jan 2017 / greg goebel / follow "gvgoebel" on twitter

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

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* EYE OF THE CHITON: The eye represents a showcase for evolution; there is a wide range of different approaches, some radically different, to the construction of eyes in different organisms. As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Crystalline Eyes Of Chitons Inspire Materials Scientists" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 20 November 2015), the marine mollusc known as the "chiton" has its own unique take on the eye.

The chiton is a small, nondescript, slow-moving beast, with a plated shell that makes it look something like a pebble. A close inspection of the shell shows that it is studded with up to a thousand tiny eyes, each a bit smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Study of the eyes show that, despite their small size, a chiton can perceive images with them, not just light or dark; and also shows that they are made of the same material as the chiton's shell.

lined chiton

Chitons move sluggishly over rocks or reefs in the intertidal zone, clamping down to the surface when threatened by predators such as birds and fish. They have proven very successful, with a history going about about a half billion years, and a thousand species inhabiting wave-swept shores around the world.

Only about 100 species of chitons have eyes, and until a decade ago, researchers thought the eyes too tiny to be very useful -- all the more so because all chitons have other light-sensitive structures, known as "megalaesthetes". However, a few years ago Daniel Speiser -- now a visual ecologist at the University of South Carolina, Columbia -- decided to figure out just how well chitons could see. When he blocked light with black circles, the animals clamped down, suggesting they were detecting images. Speiser says: "The eyes let the chiton distinguish an actual object, say a predator, from a passing shadow."

Speiser and his colleagues reported on the chiton eye in a 2011 paper. One particularly remarkable finding revealed in the paper was that, in contrast with the protein lenses found in most animais, including humans, chiton lenses are made of "aragonite", the same calcium carbonate mineral that makes up their shells. Following up the report, Matthew Connors and Ling Li -- two graduate students in materials science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology -- decided to perform a careful analysis of the chiton eye.

Using high-resolution microscopy and X-ray techniques, along with computer modeling, Li and Connors found that the oblong lens is made of large crystals, aligned to allow light through relatively unimpeded. Up to 100 photo-sensitive cells form a retina below the lens. When the researchers suspended isolated lenses in water, they found that they could project surprisingly recognizable images of a fish. Although the number of light-sensitive cells in the retina of any one eye is small, the large number of eyes suggests the chiton actually obtains a fairly detailed vision of the world around it.

Chiton vision comes at price, mechanical testing demonstrating that the lenses create weak spots in the chiton's armor. The eyes are protected to a degree by protrusions around them; but the chiton cannot acquire larger or more sophisticated eyes without compromising its shell. Andrew Parker of the Natural History Museum in London says: "Sometimes we assume nature is perfect, but more often than not, it is a perfect compromise."

The work of Connors and Lee has suggested to other researchers avenues for armored eyes, or distributed vision systems -- one idea being pursued envisioning a network of tiny eyes in the skin of robots. Peter Fratzl, a materials scientist at the Max Planck Institute of Colloids & Interfaces in Potsdam, Germany, believes the research into the chiton eye may yield benefits: "Nature has reached some very clever material solutions that we can harness. It allows you to dream about implementing similar kinds of ideas into technical systems."



* DATA-SECURITY NIGHTMARE: As discussed by an editorial from THE ECONOMIST ("Breaching Point", 24 December 2016), 2016 was the year when the data-security problem became intolerable. Barack Obama and the CIA accused Russia of electronic meddling in an attempt to help Donald Trump win the presidency. Details emerged of two massive data breaches at Yahoo; one, in 2013, affected more than a billion people. Other highlights include the hack of the World Anti-Doping Agency; the theft of $81 million USD from the central bank of Bangladesh; and the release of personal details of around 20,000 employees of the FBI.

The data-security problem has been obvious for decades, but it's just continued to fester. One of the problems is that the basic technology of the internet was designed largely by academics, who didn't worry much about data security. Another issue is that software developers and computer-makers are usually not blamed for assaults on their equipment, which weakens the incentives to get security right.

Things are likely to get worse. The next phase of the computing revolution is the "internet of things (IoT)", in which all kinds of everyday objects, from light bulbs to cars, are based on embedded computers connected permanently to the internet. Most of these gadgets are wide open to exploitation, all the more so because many of the companies making them are not computer firms. IT companies have accumulated decades of hard-won wisdom about cyber-security; people making smart refrigerators haven't a clue about it.

In November 2016, cyber-security researchers uncovered malware that could take control of any smart light bulbs within 400 meters. Nobody would think that, on the face of it, hacking into a light bulb would be worth the trouble; but the light bulbs are self-contained computers with wireless connections, and they can be organized into remote-control "botnets" that can be used to flood websites with bogus traffic, suppressing them. Routers, the electronic boxes that connect most households to the internet, are already a popular target of bot-herders. With self-driving cars now approaching the starting line, the potential for hacking gadgets is becoming downright frightening.

Companies do have an incentive to improve security -- and some, like Apple, take it very seriously. However, consumers often don't make an issue of data security, and many company executives don't understand the problem. In addition, improving security means sharing information, but many firms don't want to let anyone else know when they've been hacked, since it makes them look bad.

Of course, when the market can't do the job, the government can facilitate. Security researchers like to make a comparison with public health, where one entity's negligence can harm everyone else -- which is why governments regulate everything from food hygiene to waste disposal. Some governments are moving toward minimum computer-security standards, and to fine firms that fail to comply. The IoT has also revived the debate about ending the software industry's long-standing exemption from legal liability for defects in its products.

The big problem with government regulation is that it is often fragmented. Several US states have sets of rules that may, in some cases, conflict with each other; businesses would prefer consistent Federal regulations. Indeed, global coordination would be even better, if harder to achieve. There's also the problem that, should laws be changed to increase liability for software and computer manufacturers, the result may be to stifle innovation. Obviously, some consensus has to be obtained to get anywhere. There's also the problem that, should laws be changed to increase liability for software and computer manufacturers, the result may be to stifle innovation.

Rule-makers can, however, set reasonable minimum expectations. Many IoT devices cannot have their software updated, which means that security flaws can never be fixed; products should not be able to operate with factory usernames and passwords. No software program can be made impregnable, but liability laws can take into consideration the efforts of firms to stay on top of data security. For now, however, the hackers are on a rampage, and likely to stay on it until a better state of things can be obtained.

ED: I should add that the past year suggested that the use of the internet to spread trash represented another aspect of the data-security problem. This issue is particularly tricky, because of the need to maintain freedom of speech. I believe there will be a debate over what needs to be done to at least contain the flood of trash polluting the internet. Trash filters on web browsers? They have porn filters, why not? And it might be appropriate for media outlets that have comment sections to moderate them more strictly -- or, failing that, get rid of them, instead of operating a sanctioned propaganda outlet for the fringe.



* UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (3): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Up In Smoke?", 26 November 2016), a UN climate-change conference in Marrakesh, Morocco, that ended on 18 November was shadowed by the election of tycoon Donald Trump to the US presidency on 8 November. During the campaign, Trump had called anthropogenic global warming a "hoax", saying he would abolish the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and pull America out of the 2015 UN agreement to curb greenhouse-gas emissions adopted by 190-odd countries in Paris.

The Paris Agreement, which came into force in November 2016, includes a commitment to limit the increase in the global average temperature to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius (2C) above pre-industrial levels. Given that the world has already warmed by approximately 1.2C, this is very ambitious -- all the more so because 2016 proved the hottest year on record.

