apr 2019 / greg goebel

* This weblog provides an "online notebook" to provide comments on current events, interesting items I run across, and the occasional musing. It promotes no particular ideology. To keep up with new postings, follow gvgoebel on twitter.

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* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (54): On 8 December 1863, Lincoln's annual State of the Union address was presented to Congress. Lincoln expressed his satisfaction with the progress of Union arms, which had led to revived public support for the war, with stronger support for Republican policy. Of course, Lincoln would have hardly been a politician had he not suggested that his Emancipation Proclamation had been a major factor in the successes of the Federal war effort:


Of those who were slaves at the beginning of the rebellion, full one hundred thousand are now in United States military service, about one half of which actually bear arms in the ranks; thus giving the double advantage of taking so much labor from the insurgent cause, and supplying the places which otherwise must be filled with so many white men. So far as tested, it is difficult to say they are not as good soldiers as any.


Lincoln then listed other matters of administration, such as the budget; foreign relations; immigration; relations with the Indian tribes; and then moved on to the heart of the address, which concerned the processes by which the rebel states would be readmitted to the Union, contained in an appendix to his address titled: "A Proclamation Of Amnesty And Reconstruction".

The proclamation suggested that all rebels should be granted amnesty if they took an oath of loyalty to the US government, and proclaimed their support of the Emancipation Proclamation and all Federal laws on slavery. Senior Confederate government officials, military officers, turncoat US government officials, and those guilty of war crimes were to be denied amnesty. Once 10% of a state's citizenry, the number being determined by the 1860 census, took the oath, the state would be readmitted to the Union as if nothing had happened. The Federal government would repudiate all Confederate war debts.

It was not a strictly theoretical discussion. Lincoln had already written General Nathaniel Banks -- in charge of occupied Louisiana, like Ben Butler a Massachusetts politician in uniform -- suggesting that state might make a good place to perform an experiment along such lines. In the letter, Lincoln also made some necessarily vague but optimistic comments on the mechanisms of coexistence between white and black in the new post-slavery order.

The Constitution said nothing about the reconstruction of a state under rebellion; it had never happened before, and Lincoln had no real precedent to fall back on. Such Democrats as remained in Congress found the President's ideas radical and harsh. They believed that the Union should be restored with no change in the status quo as prevailed before the war. That was unrealistic, given that the clashes of armies had already effectively destroyed the status quo, and the Democrats were a minority anyway. In contrast, the Radical Republicans in Congress didn't think the President's ideas were harsh enough. To them, the wayward states were to be treated like the military conquests they were, or soon would be. If the South were to be readmitted to the Union, it would be in a form acceptable to the Radical Republicans.

Nonetheless, Nathaniel Banks pushed forward on Lincoln's Ten Percent Plan, with a reconstructed Louisiana electing one Michael Hahn, an immigrant from Bavaria, governor of the state on 22 February 1864. Although Banks had banned slavery from Louisiana by decree, the new state constitution was ambiguous on the rights of free black people. The ambiguity was deliberate, Banks and Hahn having struggled to hold the line against the state constitution specifically stating that black men would not be given the right to vote. Still, it all seemed like a step in the right direction, and at the time a similar exercise was taking place in occupied Arkansas, with a new state government -- which constitutionally banned slavery and secession -- in place before the end of March.

The Radical Republicans in Congress found the Ten Percent Plan too lenient, and were also determined to put paid to slavery once and for all. Their ideas congealed that spring in a bill promoted by the Senator Ben Wade of Ohio, one of the hottest of the Radicals, and his opposite number in the House of Representatives, the equally uncompromising Congressman Henry Winter Davis of Maryland. Their legislation raised the proportion of voters taking the loyalty oath to 50%; specified that military governors run the state until state conventions drafted a new constitution banning slavery, as well as repudiating secession and Confederate war debts; and gave amnesty only to those who could prove they hadn't willingly supported the rebellion.

The Wade-Davis bill passed both houses of Congress easily in May; the bill would come before Lincoln in early July, and he would refuse to sign it, saying it was an attempt by Congress to usurp executive powers. Besides, the bill was an attempt to address "a matter of too much importance to be swallowed in that way." The Radicals reacted with fury. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for March included:

-- 02 MAR 19 / SPACEX CREW DRAGON DEMO 1 -- A SpaceX Falcon booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0749 UTC (local time + 5), carrying an uncrewed "Crew Dragon" space capsule on a demo flight. It docked with the International Space Station (ISS) 27 hours after launch, carrying about 180 kilograms (400 pounds) of supplies and an instrumented test dummy. The capsule splashed down in the Atlantic six days later, and was recovered.


The "Crew Dragon" AKA "Dragon 2" was derived from the Dragon freighter spacecraft, used for supply flights to the ISS, paid for under NASA "Commercial Resupply Services (CRS)" contracts. To this time, the Dragon freighter had flown eighteen times, performing two test flights under NASA's "Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS)" program, before beginning operational cargo delivery flights under CRS.

First flight of the Dragon freighter was in 2010, with the spacecraft performing three orbits of the Earth. Next flight was in mid-2012, with the first docking with the ISS. Operational missions began in October 2012, and are ongoing. In 2020, the Dragon freighter will fly with upgraded Crew Dragon technology.

Like the Dragon freighter, the Crew Dragon consists of a pressurized capsule and an unpressurized trunk. The Crew Dragon capsule can seat up to seven astronauts, and is re-usable. Although SpaceX considered land-based landings early on, the company decided on splashdown and recovery at sea, like the Dragon freighter.

Power is generated by solar panels mounted on the exterior of the trunk. This was a change from the Dragon freighter, which uses deployable solar arrays. Another difference between the two spacecraft is the nosecone:

Dragon V2 also incorporates eight SuperDraco thrusters -- liquid-fueled engines which serve as a launch escape system to carry Dragon clear of its Falcon 9 carrier rocket, should an anomaly occur before it reaches orbit. First flight of a Crew Dragon carrying a crew to the ISS is scheduled for later in 2019.

In order to meet NASA's requirements for human-rating the Falcon 9, SpaceX needed to freeze the design of the Falcon 9, ending a pattern of incremental upgrades that had been made over the original design. This has resulted in the "Block 5" version of Falcon 9, which is expected to represent its final configuration. It is considerably longer and more powerful than the first Falcon 9, which flew in 2010.

SpaceX has focused on recovery of elements of the Falcon 9. While initial attempts to recover the first stage relied upon parachutes, and proved unsuccessful, from the sixth flight onwards SpaceX began attempting controlled, powered landings. The first significant upgrade to the Falcon 9 design, the "Falcon 9 v1.1", incorporated more powerful engines and stretched first and second stages that gave the rocket enough extra performance to give it leftover fuel for a soft landing. Falcon 9 v1.1 also introduced the "OctaWeb", an octagonal arrangement of engines, replacing a square grid layout used on earlier versions.

A further upgrade was introduced in December 2015 with the Falcon 9 "Full Thrust" AKA "v1.2", which was further stretched and began use of supercooled liquid oxygen -- which permits more oxidizer to be carried by increasing its density. The "Block 3" and "Block 4" upgrades that followed were tweaks, leading to the "Block 5" upgrade that first flew in May 2018. The Block 5 is "human-rated", with the first stage supporting multiple re-launches -- previously, it could only fly twice -- with less refurbishment between launches.

-- 09 MAR 19 / CHINASAT 6C -- A Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1728 UTC (next day local time - 8) to put the "Chinasat 6C" AKA "Zhongxing 6C" geostationary comsat into space. The Chinasat 6C satellite was built by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), and was based on the CAST DFH-4 spacecraft bus. It had a payload of 25 C-band transponders and a design lifetime of 15 years. The comsat featured "enhanced" anti-interference technology, such as beam and frequency switching, and suppression of unauthorized uplinks to the satellite.

Chinasat 6C was placed in the geostationary slot at 130 degrees east longitude, to provide television broadcast services for China Satcom, with coverage of China, Southeast Asia, Australia and islands in the South Pacific. This was the 300th launch of a Long March booster, since 1970.

-- 14 MAR 19 / SOYUZ ISS 58S (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 1914 UTC (local time + 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 58S" AKA "MS-12" crewed space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission.

The crew included commander Alexey Ovchinin of the RKA (2nd space flight), flight engineer Tyler "Nick" Hague of NASA (1st space flight) and astronaut Christina Koch of NASA (1st space flight). Both Ovchinen and Hague had attempted to fly to the ISS on Soyuz ISS 56S / MS 10 on 11 October 2018, but the mission was aborted two minutes after launch, due to a booster failure.

The capsule docked with the ISS Rassvet module six hours after launch. They joined the ISS "Expedition 58 / 59" crew of station commander Oleg Kononenko of RKA, Canadian astronaut David Saint-Jacques of CSA, and NASA flight engineer Anne McClain.

-- 16 MAR 19 / WIDEBAND GLOBAL SATCOM 10 (USA ---) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0026 UTC (previous day local time + 4) to put the US Department of Defense's "Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) 10" AKA "USA 291" geostationary comsat into space.

