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may 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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[MON 23 MAY 16] THE FREE TRADE DILEMMA (2)
[FRI 20 MAY 16] THE COLD WAR (113)
[THU 19 MAY 16] SPACE NEWS
[WED 18 MAY 16] ASTRONOMERS THINKING SMALL
[TUE 17 MAY 16] SOLAR FOR THE DEVELOPING WORLD
[MON 16 MAY 16] THE FREE TRADE DILEMMA (1)
[FRI 13 MAY 16] THE COLD WAR (112)
[THU 12 MAY 16] GIMMICKS & GADGETS
[WED 11 MAY 16] RIDE THE SMART CARD BUS
[TUE 10 MAY 16] THE 2-DEGREE SOLUTION
[MON 09 MAY 16] APPLE WARS (5)
[FRI 06 MAY 16] THE COLD WAR (111)
[THU 05 MAY 16] SCIENCE NOTES
[WED 04 MAY 16] NOT SO TOUGH
[TUE 03 MAY 16] TRIMMING DOWN
[MON 02 MAY 16] ANOTHER MONTH

[MON 23 MAY 16] THE FREE TRADE DILEMMA (2)

* THE FREE TRADE DILEMMA (2): Another problem with the idea that the US loses from free trade is the reality that trade is not a one-way street. In 1993, partly assisted by NAFTA, America sold nearly $10 billion USD's worth of cars and parts to Mexico, in today's prices. By 2013 that had risen to $70 billion USD. Many American firms have become tightly integrated across the southern border, with low-skilled work done in Mexico and more complex tasks done at home. Exports to China grew by almost 200% between 2005 and 2014, with agribusiness, aerospace, and automotive industries leading the charge. From the corporate point of view, open trade means American firms, by reducing overhead, become that much more profitable.

That observation immediately leads to the acute image problem with free trade. While it's been good for American consumers and leading-edge American corporations, it hasn't been good for uncompetitive US companies -- those that have no future regardless -- and particularly not for unskilled American workers. The difficulty is that unskilled labor is in trouble anyway; one estimate suggests that only about a million of the 5.5 million manufacturing jobs lost from 1999 to 2011 were due to Chinese competition.

There's a particularly troublesome long-term factor in that automation is continually reducing the need for unskilled labor. There's no way that automation can be stopped -- employers have strong economic incentives and a effectively unchallengeable right to replace workers with machines if possible, they hire workers if they are needed for the business and no other reason -- and so, unskilled labor has no future. Even if the US threw up monster trade barriers with China, the jobs are not coming back. What makes the job losses particularly painful is that those thrown out of work have trouble finding another job; the pool of unskilled jobs is gradually drying up. Dani Rodrik, a globalisation skeptic, asserts with fair cause: "If you are of low skill, have little education, and are not very mobile, international trade has been bad news for you pretty much throughout your entire life."

What happens to the losers? They become more reliant on the government. One attempt at a safety net was "trade-adjustment assistance (TAA)", which actually was set up in 1962, during the Kennedy Administration, and reinforced after the signing of NAFTA. If the US Department of Labor accepts a petition for TAA, workers get an extension to their unemployment-insurance payments -- running to about six months through the 2000s. Beneficiaries can also sign up for training programs, receiving payments while they train. Workers over 50 also get a sort of wage insurance, which pays up to $12,000 USD over two years to compensate them for starting a new job on lower pay.

Until 2009, TAA was more limited for workers displaced by Chinese competition than by NAFTA, the US not having signed a free-trade pact with China, and only covered factories shut down by direct competition from Chinese imports. That left out workers further up the supply chain, or those whose employers had shifted manufacturing to China. Displaced workers chose to claim disability benefits instead. TAA was also inadequate; training programs were only funded to $1,700 USD per displaced worker in 2007, while the wage-insurance scheme did not apply to younger workers, nor was it generous for older workers.

It is still true that US living standards are higher today than they were before the 1980s, when protectionism was high; trade barriers are self-defeating. In addition, current trade pacts, like the TPP, are different from NAFTA, because even at present, the trade barriers between the aspiring members of the partnership are low -- and to the extent barriers persist, lowering them will benefit the US. The TPP's major provisions concern protection for intellectual property, liberalizing trade in services, plus enforcing stricter labor and environmental standards. None of these things amount to a serious threat to American workers.

Yes, some Americans will suffer in a more open global economy, but the benefits obtained from the TPP should provide plenty of compensation to help them. Economists have estimated that the TPP will boost American incomes by $131 billion USD, or 0.5% of GDP -- 100 times what the US spent on trade-adjustment assistance in 2009. Even more might be expected from the TPP if China signs up, since the TPP would open up Chinese markets to US firms, while restricting Chinese government largesse to state-owned enterprises.

Europe presents another opportunity, with the emerging Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) leveling "non-tariff barriers" in industries such as pharmaceuticals, telecoms, and transport. One study estimates that the TTIP could raise US GDP by as much as 3%. That leaves as the next frontier in international trade pacts the dicey issue of regulating global data flows -- with the US, as the biggest data hub on the planet, standing to benefit mightily.

It is reassuring that most Americans appreciate free trade, even in the current sore-headed political climate -- a Gallup poll indicating that 58% are in favor, with only 34% against. However, this ratio still suggests that the benefits and costs of free trade are not evenly distributed, the majority getting a win, the minority losing. If America wants the benefits of trade, those who lose out will need to be compensated. If that sounds like the dirty word "redistribution", it must be conceded that it's not as dirty as "protectionism". Unfortunately, even if that concession is made, there's a third dirty word involved: "taxes". [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 20 MAY 16] THE COLD WAR (113)

* THE COLD WAR (113): Castro's Cuba continued to be a distraction for Eisenhower. He toyed with the idea of a blockade, but such an action would have imposed great suffering on the Cuban people; on consideration, the president admitted it was a bad idea. What about the CIA? Eisenhower talked the matter over with Allen Dulles in February; Dulles didn't have much in the way of good ideas, so the president told him to give the matter more thought.

For want of anything better to do for the moment, the president then decided to indulge his itch to travel and take a tour of Latin America, his objectives being to counter Castro's anti-American agitation, and brace up resistance to communism -- while simultaneously throwing cold water on the requests of Latin American leaders for more weapons, instead encouraging them to make economic and political reforms. The trip took place in late February, with Eisenhower visiting Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. He was received enthusiastically everywhere he went, but otherwise the trip accomplished little.

On 2 March, the French freighter LA COUBRE was in Havana harbor, unloading a shipment of munitions obtained from Belgium, when it brewed up in a massive explosion, with roughly a hundred people killed, many more injured. Castro's government believed the CIA was responsible, though nothing would ever be really proven; disastrous accidents do happen when handling munitions.

It is also not clear that Eisenhower had let the agency off the leash with respect to Cuba at that time. On 17 March, the president had a meeting with Dulles and Richard Bissell, who had been put in charge of directing an anti-Castro program. Bissell outlined a four-point plan:

Eisenhower approved the plan, setting in motion a secret, muddled CIA campaign against Castro that nobody would or could ever clearly sort out later.

* The president continued on course with his disarmament agenda. Eisenhower's old and good friend Harold MacMillan was supportive, agreeing without hesitation to fly over the Pond in late March for discussions with the president. The prime minister was worried that, with Eisenhower leaving office, the nuclear hawks in the US government defense establishment would have their own way. MacMillan didn't need to be so concerned; on 24 March, during an NSC meeting, Eisenhower proposed that the US announce a moratorium on underground tests, even though the experts said they weren't certain small Soviet underground tests could be detected. After the meeting, McCone told the president that amounted to "surrender"; Eisenhower got visibly angry, and replied that it was in the best interests of the country.

