aug 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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* WINGS & WEAPONS: As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK Online ("Airbus Drops Electric Light Aircraft For Larger E-Fan X" by Graham Warwick, 30 March 2017), European aviation giant Airbus is adjusting trajectory in work on electric and hybrid-electric aircraft.

As discussed here in 2012, Airbus had been working on a two-seat "E-Fan 2.0" trainer and four-seat "E-Fan 4.0" tourer with electric-driven ducted fans. Voltair, an Airbus subsidiary, was to join forces with French civil aviation manufacturer Daher-Socata to produce the E-Fan 2.0, with deliveries in early 2018. Now Airbus has changed course, to focus on a bigger and more capable aircraft, the "E-Fan X", which could be in the air by 2020.

Airbus started out on the electric path with the "E-Fan 1.0" technology demonstrator, which performed its first flight in March 2014. It had twin 30-kW (40-SHP) electric motors, each driving a ducted fans. Working from there, in July 2016 motor developer Siemens flew the "Extra 300" aerobatic aircraft, with a 300-kW (400 SHP) electric drive. Airbus and Siemens had signed a collaborative agreement in April 2016 to demonstrate the feasibility of hybrid-electric propulsion by 2020 -- as a precursor to developing a commercial aircraft with up to 100 seats that could enter service by 2030.

Airbus officials envision the E-Fan X as being in the 2-megawatt range. It will be a demonstrator for a single-aisle airliner, using hybrid-electric propulsion, in the 20 to 40 megawatt range. Airbus needs to build the E-Fan X demonstrator to see just how hard it will be to get to an operational airliner.

* As discussed by an article IHS JANE'S INTERNATIONAL DEFENSE REVIEW ("Stratobus Demonstrator Set For 2018 Launch" by Gerrard Cowan, 08 March 2017), French defense giant Thales is now promoting its "Stratobus" airship project, having obtained study contracts from a number of military customers.

Thales Stratobus

Stratobus will be an autonomous stratospheric airship, capable of reaching an altitude of 20 kilometers (12.4 miles), with a surveillance range of 200 kilometers (124 miles). It will have an operational endurance of a year. It will be 100 meters (330 feet) long with a 33-meter (108-foot) diameter, and a payload capacity of 250 kilograms (550 pounds). It could carry optical and radar sensors, or telecommunication payloads.

Thales Alenia Space announced the official launch of Stratobus as a research and development project in April 2016, with a number of smaller French companies working as subcontractors. Thales plans to fly a 34 x 10 meter (110 x 33 foot) demonstrator model next year, with first flight of a full-size model in 2020.

* As discussed by an article from the MRO-NETWORK.com website ("Wireless Sensors To Increase Aircraft System Monitoring Possibilities" by Thierry Dubous, 13 April 2017), a jetliner or other sophisticated aircraft wired with sensors to monitor engine conditions, as well as general aircraft control and fault monitoring. The sensors have been becoming more intelligent and networked, being integrated into aircraft "health management" systems.

Sensors, however, imply wiring for communications and power -- which adds weight and complexity to an aircraft, particularly as more sensors are added. The result is that sensor manufacturers have been tinkering with wireless sensors. On a big aircraft, wireless sensors could save almost a tonne of weight. They also will allow sensors to be placed in locations that are difficult to reach with wired sensors, particularly on moving assemblies, or be temporarily installed to help hunt down mysterious problems.

Without wiring, sensors do have to be self-powered, but energy could be "harvested" locally from vibration, thermal gradient, sunlight, or airframe stress. Given micropower sensors, energy harvesting should not be any major obstacle -- particularly for sensors mounted on rotating assemblies.

The utility of wireless sensors is dependent on developing standards so that sensors from different manufacturers play well together. Sensors will need mechanical standards to allow them to be physically swapped out. The World Radio Communication Conference in 2015 agreed on spectrum for wireless avionics intra-communications (WAIC). Software standards will need to be developed so that a sensor network will automatically integrate, no matter what the sensor network configuration is.



* THE CROCODILE BUSINESS: Humans have been domesticating animals for a long time, and are continuing to bring more species into domestication. As a case in point, an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Snappy Dressers", 14 May 2016) discussed crocodile farming.

Welcome to Izintaba, a crocodile farm near Pretoria, South Africa, that is home to 30,000 crocodiles. The business can be lucrative: the skins are sold to tanners for bags, belts, and watch straps, with the best skins fetching more than $600 USD. According to Pit Suessman, the farm's manager, the job does require long hours, but it is not very dangerous -- the biggest threat being armed thieves who sometimes try to raid the farm for cars and equipment.

Global exports of crocodile skins jumped by about 30% to 1.8 million in 2013, the last year for which data are readily available. The boost was partly due to a resurgence in demand, which had gone soft during the financial crisis as exotic-skin lovers dumped crocs for cheaper reptiles, such as pythons. It may also have been boosted by convenient weather in the USA, a big producer, where many farmers rely not on captive breeding, but on eggs collected in controlled harvests from the wild.

Over 20 countries export crocodilian skins, according to statistics from the UN Environment Program. More than half the global tally is from caimans and alligators farmed in Colombia and the USA. The skins are largely sold to tanners in Italy and France, as well as in Singapore.

The industry has grown steadily since the late 1970s, when conservationists began weakening loosening an export ban designed to defend the animals from hunting -- the trade is still controlled under CITES, an intergovernmental effort to protect endangered creatures. Many of the 5,000 or so farms are tiny set-ups in Asian villages, but the largest farms may have as many as 70,000 crocodiles. Some are getting snapped up by big leather-buyers at fashion houses such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton.

Australian crocodile farm

Crocodile farming is demanding. There's not a lot of history to fall back on, so knowledge of feeds and disease prevention is much more primitive than it is for long-domesticated livestock. Space and attention are critical, because even the slightest scarring -- from confrontations with rivals, for example -- can greatly reduce the value of skins. The need to keep hatchlings warm eats up capital, as does the several years it can take a new farm to start producing. Regulatory costs make it hard to earn much cash from exporting cheap incidentals, such as crocodile teeth.

Other troubles include the failing Russian economy, Russians having been enthusiastic for crocodile-skin waistcoats and other gear. Competition is tough and getting tougher, with ambitious businessmen in low-wage countries such as Vietnam and Cambodia hoping for a bigger, ahem, bite. However, the biggest challenge is in convincing consumers, and some lawmakers, that crocodile farming is an honest business.

The industry's best argument is that, with a few exceptions, wild crocodile populations have rebounded strongly in the decades since farming was sanctioned. Crocodiles in Australia's Northern Territory are now 20 times more numerous than they were at their lowest point. It doesn't seem likely that the same approach can be used with other endangered species, such as rhinos and tigers -- but the crocodile seems to be thriving in its new-found domestication.



* RECOGNIZE ME? We are inclined to take for granted how easily we recognize people we know -- but it takes a special sort of brain wiring to pull off that trick. As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Neuroscientists Are Cracking The Code Of How Brains Process Faces" by Lindzi Wessel, 1 June 2017) have taken a big step towards understanding how that trick is performed -- by decoding signals from neurons, brain cells, in the brains of monkeys to recreate faces the monkeys see.

Doris Tsao -- a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena who led the study -- says: "We've really cracked the code for how facial identity is represented in the brain." She adds that this is the first time anyone has understood the brain's code for a high-level object. Researchers had already determined how a brain's neurons code simple, low-level visual elements like color, angles, and edges -- but there had been little progress on the coding for high-level objects like faces.

They had known for decades that faces may trigger strong neural responses in specific regions of the brain called "face patches". Some wondered if neurons in these face patches were matched to particular faces -- firing strongly in response to them, firing moderately for similar faces, staying silent for clearly different faces. Tsao's study contradict this idea; neurons code specific facial sub-features, which sum to the image of a face when combined together.

Tsao and her colleagues started out studying face patches years ago, testing how neurons respond differently to facial features like eye size and mouth length. The difficulty they faced was figuring out how the features added up to facial recognition. To take on that task, Tsao and her postdoc Le Chang stopped focusing on easily describable features like eye or nose size, and instead used software to process a set of 200 computer-adjusted faces, taken from a database of real faces.

The program was designed to render each face into 50 "dimensions" that mathematically determined what made it different from the others. None of the dimensions corresponded to a particular facial feature, but half took into account characteristics related to shape, such as the distance between a person's eyes, or the width of a hairline. The other half took into account features like skin tone and texture.

Armed with the dimension data, the researchers inserted electrodes into the brains of two macaque monkeys, then monitored how 205 face patch neurons responded to thousands of computer-generated human faces that varied across the 50 dimensions. From the flood of data, they used software to sort out the firing of neurons relative to the dimensions of each face, ultimately mapping out the correlation between the two.

Having done so, the software could take the firings of a particular set of face patch neurons and use the corresponding dimensions to reconstruct the appropriate face. To test a reconstruction, the researchers asked people to look at the reconstructed faces and match them to the original, hidden in a group of 40 other faces. They got it right about 80% of the time.

The researchers also noted that particular face patch neurons were sensitive to changes in some face dimensions but not to others, clearly pointing to the correlation between them. The study clearly defined the scheme of facial representation in the brain, and is likely to be seen as a landmark. Ed Connor, a neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, the study represents a major breakthrough that's "destined to be famous" for as long as people read about neuroscience. "It's something very close to the core of human experience, but here we're seeing the neural basis. For me, it just doesn't get more exciting."



* CHINA'S AUTHORITARIAN INTERNET (1) The Chinese government has put great effort into designing a national internet, largely under state control, as discussed here in 2015. According to an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Big Data, Meet Big Brother", 17 December 2016), China's government has bigger plans, with a scheme in the works for a "social-credit system". The idea is to keep score of the the financial creditworthiness of citizens -- which happens everywhere -- as well as their social and possibly political behavior -- which is more unsettling.

The social-credit system is still emerging. A pilot scheme was begun in 2010, being conducted in Suining county, in Jiangsu province north of Shanghai. The local government awarded people points for good behavior, such as winning a national honor of some kind, and deducted points for everything from minor traffic offences to "illegally petitioning higher authorities for help" -- in short, making a nuisance of oneself to the government. Those with the highest score were eligible for rewards, such as fast-track promotion at work, or jumping the queue for public housing.

