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apr 2015 / 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 17 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (64)
[THU 16 APR 15] SPACE NEWS
[WEB 15 APR 15] A BARGAIN AT ANY PRICE
[TUE 14 APR 15] THE COMMUNITY OF CHEESE
[MON 13 APR 15] DECODING THE BRAIN (1)
[FRI 10 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (63)
[THU 09 APR 15] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 08 APR 15] GONE FLAT
[TUE 07 APR 15] MMS IN ORBIT
[MON 06 APR 15] POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (9)
[FRI 03 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (62)
[THU 02 APR 15] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 01 APR 15] ANOTHER MONTH

[FRI 17 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (64)

* THE COLD WAR (64): On 26 October 1956, Eisenhower presided over a meeting of the National Security Council, being briefed on events in Hungary. The president emphasized caution, saying the United States should not give Soviet leadership any reason to believe that the uprising was being conducted with support from, much less at the instigation of, the USA. There was nothing in the matter that justified any risk of war between the superpowers.

As far as events in the Middle East went, Secretary of State Dulles told the president that he expected an imminent Israeli drive on Jordan. On 28 October, Israel began a general mobilization; Eisenhower sent a message to Ben-Gurion to do nothing "to endanger the peace". The president was much more surprised to find that U-2 observations revealed a buildup of British and French forces on Cyprus, supported by an unusual level of military air and sea activity. Eisenhower finally began to get suspicious, thinking the British and French would take advantage of an Israeli attack on Jordan to seize the canal. The president was incredulous; Dulles spoke to the French ambassador, who replied that he knew nothing about any such plot. Dulles, more suspicious by nature than Eisenhower, believed that in itself confirmed the worst.

Dulles was right. On 29 October, Israel attacked Egyptian forces in the Sinai, handily driving them back. Eisenhower now understood the plan, realizing to his fury that the British and French would then seize the canal. Egypt was no friend of the USA; he didn't want to cross the British, French, and Israelis -- but they had deceived him, and "nothing justified double-crossing us." A White House statement was issued immediately that condemned Israeli aggression against Egypt and called for a cease-fire, in hopes the British and French would take the hint.

Ben-Gurion replied the next day, 30 October, that Israel had been forced to strike, and rejected the appeal for a cease-fire. Eisenhower couldn't have been too surprised by the reply, nor by news that the British and French were poised to strike. The Americans introduced a resolution to the UN Security Council asking members of the UN to refrain from use of force in the Middle East crisis, with the Soviets also introducing a resolution to tell the Israelis to pull their forces back to Israel's borders. Both Britain and France voted down the resolutions later that day.

In the early afternoon, the British and French issued a 12-hour ultimatum to the Egyptians (and, in appearance at least, to the Israelis) to tell both sides to pull back behind a buffer zone along the Suez Canal. The British and French would then occupy key points along the canal, on the basis of keeping the two warring sides apart and preserving the security of the canal. Secretary of State Dulles described the ultimatum to the president as "about as crude and brutal as I have ever seen." The Israelis would keep the Sinai, the British and French would keep the canal, while Nasser would fall from power. Eisenhower drafted and sent a message to Eden and Mollet, pleading with them to cease and desist. The message was ignored.

* The same day the British and French issued their ultimatum over the Suez Canal, 30 October, the Kremlin was considering what to do about Hungary. The violence in Budapest was still sputtering on, piling up bodies -- leaving the question of whether Red Army forces should be withdrawn, or reinforced. The tilt that day was to withdraw; even Mao Zedong, with his distaste for de-Stalinization, sent a message encouraging withdrawal. All of Khrushchev's ministers were in favor of withdrawal, with Khrushchev concluding: "We are unanimous. There are two paths, a military path, one of occupation, and a peaceful path, the withdrawal of troops, negotiations."

That evening, the Soviet government issued a public statement, admitting to "mistakes", saying that the USSR would "observe the full sovereignty of every socialist state." Hungary would be allowed to go its own way -- Stalin would have rolled in his grave. Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. Hungarian security forces had fired on a demonstration earlier that day, killing scores, with a mob then attacking Budapest Party headquarters and hanging security police from lamp-posts. Hungarian troops were beginning to mutiny; Nagy called for Hungary to quit the Warsaw Pact and for the withdrawal of the Red Army. Unrest threatened to spread from Hungary throughout Eastern Europe. Khrushchev couldn't sleep that night: "Budapest was like a nail in my head." [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 16 APR 15] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for March included:

-- 02 MAR 15 / EUTELSAT 115 WEST B, ABS 3A -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0350 GMT (previous day local time + 5) to put the "Eutelsat 115 West B" and "ABS 3A" geostationary comsats into orbit. Eutelsat 115 West B had a launch mass of 2,200 kilograms (4,850 pounds), a payload of 12 C-band / 34 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 22 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 114.9 degrees west longitude to provide the Americas with video, data, government, and mobile services for Paris-based Eutelsat.

ABS 3A had a launch mass of about 2,000 kilograms (4,400 pounds), a payload of 24 C-band / 24 Ku-band transponders, and a design life of 22 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 3 degrees west longitude to distribute television programming, internet, maritime communications, and mobile phone services across the Americas, Europe, Africa and the Middle East for Asia Broadcast Satellite of Bermuda and Hong Kong. It replaced the elderly ABS 3 satellite, launched in 1997.

Eutelsat 115 West B & ABS 3A launch stack

Both new satellites were manufactured by Boeing and were based on the 702SP bus, being the first comsats designed to use electric propulsion for raising their orbits. The efficient electric thrusters meant the mass of the satellites were cut almost in half, without any loss of functionality, though it would take eight months for them to reach their operational orbits. The 702SP was also designed to permit stacking of one spacecraft on top of another, eliminating need for a mating adapter. This was the 16th launch of a Falcon 9, and first launch of a Falcon 9 with dual large payloads. The large payload mass precluded the use of a recoverable first stage.

-- 13 MAR 15 / MMS -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 0244 GMT (previous day local time + 4) to put the "Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS)" mission into space, placing a constellation of satellite into a highly elliptical orbit, for a two-year mission to study the Earth's magnetosphere. The Atlas 5 booster for the MMS launch was in the "421" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) fairing, two solid rocket boosters, and a single-engine Centaur upper stage.