On 28 March, Eisenhower and MacMillan had discussions at Camp David, the prime minister becoming very enthusiastic about the president's proposals. The next day, 29 March, Eisenhower released a press statement that outlined the conclusions of his talks with MacMillan. A test ban was becoming the obvious focus of discussions at the upcoming summit meeting in May; the president would have further discussions on the matter with de Gaulle and Adenauer over the next few weeks.

The atomic lobby still continued to resist disarmament. At a 1 April NSC meeting, the president was told that America needed to build 400 missiles a year; he didn't judge it an April Fool's prank, replying sarcastically: "Why don't we go completely crazy and plan on a force of 10,000?!"

Teller and his colleagues at the AEC were pushing along a different line, promoting the peaceful uses of nuclear weapons under a program named Operation PLOWSHARE. According to Teller, nuclear bombs could be used to dig a new canal through Central America, blast out harbors, even help extract oil and perform strip mining. Eisenhower was intrigued, but made it clear that he would not authorize PLOWSHARE tests as long as the ban was in effect.

In the meantime, the sporadic U-2 overflights of the USSR continued. In response to CIA worries that the Soviets were building more missile sites, the president authorized an overflight that took place on 9 April. It revealed nothing of particular interest, which was all for the good as far as the president was concerned, but the Soviets repeatedly fired surface-to-air missiles (SAM) at the U-2, which raised his apprehensions. The CIA wanted to perform a follow-up overflight, which Eisenhower authorized; but it was repeatedly delayed by cloudy weather over the target track. The president told the CIA's Richard Bissell that 1 May was the last date the mission could be flown; Eisenhower did not want to do anything provocative on the eve of the Paris summit.

The president, in discussions with MacMillan and de Gaulle, said he felt the Soviets would have good cause to negotiate a test-ban treaty: the arms race was clearly more ruinously expensive for the USSR than it was for the USA, which could afford the excess much better, and the Soviets also wanted to reduce the incentive for the Chinese to obtain the Bomb. Eisenhower emphasized in his conversations with the two leaders that any move by the Soviets against the Western position in Berlin would bring all discussions to a halt -- and he also made it clear that, if the differences in ideological viewpoint between East and West were not going to be emphasized in discussions, they were not going to be papered over either, by talk of "peaceful coexistence" and the like.

* South Korea had not been on the forefront of Eisenhower's concerns in the course of his presidency, but come the spring of 1960, it ended up momentarily on the front burner. Synghman Rhee had been re-elected president of South Korea in 1956; the 1948 South Korean constitution restricted him to two terms, but following the 1956 election, he had the constitution amended to allow him unlimited terms. The US, no longer greatly worried about the vulnerability of South Korea to a communist take-over, began to withdraw financial support from Rhee's regime, with the result that Rhee implemented increasingly severe national security laws to ensure his survival. Such measures did nothing to improve his standing in Washington DC.

In national elections on 15 March 1960, Rhee was re-elected for a third term with 90% of the vote. That of course sounded suspicious, though the election had also been tilted by the death of the main opposition candidate, Cho Byeong-ok, on 15 February.

However, there was still considerable suspicion that the vote had been rigged, leading to student demonstrations, with students being killed. That led to a full-blown student uprising on 19 April, with the general populace joining in over the next week. With encouragement from the US ambassador, Rhee resigned on 26 April, being flown off to exile in Honolulu by a CIA DC-4 transport; he would die there in 1965.

Unfortunately, the outcome ended up being to the advantage of neither South Korea or the United States. After a period of parliamentary instability, the next spring the government was overthrown in a coup d'etat by General Park Chung-hee, with South Korea ruled by military governments for the following decades -- generally with tacit American approval. US governments had little liking for military strongmen, but preferred them to communist control. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 19 MAY 16] SPACE NEWS

* Space launches for April 2016 included:

-- 05 APR 16 / SHIJIAN 10 -- A Chinese Long March 2D booster was launched from Jiuquan at 1738 UTC (local time - 8) to put the "Shijian 10" experimental satellite into space; "shijian" is Chinese for "practice". It was a recoverable research satellite, carrying physical science, materials science, and biological experiments on a two-week mission.

-- 08 APR 16 / SPACEX DRAGON CRS 8 -- A SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Cape Canaveral at 2043 UTC (local time + 4), carrying the eighth operational "Dragon" cargo capsule to the International Space Station (ISS). The capsule docked with the ISS Harmony module's nadir port a day and a half after launch. The Falcon first stage performed a successful soft landing on an automated barge; it will be test-fired on the ground, and if all goes well, re-used on a later launch.

The most significant payload carried by the Dragon was the "Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM)" -- a demonstrator expandable habitat module, to be attached to the ISS. BEAM weighed 1,413 kilograms (3,115 pounds) and rode to the station in the Dragon's unpressurized trunk section.

-- 25 APR 16 / SENTINEL 1B -- A Soyuz STA/FREGAT booster was launched from Kourou in French Guiana at 2102 UTC (local time + 3) to put the ESA "Sentinel 1B" radar Earth observation satellite into Sun-synchronous near-polar orbit. Sentinel 1B was built by Thales Alenia Space of France / Italy; it had a launch mass of 2,155 kilograms (4,755 pounds), a design life of seven years, and carried a C-band synthetic aperture radar system, with electronic steering, built by Airbus Defense & Space.

The multi-mode radar had a best resolution of 5 meters (16 feet) over an 80-kilometer (50-mile) swath width, but it could image a swath up to 450 kilometers (280 miles) wide, with correspondingly poorer resolution. It could image the entire Earth every twelve days. Sentinel 1B was the fourth Sentinel space platform in the European Copernicus Earth observation constellation; it followed the identical "Sentinel 1A", launched in 2014, with the two spacecraft sharing the same orbit, 180 degrees apart.

Sentinel 1B

The launch also included the French "Microscope" satellite, a science satellite with a launch mass of 303 kilograms (668 pounds), intended to test the physics of free fall with a hundred times more precision than possible on Earth; and three CubeSats developed by university students in Belgium, Italy, and Denmark. They were selected from proposals submitted to the European Space Agency’s education-oriented "Fly Your Satellite!" program. They included:

-- 28 APR 16 / MIKHAIL LOMONOSOV -- A Soyuz 2-1a booster was launched at 0201 UDT (local time - 8) from the new Vostochny Cosmodrome in Russia's Far East to put the "Mikhail Lomonosov" science satellite into space. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 645 kilograms (1,400 pounds) and carried instruments to study high-energy cosmic rays, gamma rays, as well as the Earth's upper atmosphere and magnetosphere.

The launch also included two other payloads:

This was the first launch from Vostochny.

-- 28 APR 16 / IRNSS 1G -- An ISRO Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle was launched from Sriharikota at 0720 GMT (local time - 5:30) to put the seventh "Indian Regional Navigation Satellite System (IRNSS)" spacecraft into orbit. The spacecraft had a launch mass of 1,425 kilograms (3,140 pounds); it had a design lifetime of 12 years. IRNSS was placed in a geostationary orbit with an inclination of 5 degrees. This was the final launch for the baseline IRNSS constellation; three of the satellites were placed in geostationary orbit, while four were placed in a geostationary-type orbit with an inclination of 29 degrees.

