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apr 2016 / greg goebel / follow "gvgoebel" on twitter

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

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[FRI 29 APR 16] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2016
[THU 28 APR 16] WINGS & WEAPONS
[WED 27 APR 16] OCTO-PUSS GENOME
[TUE 26 APR 16] LETHAL AIR POLLUTION
[MON 25 APR 16] APPLE WARS (4)
[FRI 22 APR 16] THE COLD WAR (110)
[THU 21 APR 16] SPACE NEWS
[WED 20 APR 16] ROBOTS DO CLOTHES
[TUE 19 APR 16] HYPERSONIC MISSILE?
[MON 18 APR 16] APPLE WARS (3)
[FRI 15 APR 16] THE COLD WAR (109)
[THU 14 APR 16] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 13 APR 16] GOLDEN PILLS AT BARGAIN PRICES
[TUE 12 APR 16] THE EARTH IN 10,000 YEARS
[MON 11 APR 16] APPLE WARS (2)
[FRI 08 APR 16] THE COLD WAR (108)
[THU 07 APR 16] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 06 APR 16] UPDATING AMERICA'S NUKES
[TUE 05 APR 16] EVS AFTER ALL?
[MON 04 APR 16] APPLE WARS (1)
[FRI 01 APR 16] ANOTHER MONTH

[FRI 29 APR 16] NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2016

* NEWS COMMENTARY FOR APRIL 2016: As discussed here in 2013, India and the USA have never been very close friends, but over the past decade they have been diplomatically drifting towards each other. An article from THE ECONOMIST ("A Suitable Boy?", 16 April 2016), described how the drift is continuing.

India and the US, despite being very different cultures, have much in common: they are both democracies; believe in the rule of law; and share mutual concerns, such as islamic militancy and Chinese assertiveness. Past suspicions have prevented any enthusiastic joining of hands -- but Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sees the US as a valuable ally for extending India's influence beyond its borders, while US President Barack Obama has worked hard to "pivot" the USA towards Asia, and seeking counterbalances to China.

Nobody is talking "alliance", the Americans speaking in more modest terms about a "strategic handshake", the Indians similarly talking about a "strategic partnership". In April, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited India to work with Manohar Parrikar, his Indian counterpart, to move towards a logistics agreement between the two nations; other agreements are in the works to cover communications and digital mapping. The agreements will allow the armed forces of the two countries to cooperate more easily, and give India greater access to US military hardware.

America has logistics deals, titled "Logistics Support Agreements", with many other countries. The deal with India has involved about a decade of haggling -- one of the consequences being that, at Indian request, it be labeled a "Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement", simply to give less of an impression of India dancing to America's tune. India does not want to directly antagonize China, or be seen as part of an American-led gang-up against China. The Indians have a particular problem with American support for Pakistan.

Ashton Carter & Manohar Parrikar

Common interests are gradually winning out over suspicions. If India doesn't want to antagonize China, neither does the Indian tiger want to be bullied by the much bigger Chinese dragon. India and the US established a "Joint Common Vision" for Asia last year; the US conducts more joint military exercises with India than any other country. India also now obtains more military hardware from the US than does Pakistan, India's brass seeing US-made weapons as the best, valuable for projecting power in the Indian Ocean. The US is also collaborating in development of India's defense industries.

US Navy Admiral Harry Harris, boss of the Pacific Command -- which, as he puts it, is responsible for US military operations "from Hollywood to Bollywood" -- says that defense cooperation with India is "arguably the defining partnership for America in the 21st century." The use of the word "arguable" is significant: there are many Indian politicians who are deeply suspicious of the USA, while India's armed forces remain hide-bound and compartmentalized. Harris's use of the word "partnership" is also significant, in that the two sides have different notions of the meaning of the word.

* As discussed by an article from TIME Magazine Online ("This Is Why Africans Arenít As Upset About the Panama Papers Revelations" by Aryn Baker, 18 April 2016), a stack of leaked documents concerning foreign accounts brokered by the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca has raised an international firestorm -- the "Panama Papers" having implicated the wealthy and powerful around the world in dubious off-shoring of financial accounts.

In Africa, however, there's hardly been a fuss. When the news media announced that the Panama Papers fingered at least 17 former and current high-ranking officials from Africa, the response in Africa was a collective shrug -- even though the African Union, the International Monetary Fund, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation & Development says that from $50 billion to $150 billion USD are funneled out of Africa every year through tax dodges, illicit financial dealings, and questionable offshore accounts.

There are two reasons for the indifference, the first being that Africans may have legitimate reasons to offshore their fortunes. Frans Conje -- head of South Africa's Institute of Race Relations, a liberal think tank promoting investment and economic growth -- points out that Africa is still marked by authoritarian regimes that are inclined to seize property on a whim, one of the most notorious examples being how President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and his people forcibly seized white-owned farms without compensation in 2000 as part of his disastrous "Fast-Track Land Reform Program". According to Cronje: "In many cases these people are putting their money in Western countries where their money is safe, it can earn a return, and it can't be seized by the next regime to come into power."

Africans are also used to corruption. John Enders -- a policy fellow at the South Africa Institute of Race Relations and the former head of Good Governance Africa, a Johannesburg-based research and advocacy organization -- said: "In many African countries, citizens have become inured to impunity and a lack of accountability. Cases of corruption, even when exposed, mostly go unpunished. So because the revelations aren't that surprising, people are less motivated to react to them."

A case in point might be South Africa's President Jacob Zuma, who openly spent roughly $16 million USD in public funds to refurbish his personal residence with a pool, a chicken coop, and an amphitheater, covering the line items as "security upgrades". The countryís constitutional court has ruled that he must pay back some of the money, but he remains in power. In contrast to such flagrant abuses of power, an offshore account just doesn't sound so bad -- even though, as Enders points out, it really is dodgy: "I strongly suspect that most of the people implicated in this leak chose to use the expensive and circuitous route of using offshore accounts and shell companies because they had something to hide. Why not just use a domestic account, or a transparent offshore investment?"

There's another reality, that authoritarian regimes also tend to step on the news media for criticizing the government. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the president's twin sister has been linked with several offshore accounts and shell companies, the government has warned journalists to not publish the names of Congolese politicians mentioned in the leaked documents. When citizens have governments like that, they have more immediate worries than offshore accounts.

* As for our leadership here in the States, a Gallup poll revealed that President Barack Obama's job approval ratings crept up to 50% in the 29th quarter of his administration. 50%? Is that good? Well, yes.

I'm number 0.5!

Six presidents have made it to 29 quarters in office since the end of World War II: Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Of the rankings of the presidents in their 29th quarter:

The thuddingly obvious suggestion here is that the chief executive is not judged by the public on the basis of his virtues and defects, but on the state of the nation; when there's public dissatisfaction, the president gets the blame. In hindsight, on the basis of his leadership, Harry Truman wasn't a bad president -- but that's only seen with the benefit of detachment, from an era when he's no longer an issue.

Given that Barack Obama is much more popular than Truman was in the endgame of their administrations, in a generation the hatred felt towards Obama -- a manifestation of presidential derangement syndrome -- will, as a good bet, fade invisibly to the background. In contrast to the approval rating of Congress, which is only 15%, he actually looks pretty good today.

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[THU 28 APR 16] WINGS & WEAPONS

* WINGS & WEAPONS: Regarding the TERN naval drone being developed by Northrop Grumman for DARPA -- discussed here last month -- China's Chengdu Aircraft Research & Design Institute (CARDI) is developing something like it, the "VD200" flying-wing vertical-takeoff drone.

Like the TERN, the VD200 is a "tailsitter" or "pogo", taking off nose up, landing on its tail. However, the VD200 is in no way a clone of the Northrop Grumman TERN drone. For one thing, it's smaller, with a weight of about 200 kilograms (440 pounds), including a 20-kilogram (44-pound) payload, typically a turret with an imager and laser target designator; a wingspan of 4.6 meters (15 feet); and a length of 1.8 meters (6 feet). The configuration is also different; while the TERN has a single contra-rotating propeller, the VD200 has a 2-meter (6-foot 6-inch) prop on each wing, the props presumably rotating in different directions to cancel torque.

CARDI VD200

The VD200 will be available in both truck-launched and sea-launched variants. Endurance will be up to three hours, with a speed of 260 KPH (160 MPH) and a radius of action of up to 150 kilometers (95 miles).

* According to an article from AVIATION WEEK Online, ("Dzyne RotorWing Tackles Long-Endurance VTOL Challenge" by Graham Warwick, 6 July 2015), startup company Dzyne is taking an unorthodox approach to the design of its vertical take-off & landing (VTOL) drone, the "Rotorwing".

VTOL has always been afflicted by tradeoffs; helicopters do fine at vertical takeoff and landing, but not so good at performance and endurance. Trying to combine the advantage of a helicopter with those of a fixed-wing aircraft have traditionally been complicated and expensive. The Rotorwing will attempt to get around the limitations of VTOL by using a wing that also functions as a rotor.

The Rotorwing is also a tailsitter, being parked vertically on four swept fins. It has long-span wings with an engine at the midpoint of each wing. For takeoff, the wings are pivoted around their spars to the horizontal plane, with the engines pointed in opposed directions, to drive the wings as a rotor. The wings being long, the drone will take off at low RPM. The fuselage spins with the wings, the tail section being "de-spun" so it won't rotate with the fuselage. After takeoff, the wings transition to a vertical orientation, with the drone acting as a fixed-wing aircraft.

Rotorwing

Overall efficiency is slightly less than a conventional-takeoff aircraft, but higher than a tiltrotor or helicopter. Dzyne has conducted hover flights with an electrically-powered 22%-scale "Pathfinder" model with a span of 2.75 meters (9 feet), and is now conducting transition tests. Company officials say the transition between hover and forward flight is not smooth, but they're working on that.

The full-scale Rotorwing has a notional weight of 115 kilograms (250 pounds), with a span of 6.7 meters (22 feet), being powered by twin heavy-fuel (diesel-type) engines with 10 kW (13.5 HP) each. The drone would be able to carry a 16-kilogram (35-pound) payload for 20 hours. Although Dzyne has an interested customer, the work is being internally funded.

* There's been considerable fuss about the potential malign uses of drones around the world. JANE'S Online reports that the Tokyo police, demonstrating a certain Japanese pragmatism, are now using a hexcopter with a net hanging beneath to capture renegade drones. The intercept appears to be performed manually, which would seem a bit tricky to pull off. Dutch police have taken a more "natural" approach, training eagles to snatch drones out of the sky. I suspect the eagles enjoy their work.

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[WED 27 APR 16] OCTO-PUSS GENOME

* OCTO-PUSS GENOME: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Octopus Genome Surprises And Teases" by Dennis Normile, 12 August 2015), one of the latest animals to have its genome decoded is the octopus. It's a bit surprising that it took this long, since the octopus is a particularly fascinating creature: it has three hearts, tentacles with their own neuron-rich "brains", and skin that can quickly change color and texture to evade predators.

