Senate went viral online.

There was some focused questioning, Senator Kamala Harris (D:CA) pressing Zuckerberg on his failure to explain how extensively Facebook tracked user activity beyond Facebook-owned platforms, and why the company did not inform users in 2015 that their data had been shared with Cambridge Analytica.

However, Zuckerberg knew what line to follow, and followed it repetitively. Did he take ownership? Of course he did. Was Facebook responsible for protecting user content? It was. If a lawmaker said Facebook had done something wrong, Zuckerberg replied that the company was working to make it right. If he couldn't give an answer, he promised a reply later. It was just too easy for him; when Zuckerberg was offered break time from questioning, he replied, again with a straight face: "We can do a few more."

The media judgement on Zuckerberg was that his performance wasn't much more than smoke and mirrors. However, the reply would be: "What else might be expected?" Congress has no clear idea of how to tackle the online privacy issue. How could Zuckerberg be expected to make everything right, when lawmakers did not have any guidelines to show him the way? Under the circumstances, it seemed that he was doing as well as anyone might expect -- and nobody could expect anything all that satisfactory.

ED: Zuckerberg is a short fellow, about 170 centimeters (67 inches) tall, and he sat on a thick pad during his interrogation. Comedian Seth Meyers said: "That's his wallet." Comedians then suggested that Attorney General Jeff Sessions -- who is about 163 centimeters (64 inches) tall -- should have complained about not getting a pad of his own. That was unkind; although Sessions has troglodyte political views, he is generally respected in Congress as conscientious, honest, and civil.

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[MON 23 APR 18] LEFT BEHIND (2)

* LEFT BEHIND (2): While inequality grew in the rich world, poor countries began to catch up economically. In hindsight, it was all but inevitable -- they had nowhere to go but up, and could get on board a charged-up global economic system. On the wider view of things, it was all for the good, but political leadership and economists were slow to catch on to what was happening. When countries with lots of low-wage workers begin trading with richer economies, pay for similarly-skilled workers converges to a median; those in poor countries get richer, those in rich countries get poorer.

Of course, it wasn't a case of everyone in the rich world falling behind, while everyone in the poor world benefited; there were benefits to both rich and poor countries in globalization, they just weren't evenly distributed on a geographic basis. Prosperity flowed to regions in a position to gain from globalization.

Companies, particularly manufacturers, tend to cluster together, to have access to suppliers, subcontractors, partners, pools of specialist labor. The cluster builds on itself, drawing workers to the area, attracted by employment opportunities and an environment congenial to their interests. Think of California's Silicon Valley, with its startups and venture capitalists, with the same sort of thing playing out in other industries. Financial firms cluster in New York because they are close to the banks that finance them, and clients that hire them, and there have access to a great pool of specialized talent.

Globalization makes those clusters all the more powerful, since firms then can make money from customers across the world. Business clout tends to flow to the global clusters that are the most effective. Financial firms in London outcompete those in Frankfurt; California's internet firms overwhelm the competition in Paris. Laggards either have to up their game, specialize, relocate, or go under -- ruthless, yes, but capitalism's like that. On the clearly positive side, global markets mean economies of mass production, while consumers get a wider choice of competitive goods.

In any case, the best performing firms and places have thrived in the new world order. Across a wide range of industries, the share of output generated by America's clusters has risen, sometimes dramatically. In the financial industry, their share of output rose from 18% to 29%; and in retail, wholesale, and logistics from 15% to 21% between 2002 and 2014. Since 2013, surveys show the share of high-salary tech jobs found in America's eight largest technology hubs has risen. Similarly, from 1997 to 2015 London's share of Britain's gross value added rose from 19% to 23%.

Ah, but what about the rest? One of the drivers of the UK's Brexit was a resentment of London as a global hub of commerce that was outpacing the rest of Britain. The resentment was overblown, it wasn't like London was bleeding the rest of the UK dry; but it did seem problematic, with the firms and places that weren't so well-placed falling behind in relative terms. Studies have shown that technology transfers between the world's globally-competitive firms take place rapidly. Unfortunately, within borders, it's a different story, laggard firms being slow to leverage technology from the aggressive firms.

Faced with decline, the sensible thing to do is relocate. In the most successful developing countries, people eagerly move to new centers of progress, as they did in America and Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The population of Shanghai doubled from 1980 to 2010, just as Manchester's did from 1811 to 1841. Life in China's booming cities is not always easy, but many Chinese still prefer it to the stagnation and impoverishment of the countryside.

In the rich world, however, such mobility has declined. Relocation used to be ordinary in America; now it's more an exception, though it's still more common than it is in Europe. Each year, a bit over 2% of Americans move across state lines, whereas only 1.5% of Europeans move between regions within their home country -- and in spite of the EU's freedoms of movement, only 0.37% move from one country to another. Nonetheless, mobility in fading across the board.

Restrictive urban-planning rules in rich cities make housing unaffordable, even with higher pay in the rich cities. On the other side of the coin, government benefits and pension payments mean people are no longer forced to move out of poor areas -- and indeed, given the costs of living in poor areas are lower, there's a clear economic incentive to stay. State and local benefits reduce mobility as well: as per one estimate, the pension of a teacher who spends 30 years in one school system is about twice that of a teacher who splits her career between two.

Moving is troublesome, and people usually need to have a good reason to pull up stakes. Unless a person making the move is fleeing an intolerable environment, it generally means giving up social connections, abandoning networks of friends. Youngsters tend to migrate from their childhood homes to find a life elsewhere; once they get settled, it's harder to move, and it continues to get harder the older they get. Aging has other effects: adult children may need to care for elderly parents, while healthy grandparents can help raise the grandchildren. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 20 APR 18] AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (10)

* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (10): The 3/5ths Clause of Article I remains, in hindsight, an unsettling element of the Constitution. Less disturbingly, members of Congress were granted, in Section 6, a limited immunity from arrest -- only for a class of civil cases, the idea being to protect members of Congress from legal harassment during a legislative session -- while they were in Congress, or in transit to or from congressional sessions. Members of Congress could also say anything they liked during a legislative session, with no fear of legal repercussions. However, as described in Section 5, Congress did have the right to judge the qualifications of its members, and discipline them if judged necessary.

Both houses chose their own officers as they saw fit -- as it would turn out, both parties would have majority leaders in both houses of Congress, with the House majority leader generally being the Speaker of the House, the body's presiding officer. However, the Constitution only dictated that there be a House Speaker, not how the Speaker will be chosen, and the majority leader rule is not a rigid one. The presiding officer of the Senate was the vice-president -- though the vice-president had no vote, except to break a tie. The Constitution specified a "president pro tempore" for the Senate, to take the place of the vice president when necessary.

The fact that the vice president could break a tie vote was different from normal parliamentary procedure of the era, in which a tie vote was the same as a NO vote. Obviously, this was done to give a bit of an edge to the executive branch, permitting the executive to tip the scales if they were evenly balanced.

Note that it took a two-thirds vote for a house of Congress to expel a member. It should be noted in this context that the Constitution did not explicitly define normal voting rules; the unstated assumption was that, by default, votes would be by a simple majority. Although underlined by the fact that the Constitution did declare exceptions, like the 2/3rds rule for expulsion, the majority-vote rule is not a rigid one.

* Of course, having defined the structure and general rules of operation of Congress, there was the issue of the "enumerated powers" of Congress, as listed at length in Section 8 -- including:

That's only highlights, Section 8 having a total of 18 clauses:

EGIN QUOTE:

1: The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

2: To borrow Money on the credit of the United States;

3: To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;

4: To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;

5: To coin Money, regulate the Value thereof, and of foreign Coin, and fix the Standard of Weights and Measures;

6: To provide for the Punishment of counterfeiting the Securities and current Coin of the United States;

7: To establish Post Offices and post Roads;

8: To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;

9: To constitute Tribunals inferior to the supreme Court;

10: To define and punish Piracies and Felonies committed on the high Seas, and Offences against the Law of Nations;

11: To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;

12: To raise and support Armies, but no Appropriation of Money to that Use shall be for a longer Term than two Years;

13: To provide and maintain a Navy;

14: To make Rules for the Government and Regulation of the land and naval Forces;

15: To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;

16: To provide for organizing, arming, and disciplining, the Militia, and for governing such Part of them as may be employed in the Service of the United States, reserving to the States respectively, the Appointment of the Officers, and the Authority of training the Militia according to the discipline prescribed by Congress;

17: To exercise exclusive Legislation in all Cases whatsoever, over such District (not exceeding ten Miles square) as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings; - And

18: To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.

