jun 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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* PUTTING EINSTEIN TO THE TEST: As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Star's Black Hole Encounter Puts Einstein's Theory Of Gravity To The Test" by Daniel Clery, 26 July 2018), for more than 20 years, a team of astronomers has been tracking a star orbiting around the supermassive black hole at the center of our Galaxy, at a velocity of up to 25 million kilometers per hour, or 3% of the speed of light.

The team now reports that observations of this star have provided one of the best validations of Albert Einstein's theory of gravity made to date -- the astronomers having spotted a distinctive indicator of Einstein's general theory of relativity known as "gravitational redshift," in which the star's light loses energy because of the black hole's intense gravity.

There's nothing unusual about the star, which is designated "S2", except for its highly elliptical orbit, which takes it within 20 billion kilometers, or 17 light-hours, of the Milky Way's central black hole -- closer than any other known star. A team led by Reinhard Genzel at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPE) in Garching, Germany, has been tracking S2 since the 1990s, first with the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) 3.6-meter New Technology Telescope in Chile's Atacama Desert, and later with ESO's Very Large Telescope (VLT), made up of four 8-meter instruments.

At roughly the same time, a team under astronomer Andrea Ghez of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) began to observe S2 around the same time with the twin 10-meter Keck telescopes in Hawaii.

Observations of the galactic core are troublesome, since clouds of dust and gas block much of the stars' light. However, S2 and other stars orbiting the central black hole -- known as "Sagittarius A*" or just "Sgr A*" -- can be observed in the infrared, with their orbits showing that Sgr A* has a mass about 4 million times that of our Sun. On making out the orbit of S2, the researchers suspected the extreme gravity might well reveal the effects of general relativity.

The last time S2 made its closest approach, in 2002, the researchers didn't have gear accurate enough to reveal such effects. Now Keck and the VLT are now equipped with adaptive optics -- flexible mirrors that change shape in real time to compensate for distortions caused by Earth's atmosphere. The European team also had the benefit of using the four VLT scopes as an interferometer, combining their light to achieve the equivalent resolution of a telescope 130 meters across.

S2 was going to make its closest approach on 19 May 2018. After beginning work to observe the approach in March Genzel's team was hard-pressed to the VLT interferometric system, known as GRAVITY, operating right, but they made the deadline. S2 was observed coming and going; imagers tracked the star's apparent path across the sky, while spectrometers could measure its "radial velocity" -- that is, its velocity along its line of sight to Earth -- using its Doppler shift. They were searching for two effects predicted by Einstein:

Genzel's team reports observing the combined action of the relativistic effects, with the black hole's gravity redshifting S2's radial velocity by 200 kilometers per second, a small fraction of its overall speed. These results match predictions of relativity, while being inconsistent with Newtonian gravity. Ghez says her team as "delighted" with the result; however, they're continuing their observations for the time being, the intent being to report on them after seeing "all phases" of the close approach.

General relativity has been tested many times before, and has always been validated. The best tests to date involve pairs of neutron stars, and the recent gravitational wave observations of merging black holes. However, these cases involve objects with collective masses of a few dozen Suns at most -- not remotely in a league with Sgr A*. Physicists were keen to see if Einstein's theory held up under such conditions, and it has.

Over the next year or two, the research teams will continue their observations, on the expectation that S2's path will diverge very slightly from the one it took 16 years ago. This would be in accordance with a phenomenon predicted by relativity called "Schwarzschild precession", in which the axis of the star's orbit is shifted by a tiny amount on each circuit.

Following that, astronomers would like to find other other stars even closer to Sgr A* than S2. Tracking their orbits could allow researchers to measure the spin rate of the black hole; while increasingly sensitive instruments may be able to detect material falling into the black hole at half the speed of light, and jets blasting out from its poles. Much remains to be learned about the monster at the core of our Galaxy.



* THE EU TAKES ON BIG TECH: As discussed by an article from ECONOMIST.com ("Why Big Tech Should Fear Europe", 23 March 2019), America's big tech companies dominate the world: of the 20 most valuable tech companies, the US has 15, while Europe only has one. California's Silicon Valley remains a hotbed of innovation and commercial activity. In recent years, however, the prominence of US tech firms has turned them into targets, with companies struggling to reply to the accusations of politicians and activists that the Big Tech firms aren't in tune with the public interest. Congress rakes Big Tech CEOs over the coals for failing to respect user privacy, while presidential candidates call for breaking up the companies.

So far, all this is much more talk than motion. Across the Atlantic, the European Union is taking action, for example fining Google $1.7 billion for stifling competition in the online advertising market, and enhancing digital copyright laws. Most significantly, the EU is constructing a tech doctrine to give individuals control over their own information and the profits from it, and to open tech firms to competition. If the effort works, it could benefit millions of users, boost the economy, and teach Big Tech something about responsible behavior.

Western regulators have taken antitrust actions against tech firms before, including IBM in the 1960s, and Microsoft in the 1990s. However, today the tech giants are accused not just of cornering huge rents and stepping on competition -- but of helping destabilize democracies by providing conduits for misinformation, and ignoring the privacy rights of users.

As artificial intelligence becomes more important, demand for information is exploding, making data a valuable resource. That presents the questions: Who controls the data? How should the profits be distributed? The only thing all can agree on is that Big Tech can't be deciding those questions.

There is a tendency to regard the EU as bureaucratic and hidebound, on the fade, almost irrelevant. The EU is in fact entirely relevant, having both leverage and new ideas. The big five tech giants -- Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft -- make on average a quarter of their sales there. EU standards are also often copied in the emerging world, and in this case can also set an example for the USA. Europe has much more experience with dictators than the USA, and is makes it vigilant about privacy; its regulators are less under the control of lobbyist than America's, and its courts have a more intelligent view of the economy. Indeed, Europe's lack of Big Tech firms gives the EU a certain detachment in the issue.

A central element in the EU approach is in deciding what not to do. For now, there's no interest in capping tech firms' profits, and regulating them like utilities; that would make them state-controlled, hidebound monopolies. There's also no interest in breaking them up, since they would simply re-align and regain dominance. The EU's approach is along two lines: first, to leverage off Europe's strong inclination to protect citizen privacy; and second, to use the EU's legal authority to boost competition.

The first leads to the assertion that users have sovereignty over their personal data: users have the right to access their data, amend it, and determine who is alllowed to use it. This is the essence of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) -- discussed here in 2018 -- the principles of which are already being copied by many countries across the world.

The next step is to permit interoperability between services, so that users can easily switch between providers. For example, imagine users switching their Facebook pages to an alternate service, intact with all friends and posts. There is also a scheme in the UK known as "Open Banking", in which bank customers share their data on their spending habits, regular payments and so on with other providers. A British government reports suggests that tech firms should open up in the same way.

As far as enabling competition goes, the EU has blocked Google from competing unfairly with shopping sites that appear in its search results, or with rival browsers that use its Android operating system. A German proposal says that a dominant firm should share bulk, anonymized data with competitors, to prevent the economy from being ruled by a few data-hoarding giants. For example, all transport firms should have access to Uber's information about traffic patterns. More directly, Germany has changed its laws to stop tech giants from buying up startups that might one day pose a threat.

The bottom line of EU efforts is to empower users and prevent accumulation of power. This is not necessarily going to be easy to do -- in particular, so far the GDPR hasn't resulted in a new utopia, being more suggestive of the EU stereotype of bureaucracy. The ultimate solutions, it appears, will come from Big Tech itself. The EU can make its goals clear, and then ask industry for proposals on how best to achieve them that provide a basis for discussion. That sounds suspiciously like asking for cronyism, but any workable regulatory apparatus demands interaction with the entities being regulated.