It didn't fly. Data collection underlying the scheme was inconsistent and unreliable, and public reaction was highly negative. A report in CHINA YOUTH DAILY, a state-owned newspaper, said "political" data, such as petitions, shouldn't have been included, cheekily declaring that "people should have rated government employees and instead the government has [rated] the people." Another state-run newspaper, BEIJING TIMES, had the nerve to compare the scheme with the "good citizen" certificates issued by Japan during its wartime occupation of China.

It was surprising that such sharp criticisms came out of government-controlled media; it appears the pilot program was effectively testing the waters to see how the people reacted. The government considered public reaction, what might be done better, and what was going to be done regardless; to then issue outline plans for the social-credit system in 2014, and more detailed guidelines in 2016. About 30 local governments are collecting data needed to support the scheme. By 2020, Chinese officials say, it will "allow the trustworthy to roam everywhere under heaven, while making it hard for the discredited to take a single step."

The project officially reflects two major CCP concerns: the collapse of confidence in public institutions, and the need to keep track of the changing views and interests of China's population. The CCP wants to collect information on the trustworthiness of ordinary citizens, public officials, and companies alike. This blanket surveillance reflects the ambiguity of the social-credit system; it is at least as driven by state paternalism as it is by state authoritarianism. CCP officials have not failed to notice increasing popular discontent over widespread corruption. The social-credit system will help crack down on corrupt officials and companies. In addition, it will help keep tabs on public opinion, in a society that doesn't grant citizens much in the way of rights of free expression.

Nonetheless, the authoritarian aspect is impossible to ignore. China is a one-party state, with few checks and balances on the authorities; a tradition of social control; and, in President Xi Jinping, a leader fonder of authoritarian rule than his immediate predecessors. At present, it is difficult to see just how much the system will work for Chinese citizens, and how much it work against them. The 2014 planning paper painted the aims of the social-credit system in shiny terms:

On the face of it, the system would monitor the trustworthiness of China's institutions; reading between the lines, it would monitor the trustworthiness of Chinese citizens. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ONCE & FUTURE EARTH (4): While Arthur Holmes and others pushed forward on radioactive dating, a German polar explorer, geophysicist, and meteorologist named Alfred Wegener (1880:1930) was devising a truly radical concept of the past history of the Earth, published in his 1915 book THE ORIGINS OF THE CONTINENTS & THE OCEANS. Wegener had noticed, as some had before him, that there seemed to be matching profiles in the continents; for example, South America's western coastline seemed to be a fit for Africa's eastern coastline. He also knew that there were geological formations on different continents that were matches for each other, as if they had once been joined.

Wegener proposed the idea that the continents had once been joined together in a "supercontinent" named "Pangaea", and had drifted apart. Unfortunately, Wegener could not propose any convincing mechanism by which continents drifted, and so his theory made little progress. Less controversally, in 1924 Wegener, in collaboration with his father-in-law Wladimir Koeppen, published THE CLIMATES OF THE GEOLOGICAL PAST, which was a significant contribution to the emerging science of "paleoclimatology".

* Wegener died of a heart attack on a Greenland expedition and never saw his ideas about continental drift vindicated. That would take until after World War II. During the conflict, new instrumentation developed and refined for military purposes was put to use for scientific surveys -- one set of surveys mapping the magnetic polarizations of the seafloor.

It was know by that time that the Earth's magnetic poles tend to reverse every now and then, on an interval averaging about a half-million years. When volcanoes emit lava, when it cools and hardens the magnetic components of the material are fixed in the direction of the magnetic poles. The reversal of the Earth's magnetic poles could be detected in volcanic rock of different ages. Differences in orientation of the magnetization of ancient rock samples reflected not only confirmed magnetic field reversals, but also suggested that the continents had moved.

During the 1950s, the American geologist Bruce C. Heezen (1924:1971) worked with American oceanographic cartographer Marie Tharp (1920:2006) on mapping the floors of the oceans. They found discovered what amounted to a undersea mountain range running up the center of the Atlantic Ocean, which was of course named the "mid-Atlantic Ridge". From late in that decade, the American geologists Harry H. Hess (1906:1969) and Robert S. Dietz (1914:1995) independently began to push the idea of "seafloor spreading", in which volcanic material generated by mid-ocean ridges generated new seafloor, spreading outward from the ridge. The seafloor then was "subducted" back into the Earth near the edges of continents, the subduction zone forming a deep-ocean trench, marked by volcanic activity in its vicinity.

There was skepticism over the idea, but then magnetic maps of the seafloor found there were bands of magnetic reversals running parallel to the seafloor ridges, with the bands establishing the spreading of the seafloor from magnetic pole reversal to reversal. A symposium held by the Royal Society of London in 1965 allowed advocates to present papers on continental drift and the evidence supporting it; by the end of the decade, objections had been answered and continental drift was generally accepted.

During that same decade, space probes began to be sent to the Moon and the planets, with rock samples returned from the Moon. That led to proper models of the joint formation of the Moon and Earth, as well as comparative studies of the Earth's geology as opposed to other worlds in the Solar System. Orbital studies of the Earth itself began as well, leading to a mapping of the surface geology of the Earth in unprecedented detail. Roughly in parallel, seismic studies were refined for the purposes of detecting nuclear weapon detonations, leading to a greatly expanded knowledge of the Earth's interior. By the beginning of the 21st century, geologists had a detail understanding of the planet far beyond that available a century earlier. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for July included:

-- 02 JUL 17 / SHIJIAN 18 (FAILURE) -- A Long March 5 booster was launched at 1123 UTC (local time - 8) from the Chinese Wenchang launch center on Hainan Island to put the "Shijian 18" geostationary comsat into orbit. Shijian 18 was the first spacecraft based on the new DFH-5 communications satellite platform, a heavier, higher-power next-generation design. The booster did not make orbit; live coverage of the launch was terminated abruptly shortly after launch.

-- 05 JUL 17 / INTELSAT 35E -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 FT booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 2338 UTC (local time + 4) to put the "Intelsat 35E" geostationary comsat into orbit. The satellite was built by Boeing Satellite Systems and was based on the BSS-702MP satellite bus. It had a launch mass of 6,760 kilograms (14,900 pounds); a design life of 15 years; and a high-bandwidth C- and Ku-band communications payloads, with equivalent capacity to 124 C-band transponders and 39 Ku-band transponders.

The satellite was placed in the geostationary slot at 34.5 degrees west longitude to provide broadband, video and mobile communications services over eastern North America, the Caribbean, South America, Europe and Africa. The payload was too heavy to permit use of a recoverable Falcon 9 first stage. This was the third SpaceX launch in less than two weeks,

-- 14 JUL 17 / KANOPUS-V-IK -- A Soyuz 2-1B booster was launched from Baikonur at 0636 UTC (local time -6 ) to put "Kanopus-V-IK" civil Earth observation satellite for Roscosmos. The satellite had a launch mass of 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) and was intended to help emergency responders, crop managers, and environmental researchers. It also carried an infrared sensor to detect and localize the source of wildfires.

Along with Kanopus-V-IK, the launch included 72 smallsats, with two student-built German satellites; a commercial Japanese microsatellite to map Arctic sea ice; two Norwegian maritime tracking and communications satellites; CubeSats from five California-based companies; two Earth-imaging CubeSats for Roscosmos; and three nanosatellites developed by Russian students. The minisat payloads included:

The CubeSat payloads included:

The Dutch company Innovative Solutions in Space accommodated most of the CubeSat payloads inside QuadPack deployers.

-- 28 JUL 17 / SOYUZ ISS 51S (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 1541 UTC (local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 51S" AKA "MS-05" crewed space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included commander Sergey Ryazanskiy of the RKA (2nd space flight), NASA flight engineer Randy Bresnik (2nd space flight), and Italian astronaut Paolo Nespoli (3rd space flight), The flight was on a direct-ascent trajectory, with the capsule docking at the ISS at 2154 UTC. The Soyuz crew joined the "ISS Expedition 52" crew, including commander Fyodor Yurchikhin of RKA, plus flight engineer Jack Fischer of NASA, and Peggy Whitson, NASA’s most experienced astronaut.



* AUGMENTED REALITY IN PROGRESS: The notion of "augmented reality (AR)" systems, in which workers use an eyepiece display to provide "smart assistance" to their labors, is not all that new, having been last discussed here in 2008. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("Here's Looking At You", 30 April 2016), described progress in the field.

Thanks to projects such as the Google Glass computerized spectacles, it seemed that AR, in some form, was about to penetrate into consumer mainstream technology. No such luck; Google stopped pushing the technology to consumers a year ago, reception not having been positive. However, AR is continuing to obtain a foothold in the workplace.

According to Alain Dedieu -- a vice-president in the Shanghai operations of Schneider Electric, a French multinational -- engineers that work on and repair transformers that distribute electricity can spend up to half their time searching for technical data in assorted software, databases, activity logs, and even filing cabinets. Schneider is now testing AR systems that will find the technical information, and present it to an engineer in the course of work.

Schneider using both headsets and tablet computers, with information superimposed onto an image of the object on either the lenses in the headset or the screen on a tablet. The system uses image-recognition software, and sometimes a bar code stuck on equipment, to determine what the piece of kit is. It then wirelessly obtains relevant data, such as optimum operating temperature, fluid levels, and maintenance history, with software "sticking" the data to the image on the display. If the engineer inspects something else, the data goes away; the data returns if the engineer inspects the original item again. According to Dedieu, early experiments suggest the AR system cuts the amount of time spent looking for information by about 90%.

In the USA ITAMCO, an Indiana-based engineering company, is also tinkering with AR, using Google Glass headsets. According to Joel Neidig, an ITAMCO engineer, having data automatically pop into their field of view saves enough time for two machine operators to do work that previously required three or four. Caterpillar and General Electric have set up similar systems.

According to Neidig, the use of AR systems in Europe is proving more troublesome, since some unions think the technology is just a sneaky way for management to keep track of workers. He maintains management wants to reduce accidents by ensuring workers see proper procedures and danger alerts. There's no arguing the benefits of the technology to workers; but like it or not, it does come along with drawbacks.