-- 18 MAR 15 / EXPRESS AM7 -- A International Launch Services Proton M Breeze M booster was launched from Baikonur in Kazakhstan at 2205 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Express AM7" geostationary communications satellite into orbit for the Russian Satellite Communications Company. The spacecraft was built by Airbus Defense & Space and was based on the firm's Eurostar 3000 satellite bus. Express AM7 had a launch mass of 5,760 kilograms (12,610 pounds), a payload of 24 C / 36 Ku / 2 L band transponders, electric thrusters, and a design lifetime of 15 years. It was placed in the geostationary slot at 40 degrees east longitude to provide communications services over a footprint from the UK to India to South Africa.

-- 25 MAR 15 / GPS 2F-9 (USA 260) -- A Delta 4 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 1836 GMT (local time + 4) to put the "GPS 2F-9" AKA USA 260 AKA "Navstar 2F" navigation satellite into orbit. It was the ninth Block 2F spacecraft, with the Block 2F series featuring a new "safety of life" signal for civilian air traffic control applications. It replaced the elderly and inactive GPS 2A-22 satellite, launched in August 1993. With the launch of GPS 2F-9, the constellation had 31 satellites, including 3 GPS 2A, 12 GPS 2R, 7 GPS 2R-M, and 9 GPS 2F spacecraft. The Delta 4 was in the "Medium+ (4,2)" configuration, with a 4 meter (13.1 foot) diameter fairing and two solid rocket boosters.

-- 25 MAR 15 / KOMPSAT 3A -- A Russian Dnepr booster, a converted SS-18 SATAN missile, was launched from Dombarovsky at 2208 GMT (next day local time - 4) to put the "Kompsat 3A' high-resolution Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous orbit for the Korea Aerospace Research Institute (KARI).

Kompsat 3A

-- 26 MAR 15 / IGS OPTICAL 5 -- An H-2A booster was launched from Tanegashima at 0121 GMT (local time - 9) to put the fifth optical "Information Gathering System (IGS)" spysat into orbit. The booster flew in standard "202" configuration, with twin strapon solid-fuel boosters; heavier payloads may require four boosters.

-- 28 MAR 15 / SOYUZ ISS 42S (ISS) -- A Soyuz booster was launched from Baikonur at 1932 GMT (next day local time - 6) to put the "Soyuz ISS 42S" manned space capsule into orbit on an International Space Station (ISS) support mission. The crew included spacecraft commander Gennady Padalka (fifth space flight), flight engineer Mikhail Kornienko (second space flight), and NASA astronaut Scott Kelly (fourth space flight). The spacecraft took a direct-ascent trajectory and docked with the ISS Poisk module six hours after liftoff. Kornienko and Kelly were to spend 342 days on the ISS.

-- 28 MAR 15 / GALILEO FM03, FM04 -- A Soyuz ST-B (Fregat) booster was launched from Kourou at 2152 GMT (local time + 3) to put the first two "Fully Operational Capability (FOC)" Galileo navigation satellites, "FM03" and "FM04", into orbit. They followed the initial four "Galileo In-Orbit Validation (IOV)" satellites. The complete Galileo constellation will consist of 30 satellites along three orbital planes in medium Earth orbit, including two spares per orbit.

-- 29 MAR 15 / IRNSS 1D -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 1149 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the fourth "Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)" spacecraft into orbit. The space platform had a launch mass of 1,425 kilograms (3,140 pounds), a design lifetime of ten years, and was placed in a geostationary-altitude orbit, with an inclination of 30.5 degrees. The previous IRNSS satellites were launched in in July 2013, April 2014, and October 2014, and at the time of the launch of IRNSS 1D were in good operating condition. In completion, the IRNSS constellaion will include three satellites in equatorial geostationary orbits and four spacecraft in inclined orbits, swinging about 30 degrees north and south of the equator.

-- 30 MAR 15 / BEIDOU BDS I 1-S -- A Chinese Long March 3C booster was launched from Xichang at 1352 GMT (local time - 8) to put a "Beidou" navigation satellite into orbit. This was the 17th Beidou launch, and the first launch of a third series of Beidou spacecraft. In completion, the Beidou network will consist of 35 satellites, in three different classes of orbits: geostationary, inclined geostationary, and inclined medium, with geostationary at 35,900 kilometers (22,300 miles) and medium at 21,400 kilometers (13,300 miles).

The new satellite, "BDS I 1-s", was the first to transmit civil signals on a band and with modulation similar to that to be used on GPS and Galileo satellites in the future. It also used a new bus with a phased array antenna laser retroreflector. Launch mass was about 800 kilograms (1,765 pounds), with the spacecraft having a operational lifespan of 5 years. This was also the first launch of a Long March 3C booster with an improved "Yuanzheng-1 (Expedition 1)" upper stage. The Long March 3C is similar to the Long March 3B, but uses only two strapon boosters, in contrast to the four on the Long March 3B.

-- 31 MAR 15 / GONETS M x 3 -- A Rockot booster was launched from Plesetsk Northern Cosmodrome in Russia at 1348 GMT (local time - 3) to put three "Gonets (Messenger) M" store-&-forward civil communications satellites into orbit. Each of the 280 kilogram (617 pound) Gonets M satellites was built by ISS Reshetnev, and had a five-year design life; the payloads were designated Gonets M satellites Number 21, 22 and 23. The full comsat constellation was to be completed, with 12 operational satellites, by the end of 2015. A next generation "Gonets M1" series of spacecraft is currently in development. A mysterious auxiliary payload, "Cosmos 2504", was also included in the launch.

* OTHER SPACE NEWS: The US has long been dependent on the traditional Delta and Atlas boosters, both with roots back to the 1950s, for putting payloads into space. United Launch Alliance (ULA), a collaboration of Lockheed Martin and Boeing that provides the Atlas V and Delta IV boosters, is now under pressure from Elon Musk's SpaceX firm, with Musk claiming he can substantially undercut ULA's prices.

ULA officials have responded to Musk's claims by saying he uses cooked accounting assumptions, but they have tacitly acknowledged the competitive pressure by announcing ULA's new "Vulcan" booster, which will feature a main stage with a re-usable engine, and an upper stage with a restartable engine. ULA officials say that the baseline Vulcan should have a cost under $100 million USD, with 4 and 5 meter (13.1 and 16.4 foot) diameter fairings to be offered. The top of the line, the "Vulcan Heavy" -- with up to six strap-on solid-rocket boosters (SRBs) and a new upper stage -- will come in under $200 million USD.