END QUOTE

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[THU 19 APR 18] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for March included:

-- 01 MAR 18 / GOES S -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2202 UTC (local time + 4) to put "GOES S" AKA "GOES 17" into orbit, this being the second next-generation geostationary weather satellite for NASA and NOAA. GOES-S was built by Lockheed Martin and had a launch mass of 5,192 kilograms (11,466 pounds). It was the second of four to be launched through 2024. The booster was in the "541" vehicle configuration with a 5-meter (16.4-foot) fairing, four solid rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

-- 06 MAR 18 / HISPASAT 30W-6 -- A Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 0533 UTC (local time + 5) to put the "Hispasat 30W-6" geostationary comsat into orbit for Hispasat of Madrid. It was built by Space Systems / Loral, and had a launch mass of about 6,100 kilograms (13,400 pounds). It was placed in the geostationary slot at 30 degrees west longitude -- replacing the aging Hispasat 30W-4 spacecraft, launched in September 2002 -- to provide communications across the Atlantic, using three communications payloads:

The comsat also carried a modular microsat named PODSat, flown by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. PODSat was ejected by the comsat; no further details were released. Due to high seas, the Falcon 9 booster was not recovered.

-- 09 MAR 18 / O3B F4 -- A Soyuz ST-B booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 1710 UTC (previous day local time + 3) to put the fourth set of four satellites for O3b Networks in orbit. The satellites were built by Thales Alenia Space; they carried a Ka-band relay payload with ten spot beams. They were put into an orbit with an altitude of 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles), joining 12 other O3B satellites, launched in 2013 and 2014. O3b provides broadband service to international businesses & organizations.

O3B satellite

-- 17 MAR 18 / LKW 4 -- A Chinese Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0710 UTC (local time - 8) to put an Earth observation payload designated "LKW 4" into orbit. It was announced as an Earth survey satellite, but was judged to be a military optical surveillance satellite.

-- 21 MAR 18 / SOYUZ ISS 54S (ISS) -- A Soyuz FG booster was launched from Baikonur at 1744 UTC (local time + 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 54S" AKA "MS-08" crewed space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included Oleg Artemyev of Russia's RKA (2nd space flight), Drew Feustel of NASA (3rd space flight), and Ricky Arnold of NASA (2nd space flight). The capsule docked with ISS's upper Poisk module two days after launch, with the Soyuz crew joining the ISS Expedition 55 crew of Anton Shkaplerov, Scott Tingle, and Norishige Kanai.

-- 29 MAR 18 / GSAT 6A -- An ISRO Geostationary Satellite Launch Vehicle (GSLV) Mark 2 booster was launched from Sriharikota at 1126 UTC (local time - 5:30) to put the ISRO "GSAT 6A" geostationary comsat satellite into space. GSAT 6A had a launch mass of 2,140 kilograms (4,720 pounds); the satellite carried 10 S-band / 1 C-band transponders and demonstrated advanced technologies, including a 6-meter unfurlable antenna and other network technologies for future satellite-based mobile communications applications. Unfortunately, contact with the satellite was lost after it reached orbit.

GSAT 6A

-- 29 MAR 18 / EMKA (COSMOS 2505) -- A Soyuz 2-1v booster was launched from Plesetsk at 1738 UTC (local time - 4) to put a classified satellite designated "EMKA" into orbit. It was based on a new satellite bus.

-- 29 MAR 18 / BEIDOU 3M x 2 -- A Chinese Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1750 UTC (next day local time - 8) to put two "Beidou 3M" navigation satellites into orbit. These were medium Earth orbit satellites, using a new bus with a phased array antenna for navigation signals, plus a laser retroreflector, and a launch mass of 1,014 kilograms (2,235 pounds) each.

-- 30 MAR 18 / IRIDIUM NEXT 41:50 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Vandenberg AFB at 1414 UTC (local time + 7) to put ten "Iridium Next" satellites low-orbit comsats into orbit. The Falcon 9 first stage had been flown on a previous mission; it was not recovered.

-- 31 MAR 18 / GAOFEN 1 x 3 -- A Long March 4C booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0322 UTC (local time - 8) to put a triplet of "Gaofen (High Resolution) 1" civil Earth observation satellites into Sun-synchronous low Earth orbit. They followed a Gaofen 1 pathfinder satellite launched in 2013.

The Gaofen 1 satellites were based on the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) small satellite bus designed; they were built by China Spacesat Company LTD, the commercial subsidiary of CAST. Each satellite had a launch mass of 805 kilograms (1,775 pounds), carrying a payload including a 2-meter (6.5-foot) resolution CCD camera; an 8-meter (26.25-foot) resolution multi-spectrum imager; and a 16-meter (52.5-meter) resolution wide-field multi-spectrum imager.

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[WED 18 APR 18] DIVERSE RIBOSOMES

* DIVERSE RIBOSOMES: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("There Are Millions Of Protein Factories In Every Cell / Surprise, They're Not All The Same" by Mitch Leslie, 21 June 2017), it is a basic fact of genetics that the double-stranded DNA molecule codes for proteins, with DNA producing a single-stranded "messenger RNA (mRNA)" molecule that is read by a cellular organelle called a "ribosome" to turn out the protein.

The traditional view was that one ribosome was pretty much like another, and can synthesize any protein. However, a recent study suggests that some ribosomes, like modern factories, are specialty manufacturers, only producing certain classes of proteins. Such tailored ribosomes might give cells additional control over what proteins are generated, and could also account for certain puzzling afflictions.

The question of if ribosomes specialize is not really new, and some researchers remain unconvinced that they do. Others have been impressed by the study. Jonathan Dinman -- a molecular biologist at the University of Maryland in College Park -- says: "This is really an important step in redefining how we think about this central player in molecular biology."

A single mammalian cell may contain as many as 10 million ribosomes; the cell can devote up to 60% of its energy to constructing them from RNA and 80 different types of proteins. The focus on ribosome production is not surprising, since they're the source of the proteins required by the cell. Dinman says: "Life evolved around the ribosome."

There have been hints of the specialization of ribosomes for decades. For example, molecular and developmental biologist Maria Barna -- of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California -- and colleagues reported in 2011 that mice with too little of one ribosome protein have short tails, extra ribs, and show other anatomical defects. That suggested the protein shortage was due to trouble with ribosomes specialized for manufacturing proteins key to embryonic development.

Actually pulling a signal out of the noise is troublesome. For one thing, determining the concentrations of proteins in naturally occurring ribosomes has been difficult. In the paper, Barna and her team determined the abundances of various ribosome proteins with a method known as "selected reaction monitoring" -- which is based on mass spectrometry, in which molecules are sorted by weight.

When the researchers analyzed 15 ribosomal proteins in mouse embryonic stem cells, they found that nine of the proteins were equally common in all ribosomes -- but four were absent from about a third or the ribosomes. Among 76 ribosome proteins measured with another mass spectrometry-based method, seven varied enough to suggest ribosome specialization.

If ribosomes specialized, then what proteins did they specialize in? A technique known as "ribosome profiling" allowed the researchers to pinpoint which mRNAs the organelles were reading, and so determine their end products. The specialized ribosomes often concentrated on proteins that collaborated to perform particular tasks; for example, one type of ribosome built several proteins that control growth.

A second type generated out all the proteins that allow cells to use vitamin B12. Barna says that it was surprising to find that each ribosome focused on proteins crucial for a certain function: "I don't think any of us would have expected this."

Ribosome specialization might explain the symptoms of several rare diseases, known as "ribosomopathies", in which cellular organelles are defective. In "Diamond-Blackfan anemia", for instance, the bone marrow that generates new blood cells is defective, while victims also have birth defects such as small heads and misshapen or missing thumbs. The researchers suggest these different symptoms might be the result of a defect in a specialized ribosome, the problem being manifested in early development.

Molecular biologist Harry Noller of UC Santa Cruz suspects that the different ribosomes are just variations on a basis theme. One might think that in the distant past, ribosomes were indeed standard, but over time variations on the themselves. If cells tailor their ribosomes, Noller says "the cheaper way to do it" would involve modifying a universal "stem" ribosome structure, instead of building custom ones.

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[TUE 17 APR 18] THE AMAZON EFFECT

* THE AMAZON EFFECT: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG.com ("Amazon Effect Is Hiking Pay and Fueling Land Rush in US" by Michael Sasso & Steve Matthews, 27 February 2018), the rise of online retailers like Amazon.com has led to the decline of brick-&-mortar retailers. Of course, that doesn't mean retailing is at all dead, it just means it's changing form.

Jackson County in Georgia, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Atlanta, is on a warehouse boom. Since 2015, at least 31 e-commerce fulfillment centers and other distribution depots have opened, or are under development, with the list of participants including Amazon, Williams-Sonoma, and FedEx.

Larry Feinstein -- chief executive officer of Hire Dynamics, a regional employment service -- says the local labor market was already tight when Amazon opened a 1,000-person fulfillment center in the county in 2017, and since then his firm has been scrambling to find warm bodies. According to Feinstein: "Amazon comes in and sucks up all the labor. Every one of our clients up there has raised their pay rates at least $2."