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[WED 18 MAY 16] ASTRONOMERS THINKING SMALL

* ASTRONOMERS THINKING SMALL: As discussed by an article from AAAS SCIENCE ("Small Scopes Log An Ever-Changing Sky" by Daniel Clery, 3 July 2015), astronomers have been chasing after ever more expensive space observatories and ground observatories -- but some are finding they can do great work on a budget.

Take, for example, the "Evryscope", the brainchild of Nicholas Law of the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Hill was interested in searching for exoplanets -- extra-solar planets -- and felt he could find them more easily if he observed as much of the sky as he could at one time. The result was the Evryscope, built for about $250,000 USD; it went online in 2015 at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Atacama high desert in Chile.

Evryscope

The Evryscope is curious-looking contraption, consisting of a white hemispherical dome on an equatorial mount, with portholes for 27 off-the-shelf 7 centimeter (2.75 inch) telescopes. It can image a quarter of the entire sky every two minutes, searching for slight variations in the brightness of stars. It's searching for "transit events", in which a planet orbiting a distant star crosses the line of sight between the star and Earth, resulting in a momentary dimming from the "occultation".

Hunting for exoplanets by occultation observations is nothing particularly new, but the Evryscope project is distinctive in that it is looking for transit events across the shriveled stellar corpses known as "white dwarfs" -- typically about as massive as our Sun, but with diameters more on the order of the Earth. Using white dwarfs as targets has an advantage, in that the dimming is much more significant, but it's also much briefer. Nobody has yet observed a transit event with a white dwarf.

The little telescopes are the eyes of Evryscope, but at least important is its digital brain. The observatory will produce 780 megabytes of image data per minute, which has to be analyzed on site, rendering it down into useful data that is sent to the research team. They are currently in discussions with other observatories around the world for hosting other Evryscopes, the objective being to obtain ongoing all-sky coverage.

* Kris Stanek of Ohio State University, Columbus, is not interested in exoplanets; he's after supernovas, the massive stellar explosions that occur when a burned-out star collapses, or a white dwarf gets an injection of new material, and re-ignites. To that end, over the past five years, he and his team have set up the "All-Sky Automated Survey for Supernovas (ASAS-SN)" -- which includes four 14 centimeter (5.5 inch) telescopes at Cerro Tololo, plus another at Haleakala in Hawaii. ASAS-SN can image the whole sky every two or three nights, with greater sensitivity than can be obtained with the smaller telescopes used by Evryscope.

The small team has bagged more than 150 supernovas per year. If ASAS-SN finds anything interesting, it is sent out within two hours via a Web-based service named "The Astronomer's Telegram", tipping off astronomers with more powerful instruments so they can take a closer look. According to Stanek: "Every day we have something new and exciting." The team wants to add eight more telescopes to image the entire sky every night -- but for the time being, they don't have the money.

Some astronomers are re-purposing venerable equipment to put it to better use in sky surveys. The 1.22 meter (48 inch) Samuel Oschin Schmidt telescope at Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California, went online in 1948; it performed wide-field survey observations with film plates for decades. It has been modernized with CCD imagers; it has found 700 supernovas a year, though at present it only images 1/40th of the sky every night.

Now, a planned $18 million USD upgrade with a much more powerful imager will allow the Oschin Schmidt to image the entire sky within its view every night, spotting interesting events and automatically calling on other robotic telescopes to perform follow-up observations. Shri Kulkarni, director of optical observatories at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, jokes: "It's become a giant software algorithm program and stopped being an astronomy program."

* Sky surveys aren't all low-budget productions; there's a place for Big Astronomy there as well. The $80 million USD "Panoramic Survey Telescope And Rapid Response System (Pan-STARRS)" -- with a 1.8 meter (5 foot 11 inch) mirror, primarily intended to hunt for potentially threatening near-Earth asteroids -- surveys the entire sky visible from its site in Hawaii several times a month. It also is good at spotting supernovas; a second Pan-STARRS telescope will be online soon.

The top-of-the-line in survey telescopes will be the "Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST)", with an 8.4 meter (27 foot 6 inch) mirror and 3 gigapixel camera, which will survey all the available sky every few days, spotting much fainter and more distant objects than other surveys. It will begin a ten-year sky survey in 2022 that will log a staggering billion galaxies and 17 billion stars. The program director, Steve Kahn of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, says: "It will turn the universe into a catalog."

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[TUE 17 MAY 16] SOLAR FOR THE DEVELOPING WORLD

* SOLAR FOR THE DEVELOPING WORLD: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Follow The Sun", 16 April 2016), solar energy has long been stereotyped as the hobby-horse of tree-huggers and hippies. As the costs of solar power continues their steady decline, this image is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. Developing nations such as China and India, which have plenty of sunshine -- and high daytime air-conditioning power needs that solar can help meet -- are embracing solar simply because it's such an attractive option.

In 2015, China became the nation that generates the most solar power, putting Germany in second place. Solar power still only accounts for 3% of China's electricity production, but China is now building a giant solar plant in the Gobi desert, with the country expected to install 12 gigawatts (GW) of solar generating capacity in the first half of 2016. That's a third more than expected for the USA for all of 2016.

India is similarly bullish on solar, planning to increase the country's solar generating capacity twenty-fold by 2022, to 100 GW. That might be over-ambitious -- but KPMG, a consulting firm, estimates that solar will account for 12.5% of India's electrical production capacity by 2025, up from less than 1% today. KPMG also judges that solar will be cheaper than coal by 2020, even discounting coal's notorious external dis-economies. While solar has been boosted by subsidies, they are becoming unnecessary.

Global solar capacity rose by 26% in 2015, with the costs dropping in pace; the price of solar panels has fallen 80% since 2010. Life-cycle analysis shows solar plants are becoming ever more economically competitive with gas and coal. Auctions of long-term contracts to purchase solar power in developing countries such as South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, Peru, and Mexico suggest that such analyses may even be too conservative.

Solar is becoming a huge business. Acwa Power, a Saudi company, won an award for a 200-megawatt (MW) solar plant in Dubai in November 2014, and is building the world's biggest solar thermal plant -- using an array of mirrors driving a steam turbine -- in Morocco. Enel Green Power (EGP) of Italy won a contract in February 2016 to provide Peru with 20 years of solar power at just under $48 USD per megawatt-hour (MWh); a month later, EGP got a contract in Mexico to provide solar power at about $40 USD per MWh.

Acwa Power and EGP made aggressive bids to get their contracts; some analysts judge their bids were unrealistically low, and that these projects are unlikely to make money. However, no doubt the bids factored in continued decreases in solar power costs -- and the firms also see a long-range advantage in establishing a foothold in a growing solar-power market, even if they don't make much profit on present efforts.

There is a difficulty that development of national power grids has tended to lag development of renewable energy; increased use of renewables dictates a "smart grid" that can efficiently shunt power from where it is available to where it is needed. A problem, yes -- but consider it growing pains, and a problem that is going to be solved. Solar is growing so fast that it isn't surprising planners are having trouble keeping up.

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[MON 16 MAY 16] THE FREE TRADE DILEMMA (1)

* THE FREE TRADE DILEMMA (1): As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Trade, At What Price?"), during the current US election, free trade is under political assault from both Right and Left. Republican hopeful Donald Trump has all but declared trade war on China, asserting that China is "killing us on trade", saying he wants to put "an end to China's illegal export subsidies and lax labour and environmental standards. No more sweatshops or pollution havens stealing jobs from American workers."