The preferred main stage propulsion will be the Blue Origin BE-4 engine -- Blue Origin being the company founded by Amazon.com's Jeff Bezos, the BE-4 being designed to burn liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas -- with the Aerojet Rocketdyne AR-1, burning liquid oxygen and kerosene, as a backup; in either case, twin engines will provide about 4,450 kN (454,000 kgp / 1,000,000 lbf) thrust. The choice will be made in less than two years. A new SRB will also be obtained, with Aerojet Rocketdyne and Orbital ATK to compete for the award. The Vulcan will be introduced in four phases:

ULA officials say they plan to make the pricing structure of the Vulcan more transparent than that of the Atlas V and Delta IV, no doubt to force Musk to make his pricing claims on a level playing field. They add they would have placed development of ACES as the first phase, but Russian threats over embargoing the Russian-made RD-180 engine used on the ULA Atlas 5 shifted priority to the new first stage. The baseline Vulcan should be flying after 2018, at which time the single-core Delta IV will be retired, while the Vulcan Heavy will be introduced after 2023, at which time the Delta IV Heavy will be retired as well.

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[WEB 15 APR 15] A BARGAIN AT ANY PRICE

* A BARGAIN AT ANY PRICE: As noted previously, I've been on a restricted budget for the present, one result being that I've been focused on buying used books from Amazon.com. They can be very cheap, at least if a particular title is common and widely available online -- price down to a penny, obviously the intent being to get rid of inventory, build sales volume and so Amazon rankings, and pocket part of the charge for shipping.

An essay by Free Exchange, THE ECONOMIST's rotating economics blogger, took a different perspective on online used book sales, though not one that really contradicted my own experience. In a report on various papers on online commerce at an economics conference, Free Exchange highlighted one by Glenn & Sara Ellison of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in which the two scholars collected prices for 335 titles and found that the average price was $17.80 online, 50% more than at a used-book store.

The trick here was that the Ellisons were only interested in average price of particular titles, not the average price of all used books sold online. If they had focused on total volume, it seems likely that the average price would have been lower online because of competition. The higher prices came in because obscure used books, for which there is no real competition, can be sold for a handsome markup on the internet. Take some out-of-print book, say on World War II naval logistics, dry and only of interest to a small clique of readers. Before the internet, that book might well gather dust on the shelf indefinitely, no matter how much it was marked down, because nobody who wanted it knew where to find it. List it online, and anyone who trying to find it can do so. Since the book is rare and the buyer really wants it, the seller can set a premium price, and get it.

Sara Ellison commented that, some years ago, she bought online a decades-old academic tome on pharmaceuticals that she couldn't find in the MIT library. It cost her $20 USD, which she found a good price. On inspecting the book, however, she found it marked with a penciled price of 75 cents. It had been sitting unsold for years, no buyer willing to pick it up even at that price. She didn't feel ripped off; it was worth $20 USD to her to find it.

* I ran into this phenomenon while trying to hunt down the biography of Admiral William Leahy, one of Franklin Roosevelt's primary military advisors -- an important figure in World War II, but largely neglected in comparison with other figures like George Marshall or Douglas MacArthur. The biography was long out of print, but Amazon listed plenty of copies for sale. The cheapest sale price was $60 USD. I concluded that I had a long list of other things I was interested in, and wasn't inclined to shell out $60 USD for the time being.

I won't forget about it, however. I have noticed that the library here in Loveland, Colorado, is part of a network of Colorado libraries, and that I could have books shipped from other libraries -- possibly for a fee, I don't know, I didn't dig very deep. I suspect library networks are gradually extending their connections, meaning I eventually might have access to a lot of obscure books.

Now to take that idea a step further, what happens when ebooks start to predominate at libraries? I could check out an ebook as easily from one library on the network as any other. The networking would allow libraries to make better use of obscure titles with few readers, and since the readership demand is low, there would be few conflicts between readers trying to check it out at the same time. To be sure, libraries have to pay for each copy of an ebook, and can only check it out to one reader at a time -- but I still suspect publishers are going to be very unhappy with this scenario.

There are already general online services for ebooks of various sorts, think Project Gutenberg for one big example, and it would seem straightforward to have a global-access "library" of commercially-available ebooks supported by modest subscription fees -- indeed, for all I know, there may be several emerging right now. I don't think the publishers would be very happy with that, either. It would also impact, to a degree, the market for obscure used books.

I've always been interested in aircraft, and when I was a lad, I had a handful of PROFILE publications -- a series of pamphlets on different aircraft (and other things like cars, it seems) from the UK. They're long out of print, but I was able to buy a complete set of all the aircaft PROFILEs on a CD-ROM from Amazon for about ten bucks. I used to also collect the detailed aircraft books by the late William Green, which are long out of print as well; I have fair hopes someone will cut a CD-ROM for them, too. In the long-term ebook future, nothing will ever go out of print, and nobody will have trouble finding any book they want.

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[TUE 14 APR 15] THE COMMUNITY OF CHEESE

* THE COMMUNITY OF CHEESE: As discussed by a article from WIRED Online blogs ("Scientists Uncover a Surprising World of Microbes in Cheese Rind" by Greg Miller, 31 July 2014), nobody is too surprised that the rind of a good cheese is a thriving microbial community. A single gram, a tiny crumb, of cheese contains ten billion microbial cells -- a mix of bacteria and fungi that help generate the distinct flavors of the cheese. However, although cheese-making is thousands of years old, we still know very little about cheese microbial communities. Classic cheese varieties were established centuries ago, by trial and error, with unexpected lucky accidents playing a part, and cultures then made of the communities needed to produce a particular cheese.

Benjamin Wolfe and Rachel Dutton, microbiologists at Tufts University and Harvard University respectively, decided to investigate, seeing the cheese microbial community as a convenient "lab rat" for investigation of microbial communities in general. They ended up bringing 137 cheeses from ten countries into Dutton's lab at Harvard for genetic analysis. In a collaborative paper, they show the microbes that live on cheese turn out to be diverse -- but not that diverse, with the two researchers identifying 10 types of fungi and 14 types of bacteria that tend to dominate the cheese communities. Some of them were well known, like Penicillium fungus, a genus that includes the P. roqueforti that puts the blue in blue cheese; and P. camemberti, which puts the white mold on the rind of camembert.

blue cheese

What was surprising was finding the oceanic bacteria Pseudoalteromonas and Vibrio, in cheeses made nowhere near the sea. Possibly they were introduced from sea salts used to salt cheeses. In the sea, these microbes live on the chitin-rich shells of crabs and other marine invertebrates; in cheeses, they feed off the chitin in the cell walls of fungi.

