mar 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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* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (9): The Russian wars in Georgia, Ukraine, and Syria have demonstrated Russia's willingness and ability to use its military power to achieve political goals -- but they do not indicate Russia's strength, instead, being a sign of deep insecurity. To quote George Kennan again:


At [the] bottom of [the] Kremlin's neurotic view of world affairs is [the] traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity ... This thesis provides justification for that increase of the military and police power of the Russian state ... Basically this is only the steady advance of uneasy Russian nationalism, a centuries-old movement in which conceptions of offence and defence are inextricably confused.


Such nationalism continues to drive Russian behavior today. Putin sees Russia's wars as a form of self-defense, driven by the need to deter the West. That is what he meant when he gathered the country's elite in the Kremlin's gilded hall to announce Russia's "reunification" with Crimea on 18 March 2014:


Like a mirror, the situation in Ukraine reflects what has been happening in the world over the past several decades. Our Western partners, led by the United States of America, prefer not to be guided by international law but by the rule of the gun.


In Putin's world view, the West is trying to undermine Russia. The "color revolutions" across the former Soviet Union and the protests in Russia in the winter of 2011:12 were labeled Western plots. The Americans and their stooges, according to Putin, had crossed the line in Ukraine, and got what they had coming to them.

Putin did not start out with this paranoid view of the world; when he became Russia's president in 2000, even publicly contemplating that Russia would become a member of NATO. When the three Baltic states joined NATO in spring 2004, Putin insisted that relations with the defense organisation were "developing positively" and he had "no concerns about the expansion of NATO".

Late in that year everything changed, the breaking point coming with a terrorist attack on a school in Beslan, in the north Caucasus, in which 1,200 people, mostly children, were taken hostage. Russian special forces stormed the school, leaving 333 people dead. In the aftermath, Putin came to the conclusion that the West was trying to destroy Russia, and began public denunciations of Western governments. Putin cancelled regional elections and handed more powers to the security services.

The next key event was the dismemberment and expropriation of the Yukos oil firm, which further emboldened and enriched the siloviki with roots in the Soviet KGB. They thrived on the idea of a Western conspiracy and an exaggerated sense of the West as an enemy, since it provided justification for their own self-serving actions.

The enemy, as they perceived it, became visible in the Orange revolution in Ukraine in 2004:05, a popular uprising against rigged presidential elections in which Mr Putin had backed Viktor Yanukovych, a corrupt thug. His defeat at that time -- he was elected later -- was seen as a humiliation for the Kremlin and an ominous sign of American meddling, underlined by US President George W. Bush's praise for democracy in Georgia and Ukraine, and Bush's comment that "eventually the call of liberty comes to every mind and every soul."

Putin saw Georgia's successful reforms and its determination to break out of the post-Soviet system and move towards the West as a threat, in the same way as the Soviet Union had felt threatened by liberal reforms in Czechoslovakia in 1968. And just as the Kremlin had responded by ordering tanks into Prague to stop the reforms spreading to the Soviet Union, so Russia sent its tanks and planes into Georgia in August 2008. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* WINGS & WEAPONS: Small smart weapons (SSW) are a growth market these days. Lockheed Martin new "Nemesis" SSW is the one of the latest entries in the field -- initially being developed in response to a 2011 request from the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) for an infantry-portable "fire-&-forget" ground-launched SSW.

The requirement specified a weapon with a weight less than 29.5 kilograms (65 pounds), 122 centimeters (48 inches) long and 15.25 centimeters (6 inches) in diameter, with a desired maximum range of not less than 15 kilometers (9.3 miles), a direct-fire capability with a minimum range of 100 meters (330 feet), and a 360-degree / day-night engagement capability.

The Nemesis has a straightfoward bullet-shaped configuration, with four pop-out tailfins and a pivoting wing. It has GPS midcourse guidance and semi-active laser (SAL) terminal homing. It is ground-launched straight up from a tube, somewhat like a mortar. It is based on earlier weapons from the Lockheed Martin portfolio, including:

Although it has not been qualified for air launch yet, there is no particular obstacle to carriage by helicopters, prop-powered fixed-wing aircraft, and drones. It can be handled and fired from the Common Launch Tube container system, making it particular useful for AC-130 Hercules gunship platforms.

* The venerable mortar round is now becoming more intelligent as well. There's nothing so new about smart mortar rounds, but they haven't fully caught on just yet. Progress is being made, however. The US Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren Division in Virginia has been test-firing inert "Advanced Capability Extended Range Mortars (ACERM)" smart mortar rounds, most recently achieving a range of 22.6 kilometers (14 miles) -- a doubling of range -- with a 10-meter (33-foot) circular error probability (CEP). The round is programmed using a ruggedized tablet computer.

While NSWC Dahlgren considered adding a rocket booster to obtain the longer range, rockets are relatively expensive and have handling issues -- it is preferable that a rocket light up only when it is supposed to. The solution was to add two pop-out wings to add glide distance, with two forward-mounted canard fins providing control. The ACERM uses GPS for midcourse navigation, and a SAL seeker for terminal attack. The airframe was developed by NSWC Dahlgren, the Army Research Laboratory (ARL), and United Technologies Aerospace. Aerojet is designing the warhead, which hasn't been tested yet on ACERM.

* The Iranians have an energetic arms industry -- and though they are fond of exaggerating their capabilities, they are capable of innovations. As a case in point, in October Iranian media announced work on an "unmanned ground effect vehicle (UGEV)". It's an "ekranoplane" or "wing in ground effect (WIG)" aircraft, something like a seaplane designed to skim over the waters, or flat lands, at very low altitudes, in ground effect.

The Iranian UGEV has twin float hulls and a central fuselage flanked by a small piston engine on each side. Specs are given as a range of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles), a maximum speed of 200 KPH (125 MPH), a minimum altitude of 50 centimeters (20 inches), and a maximum altitude of 915 meters (3,000 feet). It can carry sensor payloads or, by implication, a warhead.

While it's hard to evaluate how practical the UGEV is, there's no reason to doubt its existence. Iran has already developed WIG machines, having unveiled the "Bavar-2", which comes in single- and two-seat variants, in 2010. A larger WIG plane with twin engines has been spotted in satellite imagery.



* QUANTUM COMPUTERS 2017? As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Quantum Computers Ready To Leap Out Of The Lab In 2017" by Davide Castelvecchi, 3 January 2017), the concept of a "quantum computer" has been around for years. While a conventional computer operates on "bits" -- values of "1" or "0", encoded as voltage levels -- a quantum computer relies on what is known as a "quantum bit" or "qubit", which is both 1 and 0 at the same time.

At the threshold of our ability to measure physical phenomena, there is a fundamental ambiguity as to the state of, say, an electron. Until its state is determined, it is a potential of all possible states, or in what is called a "quantum superposition". If we were to define two alternative states of an electron as "1" or "0", the electron's undetermined state would act as a qubit.

There are other, more practical ways to obtain qubits. In any case, if we had a quantum computer that, say, processed a "word" of 16 qubits, it would effectively be handling over 64,000 values at the same time, with that value doubling with each additional qubit added to the word. For some algorithms, that does very little good -- but there are certain algorithms, like factoring numbers or doing cryptographic key searches, in which a quantum computer could be much faster than a conventional computer, at least with large word sizes.

The only problem is that, though there have been proof-of-concept demonstrations that show quantum computing can be done, nobody's really made an operational system yet. They are, however, working on it, and the pace is picking up rapidly. Google and Microsoft recently hired a number of leading researchers, and have challenging goals for 2017. Demonstration systems are still being generated, but it's clear they want something that really works.

Google is working on a superconductor quantum computer, while Microsoft is focusing on a new and unproven concept, topological quantum computing, and moving towards an initial demonstration of the technology. Christopher Monroe -- a physicist at the University of Maryland in College Park who co-founded the start-up IonQ in 2015 -- is impressed by the level of activity: "People are really building things. I've never seen anything like that. It's no longer just research."

The quantum-computing start-up scene is also heating up. Monroe plans to begin hiring in earnest this year. Physicist Robert Schoelkopf at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who co-founded the start-up Quantum Circuits, and former IBM applied physicist Chad Rigetti, who set up Rigetti in Berkeley, California, say they are about to achieve significant milestones. There's a similar high level of activity in academic research. The quantum computer with the most qubits so far -- 20 -- is being tested in an academic lab led by Rainer Blatt at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. IonQ's Monroe is aiming higher, targeting machines with 32 or 64 qubits.

The core problem with quantum computing is constructing schemes to maintain the quantum superpositions of qubits until they are evaluated. There are two favored approaches at present. One, which Google, IBM, Quantum Circuits, and Rigetti have adopted involves encoding qubits states as a superposition of oscillating current states in a superconducting loop. The other, pursued by IonQ and several major academic labs, is to encode qubits in single ions held by electric and magnetic fields in vacuum traps.

Schoelkopf of Quantum Circuits is focused on error correction. Quantum computer designs from Quantum Circuits are intended to be fully error-correcting; they will be more expensive than the competition, but will require less error-handling by programmers.

