* 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.
* GIMMICKS & GADGETS: As discussed by a note from WIRED Online blogs ("The Deceptive Simplicity of Intel's New Memory Tech" by Cade Metz, 29 July 2015), Intel and Micron have developed a new nonvolatile memory technology, named "3D XPoint" -- pronounced "3D cross point" -- that, on the face of it, seems like simplicity itself, at least conceptually, involving nothing but two arrays of wires at right angles to each other, with memory values stored through connections linking the arrays. According to the two companies, the chips are about 1,000 times faster than flash memory, and can store about 10 times more data than the more expensive and volatile DRAM memory used in PCs and such -- though it's not as fast as DRAM.
The crosspoint elements are known as "selectors", and appear to be a form of "memristor", switched between a low and high resistance state. The exact details? Intel and Micron aren't talking, saying nothing about the materials and construction of the selectors. They are, however, saying they'll have product this year.
* As discussed by a note from BBC WORLD Online, South Korean electronics giant Samsung has prototyped the "Safety Truck", which features a wireless camera up front, coupled to a display made up of four flat-panels on the rear of the trailer. It allows drivers behind the truck to see what's going on in front. A slick idea -- but how practical? We'll see.
* As discussed by an article from THE ECONOMIST ("One Step Ahead", 3 April 2015), compared to the wheel, walking tends to be an inefficient way to get around. As a result, there's been tinkering for over a century on gadgetry to recycle some of the energy lost in walking. Up to now, the solutions have been complicated and impractical -- but now Steven Collins, of Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania, and colleagues have developed a simple brace that fits over the lower leg, and improves the walking efficiency of the wearer by about 7%.
The device stores energy produced when the wearer lifts a foot off the ground. That movement flexes the ankle, tilts the foot up, and stretches the Achilles' tendon; the ankle flexure pulls on a cable, which in turn causes the rotation of a clutch that can turn only in one direction. When the foot lands, the clutch is disengaged and the device releases its stored energy, pulling at the back of the ankle in parallel with the recoil of the Achilles' tendon. That gives a boost to the push-off of the next step. It might well have military applications, giving the foot soldier a bit of relief, or could be useful for hikers.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* RETHINKING CAR SALES: As discussed by an article in THE ECONOMIST ("Death Of A Car Salesman", 2 August 2015, there are few retailers more disliked in the USA than automotive dealerships. When Americans go shopping for a smartphone, they find the model they want online, figure out what it costs, and then buy from Amazon.com or some other online retailer.
Buying a car, however, is an exercise in frustration. While it is possible for Americans to go online to find the model of car they want and the options, all they can get is a typical price, and then they have to go to a car dealership -- where the salesmen do everything possible to conceal the price, and run the buyers through hardball negotiating tactics to keep the price as high as possible. Some buyers like this sort of thing; most do not, wondering why they can't get a transparent price that includes whatever profit the people selling the car believe is appropriate.
In the early days of the car industry, manufacturers tried selling their vehicles at the factory gate; in proprietary shops; by mail order; and through travelling salesmen. In the end, they settled on a network of independent dealers, a dealer only selling the cars of one manufacturer, or of several, if they didn't directly compete with each other. The dealerships refined their tactics to ensure they got as big a cut out of the buyers as possible.
If the internet hasn't changed this model, it has put it under severe strain. Buyers now show up at a dealership, knowing what car they want to buy, knowing what the options are, and knowing what price they are inclined to pay. What people do not do any longer is go into a dealership and have a salesperson convince them to buy the high-price model. The buyers want to talk to someone who will facilitate the sale, not make it as obnoxious and painful as possible.
After all, Apple is able to sell their products for a premium on the basis of their quality and reputation, in a competitive marketplace, with the price being both transparent and generally non-negotiable. Some dealerships have experimented with haggle-free pricing, most notably Toyota's Lexus brand -- the price is listed and non-negotiable. However, haggle-free pricing isn't all that new an idea, and it hasn't gone anywhere in a hurry.
