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apr 2014 / greg goebel / public domain / follow "gvgoebel" on twitter

* This weblog provides an "online notebook" to provide comments on current events, interesting items I run across, and the occasional musing. It promotes no particular ideology. Remarks may be left on the site comment board; all sensible feedback is welcome.

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[FRI 18 APR 14] THE UNITED NATIONS (19)
[THU 17 APR 14] SPACE NEWS
[WED 16 APR 14] DEVELOPMENT & THE MICROBIOME
[TUE 15 APR 14] THE UK DOES GM, FITFULLY
[MON 14 APR 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (3)
[FRI 11 APR 14] THE UNITED NATIONS (18)
[THU 10 APR 14] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 09 APR 14] SWALLOWED UP
[TUE 08 APR 14] MODULAR CARGO DRONE
[MON 07 APR 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (2)
[FRI 04 APR 14] THE UNITED NATIONS (17)
[THU 03 APR 14] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 02 APR 14] TINY WORLDS OF PLASTIC / WORLD UNDER THE SEAFLOOR
[TUE 01 APR 14] ANOTHER MONTH

[FRI 18 APR 14] THE UNITED NATIONS (19)

* THE UNITED NATIONS (19): The United Nations was not really all that actively involved in the widening rift between West and East, the UN only amounting to a forum in which the two sides took up propaganda positions. What else would have happened? The issues were between America, the USSR, and their allies; such discussion as continued, and there was always some, generally took place outside the UN context. The UN, in effect, was left to deal with issues that were not of major strategic interest to the two superpowers.

The first real trial for the United Nations was Palestine. After World War I, under the Balfour Declaration, Britain had encouraged Jewish settlement of Palestine, which had become a British protectorate in the wake of the conflict. The inevitable result was escalating violence between Palestinian Arabs and the Jewish immigrants. Following World War II and the attempt of the Nazi regime to exterminate Europe's Jewry, many more Jews moved to Palestine, with the clear intention of setting up a Jewish state.

The British, faced with ever louder protests from Palestinian Arabs, finally decided to shut off the spigot of Jewish immigration to Israel, but matters had already effectively passed the point of no return: what had been done could not be undone. Britain had been drained in all respects by the Second World War, the British had lost much of their enthusiasm for empire, and patience with being caught in the crossfire between Arab and Jew was running thin. On 22 July 1946, the Jewish Irgun terrorist organization bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, the building being the administrative headquarters for British authority in Palestine, killing 91 and injuring 46.

A year later, in response to the execution of Jewish terrorists by the British, the Irgun hanged two British NCOs and booby-trapped their bodies. The action unsurprisingly led to violence against Jews in Tel Aviv by gangs of British men in uniform, five Jews being killed and a number injured. By that time, a "UN Special Committee on Palestine (UNSCOP)" had been set up at the request of the British in hopes the UN could sort things out, but there was no sorting them out in any peaceful way.

In September, UNSCOP delivered a report to the General Assembly proposing that Palestine be divided into separate independent Jewish and Arab states, with Jerusalem being open to both but under the control of an international trusteeship, the three components being united in an economic union. Jews were jubilant at the proposal, but Arabs said they would fight rather than accept it; the only consequence was escalating violence between Arab and Jew.

* UNSCOP consisted of eleven ambassadors, under the direction of Assistant Secretary-General Victor Hoo of China, his special assistant being Ralph Bunche, out of the US State Department. Bunche, as it would turn out, would be the only really significant member of the group, and indeed would become the UN's first super-star.

Bunche had been born in Chicago in 1903, moving around from city to city until he was a teenager, when his mother died and his father disappeared. He was then raised by his maternal grandmother in Los Angeles. He graduated with honors from the University of California, Southern Branch -- now UCLA -- with a major in political science, going on to Harvard to get his master's degree. Bunche was a 100% achiever; he was also black, the two facts being related, Bunche realizing that he had to work twice as hard to be thought half as good in a time when positions of influence and power in America were almost entirely filled by white males. He was fiercely proud of his race, an attitude that had been promoted by his grandmother who, though so light-skinned she could have easily passed for white, strongly rejected the idea of doing so.

After Harvard, Bunche got a academic position at Howard University in Washington DC, the most elite of America's black universities. He got married, got his doctorate from Harvard, and performed academic studies up to the war, traveling extensively. After Pearl Harbor, he worked for the OSS, becoming the organization's Africa expert, to be recruited by the State Department in 1944 to help work on setting up the UN. He took part in the Dumbarton Oaks, San Francisco, and London meetings, to become a director in the UN Secretariat in 1946. Now, he was struggling to work with a committee whose members he described as the "worst group" he had ever been a part of, its members "not infrequently either vicious or stupid" -- and finding that circumstances had, like it or not, made him "a Near East expert, completely befuddled." [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 17 APR 14] SPACE NEWS

-- 15 MAR 14 / EXPRESS AT1 & AT2 -- An International Launch Services Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kasakhstan at 2308 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Express AT1" and "Express AT2" geostationary communications satellites into orbit for the Russian Satellite Communications Company. Both were manufactured by ISS Reshetnev of Russia and based on the Reshetsnev Express 1000 comsat bus, with communications payloads provided by Thales Alenia Space of France & Italy.

Express AT1 had a launch mass of 1,800 kilograms (3,970 pounds), a payload of 32 Ku-band transponders, and a design lifetime of 15 years; it was placed in the geostationary slot at 56 degrees east longitude to provide television and data services across Eastern Europe and Russia. Express AT2 had a launch mass of 1,150 kilograms (2,755 pounds), a payload of 16 Ku-band transponders, and a design lifetime of 15 years; it was placed in the geostationary slot at 140 degrees east longitude to cover the Russian Far East.

Express AT1 & AT2 in launch prep

-- 22 MAR 14 / ASTRA 5B, AMAZONAS 4A -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2204 GMT (local time + 3) to put the "ASTRA 5B" and "Amazonas 4A" geostationary comsats into orbit. ASTRA 5B, owned and operated by SES of Luxembourg, was built by Airbus Defense & Space and was based on the Eurostar E3000 comsat bus. It had a launch mass of 5,800 kilograms (12,800 pounds), a payload of 40 Ku / 6 Ka band transponders, and a design lifetime of 15 years. The satellite was placed in the geostationary slot at 31.5 degrees East longitude to provide direct TV broadcast services to Eastern Europe, Russia, and neighboring markets. It also carried a secondary payload -- an L-band navigation subsystem for the European Commission's European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service (EGNOS).

Amazonas 4A, owned and operated by Hispasat of Madrid, was built by Orbital Sciences and was based on the Orbital GEOStar-2 bus. It had a launch mass of 3,000 kilograms (6,600 pounds), a payload of 24 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 61 degrees west longitude to provide direct TV communications services to South America.

-- 23 MAR 14 / COSMOS 2491 (GLONASS M) -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 2254 GMT (next day local time - 4) to put the "Cosmos 2491" GLONASS M third-generation navigation satellite into orbit. It was the 54th GLONASS satellite; it brought the GLONASS constellation up to a total of 28 operational satellites in orbit, including three spares.