Microsoft is taking a different approach, what is known as "topological quantum computing". It's a tricky idea, Wikipedia giving a quick description as:


A topological quantum computer is a theoretical quantum computer that employs two-dimensional quasiparticles called "anyons", whose world lines pass around one another to form braids in a three-dimensional spacetime -- one temporal plus two spatial dimensions. These braids form the logic gates that make up the computer.


To the extent to which a layperson can or needs to make sense of this, the anyons would be an effect of true particles, like electrons, in a two-dimensional layer, with the anyons linked together in interactions, the braids. The bottom line is that the superposition of the quantum braids is much more stable than that of, say, trapped ions, and in principle much easier to deal. The trick is to demonstrate that the technology is feasible even in principle, and nobody's done that yet.

Microsoft has hired four big guns in the field to see if it can be made to work. Few are holding their breath to see if it will happen; indeed, though there is cause for optimism that quantum computing is about to take off, it's been a technology of the future for long enough for cynics to wonder if it always will be.



* HOLLOW CITIES OF CHINA? As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("China's Zombie Factories And Unborn Cities" by Richard Gray, 23 February 2017), the US presidential campaign of 2016 was marked by a focus on the "hollowing out" of traditional American industries -- with the blame focused on predatory Chinese policies.

A closer inspection of the Chinese industrial landscape suggests the picture is not fundamentally different on the other side. True, China's economic growth for the last three decades has been staggering. Entire industries that took decades to mature in the West have appeared in just a few years. Much of this activity takes place in designated industrial zones, where new cities have been built from scratch to accommodate the workers coming from rural regions to be a part of the boom.

Between 1984 and 2010, the amount of built-up areas in China increased nearly five times -- from 8,842 square kilometers (3,413 square miles) to 41,768 square kilometers (16,126 square miles). The rush to build meant China used more concrete in the three years between 2011 and 2013 than the whole of the USA used in the 20th Century.

Now China's growth has slackened off, and the boom is fading. Faced with falling prices and slumping sales -- partly due to overproduction -- the Chinese government has to cut back some industries, resulting in huge layoffs. The northern province of Hebei, which surrounds Beijing, has been particularly hard hit. Hebei was once the country's steel belt, but now state-owned plants have been shut down and lie empty. Privately-owned steel mills are struggling to survive; much the same story has played out in other low-tech sectors, creating "zombie factories" across China.

China's rapid development meant that the shift from industries like steel production to electronics, telecommunications, and biotechnology has also happened very rapidly. Europe and the US went through the same shift, but over several decades; China has made the transition much faster, in large part due to the government's deliberate restructuring of the economy. Traditional sectors such as mining, steel production, and cement manufacturing have suffered accordingly.

In the cities of Changzhi and Luliang, near the Yellow River in the northern province of Shanxi, cement factories that have been unable to survive these changes lie empty. Others, crippled by debt and low sales, limp along purely to pay off the huge loans taken out to build them in the first place, when times were good. Factories that once employed more than 1,000 workers now get by with a skeleton staff of fewer than 100.

In consequence, large urban areas have become "ghost cities", left unoccupied when the expected rush of inhabitants from the countryside never appeared. Many developers have gone bankrupt, leaving housing developments empty. A study by Chinese search giant Baidu mapped sources of internet traffic -- the government not being inclined to release such data -- to identify 50 huge regions across the country where newly-built residential housing was largely uninhabited. In these cities entire apartment blocks, shopping centers, plazas and parkland lie empty, waiting for their residents to arrive.

Photographer Kai Caemmerer has been documenting some of the empty cities in China for the past few. He is astounded at how fast the cities were built. He doesn't regard them as "ghost cities", however, since that implies they were once inhabited, but were then abandoned. They were built in anticipation of a population shift that has yet to take place, but Caemerer believes it may take place in another decade or two. He says: "I see them as unborn cities."

The government has not abandoned the empty cities, having stated that 100 million people will be moved from rural parts of the country into cities by 2020. One method of doing is to seize the property of people living in the countryside, then give them "housing exchange certificates" that can be redeemed for available property elsewhere. The Chinese government is also providing funds to help mining firms and other struggling businesses to retrain and relocate their staff.

Baidu's internet mapping does show that some of the ghost cities are gradually being populated. In any case, China is no stranger to economic dislocation, and in fact it may well be worse there than in the USA. It is hard to think, however, that those who are concerned with economic dislocation in America would think the means by which China's government is dealing with the problem are good examples for what the US should do.



* IF IT'S NOT BROKEN (2): Peter Thiel's disgust with the US Food & Drug Administration is based on the idea that the FDA is a chokepoint that is blocking life-saving drugs from getting into the hands of the American public. Pharmaceutical industry professionals know better. Derek Lowe, a pharmaceutical researcher with almost three decades of experience in drug design, has evaluated thousands of compounds as potential drugs -- and has never brought one to market. Lowe says that's just the way things are: "We don't know how to find drugs that work."

For every 5,000 compounds discovered in the "preclinical" phase of drug development, only about five are promising enough to be tried in humans. Lowe says:


It's very tempting for someone who has come out of [Silicon Valley] to say: "DNA is code, and cells are the hardware, go in and debug it." But this is wrong. We have 3 billion years of spaghetti-tangled gibberish to deal with. And unless you've done [drug development], it's very hard to get across how hard it is. I don't know of anything that's harder.


Lowe regards biochemistry and cell biology as "like alien nanotechnology." Creationists are fond of comparing DNA to computer code, and saying biosystems reflect "intelligent design"; but DNA has only the vaguest similarity to computer programs, while comparisons between the "design" of biosystems and the design of human-made artifacts are invariably selective and contrived.

Good human designs are neatly modular, with functions carefully specified and hierarchically partitioned -- to allow them to be properly tested, maintained, and updated. Evolutionary "designs" are nothing like that, being instead accretions of elements that just more or less get along with each other, carrying some greater or lesser degree of "excess baggage" acquired in their evolutionary past, and which may defy being sorted out into distinct functions. In software terms, they have been compared to "kludges" or "odd hacks", with elements added haphazardly in every meaning of the word.

The failure rate for drugs in clinical trials is about 90%; the great majority of drug candidates are unsafe or ineffective. In addition, several studies have found that since the mid-1990s, about 90% of new drugs that have come onto the market don't offer any clinical advantages for patients over existing drugs. In other words, the FDA is not really a bottleneck in the drug pipeline; the problem is that there's not very much in the pipeline, and wouldn't be much more if the FDA wasn't even there. The low-hanging fruit in drug development is long gone. Lowe says: "The clinical failure rate is not 90% because the FDA are such bastards. The clinical failure rate is that high because most drugs don't do what we thought they were going to do."

It is also not true that the FDA has significantly held up the development and introduction of critically-needed new drugs. In the 1980s and 1990s, Congress and the FDA set up several programs to speed up the development and approval process for new pharmaceuticals: the orphan drug designation, priority review, fast track, and accelerated approval. The idea was to get drugs desperately needed by patients more quickly, on the basis of more limited and less rigorous clinical trial data.

Aaron Kesselheim -- an associate professor of medicine at Brigham & Women's Hospital -- comments: "These pathways along with increased funding for FDA drug reviews from user fees enacted first in 1992 were successful. The average total review time, for example, has fallen from 30 months in the 1980s to currently around 8.5 months."

That isn't entirely a good thing. The special expedited development and approval pathways have become more the rule than the exception. A study performed by Kesselheim and his colleagues found that expedited drug qualifications have been creeping up by about 2.4% a year for the past two decades -- but the bulk of the drugs approved on the fast track have few or no advantages over existing treatments. In other words, there's a good case for strengthening qualifications, instead of weakening them.

Some argue that there are indeed opportunities to promote medical innovation, but they're not really to be found in badgering the FDA. Joe Ross, who studies the FDA at Yale, says that insurance payers need to work smarter: "Medicare essentially pays for almost everything [the] FDA approves. If payers were making more coverage decisions -- including reimbursing more effective, safer medications -- based on value, that would be a huge incentive to innovate better products." The FDA, since it would in the best position to determine value, would be an important player in this effort. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (8): George F. Kennan, an American diplomat of the Cold War era, wrote in his well-known "Long Telegram" from Moscow in 1946 that Russia had no intention of going to war with America or its allies -- instead acting through non-military means ...


... to undermine the general political and strategic potential of major Western powers, to disrupt national self-confidence, to increase social and industrial unrest, to stimulate all forms of disunity ... Anti-British talk will be plugged among Americans, anti-American talk among British. Germans will be taught to abhor both Anglo-Saxon powers. Where suspicions exist, they will be fanned; where not, ignited.


Kennan's insight is just as true for Vladimir Putin's regime as it was for Stalin's. Russia has launched cyber-attacks, spread disinformation, and interfered in the domestic affairs of both neighboring and faraway countries. Its combat jets are buzzing NATO ships, and flying close to American reconnaissance aircraft in Europe. In Syria, Russia has subverted America's efforts to defeat Bashar al-Assad, and threatened to shoot down American warplanes if they attack Bashar's army. The US government has formally accused Russia of meddling in the presidential election through hacking, the Kremlin's preferred weapon, on a grand scale.