Tesla, a maker of expensive electric cars, has a different idea: get rid of the dealers and sell directly through factory outlets. Elon Musk, boss of Tesla, believes with very good cause that conventional car dealerships are not interested in selling EVs, and so Tesla has no choice but to sell direct. Two decades ago Ford and General Motors tried to revive this idea, but they ran into too much resistance from dealers and, in some US states, restrictive laws. The laws were established in the 1950s, in response to the attempts of car dealerships to squeeze dealerships. The laws are now being used to block Tesla from opening its own stores in several states; Tesla is fighting back. The company has overturned bans in New Jersey and Maryland, though the struggle goes on in Arizona, Michigan, Texas, and West Virginia.
In other countries, manufacturers generally don't face legal obstacles preventing them from selling cars directly, but they would face resistance from dealer networks. However, Hyundai, Daimler Benz, BMW and Volvo have set up small experiments in Europe to sell cars through company websites. Customers can use the sites to configure cars and pay a deposit. Volvo sold all 1,900 of a special version of a sports-utility vehicle it offered online last year, and it now wants to get its entire line-up for sale online by 2016. Daimler is considering an expansion of pilot schemes in Hamburg and Warsaw. GM's premium Cadillac brand plans to open several test-drive centers and virtual dealerships across Europe.
In these cases, a dealer still closes the sale, but the transaction has been mostly conducted by the manufacturer. As cars become more internet-enabled, the manufacturer's connection to the buyer will be reinforced, through remote diagnostics, and automatic updates of car software. Certainly, in a business where profit margins are so thin, car manufacturers have plenty of incentive to cut out the middleman and keep all the margin themselves. Having direct sales would also help ensure that manufacturers didn't overproduce.
Dealers actually don't make that much money selling cars. In Britain, typically two-thirds of revenues but less than a quarter of profits come from that part of the business. Where they make their profit is in finance, insurance, warranties -- dealers love extended warranties, though the sensible realize they're typically just overpriced insurance -- and servicing. However, online firms are chipping away at these facets of the business, and without much obstruction from state laws. Dealers are not facing a sunny future.
Auto dealerships remain a powerful lobby, and it's way too soon to count them out. However, they clearly recognize that Tesla's push towards direct sales represents a dire threat: direct sales of EVs aren't much of an issue, they don't seriously compete with mainstream auto sales, but Tesla's assault on regulations against direct sales could have devastating consequences on the dealerships. Once the obstacles have been knocked down, car manufacturers will have an open door to push in and cut the dealerships out of the loop.
Yes, it does sound ruthless to dump the dealerships, but it's hardly out of the question; Apple sells direct, after all, and few see any cause to object, or legal basis for doing so. More significantly, auto dealerships are so detested by the public that few tears would be shed over their extinction.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* JASON-3 IN ORBIT: On Sunday, 17 January 2016, a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California to put the "Jason-3" Earth-observation satellite into orbit. As its designation indicated, it was the third in the "Jason" series of spacecraft, flown by a collaboration of the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA); the European weather research organisation EUMETSAT; and French space agency CNES. The three Jason satellites were in turn follow-ons of the "TOPEX (Topography Experiment)" satellite, launched over two decades ago.
Jason-3 had a launch mass of 510 kilograms (1,120 pounds). It was built by Thales Alenia Space, being based on the company's "Proteus" satellite bus, also used on the first two Jason satellites. Its payload included:
Jason-3 was placed in the same orbit as its predecessors -- Jason-2, Jason-1, and TOPEX -- being a circular orbit at an altitude of 1,336 kilometers (850 miles) and an inclination of 66 degrees to the equator, giving the satellite optimal coverage of the Earth's oceans. The four spacecraft have given continuous coverage of ocean heights for going on a quarter of a century:
Jason-3's instrument suite is effectively a refined version of that of its predecessors, the central Poseidon radar altimeter system having originally been designed for TOPEX -- indeed, the full name of that mission was "TOPEX / Poseidon". Mission software has also been generally refined across the board; Jason-3's improved algorithms allow determination of wind speeds and ocean currents within about a kilometer from coastlines, while Jason-1 and -2 were limited to about ten kilometers. Jason-3, like its predecessor Jason spacecraft, has a design life of three years -- but Jason-1 survived for more than 11 years, and Jason-2 is going on its eighth year in orbit.