Some European firms are using AR. German engineering giant Siemens is using JoinPad, an Italian firm, to set up an AR system to help with a number of tasks, including the prevention of hazardous and costly oil fires in high-voltage transformers. JoinPad officials say that AR doesn't necessarily guarantee productivity gains, but claim that 20% is about typical.

There's still a great deal of room for improvement in the technology. Several hundred workers at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia use AR on tablets for general reference, though they don't yet use it as a supervisory guide to installation of critical equipment. Even at that, it still beats flipping through piles of paper diagrams to determine if one piece of equipment has to be installed above or below another, says Patrick Ryan, an engineer overseeing the roll-out of AR in building an aircraft-carrier and half-dozen submarines for the US Navy.

Newport News is likely to move to headsets, and a more sophisticated AR system, once headset prices come down. Prices are falling rapidly. Atheer, a Silicon Valley firm, is about ready to ship its "Air Smart Glasses" to industrial users for some $4,000 USD; a current model for software developers costs $9,000 USP. The "Smart Helmet", an AR headset made by DAQRI of Los Angeles, is being used at KSP Steel in Kazakhstan. It costs $10,000 USD, but also doubles as a hard-hat and eye shield. It automatically switches off instructions if hand movements detected by the camera suggest that the user has learned what to do.

Headsets can also assist in communications. Microsoft's HoloLens, an AR headset being used on the International Space Station, sends video of the astronaut's field of view to a tablet at mission control on Earth, where a technician can draw on the touchscreen -- placing, say, a circle around a switch that has to be flipped -- and have that circle appear in the astronaut's view. Augmedix, a San Francisco company, is developing a Glass-based system for hospitals and clinics, the idea being that a doctor will be able to speak with a patient and see that person's medical history, prescriptions and other information, without ignoring the patient.

Whether AR will become a mainstream consumer technology remains to be seen. Although its progress in the workplace has been slow, it is making gains -- and once established there, it may then make its way into the wider world.



* DON'T BLAME ROBOTS: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("The World's Workers Have Bigger Problems Than a Robot Apocalypse" by by Peter Coy, 22 June 2017), there's a lot of fear that automation is going to put human workers out of business. A recent study found that obtaining an industrial robot displaces six employees. The US lost 8 million manufacturing jobs from 1979 to 2009, and has regained fewer than 1 million since. Coal mining employment has fallen 42% since the end of 2011. With the growing presence of drones, robocars, and artificial intelligence (AI), it's easy to see that machines are displacing workers. Some fear that we are facing a future of no jobs at all.

Is that really so? No. Matt Busigin, chief information officer at Hover Networks INC, a phone systems company in Buffalo NY, says: "The things that are being suggested are so far beyond what we're capable of right now, it's almost marketing for venture capital."

In addition, the jobs market is not shrinking. Japan is highly automated, but it has an effectively negligible 2.8% unemployment rate. There are shortages of skilled workers in Brazil, India, Mexico, and Turkey; while US employers reported 6 million unfilled job openings at the end of April 2017. That was a record for 16 years of keeping tally. The state of Maine is so short-handed that the governor conditionally commuted sentences of 17 state prisoners in May, in part so that they could take jobs. Michael Feroli, the chief US economist of JPMorgan Chase & CO, titled a research note: "The labor market's getting tighter than a rusted lug nut."

In fact it appears that automation is, for the moment, running out of steam. Nonfarm business productivity growth averaged a thin 1.2% a year from 2007 through 2016, down from 2.6% from 2000 to 2007. Those percentages are counterbalanced by demographic changes in Japan, China, the US, and elsewhere, where populations are aging, with a growing proportion of people of retirement age. Projections are that US labor shortages will continue, ignoring temporary recessions, until the 2030s.

The problem is that the low-skill, high-wage job was an historical anomaly, and it's no longer realistic. For people with technical college degrees, there's effectively full employment. Employers needs skills, and the greater the skill, the smaller the pool of people with those skills. That leaves a large pool of low-skill, low-wage jobs, where wages are stagnant. In addition, many of such jobs don't offer full-time employment; the size of the USA's "contingent" workforce -- temps, on-call workers, contract company workers, independent contractors, freelancers -- has almost doubled in 20 years. The challenge for companies and governments is to retrain people who have lost jobs so they can have the skills to get new, good jobs.

Fears of automation are not new. In 1964, a committee of scientists and activists sent a letter to US President Lyndon Johnson warning that a "cybernation revolution" was creating "a system of almost unlimited productive capacity" that would strand "the poor, the unskilled, the jobless." That, in a time when there were only thousands of computers, none of them remotely as powerful as an ordinary modern desktop PC, or even a high-end smartphone. Yes, we have difficulties, but we're not faced with a world without jobs on any reasonable horizon.



* MANUFACTURING REINVENTED (7): The "host countries" that receive investment from multinationals do generally remain enthusiastic about them. In 2010, for example, 30% of Chinese industrial output and 50% of exports were produced by the subsidiaries or joint-ventures of multinational firms. Argentina, Mexico, and India are all taking measures to bring in foreign investment. An index through which the OECD rates the openness of host countries to foreign investment shows no overall deterioration since the financial crisis.

However, the enthusiasm is showing signs of flagging. China has been squeezing foreign firms in a push for "indigenous innovation"; more products have to be sourced locally, and intellectual property often ends up handed over to local partners. China notoriously maintains national control over the country's internet; to be sure, that is heavily driven by security concerns, but nationalist economic considerations play a big part as well. There are fears other developing countries will follow China's lead, forcing multinational firms to invest more locally and create more jobs.

The shift towards services also tends to dampen multinational activity. For the top 50 American multinationals, 65% of foreign profits now come from industries reliant on intellectual property, such as technology, drug patents, and finance. A decade ago it was 35%, and the share is still rising. It is a sign of US technical dominance that the share is much lower for Europe and Japan. With a focus on services, multinationals have less interest in finding cheap labor elsewhere -- no factories means no factory workers -- and so companies have less incentive to go abroad, except to tap regional markets.

The present decline of multinationals is not really a new thing. Multinationals declined during the Depression, which is not a surprise; what is surprising is that the decline lasted to 1970, and they didn't fully recover until 1991, when the resurgence began. The multinational company faded because it represented a false economy of scale. It is a business truism that size for its own sake doesn't work well, the result being bloated and inefficient organizations. Multinationals turned into federations of local firms, united effectively by brands, or simply broke themselves up.

Multinationals now need to rethink themselves again. This is not to say that economic globalization is a dead end; exactly the contrary, it is globalization that has led to their difficulties. Development has eroded the advantages of multinationals by creating local competition. Given fluid global supply chains, the multinationals have no real advantage over local firms in that regard; and the rapid pace of technological innovation means that a multinational company is hard-pressed to maintain an advantage. Where they have enforceable patents over valuable brands they are still have an edge, as they do with products, such as jet engines, that are expensive to develop, and economies of scale are best created by spreading costs over the entire world. However, the benefits are less than they were, and international business alliances can address the issue of scale.

Many industries that had tried to globalize found out they were better off staying home. British supermarket giant Tesco, for example, has largely given up attempts to penetrate foreign markets; Tesco simply had no advantage over established local competitors. America's telecoms giants, AT&T and Verizon, no longer seek foreign opportunities. LafargeHolcim, a cement maker, plans to sell, or has sold, businesses in India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, and Vietnam. Even successful global firms have gone on diets: P&G's foreign sales have dropped by almost a third since 2012 as it has closed or sold weak businesses.

The multinational business scene is likely to persist, based on three components:

In any case, the boom days of multinationals are over. This is not a case of a failure of capitalism; it is instead mostly a case of capitalistic competition cutting the dinosaurs down to size. A more parochial business environment may not be the best thing for consumers or investors, and certainly not for countries who want foreign investment. Nonetheless, given the increasingly hostile attitude towards multinationals the economic realities they face, the changed game will have to be played for what it is worth. [END OF SERIES]



* ONCE & FUTURE EARTH (3): Following in the path of Cuvier and Brogniart, the English geologist Adam Sedgwick (1785:1873), probed the earth of Wales and characterized the strata he found. Others were engaged in similar exercises, and in 1841 John Phillips (1800:1874), a nephew of William Smith, published a scheme in which he organized the "eras" of the past as identified by the fossil species observed in the strata.

As Phillips had it, the oldest strata belonged to the "Paleozoic" era, characterized first by invertebrates and then fishes; followed by the "Mesozoic" era, characterized by reptiles, though also yielding early birds and mammals; and finally the "Cenozoic" era, characterized by the predominance of birds and mammals. Each era was divided into "periods", the organization being much like that used today. In 1845, Sedgwick wrote that there was clearly a "progressive development" of forms over eras and periods, but interpreted the sequence as evidence only that the Earth had gone through periods of unchanging stability, separated by abrupt catastrophes, with the Earth recreated in a new form after each catastrophe -- a notion known as "creationist catastrophism".

Another Englishman, Sir Charles Lyell (1797:1875), questioned the doctrine of catastrophism, taking his cue from the works of Hutton. Lyell proposed that eras of vulcanism would raise materials from underground to directly or indirectly form islands and continents -- which would then gradually settle into the Earth, to melt and provide another burst of vulcanism. He believed that the Earth lived in a "steady state", with "no trace of a beginning, no prospect of an end."

Hutton's notions were more speculative than rigorously scientific but Lyell, casting aside catastrophism, was inspired to flesh them out into a much more detailed scientific theory, basing his reasoning on the new geology described by William Smith, Adam Sedgwick, and others, and incorporating the "footprints" of the past as found in fossils. Lyell described his "uniformitarianism" or "gradualism" in the monumental three-volume work PRINCIPLES OF GEOLOGY, published from 1830 into 1833, which envisioned a world of "deep time", cyclically reshaped by slow processes of geology.

Hutton had been an all-but-impenetrable writer, but Lyell was crisp and persuasive. He had been originally educated as a lawyer, which gave him the ability to make a clear and persuasive case. Thanks in good part to Lyell, gradualism would eventually eclipse catastrophism.

Lyell's work strongly influenced a young English naturalist named Charles Darwin (1809:1882) who, in the course of a voyage around the world on the Royal Navy brig HMS BEAGLE from 1831 into 1836, conducted biological and geological observations, including excavations of fossils. In consequence, in 1842 Darwin published an essay titled THE STRUCTURE AND DISTRIBUTION OF CORAL REEFS, suggesting correctly that coral atolls originated on the shores of volcanic islands that then subsided under the sea, with the corals continuing to grow to maintain the atoll.