Democratic contender Bernie Sanders has been only slightly more restrained, saying that trade deals have cost millions of American jobs. Like Trump, Sanders is agitated over the US trade deficit. Neither like the Obama Administration's efforts to push through the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) -- discussed here last year -- to come to agreement with America's trading partners, except China.

In contrast, the conventional wisdom in mainstream economics is that trade liberalization is beneficial for all countries that participate in it. By removing barriers that raise the cost of imported goods, countries can specialize in producing what they do best, while consumers and businesses can buy goods more cheaply. Economists remember the Great Depression, when trade protectionism went into high gear in response to the economic crisis, and only made the crisis worse. Which view of free trade is the right one?

Since the end of World War II, the drift has been towards removal of trade barriers; from the 1980s, the US economy has gradually opened up to cheap imports. That accelerated in 1993, when President Bill Clinton signed the North American Free-Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico and Canada. The deal, America's first broad trade accord to include a poor economy, eliminated most tariffs on trade between the three countries over a decade. Coincidentally, within a year of the start of tariff reductions, the peso collapsed, making Mexican imports cheaper still.

Excluding fuel, imports from Mexico grew by about five times between 1993 and 2013, according to the Peterson Institute, a think-tank. Exports to Mexico grew by about three-and-a-half times. As a result of the disparity, a bilateral trade deficit worth $23 billion USD, at the time about 0.2% of America's GDP, opened up within five years.

The small size of the Mexican economy, America's being an order of magnitude bigger, limited the impact of NAFTA. However, in 2001 China joined the World Trade Organization (WTO). That didn't change any tariffs, but it leveled the playing field for China to an extent, with a flood of cheap Chinese imports into the US market following. Purchases of Chinese imports went from 1% of US GDP in 2000 to 2.7% by 2015.

The Chinese have been accused of manipulating the yuan, their national currency, to boost their exports, but nobody's been able to prove the case. The yuan should grow stronger against the dollar in time as Chinese wages increase, and they have been increasing faster in China than in the West. China does have a high monetary surplus, but that appears to be mostly because the Chinese are into savings.

The complaints about Chinese imports ignore the reality that protecting producers hurts consumers. Cheap Chinese imports have been a windfall for American consumers; excluding food and energy, prices of goods have fallen almost every year since NAFTA was implemented. It has been estimated that trade with China put $250 USD in the pocket of every American in 2008. The gains from cheap stuff flowed disproportionately to the less well-off, because goods are much dearer to the poor than they are to the rich, and the rich may refuse to buy cheap stuff on principle. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[FRI 13 MAY 16] THE COLD WAR (112)

* THE COLD WAR (112): Eisenhower found it hard to resist the push for more U-2 overflights of the USSR. He had high hopes for the CORONA spy satellite program; unfortunately, it was continuing to be troublesome, and nobody could say exactly when it would be flying right. That left the U-2 as the only effective means of keeping a close eye on the USSR, but the president was was extremely uneasy with authorizing more overflights. Goodpaster noted that uneasiness in a 2 February 1960 presidential meeting with an advisory committee for technical intelligence, reporting that Eisenhower said:

BEGIN QUOTE:

I have one tremendous asset in a summit meeting, as regards effect in the free world. That is my reputation for honesty. If one of these aircraft were lost when we are engaged in apparently sincere deliberations, it could be put on display in Moscow, and ruin my effectiveness.

END QUOTE

The president did approve more overflights, but only sparingly. One of the reasons he did so was because the Soviets seemed very disinclined to make a public fuss over the intrusions, suggesting that even if they shot one down, they wouldn't make much of a public fuss over it either -- all the more so because that would put an effective end to the overflights, rendering further protest unnecessary.

In any case, Eisenhower's top priority was still to put an end to the nuclear hysteria. On 11 February, he publicly announced:

BEGIN QUOTE:

The United States is today presenting in Geneva a proposal, involving the ending of nuclear weapons tests, to end the apparent deadlock in the negotiations. This government has stood, throughout, for complete abolition of weapons testing subject only to the attainment of agreed and adequate methods of inspection and control. The present proposal is designed to end nuclear weapons tests in all the environments that can now be effectively controlled.

It would end forthwith, under assured controls:

This proposal will permit, through a coordinated program of research and development, a systematic extension of the ban to the remaining areas, especially those involving underground tests, for which adequate control measures appear not to be possible now.

These are initial but far-reaching and yet readily attainable steps toward a complete ban on nuclear weapons tests. If adopted, they will prevent increases in the level of radioactivity in the atmosphere and so allay worldwide concern. They are steps which offer an opportunity to consolidate the important progress made in the negotiations thus far. It is our hope that the Soviet Union will join with us in this constructive beginning.

END QUOTE

Pentagon officials did not take the initiative to heart. The next day, 12 February, they presented Eisenhower with their latest strategic plan, which envisioned that the US would "prevail" in a nuclear exchange with the Soviets. The plan envisioned that the US would kill 200 million Soviet and Chinese citizens; the president was appalled at such a monstrous proposition, nor was he at all reassured at the promises that the fallout impact on the US would be "manageable".

Eisenhower could not have been much more reassured when the French detonated their first atomic bomb, a 70-kiloton weapon, on 13 February -- three more tests would follow in April. Nonetheless, it was hardly unexpected, de Gaulle having made it clear to Eisenhower that France would get the Bomb, and the US raised no fuss over the matter. It did represent a complication of the arms race, which was complicated enough to begin with.

On 19 February, Eisenhower met with senior defense officials to discuss an international conference on limiting production of fissionable materials. Defense Secretary Herter and AEC Chairman McCone protested energetically: America needed more bombs, and of course the Soviets would cheat. The president was critical of their attitude, and told them he saw "no alternative but somehow to stop this mad race."

Reporters also continued to be unhelpful. In a press conference on 17 February, when one reporter suggested Eisenhower was dangerously skimping on defense, the president went red in the face, described the assertion as "despicable", and concluded, with perfect truth: "Our defense is not only strong, it is awesome, and it is respected elsewhere."

At least, the president's moratorium on nuclear testing seemed firm. While there were calls for America to resume testing, the public was increasingly apprehensive about fallout; Kennedy was against a resumption of testing unless the Soviets resumed first, while Nixon -- the obvious candidate of the Republicans -- said that those who were for breaking the test ban were "ignorant of the facts". Nonetheless, voicing such concerns was irrelevant, if the Soviets didn't feel like playing along. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 12 MAY 16] GIMMICKS & GADGETS

* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by an entry from WIRED Online Blogs ("France's Funkiest 'Car' Finally Hits America" by Alex Davies, 17 October 2015), a new French import vehicle, the Renault "Twizy", is now taking America by ... well, if not exactly storm, at least a fresh breeze.

The Twizy is more or less a glorified two-seat golf cart, with a maximum range of 100 kilometers (62 miles) and a maximum speed of 40 KPH (25 MPH); it can go twice that fast, but US regulations keep its speed low. It weighs only 475 kilograms (1,045 pounds). It is such a minimalist vehicle that in France, 14-year-olds can drive it, with a special license. It's now here in the USA -- though rebadged as the "New Mobility Concept", and under the Nissan label, the "other head" of Renault-Nissan.

Renault Twizy

It's not for sale, however. It's being adopted by Scoot Networks, a San Francisco-based electric scooter sharing company. Scoot works like bike sharing programs: clients sign up, pay a $19 USD monthly fee, and use an app to locate available scooters, which can take users anywhere in the city for $2 USD per half hour, or $8 USD for the Twizy. Users don't need a motorcycle license, but must complete a short online safety course.