WGS 10 was based on the Boeing BSS 702 comsat bus; the satellite had a launch mass of 6,000 kilograms (13,200 pounds), carried a payload of Ka / X-band transponders, and had a service life of 14 years. This was the final WGS satellite needed to complete the WGS constellation as planned. The booster was in the "M+ (5,4)" configuration, with five solid-rocket boosters and a payload fairing with a diameter of 4 meters (13 feet 2 inches).

WGS 10 is the fourth and final "Block II Follow-On" WGS satellite, and it's the third with the digital channelizer, which handles communications signals more efficiently, nearly doubling the bandwidth provided by earlier spacecraft in the series.

-- 22 MAR 19 / PRISMA -- A Vega booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 0150 UTC (previous day local time + 3) to put the "Precursore Iperspettrale della Missione Applicativa (PRISMA / Hyperspectral Precursor of Application Mission" Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit for the Italian space agency. PRISMA was a test flight for a new smallsat bus that also performed operational observations with an innovative payload.


The PRISMA mission followed the "Hyperspectral Satellite for Earth Observation (HypSEO)" effort, which was canceled in the early 2000s. The PRISMA satellite had a launch mass of 879 kilograms (1,938 pounds), the primary payload being a hyperspectral imager (HSI) which operated across 237 visible-light, near-infrared, and short wave infrared bands, with a spectral resolution of 12 nanometers. The HSI could image a 30-kilometer (18.6-mile, 16.2 NMI) swath of the Earth's surface at a resolution of 30 meters (98 feet).

A panchromatic imager provided complementary observations, providing five-meter (16-foot) resolution over the same swath. Both imagers observed the Earth via a three-mirror telescope with a 21-centimeter (8.3-inch) aperture. PRISMA was solar-powered, using panels fixed to the spacecraft, and had a design life of five years. The satellite bus was three-axis stabilized, and used hydrazine thrusters for on-orbit maneuvering. PRISMA was designed and manufactured by an Italian consortium led by OHB Italia SpA and Leonardo SpA, with OHB Italia responsible for the satellite, and Leonardo for the HSI.

-- 27 MAR 19 / LINQUE 1B (FAILURE) A commercial OS-M light booster was launched from Jiuquan at 1039 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "Lingque 1B" remote sensing CubeSat into space, but the booster veered off course, and did not reach orbit.

Both the booster and CubeSat were built by OneSpace. The solid-fuel four-stage OS-M booster is about 19 meters (62 feet) tall, with the ability to put about 112 kilograms (250 pounds) into polar low Earth orbit (LEO). OneSpace launched two suborbital rockets, designed "OS-X", on test flights from Jiuquan in 2018. The company plans to develop the the more powerful "OS-M2" and "OS-M4" boosters with two or four strap-on solid rocket boosters (SRB). With uprated SRBs, the OS-M4 will be able to put 522 kilograms (1,150 pounds) into LEO. Linque 1B was built for ZeroG Labs, which plans to deploy a fleet of fleet of Earth-observing nanosatellites.

OneSpace has competitors in China. LandSpace launched "Zhuque 1" its first orbital-class rocket from Jiuquan on 27 October 2018, but the vehicle's third stage failed to attain enough velocity to reach orbit. LandSpace is moving on from the solid-fueled Zhuque 1 to the bigger "Zhuque 2" booster, fueled by methane and liquid oxygen. Another Chinese launch startup, iSpace, is preparing for the first flight of the "Hyperbola 1" satellite launcher. LinkSpace is also using Chinese private capital to develop a new smallsat launcher with a reusable first stage.

-- 28 MAR 19 / R3D2 -- A Rocket Labs Electron light booster was launched from a facility on the Mahia Peninsula on New Zealand's North Island at 2327 UTC (next day local time - 11) to put the "Radio Frequency Risk Reduction Deployment Demonstration R3D2)" satellite into orbit for the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).


R3D2 had a launch mass of 150 kilograms (330 pounds). It demonstrated a new design of a unfurable antenna, with a kapton membrane, and a deployed diameter of 2.26 meters (7.4 feet).

-- 30 MAR 19 / TIANLIAN 2-01 -- A Long March 3B booster was launched from Xichang at 1550 UTC (local time - 8) to put the first "Tianlian 2" geostationary space communications satellite into orbit. It was developed by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), being based on the civil DFH-4 comsat, its mission being to support communications between ground stations and space platforms. The Tianlian satellites are conceptually similar to the US American Tracking & Data Relay Satellite System (TDRSS). They have a launch mass of about 5,200 kilograms 11,465 pounds), and a design life of 15 years.

The four first-generation Tianlian satellites were launched between 2008 and 2016, supporting different kinds of missions and especially the ones related to the Chinese manned space program. The satellites were based on the CASTís DFH-3 satellite platform. The Long March booster for Tianlian 2-01 was the "3B/G2" variant, featuring four up-rated strap-on boosters, and a lengthened core stage compared to the Long March 3B.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: On 1 January 2019 the NASA New Horizons deep space probe, following its 2015 pass by Pluto, performed a flyby of the Kuiper Belt object (KBO) 2014 MU69, nicknamed "Ultima Thule". Closest approach was about 6,700 kilometers (4,200 miles).

Ultima Thule was discovered in 2014 by the Hubble Space Telescope. The initial image of the object downloaded revealed a "contact binary", or two bodies joined together, described as something like a "snowman", about 31 kilometers (19 miles) from end to end. A later download showed the two joined bodies were distinctly flattened. The large body has been nicknamed "Ultima", the smaller one "Thule", with diameters of about 19 kilometers (12 miles) and 14 kilometers (9 miles) respectively. No moonlets were observed.

Ultima Thule

Ultima Thule, at the time of encounter, was about 6.6 billion kilometers (4.13 billion miles) from Earth -- about a third farther away than Pluto. It takes over six hours for the probe's radio signal to reach Earth. Transmission from that distance is at a snail's pace, so it will take 20 months to download all the data.

The Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, designed, built and operates the New Horizons spacecraft, and manages the mission for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. The Southwest Research Institute, based in San Antonio TX, leads the science team, payload operations and encounter science planning. New Horizons is part of the New Frontiers Program managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

* As discussed by an article from AVIATIONWEEK.com (" DARPA Wants To Assemble, Demo Nuclear Rocket in Orbit" by Graham Warwick, 20 March 2019), the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's "blue sky" development office, plans to demonstrate a nuclear thermal rocket (NTR) propulsion system that can be assembled on orbit to support US operations in space beyond the Moon.

DARPA is now seeking $10 million USD in 2020 to start up the "Reactor On A Rocket (ROAR)", the objective being to develop a "high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU)" rocket system. An NTR involves pumping liquid hydrogen through a reactor core, which heats up the hydrogen, resulting in high-impulse thrust. An NTR can be twice as efficient as a chemical rocket.

HALEU is being developed as a fuel source for next-generation US nuclear reactors. While US naval reactors use highly enriched uranium with a concentration -- "assay" of the fissionable isotope uranium-235 (U-235) greater than 90%, commercial reactors use low-enriched uranium with 3 to 5% U-235. HALEU has a U-235 assay of more than 5% but less than 20%. The higher concentration means a compact reactor that doesn't have to be refueled as often, and produces less waste.

Initial work in the ROAR program will include investigation of 3D printing to produce engine elements, and orbital assembly of the modularly-designed engine -- the longer-term goal being to conduct a technology demonstration. It is somewhat puzzling as to why DARPA is interested in NTR propulsion, because it's primarily focused on deep-space exploration, which doesn't have much military application.



* PROBING MATTER WITH MUONS: As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Muons: The Little-Known Particles Helping To Probe The Impenetrable" by Elizabeth Gibney, 25 May 2018), elementary particles like the electron, proton, neutron, neutrino, and photon are more or less household words; but mention the "muon", and the response is usually a blank stare. Nonetheless, the muon is starting to attract more attention, muons having been used by archaeologists in 2017 to discover a hidden chamber in the Great Pyramid at Giza.

Muons are created in cosmic-ray impacts in the upper atmosphere. A muon has a mass 200 times that of the electron, the same negative charge as the electron, and an average lifetime of 2.2 microseconds, before it (usually) decays into an electron and two neutrinos. The cosmic rays that give birth to muons give them velocities near the speed of light, with the muons able to penetrate hundreds of meters of solid matter before being absorbed.

Their commonness and penetrating power makes muons perfect for imaging large, dense objects without damaging them -- according to Cristina Carloganu, a physicist at the Clermont-Ferrand Physics Laboratory in France. The technique, known as "muography", is based on the fact that denser materials, not surprisingly, absorb more energy from muons passing through. Physicists accordingly place detectors that can measure muon energies around a target, with the energy spectra obtained allowing a model to be built up of the interior of a target.

Physicists have been tinkering with muography since the 1950s, for example an unsuccessful search for hidden chambers in the second-largest pyramid at Giza. Raffaello D'Alessandro -- a particle physicist at the University of Florence in Italy, and a specialist in muography -- says early muon detectors were too big, expensive, and troublesome to be practical. They could weigh more than 10 tonnes, and relied on the ability of muons to ionize particles of sometimes explosive gases.