The measures the signatories said they were adopt were generally modest. Most were self-proposed and voluntary cuts to their emissions of carbon dioxide, in particular those caused by deforestation and the burning of fossil fuels. Most developing countries, which produce around 65% of global carbon emissions, promised to restrict their emissions to levels that, assuming natural gas continues to substitute for coal and the cost of renewable energy continues to fall, may require no special effort. India, the world's third-biggest producer of greenhouse gases, pledged to increase its use of energy from renewable sources -- though India's emissions are still likely to rise steeply.

By the end of the Marrakesh summit, some of the Trump-driven anxiety had faded. Trump had made public remarks wavering on pulling out of the Paris Agreement; to be sure, anyone familiar with Trump knows perfectly well he has no problem issuing wildly contradictory statements, but his obvious fondness for bluster suggests that, in practice, his actions may not be quite so drastic.

Then again, they may well be -- nobody knows, possibly not even Trump. More significantly, the Marrakesh meeting suggested that, even if America pulled out of the Paris Agreement, it would continue on track without much of a hiccup. As well as the overall target, the accord includes many useful provisions, on climate finance, technology sharing, and the role of forests, for example. Synergies may help countries make faster progress than they believe they now can.

Past climate deals failed in part because they tried to impose mitigation targets on reluctant countries, instead of allowing each country to decide for itself what is reasonably achievable. The Paris Agreement, by contrast, is sufficiently loose in its structure and modest in its aims to be survive the withdrawal of the USA. By most measures, climate action passed a tipping-point in 2016.

American and other officials in Morocco weren't inclined to think Trump would really take rash actions. Liu Zhenmin, China's vice-foreign minister, asked America not to shirk its environmental responsibilities; the UN's early climate negotiations, he noted, had been supported by two Republican presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. The Chinese comments were ironic, since China had been a laggard in climate-change action up to the Paris Agreement.

Trump is tuned to the way the winds of public opinion blow -- if mostly in an ability to sense and pander to the lowest common denominator. For what it's worth, public concern about global warming is growing in America; 64% of Americans say they are worried "a great deal" or "a fair amount" about it, and 71% say America should not withdraw from the Paris Agreement -- including a majority of Republicans. As for scrapping the EPA, the share of Americans who appreciate the breathable air and drinkable water the agency helps to safeguard is no doubt even higher. The Trump Administration will not be able to conceal actions hostile to the EPA, since they will be leaked to the media immediately.

Furthermore, abolishing the EPA would require legislation that Democratic senators, though in the minority, could block. The main subsidies for wind- and solar-power generation, which made up two-thirds of new generating capacity last year, also appear solid. They were extended in 2015 by a Republican-controlled Congress; windy red states such as Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas are among their main beneficiaries.

Trump could try to remove greenhouse gases from the EPA's remit, though that would require the Supreme Court to reverse itself on a ruling from 2007. Or he could rescind environmental regulations brought in by Barack Obama, though that would be troublesome. Many of them were mandated by legislation and have been tested by litigation, acquiring a legal standing of their own. For example, in order to get rid of a rule that curbs the amount of mercury and other toxic emissions from power plants, Trump's EPA boss would have to issue, in effect, a alternative more to Trump's liking, then defend it against legal challenges from environmental campaigners.

That could take years. The central difficulty for Trump is his indifference to, often contempt for, specifics and facts. While he can talk trash to the public and get away with it, talking trash to the courts is a losing game. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (8): I left Dayton on the morning of Sunday, 8 October. The road construction that had confounded me the evening before ended up funneling me onto I-70 eastbound, but no worries, I knew there was an exit not far down the road to turn around -- it was the wrong exit I had taken the night before, and got me lost.

I cruised through Indianapolis, heading for Saint Louis. I don't recall much of this leg of the trip, other than a fuel stop in Terre Haute, suggesting that weariness was setting in. In any case, the drive went quickly, and I was soon able to see the Saint Louis Gateway Arch coming up in the West.

I wasn't sure I wanted to visit the arch; it was downtown, and I didn't want to fight city traffic. Besides, I had to go to a separate location in town to get tickets to ride to the top, and that sounded like too much time, too much trouble. In any case, as I got over the Mississippi, I didn't see any signs directing me to the arch -- suggesting no particularly convenient way existed to get to it, and I would end up squirreling around downtown. Pittsburgh had been enough; I kept on driving, to get to the Saint Louis Zoo.

Although it was a little convoluted to get to the zoo, I had no real problems. It was somewhat packed, being a nice pleasant weekend, with the directing me to the arch -- suggesting no particularly convenient way existed to get to it, and I would end up squirreling around downtown. Pittsburgh had been enough; I kept on driving, to get to the Saint Louis Zoo.

Although it was a little convoluted to get to the zoo, I had no real problems. It was somewhat packed, being a nice pleasant weekend, with the parking lots crowded. Incidentally, the Saint Louis Zoo doesn't charge admission, though the zoo does charge for parking, and also for some special attractions.


It's a very nice zoo, extensive and with nice gardens. I got a fair number of shots, particularly of antelope -- though the only shot I got that was particularly special was of a capybara, sort of a giant muskrat. They had a trio, Dave Hylla's Good Times Band, playing Oktoberfest-type and other music. As I was winding up the tour, I suddenly remembered something I didn't want to forget before I left.

I asked a staffer: "Don't you have a memorial to Marlon Perkins here?" Back in the 1960s, when he was curator of the Saint Louis Zoo, he had a well-known nature TV show, MUTUAL OF OMAHA'S WILD KINGDOM, and was something of a revered pop-culture figure in that era. I said: "People of my age sort of grew up with Marlon Perkins: 'This is Marlon Perkins, with MUT-ual of Omaha's WILD KINGDOM!'"

She laughed. It took me a bit of searching, but I found the memorial. It was a bust of Perkins in a neatly-arranged garden, really a nice tribute to the little fellow. I had to think that most of the visitors didn't know who he was. In his time, everyone knew who Marlon Perkins was; he was a lively, chipper, nerdy little guy, fitting the modern term of "adorkable".

Marlon Perkins memorial

I made my way out of the zoo and got back on the freeway, heading west out of town. By evening, I was on the other side of the state at Independence, Missouri, to make my night stop at the Hilton Garden Inn there. It was tricky to get to it, but unlike the previous night, I didn't take any false steps. One more day, and I would be home. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from Nature.com ("Google's AI Reasons Its Way Around the London Underground" by Elizabeth Gibney, 13 October 2016), the Google-owned company DeepMind, in London, has developed an artificial intelligence (AI) system that can navigate the London Underground subway system by inspecting maps.

The system is based on an artificial neural network (ANN) with an associated external memory. An ANN consists of layers of highly interconnected "neurons" that, on being fed inputs of interest, build up "weighting" on the neurons that determine if they will be activated or not, depending on given inputs. The memory system allows the DeepMind ANN to learn much more quickly than an ANN without a memory. While there's nothing so very new about software that can navigate a subway system, the DeepMind ANN figures it out a map on its own, without any predefined rules.

London Underground

The DeepMind system -- which company officials call a "differentiable neural computer" -- first trains its neural network on randomly generated map-like structures, in the process learning how to store descriptions of these relationships in its external memory as, well as answer questions about them. Confronted with a new map, the DeepMind system can write these new relationships, such as connections between Underground stations, to memory, and recall it to plan a route.

