* 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.
* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR OCTOBER 2014: As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("The Power Of Xi Jinping", 20 September 2014), following the end of Mao Zedong's rule, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) chose to avoid strong-man rule, instead focusing on "collective leadership", with low-key technocrats like Hu Juntao elevated to the top jobs. However, since Xi Jinping become military chief and general secretary of the Communist Party in November 2012, and president in March 2013, he has been broadcasting the message that he is in charge. He's been nicknamed "Xi Dada (Uncle Xi)", with the name sometimes showing up in official media.
The 61-year-old Xi maintains a very high public profile, while restructuring the government to do his bidding, trimming back high-level committees to concentrate power in his own hands. Under Xi, membership of the Chinese Politburo's Standing Committee, the CCP's key decision-making body, has been cut from nine to seven, back to the headcount of a decade ago. The action was more significant than it might sound: by trimming back the committee, Xi has been able to take effective control of China's domestic security, becoming a dominant figure in China's police, secret police, and judiciary.
Xi's change in political style was clear from the moment in November 2012 when he walked before live cameras into a room in the Great Hall of the People to greet the country as its new leader. He smiled at the crowd of journalists and then apologized for keeping them waiting, a humility previously unheard of. His physical presence was obvious: at 1.8 metres (almost 6 feet), Xi is the tallest leader since Mao -- a point well-noted by a height-obsessed nation.
Xi carefully cultivates his public image: state-controlled news media drops bits of information about him, such as his liking of Hollywood movies, his interest in swimming and hiking. While Chinese leadership, with bad memories of the machinations of Mao's wife Jiang Qing, has tended to leave their wives out of the spotlight, Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan, is a First Lady celebrity. He maintains his decorum but avoids the self-important ostentation common to high CCP officials. Photos released show Xi riding a bike with his little daughter on the back, and pushing his elderly father in a wheelchair; he even allows himself to be the target of a little public mockery. Such modesty is still entirely ostentatious, one headline proclaiming him "Man Of The People, Statesman Of Vision".
Xi is the first Chinese leader to have been born under Communism, and he is a "princeling", a son of a high CCP official. However, as a youth he suffered himself during Mao's lunatic Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, being sent into internal exile to endure a life of deprivation and hardship. Although seen as the strongest leader since Mao, Xi is leery of the comparison, preferring Deng Xiaoping, who turned China onto its current path, as a model. While not demanding adulation, Xi has been able to promote it to a high degree; in addition, he maintains his public profile strictly on his own terms, avoiding uncontrolled press conferences and private interviews.
Xi has implemented a tough crackdown on official corruption. Chinese citizens are glad of it, but it has downsides: it allows him to squeeze political enemies, and it's also made government officials leery of taking risks. So far, Xi has not demonstrated much interest in changes in direction, making it clear that he will maintain the status quo, in particular the CCP's monopoly on power; he has been tough in stepping on dissent, with dozens of high-profile activists arrested. By taking so much visibility and authority on himself, Xi has empowered himself to an extraordinary degree -- which means that if things go wrong, he will shoulder the blame.
* The current unrest in Hong Kong must be high on the list of Xi Jinping's concerns, but he does have tools to deal with it -- one, it seems, being a corps of highly sophisticated malware writers. As reported by BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("A Fresh Reason Not To Jailbreak Your iPhone" by Dune Lawrence and Michail Riley, 13 October 2014), during the protests, Hong Kong activists got messages alerting them to a smartphone app that was supposed to help them coordinate protests; when they downloaded the app, it turned around and bit them.
Lacoon Mobile Security of San Francisco got their hands on the app, and then discovered the "command & control" website the app reported to. The app was particularly sophisticated, able to crack iPhones, with the app then accessing call logs, messages, contact lists, passwords, and pictures. It appears the app could only crack an iPhone if it were "jailbroken" -- that is, with system security bypassed to allow users to tinker with iOS -- but there are worries the crackers are exploiting a vulnerability in iOS that Apple doesn't know about yet.
Lacoon officials suspected from the sophistication of the app, and the fact that the command & control website was all in Chinese, that the Chinese government was behind the intrusion. Of course, BUSINESSWEEK got a "no comment" from an inquiry to the Chinese embassy. Lacoon had never seen anything like the app before -- but some of their competitors had earlier run across a bogus app used to spy on Tibetan activists and other trouble-makers. A Russian group nicknamed "Tsar Team" uses similar spyware. Welcome to the deep black side of the wireless-enabled world.
* As discussed by a note from SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ("Free Up The Two-Year Colleges", September 2014), America's long-underappreciated community colleges are increasingly being seen as a lever to get the overpriced higher education system under control, and provide workers with marketable skills for a technical society. Although actions to mobilize the community colleges have been less evident than the talk, actions seem to be now catching up.
The state of Tennessee is now making its 13 community colleges and 27 technical schools fully public, with students no longer required to pay tuition. The plan is to increase the proportion of college graduates from 32% to 55% by 2025, compared to a current US national average of 42%. Funding is to be provided mainly from lottery money, with reduced scholarships to universities also helping out. The Tennessee experiment is being closely observed by other states: Oregon is considering a similar move, and Mississippi is thinking of trying to get a bill passed again, after a failure of such in 2014.
The community colleges are faced with a dual challenge as they rise in prominence. First, they have to make remedial education a high priority, since many entrants don't have the academic skills to complete community college programs. Second, they have to get up to speed on new technologies, primarily massive open online courses (MOOCs), to improve their capabilities while reducing costs. There's no guarantee that America will be able to clear the bottleneck in higher education; but the signs are looking better that there's an opportunity to do so.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by an article from NEW SCIENTIST, a research team under geologist Steven Jacobsen of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has discovered an enormous reservoir of water, three times the volume of all the Earth's oceans, deep in the Earth's crust -- inside the mantle, the layer of hot rock between the Earth's surface and core. The water does not, of course, make up an underground ocean as such, being instead associated with a blue rock named "ringwoodite".
Jacobsen's team used 2,000 seismometers to study the seismic waves generated by more than 500 earthquakes, with the propagation of the waves through the planet's depths giving hints at its internal structure. Jacobsen performed a study to determine how ringwoodite would affect the propagation of seismic waves. On inspecting seismic wave data, the research team found evidence of wet ringwoodite in the transition zone 700 kilometers (435 miles) down, which divides the upper and lower regions of the mantle. At that depth, the pressures and temperatures are just right to squeeze the water out of the ringwoodite. Jacobsen commented: "It's rock with water along the boundaries between the grains, almost as if they're sweating."
The huge reservoir shines light on the origin of Earth's water. Some geologists think water arrived in comets as they struck the planet, but the new discovery supports the alternative idea that the oceans gradually oozed out of the interior of the early Earth. So far, Jacobsen only has evidence of such watery rock beneath the US; he now wants to find out if it wraps around the entire planet. He noted: "We should be grateful for this deep reservoir. If it wasn't there, it would be on the surface of the Earth, and mountain tops would be the only land poking out."
* As reported by an article from LIVESCIENCE.COM ("Why Asia's Glaciers Are Mysteriously Expanding, Not Melting" by Stephanie Poppas, 13 October 2014), the world's glaciers are melting -- except in the mountainous Karakoram region of Asia, home to K2, the second-highest peak on the planet. Indeed, some of the Karakoram's glaciers are growing.
The anomaly, like everything in the climate change debate, has been a subject of controversy. Sarah Kapnick, a postdoc researcher in the atmospheric and ocean sciences at Princeton University, decided to investigate. She and her colleagues obtained data on recent precipitation and temperatures from the Pakistan Meteorological Department and other sources, including satellite data. They then plugged the data into climate models to track changes in three regions of the Himalayas between 1861 and 2100, including the Karakoram; the central Himalayas; and the southeast Himalayas, including part of the Tibetan Plateau.
The researchers found that a new model that simulates climate down to an area of 50 square kilometers (19 square miles) was able to match the observed temperature and precipitation cycles seen in the Karakoram; models with coarser resolution couldn't account for them. As the Earth warms, precipitation increases across the Himalayas. Because of the Karakoram region's geography, it gets most of this extra moisture in the winter, when westerly winds bring snow to the mountains. In contrast, the central and southeast Himalayan regions get most of their moisture from monsoons in the summer. Because summer is warmer, most of this precipitation falls as rain.
The researchers believe the Karakoram anomaly will persist through the century. Understanding the snowfall in the Himalayas has a practical significance for people in the region, since snow acts as their water reservoir -- with variations leading on one end of the spectrum to droughts, on the other end to floods.
* There's been considerable interest in recent times over the community of organisms that live in or on the human body. Our "commensals" are generally seen as bacteria or protozoans -- but as reported by a note from the North Carolina State University website ("Three Things You Didn't Know About the Arachnids That Live on Your Face" by Michelle Trautwein, 27 August 2014), they also include multicellular organisms, such as the Demodex folliculorum or Demodex brevis mites that inhabit our hair follicles. They're sometimes called "eyebrow mites", since the eybrows are a favored hangout.
The Demodex mites are arachnids, related to spiders and ticks; they look like microscopic ticks with very stubby legs and a greatly extended abdomen. There are dozens of species besides the two known to live on humans, with the mites residing on almost every species of mammal. Nearly all humans have them; although they are hard to see, they can be detected from their DNA patterns found in human facial skin scrapings. They normally live off sloughed skin and hair; they seem to be generally beneficial, helping ensure healthy skin. If they reproduce out of control, however, they can cause a nasty acne; in dogs and cats, they can produce mange. There's a fine line between symbiosis and parasitism.
The two species of Demodex mites that reside on humans are not closely related to each other; the D. brevis mite is, however, closely related to a mite species found on dogs, so we may have picked it up from Fido. There are multiple strains of the mite species on humans; obtaining DNA samplings of mites from people all over the world might give insights into movements of human populations through history.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* YOU WON'T SEE ME: As reported by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("A World of Creatures That Hide in the Open" by Kenneth Chang, 18 August 2014), the Earth's oceans are teeming with life -- including both predators and prey. Unlike land animals, they live in an environment with few places to hide, and so adopted schemes of concealment. Soenke Johnsen, a professor of biology at Duke University in North Carolina, recounts his scuba dives in the open ocean to collect samples: "You'd be surrounded with all these animals. But you could barely see them, because they were transparent."