Not too surprisingly, although there were commonalities among cheese communities, different types of cheeses still proved to have distinctly different communities of microbes. For example, bloomy rind cheeses, which are inoculated with mold to produce soft creamy cheeses such as brie with a fuzzy white rind, tend to have a different microbial makeup than natural rind cheeses, such as traditional cheddars, which are basically left alone and allowed to age. There doesn't seem to be much correlation between population composition and the locale where the cheeses are made, but there does seem to be a correlation with moisture.

In the course of their work, Dutton and Wolfe, not all that intentionally, became stars among the cheese community. When the two researchers attend American Cheese Society meetings, cheesemakers line up with their cheeses for analysis. Of course, cheese is only a component of foods dependent on microbes for their production: yeasts give us bread, wine, and beer; mold produces soy sauce and miso; bacteria are responsible for the flavors of chocolate, kimchi, vinegar, and salami.

Manhattan chef David Chang enlisted Dutton and Wolfe to make sure the pork loin he had fermented wasn't going to kill anyone. That going well, they helped him figure out how to grow koji, the mold used to ferment soybeans, so he could make miso and other koji-derived consumables. Chang sings their praises: "It's been a real blessing to have Rachel and Ben as a resource. They've opened all kinds of doors ... There's no way we would have found out anything without their help. Outside of some basic knowledge about cheese and wine and brewing beer, there's not much info [about microbes] out there for chefs."

Chang believes that their science amounts to a culinary revolution. "Every chef I ever worked for told me: Here's how you make sauerkraut! -- but he never said why. He never said it has to do with the bacteria already present in the cabbage ... Now, understanding how bacteria work, what if we can make an aged Parmesan in six months instead of two years? What if I can age beef in six days instead of 60?"

For the time being, Dutton and Wolfe remain focused on cheese. The two microbiologists are now creating cultures of the cheese communities in their labs for analysis.

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[MON 13 APR 15] DECODING THE BRAIN (1)

* DECODING THE BRAIN (1): As discussed by an article from IEEE SPECTRUM ("The US BRAIN Initiative Boldly Begins" by Brandon Keim, January 2014), in April 2013 US President Barack Obama announced the "Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies" program, better known as the BRAIN Initiative. As the name suggests, the BRAIN Initiative seeks to map out the detailed structure and operations of the human brain. An initial budget of $110 million USD was parceled out to the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), the National Science Foundation (NSF), and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Four private institutions -- the Kavli Foundation, Allen Institute for Brain Science, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and Salk Institute for Biological Studies -- also committed a total of $122 million USD of their own money to kick-start the BRAIN effort.

We have a fair understanding of the operations of neurons and of biochemical influences on the brain, along with a general notion of the partitioning of functionality among the various portions of the brain -- at least to the extent that it is partitioned, the brain not being at all modular in the way human-made machines are. However, the way in which neurons are specifically wired up to perform the brain's functions is staggeringly complicated and beyond our present understanding. The ambitious goal of the BRAIN Initiative is to plug that gap.

Miyoung Chun, vice president of science programs for the Kavli Foundation, was one of the prime movers behind the BRAIN Initiative, having led the charge with the White House and the neuroscience community. She appreciates the challenge: "In my mind, it's the greatest challenge of our time."

Everyone else in the community appreciates the challenge as well; some have questioned if it can be done. When Obama first announced the BRAIN Initiative, many researchers were skeptical. The most sophisticated neurological recording exercise at the time involved the zebra fish, with only 80,000 neurons, and required drastic intrusiveness that wouldn't be possible with human subjects under any conditions. A mouse brain, in contrast, has almost a thousand times more neurons, 75 million, while a human brain exceeds that of the mouse brain by about the same factor, running to 86 billion neurons. Assuming that challenge could be met, the volume of data would be monstrous, dwarfing genomic big data, making storage and analysis problematic.

In the face of agitated feedback the NIH, NSF, and DARPA held a series of workshops and meetings to discuss the organization of the BRAIN Initiative. What emerging was an evolutionary scheme, somewhat paralleling that of the Human Genome Initiative, starting out with basic science and tool development to provide a basis for more ambitious efforts.

The report from the NIH advisory committee didn't put recording of cell activity at the top of the list. One of the first tasks planned was a census of the brain's cell types, which cover not only many varieties of neurons but also glia, a somewhat obscure family of cells that may actually outnumber neurons. The physical forms of these cells in mice and other animals will be characterized, along with their molecular and genetic properties, their locations, and ultimately how they connect to other cells, both individually and in groups.

Such network-spanning wiring diagrams are called "connectomes", and they're fundamental for understanding the operation of the brain. Traditionally, there was a tendency among neuroscientists to think that mental functions were compartmentalized in the brain, local assemblies of neurons doing the work; now it's generally understood that an act of perception and cognition isn't localized, it involves elaborate neural circuits that can weave through multiple regions.

There's nothing new about connectome studies, the roundworm connectome having been published in 1986, with the NIH kicking off the "Human Connectome Project" in 2009. It was a five-year effort, run by twin consortiums: one collaboration among Harvard, Massachusetts General Hospital, and the University of California at Los Angeles, the other collaboration between Washington University, the University of Minnesota and the University of Oxford.

A range of other, smaller-scale connectome projects have been conducted or are in progress at various research institutes. There's been progress, though the task remains enormous. As one researcher put it: "A century ago, brain maps were like 16th-century maps of the Earth's surface. Now our characterizations are more like an 18th-century map." The NIH report envisions a far more ambitious effort. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 10 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (63)

* THE COLD WAR (63): While instabilities built up in Eastern Europe, other troubles had been brewing in the Middle East. Egypt had been occupied by Britain in 1882, the intent being to protect the Suez Canal, Britain's lifeline to India and other East Asia colonies. After World War II, the British occupation became increasingly intolerable to the Egyptians. In July 1952, an officer's coup had overthrown Egyptian King Farouk, with the charismatic Gamal Abdul Nasser effectively taking the helm of the new Egyptian republic.