The BND, Germany's foreign-intelligence agency, is investigating Russian activity in Germany after Russia's state television ran a fake story about a 13-year-old Russian-German girl being raped by Arab immigrants in Berlin -- the story sparking protests against German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Russia has provided funds for the French Right-wing party of Marine Le Pen. Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin's foreign-language propaganda TV channel, has offered a regular spot to Nigel Farage, the former leader of Britain's Rightist UKIP party. Russia's support for Donald Trump, the Republican presidential candidate, who has also appeared on RT, became notorious in America's election.

This is nothing all that new; subversion, disinformation, and forgery, combined with the use of black operations, were at the heart of the Soviet Union's intelligence services. The KGB had a special department responsible for "active measures", designed to weaken and undermine the West. It stirred racial tension by posting bogus letters from the Ku Klux Klan, planted stories about AIDS having been invented in America as a biological weapon, and spread rumors that John F. Kennedy's murder had been plotted by the CIA.

Yuri Andropov, the head of the KGB in the 1970s and one of Putin's heroes, set up special courses to train operatives in the use of active measures. At the height of the Cold War 15,000 officers were working on psychological and disinformation warfare. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the department was renamed -- but never dismantled.

21st-century technology has greatly widened the scope of such operations; the Kremlin now uses a corps of "trolls" that spread disinformation and propaganda through online communities and social media. Putin's machine also likes to to sow confusion by putting out multiple versions of events. According to Alexander Vershbow, NATO'S deputy secretary-general and a former American ambassador to Moscow, it is "an endlessly changing storyline designed to obfuscate and confuse to create the impression that there are no reliable facts, and therefore no truth."

Kennan said much the same in 1946, observing in his Long Telegram that "the very disrespect of Russians for objective truth -- indeed, their disbelief in its existence -- leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another." Soviet propaganda aimed to promote communist ideology; the modern Russian state has no real ideology, and so peddles nihilism instead. Modern Russian propaganda aims to show that Western policies are as rigged and hypocritical as Russian ones.

How much this actually accomplishes is hard to assess; anybody who has read Russian propaganda outlets such as Sputnik.com finds them comically ham-fisted, more annoying and contemptible than anything else. There is no shortage of Western trolls spreading misinformation on their own, with Russian agitation lost in the noise. Research by Finland's Institute of International Affairs has found that Russian propaganda has had very little impact on mainstream Western media, and has never resulted in any change in policy; a strong and confident West should find it easy to brush off Russian media assaults. Nonetheless, Russian hacking has clearly made a nuisance of itself, resulting in something of a "Putin panic" in the West, embedded in a broad drift towards political hysteria.

Putin's propaganda does go over well at home, the annexation of Crimea telling the public that Russia is a great nation, able to stand up to the contemptible West. Russia's intervention in Syria in the fall of 2015 was designed to reinforce the image of Russia as a global power. It did change the course of events, saving Bashar al-Assad from a seemingly inevitable fall, and made the humanitarian situation in Syria far worse -- but Putin cares little for Syria and Bashar al-Assad. The Russian objective is to define a sphere of influence from which the West is excluded. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* Space launches for February included:

-- 14 FEB 17 / SKY BRASIL 1, TELCOM 3S -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2139 UTC (local time + 3) to put the "Sky Brasil 1" and "Telkom 3S" geostationary comsats into orbit for DirectTV Latin America and Telcom Indonesia respectively.

Sky Brasil 1 was built by Airbus Defense & Space, and was based on the Eurostar E3000 satellite platform. It had a launch mass of about 6 tonnes (13,000 pounds), a payload of 60 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. The satellite was placed in the geostationary slot at 43.1 degrees west longitude to provide direct-to-home TV programming for DirecTV Latin America customers in Brazil.

DirecTV Latin America partnered with Intelsat on the Sky Brasil 1 project, with minority owner Intelsat referring to it as "Intelsat 32e". Intelsat tapped a portion of the satellite bandwidth to provide internet services to airline and cruise ship passengers in the Atlantic and the Caribbean.

Telkom 3S was built by Thales Alenia Space. It had a launch mass of 3,550 kilograms (7,826 pounds), a payload of 32 C-band / 10 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 18 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 118 degrees east longitude to provide high-definition television broadcasts, Internet traffic, and mobile network services for Indonesia, Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia.

-- 15 FEB 17 / CARTOSAT 2D, NANOSATS -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 0358 UTC (local time - 5:30) to put the "Cartosat 2D" high-resolution Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit. The space platform was based on IRSO's IRS-2 bus; it had a launch mass of 714 kilograms (1,570 pounds), and a design life of five years. Payload consisted of a panchromatic imager, with a best resolution of 60 centimeters (2 feet), and a multispectral imager -- had been introduced to the series with the previous mission, Cartosat-2C.


The launch also flew 103 nanosats, establishing a record for the most payloads flown on any single space launch. The largest of the satellites were the Cartosat-2D was joined on its ride to orbit by a pair of ISRO research satellites named "ISRO Nanosatellite 1A" and ISRO Nanosatellite 1B" AKA "INS-1A" and "INS-1B". Both were operational demonstrators for an INS nanosat bus. They had different payloads:

The other 101 nanosatellites were all CubeSats:

The PSLV XL is the most powerful PSLV configuration, with six strap-on solid-rocket boosters.

-- 19 FEB 17 / SPACEX DRAGON CRS 10 -- A SpaceX Falcon booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1432 UTC (local time + 5), carrying the tenth operational "Dragon" cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). The booster's first stage performed a perfect soft landing at Cape Canaveral. The Dragon docked with the ISS Harmony module three days after launch. One of the payloads on the Dragon was the NASA "Stratospheric Aerosol and Gas Experiment 3 (SAGE 3)", an ozone monitor that was delivered with a separate ESA-built "hexapod" mounting plate, designed to point the instrument at Earth's limb, or horizon, at sunset and moonset.

-- 22 FEB 17 / PROGRESS 66P (ISS) -- A Soyuz-U booster was launched from Baikonur at 0558 UTC (local time - 6) to put the "Progress 66P" AKA "MS-05" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. The freighter docked with the ISS Pirs module two days later. It was the 66th Progress mission to the ISS. This was the final flight of the Soyuz-U booster.



* BETTER TOMATOES? As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Why Tomatoes Got Bland -- And How To Make Them Sweet Again" by Michael Price, 26 January 2017), mass-market tomatoes are notoriously bland -- a consequence of them having been bred for yield and cosmetics. Now, a new genetic study of the tomato has identified the flavor-enhancing genes that have been lost, with the potential of coming up with tastier tomatoes.

Tomatoes are a high-value crop. In the USA -- the second-biggest tomato producer in the world, behing China -- they rack up more than a billion USD in sales each year. They are nutritious, providing vitamins A and C. However, the plump red tomatoes in supermarkets taste much different from the small, multi-hued, berry-sized fruits that evolved more than 50 million years ago, and were first domesticated in Central and South America some 2500 years ago. Following Spanish colonization of the New World in the 16th century, tomatoes spread across the world. In the following centuries, hundreds of regional cultivars of tomatoes emerged, but they mostly stayed small, sweet, and flavorful.

That changed after World War II. According to horticultural researcher Harry Klee -- one of the authors of the study, of the University of Florida in Gainesville, Klee having been mentioned previously here in 2013 -- following the explosion of commercial agriculture in the postwar period, tomatoes were bred for higher yields, disease resistance, redder color, and firmness -- at the expense of taste.

To try to restore flavor to bland commercial tomatoes, an international team of horticultural horticultural researchers, including Klee, decided to figure out exactly what had changed in the tomato genome over time. They sequenced the genomes of 398 tomato varieties -- including wild, ancestral tomatoes; commercially-grown tomatoes; and "heirloom" tomatoes, which are motley strains, much tastier than commercial tomatoes.

Working from there, the researchers assembled consumer panels to perform "taste tests" with 101 university-grown tomato varieties, including both heirlooms and commercially grown fruits. The varieties were analyzed by gas chromatography to sort out their molecular constituents, in particular focusing on chemical compounds known as "volatiles" that stimulate our olfactory system, enhancing taste. By cross-correlating with the results of taste tests, the researchers identified 13 chemical compounds that contribute to tastiness.

According to the study, they then identified specific genes responsible for these volatiles, as well as which heirloom varieties carried those genes Klee says that by crossbreeding commercial tomato crops with these heirloom varieties over multiple generations, growers could, eventually, produce a tomato that's large, plump, red, and disease resistant -- but also tastes pretty good. Balancing flavor against shelf life might be tricky, however.

The researchers also identified genes that control sugar content, but Klee says that the more sugar any one fruit produces, the less the yield of the plant. However, tweaking the mix of volatiles might well provide better flavor without sacrificing yield.