Forklift drivers are particularly in demand; they can get at least $15 USD an hour, and up to $17.50 USD in some places in Georgia. Unskilled workers have similarly seen their wages bumped up to to $12 or $13 USD an hour -- at least 30% more than what most cashiers in the state earn, and a bit more than what retail salespeople earn. Unemployment in Jackson County was 3.3% in December 2017, about a percentage point below the US national average.

As retail outlets fade, warehouses are on a roll, changing the economies of areas that were once based on farms or factories. Between 2013 and 2017, US developers added about 78.5 million square meters (848 million square feet) of warehouse space, near to three times the capacity built over the five previous years. The number of stock clerks and order fillers -- as they're designated by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics' designation-- grew by almost 311,000 in the decade to 2016.

Amazon warehouse

It's not just workers who are in short supply. Utilization rates for existing industrial space are very high, while the shortage of tracts big enough to site a warehouse, as well as with access to highways and utilities, has caused industrial land prices to double in a few years.

Companies have always put their distribution hubs on the edge of urban areas. However, the "edge" keeps creeping outward as the size of warehouses has doubled to a typical 92,500 square meters (a million square feet). That means long commutes that are not only time-consuming, but a troublesome financial drain for low wage earners. Amazon, which has 70 fulfillment centers in the USA, operates shuttles for employees at some locations, and hands out gift certificates to those willing to carpool.

Jackson County residents also have to deal with complications due to the warehouse boom -- such as monster traffic jams that not only make it hard for the locals to get around, but also are bad for businesses, since customers can't get to them. Some locals have showed up at county meetings wearing red tee shirts marked: NO MORE WAREHOUSES. Some officials are ambivalent, uncertain that local services are adequate to support the warehouses, and concerned that automation will gradually kill off the jobs the warehouses bring.

Others believe the warehouses are a net plus. Jim Shaw of the Jackson County Area Chamber of Commerce says that locals who once depended on its now-shuttered textile mills or its still-active poultry processing industry are finding night shift work in warehouses: "We've filled a lot of jobs in the distribution centers over the past few years, I often wonder if, as hard as that work may be, it seems a lot easier than working in a broiler house."

* ED: If a company operated a free shuttle-bus service to handle the commute from the city to a facility, that would actually be a good deal for workers, even if the commute was an hour each way. A worker could sleep on the bus and then have a shorter night, without losing much time out of the day for the commute; or, if the bus had a wi-fi connection, surf the internet and otherwise have fun.

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[MON 16 APR 18] LEFT BEHIND (1)

* LEFT BEHIND (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Left In The Lurch", 21 October 2017), changes in industry, the advance of technologies, and the internationalization of commerce has awarded opportunities to those equipped to seize them. However, it has also inevitably meant losers as well.

Scranton, a city in north-east Pennsylvania state, went into decline from 1902, when the steel industry moved out. Coal remained important in keeping the city alive, at least up to 1959 -- when miners broke through the bed of the Susquehanna River. Twelve miners died; the longer-term calamity was that the flooding of the mines destroyed the coal-mining industry in the region. Today, the area is littered with shuttered factories. The city of Scranton just barely evaded bankruptcy in 2012. Nonetheless, more than a half-million people still live in Scranton and its outliers.

The same story can be seen elsewhere, not just in the USA, but in Britain, France, almost every developed country: cities that have been left behind by change, but linger on, impoverished. Politicians have tried to rescue Scranton, pumping hundreds of millions of dollars over the past decade into infrastructure and renewal projects. One estimate suggests the state of Pennsylvania spent over $6 billion USD between 2007 and 2016 on corporate subsidies, more than any other state, for Scranton and other depressed regions in the state.

The efforts did not pay off well; obviously, policy-makers need to figure out better ways of dealing with the problem than just trying to throw money at it. They have to, since the problems are festering. Resentment, a feeling of being left behind in an age of globalization, led voters in north-east Pennsylvania to help hand Donald Trump the state. In much the same way, regions of Britain, like Teeside, voted for Brexit; and why the French in that country's economically troubled north favor the Front National of Marine le Pen.

Trump, Brexit, Marine le Pen are all about populist nationalism -- which equates, to a substantial extent, to anti-globalization. "Stop letting the rest of the world step on us!" the demagogues shout. "Stop letting weakling leadership sell us out! Put us in charge, and we'll make our country great again!" It's hot air, simplistic answers to difficult problems: nothing in their troglodyte agenda will make the Scrantons of the world a bit better off.

Libertarians, single-mindedly enthusiastic about the "magic of the market", are inclined to the "solution of no solution" -- just leave things be, so that thinking goes, and they'll fix themselves. That's not unreasonable on the face of it; indeed, mainstream economists once believed that inequalities between regions were inherently self-repairing. Rich places with more money than investment opportunities would sink money into poorer ones, seeing them as bargains, while technological innovation would float everyone's boats.

The history of the postwar period seemed to back up that optimistic scenario. Following World War II, underdeveloped industrialized countries, working from a low economic base, grew much faster than the more highly developed one. In 1950, for example, real output per person in Italy was 33% of that in America -- but by 1973, it was 62%. From 1880 to 1980, income gaps between American states closed at an average annual rate of 1.8%: real personal income per person in Florida grew from 33% of that in Connecticut, to 82%. Much the same was observed across Japanese prefectures and European regions.

At the same time, as globalization initially took root in industrialized countries, the gap between them and the rest of the world grew. American incomes, adjusted for living costs, were a bit less than nine times those in the world's poorest countries in 1870, but nearly 50 times larger by 1990. The disparity was less due to the impoverishment of undeveloped countries than to their failure to advance; those in industrialized countries had no cause to feel guilty that they were getting richer so much faster. The inequality between the haves and have-nots wasn't seen as so much of an issue, at least to the haves.

However, in the 1990s, the two trendlines began to change direction; regional inequality within rich countries increased, while poorer economies began catching up with richer ones. From that time, the rate of economic convergence between American states fell off; now the gaps are effectively static. Rich cities boomed, while struggling cities like Scranton fell further behind. A recent report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) found that, among its largely industrialized member countries, the average productivity gap between the most productive 10% of regions and the bottom 75% has widened by nearly 60% over the past 20 years. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 13 APR 18] AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (9)

* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (9): The proportional representation scheme of the House of Representatives had two significant catches, summed up by the 3/5ths Clause: "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States ... by adding to the whole Number of free Persons ... [and] three fifths of all other Persons."

The first catch was the apportionment of representatives among the states. Given a certain level of population, a state would get a roughly proportional number of representatives -- but left, in accordance with the principle of States' Rights, the electoral process up to the states, as stated in Section 4.

The Congress could in principle intervene in state electoral processes, but the bias was not to do so, unless things were going very badly in a state. Each state got a certain number of Congressional districts, but was under no Constitutional obligation to set them up fairly according to population. One district might have many citizens; another, well fewer citizens.

It was the second catch -- about "three fifths of all other Persons" -- that, as much as it tried to conceal it in ambiguity, revealed an ugly agenda and a national confusion in apportionment, since "other Persons" read as "slaves", and everybody knew it. On a modern reading, that seems like an outrageous declaration: slaves were only 3/5ths people? The true outrage, which the antislavery faction of the convention knew perfectly well, was that slaves were counted at all.

The 3/5ths Clause was a meaty bone thrown to the slave states, allowing them to obtain greater representation and power in the House on the basis of ownership of slaves, who had no real rights. A slave state could acquire more power by accumulating more slaves -- and it should be noted that Section 9 of Article I said, in so many words, that there would be no limitation of the slave trade before 1808. The 3/5ths Clause was also permanent, there being no intent to gradually phase it out -- though a case might have been made for doing so. No such case was made, and the slave states would, in the following decades, of course use their political slave subsidy to extend their power.

Yes, as modern apologists like to point out, the 3/5ths Clause also increased the potential tax obligation to the Federal government of the slave states, but only in principle; at the outset, the Federal government would obtain its revenue from levies on imports, rendering the tax assessment issue mostly irrelevant. Besides, if the only effect of the 3/5ths Clause on the slave states had been to increase their tax obligation, they wouldn't have wanted their slaves counted at all.

Indeed, during the convention, delegates from slave states had wanted slaves counted as full persons for purposes of representation; but not as persons for purposes of taxation. The 3/5ths Clause demonstrated the fundamental confusions of slavery, between a straddling of the fence between regarding slaves as persons, in some awkward political sense of the term, and regarding them as property, which is what they actually were. This was even more confused, because there were no other property requirements in the Constitution.

Those who, in modern times, sanctify the word of the original Constitution as absolute and unchallengeable ignore the fact that it was clearly loaded in favor of slavery, with built-in defects that would eventually have disastrous consequences. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 12 APR 18] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: In local tech news from Loveland, Colorado, our city emergency medical service (EMS) workers -- that is, the people who race to the scene of an accident in an ambulance -- have reported with pride their acquisition of leading-edge EMS technology, in the form of the Ferno "IN/X" robotic stretcher system, more officially the "Integrated Patient Transport & Loading System".