Jason-3 will monitor 95% of the Earth's ice-free oceans every 10 days. The observations of this series of satellites have confirmed that the Earth's oceans have been rising at 3 millimeters per year, resulting in a total rise of 7 centimeters. Jim Silva, Jason-3 program manager at NOAA, commented: "Think of it -- a satellite that is orbiting Earth more than 1,300 kilometers away is able to tell us the height of the sea surface with an accuracy of less than two inches."
NASA and CNES are now investigating a more sophisticated joint ocean-monitoring mission, the "Surface Water Ocean Topography (SWOT)" spacecraft, to be launched around 2020. SWOT will be generally more capable than the Jason series, in particular being able to measure more elements of the global water cycle, including lakes and rivers.
* The Jason-3 launch was the last flight of the Falcon 9 "v1.1" variant of the booster, with upcoming flights to be of the improved Falcon "Full Thrust (FT)" variant, which has a stretched second stage, uprated engines, and other improvements. The Falcon 9 FT is intended to reduce the payload penalty for making the Falcon first stage recoverable. The previous Falcon 9 flight was of an FT, which performed a successful soft landing on a barge at sea, following two failures. Although there was an attempt to land the first stage after the Jason-3 launch, it did not go well, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk writing:
Definitely harder to land on a ship. Similar to an aircraft carrier vs land: much smaller target area, that's also translating and rotating. However, that was not what prevented it being good. Touchdown speed was OK, but a leg lockout didn't latch, so it tipped over after landing. At least the pieces were bigger this time! Won't be last RUD (Rapid Unscheduled Disassembly), but am optimistic about upcoming ship landing.
It was very foggy at the launch site, and it is suspected that condensation got into the leg mechanism -- with the water turning to ice at altitude, and locking up the landing leg.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NATURAL FOOD (4): As a complement to the previous installment in this series, an article from GRIST Online by Nathanael Johnson ("It's Practically Impossible To Define GMOs", 21 December 2015) started out with:
Do GMOs really exist? It's an important question, because no one ... can tell you precisely what a GMO is. I've come to the conclusion that "GMO" is a cultural construct. It's a metaphor we use to talk about a set of ideas. It doesn't map neatly onto any clear category in the physical world.
GMOs, like other cultural constructs -- think of gender or race -- do have a basis in reality, of course: we can roughly define "male" or "Asian," but when we try to regulate these divisions, all kinds of problems crop up. And definitions of "GMOs" are much messier ... As one researcher put it: "It is ... practically impossible to precisely specify a supposed common denominator for all [GMO] products."
The author went on to review transgenic organisms, which seems to be the core GM bugbear; gene silencing and gene editing, which are tweakings of elements of existing genomes; and mutagenesis, forced mutation, which has been around a long time, and nobody defines as "GM" -- even though, as the author put it, mutagenesis "is more likely to cause unintended outcomes than transgenesis."
In fact, the prejudice against GM has led to a boom in mutagenesis -- and there's nothing to prevent an agritech company from identifying a foreign gene that would be nice to splice in into a particular crop plant; run that plant through mutagenesis until a workable approximation of the gene is found; and then splice in back into the original plant. It does, however, make the selective bias against GM seem entirely absurd.
Is there any way off the slippery slope? The obvious measure is to expand the definition of GM to any and all genetic modification of crop plants and animals -- if they're not purely natural, they're GM. Unfortunately, that doesn't help, since no domesticated crops and animals are identical to their wild forebears, and in some cases they have been modified beyond effective recognition to their ancestors.
For a particularly confusing example of modification of crop plants, consider grafting of trees -- the technique of splicing the branches of one species onto the root stock of another, plants not having the kind of difficulties with immune rejection that animals have. Grafting is a very long-standing method of surmounting the species barrier to combine the best traits of two organisms that can't interbreed. Nonetheless, grafting doesn't actually alter genes, and so the European Union excludes grafts from the EU GM definition with fine print: "An organism in which the genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally through fertilization and/or natural recombination."
Okay -- but that doesn't work so well either, since such a definition still nets up a range of long-established and significant crop plants. For example, there's a French variety of wheat named "Renan" that is particularly useful to farmers who don't use pesticides, since it is very disease-resistant. It was bred in the 1940s, with its traits leveraged into many other wheat varieties, and its genes spread around the world.