That paper brought Darwin attention, but it was greatly overshadowed by the publication in 1859 of ON THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES, which provided the fundamental concepts of the evolution of life on Earth. The 1842 paper, however, linked the evolution of life to the geological features of the planet, suggesting that the Earth wasn't merely a passive substrate for life, but was shaped by life in turn.

The voyage of the HMS BEAGLE was also significant in that it was part of a great age of research surveys. During During the 19th century the governments of several countries including Canada, Australia, Great Britain and the United States funded natural and geological surveys, with the geological surveys oriented towards mineral exploitation. Geology had become not merely a science, but an economically significant one.

The expansion of the vision of "deep time" during the 19th century to a planet judged to be about 100 million years old. As vast as such an interval of time seemed, it was still thinking small. The discovery of radioactivity at the end of the century opened the door to the first effective means of dating ancient rocks from concentrations of radioactive isotopes.

In 1913, the English geologist Arthur Holmes (1890:1965), one of the pioneers of radioactive dating, published his book THE AGE OF THE EARTH, in which he identified rock samples as being 1.6 billion years old. By the late 1920s, Holmes and others had moved the age of the Earth up to at least 3 billion years; in the postwar period, the age was moved out to its modern value of about 4.5 billion years. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: The M-Pesa mobile money scheme, last discussed here earlier this year, started out in Kenya, where its potential continues to be exploited. As discussed by an article from REUTERS ("Kenya Sells Additional $9.6 Million Worth Of Bonds Via Mobile Phone" by George Obulutsa, 30 June 2017), on 23 March 2017, the Kenyan government began selling a three-year infrastructure bond, named "M-Akiba". That made Kenya the first country in the world to issue a mobile phone-based bond without any need for a bank account.

The issue proved wildly successful, with Kenya offering another 1 billion shillings ($9.64 million USD) worth of bonds via mobile phone on on 30 June, after the initial 150 million shillings issued in the pilot exercise sold out in days. That offering left another 3.85 billion shillings to be sold at a later date.

Kenya has intensively borrowed over the past four years to fund an ambitious development program, including new roads and a coast-to-capital railway. Trying to raise cash for the program proved difficult, however, since few ordinary Kenyans bought government bonds. They were scared off by the minimum investment of 50,000 shillings, and the need for a commercial bank account.

M-Akiba, however, allows a single investor to invest a minimum of 3,000 shillings and a maximum 1 million shillings, to earn tax-free interest of 10%. Investors will be able to trade the bonds on the secondary market. The bonds were initially available via the money transfer services of telecom companies, but has since also been opened to a similar operation run by commercial banks, known as "Pesalink". Government officials say that in the future, all infrastructure bonds offered by the government will have a portion of them dedicated for sale via mobile phone.

* As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("How The Internet Found A Better Way" by Alex Hern, 13 March 2017), everyone has long noticed the "Captchas" -- meaning, sort of, "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart" -- used by websites to confirm there's a living person on the remote end. They started out being distorted text that a human had to re-enter; computers getting wise to that game, they then evolved into "reCaptchas", in which documents needing to be read online were broken into little chunks of text, with the text input by humans then re-assembled into a read document. It not only improved the test, but helped convert scanned documents into text.

Over the past few years, however, there's been a change in the technology that everyone has noticed, but maybe not thought much about -- the "No Captcha reCaptcha", or "invisible reCaptcha", in which a user simply clicks a box that says: "I'm not a robot." It was Google, of course, that came up with the test. How does it work? All Google will say is that it is based on "advanced risk analysis" software, which monitors things like how a user types, how long it takes a user to scan a page, how a mouse is moved, where the mouse is moved to, or where a click occurs; the software digests all the inputs and gives a statistical score for "human / not human".

Google hasn't abandoned using Captcha technology for getting work done, however. If the system isn't sure the inputs are from a human, it shows a collection of images and ask users to unwittingly train its machine-learning systems in various ways. For example, it might show a page with animal pictures, and then ask which ones are a cat, useful for photo search; or it might show road scenes, and ask where the road signs are, useful for robocars. The paranoid, of course, are certain to see an evil scheme in such games, possibly one in training an AI to take over the world -- using cute kittens as its minions.

* In the latest "Cute Gimmick Out Of Kickstarter" category, the "Eye" is a $189 USD case for an iPhone -- that is an Android phone. Plug an iPhone into the case, and it's Apple on one side, Android on the other.

The Eye

What does this buy a user that couldn't be achieved by sticky-taping an iPhone and Android phone together? Well OK, it's tidier than that, and the Eye also brings more to the iPhone party, such as a heftier battery that can be used to keep the iPhone working -- the Android phone has low power drain -- a fast infrared link, and a "lightning" port good for transfers.

It also has two sim card slots, meaning a user could support three separate numbers, and provides a front-facing display for the iPhone's rear-facing camera. Sounds cute, but useful? Somebody seems to think so, because Kickstarter dollars have poured in. The Eye should be shipping in August.



* CHECK IT OUT! As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("The Unpopular Rise Of Self-Checkouts, And How To Fix Them" by Adriana Hamacher, 10 May 2017), one the most familiar examples of automation is the self-checkout system, now almost universally found in supermarkets and many other stores. Retailers claim self-checkouts are provide more choice, convenience, and speed, and they can be handy in avoiding long queues. However, they can be exasperating when they go wrong. One informal poll found that 93% of people dislike them.

self-checkout system

The ancestor of the self-service checkout was the automated teller machine, originally invented in London in 1967. The self-service checkout was invented in the mid-1980s by one David R. Humble, with the technology catching on in the 1990s. By 2013, there were over 200,000 around the world, with their numbers expected to rise to 325,000 by 2021.

Of course, it's far cheaper to have customers check out their own purchases than have a clerk do it -- and of course, as long as the customer is only buying a few items, it's faster, if the alternative is to stand in line to have a clerk do the job. Nonetheless, it would be faster to have six clerks do the job instead of six self-checkouts. A BBC journalist named Jenni Murray conducted her own study, canvassing different stores with self-checkouts, and found that staff checkout was always faster. Her research was informal, but more formal studies have come to the same conclusion.

It is true that customers using a self-checkout are engaged in the exercise, not waiting on a clerk to do the job, and so it does seem faster. It's strictly psychological trickery; another trick is to make sure self-checkouts are close to the exits, subtly hinting the checkout will be faster as well.

Customers do tend to find the machine voice irritating. British supermarket chain Tesco, not noted for missing tricks, found that customers didn't like being vocally reprimanded for leaving an "unexpected item in the bagging area", and came up with a subtler scheme. Tesco also replaced the machine's "irritating and bossy" voice with a different one in response to customer feedback.

Tesco does miss a trick on occasion, treating customers in December 2015 to Santa booming out: "Ho Ho Ho, MERRY Christmas!" Feedback was less than positive. Morrisons, another UK supermarket, also tinkered with different voices -- but found two-thirds of customers didn't like the self-checkout. The company hired a thousand more clerks in response.

Elsewhere, promotional campaigns have been conducted to make customers more comfortable with self-checkouts. McDonald's self-service terminals are quick and convenient to use, displaying the full menu and making it easy to customize burgers. The terminals not only reduce labor for McDonald's; a 2004 study conducted by the company showed that customers spend an average of 30% when they ordered from a terminal and not a clerk. Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies at the University of Stirling in the UK, says that self-checkouts are much more acceptable to customers if they have a choice in the matter:


If consumers feel the retailers are doing it purely to save costs, and not to better service for the customer, then they react adversely to it. Where, as in some of the large grocery stores, you see that you've got a choice – self-scan as you go, "10 items or less" express queue, standard queue and self-service checkout – then, as the consumer, you're in control of which journey you want.


Some of the problems are just plain bad design, for example confusing cash dispenser positioning -- which results in millions being left in the machines each year. The touchscreen interfaces can also be frustrating to deal with, particularly for people who have little affinity with machines. One survey found that half of customers needed help every time they used self-service checkouts.

It is difficult to come up with systems that are easier to use, but considerable work is being done to make them so. The world market leader in self-service checkout technologies is US-headquartered NCR. According to Dusty Lutz, the company's vice president of "store transformation", the new generation of self-service checkouts will provide more "elegant, streamlined solutions."

For example, by the end of 2017 NCR will introduce technology making it easier for shoppers to scan vegetables and fruit. According to Lutz: "Instead of looking up an apple in a menu, the system will scan and recognize that it's an apple, and will present you with items of a similar shape and color, so you can select the right one."

RFID and wireless payments are also playing a part in the next generation of self-checkout systems, as are more sensors and cameras, with artificial intelligence controlling the show. Ultimately, one may simply pick an item off the shelf and walk out the store with it, with the product read and payment taken automatically at the door. The question remains, of course, as to whether customers will appreciate that -- with the push towards improved self-checkout systems asking the question of whether, over the long run, they're really that good of an idea.

ED: The title of this article reflects that of a Canadian-made TV series -- CHECK IT OUT!, concerning the staff of a supermarket -- that ran for three seasons from 1985 into 1988. The star was the great Don Adams, best known as "Maxwell Smart" in the classic Sixties spy spoof GET SMART!, recast as supermarket manager Howard Bannister. Episodes can be found on Youtube.



* CALM DOWN, ELON: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online ("Elon Musk's Freak-Out Over Killer Robots Distracts from Our Real AI Problems" by Tom Simon, 17 July 2017), in mid-July 2017 serial entrepreneur Elon Musk attended the US National Governors Association Summer Meeting in Providence, Rhode Island. The governors were mostly focused on important but plodding issues such as healthcare, education, and environment; Musk, lively as always, picked up the pace by asking the governors to worry about artificial intelligence (AI) wiping out humanity.

As Musk put it: "AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don't think people fully appreciate that." What if, he asked, a stock-trading program took control of a surface-to-air missile (SAM) to shoot down an airliner, with the crisis following boosting its portfolio? He told the audience that the government should set up a regulatory organization to put a leash on firms building AI technologies: "When the regulator's convinced it's safe to proceed then you can go, but otherwise slow down."