It's not a radical departure from older stretcher technology -- but it's slick, the primary improvement being an electrically-driven scissor legs to raise and lower the stretcher. Each set of legs can be raised or lowered independently, to help get up or down stairs, and to get the stretcher in or out of the ambulance. The height of the ambulance bed can be programmed into the stretcher to eliminate fussing around in an emergency. The ambulance bed, incidentally, is fitted with lockdowns to keep the stretcher in place should the vehicle roll over.

IN/X stretcher

The INX has an array of LED lamps, with a flashing mode, to allow EMS personnel to "see and be seen". There are many other features, if many of them not all that different from those found on traditional stretchers -- including a stretcher bed that can be tilted to a seat configuration; equipment hanger hooks; a deployable IV pole; storage nets; a rack for an oxygen bottle; as well as equipment mounting platforms and rails. The INX is another example of just how much there can be to a technology that we take for granted and hardly think about.

* As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Supercomputer Redesign Of Aeroplane Wing Mirrors Bird Anatomy" by Elizabeth Gibney, 4 October 2017), engineers have used a supercomputer, running software that mimics evolutionary processes, to design an aircraft wing that is as strong as a conventional aircraft wing, but far lighter.

Comparable optimization software has been around for decades, but it's only been used with smaller structures, such as individual wing components. Niels Aage -- an engineer at the Technical University of Denmark, near Copenhagen -- decided to tackle the 27-meter (89-foot) long wing of the Boeing 777 with the Curie supercomputer in Bruyeres-le-Chatel near Paris.

optimized 777 wing

They took the 777 airfoil and broke it down into 1.1 billion "voxels" -- or 3D pixels -- each about the size of the smallest Lego brick. This resolution was about 200 times greater than any earlier effort. The software began by simulating the force exerted on every block, and placing material in response to where the wing experienced loads. The program then went through hundreds of iterations, until it was able to provide a wing structure that could handle the stresses of flight with a minimum amount of material.

The resulting wing design looks like the original 777 wing from the outside, but does not contain the conventional wing spars, crossed by a series of supports. Instead, it looks like it had been grown: curved supports fan out at the trailing edge of the wing, resembling the bones in birds' wings, while intricate support structures in the leading edge look like the internal structure of a beak.

While the new wing is as structurally robust as the old, the new wing weighs 2% to 5% less than the original, resulting savings of hundreds of kilograms of weight -- in turn saving tens to hundreds of tonnes of fuel a year. According to Aage, the technique could be applied to other industries, for example to design high-rise buildings for earthquake-prone regions.

The design software is very computation-intensive, demanding a supercomputer to allow it to be completed in a reasonable amount of time. However, the software could be used to inform machine learning systems that would be able, after being suitably trained, to obtain similar designs with much less computing power. The new wing design is also too elaborate and intricate to be built by contemporary manufacturing methods; it could be built by 3D printing, but that's not practical for such a large assembly at present. Aage believes that the new wing design could be used to guide the design a more practical wing that could be build by conventional manufacturing methods.

* As discussed by a note from SCIENCEMAG.org ("New, Star-Shaped Structures Could Mean Longer Lasting Dental Fillings & Circuit Boards" by Rachel Crowel, 28 October 2016), dental fillings wear out eventually -- sometimes from fresh cavities, sometimes from acidity, sometimes from thermal expansion and contraction. Now, a team of researchers have developed a composite material that will stand up to thermal cycling.

It isn't just the composition of the material that gives it its special properties, it's the geometric configuration. The researchers used 3D printing to create an interlocked matrix made up of star-shaped cells -- like skeletons of pentagonal dice -- on a millimeter scale, made of a copper-based material for the outer frame and a polymeric material for the inner beams. The structure causes the matrix to shrink when heated, giving it a "negative thermal expansion".

Microscopic materials with negative thermal expansion have been demonstrated before, but they only shrank in two dimensions; the new material is the first to show shrinkage in three dimensions. The researchers found that by changing the concentration of copper present in the outer beams, they could tune the extent to which these structures shrank. When properly combined with materials that expand when heated, this shrinking composite material could be used to help products maintain their shape -- a useful property for machinery that has to endure tough thermal cycling, as well as teeth.

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[WED 11 APR 18] THE SYNESTHESIA PUZZLE

* THE SYNESTHESIA PUZZLE: As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("People With Synesthesia Sometimes 'See' Sound As Colors" by Michael Price, 5 March 2018), there are a small number of people, known as "synesthetes", whose senses are oddly scrambled. They may interpret a particular music note as "blue", for example, or find that certain words have a specific taste. Obviously, there's some neural scrambling in their brains, but nobody has figured out any of the details. Now, researchers have figured out genetic markers of synesthetes, as a first step towards acquiring a better understanding of the phenomenon.

For decades, many psychologists and neuroscientists were leery of studying synesthesia. It seemed a bit too loopy, and it was hard to know subjects claiming to be synesthetes weren't simply playing tricks on researchers. However, refined study methods have confirmed that, though there may be some tricksters out there, there are also subjects who have enhanced sense perception -- able to easily discriminate in tests between things ordinary folk have trouble telling apart.

Synesthesia has been thought to have a genetic linkage, since it tends to cluster in specific families. However, up to the present, nobody has been able to identify specific genes that might be responsible for the condition. Now a team led by neuroscientist Simon Fisher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, has managed to spot candidate genes. The researchers used a gene-sequencing technique known as "whole-exome sequencing" that targets only the DNA that encodes proteins, cataloged virtually every significant DNA variant in three families in which synesthesia is common.

They obtained sequences from four or five synesthetes and at least one non-synesthete from each family, covering three generations. The synesthetes had a common variant of the condition, which crosswires perception of sound and color. The researchers managed to find 37 genes that predicted if a family member was a synesthete. There wasn't a neat genetic correspondence to the condition -- there was no "synesthesia gene" -- but on inspecting the cluster of genes, the team noticed that six of the variants were in genes related to the development of the connective feature of neurons known as "axons". Furthermore, these genes are expressed in both the auditory and visual cortices of the brain during childhood development.

That's particularly interesting, since brain imaging studies of synesthetes have suggested they might have an abnormally high number of neuronal connections. Fisher suspects that an unusually high degree of connectivity in certain brain regions might predispose people to have synesthesia.

The findings are tentative and need to be replicated. However, if they are validated, they may prove useful to autism researchers. Many victims of autism spectrum disorder also have an enhanced sensitivity to stimuli such as sounds or touch, and there's growing evidence that abnormal brain connections -- more in some regions, fewer in others -- may play a significant role.

* In somewhat related news, as discussed by another article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Babies Get Strokes, Too -- Here's How Their Brains Recover" by Roni Dengler, 18 February 2018), while strokes are stereotyped as an injury of the elderly, they can also strike babies -- it seems because birth is so stressful, and hard on a baby's circulatory system. However, unlike adults, babies who suffer a stroke in the region of the brain supporting language skills retain the ability to communicate.

A new study shows that teenagers who had strokes after birth had no particular language impairment. To investigate why not, the researchers imaged the brains of these teenagers while they listened to sentences read forward and backward. In healthy adults, this test makes language processing areas on the left side of the brain to light up with activity. That area was damaged in stroke survivors -- with activity having shifted to a region in the right hemisphere that's the mirror image of the normal left-hemisphere language region.

This right hemisphere region is almost never used for understanding language in healthy people, and adults who have had a stroke do not use it for speech processing. The researchers suspect that the infants have a window during development when the brain is flexible enough to bypass the damage; and believe that figuring out how that happens may help adults who have suffered strokes regain their ability to speak.

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[TUE 10 APR 18] IPHONE ECONOMICS

* IPHONE ECONOMICS: As discussed by an article from REUTERS.com ("Designed In California, Made In China: How The iPhone Skews US Trade Deficit" by Adam Jourdan, 21 March 2018), American President Donald Trump loves to send tweets from his Apple iPhone -- often complaining about China's "$375 billion USD trade deficit" with the USA. However, a closer look at that iPhone throws that figure into confusion.

The big trade imbalance between the US and China is due, in large part, to Americans buying Chinese electrical goods and tech. However, as the iPhone shows, Americans are not necessarily buying Chinese products; the iPhone is an American product, with parts from a global network of suppliers, and is only assembled in China. Reflecting the discussion of globalized manufacturing run here in 2017, China is only getting a small part of the money.

For example, the components for the Apple iPhoneX are estimated to cost a total of $370.25 USD. Of that, $110 goes to Samsung Electronics of South Korea for the display, while $44.45 goes to Japan's Toshiba Corporation and South Korea's SK Hynix for memory chips. The rest of the components are supplied by vendors from Taiwan, the US, and Europe. Assembly of the iPhone X in China -- by contract manufacturers like Foxconn -- only accounts for 3% to 6% of the product's manufacturing cost, and much less of its retail cost. Global bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO) believe the current schemes for accounting trade deficits don't factor in where value is added.