The DeepMind AI system used the same technique to tackle puzzles that require reasoning. After training on twenty different types of question-and-answer problems, it learned to make accurate deductions. For example, the system deduced correctly that a ball is in a playground, having been informed that "John picked up the football" and "John is in the playground". It got such problems right more than 96% of the time. The system performed better than "recurrent neural networks" -- which also have a memory, but one that is in the fabric of the network itself, and so is less flexible than an external memory.

While the DeepMind scheme has only been tried on simple problems so far, it is seen as a great step towards systems that involve making inferences from huge amounts of data. Such a capability would have great application in science, business, and public security.

* As a follow-up to the series on "natural food" run here last year, as discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("Animal-Free Dairy Products Move A Step Closer To Market" by Tom Levitt, 13 September 2016), a San Francisco-based startup company named Perfect Day is working towards introduction of a milk substitute, derived from genetically-modified yeast and plant nutrients.

Sales of milk alternatives such as soy, coconut, almond and more recently pea milk are expected to grow to more than $10 billion USD 2019. However, until now, milk substitutes haven't put a dent into traditional milk and dairy production. Perfect Day co-founder Ryan Pandya says: "The alternatives for yogurt, cheese, and icecream are so bad that people don't even want to try them. Many people have been switching to more plant-based diets, but when you have to give up cheese, you think: 'Omigod, my life sucks, I love pizza!' If you try to make cheese out of pea milk, you will be sorely disappointed."

Perfect Day claims their product will be identical in taste and nutritional value to cow's milk. The missing element in traditional milk substitutes is milk protein. To make their synthetic milk, Perfect Day inserts cow DNA into yeast, and adds sugar to create milk proteins through fermentation. These milk proteins are then combined with sugar, fats, and nutrients to create the final product.

Pandya says: "We're taking plant nutrients and transforming them into animals proteins the same way that cows do, using the same milk proteins as found in cow's milk -- but much more efficiently, because we're using a yeast cell, not a 2,000-pound animal."

Perfect Day products

He adds: "Many people initially go: 'Oh, is this like lab or test-tube milk?' -- but that's wrong. There are no test tubes in our fermentation process, it's just like brewing craft beer. The meat folks are trying to invent technology that doesn't exist today, but our milk is made through techniques in use for more than three decades."

Perfect Day said it plans to launch a cheese, yogurt, or ice-cream product by the end of 2017, with milk following later. It will be priced similar to organic dairy, but the company expects to quickly have a lower cost of production than milk. The company will not actually be able to call the product "milk", however, since the US Food & Drug Administration specifies that a product named "milk" has to actually been milked from a cow, or other animal.

ED: Although GM haters will not be the least bit impressed by Pandya's claims that his product is not some sort of "Frankenfood", they can do no more than fuss. Despite the fact that GM yeast is the critical element in the production process, Perfect Day will not have to state their product is GM. Nobody will consume the yeasts, they will just consume cow milk proteins, which will be exactly the same as if they had come from a cow. To muddy the waters over GM protest further, the Perfect Day product will be more environmentally benign than cow's milk, not requiring huge dairy farms to turn it out.

* In further adventures of fabricated foods, an article from WIRED Online blogs ("Biotech Wants to Make Fake, Sustainable Shrimp Out of Algae" by Brendan Cole, 29 July 2016), discussed the effort to create ersatz shrimp.

Americans consume vast amounts of shrimp, but raising them tends towards the environmentally untidy, some estimates showing it has a bigger footprint than the production of beef. Biotech startup New Wave Foods is now working on a sustainable replacement for shrimp, using red algae to create a substitute. Dominique Barnes, CEO and co-founder of the company, says: "What we try to do is look at the molecular structure of shrimp to understand what gives it textural components like elasticity." The final product is a mix of algae and plant proteins; it promises to be much more sustainable.

This isn't the first effort to develop ersatz shrimp; earlier efforts to do so did not fare well. According to Barnes: "One hurdle that I do see is in our perception of algae. When I talk to people, usually they're like: 'What are you talking about? This is pond scum.'" She says that algae is more communly used in food than people think: "You probably already consumed something this week that has an algae ingredient." New Wave Foods has a challenge, to make their product tasty and cheap; if that can be done, there are no show-stoppers towards commercial success.



* LIFE ON BROWN DWARFS? As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Alien Life Could Thrive In The Clouds Of Failed Stars" by Joshua Sokol, 2 December 2016), there is a class of celestial objects that are too big to be called planets, many times more massive than Jupiter; but too small to become stars; they're known as "brown dwarfs". Being hard to spot, their existence was only verified recently; from the samplings obtained so far, there may be a billion of them in our Galaxy.

A study has now suggested that layers of the upper atmospheres of brown dwarfs could have temperatures and pressures resembling those on Earth, and could host micro-organisms that ride on thermal updrafts. This vision expands the concept of a "habitable zone" -- of worlds that might harbor life -- to include a vast population of worlds that had previously gone unconsidered. According to Jack Yates, a planetary scientist at the University of Edinburgh in the United Kingdom, who led the study: "You don't necessarily need to have a terrestrial planet with a surface."

Sun, brown dwarf, Jupiter

For decades, biologists have known about microbes that drift in the winds high above Earth's surface. In 1976, pop-star astronomer Carl Sagan extended the notion of atmospheric life by imagining the kind of ecosystem that could evolve in the upper layers of Jupiter, fueled by sunlight. He envisioned sky plankton, small organisms he called "sinkers". Other organisms in his menagerie were balloon-like "floaters", which would rise and fall in the atmosphere by manipulating their body pressure. Following Sagan, astronomers have also considered the prospects of microbes in the carbon dioxide atmosphere above Venus's inhospitable surface.

Yates and his colleagues knew that some "cold" brown dwarfs -- not strongly illuminated by a central star, or free-floating in space -- have surfaces roughly at room temperature or below; lower layers would be very comfortable. In 2013, astronomers discovered WISE 0855-0714, a brown dwarf only seven light-years away that seems to have water clouds in its atmosphere. The researchers decided to investigate the sizes, densities, and life strategies of microbes that could manage to stay aloft in the habitable region of an enormous atmosphere of predominantly hydrogen gas. Sink too low, they are crushed or cooked; rise too high, they freeze.

The study concluded that small sinkers like the microbes in Earth's atmosphere, or even smaller would have a better chance than Sagan's floaters. However, much depends on the weather: If upwelling winds are powerful on cold brown dwarfs, as seems to be true in the bands of gas giants like Jupiter and Saturn, heavier creatures can carve out a niche. In the absence of sunlight, they could feed on chemical nutrients. Observations of cold brown dwarf atmospheres reveal most of the ingredients Earth life depends on: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen, though possibly not phosphorous.

So far, only a few dozen cold brown dwarfs have been discovered, though statistics suggest there should be about ten within 30 light-years of Earth. These should be good targets for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will observe in the infrared where brown dwarfs shine brightest. After it is launched in 2018, the JWST should reveal the weather and the composition of their atmospheres. According to Jackie Faherty, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC: "We're going to start getting gorgeous spectra of these objects. This is making me think about it."

Faherty says that the spectra could reveal traces of life through microbe by-products like methane or oxygen, and screening the observations from confounding effects. There is the issue of how life might arise in an environment that lacks the water-rock interfaces, such as hydrothermal vents, which are regarded as prime candidates for where life arose on Earth. Possibly life might arise on dust grains, or possibly it could arrive as a hitch-hiker on an asteroid. However, all that remains speculative until traces of alien life are finally discovered.