-- 25 MAR 14 / SOYUZ ISS 38S (ISS) -- A Soyuz-Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur at 2117 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 38S" AKA "Soyus TMA-12" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. Its crew consisted of Soyuz commander Aleksandr Skvortsov (second space flight), flight engineer Oleg Artemyev (1st space flight), both of the Russian RKA, and NASA astronaut Steven Swanson (third space flight). The launch was supposed to be on a "direct ascent" trajectory that would get the Soyuz to the ISS in six hours, but there was a rendezvous system malfunction, and the docking was two days later, at 2358 GMT. The spacecraft mated with the ISS Poisk module, with the Soyuz crew joining Expedition 39 commander Koichi Wakata, cosmonaut Mikhail Tyurin and NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, bringing the station's crew back to six.

-- 31 MAR 14 / SHIJIAN 11-06 -- A Chinese Long March 4C booster was launched from Jiuquan at 0246 GMT (local time - 8) to put the "Shijian 11-06" 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: The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) is now seeking commercial partners to work on development of a new booster, the "H-3", to replace the workhorse JAXA H-2 booster in the early 2020s. Mitsubishi Heavy Industries LTD, the prime contractor for Japan's current H-2A and H-2B rockets, is likely to be in charge of the industrial consortium to develop, manufacture, and fly the H-3.

The two-stage H-3 will feature a new liquid oxygen / liquid hydrogen engine, the "LE-X", with two powering the booster's first stage; each will produce 1,334 kN (136,000 kgp / 300,000 lbf) thrust. The H-3 rocket will able to be fitted with zero, two, four, or six strap-on solid rocket boosters (SRB) to increase lift capability. The basic configuration with no SRBs could put up to 3 tonnes (3.3 tons) into a near-polar Sun-synchronous orbit, generally used for Earth observation satellites. With six SRBs, the H-3 could put 6.5 tonnes (7.15 tons) into geostationary orbit, generally used for comsats.

JAXA H-3 booster configurations

The current H-2 booster is reliable but too expensive, and so JAXA hopes the H-3 will cut the H-2A rocket's $100 million USD launch cost to between $50 to $65 million USD. The agency believes savings can be achieved by exploiting commonalities in avionics and solid rocket motors with Japan's Epsilon rocket, which performed its first flight in 2013 and is tailored for launch of small spacecraft.

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[WED 16 APR 14] DEVELOPMENT & THE MICROBIOME

* DEVELOPMENT & THE MICROBIOME: A number of articles run here in the past have discussed the interactions of multicellular organisms with their resident micro-organisms -- for one example, the Hawaiian bobtail squid, Euprymna scolopes, which as discussed here in 2010, incorporates the bioluminescent bacterium Vibrio fischeri a as a sort of "camouflage", illuminating the little squid's underside so it won't be so easily seen as a shadow from below. One facet of such interactions is that the embryonic development of a multicellular organism from a single cell may take place in the context of a parental environment populated by symbiotic micro-organisms.

As pointed out by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("How Do Microbes Shape Animal Development?" by Elizabeth Pennisi, 7 June 2013), that leads to the question of how the "microbiome" may affect development of the organism. Margaret McFall-Ngai, a developmental biologist at the University of Wisconsin, has been investigating this question relative to the Hawaiian bobtail squid, and has found that them squid's embryonic development is tuned to its bacterial residents.

Squid embryos temporarily develop a mucus-laden patch inside the body cavity, where the bacteria accumulate and then eventually migrate to nodes that will become the squid's light organ. The presence of the bacteria stimulates gene activity in the squid that eventually eliminates the patch and brings the light organ to maturity. No bacteria, the light organ doesn't develop properly.

McFall-Ngai believes that the influence of microbiomes in the development of a host organism is the "elephant in the room", a significant reality long hidden in ignorance. That's changing, the biological research community increasingly appreciating the importance of the elephant. For example, marine biologists traditionally believed that the drifting larvae of coral, snails, and other marine invertebrates simply settled down at random to become adults -- but now it is becoming clear that many respond to cues from their bacterial biofilms to pick new homes. In addition, while many animals seem to develop in wombs or eggs free of microbes, they still rely on microbes to set in motion or complete certain aspects of postnatal development.

Experiments with "germfree" mice, lacking a gut microbiome, have demonstrated the significance of resident microbes in development -- components of the mouse gut and immune system failing to develop normally. More speculatively, germfree mice seem to be hyperactive and have low levels of anxiety compared to normal mice. Colonizing young germfree mice with the appropriate microbiome shifted their behavior to normal, but had no effect in older mice.

Exactly how this works is of course unclear, but some researchers suggest that bacterial products in the bloodstream may be the significant factor. That may prove an important insight in mammal development; traditionally, since a mammalian fetus develops in an environment free of micro-organisms, the assumption was that the microbiome played no part in development. However, the fetus is not isolated from microbial products in the blood, and such may well play a role. Nobody knows what, for now; the field of development versus the microbiome remains a largely uncharted territory.

ED: This article was part of a set on development. One of the other articles discussed that we are born with about 100 billion neurons and, with a few exceptions, they're not replaced during our lives. However, during embryonic development, neurons of course grow -- and also die off in considerable numbers, as if serving some function and then, having outlived their usefulness, being discarded.

Some of the biochemical signals in this process have been identified, as has been the fact that there are at least two, maybe three, waves of neuron death. If the first wave is cancelled via biochemical interference the result is, as one researcher put it, "really ugly, big brains", and a dead embryo. However, a researcher named Ronald Oppenheim of the Wake-Forest School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, cancelled the second wave in lab mice via a genetic tweak -- to find out to his surprise that the mice "seemed really quite normal".

The additional neurons are apparently functional, except they aren't really wired to anything in particular. Oppenheim said: "They just hang around. You might call them undead." This shines light into my occasional musings on the "Intelligent Design" of organisms -- the suggestion being that if there is some Higher Power making the plan, it does it in ways that are alien to the way humans do things.

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[TUE 15 APR 14] THE UK DOES GM, FITFULLY

* THE UK DOES GM, FITFULLY: As reported by BBC WORLD Online ("Genetically-Modified Purple Tomatoes Heading For Shops" by David Shukman, 24 January 2014), British researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC) -- a research operation in Norwich, focusing on plant and microbial studies -- have developed a genetically modified (GM) tomato featuring a pigment named "anthocyanin", obtained from snapdragons, that give the tomatoes a dark purple color, much like blueberries.

Of course, the splice was not performed as an agricultural fashion statement. Studies show that anthocyanin may provide benefits, such as acting as an anti-inflammatory and in slowing cancers in mice. Professor Cathie Martin of the JIC commented: "With these purple tomatoes, you can get the same compounds that are present in blueberries and cranberries that give them their health benefits -- but you can apply them to foods that people actually eat in significant amounts and are reasonably affordable."

Although the tomatoes were developed in the UK, Martin said that European Union (EU) restrictions on GM persuaded her to look to Canada, which she describes as "more enlightened", to bring the tomatoes to market. The JIC struck a deal with an Ontario company, New Energy Farms, which is now producing enough purple tomatoes in a 465 square meter (5,000 square foot) greenhouse to turn out 2,000 liters (440 gallons) of juice. The first batch was shipped to the JIC to test its safety and efficacy, the juice having been carefully screened to avoid complications from GM seeds going astray.