Johnsen got interested in transparent marine organisms two decades ago, when he was in graduate school. He had been investigating clear biological tissues, such as the lenses in eyes, in an attempt to determine what made them clear, when his doctoral advisor casually told him that the open ocean was full of transparent animals. Johnsen was very surprised, and so shifted his research focus from transparent tissues to transparent creatures, beginning with a postdoctoral fellowship with marine biologist Edith Widder at the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Florida.
Of course, transparency is not so simple as a lack of color, which results in albinism, not transparency. Instead of surface coloring or lack thereof, most of the tissues of a transparent animal must be transparent, which is a startling idea. It's partly startling because ground-living animals are never transparent; the density of air is so much less than that of water that even a crystal-clear, see-through surface animal or bird would probably be easily spotted from its reflections.
Transparent animals are only found in the sea, since the density of water is much greater than that of air, comparable to the density of body tissues, greatly reducing the amounts of light scattering. However, some organs are denser than others, and the transparent animals have specialized internal arrangements that minimize the variations and the reflections. Johnsen's measurements of light transmission through transparent sea animals showed they passed from 20% to 90% of light. He says: "You could read a book through these animals."
That sounds biologically tricky; it gets worse. Those transparent sea creatures that live near the surface of the water run the risk of being sunburned -- not only outside, but inside as well. As a result, some transparent sea creatures have "sunblock" that protects them against ultraviolet radiation. Unfortunately, that means they are opaque to UV, and some predators can see in the UV, meaning that compromises defense by stealth.
Sea creatures have come up with other "stealth" adaptations: mirrors and "counter-illumination". Many sea predators find food by watching for the silhouettes of prey above; it's not unusual for sea predators to have eyes set to look upward. The silvery sides of fish like herring and sardines are arrays of mirrors: they reflect the downwelling light, much the sky is sometimes reflected by a glass skyscraper, to make the building blend into the rest of the sky. If a predator were below a fish with a mirrored surface, the predator would see blue water, not a fish, swimming above.
Eric Denton, a British marine biologist, studied mirrored fish in the 1960s and determined the mirrors were vertical, maximizing the illusion. Some predators have acquired adaptations to defeat camouflage. When light is reflected, its polarization changes; there are species of squid and shrimp that can visually discriminate polarized light, meaning that mirrored fish are perfectly visible to them.
In counter-illumination, instead of reflecting external light for concealment, a sea creature generates it through bioluminescence, using light-producing organs known as "photophores" -- such a scheme being mentioned here in 2010, relative to the little Hawaiian bobtailed squid. Since light leaking out the sides of such creatures would make them vulnerable, they have lenses, mirrors and filters on their photophores to ensure the light is directed downward. Some predators also use counter-illumination, to allow them to sneak up on prey.
Some sea creatures use more than one form of camouflage. For one thing, it is impossible to be entirely transparent; some tissues, like retinas, must absorb light to function. The otherwise transparent squid Chiroteuthis has a light organ to hide its large, opaque eyes, with the eyes tilting as the squid maneuvers underwater, to keep the light pointing downward. A transparent squid also has an opaque gut, because what it eats often is opaque or, worse, glows, compromising its stealth. To minimize its visibility to predators swimming below, the squid's gut is long and thin, like a needle. The gut itself can have mirrors as supplemental camouflage.
Johnsen says that we haven't really learned that much about the camouflaged creatures of the sea, since they are so good at concealment: "We're catching the small, the slow and the stupid, because anything else just goes away. We're just surrounded by an entirely mysterious world. And the fact we can't see it, means we ignore it most of the time."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* COMMERCIAL CAPSULES TO ORBIT: As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Capsules, Take Two" by Frank Morring JR, 22 September 2014, in mid-September the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) awarded two contracts worth a total of $6.8 billion USD to Boeing and SpaceX to develop "commercial crew capsules". Developed under the "Commercial Crew Development (CCD)" program , the capsules will haul up to seven astronauts and cargo into low Earth orbit, though NASA only plans to use them to shuttle four to the International Space Station (ISS); the extra seats are for expansion. The capsules will be able to remain in operational condition during long dockings at the ISS, so they can be used as "lifeboats". Test flights will be conducted no later than the end of 2017.
The Boeing "CST-100" capsule, which is being built with Bigelow Aerospace as a partner, looks like a scaled-up version of the Apollo command module that carried astronauts to the Moon. The CST-100 will have a diameter of 4.54 meters (14 feet 11 inches) and a height of 15.6 meters (16 feet 11 inches). It will be launched by an Atlas 5 booster and will touch down on dry land, using parachutes and airbags. By default, it has five seats, Boeing saying one was added to carry a paying space tourist; two more seats can be fitted if needed.
The SpaceX "Dragon" capsule is an enhanced version of the Dragon capsule currently being flown as an uncrewed ISS cargo carrier. The "Dragonrider", as the crewed variant is nicknamed, will have a diameter of 3.7 meters (12 feet) and a height of 7.2 meters (23 feet 7 inches). It will be launched by the SpaceX Falcon 9 booster, and splash down using parachutes into the sea.
Both capsules use an escape booster, not an escape tower, for rescue on a launch failure; of course, both have an "androgynous peripheral attach system (APAS)" docking unit on the nose to hookup with the ISS, or other space vehicles with an APAS port. The capsules can be refurbished and re-used for multiple space flights. Qualification of the two CCD capsules is regarded as particularly significant, in order to establish "best practices" procedures for the US Federal Aviation Administration in future qualifications of space hardware.
Boeing is getting about twice as much money as SpaceX from the NASA award; it seems that Boeing is being paid more because the Dragonrider is already partly flight-validated and doesn't require the same amount of development funds. The money the firms will make is actually predicated on the number of operational missions they will fly through the contract period, Congress has been needling NASA Administrator Chuck Bolden about the duplication of effort in the CCD effort, but Bolden has been adamant that NASA needs the redundancy, both to ensure reliable access to space and to keep down costs over the long run.
The loser in the CCT award was the Sierra Nevada DreamChaser lifting-body spacecraft. Some industry observers have suggested NASA made a bad choice in rejecting the DreamChaser, since its ability to glide down to a landing strip instead of being recovered from a remote land or sea location should, in principle, reduce costs. NASA officials say that they are continuing a degree of support for the DreamChaser as per earlier contract awards -- but that didn't prevent Sierra Nevada from challenging the capsule contract, with NASA forced to issue a temporary "stop work" order to Boeing and SpaceX. A week later, NASA lifted the order -- even though the challenge was still in process, agency officials saying they could not afford to delay work on the program. It appears the government is getting tired of being held up by legal challenges, and is finding mechanisms to keep on track despite a challenge.
Incidentally, NASA astronauts evaluated a CST-100 mockup in 2013, with the mockup getting some media play-up due to features such as touchscreen displays and a purple colored LED lighting system, derived from "Boeing Sky" interior developed for the latest Boeing jetliners. The crew interface is being made as simple as possible, a Boeing official saying: "What you're not going to find is 1,100 or 1,600 switches. When these guys go up in this, they're primary mission is not to fly this spacecraft, they're primary mission is to go to the space station for six months. So we don't want to burden them with an inordinate amount of training to fly this vehicle. We want it to be intuitive."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (15): I got up early on Friday, 9 May, to drive on Interstate 90 into Spokane. I didn't stop there, however, turning off on a side highway to take me through the farm country to Coulee Dam. It was actually a pleasant drive across the fields, going through the towns of Reardan, Davenport, Creston, and Wilbur -- places where the most significant landmark is the crop silo, too small to even have a McDonald's, they looked like they hadn't much changed in 50 years.
I took the branch road from Wilbur to Grand Coulee and arrived in the early afternoon, taking shots from a number of locations. The last time I was there, water was pouring over the spillways; the dam was quiet this time, but it was still impressive, having been one of the wonders of the world in the 1940s.
That taken care of, I went south along Lake Roosevelt behind the dam, taking in the rugged scenery. It was actually slightly reminiscent of Monument Valley, though not quite that spectacular; instead of reds, the terrain was dominated by blacks.
On reaching the southern end, I had to stop at a farm equipment sales lot to take pictures of Case Logic tractors and combines. Hey, what can I say? I'm hot for heavy technology.
I passed through Coulee City at the based of Lake Roosevelt and then stopped at the lookout for Dry Falls -- a huge gash in the Earth left by the abrupt Bretz floods, discussed here in 2005, about 20,000 years ago. It's not remotely the Grand Canyon, but impressive enough. Dry Falls was one of the objectives of the trip, since I wanted to try out the camera's panoramic mode on it, using a lens hood that I had ordered to see if it could suppress the banding problem. The hood luckily arrived the day before I left; I didn't quite understand how to properly mount it and the fit was loose -- but examination of the photo haul later indicated that it worked quite well. Admittedly the Sun was not in my face, which also helped reduce banding. I figured out, with some puzzling around, how to properly mount the hood a few weeks after I got back.
Further south, I ate lunch in Ephrata, which is big enough to have a McDonald's, in fact big enough to have typical American urban amenities, and then got back on Interstate 90, heading west towards Seattle. I crossed over the Columbia River gorge at Vantage -- but instead of continuing on I-90, I took the parallel local highway running to the north of the interstate. Puget Sound Electric operates the "Wild Horse" wind turbine complex in that area, and I'd discovered PSE has a visitor's center in the middle of the complex.
I ended up on a breezy hilltop, overlooking the countryside to the east, the hills littered by wind turbines. There wasn't much in the visitor's center, the most striking exhibit being a terrain model that showed the wind turbine array over the hills. The complex is huge, with arms spreading out all over the terrain, with the visitor's center at its heart.
Outside, there were rows of turbines in all directions. There were signs warning visitors to stay within bounds, and for anyone going beyond those bounds to wear a hardhat: wind turbines have a tendency to build up ice and shed it at fairly high velocity, with resultant injury to those below. The turbines made a slightly eerie WHURSH WHURSH WHURSH WHURSH sound as they spun around. I've long though there was something strange about wind turbines, and it finally congealed: The alien tripods have landed!
The visit was nothing much, but worth the short diversion. I made it back to I-90 quickly enough and found the hotel. I checked into my room, cleaned up, logged my expenses on a spreadsheet on my tablet, and on a whim checked weather in Loveland. I took a look at the longer-range forecast, and my heart sank: it was supposed to get down to -7 C / 19 F Monday night. I had turned on my sprinkler system in April one year, to go on a trip and find a freeze had cracked open the vacuum breaker while I was gone, with water gushing out and a flood on my lawn. I figured I was safe if I waited until May, but I had just found out I was wrong. What to do? I didn't know. The bad news threw a blanket of anxiety over the rest of the trip. [TO BE CONTINUED]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (43): The balance sheet of the war was obscure. The two Koreas could only take satisfaction in having survived as independent entities -- leaving Korea artificially divided, a condition nobody liked or thought permanent -- with strong support from their respective patrons. Indeed, the war had demonstrated one of the ironic truths of the Cold War, of how small powers could manipulate the rivalry of the great powers. It would not remotely be the last time the tail would wag the dog.