* A tangentially related article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Alien Life Could Feed On Cosmic Rays" by Jessica Boddy, 7 October 2016) suggested that denizens of alien worlds might have sources of energy not used by most of the Earth's organism.

The case in point is a microbe found deep in a gold mine in South Africa named Desulforudis audaxviator. This rod-shaped bacterium lives 2.8 kilometers (1.7 miles) underground in a habitat generally missing the necessities of life elsewhere: light, oxygen, carbon. Instead, the "gold mine bug" gets its energy from radioactive uranium in the depths of the mine.

Researchers wonder if alien life could use the same trick. Dimitra Atri -- an astrobiologist and computational physicist who works for the Blue Marble Space Institute of Science in Seattle, Washington -- is fascinated by the microbe: "It really grabbed my attention because it's completely powered by radioactive substances. Who's to say life on other worlds doesn't do the same thing?"

Most of the organisms we are familiar with subsist on sunlight, via photosynthesis, or by eating other organisms. D. audaxviator instead exploits the radiation from decaying uranium nuclei, which breaks apart sulfur and water molecules in the stone, producing molecular fragments such as sulfate and hydrogen peroxide that are excited with internal energy. The microbe then draws in these molecules, draws off their energy, and excretes them. Most of the energy produced from this process powers the bacterium's internal and reproductive processes, but a portion of it also goes to repairing damage from the radiation.

Atri thinks an extraterrestrial life form could use a similar scheme, using the energy from galactic cosmic rays that, after being thrown out of a supernova or other mega-violent cosmic process, flood the Universe. They don't affect us on Earth, because the planet's magnetic field and atmosphere prevent them from reaching ground. Planets like Mars with thin atmospheres, and possibly a weak magnetic field as well, are much more exposed to cosmic rays.

Atri does note that cosmic rays don't deliver as much energy as sunlight, so they would only be able to support small organisms, along the lines of D. audaxviator. However, he ran simulations that showed the exposed worlds of the Solar System would get enough cosmic rays to predictably keep organisms alive. He thinks that Mars is the best candidate, in large part because of its thin atmosphere: "It's funny, because when we look for planets that contain life currently, we look for a very thick atmosphere. With these life forms, we're looking for the opposite."

Atri wants to bring the gold mine bug into the lab and see how it responds to cosmic radiation levels equivalent to those on Mars, Europa, and others. That data would give him more clues to whether this kind of organism could survive beyond Earth. He says: "I always think of Jeff Goldblum in JURASSIC PARK: life finds a way."



* HPV VACCINE WORKS: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("A Decade On, Vaccine Has Halved Cervical Cancer Rate", 29 August 2016), the world's first cancer vaccine was administered in Australia ten years ago. Since then, the human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine has been introduced in 130 countries, and halved the number of new cervical cancers. The HPV vaccine also protects against cancers in the throat and mouth in both men and women.

Gardasil HPV vaccine

The vaccine was developed by a research team led by Professor Ian Frazer, director of the Translational Research Institute in Brisbane, Australia, and the late molecular virologist Dr. Jian Zhou. The researchers used used genetic engineering to build a virus replica as the basis for the vaccine. HPV is a very common virus that lives on our skin and other areas of the body; it is a wart virus, sexually transmitted, that can lead to cancers. Frazer says:


Most people get rid of the virus themselves without knowing they've contracted it, but 1% of the population that get it get persistent infection that lasts over five years. If they do that, they've got a very good chance they'll get a cancer. We know that 170 million doses of vaccine have been given out. If you do the sums on that, one in a hundred people were going to get a cancer that could kill them.


Frazer believes the vaccine could eradicate cancers caused by HPV within 40 years: "It helps not only control cervical cancer but also the oropharyngeal cancer -- the cancers inside the mouth that are caused by these viruses. If we vaccinate enough people we will eliminate these viruses because they only infect humans. And in Australia there's already been a 90% reduction in infections in the 10 years the program has been running."

Frazer adds that the vaccine is continuing to be refined: "We're moving from a vaccine that protects against two common strains of the virus that cause cancer to a vaccine that protects against nine common strains. If we get that rolled out we will eventually get rid of all cancers that get caused by this virus."

* Of course, the HPV vaccine has run into anti-vaccine hysteria. As discussed by a more recent article in AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Critics Assail Paper Claiming Harm From Cancer Vaccine" by Dennis Normile, 21 December 2016), two groups of health researchers have asked the journal SCIENTIFIC REPORTS to retract a paper published by a Japanese research team, published on 11 November 2016, that cast doubt on the safety of the HPV vaccine.

The paper described impaired mobility and brain damage in mice given an HPV vaccine -- but they were given doses a thousand times greater than that given to people, along with a toxin that makes the blood-brain barrier leaky. David Gorski, a surgical oncologist at the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, Michigan -- a medical blogger well-known as "Orac", who often takes on anti-vaxxers -- wrote: "Basically, this is an utterly useless paper, a waste of precious animals."

Despite the fact that over 170 million doses of the HPV vaccine have been administered and have proven effective and safe, there have been worries about its health effects. In several countries, girls have complained of debilitating symptoms, reminiscent of chronic fatigue syndrome, after vaccination. Following such reports, the vaccine rate among women in Japan plummeted. More than 90% of Danish girls born in 2000 received at least one vaccine dose, but that rate has dropped year by year. Ireland also saw a drop in vaccination rates in 2015 and 2016.

Japan is at the front line of the struggle. In April 2013, Japan's health ministry added the vaccine to its recommended list and offered it for free. Uptake was robust, a survey showing that that roughly 70% of girls born between 1994 and 1998 completed the three-dose vaccination course. That enthusiasm went into decline when, in the spring of 2013, a number of media outlets in Japan reported on alleged side effects: difficulty in walking, headache, fatigue, poor concentration, and pain. That June 2013, the health ministry suspended its recommendation until an investigation had been made.

In January 2014, a ministry panel concluded that there was no evidence for a causal association between the HPV vaccine and the reported adverse events. Given so many doses, some coincidences between vaccinations and unrelated health problems were guaranteed. The European Medicines Agency and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come to similar conclusions. Epidemiological studies indicate that the symptoms reported by the vaccinated girls are found at equal rates in nonvaccinated populations. Despite that, Japan's health ministry has not re-instated its recommendation; the government will pay for the shots, but doesn't encourage local authorities to perform them. The vaccination rate has fallen to near zero. The health ministry says a decision on renewing the recommendation is under review.

One of the authors of the paper, Toshihiro Nakajima of Tokyo Medical University, has defended the methodology used, but critics have not been placated. A letter from David Hawkes, a virologist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and two colleagues was scathing, saying the paper "lacks a clear methodology, adequate controls to control for bias, descriptions of results consistent with the data presented, or enough information for this study to be reproduced."

As with the great majority of anti-vaccine campaigns, the hysteria keeps on rolling, even as continued use of the vaccine demonstrates its safety and value. However, with HPV vaccination in effective suspension in Japan, the country is unlikely to to see any reduction in its current 9,000-plus cases of cervical cancer and 3,000 deaths each year. The controversy in Japan has also given encouragement to anti-vaxxer groups elsewhere.

* In further related news, as discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("France Most Skeptical Country About Vaccine Safety" by Jon Cohen, 8 September 2016), a survey of vaccine safety involving more than 65,000 people around the world -- conducted by a team under anthropologist Heidi Larson of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine -- found that, on the average, 12% of citizens do not believe vaccines are safe. There was great variation between nations, however, with Bangladesh having the least skepticism, 0.2%, and France having the most, 41%.