* TPP 12 MINUS ONE: Incoming President Donald Trump hit the ground running in his first week in office, making good on campaign promises. One was that he dropped out of Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact (TPP), between the US and Pacific Rim nations, discussed here in 2015. It wasn't hard to drop out, since the TPP hadn't been finalized yet. The US-led 12-nation agreement was set to cover 40% of the world's economic output -- but Trump claimed, on arguable premises, that it would "hurt American workers".

As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Australia & New Zealand To Pursue 'TPP 12 Minus One'", 24 January 2017), the remaining members of the TPP agreement do not seem devastated by the withdrawal of the USA, with Australia already having come up with a name for a possible new agreement: "TPP 12 Minus One".

Steve Ciobo, the country's trade minister, said Australia would not abandon the TPP just because it would require "a little bit of elbow grease" to keep it alive. Meanwhile China, which was not part of the TPP, seemed inclined to exploit the troubles of the TPP, officials saying China was in favor of "open and transparent regional economic arrangements".

The TPP was negotiated by former US President Barack Obama and was aimed at improving economic ties between its member countries, which were Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam. Ciobo was in Switzerland in January to discuss new deals at the World Economic Forum in Davos. "I've had conversations with Canada, with Mexico, with Japan, with New Zealand, with Singapore, Malaysia," he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. "I know that there's been conversations that have been had with Chile and with Peru. So there's quite a number of countries that have an interest in looking to see if we can make a TPP 12 Minus One work."

Ciobo also said the original architecture of the TPP was designed to enable other countries to join: "Certainly I know that Indonesia has expressed a possible interest, and there would be scope for China -- if we were able to reformulate it to be a TPP 12 Minus One for countries like Indonesia or China ..."

New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English has said he is hopeful of keeping a free trade deal alive with remaining members of the TPP agreement, while the country's trade minister Todd McClay told local media he expected TPP ministers would meet in the coming months to navigate a way forward. Like his Australian counterpart, McClay said he had met with a number of TPP member countries in Davos: "New Zealand's economy depends upon fair access to overseas markets. We will continue to advocate for the benefits of trade liberalisation on the world stage."

The country is also looking to hammer out bilateral deals with other countries and has recently been to the Middle East, promoting key New Zealand products including dairy. And the minister has said trade relations with the UK are in good shape, with an agreement in place to try and ensure there is no disruption to bilateral trade between New Zealand and Britain in the wake of Brexit.

Any hope of keeping the TPP alive will surely depend on Japan, the world's third largest economy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has reinforced his trust in President Trump's leadership and said he hopes to continue talks with the US about free trade. Abe recently told the Japanese Diet: "I believe President Trump understands the importance of free and fair trade, so I'd like to pursue his understanding on the strategic and economic importance of the TPP trade pact."

In Davos, President Xi Jinping defended the notion of free trade and said protectionism was akin to "locking oneself in a dark room". One of the objections Trump raised to the TPP was that it would advantage China at America's expense -- despite the fact that China wasn't a party to the TPP. His insistence that shutting down free trade would return jobs to America derided by mainstream economists, who pointed out that the manufacturing jobs Trump makes a fuss about are being persistently whittled away at by automation, that he can do little to slow the ongoing decline, and what he might do would cause more trouble than it would be worth.

As far as being a bad deal for America, one analysis suggested the TPP would increase annual real incomes for the US by $131 billion USD -- and that thousands of American companies would enjoy greater access to foreign markets. Trump sees relations in the world as a zero-sum game; if somebody else wins, America must lose, and the reverse. He doesn't understand the notion of a "win-win" game. Those nations still pursuing TPP 12 Minus One have every reason to continue on track -- and leave a place for the USA at the table, after Americans recover their senses.



* IF IT'S NOT BROKEN (1): As discussed by an article from VOX Online ("Peter Thiel Versus The FDA" by Julia Belluz, 31 Jan 2017), Donald Trump doesn't get along well with the bosses of Silicon Valley firms, since they don't like his Right-wing politics, and he doesn't like their outsourcing production to other countries. However, rules generally have exceptions, and the exception for Trump is Peter Thiel -- the billionaire founder of Paypal, a libertarian who likes Trump's notion of "shaking up the Washington establishment".

Thiel's particular target in the shake-up is the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA), Thiel saying that the FDA stifles drug innovation, being a bottleneck for getting vital new drugs to the market. Trump, who never met a regulatory agency he liked, is in tune with that idea. Thiel has been pushing Silicon Valley colleagues, including Jim O'Neill and Balaji Srinivasan, with mindsets along the lines of his own, to take over and "reform" the FDA. The idea is that they will infuse the FDA with the energetic and disruptive drive that has brought such success to Silicon Valley companies.

There are two difficulties with this idea. The first is that a regulatory agency is not a business operation; the FDA is concerned with making the best of its budget, but its deliverable is to ensure that American citizens get safe and effective drugs, with no more hardship on industry than necessary. After all, the FDA doesn't need to make things more difficult than necessary for itself, either.

The second difficulty is the bigger one, that development and qualification of pharmaceuticals has very little in common with the development and qualification of software or high-tech hardware. Testing of software and hardware can be laborious and expensive, but it's not at all in a league with testing medical safety and efficacy.

Drug trials involves taking two groups of people, with a drug administered to one group, and a placebo administered to another group used as a control; neither the subjects in the trial nor the people directly managing the trial knowing who is getting the drug and who is getting the placebo. At the end of the trial period, the two groups are assessed to see if there's a statistically-significant difference in health result between the two groups. The reliability of the statistics increases with the number of trials, the number of people in the trials, and the length of the trials. That means that trials, to be informative, are necessarily laborious and time-consuming.

Add to that the difficulties in properly designing the trials in the first place. The ideal trial scenario would involve identical twins split between the test and control groups, with both sets having identical backgrounds and living under identical and controlled circumstances. That can't happen, so researchers have to settle for less optimum designs. There is also the fact that not even highly effective drugs work for all patients, and that a small subset of patients may have severe side-effects not noticed by those who do well with the drug. Nasty side-effects may not show up for years, and there's also the issue of dosage; too small a dosage may be ineffective, too large a dosage dangerous.

The FDA performs trials in three phases. In "phase one" trials, researchers test drugs for safety in a small group of healthy people, and tinker with dosing. In "phase two", they test the drug in a larger group of people to see how much more effective it is than existing drugs. In "phase 3" trials, the drug is exhaustively tested on a larger group -- up to 3,000 people. If it does well, the data is submitted to the FDA for approval.

Thiel believes such careful trials are counterproductive, and that the FDA should focus on determining safety, while relaxing or eliminating testing for efficacy. He believes that market freedom would result in a diversity of "slightly worse, but much cheaper" options for patients. The difficulty is that, while such a policy would certainly result in a diversity of cheap drugs, desperately ill patients would have no idea which one would save their lives. It would be something like an inverse Russian roulette, patients being after a "magic bullet" to deal with an affliction, but having no good way of picking it out of the crowd.

It's hard enough with large controlled trials to know if a medication is effective; in the absence of such trials, patients end up performing an uncontrolled experiment on themselves, with a sample size of one, and pray for a positive outcome. It is, however, easy to trick patients with a nostrum that makes them feel better; indeed, in the era of patent medicines, they often contained opiates and other potent "feel good" ingredients. Drug regulations were originally established to make sure that over-the-counter medicines didn't contain such ingredients.

Libertarians tend to have great faith in personal choice and "the magic of the market", but both have limitations when it comes to medical treatments. According to Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University: "Knowing whether drugs are safe and work is something far beyond the common knowledge of patients, and is frankly far beyond the knowledge of most physicians. It's not like when you pick up a car and drive it and decide whether you like it or not."

Greely points out that we already have an example of what an unregulated drug world would look like: "It's called the nutritional supplement industry. And it's a travesty." As discussed here in 2016, as long as supplement makers don't make specific claims of medical efficacy, they don't need to demonstrate that their products are effective or even safe before putting them on store shelves.

There's no way of knowing any of them work, with the industry afflicted with concerns over quality and adulteration; such worries may be exaggerated, but it's a statement of fact that Americans are spending billions of dollars a year, buying nostrums that amount to mild stimulants or relaxants at best, worthless placebos at worst -- none of which are as demonstrably effective as, say, aspirin. If any of them really were effective, they would have obtained FDA approval, to be sold as proper medicines.

The 1938 US Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act required only that drug safety be demonstrated. It took the infamous scandal caused by thalidomide, a morning-sickness medication that caused severe birth defects, to energize the FDA. In 1962, new legislation stipulated that drugs needed to be demonstrably effective. More than 1,000 medical products were subsequently withdrawn after reviews found little or no evidence of efficacy. The introduction of efficacy testing did not stifle the golden age of drug innovation in the 1970s and 1980s. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (7): Vladimir Putin has his roots in the KGB, and it shows in his secretive leadership style; nothing is transparent in the Kremlin, and nothing that Putin says can be taken at face value. Underneath the cloak of secrecy, he has consolidated personal power -- and his primary tool for enforcing that power is the KGB's successor organization, the FSB.