Communist China could take pride in demonstrating that it was a force to be reckoned with, to be dealt with as an equal diplomatically; that meant a great deal to the Chinese, having bitter memories of how foreign powers had pushed China around for generations. China paid a bitter price for that distinction, however, the primitive tactics employed by the PLA resulting in a wastage of manpower that could have otherwise helped modernize China, as well as demonstrating a callous indifference to the misery of the Chinese soldier. The conflict also, much to Beijing's endless frustration, put Taiwan out of China's reach, and to a degree pushed the remilitarization of an economically revived Japan.
What the Soviet Union got out of it, other than evaluation of new jet fighters, is not at all clear. The USSR did demonstrate a willingness to support its North Korean ally, but Stalin's limited terms of assistance to China did not help Sino-Soviet relations. The fact that the war was never seen as a top priority for the Soviet state suggested that it was as strategically marginal for Moscow as it was for Washington DC. There are speculations that Stalin wanted to use the war as a diversion against the USA, but if so, the consequence was a massive American arms buildup, a turnaround from the rapid disarmament of the US after World War II.
For America, the lessons were ambiguous, since "not losing" had been the objective, instead of victory -- and "not losing" wasn't a very satisfactory goal. The conflict had hammered in the reality that the US couldn't disarm; America had global interests, with allies all over the planet, and needed the ability to defend them with force. A decade before, Pearl Harbor had killed off American isolation; Korea kept it from rising from the dead again. Korea also underlined the reality that wars were not necessarily fought to win, and that such limited wars would be very politically and militarily difficult to fight.
* UN Secretary General Trygve Lie had become another casualty of the fighting, well before the armistice. The Soviets had never forgiven him for backing the war in Korea, and refused to deal with him. Technically, Lie could have stayed on, but his position was impossible; he resigned in November 1952, being replaced by Dag Hammserskjoeld of Sweden.
By the end of the conflict, the UN had moved from its various temporary facilities to the new United Nations complex at Turtle Bay in New York City. design of the facility had, of course, been assigned to an international committee, the general director of the effort being American architect Wallace K. Harrison, prestigious members of the committee including Le Corbusier of France and Oscar Niemeyer of Brazil. The complex was marked by the tall Secretariat tower and the domed General Assembly hall, and would become not only a New York landmark, but also an icon of the Cold War.
Eventually, the UN would acquire more facilities in the city. The UN properties were international concessions, like embassies not under the legal authority of the host country. That stoked the growing suspicions of the American Right, who were increasingly inclined to perceive the United Nations as a hostile foreign entity, camped out on American soil, with various evil plots attributed to the organization. That was greatly over-estimating the United Nations: however bureaucratic the UN could be, however much anti-American UN members might use the UN as a platform to noisily denounce the USA, its powers were by design limited, posing no substantial threat to American sovereignty.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* WINGS & WEAPONS: Observation balloons were in common use by military forces during World War I, but after that conflict they fell into disuse. In the past few decades "aerostats" -- tethered balloons -- have undergone a revival. Case in point are the Skystar aerostats from RT of Israel, at the low end of the size range, with payloads from 2.5 to 50 kilograms (5.5 to 110 pounds). The smallest of these aerostats is backpack-portable; the largest is truck-transportable and can carry a small synthetic aperture radar for all-weather, day-night surveillance.
The Skystar's gasbag is in the shape of a flattened roll, with a tough outer shell and a disposable gastight inner bladder. A porous "sail" on the bottom keeps the gasbag from spinning in the wind. Launch and recovery is with a ring-shaped mooring device; the system is designed to be easy to use with a minimum of training, aerostats too often being undone by inept handling that ends up ripping holes in them. RT now has about 40 aerostats in service around the world, from Afghanistan to the World Cup games in Brazil.
* European defense contractor MBDA produces a wide range of weapon systems -- including anti-armor missiles like the "MILAN (Missile d'infanterie leger antichar / anti-tank light infantry missile)", having sold hundreds of thousands of them over the past few decades. MBDA is now introducing a replacement, the "MMP (Missile Moyenne Portee / Medium Range Missile)", the French Army being the launch customer.
The MMP improves on MILAN in a number of ways:
The missile weighs 15 kilograms (33 pounds), has a maximum range of 4 kilometers (2.5 miles), and features a two-stage warhead effective against a range of targets, including armored vehicles or bunkers. It can be fired from a launch post, with a weight of 11 kilograms (24 pounds), or from combat vehicles.
* An article from BBC WORLD Online examined ways by which the airline industry is trying to improve the lot of the oppressed economy class passenger -- yes, profits come first when handling the budget flier, but passenger comfort remains a secondary consideration. A general improvement in airliner facilities benefits all, with the latest jetliners such as the Boeing 787 featuring improved pressurization and higher humidity, along with exotic LED lighting and bigger windows.
There's also tinkering with seat layouts. Instead of row upon row all facing forwards, some jetliners now feature seats in a zig-zag, or alternate them front/back facing, to give the passengers more room -- an approach Air New Zealand has adopted in its Premium Economy class, for example. Vendor Thompson Aero Seating believes that matters can be improved just by staggering rows of economy seats, giving more shoulder room.
Design consultation firm Seymour Powell of London has a more radical idea, an all-fabric economy seat, with a mechanism that can be easily adjust to the width and shape of individual passengers. The concept seat works by replacing the three traditional foam pads on the seats with a stretched fabric. Underneath is a frame, and a series of moveable formers that allow the seat's shape to change. The fabric is clamped down by the armrests and the upper dividers to form three individual hammock seats.
All the reclining is done within the space of the seat by stretching the base forwards; the seat back does not move into the knees of the person behind. The ability to reposition the formers means a family of three can make one slimmer seat for the child, and wider seats for the adults, for example; or a couple travelling together can eliminate the middle seat completely. One advantage of the concept is that the seating configuration could be changed from flight to flight, increasing the number of business class seats just by adjusting widths. The fact that a fabric seat is likely to be lighter would also be a plus, reducing the empty weight of the jetliner and permitting a greater load to be carried. Economy and comfort may often be opposed concepts, but they are not necessarily so.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* HEMP TAKES OFF: The attractiveness of the hemp plant as a commercial crop was discussed briefly here in 2007. An article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Hemp Sheds Its Stoner Stigma" by Matthew Boyle, 26 May 2014) suggests the hemp business is starting to take off, though it still has to overcome a number of obstacles.
When the word "hemp" is used, people are at least as likely to think "stoned" as think "rope", but in fact getting high off commercial hemp would be troublesome -- it has very low levels of the chemical THC that gives marijuana its punch, and in fact the US government has acknowledged that commercial hemp is a different beast from cannabis. The Feds still haven't lifted the ban on large-scale hemp cultivation, however, and so hemp-derived products have to be brought in over the border, from producers such as Canada's Manitoba Harvest.
Manitoba Harvest's main product is "hemp hearts" -- the nutty-flavored, soft inner kernel of hemp seeds, at least competitive in flavor and nutrition to other seed crops, such as chia and flax. Hemp hearts can be sprinkled on cereal, yogurt, and salads, or processed into powders, flour, or oil to make everything from bread to beers. Mike Fata, the company's founder, got into the hemp business when Canada legalized growing the stuff in 1998, setting up the firm in collaboration with two friends. Manitoba Harvest remained a niche operation, the product being restricted to natural foods stores until 2001, when Loblaw, Canada's biggest supermarket chain, decided to sell the company's product as well. Hemp had come into the mainstream.
Progress is being made to that end in the USA as well. Early in 2014, Congress passed a farm bill with a provision to allow hemp to be grown for research purposes. The drift towards legalization of marijuana has of course boosted the cause of hemp, and politicians on both sides of the aisle are now beginning to appreciate the potential value of hemp. Representative Jared Polis, a Colorado Democrat, commented: "Without realizing it, many Americans already use hemp in their soaps, automobile parts, or even their food. The potential for a billion-dollar-plus domestic industry is very realistic."
Fata has been energetic in devising new products based on hemp hearts, and in promoting hemp -- praising its benefits and debunking misconceptions. While the smaller food manufacturers have been the most interested in hemp, Cereal-maker Post Holdings is jumping on the bandwagon, and Fata said that the Safeway supermarket chain has approached him about providing hemp-flour bread for in-store bakeries: "Five years ago, that would not have happened. Hemp is hot."
* BETTER BANANAS? In other news of food innovation, genetically modified (GM) bananas are now in human trials to determine their effectiveness in combating vitamin A deficiency -- a major cause of infant death and blindness in poor communities around the world. Bananas are a staple in many tropical countries, but they are low in certain nutrients, such as iron and vitamin A. According to the project leader, Professor James Dale of Australia's Queensland University of Technology: "The consequences of vitamin A deficiency are dire with 650,000 to 700,000 children worldwide dying ... each year and at least another 300,000 going blind."
Researchers altered the genome of bananas grown in Uganda to produce alpha- and beta-carotene, which the body turns into vitamin A. The trial was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, with results expected to be released by the end of 2014. If all goes well, production of GM bananas should begin in Uganda by 2020. If the Ugandan experiment works out, other banana crops, particularly the starchy plantain, could be similarly modified.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* TARGETED MEDICINE: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("'Miracle' Data Could Lead to Cancer Cures" by Angela Zimm, 28 April 2014), medical research has traditionally focused on finding a treatment, a "magic bullet", that cures an affliction, with minimal side-effects. However, that's not how things usually work in the real world. Drugs that work on most patients may not work on a few; more intriguingly, there are drugs that don't work on most patients, but are highly effective for a handful. According to the US National Cancer Institute (NCI), as many as one in ten patients will respond well in clinical trials of experimental medicines -- that are then abandoned because their general efficacy was too low.
Now there's a push to zero in on "exceptional responder" patients to figure out the differences between them and the others. Understanding those differences might well lead to drugs with broader effectiveness; more directly, it would be a great benefit to patients to find there is a drug that will help them, even though it won't necessarily help anyone else. The NCI and academic medical centers -- including the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, and the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts -- are building a national database of exceptional responders to aid research.