It must be understood that wheat is a genetic train wreck to begin with, a merger of the chromosomes of three ancestral grasses -- not only are plants more amenable to grafting than animals, they also hybridize much more easily. This is why obtaining the genomic sequence of wheat was particularly difficult.
Renan was developed through a second train wreck, by breeders who managed to combine the genetic material from wheat and two other distantly related species. To do this, they bathed the plants in "colchicine", which keeps chromosomes from recombining after they split during cell division, doubling the number of chromosomes in the plants. They then exposed the plants to X-rays to scramble some of the DNA, and with iterative tweaking finally got the set of traits they wanted. As a crop-science researcher put it:
So what's the difference between Renan and many other GM crop varieties? Not much it appears except for the fact that Renan contains much more transgenic material, has not undergone the large amount of testing for safety and environmental impact as other GM events, and little is known about the mechanisms of the transferred genes.
Renan hasn't undergone testing because the EU punted, deciding that GMOs created in the way that it was were exempt. There were just too many high-value crops, in long circulation, that were created by such messy approaches to genetic modification: disease-resistant cocoa, organic brown rice, barley used for craft beer and expensive whiskey, the Star Ruby and Ruby Red grapefruits, peas, pears, peanuts, peppermint, and thousands more. None of them are more or less safe than crop plants officially labeled as "GM", but they've already made it in under the radar. [TO BE CONTINUED]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* THE COLD WAR (100): On 17 March 1959, President Eisenhower conducted a White House meeting with Killian, Twining, and Quarles, to discuss missile development and related issues. Killian reported that work on ABMs was at an impasse, but then the president was told the US needed an expanded, hardened ICBM force. Eisenhower was exasperated, saying that once such large numbers of nuclear weapons and their delivery systems were tossed about, "the discussion loses all meaning."
The ABM option didn't die out; it would be back again and again over the following decades -- but at least the AEC's claims that testing more nukes to support the exercise had been, for the moment, deflated. That elevated the status of the hazards of fallout from atomic tests, and on 20 March, Eisenhower told Herter: "I am coming to the conclusion that we should not test in the atmosphere." The president wanted to focus on banning above-ground testing, the ban being easily verifiable by fallout sampling and other means. It was straightforward politics: do something worthwhile that could be achieved, and then move on to other issues.
Harold MacMillan arrived in Washington DC that same day, 20 March, with the president and the prime minister conversing with John Foster Dulles at his hospital bed. MacMillan had just returned from Moscow, where he'd had conversations with Khrushchev; Dulles suspected that MacMillan was willing to give ground on Berlin, and let the visitor know that the US was not agreeable to "appeasement and partial surrender."
In talks between Eisenhower and MacMillan later in the day at Camp David, the prime minister reassured the president, saying that Khrushchev seemed conciliatory himself, that the Soviet premier said the 27 May deadline on Berlin was "in no sense an ultimatum" -- which was confusing, since it certainly sounded like one. MacMillan was more eager than Eisenhower for a summit meeting; Eisenhower wanted a foreign minister's meeting first, with MacMillan conceding that would be wise. The proposal for a foreign minister's meeting was made to the Soviets, with Khrushchev accepting on 30 March, and the meeting scheduled for 11 May.
The Geneva negotiations had been in recess; on 13 April, Eisenhower wrote Khrushchev that the US was only, at the outset, concerned about banning atmospheric testing, and that other issues could wait. Khrushchev expressed skepticism, but said he still wanted to talk, and so the negotiations resumed. That was encouraging; it was much less encouraging, if not a surprise, to Eisenhower that John Foster Dulles, his condition growing more dire, handed in his official resignation on 15 April, with Christian Herter officially taking his place on 18 April.
Herter was really no more than a stopgap, not being at all the equal of Dulles, not as informed nor decisive. That left Eisenhower at the helm of US foreign policy. Although the president made it publicly clear that the US was not going to abandon Berlin, and also idly considered various dirty tricks America could play on the USSR, his formal policy was conciliatory. As he told Dulles during a hospital visit: "In the long run, there is nothing but war, if we give up all hope of a peaceful solution."