An international genomics team has now decoded the genome of the California two-spot octopus (Octopus bimaculoides), a common laboratory species, and found a number of surprises. The first was the size of the octopus genome, which features 2.7 billion base pairs and more than 33,000 protein-coding genes. It is slightly smaller than the 3-billion-base-pair human genome, but has more than the human's 20,000 to 25,000 genes. It is also five to six times larger than other invertebrate genomes, and has roughly double the number of chromosomes, with 28.

octopus

The size of the genome and the number of chromosomes suggested that there had been a chromosome duplication at some time in the evolutionary history of the octopus, but nothing was found that suggested there really had been. The researchers instead found that the growth of the genome was concentrated in two gene families that had undergone dramatic expansion, with the appearance of hundreds of novel genes; the introduction of repetitive sequences; and sweeping genomic rearrangements.

Project researcher Caroline Albertin, an evolutionary developmental biologist at the University of Chicago in Illinois, says these gene families are associated with neural development, and presumably hold clues to the evolution of the octopus's nervous system -- which she says is "completely unlike the vertebrate brain."

In vertebrates, axons -- nerve fibers -- are sheathed in myelin, a fatty tissue that helps speed the transmission of neural signals. Myelin may have allowed mammals to evolve larger bodies by enabling rapid communication between a central brain and distant body parts. The octopus's neural system lacks myelin, and so acquired a different strategy that relies on local neural communication. Each of an octopus's eight arms has enough brain power to act independently, to an extent; even when severed, a tentacle will recoil from danger.

The two expanded gene families include the "zinc finger transcription factors" -- which regulate the synthesis of other proteins, and may have something to do with the elaborate nervous system of the octopus -- and a set of genes that produce "protocaherines" -- which are known to regulate the development of the nervous system in mammals. Traditionally, it was believed that invertebrates don't have many protocaherines, but it turns out that the octopus has twice as many as we do. They are clearly linked to the neural function of the octopus, though the details are unclear. The genes that support other unusual features of the octopus, such as its ability to change color, are still being sorted out from the data.

* As discussed by another article from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("The Genes That Turned Wildcats Into Kitty Cats" by David Grimm, 10 November 2014), researchers have produced a high-quality map of the housecat genome, which they believe will give hints into how the feral housecat became the family pet that rubs against our legs when it wants to be fed.

Cats first hooked up with humans about 9500 years ago, not long after people first took up farming in the Middle East. Drawn to rodents that infested grain stores, wildcats slunk out of the deserts and into villages. There, they seem to have mostly domesticated themselves, with the friendliest ones able to take advantage of human table scraps and protection. Over thousands of years, cats shrank slightly in size, acquired a range of coat colors and patterns, and mostly shed the antisocial tendencies of their past.

Researchers led by Michael Montague -- a postdoc at the Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis -- began their study with the genome of a domestic cat, a female Abyssinian, that had been published in draft form in 2007, then filled in missing sequences and identified genes. In order to get hints on the domestication of the cat, they compared the resulting genome with those of cows, tigers, dogs, and humans.

The analysis revealed 281 genes that show signs of rapid or numerous genetic changes, a marker of recent selection, in domestic cats. Some appear to be involved in hearing and vision, the senses that felines rely on most. Others play a role in fat metabolism, and are likely an adaptation to the dedicated carnivorous lifestyle of the cat.

The researchers didn't stop there, sequencing the genomes of 22 domestic cats, representing a wide variety of breeds and locations, and compared them with the genomes of two Near Eastern and two European wildcats. The researchers found at least 13 genes that changed as cats went from feral to friendly. Some of these, based on previous studies of knockout mice, seem to play a role in cognition and behavior, including fear responses and the ability to learn new behaviors when given food rewards. According to Montague: "That jibes with what we know about the domestication of cats, because they would have needed to become less fearful of new locations and individuals, and the promise of food would have kept them sticking around."

The team also found five genes in domestic cats that influence the migration of neural crest cells -- stem cells in the developing embryo that affect everything from skull shape to coat color. There are suggestions that such cells could be the "master control switches" of domestication, explaining why domestic animals share common traits, such as smaller brains and certain pigmentation patterns -- peculiarities first noted by Charles Darwin.

Cats, of course, still seem somewhat less domesticated than dogs. It appears that the cat genome appears to have undergone less intense and more recent evolutionary pressure than that of dogs -- which isn't so surprising, since dogs may have been hanging with humans for about three times longer.

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[TUE 26 APR 16] LETHAL AIR POLLUTION

* LETHAL AIR POLLUTION: As reported by an item from BBC WORLD Online ("Polluted Air Causes 5.5 Million Deaths A Year" by Jonathan Amos, 13 February 2016), an estimate by the "Global Burden of Disease" project suggests that air pollution causes more than 5.5 million premature deaths every year -- most of these deaths taking place in the rapidly developing economies of China and India.

The primary villain is the emission of particulates from power plants, factories, vehicle exhausts, and from the burning of coal or wood. Dan Greenbaum of the the Health Effects Institute in Boston, Massachusetts, explains: "In Beijing or Delhi, on a bad air pollution day, the number of fine particles -- known as 'PM2.5' -- can be higher than 300 micrograms per cubic meter. The number should be about 25 or 35 micrograms."

Shanghai smog with coal barges

Breathing in tiny liquid or solid particulates can increase the risk of heart disease, stroke, respiratory complaints, and cancer. Developed nations have made great strides in dealing with this problem over the past few decades, but in developing countries, the number of citizens dying as a result of poor air quality in developing countries. According to the study, air pollution causes more deaths than other risk factors such as malnutrition, obesity, alcohol and drug abuse, and unsafe sex -- ranking it as the fourth greatest health risk, behind high blood pressure, dietary risks, and smoking.

In China, air pollution is estimated to lead to about 1.6 million deaths a year, the primary factor being coal burning, the high level of mortality being enhanced by an aging population. In India, it is roughly 1.3 million, the particular problem being burning wood, dung, crop residues and other materials for cooking and heating -- this "indoor pollution" causing far more deaths there than "outdoor pollution". (This data is from 2013, the most recent year for which it is available.)

Michael Brauer, of the University of British Columbia in Canada, said the statistics should make governments think hard about the scope of their anti-pollution policies: "The trick here is to not take the 50 or 60 years that it took in the high-income countries, and to really accelerate the process; and that's really where we think these statistics, the data, will come in handy. In the US, we know that for every dollar spent on air pollution improvements, we can get between a $4:$30 USD benefit in terms of reduced health impacts."

* According to a note from YAHOO! News, a 34-year-old Chinese artist who calls himself "Nut Brother" has fabricated a brick, made out of the city's air pollutants. He got the idea after a nasty smog hit the city in 2013, to then obtain an industrial-class vacuum cleaner; the vacuum cleaner, mounted on a cart with batteries, could suck up pollutants every day at a rate equivalent to about 62 humans.

The artist commented: "Our city is becoming overcrowded by cars and surrounded by chemical engineering. We create more dust by asking for more resources, and we will become dust when all our resources are depleted." A stunt, certainly, but all analysis shows that few cities have air as murderous as Beijing's -- nor would any of its citizens suggest reports of the pollution seem exaggerated.

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[MON 25 APR 16] APPLE WARS (4)

* APPLE WARS (4): The counter-argument to the complaints of US authorities about strong encryption is to ask: What do you really have to complain about? They can, legally and without much difficulty, get their hands on torrents of data that simply didn't exist a generation ago: social media, phone connections, security cameras, the growing "internet of things". The law can obtain the call records for the San Bernadino terrorists, detailing who they called. Cook said: "Going dark? This is a crock! No one's going dark ... We should take a step back and look at the total that's available, because there's a mountain of information about us."

Cook echoed the findings of a report published in February by Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet & Society, signed by an impressive roster of legal and security professionals. The report pointed out how business data-mining; the growth of cloud computing; and the expanding internet of things all undermine privacy and security: "These are prime mechanisms for surveillance, alternative vectors for information-gathering that could more than fill many of the gaps left behind by sources that have gone dark -- so much so that they raise troubling questions about how exposed to eavesdropping the general public is poised to become."

Tim Cook has accepted that as the reality; but then wonders, if we can't draw the line of intrusion at strong encryption, is there any line at all? He questioned the right of the government to have access to data that runs through Apple's pipelines, when the company itself didn't feel it had a right to access that data: "I think [Apple customers] should have a reasonable expectation that your communication is private."

Cook found the battle exasperating. Apple is a business, and its business model does not include taking on the government -- or even being controversial at all, the company being noted for its sense of privacy. Apple is only determined to provide strong encryption because their customers need it and want it. Cook found it bizarre that Apple was been put in the position of defending civil liberties, which he saw as traditionally the government's job, saying there's been a "role reversal" between Apple and the government.

Cook was not happy with the FBI: "Do I like their tactics? No, I don't. I'm seeing the government apparatus in a way I've never seen it before. Do I like finding out from the press about it? No, I don't think it's professional. Do I like them talking about or lying about our intentions? No, I'm offended by it, deeply offended by it."

Cook felt stuck in a "bad dream". His goal is to get a congressional commission to investigate the issue, and propose sensible laws to clarify it -- saying that whatever laws are passed, Apple will then abide by them. That was of course slightly disingenuous, since Apple understands they have a strong, if not impregnable, case, and is certain to protest loud and at length if the committee starts to go off the rails.

In the meantime, Apple is tightening up encryption for future product releases, working towards the goal of products that can't be cracked. Of course, Apple is notoriously tight-lipped about new product development -- but it's obvious Apple engineers are spending a lot of time imagining exactly what sorts of requests might be made for breaking into an iPhone, and modifying the product to make sure nobody can get in. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 22 APR 16] THE COLD WAR (110)

* THE COLD WAR (110): Despite Khrushchev's unpleasant trip to China, come the new year of 1960, the premier still remained upbeat, maintaining the emotional momentum he had acquired on his American tour, and getting ready to roll out the red -- so to speak -- carpet for Eisenhower's visit to the USSR. Although the premier had been stingy on allocating funds for fancy dachas for the leadership, he authorized the construction of a set of villas, just so Eisenhower would be impressed with his accommodations. Khrushchev even had a golf course set up; apparently, there were none already existent in the Soviet Union.

The Eisenhowers were supposed to arrive on 10 June, to spend a week visiting Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Irkutsk; the presidential couple would then take a boat trip down the Angara River, then depart for Tokyo on 19 June. There were fears among Soviet generals that Eisenhower's Boeing 707 might take pictures as it flew over the USSR -- and their worries had, it seems, a basis in fact, with the CIA installing a cleverly-concealed camera in the belly of the aircraft. The cockpit controls for the camera were camouflaged as well, since refusing to allow Soviets into the cockpit would have been suspicious. The tale about the camera is murky, not well authenticated.