Martin has hopes that purple tomato juice will be on the market in North America in two years, and hopes that it will pave the way towards a less hysterical attitude towards GM: "It is frustrating that we've had to go to Canada to do a lot of the growing and the processing, and I hope this will serve as a vanguard product where people can have access to something that is GM but has benefits for them."

Other UK researchers are working on GM camelina plants -- raised for seed oil -- that generate fish oils; a GM wheat plant that produces a pheromone that drives off aphids; and potatoes resistant to potato blight, which caused a disastrous famine in Ireland in the mid-18th century. Unfortunately, public hostility to GM remains strong. A survey across the EU in 2010 found opponents outnumbered supporters by roughly three to one. The last approval for a GM food crop by the EU was in 1998.

Professor Nick Pidgeon, an environmental psychologist at Cardiff University, has run opinion polls and focus groups on GM and other technologies. He believes that there is a deep legacy of distrust, one of the big factors in the UK being the troubles over mad cow disease. To be sure, the actual risk level of mad cow disease was very small, and it had nothing in particular to do with GM -- but it was such a ghastly affliction, rotting out the brains of its victims, and it came almost completely out of nowhere, having a mechanism like no common disease. GM, to the public, suggests too many dangerous unknowns. Pidgeon commented:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Highlighting benefits will make a difference, but it's only one part of the story, which is quite complex. People will still be concerned that this is a technology that potentially interferes with natural systems. They'll be concerned about big corporations having control over the technology and, at the end of the day, you feed it to yourself and your children and that will be a particular concern for families across the UK.

To change that quite negative view that people had 10, 15 years ago will take quite a long time, It'll take a demonstration of safety, a demonstration of good regulation and of the ability to manage the technology in a safe way. And that doesn't happen overnight.

END QUOTE

The UK government is in a difficult position on the GM issue, being aware of public hostility to the idea, but finding the position of "zero tolerance" unreasonable and unsupportable. Britain's Council of Science & Technology (CST) has, at the request of Prime Minister David Cameron, investigated the issue, concluding that all verifiable research shows GM crops to be safe, that they offer potentially great benefits for improving crop productivity and food value, and that Britain risks falling behind in the global agriculture industry if GM crops are suppressed. The CST recommended that Britain set up a regulatory agency to evaluate GM crops, instead of following restrictive EU rules.

The CST report suggested, following the Canadian example, that crop plants be evaluated for their safety and efficacy, without major concern for whether they were developed by GM or by conventional hybridization. The report was highly critical of the EU's attitude towards GM, denouncing a "dysfunctional approval process", saying it had been "influenced by political considerations that do not have a scientific basis." Mark Walport, the UK government's chief science adviser and an author on the report, did not say that GM crop plants should be given an automatic free pass -- he simply pleaded for rationality: "We're asking for the regulation to be fit for purpose."

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[MON 14 APR 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (3)

* AMERICA & THE WORLD (3): The normal turmoil in American policy tends to give a continuous sense that everything is going to hell; there's nothing new about declarations of America's decline. However, a consideration of the historical record shows that things have gone pretty well since the end of World War II. At that time, there was a lurking worry of the resurgence of the Axis powers. Through a degree of direction as well as benign neglect by the US, both German and Japan rose from the rubble to become prosperous, democratic, and notably pacifistic states -- though Japan has yet to achieve real reconciliation with its neighbors. America acquired trading partners in the revitalized Germany and Japan, and also aid in the defense against a menacing Soviet bloc.

America faced down the Communist threat so completely that, in hindsight, it seems like less of a feat than it was. Revisionist historians like to portray both sides in the Cold War as equally responsible for the exhausting decades-long standoff, or even claim that the USA provoked it. They seem willfully ignorant of Josef Stalin, a brutal tyrant with no concept of ethics who at the very least wanted a weak, easily bullied, Europe that could not present a threat to the USSR. Stalin expected that there would be a final, inevitable confrontation between the capitalist and socialist worlds in a generation's time; the Bomb and American vigilance ensured that never happened, with the socialist world falling over of its own dead weight in the end. There was no Third World War.

As far as economic and political values went, in the wake of the collapse of the USSR the American agenda became all but undisputed, so taken for granted as to no longer be seen as an ideology, established as a sort of "liberal determinism". Americans in their own way were always every bit as ideological as the Soviet Union was, it's just that the world has found the much more realistic and flexible American ideology far more attractive than the socialist alternative, noted for overpromising and underdelivering. The idea was that capitalism raised living standards, which paid for education, leading to gains in productivity and, eventually, popular demand for democracy. If the world does not have universal peace, prosperity, and liberty, that is seen as the endpoint.

However, there was nothing all that inevitable about that endpoint. In 1941, there were only a dozen democracies in the world, the global fashion then being towards strongarm dictatorships. Authoritarianism was dealt a blow by its defeat in World War II, and later by the collapse of the Soviet Union, with states still clinging to the iron fist now seen as backward, decrepit, even mad. Although the Americans did have authoritarian allies in the Cold War, Americans never liked the smell of them, and when the Americans resorted to dirty tricks, they ended up regretting it more often than not. America used its influence to help democracy take root in countries such as Taiwan and Poland, and to protect young democracies in countries like Bolivia, South Korea and the Philippines.

Liberal determinism did not so much arise spontaneously as it was cultivated by American policy. The corollary is that the reluctance of Americans to continue on that course of influence will mean the current order will start to fray. In a recent book, long-standing US foreign policy wonk Zbigniew Brzezinski pointed out the lurking threats that would emerge if the US returned to isolationism. Regional powers would compete for primacy and assert historic claims; states such as Georgia, Taiwan, and Ukraine, which all live in the shadow of a much bigger neighbor, would be especially vulnerable. Nuclear-threshold powers such as Japan and South Korea that rely on the American nuclear umbrella would be strongly inclined to obtain the Bomb if they thought the umbrella might be withdrawn. Emerging powers would be more willing to reject the existing order, instead of trying to improve their position in it via discussion.

The end result would be, by default of the decline in American influence, a corresponding rise in the influence of autocratic states such as China and Russia. There would be less pressure against coups, and there would be more inclination to resolve territorial disputes by force. If India's and China's navies thought that the US Navy could no longer guarantee freedom of the seas -- from the founding of the republic, at the top of the list of America's foreign-policy concerns -- they would take on the job themselves, leading to an out-of-control arms race and risk of a shoot-out between two states that have the Bomb.