There was a bit of the giggles from the governors during Musk's talk, with Arizona Governor Doug Ducey questioning the need for an office to regulate AI. Musk replied that he didn't regard regulation as a good in itself, and that the regulatory office's first task was simply to understand the technology, then consider action. Musk said: "I think once there is awareness people will be extremely afraid, as they should be."

There's been much talk in recent years of the danger of AI from such luminaries as Musk, Stephen Hawking, Sam Harris, and Bill Gates. Those who actually work in AI merely sigh. Pedro Domingos, a professor who works on machine learning at the University of Washington, replied on Twitter to Musk's alarm with: "Many of us have tried to educate him and others like him about real versus imaginary dangers of AI, but apparently none of it has made a dent."

That tweet needs to be read carefully, since Domingos did not say AI was harmless -- just that alarmism over its supposed apocalyptic potential distracts from real and serious problems with the technology. The AI technologies now available, as well as all AI technologies on the horizon, do not pose a threat to human survival. Nobody in their right mind is going to build an AI like SKYNET in the TERMINATOR movies that will be able to decide to launch nuclear-armed missiles, or even have the ability to do it. Nuclear launch systems are designed with the maximum "command & control (C2)" in mind, to ensure that nobody but the leadership can order a launch -- and even then, not without safeguards.

Building AI weapons to deliberately kill people, like SKYNET's "terminators" and "hunter-killer" drones, is certainly possible; we have sophisticated armed drones today. However, in practice the military's insistence on C2 means there has to be a "shooter in the loop" to give the command to open fire. A machine that wasn't designed to kill people isn't going to decide to do so. It might do so by accident, or if it were sabotaged by malware, but by design it would not be able to decide to harm a human being. Any company that built a machine that did spontaneously turn on human beings would be crushed by product-liability lawsuits. It would be no more plausible for a civil drone to decide to attack humans than it would for a hunter-killer drone to decide to turn pacifist.

Certainly, a stock-market trading program is not going to have any capability to take control of a SAM battery, or have any inclination to do it. It hasn't been granted the "meta-knowledge" -- that is, the knowledge to acquire knowledge -- about anything but the stock market and trades; it knows about and pays attention to nothing else. Any other capabilities it could have would need to be deliberately added to its meta-knowledge. Well-known robotics researcher Rodney Brooks once said:


The question is ... will someone accidentally build a robot that takes over from us? And that's sort of like this lone guy in the backyard [who says:] "I accidentally built a [Boeing] 747 [jetliner]." I don't think that's going to happen.


It would in fact be less likely to accidentally build a tyrant super-robot than to build a Boeing 747, because we know how to build a Boeing 747. The real problems we are presented with are the fundamental engineering concerns of reliability, safety, and security; as well as the more general worry of big companies investing big money in AI to concentrate market power unto themselves, or shrinking the market for unskilled labor.

Iyad Rahwan -- a scholar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who works on issues of AI and society at MIT -- sees the real problem with AI is its ability to give leverage to bad actors, for example people using AI in a presidential campaign to swamp the internet with misinformation. In addition, as AI systems become more widespread and networked, the malware threat will increase proportionately.

Rahwan won't say the doomsday scenarios are out of the question, but he believes that focusing on real questions is the sensible first step towards bigger problems that will come up in the future -- a robot rebellion being a far less likely prospect than real-world problems we don't have a clue about right now: "By focusing on the short-term questions, we can scaffold a regulatory architecture that might help with the more unpredictable, super-intelligent AI scenarios."

Evil robots like Brainiac and Ultron are comic-book characters, and there's no prospect of them being anything more than that. It is perfectly possible that someone might hack robots to make them a threat, but they're not different in that respect from any software-based system that can be hacked -- household appliances, for example. Ryan Calo -- who works on policy issues related to robotics at the University of Washington -- backs up Rahwan: "Artificial intelligence is something policy makers should pay attention to. But focusing on the existential threat is doubly distracting from it's potential for good, and the real-world problems it's creating today and in the near term."



* MANUFACTURING REINVENTED (6): Why is the multinational corporation in retreat? Consider the three parties that made the boom possible:

All three, at one time, thought multinational firms were a winning bet. Investors saw a huge potential for booming markets. As China, India and the Soviet Union opened up, and as Europe liberalized itself into a single market, firms could peddle their products to more people. In addition, a company operating on a global basis had access to ample resources. From the developed world they could get management, capital, brands and technology. From the developing world they could get cheap workers and raw materials, as well as easier rules on pollution.

All indicators were that multinationals would have an advantage on a global basis. That might have been true at one time, but it isn't now. Foreign profits of multinationals have been on a steady decline. During the same time period, profits of domestic firms rose by about 2%. Multinationals operating out of developing economies, which account for about a seventh of global firms' overall activity, have done no better. Lenovo, the Chinese company which bought IBM's PC business and parts of Motorola, has been a flop.

The decline in profitability of multinationals over the past 5 to 10 years is partly explained by the slump in commodity prices, which hits the profits of oil firms, mining firms and the like. Firms that provide the specialist services supporting globalization have also been hammered. Profits have dropped by over 50% from their peak at Maersk, a Danish shipping line; Mitsui, a Japanese trading house; and Li & Fung, a supply-chain agent for retailers.

The pain extends beyond such core industries, however. Half of all big multinationals are suffering from declining profits. Even at powerhouses such as Unilever, General Electric (GE), PepsiCo, and Procter & Gamble, foreign profits are down by a quarter or more from their peak. The only bright spot is the tech giants, with their foreign profits now comprising 46% of the total foreign earnings of the top 50 American multinationals, up from 17% a decade ago. Apple made $46 billion USD abroad last year, more than any other firm; five times more than GE.

The bosses of declining multinationals tend to blame particular factors: currency shifts, the collapse of Venezuela, Europe's slow economy, a crackdown on corruption in China, and so on. However, the deeper explanation is that the advantages of scale and of arbitrage -- taking advantage of differentials in markets to obtain a business advantage -- have eroded. Global firms have big overheads; complex supply chains tie up inventory; sprawling organizations are hard to run. Some arbitrage opportunities have been exhausted; wages have risen in China; and most firms have leveraged their tax bills as low as they can go.

Multinationals end up at a disadvantage when nimbler locals take them on, and locals in developing countries have become more competitive. In Brazil two local banks, Itau and Bradesco, have drubbed global lenders. In India Vodafone, a Western mobile-phone operator and Bharti Airtel, an Indian multinational active in 20 countries, are losing customers to Reliance, a domestic firm. In America, shale firms got the jump on the global oil majors. In China, local dumpling brands are eating into KFC's sales.

What about the second constituency for multinationals, the "headquarters countries"? In the 1990s and 2000s, these countries wanted their national champions to go global and become more powerful. A study by McKinsey, a consultancy, based on 2007 data, defined the benefits to be obtained. Multinationals operating in America, providing 19% of private-sector jobs, were responsible for 25% of private wages, 25% of profits, 48% of exports, and 74% of research and development.

However, that was at the cusp of the 2007 financial crisis. In the aftermath, multinationals began to be be seen as agents of inequality. They created jobs abroad, but not at home; profits from their caches of intellectual property were pocketed by a wealthy shareholder elite. Political support for multinationals accordingly faded.

The international matrix of rules that boosted globalization has also frayed. To be sure, trade protectionism by establishing tariffs is self-defeating in a global economy. Over half of all exports, measured by value, cross a border at least twice before reaching the end-customer, so such tariffs hurt all alike. Free trade, on the balance, is much more a benefit than a difficulty. However, there's no comparable obstacle to leveraging tax systems against multinationals, the right of sovereign nations to establish their own tax policies not being seriously challenged.

A typical multinational has hundreds of legal entities, some based in tax havens. Using American figures, such a business pays a tax rate of about 10% on its foreign profits. The European Union (EU) is trying to raise that figure, having cracked down on Luxembourg and Ireland for offering generous deals to multinationals -- Apple having been hit with a huge fine for what the EU judged a too-cozy tax deal with Ireland. The USA, on its part, has prohibited big firms from using legal "inversions" to offshore profits -- most notably targeting Pfizer, a "big pharma" company that is America's third-largest foreign earner.

Along with pressure against offshoring taxes, multinationals are being attacked for offshoring jobs -- though that, perversely, has just given them an incentive to automate, meaning few jobs will be saved even if facilities stay home. In any case, a hostile political environment means a further decline in profits for multinationals. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* ONCE & FUTURE EARTH (2): By the early 18th century, the accumulation of geological knowledge began to pick up pace. In 1741 the prominent National Museum of Natural History in France set up the first teaching position designated specifically for geology. The term "geology" itself was not in common use at the time, not becoming widely accepted until it was used in the influential ENCYCLOPEDIE, published from 1751 by the French philosopher Denis Diderot (1713:1784).

By that time, the belief that geology confirmed scripture was beginning to be challenged. In 1749, the French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707:1788) published his HISTOIRE NATURELLE -- in which he concluded, from studies of cooling globes, that the Earth had to be about 75,000 years old, not the few thousand years as described by scripture. Faced with harsh criticism, Buffon was forced to retract his claim. However, in an environment where the sciences were beginning to pick up steam and there was an increasing willingness to question traditional knowledge, the idea of an old Earth could not be successfully suppressed.

The devastating earthquake in Portugal on 1 November 1755, which all but flattened Lisbon and killed tens of thousands of people, had at least one positive result, in that it generated scientific curiosity about the causes of earthquakes. The English clergyman and polymath John Michell (1724:1793) published a paper in 1760 titled "Conjectures Concerning The Cause And Observations Upon The Phaenomena Of Earthquakes", in which he suggested that earthquakes propagate as waves through the Earth, and are linked to the discontinuities in geological strata now known as "faults".

Michell determined both the quake's epicenter, where it started, and the focus, where it was most intense; and also suggested that the tsunami, or tidal wave, that accompanied the Lisbon quake was caused by a submarine earthquake. More generally, Michell's paper reflected a new understanding of the geology of the Earth's crust -- recognizing that the Earth is made up "of regular and uniform strata", parts of which have been disrupted by upheavals. Michell, incidentally, was also the first to speculate on the existence of "black holes", or stars with such intense gravity that light could not escape from them.