There was considerable sprucing-up of Moscow and Leningrad in anticipation of the visit. One village that wasn't supposed to be on the president's agenda underwent a renovation, on the possibility that he might drop by -- or somewhat more possibly, local officials were just milking the occasion to make civic improvements. However, there was a sincere and widespread public enthusiasm over the presidential visit, most Soviet citizens looking forward to friendly relations with America, and a new era of peace.

Many Soviet officials were irritated at this outpouring of warmth towards the nation they regarded as the USSR's number-one enemy, but they couldn't hold down the optimism. After the savagery of Stalin's rule and the misery of total war, it seemed that the age of communism was finally at hand, that its promises would be fulfilled at last. Yes, Khrushchev's initiatives had proven inconsistent, but that could be judged a case of "two steps forward, one step back." Though was of course the expected grumbling about the way things were as they existed, there was little dissatisfaction with communism in principle among Soviet citizens.

While the veterans of the Bolshevik Revolution still remained at the top of the Soviet state, a younger generation, with an updated and more cosmopolitan Red outlook, was taking up its place at the lower echelons of the leadership apparatus. They would later be referred to as the "men and women of the Sixties" -- being much more inclined to questioning and experimentation than the previous generation, whose independence had been generally terrorized out of them, but nonetheless patriotic and dedicated to the Red future.

The postwar world seemed to promise that future, with the fall of colonialism and the rolling back of imperialism leading to the emergence of communist revolutionary movements around the world. The Soviet Union and China were now Red brethren, facing down the antiquated capitalist powers -- the leadership of both countries being generally careful to publicly conceal the fact that they had never got along perfectly, and increasingly couldn't stand each other -- while Castro's Cuba demonstrated that the Red star was rising over the New World as well as the Old.

The Soviet Union had also demonstrably become one of the powers of the globe, able to match American might, or so it seemed on paper. Space spectaculars provided dramatic evidence of the advanced nature of Soviet society, with the USSR moving rapidly towards putting a "cosmonaut", as their spacefarers were known, into orbit. Early in 1960, a cadre of twenty military pilots was chosen as candidates to ride the Vostok capsule, with a cosmonaut training center being set up outside Moscow. The training center would become known as "Zvesni Godorok (Star Town)"; since only a dozen of the initial batch of cosmonauts would end up flying space, they would become retrospectively known as the "Star Town Twelve". Unlike the American Mercury Seven, the cosmonauts did not work in a blaze of publicity -- that wasn't how the Soviet Union did things. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 21 APR 16] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for March included:

-- 04 MAR 16 / SES 9 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2335 UTC (local time + 4), carrying the "SES 9" geostationary comsat. SES 9 was built by Boeing Satellite Systems (BSS) and was based on the BSS 702HP platform. It had a launch mass of 5,271 kilograms (11,620 pounds), making it the heftiest geostationary payload launched by a Falcon 9. The satellite had a payload of 81 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 15 years.

SES 9 was placed in the geostationary slot at 108.2 degrees east longitude to provide direct-to-home broadcasting and other communications services in Northeast Asia, South Asia, and Indonesia, as well as maritime communications for vessels in the Indian Ocean. This was the second launch of the Falcon 9 FT ("Full Thrust") booster variant. An attempt was made to soft-land the booster, but it ended in failure -- somewhat as per expectations, the flight trajectory ensuring that the booster would have to land "hot".

-- 09 MAR 16 / EUTELSAT 65 WEST A -- An Ariane 5 ECA booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 0520 UTC (local time + 3) to put the "Eutelsat 65 West A" geostationary comsat into orbit. Eutelsat 65 West A was built by Space Systems / Loral; it had a launch mass of 6,654 kilograms (14,470 pounds), and carried a payload of C / Ku / Ka-band transponders. The satellite was placed in the geostationary slot at 65 degrees west longitude to provide direct-to-home video broadcasts and broadband Internet services to Eutelsat customers in Latin America and Brazil.

-- 10 MAR 16 / IRNSS 1F -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 1031 UTC (local time - 5:30) to put the sixth "Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)" spacecraft into orbit. The satellite had a launch mass of 1,425 kilograms (3,140 pounds), and was placed in the geostationary slot at 32.5 degrees east longitude, at an orbital inclination of 5 degrees. It was the second IRNSS spacecraft to be placed into low-inclination orbit, the others being placed in geostationary altitude, but at inclinations of 28 degrees.

Each IRNSS satellite was designed for a 12-year lifetime, with a payload of L-band and S-band navigation signal transmitters. A C-band transponder aboard each spacecraft helped generate location estimates for the satellites, with a rubidium atomic clock keeping time aboard each platform. All carried laser retro-reflectors for ranging measurements as well. A seventh and final IRNSS satellite will be launched in April, to also be placed in low-inclination orbit. The booster was in the "PSLV XL" configuration, with six solid strap-on boosters.

-- 13 MAR 16 / RESURS P3 -- A Soyuz 2-1b booster was launched from Baikonur at 1856 UTC (next day local time - 6) to put the "Resurs P3" civil Earth resources observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit. It was the third launch (of five planned) of the Resurs P series, which replaced the Resurs DK series. The Resurs P satellite had a launch mass of 5,920 kilograms (13,050 pounds), with a length of 7.93 meters, and a diameter of 2.72 meters at its widest point (26 by 8.9 feet). It was powered by twin solar arrays. The payload included:

Resurs P3 also carried an AIS receiver, designed to collect and relay tracking data from ships at sea. The spacecraft had a design life of five years. Built by the TSSKB Progress design bureau, Resurs P was based around a bus derived from the Yantar series of reconnaissance satellites. The Yantar-derived bus has become a common element of Russian spacecraft in recent years, with many new-generation military satellites also based upon this platform.

-- 14 MAR 16 / EXOMARS TRACE GAS ORBITER -- A Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 0931 UTC (local time - 6) to loft the ESA "Exobiology on Mars Trace Gas Orbiter (ExoMars TGO)", with its "Schiaparelli" AKA "Entry Demonstrator Module (EDM)" lander, on a trajectory to Mars.

The orbiter and lander composite amounted to one of the biggest ever sent to Mars, at about 4,332 kilograms (9,550 pounds), and measuring about the size of a moving van. The orbiter will arrive into Mars orbit on 16 January 2016; it will eject the Schiaparelli lander three days before arrival. The orbiter will enter orbit the same day the lander enters the Martian atmosphere. Protected by a heat shield during entry, the lander will descend using a supersonic parachute and braking rockets. Schiaparelli will touch down in Meridiani Planum -- a broad, relatively flat region that has already been explored a bit by NASA's Opportunity rover.

ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter

The orbiter's initial orbit will be highly elliptical, ranging from about 300 to 95,000 kilometers (185 x 60,000 miles). It will then perform a series of aerobraking maneuvers to lower into a circular orbit with an altitude of 400 kilometers (250 miles), with an inclination of 74 degrees to the Martian equator. The TGO carried a payload of four instruments to study the surface and atmosphere of Mars:

The orbiter's five-year mission will begin in late 2017, with the spacecraft mapping the planet with its stereo camera, and analyze the gases making up the Martian atmosphere, with a focus on methane. It will also serve as a relay to handle communications of landers and rovers with the Earth. The methane question has puzzled scientists for more than a decade, since Europe's Mars Express mission found traces of the gas in the Martian atmosphere in 2004, a surprise discovery that immediately led researchers to ask if Mars was still biologically or geologically active. The methane signal later disappeared, but not before ground-based observatories detected the gas. The Curiosity rover also sensed a brief spike in methane in the air at its landing site.

Schiaparelli lander

Schiaparelli is battery-operated, and will only operate for four days on the surface of Mars. The lander's main function is as a technology demonstrator for an ESA rover, due for launch in the 2018 or 2020 launch windows. Schiaparelli's instrument suite included:

ExoMars TGO was the second ESA Mars mission, following Mars Express. ExoMars TGO was a European-Russian collaboration, with the Russians obtaining a share in the Mars effort by providing launches of ESA spacecraft in the 2016 and, hopefully, 2018 launch windows. Italy was the ExoMars program's biggest funder, with the country leading the design and fabrication of the Schiaparelli lander at Thales Alenia Space's facility in Turin. The next ExoMars mission will include a European rover and a Russian landing platform, launching together on another Proton booster as soon as May 2018. However, space science programs have a tendency to slip, and it might not fly until the 2020 Mars window.

The mission was originally conceived as an ESA-NASA effort, with the US providing Atlas 5 boosters for the mission, along with a descent package for a rover on the 2018 mission. NASA was forced to pull out after budget cuts in 2012, though the agency did provide UHF radios for communications with landers and rovers, and instruments for the 2018 ExoMars rover. NASA is also launching its INSIGHT lander in the 2020 Mars window, and looking down the road at a new rover.

Neither the ESA nor Russia -- including the predecessor Soviet state -- have successfully operated a spacecraft on the surface of Mars. The USSR Union came close in December 1971, when Mars 3 became the first spacecraft to perform a successful soft landing on Mars. Unfortunately, contact with the spacecraft was lost after less than fifteen seconds on the surface. No other Soviet attempts to land on Mars even did that well.

Europe's only previous attempt to land on Mars was with the "Beagle 2" probe, which was launched along with Mars Express in June 2003. After separating from Mars Express, Beagle was scheduled to land on 25 December 2003 -- but no signals were ever received from the lander. Post-mission analysis of the Beagle 2 development program was highly critical, only stopping short of calling it a "science fair project". The spacecraft's fate was unknown until 2015, when it was identified in images taken by the NASA Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Images showed that the spacecraft had landed successfully but failed to deploy its solar panels, which in turn prevented its communications antenna from being deployed.

-- 18 MAR 15 / SOYUZ ISS 46S (ISS) -- A Soyuz-Fregat booster was launched from Baikonur at 2126 UTC (local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 46S" AKA "TMA-20M" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew consisted of Soyuz Commander Aleksey Ovchinin (first space flight) of the RSA, Oleg Skripochka (second space flight) of the RSA, and NASA astronaut Jeff Williams (fourth space flight). The Soyuz capsule was launched on a "direct ascent" trajectory, docking with the ISS upper Poisk module six hours after launch.

-- 23 MAR 16 / CYGNUS 6 (OA-6) -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0305 UTC (previous day local time + 4) to put the sixth "Cygnus" supply capsule, named "OA-6" into space on an International Space Station support mission. One particularly interesting payload was the "Additive Manufacturing Facility (AMF)", a 3D printer. The freighter also carried a set of smallsats, including:

The Atlas booster was in the "401" vehicle configuration, with a four-meter (13.1 foot) fairing, no solid rocket boosters and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

-- 24 MAR 16 / COSMOS 2515 (BARS-M) -- A Soyuz 2-1a booster was launched from Plesetsk at 0942 UTC (local time - 4) to put what was believed to be the second "Bars-M" electro-optic area reconnaissance satellite into orbit for the Russian military. The spacecraft was designated "Cosmos 2515".