Charles Kupchan, an American academic, commented: "Democracy and open markets have spread so widely in part because they have been defended by US aircraft carriers." American primacy is expensive, but the return on investment makes it worthwhile in almost all regards and, occasional excesses aside, gives no fundamental cause for complaint to others. If they do have complaints, they have mechanisms for making them heard, and American leadership has learned the hard way to give them a fair hearing. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 11 APR 14] THE UNITED NATIONS (18)

* THE UNITED NATIONS (18): The issue of Soviet forces in Iran hadn't been consequential, except to the extent of establishing a strong undercurrent of acrimony at the United Nations, and demonstrating the rising tension between East and West. The Truman Administration was concerned about Communist encroachment in Europe, as well as the civil war between the Nationalist Chinese and Communist Chinese factions that had re-emerged after the end of World War II. The Truman Administration knew China was a mess and had no intention of intervening militarily in the conflict; in late 1945, Truman had asked General George C. Marshall, previously Army chief of staff, to go to China and try to straighten things out by diplomatic means.

It was a completely impossible task: the Nationalist government had been effectively wrecked in the war with Japan, and Mao Zedong's Chinese Communists were increasingly confident of winning. In early 1947, Marshall returned home empty-handed, as anyone familiar with the scenario could have predicted. Truman did not fault Marshall for the failure in China, though Rightist extremists did; Secretary of State Byrnes having resigned, Truman asked Marshall to take the place of Byrnes, and Marshall accepted, to become a target for the extremists.

China was not so important to US interests as Western Europe, which remained generally in a state of dilapidation, impoverishment, and insecurity. Although the USSR didn't seem poised to invade Western Europe -- that was unthinkable as long as the US had the Bomb -- the Bear to the East remained a looming threat, and in the unstable social environment, Communist revolutions overthrowing weak democratic governments seemed only too likely. Roosevelt had assumed that the US would withdraw from Europe after the war, but that was increasingly becoming unrealistic.

In March and April 1947 Secretary of State Marshall met in Moscow with the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and the USSR to discuss cleaning up the mess in Europe -- to find the Kremlin indifferent, Stalin shrugging off all concerns over the matter. As far as Stalin was concerned, the misery of Western Europe was all for the good; it meant a fertile breeding ground for socialism, and the prospect of all of Europe falling into the Soviet orbit without the Red Army firing a shot. On the trip back home, Marshall spoke of cooking up with some scheme to help prevent the breakdown of Western Europe.

A precedent had just been established. In early March, the British had informed the Truman Administration that the UK was no longer in a position to provide financial assistance to Greece and Turkey; on 12 March, Truman announced that the US would provide assistance to those two nations, with the president significantly phrasing the exercise in terms of the broad principle of support of "free peoples". Working from there, Marshall asked George Kennan to come up with a more general plan to help rescue Europe. The result, the "European Recovery Program", was publicly unveiled in June.

The "Marshall Plan", as it was popularly known, committed the United States to the reconstruction of Europe. As stated, it made no distinction between Western and Eastern Europe, aid being offered to all. The offer of aid to Eastern Europe was sly; aid to the Reds would obviously be hard for the US Congress to swallow, but just as obviously it would be at least as hard for Stalin to swallow, since it would undermine Soviet dominance in the East. Stalin, who prided himself as a shrewed political realist, had been caught flat-footed; as expected by the Americans, he told the leaders of East Bloc countries to reject the Marshall Plan. Doing so was an effective admission of weakness, and more importantly guaranteed that the Marshall Plan would sail through Congress.

Thrown on the political defensive, Stalin responded by establishing the Cominform -- a revival of the old Comintern, which had been devoted to establishing the Red gospel throughout the world, preaching communism through the use of "agitprop", or agitation-propaganda. The Comintern had been officially shut down during the war to improve harmony with the Western Allies, but of course its functions had never been completely or even largely abandoned. The Cominform was to ensure that Communist groups elsewhere maintained their ideological purity, as it was defined in Moscow.

Not all Communist states were receptive to Stalin's leash. Yugoslavia had been resurrected from its dismemberment by the German Reich under Josip Broz Tito, very tough and Red in color, but not at all beholden to Stalin, who tried and failed to have him assassinated. Tito had no problem accepting American aid under the Marshall Plan, the US seeing that the program paid particular benefits in that case. Tito wasn't particularly beholden to the US, either, being willing to play both sides against the middle.

While the US stepped up efforts on the economic front in the emerging Cold War, the Truman Administration also acquired what would ultimately be a tool for covert action against America's adversaries. The "National Security Act of 1947", passed that summer, established the office of the secretary of defense, who in principle would be the boss of all the secretaries of the different armed services. It also established the "Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)", in effect a revival of the wartime Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The primary rationale of the CIA at the outset was to give the president and his administration intelligence at a higher level than could be obtained by the intelligence components of the US armed services, and hopefully independent of the agendas shaping their intelligence assessments.

The agency's scope would soon expand. In his "Long Telegram", George Kennan had suggested that, in the face of Communist subversion, the US and its allies would be forced to engage in a degree of "dirty tricks" of their own. Kennan's logic was hard to argue with, international relations has necessarily had a covert component -- but as he commented later, he believed the dirty tricks should be a last resort, lest America end up being just as vicious as its adversaries. There wouldn't be such restraint in practice, and the results would be decidedly mixed. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 10 APR 14] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST tree sloths, as their name implies, are notably lethargic beasts -- but the three-toed sloth is even more lethargic than the two-toed sloth. The two-toed sloth may forage widely across the treetops; the three-toed sloth, in contrast, may live out its entire life in the equivalent footprint of a large house lot. The slow motion is a consequence of an herbivorous lifestyle; leaves aren't all that nutritious, so the sloth gets by with a slow metabolism. The three-toed sloth is extreme in that regard, with the slowest digestive rate of any mammal, and about half the metabolic rate of any other mammal of its size.

three-toed sloth

The puzzle is that, while the two-toed sloth remains in the treetops continuously, defecating to allow its droppings to fall to the forest floor below, about once a week the three-toed sloth comes to ground to dig a hole in which to defecate. Not only is it dangerously vulnerable to predators while on the ground, the trip consumes 8% of its daily energy budget. Why would it go through such bother if it didn't have a good reason to do it?

A study by Jonathan Pauli of the University of Wisconsin and colleagues found out why, unlocking an elaborate symbiotic network. Sloths have fur adapted as a home for algae, which gives them a green mottled coloration. The algae not only provide camouflage -- apparently it is very hard to spot a sloth in a tree -- but, being much richer in fats than leaves, provide an important, possibly critical, component of the sloth's diet, the sloth grooming itself and then eating the algae.

Okay, now it gets complicated. The sloth's fur is also home to fungi and moths. When the moths die, the fungi decompose them, providing nitrogen-rich compounds to support the growth of the algae. The only problem is how the three-toed sloth supports a large population of moths; the population is not nearly so dense on the two-toed sloths, and although the moths may mate in a sloth's fur, they do not lay eggs and mature there.

That's where the trips to the ground come in. Once the sloth defecates into a hole, female moths flock to the dung and lay eggs in it. The eggs hatch into pupae, which then become moths -- and then fly upward into the canopy to find a sloth host. Since the three-toed sloth doesn't get around much, the moths typically find the sloth who produced the dung they were born in. In a sense, the sloth farms the moths for its own use.

* In other tales of the complexities of animal cooperation, researchers discovered that Philippine jumping spiders often spin their nests directly above weaver ant nests. The puzzle in this is that weaver ants are highly effective predators of the jumping spider. On examination, it turned out the trick was that the weaver ants also preyed on spitting spiders, which are even more dangerous predators of jumping spiders.