Much improved technologies to track the paths of charged particles, developed at atomic-research labs like CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, have led to much cheaper, compact, safer, and sensitive muon detectors -- down to pocket size, though of course there's trade-offs between size and capability. In any case, muon detectors are easily transported, and can run off solar panels at remote sites.

The discovery of the new chamber in the Great Pyramid is not the only example of the use of muography in archaeology. Italian researchers have used it to map cavities and tunnels under Mount Echia, a settlement in Naples that has been occupied since the eighth century BCE; and plan to use it to search for a rumored aqueduct beneath the nearby ancient city of Cumae.

Volcanoes have become a popular target for muography, thanks to pioneering work by Japanese researchers. Mapping lava channels, which absorb less energy from muons than does the dense surrounding rock, might help predict eruptions. In 2018, researchers will try to image the solidified plug of lava inside Italy's Mount Vesuvius. When combined with more conventional geophysical methods, these images could help volcanologists infer which parts would blow up first during an eruption.

Commercial applications are emerging as well -- typically using a slightly different muography technique, tracking how muon trajectories change when they hit atomic nuclei in a material, instead of measuring energies. By placing detectors on both sides of a sample, physicists can track a muon's trajectory; and since the angle of deflection correlates with density of the substance the muon hits, the deflection data can be used to create a density map of the material being probed.

The technique can be used to inspect nuclear waste, even when it's encapsulated in concrete or steel. There's work to monitor the security of spent nuclear fuel, and to spot smuggled nuclear material at border crossings. There are also plans to use muography to track the wear of oil-industry pipelines and search for minerals in old mines.

The technology is not yet in widespread use, and remains unfamiliar to many potential users. Giulio Saracino -- a physicist at the University of Naples and one of the researchers probing Mount Echia -- comments: "It's a new, very specialist technique that comes from the high-energy-physics world. "The first time I say to geologists that we have muon technology, they say: 'What are muons?' They are fascinated, but also a little bit wary."



* DNA PRIVACY? As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG.com ("No One Is Safeguarding Your DNA" by Krisen V. Brown, 26 February 2019), new worries about personal privacy are bubbling up all the time. Consider, for example, DNA testing -- which has proven a forensic goldmine, nailing wrongdoers who otherwise couldn't be touched, and exonerating people who were falsely convicted.

That sounds good, and it is, but it presents a difficulty: privacy protection for genomic data is weak. Law enforcement already has a substantial database of genomic information; nobody worries about that too much, but millions of consumers are sending spit samples to genetic testing companies to get a genetic analysis, and the flood of genetic data obtained poses a huge problem: relationships.

Yaniv Erlich -- of Columbia University in New York City, chief science officer at DNA testing company MyHeritage -- estimates that only 2% of people with European ancestry, the majority of DNA testing customers, would need to reveal their genetic data to allow identification of identify samples from the other 98%. What makes genetic data most powerful, and troubling, is its combination with other online data obtained from, for example, public records and social media.

In 2018, California police arrested a man they suspect to be the Golden State Killer, having fingered him through genetic profiles of distant cousins, on a geneology website named "GEDmatch", which has about a million users. Police obtained crime scene DNA, and found a family bloodline that matched it; police then used other sources to build an extended family tree. Other details allowed them to zero in on the suspect.

Also in 2018, a second website, "FamilyTreeDNA", with about two million users, opened up to law enforcement. Given the two websites, investigators could potentially identify hundreds of millions of people from their DNA samples. The more genetic data the authorities obtain, the easier it becomes to identify anyone from a DNA sample. James Hazel -- a researcher at the Center for Genetic Privacy and Identity in Community Settings at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville -- comments: "The recent revelations surrounding FamilyTreeDNA, coupled with law enforcement's increasing reliance on public resources like GEDmatch, demonstrate that we continue to move closer to an under-regulated, de facto universal database."

Given that genetic data is going to keep on piling up -- and there's no stopping it -- then, as Hazel suggests, we need to regulate access to it. Several states already have strict laws regulating police searches of DNA databases to hunt down criminals; and Maryland and the District of Columbia have forbidden such searches altogether, even with a warrant. However, these strictures only apply to government databases; the commercial space is a genetic Wild West, the only rules being each company's terms of service. The companies have little control over how law enforcement, or anyone else for that matter, makes use of their services. What's the technical difference between a genealogy search, and a hunt for a criminal?

FamilyTreeDNA officials are increasingly concerned about law enforcement making use of its data in investigations. Company officials want to cooperate with the law, but they also want to protect the privacy of the company's users. Laura Hercher -- a genetic counselor and researcher at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville NY -- believes that it isn't right to force the companies to figure out the rules, that new laws will be needed to define access rights. Hercher says: "We would create limits that would be analogous to search warrants and restrict access to law enforcement. It's a great way to catch serial killers, but less savory uses are easily imagined."

Some legislators are already moving ahead on new laws. Maryland state legislator Charles Sydnor, a Democrat, has proposed a bill to ban police use of DNA databases, calling such use an overreach of authority. Maryland has led on genetic privacy matters in the past, and other states may follow along. However, for the moment, there is no consistent policy on access to DNA databases across the USA.

Hazel and other researchers at Vanderbilt suggested the establishment of a nationwide DNA database that could establish a higher floor for privacy protection. Completely denying access would be unreasonable, but access would have to be carefully controlled -- for example, requiring a warrant for a search, and limiting the amount of data the search acts on. Hazel says:


Law enforcement already has potential access to the genetic information of a large segment of the population, either directly or through a relative. There is an urgent need for additional regulation of government access to the genetic information housed in public and private DNA databases.




* REPAIRING THE WELFARE STATE (3): Another factor needed to support the welfare puzzle is the ability of governments to maintain a welfare state, while successfully promoting economic growth. Since the 1990s, Scandinavian countries and Canada have liberalized their economies -- selling public monopolies, cutting regulation, and reducing trade barriers -- while generally maintaining high levels of public spending. The Scandinavian countries, misleadingly labeled as "socialist" by the Left, have had to become more energetic capitalists.

The welfare state faces three ongoing challenges, the first being graying populations. In the OECD, longer life expectancies and, since 1990, stagnant fertility rates, have raised the ratio of adults over 65 to those of working age from 19.5 in 100 in 1975 to 27.9 today. That means more old people in need of pension money, and fewer working people to generate the money.

On average, as the median voter in OECD countries ages by one year, the share of GDP spent on pensions increases by 0.25 percentage points. The same applies to health spending. Today, the share of state spending that goes on public pensions averages 8.2% of GDP across the OECD. In France, it is 14%; in Italy, 16%. It is estimated that Britain's retiring baby boomers will get back a fifth more in benefits and services than they paid in. However, to maintain those benefits in the future will mean that Britain's public spending as a share of GDP would need to increase from about 37% now to 45%.

Some countries have adjusted their systems to cope with the age penalty. Denmark and Finland, among others, have linked state retirement ages to life expectancy; the Netherlands will do so in 2022. In Germany, Japan, Portugal, and Sweden, pension levels are adjusted according to the ratios of workers to non-workers. However, trimming back on retirement benefits is not popular with voters. Of the six countries in the OECD that changed their retirement ages in the past two years, three canceled previously planned rises.

The second challenge is immigration. In 1978, the American economist Milton Friedman argued that we could have open borders or generous welfare states open to all, but not both, without swamping the welfare system. In addition, citizens are more tolerant of benefits for "people like them" than for people who aren't. Studies have found, for example, that Swedes are more reluctant to give to Bulgarian than to Dutch migrants. Another study published in 2017 using survey data from 114 European regions found a correlation between areas with higher shares of migrants, and a lack of support for a generous welfare state -- or at least one that's generous to "outsiders".

A survey of changing attitudes in European countries between 2002 and 2012 found rising support for redistribution for "natives" -- along with strong opposition to migration and automatic access to benefits for new arrivals. Populists like the National Rally in France, the Sweden Democrats, and the Danish People's Party have all exploited this hostility to immigrants. The result has been a scaling back of assistance to newcomers almost everywhere.

However, studies suggest that some assistance to outsiders is more acceptable than others. Christian Larsen of Aalborg University found that a small majority of Danes thought immigrants should have immediate access to health care and public education -- but few thought that generosity should extend to unemployment or child benefits.

Attitudes towards immigrants are also volatile, shifting with the political winds. In 2011, for example, 40% of Britons said immigrants "undermined" the country's cultural life, and just 26% said they enriched it -- but by 2017, in backlash against the Brexit vote, the ratio flip-flopped, with only 23% saying "undermined", compared with 44% for "enriched". Of course, countries worried about supporting aging populations can readily see a solution in immigration. Economic research from Britain and Denmark has found that since at least 2002, EU migrants have contributed much more in taxes than they have cost in public services.

The third challenge is the shifting landscape of labor. As Andrew Gamble of Cambridge University wrote in his book CAN THE WELFARE STATE SURVIVE?: "The welfare state developed in an era of big government, big companies, and big unions." The assumption was that effectively all working-age males would have full-time jobs, but now there's a high proportion of citizens who don't have permanent employment, the "gig economy" having become more widespread.