Big Tech, it must be said, has no inherent objection to being regulated, as long as it doesn't cripple their ability to do business -- and the regulators have no cause to want to cripple them, or even villainize them. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg has come out and made the entirely obvious point that, if Facebook has to follow the rules, the company cannot then be told to make up the rules itself. Big Tech moved into a technological Wild West, and of necessity made things up as they went along. Now the frontier days are over, and there will have to be a meeting of minds between the two sides.



* IMPROVING THE POTATO (1): An article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("This Spud's For You" by Erik Stokstad, 7 February 2019) began with a research potato plot in the Sacred Valley of the Incas in Peru. David Ellis -- the retired director of the gene bank International Potato Center (CIP) in Lima -- is discouraged, since drought and pests have done in all 17 varieties in the plot. He says: a test plot of potato plants and shakes his head. "They're dead, dead, dead."

The region is the heartland of the potato; people have been growing it there for thousands of years, long before it became a global crop. It's become harder to grow it as of late, in part due to climate change. Drought and frost occur more often; rains are delayed, shortening the growing season; and warmer temperatures have allows moths and weevils to migrate up from lower elevations.

That makes finding better potatoes a priority. Accordingly, researchers and Peruvian farmers are testing dozens of the 4,350 locally cultivated varieties, or "landraces", kept in CIP's refrigerated storage. The potatoes in Ellis's plot couldn't cope. Native landraces, he points out, evolved over long periods of time, but climate change is taking place "too fast for these varieties to adapt."

The survival of the potato is important, since it is the world's third most important food crop, after wheat and rice. Potatoes are a staple for 1.3 billion people, and they are becoming more popular in the developing world. Maintaining, much less increasing, the world's potato crop means adapting it to different soils and climates -- as well as resisting threats such as heat, drought, pests, and disease.

Unfortunately, the potato has never had a breakthrough of the kind that dramatically boosted wheat and other crop yields during the Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. It is slow and difficult to create a new potato variety, even by the plodding standards of plant breeders. Commercial varieties have complicated genetics, with four copies of each chromosome, not two, as with humans -- they're "quadruploid" instead of "diploid". As a consequence of having four copies of chromosomes, breeders have to raise and test hundreds of thousands of seedlings to find just one with a desireable combination of new traits -- and so getting a new variety to farmers can take a decade or more.

New approaches, including genetic engineering, promise to add more options. Potato breeders are very interested in a new way to create better varieties, known as "hybrid diploid breeding (HDB)". It could cut the effort to come up with new varieties in half, make it easier to combine traits into a single variety, and allow farmers to plant seeds -- instead of the cuttings that have been the traditional method of planting.

Devising a better potato requires having a diverse library of genetic raw material, but the world's gene banks haven't acquired with the richest source of potato genes: the 107 wild potato species. Many of these species are currently under threat of extinction; collectors are now working to make sure they are preserved, working as part of a $50 million USD program coordinated by the Crop Trust -- a charity based in Bonn, Germany.

The nearest ancestors of modern farm potatoes evolved in the Andes, where people domesticated the plant at least 7,000 years ago. After the Spanish brought the potato to Europe in the 16th century, it was a marginal source of food, mostly fed to livestock. Europeans only began to eat potatoes in earnest in the 1800s, during the famines of the Napoleonic Wars. It rapidly became a staple crop.

Potatoes can grow in cold climates and poor soil, and under favorable conditions can yield multiple crops in one season. They are nutritious and loaded with vitamin C; they can be be stored for months, and cooked in many ways. A plot of potatoes can provide up to four times the calories of a grain crop planted on the same plot.

The research behind the Green Revolution did target the potato -- but though crop yields increased thanks to fertilizer and better farming techniques, they didn't skyrocket, since there was no fundamental improvement in the plant itself. Nonetheless, global potato production has been growing. China has doubled its harvests over the last two decades, and now grows twice as many as India, the next-biggest player. Uzbekistan and Bangladesh, as well as many other poor developing nations, are now heavily reliant on the potato as a food source. 2005, for the first time developing countries grew more potatoes than the developed world. Many African countries are working to increase production. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (61): The impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson began in March 1868, with Chief Justice Chase presiding. It became, in modern terms, a media circus -- loud and theatrical. Time was on the side of the defense, since the charges against Johnson were thin, and all his accusers could really do was posture; his defense only had to stall for time, and let the prosecution's case die of boredom.

The defense strategy worked. The public, as well as politicians who didn't have such an axe to grind, tired of the proceedings and the posturing. The matter came to a vote on 16 May. The House committee asked for a vote on the 11th charge, which was a blanket item that covered most of the serious accusations against the president. Seven Republicans broke ranks and the vote lost, 35 to 19, just one vote short. The House committee called for a ten-day adjournment, and during that time the breakaway Republican senators were put under intense pressure. Despite this, or maybe because of it, when the trial was resumed and the next two charges were put to a vote on 26 May, the vote went the same way.

Justice Chase dismissed the proceedings, and the Radicals gave up on their crusade to throw Johnson out of office. The impeachment proceedings were a farce in hindsight, since 1868 was an election year, and there was no way Andrew Johnson was going to be elected to a second term; there was no way the Democrats were even going to back him for re-election. He would be out of office in less than a year, and in the meantime, confronted with a very hostile Congress, he had no way of accomplishing much. In fact, even with the failure to impeach Johnson, the Radicals were at the height of their power. The Reconstruction Acts remained in force, the ex-Confederate states were forced to comply, with the 14th Amendment enacted on 9 July 1868.

The 14th Amendment is one of the most significant of the Constitution's amendments. It reads:


1: All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

2: Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age,15 and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

3: No person shall be a Senator or Representative in Congress, or elector of President and Vice President, or hold any office, civil or military, under the United States, or under any State, who, having previously taken an oath, as a member of Congress, or as an officer of the United States, or as a member of any State legislature, or as an executive or judicial officer of any State, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. But Congress may by a vote of two-thirds of each House, remove such disability.

4: The validity of the public debt of the United States, authorized by law, including debts incurred for payment of pensions and bounties for services in suppressing insurrection or rebellion, shall not be questioned. But neither the United States nor any State shall assume or pay any debt or obligation incurred in aid of insurrection or rebellion against the United States, or any claim for the loss or emancipation of any slave; but all such debts, obligations and claims shall be held illegal and void.

5: The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.





* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an article from CNN.com ("Amazon Reportedly Employs Thousands Of People To Listen To your Alexa by Jordan Valinsky, 11 April 2019), Amazon's Alexa virtual assistant, generally hosted on the Echo smart speaker, has been a big hit. However, Amazon has recently been taking hits over the fact that the company has a development team that transcribes the voice commands captured after the Echo "wake word" is detected, using the samples to improve Alexa's ability to understand speech.

Amazon is believed to employ thousands of full-time workers and contractors in several countries, including the United States, Costa Rica, and Romania, to listen to as many as 1,000 audio clips in work shifts. While the most of the clips are described as "mundane", a few have been seen as "possibly criminal", including the sounds of what appears to have been a sexual assault.

Amazon officials admits the company samples Alexa conversations, but it's only to improve the product offering. They also say the company takes people to listen to what customers say to Alexa. But Amazon said it takes "security and privacy of our customers' personal information seriously" -- and that they only survey "extremely small number of interactions from a random set of customers." They also point out that conversations are only stored in response to the "wake word".