Were the jumping spiders using the weaver ants for protection? In carefully-controlled lab setups, when spitting spiders were given cues of the presence of ants, the spitting spiders showed no inclination to hang around, while the jumping spiders quickly built nests. It turns out that spitting spider nests are loose and easily raided by weaver ants, while jumping spider nests are tight, even featuring doors, proof against weaver ants. Clearly the jumping spiders had acquired hunting habits that kept them out of the way of the ants, while allowing the ants to provide security for the jumping spiders at home. The enemy of my enemy might not really be my friend, but he still may have his uses.

* As discussed in a note from THE ECONOMIST, the tobacco hornworm, a caterpillar, eats tobacco leaves. Tobacco is of course full of nicotine, which serves as a natural insecticide. It doesn't bother the hornworm at all, which led a team of biologists under Ian Baldwin at the Max Planck Institute in Germany to wonder if the hornworm weaponized the nicotine to ward off predators. There was a precedent, in that the eastern tent caterpillar is known to spit hydrogen cyanides, concentrated from the plants the insect eats, at predators. Maybe the tobacco hornworm was "blowing smoke" in some sense at predators? That seemed like a straightforward conclusion, but determining if it was the case was tricky.

tobacco hornworm

First, the researchers put tobacco hornworms in two plots of tobacco plants, one plot full of plants that had been genetically modified to not produce nicotine. The plots were also inhabited by wolf spiders that hunted the caterpillars. Analysis of hornworm populations in the plots from day to day showed that a quarter of them didn't survive the night in the plot of normal tobacco plants, while half of them didn't survive the night in the plot of GM tobacco plants.

Clearly, the nicotine provided a defense for the hornworms, but how? The researchers then genetically modified the hornworm to suppress a gene that moves nicotine from their gut into the blood. The effect of this change was to eliminate the exhalation of nicotine from the spiracules on the body of the hornworm and concentrate in its feces. When a trial was run of normal hornworms and GM hornworms versus spiders, the loss rate of the GM hornworms to spiders was three times that of normal hornworms. As an additional test, the researchers took air from a container with normal hornworms and then filled a container with GM hornworms with that air, with the spiders becoming much less enthusiastic in their hunting. The hornworms were indeed blowing smoke at the spiders -- or at least had nicotine halitosis.

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[WED 09 APR 14] SWALLOWED UP

* SWALLOWED UP: As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Sinkholes: A Deadly Threat From Florida's Underworld" by Iain Stewart), the US state of Florida is generally seen as a semi-tropical paradise. It also has its share of problems, such as hurricanes, invasive species such as pythons -- and sinkholes.

On 28 February 2013, in the Tampa suburb of Seffner the ground opened up underneath the bedroom of 37-year-old Jeff Bush, swallowing him into the earth. His brother Jeremy dashed in to try to save him, but was almost dragged in himself -- to be rescued by Deputy Sheriff Douglas Duvall, who had come out to the house on an emergency call. Duvall said later of the sinkhole: "It's like this thing was alive .... It was churning, moving around .... making noises, you know, like a growl."

Jeff Bush's body was never recovered. Florida is not the only place where sinkholes are a problem, the earth having similarly opened up in places as far-flung as Guatemala and China, but Florida has a particular problem. In August 2013, a resort complex in Clermont, near Disney World, fell into a 20 meter (65 foot) wide sinkhole.

Although Jeff Bush was the first Floridian to be killed by a sinkhole in years, they're nothing unusual across Florida. As of late, over 6,500 sinkhole insurance claims are being reported each year. Most of the state is a limestone platform flushed with groundwater below, washed by plentiful rain from above. It's not a secure foundation, with water tending to eat away the limestone and create underground caverns. Sometimes the roof of a cavern close to the surface falls in, resulting in a "cover collapse" sinkhole.

That was exactly what happened to the unfortunate Jeff Bush. Seffner lies in a sinkhole "sweetspot", a cluster of collapses centered on the west central part of the state around Tampa. Although lawyers and geologists have an interest in sinkholes, the rest of Floridians regard them with dread, particularly inhabitants of retirement communities. What makes them even more frightening is that the rate of sinkhole incidents appears to be picking up.

sinkhole in Ocala, Florida

Sinkholes are only partly understood. Exactly what sets one off is unclear, though there does appear to be a "sinkhole season" where they are well more common than the rest of the year. In the summer months, the Gulf Coast's hurricanes deluge the state, dumping torrents of water on the land in a matter of hours, weighing down the soil and collapsing the roofs of caves below. In the dry season, drought conditions can lower the water table, emptying out water-filled voids and causing the voids to cave in.

The water table can be affected by human activities as well. Florida is noted for its fruit crops, the warm weather, rain, and fertile soil making it a great place to grow oranges, strawberries, and other fruits. Its citrus groves and fruit fields are irrigated in part by water drawn from Florida's underground aquifer. Florida does get occasional cold snaps, which can be disastrous to fruit crops, particularly strawberries; farmers react by spraying warm groundwater onto strawberry fields. This may have the unintended effect of drastically lowering the underground water table overnight, resulting in a burst of sinkholes.

There's no evidence that such groundwater pumping created the sinkhole that killed Jeff Bush. However, the occurrence of sinkholes, and their relationship to human activities, are a reminder that Mother Nature is not necessarily benign -- and when we poke a finger in her eye, we may find hers poked back in ours.

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[TUE 08 APR 14] MODULAR CARGO DRONE

* MODULAR CARGO DRONE: The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's "blue sky" technology development office, had been working on a "Transformer" project to build a "flying car" -- a tactical vehicle that could drive down the road but take to the skies when need be. It appears Transformer foundered on the classic problem of flying cars: instead of achieving the best of cars and flying machines, they end up being klunky cars and klunky flying machines, more complicated and expensive than it would be to obtain both items separately. As reported by AVIATION WEEK ("Duct Work" by Graham Warwick, 24 February 2014), recognizing the failure of the idea, DARPA has refocused Transformer into a new program named "Aerial Reconfigurable Embedded Systems (ARES)".

Transformer:  So who needs a flying car?

ARES follows directly from a Transformer effort, for which a team of Lockheed Martin and Piasecki had been selected to build a Transformer demonstrator. On consulting with the armed services, DARPA officials decided it would be much better to partition the effort, creating a drone vertical takeoff / landing (VTOL) aircraft that could straddle-carry a more or less standard light combat vehicle. The military has already been experimenting with using drone helicopters for supplying remote outposts, as discussed here in 2012, and proved receptive to the idea of a VTOL drone for supply operations.

The ARES demonstrator will effectively be the flight system of the original Transformer, but without the ground vehicle component. It's essentially a tailless tilt-duct flying wing with:

The payload is carried between tall landing skids. The ducted fan configuration permits operations into tighter landing areas than could be accessed with a helicopter, while improving safety to ground personnel in the landing area. The ducts are also flight surfaces that contribute significantly to lift. Flight control is performed by variable-pitch constant-speed rotors, vanes in the duct exhausts, and a trim surface at the rear of the central engine module. In hover, the duct vanes provide yaw control, while in forward flight yaw is provided by varying duct thrust, with the vanes used for pitch and roll control.

