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jun 2016 / 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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[THU 30 JUN 16] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JUNE 2016
[WED 29 JUN 16] VIRTUAL REALITY AGAIN?
[TUE 28 JUN 16] MULTILAYERED SECURITY
[MON 27 JUN 16] AI REVOLUTION (2)
[FRI 24 JUN 16] THE COLD WAR (118)
[THU 23 JUN 16] WINGS & WEAPONS
[WED 22 JUN 16] TRACKING EMISSIONS
[TUE 21 JUN 16] THE RESCUE BUSINESS
[MON 20 JUN 16] AI REVOLUTION (1)
[FRI 17 JUN 16] THE COLD WAR (117)
[THU 16 JUN 16] SPACE NEWS
[WED 15 JUN 16] ALWAYS CHANGING
[TUE 14 JUN 16] HEAVY-DUTY EVS
[MON 13 JUN 16] THE TAMBORA CATASTROPHE (3)
[FRI 10 JUN 16] THE COLD WAR (116)
[THU 09 JUN 16] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 08 JUN 16] TAKING THE HEAT
[TUE 07 JUN 16] PROCEED WITH CAUTION
[MON 06 JUN 16] THE TAMBORA CATASTROPHE (2)
[FRI 03 JUN 16] THE COLD WAR (115)
[THU 02 JUN 16] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 01 JUN 16] ANOTHER MONTH

[THU 30 JUN 16] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JUNE 2016

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR JUNE 2016: On 26 June, a senior Iraqi military commander announced that the city of Fallujah had been recaptured from Islamic State (IS) insurgents, as a consequence of an offensive that began on 22 May. Fallujah had been captured by the IS in early 2014, being the first city to fall to the insurgents. Iraqi forces are now turning their attention to the liberation of Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city.

The Fallujah operation was carried out by Iraq’s elite counterterrorism troops, Iraqi federal police, Anbar provincial police, and an umbrella group of government-sanctioned militia fighters -- mostly Shiites -- who are known as the "Popular Mobilization Forces". Tens of thousands of people from Fallujah who were forced to flee their homes during the operation are still at overcrowded camps in the Anbar desert. The US-led coalition said it was still conducting airstrikes in the area, and aid groups warned it was too early to say when residents could return to their homes in the city, IS having left plenty of booby traps behind.

Clearing away the bombs could take anywhere from days to months. When civilians initially returned to Ramadi after it was declared fully liberated from IS in February, about 100 people were killed by booby traps.

Besides Mosul, IS still controls significant areas in northern and western Iraq. The group, which swept across Syria and Iraq in the summer of 2014, declared an Islamic caliphate on that territory. At the height of its power, IS was believed to hold nearly a third of each country.

Exactly how the rest of the campaign will play out remains to be seen. Iraq still remains beset by strife between Sunni and Shia, and it is not clear if the government will be able to establish social order, or even order in itself. Nonetheless, the liberation of Fallujah is encouraging -- and incidentally also reflects well on US President Barack Obama, who has been heavily criticized for "permitting" the rise of IS. That's hard to take seriously: given the chaos that is Iraq, could anyone claim with any credibility they could do better?

* Somewhat surprisingly, the UK's vote on 23 June on whether to stay in the European Union (EU) came out as LEAVE; the odds had been on REMAIN. The British government has been effectively turned upside down and shaken out by the "Brexit" vote; stock markets fell around the world. However, the wailing over Brexit has come across as over-the-top; in six months or a year, things will have settled out. On the optimistic view, Brexit may prove to have been not much more than a temporary blip, if a big one, in the global order of things.

There are fears that the EU may begin to crumble after Britain's departure -- but the British have traditionally set themselves off from Europe, as demonstrated by the old joke headline: ENGLISH CHANNEL COVERED BY FOG, CONTINENT ISOLATED. To an extent, the consensus of reaction, however expressed under the breath, might well be: Good riddance, we weren't crazy about you, either.

If the British experience after going it alone turns out poorly, the end result will be a bad example that will strengthen the EU; if Britain, as might be most optimistically assumed, simply accomplishes nothing much of significance by Brexit -- the case for Brexit was marked by exaggerations ranging into the ridiculous, so there's not much basis for thinking it will do much good -- there will be no added incentive for other nations to leave the EU as a result. Nonetheless, it is clear that not all is well with the European Union, and the EU will go through a period of self-examination, to hopefully be better off for the exercise.

The optimistic view still lends a depressing color to Brexit, for it doesn't seem there was a substantial reason for Britain to step out, the decision being driven by nationalist emotion. That suggests Brexit may be only the first step in an assault on Britain's established political order. It is understandable that citizens have grown weary of politicians and government bureaucrats who persist in the same old business as usual; unfortunately, that dissatisfaction seems manifested by a turn towards demagogues and troglodytes who make the traditional leadership seem attractive in comparison. This is effectively a global trend, and it's one that promises to do much more harm than good.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, having strongly backed REMAIN, immediately announced his resignation on learning of the LEAVE vote -- having been handed a stinging vote of NO CONFIDENCE. European Union leadership insisted that Britain settle matters with the EU as soon as possible, protesting against Cameron's decision to effectively toss the matter off to the next government. However, Cameron had little choice in the matter; re-establishing Britain's relationship with the rest of Europe promises to be maddeningly difficult, and as he thought Brexit a bad idea, he wasn't in any position to make decisions that would affect the following pro-Brexit government.

Brexit leadership, having got what they wanted, are inevitably stuck with having to deal with the consequences. This hardly an optimum situation, since the Brexit camp seemed oblivious to how far-reaching the decision to leave the EU was, and does not appear to have a real plan of what to do next. EU leadership can complain to Cameron all they like, but that's all they can do; there's nothing he can do, and it's not his problem any more.

* An item in BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK discussed the "Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act (JASTA)", which authorizes US courts to hear civil claims for monetary damages against a foreign state accused of direct involvement in a terrorist act that harmed American citizens in the US. Under current law, foreign nations are immune from lawsuits in US courts. Although the specific rationale of the bill wasn't described in its text, the intent is to allow families of 9-11 victims to sue Saudi Arabia. JASTA was unanimously passed by the US Senate on 17 May; President Obama has promised to veto it.

As appealing as JASTA might sound, at least to some, Obama would have very good reason to veto it. International relations are the province of the administration, not something traditionally, or for that matter very usefully, delegated to the courts. If we have an issue with another country, we have to work it out diplomatically; JASTA would short-circuit sensible foreign relations, permitting private citizens to freeze the assets of another country, which would make diplomacy incoherent.

Worse, JASTA would set a precedent that few senators would like. What would happen if other countries decided to retaliate in kind? Countries such as Cuba and Iran have made claims for billions of dollars against the US, and JASTA would give them leverage to make more trouble over them. There's always an attraction to overturn the rules for a temporary advantage; it takes a little more foresight to realize that, after the rules have been overturned, we have now handed adversaries a tool to be used against us, with everyone worse off over the longer run.

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[WED 29 JUN 16] VIRTUAL REALITY AGAIN?

* VIRTUAL REALITY AGAIN? As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Grand Illusions", 29 August 2015), the notion of virtual reality (VR) -- in which users operate in a computer-generated virtual environment -- is a long-standing element of sci-fi stories. In the 1990s, several firms tried to make it a reality. They failed; computers weren't powerful enough to generate a convincing world; the headsets and other gear was bulky, heavy, and too expensive; with users suffering from headaches and nausea. VR did have some niche applications, but it hardly proved a popular revolution.

Now VR is back. Oculus of Menlo Park, California, is one of the leaders in the revival effort. Palmer Luckey, the firm's founder, now in his early twenties, got his hands on old VR headsets when he was a teenager, tinkering with them in his parents' garage. Thinking he could do better, Luckey hacked together his own VR headset, and in 2012 turned to Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website, to raise money to get the gadget into production.

One of those who got interested was John Carmack, a well-known videogame and graphics programmer; Carmack tweaked one of Luckey's headsets, to demonstrate it at a gaming conference in 2012. Luckey's Kickstarter effort went into overdrive; he dropped out of college to work on Oculus full-time, with Carmack becoming chief technology officer. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg bought out Oculus for $2 billion USD in 2014, with the firm introducing its "Rift" headset this year.

Oculus Rift

Other firms are getting into the VR market, in hopes of cashing in on what they hope to be the next big consumer fad, with market research firms estimating that VR will be a $30 billion USD a year business by 2020. However, much was expected of VR in the 1990s, and it fizzled. Will things work better this time around?

Advocates believe so, for the simple reason that the technology is so much better. Part of the reason is more computing power and better software; but at least as important are better displays, and better sensors to keep track of what a user is doing.

VR headsets have two color LCD displays, one for each eye, which display stereo images that provide an illusion of depth. The problem with the old VR headsets was that they had relatively low resolution, meaning the imagery wasn't all that convincing, and low video frame display rates, which led to vertigo and nausea -- what became known as "VR sickness". The new generation of VR headsets have from 2 to 2.6 megapixels, split between the two displays, and frame rates of 90 to 120 frames per second. Even such high frame rates can cause VR sickness; investigation has demonstrated that the transition from frame to frame are part of the problem, with that problem largely addressed by inserting a black frame for two milliseconds between each video frame change.

New organic-light-emitting-diode (OLED) displays have proven very useful for VR headsets. OLED displays have high resolution, can be updated rapidly, can be made small and light enough for use in headsets, and are cheap enough for a consumer product. However, a VR headset also has to track the position of user's head, so the imagery can be shifted around appropriately. Headsets use a set of cameras, and the miniaturized gyroscopes and accelerometers found in smartphones, to keep track of a user's movements.

The sensors have to take measurements hundreds of times a second, reporting them back immediately, with the VR image then updated immediately in return. The slightest delay can cause VR sickness. Inadequate sensor systems was one of the problems that crippled the first generation of VR; adequate sensor systems weren't available until recently. They weren't available off-the-shelf, either; VR pioneers had to ask for them to be built. VR sensors not only track the movement of the head, but also of the hands, and the motion of the user through the surroundings.

A well-made VR program creates a convincing immersive world, of actually being inside an alternate reality. This is new territory, and those developing such programs are still trying to figure out how to build such alternate realities. Tricks from TV and video gaming don't necessarily work very well for VR. For example, cutting from scene to scene, as per a TV show, is disorienting in VR. In a video game, an explosion will cause an image to shake, but in VR it can result in VR sickness, since the user doesn't feel the vibration as well.

Initial VR product offerings are being targeted at gamers, who are always after the latest technology, and are inclined to experimentation. There is also tinkering with immersive videos, made with panoramic cameras, that place the viewer in the center of the action. VR headsets could make cramped economy flights on an airliner much more tolerable. And then there's pornography, though nothing more will be said about that here. Beyond that, the opportunities are open-ended: interactive social media, education, collaborative work environments, and applications not yet dreamed of.

The problem is that none of this is for real yet, and the possibility remains of a VR fizzle. Bugs still have to be worked out, designing the programs remains a challenge, and using VR cannot be as easy or convenient as turning on the TV set. However, advocates remain confident that obstacles will be overcome, and there is no doubt that the technology is far more promising than it was two decades ago.