The welfare state doesn't do well for people who don't have full-time jobs. In many countries, when the jobless do find work, their benefits are withdrawn, in some cases leaving them economically worse off. There's also the bureaucracy: for example, some may have to wait weeks after losing a job to get benefits. Welfare systems have an unfortunate tendency to work at cross purposes -- partly because of the inevitable bureaucracy, partly because of the ambivalent attitudes of citizens on the subject. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (53): The Republicans suffered in the elections in the North in the fall of 1862, but not enough to divert Union war policy. 3 January 1863 came and went, passing the deadline for the Emancipation Proclamation, with no Confederate state indicating any desire to rejoin the Union -- indeed, the general tone in the South was belligerent rejection of the idea. As an expression of determination to destroy the Confederacy, in March Lincoln signed the "Enrollment Act" into law, this being the first military draft in the history of the US government.

The Enrollment Act required all males from the ages of 20 to 45 to enroll for possible selection, with exemptions for disability or being the sole provider of a family. States were tasked with actually bringing in the manpower, with bounties offered for enlistment. A citizen could also hire a substitute to serve in his stead, or pay a fee of $300 to be exempt from the draft for a year. The act proved very troublesome, being clearly unfair to poorer Americans -- and also encouraged recruitment of thieves and other dubious individuals, who would collect bounties, then desert.

The Enrollment Act would go down in American history as an example of how not to conduct a draft. The Taney court was prepared for legal challenges to the draft law, but though there were decisions from the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania on the law -- which strongly upheld it -- no challenge reached the US Supreme Court. Support for the war was strong in the North, and those who were inclined to challenge the authority of the Federal government had learned to be circumspect about it.

* In any case, the Federal war machine continued to grind on. During 1863, the Union regained the initiative on the battlefield, on 3 July driving back the last major Confederate offensive into the North at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and taking full control of the Mississippi River with the fall of the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the next day, effectively cutting the Confederacy in half. Confederate fortunes would, from that time, be on a gradual, if fitful, path of decline.

On 19 November 1863, on the occasion of the dedication of a military cemetery at Gettysburg, Lincoln delivered arguably the most famous speech in American history, which would effectively become an addition to the Constitution. It significantly concluded not only that the Union would endure, in repudiation of the doctrine of nullification, but that the era of slavery was over -- that "the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

The war was far from over, but the Lincoln Administration still was thinking in the long term. In that same year, 1863, Congress established by charter the "National Academy of Sciences (NAS)", an independent organization dedicated to progress in the sciences, with the government calling on its expertise when needed. It would evolve into the modern "National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, & Medicine".

Scientific societies were not a new idea -- the archetype is Britain's Royal Society, founded in 1660; frontier America hadn't seen the need for such a thing, but with industrialization and economic expansion, in 1863 it seemed a good thing to have. It was yet another demonstration of the long-term thinking of the Lincoln Administration, as well as of the flexibility of the congressional charter mechanism.

In another significant, but little-noticed, exercise of authority, in 1863 Lincoln signed "General Order No. 100", which established a "code of conduct" for military operations. It was more generally known as the "Lieber Code", after its prime mover, a German-American professor of law named Franz Lieber. Efforts to codify the laws of war were nothing new, going back to antiquity, but the Lieber Code was one of the first to express the laws of war in modern legal terms.

The Lieber Code was comprehensive, dictating humane treatment of civilian populations in occupied areas; humane treatment of prisoners; no use of torture to extract intelligence; no use of poisons; and so on, while providing careful legal definitions of states, insurrections, rebellions, and wars. How much influence it had on Union military operations is arguable, but it proved a useful basis for discussions of the international law of war, beginning with the first Geneva Convention the next year. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("This 'Two-Faced' Membrane Can Create Electricity From Nothing But Salty Water' by Frankie Schembri, 26 October 2018), there's a lot of work being done on new power generation schemes. One angle being investigated is generating electricity using osmotic membranes.

When ionic salts dissolve in water, they break apart, leaving positively and negatively charged components floating in solution. By placing charged, thin membranes in between salty water and fresh water, scientists can create an expressway for the flowing particles, generating electric current. Unfortunately, these membranes are often expensive to manufacture, and they tend to get leaky over time -- allowing particles to pass back through in the wrong direction, cutting into how much electricity they can produce.

Researchers have developed a "two-faced" osmotic membrane -- with different properties on either side, including the size of the pores, and the charge of the membrane -- to encourage a steady flow of charged particles from one side to the other, while preventing them from drifting back in the wrong direction. The researchers tested their "Janus membranes" -- named after the two-faced Roman god of gates and passages -- with salty sea water on one side and fresh river water on the other.

The found they were able to convert 35.7% of the chemical energy stored in the salty water into useable electricity. That's as efficient as most wind turbines and higher than most solar cells. Now the researchers plan to build larger membranes, and see how well they work in real-world conditions.

ED: This almost sounds like a violation of the laws of thermodynamics, but not really: there's an energy difference between water with ions in solution, and water without the ions. In effect, the ionized water stores an electric charge, with scheme resembling the discharge of a battery.

* As reported by an article from TECHCRUNCH.com ("This Startup Got $2.3M To Identify Physical Objects Using Diamond Dust" by Ron Miller, 14 November 2018), a Boston-based startup named "Dust Identity" is now working on a scheme for product identification based on diamond dust. The idea is that some product gets a spray of diamonds, each the size of a dust particle, with the dusting then covered in polymer.

Company CEO and co-founder Ophir Gaathon says: "Once the diamonds fall on the surface of a polymer epoxy, and that polymer cures, the diamonds are fixed in their position, fixed in their orientation, and it's actually the orientation of those diamonds that we developed a technology that allows us to read those angles very quickly."

The dust is not expensive, a company spokesperson saying: "We start with diamond waste -- for example, [from] the abrasive industry -- but we developed a proprietary process, that's of course highly scalable and economical, to purify and engineer the diamond waste into dust." The diamond pattern would be very difficult to fake. No doubt the scanning process can compensate for scratches and such in the polymer that could confound readout by use of a statistical analysis.

* As discussed by an article from ENDGADGET.com ("Police Are Using Fake Amazon Boxes With GPS To Catch Thieves" by AJ Dellinger, 12 December 2018), the rise of e-commerce has led to a corresponding rise in thefts of Amazon boxes left at residences.

It's just too easy a theft, right? OK, since it's easy, it's also easy to catch people at it. Police in Jersey City, New Jersey, hit back by placing fake Amazon boxes on the doorstep of residences, with doorbell cameras installed to keep an eye on activities. The boxes contain GPS trackers so the police can follow the thieves. Given the volume of Amazon shipments, the police focused on areas where high numbers of thefts had been reported. In one case, a package was stolen just three minutes after it was set up on a porch, with the suspect promptly nabbed by police.



* HACHIMOJI DNA: As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Four New DNA Letters Double Life's Alphabet" by Matthew Warren, 21 February 2019), it is generally known, at least to the scientifically literate, that the DNA molecule -- the "code of life" -- is a twin-chain polymer, made up of four molecular building blocks, or "bases": guanine (G), cytosine (C), adenine (A), and thymine (T). Now a consortium of US researchers led by Steven Benner -- founder of the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution in Alachua, Florida -- has put together a "DNA-plus" molecule that uses eight bases.

Normally, the two chains in the DNA molecule form the famous "double helix", with the bases linking the two chains together: A bonds to T, C bonds with G. Researchers have long tried to add new bases -- Benner was tinking with "unnatural" DNA back in the 1980s. Floyd Romesberg, a chemical biologist at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, was the first to score a breakthrough, his lab making headlines in 2014 after inserting a pair of unnatural bases into a living cell.

Romesberg's work was a proof of concept, just to see if it could be done. Benner's work builds on that, systematically demonstrating that the complementary unnatural bases recognize and bind to each other, and that the double helix that they form maintains its structure.

The new bases were molecular variations on the established ones. The bases pair up because they form hydrogen bonds: they contain hydrogen atoms on the linking end of the molecule, which are attracted to nitrogen or oxygen atoms in their partner. Benner like to compare the scenario as like Lego bricks that snap together when the holes and studs line up. His team tweaked the arrangement of holes and studs, leaving the rest of the molecules unchanged, to come up with several new pairs of bases -- including a duo named "S" and "B", and another called "P" and "Z2".

They call the new eight-base system "hachimoji", which is Japanese for "eight letters". Having devised the hachimoji scheme, they then put it to the test. They created hundreds of molecules of the hachimoji DNA, to find that the letters bound to their partners predictably; and the DNA double helixes that resulted were as stable as those of ordinary DNA, no matter what the order of the base pairs was. Earlier attempts to build DNA with unnatural bases could not produce reliably stable molecules.

Finally, they showed that the hachimoji DNA could be readily transcribed into RNA -- the single-chain "working copy" of DNA that's fed into a cellular ribosome, which uses the list of commands in the RNA chain to assemble a protein. Some RNA sequences, known as "aptamers", also bind to specific molecular targets. Benner's team created hachimoji DNA that codes for a certain aptamerm, generating RNA aptamers that successfully bound to a target molecule.