The president said he was was open to negotiating the status of Berlin, but framed the issue in terms of the re-unification of Germany, his suggestion being that it should be done by a free election among the German people. The Soviets did not like that idea at all -- fearing, with good reason, that if any such election took place, the East German government would promptly disappear -- and backed a merger of the two governments. Eisenhower was willing to at least consider Soviet proposals along such lines, though German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer was unwilling to even recognize the East German government.
Along with Berlin, Cuba remained a simmering concern for Eisenhower. Fidel Castro had come to the US on 17 April, at the invitation of the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- much to the president's annoyance. About a week later, Secretary of State Herter told Eisenhower that Castro was ...
... a most interesting individual, very much like a child in some ways, quite immature regarding problems of government, and puzzled and confused by some of the practical difficulties now facing him. In English, he spoke with restraint and considerable personal appeal. In Spanish, he became voluble, excited, and somewhat 'wild' ... [Castro] made a plea for patience while his government tries to deal with the situation in Cuba.
The next day, the CIA handed Eisenhower a report that cast doubts on Castro's claims that Cuba was going to stay in the Western bloc in the Cold War, suggesting that Castro's land reforms might have an impact on American-owned properties in Cuba. The CIA said that he "confuses the roar of mass audiences with the rule of the majority in his concept of democracy" -- but added that it would be "a serious mistake to underestimate this man", that he was "clearly a strong personality and a born leader of great personal courage and conviction." The report labeled Castro an "enigma", accordingly suggesting that things might still turn out well between Cuba and the US. The president scribbled on the report: "File. We will check in a year! DE."
* As dubious as Eisenhower was of the space race, it did have some entertainment value. On 7 April 1959, NASA announced the selection of a cadre of seven "astronauts", as the job had been named, who would ride in the Mercury space capsule, with work on the capsule then moving along at a quick pace. The "Mercury Seven", as they became known, were all military test pilots -- seen as the most qualified group for riding a spacecraft, something that had never been done before -- and were all white males. From the announcement, a publicity circus began to build up steam around the astronauts, who were seen as Cold War heroes in the competition with the communist bloc.
For the time being, the US Air Force was also interested in flying astronauts. The year before, the USAF had began a program to developed a winged spaceplane, the "Dyna-Soar" -- for "Dynamic Soaring" -- that would carry two astronauts, being launched on top of a Titan booster, flying back to Earth after its mission, to land on a runway. There was some uncertainty as to what the "mission" was going to be; the Air Force had a faction that thought space was the service's next frontier, while there was another that had difficulty figuring out what the military point of the spaceplane was. There was no such uncertainty over the CORONA program, nobody in the military who knew about it having any doubt that it trumped every other US space effort -- but CORONA was still far from flying right. [TO BE CONTINUED]COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* SCIENCE NOTES: As discussed by a note from THE ECONOMIST ("Beetles & Bugs", 18 July 2015), the coffee-berry borer beetle is a major nuisance to coffee produces, inflicting estimated losses of $500 million USD on the industry each year. Its larva feeds off coffee berries, eating them out from within; it's a cozy living for the beetle, since caffeine is effectively an insecticide, and other insects won't attack the berries. The coffee-berry borer doesn't have a problem with it.
A team of researchers led by Eoin Brodie of the US Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Fernando Vega of the US Department of Agriculture decided to figure out why the beetle could stomach caffeine. The suspicion was that some micro-organism in the insect's microbiome was neutralizing the caffeine. Initial studies of coffee-borer beetles suggested they were on the right track; lab-raised larva feeding on coffee berries had no caffeine in their droppings and thrived, but after being treated with antibiotics to kill off their intestinal bacteria, the caffeine content of the droppings rose, while the larvae started dying. In a 44-day test, matching the life cycle of the beetle, 95% of the test subjects died, while the few survivors were not in good health.
That strongly suggested some bacteria was responsible for the caffeine tolerance -- but which one? The researchers obtained samples of wild beetles from seven coffee plantations, performing a microbiome analysis on each of the seven populations to see which bacteria they all had in common. The researchers then tried to culture the candidates obtained on cultures dominated by caffeine, to see which would thrive. They zeroed in on bacterium named Pseudomonas fulva, which turned out to have an enzyme named "caffeine demethylase", which had the handy capability of detoxifying caffeine molecules.