The British felt they could get a fresh start with Nasser, agreeing in 1954 to withdraw forces in 1956, the agreement stipulating that the canal would not revert to the Egyptian government until 1968. The CIA also kept in touch with Nasser, hoping to keep him aligned with the US. The US was concerned, in hindsight too much so, with the prospect of Soviet dominance in the region, and was working to set up a security alliance, the "Central Treaty Organization (CENTO)", with Britain, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, and Turkey signing the "Baghdad Pact" to set up the alliance in 1955.

CENTO would amount to little, being later seen as a prime example of the Eisenhower Administration's fondness for alliances, or "pactomania". Egypt refused to join CENTO, one of the ambitions of Nasser's state being to destroy Israel, which the Americans would not contemplate. In September 1955, Egypt obtained a huge purchase of arms from the Soviet Union via Czechoslovakia, and any doubts among the Americans of Nasser's tilt to the Soviet camp evaporated. The Israelis were not happy to hear that the Egyptians were obtaining advanced weapons that were certain to be used against them.

The centerpiece of Nasser's development plans for Egypt was the Aswan High Dam, which was to tame the Nile and produce power. He had lost all friends in the West: John Foster Dulles regarded him as a Soviet tool, British Prime Minister Eden thought him another Hitler, French Premier Guy Mollet was angry with Egyptian support for FLN rebels fighting French rule in Algeria. On 19 July 1956, President Eisenhower withdrew American financial support for the Aswan High Dam, the British following his lead and dropping their support as well. On 26 July, Nasser hit back, announcing that the Egyptian government would nationalize the Suez Canal, with the revenues to be used to build the dam, and the international shareholders given compensation.

The fuze towards war had been lit. Eden expressed outrage, wiring Eisenhower on the same day to say that the situation "demanded action", adding that Britain was working on military plans to deal with the situation by force "as a last resort". Eisenhower's response reflected American long-standing distrust of British colonialism: he felt that the use of force would be a grave error, the American people would be antagonized by a military response, and Nasser was within his rights. Eisenhower added that Nasser had still gone about things the wrong way, and some response to his action was required.

France was close to Israel at the time, the French being the primary arms suppliers to the Israelis. The two countries began talks on military action, with the British becoming involved. In September, flights by CIA U-2 spyplanes operating out of Turkey showed the Israelis were mobilizing for war, and that the French had been providing them with more combat aircraft than were allowed under existing agreements in which the US had been involved. Eisenhower suspected the Israelis were preparing to attack Jordan; he concluded that Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was exploiting the fact that Eisenhower was distracted by his re-election campaign, and so would not be able to interfere in Israeli operations.

* US intelligence failed to anticipate events in the Middle East. The CIA was distracted by events in Eastern Europe, while Eisenhower was indeed pre-occupied by running re-election; he didn't expect that the Israelis, French, and British were likely to anything rash about the canal. They were giving no public hint that they intended to take action, and Eisenhower had no cause to believe they did.

High officials of the three nations secretly met at Sevres in France from 22 to 24 October to plan a military operation to grab the Suez Canal -- the operation being codenamed MUSKETEER, to emphasize its tripartite nature. It was to be imperialism of the old school: Israel would attack Egypt, with the British and French then intervening to "restore order" and secure the canal. On 25 October, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan announced that they had signed an agreement that unified their military commands, with an Egyptian general to take supreme command in the event of war. Ben-Gurion announced in reply that Israel was in "direct and immediate danger". Both sides were racing for the gun. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 09 APR 15] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: The latest Apple MacBook has a feature that might easily go unnoticed, but it's a portent of the future: a Type-C USB connector. We're familiar with the "standard" large Type-A USB connector, and the smaller Type-B connectors whose diversity leads to the annoying necessity to pack different USB cables. The Type-C represents an end to the plug hassles, at least eventually, being small enough to be used with any device, 8.4 x 2.6 millimeters, and also symmetrical -- it can be plugged in with either side up, it works the same.

What makes the USB-C scheme much more significant is that it reflects the "Power USB" spec, capable of handling 20 volts DC at 5 amps, or 100 watts. It can also handle power bi-directionally, and supports data rates of 10 gigabits per second. In other words, USB-C may well mean the end of annoying incompatible plug-in AC adapters -- with a particular plus that, in a decade or so, we'll be able to take our gadgets to any modern hotel around the world and plug them into Power USB -- and can also support almost any peripheral, from external drives to high-resolution displays. Add to that the potential of a hardwired, plug and play, home data network with gigabit transfer speeds.

USB-A versus USB-C

As CNET called it: ONE CABLE TO CONNECT THEM ALL. It's going to mean buying a messy kit of adapters early on, but the pain of that is certain to decline over time. I'm thinking of buying an Acer Switch tablet, but I've been waiting for Windows 10 to come out; not being in a hurry, I think I'll wait until they add USB-C as well.

* Early in the industrial revolution, canals were a primary form of transport in Britain and other developed societies, the image lingering of dray horses pulling barges up a stream. As discussed by a note from THE ECONOMIST ("Crowded Waters", 20 December 2014), the invention of the locomotive sent canals into decline, and they gradually became an element of the UK's industrial decay.

In 21st-century post-industrial Britain, they are undergoing a revival. Britain boasts 4,800 kilometers (3,000 miles) of canals, and they are now seen as an civic asset, being spruced up, with paths once trod by dray horses becoming bike paths. In places with high rents such as west London, a two-bedroom barge is less than half as pricey as a flat on dry land. Between 2005 and 2014 the number of boats on the canals in England and Wales increased by a quarter, to 32,000. Britain's canals aren't seen as just leisure facilities, either, freight haulage coming back to them in the container freight age: the number of containers transported on the Manchester ship canal increased from 3,000 in 2009 to an impressive 23,000 in 2013.

The renaissance of Britain's canals has been substantially aided by government far-sightedness. In 2012, seeking to cut budgets, the UK government dumped British Waterways, the state corporation that ran two-thirds of the canals. The Canal & River Trust was set up, along with a separate state-run organization for Scotland. Although assistance to the trust from the UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs was cut almost in half, it was guaranteed for 15 years, giving the trust funding for long-term investments. The trust also gets assistance from local heritage funds and the UK Arts Council, which has provided money for arts events along the waterways of northwest England. Private citizens help, too, with the trust counting over 9,000 "friends".