There's still more work to be done to validate the hachimoji scheme -- but the work so far confirms that there doesn't have to be just one DNA scheme in the cosmos; life elsewhere might use a different DNA. To be sure, alien life might use something entirely different from DNA, but nobody has yet conceived of any other plausible coding molecule. There may be applications of the hachmoji DNA as well. For example, Benner's group previously showed that strands of DNA that included Z and P were better at binding to cancer cells than sequences with just the standard four bases. Benner has set up a company to commercialize synthetic DNA for use in medical diagnostics. The hachimoji DNA might also be used to synthesize new proteins.

Benner's team has continued to work on new pairs of bases, suggesting the possibility of new DNA forms with 10 or 12 bases -- "juumoji" or "juunimoji". Romesberg says that he's impressed enough with hachimoji: "It's already doubling what nature has."



* LOYAL WINGMEN: As discussed by an article from AVIATIONWEEK.com ("Boeing Unveils 'Loyal Wingman' UAV Developed In Australia" by Graham Warwick, 26 February 2019), US aerospace giant Boeing has announced work on a fighter-like unpiloted aerial vehicle (UAV) -- drone, in popular terms -- intended to operate in conjunction with piloted aircraft, at only a fraction of the cost of a piloted aircraft.

A full-scale mockup of Boeing's "Airpower Teaming System (ATS)" drone was unveiled at the Australian International Airshow in Avalon, which ran in the last week of February 2019 into the beginning of March. The ATS drone is being developed by Boeing Autonomous Systems and Boeing's Phantom Works International unit in Australia, with a demonstrator to fly in 2020. The ATS drone will be sold to defense customers around the world; it is being developed in Australia because that's a better starting point for global sales.

Boeing is working in partnership with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), with funding from the Canberra government, and with the involvement of local suppliers. The demonstrator is funded under "Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program" -- which is being supported by $40 million AuD ($28.5 million USD) over four years in Australian government funding, and by Boeing as an element of its $62 million AuD investment in research and development in Australia in 2018.

ATS escorts

The ATS demonstrator will be 11.6 meters (38 feet) long; it will have high-mounted swept wings, a butterfly tail, and stealthy contours. The production machine will be powered by a derivative of a commercial business-jet turbofan. It will have an AI-based flight / mission system that will allow it to safely accompany other aircraft. It will have a range of 3,700 kilometers (2,300 miles / 2,000 NMI), and will have adequate performance to keep up with US Navy or RAAF Super Hornets.

According to Kristin Robertson, vice president and general manager of Boeing Autonomous Systems, the ATS drone is low-cost, modular, and flexible, able to be quickly reconfigured for different missions using "snap-on, snap-off" payloads. The initial multimission variant is intended for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, and electronic warfare. Boeing came up with the ATS drone after discussions with customers internationally, Robertson saying:


When you look at the global market, it is really about them wanting more for less. Allies around the world are looking for ways to maximize and extend their [force] structures. Autonomous systems and some of the technologies behind them can make more of a game-changing leap in affordability and quantity, to complement their existing fleets,


The ATS effort is part of Autonomous Systems' portfolio, along with Insitu's small tactical drones, Liquid Robotics' Wave Glider unpiloted surface vehicle, and Boeing's Echo Voyager large unpiloted undersea vehicle. The lineup also includes the X-37B reusable spaceplane, and the Phantom Express reusable launch vehicle now being built for DARPA. In addition, Boeing is converting QF-16 target drones for the US Air Force, and developing the MQ-25 Stingray carrier-based drone aerial-refueling aircraft for the US Navy -- discussed here in 2018.

Boeing's largest presence outside the US is in Australia, where since 2000 the company has acquired most of the major names in local aircraft manufacturing -- including the former Government Aircraft Factories and Hawker de Havilland. The ATS drone is one of the first aircraft developed with Boeing Australia in the lead. Much of the reason for doing so is the close linkage with the RAAF, which has been conducting visionary studies to consider future threats, and has worked with Boeing on new technologies. It is possible that avoiding US government weapons export controls is another motive.

* As discussed by another article from AVIATIONWEEK.com ("Kratos Steals Boeing's Thunder With XQ-58A First Flight" by Steve Trimble, 8 March 2019), the Kratos company of the US is already flying a drone somewhat like the ATS drone, with the first flight of the "XQ-58A Valkyrie" on 6 March 2018.


The XQ-58A is being developed as an experimental program under the direction of the US Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). It was the first flight demonstrator launched under the AFRL's "Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft Technology", which is intended to produce relatively cheap combat aircraft.

The first flight of the XQ-58A was only 2.5 years after contract award. It is a stealthy design, with swept wings and a butterfly tail, and an engine intake for a small turbofan on the back. The aircraft was launched from a rail and recovered by parachute. The demonstrator is 8.84 meters (29 feet) long, making it smaller than the ATS drone -- though it has longer range. The XQ-58A is intended to be cheap and "attritable", meaning operationally expendable if need be; while the Boeing ATS drone is more comparable to a piloted combat aircraft, and proportionally more expensive.



* REPAIRING THE WELFARE STATE (2): The experience of the Great Depression and the subsequent Second World War led to the modern welfare state. War brought people of different backgrounds together, promoting a sense of unity against a common enemy. Britain's middle class was the backbone of the war effort; their needs meant the welfare state had to be more than just looking out for the poor.

Beveridge had to address questions, still pertinent, such as: When is a benefit a right, and when is it conditional on conduct? Will benefits undermine the will to work? And most significantly, how to pay for it all? And how much to pay? He argued that there should be "bread for all ... before cake for anybody" -- but added that people "should not be taught to regard the state as the dispenser of gifts for which no one needs pay."

Britain's postwar government implemented much of his plan, and reforms soon followed elsewhere. By 1954, the core institutions of the welfare state were in place across the rich world, including social-insurance schemes, means-tested support for the poorest, free or subsidized health care, and employment rights. That same year, American President Dwight Eisenhower said -- words that may prove prophetic -- that if any politician tried to dismantle social security, "you would not hear of that party again in our political history."

Different countries have always taken their own approaches to the welfare state -- but they began to diverge significantly in the 1970s. In 1990, Gosta Esping-Andersen, a Danish sociologist, described three varieties of "welfare capitalism":

One of the most common charges against modern welfare states is that they have created a culture of dependency. As a result, policymakers have made welfare programs more conditional, for example requiring recipients to look for work. If the state actually helps them do it, it seems like a good idea; many countries have expanded "active labor-market policies" such as retraining.

However, there hasn't actually been a rolling-back of the welfare state. In a 2011 paper Paul Pierson -- of the University of California, Berkeley -- described a "frozen landscape". Pierson showed that for several kinds of benefits, such as unemployment, disability, and state pensions -- generosity rose to the 1980s, and then has hardly budged since.

The myth of a shrinking welfare state is accompanied by another myth, that the welfare state is primarily about redistributing income from rich to poor. That's not entirely so. Nicholas Barr of the London School of Economics points out that it's more about allowing people to smooth consumption over their lifetimes -- in effect, shifting money from their younger selves to their older selves.

A third myth is that welfare spending drags down economic growth. That's not necessarily so, either. As countries become wealthier, public spending increases as a share of GDP: Spending on "social protection" programs -- such as pensions, benefits, and the like in the OECD club of countries grew from 5% in the 1960s; to 15% in 1980; to 21% in 2016. Some economists have estimated a fall in GDP growth, on the order of a percentage point, with growth in public spending. However, since 2000, Canada and some Scandinavian countries, for example, have combined high levels of public spending with high rates of economic growth.

Peter Lindert of University of California, Davis, describes this phenomenon as the "free-lunch puzzle" -- but that's not really the right term, since taxpayers still pay for the lunches, it's a question of expenditures of groups instead of individuals. One factor in the puzzle, as Lindert points out, is that economic growth depends heavily on what public spending is used to buy. Subsidized child care, which helps (mostly) women stay in the labor market, is more growth-friendly than pensions, say. The introduction of the Children's Health Insurance Program in the USA in the late 1990s increased the rate of parents opening their own businesses. Welfare is, overall, not really a zero-sum game.

ED: One of the interesting things about SNAP, the US food stamp program for the poor, is that it has an aspect of a crop subsidy, helping support American farmers and food manufacturers. In poorer parts of town, it also helps retailers stay afloat. SNAP can be seen to be at least as much capitalist as socialist. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (52): In the spring of 1862, there was cause for hope that the rebellion would soon be crushed. The fall of the city of New Orleans late in April seemed a particular blow to the Confederacy. However, in the summer of 1862, the Confederacy retook the initiative in the war, conducting offensives into Maryland and Kentucky that threw the Union on the defensive.