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[TUE 28 JUN 16] MULTILAYERED SECURITY

* MULTILAYERED SECURITY: Data security has been discussed repeatedly here, the last time being in March. An article from BBC WORLD Online ("How Monitoring Behaviour Could Unmask The Fraudsters" by Matthew Wall, 12 April 2016) discussed advances in data security by banks.

Online fraudsters ripped people off for billions of dollars in 2015. There's no one magic answer for dealing with scammers; multiple layers of security are required. The problem for financial service providers is that if they impose too many layers, customers get annoyed. The customers don't want to spend too much time answering secret security questions, keying in passcodes, or trying, and failing, to remember personal identification numbers and passwords.

That has resulted in a push for unobtrusive security. For example, voice biometrics -- that is, using our unique vocal patterns as a means of authentication -- is gaining acceptance among banks as it becomes less prone to false positives and false negatives. HSBC, a Britain-based international bank, has announced it will be rolling out voice biometric technology, along with Apple's Touch ID fingerprint recognition; Barclays already offers it to certain clients. Meanwhile, Atom Bank has launched "authentication by selfie".

However, any biometric ID can be faked, which is why "behavioral analysis" is also catching on as a non-intrusive way of establishing identity. The UK's Nationwide Building Society has just teamed up with tech partners BehavioSec and Unisys to develop a new layer of behavioral biometric security. It is based on the idea that the way we interact with our devices is as unique as those physical biometric attributes. The way we type, touch, swipe and hold our smartphones can also apparently act like a signature.

Behavioral analysis is not a very mature technology, but it has the advantage that it is usually unobtrusive. Pindrop, a tech company based in Atlanta, Georgia, specializes in authenticating people who ring call centers -- a particularly vulnerable element in a financial services company's defenses. Pindrop names three out of the four top US banks as clients. The usual security methods when calling in -- answers to knowledge-based questions, such as your mother's maiden name or first school, for example -- are very weak, being easily gleaned by fraudsters from social media or hacking.

"Even your caller ID can be easily spoofed using VoIP," according to Matt Peachey, Pindrop's general manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa. As a result, the firm's automated technology analyzes many other elements of a phone call -- the geographical origin, the device type, the timbre of the sound, to name but a few of the 147 measurables -- and creates a risk score for each call. Peachy says: "Your phone actually imprints a unique sound into the call which you can't discern with the human ear, so we can usually tell if a fraudster is pretending to call from a local landline but actually using VoIP."

The tech also analyzes caller behavior. Multiple calls from different devices and networks, but purporting to be from the same customer, will raise alarm bells, for example. Peachey maintains: "Our tech is catching north of 80% of all fraudulent calls."

Pindrop also uses voice biometrics, but only for "fraudster blacklisting" -- spotting repeat offenders. The drawback with voice biometrics is that customers have to enroll for the system and record their unique voiceprint for the database. Not everyone bothers or wants to, meaning that voice biometrics can't be used as a universal solution.

In the short term, growing numbers of banks are incorporating two-factor authentication to their online and mobile banking services. This usually means logging in to an online account -- with those troublesome passwords and numeric codes - then generating an additional one-off, time-limited code on a separate device -- a smartphone or another gadget. This process is highly, if not perfectly, secure, but it's also fiddly.

US tech firm Duo Security aims to make this easier by sending a message to an app on a customer's phone that contains a simple green or red button. One tap on either button confirms or cancels the transaction. The firm's co-founder and chief technology officer, Jon Oberheide, says: "There's no code to input to a countdown, so logging in is much simpler. Financial services companies want to improve their security, but they don't want to annoy their users with cumbersome security protocols."

One of Duo's 5,000 customers worldwide is US banking technology firm Computer Services INC (CSI), which provides transaction processing and online banking services for about 3,000 financial institutions. According to Kevin Latta, CSI's vice president, network and security: "Most computers are infected with some kind of malware, so this is why this kind of additional authentication is so important. We give client institutions a choice over whether they use Duo Security. But I've never seen those who do use it suffer incidences of fraud. Thieves always go for the low-hanging fruit."

This another reason for the move towards unobtrusive security: if it's obtrusive, customers tend to hotwire around it, defeating it themselves. For all the public furor over online security, everybody knows the weakest link in the system is ourselves.

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[MON 27 JUN 16] AI REVOLUTION (2)

* AI REVOLUTION (2): The neural network is a traditional component of artificial intelligence technology, developed in the 1950s by researchers using the brain as a model. Brains don't use transistors, they use neurons -- spindly, highly interlinked cells that pass electrochemical signals between themselves -- with the neurons recognizing elaborate patterns and operating in cyclical, interwoven loops.

Early artificial neural networks were hardly more than cartoonish caricatures of the real thing, but early experiments suggested they were still very powerful. Chris Bishop, an AI researcher with Microsoft, points out that telephone companies have, since the 1960s, been using echo-cancelling algorithms discovered by neural networks. However, it was like climbing a tree to reach the Moon: the neural networks of the era were simply not up to heavy lifting.

In the past few years, however, the remarkable number-crunching power of chips developed for the demanding job of drawing video-game graphics has revived interest. Early neural networks were limited to dozens or hundreds of neurons, usually organised as a single layer. The latest, used by the likes of Google, can simulate billions. With that many ersatz neurons available, researchers can afford to take another cue from the brain and organize them in distinct, hierarchical layers. It is this use of interlinked layers that puts the "deep" into deep learning.

Each layer of the network deals with a different level of abstraction. To process an image, for example, the lowest layer is fed the raw image. It notes things like the brightness and colors of individual pixels, and how those properties are distributed across the image. The next layer combines these observations into more abstract categories, identifying edges, shadows and the like. The layer after that will analyse those edges and shadows in turn, looking for combinations that signify features such as eyes, lips and ears. And these can then be combined into a representation of a face -- and in fact not just any face, but even a new image of a particular face that the network has seen before.

Neural networks are not so much programmed as they are trained. A machine that performs facial recognition, for example, will be presented with a "training set" of thousands of images. Some will contain faces and some will not, with each accordingly labeled as such by a human. The images act as inputs to the system; the labels ("face" or "NOT face") as outputs. The neural network's task is to come up with a statistical rule that correlates inputs with the correct outputs. To do that, it will hunt at every level of abstraction for whatever features are common to those images showing faces. Once these correlations are good enough, the machine will be able, reliably, to tell faces from not-faces in its training set. The next step is to let it loose on a fresh set of images, to see if the facial-recognition rules it has derived hold up in the real world.

By working from the bottom up in this way, machine-learning algorithms learn to recognize features, concepts, and categories that humans understand, but struggle to define in computer code. However, for a long time such algorithms were narrowly specialized. It was normal to provide little tweaks via bits of code to help the neural system process images, or perform voice recognition.

Earlier neural networks, moreover, had only a limited capacity for data. The networks lacked discrimination; beyond a certain point, feeding them more information did not boost their performance. Modern systems need far less hand-holding and tweaking, and can handle as much data as can be thrown at them. They've come of age just in time for the era of "big data".

Big internet companies like Baidu, Google, and Facebook sit on huge quantities of information generated by their users, such as volumes of emails; vast piles of search and buying histories; endless images of faces, cars, cats and almost everything else in the world pile up. There's vast amounts of useful information hiding in that data, but trying to sort it out would be a nightmare without deep learning. Fortunately, users do help by generally trying to label their data for their own use.

Now progress is impressive. In 2014, Facebook unveiled an algorithm called "DeepFace" that can recognize specific human faces in images around 97% of the time -- even when those faces are partly hidden or poorly lit. That's about as well as humans can do. Microsoft claims that the object-recognition software it is developing for Cortana, the firm's digital personal assistant, can tell its users the difference between a picture of a Pembroke Welsh Corgi and a Cardigan Welsh Corgi, two dog breeds that look almost identical. Some countries, including Britain, already use face-recognition technology for border control, while a system capable of recognising individuals from video footage has obvious appeal for policemen and spies. A recent report showed how America's spies use voice-recognition software to convert phone calls into text, in order to make their contents easier to search.

That is only getting started. Neural chips are becoming bigger, and researchers are finding out more they can do with them; they are currently investigating feedback between higher and lower layers, which promises to make them much smarter -- if a handle can be obtained on just how to do it right. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 24 JUN 16] THE COLD WAR (118)

* THE COLD WAR (118): Premier Khrushchev's denunciations continued unabated. When he called out: "What devil made the Americans do this?" -- de Gaulle calmly replied that there were devils everywhere, on both sides, that spying went on all the time, and the matter was unworthy of consideration by heads of government who were working for peace. Khrushchev shook his head in frustration and went on reading, ending with a demand for an apology from Eisenhower; if it wasn't forthcoming, the conference was at an end.

Eisenhower responded with a statement justifying the overflights, to then say they would cease. Of course they would; the Soviets having shot down the U-2, it made no sense to send another one in -- and though progress on the CORONA spy satellites was slow, they were likely to be operational in the near future. Khrushchev was not placated, again demanding an apology. De Gaulle answered, his patience now showing a bit of strain:

BEGIN QUOTE;

Chairman Khrushchev, you have imposed conditions that are obviously impossible for General Eisenhower to accept. Before you left Moscow and after the U-2 was shot down, I sent my ambassador to see you to ask whether this meeting should be held or should be postponed. You knew everything then that you know now. You told my ambassador that this conference should be held, and that it would be fruitful. I repeated this question to you when I saw you alone before this meeting, and once again you said it should be held.

Now, by imposing conditions that cannot be met by the American president, you make it impossible to go further. You have brought Mr. Macmillan here from London, General Eisenhower from the United States, and have put me to serious inconvenience to attend a meeting which your intransigence would make impossible. We should all reflect on this and on the hopes that the people of the world have placed in this meeting and meet again here tomorrow at the same time.

END QUOTE

Khrushchev leaped to his feet and again demanded an apology, saying the Soviets would walk out if it were not given. De Gaulle simply looked at him as if he were a badly-behaved small child, then announced that the conference would meet again tomorrow. The Soviet delegation left in a huff.

There was an awkward moment, the remaining participants not quite sure of what to do next. De Gaulle ended the muddle by saying he would get in touch with the Soviets to see if they would decide to talk after all, with everybody then rising to leave. De Gaulle went to Eisenhower and took him by the arm, to then say: "I do not know what Khrushchev is going to do, nor what is going to happen, but whatever he does, I want you to know that I am with you to the end."

That was a burst of sunshine through Eisenhower's gloom; as the president got into the car, he told General Walters: "He's quite a guy." The car took them to the US embassy residence, where the American delegation discussed what to do next. There wasn't much that could be said; Eisenhower's promise to end the overflights had obviously not placated Khrushchev at all.

In the meantime, Khrushchev had been holding a press conference, continuing his railing against the United States. The three Western leaders met again in the Elysee the following morning, 17 May, but the Soviets were a no-show. De Gaulle commented in his dry way that Khrushchev had not spoken with him, but was then out "kissing babies on the street and generally electioneering for the French Communist Party."