Larson says that France has experienced "anxiety" about suspected but unproven links between the hepatitis B vaccine and multiple sclerosis, with the French also afflicted by the manufactured controversy over the HPV vaccine. France similarly had strong reservations about a flu vaccine hastily produced combat the pandemic of H1N1 flu in 2009.

Russians had the greatest skepticism about the importance of vaccines for children: 17.1%. Bosnia and Herzegovina had the most serious doubts about the effectiveness of vaccines, with a 27.3% of respondents saying they were not. These numbers were about three times the global average. The effect of religious beliefs on confidence in vaccines was ambiguous, with confidence varying greatly from region to region for the same faiths. In the USA, 8.8% questioned the importance of vaccines for children, 13.5% were not convinced they were safe, 9.6% had doubts about effectiveness, and 10.5% had concerns because of their religious beliefs.

The difference in general confidence between Bangladesh, where infectious diseases are common, and France, where they are not, is striking. Larson says unfounded safety concerns about vaccines persist because people are searching for clear causes to mysterious diseases such as multiple sclerosis and autism. There's also the popular suspicion of "experts" at work -- people commonly being suspicious of the assurances of the authorities. Larson suggests that vaccine education might be more thorough, but doesn't believe there is any cure-all: "We need to get our heads around the fact that we're never going to get 100% compliancy. We're struggling to keep it where it is."



* UNSTOPPABLE RENEWABLES (2): An article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("Weak Federal Powers Could Limit Trump's Climate-Policy Rollback" by Justin Gillis, 2 January 2017) elaborated on the limits of a Trump Administration's attempts to undermine the Obama Administration's efforts to deal with human-caused climate change.

It might have seemed that Donald Trump's election to the US presidency in November 2016 would have had a chilling effect on investment in renewable energy. However, in mid-December, the Federal government opened bidding on a tract of the ocean floor off New York State as a potential site for a huge wind farm. Interest from the bidders was so lively that the auction went through 33 rounds and spilled over to a second day.

In the end, the winning bidder offered the Federal Treasury $42 million USD -- ironically, more than twice what the government got in August 2016 for oil leases in the Gulf of Mexico. Even more ironically, the winning bid was from Statoil, the Norwegian oil company. Statoil, instead of trying to pretend climate change isn't happening, is now trying to position itself for a post-oil future.

Trump's dismissal of renewable energy flies in the face of the reality that, on the global stage, more than half the investment in new electricity generation is now going into renewable energy -- more than $300 billion USD. Wind power is booming in the United States, with the industry adding manufacturing jobs in states under Republican control. "Wind-farm technician" is projected to be the fastest-growing occupation in America over the next decade.

Granted, Trump's election is clearly an obstacle to the global drive to deal with climate change. Although he has made conciliatory remarks about the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit emissions, he has proposed stacking his cabinet with climate-change deniers, suggesting the conciliatory remarks are a smokescreen. However, once Trump enters office, he will find that the Federal government actually has relatively little control over American energy policy, and particularly over electricity generation.

America's natural-gas revolution was mostly driven by new technology and high energy prices; it did much to supplant dirty coal, and there is no lever in the Oval Office that Trump can pull to reverse that. The limitations of White House power were a source of frustration for the Obama Administration, but now environmental advocates see the silver lining. More than half the states have adopted mandates on renewable energy, and efforts to roll them back back haven't done well. In a recent development, Governor John Kasich of Ohio, a Republican, vetoed a rollback bill.

As mentioned earlier in this series, the Federal government offers significant subsidies for renewable energy, which were extended in 2015 last year in a deal that gave the oil industry some favors and that passed Congress with many Republican votes. The subsidies are "grandfathered", in that they will decline and go away after five years -- since they're going to go away in any case, there's less incentive to kill them off abruptly. Should Trump try to do so, he will be reminded that the Republican majority in the Senate is very slender, and that there are a number of prominent Republican senators who are very fond of renewables.

For a prominent example, take Charles E. Grassley, the senior senator from Iowa, which gets a lot of its electricity from wind power -- at last notice, going on 40%. Tom Kiernan -- the head of the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group -- thinks highly of him: "Senator Grassley has been and continues to be an extraordinary leader and champion for the wind industry."

Kiernan has little fear that Trump will dampen enthusiasm for renewables. By the association's estimates, $80 billion USD of wind industry investment is now in the pipeline for the USA. Kiernan says: "We are creating jobs throughout America, good-paying jobs, and we think President-elect Trump will want that to continue."

In short, Trump has plenty of good reasons to embrace renewables, and few good reasons to work against them. However, to meet the climate goals embodied in the Paris Agreement, the US will need to develop renewable energy at an increased pace; renewables still only carry a small fraction of America's energy burden. Although a Trump White House may not be actively hostile to renewables, few would expect to see much enthusiasm there, either -- but fortunately, there is still considerable enthusiasm among the states.

California, as a major example, is pushing forward to address climate change. California has clout, for example being able to enforce fuel-economy standards on vehicles sold there; although the Trump Administration has been talking about cancelling the fuel-economy standards set by the Obama Administration, California will retain them in any case. California by itself would be enough to ensure vehicle manufacturers try to stick to the Obama fuel-economy regulations; other states are likely to add their weight as well.

Governor Jerry Brown, in a statement in which he said California will deal with the Trump Administration to find common ground, also said that California has its own agenda: "We will protect the precious rights of the people and continue to confront the existential threat of our time -- devastating climate change." That means an emphasis on renewables. In 2015, Brown signed into law a bill to bring the state's use of renewable power to 30% by 2020, and 50% by 2050.

Indeed, there is likely to be champions for renewable energy in the Trump Administration itself. Although Rick Perry -- previously governor of Texas, and now Trump's candidate to run the Department of Energy (DOE) -- has stated on record he would like to kill off the DOE, the record of his actions suggests a different story. While he was governor, natural gas production climbed 50%, while oil production soared by 260%. However, the growth of the wind industry under Perry's tenure was even more dramatic, growing from only 116 megawatts of production in 2000 to over 11,000 megawatts in 2013.

If Texas were a country, it would rank as the fifth biggest largest producer of wind power in the world, supplying Texas with approximately 10% of its electrical power needs. Texas outranks California in wind power -- though oddly for such a sunny place, Texas lags in solar power. In addition to promoting wind generation, Rick Perry's administration promoted the growth of transmission infrastructure needed to carry that wind energy from its source in the Panhandle and western part of the state to major consumer centers. In a 2009 speech, Governor Perry said: "Texas is the very picture of a state aggressively seeking its future in alternative energy, through incentives and innovation, not mandates and overreaching regulation."

It is difficult to second-guess Trump's thinking; although shrewd, he is nothing that resembles an intellectual, his thinking being centered on egocentric consideration of near-sighted self-interest. Having no other fixed principle, he easily reverses himself. The Reagan Administration was inclined to staff Federal agencies with administrators hostile to the agencies they led -- but then found that many became infected with the "River Kwai syndrome", to transform into defenders of the agencies they were supposed to bring to heel.

Rick Perry may prove a responsible and dynamic boss for the DOE -- and who knows? Trump, if convinced that sensibility and national interest fits with self-interest, may be perfectly happy with that. We'll see. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* THE LAST GREAT ROAD TRIP (7): On Saturday, 7 October, I began the trip back home. I got out as early as I could, both because it was going to be a long day, and also because I really didn't like the Hilton and was glad to leave. In any case, I traced my route back to Washington, Pennsylvania, then went north to Pittsburgh to visit the zoo.