Twin small turboshafts were selected instead of one large one for flight reliability, the two engines driving a common gearbox whose output will be provided to both fans -- meaning one engine, redlined, will be able to keep the drone flying. ARES will also to feature redundant hydraulics and a triple-redundant flight control system. Maximum speed will be 370 KPH (230 MPH / 200 KT) and overall weight will be about 3,175 kilograms (7,000 pounds), about half of that being payload.

ARES:  we pick up and deliver

Piasecki is building the flight module, with Lockheed Martin handling the software and overall program direction. Flight demonstrations are expected to start in mid-2015. In its "graduation exercise", the drone will lift off with a payload module, fly to a remote location, drop off the payload module, and then fly back to home base. The ultimate expectation is that warfighters in the field will be able to request drone services with a tablet computer or smartphone. Payloads could include a light scout vehicle; a cargo pod; a medevac pod; or a helicopter-like fuselage, semi-permanently fitted in place of the landing skids, for reconnaissance or even light armed missions.

The past history of "modular" flying machines is not encouraging, and a Lockheed Martin official cautioned: "None of the services have invested yet; they want to see the demo. But everyone understands the modular idea. We are talking to the Marine Corps, Army, and Special Operations forces. The next big step for DARPA and industry is to identify a transition partner."

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[MON 07 APR 14] AMERICA & THE WORLD (2)

* AMERICA & THE WORLD (2): Before World War II, Americans tended strongly towards isolationism. Who cared about what the Europeans did? They were an ocean away, to hell with them, let them stand or fall as they might. The First World War did not erode this attitude; it instead reinforced it, with many Americans coming to believe that they had been suckered by Britain and a malign collaboration of arms manufacturers into a wasteful fight that America should have never have had anything to do with. Pearl Harbor destroyed isolationism overnight -- but with the end of the Cold War, the notion has been resurfacing. Why, as people ask, should America exert itself elsewhere instead of tending to its own garden? What does our meddling do but cause us no end of trouble and make us no friends?

The reality is that the international system that emerged in the wake of World War II, the Americans being the primary architects, still benefits the USA in many ways. It also benefits many other people, even some who claim they hate everything the US stands for.

Political scholars have identified four categories of international power:

Primacy provides a core to a system that other states want to join. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union attempted to challenge American primacy, but in the end failed completely. The successor Russian state merely sulks, frustrated at its lack of clout, unwilling to agreeably become a member of a system it cannot dominate. It's a self-defeating mindset, Russia remaining an underachiever on the world stage as long as the leadership refuses to grasp opportunities, beyond exploiting the weaknesses of states within its sphere of influence.

Where did American primacy come from? One factor is geography, America not having neighbors that present a threat, or have any desire to. Europe, Russia, China -- all have borders they worry about, with good historical cause. A second factor was that the USA was the only major power to emerge from World War II stronger than it was when it began, the others having been wrecked to a lesser or greater degree. In the aftermath, the US set up an international system that was much more benign than not, encouraging economic development even in the defeated Axis nations, promoting democracy when it could, setting up alliances, guaranteeing the security of allies, and working for open trade systems. Yes, the Pax Americana was not a golden age, most notably thanks to the Cold War, a massive waste of resources that often corrupted American ideals -- but even at that, the contrast with the sclerotic and ultimately doomed Soviet state shows that the alternative would have been much worse.

American traditions of democracy also proved a benefit, ironically because they ensured a certain turmoil in policy; changes in presidential administrations meant unworkable policies established by one administration could be reversed by another. Americans did meddle in other states in pursuit of American interests -- of course they would, of course they did -- but there little urge to conquest, and in places where Americans weren't welcome, they usually ended up leaving sooner or later.

The USA also very deliberately set up institutions such as the UN, the IMF, and the WTO to distribute power. The Americans did stack the rules of such organizations in their own favor, but on consideration of the alternative -- of America doing whatever it damn well pleased without discussion -- the UN and other international organizations look much better. Everyone complains about the UN, but to the extent it can work, it does. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 04 APR 14] THE UNITED NATIONS (17)

* THE UNITED NATIONS (17): The complaints of the Iranians over Soviet troops in Iran were heard loud and clear in Washington DC. At the time, Kennan's Long Telegram was making the rounds, and so when reports came in that the USSR was actually reinforcing their forces in Iran, they were believed.

The Soviets demonstrating no evident flexibility on the withdrawal of their troops, the Iranians asked the Security Council to take up their complaint in a formal session to start on 25 March 1946. Gromyko, back in the saddle at the UN, asked for a postponement, not unreasonably saying the matter would only need to be taken up if current negotiations between the USSR and Iran went nowhere -- but the Truman Administration wasn't buying very much of what the Soviets said any more, and insisted that the issue be considered.

On 25 March, the Soviet news agency TASS reported that the negotiations between the USSR and Iran were converging on a solution, and that Red Army forces would be gone in six weeks. Gromyko accordingly asked the Security Council to delay discussion of the matter until 10 April, but again the response was negative. On 27 March, the Security Council voted on whether to postpone the discussion as requested, the vote going strongly NO. Gromyko got up and stiffly walked out -- a gesture of defiance somewhat ruined when, as he walked out the building, he was discreetly told his fly was open. He repaired the problem with as much dignity as possible under the circumstances, and then departed.

The walkout raised a storm; the storm might have passed, since the Soviet troops did leave Iran as promised, and Gromyko, having returned to the UN, asked that the issue be dropped from the Security Council agenda. It was hardly an unreasonable request, though Gromyko decided to push his luck by saying that consideration of the matter had been "incorrect and illegal" in the first place. Lie more moderately passed around a memo agreeing that there was no further need for concern over the issue.

The Americans and their allies were not feeling moderate, and continued to make a fuss; even less moderately, they were furious at Lie for siding with Gromyko, murmurs going around in Washington DC that Lie was a tool of the Soviets, Secretary of State Byrnes saying that the secretary-general had "exceeded his powers". A petulant round of bureaucratic silliness followed, the upshot of which was the issue, though never discussed, wouldn't be formally dropped from the Security Council agenda for three decades.

More positively, discussion of the propriety of Lie's actions yielded the conclusion, consistent with the rights granted in the UN Charter, that the secretary-general was free to speak his mind. However, to no surprise Lie was circumspect about how he did so from then on. The squabbling led to the exit of Ed Stettinius from the United Nations in June, Stettinius concluding that the Truman Administration wanted confrontation with the Soviets and was disinterested with using the UN to resolve problems with the USSR. Stettinius was replaced by Warren Austin, up to that time a Republican senator from Vermont.

The exit of Stettinius coincided with an initiative by the Truman Administration towards control of nuclear power. On 14 June 1946, the US representative to the UNAEC, Bernard Baruch -- a wealthy financier with long experience in government service -- proposed that the US would give up its nuclear arsenal if everyone else pledged to not develop nuclear weapons themselves, with a strong inspection regime to ensure there was no cheating.