De Gaulle sent a message to Khrushchev to ask him if he were planning to attend. An aide later came back, reporting that Khrushchev said he would not attend unless Eisenhower apologized. De Gaulle finally got visibly irritated, telling the aide that, since Khrushchev had been queried in writing, he should respond in writing. After another go-round, the aide came back to say Khrushchev refused to reply in writing. De Gaulle was not content to leave matters at that, relaying a third message through the aide: "Tell him it is the usage between civilized nations to reply to written communications by written communications."

The answer finally came back from Khrushchev that he would reply in writing, but would not attend. De Gaulle, appearing satisfied with having impressed on Khrushchev the need for some little manners, adjourned the conference. Neither de Gaulle nor Macmillan -- the prime minister was much more visibly distressed than de Gaulle, who was no more than annoyed -- suggested that Eisenhower apologize to Khrushchev. The president then flew off to visit Portugal. General Walters commented later:

BEGIN QUOTE:

It seemed to me that the Soviets had gambled on a capitulation by Eisenhower, and were disoriented when it was not forthcoming. They had counted on both de Gaulle and Macmillan to pressure Eisenhower for some form of apology, and this had not happened.

END QUOTE

Krushchev ended his Paris trip with a press conference, mostly in the same vein as his earlier statements, but ending with a plea for peace. A following talk at the Soviet embassy in Paris to Warsaw Pact diplomats did not go well, some of the audience finding him wild and unbalanced. The premier returned to Moscow in a black mood. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 23 JUN 16] WINGS & WEAPONS

* WINGS & WEAPONS: In the latest zig-zag of the ever-unpredictable airship business, Lockheed Martin is proceeding on construction of a prototype of a hybrid airship, the "LMH-1", discussed here in 2015. Initial flight is expected in 2017, with introduction to service in 2018. Working through Hybrid Enterprises, its Atlanta-based wholly-owned reseller and aftermarket provider, Lockheed Martin has inked an agreement with Straightline Aviation of the UK, a "service for hire" firm, for a dozen LMH-1s at about $40 million USD each. If LMH-1 sells well, the company will go on to larger airships that will be able to compete with ocean-going vessels.

The LMH-1 is 85.4 meters (280 feet) long, with about ten times the envelope displacement of the earlier Lockheed Martin P791 demonstrator airship, discussed here in 2006. The LMH-1 is capable of carrying 21,315 kilograms (47,000 pounds) of payload and up to 19 passengers, over ranges of up to 2,590 kilometers (1,610 miles / 1,400 NMI), with a cruise speed of 110 KPH (70 MPH / 60 KT). Cruise altitude will be 3,050 meters (10,000 feet), though there will be provision for crew oxygen for ferry flights and transiting mountain ranges.

Lockheed Martin LMH-1 airship

Like the P791, the LMH-1 is not quite lighter-than-air; it gets 80% of its lift from helium gas cells, 20% of its lift from its tiltable prop engines and tri-lobed hull. It will be powered by 225-kW (300-HP) vee-6 diesel engines, driving three-bladed propellers with a diameter of 2.75 meters (9 feet). Lockheed hasn't selected an engine supplier yet, saying the likely choice is a certified aviation engine derived from the automotive industry.

Kent Trenkle, LMH-1 systems engineering integration, test and certification lead, says: "The full-axis [fly-by-wire flight control] system controls four tails, the four thrusters, the throttles, and the pitch of the blades. In addition, each of the propulsors gimbals, so it is a complex flight control system and algorithm controlling up to 16 different things."

The LMH-1's FCS leverages off software developed for take-offs and landings of the F-35B short-take-off / vertical-landing version of the Joint Strike Fighter. An air cushion landing system (ACLS) based on the P791 system will be used for landing and ground operations on all surface types, including water. Unlike the P791's four-pad ACLS, the LMH-1 system will incorporate two main pads aft and a smaller, forward-mounted ACLS pad.

The cockpit is fitted with flat-panel multifunction displays, sidestick controllers, and a "speed lever". The gondola for passengers and cargo is 45.7 meters (150 feet) long, 3 meters (10 feet) tall, and 3 meters (10 feet) wide. The cargo is carried in an 18.3-meter (60-foot) long section aft that opens up for loading and unloading at truck-bed height. For longer loads, the cargo bay doors can remain open in flight.

Lockheed Martin has competition from Hybrid Air Vehicles, the UK-based developer of the Airlander 10, mentioned here in 2010. The Airlander prototype is being readied for flight and is expected to make an appearance at this year's Farnborough International Airshow in Britain. Lockheed Martin business development manager Craig Johnston says that's all for the good: "We have plenty of market space; there are no issues. We know for sure there is an initial market for 12, but ultimately there will be many hundreds over the next decade, and they will be spread all over the world."

One hopes so, but after so many years of disappointment, we'll believe it when we see it. Still, after flying the P791, Lockheed Martin went on to the LMH-1, even though it took a decade, and so the commitment's clearly there.

* The US Navy's SM-3 anti-missile missile and its "Aegis Ashore" direction system, for land-based operations, was discussed here a few months back, with mention that Aegis Ashore was then being installed at a site in Romania. The other shoe has dropped, with the installation being declared operational in May.

The site is at an old Romanian air base in Deveseul, about 180 kilometers (110 miles) southwest of Bucharest. The installation includes an Aegis-type radar and direction system, plus batteries of SM-3 missiles. The Russians have complained loudly about the fielding of anti-missile interceptors to Eastern Europe -- but NATO officials respond that the weapons are only intended to deal with a "pot-shot" from a rogue state like Iran.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said: "The interceptors are too few and located too far south or too close to Russia to be able to intercept Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles." The missiles are only intended "to tackle the potential threat posed by short and medium- range attacks from outside the Euro-Atlantic area".

The ground is now being broken for an interceptor site in Poland, which will be activated in 2018.

* The US Navy has been going around on development of a carrier-based attack drone for some years now, under the designation of "Unmanned Carrier-Launched Airborne Surveillance & Strike (UCLASS)", having performed carrier trials of the Northrop Grumman X-47B demonstrator.

Defense programs have a way of dying and reviving around; in 2015, a Pentagon review killed UCLASS -- to now resurrect it as the "MQ-25 Stingray", which will de-emphasize the UCLASS strike and reconnaissance mission to focus on the mid-air refueling mission, the intent being to offload overworked Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets in that role. Other missions will be considered as experience with the MQ-25 in service allows; the machine is being designed for flexibility. Stealth features are no longer seen as a primary need. Current plans envision a contract award in 2018, and initial delivery in 2021.

MQ-25 Stingray

The MQ-25 will be able to carry a range of external stores, not just tanker kit, but it is not seen as an offensive platform for now. Northrop Grumman is expected to offer an X-47B derivative; Lockheed Martin, Boeing, and General Atomics will also offer solutions.

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[WED 22 JUN 16] TRACKING EMISSIONS

* TRACKING EMISSIONS: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Carbon Trackers Could Help Bolster Climate Vows" by Warren Cornwall, 18 December 2015), at the climate summit in Paris in December 2015, the world's nations committed themselves to cutting emissions of greenhouse gases. That was very inspiring, but it left a question dangling: how do countries determine what their emissions really are, so the authorities know if they are really reducing them?

At the present time, it is possible to accurately track the rising concentration of CO2 over the globe -- thanks to a network of ground stations, as well as satellite observations. It is not so easy to do so on a more local basis, that being done by inference from statistics. However, researchers are now in the early stages of deploying carbon-tracking systems that will monitor local greenhouse gas emissions. A few experimental, city-scale monitoring systems are up and running. Ultimately, a network of instruments on satellites, commercial jets, smokestacks, and communications towers could deliver a detailed, nearly instantaneous picture of emissions in a country, city, or even a neighborhood.

Riley Duren, an engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, commented: "A carbon weather service is probably the best example of where we probably ought to get in the future." Duren heads the "Megacities Carbon Project", which is building a first-generation measurement system in Los Angeles, California. The idea got a boost earlier this year when the United Nations World Meteorological Organization (WMO) endorsed the creation of the "Integrated Global Greenhouse Gas Information System", to promote networks for tracking greenhouse gases.

Today, the best data on CO2 are the atmospheric concentrations measured at more than 40 stations around the world. Emissions for countries or cities are estimated by adding up statistics on fuel consumption, deforestation, electricity generation, and other activities. Developed nations have refined these procedures to provide good data; however, in developing nations, which account for 60% of climate emissions, the data isn't so good. In October 2015, the European Union's Earth observation agency, Copernicus, warned that such uncertainties "could undermine the credibility and the stability of future climate agreements."

Pilot emissions-tracking networks are now being set up, with cities, where a majority of human-caused greenhouse gases originate, serving as testing grounds. Over the last five years Indianapolis, Boston, Los Angeles, and Paris have been outfitted with equipment to track their carbon emissions. Another network is being built around Washington DC, and it may eventually be extended up the East Coast to Boston -- according to James Whetstone, a scientist and manager at the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland, which is helping fund several of the US projects.

Los Angeles provides a case study for such networks. Today, 13 devices mounted high on tall buildings and cellphone and radio towers measure CO2 across an area of 17,000 square kilometers (6,550 square miles); some also track methane, a potent greenhouse gas. On top nearby Mount Wilson, a device scans the basin every 90 minutes, detecting the infrared signatures of the gases. Airplanes zero in on hot spots identified by the stationary instruments, with drones likely to take over the job in the future. NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite periodically surveys the city for a big-picture snapshot. The data are combined with computer models of wind patterns, and a detailed inventory of carbon-generating activities such as traffic.

The result is an emerging picture of how Los Angeles "breathes" greenhouse gases. The work has already helped scientists pinpoint larger-than-expected methane plumes from a landfill and an oil field. The scientists also plan to monitor the impact of new efforts to cut emissions from traffic congestion, and to monitor large industrial facilities to see whether they're meeting state greenhouse gas targets.

However, the project is not yet in a league with weather reports. It's tricky to model how winds come off the Pacific Ocean and interact with the surrounding mountains. Data on sources such as fuel use get stale quickly. The tower network has gaps, and OCO-2 is better at tracking global flows of carbon than at measuring human-caused emissions on the scale of a city.

NASA's OCO-3 satellite, delayed by funding cuts, could take more detailed measurements, and the European Union's Copernicus agency is in discussions for a European emissions-tracking satellite. Even better results could come from geostationary satellites parked over a continent, providing a continuous view -- but nobody is planning one. Indeed, at the moment, international discussions of climate change have paid little attention to monitoring carbon emissions.

So far, such carbon monitoring data aren't a key part of international climate policies. A state department official at the Paris talks says that although the technologies could be useful, they "aren't being considered as part of international agreements."

Phil DeCola -- a former NASA scientist and White House science adviser who is chairman of the WMO greenhouse-gas tracking project -- commented: "I don't want to be responsible for another grand research strategy for the circular file of posterity. The bottom line is we can produce useful information. But will the information be used?"

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[TUE 21 JUN 16] THE RESCUE BUSINESS

* THE RESCUE BUSINESS: An article from THE ECONOMIST ("Risky Business", 30 April 2016), began in the London offices of International SOS (ISOS), the world's biggest travel-security firm. The facility has a central control room, with multiple workstations and large displays, allowing staff to keep track of what's happening in the world relative to the safety of the firm's clients -- which include almost two-thirds of the Fortune Global 500 companies. ISOS runs 26 other centers around the world. Business, according to company officials, has never been better.