The emergence of the science of geology during the 18th century was paralleled by the emergence of the science of chemistry, with the chemical study of minerals leading to the establishment of the field of geochemistry. Such studies were of increasing importance given the emerging Industrial Revolution, in which mining and metallurgy played significant roles. In support of mining, in 1774 Abraham Gottlob Werner (1749:1817), the "father of German geology", published a book titled VON DEN AEUSSERLICHEN KENNZEICHEN DER FOSSILIEN (ON THE EXTERNAL CHARACTERS OF MINERALS), which proved highly influential, since it provided a reliable guide to the identification of minerals.

More theoretically, Werner proposed a scheme by which strata were organized into five "series", and also believed that the strata were created by a global ocean that gradually receded. Werner proposed that the Earth's layers, including basalt and granite, were precipitated from this global ocean. The notion of "Diluvianism" or "Neptunism" was not devised by Werner, instead being the brainchild of the French naturalist Jean-Ettiene Guettard (1715:1786) -- but Werner became its primary advocate.

While there was considerable interest in Neputinism, it was countered by the emergence of an alternate theory, in which the strata were not derived from liquid, but from the gradual cooling of a molten mass. The most prominent advocate of "Plutonism", as it was called, was the Scots geologist James Hutton (1726:1797), who published the THEORY OF THE EARTH in 1788. Hutton suggested that the interior of the Earth was hot, with the internal heat of the planet driving the production of new rock. Erosion by air and water then created sedimentary layers in the sea, which were uplifted onto the land.

Hutton was broadly correct. Hutton was even more perceptive in believing that these processes of geological change were very slow, implying that the Earth was millions of years old. That was a daring challenge to the conventional wisdom -- though as it would turn out, Hutton was still short in his estimate of the Earth's age by orders of magnitude.

In the early 19th century, field geology became more of a science. In England, the mining surveyor William Smith (1769:1839), in the course of working on Britain's canal system, constructed the first proper geological map of the country. From his studies, Smith concluded that different types of fossils could be used to match geological deposits in different locations.

At roughly the same time, the French comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier (1769:1832), working with his colleague Alexandre Brogniart (1770:1847) at the Ecole des Mines de Paris determined that fossils provided a relative dating method for stratigraphic layers: different kinds of fossils were associated with different layers, pointing to a succession of species through Earth history. The two scholars described their notions of the "stratigraphic column" in their 1811 book, DESCRIPTION GEOLOGIQUES DES ENVIRONS DE PARIS, which proved influential in the emerging geological community. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Germany Vaccination: Fines Plan As Measles Cases Rise" by 26 May 2017), Germany is now cracking down on deadbeat parents: those who don't get medical advice on vaccinating their kids may be fined up to 2,500 euros ($2,800 USD). According to German Health Minister Hermann Groehe, the crackdown is due a measles epidemic, which has claimed some lives, Groehe saying: "Continuing deaths from measles cannot leave anyone indifferent."

By mid-April 2017, Germany had 410 measles cases, compared with 325 for the whole of 2016, the Robert Koch Institute reported. The government wants kindergartens to report any parents who can't prove they have had a medical consultation. Germany is not making it a crime to refuse vaccinations, but the children of parents who fail to seek vaccination advice could be expelled from their daycare center.

A German court recently ruled that a father could insist on having his child vaccinated, over the objections of the mother. The case concerned a separated couple; the child was living with the mother. The Robert Koch Institute is also encouraging adults to get immunized.

Italy has taken a tougher line than Germany, that country having recorded nearly three times more measles cases so far in 2017 than for all of 2016. The Italian government has now ruled that parents must vaccinate their children against 12 common illnesses before enrolling them at state-run schools. The list includes measles, polio, whooping cough, and hepatitis B.

Italian officials have attacked what they call "anti-scientific" theories which have led to vaccination rates falling well below levels judge safe to prevent outbreaks. Those theories include a long-discredited hoax linking autism to the "measles mumps rubella (MMR)" vaccine.

A 2010 survey of vaccinations across the EU, as well as Iceland and Norway, found considerable variation in policy. 15 countries had no mandatory vaccinations; the rest had at least one mandatory vaccination. Levels of compliance were actually high overall, even in countries where vaccinations were recommended instead of mandatory. The report concluded that mandates weren't the only factor driving compliance, others being "use of combined vaccines, prices for the recipient, kind of offer, information and promotional campaigns".

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the introduction of double dosing of anti-measles vaccine across Europe has led to a dramatic reduction in cases; the total in 2016, about 5,000, was the lowest ever recorded. However, the WHO says there's still a problem, measles being "endemic" in 14 countries, with the most cases so far in 2017 being reported by seven of them: France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, Switzerland, and Ukraine, the worst-hit being in Italy and Romania.

* As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Satellite Snafu Masked True Sea-Level Rise For Decades" by Jeff Tollefson, 17 July 2017), for years climate researchers were confronted with a puzzle: although the Earth's warming clearly seemed to be accelerating, satellite data showed that the rate of sea level rise (SLR) wasn't, or was even decreasing.

Now the puzzle has been resolved, the discrepancy having been traced to a calibration issue on the TOPEX satellite, a joint US-France mission launched in 1992 -- TOPEX being the first in a series of space platforms to measure SLR, being followed by the JASON series of satellites that continued such measurements with their Poseidon radar altimeter payload. TOPEX and the JASON satellites were discussed here in detail in 2016. Steven Nerem, a remote-sensing expert at the University of Colorado Boulder who is leading the reanalysis, says: “The rate of sea-level rise is increasing, and that increase is basically what we expected.”

Nerem's team determined that the rate of SLR rise increased from about 1.8 millimeters per year in 1993 to roughly 3.9 millimeters per year today as a result of global warming. In addition to the satellite calibration error, his analysis also took into account other factors that have influenced sea-level rise in the last several decades -- such as the eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991 and the recent El Nino weather pattern.

Earlier studies of SLR had suggested there was something wrong with the early data. In 2015, a group that included John Church -- an oceanographer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia -- assessed SLR from tide gauges scattered around the Earth, and noted a discrepancy with TOPEX data. In April 2017, a team under Anny Cazenave -- a geophysicist at the Laboratory for Studies in Space Geophysics and Oceanography (LEGOS) in Toulouse, France -- released a paper outlining an analysis of SLR derived from factors such as global temperature rise and sea volume expansion, which hinted the first six years of TOPEX data on SLR gave readings that were too high.

Nerem's team was able to zero in on a calibration introduced into TOPEX data; when it was removed, TOPEX SLR data appeared more reasonable. According to Nerem, if SLR continues to accelerate at the current rate, the world’s oceans could rise by about 75 centimeters (30 inches) over the next century. That's in line with projections made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2013.

* Metagenomics -- the study of collections of genomes, instead of single genomes -- is a relatively new science, and so presents opportunities to researchers who want to do things that are new and useful. For an example, as discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Snap!", 25 February 2017), Ethan Jackson and Jonathan Carlson, of Microsoft Research in Seattle, have come up with a scheme to assay pathogens in a locale -- by catching mosquitoes.

That makes sense, since mosquitoes -- female mosquitoes, male mosquitoes are sap-suckers -- draw blood from animals in their locale, and in doing so pick up pathogens. Jackson and Carlson have developed a portable mosquito trap, their current version being a cylinder about 35 centimeters (14 inches) tall, featuring 64 matchbox-sized cells arranged around its exterior. Each cell has a spring-loaded door that snaps shut when an intruder breaks an infrared beam inside the cell. The spring, incidentally, is made from a shape-memory alloy -- a material that, when bent into a new configuration, remains in this new shape until an electric current is run through it, and then reverts to its old shape. Mosquitoes are lured to the cells by puffs of carbon dioxide, which mosquitoes can detect to home in on animal targets; or skin odors; or ultraviolet light.

Since different species of mosquitoes can carry different pathogens, each cell in the trap can be programmed to snap shut on different species of mosquitoes. This trick is performed by the infrared sensor, which can detect different wing-beat frequencies associated with specific mosquito species. In any case, once the trap is loaded up with mosquitoes, it is taken to a lab, where the mosquitoes are mashed up and run through metagenomic analysis, one analysis per species, with the results compared to a library of genetic "signatures" of known pathogens. If a result can't be found in the library, the system will make an educated guess as to the genus or family of the pathogen -- or, failing that, flag the unknown signature for further examination. The genetic signatures of the mosquitoes are also checked to see if the trap has made any mistakes.

Jackson and Carlson have tested their scheme in Grenada and Houston, Texas, and are now working to refine it. They want to build lightweight traps that can be deployed and recovered by drones, allowing samplings in otherwise inaccessible areas, where there may be wild animals that are acting as reservoirs of pathogens. One of the beauties of the scheme is that the mosquitoes will pick up any pathogen that's in the blood of a target, whether the pathogen is vectored by mosquitoes or not.



* MANAGING THE DRONE REVOLUTION: As discussed by an article from WIRED Online ("America's Plan to Somehow Make Drones Not Ruin the Skies" by Eric Adams, 3 May 2017), drone aircraft are a leading-edge technology that could revolutionize transport -- if the problems of managing fleets of drones can be ironed out. That means communicating with air traffic control (ATC) and other aircraft, identifying and avoiding threats, and generally knowing what to do when things go south. That is less a question of aircraft design than it is of the design of the system that supervises the air traffic. The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is moving forward on the issue, having tapped Intel CEO Brian Krzanich to lead its Drone Advisory Committee, and has also set up seven test sites to explore drone flight management. The US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) is operating in support with its "Unmanned Aircraft Traffic Management (UATM)" research program.

FAA does drones

Although the FAA is moving quickly as it can, it is a Federal regulatory agency; its mission is to ensure safety and utility, with speed of implementation necessarily in the back seat. In March, FAA chief Michael Huerta a drone systems symposium:


Our challenge is to find the right balance where safety and innovation co-exist on relatively equal planes. As we move toward fully integrating unmanned aircraft into our airspace, the questions we need to answer are only getting more complicated.