-- 26 MAR 16 / BEIDOU IGSO-6 -- A Chinese Long March 3C booster was launched from Xichang at 2011 UTC (next day local time - 8) to put a "Beidou" navigation satellite into orbit. This was the 22st Beidou payload launch. The fully operational Beidou system will consist of 35 satellites in three types of orbits:

This satellite was put into the upper high-inclination orbit.

-- 31 MAR 16 / PROGRESS 63P (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 1623 UTC (local time - 6) to put the "Progress MS-02 / 63P" tanker-freighter spacecraft into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) supply mission. It docked with the ISS Zvezda module two days later. It was the 63rd Progress mission to the ISS.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: ASTRO-H, the new Japanese X-ray astronomy satellite launched on 17 February, was discussed here last month. Unfortunately, contact was lost on 26 March; observations showed the satellite in a tumble, with pieces of debris accompanying it, as if it had suffered an explosion. While JAXA mission controllers are trying to recover the satellite, the prognosis is not encouraging.

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[WED 20 APR 16] ROBOTS DO CLOTHES

* ROBOTS DO CLOTHES: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Made To Measure", 30 May 2015), clothing manufacture has stubbornly resisted automation, ensuring that it ends up being performed in countries where labor costs are low. There's been no lack of trying to automate the manufacture of clothes, and some things can be done automatically -- for example, cutting fabric, or sewing on pockets and buttons.

However, trying to build an automated system that can pull in raw materials at one end and turn out a finished garment on the other has been painfully hard. What is particularly troublesome is stitching two pieces of material together. The two pieces have to be aligned properly under the sewing head, and then fed through, constantly adjusting the fabric to prevent it slipping and buckling, while keeping the stitches neat and the thread at the right tension.

SoftWear Automation (SA), a textile-equipment manufacturer based in Atlanta, Georgia, is working to overcome these problems. The company's researchers use cameras linked to a computer to track the stitching -- not a new idea, but the SA system uses high-speed cameras, running at up to 1,000 frames per second, with the images then processed by software to enhance contrast. This allows the system to see fabric as a matrix of threads, keeping track of the stitching by counting threads, and catching any distortion of the fabric. The system adjusts the "feed dog", which pulls the fabric through the machine, to regulate the stitching. Currently, SA is working on a machine that can stitch a neat circle, something that even adept humans find hard to do.

The concept was dreamed up by Steve Dickerson, the founder of SA, previously a professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He patented the idea in 2012 and won a $1.3 million USD research contract from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the Pentagon's "blue sky" investigations office. The military interest is due to a 1941 requirement that gives preference to American suppliers when buying uniforms.

Along with stitching, there's the problem of assembling the multiple pieces of a garment -- about 20 or more for a pair of jeans. That means a robot sewing system must be able to pick the appropriate subassemblies, place and sew them together, and then deal with the finish assembly or product. To deal with that task, SA has developed a materials-handling system, named LOWRY, which uses a vacuum grip to pick up pieces of fabric and transfer them to the appropriate machine to cut, stitch, add buttons, or perform other finishing tasks. LOWRY can be reprogrammed to handle different subassemblies and sequences of operations. SA expects to have a mature LOWRY system available in 2016.

The production of shoes is also moving along. Nike is now using a technology called "Flyknit" to make some of its trainers. Flyknit uses a computer-controlled knitting machine to automatically weave strands of polyester yarn into the shape of the upper part of a shoe, instead of having it manually stitched together from individual panels, the way most trainers are made in Asian factories.

Shoemakers are already using 3D printers to make prototypes of shoes, and exotic clothing and shoes made with 3D printing are increasingly becoming common at fashion shows. Mass production of such items via 3D printing isn't ready yet, but there's work on making it happen. One such project involves a collaboration between Disney, Cornell University, and Carnegie Mellon University, with a 3D printer using layers of off-the-shelf fabric to make soft objects, such as cuddly toys.

Robotic clothing manufacture is attractive not just for labor savings, but for time-to-market. Fashionable clothing tends to go out of style quickly, and with the cycle times involved in arranging overseas manufacture, it may be old news by the time it hits the shelves. With robotic systems, a clothing house in one country can manufacture locally, with minimal delay between introduction of a design concept and delivery to stores. Of course, the labor savings issue is obvious: who would hire workers if a machine could do it just as well, more cheaply? The fact that manufacturing in countries where labor costs are low tends to generate accusations of sweatshop exploitation workers also gives an incentive to be done with workers.

That the clothing industry is headed towards increased automation is beyond argument; how long it will take remains to be seen. Manufacturers have every reason, and nothing at all to restrain them, to reduce their work forces to a minimum. The social impact remains to be assessed.

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[TUE 19 APR 16] HYPERSONIC MISSILE?

* HYPERSONIC MISSILE? As discussed by an item from FlightGlobal Online ("America's Hypersonic Missile Revolution Beckons" by James Drew, 4 March 2006), in 1967 an X-15 rocket plane, with William "Pete" Knight at the controls, set a record for the fastest flight of a piloted aircraft: Mach 6.72, equal 7,274 KPH (4,518 MPH).

The irony is that this record hasn't been broken since then. There was an expectation in the 1960s that "hypersonic" aircraft would be commonplace eventually -- but even at that time, there were growing doubts about the utility of raw speed. However, the US Air Force is now enhancing its efforts to develop hypersonic vehicles.

There's no immediate interest in piloted hypersonic aircraft, the USAF not envisioning a hypersonic surveillance / strike aircraft in the short term. Instead, the Air Force is pushing hypersonic missiles, powered by the type of air-breathing supersonic combustion ramjet ("scramjet") engine that powered Boeing's rocket-boosted X-51A Waverider testbed. "Boost-glide" hypersonic weapon concepts, brought up to speed by a rocket booster and then left to coast into the target, are also being considered.

Hypersonic weapons could hit a target 1,850 kilometers (1,115 miles) away in 17 minutes or less. China has already conducted five tests of its Wu-14 boost-glide hypersonic vehicle, while Russia intends to test a hypersonic missile by 2020. Under the USAF "High-Speed Strike Weapon (HSSW)" project, flight experiments of a hypersonic missile demonstrator are scheduled for 2019, leading to fielding in the early 2020s, with the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) collaborating with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) on development.

The X-51A's four flights between 2010 and 2013 involved only 353 seconds of scramjet engine operation, but were seen as adequate to validate the technology. On its final flight, the X-51A traveled 425 kilometers (265 miles) in just over six minutes, after being dropped from a B-52 at an altitude of 15,250 meters (50,000 feet).

X-51A on B-52

Mark Lewis, previously USAF chief scientist, says the X-51A was not remotely a production weapon, but it did establish the propulsion system: "X-51 was a very practical configuration. It burned a practical amount of fuel, JP-7 [standard jet fuel]. It was a flight-scale system, so you can look at the X-51 and see how you could go from that experimental vehicle to a real operational missile."

Development of an operational missile will require work on flight control, navigation, and warhead integration. Those are not seen as show-stoppers; Lewis believes that, since scramjets don't have moving parts, there's no reason to believe that, in maturity, a scramjet-powered missile should be more expensive than a similar rocket-powered missile. The Air Force has been rapidly building up funding for the HSSW, with work progressing across several different lines of development. Beyond HSSW, AFRL says it is already "developing and ground testing larger engines for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and strike systems by 2030."

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[MON 18 APR 16] APPLE WARS (3)

* APPLE WARS (3): As mentioned earlier in this series, there's nothing new about the dispute over strong encryption. In 1993, worried about the spread of encryption, the Clinton White House announced a device called the "Clipper Chip" that would encrypt digital communications, while allowing the government to keep a key. Of course, the industry response was overwhelmingly negative -- one protest being that the Clipper Chip would make US products unattractive to foreign buyers. By 1996, the Clipper Chip had been effectively abandoned, and by 2000 the government had given up on it.

That did establish a precedent of sorts for the right to strong encryption, but the difficulty is that no definitive decision was made in court. The issue remained in the shadows for over a decade; even 9-11 didn't bring it back up, though US cyber-surveillance went into high gear. However, by 2011, US law enforcement was getting worried about strong encryption and its ability to stymie government surveillance. The FBI's general counsel described that ability as "going dark".

After revelations of government mass surveillance by Edward Snowden in 2013, some tech companies began integrating encryption more tightly and seamlessly into their products, and enabling it as a default setting. Apple's iOS 8, released in 2014, was a landmark in that respect; Google also "went dark" with their next release of Android. Apple began to promote security, advertising out to the world that Apple's business model doesn't involve harvesting and mining user data the way that, say, Google, Facebook, and Amazon do.

These exercises did not go unnoticed by the authorities, with the stage being set for a confrontation, which was set off by the San Bernadino shootings. In the aftermath, FBI Director James Comey told a congressional hearing: "Law enforcement, which I'm part of, really does save people's lives, rescue kids, rescue neighborhoods from terrorists. And we do that a whole lot through court orders that are search warrants. And we do it a whole lot through search warrants of mobile devices. So we're gonna move to a world where that is not possible anymore? The world will not end, but it will be a different world than where we are today and where we were in 2014."

Was it really that black-&-white? Cook didn't think so: "I think it's very simplistic and incorrect ... Let's you and I ban [strong encryption] tomorrow. And so we sit in Congress and we say: THOU SHALT NOT HAVE ENCRYPTION. What happens then? Well, I would argue that the bad guys will use encryption from non-American companies, because they're pretty smart, and Apple doesn't own encryption."

In other words, the genie's got out of the bottle, and like it or not, there's no reasonable way to put him back in again. Cook elaborated: "The Internet doesn't have boundaries. You can wind up getting an app from Eastern Europe or Russia or wherever, it doesn't matter which country, just outside the United States. And that app would give you end-to-end encryption."

One such app named "Telegram", put together by a Russian named Pavel Durov, now has over 100 million users. If the government denies strong encryption to law-abiding citizens, who need it for their own protection, the Black Hats will get it anyway. In addition, what will the law do if law-abiding citizens surf the global internet and find strong-encryption apps themselves? Would the authorities throw them in jail? Add to that the inevitability that some of the supposed encryption apps found on obscure websites will be malware that rips off users.

Cook admitted that Black Hats like strong encryption, saying: "We get that -- but you don't take away the good for that sliver of bad. We've never been about that as a country. We make that decision every day, right? There are some times that freedom of speech, we might cringe a little when we hear that person saying this, and wish they wouldn't. This, to us, is like that. It's at the core of who we are as a country." [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 15 APR 16] THE COLD WAR (109)

* THE COLD WAR (109): Eisenhower was planning a foreign trip for December 1959, which would take him to over a dozen cities spanning the Old World. It had the appearance of something of a junket, but he was also planning on showing the flag, and consulting with foreign leaders. De Gaulle was very high on the list of those the president wished to consult; in November, the French president had written Eisenhower a letter that was not only exasperating -- that was nothing new from de Gaulle -- but even hurtful.