Sometimes the company's assistance is petty. Parents of a child who swallowed a coin while visiting Nigeria asked ISOS what to do; the advice was to let nature take its course. Sometimes the tasks are much more challenging, for example assisting international non-governmental organization (NGOs) in keeping their people safe during the collapse of social order in Burundi in 2015.

Tim Willis, a former army officer who is the firm's European security director, explains: "When the president [Pierre Nkurunziza] started talking about serving an unconstitutional third term, we thought: LOOK OUT! -- and began sending alerts to our members. When the balloon went up in May, their families had got out, and they were prepared."

As the country descended into chaos, a nurse was sent to support one client, while a local security provider was told to stand by with vehicles, and an ISOS manager flew to neighboring Rwanda to co-ordinate. Next, a handful of people were moved to a secure hotel, to then make their way out of the country when the road to the border was judged safe for passage. In the meantime, a plane was being chartered in Nairobi to collect another 73 employees of a client from the airport at Bujumbura, the capital, and fly them to Rwanda's capital, Kigali. Willis calls the operation "boring ... which is what we want."

The company's services are in demand because of globalization, resulting in ever-increasing business travel and tourism; political instability, spreading in an arc from the Persian Gulf to sub-Saharan Africa; and fear of terrorism in places once thought safe, such as Istanbul, Jakarta, Paris, and Brussels. China's growing international footprint means more business as well. Last year ISOS saw its "outbound" China business grow by 46%, thanks in part to Beijing's commitment to building a "new silk road" from Central Asia to the Mediterranean.

Founded over three decades ago to provide emergency medical care for Europeans working in Southeast Asia, ISOS has become a global operation. When the Arab Spring flared up in 2011, ISOS had the resources to carry out large-scale evacuations from Egypt -- 1,250 people -- and then Libya -- 1,500 people.

Since 2001, ISOS has grown from revenues of $250 million USD a year and 2,500 employees to $1.5 billion USD and a staff of 11,000, which includes over 5,000 medical professionals and 200 security specialists. Operating from around 1,000 locations in 90 countries, it takes nearly 5 million assistance calls every year. Most are mundane; while large-scale evacuations from countries collapsing into revolution get the headlines, a survey of the firm's clients in 2015 showed that only 11% were threatened by terrorism, as opposed to 34% who were victims of petty crime, and 33% who were victims of traffic accidents.

ISOS keeps close tabs on its personnel to make sure they can get into action quickly and effectively. After the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, ISOS introduced travel-tracking technology that provides real-time data about employee movements. Now, apps on phones using GPS can establish virtual secure areas -- what's called "geo-fencing". A panic button on the phone sends SMS and e-mail alerts with location information if someone leaves or enters designated perimeters.

ISOS -- and its smaller rivals, such as Anvil Group of the UK and iJet of the US -- doesn't just react to emergencies, but actively prepare for them. Company officials work to understand where and how threats arise, and determining how to deal with them. That of course is a necessary part of the service ISOS provides, but it also protects the firm from litigation; clients are likely to be unhappy if ISOS drops the ball when the firm should have been prepared. This is not such a worry to ISOS officials, however; client satisfaction is high, and nobody is expecting business to decline in the future.

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[MON 20 JUN 16] AI REVOLUTION (1)

* AI REVOLUTION (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Rise Of The Machines", 9 May 2015), there has been considerable advance in artificial intelligence (AI) technology over the past decade. Not everyone is happy with AI; serial entrepreneur Elon Musk, a person not given to subtle understatement, compared AI to "summoning the demon", and claims that the creation of intelligences that will rival, or exceed, human intelligence is the biggest threat facing the Earth. Others have compared the menace of AI to the planet as comparable to that of giant asteroid strikes or total nuclear war.

Those working on AI technology haven't taken much notice of such fuss, being too busy riding the leading edge of the wave. Firms such as Google, Facebook, Amazon, and China's Baidu are now in an AI arms race, head-hunting for the best researchers, setting up labs, and buying start-up companies. Few of them worry about machines taking over; they instead are trying to build machines that can take over drudgery jobs traditionally reserved for humans.

While the capacities of digital micro-electronics are approaching their limits, the silicon technologies available are staggeringly capable, and there remains a lot of room to move in innovative hardware architectures -- while software continues to be open-ended. Machines are vastly smarter than they were even a decade ago, able to understand languages, recognize images, and perform other brainy tasks. Business is taking notice, as are people whose jobs are threatened by AI.

Big money is being pumped into AI, with startup companies attracting wealthy backers. In 2014, Google was rumored to have paid $400 million USD for DeepMind, a London-based AI startup. Facebook had been after DeepMind as well, but also has its own AI research lab, headed by Yann LeCun, a star researcher hired from New York University. Google once employed Andrew Ng, an AI guru from Stanford University, until Baidu bought him off in 2014 to head up a new, Silicon Valley-based lab of its own.

AI is nothing new, the basic concepts going back to the beginning of the computer age, but progress was slow for decades, and useful applications few. Now AI researchers are excited over what they call "deep learning", an extension of the traditional AI sub-domain of "machine learning", in which computers teach themselves tasks by being fed volumes of relevant data. Deep learning is a means of bridging the gap that has long plagued AI: tasks that are hard for humans are generally easy for machines, and tasks that are easy for humans are generally hard for machines. Even the least powerful computer can play a game of chess that challenges any player below expert level; but computers have traditionally had problems doing things that humans do without thinking, such as recognizing faces, decoding speech, and identifying objects in images.

Under close examination, that's not so perverse. Early AI researchers were encouraged, too much so, by how relatively straightforward it was to get a computer to do things like play chess or perform algebraic analysis, but such things were defined by straightforward rules, easy to translate into rules a computer could understand. A computer could also perform "brute-force" searches of chess moves, allowing it to see many more moves ahead than the ordinary human player; and tailoring its searches by factoring in common chess strategies made it even more formidable as more strategies were added.

However, tasks like language recognition and translation were tougher, because languages are flexible and follow variable rules; it's not easy to break them down into rules that cover all the possibilities. A computer could generate text from rules easily enough, but understanding arbitrary text fed to it was very hard. In machine learning, a computer is simply fed text, being told what the text means; as more text is fed the computer, the better able it is to read the text. The most common approach is to use a "neural network", which takes its lead from animal brains, not traditional computer architectures. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 17 JUN 16] THE COLD WAR (117)

* THE COLD WAR (117): When Khrushchev and his entourage left the Moscow airport on 14 May 1960 to attend the Paris summit, he made it clear that he would take a hard line in the talks: he would demand that Eisenhower apologize for the U-2 overflights, punish those responsible, and declare that overflights would cease. Khrushchev admitted it was unlikely that the president would budge on these demands, but the premier felt he had no alternative.

By the time Khrushchev arrived in Paris, he had worked himself into a frenzy. The next day, 15 May, he talked with de Gaulle, venting at such length as to suggest to the French president that the premier was a character "in the realm of Russian fiction." De Gaulle's attempts to calm matters only provoked "a show of furious indignation". Khrushchev was not boiling over when he talked to Macmillan later that day, but he was just as uncompromising in his message.

Eisenhower and his entourage visited de Gaulle later on 15 May, with his interpreter, General Vernon Walters, recording that scene and those that followed later in Paris. Walters noted that Eisenhower was one of the few people de Gaulle did not talk down to; indeed, de Gaulle demonstrated real warmth with him. The French president told his visitors about his talk, such as it was, with Khrushchev earlier in the day, describing how enraged the Soviet premier was, and that he had demanded an apology from Eisenhower. De Gaulle told Eisenhower: "Obviously, you cannot apologize, but you must decide how you wish to handle this. I will do everything I can to be helpful without being openly partisan."

De Gaulle added that a few days earlier, before the Soviet group had left Moscow, he had told the French ambassador in Moscow to ask the Kremlin if the summit were still on; the reply was YES. De Gaulle had asked the same question of Khrushchev earlier in the day; the reply was still YES, though the premier continued to insist that Eisenhower apologize. De Gaulle had replied, in his haughty way, that he, Khrushchev, could not seriously expect any such thing; that was simply not done between serious heads of government. Since Khrushchev nonetheless insisted on going ahead with the conference, de Gaulle was optimistic that Khrushchev was mostly blowing off steam -- but cautiously added: "We shall see."

That same day, the Soviets launched their fourth satellite, publicly announced as "Sputnik 4", with no details announced. It was actually the "Korabl Sputnik 1", the first unmanned flight test of a Vostok space capsule. It only carried a dummy named "Ivan Ivanovich" -- the Russian equivalent of "John Smith" -- and was a failure, the spacecraft being trapped in orbit for two years. Rumors later circulated in the West that it had carried a cosmonaut, and that the Soviets had covered up his death. Sputnik 4 would play a minor role in the subsequent events in Paris.

* The following morning, 16 May, the leaders -- including de Gaulle, Macmillan, Eisenhower, and Khrushchev -- and their aides met in the Elysee Palace, the French counterpart of the White House. De Gaulle began the session by suggesting that Eisenhower speak first; but Khrushchev, clearly agitated, demanded that he speak first instead, with a prepared statement. De Gaulle raised his eyebrows and looked at Eisenhower, who nodded; and so Khrushchev began to read his statement, in very loud voice. As Khrushchev ranted on, de Gaulle, having heard much the same the previous day, took on an expression of strained patience.

Khrushchev was so angry that his hands were shaking, and as he read, he became ever angrier. At one point, his voice began to rise towards screaming; De Gaulle interrupted him and told Khrushchev's interpreter: "The acoustics in this room are excellent. We can all hear the chairman. There is no need for him to raise his voice."

The interpreter was taken aback, but translated the remark into Russian. Khrushchev paused, glared over the top of his glasses at de Gaulle, but then went on at reduced volume. He denounced the U-2 overflights, pointing up to the ceiling as if one were overhead. De Gaulle interrupted again: "I, too, have been overflown."

Khrushchev replied: "By your American allies?!"

"No, by you. Yesterday that satellite [Sputnik 4] you launched just before you left Moscow to impress us overflew the sky of France 18 times without my permission. How do I know you do not have cameras aboard which are taking pictures of my country?"

De Gaulle crossed his arms and looked at Khrushchev; now it was the premier's turn to be taken aback. Khrushchev had been needled by Mao Zedong, but there was something sneering and adolescent in Mao's condescension; Mao was not in a league with de Gaulle, who spoke down to Khrushchev, without a trace of self-consciousness, as if from an Olympian height. Then the premier took on an expression of peace, and raised his hands: "God sees me. My hands are clean. You don't think I would do a thing like that?"

The phrase was odd, coming from a pointedly atheistic communist, but de Gaulle continued with his questioning: "Well, how did you take those pictures of the far side of the Moon which you showed us with such justifiable pride?"

"Ah, in that one I had cameras."

"Ah, in that one you had cameras. Pray, continue."