So far, about a hundred exceptional responders have been identified, sifted out from roughly a decade's clinical trials. The NCI is now urging researchers and doctors nationwide to submit clinical data on these patients. According to NCI official Barbara Conley: "We want to cast a broad net. The key is: can you find another patient with the same kind of abnormality, and will they respond?"
In a recent paper, researchers considered the case of a 57-year-old woman with advanced thyroid cancer whose tumor "melted away" during a drug trial; it didn't start growing again for a year and a half. Although that rare, aggressive disease kills most victims within five months, genetic analysis showed the patient had a mutation that made her tumor vulnerable to the drug Afinitor, made by Novartis, which is usually used to treat kidney or breast cancer. Researchers want to perform further trials on thyroid cancer patients with similar mutations.
David Solit of Memorial Sloan Kettering had a similar experience with a patient whose bladder cancer went into complete remission after being treated by Afinitor. Since then, he's been seeking out other cases of anomalous cancer recovery due to drugs that weren't intended to treat that particular cancer, and don't usually work on that affliction. Solit commented: "I meet with clinical teams and often see these patients, who have dramatic results to compounds, not moving forward because [the drugs] failed in a population. These are mysteries we've always tried to solve, but we didn't have the tools until now to figure out the variation in responses in patients."
ED: Traditionally, medicine has focused on standard treatments for specific afflictions, simply because that was all that could be done: a doctor would get a diagnosis, and then prescribe treatment that was known to work with some degree of efficacy across the board. That approach is clearly running into diminishing returns, with drug development becoming ever more expensive for more limited gains; in other words, the low-hanging fruit is mostly gone. In the 21st century, however, we can in principle obtain a vast array of data for every patient, and sift though the entire patient database, seeking patterns, the ultimate result being treatments that are specifically tailored to individual patients.
Two patients with the same affliction could, in principle, get entirely different treatments. While there's always hope for major breakthroughs in medical tools, it seems the real frontier in medicine in the early 21st century is exploiting the revolution in information technology. Even without new medical tools, using them in a much smarter fashion promises a big payoff.
Underlying the vision of expanded exploitation of information technology is the idea that every person in the world will, sooner or (probably) later, have a node in the global digital cloud that accumulates data on that person, including educational, financial, and medical records, even a genomic analysis. Such a comprehensive data set would have immense benefits, so much so that there's no stopping it from happening -- but it would also have similarly immense privacy concerns. That, however, is another subject.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (14): As something of a footnote to the Arizona trip, I ended up taking three road trips to Spokane, Washington, in the northwest -- in May, June, and August. The May and August trips were normal family visits; the June trip was for a family emergency.
For the May trip, I decided I'd make a side trip to get pictures of Grand Coulee Dam in central Washington, and then loop over to the coast to get shots at the Seattle Museum of Flight (SMOF). Neither were any big deal in themselves, I'd canvassed the SMOF thoroughly in previous trips, the main rationale was just to exercise the camera as training for a 2016 "grand tour" trip back East I had in mind.
Since a visit to the SMOF wouldn't take long, I thought I should take in the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle as well -- but then immediately rejected the idea, since it's in old town Seattle, where the streets are narrow and hilly, while the traffic is nightmarish. On reconsideration, I remembered the nice little zoo at Point Defiance Park in Tacoma, which is easy to get to. Though it's a relatively small zoo, it's a good one, and I knew I would get some fine shots there.
Preparation was a bit dodgy, since I'd been pressed for time getting things cleaned up after the Arizona trip. I got the car serviced again, Matt the mechanic telling me I had a slow leak in the front left tire; I figured I'd need to check on that during the trip. I was on the road early on Thursday, 8 May. I was across the border from Colorado into Wyoming by sunup, driving through Cheyenne -- which was something of an unpleasant adventure, since it was socked in with a dense fog that was freezing out in thick frost and ice slicks on bridges. Visibility was poor and every time I went over a bridge, I could feel I had no traction and was skating across. I saw cleanups for three accidents before I finally got out of the fog bank.
The rest of the trip was uneventful, indeed a little more boring than I expected. I had cut a new music disk for my car CD player, but when I shoved it in, it didn't read; it took me a bit of puzzling to realize that I had cut the disk with a DVD-R disk, not a CD-R disk. That's what I get for being in a hurry. I still had an old ambient and an old jazz disk, but the new disk would have helped pass the time better. I had ordered a digital music player for the car from Amazon.com, but they were slow to ship it and it hadn't arrived before I left.
I got into Missoula, Montana, and spent the night at the Hampton Inn there. I found out I hadn't packed a toothbrush, more evidence of what happens when I'm in a hurry. I was discouraged until I noticed a noticed a card in the hotel room that said I could get a freebie toothbrush and such at the front desk. I went down and got one, which I thought a very considerate touch. I pay extra for the Hilton motels, I guess I can expect a bit of extra service. [TO BE CONTINUED]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (42): The guns having finally gone quiet, Mark Clark announced in a radio broadcast: "I cannot find it in me to exult at this hour." He felt that the war should have been prosecuted to victory; more personally, his combat career in World War 2 had brought him little glory and Korea, his last campaign, would certainly bring him no more. The troops on both sides were happier, if not exultant, since the armistice meant they could go home. Clark endorsed that spirit by composing a gracious leaflet, the last of the war, telling the soldiers to the north that they could stop shooting and get on with their lives:
With the signing of the armistice, peace and quiet returns to the hills and valleys of Korea. Over the war-crushed countryside, peace once again reigns. We are happy to know that the days of fear, hunger, cold, and exhaustion are over for you. We hope that your leaders will now permit you to leave the service. With good fortune, you may now turn from the bloody waste of war to the achievement of a man's traditional right to rebuild his shattered homeland, till his fields, raise his sons -- and given this good fortune, you may now do this. May you be permitted to return to your homes speedily, may you soon be reunited with your families, may we never again meet on the field of battle.
There was no outpouring of celebration back in the USA resembling that as had taken place at the end of World War II, the public response being largely one of relief, with the populace then going on about their business as before. Responsibility for the armistice agreement fell to three groups:
Tens of thousands of POWs were repatriated under Operation BIG SWITCH from 5 August to 6 September. Dealing with POWs who didn't want to be repatriated, to no real surprise, turned into a nightmare, due to the continued attempts by Communist agents among the POWs and Communist officials involved in the repatriation to sabotage the process. The Repatriation Commission gave up the task in early 1954; only a handful of the rejectionists were repatriated, the others being relocated in South Korea and Taiwan.
The USA, as per the armistice agreement, set up an international conference to discuss the political future of Korea. The ultimate goal was the re-unification of Korea -- but it is hard to think anyone was confident the conference would accomplish anything, and it did not. The two Koreas would remain at odds into the next century; indeed, since there was just an armistice and not a peace treaty, they would remain formally at war into the next century. [TO BE CONTINUED]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* Space launches for September included:
-- 04 SEP 14 / CHUANGXIN 1-04, LING QIAO -- A Chinese Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0015 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Chuangxin 1-04" store-dump communication satellite from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, and the "Ling Qiao" experimental communication satellite from the Tsinghua University and Beijing Xinwei Telecom company, into Sun-synchronous orbit. The Chuangxin satellites relayed hydrological, meteorological and electric power data for economic development and disaster relief. Previous Chuangxin satellites were launched in 2003, 2008, and 2011. The Linq Qiao satellite -- the name means "Agility" -- was described as a "smart satellite" to test multimedia communications.
-- 07 SEP 14 / ASIASAT 6 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 0500 GMT (local time + 4) to put the "AsiaSat 6" geostationary comsat into orbit for AsiaSat of Hong Kong. AsiaSat 6 was built by Space Systems / Loral and was based on the SS/L LS-1300 satellite bus; it had a launch mass of 3,700 kilograms (8,200 pounds), a payload of 28 C-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 120 degrees east longitude to provide coverage of Australasia. Seven transponders were leased to Thaicom of Thailand, which referred to the satellite as "Thaicom 7".
-- 08 SEP 14 / YAOGAN 21, TIANTUO 2 -- A Chinese Long March 4B booster was launched from Taiyuan at 0322 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Yaogan 21" satellite into orbit. It was described as an Earth observation satellite, but was apparently an optical surveillance satellite. The launch also included a smallsat named "Tiantuo 2", designed and built by the National University of Defense, with a launch mass of 67 kilograms (147 pounds) and a payload of video cameras. It was apparently a prototype of a tactical surveillance satellite, with a capability of tracking moving targets.
-- 11 SEP 14 / MEASAT 3B, OPTUS 10 -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2205 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "Measat 3b" and "Optus 10" geostationary comsats into orbit. Measat 3b had a launch mass of 5,897 kilograms (13,000 pounds) and a payload of 48 Ku-band transponders. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 91.5 degrees east longitude to provide direct-to-home broadcasting and other telecommunications services over Malaysia, India and Indonesia for Measat Global of Malaysia.
Optus 10 was built by Space Systems Loral. The satellite had a launch mass of 3,270 kilograms (7,209 pounds) and a payload of 24 Ku-band transponders. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 164 degrees east longitude to delivere television broadcasts and two-way voice and data services to customers in Australia and New Zealand for SingTel Optus of Australia.
-- 17 SEP 14 / CLIO -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida at 0010 GMT (previous day local time + 4) to put the "CLIO" satellite into geostationary orbit. Although Lockheed Martin was known to have built the satellite, and stated it was based on the company's A2100 satellite bus, its purpose was not announced; in fact, the operating agency wasn't announced, either. The last time a mission was kept under such secrecy was with the PAN spacecraft launch in 2009.
-- 21 SEP 14 / SPACEX DRAGON CRS4 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0552 GMT (local time + 4), carrying the fourth operational "Dragon" cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). It carried more than 2,300 kilograms (5,100 pounds) of cargo, including 20 mice to investigate how microgravity leads to muscle atrophy; a 3D printer to demonstrate in-space component manufacturing; and a NASA radar scatterometer instrument, "ISS-RapidScat" to measure winds over the world's oceans.
RapidScat was a replacement for the NASA QuikScat satellite, which was launched in 1999 and finally went dead in 2009; RapidScat used technology leveraged off the QuikScat program, and was intended to provided continuity of wave-mapping data. The Dragon capsule docked with the ISS Harmony module at 1052 GMT on 23 September.