Birmingham canal

Britain, like the US, faces challenges in maintaining infrastructure. Too often, infrastructure decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, with no strong concern for long-range planning. Calls are being made for an infrastructure commission to plan out the UK's roads and railways a quarter-century into the future. Should the commission be created, the commissioners might well find Britain's canals as food for thought.

* The British are also keeping up with the latest innovations in transport infrastructure. As discussed by TIME Online, Britain is now charging forward on the robocar future by reviewing road regulations, and launching autonomous driving trials across the country.

By this spring, the government will publish guidelines that will allow the testing of driverless cars to begin in the country. A full review of current legislation will be completed by the summer of 2017. The effort will involve rewriting highway regulations to take into account the effect of automated vehicles on traffic. The UK government is also shelling out about 19 million pounds ($29 million USD) to launch robocar projects in four locations.

According to Transport Minister Claire Perry: "Driverless vehicle technology has the potential to be a real game-change on the UK's roads, altering the face of motoring in the most fundamental of ways and delivering major benefits for road safety, social inclusion, emissions and congestion."

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[WED 08 APR 15] GONE FLAT

* GONE FLAT: Monetary inflation is a chronic nuisance, leaving us worrying about the invisible depletion of our savings, while prices keep on climbing. Inflation hasn't been much of a concern over the past decade, the world's economies being in the doldrums; it might seem that low inflation is a silver lining to that cloud, but economics is a funny sort of science. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("The High Cost Of Falling Prices", 21 February 2015), it turns out that low or negative inflation -- deflation -- poses some problems of its own.

Central banks tend to regard 2% inflation as a magic value. If prices grow at that rate, consumers tend to ignore their slow rise; while it gives bosses a way to motivate slow workers by passing over their pay raises, effectively cutting their pay. With inflation at 2% or more, company leadership also has an incentive to invest the money to get a good return, or pay out dividends to shareholders, both of which promote economic activity. However, below 2%, deflation starts to bite, with two results: people hoard cash and delay purchases, knowing their money will go farther in the future, while debtors find paying off debts ever more burdensome over time.

Although the US, the UK, and Canada now have economic growth rates of better than 2%, inflation remains low, while China, Japan, Thailand, and the euro zone are clearly slipping into deflation. A generation ago, the countries in what is now the euro zone were threatened with runaway inflation -- in the 1980s, Italy suffered price rises of an average of 11% a year, while Greece was hit with 20% inflation -- but now, 15 of the 19 nations in the bloc are in deflation. Austria has the highest inflation rate of the 19, a mere 1%.

One factor is the falling price of oil, which has dropped by roughly half over the past year. On the face of it, that's a good thing, with consumers not having to pay so much for heating and transport, while producers end up with lower overheads -- which, in competitive industries, means lower prices for consumers. Another factor has been the general long-term decline in cost of consumer technology, where customers have become almost bizarrely accustomed to paying less and getting more. That makes life nerve-wracking for producers; manufacturers of phones, tablets, and other consumer electronics tend to accept it as part of their way of life, but for makers of appliances, cars, and other heavy durable goods, it's harder to swallow. Consumers don't have any reason to complain, of course, because unemployment has been high and pay raises rare, so they want costs to stay low.

Unemployment is fading in the US, Japan, and notably the UK, with even the feeble euro zone gaining ground, if not by much. Traditionally, growth in employment should be accompanied by growth in wages, leading to inflation -- but that hasn't happened. This is where the inflation quandary becomes more apparent. The reason higher employment hasn't resulted in inflation appears to be that the jobs being created tend to be constrained forms of employment -- entry-level jobs, part-time work, temporary hiring -- with the new hires having little wage bargaining power. In other words, low inflation suggests workers are getting the short end of the stick.

That inevitably leads to political backlash. In the US, President Barack Obama is pushing to raise the minimum wage from $7.25 USD to $10.10 USD an hour. In Britain, both main parties are are concerned about abusive hiring policies, while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has recently announced that temporary workers should expect the same employment deals as their permanent colleagues. It's not really that inflation is a good thing in itself from this point of view, it's just that deflation is a symptom of a squeezed labor market. Easing the squeeze clearly means a rise in inflation, but the leadership sees that as the lesser of evils.

Again, deflation also means hoarding money and rising debt burden, so it does cause for concern in itself. Central banks, such as the European Central Bank (ECB) and the Bank of Japan, are now engaged in "quantitative easing (QE)" procedures, such as creating money to buy up government debt, in hopes of raising inflation. As perverse as deliberately raising inflation may sound, it gets worse: in June 2014, the ECB began paying -0.1% interest on deposits held in its vault, then lowered it to -0.2% in September. The central banks of Denmark, Switzerland, and Sweden also started dabbling in negative interest rates.

Negative interest rates? What sense does it make to loan money at a loss?! The theory behind it is mind-bogglingly arcane; certainly, it gives a disincentive to simply stash money away instead of invest it or otherwise put it to work, but many economists believe it's every bit as absurd as it sounds, judging that people will simply stuff cash in a mattress before losing money on loaning it out. Then again, keeping lots of cash around the house is troublesome and risky. In fear of deflation, central banks are willing to try desperate measures.

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[TUE 07 APR 15] MMS IN ORBIT

* MMS IN ORBIT -- An Atlas 5 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral on 12 March to put the NASA "Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS)" mission into space, placing a constellation of satellites into orbit for a two-year mission to study the Earth's magnetosphere.

MMS consists of four identical spacecraft, designed to conduct magnetospheric plasma physics research, with a focus on a phenomenon known as "magnetic reconnection" -- shifts in the magnetic field map that release energy stored in the magnetic field. MMS was conceived in 2003, with development go-ahead in 2008. The four spacecraft were built by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), being based on a custom bus.

MMS in launch preparation

The four MMS satellites were initially placed in a highly elliptical orbit of 2,500 by 70,080 kilometers (1,600 by 43,500 miles), flying in a tetrahedral formation, for 18 months of observations on the day side boundary of the magnetosphere, where the magnetic fields of the Earth and Sun interact. Following that phase, the orbital apogees is to be raised to 153,000 kilometers (95,000 miles), to fly through the Earth's magnetospheric tail and study events on the night side of the planet.