The change in fortunes of the war suggested to Union leadership that more drastic action was needed to suppress the rebellion. On 19 June, Congress abolished slavery in the territories in the Far West without compensation. That was symbolic, since there were effectively no slaves in those territories; the exercise nonetheless indicated the way the winds were blowing. Lincoln dropped a hint to Congressional border state leadership in a message on 12 July:


The incidents of the war can not be avoided. If the war continue long ... the institution [slavery] in your states will be extinguished by mere friction and abrasion ... It will be gone, and you will have nothing valuable in lieu of it.


They paid no attention. Lincoln had by that time realized that compensated emancipation was going nowhere, and also that undermining slavery profoundly undermined the Confederate war effort. However, he was still not convinced of the necessity of drastic action. Congress continued the push against slavery, passing a "Second Confiscation Act" on 17 July, emancipating the slaves of Southerners in rebellion against the United States, and also passed a "Militia Act", which authorized the enlistment of "persons of African descent" into the Union Army. Lincoln was hesitant to sign the Second Confiscation Act, questioning its constitutionality, but was persuaded to do.

Lincoln was not against what Congress was trying to do; he was just struggling to figure out a better way of doing it. On 22 July, Lincoln held a cabinet meeting to propose a general emancipation, without compensation, of all the slaves in the Confederacy. The consensus of the cabinet was that it was a good idea -- but needed to be put off until the Union's military situation improved, lest it seem an act of desperation.

The Confederate offensive into Maryland was halted in a blood-soaked battle at the town of Sharpsburg, on Antietam Creek, on 22 September; Confederate forces, overextended and vulnerable, would withdraw from Kentucky the next month. The day after the victory at Antietam, 23 September, the White House released a radical document: the Emancipation Proclamation.

It remains much misunderstood, described as: "Lincoln freed the slaves". That is not a full truth. The document specified that it was issued under the authority of the Commander-in-Chief, with the sole objective of winning the war and restoring the Union. To that end, the Emancipation Proclamation declared:


That on the third day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free.


In short, all the slaves in the states in rebellion against the Union were declared free. This was done for no more stated rationale than to undermine the Confederate war effort, by depriving it of manpower -- and to increase Union manpower, the document encouraging the enlistment of ex-slaves into the army and navy. Lincoln had no authority to end slavery; but as Commander-in-Chief, he did have the authority to seize property of rebels, and dispose of it as the Federal government saw fit. It was arguably the most significant exercise of executive power in the history of the American presidency.

The document was strange in some ways. It said nothing critical of slavery, and didn't touch a single slave in any of the loyal slave-hold border states -- or for that matter, not even in occupied Louisiana. It only freed slaves in states where, at the time, the Union had no capability of enforcing the decree. The Emancipation Proclamation did encourage compensated emancipation in the border states, but did nothing to mandate it; and also made clear that if the states in rebellion came back to the fold by the end of 1862, they would keep their slaves.

Nonetheless, the simplistic message was true enough: Lincoln did free the slaves. By destroying slavery in its heartlands, he guaranteed the collapse of the entire wretched system. He also crushed any pretense that the Union would be restored as it was. He gave the Confederate states -- and, indirectly, the slaveholding border states -- a grace period to draw back from the precipice he had presented them, but with no expectation that they would do so. If they didn't, they would be responsible for, and suffer, the consequences.

In a letter to T.J. Barnett of the Interior Department during that interval, Lincoln wrote: "The character of the war will be changed. It will be one of subjugation and extermination ... The South is to be destroyed and replaced by new propositions and ideas." The Constitution had been designed around slavery, both in terms of tap-dancing around it, and supporting it. The old rules had been drastically changed; with the implication that the Constitution would have to be amended to reflect the new reality. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from GIZMODO.com ("The Great Barrier Reef Is Becoming More Heat-Resistant" by Maddie Stone, 10 December 2018), it is well-known that warming ocean temperatures are hell on coral reefs. In 2016 and 2017, back-to-back heat waves killed off half of all the corals on the 2,250-kilometer (1,400-mile) long Great Barrier Reef that wraps around northern Australia. When ocean temperatures get too high, corals lose the algae that live with them; the end result is that the reef becomes "bleached", its stony architecture turning white. If the bleaching lasts too long, the corals will starve to death. If the reef gets much too hot, the corals simply die.

It was fortunate that the heat didn't kill all of them, leaving about 10 billion corals alive. The ones that didn't die are the ones that can take the heat, as shown in a paper by researchers from James Cook University in Queensland, Australia. Reefs that suffered in the summer of 2016 could tolerate more heat in 2017 without suffering the same damage.

The research team examined patterns heat stress seen in satellite-derived temperature data, along with bleaching patterns determined through aerial surveys. The conclusion was that while the first heat wave took a disastrous toll on the northern third of the Great Barrier reef, causing more than 80% of individual reefs to suffer severe bleaching, the second heat wave resulted in far less bleaching. It seems that the most temperature-sensitive species, including branching and table-shaped Acropora corals, were largely wiped out by the first heat wave.

The southern third of the reef didn't suffer much bleaching in 2016, because the heat wave was cut short by a cyclone. However, even there, the researchers saw less bleaching than they expected in 2017, indicating the shorter heat wave still had some selective effect. In fact, the only area where bleaching was worse in 2017 than 2016 was the reef's middle section -- since the 2017 heat wave was proportionally stronger there than the 2016 heat wave.

The latest UN IPCC climate report suggests that just 1.5 degrees Celsius of warming could cause 70% to 90% of the world's reefs to die. Terry Hughes, lead author of the paper, comments: "Our study shows that's not necessarily correct ... the mix of species is shifting very quickly, and that's clearly having an effect."

That's not good news; it's just not quite so bad. As Hughes and his colleagues noted in a paper out earlier this year, the Great Barrier Reef is quickly becoming a "highly altered, degraded system" as the corals that provide the most nooks and crannies to shelter reef fish vanish. Hughes predicts that the corals that will be the ultimate winners in our hotter future are slow-growing, hemispherical brain corals and Porites, which he described as good at protecting shorelines but not so great at supporting biodiversity. Continued rises in temperature may well kill them off, too.

* As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Humpback Whale Songs Undergo A 'Cultural Revolution' Every Few Years" by Virginia Morell, 20 November 2018), it is well-known that humpback whales produce elaborate "songs" of squeaks and groans as they cruise the oceans. The whales seem to be saying something, but nobody has any clear idea of what.

One reason to think the songs do have meaning is that they change periodically. All male humpbacks in a population sing the same song, and they appear to pick up new ones in much the same way that people do. Males in the eastern Australian population of humpbacks, for example, pick up a new song every few years from the western Australian population at shared feeding grounds, or while migrating. Over the following years, the songs spread to all South Pacific populations.

humpback whale

Researchers decided to investigate how the whales learn songs, by recording eastern Australian whale songs over 13 consecutive years. Using spectrograms of 412 song cycles from 95 singers, the scientists scored each tune's complexity on the basis of the number of sounds and themes, and studied the subtle idiosyncracies added by individual males. Complexity of the songs, the researcher found, tends to increase over time -- but after a revolution, the songs become shorter with fewer sounds and themes. The suggestion is that the whales tend to notice new tunes that are different, but relatively simple and easy to pick up.

* As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Gut Bacteria May Hold Key To Creating Universal Donor Blood Type", by Stephanie Pappas, 22 August 2018), researchers have found that enzymes made by bacteria in the human digestive tract can strip the sugars that determine blood type from the surface of red blood cells. These sugars act as "antigens" that can trigger an immune response in a host incompatible with the blood type being transfused.

Enzymes have been found that can change type B blood to type O, but the newly-discovered group of enzymes is the first to effectively change type A to type O. Type O blood is in high demand, since it lacks antigens on its cell membranes, making it the "universal donor" blood type: it works with anyone, no matter what their blood type is. In contrast, type A, B and AB red blood cells have specific antigens on their surfaces, meaning that people with type A blood can donate only to type A or type AB recipients, while people with type B blood can donate only to those with type B or type AB.

The solution to the problem sounds simple in concept: get rid of the antigens. That hasn't proven so simple, nobody having found enzymes that can do the job -- until now. A team under Stephen Withers, a biochemist at the University of British Columbia, believes it has cracked the problem, having come up with enzymes made using DNA extracted from human gut microbes could remove type A and B antigens from red blood cells.

The researchers used metagenomic analysis to come with the enzymes, obtaining the collective genome for all the microorganisms in the human gut. In the set, they found codes for enzymes that help the bacteria tear sugar-studded proteins called "mucins" off the walls of the digestive tract, so the bacteria can eat them. Mucins are molecularly similar to blood cell antigens, and the enzymes produced by the DNA codes worked against red blood cell antigens as well. In fact, they were about 30 times more effective than enzymes previously used to "neutralize" blood types.

The scheme is promising -- but there is still the question of how cost-effective it will be in practice. Nobody pools blood donations, because of the risk of spreading diseases, so the conversions would have to be one donation at a time. It might be useful to neutralize a donation in an emergency, if type O blood were needed, but not available.



* RETHINKING NGAD: As discussed by an article from AVIATIONWEEK.com ("USAF Acquisition Head Urges Radical Shift For Next-Gen Fighter Program" by Steve Trimble, 5 March 2019), the Pentagon's new F-35 fighter is a marvel of technology -- but its development was painfully expensive, and suffered from delays. Now the US Air Force is considering a new fighter, under the "Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) " program, to address threats in the decades beyond 2030.