-- 25 SEP 14 / SOYUZ ISS 40S (ISS) -- A Soyuz-FG booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 2025 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 40S" AKA "Soyuz TMA-14M" crewed space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included Commander Alexander Samokutyaev (second space flight) of RKA, Flight Engineer Barry Wilmore (second space flight) of NASA, and Elena Serova (first space flight) of RKA. Serova was the fourth Russian woman to fly into space, and the first to become ISS crew. The Soyuz capsule performed a rapid ascent trajectory, docking with the ISS Poisk module six hours after launch, with the Soyuz crew joining the ISS Expedition 41 crew of Commander Max Suraev, Reid Wiseman, and Alexander Gerst. The ascent flight was marred by a sticky solar panel, but it finally deployed.
-- 27 SEP 14 / COSMOS 2501 (OLYMP) -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur at 2023 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put a secret Russian spacecraft named "Olymp" AKA "Luch" AKA "Cosmos 2501" into geostationary orbit.
-- 28 SEP 14 / SHIJIAN 11-07 -- A Chinese Long March 2C booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0513 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Shijian 11-07" experimental satellite into space; "shijian" is Chinese for "practice". The function of the Shijian 11 satellite series is unknown; they are suspected to be missile launch early warning satellites.
* OTHER SPACE NEWS: On 19 October, Comet Siding Spring (named after the Australian observatory that discovered it) AKA C/2013 A1 performed a flyby of Mars at a minimum distance of 140,000 kilometers (87,000 miles). This being very close in cosmic terms, it was given a careful inspection by five Mars orbiters: NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey Orbiter, and MAVEN orbiter; ESA's Mars Express; and India's Mars Orbiter Mission. MAVEN and the Mars Orbiter Mission only arrived weeks before the encounter.
NASA's Curiosity and Opportunity rovers on the surface also got images, though that was more of a fun stunt than anything else. Comet Siding Spring will be visible to Earth watchers in the southern hemisphere, though they will need binoculars or a telescope to get a good look at it.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* STREAMLINED PHYLOGENY: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Large-Scale Gene Comparisons Boost Tree of Life Studies", Elizabeth Pennisi, 4 October 2013), traditionally taxonomists classified organisms by their visible features. That was workable but often misleading, since organisms that resemble each other may not be closely related, while organisms that don't resemble each other may actually be closely related.
The arrival of genomic analysis promised a clearer vision of the relationships of organisms. However, any single unit of the genome gives incomplete and possibly misleading information about relationships; in the best of all worlds, we would do comparisons on complete genomes. It has become much easier to obtain genomes of different organisms, and we're obtaining more all the time -- but taxonomy ultimately deals with a vast number of organisms, and even if we were to obtain genomes of them all, the data crunching to come up with valid phylogenetic trees would be overwhelming. Whole-genome comparison is unrealistic.
In 2009, Emily Lemmon and her husband Alan joined up with the biology faculty of the University of Florida at Tallahassee. As a grad student, Emily had been frustrated by the futile labor of picking through genomic data to determine the phylogenetic relationships of chorus frogs; she thought there had to be a better way. Working with her computer-oriented husband, the couple came up with a conceptually simple scheme they call "anchored phylogeny", in which genomic comparisons are performed, not on the differences between full genomes, but on the differences between sets of hundreds or thousands of markers common to, but differing between, a wide range of organisms.
The Lemmons started out by comparing the genomes of human, chicken, green anole lizard, Western clawed frog, and zebrafish, picking out 512 DNA sequences common to all five and only existing as single copies. Having done so, they hired a biotech firm to synthesize genomic probes to make up a "vertebrate kit" that targets the 512 regions shared by the five species. Alan Lemmon came up with software to make sense of the results of a probe.
Emily Lemmon started out by using the kit to nail down the phylogeny of chorus frogs, the task that had proven so difficult earlier. Working from that point, the Lemmons have come up with a kit with more probes for reptiles and amphibians. Kits have also been developed by the Lemmons and others for various groups of insects, with more kits for other groups of animals and plants on the way. The Lemmons have set up something of a cottage industry for performing analyses on samples at $175 USD a shot, each exercise being set up as a collaboration. They're doing hundreds of analyses a year now, and expect to do thousands in the near future. There are complaints about the mercenary approach, but the Lemmons reply they're not making a profit -- they need to charge to cover costs.
Of course, there's no reason other researchers can't adopt the same approach on their own, and some are adopting their own takes on the idea. Two biologists, Travis Glenn of the University of Georgia and Brant Faircloth of the University of California at Los Angeles have cooked up a set of markers, focusing on "ultraconserved elements (UCE)" -- DNA segments of 100 to 200 base pairs common to many vertebrates. Working with their kits, they have suggested tweaks to both mammalian and bird phylogenies, and have strongly suggested tweaks to the reptilian family tree, showing that turtles are more closely related to crocodiles than to lizards.
Which approach is better? It appears that they are seen as "Pepsi or Coke", using one or the other being generally a matter of preference. Other variants are in the wings. The biology community is very enthusiastic over the new technology; there had been an expectation that genomics would finally nail down long-standing taxonomic questions, but given the labor involved, nobody was expecting it would happen quickly. Now the pace has accelerated wildly, and biologists are exciting about getting the answers.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* CUTTING EMISSIONS: THE ECONOMIST ran a study ("The Deepest Cuts) in the 20 September 2014 issue that magazine staff performed themselves, attempting to determine which efforts to slow down climate change were the most productive. After presenting a list of caveats, pointing out the assumptions underlying the study and identifying ambiguities, the study ran down the list in order of magnitude.
The most significant contribution was a surprise: the phaseout of chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) in consequence of the 1987 Montreal Protocol. CFCs are very potent greenhouse gases, and very persistent. Guus Velders of the Dutch National Institute for Public Health & the Environment analyzed what would have happened relative to climate change had it not been for the Montreal agreement, and assessed the effect of the CFCs that would have been released as equivalent to 135 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide. This is more than twice today's total yearly output of all greenhouse-gas emissions, estimated as equivalent to 50 billion tonnes of CO2 -- though only about three-quarters of that amount is really CO2, the rest being CO2 equivalents of methane, nitrous oxide, and small quantities of industrial gases. In any case, the CFC phaseout had roughly as much effect as all the lesser factors on THE ECONOMIST's list combined.
The next item on the list were contributions of non-fossil-fuel energy plants, which were responsible for 4% to 7% of reductions in emissions:
As the survey pointed out, climate change is linked to other issues, one being the availability of family planning: a smaller human population means, in general, less emissions. This is somewhat beyond the domain of the climate change discussion -- but another linked issue is tropical deforestation. According to a recent study published in AAAS SCIENCE, the slowdown in deforestation in Brazil meant the country produced a net 3.2 billion tonnes less atmospheric carbon dioxide between 2005 and 2013 than it would have if the slowdown hadn't taken place, or about 400 million tonnes a year. The global slowdown in deforestation means that it only contributes a net of 11% of greenhouse-gas emissions globally, well down from 20 years ago.
Unfortunately, the reduction in the proportion of in emissions due to reduction in deforestation is partly due to the continued rapid rise in industrial emissions. That has slowed down, due to mandated improvements in energy efficiency of vehicles, buildings, and appliances. The US has been setting standards for vehicle greenhouse-gas emissions and fuel efficiency since the mid-1970s; the current rules are forecast to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by 6 billion tonnes in 2012:25, meaning by about 460 million tonnes a year. The US Department of Transportation estimates that fuel-economy rules have reduced C02 emissions by a cumulative 14 billion tonnes. Europe's equivalent regulations for passenger cars and light trucks have had less impact -- but that's partly because European vehicles were more efficient to begin with, and there's still been a sizeable impact.
New European Union rules on the design of boilers and water heaters are expected to save 136 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year within six years. Chinese officials say that on the basis of 2010 figures, energy-efficiency targets for Chinese state-owned enterprises save about the same amount, and that scheme has been substantially expanded as of late.
Subsidies for renewable energy don't seem to have had a major effect so far. The European Environment Agency calculates that between mid-2008 and 2012, shifts in energy production due to renewables only accounted for a third of the decline in carbon-dioxide emissions in the EU -- less than the impact of energy efficiency on emissions. Germany's environmental agency gives renewables more credit -- but from the cost-effectiveness angle, they've still clearly done more poorly than energy efficiency. Again, they're clearly going to become more important, the question being just how much.
THE ECONOMIST asked Climate Action Tracker, a group of scientists who study emissions policies and actions, to calculate the policies likely to have the biggest impact in 2020. The response was that the push towards renewables in the EU and China were likely to have a bigger impact, as would the United Nations' Clean Development Mechanism (CDM), which finances greenhouse-gas reduction measures in developing countries to offset emissions in rich ones.
There's also one big potential win in cutting emissions, but it's going to take some work. While the Montreal Protocol's ban on CFCs meant they were no longer contributing to greenhouse emissions, they were replaced by hydrofluorocarbons (HFC) -- which don't damage the ozone layer, but are still greenhouse gases. It is possible to scavenge and recycle HFCs, reducing emissions, but it would be better yet to find a new refrigerant that neither contributes to ozone depletion nor to climate change. Research to that end is ongoing.
All these efforts have made or will make a difference -- but unfortunately, they're not enough to slow down climate change appreciably. The technical, economic, and in particular political obstacles to dealing with the problem remain formidable. The problem was created over centuries; it is unreasonable to think that it can then be solved overnight, however much we would like to be able to do so.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (13): The next day, Tuesday, I got things at home pretty much back in order. I was extremely surprised on going through my usual morning ritual of weighing myself on the bathroom scales -- it's the second thing I do after I get out of bed, the first being to attend to biological necessity -- to find that I was at my normal weight after almost a week on the road, with irregular diet and exercise. Indeed, over the next few days I found that I was persistently below my weight setpoint. Irregular sleep also had its effects, since I found I had an inclination to nod off in the afternoons.
I went to the gym that morning, had a light workout, also went to the library to check out magazines, and to the bank to deposit a check that had arrived in the mail during my absence. I also had the bank clerk unlock my online account; she apologized for my trouble, to which I responded: "Not a problem -- anything instead of having to call that phone center again."
It took me about a week to get all the picky details settled out, like getting my unused clothes pressed and hung away, doublechecking my travel kit, getting triplog files stowed away, and so on. Anyway, on the whole the trip was entirely successful -- I saw everything I planned to see, the things I did exceeded expectations more often than not, and I had no problems that weren't easily corrected. Even getting on the wrong bus at the Grand Canyon, which could have been a real fiasco, didn't really slow me down.