De Gaulle expressed worries that the US and the USSR would have a nuclear shootout that would sacrifice Europe, while leaving the two superpowers intact. It was somewhat implausible, if not beyond imagination, that a nuclear exchange in Europe could remain regional, that the superpowers would refrain from striking directly at each other; certainly, Eisenhower's concepts of nuclear strategy envisioned no such thing. De Gaulle, working from that idea, then out-did himself, suggesting that the two superpowers might collude to divide the world between them, saying: "... who can even say that the two rivals, after I know not what political and social upheaval, will not unite?"

Given the entirely obvious, and at the time seemingly unbreakable, hostility between the two superpowers, the idea that they would come to any such malign arrangement was staggering -- nor was Eisenhower happy at the suggestion that the USA would consider discarding Europe in the face of Soviet intimidation. He was "astonished", as he wrote in his reply, that de Gaulle could hold the US and the USSR in equivalent low regard, that America could act "on such a low moral plane" as to unilaterally abandon the commitment to its allies.

Before leaving, Eisenhower admitted in a news conference on 2 December that he was indulging his urge to travel, but there really was a significant motive underlying the trip: "I do feel a compulsion to visit a number of countries ... I want to prove that we are not aggressive, that we seek nobody else's territory or possessions; we do not seek to violate anybody else's rights." After all, though Eisenhower wouldn't have put it in such vain terms, there was nobody on the planet whose international prestige was greater, and he said: "I want to use it."

The next day, Eisenhower flew off to Italy, kicking off the 19-day trip. He visited Rome and the Vatican; Ankara; Karachi; Kabul; New Delhi and Agra; Tehran; Athens; Tunis; Toulon and Paris; Madrid; and Casablanca. At most of the stops, the crowds turned out in great numbers, Indian Prime Minister Nehru saying he hadn't seen such crowds since the day of Indian independence. On meeting de Gaulle in Paris, the French president apologized to Eisenhower for the over-the-top letter de Gaulle had sent the White House, but pressed the American president again for the concept of an Anglo-American-French alliance that would, in effect, rule the world. Eisenhower was still not buying it, but there was agreement on a summit conference to be held in Paris in the spring.

On his return to the USA, Eisenhower went to Augusta, Georgia, with his wife Mame for the holidays. Although the president had enjoyed the grand tour, it had given him food for thought, from his observations of dire and widespread poverty in India and elsewhere. In a meeting with senior officials on New Year's Eve 1959, Eisenhower said that the rich countries needed to use their wealth to assist the poor countries: "The underdeveloped countries need the help we can give, and I am convinced we will go down within a short span of time if we don't give them this help."

Eisenhower also reiterated his interest in disarmament. Nobody saw any immediate prospect of it happening, but the president was optimistic for the new year. His trip had been a great success, even though it had achieved nothing in specific; and Khrushchev seemed to adopting a conciliatory attitude, with the Berlin issue moved to the back burner. The American economy was doing well, and the government's budget was in surplus. Eisenhower was optimistic for the coming year, 1960, his last in office. He would be greatly disappointed. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 14 APR 16] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: A buzz, generated by Boeing research, was traveling through the tech blogosphere, on what that company described as the "world's lightest metal". That sounds a bit like marketing hype, the item in question actually being a "microlattice", basically a 3D matrix of wirelike elements, connected in a way to give the resulting material the maximum overall strength for the minimum weight. It was initially fabricated in 2011.

microlattice

Boeing researchers compared the microlattice to bones, which achieve high strength with light weight through a fine-grained porosity. The microlattice is described as "99.99% air". The prototypes were made of nickel-phosphorus alloy. The fabrication process was particularly interesting, with reservoir of ultraviolet-cured polymer resin exposed to UV through a perforated mask, the resin being progressively and quickly cured into the microlattice structure. The polymer was then electroplated with metal, with the polymer etched away in the end. The resulting "wires" are hollow, further reducing weight of the microlattice. The fabrication process is said to be easily scalable and inexpensive.

The microlattice could be used as a strong, lightweight filler for structural panels in aerospace or other transport applications. The microlattice is highly elastic, easily returning to form after being compressed, and so could be used in shock absorbers, or as replacements for traditional springs in some applications.

* As discussed by an entry from TIME Magazine Online ("Hate People? Love Quinoa? Your Dream Restaurant Just Opened" by Katy Steinmetz, 4 September 2015), everything old is new again, and updated accordingly. As a case in point, consider "Eatsa", a restaurant in San Francisco's financial district, that opened last fall, to be nicknamed "Robot Restaurant".

There are no cashiers or waiters at Eatsa. Customers swipe a charge card at one of nine iPad kiosks and then specify a mean from a menu. Staff in the back room dish up the mean, and place it on a shelf whose back end is a window, a transparent touchscreen, that customers can "tap twice" on to get a meal. Eatsa does have a human "concierge" among the customers, to provide assistance and keep an eye on things.

This is not a really new idea, being a revival of the "automat", cafeterias of the last century where customers could inspect dishes placed in windowed shelves, and pop in a coin to get a helping of pie or macaroni and cheese. Eatsa improves, hopefully, on the scheme by using technology almost beyond the imagination of the era of the automat.

* As discussed by an entry from WIRED Online blogs ("Electric Scooter Maker Gogoro Is Sidestepping A Big Obstacle" by Alex Davies, 6 January 2016), electric vehicles (EV) have their attractions -- quiet, no street emissions, and in principle low operating costs -- they also have significant downsides -- most prominently limited range, and long recharge times. For now, EVs seem fated to remain a niche transportation technology; but given some ingenuity, there's no saying the niche can't be expanded.

Gogoro, a US-Taiwan startup, is demonstrating some of that ingenuity with their "Smartscooter", which was introduced in July 2015, with thousands now cruising the streets of Taipei. It costs about $4,000 USD and gets about 100 kilometers (60 miles) on a fully-charged battery. Where Gogoro gets ingenious is in the deployment of ATM-sized battery swap stations, where people swap dead battery packs for charged ones. In a sense, the users don't own the batteries; they own the scooter, and share the batteries. The company has been hyping the use of renewable energy to drive the swap stations; even though renewable energy isn't available at all times, that matters less if each station has a fair stockpile of batteries, with batteries put in a queue where they have a few days to be charged up.

Gogoro scooter

To the end of 2015, Gogoro had sold about 4,000 scooters and installed 125 swap stations, setting up the stations with help from local government. The company is working on bringing the service to Amsterdam, as well as obtaining certification in the US. The firm is also introducing the "Go Charger", which members of a Smartscooter network can use to charge up two battery packs at home. It plugs into an AC outlet, with one version able to charge a battery in 5 hours, another able to charge a battery in 2.5 hours.

To make the Go Charger particularly intriguing, if it's set up in a place that's commercially accessible -- in a restaurant or coffee shop, as a facility conceptually along the lines of a bike rack -- it can be registered with Gogoro, with anyone able to use it. Make it available for more than 12 hours a day, Gogoro will provide the Go Charger for free. The company calls it the "Owner Proposed Energy Network (OPEN)" Initiative. A silly idea? Or a demonstration of private enterprise meshing with the new sharing economy? Best just to try it, and find out.

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[WED 13 APR 16] GOLDEN PILLS AT BARGAIN PRICES

* GOLDEN PILLS AT BARGAIN PRICES: As discussed by an article from BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK ("Lowering The Bar On Hep C Meds" by Ketaki Gokhale, with Caroline Chen & Dani Bloomfield, 11 January 2016), Gilead Sciences made a public splash in December 2013, when it introduced its drug "sofosbuvir", marketed under the name of "Solvadi". Sofosbuvir is a cure for hepatitis C ("hep C") -- a viral infection of the liver that, while not generally fatal in itself, is debilitating, and often results in liver cancer or cirrhosis of the liver later.

sofosbuvir

Sofosbuvir attracted attention because of its high effectiveness, and more so because of its high price: about $1,000 USD a pill. It was compared to swallowing pills of gold, with politicians blasting the company for greed. Big insurers and other health-care providers have been able to squeeze deals out of Gilead -- it seems the high price is, to an extent, a starting point for negotiation -- but it still is spendy, or at least it is in developed countries.

Cut to India. About 150 million people around the world are believed to suffer from hep C, often transmitted by dirty hypodermic needles and contaminated medical gear. About 12 million sufferers are in India, the disease being it's painfully commonplace in some villages, with a third to half of the inhabitants infected. In 2015, Gilead licensed 11 Indian companies to produce sofosbuvir, and now the drug goes in India for a few dollars a pill.

That may not seem to make business sense, but it does. In the 1990s, after expensive anti-HIV drugs were introduced, pharmaceutical companies came under public pressure in developing nations, where AIDS was common but people were generally poor. The result was "tiered pricing", in which drugs sold at a high markup in developed countries were produced by generic drug manufacturers in India and elsewhere, to be sold at highly competitive prices. Tiered pricing made sense for companies like Gilead: not only did it stop the protests from developing countries, it also meant incremental revenue from places where nobody could buy pricey drugs in the first place. In addition, the generics manufacturers would likely pirate the drugs anyway, and so nothing was lost.

Gilead granted manufacturing rights to Indian companies such as Mylan NV, Cipla LTD, and Natco Pharma to make the company's drugs, for distribution in 101 developing countries, with Gilead getting a 7% cut of sales. The result in India has been a price war. Sofosbuvir cost $10 USD a pill when it was introduced into the Indian market in March 2015; by the end of the year, it had fallen towards about $4 USD.

Nirmaljeet Malhi, a gastroenterologist at Apollo Hospitals in Ludhiana, Punjab, says manufacturers "want more and more patients" and are easily talked down to a lower price: "If one agrees to it, the others will also have to. It's a race where one cannot say no -- because then they're going to lose the business."

There are now more than a dozen different versions of sofosbuvir on the market in India. Companies sponsor screening drives, hand out free test kits to hospitals, and offer bulk discounts to entire villages. M.V. Ramana, executive vice president and head of branded markets at Dr. Reddy's Laboratories LTD, says the race is not slowing down: "The market has become highly competitive in the last six months, with close to 20 companies launching their own."

Dr. Reddy's has sought imaginative ways to gain an edge, with the company setting up a venture with lender Arogya Finance to offer no-interest loans to patients. Abbott Laboratories worked with French medical equipment company Echosens SAS to supply Indian hospitals with 13 ultrasound machines that determine the level of fibrosis -- hardening -- without a liver biopsy. Since the introduction of sofosbuvir in India, hep C screening has become much more commonplace, with manufacturers also seeking ways to help lower the cost of screening for prospective patients.

There has been some medical tourism of patients from developed countries to India for treatment with sofosbuvir. There isn't much that Gilead can do to stop that practice, but the company does insist that the drug be sold under prescription by licensed doctors, not over-the-counter. The requirement for prescription also helps restrain smuggling, smugglers being certain to take advantage of such a huge price differential. Smuggling is also restrained by the unreliability of black-market drugs: they're at least as likely to be fakes as the real thing, the fakes being useless at best, dangerous at worst.