I was apprehensive of the traffic network through the central city, at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers, since it looked like a tangle of freeways that would be easy to get lost in. Indeed, I hit the wrong turn and ended up in downtown Pittsburgh. Well OK, I thought, cities with rivers tend to have a drive along the river, and I figured all I had to do was drive east on the one paralleling the Allegheny, which would take me to the city park upriver, and the zoo. Trying to get back onto my original track promised to get me even more lost.

There were two problems with this, the first that it was much farther to the city park than I thought, and the second that the street paralleling the Allegheny -- Butler Street -- was hardly a boulevard, being rather narrow and congested, like a side downtown street. I got to thinking I was going in circles, so I stopped at supermarket to get help. I talked to an older woman working in the bakery, showing her a map on my smartphone; she was very helpful, and I was particularly impressed that when she wasn't sure of something, she would say so. Intellectually cautious; I like that.

Anyway, it turned out I was on track, Butler street was the right way to go. It was actually hard to get turned around in Pittsburgh, since the place is so hilly; although I couldn't actually see the Allegheny from Butler Street, I could see it the valley it was running through. The only real issue was that the streets were narrow and not well-marked. It was something I had known from driving about Back East decades back -- that due to the long history of these cities, the road networks tend to be more tangled and congested than Out West, where the cities are newer and better laid-out. That history also meant Pittsburgh looked run-down; a lively place, but one that had seen better days.

I did make it to the city park, to have to squirrel-cage around a bit to find the zoo, but I didn't have too many problems. It turned out to be a fairly small and unimpressive zoo. The most interesting thing was all the Amish running around, families playing with their kids on slides and such. Most of the kids were having fun, but I had to get a shot of a little Amish girl who was standing to one side, as if she had misgivings about the playing around.

little Amish girl

The aquarium was nice -- not so much for the aquatic exhibits, but because it had something of a jungle environment inside of it. I got a few other nice shots, particularly of a snoozing clouded leopard. The zoo was nonetheless not worth the bother to see, the road network making it truly a bother. I didn't spend too long there, getting back on the freeway to head back to Washington, Pennsylvania.

clouded leopard

I didn't feel so bad about the fumble getting to the zoo on trying to get out of town, because the road network is so mixed up. I got dumped off the freeway into a tangle of city streets, making me wonder if I was lost, so I stopped in a parking lot to get my bearings. I was actually on track -- the road system really was that jumbled.

I finally got out of town, to stop some miles down the road to fuel and eat. I had pre-planned a stop at a Panera Bread restaurant, having been wanting to try one; it wasn't so easy to find it either, further testimony to the fact that driving Back East can be a pain. The Panera Bread restaurant was okay, but not really to my taste.

I hit the road west, driving through Wheeling, then on to Dayton for my night stop. This was the only time I got obnoxiously lost on the trip. I dropped the ball; there were two Hampton Inns nearby, and I got the exits for them crosswired. That led to about a half-hour of driving around a maze of country roads near the Dayton Airport; much to my frustration, I ended up actually being able to see the sign for the Hampton Inn, but due to the limited connectivity of rural roads, could not get to it in any straightforward fashion.

I finally backtracked and got on a main drag to take me towards the motel -- but then, entirely to my exasperation, got half-trapped in street construction. After I got through that and got on the side street to the hotel, I found it a roundabout and poorly-marked route. By the time I got to the Hampton Inn, I was in a very acid mood. The black girl at the desk was apparently new to the job and, though conscientious, somewhat inept, but I managed to keep from exploding in her face. The motel room only had a shower, not a bath as is my preference, but the water pressure was good and the water hot, so no worries. I tidied everything up and got to bed -- about time. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online "Dim Nearby Galaxy Is Nearly 100% Dark Matter" by Sid Perkins, 25 August 2016), in 2015 astronomers discovered a dim -- but as it would turn out, extraordinarily dense -- galaxy, designated "Dragonfly 44", that may be almost entirely dark matter.

Dragonfly 44 lies about 300 million light-years from Earth, in the direction of the constellation Coma Berenices, and is part of the Coma cluster of galaxies. From its visible appearance, Dragonfly 44 has only about 1% the number of stars of our Milky Way galaxy. However, observations of the orbits of the stars in Dragonfly 44 show it has a mass of about a trillion Suns, similar to the mass of the Milky Way -- which implies that it is about 99.99% dark matter. Further observations of this anomalous galaxy may provide insights into the nature of dark matter.

* As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Ice Volcano Spotted On Ceres" by Eric Hand, 1 September 2016) the NASA Dawn probe, since 2015 in orbit around the minor planet Ceres in the astroid belt, has spotted an "ice volcano" or "cryovolcano" on body's surface.

Although cryovolcanoes probably exist on Pluto, and there are hints as well on Saturn's moon Titan, this peculiar, 4-kilometer-tall mountain on Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt, is the first whose existence has been confirmed. A scarcity of craters on nearby surfaces suggest an eruption by "Ahuna Mons", as the mountain has been named, in the recent geological past, within about 200 million years. Researchers suspect that salts help lower the melting point for ice, deep underground where it is warmer, allowing brines to rise up as a "cryomagma". They also say that an impact basin on the other side of Ceres -- a 280-kilometer (175-mile) wide area called "Kerwan", may have sent shockwaves through Ceres and triggered the eruption.

Ahuna Mons

Dawn has clearly identified water ice on Ceres, and has acquired evidence of clay minerals, which require water. Although Ceres has many small craters, it lacks major impact basins -- suggesting an upper crust of mixed rock and ice, with a viscous layer of ice underneath, with the bigger impact basins relaxing away over time.

* As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Virus Stole Poison Genes From Black Widow Spider" By Paul Rincon, 12 October 2016), it is well-known that viruses will occasionally pick up genes from bacteria they infect,

The virus, known as "WO", infects a well-known bacterium named Wolbachia, which infects insects and spiders, and is known to have a diversity of effects. WO obtained a gene that codes for "latrotoxin", the venom used by black widow spiders, which breaks down the cell membranes of eukaryotes -- organisms with cells featuring nuclei, including animals, plants and fungi. The researchers suspect the virus uses latrotoxin to enter animal cells and reach the bacteria that it targets. It may also enable the virus to exit animal cells.

During its life cycle, the WO virus is exposed to the internal environment of insect and spider cells; the researchers found other genes in its DNA that may help the virus evade animals' immune systems. Incidentally, this article commented: "The chunks of arachnid DNA were probably stolen by the virus to help it punch through animal cells."

Oh right, the virus thought: "Gee, this gene sure looks like it would come in handy for punching through the walls of animals cells -- nobody's looking, I'll just snatch it and run!" Philosopher Dan Dennett, in his writings on evo science, does make a fair case for granting "intentionality" to mindless things like viruses -- sure, no problem in saying the virus uses the venom gene to penetrate animal cells to get at the target bacteria, it's genetically adapted to do so -- but I think even Dennett would see the silliness in the idea of deliberate "theft" by a virus.

As Dennett knows perfectly well, that's a ridiculous take on how evolution works. In reality, the virus picked up the gene by an anomaly in its replication process; it was just that the virus that had the venom gene then propagated better than its siblings that didn't have the gene.



* SOUTH PACIFIC SOLAR: As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("South Pacific Island Ditches Fossil Fuels To Run Entirely On Solar Power" by Eleanor Ainge Roy, 28 November 2016, the little island of T'au in American Samoa has just declared "energy independence", by installing more than 5,000 solar panels and 60 Tesla power packs.