To date, concepts for NGAD have envisioned a futuristic, tailless, super-dogfighter -- that past history suggests will be even more expensive and troublesome to develop than the F-35. Need that be so?

NGAD fighter concept

At the US Air Warfare Symposium in February 2018, Will Roper -- an Oxford-educated theoretical physicist who now is assistant Air Force secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics -- suggests not. Instead of spending the next decade developing a single new air combat platform, the NGAD program may instead create a pipeline for acquiring, developing, and fielding a series of new aircraft types, with a new design entering service possibly as quickly as every two years.

Instead of placing all the bet on a single aircraft, diversity would give Air Force brass a range of options to deal with unexpected threats, and would challenge adversaries with unexpected capabilities. According to Roper, NGAD still remains in the study phase, with no commitment to anything yet. He believes that has opportunities: "I have a strong opinion that we need to not have it devolve into a traditional program."

Traditionally, combat aircraft acquisition programs begin with a painstaking analysis of the environment anticipated when the aircraft becomes operational. From that, a detailed set of requirements is drawn up. Roper regards this process as naive: "I think we have to accept that we cannot predict the 2030 threat. That is the way the Cold War acquisition system works. It predicts the threat, then designs systems that beat them."

Roper believes that it is too hard to predict the future, that there are too many variables with too many unknowns to use such projections to design a combat aircraft. He suggests an alternate scheme, based on the development of the "Century Series" of fighters in the 1950s.

The Century Series was the first generation of truly supersonic combat aircraft obtained by the USAF, including the F-100, F-101, F-102, F-104, F-105, and F-106. They were developed on fast tracks and fielded very rapidly by modern standards. To be sure, they were much less sophisticated than an F-35, but Roper still thinks the Century Series represents a model for NGAD:


Can you imagine how disruptive it would be if we could create a new airplane or a new satellite every 3 to 4 years? Every two years? And you might do that not because you need it. It might be because you want to impose cost. You want to knock your opponent off their game plan.


"Cost imposition" means forcing an adversary to spend money. It's a favorite topic of Roper's, who came from academia into defense in 2010, to enjoy a rapid climb. His first defense job was as the acting chief architect for the Missile Defense Agency. Another physicist, then-Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, appointed Roper to become the first director of the Strategic Capabilities Office (SCO) in 2012, a post he held for five years. According to Roper:


It was a big theme for me at SCO -- cost imposition. Show something to make your adversary think something different. Make them spend money. We used to have a 10 to 1 rubric: I'm going to spend $1, and force my opponent to spend $10. We need to start doing that in the Air Force. And next-generation air dominance may be just as much about imposing cost as it is about defeating [an adversary]."


Roper is not the first to challenge the military's 20-year acquisition development cycle for advanced new weapons -- but efforts to change things haven't gone well. The failure of the US Army's excessively ambitious Future Combat Systems program a decade ago presents a sobering example of how things can go wrong, while fielding a diverse fleet of combat aircraft presents severe managerial, logistical, and sustainment challenges.

Roper is aware of these difficulties, but points to the the Missile Defense Agency's "highly integrated systems architecture", of which he was one of the architects. In the example of missile defense, the system is composed of a radar, an interceptor missile, and a kill vehicle. The overall system had a design architecture, but the three different elements obtained from different vendors.

What about sustainment costs for a diverse fleet? With modern digital life-cycle engineering systems -- including component standards and 3D printing on demand -- Roper suggests the problem is manageable, that it won't be any more difficult to sustain a fleet of multiple aircraft types than it is to sustain a fleet of one type.

The F-35A achieved initial operational capability in 2016, 15 years after contract award. The Air Force now has less than 11 years to produce an NGAD capability against increasingly sophisticated threats. Roper says:


There are real choices to make about that program, and my comfort level will be based on how well the portfolio allows us to hedge for an uncertain future. And hedging means not just defeating that uncertain future. It also means being able to impose cost and force others trying to shape the future, just like we are to force them to react to us.


ED: Miltech appears to be stuck in a vicious cycle of ever-expanding development costs and schedule stretchouts. Need this be so? Possibly not. First, we are entering an era of flexible manufacturing, in which different products can be rolled of the same assembly line, using programmable fabrication tools like 3D printers. It's not as efficient as a manufacturing process that's dedicated to producing a single product, but for low product volumes -- which is the reality for combat aircraft, they're built in thousands at most -- the cost and effort of tooling such a line is disproportionate. Smarter software can also, in principle, automatically convert design specs into a production process.

Second, there is increasing standardization and modularization in miltech, such as common computer operating systems that can accommodate new and diverse apps, databuses that allow new elements to be simply plugged in, and containerized missiles or other munitions.

Third, the attitude that a new weapon system must be new across the board is counterproductive. Instead of building a completely new combat aircraft, why not just build a new airframe, fitted with existing engines and combat avionics? The airframe would be designed to be easily upgraded. New engines and combat systems can be then built in parallel or sequentially, with the aircraft updated as they become available. That does mean ongoing test and evaluation of the aircraft, but it's hard to see that would leave us worse off.



* CRISPR FOR DISEASE DIAGNOSTICS: As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Faster, Better, Cheaper: The Rise Of CRISPR In Disease Detection" by Amy Maxmen, 19 February 2019), the CRISPR gene-editing tool has proven almost revolutionary, being put to an ever-growing range of uses. One of the latest is in disease detection.

An outbreak of Lassa fever in Nigeria has claimed dozens of lives, having become the worst Lassa outbreak ever. To deal with the outbreak, researchers are trying out a new CRISPR-based diagnostic test. The test relies on CRISPR's ability to hunt down snippets of genes -- in this case, the RNA from the Lassa virus. Jessica Uwanibe, a molecular biologist developing a Lassa diagnostic at Redeemer's University in Ede, Nigeria, says that death rates from Lassa can be as high as 60%. She adds: "I'm working on something that could save a lot of lives."

If the diagnostic works, variants of it could be used to detect a wide range of viral infections early on, allowing treatments to be more effective. Researchers in Honduras and California are testing CRISPR diagnostics for dengue viruses, Zika viruses, and strains of human papillomavirus (HPV) associated with cervical cancer -- while work is underway towards evaluating a CRISPR test for the Ebola virus in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Diagnostics for infectious diseases tend to require specialized expertise, sophisticated equipment, and plenty of electricity -- all of which tend to be scarce in places where illnesses such as Lassa fever occur. The CRISPR test promises to be highly accurate, and about as easy to use as an at-home pregnancy test. It is not hard to engineer CRISPR to target specific genetic sequences; those working on the technology see no problem in a turn-around time of a week to get a test for a viral strain that's in circulation.

Jennifer Doudna -- a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley, who is developing some of these tools -- is enthusiastic about her work: "This is a very exciting direction for the CRISPR field to go in." Doudna and her team are conducting trials of a CRISPR diagnostic developed by researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge. CRISPR, when used for gene editing, is associated with the "Cas9" enzyme to do the job. On tinkering with use of the "Cas13" enzyme instead, they found it would cut out the genetic sequence it was engineered to target; but would then start chopping up RNA indiscriminately. That's no good for gene splicing -- but for diagnostics, the assault on RNA following a match provided a useful signal.

The Broad team worked on a test based on CRISPR-Cas13, naming it SHERLOCK for its sleuthing abilities. The test includes RNA molecules that will be sliced up by Cas13 after a match -- and then produce a dark band on a paper strip -- similar to the visual cues in a pregnancy test -- that indicates a match. The Nigerian research team is now testing a variant of SHERLOCK to detect the Lassa virus.

To this time, the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) was used to assay the Lassa virus. According to Kayla Barnes -- a geneticist at the Broad who is working with the group in Nigeria -- SHERLOCK is much easier than PCR, cutting the price of testing in half, and only taking about two hours, instead of four. SHERLOCK is also not so affected by power outages, which are common all over Nigeria.

Other CRISPR tests developed by Doudna and her team at Berkeley to target other maladies use different Cas proteins. Their diagnostic for HPV uses the "Cas12a" protein, instead of Cas13. Cas12a also cuts indiscriminately after locking onto its target, but it slices DNA instead of RNA. The test distinguishes between two types of HPV that studies have linked to cervical or anal cancer. Doudna hopes the test will be able to curb the growing death toll from cervical cancer in African countries, where it's often not detected until it's too late. Researchers are also looking into newly discovered "Cas14" and "CasX" proteins, whose small size makes them easier to incorporate into diagnostics.

"These are exciting innovations," says Dhamari Naidoo, a technical officer at the World Health Organization, based in Nigeria. However, she adds that to have real impact with the diagnostics in developing countries, researchers must ensure that the technology is licensed, manufactured, and priced affordably. Naidoo says that Researchers often fail to think about this side of the equation.