One difficulty for Amazon is that customers are not specifically told that people might hear their conversations -- only stating in a "frequently asked questions" list that it uses "requests to Alexa to train our speech recognition and natural language understanding systems." Customers can specifically opt out of the training, The Amazon staffers don't know the specific names and addresses of the customers who requests they sample, but they do have the device's serial number and the Amazon account number associated with the device.

ED: This is something of a non-issue, in that all it demands of Amazon is that they clarify company policy, and if necessary, make it more obvious when Alexa is "live".

More humorously, GIZMODO.com noted that Amazon's Jeff Bezos has repeatedly dropped hints about the matter: "You have to listen to customers." "You need to listen to customers." "You listen."

* As discussed by an article from THEVERGE.com ("Here's Everything That The Huawei P30 Pro's Four-Camera Array Can Do" by Chaim Gartenberg, 26 March 2019), smartphones have been acquiring such improved cameras that they begin to seem more like cameras with a phone attached, than the reverse.

As a case in point, Huwaei has introduced the "P30 Pro", which has an array of cameras that pack a punch. There's a selfie camera, with 32 MP resolution and "Super High Dynamic Range (HDR) / Super Low Light (SPLL)" modes, plus an array of three cameras in the rear, approaching professional quality.

Huawei P30 Pro

The main camera in the array has a 27-millimeter aperture, and 40 MP resolution -- with a new "SuperSpectrum" color sensor, sensitive to blue-yellow-red instead of blue-green-red, able to acquire more light. The SPL / night mode gives 10 MP shots of unprecedented clarity for night photography. The array also has a ultra-wide-angle camera, with a 16-millimeter aperture and 20 MP resolution, and a telephoto camera with a 125-millimeter aperture and 8 MP resolution. The telephoto camera has 5x optical zoom, using a clever periscope scheme.

The cameras are backed up by "AI HDR+" tech, which identifies elements in the frame -- such as like faces, grass, or the Sun -- create an exposure map, and uses it to both minimize highlights and brighten up shadows. This not only mean no over-contrasting on sunlit shots, it also means reducing the effect of "floodlighting" on night shots.

The P30 Pro has "dual-view video" capabilities, meaning it can take video with both the main camera and the telephoto camera, to give a side-by-side view. There's also a "Time of Flight" camera for depth detection, which Huawei says will allow the P30 Pro to not only determine range to targets, but can measure height, depth, volume, and area of imaged object with better than 98.5% accuracy. Impressive? Certainly, but the P30 Pro doesn't come cheap, running well over $900 USD on Amazon.com.

ED: If it can be obtained at all, Huawei being heavily blackballed by the Trump Administration, and under an effective embargo. I really want the super night mode, I have use for it -- but no worries, camera makers will not allow themselves to be left in the dust by a smartphone maker. The camera makers will catch up in a year or so.

* As discussed by an article from ENGADGET.com ("This Gaming Phone Has A Built-In Cooling Fan And Can Record 8K Video" by Richard Lai, 28 March 2019), Chinese smartphone manufacturer Nubia has now unveiled the "Red Magic 3" smartphone -- a high-power item, intended for gaming. To keep the phone cool, it has a "liquid cooling" copper heat pipe, plus a tiny internal cooling fan that can run at up to 14,000 RPM. Nubia claims the fan will last over 30,000 hours of average continuous use.

The phone also has "customizable capacitive shoulder triggers" -- gaming buttons, on the top corners of the phone -- and an RGB LED strip on the back. It also has a side button "Red Magic Game Space 2.0" dashboard, where users can access their game library and related settings -- including fan speeds, screen recording, and notifications.

Nubia Red Magic 3

The Red Magic 3 runs Android 9, using a Qualcomm Snapdragon 855 chipset -- with eight cores, four running at 1.8 GHz, three at 2.42 GHz, one at 2.84 GHz -- along with up to 12GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. It has a 5 ampere-hour battery, plus a 48 MP camera and a 16 MP selfie camera. The 16.9-centimeter (6.65-inch) display has 1080 x 2340 pixel resolution, which would be generous for a desktop PC, and a 90 Hz refresh rate for crisp video. US prices are not known yet.



* GETTING HOTTER FASTER? As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("New Climate Models Predict A Warming Surge" by Paul Voosen, 16 April 2019), climate models developed over the past four decades have given a reasonably consistent and accurate picture of how fast carbon emissions might warm the world. However, a new wave of global climate models -- developed for the United Nation's next major assessment of global warming, due in 2021 -- are yielding disturbing results, indicating more rapid heating than others have in the past.

In earlier models, doubling atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) over pre-industrial levels led models to predict somewhere between 2 degrees Celsius and 4.5C of warming, once the planet reaches into balance. However, at least eight of the next-generation models -- produced by leading research centers in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and France -- yield results of 5C, or hotter.

Modelers don't know what features of their models are making them more sensitive to greenhouse-gas emissions. They are working to figure out what's going before the next assessment from the United Nations's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). However, nobody thinks the software is broken, with Reto Knutti -- a climate scientist at ETH Zurich in Switzerland -- saying the question is whether the models are: "realistic or not? At this point, we don't know."

If the new models are on target, climate change is going to come sooner and be nastier than expected. Nobody's panicking just yet; the new simulations are only now being given a wire-brushing at meetings, and all the numbers aren't in yet. John Fyfe -- a climate scientist at the Canadian Centre for Climate Modeling and Analysis in Victoria, whose model is among those running hot -- says "it's a bit too early to get wound up -- but maybe we have to face a reality in the future that's more pessimistic than it was in the past."

There's considerable skepticism, with many researchers point out that pointing out that past climate changes recorded in ice cores and elsewhere don't support the high climate sensitivity of the "hot" models nor does the pace of modern warming. Builders of the "hot" models are prudently skeptical themselves. Researchers at the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration's Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory (GFDL) in Princeton, New Jersey -- where modern climate modeling arose -- incorporated a host of improvements in their next-generation model. The model mimics the ocean in fine enough detail to directly simulate eddies, honing its representation of heat-carrying currents like the Gulf Stream.

Michael Winton, a GFDL oceanographer who helped lead the model's development, says its rendering of the El Nino cycle -- the periodic warming of the equatorial Pacific Ocean -- looks "dead on." Exactly why, then, does it give results of 5C? Winton admits: "We're kind of mystified."

Developers of another next-generation model, from the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colorado, suspect their rendering of clouds and aerosols might explain why it, too, is running hot. The NCAR team, like other modelers, has had persistent trouble in simulating the supercooled water found in clouds that form above the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. The clouds weren't reflective enough, allowing the region to absorb too much sunlight. The new version fixes that problem.

Late in the model's development cycle, however, the NCAR group incorporated an updated data set on emissions of aerosols -- particulates from industrial and natural processes that can both reflect sunlight, or promote the development of clouds. The new aerosol data threw everything off: when the model simulated the climate of the 20th century, it then showed barely any warming. NCAR's Andrew Gettelman, who helped lead the development of the model, says: "It took us about a year to work that out." Gettleman wonders, however, if they've really got a complete handle on aerosols, with the NCAR group now comparing notes with other groups that have produced "hot" models.

The effort to understand what's going on may be helped by an ongoing exercise called the "Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP)", which precedes each IPCC round. During the CMIP, modelers run a standard set of simulations, such as modeling the pre-industrial climate and the effect of an abrupt quadrupling of atmospheric CO2 levels, and compare their results. The sixth CMIP is now at least a year late. One reason is the scope of CMIP: along with five standard simulations, targeting specific science questions, such as cloud feedbacks or short-term prediction.