So, would it be possible to kill the beetle larvae by using doses of antibiotics? That didn't seem like a particularly efficient or effective option, all the more so because "carpet bombing" with antibiotics has gone very much out of fashion, primarily because all it does is encourage antibiotic resistance. The preferred option is to use a mix of bacteriophages -- viruses that infect bacteria -- to do the job.
* As discussed by a note from AAAS SCIENCE NOW Online, it appears that bees get off on a caffeine fix, and that may be a major reason that plants acquired it. A recent study showed that bees made more nectar-gathering visits to caffeinated food sources, and performed four times as many "waggle dances" to direct hive mates to get their fix.
Caffeine was such a strong motivator that it could warp the priorities of bees, reducing the food supply of the hive. From an evolutionary point of view, a plant that produces caffeine could attract more bees by producing a small amount of caffeine instead of a larger amount of food. The same research team had earlier shown that caffeine enhances bees' ability to remember flower scents.
* As discussed here in 2013, the drug "ivermectin", tradenamed "Stromectol", is a de-worming agent, able to kill a range of helminth (worm) infections; it's used in the developed world as a veterinary medicine, and on humans in the undeveloped world. It also seems to have deleterious effects on biting arthropods, such as ticks, mites, and bedbugs, that bite humans treated with the drug.
Researchers got to wondering what ivermectin might do to mosquitos. Trials in Burkina Faso and Thailand now show that it will indeed kill mosquitos -- or failing that, kill off the malaria protozoans being carried by mosquitos. Indeed, it may well be able to help humans who have latent malarial infections. Research continues.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* NANOSAT LAUNCHERS: There's been a big push in the last decade towards building and flying little "nanosatellites", with the "CubeSat" format being particular popular. To date, they have been flown as secondary payloads on launches of bigger satellites -- but this is not a particularly satisfactory arrangement for either the operators of the big satellites, who tend to find the logistics of nanosat launches an interference; and nanosat operators, who are at the mercy of the schedules for the big satellites.
As discussed by an article from SPACEFLIGHT NOW ("NASA To Fly CubeSats On Three New Commercial Launchers" by Stephen Clark, 31 October 2015), there's been a push towards development of dedicated smallsat launchers. This effort got a boost in October when the US National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA) announced the agency was awarding $17.1 million USD in contracts to three firms developing smallsat launchers. The three "Venture Class Launch Services" contract winners -- Firefly Space Systems, Rocket Lab USA, and Virgin Galactic -- all claim their launch vehicles will cost $10 million USD a flight. NASA plans a demonstration flight for each of them.
Each flight will put between 45 to 90 kilograms (100 to 200 pounds) of nanosats into low Earth orbit (LEO). NASA currently has a backlog of more than 50 CubeSats built by agency research centers and university partners waiting for a launch assignment, and there are only a few openings per year to fly the satellites as secondary passengers on larger rockets. CubeSats are also carried to the International Space Station by SpaceX and Orbital ATK supply ships, but the space station's orbit is unsuited to many CubeSat applications.
The Firefly booster was discussed here in early 2015. Firefly Space Systems is led by Thomas Markusic, a former manager at SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, who previously held posts in NASA and the US Air Force. The two-stage Firefly "Alpha" booster uses liquid oxygen (LOX) and kerosene propellants, and can put a 200-kilogram (440-pound) payload into near-polar Sun-synchronous LEO.
Suborbital test flights of the Alpha booster from Cape Canaveral are expected to begin in 2017, with introduction to service in 2018. The company wants to perform launches about once a week for $8 million USD each. The launch site for operational missions has not been determined just yet.
Rocket Labs is offering the two-stage "Electron" booster, also powered by LOX and kerosene, which will be able to put 150 kilograms (330 pounds) into LEO. It is based on Rutherford rocket engines, which use electrically-driven turbopumps, instead of more traditional gas-driven turbopumps, and uses major components fabricated by 3D printing. Nine Rutherford engines will be power the first stage, producing more than 623 kN (63,500 kgp / 140,000 lbf) of thrust. One 22.2 kN (2,265 kgp / 5,000 lbf) thrust Rutherford engine will power the second stage.
CEO Peter Beck says flights will cost $4.9 million USD each. The company is based in Los Angeles, but has production and launch facilities in New Zealand. First test flights of the Electron are expected in 2016.