Squabbles over patents and economic obstacles have in fact hindered a number of promising diagnostic tools -- but Doudna and Pardis Sabeti, who leads the SHERLOCK project at the Broad, say they're committed to licensing their tools so that the people who need these diagnostics can use them. Uwanibe is impatient: "I wish we could do this even faster."



* ANOTHER MONTH: I have a keen eye for gadgets, and found a few of interest this last month. First was that the Loveland Public Library installed a new book drop. It didn't look much different from the old one, except it had no buttons: it recognized somebody at the slot, then opened the door, giving voice instructions to explain what was going on. It also allowed all books to be shoved in at once, instead of one at a time; it had a sorting mechanism downstream. After a week or two of using it, I went up to it, and it announced in a Darth Vader voice: "MAY THE SORT BE WITH YOU!" A librarian told me they planned to come up with new voices every now and then.

I mentioned buying an ultra-cheap RCA Cambio tablet-notebook a few months back, and I like it -- but I figured it would be more useful on a stand, so I could adjust viewing angle. That would prevent me using it with the magnetic-lock keyboard that came with it, but I didn't like that keyboard anyway. I got onto Amazon.com, and looked around for wireless keyboards. Most required a USB plug-in receiver, but the Cambio has bluetooth, so I zeroed in on bluetooth keyboards instead.

I found a very small bluetooth keyboard from an outfit named Fosmon, presumably Chinese or Taiwanese. I wasn't too sure of what to make of it, but it was less than $25 USD -- so I bought it, along with an adjustable tablet stand. On setting it all up, I'm very happy. The keyboard is about the size of slimline TV remote; it has a full set of keys in a QWERTY format, along with a little touchpad. I can hold it my hand and type conveniently with it, and can press a button to backlight the keys if it's dark in the room.

Fosmon mini bluetooth keyboard

The keys have a firm click action, so I don't make many mistakes even with "fat fingers". It's charged with a USB cable; I have an AC / USB charging station in my kitchen, I charge all my gadgets every Monday morning, so no worries about running out of juice. If I need for another appliance computer, I'll probably buy a Cambio with similar accessories again.

Incidentally, while I was poking around on bluetooth keyboards on Amazon, I found another cute made-in-China gimmick: a bluetooth speaker that also projected a keyboard onto a tabletop. It's a fun idea, but reviews said it didn't work so well. Give it some time.

Another thing that came up was that my earbud earphones broke. That happens ever now and then; I buy cheap earphones, not being very concerned about sound quality, and they're expendable. I went over to Walmart to get a replacement, and found they were pushing earphones for less than five bucks each. That sounded like too cheap even for me, but I shrugged and decided to buy two sets of them.

On trying one set out, I found they weren't high-fidelity, but they worked fine. They were a bit tinny, so I set the bass boost on my pocket MP3 player. On consideration, five bucks is a reasonable price; all they consist of is a stereo jack, dual insulated wires, a few little plastic shells, and cheap piezoelectric speakers. Product cost is likely less than a buck. I'll see how well they hold up.

And finally, I have my nephew Graham and niece Jordy, being my heirs, on an allowance, with them buying stuff from my Amazon.com account. Graham decided to splurge and get a Nintendo Switch portable game box. The fun part is that Nintendo has these "Labo" accessory kits for the Switch, with props made out of cardboard. Come mid-April, Nintendo is shipping a "Labo VR" kit that allows playing virtual reality games on the Switch. For example, it includes a "blaster" prop in which the player gets to, say, fight off an alien invasion.

It appears that the VR kit includes a set of "minigames" whose environments can be tweaked by the user, allowing users to tailor their own minigames. Presumably, user-generated games will accumulate on the Switch website. People who have trialed the VR kit also say they don't get nauseous at all, nausea a long-standing problem with VR. I really like interactive gaming with my XBOX 360 / Kinect; it's like having a theme park ride in my living room. I knew that I'd be moving up to VR gaming eventually, and I'll likely spring for a Switch with the VR kit sometime,

Labo VR kit

Not right away, I'll sit on it for a while. There are rumors that Nintendo is coming up with a reduced-price Switch that can't be used as a console, and I don't need a console. I also don't particularly like the cardboard props, but the Switch is so popular that 3rd parties are likely to come up with equivalent plastic props. I'll bug Graham to get the VR kit; he graduates from Baylor University in Texas next year, I'll go down for graduation, maybe I can try it out then.

* As for the real fake news of the month, it started out subdued, everyone hanging fire on Trump's attempt to declare a national emergency to get his border wall. The Democrats managed to push through a bill to nullify Trump's declaration, obtaining enough Republican votes -- twelve in all, almost a quarter of the GOP there -- to pass the Senate. Trump said he would veto it, and he did. He did late on Friday the 15th, as usual trying to get some buffer time from the weekend before the system reacted.

The veto was of course expected. The real reason for pushing through the bill was to let Trump know that he did not have congressional support, and also to exploit tensions among the Republicans -- not all of them being infatuated with Trump. In any case, the controversy then fell into the lap of the judiciary.

Although states had filed suits against the national emergency declaration early on, nothing happened in the courts. While that seemed puzzling, it was less puzzling on reconsideration: the courts were staying out of way until Congress formally disapproved, and Trump exercised his veto. If Congress hadn't disapproved, the judiciary would have been in an awkward position to slap an injunction on the state of emergency. The veto left the way clear for the courts. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, the legal firestorm circulating around Trump continued without a letup. On 8 March, Paul Manafort -- once Trump's presidential campaign chairman, convicted of a list of crimes including money laundering and tax evasion -- was sentenced for his wrongdoing. Special Counsel Robert Mueller had recommended 19 years at least, since Manafort had lied to the investigation. It was expected that the sentence wouldn't be that long, since Manafort was a nonviolent first-time offender; but there was consternation that the sentence was only 47 months, far under guidelines.

However, Manafort had also been convicted for lying to the investigation, and that meant another sentencing a week later. That sentence wasn't so tough, either, giving Manafort seven and a half years in lockup -- but it was still far from trivial, and judge Amy Berman Jackson gave him a thorough chewing-out. CNN commenter Phil Mudd, an ex-CIA official advising on counterterrorism, said: "She took him, she ground him up, sprinkled him in her coffee, and drank him for breakfast. She crushed him. ... She crushed him like a bug,"

The Democrats are now after Trump's tax returns, which he has refused to release. A per a 1924 law, the chairman of the House Ways & Means Committee has the authority to request anyone's tax returns, and the IRS, normally strictly secretive about tax returns, has to hand them over. A House resolution was passed to authorize obtaining the returns -- and surprisingly, the vote was unanimous, even though Trump has his toughest allies among the GOP in the House.

Then again, maybe it wasn't so surprising, since no doubt his supporters believe that nothing will be found in Trump's tax returns. However, that would make it most puzzling as to why he was so reluctant to release them. It would be a bit much to think they will reveal income tax evasion, at least not without a lot of digging -- but it's not hard to believe they would embarrass Trump, by showing how little taxes he paid. That, despite the fact that he boasted in the 2016 campaign of being slick on taxes. Of course, that's not the only thing that Trump said in 2016 that's likely to come back to sink its teeth into him.

* All such concerns came to a head on 22 March, when the Robert Mueller investigation released its report. That was noteworthy in itself, the investigation having been completed without any visible interference. The next question was whether there was anything of real interest in the report. A careful consideration of the realities of the matter suggested caution about inflated expectations; from early on, commenters had pointed out it was unlikely the report would accuse the Trump campaign of collusion, since that would be hard to prove; it seemed more likely that the investigation would focus on other malfeasance, such as money laundering or tax evasion.

In short, the safest bet was that the report would not change the status quo in any major way. That proved a good bet when, on 24 March, Attorney General Bill Barr issued a four-page summary that said: NO COLLUSION. OK, that wasn't a surprise, but then it got murkier, saying there was no basis for charging Trump with obstruction of justice, then adding that wasn't saying he was exonerated of it.

That was a strange thing to say. When the authorities announce they don't have a case, that's normally the end of it; saying there still might be a case is absurd and reprehensible. It's much like the way Jim Comey, during the 2016 election, cleared Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing in her handling of emails -- to then publicly condemn her, with Clinton having no way to defend herself. So why the comment about NO EXONERATION? Either it was just cowardly, or it was sending a message of some sort.

In any case, if release of the report changed anything in the status quo, it was to intensify the furor -- and the longer Barr sits on it, the problem will only get worse. In two years, Trump leaves office, the next administration will get the report, then take action of it if there is basis for doing so.

For myself, I was assuming that Trump would be in legal hot water after he left office -- but though that still may happen, there's no sense in banking on it. The important thing is that he leaves. By the end of the month, Trump was renewing his assault on ObamaCare, this time trying to work through the courts. It was unlikely he was going to get very far with the effort; the Republicans couldn't kill off ObamaCare for the two years they controlled Congress and the White House, and so it wasn't going to happen now.

Apparently, Republicans in Congress groaned at Trump raising the issue, since it's been a loser for them in election campaigns. Trump, having run out of new tricks to play, is now recycling old ones. This is getting dull. Trump is a temporary affliction; he will be gone in time, and his misadventure in politics is not likely to end well for him.