The problem remains, of course, of the high price of drugs like sofosbuvir in the developed world. Gilead officials point out that developing the drug required large amounts of company funds, that the firm has to make a profit to stay in business, and so they have to charge high prices to recoup the investment in development and qualification of the drug; it won't stay on patent indefinitely. Imaginative solutions to the quandary have been considered: for example, the US government might offer big prizes for development of the most valuable drugs, with the provision that they then be made available to anyone who wants to make them. That would actually save taxpayer money, compared to the government having to subsidize the purchase of expensive drugs, while reducing public health-care costs and keeping taxpayers healthy. The debate continues.

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[TUE 12 APR 16] THE EARTH IN 10,000 YEARS

* THE EARTH IN 10,000 YEARS: As discussed by an article from THE WASHINGTON POST ("What the Earth will be like in 10,000 years" by Chris Mooney, 8 February 2016), a group of climate scientists has claimed in the journal NATURE CLIMATE CHANGE that human alterations of the Earth's climate may be locking in changes that will play out over as long as 10,000 years.

The 22 climate researchers -- led by Peter Clark, of Oregon State University in Corvallis -- warned: "The next few decades offer a brief window of opportunity to minimize large-scale and potentially catastrophic climate change that will extend longer than the entire history of human civilization thus far."

The researchers assert that we have been thinking about climate change far too narrowly by only projecting outward to the year 2100, which the research says "was originally driven by past computational capabilities." In reality, the changes will play out over millennia. Raymond Pierrehumbert, a geoscientist at Oxford University and one of the study's authors, comments: "It's a statement of worry ... most of us who have worked both on paleoclimate and the future have been terrified by the idea of doubling or quadrupling CO2 right from the get-go."

Anders Levermann, a sea-level-rise expert at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and another of the paper's authors, adds that in hundreds of years, people will look back and say: "Yeah, the sea level is rising; it will continue to rise; we live with a constant rise of sea level because of these people 200 years ago that used coal, and oil and gas."

The difficulty is that carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere for a very long time before being slowly removed by natural processes. According to the paper: "A considerable fraction of the carbon emitted to date and in the next 100 years will remain in the atmosphere for tens to hundreds of thousands of years." In the meantime, sea levels will rise in proportion to the increase in temperature.

So what will the world look like in 10,000 years? That depends on what we do with the fossil fuels remaining to be accessed and burned. It also depends on whether or not we develop technologies that are capable of pulling carbon dioxide out of the air on a massive scale, comparable to the amount that we're currently emitting.

From 1750 to the present, human activities put about 580 gigatonnes (GT) of carbon into the atmosphere, which converts into more than 2,000 GT of CO2. We're currently emitting about 10 GT of carbon per year, a number that is still expected to rise further in the future. The study therefore considers whether we will emit somewhere around another 700 GT in this century, reaching a total cumulative emissions of 1,280 GT, or whether we will go much further than that, reaching total cumulative levels as high as 5,120 GT. Intermediate scenarios were also considered.

In 10,000 years, in the worse case, the planet could be 7 degrees Celsius (12.6 degrees Fahrenheit) warmer on average, with seas 52 meters (170 feet) higher than they are now. There would be almost no mountain glaciers left in temperate latitudes; Greenland would give up all of its ice; and Antarctica would generate almost 45 meters (150 feet) worth of sea level rise. However, the pledges to address climate change established in Paris in late 2015 are encouraging, suggesting that the worst case will not happen. Pierrehumbert says: "With Paris, it does get us off the exponential growth, and we might level off at 2,000, 3,000 gigatonnes."

Nonetheless, even with a modest 1,280-GT scenario, the impacts over 10,000 years are still projected to be fairly dramatic. In this scenario, we only lose 70% percent of glaciers outside of Greenland and Antarctica. Greenland generates as much as four meters of sea level rise (out of a potential seven), while Antarctica could generate up to 24. Combined with thermal expansion of the oceans, this scenario could mean seas rise an estimated 25 meters (82 feet) higher in 10,000 years.

Pierrehumbert is quick to concede "a big uncertainty range" in that estimate. In particular, technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere would, potentially, call off the climate catastrophe. Pierrehumbert said he believes that we will manage to develop such a technology in coming centuries, but added that we don't know yet about how much it will cost us.

Forecasts are not really predictions of the future: they are instead extrapolations, based on available data, of what will happen if current trends continue as they have. Climate researchers are increasingly confident of their ability to extrapolate -- but they add that what actually happens depends on the political and social will to address the issue.

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[MON 11 APR 16] APPLE WARS (2)

* APPLE WARS (2): Apple's position on refusing to help the FBI crack Syed Rizwan Farook's iPhone was entirely consistent with the company's stated position -- which is that the firm takes the security of its clients 100% seriously, and is determined to provide them with products that Apple can't crack itself.

If, as Cook claimed, with plenty of support from security experts, Apple were able to figure out a way to bypass its own security in response to a government order, then the Black Hats -- including cybercriminals and repressive governments -- would, in principle, be able to do so as well. Apple CEO Tim Cook said: "To invent what they want me to invent puts millions of people at risk."

The FBI argued in reply that GovtOS would be specifically designed to crack one phone, with the permission of the owners of that phone -- San Bernadino county. The authorities have stated that they don't want Apple to build a "back door" into the iPhone and other Apple technology that would allow the government to get in at will; but is there really any distinction between a back door, and a known "hole" that allows entry at will? Once one phone had been unlocked, then in principle they all could be; and doing so would set a legal precedent, which the FBI conceded. Apple would then get a stream of court orders, demanding the company crack more iPhones; district attorneys were already standing in line to do so.

Having opened the gate, could it ever be closed again? Cook said: "This case was domestic terrorism, but a different court might view that robbery is one. A different one might view that a tax issue is one. A different one might view that a divorce issue would be okay. And so we saw this huge thing opening and thought: You know, if this is where we're going, somebody should pass a law that makes it very clear what the boundaries are. This thing shouldn't be done court by court by court by court."

Also ... what would happen if China demanded that Apple crack an iPhone belonging to a political dissident? To be sure, American legal precedent doesn't mean much in China -- but Apple only does business in China subject to Chinese law, and once Apple demonstrated they would crack open a phone, that's all the precedent the Chinese government would need.

Apple's technical argument was relatively straightforward. The company's legal argument was more indirect, based on the interpretation of the All Writs Act, which is something of a catch-all: it allows Federal courts to issue "all writs necessary or appropriate in aid of their respective jurisdictions and agreeable to the usages and principles of law."

Apple's lawyers argued that to compel the company to write, test, debug, deploy, and document GovtOS would be excessively burdensome and exceed the bounds of the All Writs Act. Incidentally, this was not the first time Apple has stared down the muzzle of the All Writs Act. In October 2015, a similar case came up in Brooklyn involving a meth dealer who claimed to have forgotten his iPhone pass code, and Apple made a similar argument in response. On 29 February 2016, a judge ruled in Apple's favor, though that ruling had no legal bearing on the San Bernardino case.)

The basic problem, the elephant in the room, was still the question: do citizens have a right to strong encryption? To say NO would be like saying that, if we have a safe, the state has the right to know the combination, which few would agree with -- but that's a different question, because safes can always be cracked. Strong encryption is, by definition, uncrackable; if a user refuses to talk, or dies, the authorities simply can't get in.

They're not happy with that idea. The authorities don't want to be told that it's either impossible -- or should be impossible, with any security hole that's discovered plugged up in the next product release, as is standard procedure for web browsers and such. Law enforcement has long been used to being granted warrants to search for effectively anything, subject to the limits of the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution, which forbids "unreasonable searches and seizures." Strong encryption means a warrant-proof space; if they don't get the key, they don't get in.

What makes this very tricky is that the internet age has unavoidably given the authorities unprecedented powers of surveillance. We make purchases at the supermarket, the supermarket company tallies what we buy, and gives us customized sales coupons. Effectively everything we do online is traceable, with more of our lives going online all the time, and there's not much we can do to keep it under wraps. Can we conceal our bank transactions? From the general public, yes, but absolutely not from the bank, and so not from the law. Every purchase or other "trusted transaction" that we perform online is necessarily accessible to the authorities, since the law is the ultimate enforcer of trusted transactions. Cellphone providers can track our location to an increasingly high level of accuracy, and maintain such data in our call records, to presented to the authorities when warranted.

Sure, we could take more measures to maintain privacy, but people on the remote end don't have to cooperate; websites have a perfect right to refuse access if we have an ad blocker running in our web browser. We are generally cooperative with surveillance by websites, even when we are aware that it's going on. It's just a nuisance to try to defy surveillance, and for law-abiding citizens, there's not much reason to: we like our targeted ads and coupons. We know that when we go online, we're open to the world, to a substantial if not absolute degree.

The legal scholars Peter Swire and Kenesa Ahmad have coined a phrase for this: "The Golden Age of Surveillance". However, if we are always aware of the surveillance, we are also always aware of the lack of security online, and what a threat that lack of security represents. There's things we want to make sure are kept under secure lock and key, like our bank and stock accounts. As Cook put it: "It wasn't very long ago when you wouldn't even think about there being health information on the smartphone. There's financial information. There's your conversations, there's business secrets. There's probably more information about you on here than exists in your home."

We want, we need, armor-plated encryption, for our own well-being. Whether we are worried about the authorities or not, if they can break through our encryption, then so can the Black Hats, and we have every reason to worry about them. Hardly a month goes by without news of some big hacker break-in, not just of commercial systems, but sometimes of government servers. The internet is a notoriously bad and insecure neighborhood. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 08 APR 16] THE COLD WAR (108)

* THE COLD WAR (108): Late in September 1959, Premier Khrushchev flew to Beijing for the tenth anniversary of the Chinese revolution. Still euphoric over his American trip, he thought things would go swimmingly for him in China as well. However, he came in a day late for the celebrations, which didn't go over well with the Chinese, and they gave him a minimal greeting -- no honor guard, no pomp and ceremony. Whether that was a deliberate snub or carelessness, it was still a snub, and it particularly rankled in comparison to the grand welcome he had received in the USA.

The premier certainly hadn't forgotten his past difficulties in visits to China, and he quickly went from euphoria to spoiling for a fight. He goaded his hosts by playing up the wealth of the US: "They are really rich -- rich indeed!" Obviously, Khrushchev had been more impressed by his tour than he had let on; he also warmly praised Eisenhower for his statesmanlike demeanor and professionalism. Mao, sensitive to slights, was annoyed, and got more annoyed as Khrushchev went down a list of criticisms: China's antagonistic relationship with India; the increasingly obvious failure of Mao's Great Leap Forward; and in particular objecting, to China's shelling of the offshore islands, without consultation with Moscow: "We don't know what your policy will be from one day to the next!"

That complaint was entirely justified -- Mao had very deliberately contrived the crisis, while pointedly keeping the Kremlin in the dark, and forcing the Bear to dance to his tune. The talks quickly degenerated into bad-humored sniping. In his room, Khrushchev made insulting comments about his hosts, knowing perfectly well the room was bugged; hadn't Mao done the same when he was in Moscow? The premier was supposed to have spent seven days in Beijing, but he left after three, to fly to Vladivostok for a few days of relaxation. He was hardly relaxed, witnesses there finding him glum and dispirited.