At present, anyone operating a drone for commercial purposes must first pass a test covering traditional pilot knowledge on flight technology and airspace regulations. Drone pilots must keep their machines below 120 meters (400 feet), away from crowds and airports, and within line of sight. The FAA occasionally waives some restrictions on an experimental basis, but there are still many in the drone community who chafe at the current rules. Mark Barker, an official at the Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS), created by the state of Nevada to get drones going, says:


There are so many applications that will benefit from drone use. Energy companies can inspect 50 miles of power lines with winged robots instead of human-piloted aircraft. Drones can conduct search-and-rescue, fly filming missions, survey environmental hazards, and act as couriers. They're more efficient and more cost-effective than human-piloted aircraft.


The problem is that so many questions about wider use of drones have not been adequately addressed. What will a drone do when it runs out of juice or has a fault? How will it communicate with, and be directed, by a drone ATC system? How will it see and avoid collisions with other aircraft? Ed Waggoner, a NASA official involved with drone research, comments:


If there's no pilot in the aircraft scanning the horizon, and it's not big enough for its own radar, how will they detect other aircraft? How do you get information to the unmanned aircraft or the ground-based pilots-in-command in remote-flying situations to avoid other aircraft that may not be clearly announcing their intentions?"


The most promising technology to address the see-&-avoid problem is the ADS-B system, now increasingly common in civil and commercial aircraft. ADS-B is a satcom-based system, in which aircraft report their GPS coordinates and flight parameters to the ADS-B network, with the network figuring out where they all are. ADS-B is a marvel -- but as Waggoner points out, it doesn't factor in "non-cooperative" aircraft, either not wired for ADS-B or deliberately evading the system: "We need to determine whether ground sensors or airborne sensors in other aircraft represent the best strategy for tracking them."

As far as the drone ATC scheme goes, the FAA is trying to address it as part of the ongoing "NextGen" ATC system. That is good in a way, since it means drone ATC will be properly addressed as part of the overall ATC solution -- but it also means greatly complicating the effort.

That's why the FAA has set up seven test sites. The biggest is run by the NIAS from its Reno facility, with the capability to control drones over the full extent of a big and largely empty state. NIAS is performing a "Technical Capability Level" evaluation, testing traffic management systems on fixed-wing airplanes and multirotor copters, with flights up to 365 meters (1,200 feet) altitude and across segments of approved airspace. Researchers are conducting long-distance aerial survey, package delivery, and emergency response missions. They'll also investigate ground-based see-&-avoid systems, involving non-cooperative aircraft -- and finally working on tests for news gathering and package delivery in urban areas. Other test sites are conducting their own tests in parallel.

There's no timeline for when the FAA will get all the answers to the drone flight control conundrum, and establish the appropriate regulations. However, agency brass definitely recognizes that it needs to be done as soon as reasonably possible.



* ANOTHER MONTH: July turned out to be a busy month for me. Having chopped down the two ash trees in my back yard, I was planning on replacing them with catalpas -- but that project ran into turbulence. I originally tried to grow them from seeds collected from a neighborhood catalpa, but the seeds wouldn't sprout. Then I tried mail-order, which was cheap, but a complete fiasco.

Once the fiasco dawned on me, I immediately checked the phone book for nurseries, and called up one to the north in Fort Collins CO, to order two catalpa trees. The woman at the nursery asked: "Want to come up and pick them out?"

I replied: "No, I'll trust your judgement. I don't think you'll give me anything sickly." The trees were to be delivered on Thursday.

That meant digging holes for them on Wednesday, with the holes having to be about 24 inches wide and 18 inches deep (60 x 45 centimeters). I knew that was going to be tough, and it was. The big problem was that the new trees had to be sited near to where the old trees were to provide shade, and that meant cutting through tree roots. In between digging, I had to axe out the roots; it took me all afternoon, and it being warm if overcast, I was totally drained.

I got the holes slightly wider than required, but not quite as deep -- one reason being that I ran into a cable at the bottom of one. I was surprised, since I had the underground cables mapped out when I planted the ashes years previously, and didn't know there was supposed to be a cable there. I think it was inactive, certainly nobody had buried cables in my yard since I'd had my house; in any case, I found the cable while digging around with a hand trowel, and didn't damage it. I was so exhausted that I couldn't dig any deeper anyway, even though the holes weren't quite 18 inches deep. I figured the size I was given was that of the container, and the bedding in the container wouldn't reach the top.

I was thinking I was going to be extremely sore the next day, not having worked that hard in a long time, but I was just somewhat worse for the wear on Thursday morning. The trees arrived that day, and I found to my satisfaction that the holes were fine, wider than they needed to be, exactly as deep as they needed to be. Once the trees were planted, I was even more pleased, since I was expecting them to be no more than head tall -- but they were taller than I could reach. The fellow who brought them over said they were four to five years old, which meant they would be blooming in two to three years.

I had to immediately get rid of the dirt left over from digging the holes before it killed the grass buried under it. I filled up some plastic paint buckets and made two trips in my little Toyota hatchback to the edges of a local cattail pond, to dump the dirt -- I don't think anyone would complain, I was just throwing dirt on dirt. It was sunny that day, and I ended up somewhat exhausted that afternoon as well, but I did get rid of the dirt.

catalpa trees

In any case, it all cost me under $350 USD, including tax and delivery; I felt I got a good deal. Oh yeah, maybe I could have found cheaper, but I thought it was a very fair price for what I got. I'm keeping a photo log of the development of the trees over the coming years. Indeed, I got to wondering the week after the trees were planted if they hadn't grown in that time. I'm taking photos from the exact same position in a window every week to see if they are actually getting taller. So far, no.

* On Friday, I had another chore, to have my new clothes washer and dryer installed. I had bought a washer and dryer in 1990, and in 2016 I realized they were unlikely to hold out much longer, being clearly beyond their design lives. When they started to show signs of failure, I went over to the Lowe's store, and bought a Samsung washer and dryer set.

They had them in stock, but it was two weeks out for delivery, which left me a bit nervous about the continued operation of my old appliances -- though they did hold out. On that Friday morning, I pulled off doors in the bathroom to ease installation. The folding doors in the bathroom presented a difficulty, in that they were easy to pull out, but they had to be positioned "just so" when re-installed; I used bits of orange tape to mark where they needed to be put back.

The delivery guys were supposed to come in the evening, which promised to be a bit of a nuisance, but they got at my house in the early afternoon. Installation was straightforward, and the orange tape markers allowed me to re-install the doors without difficulty. The new machines were slightly bigger than the old washer and dryer, and so a tighter fit behind the doors; I had to put a sticky-backed bumper pad on the front of the washer to keep the door hinge from scratching it up.

The next day, Saturday, I ran my first laundry loads in the machines. Since they were low-end machines -- WA3000 washer and DV3000 dryer -- I wasn't expecting them to be much more sophisticated than my old washer and dryer, except for having electronic instead of electromechanical controls. In that, I was once again pleasantly surprised.

Samsung washer-dryer

In the first case, although the new washer didn't have a much bigger form factor than the old one, its capacity was about half to twice again as great. Partly this was due to the fact that it didn't have an impeller, the drum being unobstructed; it did have diamond-patterned sides. I think it had a more compact direct-drive mechanism as well.

In the second case, its operation was much smarter than my old washer. I had been worried that it would be a bit tricky to operate, but it was simplicity itself: turn on the power, set to NORMAL, and then press run. The result was a surprise. It was a "high efficiency (HE)" washer, and instead of the rhythmic churn of the old washer, it would simply spin a bit; slosh; spin in the other direction; slosh; and so on. The drain cycles were the same spinning routine as before.

As for the dryer, it was as easy to operate, and had its own advanced feature, in the form of a humidity sensor that shut the machine off when the clothes were dry. If I had something of polyester that needed to be hung out to dry to keep from being wrinkled, I could set the dryer to a "damp" mode, pull out that item when it was done, and then run the dryer again to full dry. Oh yeah, the machines played little tunes when they were done. Amazing how far such mundane technologies have advanced since 1990. I doubt my old washer and dryer were much different from those available in 1960.

I was expecting to spend $1,000 USD on the machines, but they came in under $950 USD -- with tax, delivery, installation, and removal of the old machines. The sales clerk at Lowe's told me to hang on to the paperwork, since I could get a rebate, with me replying: "I love rebates!" Of course, after the machines were installed, I didn't hesitate to mail for the rebate. The sales clerk said it would be about fifty bucks, but I'll see.

In any case, I wasn't at all unhappy to be out the money for the trees and the two machines. I had plenty of money in my household upgrades budget, and hadn't spent any of it for a while. That gives the sense of letting things slide, so it was nice to get some upgrades in my living conditions.

* The only other personal thing of note in July was an email from BidVertiser, one of the internet advertising firms I had, to my regret, worked with for a while some years ago, before I gave up on ads and started asking for donations instead. The message was: "We Want You Back!" I was actually tempted for an instant, until the overwhelming reply popped into my head: "You have GOT to be joking!"

Internet advertising is a marginal business in all respects. Even if Google invited me back on Adsense, which actually pays, I'd still say: "Long hike short pier." What's particularly annoying about Google is that I get occasional junk mail from them suggesting I advertise on Google. "Long hike short pier" isn't sufficient as a response.

* As for the fake real news category for July ... well okay, it started out noisy and then, in the last week of the month, swelled to a roar. It began with more states having told Trump's dubious "voter fraud" commission to get lost, with questions being asked if that exercise was really focused on voter intimidation. That may have been reading more intelligence into the exercise than was really there, but then again, nobody dares underestimate the opportunism of the Trump Administration.

President Trump, however, was mostly focused on a trip to Europe, with a stop in Poland -- where he complained to puzzled Poles about Barack Obama -- and then to the G20 summit in Hamburg. There his major accomplishment was a chat with Russian President Vladimir Putin, part of which was private and undocumented, which aroused suspicions among Trump's critics. What was public was a proposal by Trump that the US and Russia form a joint cyber-security force. That led to hoots of derision back in the US, South Carolina GOP Senator Lindsey Graham say: "It's not the dumbest idea I've ever heard, but it's pretty close."

There was some puzzlement as to how Putin managed to keep a straight face. Otherwise, Trump's interactions with other leaders in Hamburg was indifferent, marked primarily by his rejection of collective action against climate change. Mark Uhlmann, a commenter at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, gave a rundown on Trump's performance that went viral:


The G20 became the G19 as it ended. On the Paris climate accords the United States was left isolated and friendless. It is, apparently, where this US President wants to be as he seeks to turn his nation inward.