Rethinking the accounting schemes could make a big difference. Apple shipped 61 million iPhones from China to the USA in 2017. Using the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus as a baseline, the manufacturing cost is about $258 USD per phone. Multiplying that by 61 million means that iPhones added $15.7 billion USD to the US trade deficit with China, about 4.4% of the entire deficit -- and about 22% of the $70 billion USD in cell phones and household goods the US imported from China.

iPhone 7

However, the manufacturing value doesn't include the intellectual property value Apple adds through engineering and design work done in its headquarters in Cupertino CA, as well as margins taken by distributors. The iPhone X has a manufacturing cost of about $400 USD, an $800 USD wholesale cost, and a $1,200 USD unsubsidized retail cost. Of the list price, only a small fraction ends up in the pocket of the Chinese. When a user asks Siri, Apple's digital assistant, where she's from, she replies: "Like it says on the box: I was designed by Apple in California."

Louis Kuijs, head of Asia economics research at Oxford Economics, comments that the global supply chains used to manufacture products like the iPhone means that a trade fight between the US and China would also nail innocent bystanders: "That is an important reason why US-China trade friction will cause 'collateral damage', especially in other Asian economies."

Kuijs says that if value-added terms are factored in, the US trade deficit with China was only $239 billion USD in 2017, 36% lower than the headline number. Apple management does say they are trying to obtain more suppliers in the USA. What that means in practice is that Apple is attempting to promote automated production in the US that will source parts at equal or less cost than those from elsewhere. To be sure, that's all for the good as far as Trump is concerned, but those automated plants won't generate so many jobs in themselves -- and will only accelerate the end of the era of low-skill, high-wage labor.

The talk of a trade war clearly has an element of show. Major US corporations and trade associations have pleaded with the White House not to slap tariffs on China -- warning they would be "particularly harmful" to the US economy and consumers, with US stock markets also getting the jitters from the trade war talk. A 10% tariff levied on Chinese electronics imports would slow the growth of US output by $163 billion USD over the next 10 years, and a 25% tariff would slow output by $332 billion USD, according to the Information Technology & Innovation Foundation. Kuijs believes that restraint will prevail, since all-out trade war "would cause major economic damage globally."

* A broadly related article from ECONOMIST.com ("It Ain't Necessarily So", 10 March 2018), started out with:

BEGIN QUOTE:

America's president has a winners-and-losers perspective on most, perhaps all, transactions. He thus believes that persistent trade deficits are by definition a problem. This is wrong.

END QUOTE

The article went on to detail the reasons why it is wrong:

There's a lot of complaint over economic globalization, but it's the reality; it's not going away because people complain; it does pose difficulties, but on the whole we're better off with it. It makes no more sense to reject global commerce than it would to blow all the bridges across America's borders. Trump's tantrums over America's trade deficit are made even more ironic by his willingness to run up, and willfully ignore, staggering US government budget deficits. The article concludes by pointing to Trump's belief -- bolstered by his egotism and a booming US economy -- that "trade wars are easy to win":

BEGIN QUOTE:

He seems to base this on the fact that America buys more than it sells, so its trading partners have more to lose. But although most households buy more from their local supermarket than they sell to it, they would not be better off growing their own food. Blocked imports, higher prices, and broken supply chains would harm America's economic potential.

Yet one of Mr. Trump's beliefs on free trade is true. The people who voted for him do not like it. Just over half of all Americans think free trade is a good thing. But white Americans, older Americans, and less-educated Americans are all less likely to think so than their typical fellow citizen.

END QUOTE

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[MON 09 APR 18] UNDERSTANDING AI (18)

* UNDERSTANDING AI (18): The concept of "generative adversarial networks (GAN)" was discussed earlier in this series. An article from TECHNOLOGYREVIEW.com ("The GANfather" by Martin Giles, 21 February 2018), took a closeup of Ian Goodfellow, who came up with the idea.

It all began in 2014, when Goodfellow went out to a Montreal night spot to celebrate the graduation of a fellow doctoral student. The conversation, of course, tended toward the technical, with other members of the party commenting that they were working on an artificial intelligence system that could make up photos on its own.

AI researchers were already tinkering with artificial neural networks (ANN) as "generative" systems to come up with plausible data, but weren't having much luck. Images of a computer-generated face, for example, might be blurry or missing ears. Goodfellow's colleagues wanted to leverage off an elaborate statistical analysis of images to do the job. Goodfellow thought that would require too much number-crunching to be workable ... but then, over beers, he had a brainstorm: why not pit two neural networks against each other?

The others were skeptical, but the more Goodfellow thought about the idea, the more exciting it seemed. When he got home, he coded into the dark hours of the morning, and then gave his new system a try. It worked right away -- and so the GAN was born.

In 2014, AI was already deep into "supervised learning" schemes, in which AI systems are trained by giving them extensive sets of examples in their target application. However, supervised learning systems have no imagination; they don't know any more than they can learn from examples, and it requires a lot of examples to teach them anything useful. That's not only labor-intensive and costly, such systems don't cope well with input data that's outside in their training set.

What Goodfellow proposed was "unsupervised learning", in which an AI system (mostly) generates its own data set and trains itself. There's no need to build up a huge training set; the system, working from a baseline training set, can devise a big a training set as desired on on its own, one that's more thorough and lets less to slip through the cracks. Goodfellow is now a research scientist on the Google Brain team, at the company's headquarters in Mountain View, California. He's an AI superstar, if not by any intent of his own, calling his prominence "a little surreal."

GANs operate by rivalry between two ANNs, engaged in a competition that's compared to a counterfeiter working against a banker to come up with better counterfeits. The two networks do have to be given an initial modest baseline training set, a few hundred samples, to get a grasp of the basic features of their target, but then they do the rest of the training on their own. The first ANN, the generator, produces artificial outputs, such as photos or handwriting, in effect interpolating between the gaps in the baseline set. The second, the discriminator, compares the generator data with genuine images from the original data set, and tries to determine which are real and which are fake, screening against interpolations inconsistent with the baseline set. The discriminator tells the generator the result, with the generator refining its counterfeit data. Over iterations, the discriminator finds it ever more difficult to detect the fakes.

In 2017, researchers at chip-maker Nvidia, which is heavily involved in AI, created a GAN that, starting with an initial training set of celebrity photos, created the faces of fake celebrities. Not all the fakes were convincing, but a number of them were -- faces that looked familiar, but nobody could name who they were.

GANs are not wildly imaginative. If trained to create dog photos, a GAN will generate a convincing fake image of a dog, but only a dog like those that were found in its initial training set -- say, a fake dog with a different pattern of spots than a real one. The quality of the initial training set makes a big difference, too. For example, a GAN began producing pictures of cats with random letters integrated into the images -- because it pulled in pictures of cats with text labeling from the internet, and didn't know to screen the text out.

GANs can be touchy as well. If the discriminator is too easy to fool, the generator's output won't look realistic. Trying to get the generator and discriminator in sync so they work together can be difficult. If they don't, they can produce bizarre results, like images of dogs with two heads. There are also things that simply don't interpolate well, and so don't work with GANs -- and it's not easy to know what works well or doesn't until it's been tried.

Nonetheless, GANs are hot right now, with energetic research on putting them to work. The most obvious immediate applications are in areas that involve a lot of imagery, such as video games and fashion: what, for instance, might a game character look like running through the rain? Goodfellow, however, believes GANs have much more potential: "There are a lot of areas of science and engineering where we need to optimize something. That's going to be the next big wave."

For example, in high-energy physics, researchers use supercomputers to to simulate the possible interactions of hundreds of subatomic particles in machines like the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland. These simulations are slow and require massive computing power. Researchers at Yale University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have developed a GAN that, after training on existing simulation data, can generate pretty accurate predictions of how a particular particle will behave, and do it much faster, with less computing horsepower. Work smart, not hard.

Medical research, dependent on large trials, tends to require a lot of crunching through medical records, and medical records aren't always accessible. GANs can take modest trials sets and perform a much better analysis on them by generating fake records. However, that skilled fakery means GANs are capable of churning out very convincing fake news. AI tools are already being used to put pictures of the faces on celebrities on the bodies of porn stars and put words in the mouths of politicians.

That sort of fakery is not new, but GANs make it much easier and more capable. Fake videos can be detected by the fact that fake people don't breathe the way real ones do -- but then again, GANs are likely to get smart enough to handle that detail as well. GANs present a particular threat to cybersecurity, since they allow the Black Hats to second-guess defenses and figure out stealthy ways around them.

Goodfellow is now heading a team at Google focused on machine learning and security, and cautions that those pushing earlier waves of computer innovation didn't anticipate the ingenuity of the Black Hats, to end up being blindsided. He believes that modern AI technology isn't that far behind the learning curve: "Clearly, we're already beyond the start, but hopefully we can make significant advances in security before we're too far in."