De Gaulle's needling was not so far off the mark, since the Vostok space capsule was, to a considerable extent, also a prototype of the Zenit spy satellite. Khrushchev did continue, his hands shaking even more. Although Eisenhower was clearly becoming angry, he said nothing, instead restlessly doodling on a piece of paper; Macmillan appeared uneasy, while de Gaulle clearly found the scene tiresome. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 16 JUN 16] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for May included:

-- 06 MAY 16 / JCSAT 14 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 FT booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0521 UTC (local time + 4) to put the "JCSAT 14" geostationary comsat into orbit, for Tokyo-based SKY Perfect JSAT Corp. JCSAT 14 was built by Space Systems / Loral, being based on the SSL-1300 comsat platform; it had a launch mass of 4,696 kilograms (10,353 pounds), a payload of 26 C-band / 18 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years.

JCSAT 14 was placed in the geostationary slot at 154 degrees east longitude to support data networks, television broadcasters, and mobile communications users in Japan, East Asia, Russia, Oceania, Hawaii and other Pacific islands. The space platform was renamed "JCSAT 2B" after entering operational service. The Falcon 9 FT main stage successfully soft-landed on a platform in the Atlantic, this being the third soft landing in seven attempts.

-- 15 MAY 16 / YAOGAN 30 -- A Chinese Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0243 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 30" satellite into polar Sun-synchronous orbit. It was described as an Earth-observation satellite for civil use, but was apparently an optical military surveillance satellite.

-- 24 MAY 16 / GALILEO 13 & 14 -- A Soyuz STB-Fregat booster was launched from Kourou at 0848 UTC (local time + 3) to put two "Galileo" navigation satellites into orbit. These were the 13th and 14th satellites, the 10th and 11th of the "full operational constellation (FOC)" satellites. The complete Galileo constellation will consist of 30 satellites along three orbital planes in medium Earth orbit, including two spares per orbit.

Galileo FOC satellite

-- 27 MAY 16 / THAICOM 8 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 FT booster was launched from Cape Canaveral to put the "Thaicom 8" geostationary comsat into orbit. Thaicom 8 had a launch mass of 3,200 kilograms (7,100 pounds). It was based on the Orbital ATK around the GEOStar-2.3 satellite bus, also used for the earlier "Thaicom 6" spacecraft, with a payload of 24 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. The satellite was placed in the geostationary slot at 76.5 degrees east, to provide data relay and broadcasting to Thailand, India and East Africa. The Falcon 9 FT main stage successfully performed a soft landing on the SpaceX automated recovery barge.

-- 29 MAY 16 / COSMOS 2516 (GLONASS M) -- A Russian Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome at 0844 UTC (local time - 4) to put the "Cosmos 2516" GLONASS M third-generation navigation satellite into orbit. It had a launch mass of 1,415 kilograms (3,120 pounds). It was the 53rd satellite in the GLONASS fleet. It brought the GLONASS constellation up to a total of 28 satellites in orbit, including three spares.

-- 30 MAY 16 / ZIYUAN 3-2 -- A Chinese Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0000 UTC (local time - 8) to put the second "Ziyuan 3" land survey satellite into near-polar Sun-synchronous orbit. Ziyuan 3-2 had a launch mass of about 2,630 kilograms (5,800 pounds). It carried three high-resolution panchromatic cameras and an infrared multispectral scanner. The cameras were positioned at the front-facing, ground-facing, and rear-facing positions. The resolution of the mapping camera system was improved compared to Ziyuan 3-1, being enhanced from 3.5 to 2.7 meters.

Ziyuan 3-2 was to conduct surveys on land resources, help with natural disaster-reduction and prevention and lend assistance to farming, water conservation, urban planning and other sectors, surveying the area between 84 degrees north and 84 degrees south latitude. The mission was to last four years, with a possible extension to five. The ZY-3 satellites were designed and constructed by CAST/BISSE (China Academy of Space Technology / Beijing Institute of Spacecraft System Engineering) for the Chinese Ministry of Land and Resources.

The launch also included the "NuSat 1" and "NuSat 2" commercial high-resolution Earth observation microsatellites for Satellogic of Argentina. The two satellites each had a payload of three imagers -- one infrared, one color, and one hyperspectral, with a best resolution of a meter -- and a launch mass of 35 kilograms (77 pounds). They were precursors to an "Aleph-1" constellation of 25 similar small spacecraft.

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[WED 15 JUN 16] ALWAYS CHANGING

* ALWAYS CHANGING: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Humans Are Still Evolving -- And We Can Watch It Happen" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 17 May 2016), two new studies have shown how the human genome has changed in recent history, showing how since Roman times the British have evolved to be taller and fairer, and how just in the last generation the effect of a gene that favors cigarette smoking has dwindled in some groups.

Evolutionary change occurs in populations as modified genes arise through mutation, and then spread through that population. Every person carries two copies of each gene, but any particular gene may vary slightly from person to person, these variants being called "alleles". Mutations in one allele might increase height, while those in another allele might decrease it. If tall people have some survival or reproductive advantage over shorter people, then the allele favoring height will gradually spread through the population.

Thanks to giant genomic data sets, researchers can now track evolutionary shifts in allele frequencies over short timescales. Jonathan Pritchard of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, and his research team went through a genomic data set of British citizens, counting unique "single-base changes", found in each genome. Such idiosyncratic changes, or "singletons", are likely recent, because they haven't had time to spread through the entire population. Since alleles carry neighboring DNA with them as they circulate, the number of singletons on DNA associated with an allele can be used as a rough molecular clock; alleles associated with fewer singletons are more recent arrivals in a population.

Pritchard's team analyzed 3,000 genomes collected under the British "UK10K" sequencing project. For each allele of interest in each genome, they calculated a "singleton density score". The more intense the selection on an allele, the faster it spreads through a population, and the less time there is for singletons to accumulate near it. The procedure can reveal selection over the past 100 generations, or roughly 2,000 years.

The researchers found relatively few singletons near alleles that confer lactose tolerance and that code for particular immune system receptors. Among the British, these alleles have evidently been strongly selected and have spread rapidly. The team also found fewer singletons near alleles for blond hair and blue eyes, indicating that these traits have also rapidly spread over the past 2,000 years. One evolutionary pressure may have been Britain's overcast skies: Genes for fair hair also cause lighter skin color, which allows the body to make more vitamin D in conditions of weak sunlight. Sexual selection could have been at work as well, driven by a preference for blond mates.

With the help of computing power, Pritchard's team also detected selection in traits controlled not by a single gene, but by tiny changes in suites of hundreds of genes, encompassing height, head circumference in infants, and hip size in females -- crucial for giving birth to those infants. By inspecting the density of singletons flanking more than 4 million DNA differences, they discovered that selection for all three traits occurred across the genome in recent millennia.

* Joseph Pickrell, an evolutionary geneticist at New York Genome Center in New York City, has taken a different approach to a similar end. He and his research team took a close look at the genomes of 60,000 people of European ancestry who had been genotyped by Kaiser Permanente in Northern California, and 150,000 people from a massive UK sequencing effort called the UK Biobank.

The researchers wanted to see if alleles change frequency across individuals of different ages, revealing selection at work within a generation or two. The biobank included relatively few old people, but it did have information about participants' parents, so the team also looked for connections between parental death and allele frequencies in their children.

In the parents' generation, for example, the researchers saw a correlation between early death in men and the presence in their children -- and so presumably in the parents -- of a nicotine receptor allele that makes it harder to quit smoking. Many of the men who died relatively young had reached adulthood in the UK in the 1950s, when a pack-a-day habit was not unusual among British men.

In contrast, the allele's frequency in women and in people from Northern California did not vary with age, presumably because fewer in these groups smoked heavily, and the allele did not affect their survival. As smoking has been discouraged in recent decades, to considerable effect, the pressure to weed out the allele has disappeared, and its frequency is unchanged in younger men.

Pickrell's team detected other shifts as well. A set of gene variants associated with late-onset menstruation was more common in longer-lived women, suggesting a linkage. Pickrell also reported that the frequency of the "ApoE4" allele, associated with Alzheimer's disease, drops in older people, because carriers died early. Such analyses over short timeframes will always be influenced by statistical noise -- but given large enough populations, the signal of evolutionary change remains loud and clear.

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[TUE 14 JUN 16] HEAVY-DUTY EVS

* HEAVY-DUTY EVS: As discussed by an article from the YALE ENVIRONMENT 360 website ("As Electric Cars Stall, A Move To Greener Trucks and Buses" by Cheryl Katz, 24 March 2016), this summer, Santa Rosa CA is becoming a bit quieter, as noisy diesel garbage trucks are replaced by shiny and silent new electric ones.

The electric garbage trucks are the work of Ian Wright, one of the founders of Tesla motors, who left Tesla to start Wrightspeed -- maker of electric powertrains for medium- and heavy-duty commercial vehicles. Although electric passenger vehicles aren't selling so well in a time of low fuel prices, bigger electric vehicles are rapidly establishing themselves in roles such as city buses, delivery trucks, freight loaders, and even marine ferries.

The new electric drives are particularly well suited to medium- and heavy-duty vehicles that make frequent stops, with regenerative braking feeding power back into the battery pack. Wright says: "We do garbage trucks because a single truck burns 14,000 gallons [53,000 liters] a year." Given $3 USD a gallon, that comes to $42,000 USD. The company is also producing electric delivery trucks for FedEx -- more than 800 electric delivery trucks are now being operated by FedEx and UPS -- and has had inquiries for a variety of other applications, including mining trucks, trains, and coastal patrol boats.

Christopher Knittel, director of the Center for Energy & Environmental Policy Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the development of heavier-duty electric motors, batteries, and vehicle technologies could potentially help cut commercial and municipal transport's carbon emissions by 25% to 50% in the coming decades. Users of heavy vehicles are organizations that typically think over longer ranges than consumers, and are willing to pay more up-front to have lower long-term operating costs.

Public transit represents a particularly promising market for heavy electric vehicles. They're nothing all that new in that sector; electric cables or rails have long powered trams and trains. Batteries liberate buses from dependence on electric lines; buses can carry large battery packs, and in city service they can easily perform an entire route on a single charge, with the route taking them back to a charging station.

China is the world leader in manufacture and export of electric buses, and also the biggest electric-bus user, with around 80,000 currently on the road, with thousands more set to come. Electric buses are a particular benefit in China's polluted cities; Shanghai is adding 1,400 electric buses a year beginning from 2015.

Electric buses are also gaining ground in the USA and Europe, if not yet at the same level as China. Dozens are already serving in places such as Southern California's San Gabriel Valley; Nashville; and San Antonio, with US cities preparing to buy several hundred more over the next few years. Even London's iconic double-deckers are going electric, with the first five now in service. One technology analysis firm estimates that global electric bus sales will near 60,000 in 2017, and top 250,000 by 2025.

The primary selling points of electric trash trucks and buses are lower operating costs and lower environmental impact, in terms of both emissions and noise. Are they a cure for climate change? That's not and cannot be the selling point, Wright saying: "On an individual basis, it makes enormous amounts of sense. However, there are only 150,000 garbage trucks in the country."