Soviet diplomatic staff were appalled at Khrushchev's performance in Beijing; but given the touchy, resentful, and arrogant Chinese attitude towards Moscow -- the Chinese had, after all, hardly tied themselves into knots to make him feel welcome, and they had never been reluctant to criticize the Soviets at length -- it seems hard to say Khrushchev sent relations between the two countries on a downward path. He simply accelerated the breakdown.

* At least Soviet missile development was making progress. The R-7 ICBM was now formally in production, and on 17 December 1959, Khrushchev established an entirely new military service, the "Strategic Rocket Forces (Raketnyye Voyska Strategischeskovo Nachsnacheniya / RVSN)" to handle the new rockets. Marshal Mitrofan I. Nedelin became the first commander of the RVSN.

Along with the launch center at Baikonur in Kazakhstan, work was then being finished up on a new secret launch center for the R-7 at Plesetsk, to the northeast of Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg) and just a few hundred kilometers south of Archangel, in the sub-arctic regions of the USSR. The high northern location provided a forward base for launching strikes over the pole on North America, and for launching spy satellites into polar orbit, where they could scan the entire Earth as it rotated under their orbital plane.

The Soviets were also working towards an SLBM capability. They had already modified six "611" class diesel-electric submarines -- these six being codenamed "Zulu V" by NATO -- to carry three R-11 Scud missiles in an elongated "sail", but all they could do would be to take a potshot at a coastal city from no more than 150 kilometers (95 miles) offshore, and they had to launch while surfaced. They would be easy prey for the US Navy.

By 1959, the Red Navy was shaking down the "629" class missile submarine, codenamed "Golf" by NATO, which had the same general configuration as the Zulu V submarines, but carried three R-13 missiles -- labeled "SS-N-4 Sark" by NATO and along the lines of a bigger Scud, with about four times the range. It still wasn't a match for the Polaris submarines the US Navy was acquiring -- which were nuclear-powered and carried 16 missiles that could be launched underwater, each missile having three times the range of the R-13. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 07 APR 16] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: According to a study published in AAAS SCIENCE, women who were infected with the nematode roundworm Scaris lumbricoides had higher fertility rates than those who weren't. The study observed 986 Tsimane women in Bolivia for nine years, to find that women infected with the roundworm had about two more children than women without the worm -- Tsimane women have an average of 10 children. The researchers found that the infection is associated with shortened intervals between births, and with earlier first pregnancies.

University of California Santa Barbara Professor Aaron Blackwell, one of the authors of the study, commented: "We think the effects we see are probably due to these infections altering women's immune systems, such that they become more or less friendly towards a pregnancy." It is possible the roundworm infection suppresses the mother's immune system, making the body less likely to reject a fetus. However, Blackwell warns that further research needs to be conducted on the link, and nothing can be said yet about exploiting the issue to create fertility treatments -- other than that caution needs to be exercised in doing so.

* As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE Online ("Humans Can Outlearn Chimps Thanks To More Flexible Brain Genetics" by David Shultz, 16 November 2015), chimps are notably intelligent among the animal world -- but it isn't species chauvinism, merely a statement of fact, that human brain power is much farther ahead of the chimp than the chimp is ahead of its closest rivals. Why are humans so much brainier than chimps?

The neocortex -- the outermost layer of the brain, characterized by brain folds AKA "sulci" -- is responsible for the exceptional intelligence of all primates. In both chimps and humans, this brain region continues to grow and organize for years after birth, allowing us to learn and develop socially. The brain's ability to reorganize in response to environmental cues is known as "plasticity". A recent study suggests that the human brain is much more plastic than that of the chimp; genetics dictate the organization of a chimp's brain far more rigidly than in humans, allowing the environment to play a larger role in human neural development.

To investigate how genetics may shape the brain, researchers at George Washington University in Washington DC examined the brains of 218 humans and 206 chimpanzees, using MRI scans. Importantly, the researchers had access to detailed family trees for the chimpanzees test subjects, permitting the measurement of similarity in the brains of genetically related individuals. Similarly, MRI scans from related humans -- including twins -- were selected from a database for the analysis. Researchers measured differences in brain size, and in sulci shape and location, these being factors that have been shown to reflect the underlying cortical organization of the brain in earlier studies.

In terms of size, there wasn't much difference in how brains varied among family members: closely related individuals of both species tended to have very similar brain volumes. However, that wasn't true for the sulci: closely related humans had considerably more variation in shape and placement of the brain folds in their cortexes than did chimpanzees. That strongly hints that chimp brain development is much less adaptive to environmental cues than human brain development.

The greater brain plasticity of humans allows the environment, experience, and social interactions with other individuals to play a greater role in organizing the cerebral cortex. The researchers believe this plasticity is a primary factor in the enhanced intelligence of humans, as well as their diversity in behavior; they also suggest that being born with underdeveloped brains may contribute to our increased neural plasticity. Relative to newborn chimpanzees, human babies are born with less developed brains, making us more helpless, but allowing more brain growth to occur post-natally, where the outside world can play a larger role.

In addition, the researchers point out that this pattern of delayed development appears to have accelerated over evolutionary time, fossil evidence suggesting that as brains grew larger and entered the world in a less developed state, it became increasingly advantageous to relax the genetic control of their organization -- in effect, providing a bigger, blanker canvas for adapting and learning.

* As discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Tissue Printer Creates Lifelike Human Ear" by Nala Rogers, 15 February 2016), while 3D printing of human organs is a growth field, it has been hindered by the difficulty of fabricating internal structures in such organs, with cells unable to thrive in the interior of the printed organs.

Now a group of researchers has used an "integrated tissue-organ printing (ITOP)" scheme to fabricate a human ear, using two innovations. First, ITOP interweaves a gooey, cell-friendly hydrogel with a stiffer substance that offers structural support. Second, it leaves tiny channels for oxygen to enter so that cells in the interior won't be choked off.

When researchers implanted ITOP-generated bone, muscle, and cartilage into rats and mice, the printed materials developed blood supplies and internal structures resembling those of natural tissue. The researchers are currently working with the US Food & Drug Administration to set up human trials, with the ultimate goal of creating human replacement body parts.

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[WED 06 APR 16] UPDATING AMERICA'S NUKES

* UPDATING AMERICA'S NUKES: As discussed by an article from THE NEW YORK TIMES ("As US Modernizes Nuclear Weapons, 'Smaller' Leaves Some Uneasy" by William J. Broad & David E. Sanger, 11 January 2016), in 2009 US President Barack Obama, speaking in Prague, promised that he would "reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy" -- that statement being cited when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009.

Fast-forward to the fall of 2015: as North Korea prepared for a nuclear test, under the watchful eyes of US spy satellites, the Obama Administration conducted a test of one of a new generation of US nukes, the "B61 Mark 12". It wasn't a live weapon test, the bomb being a dummy, the intent being to evaluate itits new precision guidance system.

The B61 -- known as the "Silver Bullet", the weapon having the sleek shape of a rocket ship out of an old sci-fi movie -- is not a new weapon, having been introduced into service in the late 1960s. It is 3.56 meters (11 feet 8 inches) long, and weighs about 320 kilograms (700 pounds); at least some versions have programmable explosive yields, ranging from 0.3 to 340 kilotons. Traditionally, a B61 was parachute-retarded, allowing the drop aircraft to escape before bomb detonation. The Mark 12 dispenses with the parachute, instead featuring a new tail section with steerable fins that guides the weapon to a precision strike on a target. The dummy weapon hit the bull's-eye.

While North Korea is seeking more powerful weapons -- they said the test last fall was of a fusion bomb, though there is great skepticism over that claim -- the US is working towards less powerful but more precise weapons. The Obama Administration claims to be seeking a smaller and more reliable nuclear arsenal that, by virtue of its increased sophistication, maintains America's deterrent credibility. Administration officials assert that the changes are improvements, not complete redesigns.

However, there is controversy over the value of the new weapons. General James E. Cartwright, a retired vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was among Obama's most influential nuclear strategists, said he backed the upgrades because precise targeting allowed the United States to hold fewer weapons. He still admitted that "what going smaller does, is to make the weapon more thinkable."

The B61-12 is the first of five new warhead types planned as part of an broad revitalization of the US strategic nuclear force. Although Russia has been updating their arsenal, to no surprise they denounced the B61-12 tests as "irresponsible" and "openly provocative". That was what could be expected, but there have been protests closer to home, with domestic critics saying such an extensive modernization program is not needed, and too aggressive.

Brian P. McKeon, the principal deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, argues in return that the Obama Administration's nuclear policy is a model of prudence: "We've cleaned up loose nuclear material around the globe, and gotten the Iran deal," removing a potential threat for at least a decade. He admitted that other pledges, including treaties on nuclear testing and the production of bomb fuel, have stalled, and that the president's hopes of winning further arms cuts in negotiations with Russia "ran into a blockade after the events in Ukraine."

The nuclear modernization plan was initiated in 2010, the stated intent being to update the arsenal with less powerful, but more reliable and precise, weapons that would permit a smaller arsenal. In 2013, critics began to suggest that updating the arsenal was contrary in spirit to the Obama Administration's commitment to shrink America's nuclear deterrent force, and that low yield and precision of the new weapons would raise the temptation to use them. In 2015, General Cartwright echoed that point on PBS's "NewsHour", and later commented: "What if I bring real precision to these weapons? Does it make them more usable? It could be."

There has been particular opposition to a next-generation cruise missile, with a recent article by Andrew Weber and William J. Perry -- Perry having been a secretary of defense under Bill Clinton and still highly influential, a mentor to current Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter -- calling for Obama to "kill the new cruise missile". The authors argued that the cruise missile might sway a future president to contemplate "limited nuclear war". Worse yet, they said, because the missile comes in nuclear and conventional variants, a foe under attack might assume the worst and overreact, initiating nuclear war.

McKeon, after indicating his respect for Perry, said the military concluded that it needed the cruise missile to "give the president more options than a manned bomber to penetrate air defenses." The Air Force and Navy have large stockpiles of cruise missiles, and have used them extensively in combat; nobody has ever fired a nuclear-armed cruise missile in anger, but the US fires conventionally-armed cruise missiles on a regular basis. The administration's defenders say they are simply replenishing the stockpile with new and better weapons. The new cruise missile may also not be all that new, instead being a derivative of an existing one.

The idea that the new weapons would make a limited nuclear war more thinkable is dubious; the only time nuclear weapons were used in anger was in 1945, and since that time, no US administration has thought it would be wise to use them again, and there is no reason to believe any future administration will think any different. However, since nobody in power seriously thinks that nuclear weapons are going to be used, that leads to the question of what sense it makes to pump large sums of money into them.