I covered about 3,900 kilometers (2,420 miles), and after tossing the obvious junk got about 1,200 good photos, which will likely render down after dumping weak shots and redundants to about 150 to 300 "keepers". I'd budgeted $1,500 USD minimum for the trip, but to my surprise the pricetag was only $1,330 USD, even though I hadn't been scrimping and bought a set of flash memories. It seemed just too cheap.
I also have no interest in going to Arizona again. I have nothing against Arizona, it was just that I had some things I wanted to see, knew I wouldn't stop thinking it over until I did so, and having seen them had no reason to see them again. As with the Albuquerque trip, there's something to be said for limited expectations. Arizona knocked off the list, I wondered if I should then go see the AVIATION NATION airshow at Nellis AFB near Las Vegas in November, but I decided: NO. One long trip in a year is enough, and besides if I wait another year or so I should be able to see newer military hardware, particularly F-35s, that I wouldn't see this year. Try it in 2015? I'll see. [TO BE CONTINUED]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (41): On 5 March 1953, Josef Stalin died of a stroke. The new Soviet authorities quickly reversed the most burdensome elements of Stalin's rule, notably deciding to stop supporting the war in Korea. How much influence this decision had on Mao Zedong is not clear -- despite US perceptions, Stalin was never really the prime mover behind the war, nor had his support for it been generous -- but in any case, negotiations consequently fell into place.
Late in 1952, the Red Cross in Geneva had asked for an exchange of sick and wounded prisoners as a gesture for peace; Mark Clark had endorsed it, true to form the Reds had firmly rejected it. There was then substantial surprise when on 28 March 1953 Kim Il-Sung and Marshal Peng announced not only their acceptance of the deal, but suggested the exercise could lead to a comprehensive settlement. On 30 March, Zhou Enlai gave his endorsement in a radio broadcast -- significantly adding that prisoners of the UNC who didn't want repatriation be placed in the hands of a neutral state for resolution of their status. The Kremlin promptly gave assent.
The Americans were deeply suspicious, having long ago found out that when the Communists seemed agreeable, they were more likely to be playing mad pranks. However, when the matter was discussed at Pammunjon on 11 April, there was no difficulty in reaching an agreement. The prisoner transfer, Operation LITTLE SWITCH, took place between 20 April and 3 May, with 5,800 men sent north and 600 sent south. The effect of the transfer was not entirely positive, many of the POWs that had been sent south being in appallingly bad physical or mental condition.
Whatever anger was felt, there was no sense in derailing further discussion over it, with talks focusing on selection of an appropriate neutral nation for "quarantine" of the POWs. After a session of obstinacy, the Communists then decided they didn't need for the POWs to be sent to a neutral nation after all, being willing to settle for an oversight commission with members provided by neutral nations.
In the meantime, the fighting along the line flared up again, both sides trying to turn the screws to advance negotiations. UNC bombing was stepped up, while the Chinese conducted a seventh offensive to obtain concessions, performing drives against UNC and South Korean forces. There was particularly savage fighting from mid-April for an outpost named Pork Chop Hill, taken by the Chinese and then retaken by the Americans -- though by mid-summer, it became evident it wasn't worth holding, and was evacuated. Much the same sort of struggle took place on other highpoints: White Horse Mountain, Bunker Hill, Old Baldy, Sniper Ridge, Capitol Hill, Triangle Hill, Pike's Peak, Jackson Heights, Jane Russell Hill. In the end, it amounted to little more than pointless bloodletting, while final details of the cease-fire were hammered out in preparation for signature by the warring sides.
However, Syngman Rhee was not enthusiastic about the move towards peace. One reason was that he still wanted to reunify Korea and didn't want to give up that goal; there was another angle, in that being troublesome was a useful lever with the USA. Rhee feared being left in the lurch, demanding American aid and security guarantees. He threatened to continue the war alone, driving north of the 38th Parallel -- an absurdity in practical terms, but effective in raising consternation in Washington DC. As Rhee's protests and demands grew more strident, a plan codenamed EVER-READY was drawn up in which the Americans would depose Rhee and install a more acceptable substitute in his place. It would clearly be an act of complete desperation to do so, but Mark Clark was given the discretion to take such actions if he saw the necessity of doing so.
Clark's patience was then greatly tried when, on 18:19 June 1953, Rhee ordered his military police to allow 27,000 Korean POWs to "escape" -- a ploy that enraged the Communists and hardly made the Americans happy, either. On 9 July, the Americans finally managed to prevail on Rhee to accept the armistice, though the ROK would never actually sign it. The final agreement was signed on 27 July, Clark signing for the UNC, Peng Dehuai for the Chinese, and Kim Il-Sung for the North Koreans. The shooting more or less stopped, with forces then pulling back to establish a 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) wide demilitarized zone.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Ebola Vaccine: Little & Late" by Jon Cohen, 16 September 2014), the Ebola virus epidemic in West Africa has already claimed more than 3,000 lives, and not showing signs of slowing down. Preventive measures are not working well, and there's been a push to get vaccines and antibody treatments to the region. However, US President Barak Obama's call for a more aggressive drive to develop, produce, and distribute defenses against Ebola has only highlighted how far behind the learning curve the effort actually is.
An Ebola vaccine made by GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in Rixensart, Belgium, is close to being fielded, having entered phase I human trials on 2 September. GSK has committed to producing up to 10,000 doses of the vaccine, which consists of an Ebola surface protein stitched into a weakened chimpanzee adenovirus, by the end of 2014. If trials go well, it could be given to health workers as soon as November 2014. Unfortunately, vaccinating the general public would take hundreds of thousands of doses, and GSK officials say there's no way they can make that many before mid-2016.
Developing an Ebola vaccine does not present a major challenge; unlike the notoriously slippery HIV pathogen, Ebola is easily targeted by vaccines that do not require any special production or handling. In principle, vaccine production is straightforward: grow a "master seed" strain of virus on a large scale, then harvest and process it. However, ramping up large-scale production of an Ebola vaccine, once one is validated, is problematic because the money for production hasn't been forthcoming. In March 2014, as the Ebola epidemic was taking off, GSK officials contacted the UN World Health Organization (WHO) about production funding, to find no great excitement over the idea at WHO.
Antibody treatments aren't going anywhere in a hurry, either. A cocktail of Ebola antibodies named "ZMapp", from Mapp Biopharmaceutical of San Diego, California, has proven highly effective in monkey experiments and has been administered to a small set of patients. ZMapp contains three monoclonal antibodies produced in tobacco plants; only a pilot sample has been produced to date, and even if money for production becomes available, turning out the antibodies is going to take time.
The Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA) of the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) was set up to speed development of vaccines and treatments for emergencies. BARDA is now seeking means to fight Ebola, but has been hobbled by lack of funds. A bill now going through the US Congress would give BARDA $52 million USD to support the effort, but there's no way to get back lost time by throwing money at the problem. Nicole Lurie, assistant secretary of preparedness and response at HHS, can only put the best face on the matter: "I don't know that we're going to have these countermeasures in time to make a big dent now -- but hopefully we'll have the countermeasures by the next time there's an outbreak so this never, ever happens again."
* While the conventional wisdom was that global population will peak at 9 billion in 2050 and then decline, a new study published in AAAS SCIENCE projects it will hit 11 billion in 2100, and will continue to increase. The main reason for the change is that population growth in Africa is not slacking off at the expected rate.
Not everyone is so pessimistic, another paper that was recently published in POPULATION & DEVELOPMENT REVIEW argues that African fertility rates are likely to decline more sharply in the future as education rates rise, particularly among women. Since sounding the alarm over African population growth is likely to result in more push on family planning services for the continent -- surveys indicate that almost everyone wants control over family size, no coercion necessary -- the prediction may, hopefully, end up being self-defeated.
* Pygmies, the small-statured people of the forest, are known in jungle environments around the world, with different groups in widely separated locations having different ancestry from larger ancestors. There is some debate over why forest life selects for the pygmy size, with suggestions ranging from a better ability to deal with food scarcity and tropical heat; or possibly earlier sexual maturation, to allow pygmies to have and raise children before they die at a relatively young age of jungle afflictions.
To investigate the evolution of pygmy peoples, an international research team performed a genetic analysis of 169 Batwa people from east central Africa, identifying genetic variations apparently correlated with their small size. The researchers were then surprised when they compared the Batwa genomes with those of 74 pygmies from the Baka people of west central Africa to find that they had a very different set of genetic variations. The conclusion was that the pygmy configuration had evolved several times even within Africa.
In both cases, the patterns of genetic variations suggested rapid genomic change, indicating the intense selection pressures of life in the jungle. Sorting out which particular factors of jungle life pushed the change was difficulty -- and also, to a degree, not interesting, since obviously all the advantages of the smaller size drove the process.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* HUMANITY UNDERGROUND: It has been suggested that human transformation of the Earth implies a new geological era, the "Anthropocene" -- discussed here in 2011. Although most human artifacts will not survive into the distant future, the changes wrought by humans on the environment will be detectable.
As discussed by an article from LIVESCIENCE Online ("Humanity's Longest-Lasting Legacy: Miles of Holes" by Kelly Dickerson, 29 August 2014), one set of artifacts is likely to persist: the marks humans are leaving deep in the Earth. Jan Zalasiewicz, a senior lecturer in palaeobiology at the University of Leicester in the UK, says that people don't pay attention to human activities underground, and are not aware of their extent: "Because it's not in our immediate living environment, it doesn't seem as significant."
However, as as Zalasiewicz and two of his colleagues argue in a new study, human activity below the surface is leaving a strong mark on the Earth, with the extensive pattern of web of holes from mining and energy exploration providing significant markers of the Anthropocene. The deepest known animal burrowers are Nile crocodiles, which can dig dens up to 12 meters (39 feet) deep; the deepest-reaching plant roots are those of the Shepherd's tree in Africa's Kalahari Desert, which can reach 68 meters (223 feet deep. Humans, in contrast, can dig as deep as 12.3 kilometers (7.6 miles), and are leaving long-term indicators of their activities in doing so. According to the study: "No other species has penetrated to such depths in the crust, or made such extensive deep subterranean changes."
Humans began digging mines to obtain minerals during the Bronze Age, with the extent of digging ramping up dramatically from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. To be sure, even then most of the diggings -- not just mines, but water wells, sewage systems, and subway lines -- were shallow, rarely penetrating more than 100 meters (330 feet) into the Earth. It wasn't until the mid-20th century that humans really start driving deeper into the ground, an event referred to by some geologists as the "Great Acceleration".