It remains ambiguous just how sincere the "Baruch plan", as it was known, really was. No doubt the proposal emerged from an honest desire for nuclear disarmament, but since the prospect of the USSR agreeing to give up nuclear weapons development and to permit intrusive inspections was obviously nil, all it amounted to in practice was a propaganda exercise. The plan was debated at length, but it was a nonstarter; eventually it died of boredom and was forgotten. The UNAEC, with nothing much to do, faded away, being formally disbanded early in the next decade. Propaganda effort or not, the Truman Administration still can be praised for proposing nuclear disarmament, setting a precedent for later efforts.

* Thanks to all the bickering at the United Nations -- which, considering that the UN had been organized as an international forum, should not have been the least surprising -- groups of Americans began to take action against the possibility of the UN finding a permanent home in their cities, though the hunt for a residence continued. There was a push for San Francisco or Philadelphia, but Lie felt that the New York metropolitan area was the best place to set up shop. The Security Council's temporary installation in the Hunter College gym ended once school was back in session, to be moved to the Sperry Gyroscope plant on Long Island -- idled since the war and in the hands of the government's War Assets Administration. New York City graciously donated a building at Flushing Meadows, originally erected as part of the 1939 World's Fair and then being used to house a skating rink, for the annual meetings of the General Assembly.

As for a permanent facility, in response to inquiries by Lie, Robert Moses, New York City's urban planning czar, suggested Turtle Bay, a run-down chunk of Manhattan along the East River. There was the question of funds to buy up the land, but at the end of 1946, business magnate John D. Rockefeller donated $8.5 million USD to buy up the Turtle Bay properties. They were then purchased, with work proceeding on the design and then construction of the appropriate structures there.

While construction was underway, the UN continued to organizationally expand. The "World Health Organization (WHO)" was established on 7 April 1948, being the successor to the Health Organization of the League of Nations. WHO was organized as a clearinghouse for global epidemiological and general health data, and also conducted its own global health programs, notably for immunization. The UN would continue to accumulate new elements in the future -- an inevitable process, but also one that had an equally inevitable appearance of going out of control. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 03 APR 14] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: Diabetes sufferers have to draw blood from themselves every day to check their blood glucose levels, the procedure being an ongoing nuisance. Now Google is working on a contact lens with a glucose sensor and a wireless chip that will be able to check glucose levels on a continuous basis without drawing blood. How it's powered was not mentioned; Google researchers did say their next-generation design will have embedded LEDs to give wearers an alert that their glucose levels are out of safe bounds. No date was given for availability.

* Growing crops in the Arabian Peninsula is somewhat troublesome. There's plenty of Sun power, but the heat tends to wither plants, and the only water that's plentiful is salty. As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW, a pilot project conducted by the Sahara Forest Project (SFP) in the Persian Gulf state of Qatar has figured out how to make these two factors work together to produce food, as well as biofuel, clean water, energy, and salt.

The core of the SFP plant is an innovative greenhouse. At one end, salt water is trickled over a gridlike curtain, with the prevailing wind blowing the resulting cool, moist air over the plants inside. At the other end of the greenhouse is a network of pipes with cold seawater running through them. Some of the moisture in the air condenses on the pipes and is collected, providing a source of fresh water for the plants. Using this scheme, three crops could be grown a year in the greenhouse, with yields comparable to those of commercial farms in Europe.

To the surprise of those working on the seawater greenhouse, the cool moist air leaking outside led to growth of plants around it. Taking the hint, crops were planted around the greenhouse, including barley, salad rocket, and useful desert plants. "Evaporative hedges" were also planted to help keep the external environment cool. Along with the greenhouse, the facility had a thermal solar electric power turbine system using a parabolic reflector to provide electricity for its operation. Other experiments conducted at the facility have included culturing heat-tolerant algae, growing salt-tolerant grasses for fodder or biofuel, and evaporating the concentrated saline the plant emits to produce salt.

The experimental facility is supported by Qatari fertilizer companies Yara International and Qafco. It has has a footprint of 1 hectare (2.5 acres), with the greenhouse having a growing area of 600 square meters (720 square yards). A facility with a footprint of 60 hectares could provide all the the cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, and egglants now imported into Qatar. For now, the SFP is focused on building a 20-hectare facility in Jordan, to demonstrate commercial feasibility.

* As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK, Craig Fugate -- as mentioned here in 2012, the current boss of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) -- was, in his previous job in charge of emergency management for hurricane-prone Florida. It was not always easy to sort out where the damage was worst after a storm, but Fugate noticed that Waffle House restaurants, a popular chain in US East, Southeast, and Midwest, provided a useful indicator of how bad things were: they were GREEN (fully operational), YELLOW (limited menu), or RED (shut down).

Waffle House does disaster management

FEMA now makes good use of the "Waffle House Index" to get an immediate idea of patterns of destruction. It's not perfect, but it's a lot better than nothing, all the more so because the Waffle House chain is very tuned to disaster management. The company maintains a disaster management command center, has a fleet of portable generators, and trains its people do deal with disasters -- including making sure they report data to FEMA over email. In the aftermath, the Waffle House also supplies coffee and hot meals to victims and emergency responders. Think of it as a sort of catastrophe crowdsourcing.

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[WED 02 APR 14] TINY WORLDS OF PLASTIC / WORLD UNDER THE SEAFLOOR

* TINY WORLDS OF PLASTIC: A note run here in 2012 discussed how a species of oceanic insect is using the little shards of plastic that litter the North Pacific as breeding sites. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("Welcome To The Plastisphere", 20 July 2013), expanded on this theme, describing the discovery of "micro-ecologies" on such oceanic shards.

Tracy Mincer of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, in Massachusetts, and Linda Amaral-Zettler of the Marine Biological Laboratory, also in Woods Hole, collected pieces of plastic from various sites in the North Atlantic. They then examined each using DNA analysis, along with an electron microscope, to see what was living on it. Each little bit of debris turned out to be a micro-ecosystem, in total supporting about about 50 species of single-celled plant, animal, and bacterial life.

The bottom of the food chain in these micro-ecosystems was occupied by photosynthesizers, These included single-celled diatoms and dinoflagellates, along with photosynthetic bacteria known as cyanobacteria. They're usually free-floating, but having a bit of plastic to ride allows them to stay near the surface, with the best access to sunlight. Plants of course are consumed by herbivores, with some dinoflagellates supplementing their photosynthesis with a bit of "grazing". Next up on the food chain were predators, including ciliates -- a type of protozoan -- and bacteria that consume other bacteria.

There were also residents that seemed to feed on the plastic itself. Plastics are energy-rich materials, which is why they often can burn so readily. Terrestrial bacteria and fungi are known that can feed off plastics, and the researchers found evidence of such feeders on the oceanic plastic shards as well. They noticed many of their pieces of debris featured surface pits around two microns across, about the size of a bacterial cell; closer analysis showed the pits did contain bacteria that were dividing and so presumably thriving. However, the researchers haven't confirmed these bacteria actually digest plastic.