That is the one thing about the modernization plan that is unarguable: its expense. Other elements in the plan include replacement of the US Navy's 14 OHIO-class Trident missile submarines, which will reach the end of their service lives in the late 2020s, at an estimated cost of about $140 billion USD for 12 new boats; replacement of the Air Force's fleet of 440 Minuteman III ballistic missiles, at a cost of $62 billion USD; and acquisition by the Air Force of the B-21 Long-Range Strike Bomber (LRS-B), with 100 to be obtained for more than $55 billion USD. All told, if current plans are carried out, the bill will come to $1 trillion USD over three decades.

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[TUE 05 APR 16] EVS AFTER ALL?

* EVS AFTER ALL? The future for electric vehicles (EV) seems to glow and then go dim on a regular basis. After a period of fade, as reported by gearhead Alex Davies in WIRED Online blogs ("The Electric Car Revolution Is Now Scheduled for 2022", 25 February 2016), a report from Bloomberg New Energy Finance suggests that in about six years, EVs will be a going operation: "By 2022, the unsubsidized total cost of ownership of [EVs] will fall below that of an internal combustion engine vehicle."

From there, the report projects a steadily increasing rate of adoption, reaching global sales of 41 million, 25% of total market share, by 2040. That might seem wildly optimistic, but Bloomberg's analysis arm does not make projections without thinking them out carefully. True, today EVs only make up less than 1% of new car sales in the USA, with such sales as there are being propped up by government mandates and subsidies. EVs are just too expensive.

The introduction of the Chevy Bolt, which will go 320 kilometers (200 miles) on a charge and cost $30,000 USD -- about the average price of a new car in the US -- suggests that's changing, that there's room to go lower. According to Salim Morsy, the lead author of the study: "We project that the cost of manufacturing electric vehicles will fall dramatically, and faster than most people realize."

Of course, the key is the battery pack, which can account for a third of the cost of an EV. The cost of a battery pack is clearly falling; between 2010 and 2015, the average cost per kilowatt hour (kWh) dropped from $1,000 USD to $350 USD, a 65% reduction. Incidentally, today's EVs have packs ranging from 30 kWh in the new Nissan Leaf, to 90 kWh in the Tesla Model X.

A continued decrease in battery pack prices is not dependent on any radical innovations in battery tech, instead being based on ongoing improvements in production processes and battery chemistry; economies of scale as manufacturing expands; and "aggressive pricing" by producers eager to sign contracts with major automakers. The rate of price descrease will slow, sure, but prices could reach $200 USD per kWh by 2022, and $120 USD per kWh by 2030. GM claims it's only paying $145 USD per kWh for the batteries powering the Bolt. Bloomberg can't verify that figure, but the imminent arrival of cars like the Bolt and similarly affordable Tesla Model 3 clearly shows that EVs are becoming more affordable.

There are underlying assumptions in these projections:

Even if all the factors are right in 2022, will there really be an EV revolution? Car buyers tend to be conservative; and with Tesla's fast-charging stations, it still takes 75 minutes to bring a Tesla up from fully depleted to full charge. It should be noted that Tesla also has a battery-pack swap scheme, providing immediate recharging, though it's not on offer for all buyers.

In addition, so far auto dealerships have been disinterested in selling EVs. Tesla has been trying to bypass the dealerships by setting up a direct-sales network, and to no surprise running into resistance from the dealerships. Given how popular the dealerships are with the public -- not very -- should EVs end up being sold by manufacturers, that would be a big plus in their favor.

Tony Posawatz, the engineer who led the development of the Chevrolet Volt and is now an industry consultant, says he's not surprised by the report. The 2022 timeframe is "certainly within the realm of possibility", he says, as long as charging infrastructure maintains its growth. He warns that big infrastructure changes can take a long time, that it took 50 years for half of American households to hook up to the electricity grid. Good things are happening with EVs, he says, but "it's a long haul."

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[MON 04 APR 16] APPLE WARS (1)

* APPLE WARS (1): As discussed by an article from TIME magazine ("Apple V. FBI" by Lev Grossman, 28 March 2016), in San Bernadino CA, on 2 December 2015 Syed Rizwan Farook, who worked for the San Bernadino county department of public health, and his wife Tashfeen Malik gunned down 14 people and wounded 22 others at a department holiday luncheon. The killers were gunned down themselves later that day in a shootout with police.

On 3 December, an FBI Evidence Response Team canvassed the couple's townhouse in nearby Redlands. They found, among other things, a dozen pipe bombs, thousands of rounds of ammunition of different calibers, and three cell phones -- two from a dumpster behind the townhouse, and one from the center console of a car parked outside. The two phones in the trash had been crushed by the terrorists, but for whatever reason, the third was intact. It was an Apple iPhone 5c running iOS 9, operating on the Verizon network, with serial number FFMNQ3MTG2DJ. It was Farook's work phone, so it actually belonged to San Bernadino County.

Since the phone hadn't been trashed like the others, it seemed unlikely it held much of interest, but the FBI wanted to check anyway. However, when the investigators tried to inspect the phone's contents, it asked them for a four-digit pass code. A four-digit passcode doesn't sound very secure, there being only 10,000 different combinations -- but the iPhone erases its contents after getting ten bad passcodes in a row, and it also adds delays after several attempts are made, with the delay getting longer with each attempt. The county didn't have the passcode either, nor did it have the password for the iCloud account associated with the phone. The county could and did reset the iCloud password, but the last upload from the phone had been on 19 October.

Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, said: "We didn't hear anything for a few days. I think it was Saturday [5 December] before we were contacted. We have a desk, if you will, set up to take requests from government. It's set up 24/7 -- not as a result of this, it's been going for a while -- and the call came in to that desk, and they presented us with a warrant as it relates to this specific phone."

Things were amicable enough at first, Cook saying: "We gave them some unsolicited advice -- we said, take the phone to the home or apartment and power it, plug it in and let it back up. And as it turned out, they came back and said: 'Well, that didn't work.'"

It turned out that resetting the iCloud password had been a blunder: the FBI could've gotten the phone to make a fresh backup of itself automatically -- but once the iCloud password's changed, it won't back itself up without the pass code. At this point, matters began to get complicated. The FBI suggested that Apple create a special version of iOS 9 without the 10-guess limit and enforced pauses, then install it on Farook's phone.

Apple people called the "cooked" operating system "GovtOS". Cook said: "We had long discussions about that internally, when they asked us. Lots of people were involved. It wasn't just me sitting in a room somewhere deciding that way, it was a labored decision. We thought about all the things you would think we would think about."

Apple told the Feds: NO. On 16 February, the FBI hit Apple with a court order from a Federal judge, based on an obscure blanket law named the "All Writs Act", dictating that the company create GovtOS. The court order was announced in the public media; Apple would have to refuse the court order in the full glare of public media. Cook, a 55-year-old Alabama boy who still retains his accent in Silicon Valley, didn't knuckle under: "If I'm working with you for several months on things, if I have a relationship with you, and I decide one day I'm going to sue you, I'm a country boy at the end of the day: I'm going to pick up the phone and tell you I'm going to sue you."

A fury of public condemnation descended on Apple. Donald Trump asked: "Who do they think they are?" -- and called for a boycott of the company. President Obama was only somewhat more measured: "It's fetishizing our phones above every other value. And that can't be the right answer."

Apple, however, still had friends, with a torrent of "amicus curae" briefs in defense of the firm being sent to the courts by technology firms such as AT&T, Airbnb, eBay, Kickstarter, LinkedIn, Reddit, Square, Twitter, Cisco, Snapchat, and WhatsApp. Even Apple's direct competitors -- Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft -- stood up to defend the company. So did retired General Michael Hayden, former boss of both the NSA and the CIA. Hawkish Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who started out blasting Apple, changed his mind after a briefing on the matter.

Indeed, while Apple's position might have seemed outrageous at first hearing, once the issues were laid out, a sensible person would have had second thoughts. At the heart of the dispute was a question that's been simmering for a long time, and is now finally coming to a flashpoint: Do citizens have a right to strong encryption? Do they have a right to lock up their data in a way that nobody can unlock but themselves? Good question. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 01 APR 16] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: In late-breaking news, Hoesung Lee -- chair of the International Panel on Climate Change, which sifts through climate science to provide recommendations on the matter to the world's nations -- admitted that climate change is all a prank.

"I think we've set a record of sorts for pranks," Lee commented. "It took the cooperation of thousands of researchers and all reputable weather and climate organizations, along with fabrication of vast volumes of data over a period of decades, to pull off the hoax, but everybody went along with gag perfectly, there was no breaking of ranks. Now we're all going to have a really big laugh, and get back to our real work."

NASA, in a parallel release, said that not only was the satellite data showing increasing global temperatures, melting icecaps, and rising seas a hoax, so were the satellites. An agency spokesman announced: "We not only never landed men on the Moon, we've never actually sent anything into space. We fabricated all the data and imagery from the alleged spacecraft to trick the government into funding us for decades. NASA researchers also helped in constructing bogus climate simulations that fraudulently show global warming, and suppressing simulations that don't."

Representative Lamar Smith of Texas, who has long been suspicious that climate change isn't really happening, said: "I have to admit that was a pretty good trick, but they really never fooled me. It was obvious to anyone who is completely ignorant of the science that it didn't add up."

* On the "Piriform CCleaner" Windows toolkit I mentioned last month -- it does work very well, but it kept dunning me to upgrade to the Pro version with little pop-ups that showed up every now and then. I only used it once in a great while, so I didn't want to upgrade; I got to thinking that CCleaner had set itself up to be installed at Windows start-up, and puzzled over a way to stop that.

The answer was obvious: CCleaner allows selection of programs to be run at startup, so all I had to do was use CCleaner to tell it not to install itself. It will automatically try to install itself again every time I use it, but that's not often, and it's no bother to tell it to shut up before exiting. Of course, when I bring it up, it duns me, but that's not a big deal.

* In other petty household tech news, I mentioned getting a new microwave oven here two Decembers back. I noticed early on that one of the flat-panel buttons, the one I used the most, looked like it picked up some crud. I tried cleaning it off, and the crud only got worse, like I was tearing off the finish. I figured I'd better not dig myself in deeper.

More recently, I noticed other buttons were starting to look cruddy in the same way, and I got to wondering: Maybe that's just protective plastic film for shipment? With some hesitation, worrying that I was going to mutilate the microwave, I dug in deeper, and ended up pulling off protective plastic film. The microwave looks a lot better now.

I don't feel particularly dense for not realizing what was going on, since such protective films usually peel right off; in this case, I had to get fingerholds into it, and use a fair amount of muscle to get it off once I had. I keep thinking I had a suspicion all along that it was just a protective film, but did I? The mind tends to grab onto the self-serving view in hindsight. Anyway, getting more data before taking action that could have backfired did me no harm -- and there's a certain satisfaction in bringing the microwave back up to what looks like brand-new condition, at least after I shined it up a bit.

* Thanks to two readers for donations to support the websites last month. That is very much appreciated.

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