If the Twizy is a step down from a real car, it's a big step up from a scooter. It has seat belts, airbags, a stereo, and other bells and whistles of a low-cost car; it can also haul two people and their kit around in comfort and safety. Indeed, it's very safe, being low to the ground, and with the roof providing protection if it's rolled. It can be parked almost anywhere, perpendicular to the sidewalk. Yeah, it's not fast, but it's agile, and in such a small vehicle, 40 KPH can be exciting.

* Crowdsourcing and robot cars are big ideas these days; auto giant General Motors is using the first to help with the second, in a scheme in which customer cars with vision systems are mapping the world for robocars. GM is using new technology from Mobileye, an Israeli provider of visual processing chips and software that can detect vehicles, pedestrians, and other obstacles, along with road markings, signs, and traffic lights. It's the same tech that underlies features like auto lane departure warnings, and is already fitted to hundreds of thousands of GM cars.

GM's plan is to pull that camera data, via its OnStar vehicle communications system, from customer cars to create highly detailed, constantly updated road maps. Those maps would allow an autonomous vehicle to know its location within about 10 centimeters (4 inches) -- vastly better accuracy than can be provided by GPS, which has a resolution of meters, not enough for driving a car through traffic. The more a car knows about an area, the more it can focus its sensors and computing power on temporary obstacles like cars, pedestrians, and cyclists.

Ultimately, in the era of robocars, each vehicle would draw mapping data from a cloud-based network, reporting current road conditions and anomalies to nearby cars and the cloud. For the moment, GM is experimenting with the scheme on a handful of cars -- but once it's qualified, the company wants to get it into production cars.

* In related auto news, an entry by Alex Davies, the resident gearhead at WIRED Online blogs ("The Clever Ways Ford's Self-Driving Cars Navigate In Snow", 11 January 2016), shined a light on Ford's work to build self-driving cars that can deal with a snowstorm.

Anyone who's ever had the misfortune of getting trapped on the road in the middle of a nasty snowstorm knows that is not a trivial problem. The primary sensors for robocars are radar and lidar -- to look out for other cars, pedestrians, and other things we ought not to run into -- as well as cameras, which generally read street signs and lane markers. In winter, snow may bury signs and lane markers.

Humans do their best to find their way around under such conditions via educated guesswork, obtaining clues from things they can see, like curbs or other cars. Ford engineers, doing practical work at the M City robocar test facility of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor -- discussed here last year -- are trying to teach robocars to do much the same thing.

Ford, like others working on robocars, is creating high-fidelity, 3D maps of the roads its robocars will travel. Those maps include details such as the exact positions of the curbs and lane lines, trees and signs, with local speed limits and other relevant rules factored in. The car's sensors can locate the car relative to the map features within centimeters. For example, the car may not be able to see lane lines, but it will be able to see a STOP sign, allowing it register its location on the map -- and know where the lanes are. According to Jim McBridge, boss of Ford's robocar effort: "We're able to drive perfectly well in snow. We see everything above the ground plane, which we match to our map, and our map contains the information about where all the lanes are and all the rules of the road."

There's plenty of other things to consider, since precipitation can interfere with lidar and cameras, and of course obstacles can crop up that won't be in the map database -- cars gone off the road in the ice, for example. Still, it's not like humans do so well in winter driving in the first place, and so it's hard to think that, in maturity, machines won't do a substantially better job, particularly once the traffic network is backed up by an all-weather wireless network.

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[WED 11 MAY 16] RIDE THE SMART CARD BUS

* RIDE THE SMART CARD BUS: There is a certain irony in that Africa, as a general rule poor and backward, has been jumping ahead of developed countries in adopting mobile technologies. Working on that premise, an article from BBC WORLD Online ("Could Cashless Payments Make Rwanda's Bus Conductors Redundant?" by Chris Mathews, 12 April 2016), demonstrated the impact of cashless payments in Rwanda.

Welcome to Kigali, the capital of and biggest city in Rwanda. Buses are a popular form of public transit there, and have been for a long time. Times are changing however, with more than 130 buses featuring smart-card readers for cashless payments. Mini-van buses are also adopting the card readers. Both the bus companies and, it seems, the users, are enthusiastic about the new technology. Conductors, who collect fares from passengers, are not so excited.

The smart-card system was developed by a Rwandan start-up named "AC Group", founded by Patrick Buchana in 2014, with more than 30 employees at present. AC Group designed the overall system, including the card readers and the "Tap&Go" smart cards issued to bus riders -- who can "top off" their Tap&Go cards via mobile phone. The AC Group's first client was Kigali Bus Lines, with the national government collaborating in the scheme.

AC Group Chief Operating Officer Philip Ngarambe, a graduate of the University of Toronto, says: "The common problem all [bus] operators face is that they lose a lot of revenue. By the time it gets to the company there is so many hands it has gone through -- from the conductor, to the bus driver, to the person collecting it, to taking it to finance and the bank account -- you have lost maybe 40% to 50% of your revenue by the end."

The smart-card system also improves the speed of bus operation. Buses are fitted with GPS to help operators manage their fleets, with vehicle locations to eventually be displayed at bus stops. Monthly passes are being introduced, and AC Group is talking with banks to allow debit cards for fares. Kenya actually started a similar transport initiative a year earlier, with thousands of buses in Nairobi also going cashless, though there have been reports of bugs in the system.

Rwanda's economy is booming; the country has averaged 7.5% GDP growth over the past decade. Service industries have overtaken agriculture as the main earner, technology being viewed as a key growth component by President Paul Kagame's government. According to Finance Minister Claver Gatete: "For a country like ours which is landlocked, we know that ICT [information & communications technology] is going to help us drive our knowledge-based economy."

The government is working to establish a cashless economy. Government payments are being digitized, as part of the "Smart Rwanda Master Plan (SRMP)", launched last fall. All government financial transactions will be electronic by 2018, and government services are moving online. That not only means more efficient government, but also tens of thousands of jobs. Gatete says: "[ICT] is affecting everything. It is helping in how we collect taxes, it is helping the banking system in how they function -- it is helping almost every sector of the economy. It has a big contribution - now 3% of our GDP growth."

It seems Rwandan citizens feel the same way. Mobile money transactions increased 122% between 2014 and 2015, with Rwandan startups cashing in on the boom. AC Group wants to expand beyond Kigali, and has been talking with other African governments to provide services outside of Rwanda's borders.

Philip Ngarambe admits that the bus conductors "definitely were not happy because you are tapping into their 40%." AC Group wants to re-train them as Tap&Go sellers, many of whom operate on streets and at bus stops throughout Kigali.

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[TUE 10 MAY 16] THE 2-DEGREE SOLUTION

* THE 2-DEGREE SOLUTION: As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Goal Difference", 4 December 2015), participants in the climate-change conference in Paris this last December declared, with great fanfare, their plans to limit emissions in hopes of curbing climate change. Such declarations have become commonplace since the establishment of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), an environmental treaty, in 1992, with more than 190 nations on board the treaty at last count. They have pledged to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the atmosphere in order to limit "dangerous anthropogenic interference within the climate system".

Since 2010, they have also had formal target: to restrict the global mean surface temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius, relative to pre-industrial times, by 2100. The "2 degrees Celsius limit (2CL)" has become the goalpost for heading off climate change -- but unfortunately, given the current rate of emissions, it is likely to be breached in just a few decades. That leads to the question of just how much the 2CL really means.