The climate-change issue is [almost] a red herring, electric garbage trucks being worthwhile on their own merits. Wright believes that 90% of America's garbage trucks will use electric drives within five years. However, it's not completely a red herring; transport accounts for about 60% of US emissions, with medium- and heavy-duty commercial rolling stock responsible for about a quarter of that. 15% of emissions is a substantial bite, and nobody says there's any one solution to the climate change issue in the first place. According to Knittel: "There's no silver bullet here, but there's a bunch of silver pellets."

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[MON 13 JUN 16] THE TAMBORA CATASTROPHE (3)

* THE TAMBORA CATASTROPHE (3): The direct effects of a volcanic eruption, no matter how powerful, are not a threat to the world outside the eruption's footprint -- but as with the Tambora eruption, it will still make itself felt everywhere. A Tambora-like eruption would be much more troublesome now, since there's more it can make trouble for.

All disasters now reverberate more than they would once have done. Disrupted supply chains meant the effects from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami in 2011 echoed elsewhere, while tourism meant many more Swedes died in the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004 than in any recent disaster on their home soil. As Eyjafjallajokull in Iceland showed in 2010 -- as discussed here at the time -- even a small eruption's ash cloud can have a big impact on air traffic, if the eruption is in an inconvenient place, while a really big eruption would profoundly disrupt the airlanes. That has knock-on effects of its own: the disruption of shipments of flowers to Europe imposed serious economic pain on Kenyan flower growers and their employees.

There would also be damage to the ozone layer, since the reactions by which chlorine destroys ozone are promoted by the sulphate particles produced by volcanoes. Pinatubo saw global reductions in stratospheric ozone levels, and a considerable enhancement of the "ozone hole" over Antarctica. If a Tambora-scale eruption were to happen in the near future, it would have even bigger consequences.

That leads back to climate effects. Models show that if an eruption takes place near the equator -- as with Tambora and Pinatubo -- then in the following year, there would be an average cooling of about two degrees Celsius over much of America, Europe, Asia and Africa; and decreased precipitation over the Amazon, southern Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and China. In the course of the intervening winter, the particles that cool the surface would warm the stratosphere. That would alter the Arctic jet stream, resulting in an unusually warm winter in America's prairies, western Europe and Central Asia, and a very cold one in eastern Canada, the Middle East, and southern China.

What would that mean for global agriculture? While the Tambora example might suggest a major eruption would be serious bad news for farming, the world has changed greatly since the time of Tambora -- one change being the globalization of large-scale agriculture, which means that bad harvests in some places may be offset by bumper crops elsewhere. Models and studies of the effects of the Pinatubo eruption suggest that the world's plant life as a whole gets more productive in the cooler, drier years that follow eruptions. It is also possible that some parts of a world stressed by global warming might welcome sudden cooling, if not increased dryness.

Another cause for measured optimism is that the world will see the eruption coming, and hopefully take precautions to deal with the effects. The Red Cross / Red Crescent Climate Center is dedicated both to providing warnings about the human impacts of climate shifts and extreme weather, and to acting as an advocate for the people who suffer from them most. The center works to identify possible impacts, get warnings out, and offer advice on how to cope. Its head, Maarten van Alst, says he thinks that the climate impacts of a contemporary Tambora might be along the lines of the big El Nino of 1997:98, which led to losses estimated at $36 billion USD, with 130 million lives affected, and 21,000 lives lost. Center leadership is working to set up a program that would investigate what actions should be given priority in that lull between the eruption and the cooling that would follow.

What complicates any analysis is that an eruption doesn't have to be big to cause noticeable climate effects. Eruptions that take place well away from the equator cool only their own hemisphere; these lopsided coolings have an impact on the "inter-tropical convergence zone (ITCZ)" -- a belt of rain around the equator. When the northern hemisphere cools, the ITCZ shifts south, the result being droughts in Africa's Sahel.

Of the Sahel's four worst years of drought during the 20th century, three took place after northern-hemisphere eruptions: in the year after the Katmai eruption in Alaska (in 1913), and the years of and after the El Chichon eruption in Mexico (in 1982 and 1983). A repeat of the Tambora-sized blast at Taupo in New Zealand that took place 1,800 years ago, on the other hand, would push the ITCZ to the north and bring plenty of rain to the Sahel -- but the Amazon would have a dry few years.

For a smallish eruption at high latitudes, the effects on the ITCZ would likely be well more damaging than the local and regional effects. The shift in the ITCZ from a Tambora-like eruption, in contrast, would be well less damaging than the local and regional effects, as well as the unpredictable knock-on effects of its global impact beyond any shift in the ITCZ.

Despite the complexity of the threats, there is still plenty of cause for optimism that the challenges of volcanic eruptions can be met. Along with a wider agricultural base and more foresight, the world is much better governed than it was in 1815 -- if we complain about governance now, any realistic consideration of what it was like two centuries ago makes it appear a much more competent and conscientious -- and there's so many more resources to deal with problems. There might well be a need for humanitarian interventions in the weird-climate years that follow an eruption, but such interventions do now happen.

Would global civilization be able to cope with a really huge eruption, one that dwarfs the Tambora event, like the infrequent eruptions of the huge volcanic caldera that -- as discussed here in 2008 -- defines America's Yellowstone National Park? We'd certainly be able to get some advance warning and make preparations, but it would be a calamity that would dwarf any other in all recorded history; maybe all of them put together. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 10 JUN 16] THE COLD WAR (116)

* THE COLD WAR (116): The Soviets released no new information on the U-2 spyplane on 6 May -- but on 7 May, Khrushchev announced to the Supreme Soviet with grinning satisfaction:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Comrades, I must tell you a secret ... I deliberately did not say that the pilot was alive and in good health, and that we have parts of the airplane. We did this intentionally, since if we had reported everything at once, the Americans would have made up another version. [Applause and laughter from the hall.]

... The pilot, Powers, was supposed to have killed himself by pricking himself with a poison pin. What barbarism! ["Shame!" "Shame!"] Here is the instrument [Khrushchev holds up photo] -- the latest achievement of the Americans for killing their own people.

END QUOTE

In response, the White House fell into confusion, with Eisenhower allowing the State Department to announce that Powers had not been given authorization by the president to overfly the USSR. Few believed that; and to the extent anyone did, it merely suggested that the president wasn't really in charge, with the blame being conveniently shifted to underlings. On the morning of 9 May, Defense Secretary Gates called Secretary of State Herter, the conversation being emotional, with Gates strongly and rightly objecting to the implication that his officers were engaged in overflights of the USSR on their own initiative. Gates all but demanded that "somebody", meaning the resident of the Oval Office, take responsibility.

When Herter talked to Eisenhower about the conversation, the president conceded the game was up; but the only immediate consequence was the issue of further press releases that made half-hearted admissions, and tried to further muddy the waters. Nobody was fooled, the US news media reacting with justified incredulity and contempt. James Reston wrote in THE NEW YORK TIMES:

BEGIN QUOTE:

This is a sad and perplexed capital tonight, caught in a swirl of charges of clumsy administration, bad judgement and bad faith. It was depressed and humiliated by the United States trying to cover up its activities in a series of misleading official announcements.

END QUOTE

Eisenhower finally realized that his custom of indirection had disastrously backfired, leaving his "reputation for honesty" in tatters. He toyed with the idea of resigning, but knew he had to face the music. He briefed Congress on the U-2 program and defended it; said the program was under his control; then admitted he had bungled the handling of the matter. On 9 May, the State Department released a document that stated the president had "full knowledge" of the program, greatly distressing Khrushchev; worse, the document did not promise to end the overflights.

The premier found himself in an impossible position, being forced to maintain an inflexible front lest he be accused of spinelessness by Kremlin hawks. On 10 May, Khrushchev gave a presentation to a group of journalists, blasting the "impudence" of Eisenhower in sending spyplanes over the USSR, comparing him to petty criminals; one foreign journalist judged the premier confused. On 11 May, Khrushchev announced that Powers would be put on trial and commented: "You understand that if such aggressive actions continue, this could lead to war."

That same day, Eisenhower gave a press conference, in which he defended the surveillance overflights as a "distasteful but vital necessity", and pointed out that he had proposed "Open Skies" in 1955 in recognition of that necessity, to be rebuffed by the Soviets: they couldn't say they hadn't been warned of American intent. More petulantly if still accurately, he pointed out that the U-2 was an "unarmed non-military plane", and that the "propaganda exploitation" of the incident reflected the Soviet "fetish for secrecy". When asked by a reporter if the presidential trip to the USSR was off, Eisenhower gave a most optimistic answer: "No, not at all." Another reporter asked if the outlook for the summit conference in Paris had changed, the president replied: "Not decisively at all, no."

What else could he have replied? Although the premier continued to publicly blast the United States, he didn't call off the Paris summit. Khrushchev privately expressed optimism that the summit would go well, his expectation being that Eisenhower would clear the road for negotiations by admitting he hadn't been responsible for the U-2 overflights, and that he would apologize -- despite the fact that Khrushchev had not the slightest indication the president would do either, that he had every reason not to do either.

The premier's attitude suggested his failure to understand Eisenhower, to believe that the president's distaste for undignified belligerent public theatrics, his inclination to seek and skillfully manipulate consensus, his avowed fears of war, meant he was a weak leader. The reality was that Khrushchev wasn't half the leader Eisenhower was. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 09 JUN 16] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Smart cars are a big thing these days. German automotive electronics giant Bosch has come up with a new spin on the idea: the smart gas pedal.

Bosch's prototype intelligent "haptic" gas pedal provides feedback on when to accelerate and when to brake, with fuel economy savings of up to 7% -- while improving safety. The pedal vibrates in several different ways to communicate different messages; it can also adjust its resistance to being pressed. It decides what to communicate based on information received from your car's engine, its batteries, sensors around the car, the GPS, and even the digital cloud. For example:

Such things could be done with a display alert, but the gas pedal is much less visually distracting, while being harder to ignore; indeed, with some familiarity, driver response should become automatic. Bosch doesn't make cars, so there's no saying when smart gas pedals will become available, but the idea does have its attractions.

* In a further-out automotive idea, Goodyear Tires is re-inventing the tire with the "Eagle-360", which is in the shape of a ball. Rotating such a tire would seem problematic, but Goodyear envisions the Eagle-360 as electromagnetically propelled -- basically, it's the rotor element of an electromagnetic motor, with no contact with the chassis while in motion, the car "levitating" on top of the tires.

Goodyear Eagle-360 tire

Too out there? Maybe, but the idea has some clear attractions -- not only reducing friction in the drivetrain and providing shock absorption, but eliminating steering as we know it. Need to park? The tires just spin to the side; the vehicle could easily rotate 360 degrees within its own length. The Eagle-360 also takes a cue from nature in the pattern of whorls that made up its tread, which are inspired by brain corals. In addition, the tread pattern is adaptive: becoming softer and with a stronger grip in wet conditions, stiffening in dry conditions? Something we'll see ten years from now? Unlikely, but certainly worth puzzling with; even if it's not workable in itself, it may have the seed of an idea that is workable.

* Now taking to the air ... although Amazon.com's scheme to use quadcopter drones to deliver packages, known as "Prime Air", has earned the company some derision, an entry from WIRED Online blogs ("Amazon's Drones May Be a Marketing Stunt, But We Kinda Need Them" by Alex Davies, 30 November 2015) suggests the concept is more than a gimmick.