Growing demand for and corresponding strain on resources led to the acceleration. Rich surface gold deposits had been tapped out; now gold mines in South Africa reach about 5 kilometers (3 miles) deep. Many more boreholes were drilled, particularly to tap hydrocarbon deposits; once gone dry, the boreholes are plugged by mud, concrete, or solid waste. If all the world's oil boreholes were lined together, they would span over 50 million kilometers (31 million miles). That's about the distance from Earth to Mars; put another way, for every person on Earth, there is 7 meters (23 feet) of borehole. According to Zalasiewicz, there are about a million boreholes in the UK alone.
Underground nuclear tests have also left their signatures; test sites often contain broken-up and melted underground rocks, and disturbed water tables. Huge underground caverns retain radioactive waste from the tests. Such human intrusions below the surface will tend to persist -- protected from erosion and weathering that grinds down surface structures -- for millions of years. The paper by Zalasiewicz and his colleagues asserts that the network of mines and boreholes "arguably has the highest long-term preservation potential of anything made by humans."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE QUEEN ELIZABETH RULES THE WAVES: As discussed by an article from AVIATION WEEK ("Fresh Start" by Tony Osborne, 30 June 2014), on 4 July 2014 Britain's Queen Elizabeth cristened a warship that bears her name -- the aircraft carrier HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH (QE), the biggest warship ever to be obtained by the Royal Navy. It is 280 meters (918 feet) long and 70 meters (230 feet) wide; at 65,000 tonnes displacement, with room for 5,000 tonnes growth, it has three times the displacement of the INVINCIBLE-class carriers it is replacing, and a little under two-thirds the displacement of the US Navy's NIMITZ-class carriers.
Although the development program for the QE has suffered from cost inflation, the Royal Navy is eager to get the vessel into service. It should be operational in 2020, when its sister ship HMS PRINCE OF WALES hopefully will be cristened, giving Britain a global force projection capability. According to the captain of the QE, Simon Petitt:
With these ships, the UK will have 4.5 acres [1.8 hectares] of sovereign territory that it can move 500 miles [800 kilometers] per day. 80% of the world's population lives within 200 miles [320 kilometers] of the coast, and all of that is in the radius of the [carriers' F-35B] jet. That means the QUEEN ELIZABETH can influence the vast majority of the world's population, using international waters and without the need ... for an airfield ashore.
The QE is adaptable to strike, amphibious warfare, and humanitarian intervention roles. The ship is of unconventional design, having twin "islands" to the right, instead of the more traditional one; the forward island is for ship navigation and control, while the rear handles air operations. The QE doesn't have an angle deck, since it's optimized for helicopters and the Lockheed-Martin F-35B short takeoff / vertical landing (STOVL) strike fighter -- with a "ski jump" ramp on the foredeck, offset to the left, to facilitate F-35B takeoffs.
A standard air wing carried by the QE will included a dozen F-35Bs and 14 AgustaWestland EH101 Merlin Mark 2 helicopters. The large number of Merlins is due to the need to handle the antisubmarine warfare (ASW) mission and for the airborne early warning (AEW) role, the UK now working on a fast track to get the EH101 CrowsNest AEW system in service by 2018. Projected mix is nine Merlins for the ASW mission and five for the AEW mission, though Royal Navy brass have considered other flight complements as well.
The vessel's huge hangar, 180 meters (590 feet) long and nine meters (30 feet) high, can handle Apache and Chinook helicopters, operated by Britain's military, and Osprey tilt-rotors, a potential acquisition. The center of the hangar has a raised ceiling to allow service crews to remove the aft rotor of a Chinook. Two deck lifts, 28 meters long and 15 meters wide (92 x 49 feet), can haul a Chinook or two F-35s between the hangar and the flight deck.
The choice of the STOVL F-35B as the Royal Navy's combat jet asset has been controversial. The F-35B was originally selected, but then there were second thoughts, since the conventional takeoff F-35C had better range and payload. However, on deciding to go with the F-35C, third thoughts then arose; although engineers had provided assurances that converting the QE design to handle a catapult and arresting gear would be straightforward, it did not turn out to be so, and the choice reverted back to the F-35B STOVL machine. Britain is now planning to obtain 48 F-35B fighters, to be split between the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force. Both services will operate F-35Bs off the QE.
The normal complement of the QE is 679 officers and sailors, the same as the much smaller INVINCIBLE-class carriers, though a thousand more personnel can be accommodated as need be. The relatively small normal complement is due to a high level of automation; for example, the ship's munitions handling system is based on "automated warehouse" technology, with munitions picked up automatically by robotic gear and delivered for loading onto aircraft. The layout of the QE is also superior to that of the INVINCIBLE-class carriers, the QE featuring close location of related facilities such as mission and flight planning.
The QE's facilities include six-berth cabins for crew, each cabin with its own toilet facilities, 1,600 berths in all among 470 cabins -- an unheard-of level of comfort compared to combat vessels of the World War II era. The ship also has four galleys and four dining areas, exercise facilities, a cinema, a clinic, and a water purification system that can produce 500 tonnes (550 tons) of fresh water a day.
The vessel was built in modular subsections, which were barged to Rosyth in Scotland for final assembly. The QE has hybrid electric propulsion, with twin screws driven by a power system consisting of twin gas turbines and four diesel generators. The QE has modern operational electronics, including active array radar, and is designed to accommodate system upgrades over its expect half-century service life. It will have gun and presumably missile self-defense systems, along with countermeasures, though specifics are unclear.
The QE will attain initial operational capability in 2020; it will be based out of Portsmouth. Although formal commitment to the construction of the HMS PRINCE OF WALES wasn't supposed to happen until after a defense review in 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron has now announced it will go ahead. There was little doubt it would happen, since one ship will only be at sea about half the year, the other half being spent on leave and refit. It would simply not be possible to keep such a large, complex vessel with so many personnel at sea indefinitely.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ARIZONA ROAD TRIP (12): It was still chilly and breezy when I got up on the morning of Monday, 14 April, and hit the road for Loveland. Before leaving, I took a few pictures of signs in the dark, mostly as an experiment: the Lumix camera has a "handheld night mode", in which it rapidly snaps and sums multiple images. On checking later, I found out it works very well, at least with certain targets -- some giving good results, others not so good.
Having been over the back highways once, backtracking home was no problem with regards to navigation. I stopped in Tuba City on Route 160 to get breakfast at a McDonald's; it was on the Navaho reservation, and I noticed with some amusement that I was the only paleface there. That was no problem, I was just another customer. Some of the patrons were so obviously Indian that they could have been extras in a Western movie: there was a striking woman with dark ochre skin, broad face, high cheekbones, snub nose, long straight jet-black hair tied back in a ponytail. I will likely remember her for the rest of my life.
I cruised up the road for about another hour, with lack of sleep catching up with me. I decided I needed to take a nap, but I had problems finding a place where I could conveniently park alongside the road, and not attract attention from local citizens. I finally found a suitable quiet spot, pulled over, leaned the seat back, set my stopwatch, and placed my sun hat over my eyes. I snoozed for a bit, finally woke up, and checked my watch: 22 minutes, not bad.
While I was regrouping to get on with the trip, I noted a little herd of deer up the road, grazing along the shoulder. I tried to get some shots of them with the Lumix, honking the horn on the car to get their attention so they'd pull their heads out of the grass. The shots didn't turn out ; from signs I saw later, I was in a migration corridor, the deer returning to the high country after the winter.
I got back on the road and finally made Moab, Utah, for a refueling stop, getting a chocolate-caramel bar as a snack. I didn't linger, heading north to finally make Interstate 70 and turn east towards the mountains. I started getting drowsy again, but I figured I'd perk up a bit if I ate; I hadn't eaten much to that time and I was definitely hungry. I reached Grand Junction, Colorado, in early afternoon, to tank up my car and get something to eat. I wasn't low on fuel, but it was less than 480 kilometers (300 miles) to Loveland, and a full tank would get me home without further stops. I went to a Subway and got a Spicy Italian sub sandwich -- pastrami and salami with pepper jack cheese, onions, and jalapeno peppers, washing it down with one of my stock of cherry Pepsis.
That did the trick, I was comfortable the rest of the way home. Although the skies were clear and the Sun was bright up in the mountains, it had snowed a bit the day before; the roads were clear, but there was a pretty layer of white over the rest of the landscape. It was a real contrast to the heat down in Tucson. I went downhill into Denver around 6:00 PM, falling into the tail end of rush hour, but there's was only a few minutes' congestion, and I got into Loveland an hour later.
I fueled up the car, got a jug of milk, and went home. I checked my mailbox, got things unpacked, cleaned up the car a bit, and completed my trip accounting sheets. I wanted to check them against my bank drafts; I had fumbling logging in while I was on the road and had got locked out, so I decided to call in on the number I was given to get it unlocked. I didn't think it would be troublesome.
I thought wrong. I was hoping I would get to some automated system to unlock the account, but I ended up playing phone pinball, trying to figure out who I needed to talk to. I was tired, feeling weary after having driven all day, and it strained my patience; it was annoying that the bank would have locked me out so quickly, but not put any effort into making it simple to unlock.
I finally found somebody to talk to about it, and explained the problem. He replied: "I don't understand." Okay, I'm punchy, maybe I'm incoherent; I tried to keep my annoyance on a leash, explained the matter in detail to him, and after some aggravations he seemed to understand. However, he told me: "There's nothing I can do about it right now, the system's been down all day and I don't know when it will come back up."
I asked: "So will you take care of the matter when it comes back online?"
He replied: "I don't understand."
Okay, the DENSE hypothesis is starting to seem more plausible: "The system will come back up eventually, right? So will you take care of the matter when it does?"
"I can't do that. I'm too busy answering the phone."
At that point, my patience snapped and I got angry, asking in a low acid tone of voice: "Do you mean to tell me that I have to call in tomorrow and go through this rigamarole all over again?!"
He blandly replied: "That's correct. You see ... "
I pressed the OFF button on the phone handset with my thumb. There was nothing else that made any sense to do. I did feel some satisfaction in the otherwise useless exchange: I get annoyed too often, but I realized how rarely I lose my temper. I also was pleased to realize that my first instinct was to just hang up. I went to bed, I'd fix things later.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (40): Ultimately, the UNC had to disengage from the war. US election politics in 1952 focused on the confrontation with Communism in general and the war in Korea in specific. The Republicans chose Dwight Eisenhower as their candidate, while the Democrats chose Adlai Stevenson, then governor of Illinois. MacArthur, incidentally, ran for the Republican nomination and got all of ten delegates. It was no contest between the party candidates: "Ike" was a national hero and the country was tired of Democratic leadership. Stevenson was completely outgunned.