The 2CL is the brainchild of William Nordhaus, now an economics professor at Yale, in papers he wrote in the 1970s. In that decade, climate change was a largely theoretical issue, and certainly not a public controversy -- but the discussion in the science community was beginning to heat up. Nordhaus perceptively realized that trouble was coming; he suggested that a reasonable precaution would be to prevent temperatures from exceeding their upper bound during the past 100,000 years -- the period for which ice-core data are available, and so for which the correlation between temperatures and other environmental effects could be seen with reasonable clarity. The cores suggested this upper bound was 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

Nordhaus himself admitted that the 2CL was something of a contraption, calling it "deeply unsatisfactory". Its rationale was that the Earth's climate was shifting into unknown territory, with effects that couldn't be predicted; the 2C limit simply amounted to the borderline between what was known, from ice-core samples, and what was not known. Nordhaus wrote later that the 2CL was merely "a substitute" for a robust analysis of costs and damages. In short, it was handy.

Once the idea was out of the bag, however, the 2CL took on a life of its own. It got attention from European scientists at various workshops during the late 1980s; it was accepted in a report published by the Stockholm Environment Institute in 1990, even though this report suggested that a temperature increase of a single degree Celsius would have disastrous consequences. Six years later, a meeting of the European Union's Council of Ministers endorsed the 2CL, giving it political momentum. By 2009, the G8 countries had signed on, and it was mentioned in the Copenhagen Accord -- an agreement salvaged from the wreckage of the UNFCCC's disappointing meeting in that year. At the following UNFCCC meeting, in Cancun, Mexico, in 2010, the 2CL was formally crowned as the goal of international climate policy.

The fact that the 2CL isn't all that meaningful is not such a problem. There is a saying that a workable simplification is much more useful than the detailed, incomprehensible truth -- and having a nice simple number does give countries a goal to work towards. Could something better be devised?

One approach would be to use concentrations of greenhouse gases as goals. While measuring global temperature is very tricky, it is not all that tricky to measure atmospheric gas concentrations; greenhouse gases mix quickly and thoroughly into the atmosphere, and it is no trouble to measure them. A more sophisticated approach would be to come with an index based on index out of greenhouse-gas concentrations, measures of soot (which absorbs heat), sulphate pollution (which reflects it), and the heat content of the oceans.

However, in what way would such indexes be "better"? Governments committed to addressing climate change are going to do what they can to deal with the problem, and what they do will not be so different because some other goalpost is set. Everyone can count to two, and so the 2CL at least has the virtue of simplicity and convenience. If we know we are going to be hanged before the year is out -- it doesn't make too much difference on exactly what day it will take place.

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[MON 09 MAY 16] APPLE WARS (5)

* APPLE WARS (5): The confrontation between the government and Apple escalated, the FBI even threatening to subpoena Apple's source code and Apple's "private electronic signature" -- the certificate with which it identifies its code as valid to its devices, the software equivalent of the secret name of God, or at least Apple regards it as such. The FBI dismissed Cook's protests as "marketing" -- with Apple officials shooting back that the FBI tuned its own public announcements on the issue to put the maximum pressure on Apple.

Apple pushed back, hard. For a time, public opinion was against Apple, but the company put all its resources for communications in gear. Every time the Feds made a move on Apple, Apple fired back with public responses, and had a press conference. They were able to tilt public opinion back in their favor to a degree.

* Then, on 28 March, the FBI announced they had cracked the iPhone without Apple's help, and dropped the court order on the company. The FBI said they would help other law-enforcement organizations crack iPhones as well. To no surprise, nothing was said about how the iPhone was cracked. Rumor has it that it was done by an Israeli mobile-data firm named Cellebrite, with public records showing the company has a contract with the FBI.

Apple had not budged an inch on the issue, but the announcement was also an embarrassment for the company, since it showed that iPhone security was not impregnable. To anyone familiar with cryptology, that was no surprise and not that much cause for concern, it being very hard to devise an absolutely secure cryptosystem. No doubt, Apple has redoubled its efforts to tighten iPhone security.

Apple also did not get the legal clarification that Cook had asked for. The FBI did save face, but the bureau would also like legal clarification. However, the confrontation was only put on hold; the Justice Departments did not accept that Apple has a right to refuse cooperation on decryption, while Apple has made it clear the firm will not cooperate.

The hold did not last for long, with the authorities handing down more orders to Apple to crack iPhones, only a week after the FBI abandoned their case. Apple was not cooperative, pointing out to reporters in yet another news conference that the FBI had claimed to absolutely need Apple's help -- until it didn't. If the FBI can crack iPhones, then why pester Apple about it? Cook believes the Justice Department is still after a precedent, his attitude being summed up as: OVER MY DEAD BODY.

Roughly in parallel, Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Richard Burr (R-NC) introduced a draft bill that would ban hard encryption, and require firms that provide encryption technologies to help the authorities crack them. One critic called the bill "easily the most ludicrous, dangerous, technically illiterate proposal I've ever seen." Few thought the draft bill had a chance of going anywhere; the White House, which criticized Apple in the feud with the FBI, ignored the bill. It does at least appear that Cook has got his wish, that Congress is bringing the issue to the top of the priority list, but for the moment, the debate there is chaotic.

The confrontation is merely a flashpoint in a crisis, or instead two crises, bearing down the tracks on each other: on one hand we're going dark, and on the other we're giving away our privacy every day, all day. The internet is a big, messy place, and that same messiness that makes encryption impossible to regulate also means that however strong, seamless, and pervasive encryption gets, it can only ever cover a fraction of the data flowing through the internet. However, Cook believes that matters will be resolved, however long it takes: "You know as well as I do, sometimes the way we get somewhere, our journey is very ugly. But I'm a big optimist that we ultimately arrive at the right thing." [END OF SERIES]

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[FRI 06 MAY 16] THE COLD WAR (111)

* THE COLD WAR (111): President Eisenhower tended to straddle the fence on a difficult issue, until he felt he needed to tilt to one side. He'd been keeping a careful eye on Fidel Castro and his Cuban revolution, and was coming to the conclusion that something had to be done. From the fall, refugees from Cuba, usually from the propertied class, had been streaming into Florida, building up a community in Miami. They were setting up a disorderly mess of counter-revolutionary groups, lacking any leaders who could be seen as credible rivals to Castro.

Figuring out what to do about Castro was troublesome. Fidel was careful to keep his communism on a low profile, instead denouncing Yanqui imperialism, which Latins had resented for a long time. Although the Organization of American States (OAS) had declared in the Caracas Declaration of 1954 that communist expansion into the New World was not welcome -- many Latin regimes regarded communism as a threat -- the US government had nothing to use to stick the "communist" label on Castro.

Eisenhower also felt that if the US took a more publicly aggressive stand against Castro, Latin American leaders would lean on the US for more aid, and that wasn't in cards, given the tight budget. They were already clamoring for more money and military aid, saying that Castro was presenting a threat to them. Another factor was Rafael Trujillo, the vicious dictator of the Dominican Republic; he was very unpopular in Latin America, and if Eisenhower took down Castro, he would have to take down Trujillo as well. The president would have liked to get rid of Trujillo -- but his eviction might well mean a communist take-over in the Dominican Republic.