Donald Trump has a particular, and limited, skillset. He has correctly identified an illness at the heart of the Western democracy. But he has no cure for it and seems to just want to exploit it.

He is a character drawn from America's wild west, a travelling medicine showman selling moonshine remedies that will kill the patient. And this week he underlined he has neither the desire nor the capacity to lead the world.

... There is a tendency among some hopeful souls to confuse the speeches written for Mr. Trump with the thoughts of the man himself. He did make some interesting, scripted, observations in Poland about defending the values of the West. ... But it is the unscripted Mr. Trump that is real. A man who barks out bile in 140 characters, who wastes his precious days as President at war with the West's institutions — like the judiciary, independent government agencies, and the free press. He was an uneasy, awkward figure at this gathering and you got the strong sense some other leaders were trying to find the best way to work around him.

Mr. Trump is a man who craves power because it burnishes his celebrity. To be constantly talking and talked about is all that really matters. And there is no value placed on the meaning of words. So what is said one day can be discarded the next.

So, what did we learn this week? We learned Mr. Trump has pressed fast forward on the decline of the US as a global leader. He managed to diminish his nation and to confuse and alienate his allies. He will cede that power to China and Russia — two authoritarian states that will forge a very different set of rules for the 21st century. Some will cheer the decline of America, but I think we'll miss it when it is gone. And that is the biggest threat to the values of the West which he claims to hold so dear.


Uhlmann's comments could be judged overwrought. Trump has few options to make fundamental changes in American policy, and he has demonstrated no political skill other than to be noisy and disruptive. His disruptive effect on the trajectory of the USA in the world is likely to be temporary and shallow -- and he is not taken very seriously by other world leaders. He will disappear without a trace after he leaves the scene.

In any case, the Hamburg meeting was marked by public disturbances, Hamburg having a long history of radical agitation. Trump was only part of the reason for the violence, but he was still a part -- a poster of Trump, Putin, and Erdogan being plastered up, reading HAUSVERBOT: stay out of this house.

Trump returned to the US to find trouble for himself, starting with an ongoing struggle by the Senate Republicans to "repeal & replace" ObamaCare. What hit closer to home, however, was when his son Donald JR admitted that during the presidential campaign, he had met with a Russian lawyer who said she had damaging materials on Hillary Clinton. With the spotlight uncomfortably on Donald JR, reports came out of the White House of his father in towering rages.

Trump also continued his Twitter wars, in particular blasting Cable News Network. CNN commenter Chris Cillizza, in response, realized that Trump's game was remarkably like championship wrestling. Cillizza, a fan of championship wrestling himself, could see in Trump's theatrical belligerence a similarity to the staged contests of TV wrestling. More significantly, Cilizza realized the truth about Trump's hard-core fans, who are taken in by Trump's theatrics, with no concern about substance underneath: they're the kind of people who watch championship wrestling -- and think it's for real.

Trump took a break in mid-month to attend the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris, at the invitation of French President Emmanuel Macron. Those who remembered the grand chewing-out Macron had dealt Russian President Vladimir Putin some months before could anticipate that Trump would get the same treatment; but the visit went off without real difficulty, the only glitch being an awkward introduction of Trump to Macron's wife Brigitte. Trump was gauche, Brigitte was hesitant to take his hand -- possibly wondering where he would grab her.

It appeared that Macron had judged Trump as not the same kind of creature as Putin. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described in an interview his method of dealing with Trump, which amounted to plying the American president with flattery, then making a low-key case for Canadian interests. Trudeau, it seems, has realized Trump is driven by ego, but has few fixed notions of policy, meaning his direction can be easily changed -- though it's just as likely it will then change again, as the wind shifts.

Macron appears to have adopted a similar approach; he earnestly talked to Trump about the need for US involvement in climate change, with Trump saying publicly that his policy might be re-examined. It is hard to believe that Macron took any stock in that comment, certainly no sensible American would -- but it was all for the good that Trump was on the defensive on climate change action, instead of trying to actively work against it.

With Trump back in the US, an attempt of the Senate GOP to repeal and replace ObamaCare came to a screeching halt, enough GOP senators having indicated they would vote NO to make a vote futile. Trump blasted the Senate GOP -- much to their annoyance, since he had done nothing to assist the effort, instead throwing monkey wrenches into GOP activities with his loose-cannon tweets. The fact that he talked down to the senators as his personal flunkies did not endear him to them, either. Trump then insisted that the GOP should just repeal ObamaCare and then figure out a replacement. That was a non-starter, preposterous; the Senate GOP went through the motions, with predictable failure.

In the meantime Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman and convenient target for comedians, resigned, being replaced by Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Events in the White House began to snowball, with Trump blasting his own attorney general, Jeff Sessions, in tweets: "Attorney General Jeff Sessions has taken a VERY weak position on Hillary Clinton crimes (where are emails & DNC server) & Intel leakers!" Trump was particularly unhappy that Sessions had, properly, recused himself from the investigation of the Trump-Russia connection -- making it obvious that Trump wanted an attorney-general who would quash the investigation, and conduct a witch hunt against Hillary Clinton. Would an investigation of Barack Obama be far behind?

Ironically, the Democrats then went forward with a new national economic plan, explicitly stating that the Democratic failure to articulate clear and popular policies cost them the election. That was in stark contrast to the claims of Hillary Clinton that she would have won had it not been for factors like misogyny, and particularly FBI Director James Comey's dubious handling of the investigation into Clinton's email server.

The truth was that Clinton's loss was so narrow that it could have been blamed on anything, for example the Bernie Sanders supporters who disliked her so much. The bottom line was that, had Clinton been a credible candidate, Trump would have been crushed. Focusing on policy seemed a little off the mark, Clinton having been policy-oriented almost to a fault; her failure appeared more to be due to a lack of charisma, and decades of smears from the Right. That, however, was water gone under the bridge: Hillary Clinton had announced she wouldn't run for office again, and everyone was happy with that.

On Monday the 24th, Trump continued his tweet war against Sessions, in the face of growing protests from Congress. That evening, the president went to the Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia, addressing the Scouts with a windy and boastful speech that a Scouts official had to publicly apologize for. Trump went through the same pattern the next day, blasting Sessions and then addressing a campaign-type rally at Youngstown, Ohio, telling the crowd: "With the exception of the late, great Abraham Lincoln, I can be more presidential than any president that's ever held this office."

That was only a warm-up to Wednesday the 26th, when Trump issued a tweet that said transgenders were not welcome in US military forces. The tweet was remarkable in itself, but even more so because Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the brass hadn't been informed of the policy. A huge political firestorm broke out, with the president roundly criticized for the policy, as well as the half-baked way it was issued. One unidentified senior brasshat said: "We don't transmit orders via Twitter, and ... he can't either."

The particular irony was that the tweet galvanized public opinion in favor of transgenders as nothing had before, with approval polling 2:1 against disapproval. One Kristin Beck, a Navy SEAL commando known as Christopher Beck in a previous life, became a high-profile poster child for military transgenders. Whatever ambivalences us straights have about transgenders, the bottom line is that nobody disses our boys and girls in uniform. The fact that anyone dissing "up close and personal" someone as physically formidable as Beck would do so at great hazard, only underscored the point.

Trump's order was so half-baked, in fact, that it was unclear if it was anything more than an idle whim, to be effectively forgotten later, or simply allowed to muddle inconclusively through the bureaucracy. Trump, in his efforts to turn back the clock, keeps proving he can't: the moving finger, having writ, moves on, and all his nonsense cannot unwrite a word of it.

On Thursday the 27th, Lindsey Graham announced there would be "holy hell to pay" if Trump fired Sessions. That evening a reporter, Ryan Lizza, passed on to the public a taped phone conversation with Trump's new communications director, Wall Street financier Anthony Scaramucci, who had smoothly introduced himself to the press only days earlier. Scaramucci wasn't so smooth in the conversation, raving in foul-mouthed terms that he was going to get rid of leaks by firing all the people who worked for him, then hire replacements -- and also blasted White House Chief Of Staff Reince Priebus. Lizza thought it was the most insane conversation he'd ever had with a White House official in 20 years on the beat.

On Friday the 28th, the Senate had a vote on the "skinny repeal" of ObamaCare. It was a dubious contraption, somewhat along the lines of the "repeal then replace" ploy, with the bill officially killing core provisions of ObamaCare -- but presented as merely the entry to committee discussions on what really to do about ObamaCare. It was a variation on bait & switch; the bill was narrowly shot down, 51 to 49, the dissenting GOP being Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and John McCain.

All eyes were on McCain, who had just had surgery for an aggressive brain tumor in Arizona and had flown back out to Washington DC for the vote. It was obvious how he was going to vote, since he wouldn't have gone through that trouble to come to DC to say YES, but it was still high drama in the Senate chamber. Murkowski, incidentally, was bullied by Trump and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to vote YES; she went public with the bullying. In any case, the Senate GOP had to move on to other matters.

Later that day, Trump addressed cops on Long Island, encouraging them to rough up suspects -- a proposal that didn't go over well with the law-enforcement community, who saw it as encouraging unprofessionalism. That evening, Trump announced over Twitter that Reince Priebus had been fired as chief of staff, to be replaced by Marine General John F. Kelly, previously the head of homeland security.

The weekend brought relative calm, though Trump blasted the Senate GOP through tweets. The House GOP also joining into criticisms, the circular firing squad being much in evidence. Trump claimed that his administration would now attempt to sabotage ObamaCare by refusing to carry out provisions of the law -- a dubious notion sure to end up in the Federal judiciary, made more dubious by the fact that Trump publicly announced he was going to do it. His stated reasoning was that, if ObamaCare collapsed, everyone would blame the Democrats, which is, as Chris Cillizza put it simply, "wrong". Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island was caught on an open mike saying: "I think he's crazy." Susan Collins replied: "I'm worried."

It appears there will be a lull in the storm, but it's hard to believe the calm will last. Trump, it seems, recognized that the last week of July was a fiasco, and brought in General Kelly to impose order. How well the general can do so with a boss who doesn't like to be told what he can or cannot do remains unclear. There's no way to say what's coming, the USA has never been in a honestly similar situation, and it's anybody's guess what will happen. The only thing to do is to stay alert and not hyperventilate.

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