Goodfellow doesn't think that technology will, by itself, defeat the Black Hats; instead, kids should be taught critical thinking so they can see fake news for what it is. Unfortunately, achieving that state of grace may be a task for a future civilization. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 06 APR 18] AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (8)

* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (8): While the US Constitution established that representatives were to be selected by popular vote, as stated in Section 2, the franchise for the vote was determined by the various states. The states were inclined to have property requirements for voting. Since there was a lot of land on the frontiers open for settlement, that did mean a fairly large voter base -- if one that was all male, nobody in positions of responsibility seriously contemplating at that time that women should be given the vote.

In any case, given the impracticality of imposing a uniform specification of voter franchise on the states, the Constitution chose the broadest franchise available in each state, that underlying the "most numerous Branch of the State Legislature." There had been some talking of imposing property restrictions in the Philadelphia Convention, but the tide went against it -- Benjamin Franklin pointing out how the "common people" and "lower class" had carried much of the burden of the Revolutionary War. American sailors captured by the British were offered a chance to escape imprisonment by joining the Royal Navy; the sailors generally refused.

Given the "virtue and public spirit" of these men, Franklin asked, then how could they be denied the vote? Besides, a broader franchise meant more support for the government. As Connecticut's Oliver Ellsworth put it: "The people will not readily subscribe to the Natl. Constitution, if it should subject them to be disenfranchised."

The qualifications for membership in the House, as stated in Section 2, were even more liberal: at least 25 years old, a citizen of the US for at least seven years, and currently an inhabitant of the state he was to represent. There was no requirement that he have extended residence in the state; no requirement for property ownership; no requirement for religious qualifications. States, at the time, often did have property or religious qualifications; the Constitution could do no more for state law than set an example.

During the convention, James Madison had pushed for broad membership, warning against establishing an "aristocracy or oligarchy" in Congress. Franklin, taking an internationalist perspective, noted that the Constitution "would be much read and attended to in Europe" -- and that: "A great partiality to the rich ... will not only hurt us in the esteem of the most liberal and enlightened men there, but discouraging the common people from removing to this Country."

Franklin wanted the United States to be an attractive destination for those economically or socially dissatisfied at home; they were, as far as he was concerned, welcomed here to help build the great American nation. For much the same reason a naturalized citizen, having been in the US for seven years, was entitled to run for a seat in the House. There were suggestions in the convention for four years, and Alexander Hamilton -- born in the West Indies -- pushed for no such restriction at all; but there were worries that a wealthy and powerful man, dissatisfied in his home state, might move to another state and make a grab for power there. Such practices were well-known in Britain.

The Senate had much the same statement of qualifications, but with the bar raised a little, as stated in Section 3: a senator had to be at least 30 years old, and nine years a citizen of the USA. One of the motivations in raising the age was the concern that the wealthy would attempt to place their offspring in the Senate as early as possible, to create a dynasty of "haughty heirs with distinguished names." It was unlikely that a mere youth who didn't have money backing him would otherwise make it into the Senate. Specifying 30 as the age limit helped level the playing field -- though political dynasties would prove common in American history.

By the same token, the fact that the Federal government paid the salaries of the members of Congress prevented Congress from becoming the preserve of the independently wealthy, and also ensured that members of Congress would not be at the financial mercy of state governments. There would be concerns against abuse of the system; since Congress established the law, that meant Congress in principle set its own pay. There was an obvious threat of lawmakers milking the system, and a less obvious threat of the wealthy lowering the pay to drive out the relatively poor. In practice, given the public visibility of Congressional actions, the issue of Congressional pay would persist indefinitely in an awkward tension. Article I also made it clear that members of Congress could not also be officials of the executive; they couldn't wear a hat in both the legislative and executive branches.

Another awkward consideration was the number of representatives in the House and the assignment of corresponding Congressional districts in each state. There was a push and shove during the convention as to whether the number of representatives should be large -- leading to an unwieldy assembly, but one with closer connection to voters -- or small -- leading to a more manageable assembly, but one that was more elitist. The Constitution established 65 representatives at the outset; Madison had pushed for doubling that to 130, but was voted down. The less geographically central the states, the less enthusiastic they were for raising the number of congressmen -- it seems largely because it was so much more troublesome and expensive to travel in those days.

Nonetheless, George Washington himself had broken his usual aloofness from discussion in the convention to push for greater representation, saying that a small House would be "an insufficient security for the rights and interests of the people." Washington commanded everyone's attention, with matters then arranged so that the number of House seats would grow in time, and it did, following the first national census -- reaching 142 in a decade. Future expansion was effectively guaranteed by the creation of new states in the West, which would be full partners in the proportional representation scheme.

To ensure further engagement of the public, the House established as a procedure from the start that sessions would be conducted with open doors. The Constitution didn't specify that, merely saying that Congress would keep and publish journals of proceedings -- but it seemed so perfectly in the spirit of the new Republic, as expressed in the Preamble, that there was no serious question of conducting secret sessions. Journalists could observe House sessions and report on them to the public. The Senate kept closed sessions for a few years, then caved in and opened the Senate doors as well. The custom was one of the first elements of the "unwritten Constitution", established by sensible implication from and extension of the formal text of the document. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 05 APR 18] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Artificial Intelligence Is Learning To Read Your Mind" by Matthew Hutson, 27 October 2017), researchers now have, in a bit of irony, used artificial intelligence to probe the human brain.

First, the researchers put together a model of how the brain encodes information. Three test subjects spent hours viewing hundreds of short videos, with a functional MRI machine measuring signals of activity in the visual cortex and other regions of the brain. A neural network built for image processing then correlated video images with observed brain activity.

Once the neural network worked out the patterns, it was able to predict brain activity as the subjects watched more videos. Going beyond that, through the use of a secondary neural network, the brain activity could show what the subject was watching -- the videos being in 15 categories, such as "bird", "aircraft", or "exercise". The accuracy was about 50% if the system could match the subject to learning earlier obtained from that subject; only about 25% if it could not.

At present, the neural network is not able to reconstruct the video, but the researchers believe they will ultimately be able to reconstruct mental imagery. This could lead to a powerful mind probe for psychological research, direct brain control of machines, or communications with paralyzed patients who can't otherwise communicate.

* As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Huge Microwave Observatory To Search For Cosmic Inflation" by Edwin Cartlidge, 30 October 2017), the Universe has a pervasive "cosmic microwave background (CMB)" corresponding to the electromagnetic radiation from a black-body emitter at 2.7 degrees Kelvin. The CMB is a relic of the Big Bang that was the start of our Universe. It is, however, not entirely uniform, with the deviations from uniformity providing clues as to the events following the Big Bang.

To obtain more data on the CMB, US researchers are now pushing for development of a "CMB Stage 4 (CMB-S4)" facility that will provide a map of the CMB in unprecedented detail. It would consist of three six-meter and 14 half-meter telescopes, placed at a site in Antarctica and a site in Chile's Atacama high desert. At these locales the air is very dry, and so transparent to microwaves. CMB-S4 would be two orders of magnitude more sensitive than existing ground-based CMB experiments.

A high priority for CMB-S4 would be to search for distinctive patterns in the polarization of the CMB known as "B modes" -- markers for the existence of primordial gravitational waves. Gravitational waves, having now been detected, are hot news, and cosmologists are interested in tracing them back to the early Universe. Current ground-based CMB experiments typically detect microwaves using a few thousand pixels. None so far have picked up the B mode; even with improvements, they're not up to the job.

According to the task force commissioned by the US Department of Energy (DOE) and National Science Foundation (NSF) to come up with the design, the price tag for CMB-S4 would be $400 million USD. That's a lot of money, dictating a collaboration of research organizations. Initial work began in 2013, with a DOE panel giving its stamp of approval in 2014. However, the researchers will have to wait until 2020 to see how they fare in the once-per-decade survey of astronomy and astrophysics that the NSF uses to assess funding priorities. CMB-S4 won't happen overnight.

* As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Bed Bugs Love Your Stinky Laundry. Here's How To Keep Them Away" by David Shultz, 28 September 2017) bedbugs, once on the fade, have roared back in recent years, their population growing and extending range. They are not known to transmit disease, but they are a particularly tough and troublesome biting pest.

The puzzle is why bedbugs are on such a roll. They don't often leave the beds and couches where they reside, and they don't stay on their hosts. How, then, do they end up getting from place to place? A study now shows that their dispersal is in part due to transport via dirty laundry. Bedbugs, it turns out, are attracted to the body odors of the target species -- as far as we're concerned, meaning us -- including such odors on clothing.

William Hentley, an entomologist at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom, got to wondering how bedbugs got around: "To me, hitchhiking seemed like the best explanation. That then led me to this question of whether they're attracted to our clothes and the smell of humans."

To test the question, Hentley and his colleagues checked to see if the insects were attracted to soiled clothing. They set a cage full of bed bugs in the middle of a room and placed two cotton bags at equal distances -- one filled with clean clothes and the other filled with dirty socks and T-shirts collected from volunteers. The researchers released the bed bugs from the cage, to let wander freely for 96 hours.