Unlike the Alpha and Electron, the Virgin Galactic's "LauncherOne" booster is air-launched, not surface-launched, though it also uses LOX-kerosene propellants. LauncherOne is the second large space project undertaken by Virgin Galactic, founded by Richard Branson in 2004 to carry space tourists and researchers on brief suborbital jaunts into space. Virgin's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is preparing to resume test flights after a fatal crash in 2014 halted preparations for the ship's commercial debut.
LauncherOne's first stage will be powered by a "NewtonFour" engine, with the upper stage powered by a "NewtonThree" engine, both being turbopump-fed. The booster will be able to place 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of payload kilograms) of into Sun-synchronous LEO. Although the carrier was originally envisioned as the custom-made White Knight aircraft, weight of the booster dictated a Boeing 747-400, previously in service with Virgin Atlantic Airways.
Initial test flights will likely be based from Virgin Galactic's test site in Mojave, California, with tests to begin in 2017, but the air-launch design allows future missions to stage from other locations.COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* DEEP DECARBONIZATION: As discussed by an article from the NEW YORK TIMES ("A Path for Climate Change, Beyond Paris" by Justin Gillis, 1 December 2015), the world climate-change conference that took place in Paris in December was seen as either encouraging -- there was a general commitment to deal with the problem, with everyone submitting national plans -- or discouraging -- the sum of the plans didn't amount to near enough to solve the problem.
That leads to the question: what, then needs to be done? Considerable work is now being invested in what a plan for "deep decarbonization" would look like. There's no definitive plan as of yet, but what is clear is that it's not going to be easy. According to Jeffrey D. Sachs, a prominent Columbia University economist: "The arithmetic is really brutal. We're in such a dreadful situation that every country has to make this transformation, or else this isn't going to work."
Sachs helped set up what is possibly the most serious effort to draw up a detailed road map for the energy transition: the "Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project (D2P2)", based in Paris and New York. Over the past few of years, the effort enlisted teams from 16 countries, which account for the bulk of global emissions, to come up with such plans.
The analysts used conservative assumptions about current technologies and their costs. They also presumed that developed countries would not be willing to make big changes in their way of life -- wanting to still have rapid transport, refrigerators, lighting, and so on -- and that undeveloped countries would try to achieve higher standards of living, implying more energy use. The analysis also ruled out breakthrough technologies, such as nuclear fusion, that could greatly help if they became available, but couldn't be judged to be available in the foreseeable future.
The experts focused on a specific question: Can emissions be cut enough from now to 2050 to meet an international target designed to head off the worst effects of climate change? The consensus was that it could be done, if just barely. Existing technologies are good enough to get the ball rolling, but they won't be enough to finish it. Many technologies, such as electric cars and offshore wind turbines, have to become better and cheaper.
Bill Gates, head of the philanthropic Gates Foundation, has long argued for a stronger focus in energy innovation, and he announced in Paris that he had lined up a group of billionaires to invest huge sums in developing new technologies. Twenty countries, including the United States, also pledged to double their own investment in basic energy research. However, Gates doesn't feel there's any reason to wait for better technology before making large-scale infrastructure investments, since doing so will help promote innovation -- and as such technologies spread beyond niche markets, economies of scale will drive down costs. As the technology improves, it can be put into production for new installations, or to update existing installations.
Solar power is a striking example, with costs of solar panels falling 80% percent in the last decade. While solar is still generally more expensive than power produced from fossil fuels, the difference has narrowed considerably. Similarly, wind turbines have been big winners, too, now supplying almost 5% of the electrical power for the USA. In a few American states and some smaller countries, that figure has moved into double digits.
Enthusiasts claim that renewables could take over completely. Mark Z. Jacobson, an engineer at Stanford University, has drawn attention by stating that the entire world could operate on 100% renewable power by 2050. However, his scheme requires massive expansion; among other things, the plan envisions the placement of 156,000 wind turbines off American coasts by 2050, and twice that number on land. In 20 years of effort, European countries have managed to set up about 3,000 offshore turbines.
Jacobson does not see hundreds of thousands of wind turbines as unrealistic, saying the oil and gas industry has been erecting 50,000 new wells a year in North America since 2000 -- or a total of about 750,000 wells, with each well being about as expensive as a wind turbine.