Another reason for the delay is that CMIP teams have been asked to document their computer code more rigorously than in the past, and to make their models compatible with new evaluation tools. Nonetheless, CMIP may help the makers of the "hot" models answer the IPCC authors, who have been raising question after question, Gettelman saying: "They're asking us: WHAT'S GOING ON? They're pushing people. They've got about a year to figure this out."

Thorsten Mauritsen -- a climate scientist at Stockholm University and an IPCC author -- says that the next IPCC assessment probably won't lean as heavily on models as previous IPCC reports. It will leverage off other evidence as well, in particular a large study in preparation that will use ancient climates and observations of recent climate change to bracket climate sensitivity. IPCC is also not likely to give projections from all the models equal weight, instead weighing results by each model's credibility.

Despite all the ambiguity, Gettelman still finds the new model results unsettling: "The scary part is these models might be right. Because that would be pretty devastating."



* BURNED: An article run here in 2017 discussed the problems that fire-fighters have with solar panels. As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG.com ("What First Responders Don't Know About Fiery Electric Vehicles" by Chester Dawson, 25 March 2019), fire-fighters have a parallel problem with electric vehicles (EV).

Lithium is one of those metals that burns. As is typical of such metals, it burns very hot, and the fire is hard to put out. Lithium batteries have acquired a reputation for being incendiary, though they're not as menacing as they once were. They still tend to be incendiary when a car full of them crashes into something.

Now that hundreds of thousands of EVs are on the road in the USA, firefighters have discovered what a nightmare an EV crash can be. In one case, firefighters of Davie County, Florida, put out a fire in a wrecked Tesla with floods of water -- only to have it light up again, twice, after it was being towed away. Robert Taylor, the fire marshal of Davie County, says: "It's such a difficult fire because it takes so much water to put out."

In some circumstances, the best thing to do is just let the fire burn itself out. Taylor adds that there was a lesson to be learned in the incident -- "the awareness of auto-ignition of the battery and knowing how long the energy remains in them."

EVs are still uncommon on the highways, but they are becoming less rare. EVs are no more prone to accidents or fires than gasoline-powered cars, and may be less so, since they tend to have the latest driver-assistance technology. However, the lithium batteries are clearly a threat, all the more so because the technology is still immature, with inadequate safety features.

The US National Transportation Safety Board is already investigating increasing numbers of incidents involving EV battery fires and problems encountered by emergency personnel. The agency is working on a set of recommendations that should be released later in 2019. The recommendations will be a significant step in devising new standards and procedures that make problem identification and troubleshooting easier for police, firefighters, and tow truck operators.

The education is already underway, with the US National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) -- a nonprofit out of Quincy, Massachusetts -- estimating that about a quarter of America's 1.1 million firefighters have received some sort of EV training. Andrew Klock, program manager for emerging technology at NFPA, comments: "First responders have 100 years of experience dealing with internal combustion engines, but it's a very different situation when it comes to EVs ... Every time an EV catches fire, we get a lot of calls."

The NFPA began conducting training and writing reference manuals about a decade ago, just as the Chevy Bolt and Nissan Leaf were about to debut. It has worked closely since then with General Motors and other automakers to educate first responders on how to control battery fires, where critical components are located under the hood, and what wires to avoid -- orange wires mean voltages greater than 60 volts, and should not be cut. The NFPA provides check sheets for most makes and models of cars.

Tesla is not ignoring the problem, with Tesla people regularly talking with first responders, and donating cars for training. However, there's not too much that can be done to suppress a battery inferno, with the company's online emergency response stating notes: "Battery fires can take up to 24 hours to extinguish. Consider allowing the battery to burn while protecting exposures."

However, it's hardly like nothing is being done. The orange wire for high-voltage lines was one of the first steps to help first responders and auto repair technicians. Other efforts include standardizing instructional materials, and advocating badging on three sides of vehicles to help identify EVs. Such measures are being pushed by a Society of Automotive Engineering (SAE) task force, which includes representatives from 11 automakers as well as auto suppliers and government officials. The SAE is expected to produce updated guidelines later in 2019, for example to add an "e" for "electric" on nameplates for EVs. A future revision under consideration is a call for a "kill switch" to cut power under the hoods of EVs.

Of course, countries outside the USA are now trying to come to grips with EV fires as well, but the US has a particular source of expertise on the matter: the fire department in Fremont, California, where the Tesla factory is located. The fire department has considerable experience in handling EV-related incidents -- Cory Wilson, a captain at the Fremont Fire Department, points to a fire at Tesla's plant in early 2019 requiring the full submersion of battery packs in water tanks, and adds: "We've had several incidents there."

Tesla has donated hundreds of vehicles to the Fremont Fire Department for use in deconstructive demonstrations of rescue tools, Wilson saying: "We've cut up 400 to 500 Teslas over the past five years." The department gives regular two-day classes for emergency personnel around the USA, and has conducted training sessions in Europe as well. Wilson praises Tesla's concern with the issue: "Not knowing how to secure an electric vehicle can be lethal. "We're fortunate enough to have Tesla in our community."



* REPAIRING THE WELFARE STATE (10): To close out this series, as discussed by an article from ECONOMIST.com ("Africa Is Stitching Together Social Safety-Nets Even Though It Is Still Poor", 21 February 2019), while developed nations have become ambivalent at best about welfare, undeveloped African countries are embracing.

In the village of Kondo, northern Tanzania, Mwanaidi Saidi keeps a green box that stores 110,000 Tanzanian shillings -- not a fortune, worth less than $50 USD, but useful for all that. Saidi says: "The money helps me solve small problems." It helped her buy school uniforms for her four kids; medicine for her sick mother; and ingredients for samosas she sells by the side of the road, a samosa being a baked or fried finger food with a meat / vegetable filling.

Tanzania's main welfare scheme, the "Productive Social Safety Net (PSSN)", was created in 2013. Today, it covers about 10% of Tanzanian households, 1.1 million of them getting an average of about $13 a month -- which is about a fifth of their household income. There is no requirement for getting the money except for being poor. Recipients can get more money by working on public-works projects, or making sure their children attend school and health clinics.

More prosperous African countries such as Botswana and South Africa have run welfare schemes for many years, with poorer ones now getting into the act. Kenya has created several, including one that sends money to households in drought-stricken areas. Ethiopia's main welfare program, which requires recipients to work, used to operate only in the countryside, but is going into cities. From 2010 to 2015 the countries of sub-Saharan Africa launched an average of 14 schemes per year, up from seven per year between 2001 and 2009.

These countries spend an average of 1.2% of GDP per year on social safety-nets, using a broad definition that includes pensions as well as support for children and the poor. That's actually close to the average for developing countries (1.6%). That is remarkable, since many of these countries are much poorer than those in developed countries when they started their own welfare programs. In sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, 41% of people subsist on less than $1.90 USD a day. Welfare can't eliminate that poverty, but it can reduce the pain -- and also helps convince poor Africans that their governments are trying to help them.

One reason that many African countries are putting together social safety nets is that they have become wealthier, better-governed, and more politically stable. They have also leveraged off useful examples from places like Brazil and Mexico. The attitudes of leadership have changed as well. Armando Guebuza, then the president of Mozambique, claimed in 2007 that "the lack of a habit of hard work" was perpetuating poverty in his country. But in Tanzania, argues Ladislaus Mwamanga, the director of the Tanzania Social Action Fund, the agency administering PSSN, poverty is no longer seen as a character flaw. Donors increasingly see handing out cash as a perfectly efficient form of aid. Academics have shown that very poor people are very careful with their money, and spend it wisely. To the extent they need education, they are very receptive to it.