The result was that about twice as many bugs were attracted to the dirty clothes as to clean ones. That's consistent with other experiments that have shown that bed bugs can smell more than 100 compounds produced by human skin, many of which could linger on clothes. They also tested whether bedbugs were attracted to concentrations of CO2, which would imply a breathing host, and has long been suspected to be used by bedbugs for targeting. They found that enhanced CO2 concentrations made bedbugs forage more, but not in any particular direction.

Hently suggest that travelers stow their baggage on the metal racks in hotel rooms, since bedbugs find it difficult to crawl up on them. He says: "The biggest thing is not keeping your luggage on the bed." He also suggests that travelers, on returning home, wash and dry their clothes on high heat: "Heat is the Achilles heel of the bed bug."

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[WED 04 APR 18] SMART SPEAKERS FOR MEDICAL CARE

* SMART SPEAKERS FOR MEDICAL CARE: As discussed by an article from HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEW ("What Will Health Care Look Like Once Smart Speakers Are Everywhere?" by Carla E. Small, Daniel Nigrin, Kevin Churchwell, & John Brownstein, 7 March 2018), virtual assistants -- like Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, Google's Assistant, and Microsoft's Cortana -- are becoming commonplace. Studies suggest that by 2020, half of all searches will be performed by voice, and there will be "smart speakers" like Alexa in 55% of US households by 2022.

The US medical profession is embracing the technology as well, with a survey of pediatricians showing that over 60% have used voice-assistant technology, while a third own at least one smart speaker. Voice dictation software like Dragon is now common in clinical settings, being used to capture clinical notes. However, voice assistants are far more capable than that -- for example, they can be used to fetch vital information for clinical action teams.

The "Innovation & Digital Health Accelerator (IDHA)" effort at Boston Children's Hospital is now working toward wider use of voice-assistant technology in healthcare. The IDHA began in 2016 by hosting a "Voice in Healthcare" hackathon that featured voice-powered demonstrations:

Brainstorming sessions followed. Following the hackathon, the IDHA then introduced voice technology to hospital practice in three pilot exercises:

A survey of pediatricians conducted by the hospital on voice technology showed that 48% wanted to use it in their clinical setting, with only 16% opposed, the rest not sure. Many, however, said they were uncomfortable with the idea of consulting a voice assistant in earshot of patients, since patients might not understand when a doctor decides against the canned advice. They do like the idea of using voice technology in the waiting room and at the homes of patients, allowing patients to ask as many questions as they like. Voice technology also promises to streamline the notoriously obnoxious process of filling out medical questionnaires.

Voice technology is still fairly primitive and not all that smart, which tends to undermine users' faith in it. The voice technology, in short, is less the bottom line than the capability and utility of the information system backing it up. If users can't easily get useful information back from their queries, they'll give up. There are also concerns about data security; nobody likes the idea of the Black Hats tapping into smart speaker systems. Further work is needed to address these concerns.

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[TUE 03 APR 18] POWER SHIFT

* POWER SHIFT: A series on the turmoil the changing market is inflicting on the energy sector was run here in 2017. As discussed by an article from VOX.com ("After Rising For 100 years, Electricity Demand Is Flat -- Utilities Are Freaking Out" by David Roberts, 27 February 2018), that turmoil continues to afflict US electrical power utilities. Natural gas and renewables are booming, while coal and nuclear are in decline. The Trump Administration's attempts to reverse their decline have been ineffectual theatrics.

It's easy to overlook a subtler reality: that due to improvements in energy efficiency, globalization of heavy industry, and distributed power generation by customers, demand for utility power has been flat for a decade, with GDP growth and electricity demand growth becoming decoupled. That quiet fact has dramatic results of its own.

Every five years, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) -- the Federally owned regional planning agency that, among other things, supplies electricity to Tennessee and parts of surrounding states -- develops an "Integrated Resource Plan (IRP)" to assess customer needs for the next 20 years, and determine what actions the TVA needs to take in response.

The last IRP, completed in 2015, anticipated that there would be no need for major new investment in power generation, that energy efficiency and distributed energy generation would mean no growth in demand. That was far-sighted, but as it turned out, not far-sighted enough. Now the TIMES FREE PRESS reports: "TVA now expects to sell 13% less power in 2027 than it did two decades earlier -- the first sustained reversal in the growth of electricity usage in the 85-year history of TVA."

To help cope with the changing energy landscape, the TVA has moved up the schedule for its next IRP up a year, to 2019. The shifting ground is not so problematic for the TVA; as a government-owned, fully regulated utility, TVA management sees their mission as "low cost, informed risk, environmental responsibility, reliability, diversity of power and flexibility to meet changing market conditions." If power demand is declining, the TVA simply will scale back its operations accordingly -- troublesome but manageable.

However, investor-owned utilities (IOUs), which provide electricity for well over half of Americans, have to make money for investors. Since they're government-regulated monopolies, they can't make money selling electricity; instead, the IOUs make money through investments in infrastructure. What happens when the existing infrastructure is more than is needed? In the present, there's been cost-cutting and consolidation among power generation utilities, and increased investment by local distribution utilities. Neither of these approaches are sustainable for long.

The US utility sector was created on the assumption of perpetual growth. Nobody seriously questioned that assumption; if it crossed anyone's mind, the answer was: "We'll deal with that when it happens." Now it's happened. Utilities have to adapt to a new model, providing flexible, diverse, low-emissions power supply, using a "smart grid" to make the system workable. Utilities have to get away from the model of building new infrastructure, and focus on a less tangible system of services. Achieving that goal will require the help of regulators and politicians, as well as risky experiments. Only a handful of states -- New York, California, Massachusetts, a few others -- are now testing the waters.

The irony is that the changes in the energy sector are broadly for the good of the USA. Not only are emissions being reduced, but in the long run we will have access to cheap energy. Unfortunately, utilities were set up to guarantee resistance against energy efficiency, renewable energy, and distributed energy. It's hard to blame them for being what they were made to be -- but the bottom line is that it's going to take far-sighted leadership, and an inevitable period of difficulty, to cross the bridge to the new reality.

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[MON 02 APR 18] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: An item on THEVERGE.com tipped me off to a German firm named Festo AG out of Esslingen am Neckar. On the face of it, Festo comes across as a thoroughly Germanic firm -- a maker of industrial gear including ...

BEGIN QUOTE:

... cylinders, valves, and manifolds; electrical, pneumatic, and servo-pneumatic drives; appliances for compressed-air treatment and vacuum technology; grippers and handling systems; motors and controllers; sensors and image-processing systems; and control technology and software solutions.

END QUOTE

Dull as dust, right? I think so, and I'm an engineer! However, a closer look at Festo shows the company has a lively streak, spending a fraction of R&D time and money on building animal-inspired robots. Over the past years, Festo has created mechanical ants, butterflies, flying jellyfish and penguins, kangaroos, seagulls, and more. Now the firm has come up with a robot flying fox / fruit bat and a robot spider. Festo is particularly proud of the wing membrane for the flying fox, announcing:

EGIN QUOTE:

The model's flying membrane is wafer-thin and ultralight whilst also robust. It consists of two airtight films and a knitted elastane fabric, which are welded together at approximately 45,000 points. Due to its elasticity, it stays almost uncreased, even when the wings are retracted. The fabric's honeycomb structure prevents small cracks in the flying membrane from getting bigger. This means that the BionicFlyingFox can continue flying even if the fabric sustains minor damage.

END QUOTE

This robot can fly untethered, though its flight is tracked by camera, with command updates provided through a wireless link -- most of the smarts are in the "ground station". However, the flying fox robot is much less impressive than the spider robot -- the "BionicWheelBot". It's based on the "flic-flac" spider of the Sahara, which will go into controlled tumbles when it's in a hurry. The BionicWheelBot, like any good spider, has eight legs, driven by 15 motors. When it gets into a hurry itself, it curls six of the legs into neat dual wheels, then uses the remaining two legs to push itself around.

Festo BionicWheelBot

While Festo obviously builds elaborate toys like the BionicWheelBot for the publicity -- and they do a good job for the company on that basis -- it seems like the company also likes to do "blue sky" engineering, focused on bionic systems, to see if the toys lead to practical products. However, getting into details of their bionics-based products is more than can be considered here.

* With regards to my discovery of Youtube music videos, as reported last month, I've got my musical discovery process down to a method:

Yes, I am methodical to a fault. However, it's become exciting, in the sense that I'm rediscovering music. When I was a lad, I was an enthusiastic musical explorer, digging into jazz and avant-garde music, to then chase after the emerging electronic music scene of the 1980s. Going into the 1990s, my explorations slowed to a crawl. I still listened to music, but I didn't exert myself to find anything new. Having an open-ended -- for now -- source of music on Youtube has given me a new world to explore. It's not the same exercise as it was in my youth; it's much less pretentious, I'm mostly after music that seems fun and amusing, if nothing more than that.