As Amazon envisions Prime Air, the drones will weigh about 23 kilograms (50 pounds), fly under 120 meters (400 feet), and haul payloads weighting up to about 2.3 kilograms (5 pounds). The little aircraft will use "sense and avoid" technology -- including vehicle-to-vehicle communication, GPS, and Wi-Fi -- to detect hazards in flight, as well as no-fly zones and other alerts. The company says it's testing more than a dozen drone prototypes and has "development centers" in the US, Israel, and the UK.

Amazon's press releases on Prime Air clearly serve a marketing function, and there's many questions left to be answered about the scheme -- one big one being an intro date, Amazon having remained mum on that matter. However, all that said, Amazon has a fair case for Prime Air.

In the next 30 years, the American population will increase by 70 million, to 390 million people. Thanks in part to orders from Amazon, freight volume will grow 45%, to 26 billion tonnes (29 billion tons) a year, according to a recent report by the US Department of Transportation. Our road infrastructure is not in the best shape, and doesn't seem likely to improve much in the foreseeable future. Trucks, which move nearly 70% of American freight, already waste $27 billion USD a year in time and fuel while stuck in traffic.

Can Amazon's drones help? The Feds think so, with US Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx telling WIRED: "The stress on our freight system is increasing. We have to look at other ways to move." Foxx also commented on "the potential commercial uses of drones as a reliever of the surface transportation system." Amazon is already putting stress on a strained transport system; it seems entirely worthwhile to investigate alternative schemes of delivering freight. Might we not see, in a few decades, skyways in which drones haul heavier freight from city to city, delivering it directly to end users? It certainly seems like an interesting idea.

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[WED 08 JUN 16] TAKING THE HEAT

* TAKING THE HEAT: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("A Hot Survivor", 9 April 2016), coral reefs are the richest environment in the oceans for marine wildlife, but they exist on the edge: although they thrive in warm water, a rise in temperature of just a degree Celsius above the average summer maximum for their region will kill them off. That makes global warming a dangerous threat to the world's coral reefs.

However, some corals are better adapted to higher temperatures than others. While most will die if the water temperature goes above 31 degrees Celsius (88 degrees Fahrenheit), those in the Persian Gulf can withstand temperatures of 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). A new study explains why, and offers some promise for saving the rest of the world's coral reefs.

Corals get their bright colors from tiny algae that live in their tissue in a symbiotic relationship -- with the coral providing a home and the algae food, produced by photosynthesis. If the temperatures get too high, the algae depart, with the coral becoming a "bleached" white skeleton. In 2015 Joerg Wiedenmann, a marine biologist, and his colleagues at the University of Southampton in Britain discovered that the algae inside the Persian Gulf corals were a different species from that commonly found in other parts of the world, and that this species had a high degree of heat tolerance.

The discovery of this algae, named Symbiodinium thermophilum, raised a number of questions. The Persian Gulf is only about 15,000 years old, no time at all by geological standards; did the algae evolve there, or migrate in from some other locale? To investigate, Wiedenmann and his colleagues collected samples from 23 reefs within the Persian Gulf; the adjacent Gulf of Oman; and the Red Sea, which is at nearly the same latitude as the Persian Gulf, but geographically isolated from it.

They screened the samples for the genetic markers of S. thermophilum and found, not surprisingly, that it was the most common algae in the Persian Gulf. However, it was not confined there, being also found in the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea, if in much smaller numbers. A closer investigation showed all the samples from the Persian Gulf were genetically very similar, those from the Gulf of Oman and the Red Sea were clearly different.

In other words, it seemed as though the strains of S. thermophilum in the Persian Gulf evolved there -- Wiedenmann judging that the intense heat of the gulf has provided strong selection pressures for the emergence of heat-tolerant algae. The exact genetic mechanisms by which S. thermophilum acquired its heat tolerance remain to be identified. Wiedenmann suggests that introducing heat-tolerance algae to coral reefs under threat elsewhere might improve their chances for survival. This sort of ecosystem tinkering has a discouraging history -- but it becomes a choice of reefs surviving or becoming bleached skeletons, the pressure to tinker may become irresistible.

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[TUE 07 JUN 16] PROCEED WITH CAUTION

* PROCEED WITH CAUTION: The controversy over genetically-modified (GM) crops has been ironic, since all validated studies show there is no reason to see GM crops as any more or less unsafe than crops developed by more traditional methods. As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Once Again, US Expert Panel Says Genetically Engineered Crops are Safe To Eat" by Kelly Servick, 17 May 2016), a report released in mid-May -- sponsored by the National Academies of Science, Engineering, & Medicine -- again confirmed GM crops pose no particular threat to health.

The study on which the paper was based began in 2014, when a group of 20 scientists began hashing out a consensus on the risks and benefits of GM crops. Since the beginning of the study, the furor over GM has roared on -- while, more quietly, GM crop development has been greatly accelerated by the gene-editing technique known as "CRISPR", which has made GM much easier and more powerful. The new wave of GM crops has left regulators in both the USA and the European Union struggling with how to assess their safety.

The report tackled the list of issues at the core of the argument over GM:

The authors assessed hundreds of research papers to obtain general conclusions about GM crops now in commercial use:

Few researchers found these conclusions a surprise, though few think the report will make much of a dent in the public's widespread suspicion of GM.

The report addressed regulation in the final chapter. As discussed in the "Natural Foods" series run here earlier this year, many countries -- including the United States, whose framework for reviewing new biotechnology products was drafted in 1986 -- didn't, couldn't, envision modern technologies when they legally defined genetic modification. The first generation of GM crops used a bacterium to ferry genes from one organism into another. That was a brute-force approach; in the 21st century, CRISPR can knock out or precisely edit DNA sequences without leaving behind any foreign DNA. Only weeks before the release of the report, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) judged two CRISPR-edited crops -- a mushroom that resists browning and a high-yield variety of waxy corn -- to be exempt from its review process because neither contained genetic material from species considered to be "plant pests".

Critics of the USDA argue that small genetic changes can still have big effects on the characteristics of a plant, and that gene-edited crops are not as safe as claimed, the safety testing being slipshod or biased. The issue of genetic change relative to products labeled "GM" is a red herring; forced mutation, a traditional and widespread means of producing new crop varieties -- (somehow) not regarded as "GM" by regulators anywhere -- results in a wide range of not-necessarily-predictable genetic changes in a target plant. The precision of CRISPR limits environmental and health risks by making fewer unintended tweaks to a plant's genome.

As far as the validity of the safety testing goes, the only real issue is that the focus on GM as an evaluation criteria is misguided. Like several National Academies reviews before it, the new study derided regulatory approaches that classify products based on the technology used to create them. Nobody says GM crops should be given a free pass; the real issue is that all new crop plants pose the same level of potential hazard, no matter how they were developed.

Fred Gould -- an applied evolutionary biologist at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, and chair of the group that produced the new report -- commented: "The National Academy has been saying since 1987 that it should be the product, not the process. But the problem up until now is ... how do you decide which products need more examination than others?"

The report suggested that regulators should ask for a full analysis of a plant's composition -- using tools such as genome sequencing, along with analysis of the proteins and small molecules in a sample -- to determine when a full safety review is necessary. The approach seems reasonable to others, but there are questions about the criteria that would be used to implement it. Gould replied that deciding exactly which kinds of genetic or metabolic changes represent a risk will be left to regulatory agencies, saying: "We just give principles. We're not in the trenches with them."

The regulators haven't been left entirely to their own devices, however. In the wake of the report, the National Academies just launched yet another study, due out by the end of 2016, to predict the next decade of biotechnology products and describe the scientific tools needed to regulate them. The bottom is clear: despite public doubts, GM is coming, there's no stopping it. We're going to have to figure out better ways to deal with it than denial.

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[MON 06 JUN 16] THE TAMBORA CATASTROPHE (2)

* THE TAMBORA CATASTROPHE (2): Climatologists don't believe the 1815 eruption of Tambora was entirely responsible for the consequent fit of cooling. There had been another large eruption six years before -- nobody is sure where, its signature only being known from sulfur in ice cores taken from Greenland and Antarctica. The eruption was bigger than Pinatubo, not as big as Tambora, but such temperature records as are available hints there was some cooling from 1809.

A British geologist named Euan Nisbet says that Jane Austen's novel EMMA suggests a late spring in 1814, with apple trees not blossoming until June. There are suspicions among geologists that a series of eruptions might create a climate downturn that lasts longer than models predict. This line of thinking hints that a series of eruptions in the late 13th century may have resulted in the extended period of cooling known as the "Little Ice Age".

In addition, human activities aggravated the impact of the cooling. Europe had been in turmoil from revolution and the Napoleanic Wars for decades, making European societies more vulnerable to environmental stress. Yunnan would not have suffered so terribly had the Qing dynasty not worked to expand the population there through settlement. The cooling may have been one of the blows that gradually led to the collapse of Imperial China.

Another interesting question about the Tambora eruption is the longer-term effect. In America, the spike in grain prices caused by European crop failures drove a wave of farmers across the Appalachians to where the Ohio Valley was enjoying far more pleasant weather, with barges taking exports for Europe down the Mississippi in ever larger amounts. The collapse in the grain price when Europe's harvest recovered contributed to the American economy's first major depression. In Europe, the effect of the bad weather, following the disruptions of the Napoleonic Wars, led to a period of authoritarian rule that lasted until mid-century.

The more interesting question is: what happens if a Tambora-class eruption happens again? On the short term of decades, volcanic eruptions don't count for much; the insurance industry pays far less attention to them than to storms, floods, or earthquakes. Thinking in terms of centuries, however, volcanoes become more frightening; even a small eruption, if it occurred in a built-up area, could inflict a tremendous amount of damage.

One study suggests that an eruption of Italy's Vesuvius one the scale of the one that took place in 1631 -- a much smaller event than that which destroyed Pompeii in 79 CE -- could cause losses of over $22 billion USD. Most of the property damage would be from to buildings collapsing under the weight of the ash that falls on them. The 1707 eruption of Mount Fuji produced only 2% as much ash as Tambora did, but if either of the two eruptions were re-played today, the Fuji eruption would be more destructive to Japan, since it would produce heavy ashfall on Tokyo and its surroundings. There's just that much more to damage today.

One of the other disturbing aspects of eruptions, hinted at above, is that they vary so greatly in scale. One high-power hurricane is roughly like another; to the extent that some are stronger than others in their class, it's not by an order of magnitude. As the time scale with volcanic eruptions is extended, in contrast, ever-bigger eruptions show up.

In terms of direct effects, that's still not too worrying for most of the world's population; only about one out of eight people on Earth live within the footprint of a major eruption, and of course it's unlikely to have two major eruptions simultaneously. A "Global Assessment Report (GAR)" prepared for the UN summit on disaster-risk reduction held in Sendai, Japan, in March 2015 found that 95% of those at risk live in just seven countries. Five -- including Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, Mexico, and Guatemala -- are on the Pacific "ring of fire", where clashing tectonic plates give rise to volcanism and earthquakes; the other two are Ethiopia and Italy. Two-thirds of the exposed population is in Indonesia.