* In the meantime, 1960 being an election year, the White House was being assaulted by accusations of politicians seeking the presidency. Massachusetts Senator John F. Kennedy -- known as "Jack" to friends and colleagues, "JFK" to constituents -- taking Khrushchev at face value, was raising the bogeyman of a "missile gap"; Eisenhower judged that the Democrats were trying to scare people "and getting away with murder." The president called the demand for more missiles "unconscionable". The first Polaris submarine, the USS GEORGE WASHINGTON, was already in sea trials; it would perform a successful test launch of a Polaris missile in the summer, and would be on its first service patrol before the year was out. A test of a complete Minuteman missile hadn't been performed yet, but the program was moving along well.

The Air Force was continuing to push for the B-70 bomber, but the president was not at all enthusiastic about it. His science advisor Kistiakowsky handed him a memo that concluded "it is not at all clear what the B-70 can do that ballistic missiles can't -- and cheaper and sooner at that." When Air Force Chief of Staff General Thomas Wright told Congress that the B-70 was "vital" to the defense of America, Eisenhower called Tom Gates, his new secretary of defense, and made his presidential displeasure clear, calling such political grandstanding "damn near treason".

Eisenhower dared say nothing in public about the U-2 overflights that proved Khrushchev was bluffing and the US had an overwhelming nuclear dominance over the Soviet Union. What was particularly exasperating was that even officials who were familiar with the intelligence were inclined to keep pushing for more weapons, when the evidence available showed they weren't necessary. Eisenhower had little support from within his administration for holding the line on defense, much less for arms reduction; Pentagon brass had self-serving reasons to embrace the worst case, but there was also the fact that, to many bureaucrats, it was the no-risk option.

Reporters, feeding off the sensationalism, were becoming more inclined to the outright hostile, grilling Eisenhower in news conferences about the supposed failings of the administration in defending America. When a reporter raised the "missile gap" in a 26 January news conference, the president replied with strained patience:

BEGIN QUOTE:

Only 3 or 4 years ago there was a great outcry about the alleged bomber gap in favor of the Russians, and there was a great deal of talk about it and, actually, I think we got more -- a billion dollars or something like that, $900 million more -- for bombers that year than I asked for. Subsequent intelligence investigation showed that that estimate was wrong and that, far from stepping up their production of bombers, the Soviets were diminishing it or even eliminating that production.

... we've got all of the power that would be necessary to destroy a good many countries. We have no intention of using it. And the whole world knows that.

END QUOTE

The president was convinced that the US had a solid strategic edge over the USSR. He knew that the Soviets could not match American resources; to the extent he had hard information, it clearly demonstrated Soviet strategic inferiority; and those raising the alarm just as clearly had self-serving agendas. However, the CIA and other elements of the intelligence community kept hammering on the president, insisting that the US could not be certain of Soviet capabilities without more U-2 overflights of the USSR. [TO BE CONTINUED]

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[THU 05 MAY 16] SCIENCE NOTES

* SCIENCE NOTES: It has been long believed that ants are almost entirely dependent on smell for navigation, following trails of "pheromone" odorants left by nestmates to food sources and such. According to a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, that turns out to be not 100% true; ants actually have a bit of memory as well.

Researchers observed captive black garden ants as they discovered and fed on a weak sugar solution. Then they removed the ants, wiped the pheromone trails, and added a second, sweeter food source. When they restored the ants to the enclosure, the insects found their way to the original sugar solution, even though the pheromone trail was gone and a better source of food was available. From an evolutionary point of view, it makes sense: should ants find a food source, with rain then wiping out the pheromone trail, it would provide a survival advantage to be able to remember where the food source was.

* It is known that bats will try to "overwrite" the ultrasonic cries of other bats as they hunt by sonar -- possibly to stake a claim on prey, possibly to jam the sonar of other bats, maybe both. According to a note from AAAS SCIENCE online, it is known that some prey have acquired countermeasures, tiger moths emitting ultrasonic jamming sounds to spoof bats. Now it has been learned that hawk moths also emit ultrasonic noise when targeted by bats, though not to jam bat sonar, since the signals are distinct from bat cries: the hawk moths are a toxic meal to bats, and so the hawk moth is instead providing an ID: I'm a hawk moth, you don't want to eat me.

striped hawk moth

Researchers observed interactions between bats and hawk moths, with a control group of moths deprived of their sound-generating organ -- which is, oddly, on their genitals. The "mute" moths were generally caught, but when bats closed in normal moths, they would pick up on the moth's signal, and veer off at the last moment. The research team believes this signaling ability has evolved three times in hawk moths, and about a dozen more times overall among other moths.

* It is not surprising that one's home is also home to a goodly number of insects and the like. Traditionally nobody's expended much effort in investigating the matter -- but in 2012, a group of researchers canvassed 50 homes in Raleigh, North Carolina, to inventory arthropods such as insects, spiders, mites, centipedes, and millipedes. The houses ranged from a few years to almost a century old, and varied considerably in floor space.

Armed with forceps, suction traps, and butterfly nets, the scientists hand-collected specimens, both living and dead, behind furniture, along baseboards, ceilings, on shelves, and in closets, to collect almost 10,000 specimens. They found at least 579 "morphospecies" -- that is, they all looked like different species, but in some cases might be different forms of the same species -- from 304 families of arthropods.

Flies were the most common, followed by spiders, beetles, ants, and book lice, while fleas and the American cockroach were relatively rare. Reassuringly, they didn't find bedbugs at all. Some of the arthropods, like book lice, have been living with humans for a long time -- but the bulk, including leafhoppers and various beetles, had simply wandered inside and become trapped in an environment where they were unlikely to survive, much less thrive.

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[WED 04 MAY 16] NOT SO TOUGH

* NOT SO TOUGH: The Chinese government's commitment to reducing greenhouse-gas emissions were discussed here early this year, leaving as a big question mark just how likely China is to reach its goals. As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("Aiming Low", 12 March 2016), on close inspection it doesn't seem so tough.

The Chinese government is committed to seeing that its emissions peak by 2030. A study by two researchers in Britain -- Lord Nicholas Stern, a prominent environmental economist, and Fergus Green, an expert on climate policy -- says that China's self-imposed emissions restrictions may sound dramatic, but they will be not very difficult to achieve. Indeed, the Chinese government may be deliberately underestimating what it can do. The two researchers said the official projections should be taken with a pinch of salt, since the government prefers "to under-promise and over-deliver."

According to that government, Chinese coal consumption almost tripled between 2000 and 2013. The two researchers say that China's CO2 may have actually peaked in 2014; and even if not, they are not likely to rise nearly as fast as they did before, and are effectively certain to start falling by 2025. Those figurings are based on the official targets of 6.5% GDP growth a year by the end of the decade, and 5.5% after that, but many doubt that such relatively high rates of growth are likely. Even if they do happen, China is moving away from manufacturing as a source of growth, which means less need to burn fossil fuels to keep factories running.

China's official statistics have not always been very trustworthy, but coal-related statistics have been tightened up. Official figures show that coal production fell 2.5% in 2014 and that imports dropped by 10.9%; in the first three quarters of 2015, production dropped 4.3%. That suggests China's emissions intensity -- the amount of CO2 it emits per unit of GDP -- has already started falling.

At the same time, China's use of renewable energy sources, such as wind and the Sun, is growing: between 2010 and 2014, non-fossil energy generation capacity increased by 73%. The country already invests more in renewables than the US and Japan combined. Chinese leadership does not want to become too dependent on imported fossil fuels, and the severe pollution caused by burning Chinese coal is generating public anger at the government.