A lot of it is just canvassing, recovering, and consolidating all the musical styles I encountered in the past. It's a kick to listen to some of the Retrowave tunes, which sometimes come across as techno shopping-mall music of the 1980s. I run across stuff that I never knew existed, too, such as "Trend Orchestra" -- a creation of a UK film / game music composer named Marcus Hedges, in which video game themes are given full symphonic treatments. They sound like they're being played by a real orchestra, too; if it's synthesized sound, it's very convincing.

I was thinking that I would get finicky after a while and be more selective about what I wanted to keep out of the downloads, but so far it's been much the opposite: if I get a tune that sounds like filler, I don't have a problem keeping it. By piling up a big archive of tunes, I don't hear any one of them often enough to get too tired of it. There's also a difference in that now I can play an m-keyboard, and I listen with an ear towards playing the tunes I hear -- not that I'll ever have time to learn to play more than a fraction of them.

Along another front, I downloaded and am trying to learn to use the MuseScore music composition software package, which has a particular benefit in that it can read MIDI files, to then display them as a score, and also convert scores to MIDI. I'm never going to be more than a toy musician, but MIDI music files will allow me to actually produce something that I can hand out to the world.

* The Real Fake News for February was more of the same -- with an emphasis on the word "more". The month began with a White House declaration of a 25% tariff on steel imports and a 10% tariff on aluminum imports. The tariffs set off a storm of protests, both domestically and internationally, with economists deriding the action -- most saying they would economically harm the USA, the rest saying that they wouldn't do any good.

As the month went on, however, the tariffs became ever more conditional, to the point where it was unclear who would be affected by them. What also became increasingly clear was the USA had lost patience with Chinese protectionist measures -- most notably attempts by the Chinese government to force technology transfers from US companies to allow them to participate in China's market. The Chinese then took pains to say that wouldn't be policy in the future. In short, the tariffs may have been Trump merely raising the stakes in negotiations, though matters haven't been settled yet by any means.

The noisiest news about the Trump Administration was the continued legal agitation over claims by porn star Stormy Daniels that she'd had an affair with Trump over a decade ago. She was under a nondisclosure agreement, with Trump's lawyers legally threatening her; she didn't see particularly intimidated, even threatening legal actions of her own in retaliation.

It seems there's mostly another game of bluff going on, since Trump would have to prove damage to his reputation to sue -- and nothing in this matter has painted Trump out to be anything but what everyone already knows he is. Even his admirers know he's a bad boy, they like it. Incidentally, Daniels' mother is a hardcore Trump supporter, saying that she would vote for him "every time". Well, if she doesn't mind her daughter being a porn star, then she won't mind Trump being president. First Lady Melania Trump, inclined to keep a low profile to begin with, has become almost invisible to the public.

The ongoing turmoil in the White House continued, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson given the boot by Trump on 13 March. There had long been tensions between the two men, with tales that Tillerson called the president a "moron" to his face -- which Tillerson neither confirmed nor denied. In his farewell address at the State Department, Tillerson encouraged staffers to maintain their personal integrity, adding that Washington DC could be a "mean-spirited" place; there was a bit of laughter, then applause, with Tillerson giving a wry smile. He gave no word of thanks to the president while going out the door. Trump wants to replace Tillerson as secretary of state by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, seen as much more a Trump loyalist.

While Trump was fending off personal legal attacks and evicting his secretary of state, he was also trying to come to grips with the Robert Mueller independent investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, and possible connections to the Trump campaign. On Friday, 16 March, Trump fired Andrew McCabe, deputy director of the FBI, two days short of McCabe's retirement. The action was clearly vindictive; Trump, unable to fire Mueller, had to choose an easier target.

Following that, Trump ramped up his Twitter attacks on the investigation and the FBI. It is unclear if his attempts to smear the investigation will do anything but dig himself in deeper. The next Friday, incidentally, the Trump White House issued another military transgender ban; the inclination of the White House is to take controversial actions late on Fridays to reduce the pushback from the news media. It is unclear where the new transgender ban is going, if anywhere.

Trump's luck with Congress wasn't much better. Congress passed a budget deal on 21 March, providing government funding to the end of September. Trump threatened to veto the bill, because it didn't fund his border wall with Mexico -- yes, it did provide $1.6 billion USD for border security, but just to fix existing fencing, and provide more funding to Customs & Border Patrol for operations. The Democrats dug in their heels at more funding for the Immigration & Naturalization Service; they didn't want more INS agents hunting down illegals and deporting them.

Trump's threat to veto his own budget was absurd, like holding a pistol to his own head and taking himself hostage. Democrats quietly laughed, saying he'd get a worse deal if he did veto the bill; Congress has the power of the purse, and there's really nothing Trump can do to force the legislature to give him money. He quickly caved in and signed the bill. The incident got very little press, apparently because it was so absurd that nobody took it seriously.

Nonetheless, it was significant, since it was the last chance Trump had of getting his border wall; it's flatly not going to happen. It appears that he realized this, since he then contemplated having the Pentagon build the border wall. As first revealed, it seemed an idle thought that Trump wasn't too serious about, and was likely to quickly abandon in the face of its lack of realism; but then, follow-up reports suggested he was very obstinate about the idea. He's the commander in chief, right? He can tell the Pentagon what to do, and the Pentagon has piles of money -- so what's the problem?

The problem, as was apparently repeatedly explained to Trump, is that Congress approves the Pentagon's budget on a line-item basis: how much for pay, how much for base maintenance, how much for specific new weapons programs, and so on. There's a lot of line items in the budget; none of them involve a border wall. The Pentagon's budget is not a piggy bank that Trump can loot to satisfy his whims. The idea was desperation and will go nowhere -- but it is equally certain that he's going to keep flogging his border wall. One suspects Congress will get to the point of not even bothering to comment any more when he does: "Oh dear, not this again."

That wasn't the worst of his frustrations at that time. The day before Trump signed the new budget, he had congratulated Vladimir Putin on winning a fourth term as Russia's president. On the 21st, the news media ran a leak that informed the world Trump's own advisors had recommended to him: DO NOT CONGRATULATE. Trump was infuriated, even by his own volatile standards -- with Chris Cillizza of CNN suggested the leak had to have come from a high level, and represented the frustration of staff at being ignored by the president. Leaks, Cillizza said, seemed to be the only way to exert any influence on Trump.

Cillizza's view was reinforced the next day when Trump fired his national security advisor, Army General HR McMaster. The firing had been anticipated; Trump was not comfortable with McMaster, partly because the general didn't toady up to the president, and also because his briefings were too detailed and analytical: McMaster operated beyond Trump's attention span. McMaster is to be replaced by John Bolton, a notoriously loud and abrasive Right-wing troglodyte. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis offered reassurances that the national security advisor was more an "aggregator" than a maker of policy, and that he, Mattis, could work with Bolton. In short: Bolton talks big, don't pay it too much mind.

Along with the reports that anticipated the firing of McMaster, there were suggestions that the White House chief of staff, Marine General John Kelly, was going to get the boot as well. It is not at all a rumor that the hard-nosed Kelly rides herd on White House staff, imposing order as best he can on the disorderly circus. Of course, staffers don't like being bossed around like that, and prefer to return to a state of disorder. At last notice, Kelly still had his job.

Last year, it seemed like losing imposing figures like Tillerson and McMaster would be a major blow to the Trump Administration, but in the event, it's business as usual. Trump manages -- well, after a fashion -- by chaos, and so what's more chaos? The strange thing is that we've got so used to it that it seems normal, sort of. Those of a future era will look back on the Trump Administration and marvel that it both endured, and muddled on through somehow.

Nonetheless, the Trump Administration retains its ability to surprise, and did so on 26 March by expelling 60 Russian diplomats, in response to the attack in the UK on ex-Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, using a nerve toxin. The expulsion was part of a coordinated effort by Western governments. Although Trump persists in his public attempts to cozy up to Vladimir Putin, the reality is that American policy transcends individuals, and all factors force Trump to go along with a hardline doctrine towards Russia. Of course he resents it.

Alongside usual turmoil in the White House was a drive for gun control by the survivors of the mass killing at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland FL on 14 February. Students of the school are leading the effort, which involved mass walkouts from schools on 14 March; the walkout lasting 17 minutes, in memorial to the 17 students killed in the massacre. The student leaders -- most notably Emma Gonzalez, a buzzcut Cuban-American girl -- came under attack from the Right, though those who did so were raked over the coals in the media, to be made to regret it.

ENOUGH

The USA had become too used to massacres on a regular basis, with the utterances of leadership to offer "thoughts and prayers" in response becoming widely mocked. Something was going to give sooner or later, and now it has. The movement is unlikely to be a flash in the pan either, all the more so because more massacres are going to take place until responsible action is taken. It is likely that Gonzalez and some of the other Parkland kids represent a future US leadership group. The contrast between them and the current White House gang could not be greater -- and it's not one that favors the White House.

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