As Tanzania's PSSN shows, African welfare is not at all generous. In Senegal, households receive $43 USD every three months, a bit more than PSSN hands out. The women who get the money in Senegal say they go through the funds in a few days, typically spending it on school fees or little business ventures, such as buying packets of soap powder which they divide and sell on. Nonetheless, the money is appreciated.

Such programs are, however, efficient, with the great majority of the money changing hands actually going to poor people. They better help the poor than things like fuel and fertilizer subsidies, which tend to go to middle-class people. Cash welfare may also reach the poor better than new schools and hospitals do, since the very poor may not have access to them. Targeting the poor too narrowly may be troublesome, however; a welfare program that helps only the poorest people is likely to remain small and stingy because middle-class voters have no enthusiasm.

African countries may have found a way around this problem, by making sure poor people are actively involved with the system, not merely acting as passive recipients. In Tanzania the decision over who gets the money from PSSN is devolved to villages, where at public meetings residents discuss the merits of neighbours' cases. Auditors from the central government then check that the chosen lot are honestly poor. The scheme not only promotes efficiency, but gives the poor a stake in the system. Senegal's government also relies on local people to pick the neediest families -- but there, the result sometimes looks like patronage or even nepotism.

The newcomer social-safety nets of Africa tend to look thrown-together, but with experience, they are becoming less so. With help from the World Bank, Senegal is creating an impressive national social register containing many details about the country's poorest people. Its main welfare scheme is already beginning to feel permanent, since it has created a constituency in favor of its perpetuation. It would now be difficult to abolish.

Traditionally, African governments have generally tried to reduce poverty by promoting economic growth, which tends to mean courting businesses and building infrastructure. Growth is essential; but there's a good case for addressing the roots of poverty as well. [END OF SERIES]



* AMERICA'S CONSTITUTION (60): There were Congressional elections in 1866; the campaign rhetoric was very hot, with Radicals comparing Andrew Johnson to Judas Iscariot and Benedict Arnold. Johnson went on an 18-day speaking tour on a special train in support of Democratic candidates, and blasted the hard-core Radicals as traitors in return, comparing himself to Jesus on the cross.

The abuses in the South and Johnson's lack of finesse played into the hands of the Radicals by inflaming public opinion in the North. The Republicans won a mandate they couldn't possibly have achieved otherwise, obtaining huge majorities in both houses of Congress that could easily override Johnson's vetoes. Congress passed a set of four "Reconstruction Acts" from the spring of 1867 into the spring of 1868. Johnson vetoed them all, and was overridden in each case.

It was the First Reconstruction Act, enacted on 2 March 1867, that defined the new order, the other three acts being clarification and elaboration of the first. Congress rejected the legitimacy of the governments of all the ex-Confederate states except Tennessee. In the place of those state governments, Congress established a total of five military districts, bluntly named "conquered provinces", each under the rule of an army general. The military governments of the districts were instructed to register the adult males as voters, and they did so, with more emphasis on signing up blacks than whites.

Once the registration of voters was complete, the voters could then elect a convention to set up a state constitution. For the state constitution to be recognized, it had to guarantee black suffrage. The voters were then to ratify the state constitution, elect a state government, and ratify the 14th Amendment. The state government would be readmitted if Congress approved. The defiance of the ex-Confederate states in rejecting the 14th Amendment had now come back to haunt them: they were going to have to swallow it, like it or not.

The Freedman's Bureau was a prime mover in the voter registration effort, with assistance from Republican Loyal League and Union League organizations. When the registration was done, there were 703,000 registered black voters versus 627,000 registered white voters. Some of the whites had been denied voter registration, but they were few in number; many others simply boycotted it. That proved counterproductive, since it gave the Republicans majorities and control in all ten ex-Confederate states.

The new Republican state governments still were under overall military control, but the military governors were not as a rule eager to interfere with the workings of the states under their supervision. The generals had no explicit guidelines for their decisions. Providing such guidelines would have made things difficult, considering they were in a position that was unprecedented in the country's history, and detailed instructions passed down from the top would have tied their hands. However, at the same time, anything they did could easily be, and often was, politically controversial. Some of the generals were energetic in their enforcement of the Reconstruction Acts, but Johnson gradually replaced them with generals who took a lenient view of their job.

The Radicals in Congress, having seized control of Reconstruction from Johnson, were not any more inclined to let the judiciary interfere with their agenda. When the Supreme Court attempted to limit the powers of military courts in the military districts, Radicals in Congress passed measures to limit the Supreme Court's authority in return, and the court meekly backed off.

However, the real target of their hatred remained Andrew Johnson. To protect Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, the Radicals' inside man in the Johnson Administration, Congress passed the "Tenure of Office Act", enacted in March 1867, which prevented the President from removing civil officials, even his cabinet secretaries, without Senate approval. Since General Grant, now in top command of the US Army, supported the Radicals' focus on military rule of the ex-Confederate states, at the same time Congress also passed the "Command of the Army Act", which forbade the President to give orders to the Army except through the commander of the Army, ensuring that Johnson couldn't bypass Grant.

Both of these measures were blatantly unconstitutional overreach of Congressional powers, violating Johnson's authority as commander-in-chief, and would eventually be nullified -- but they indicated both the might of Congress, and that body's hatred of Johnson. Even though Johnson no longer had the power to be a serious obstacle to the Radicals, they looked for pretexts for removing him from office, and he finally gave them one when he sacked War Secretary Stanton in defiance of the Tenure of Office Act.

The Radicals in the House framed 11 charges of impeachment against Johnson, voting in favor of them by 126 to 47 on 24 February 1868. It was the first time in American history that an impeachment of a president had been put into motion. Two-thirds of the Senate, meaning 36 senators, had to vote in favor of the articles of impeachment to remove Johnson from office. There were 42 Republicans in the Senate and only 12 Democrats, and Johnson's prospects for political survival did not look very good. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by a press release from the European Space Agency ("PulChron System Measures Time Using Radio Pulses From Neutron Stars", 29 December 2018), from the end of November 2018, the ESA has been operating the "Pulchron" system -- a pulsar-based clock, sited at the ESA Technical Center (ESTEC) at Noordwijk in the Netherlands.

A pulsar is a fast-spinning, superdense neutron star with radio-emitting "hot spots", generated from its magnetic poles, which radio telescopes pick up as a very regular radio pulse train, with a period on the order of a millisecond. The Pulchron system, which is sited in the Galileo Timing & Geodetic Validation Facility at ESTEC, obtains pulsar data from an array of radio telescopes. According to engineer Stefano Binda, in charge of the project:


PulChron aims to demonstrate the effectiveness of a pulsar-based timescale for the generation and monitoring of satellite navigation timing in general, and Galileo System Time in particular. A timescale based on pulsar measurements is typically less stable than one using atomic or optical clocks in the short term but it could be competitive in the very long term, over several decades or more, beyond the working life of any individual atomic clock.

In addition, this pulsar time scale works quite independently of whatever atomic clock technology is employed -- it doesn't rely on switches between atomic energy states but the rotation of neutron stars."


Five radio telescopes sited across Europe obtain the pulsar data:

The radio telescopes monitor 18 pulsars, in part to see if any anomalies show up in the pulse trains, which could give insights into the structure of neutron stars, and provide other basic physics data. The PulChron system uses the radio data to adjust the output of an active hydrogen maser atomic clock. PulChron's accuracy is being monitored down to a few billionths of a second using ESA's adjacent UTC Laboratory, which has three such atomic hydrogen maser clocks plus three cesium clocks to produce a highly-stable timing signal, contributing to the setting of Coordinated Universal Time, UTC -- the world's time. The stability of the pulsar clock varies from that of the UTC system at about around 200 trillionths of a second daily.