Although there is a lot of bickering over the cost-effectiveness of solar power, nobody on T'au had any doubts, since the 600 islanders had traditionally been powered by diesel generators, requiring imports of fuel. When bad weather interfered with shipments, homes, government buildings, and water pumps could be shut down. The shipments were not only expensive, but threatened environmental calamity if a fuel ship were to capsize in a storm.

Construction of the 1.4-megawatt micro-grid began in 2014, and was immediately bogged down by poor weather, transport delays, and technical difficulties. Utu Abe Malae, executive director of the American Samoa Power Authority, says: "It has been really hard. The ferries to the island would often break down, so then we'd have to flag down nearby fishing boats to transport the solar panels, and then they'd have to pass the panels to row-boats to reach the island. Nothing about this project went smoothly at all."

T'au solar array

Solar engineers from contractors Tesla and SolarCity flew out from California to help oversee construction of the micro-grid, and 15 local men were employed in construction process. Five of those fifteen locals -- previously low skilled, odd-job men on the island -- are now solar power technicians managing the grid. Associate Professor Ashton Patridge, from the faculty of engineering at Auckland University in New Zealand, says that Ta'u provides a model for further use of solar power in the South Pacific:


It is fantastic what they have done, and they should provide a working model for other Pacific island countries to study, as most get six to eight sunshine hours a day, 1,000 watts per square meter -- which is a resource that is otherwise wasted. The cost of setup for solar is high and there has been a push-back against that -- but it is ideal if governments absorb that cost, especially for these remote communities that would otherwise be totally reliant on non-renewable energy sources.


With cyclone season approaching, when heavy rain and grey skies can be daily occurrences, Malae said he was interested to see how the solar panels held up -- but was not worried about maintaining the electricity supply, since the battery array could store enough to power the island for three days.

While the power bills of the islanders remain the same -- around $80 USD to $100 USD per month for an average household -- Malae said the reliability and self-sufficiency of the new system had been a cause of celebration. Neighboring Ofu and Olosega islands plan to follow suit, with their own micro-grids to be in operation in 2017.



* THE PROTECTIONIST ILLUSION: As a follow-up on the series on free trade run here in 2016, an editorial in THE ECONOMIST ("Why They're Wrong", 1 October 2016) discussed how, from the 19th century onward, improvements in long-range transport increasingly established a world economy. Far-sighted leadership realized that attempts to wall off national economies from the rest of the world with tariff barriers would restrict prosperity, not enhance it; trade was not a zero-sum game. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, trade protectionism resurged, with the only result of increasing the pain and slowing recovery. In the postwar era, the lesson was learned, with a renewed and largely successful push towards a global economy.

The lesson now seems to have been forgotten, with such a high level of public resentment against globalization as to make politicians fear to mention the word. It's just one symptom of a pervasive anxiety about a more open world, interconnected by rapid transport and networking, where events on one side of the planet may have a powerful effect on the other. Britain's Brexit vote reflected concerns about the impact of unrestrained migration on public services, jobs, and culture. Big businesses are assailed for dodging taxes by off-shoring profits.

There's some truth to these critiques, and more should be done for those who lose out in an open global economy. However, there is a stark difference between sanding off the rough edges of globalization -- and scrapping it, without a realistic consideration of the alternatives. It is hysteria to think that globalization is a scam that benefits only corporations and the rich, that exploits the people and the environment for self-centered gain.

For starters, consider the vast improvement in global living standards in the decades after World War II, which was underpinned by an explosion in world trade. Exports of goods rose from 8% of world GDP in 1950 to almost 20% a half-century later. Export-led growth and foreign investment have brought hundreds of millions out of poverty in China, and transformed economies from Ireland to South Korea.

Western voters, of course, are not necessarily all that encouraged by the emergence of new economic powers like China and India. Nonetheless, they should not ignore that they benefit from free trade as well. Firms that do business on the world stage are more productive and pay higher wages than those that serve only the domestic market. Half of America's exports go to countries with which it has free-trade deals, even though their economies account for less than a tenth of global GDP.

In contrast, protectionism may well cost more jobs than it saves, and definitely hurts consumers: it is an economic truism that one cannot protect producers without hurting consumers, and it is the consumer who ends up paying for tariffs -- either by paying more for imports, or more for protected domestic products. Protectionism hurts the poorest consumers, who have little money to spare, much worse than it hurts the wealthiest.

A study of 40 countries found that the richest consumers would lose 28% of their purchasing power if cross-border trade was shut down; but those in the bottom tenth would lose 63%. The annual cost to American consumers of switching to non-Chinese tires after Barack Obama slapped on anti-dumping tariffs in 2009 has been estimated at around $1.1 billion USD -- amounting to a pricetag of over $900,000 USD for each of the 1,200 jobs that were "saved".

The more visible sore point in openness is migration -- but on the balance, migrants help their host countries much more than they harm them. For example, European immigrants who arrived in Britain since 2000 have been net contributors to the exchequer, adding more than 20 billion pounds ($34 billion USD) to the public finances between 2001 and 2011. No statistics have showed immigrants to the UK to be more inclined to crime and anti-social conduct than the native-born. In addition, foreign direct investment delivers competition, technology, management know-how, and jobs.

Yes, there are losers in globalization, and too little has been done to help them. Possibly a fifth of the six million or so net job losses in American manufacturing between 1999 and 2011 resulted from Chinese competition; many of those who lost jobs did not find new ones, and those who did often ended up earning much less. With hindsight, politicians in Britain were too complacent about the pressures that migration from new EU member states in Eastern Europe brought to bear on public services.

Capital transfers, though not a source of much public uproar, have often proved damaging, not least in the euro zone's debt-ridden countries. It is true that global economic exploitation is not inherently friendly to the environment; but the idea that the world would be a better place if capitalism were not hindered by regulation, or the mirror idea that economic power should be granted to a cadre of benevolent commissars, only thrive in the world of crackpots.

More could be done to fix the problems. The USA spends a meager 0.1% of its GDP, one-sixth of the rich-country average, on policies to retrain workers and help them find new jobs. On migration, it makes sense to follow the example of Denmark and link local-government revenues to the number of incomers, so that strains on schools, hospitals, and housing can be eased. Harmonizing tax policies on multinational firms would give countries greater command over their public finances; similarly, a collaborative approach to damping out volatile capital flows would restore mastery over national monetary policy. As far as global environmental regulation goes, major steps have been taken, though much more needs to be done.

There are answers to the problems. They may not be easy to achieve, but protectionism is not an answer -- it's a problem in itself, doomed to failure. Alas, with public hysteria gone so far off the rails, leadership willing to fight the tide has yet to emerge.

ED: On 14 December 2016, US President-Elect Donald Trump met with tech industry leaders, including Apple's Tim Cook, Amazon's Jeff Bezos, and Tesla's Elon Musk, with Trump telling them: "I'm here to help you folks do well." There were underlying tensions in the meeting; the majority of the tech leadership backed Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, and they felt targeted by Trump's blasts on US industries off-shoring their manufacturing. The industry leaders were, however, interested in Trump's promises to rationalize corporation taxation -- for which a fair case can be made, since the current system encourages the off-shoring of profits, as mentioned above.