One good thing about volcanic eruptions that they usually give plenty of warning, and scientists have learned to recognize and assess the warning signs. Most volcanoes that are close to large populations of people are carefully monitored, though with some exceptions. Countries where volcanic eruptions occur also generally have reaction plans. During the 2010 eruptions of Mount Merapi in Indonesia, the largest so far in the 21st century, 350,000 people were evacuated, reducing the death toll to a few hundred. Evacuations also limited the deaths from the Pinatubo eruption.

Predicting really big eruptions does seem to be harder than predicting small ones. Before a very large eruption, the volcano has been dormant for centuries, the internal forces taking time to build up. However, the first eruption of a long-dormant volcano isn't necessarily catastrophic; it may go through decades of "throat clearing" before it really blows its top. Then again, it might just go back to sleep. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 03 JUN 16] THE COLD WAR (115)

* THE COLD WAR (115): The Soviets having shot down a CIA U-2 and captured its pilot, Nikita Khrushchev was now confronted with a choice: shrug off the incident and proceed with negotiations with the US, or make a crisis out of it. He might have shrugged it off; after all, there were Soviet spies in Western prisons, and their capture hadn't provoked a crisis in East-West relations. Besides, the Soviets were working on spy satellites to overfly the USA, and they had put paid to the U-2 overflights in a very emphatic way. He also had reasons to make a crisis of it, to demonstrate that he wasn't a weakling, that he wasn't soft on defense of the Motherland, that he was still a leader of the Red cause in the confrontation with the capitalist world -- defying the snipings of the Chinese.

Khrushchev at heart was impulsive, driven by insecurities. He decided to play it up to the hilt. There's no way of knowing what would have happened had he simply shrugged the matter off; all that can be said for a fact was that he chose the path of confrontation. To that end, he decided to give the Americans more rope, saying nothing about the incident for the moment.

That afternoon, 1 May, General Goodpaster phoned Eisenhower to tell him: "One of our reconnaissance planes ... is overdue, and possibly lost." That was disturbing, but not too worrisome; there could well be some straightforward reason why the aircraft had disappeared, and in any case, the CIA had reassured the president that the aircraft had a self-destruct system, that the pilot was unlikely to survive a bailout from such altitudes, that even if the Soviets recovered debris, it wouldn't tell them anything.

However, Eisenhower wasn't naive, and he knew the CIA had overstated its case in the past -- how could he have failed to wonder from what experience, what testing, did agency officials know what was going to happen under such circumstances that they could say so with such confidence? Nonetheless, for the moment the president was not assuming the worst. The next day, 2 May, Goodpaster told the president that the aircraft had certainly disappeared. There was nothing that Eisenhower could do but wait for comment by the Soviets -- and since they hadn't raised a fuss about the matter, he saw no reason to do anything himself.

On 5 May Jim Hagerty, the president's press secretary, interrupted a meeting to tell Eisenhower of a report that earlier in the day, Premier Khrushchev had delivered an angry speech to the Supreme Soviet, declaring that Soviet air defenses had shot down an American spy plane. Khrushchev called the intrusion an "aggressive provocation", suggesting that it was performed by "Pentagon militarists", without Eisenhower's knowledge.

Eisenhower was not at all happy at the suggestion he wasn't really in control, a charge often leveled at him by domestic critics; it hinted that Khrushchev judged him a weak leader. In any case, now it was Eisenhower's turn to make a decision: either he could go public and take full responsibility, or he could go quiet and hope the problem went away. If the game was really up, going public was the only real option. After all, the U-2 was no longer a secret to the Kremlin, it hadn't been one to America's allies; the only people who weren't in on the secret were American citizens.

Besides, was it really so embarrassing? The Soviets energetically spied on the West, Red spies had been regularly arrested since the end of the war -- and Khrushchev's violent blustering had given Eisenhower every fair reason to find out what Soviet capabilities really were. Only a minority of American citizens would have had a problem with it.

Then again, possibly Khrushchev had just been venting steam, and would now go quiet. If Eisenhower spoke up, wasn't it likely he would just add fuel to the fire? He decided to keep quiet. The afternoon of that same day, 5 May, the president approved a statement to be released to the news media, saying that a NASA U-2 weather research aircraft flying over Turkey had gone missing on 1 May -- the implication being that it had strayed over Soviet airspace. From this mis-step, others would follow. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 02 JUN 16] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: According to a recent analysis in the journal NATURE CLIMATE CHANGE, given the assumption, generally agreed-upon in the science community, that sea levels will rise two meters or more by the end of the century, the result could be the dislocation of 13 million or more Americans -- a much larger number than previously assumed. Mathew E. Hauer -- one of the study's authors and a doctoral student in geography at the University of Georgia -- commented: "We could see a huge-scale migration if we don't deploy any protection against sea level rise."

The authors of the paper combined future population estimates with predicted sea-level rise, using data from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, to show that millions are at risk: 4.2 million if seas rise by a meter; 13.1 million with a two-meter increase, with the numbers obviously continuing to grow with greater increases. Of the US population at risk, nearly 50% will be in Florida, and an additional 20% in other parts of the Southeastern United States.

North America after 6-meter sea-level rise

None of the 22 coastal states in the continental United States, as well as Washington DC, will be immune from the effects of sea-level rise. If the seas were to rise by about two meters by 2100, more than a million people in California, and almost as many in New York and New Jersey, would be affected. The paper estimated the cost of relocating the 13.1 million people displaced by sea-level rise would be about $14 trillion USD, based on relocation estimates for residents of Alaskan coastal villages. The political implications of resettlement would likely inflate that sum considerably.

Skeptics have suggested the paper has overstated the number of people at risk by projecting current population growth in coastal areas into the future, when it is likely to fall off in the face of the risk factors in settling in coastal regions.

* As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE, the center of our Galaxy is known to have a high level of activity that generates high-energy radiation, but astrophysicists have been unable to account for why the galactic core generates so much gamma radiation. One suggestion is that interactions between dark-matter particles -- believed to make up a large fraction of the Galaxy's mass, though they haven't been nailed down yet -- are producing the surplus gamma rays.

Now, two recent papers suggest that the excess could be produced by "pulsars" -- fast-spinning neutron stars that generate a pulsing radio signal. One reason for believing this is that the pattern of gamma-ray photons streaming from the galactic center is clumpy instead of smooth, strongly suggesting that individual sources of gamma rays, not a diffuse cloud of particles that only occasionally interact, may be to blame. Two research teams -- one from the University of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, and the other made up of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton University -- used slightly different statistical methods to estimate how many pulsars would be needed to create the pattern of gamma-ray radiation that's been observed by an Earth-orbiting gamma-ray telescope.

Both teams came up with much the same value. In the sphere of space that lies within about 5,000 light-years of the center of the Galaxy, a little more than 60 such pulsars of varying size and brightness could generate about half the excess gamma rays seen coming from that region; about 200 could account for all of the excess radiation at those wavelengths. This theory has a difficulty, in that neutron stars are very small and hard to spot at such a distance. However, future observations should help confirm or deny proposed mechanisms for the production of gamma radiation.

* In 1859, a solar outburst caused an electromagnetic storm on Earth, resulting in auroras that were visible at low latitudes, and inducing voltages in telegraph lines that shut down communications. The "Carrington event" -- named after British astronomer Richard Carrington, who documented it -- was thought to have been more powerful than any solar storm since, carpeting the entire Earth.

As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, researchers examining the effects of solar storms in 2003 and 2005 now suspect the Carrington event has been exaggerated; it was neither unusually powerful nor global. Such storms are caused when a ball of hot, electrically-charged gas from the Sun slams into Earth's magnetic field, temporarily weakening it, creating worldwide auroras, and in one case taking out all the power in Sweden's third-largest city. Both recent storms weakened the Earth's magnetic field after just minutes, according to solar readings from satellites and magnetic strength readings from ground sensors. It would have taken more than an hour for such space storms to demonstrate effects everywhere on Earth.

The pattern of changes in magnetic field strength over 48 hours seen in these two events were very similar to those recorded by a ground instrument during the Carrington event -- suggesting the event was no more powerful and no more widespread. This tends to lower the threat level of solar storms against satellites, communications, and power grids; but the threat remains, with such storms being readily able to inflict local damage.

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[WED 01 JUN 16] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: WIRED Online blogs conducted an interview with Manu Saadia, whose new book: TREKONOMICS: THE ECONOMICS OF STAR TREK -- is making something of a splash, even being praised by professional economists.

STAR TREK was never noted for being very imaginative -- but somehow, it seems without trying, the series postulated a breath-taking radical vision of the society of the future. What happens when automation has made goods so cheap that nobody needs money any more? If a people want something, it's theirs for the taking.

Saadia said in the interview: "It's made clear and emphasized several times in the course of the show that the Federation does not have money. You have Captain Picard saying: 'We've overcome hunger and greed, and we're no longer interested in the accumulation of things.'"

UNITED FEDERATION OF PLANETS

Saadia believes the seed of the STAR TREK universe was planted by Isaac Asimov:

BEGIN QUOTE:

In 1941, [Asimov] publishes his first story about robots, and his great idea and insight is that the robots are not going to be our enemies or our doom as a society, the way robots were usually portrayed, as Frankensteins. The robots will liberate us, and so Asimov is trying to figure out a world where human labor is no longer necessary for survival.

And that is something you see throughout STAR TREK, much more so in THE NEXT GENERATION than in the original series. In THE NEXT GENERATION, you have these incredible machines that will make anything for you on the spot and on demand -- the replicators ... a metaphor for universal automation the way it is described in Asimov's robot stories.

END QUOTE

Of course, the STAR TREK holodecks allow people to have effectively any experience they want; they could climb mountains, build their own theme park, or visit anywhere in the Galaxy. Really, could anyone want more?

BEGIN QUOTE:

Imagine yourself growing up in a society where there is never any want or need or financial insecurity of any sort. You will be a very different person. You will be absolutely uninterested in conspicuous consumption.

... You will probably be interested in things of a higher nature -- the cultivation of the mind, education, love, art, and discovery. And so these people are very stoic in that sense, because they have no worldly interests that we today could relate to.

... I usually say that they're all aliens, in a way. My friend Chris [Black], who wrote on the show, said it was really hard for the writers, because it's a workplace drama, but there's no drama.

END QUOTE

Material wealth having become almost meaningless, in the Federation status is determined by achievement: "What really makes sense in the STAR TREK universe and STAR TREK society is to compete for reputation. What is not abundant in STAR TREK's universe is the captain's chair."

Saadia sees a particular irony between the Federation and the Borg, the hive-mind race of cyborgs:

BEGIN QUOTE:

The Borg are such great villains because they're so similar to the Federation, when you think about it. The Borg have perfect allocation of goods, and supply and demand, and everybody is connected to everybody in the beehive, and they just seem to be extremely efficient.

They're also the other society in STAR TREK that could be characterized as "post-scarcity". Any Borg drone never wants or needs anything, it's always provided by the Collective. So it is the mirror image ... of what a society that is both redistributive and satiated could look like. It's almost as if the writers tried to incorporate the criticism of the society they propose.

END QUOTE

* Thanks to one reader for a donation to support the websites last month. That is very much appreciated.

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