Putin had always relied heavily on his former KGB colleagues, but after the annexation of Crimea, the expansion of the FSB gained new momentum and greater official legitimacy. It now openly wields political and economic power. Putin has recently appointed three members of his security detail and one former KGB officer as regional governors.

The KGB had been the primary tool of Stalin's terror, and so after the death of Stalin in 1953, the Communist Party central committee kept a tight leash on it. The party collapsed in 1991; the KGB did not, becoming the FSB. It is Putin's creature, implementing his will; Andrei Soldatov, an authority on Russian security services, says: "There is no political control over the FSB. It is a self-contained and closed system."

Behind the scenes, the FSB controls the Investigative Committee, the Russian equivalent of America's FBI. The prosecutor's office, in effect, has no independent oversight of the FSB, and the courts take their cue from it. Parts that had been spun off the former KGB are now being re-incorporated into the FSB, under a structure ominously named the "Ministry for State Security", or "MGB" under its Russian acronym. The FSB even effectively controls parliament, drafting repressive laws that parliament ministers then rubber-stamp into law.

It's hard to know what goes on inside the FSB, but one of its most prominent figures is Sergei Korolev, who used to head the internal-security department that can investigate the staff of all security services, including its own. He has been promoted to the job of overseeing all financial and business activity in Russia. His team was behind most of the high-profile arrests of governors, mayors, and policemen in recent years.

These started with the work of two young generals from the interior ministry, Denis Sugrobov, the head of the ministry's economic-crime and anti-corruption department, and his deputy, Boris Kolesnikov. Both in their mid-30s, they had been installed in their jobs by Dmitry Medvedev and given carte blanche to go after corrupt senior officials. They were soon arrested themselves after becoming victims of an FSB sting operation. Sugrobov is dead, having jumped out a window while under interrogation, or so it is believed; Sugrobov is still behind bars.

The public is regularly treated to TV footage of governors, policemen, and officials being led away in handcuffs, their homes being searched and huge piles of cash being confiscated. The most spectacular arrest so far has been that of Dmitry Zakharchenko, a police colonel who had hidden the equivalent of $120 million USD in cash in his sister's flat. A few weeks earlier the FSB had raided a vast mansion belonging to Andrei Belyaninov, the head of the customs service and a former KGB offcer, and found $670,000 USD in cash, a one-kilo gold ingot, and assorted old-master paintings.

Belyaninov was fired from his job, but not charged. Although the raids are presented as evidence of the government's dedication to fighting corruption, everyone knows they are theatrics, a cover for cynical power plays -- but strangely, the performances still go down well with the public.

Putin not only uses the FSB to deal with his enemies, but to police itself, purging the independent-minded from its ranks. However, Putin has been gentler with the leadership class; none of the senior people in his entourage have been purged yet, and in fact some officials who were purged with great fanfare quickly got new jobs. Nonetheless, Putin has been cutting his connections with the old guard that knew him in his KGB days, replacing them with by younger men personally obligated to Putin.

At the same time, Putin has been moving the children of the old siloviki into key positions in state banks and natural-resource companies. Under the old Soviet system, power was from association with the state, and familial inheritance was a dodgy notion. If an official fell from grace, his children would fall as well. These days Russia's elite can pass on its possessions to its children, but its wealth and its physical safety depend on Putin.

Putin, in another effort to reinforce his rule, is now setting up a new security force, the National Guard. Headed by Viktor Zolotov, who used to be one of Putin's bodyguards, it has 25,000 to 40,000 special commandos at its disposal, along with 400,000 troops. The National Guard is not part of the regular army of about 930,000, and reports directly to Putin.

The National Guard's primary reason to exist is to suppress rebellion. The scenarios used in its training are based on the protests in Ukraine; training exercises involve the use of tear gas and water cannon, as well as more lethal conventional weapons. One of the lessons the Kremlin learned from the failed coup of August 1991 was that in a political crisis, a regular army may be reluctant to use force against protesters. Zolotov and his force also provide some counterbalance to the FSB; as much as Putin relies on the FSB, he needs to ensure that it doesn't turn on him. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by a note from WIRED Online blogs, New York City features an underground steam distribution system to keep buildings warm, with over 160 kilometers (100 miles) of steam pipelines. About eight times a year, Con Edison engineers have to put on protective gear and give the system's boilers an inspection. This is not trivial, the boilers being like ten stories tall, and of course the steam represents a hazard to inspectors.

Con Ed is now investigating a little quadcopter drone named the "Elios" from a Swiss firm named Flyability to do the inspections. Flyability makes drones for jobs like this, the drone being encased in a carbon-fiber cage so it can bump into things without harm. A drone inspection of a boiler will take a day or two, as opposed to a week for a human inspection, with Con Ed saying the drone could save up to $100,000 USD per inspection. If there's an emergency, a drone can also be sent in before the boiler has cooled off. The drone can be flown without extensive training, using an Android tablet.

Elios inspection drone

* Automated highway toll systems, using wireless transponders to bill drivers, are nothing new -- but as reported by an article from WIRED Online ("NY's So Pumped for Cash-Free Tolls, It's <Kinda> OK If You Don't Pay" by Aarian Marshall, 13 October 2016 -- New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) would completely eliminate cash-collection stations on their nine tolled crossings. By the end of 2017, MTA will join other toll-road operators across the USA in Colorado, California's Bay Area, and most of Washington State, among others -- in going all-electronic. The new system will cost a cool half-billion dollars.

That is an unremarkable announcement for those drivers who already have wireless toll transponders -- the system being know as "EZ-Pass" back East, "Fastrak" in Colorado. The relative innovation is that cars without transponders, whose drivers normally pay cash, won't have to hassle with a toll booth any more: the system will read the license plate, obtain the driver's address from a database, and send a bill. A driver can pay by Drivers can pay by charge card online, or by mailing in cash, a check, or money order.

However, during a two-year pilot demonstration of the cashless option on NYC's Hudson Bridge, 6% of drivers got their bills in the mail -- but only a third of them paid, with unpaid tolls and overdue fines in the tens of millions of dollars. This didn't surprise MTA: an Illinois road that went open toll in 2014 saw its count of "Super Scofflaws" -- those who owe $1,000 USD or more in tolls and fines -- increase by more than two-thirds.

The MTA knows that they won't get everyone to pay, but it is good enough that the great majority of drivers, over 80%, will, people being generally willing to obtain transponders. Despite the drawbacks, the benefits are obvious. Currently, 800,000 New York drivers collectively spend more than 6,400 hours each day waiting in line to pay tolls. Officials say dropping cash will save each of them 21 hours of idling and stop-and-go annually. This cuts time wasted in traffic, and emissions of cars waiting in line.

Dumping cash also gets rid of the headache of keeping track of millions of dollars in bills and coins. Making sure the money doesn't get lost or get pilfered before it goes into the state's coffers is not cheap. It does mean that toll booth collectors will lose their jobs, but the state has promised them other ones, and everyone's been able to see it coming, anyway.

There's a safety element as well, in that toll plazas are a good place to have rear-end collisions -- in particular, drivers from out-of-state using them for the first time can be dangerously disoriented. When a number of Florida toll plazas eliminate their booths in 2007, crashes on the toll roads dropped by 70%.

There are downsides. Drivers tend to resent toll roads, and some will be indignant at being billed without their knowledge. That means adding clear signs to make sure they know they're being billed, and also forgiving a "first violation" by, say, out-of-state drivers who clearly don't know better -- hardly worth the expense to hassle them over one lousy toll.

There's also a privacy problem, or what might seem to be one: the system is tracking, recording where a particular car is and where it is going. That's just too bad; there's no real basis for legal objection in doing so, and as long as the information remains confidential to the state, no legitimate reason to object. Cashless toll systems are already capable of reporting a "wanted" vehicle to law enforcement. Welcome to the 21st century.

* In personal technology news, I've noticed many people like to warm up their cars on cold mornings. I've never done it, preferring not to waste the fuel, and seeing no problem as long as I don't stress the engine for a few minutes of driving. According to a note from ACCUWEATHER Online ("Experts Weigh In: Do You Need To Warm Up Your Car In Cold Weather?" by Kathy Galimberti), it's not a problem.

The tradition was started when cars had carburetors; the engines had to be warmed up to run properly. However, carburetors were replaced by fuel injection from the mid-1990s, eliminating the need for warm-up. Some claim that cold oil will shorten engine life -- but according to Shanna Simmons, a techie at Penzoil:


While it does take longer for motor oil to pump in extreme cold temperatures, we are talking milliseconds, not minutes. Your engine will warm up the oil much faster when driving at full speed -- not to mention idling wastes gas.


The US Environmental Protection Agency says that idling a car more than 30 seconds is a waste of fuel, with more fuel consumption than restarting it. In some US cities, idling for too long can result in a fine. Experts do say that a car shouldn't be driven aggressively for a few minutes until it warms up. If it's driven in an unhurried fashion during the warmup period, it doesn't suffer any more wear and tear than it does if it's just sitting there, idling.