Eisenhower was taking no chances, however, being careful not to cross Senator McCarthy. When McCarthy attacked George Marshall, Eisenhower had written a defense of Marshall for a speech -- but then withdrew it at the last moment. The speech was going to be delivered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which was McCarthy's home state, and Ike was persuaded there was no point in picking a gratuitous fight. Unfortunately, the news media had heard that the speech would stand up for Marshall and played up the about-face; Truman, who had been friendly to Eisenhower, was hard to antagonize, but he would never forgive Ike for his betrayal of Marshall. It was all the more gratuitous because of Eisenhower's dominance in the polls, and Ike would remember the incident with embarrassment. Marshall, however, said nothing about it.
Eisenhower was still stuck on the Korea problem, leaving him in the difficult position of appearing strong on the issue while, in practice, ensuring that the US managed to disengage itself from the war. He chose to deal with the quandary by focusing on a snappy phrase: "I will go to Korea." It had the sound of decisiveness, while establishing absolutely nothing in specific.
In the meantime, in order to pressure negotiations and influence the election, the Communists conducted a sixth major offensive from September into November 1952 as a means of exerting pressure in negotiations. It was a ghastly war of attrition, based on close-quarters combat and intensive struggles for small parcels of ground. When the fighting came to a halt, the UNC had suffered 10,000 casualties, the Communists 15,000, the fighting lines having changed little in the end.
The bloodletting was politically irrelevant. Eisenhower was elected by a substantial majority in November, promptly making his trip to Korea at the end of November, well before he was sworn into office. He spent three days in country, inspecting the front lines, talking to the troops; his conclusion on inspection of the terrain and Red fortifications was that an attempt to decisively defeat the Communists would be hideously expensive. Clark and Van Fleet had been pushing for a "real war", but Ike concluded that was unrealistic in all respects; America really did need to disengage.
Back in the USA, Eisenhower had a private chat with MacArthur, in which MacArthur outlined his plan for dealing with the Communists: the reunification of both Germany and Korea as neutral states, with the nuclear option to be employed to obtain that end if the Reds balked. Eisenhower replied that MacArthur's notions were "something of a new thing" and had to be examined in light of "the understanding between ourselves and our allies". In short, Ike simply discarded them. MacArthur went home empty-handed, to live out his retirement as a respected irrelevance.
US policy was to accept the status quo and get out of Korea. In spite of all grumbling about the failure to fight to win, even the Right had to accept that as reality -- at least as long as Eisenhower said so, Ike's credentials as a warfighter being very hard to dispute. The first issue was to build up the ROKA into a well-equipped, well-trained fighting force, a task performed by the US Korean Military Advisory Group. However, Syngman Rhee was not enthusiastic about the Americans leaving him to fight it out himself; he liked being funded to have a more powerful military, but didn't want the Americans to leave him in the lurch, and was determined to extract all the security guarantees he could.
The Eisenhower Administration did review its nuclear options. The atomic bombs built after World War II and into the early 1950s were large and more or less delicate weapons, requiring a lot of babying, not at all suited for employment and potential use on the battlefield. Further efforts had generated truly "tactical" nuclear weapons, much easier to handle, small and rugged enough to even be fired out an artillery piece.
In March 1953, the JCS released a report that suggested tactical nuclear weapons would be important weapons in an expanded war in Korea. The report leaked -- but tales that the Eisenhower Administration threatened to use the nuclear option to end the war in Korea are are among the many myths of the Cold War: the US had always had the nuclear option in Korea, the only real change being that America now had a conservative government that could be perceived as more willing to use it. There were discussions and contingency plans, but that was as far as it went. [TO BE CONTINUED]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Apple has made a splash with its new iPhone 6 and oversized (5.5 inch) iPhone 6 Plus -- though the inclination of the Plus to bend have led to a fuss. As discussed by a note in TIME Online "The FBI and NSA Hate Apple's Plan to Keep Your iPhone Data Secret" by Sam Frizell, 27 September 2014), the Feds are raising a fuss of their own over the iPhone 6's encryption option, one FBI official saying that it would take "more than five-and-a-half years to try all combinations of a six-character alphanumeric passcode with lowercase letters and numbers."
The FBI argues that robust encryption makes life much easier for crooks and terrorists. In reply, big US tech companies such as Apple and Google say their customers need to know their data is secure -- particularly in in foreign markets such as China and Europe, where worries over American surveillance have gone out of control. Vendors such as Apple have to make it clear that their products have not been compromised to permit surveillance by the US government.
Legally, there is a precedent against Apple: the 1994 "Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA)", which requires wireless carriers to permit, with a warrant, wiretapping of their networks. Does CALEA extend to saying that private citizens have no right to encrypt their personal data? So far, the authorities have found it an uphill struggle to make that case; citizens have long been able to get their hands on good encryption if they want it, and they don't want to give up that right even if that refusal helps the Black Hats. Members of Congress are not keen on crossing the voters by expanding CALEA.
In addition, modern information technology unavoidably leaves trails that are very hard to conceal or erase. The authorities have effectively unchallenged legal access to call logs, email logs, cloud storage, email logs, as well as geolocation information from phone carriers -- the access to such resources being unrestrained if a warrant is obtained. They've got plenty; on what reasonable basis can they demand everything?
It would also go badly for defendants in court to plead the Fifth Amendment and refuse to reveal their passwords, particularly if it were made clear by the court that any incriminating information not relevant to the case would be granted immunity from prosecution. If they didn't have something to hide, why would they refuse to divulge the passwords? The Fifth Amendment protects citizens from being forced to provide testimony against themselves; but if they invoke the Fifth, they are demonstrating that they don't have testimony that can be used in their own defense.
* A teardown of the iPhone 6 Plus, incidentally, gives its total product cost as over $240 USD. The biggest single factor is the display, which has a cost of over $50 USD; mechanical components cost about $20 USD; the battery about $5 USD; the electronics besides the display about $115 USD; and the rest, about $50 USD, being from assembly, test, packaging, and all the other overhead. Prices for the iPhone 6 Plus start at about $750 USD, so the profit margin is close to 2:1.
That's just on the basis of product cost, of course, not factoring in development and business overheads -- but still, Apple likes having fat profit margins, and it looks like they still don't have much problem getting them. For those of us wishing for a $100 USD PC sometime in the future, the product cost is discouraging, suggesting the idea is a mirage.
* BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK reports that Carolinas Healthcare System, which has the biggest network of healthcare facilities in the states of North & South Carolina, has been "data mining" its patients -- using brokers to sift through public records, store loyalty program transactions, and credit card purchases. The data is incorporated into each patient's profile, allowing a doctor to, say, determine if an asthma patient has been filling his prescriptions, has been buying cigarettes, and lives in an area with high pollen or air pollution levels. Similarly, a doctor could assess risk with a patient burdened with known heart problems by finding out if the patient goes to a gym, or has been buying unhealthy foods.
The downside is, of course, that such data mining can easily be seen as intrusive, particularly if a health provider attempts to take the pro-active approach, cold-calling patients about problems. Obviously, such an exercise will have to feature safeguards, and more importantly informed consent of patients. However, if the goal of a modernized US healthcare system is to ensure the ongoing well-being of patients and not just pile up treatments, then it's hard to object to such data mining in principle. The expansion of information technology inevitably works against privacy; we can do no more than accept that reality, and try to draw lines not to cross.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: I mentioned two months back that I'd signed up for Amazon Prime, getting free video downloads off the deal. Prime also has a music component, which I finally got around to investigating. It turns out that Amazon provides sets of music playlists, which I can run on a Flash player in my web browser.
Trying to run the Flash player concurrently with other activities on my PC didn't work so hot, with downloads in particular interfering with the music stream. I got to thinking, however, that I could run the playlists on the old Acer Windows XP netbook I have in my living room that I use as a chime clock; it wasn't doing anything else, and had speakers hooked up to it.
I'd disconnected the netbook from my wi-fi network as a security precaution, following the end of Windows XP support. I reconnected it and tried to run a music playlist in Windows Internet Explorer -- but the Flash player just hung up, waiting indefinitely in an idle loop. OK, maybe I need to install a more current Flash player? I decided if I wanted to do that, I might as well install FireFox; I did so, and was able to run music playlists with no further problems. I have some worries about security now that the netbook is back online, XP being vulnerable because the Defender malware checker is no longer being updated, but I'm only hitting one website, so that shouldn't be a serious threat. There's nothing much to steal on that machine anyway.
I lost interest in listening to broadcast radio over a decade ago; I'd tried to make use of internet audio stations on occasions from that time, but it never worked out, both from technical issues and difficulties in finding interesting stations in the sea of those available. Using a more or less dedicated PC solved the technical problems, and leveraging off Amazon gave me a good source. The first playlist I ran was focused on games-oriented electronica, which featured titles such as "Destroy Them With Lasers", "Kill Everyone", and "Drive It Like You Stole It". Who says videogames encourage antisocial behavior?
I later went on to mellower electronic playlists, as well as classic jazz. In any case, like I said before, I'm a little surprised that, after going nowhere much in particular with downloads for years, I should abruptly find myself so wired into them. All the bits and pieces came together at once.
* I later found out Amazon also provides a more convenient music player as a free download, and it seems, not too surprisingly, to work better than the Flash player on my desktop. I still haven't made much of Amazon Prime's video downloads. Since I only watch TV three times a week, it's taking time to get through the DVD sets I have backed up. Not a problem; although there are some interesting TV series on Prime, worthwhile new materials don't come in at a rapid rate, so I don't feel like I'm getting backed up. I won't be able to watch the new DOCTOR WHO season until the follow-on season begins, but there's plenty to keep me busy until then.
The selection outside of TV series is spotty. The movie selection is poor, but documentaries are well-represented; there's some Britain travelogues I want to see, being into a virtual UK tour these days. The rest of the lot is mixed, sometimes strangely so: I can understand the Bollywood movies, but the Dutch pop music festival videos?
* Thanks to four readers for their donations to support the websites last month. It is very much appreciated. This is the first time I've got four, and one was particularly generous.COMMENT ON ARTICLE