The MMS satellites are in the form of an octagonal hatboxes, each with a diameter of 1.67 meters (5 feet 6 inches) and a height of 1.23 meters (4 feet). The launch stack of all four satellites had a height of 4.92 meters (6 feet 2 inches). The internal structures of the satellites were anodized different colors to prevent confusion during assembly -- satellite one being orange, satellite two being blue, satellite three being green, and satellite four being pink. It seems the colors were assigned as per the uniforms of the Beatle's pop group of the 1960s on the cover their album SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND.

All four satellites have an identical payload, each with three three suites of instruments and a total of eleven experiments:

MMS was a follow on to the European Space Agency's four-satellite "Cluster II" mission and NASA's five-spacecraft THEMIS constellation. The first Cluster launch attempt was in 1996, in the maiden flight of the Ariane 5 booster, which ended in failure; the replacement Cluster II constellation was launched by an Ariane 5 in 2000. THEMIS was launched by a Delta II in 2007. Although Cluster II and THEMIS did observe reconnection events, unlike MMS, that was not the primary focus of their missions.

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[MON 06 APR 15] POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (9)

* POST-REVOLUTIONARY IRAN (9): Up to the tightening of sanctions, Iranians had been thinking life was getting better. Now, jobs are hard to find and inflation is eating away their savings. The government's oil revenues are drying up, while allies around the Mideast are tottering. When will things start getting better again?

The key, of course, is Iran's nuclear power program. A preliminary agreement on the matter has now been achieved in early April, to be finalized by the end of June. Significant elements of the agreement include:

In return:

The deal may well fall apart. Although the US Congress is not supposed to interfere directly in an administration's foreign policy -- the principle being that "politics stops at the water's edge", that America needs to have one face to present to the world, not two faces bickering with each other, with dissent on foreign affairs kept internalized -- that's a principle often honored in the breach, and hardline Republicans have sensed the Obama Administration is vulnerable to public opinion on its deal-making with Iran. They've been cheered on by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been loudly denouncing the deal, fostering a climate of hostility with the White House.

Although there was celebrating in the streets of Tehran when the deal was announced, Rouhani has his own hardliners to deal with, who believe that the value of the Bomb outweighs worthless concessions from the treacherous Americans. If the agreement falls apart, the US will tighten sanctions, while Iranian hardliners will assert themselves -- some already talking about a "resistance economy", a state under siege, with the diatribes against America ramping up again. To be sure, the international consensus on sanctions will deteriorate if the US is seen as unreasonable, but even then, sanctions will still cause pain.

The big difficulty with a failure to come to an accommodation is that the US will no longer have any way to prevent Iran from getting the Bomb except the military option -- and nobody who's given any serious thought to the matter thinks war is the best, or a very realistic, solution. The effectiveness of military action is uncertain, while the US has little interest in striking at Iran when it is also fighting Islamic State militants, bracing up Europe against Russia, and guarding Asian allies against an overbearing China. A deal with Iran has plenty of attractions for America, too. [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 03 APR 15] THE COLD WAR (62)

* THE COLD WAR (62): The turmoil in Poland continued through the summer and into the fall of 1956. On 19 October, in an attempt to restore order, the Polish Communist Party appointed Wladislaw Gomulka, a reformer who had been purged and had been languishing behind bars. Khrushchev and other high Soviet officials promptly flew into Warsaw, leading to a loud confrontation at the airport that Gomulka described as "beyond comprehension". Red Army forces were about to move in and Gomulka knew it, but he kept his head, telling Khrushchev that though he, Gomulka, felt Poland should take a more independent line, Poland needed the Soviet Union far more than the Soviet Union needed Poland.

The visitors flew back to Moscow, with then Khrushchev vacillating on the intervention for several days, to finally come down on the side of patience. The Polish crisis had been averted; Gomulka would remain in charge in Poland until the 1970s.

The Chinese were kept informed of developments in Eastern Europe, with Mao Zedong taking a very strong interest in the matter. Mao chaired a meeting of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee on 20 October -- organized, it seems, in some haste, Mao not bothering to get dressed, attending the meeting in his pajamas. He was solidly against Soviet intervention, calling it "big-power chauvinism", asserting that the crisis was due to Soviet mismanagement of the relationship between the USSR and the socialist states of Eastern Europe. After the meeting, he called Pavel Yudin, the Soviet ambassador to China, to his quarters, lectured Yudin about the Kremlin's mistakes, and said China would protest military intervention.

Events of the next few days suggested that the military option was not going to happen -- but in any case, on 23 October, Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping of the Chinese Politburo flew off to Moscow to make China's voice directly heard in the halls of the Kremlin. By that time, the crisis in Poland had passed, but the Chinese visitors were still vocal in finding fault with the Kremlin, denouncing Soviet "big-power chauvinism", and saying that de-Stalinization had been taken well too far. The Chinese would remain to the end of the month, vocal in their criticisms and evaluations, making nuisances of themselves.

* Matters continued to get worse in Hungary. Informed by reports from Radio Free Europe of events in Poland, on 23 October, the same day the Chinese arrived in Moscow, Hungarians crammed the streets of Budapest to demand reforms, particularly the appointment of Imre Nagy as prime minister. There was a clash between protesters and security police that evening, with the police being overwhelmed. Hungary seemed in full revolt, and so the decision was made at the Kremlin to send in forces to help restore order.

Soviet troops and tanks entered Budapest on the morning of 24 October, the same day Nagy was appointed prime minister. It was fatal timing for Nagy; he might have been another Gomulka and restored order, but he took power at moment everything went to hell, and could only end up being blamed for it.

The CIA-backed Radio Free Europe and Voice of America had been endorsing the free rights of Eastern Europeans, though publicly Dulles and Eisenhower had been specific in saying change there should come through nonviolent means. There were factions in the US government that thought America should take more aggressive action: as conditions deteriorated in Hungary, the CIA asked Eisenhower for permission to air-drop arms and supplies to Hungarian resistance fighters.

The president turned them down flat, seeing no sense in getting into a major fight with the Soviets over Hungary. All the CIA accomplished in the Hungarian crisis was to suggest to the Kremlin that the unrest had been provoked by the Americans -- that being more convenient to believe than that it was spontaneous. For the next week, chaos accelerated, with Khrushchev wavering again on what to do. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 02 APR 15] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: As reported by TIME Online, the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has announced that this last winter, from December 2014 through February 2015, was the warmest on record, exceeding the previous record, in 2007, by 0.05 degrees Fahrenheit.