* As discussed by an article from LIVESCIENCE.com ("Looming Galactic Collision Will Rip Open The Black Hole At The Milky Way's Center" by Brandon Specktor, 7 January 2019), a recent study shows that the Milky Way Galaxy appears to be on a collision course with the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), a nearby satellite galaxy. A computer model put together by a team of astrophysicists at Durham University in the UK, suggests the collision could begin 2 billion years from now, about 2 to 3 billion years sooner than the eventual collision between the Milky Way and its nearest large cosmic neighbor, the Andromeda Galaxy.

Although the LMC has only about a twentieth of the mass of the Milky Way, the collision would still have far-reaching consequences -- lighting up dormant black holes with new infusions of gas, tossing stars out onto new galactic paths, and filling the sky with intense radiation. Marius Cautun -- lead study author and postdoctoral fellow in the Institute for Computational Cosmology at Durham University in the UK -- comments: "The destruction of the Large Magellanic Cloud, as it is devoured by the Milky Way, will wreak havoc with our galaxy,"


The Durham team performed a simulation of the collision using a supercomputer software package named EAGLE. The colliding LMC pour loads of fresh gas and stars into the black hole at the center of the Milky Way, pumping it up to about eight times its current size, with massive energies released by the infalling mass -- possibly turning it into an ultrabright quasar.

The growing black hole would rearrange the core star populations, with many stars drawn into the black hole, others being tossed out into extragalactic space. Assuming humans have descendants on Earth two billion years from now, they should have little to worry about, the chaos in the core not having much effect in the outer galactic disk -- and indeed, the inhabitants of the future Earth might be treated to a spectacular cosmic lightshow.

* As discussed by an article from SCIENCEMAG.org ("Bacteria In A Pill May One Day Track Your Body's Chemistry" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 24 May 2018), researchers have now built a pill-sized device that can detect bleeding inside a pig's digestive tract, and relay that data via wireless to a cellphone.

The sensing element in the pill is a bacterium often sold as a probiotic in Europe. The researchers genetically engineered it to detect the blood chemical heme by injecting several genes -- one that triggers in the presence of heme, and another that makes the cell glow in response to the trigger. The glow is picked up by a light sensor, and announced via wireless. The researchers packaged the 44 million bacteria -- plus a battery, light detector, and other hardware -- into 10-by-30-millimeter pills, which they fed to three pigs. Pigs with blood in their guts tripped the sensor.

Other devices have already been built to detect gases in the gut, and remotely control sensors using magnets. The researchers envision a "super" sensor, with multiple variants of the bacterium, that could provide information about cancer, ulcers, or other conditions. Few see it as happening soon; for the present, the researchers are now trying to cut the pill down to two-thirds of its size by shrinking the hardware, reducing the power consumption, and so reducing the battery size.



* CARBON FIBER BOOM: As discussed by an article from ECONOMIST.com ("The New Black Arts Of Manufacturing", 13 April 2019), carbon-fiber composite materials (CFCM) are nothing new, but they've traditionally been seen as exotic. They are now increasingly joining the mainstream.

A visit to an industrial complex in Bristol UK reveals what looks like a giant loom. Bertha, as the machine is known, is something like a loom, being an "automated braiding machine" used to fabricate parts. Ribbons of carbon fiber are drawn from 288 bobbins mounted on a pair of huge rings, and passed over and under one another as they are wound tightly around a revolving mould. Bertha might be turning out an aircraft propeller, a hydrofoil for a fast boat, or wheels for a sports car. The machine can turn out about any hollow component, up to a size of 80 centimeters by ten meters (31.5 inches by 32.8 feet), laying down up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of carbon fiber each hour, with precision accuracy.

21st-century factories are becoming ever smarter, thanks to digital processes and new materials. Automated braiders are one of a number of new systems that are turning carbon-fiber parts production from a slow, labor-intensive job into a mass-manufacturing process.

Carbon fiber's primary virtues are its light weight and very strong. The toughest fibers are up to ten times stronger than steel, and eight times more so than aluminum. Carbon fiber is also five times lighter than steel, and half the weight, or less, of aluminum -- and it doesn't corrode. These properties make CFCM very attractive for air or ground transport, the light weight translating into greater fuel efficiency.

And there are other advantages as well. According to Richard Oldfield -- boss of the National Composites Centre (NCC), a research laboratory set up by the University of Bristol, and home to Bertha -- carbon fiber allows manufacturers to make much bigger and more elaborate parts in one shot. Instead of making an aircraft's wing or car body by welding, riveting, and bolting together hundreds of individual components, the structure can be put together as one piece. This saves time and materials, reduces weight, and also permits new design options.

Carbon fiber has been around since the 1960s. The fibers are made by heating a precursor material at about 3000 degrees Celsius (5400 degrees Fahrenheit) in an inert-gas atmosphers. The most popular precursor is polyacrylonitrile (PAN), a plastic that degrades under hight temperature. Pitch, obtained from coal tar, is sometimes used instead. Once carbonized, the fibers are wound onto bobbins, spun into yarns, or formed into tapes; in some cases, they are woven into fabric sheets.

Individual carbon fibers are brittle and break easily, but they are very strong when it comes to tension forces. The production fibers, yarns, or tapes are put in a mould to ensure the individual fibers are properly aligned, creating what is called a "preform". This used to be finicky manual process, but it is increasingly being automated, with computer-aided design systems determining the optimum configurations of the preforms. The computer-aided design systems can also program a braiding machine to put together the final part.

automatic braiding machine

Once braided, a part needs to be impregnated with a resin, which is then cured to harden it. Curing traditionally takes place in a big cooker called an "autoclave", with the part not only heated, but pressurized to drive out air bubbles. This process can take hours, with parts often left to cook overnight. That makes a problem for mass production; faster cycle times are needed.

A number of "out of autoclave" curing schemes are being introduced -- for example, "resin transfer moulding (RTM)", which involves placing preforms inside a mould that is then sealed shut. RTM can cut curing times by half, or more. An alternate way to increase production throughput is "overmoulding", which is really just traditional plastic injection moulding, with sheets of carbon fiber integrated into the part being moulded. It's a compromise, not quite the equal of purely carbon-fiber structures in some respects, but adequate for many applications, and much faster. The NCC is working on an overmoulding system that could potentially turn out a part in 60 seconds.

In addition, there's efforts to reduce the cost of carbon fiber. Industrial-grade carbon fiber runs about $20 USD a kilogram, although aerospace versions are more expensive. In comparison, steel used in carmaking is about $1 USD a kilogram. Carbon fiber structures are lighter than equivalent steel structures, and so they don't need as many kilograms of material. In addition, a car or aircraft made with carbon fiber is lighter, meaning less fuel consumption per unit weight, and lower emissions. Nonetheless, cheaper carbon fiber would be welcome.

Researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee believe they could cut about in half. The production process is very energy-intensive; the lab is investigating cheaper alternatives to PAN, and associated low-temperature carbonization processes that don't use as much energy. Oak Ridge has also used chopped-up carbon fiber in large-scale 3D printers to produce structures -- for example, to print moulds for the precast concrete fašade of the Domino tower, a new skyscraper in New York City.

Chopped carbon fibers can be made from manufacturing waste or recycled material. Recycling will become more important as more carbon-fiber products are introduced; recovering full-length fibers is tough, while chopped fibers are much easier. The boom is coming, and it will be best to be prepared.