As far as moving manufacturing back to the USA went, that was more problematic. Apple could very plausibly move production of iPhones to the USA to serve the domestic market, leaving production in China to serve the rest of the world. However, doing so would generate few jobs for Americans, since the plants would be highly automated; there would be few nonskilled jobs, except for the custodial staff. Indeed, a Trump Administration push to return manufacturing to the USA might, at least as one benefit, do much to boost factory automation technology -- which ironically would mean even more unskilled workers displaced over the long run. The postwar era in which unskilled workers could make good livings for themselves was an historical anomaly-- and like it or not, the fact is that it is over.


Nobody can really second-guess Trump. His mindset is theatrical; his notions of facts are directed by convenience, and he easily reverses himself when convenient. If he can bring manufacturing back to the USA, even if it doesn't really change the status quo in any serious way, would he not then simply declare victory? We'll see.



* ANOTHER MONTH: It's another year now, and time to review 2016.

There was little excitement in consumer tech in 2016; one interesting development were smartphones with dual cameras in them, permitting a degree of zoom capability. Will we be seeing smartphones with quad cameras in them? Virtual reality technology has bounced back, but it may be just a flash in the pan.

3D printing continued on a roll, though home use remained its least significant aspect. Artificial intelligence research was big news in 2016, though it was mostly applied to tools behind the scenes, not consumer technology.

Smart cards also finally became established for purchases in the USA, with smartphone transactions beginning to make an appearance, while online security for charge card transactions tightened up. Although there was some excitement in previous years for the bitcoin digital currency scheme, it is now apparent that it was never anything more than a toy -- though the "distributed ledger / blockchain" underlying bitcoin is getting a lot of attention for use in various applications.

Food technology made considerable strides in 2016, with a number of startups working on synthetic meats and similar products, though so far none have made a commercial breakthrough. In addition, in a fit of sanity the US Congress passed a GMO labeling bill that covers all the bases, if in such a way as to make GMO-bashers unhappy. Genetic modification was on a boom in general, with the CRISP-Cas9 genetic modification technique taking the biotech / bioresearch world by storm.

Robocars were still big news in 2016, though nobody has really commercialized them yet; they're not ready for prime time. Nonetheless, Tesla does now offer an "Autopilot" system that does freeway driving with minimal supervision. Tesla's electric vehicle (EV) offerings, as well as the Chevy Bolt, has revived the prospects of EVs, which appeared to have been on the fade. Battery pack prices have been decreasing at a steady pace, though the range problem with EVs remains to be addressed.

What happens with EVs as personal vehicles remains to be seen, but EVs ar definitely on a roll with buses and other heavy fleet transports. This in a year when fuel prices were held artificially low, inflicting pain on those developing alternative fuels; fuel prices were rising again by year's end.

Civilian drones were big business in aviation, with a push, not yet realized, to use them for cargo transport, with a corresponding effort to set up drone airway systems. There was also a continued push for electric or hybrid-electric civil aircraft, though they're still mostly in the lab. There was further work on highly efficient next-generation airliner designs.

Space activities were lively in 2016, with China flying a number of innovative space platforms -- the Quantum Science Satellite (QSS), which was a test system for a global quantum-encrypted communications network; DAMPE, to search for dark matter radiation signatures; and XPNAV 1, to map out pulsar signals for space navigation. China also introduced a new series of Long March boosters.

The European Space Agency launched a pathfinder for a space-based interferometer constellation, intended to detect gravity waves -- with the ground-based LIGO interferometer system detecting gravity waves for the first time. There being a Mars launch window open in 2016, the ESA also launched the "ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO)" to the Red Planet; unfortunately, a small demonstrator Mars lander named "Schiaparelli", launched with ExoMars TGO, suffering a landing system fault and crashed.

As far as politics go, there's hardly much need to reflect on 2016, nor would it be so welcome if I did ... Brexit, Trump, Putin, need I say more? Well, I can say a bit more about how high a profile data-security issues -- emails, leaks, and leakers -- took in events, with the year ending as the US and Russia were engaged in an effective cyber-war. A squabble between the FBI and Apple on the encryption of an iPhone taken from a slain terrorist was more or less forgotten in the fuss. It won't be forgotten for long, since the quarrel over the right of citizens over strong encryption has on been deferred, not resolved.

Data security is going to be a big issue for the incoming Trump Administration -- the Obama Administration has imposed sanctions on Russia, with Congress screaming for more -- and an issue possibly not one Trump's not eager to tackle. Then again, who knows? Trump reverses himself at convenience, and he may not feel so casual about hacking once his administration is the target.

Oh, and lest we forget, 2016 was the hottest year ever, another factor the Trump Administration may not be eager to deal with -- ironically handing leadership on climate change to China, who in Trump's vision is America's evil rival. Renewable energy, however, was on a roll in 2016, with prices continuing to decline while deployment ramps up. In any case, 2017 is a new year, and we can only hope it will damn well be better than the last one.

* On Christmas day, I was hobbling around the house with my cane. But to a degree, I didn't mind.

I get up early, about 0330 AM. I had a star projector in front of the house as a Christmas decoration; it can't be run indefinitely without damage, so I run it on timer for some hours from the evening to after midnight, and then run it again after I get up. After rising on the day before Christmas, I turned it on, set it to flashing, and went back to the bathroom. I came back into the kitchen -- but didn't see the stars shining through the front window. Wot?

I looked out the window, and after puzzling a moment, realized the projector was gone; somebody had obviously made off with it. Annoyed, I went outside to investigate -- and noticed somebody casing the Christmas decorations from a neighbor's house. I shouted: "Hey YOU!"

He took off running, dropping an armload of Christmas decorations in the street. I didn't have shoes on, just plastic clogs and socks, but took off in hot pursuit, screaming abuse and dire threats at the top of my lungs. I meant the threats; I was furious. I would have taken him on if he'd been twice my size, or even armed: If I can't take you out, you'll have to show me why not.

I finally pulled a muscle in my right ankle and fell down, still screaming threats. Further pursuit being impossible, I limped back towards my house. A neighbor fellow, stout working-class sort without a shirt on, had come out to figure out what the fracas was all about, and asked: "What's going on?" I explained, pointed out where the thief had gone, and went back to my house.

I had noticed that there was a car idling in the street, but it didn't register with all the excitement -- Damn, should have got the license number. I called 911 and reported somebody out stealing Christmas decorations. I then tried to get my morning back in order -- but while I was doing that, events were proceeding on another track.

cheered when they heard the news."

I wish I had been able to see them busted. The cops dropped by my house with the recovered Christmas decorations, but my projector wasn't there. I told them: "The thief dropped a bunch of stuff in the street, I'll check later. Geez, wotta stupid crime. These things don't have any resale value." Worse, my projector operates by remote, and the remote was in the house; without the remote, it was nothing but a paperweight.

I found my projector lying in the street; it has a metal casing and was undamaged by being dropped. I set it back up again. My ankle swelled up painfully, so I finally got around to dropping two ibuprofens -- funny stuff that, doesn't do much for minor pains, works really well for major ones. I did my morning calisthenics surprisingly well for having a dysfunctional leg. I figured it would mend pretty quickly, muscle healing faster than ligaments, but I don't think it will be mended until well into February.

On consideration, after the adrenalin wore off, it seemed like a sad thing. Obviously they were kids with some problems, and their homes could not have been happy over the holidays. I could only hope that if if they got busted doing something silly, it would prove a good object lesson before they moved on to doing something really dangerous. Looking like idiots to the other kids around them would be something to remember. Then again, maybe they can't learn.

I trust a healthy and prosperous new year to all. It's certainly going to be an interesting one.

Thanks to four readers for donations to support the websites last month. They are very much appreciated.