* HUNTING BLACK HOLES: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Now There's A Look In Your Eyes, Like Black Holes In The Sky", 9 January 2016), the notion of a "black hole" -- a collapsed star whose mass and density is so great that light cannot escape from it -- is nothing new; the English astronomer John Michell speculated on their existence in 1783.

In 1916, the German physicist Karl Schwarzchild, armed with better theory, came up with a modernized version of Michell's concept. There were doubts among the physics community that black holes actually existed, since they seemed like such a bizarre idea, and so hard to test; but in the 1970s, satellite observatories inspecting a celestial X-ray source named Cygnus X-1 found an object so massive that it could be nothing else.

Now astronomers believe large black holes are found in the center of most or all galaxies, and everyone knows what it means to be told something "fell into a black hole" -- to disappear without a trace. There is the slight problem that nobody's ever actually seen a black hole, it being difficult to spot a small hole in space, their existence being inferred from knowledge of their small size and great mass.

a hole in space

Nonetheless, black holes can put on spectacular displays of fireworks that announce their presence. When matter flows into a black hole, it is accelerated and compressed as if in a giant particle accelerator. The matter is heated, causing it to emit electromagnetic radiation, from radio waves to X-rays -- until it falls beneath the "event horizon", the point of no return, around the black hole, and effectively disappears from this Universe. Investigation of such events can provide insights into black holes, as well as the energetic interactions of such violent inflows.

Dr. Eric Schlegel of the University of Texas in San Antonio has been using observations from the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration's (NASA) Chandra spacecraft -- an X-ray observatory launched in 1999, and still going strong -- to look for the violent traces of black holes in the small galaxy NGC 5195, a satellite of the well-known Whirlpool galaxy. On inspecting X-ray images of NGC 5195, Schlegel and his colleagues spotted two bright, arc-shaped features in the gas opposite the point where the Whirlpool's galaxy's arm falls into NGC 5195, with material from the arm pulled towards NGC 5195's central black hole.

The shapes and orientations of these arcs suggest the black hole has undergone a pair of explosive events caused by the flood of material the Whirlpool galaxy is dumping on it. The shock waves from such explosions would sweep away dust and gas, which are the raw material from which new stars are born. It is then likely no coincidence that NGC 5195 is notably lacking in young stars, the core black hole having effectively shut down their production.

NGC 5195 is about 25 million light-years away. To get a more detailed inspection of the events around black holes, it is better to inspect the black hole in the core of our own Galaxy, that object being named "Sagittarius A* (Sag A*)", the distance in that case being only about 25,000 light-years.

Dr. Feryal Ozel of the University of Arizona is now working on an "Event Horizon Telescope (EHT)" to obtain a radio image of what is happening at the event horizon of Sag A*. That's not easy to do, since the event horizon of Sag A* is only about 12 kilometers across. To resolve such a small object at such a distance requires a telescope with a huge aperture -- but that's not so hard to achieve with radio telescopes. Radio telescopes at different locations on Earth, or for that matter in space, can be "ganged" to form an "interferometer array", with the effective aperture, if not collecting area, equivalent to the distance between the radio telescopes.

The EHT is based on existing radio telescopes over the world collaborating as a "very-long-baseline interferometer" in observations of Sag A*. As their collective observing schedules permit, they will all perform observations of Sag A* at the same time, with their measurements recorded using precision time references. The data will be then shipped to a "collating" facility in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to be combined by computer into a single radio image.

The EHT is expected to result in a gold mine of data about black holes: exactly how material falls into them; what drives the jets of material that sometimes squirt from near their polar regions, and just how good Einstein's equations are at describing the most highly warped spacetime it is possible to observe. Once, black holes seemed like an impossible fantasy; now they're being used as laboratories to extend the bounds of physics.



* INDIA DOES BIOMETRICS: As discussed by an article from THE GUARDIAN ("Fingerprint Payments Prompt Privacy Fears In India" by Vidhi Doshi, 9 February 2017), for two years Indian officials have been canvassing the country, from city slums to primitive villages, taking photos, scanning retinas and fingerprints. After crunching all this biometric data, in early 2017 the Indian government introduced a fingerprint-based payment system, backed up by a biometric database named "Aadhaar" -- Hindi for "Foundation". Now, registered citizens can, in principle, pay for things with the touch of a finger.

Aadhaar is the biggest biometric database in the worlds. The scheme was sold to the public primarily as a welfare delivery mechanism, to ensure the country's 1.25 billion citizens were each receiving their proper allotments of subsidized rice or cooking fuel, while filtering out scammers. Of course, the company's banks and businesses necessarily make use of it as well, leading to worries about privacy and security.

One of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's goals in office is to create a "digital India", in an effort to phase out India's cash-based economy in favor of electronic money -- primarily charge cards, for the moment. From the government's point of view, that would eliminate untaxed transactions; in principle, citizens would be compensated by greater convenience and security, as well as access to digital financial services. The government is setting up a public digital infrastructure, named "India Stack", to allow India's people to store and share their personal data. That could include bank statements, medical records, birth certificates, or tax filings. It involves a new "Unified Payments Interface (UPI)" for transfer of funds.

In November 2016, Modi took a drastic step towards phasing out the cash economy, by announcing with little warning that 500 and 1,000 rupee notes -- about $7.50 and $15.00 USD respectively -- were to be "demonetized". This effectively wiped out about 85% of the country's currency in circulation. When the banks opened again two days later, they were packed with millions of people, coming in to open up their first bank account. Many used their 12-digit Aadhaar number, linked to their biometric profile, to sign up.

The demonetization effort was not at all popular, but it was still a big step towards achieving the government's goals. It is estimated that within three weeks, three million bank accounts had been opened up using biometric identification. Previously, the banks had been forced to jump through bureaucratic hoops to open up bank accounts, filing photocopies of passports or voter IDs for verification. This could take weeks or months, and involved considerable expense. Now the biometric data of an applicant can be sent, suitably encrypted, to the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), a government agency, to be matched against Aadhaar data, and sent back to the bank.

Ajay Bhushan Pandey, UIDAI's director general, says that the validation procedure is "a matter or two or three seconds." Not only is it quick, convenient, and cheap, he explains, but it is much more secure than paper documents, which are easy to forge and tough to verify. Pandey adds that private banks and companies can't get into the entire Aadhaar database; they can't do searches on records, they can just validate identities.

There are still worries. While signing up with Aadhaar is in principle voluntary, it's effectively compulsory, since there aren't alternative mechanisms for accessing many of the services linked to Aadhaar. Sumandro Chattapadhyay, a director at the Center for Internet and Society thinktank, also says India lacks a general privacy or data protection law, and the law governing Aadhaar are loose. Chattapadhyay believes that Aadhaar makes it easier for companies not only to share information on individuals' consumption and movements, but also to link this data up with public records like the electoral register: "Both lead to significant threats to privacy of individuals."

Companies are already linking Aadhaar numbers with collected metadata. Credit-checking startup CreditVidya, for example, identifies clients using their biometric ID in combination with their internet browsing history and other data, to assign credit scores for users who have no record of loan repayments. Banks then store this processed metadata -- for example whether or not someone's Facebook name is consistent with the name on their bank account.

The government could also abuse the system to harass and intimidate voters. Add to this worries about illegal hacking into the system. Pandey says companies are carefully vetted before they can use Aadhaar authentication. He does admit that making the system cannot be made 100% secure: "I wouldn't say it is impossible to break the system -- but it is very, very difficult."



* MAPPING THE BRAIN (3): Brain-like artificial intelligence isn't a new idea; indeed, the human brain has always been a basic reference point in AI. The concept of "neural networks", which mimic the basic structure of the brain, were all the rage in the 1980s -- but the computing power and microcircuit densities weren't up to the task. In addition, the datasets needed to "train" the neural networks weren't available, either -- the day when millions of labeled cat pictures would be available on the internet not having arrived yet.

Neural networks are booming today; the voice- and face-recognition programs that have rapidly become part of daily life are based on neural network algorithms, as is AlphaGo, the computer that recently defeated the world's top Go player. However, nobody ever believed that machine neural networks were any more than loosely based on the human brain. The higher-level rules that artificial neural networks use to alter their connections are almost certainly different than the ones employed by the brain.

Terry Sejnowski is a computational neuroscientist at the Salk Institute in San Diego who worked on early neural network algorithms; he serves as an advisor to President Obama's $100 million USD BRAIN Initiative, of which the MICRONS project is a part. Sejnowski sees modern neural network technology as primitive, saying that contemporary neural networks "are based on what we knew about the brain in the 1960s ... Our knowledge of how the brain is organized is exploding."

For example, today's neural networks are based on a "feed-forward" architecture, where information flows from input to output through a series of layers. Each layer is trained to recognize certain features, such as an eye or a whisker. That analysis is then fed forward, with each successive layer performing increasingly complex computations on the data. In this way, the program eventually recognizes a series of colored pixels as a cat.