* OFFSHORE WIND AMERICA: A note run here early in 2019 discussed the enthusiasm in bidding to obtain leases for wind power licenses off the shores of the USA. As discussed by an article from ECONOMIST.com ("Gusts Of Change", 7 March 2019), enthusiasm for offshore wind power is something of a new thing in America, earlier plans for offshore wind having been derailed by stiff resistance.

At present, about 4,000 wind turbines spin off the coasts of Europe. In contrast, only five are in operation off the coasts of the USA, these five being in the waters off Rhode Island. Back in 2001, there had been a plan named "Cape Wind" to set up a wind farm off the Northeast coasts, but it staggered along for 16 years, and finally died, in the face of hostility from fishermen, and rich landowners who thought the wind turbines would spoil their view. Wind developers turned their attention to Europe, or to the US Midwest, where there was plenty of wind, and also farmers who liked the profits wind turbines brought them.

The Cape Wind fiasco did have a silver lining, in that it taught the wind industry how to make a case for offshore wind; now it's moving along aggressively. In February 2019, a set of European energy giants -- including Royal Dutch Shell, EDF, Equinor, and Orsted -- bid to build New York's first offshore wind project. Other plans are moving forward, from Virginia to New Hampshire. In total, states have sanctioned nearly 17 gigawatts (GW) of offshore wind power.

If all the projects come to pass, the US will go a long way to matching European offshore wind power. That's definitely something of an "if", since there's still some opposition, and more to the point, offshore wind developers will have to establish wind-turbine supply chains from scratch to support their business. Global energy firms know the risks, and are willing to take them.

They have been encouraged by refined technology. Operators are now able to build bigger turbines that can be sited farther from shore, reducing protests. The bigger turbines also mean that fewer of them need to be installed to generate the same amount of electricity. With such economies of scale, the Vineyard Wind project, to be set up off the shore of Massachusetts, to supply electricity to the state at 6.5 cents per kilowatt hour, which -- with the help of a generous Federal tax credit -- is about the same price as electricity from German offshore wind farms.

State policy is playing a role as well. Northeastern governors are keen to show off their green credentials to voters concerned about climate change, but the heavily-populated region has little room for big solar or wind farms on land. Massachusetts passed a law in 2016 requiring state utilities to procure about 1.6 GW in offshore wind power over the next decade, provided they receive reasonable bids. Governors of neighboring states have followed along, being encouraged by Vineyard Wind's announcement of low electricity prices.

Activity has skyrocketed. In 2015, while the Cape Wind project was staggering towards its demise, the Massachusetts state government auctioned a site off the coast, the winning bid being $281,285 USD -- a joke. In the recent round of bids, each lease was over 400 times that. European wind developers like Denmark's Orsted are in the front of the fight, sometimes concealing themselves with all-American names.

In Massachusetts, for example, Orsted's subsidiary is Bay State Wind; Vineyard Wind is a partnership of Copenhagen Infrastructure Partners and a subsidiary of Spain's Iberdrola; while Mayflower Wind is a joint venture between Shell and EDP Renewables, whose headquarters are in Madrid. EnBW, a German utility, is bidding along the East coast but is also considering waters off California -- where the steep continental shelf will demand floating turbines that have yet to be deployed at scale.

Although the Federal and state governments are sympathetic to wind developers, companies must still secure leases and contracts to sell electricity to utilities. Orsted, for one project, anticipates needing more than 20 permits and approvals from Federal, state and local agencies. The firm spent $510 million USD to acquire Deepwater Wind, one of the few American offshore developers, in part to help navigate through the regulatory minefield.

Manufacturers face other challenges:

Wood Mackenzie, a consultancy, expects growth in offshore wind to slacken after the tax credit expires; then pick up again in the mid-2020s as technology advances and factories open in USA. State governments are determined to build the industry: "My goal is to make Massachusetts the Denmark of North American wind," says Stephen Pike, who leads the state's efforts to promote a green economy.

In the meantime, Vineyard Wind is plodding along. In January 2019, the company signed an agreement with the Natural Resources Defense Council, promising, among other things, to time construction to avoid disturbing the endangered North Atlantic right whale. It more recently hammered out a deal with fishermen in Rhode Island, who remain concerned about the impact of wind turbines on fisheries. Lars Pedersen, chief executive of Vineyard Wind, remains optimistic: "It's a challenging regulatory system, it's litigious and so on, but if you can deliver jobs and clean energy at an affordable price. I believe this is a huge opportunity."



* ANOTHER MONTH: I mentioned the Nintendo Switch game box here, saying I was interested in it because of its virtual reality (VR) accessories. I got to thinking more about the idea, and decided to look for better options -- and find the Samsung Gear VR headset, which uses a Samsung Galaxy phone as its core. I already had a Galaxy phone, and I could get a Gear VR set from Amazon.com for about $40 USD, so I ordered it.

I had a Samsung Galaxy J3 and that wasn't on the supported list -- but the Samsung J-series are basically Galaxies that are handed out as part of service provider contracts, not sold directly by Samsung. My J3 was an unlocked AT&T surplus item; it shows the AT&T "Death Star" logo on boot-up, but that's the only giveaway. I figured I could try it, if it didn't work, I'd get a renewed Galaxy S6 for cheap.

I got the Gear VR headset, and tried to plug the J3 into it. Nothing happened. Well OK then, I ordered a renewed Galaxy S6 for $123 USD, and waited on it to arrive. When it did, I plugged it in ... and nothing happened. One problem was that I hadn't noticed I had bought a Galaxy S6 Active -- which has a modestly reinforced and thicker case. It made a fit into the Gear VR headset troublesome. I use a bit of judicious filing to get to fit, but it still didn't work. I googled around for ideas, to find little more than: "If you plug it in, it should just work. If it doesn't, you're in big trouble."

I was in big trouble. I tried everything I could find or think of, for example doing a factory reset on the phone. As I burned away hours on the exercise, I became more and more flustered, and also began to realize that the Gear VR was a pretty klunky idea -- never mind the details, it was just a klugey scheme. I finally decided I should give up on it.

What to do about VR, then? I found out about Google Cardboard, which was cheap-&-dirty VR -- just a cardboard frame with lenses, no smarts to it at all, the smartphone doing all the work, the smartphone accelerometer array tracking movements. It was unimpressive, but it was inexpensive, too. Maybe a good way to get started? I actually went so far as to order a made-in-China headset that could be used with a phone running Google Cardboard -- but then, I got to poking around some more, and found out that Oculus makes a self-contained headset, the Oculus Go, with a 32 GB version selling for $200 USD.

I thought they were all more expensive than that. I looked around online for information on the Oculus Go, and decided it was workable -- really what I wanted all along. Having resolved matters in my mind, I immediately downloaded the paperwork to return the Gear VR headset. I handed it off to the UPS Store in my neighborhood the next morning, and was glad to be rid of it, not wanting to have any reminders of failure.

Oculus Go

When I got the Oculus Go a few days later, I was excited to try it out. I unboxed it, recharged it via USB, and got it configured -- which was via the Oculus app, downloaded from the Android store. I did the tour to figure out how to run it, then bought and downloaded a roller-coaster game for app. Soon I was riding the roller-coaster, and greatly impressed by the experience ... but not for long, because I quickly ran into the next snag in the exercise: motion sickness, or more precisely "VR sickness". I was very nauseous; I've had worse, but this was bad, and my illness lingered for a day.