That's not exactly a global heat wave, but it does suggest where things are going. The high winter temperatures will come as a surprise to folks in the eastern US and Canada, who suffered through some serious cold, not to mention lots of snow -- Boston setting a record for winter snowfall. However, that was one of the few regions on the planet that had a big chill; the western US, for instance, had an unsettlingly warm winter that proved miserable for owners of ski resorts. Besides, heavy snowfalls are not incompatible with warming, since heating means more evaporation and so, more precipitation.

* As discussed by a note from THE ECONOMIST ("Set A Thief", 20 September 2014), pharmaceutical researchers are always on the lookout for new antibiotics, usually extracting them from micro-organisms collected in the wild, from locations all over the world. However, awareness is growing that very effective antibiotics may be found in the human microbiome. The microbiome is not just a passive hitch-hiker in the human body; at least parts of it help maintain our health, with some of the players in the microbiome capable of generating chemicals to deal with malign intruders.

A paper published by Mohamed Donia of the University of California, San Francisco, and colleagues, examined this approach. The research team wrote software to scan DNA databases for genes that seem promising for production of antibiotics. It was "trained" to find interesting genes by exposing it to 752 genes with known functions, including synthesis of antibiotics, allowing it to spot new genes similar to them.

They ran the software against the database of the Human Microbiome Project, an international scientific collaboration which aims to catalogue the gene sequences of all bacteria found in humans. The search turned up 3,118 "potentially useful" clusters of genes. The team zeroed in on one bacterium Lactobacillus gasseri, which lives in the vagina, to culture. The culture produced a chemical similar to known antibiotics.

The search scheme, as mentioned, simply looked for genes that seemed "interesting", and so the exercise is likely to yield more than new antibiotics. It could also turn up "neurotransmitters", the molecules that carry messages between nerve cells; they could be used to treat certain neurological diseases. More intriguingly, some of the members of our microbiome can selectively suppress our immune system, preventing it from wiping them out. That suggests the possibility of drugs that can do a more selective job of immune suppression, needed to keep organ transplant patients from rejecting their transplants. In addition, the search should turn up beneficial micro-organisms that can be used in fecal transplants, or techniques derived from it.

* As discussed by an article from BBC WORLD Online ("HIV Evolving Into Milder Form" by James Gallagher, 1 December 2014), a study by a team of researchers at the University of Oxford in the UK has shown HIV is evolving to become less deadly and less infectious -- that the virus is being "watered down" as it adapts to our immune systems. The study shows it is now taking longer for HIV infection to cause AIDS, and that the changes in the virus may help efforts to contain the pandemic. Some virologists suggest the virus may eventually become "almost harmless", as it continues to evolve.

More than 35 million people around the world are HIV-positive; the virus wrecks their immune systems, leaving them vulnerable to lethal opportunistic infections. However, every so often HIV infects someone with a particularly strong immune system. Professor Philip Goulder of the Oxford team says that then "the virus is trapped between a rock and hard place, it can get flattened, or make a change to survive -- and if it has to change then it will come with a cost."

The "cost" is a reduced ability to replicate, which in turn makes the virus less infectious and slower to kill its host. The team showed this process happening in Africa by comparing Botswana, which has had an HIV problem for a long time, and South Africa, where HIV arrived a decade later. According to Goulder, the difference is "quite striking. You can see the ability to replicate is 10% lower in Botswana than South Africa, and that's quite exciting. We are observing evolution happening in front of us and it is surprising how quickly the process is happening. The virus is slowing down in its ability to cause disease and that will help contribute to elimination."

The study also suggested anti-retroviral drugs were pressuring HIV to evolve into milder forms, since the drugs primarily target the nastiest versions of HIV and so encourage survival of the milder ones. According to Goulder: "Twenty years ago, the time to AIDS was 10 years, but in the last 10 years in Botswana, that might have increased to 12.5 years, a sort of incremental change -- but in the big picture, that is a rapid change. One might imagine as time extends this could stretch further and further, and in the future people being asymptomatic for decades."

Although seemingly harmless HIV variants are found in other primates, the study did not suggest that human HIV strains were going to be harmless any time soon. However, a less virulent HIV strain would restrain the spread of the virus, helping to get the pandemic under control.

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[WED 01 APR 15] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped out of sight for ten days during May, leading to lively rumors that he had died, or been kicked out by a putsch, or lying low until some invisible Kremlin furor died down. The only apparent fact in the matter was the lack of transparency of the Russian government; no matter how low an opinion Americans have of their own government, nobody could realistically conceive that an American president could drop out of sight for any extended period of time without explanation.

In any case, THE ECONOMIST took the idea and ran with it, envisioning the same scenario with other world leaders, with a simplified list provided here:

* In the "ridiculous gimmick and proud of it" category this month, a Kickstarter effort is underway to introduce the "Brik Case", which is an ABS plastic panel covered with Lego studs that snaps onto the back of the display of a MacBook Pro or MacBook Air, different sizes to be offered for different sizes of MacBook.

Brik Case

Yes indeed, the assertively geeky will be able to decorate their computing horsepower with colorful Lego patternings, no doubt while it's playing bleep-bloop chiptune music. No need to slap stickers on a MacBook any more; users can make up their won. The Brik Case is also cross-platform, being compatible with Duplo, Mega Blox, K'nex, Tyco Super Blocks, Built to Rule bricks, Kre-O, Nintendo's short-lived N&B blocks, PixelBlocks, Rokenboks, and most Kiddicraft brick clones now on the market -- they're close enough to Lego that they'll fit.

The Brik Case is supposed to ship in August, pricetag being about $40 USD. That might seem a bit steep for a gimmick like this, but it's not there's any more than perceived value in it anyway -- that is, it's worth as much to users as they feel like it is -- and besides, a "Bag O'Brix", with 100 1x1 multi-colored blocks, comes along with it, to allow immediate gratification of the urge to snap together Legos. That will, unfortunately, also lead to the eternal problem with Lego blocks: dropping one in the carpet, to then be found while wandering around in bare feet in the dark. Hopefully, a safety warning will be included.

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

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