However, this feed-forward structure leaves out a vital component of the biological system: feedback, both within individual layers, and from higher-order layers to lower-order ones. In the real brain, neurons in one layer of the cortex are connected to their neighbors, as well as to neurons in the layers above and below them, creating an intricate network of loops. Sejnowski says: "Feedback connections are an incredibly important part of cortical networks. There are as many feedback as feed-forward connections."

Neuroscientists don't know yet what these feedback loops are doing, though they know they are important for our ability to direct our attention. They help us listen to a voice on the phone while tuning out distracting city sounds, for example. MICRONS researchers are seeking to decipher the rules governing feedback loops -- such as which cells these loops connect, what triggers their activity, and how that activity effects the circuit's output -- then translate those rules into an algorithm. Tai Sing Lee says: "What is lacking in a machine right now is imagination and introspection. I believe the feedback circuitry allows us to imagine and introspect at many different levels."

Possibly, feedback circuitry will one day give machines traits we think of as uniquely human. Sejnowski says: "If you could implement [feedback circuitry] in a deep network, you could go from a network that has kind of a knee-jerk reaction -- give input and get output -- to one that's more reflective, that can start thinking about inputs and testing hypotheses."

Like all IARPA programs, the MICRONS project is high risk. The technologies that researchers need for large-scale mapping of neuronal activity and wiring exist, but no one has applied them at this scale before. One challenge will be dealing with the enormous amounts of data the research produces -- 1 to 2 petabytes of data per millimeter cube of brain. The teams will, ironically, likely need to develop new machine-learning tools to analyze all that data.

It's also not clear if the lessons learned from a small chunk of brain will provide much insight into the brain's overall function. The cortex itself is made up of repeating units that look roughly the same -- but other parts of the brain might act quite differently. Sejnowski says: "If you want AI that goes beyond simple pattern recognition, you're going to need a lot of different parts."

The ultimate goal of such research is to determine the rules that organize the brain. The brain has far more interconnections than could be established specifically in the human genome; instead, the genome establishes rules by which the brain organizes itself as it grows. Clearly, an understanding of how the genome drives that organization is important as well, though that's not part of the agenda of MICRONS.

In any case, if MICRONS succeeds, it will have far more impact than just providing new tricks to assess intelligence data. The confirmation and detailing of the ABS scheme will lead to the design of feedback neural networks that will have a degree of imagination, resulting in machines who think. [END OF SERIES]



* PUTIN'S RUSSIA (6): In the mid-1990s, control over natural-resource firms passed to the oligarchs -- a powerful group of business tycoons who emerged from the rubble of the Soviet Union. They were something new to Russia, entrepreneurs in a land that had never had them before, and were able to accumulate capital. However, they extended their grasp by cultivating personal connections with the liberals in the government to gain privileged access to the most valuable assets.

Crony capitalism took root. In 1995, the oligarchs struck a far-ranging deal, offering to lend money to the cash-strapped government and put their resources, including the media they controlled, behind an ailing Boris Yeltsin. In return, they asked to manage the government's shares in natural-resource firms. When Yeltsin was re-elected in 1996, they were allowed to auction off those shares to themselves. This went beyond a mere appearance of corruption; this "loans for shares" privatization undermined the legitimacy of Russian capitalism, and compromised the idea of property rights, which was barely grasped in Russia in the first place.

To protect their assets, the oligarchs had to ensure the continuity of the regime. In 1999, as Yeltsin prepared to step down, Boris Berezovsky, the ultimate oligarch, who had worked himself into the president's family, proposed Putin as Yeltsin's successor. According to Berezovsky, Putin had originally wanted to be chairman of Gazprom, Russia's natural-gas giant, but instead he was offered the job of running Russia INC.

Putin was shaped mainly by two experiences, one being his background in the KGB security service, which made him a instinctive statist. The other was his time as a deputy mayor in Saint Petersburg in the early 1990s, with his fingers in business. Although he embraced capitalism, his notions of how business were run was peculiar, focused on connections, special access, and above all deals. As Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy wrote in their book, MR PUTIN: OPERATIVE IN THE KREMLIN: "Capitalism, in Putin's understanding, is not production, management and marketing. It is wheeling and dealing. It is not about workers and customers. It is about personal connections with regulators. It is finding and using loopholes in the law, or creating loopholes."

Putin did not destroy the oligarchy, but instead leashed it to him, creating much closer links between property and political power. He wanted to control the market, transferring its benefits to the people he trusted -- friends from Saint Petersburg and former KGB colleagues. Unlike the oligarchs of the 1990s, the men Putin brought into power were not businessmen, instead being unscrupulous political operatives.

The "siloviki", people with roots in the KGB and other powerful ministries, quickly seized effective control of the economy; they capitalized on popular discontent with the oligarchs, and used coercion to acquire property. In 2003, they jailed Mikhail Khodorkovsky of Yukos, the most independent and politically ambitious of the oligarchs. A year later his oil company was dismembered and its assets taken over by Rosneft, a state oil firm chaired by Igor Sechin, one of Putin's most trusted lieutenants and an informal leader of the siloviki.

During the years when the oil-price boom fueled domestic consumption, the new elite not only came to control the distribution of rent, it also limited access to the market in order to reduce competition, developing a system which Kirill Rogov, a Russian political economist, describes as "soft legal constraints". It involves writing the rules in such a way that to observe them is either prohibitively expensive or downright impossible -- then handing out informal licenses allow the victims to break the rules.

Just as in the Soviet era red directors haggled for resources, market participants now haggle for the right to break the rules -- giving the security services final economic and political control. The license can be withdrawn at any time if its holder displeases his masters, or if his assets start to look too attractive.

Consider the tale of Igor Pushkarev, a former mayor of Vladivostok. In the early 2000s Pushkarev, the owner of a large cement firm in Russia's Far East that got a lot of orders from the government, joined Putin's United Russia party, and in 2008 he was elected mayor of the city. In 2016 he challenged Vladimir Miklushevsky, the regional governor, in the party primaries. Pushkarev had crossed an invisible line. Miklushevsky had access to Putin, and Pushkarev was promptly arrested for "abuse of office", with the FSB beginning to grab his assets immediately, without the slightest pretense of due process.

Such insecurity over property rights results in a neurotic society, under the thumb of the security services. One consequence is the burden of doing business in such an unpleasant environment. It is nothing unusual for Russian shops and restaurants to hire security guards. Things were more tolerable when the economy was booming, but the decline of the Russian economy has made the struggle for control more brutal. Any business owner who crosses the siloviki, even unintentionally, can be arrested, with his ownings seized. If the siloviki are feeling kindly, they may just take what they want and leave the owner with the rest.

The Russian state, in short, is profoundly ill. With such a sick business environment, the urban middle class can go nowhere economically. In the face of stagnation, the Kremlin is now trying to stimulate growth by pouring money into the military-industrial sector and infrastructure projects. It isn't working. The money ends up being siphoned off by corruption; and without a thriving private sector, new infrastructure is unlikely to bring wealth to Russia.

The prospects for change are unencouraging. As economist Douglass North observed, the system is unlikely to reform itself, since such states "have internal forces built on exclusion and rent-creation, they are stable orders ... extremely difficult to transform." Natalia Zubarevich, a Russian economist and geographer, sees the future of Russia not as an implosion, but a slow decline. As long a Russia's elite sees modernization as a matter of technology instead of open access based on the rule of law, the new city of Innopolis is likely to remain largely uninhabited. [TO BE CONTINUED]



* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("One In 10 Children Has 'AIDS Defence'" by James Gallagher, 29 September 2016), a study suggests that a tenth of of children have an immune system that stops them from developing AIDS. An untreated HIV infection will kill 60% of children within two and a half years; but according to the study, in a subset of the children, the immune systems were "keeping calm", which prevented them being undermined by HIV.

The researchers analysed the blood of 170 children from South Africa who were HIV-positive, had never had anti-retroviral therapy, and yet had not developed AIDS. Tests showed they had tens of thousands of human immunodeficiency viruses in every milliliter of their blood. That would normally send their immune system into overdrive, trying to fight the infection, or simply make them seriously ill, but they were perfectly fine. Professor Philip Goulder -- one of the researchers involved in the study, from the University of Oxford -- said: "Essentially, their immune system is ignoring the virus as far as possible. Waging war against the virus is in most cases the wrong thing to do."

HIV is insidious, using the immune response against itself by infecting white blood cells, one of the fundamental components of the immune system. An active immune response against HIV simply gives the virus more targets, leading to the eventual collapse of the immune system, and the death of the host from opportunistic infections. The way the 10% of children cope with the virus has close similarities to the way more than 40 non-human primate species cope with "simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV)". According to Goulder: "Natural selection has worked in these cases, and the mechanism is very similar to the one in these kids that don't progress."