Oh dear, another obstacle -- but I didn't think it was a show-stopper by any means. I'm not particularly prone to motion sickness, and I like to ride roller coasters. I do have inner ear problems that can get me sick, but I do therapy exercises every day, and they're very much under control. Scouting around online told me that VR sickness is nothing unusual, and in time people work through it, getting their "VR legs" -- like a sailor's "sea legs". It helps to be sitting in a comfortable office chair and sit in front of a fan. The ventilating effect of the fan helps to fight nausea, and it also appears to keep me referenced to the real world.

I figured I'd ride the coaster once a day until I got the hang of it, even if it took months. The second time I tried, I couldn't make it all the way through the coaster ride -- but the third time, I made it, though with my eyes closed about two-thirds of the time. That was faster progress than I expected. With every day, it got easier. It seems it just takes time to convince the brain that there's nothing wrong, and stop making trouble for me. I also pick up tricks, for example squinting or blinking repeatedly, with the "strobe" effect making the imagery easier to deal with.

Controlled breathing -- taking a gasp of breath on a turn, for example -- also helps. VR apps are rated for difficulty, and coasters are rated as aggressive; it appears some VR enthusiasts don't like them. However, at the rate I'm going, I should be okay with it by July. I'm not planning on buying apps beyond the coaster, until I adapt to the headset. However, if I'm not up to speed on the headset by the end of July, I'll have to reconsider my options.

I was somewhat curious as to what the distinction is between the Oculus Go and the well more expensive Rift. It appears that the Rift, which unlike the Go is dependent on a PC for most of the horsepower, has much more detailed and realistic apps, like a modern high-end videogame. The Go is more along the lines of smartphone games, running an Android system. Think of it as Google Cardboard done right. I'm fine with that -- no problems with a cartoony experience.

* I decided not to return the Galaxy S6 phone, since I can always use another computer. Indeed, when I tried to watch an anime video with it, the imagery was much improved compared to the J3. On checking specs, I found out it has twice as much display resolution. The S6 also has an 8-core processor, instead of the four-core processor of the J3. Four of the 8 cores are low speed -- still incrementally faster than the cores of the J3 -- and four are high speed.

I was somewhat curious about how process threads were allocated to the cores by the operating system. Does the OS track the duty cycle of the threads allocated to the cores, and hand the high-duty-cycle threads off to the fast cores? I'll have to learn more. Anyway, other improvements of the S6 over the J3 include:

On the minus side, I couldn't add a flash chip to the S6. It appears that smartphone makers have been giving up on allowing users to install a flash chip -- which makes a certain amount of sense, since few would buy a smartphone with more flash, if they could install a cheaper flash chip. Oh well, my S6 had 32GB, plenty for my needs.

I was particularly interested in the 16MP camera. There appears to be a new wave of AI-enabled camera apps coming out that offer, among other things, really nice night photography. My lackluster road trip Back East in 2016 was partly hobbled by not having adequate low-light photography capabilities at the USAF Museum in Dayton, Ohio. I'm gonna try it again with better gear one of these years. Night modes gang four pixels together, meaning a 16MP camera becomes effectively a 4MP camera -- but that means pictures with about 1750 x 2250 resolution, which is workable.

I got a hard case for my S6 -- it cost about ten bucks, and it's hefty, giving the S6 a militarized look. I'm reserving the old J3 as a game machine, I take it to places where I have to stand in line and kill time. I'm trying to bring both smartphones up to a common software configuration, so I can do the same things on both of them transparently. I'll have to pile up more games, and I'm thinking of getting a cheap made-in-China bluetooth game controller. More fun every day.

* The Real Fake News for May focused, of course, on the congressional investigation of the Mueller report. Donald Trump's allies claim the report vindicates Trump, clearing him of collusion with the Russians, and revealing no "smoking guns".

That's true, but as far Trump's adversaries go, that's missing the point. The key is the puzzling statement in the brief initial note on the report that, while charges of obstruction of justice could not be made against the president, he wasn't exonerated. The White House complained that either Mueller needed to bring an indictment, or give Trump the all-clear.

That brought the issue into sharp focus. The trick is that the rules say Mueller couldn't indict a sitting president, and Trump knows that -- which means the White House was, once again, dissembling. What Mueller was actually saying was: "I've taken this investigation as far as I can, the investigation needs to be continued, and so it's Congress's baby now."

That seemed obvious to me, but on 29 May, Mueller got up in public, and delivered a brief statement that said exactly that. A frenzy followed. Trump supporters claimed that the matter was now closed, but it certainly wasn't. Trump himself reacted with great excitement, even by his excessively-animated standards, generating an extended tweetstorm of nonsense that fact-checkers had a party with.

Mueller's statement did put House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a difficult position; she doesn't like the idea of pressing for an impeachment attempt that, in the absence of Republic support, will fail miserably -- but there's pressure to do something, even if it's hopeless. That, of course, is merely desperation at work. One can only hope that, if Pelosi stays the course, the furor will die down.

She probably will, since the case for impeachment is so weak, rooted in mindless emotion. An impeachment attempt would do no good, and might do harm -- worst of all, poisoning efforts to press a case on Trump once he leaves office. Helpful judgements from the Supreme Court backing up congressional oversight should also cool things off. Impatience isn't the answer. It's less than a year and a half to the 2020 election; best to keep on investigating, and see what turns up.

In the meantime, the Trump Administration has been beating the war drums against Iran, dispatching a carrier task force to the Persian Gulf, and accusing Iran of all manner of wrongdoing. It is not clear what is going on; the US military activity is not much above the routine, and the accusations against the Iranians are nothing new or surprising. Possibly the theatrics are for domestic consumption.

Trump has also been lively in the trade wars as of late, pressing the trade war against China, and making trade threats against Mexico to get them to do something about illegal immigration. The Mexico business also appears to be theatrics for domestic consumption; the Mexican government will give assurances, and then things will go back to the (unstable) normal. As far as the Chinese go, they don't seem to be budging.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has little reason to cave in to Trump's attempts to bully China. The Chinese are touchy about being bullied by Western powers, and Xi does not want to look weak. Xi also doesn't care so much about public opinion, and he really doesn't have to -- since he can, with perfect justice, blame any hardship imposed on China by US actions on Trump.

Xi also knows that, if he gives Trump a deal, it will help Trump get re-elected -- so the Chinese have good reason not to want to give him a deal. They know his chances for re-election are weak, and it's not so long to the election. They can wait. Trump is of the opinion that if he makes a deal with somebody and they're happy with it, then he hasn't got the best deal. Whatever else might be said about such a mindset, it doesn't work in diplomacy.

* Republicans have been generally keeping low profiles as the storm swirls around them. A SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE skit, in the form of an episode of MSNBC's MEET THE PRESS, posed the question to senior Republicans, or at least SNL's proxies for them, of what it would take for them to give up on Trump.

Host Chuck Todd (played by SNL's Kyle Mooney) asked: "You all have opposed tariffs in the past. Do you all support the President's tariffs now?"

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Beck Bennett): "Well, Chuck, there's a simple answer to that: There was no collusion."

Senator Lindsey Graham (Kate McKinnon): "When you have a President who's a financial genius and a business Jesus like Donald Trump, you've just got to trust him. This man has lost a hundred times more money than I have ever made!"

Todd (Mooney) asked what would happen if Special Council Robert Mueller testified before Congress that he believed Trump had committed obstruction of justice. Graham (McKinnon) replied: "The best way to uphold the law is to be above it."

Asked what might happen if Mueller testified that Trump colluded with the Russians, Senator Susan Collins (Cecily Strong) replied: "I'd have to write a strongly worded email, and send it straight to my draft folder."

Trump is a political dead end. The Republicans are going to very much regret riding the Trump Bozo Bus -- if they haven't already.