The prospect of bacteria that digest oceanic plastics suggests that, over the long term, the problem of oceanic litter may solve itself, at least to a degree. However, to balance this optimistic note, the researchers also found cholera-like bacteria, that might possibly be transmitted to humans by birds or fish. Studies of the tiny micro-ecosystems continue and will keep on generating more surprises.

* WORLD UNDER THE SEAFLOOR: As reported by AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, samples drilled from 3.5-million-year-old seafloor rocks have yielded strong evidence that a variety of microorganisms live deeply buried within the ocean's crust. These microbes survive by consuming methane and sulfate compounds dissolved in the mineral-rich waters flowing through the immense networks of fractures in the crust. The new find confirms that the ancient lavas formed at midocean ridges and found throughout deep ocean basins are, by volume, the largest ecosystem on Earth.

Other probes of the ocean floor have hinted at microbes under the ocean floor, but such investigations have been confounded by worries of contamination from microbes in the sea floor mud, or by mishandling. Mark Lever, a geomicrobiologist at Aarhus University in Denmark, and his colleagues performed the new study with great care. The samples of ancient lava, about 3.5 million years old, they analyzed came from a heavily fractured zone of crust between 351 and 583 meters (1,150 and 1,910 feet) below the sea floor a few hundred kilometers off the shore of Washington state.

After taking the samples back to the lab, the team sterilized the outside of the rocks, peeled away their outer layers, then incubated the exposed samples in 65 degree Celsius (150 degree Fahrenheit) waters similar to those infiltrating the sea floor at the site -- poor in oxygen but rich in chemicals such as dissolved hydrogen, sulfates, acetates, methanol, and dimethyl sulfide. After two years, enough time for some of the typically slow-growing rock-dwelling microbes to reproduce, samples of the fluid were transferred into another container of simulated seafloor waters, along with sterilized samples of rock that microbes could grow upon, and then incubated for another 5 years.

Analyses revealed that the long-incubated fluids contained low concentrations of methane, with a lower-than-normal concentration of the carbon-13 isotope -- a clear sign that methane-producing microorganisms were living in the fluid. Additional tests indicated that a separate group of microbes, ones that make their living by consuming sulfates, was also inhabiting the samples. The study has been praised for the care with which it was made, though much more needs to be learned about the populations of microbes deep below the ocean floor.

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[TUE 01 APR 14] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: As reported by THE ECONOMIST, a maker of homeopathic remedies named Terra-Medica got into trouble with the US Food & Drug Administration (FDA). Although homeopathic medicines effectively contain nothing but water or sugar, it wasn't ineffectiveness that drew fire from the FDA, homeopathic medications being legal as long as they carefully qualify their claims. The problem with Terra-Medico's "Pleo" product was that it actually contained penicillin or some variation on it -- meaning that it was then subject to regulation.

According to a 2007 survey, in a year Americans spent $2.9 billion USD on homeopathic medicines and $170 million USD on visits to homeopathic practitioners. Along the same lines, a recent study conducted by J. Eric Oliver of the University of Chicago and colleagues polled Americans on six popular medical conspiracy theories, and found that at least half believed one or more of them, for example:

To no surprise, respondents who scored high on conspiracy belief were also more likely to buy into alternative medicine. Oliver commented: "Science in general, medicine in particular, is complicated and cognitively challenging because you have to carry around a lot of uncertainty. To talk about epidemiology and probability theories is difficult to understand as opposed to: IF YOU PUT THIS SUBSTANCE IN YOUR BODY, IT'S GOING TO BE BAD."

* My Canon Powershot zoom camera having failed during my Albuquerque trip last fall, I considered buying a replacement, but decided to wait until 40 megapixel cameras came out. However, as will be discussed in detail later, in February I decided to make a trip to Arizona. There was no sign that 40 megapixel cameras were about to hit the streets in numbers any time soon; my older Canon SX10IS camera, with 20x zoom, would likely do well enough, but I figured as long as I was going on a trip, I might as well see if I could do better at a reasonable price point. Since I effectively travel to take pictures, it didn't make sense to go without having a camera I felt good about.

I got onto Amazon.com and looked around, getting nowhere at first, not finding anything that much better than the SX10IS -- but then I found the Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70, with 60x zoom and 16 megapixels. I've learned that high zoom is not necessarily such a benefit, but 60x was a really big jump, and it was tempting. Certainly it was clearly more capable than the SX10IS; I quickly caved in and ordered it.

In early March, I took the Lumix down to the Denver zoo for a test spin. My Canon Powershot zoom camera having failed at a relatively young age, I was babying the Lumix, transporting it in a padded case, and using my Canon Powershot pocket camera unless I needed the bigger gun. The day trip was a bust as far as photos went, but it was very successful in giving me practice with the cameras, particularly the Lumix's burst mode, very valuable for airshow shots.

trip to the zoo, March 2014

I'd had cameras with multishot burst capability before, but the Lumix has a button on top to allow quick setting of the burst mode capability, and I found it very easy to use. Another trick was a panoramic mode, which I didn't dope out until later. I know I've owned cameras before with panoramic modes, but for whatever reasons I never looked into the matter. The Lumix has that mode as part of the top dial settings, so it was easy try out: just hold down the shutter button, sweep from left to right, let off the shutter button, and it soaks up the full panoramic scene.

I was very impressed, though panning is a bit tricky to use. The problem is lighting can be uneven over the pan, so it's important to sweep in a steady motion -- first face the center of the scene to be recorded, then twist to the left, start panning and pivot steadily to the right. It's good to start and stop beyond the edges of the scene, so they can be trimmed off later, and it's also good to try multiple pans of the same scene at different rates, from fast to slow. I suspect that a change in lighting conditions, Sun going behind a cloud or the like, during the pan can cause trouble.

Panasonic Lumix DMC-FZ70

One difficulty with the Lumix is that it has a fixed instead of flip-out LCD display, making it harder to take shots from over my head. That's not too much of a problem, since it's clearly an active-matrix LCD, the viewing angle being wide. The camera also has a few nice little features:

* The trip to the zoo was also to evaluate how much wear I could take on my feet. I had suffered serious foot pain from my fall 2012 trip to San Diego; I wanted to see if I could manage things to minimize such discomfort on the Arizona trip. I wore a new pair of athletic shoes to the zoo, with insole inserts, and carried bandaids along with a bottle of roll-on menthol solution so I could attend to problems as they arose.

Unfortunately, results were very poor, the toes on my left foot quickly becoming blistered. Since I wore my older shoes after I got back, I didn't realize for two weeks that I'd done something dumb: I'd pulled out the wadded-up paper that the new shoes had been packed with for shipment, but I'd missed a wad that was more or less conformal to the toe of the left shoe. It wasn't big enough to notice when I put on the shoe, but it was enough to raise hell after walking around for a while.

I got to wondering what was going on when I noticed the toe of the left shoe seemed more solid than the toe of the right. Having fixed that, I've been trying out both gel and foam insole inserts to see which works better, and also rubbing my feet down with lotion twice a day. It seems part of the problem is that the skin condition on my feet is poor, and the lotion helps -- somewhat. I'm still worried the Arizona trip will beat the hell out of my feet.

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