Children have relatively tolerant immune systems, which become more aggressive in adulthood -- chickenpox, for example, is far more severe in adults due to the way the immune system reacts. However, as the protected children age and their immune system matures, there is a risk of them developing AIDS. Some do, but some remain AIDS-free.

The study suggests an avenue for conclusively defeating AIDS by disarming the immune response to it -- but nobody knows how to do that yet. It's long been the goal of those working against auto-immune disease, where the immune system attacks other components of the host body; unfortunately, there has been little progress to date on finding some means of telling the immune system to ignore particular "antigens", the molecular targets the immune system homes in on.

* As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Methane Surge Needs Urgent Attention" by Jonathan Amos, 12 December 2016), although atmospheric methane (CH4) concentrations remained relatively stable in the 2000s, in this decade they are surging rapidly. After remaining generally static between 2000 and 2006, the concentration moved upwards from 2007, and then jumped sharply in 2014 and 2015. In those two years, methane rose rapidly by 10 or more parts per billion (PPB) annually, and is now just above 1,830 PPB.

Although methane is a much smaller component of the atmosphere than CO2 and decays to water and CO2 in a half-life of decades, it is about 20 times as potent a greenhouse gas than CO2 -- and so the rise in concentration is a concern. Robert Jackson, a climate scientist from Stanford University in California, says: "CO2 is still the dominant target for mitigation, for good reason. But we run the risk if we lose sight of methane of offsetting the gains we might make in bringing down levels of carbon dioxide."

The biggest problem with methane is that nobody's exactly sure where it's coming from, and why it's been surging. Jackson, along with colleagues who are members of an initiative named the "Global Carbon Project", has authored an editorial in the journal ENVIRONMENTAL RESEARCH LETTERS (ERL), calling for enhanced investigation.

Jackson told BBC News: "Methane has many sources, but the culprit behind the steep rise is probably agriculture. We do see some increased fossil fuel emissions over the last decade, but we think biological sources, and tropical sources, are the most likely."

Agricultural sources would include cattle and other ruminants, along with rice paddies. Emissions from wetlands are likely to play a significant part of this story as well, but there's a suspicion that an alteration in the atmospheric chemistry that normally pulls methane out of the atmosphere is primarily to blame. Jackson says: "Methane is more difficult to study than CO2 because it's more diffuse, but I think we're poised to make really good progress over the next few years."

* As discussed by an article from NATURE.com ("Ant Genomes Rewrite History Of Panama Land Bridge" by Carrie Arnold, 02 November 2016), it has been long known that North and South America were at one time disconnected, with a land bridge finally emerging in what is now Panama, allowing species to move back and forth between the continents. Now, evolutionary and population-genetics data from Eciton army ants, which can only travel on dry ground, suggest that the isthmus formed 4 to 8 million years ago. That challenges the long-held idea that the link between continents emerged no more than 3 million years ago.

Corrie Moreau -- one of the researchers involved in the study, associate curator at the Field Museum in Chicago IL, mentioned here in 2016 in a different context -- says: "Our genomic data is very strong evidence that the army ants crossed this region much earlier in time than the model of the simple closure of the isthmus suggests."

Moreau began the study strictly to investigate army ants, which are top predators in many Latin American rainforests, but in doing so stumbled into a geological controversy. Eciton ant queens and workers don't have wings, and so they can't travel across water. New colonies form only when a queen takes half of her original colony and relocates it, which makes long-distance dispersal problematic.

Moreau and her colleagues used a technique called "genotyping" to sequence small fragments of DNA from the genomes of multiple individuals from all nine Eciton species which are found from Brazil to southern Mexico. The sequences could be used to compare genetic variation both between species, and within different individuals of the same species.

The genetic evidence for early emergence from the Eciton ants is intriguing, but not conclusive. Possibly a group of Eciton ant rafted across the continental gap, riding on over on debris from hurricanes or landslides. There are geological studies that also suggest an early emergence, but they are a minority. Anthony Coates -- a geologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City -- is sceptical of early emergence: "There are still a series of investigations in different disciplines that all converge on the same number of around three million years ago. This is extremely rigorous evidence."



* ANOTHER MONTH: February was the second month of the Era of Trump (EOT). An effectively indiscriminate ban on foreigners entering the US from seven Muslim countries quickly ran into injunctions from the Federal courts, one of the rationales being that it demonstrated an implicit prejudice against American citizens of the Muslim faith. That might be a stretch, but the administration's decision to give Christian refugees preference made it less of one.

President Trump did not help his case by personally attacking, in Twitter tweets, the Federal judge who established the injunction -- a move guaranteed to greatly annoy all, repeat all, of the Federal judiciary. The fact that the Trump Administration also expressed certainty that the courts would uphold the ban did not bolster the administration's credibility either, since everybody knows Trump is flatly incapable of telling the truth. The appeals court didn't uphold the ban, with the White House then trying to rewrite the directive so it didn't seem quite so malign and senseless. We'll see how that goes.

* The rest of his White House gang of course follows Trump's lead in contempt for the facts, the most publicly prominent of that gang being White House spokesman Sean Spicer, who echoes the habits of his boss in telling and defending baldfaced lies, while bad-mouthing the news media as "biased" and "irresponsible". Like Trump's attacks on the Federal judge, it is hard to know what to make of such antics -- since they can only antagonize the news media, without doing anything to inhibit the press. Does that make sense? No, it doesn't make sense.

THE NEW YORK TIMES has been enjoying a high level of sales, thanks to Trump's "harassment", with Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the newspaper, indicating his satisfaction with being "persecuted". Prominent Republicans like Senator John McCain have denounced Trump's alleged "war on the press" -- even though McCain obviously knows how silly it is. Silly or no, it's not like McCain could sensibly agree with it. Sean Spicer has now been targeted by SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE comedienne Melissa McCarthy, who is now giving faux White House press briefings, hilariously cross-dressed as Spicer, not bothering to masculinize her voice:


Before we begin, I know that myself and the press have gotten off to a rocky start. In a sense, when I say rocky start, I mean it in the sense of ROCKY the movie, because I came out here to punch you in the face! And also, I don't talk so good.

[I am now] apologizing on behalf of you, to me, for how you treated me in the last two weeks -- and that apology is NOT accepted! Because I'm NOT here to be your buddy! I'm here to swallow gum, and I'm here to take names.


McCarthy has now linked herself to Spicer in the same way her colleague Tina Fey is to Sarah Palin. Indeed, McCarthy has memorialized Spicer by making sure he will not soon be forgotten. It should be noted that, thanks to Trump, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE's ratings have never been higher.

Melissa McCarthy does Sean Spicer

Comedians also had a party over a phone call between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Trumbull. There was no transcript of the conversation, but Trump made clear his displeasure with Australia over an agreement over refugee relocation. Seth Myers of LATE NIGHT WITH SETH MYERS asked: "How anti-social do you have to be to not get along with Australia?"

Bill Maher of REAL TIME WITH BILL MAHER said that "finally a president has shown the balls to stand up to our arch-enemy -- Australia!" Maher said that Trump's last words before hanging up on the phone were: "We're building a wallaby and you're going to pay for it."

Stephen Colbert of the LATE SHOW has been leading the charge against the White House -- in one session highlighting Alex Jones, the deranged professional conspiracy hack who has occasional phone chats with the president. Colbert played a clip of Jones in one of his gone-nuclear rants, to then come unhinged himself: "THIS is why you DON'T mix PEYOTE with STEROIDS!" And more calmly added: "I don't know how to explain this, but just watching that clip, he somehow got spittle on me."

In the latest installment, Trump is now blaming Barack Obama for the demonstrations and leaks targeting the White House. It is often said that Trump likes to engage in absurdist controversies as a distraction tactic -- but if so, he still can't blink wrong without it being endlessly dissected in the media. Presidents generally do things with an eye towards their legacy, how they'll go down in the history books. Trump is certainly scoring points with his hard-core supporters with his pranks; but they have a short attention span, becoming soon bored, and then jumping on a new bandwagon when it rolls up. They won't be the ones who write his obituary.

* The biggest problem with all this fun and games is that it is more than a bit too easy. There are too many unkind things that can be said about Donald Trump that are not opinions, but statements of evident fact. Trump is a wannabee dictator, but can only achieve a cartoon parody of one. One my penpals from across the Pond suggested to me that political speeches should have laugh tracks these days.

Once the EOT is over, there will be some nostalgia for it, at least among those with a sense of humor. The comedians haven't had such a target-rich environment since Richard Nixon -- old-timers will remember comedian David Frye, who could do a superb Nixon impersonation -- and Nixon was nowhere near as preposterous as Trump. It will end, of course. I haven't seen things this crazy since the Sixties -- and since there is always a regression to the mean, it can't last.

As for myself, I can cope. I got through three years in the Army well enough; I can easily handle four years of Trump, indeed I'm finding it amusing. However, I will still be relieved when it's all over, and I can go back to a more diffident attitude towards politics. Lacking any real control over affairs of state, a citizen ends up being forced to accept that the people in charge more or less know what they're doing. Such acceptance is impossible when it is blatantly obvious they don't.

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