However, China's electrical grid is rickety, nothing that resembles the "smart grid" needed to efficiently shunt renewable energy from region to region. There are also bureaucratic problems; within the energy industry, disputes are common over which generators should have priority in dispatching electricity to grids, with renewables often losing out. In addition, China is not short of coal, and there's still a lot of momentum for building coal plants, many local officials seeing the short-term benefits hard to resist.

Nonetheless, many analysts think China's commitments to cutting emissions, impressive as they may sound, are still less than what the country is capable of. In 2020, when signatories to the Paris accord on climate change are due to set themselves new carbon-cutting goals, the world's biggest emitter of greenhouse gases may come under pressure to be more ambitious.

* In related news, according to another article in THE ECONOMIST ("The World's Carbon-Dioxide Emissions Have Stabilised", 16 March 2016), on 16 March the International Energy Agency (IEA), the world's most prominent energy forecaster, announced that CO2 emissions from burning fossil fuels have remained flat for two years in a row, while emissions from the two biggest contributors, the US and China, have been falling. This is the first lull in emissions since the early 1980s.

Fatih Birol, the IEA's director, says the three main drivers were a big growth of renewable-energy use in global power generation, led by wind turbines; a switch in America from coal-fired plants to natural-gas-fueled ones after the shale revolution; and a government-led effort in China to curb emissions, due to concerns about pollution as well as climate change. Birol says the rapid deployment of renewables is good news, in line with with the IEA's best-case scenario for tackling global warming, and shows emissions are "decoupling from economic growth".

The findings were provisional, with analysts saying that two years isn't long enough to establish any trend; some economists also question the data the IEA used in the assessment. Birol himself suggests that the low prices of natural gas and coal may undermine new investment in wind and solar power, and may also slow the trend toward improved energy efficiency.

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[TUE 03 MAY 16] TRIMMING DOWN

* TRIMMING DOWN: As discussed by an item from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online ("Synthetic Microbe Lives With Fewer Than 500 Genes" by Robert F. Service, 24 March 2016), the size of the genomes of organisms varies wildly; a rare Japanese flower, Paris japonica, has the biggest known genome, 500 times the size of the human genome. That leads to the question: just how big a genome does an organism really need? A research group, led by genome sequencing pioneer Craig Venter, wanted to find out, and engineered a bacterium, named "Syn 3.0", with its genome cut down to the bare essentials, comprising a mere 473 genes.

As its name suggests, Syn 3.0 is not the first synthetic organism made by Venter, now the boss of the J. Craig Venter Institute (JCVI), and is a founder of Synthetic Genomics, a biotech company -- both in San Diego, California. In 2010, Venter announced that they had synthesized the genome, a single bacterial chromosome, of Mycoplasma mycoides -- a bacterium with a relatively small genome -- and transplanted it into a different mycoplasma named M. capricolum, from which they had removed the original DNA. After difficulties, they finally got the synthetic microbe to boot up and synthesize proteins normally made by M. mycoides, instead of M. capricolum. Nonetheless, except for the addition of a bit of "watermark" DNA, the genome of this synthetic organism, "Syn 1.0", was un-altered from the parents.

Venter, along with project leader Clyde Hutchison at JCVI, then set out to determine the minimal set of genes needed for life by throwing out seemingly unessential genes from Syn 1.0. At the outset, two teams were given the task, with their two proposals then transplanted into M. capricolum. Much to Venter's surprise, neither genome proved viable; it was obvious that nobody really knew enough about how genes controlled the development and operation of an organism. Venter had to admit that "our current knowledge of biology is not sufficient to sit down and design a living organism and build it."

That left trial and error. The researchers divided divided Syn 1.0's genome, with its 901 genes, into eight sections, adding identical tags to the beginning and end of each section, allowing them to be easily re-assembled. Each of the sections could then be examined as an independent module, with genes deleted from one section, and all the sections re-assembled into a complete genome. The new genome was then re-inserted into M. Capricolum to see if a living cell resulted. If not, the researchers knew they had cut out an essential gene. They also tried to identify essential genes by inserting foreign genetic material -- transposons -- to disrupt their functions.

After what Venter called "multiple hundreds" of such tests, the team finally came up with Syn 3.0, with a genome half the size of Syn 1.0. Syn 2.0, incidentally, was an intermediate stage in the effort -- noted for being the first microbe with a genome smaller than that of M. genitalium, which with 525 genes, has the smallest number of any free-living natural organism.

Once the winnowing was complete, the researchers re-ordered the remaining genes, aligning ones that work in common pathways, simplifying further research on Syn 3.0. With a total of 531,000 bases, the new organism's genome isn't much smaller than that of M. genitalium, with 600,000 bases. However, M. genitalium grows slowly, with a doubling time of weeks, while Syn 3.0 has a doubling time of three hours.

Venter says that there's no saying the genome can't be trimmed down further, but that's a subject for further research. Evolutionary biologists and biotechnologists are excited by the research, since it promises to give a basic understanding of how genes actually control the development and operation of an organism.

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[MON 02 MAY 16] ANOTHER MONTH

* ANOTHER MONTH: I've very much publishing Amazon Kindle ebooks over the last year or so, to the extent that it's become a central activity around which others rotate. It only gets me pocket money, but I was short on pocket money, and as a source of pocket money, it works very well. It's also fun, and I like the idea that people are actually interested enough in my work to pay money for it. How cool is that?

However, when I tried to post a ebook early in April, Amazon balked, saying the document could be found the web -- on my website -- and so I did not have clear title on it. Having increasingly based my activities on ebook publishing, that made me very apprehensive. I didn't think they had a good case against me; just because they could find one of my documents on my website didn't mean I had pirated it -- and even if they couldn't find it online, that hardly proved I hadn't pirated it from, say, an out-of-print book that isn't online.

I pleaded my case, and Amazon finally relented, releasing the ebook. I posted another ebook after that, and held my breath; Amazon passed it, then seemed to have second thoughts, making me hold my breath again, but finally released it anyway. I used to label my documents "public domain", though nobody made use of them, no reason to; I had to go through all the documents on my websites and make sure that declarations of "public domain" were cut out, with a declaration of rights added. No use asking for trouble.

That led to a general rethinking of the ebook effort. One thing I had been trying was to take some of my big documents, the Civil War history as the primary example, and see if I could publish them in multiple ebook volumes. No, it just doesn't work, they don't sell, an ebook has to stand on its own. It's not just a question of nobody buying; what point is there in writing something nobody wants to read?

I ended up withdrawing seven ebooks from publication, which was not a problem, since they didn't sell. Now I'm taking the Civil War history and trying to chop stand-alone documents out of it, the first being the battle of Antietam. I'll release that, but I won't do any other Civil War ebooks if it doesn't sell.

I have some other ebooks that are slow sellers, but I think they're good little books, and I'll keep them. I call them "sleepers"; they might stay asleep, they might take off one of these days. Low sales are better than no sales, anyway. I have cleaned some of them up, changing covers or replacing bland titles with more interesting ones -- THE JFK ASSASSINATION IN BRIEF just didn't sound compelling, so I changed it to THE RISE & FALL OF JFK TRUTH. It couldn't hurt, and that item being on the bottom of the sales charts, it's likely to help. I plan to write more "sleepers", at least as a second priority, but I'll wait to see if one sells before writing another one along the same lines.

In any case, I'm full speed ahead on churning out ebooks; the more I sell, the more money I make, and the more I get my foot in the door with Amazon, to discourage them from trying to shut it on me again. It's a toylike activity, but that's what makes it fun.

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

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