In an interview, Dr. Jacobson cited a scientific paper that calculated the oil and gas industry has been building 50,000 new wells a year in North America since 2000. Each of those, he said, is as complicated as erecting a wind turbine, and building tens of thousands of turbines a year would be well within the nation's industrial capability. Jacobson thinks hundreds of thousands of wind turbines would be perfectly feasible, pointing to the massive production of ships, aircraft, and military vehicles by the US for World War 2.
Jacobsen's critics have suggested that a mobilization along the likes of that for World War 2 is unrealistic; the model of oil well development seems much more apt, that not implying any grand mobilization of resources. The production of wind turbines envisioned by Jacobsen is easily within the production capability of US industry. If we envision the construction and placement of about a half million wind turbines in 25 years, and assume each turbine to be equivalent to, say, 25 passenger cars, then the yearly production of turbines would be equivalent to less than the yearly production of cars by Ford or Chevrolet.
While scenarios laid out by the D2P2 do echo Jacobson's ideas to an extent, calling for substantial increases in production of renewable power systems, the scenarios also include options that environmentalists don't much care for -- for example, greater use of nuclear power; and continued use of fossil fuels for power generation, with carbon-capture schemes (CCS) used to sequester the emissions. There's considerable skepticism over CCS and only limited enthusiasm for it among fossil-fuel companies, but Sachs says that if "they want to save their industry, they should be investing like crazy in proving the technology."
Beyond technology, the D2P2 says that governments are not planning far enough ahead, focusing on 10- or 15-year goals that can be met with incremental changes. The D2P2 does buck current trends by projecting a conversion to electric vehicles, downplaying the growth of carbon-neutral biofuels, and is also skeptical of the push for more use of natural gas, seeing that as a short-term, short-sighted solution.
The technical details can be debated, and any plan will have to leave room for the option of altering direction in ten years, when new technological options are available. Nonetheless, there does need to be a plan, or rather a set of plans, by governments to get from here to there. According to California Governor Jerry Brown: "California, doing more than any other state in America, is setting a pace, and will step it up. But we have to be part of a larger movement to really get global warming under control."COMMENT ON ARTICLE
* ANOTHER MONTH: The US Eastern states had an unusually mild Christmas season, with shirtsleeve temperatures. In January, the weather flipped to furious blizzard that left everyone laboriously digging out. Cliff White, a soldier at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, got into the spirit of the exercise by shoveling snow in a Tyrannosaurus rex costume, while his wife Amy got the video.
It went a bit viral online. This sort of clowning around in the snow seems to be establishing itself as a tradition in the YouTube age -- remember the Boston Yeti of a year ago? Incidentally, the T. rex suit was warm enough so that White was only wearing his skivvies: "It was really comfortable. I could do this all day."
* Being fond of Kit-Kat chocolate wafers, sold in fingers of two or four, I took note of an item in BBC WORLD Online in which Swiss food giant Nestle, the manufacturer of Kit-Kat, took on Cadbury's of the UK in court for selling wafers in the same format. Britain's High Court told Nestle to take a hike. Nestle plans to appeal.
It sounded cheeky for Nestle to try to hold trademark on their Kit-Kat bars, but Toblerone, in a configuration like a row of chocolate pyramids, does have a trademark. It seems that Kit-Kat configuration is too "obvious" -- it was used by Norwegian candy-maker from 1937. Incidentally, although I wasn't entirely wise to the distinction before reading the article, Nestle was not complaining about a patent infringement, but a trademark infringement. What's the distinction? A big one: patents expire after 20 years, but trademarks are for the life of a company.
Possibly that was what wrecked Nestle's Kit-Kat case, a trademark being defined by Wikipedia as "a recognizable sign, design, or expression which identifies products or services of a particular source from those of others ... " It would seem that some feature of product implementation that could not be patented would not be qualifiable as a trademark, either.
* I was checking my bank account online a few days back and ran into a puzzle: a billing on my account for $140.71 USD that didn't seem right. This became a bit of a detective mystery to unravel.
I went through my records and couldn't find any purchase I had made for that amount. The details of the transaction were obscure, all I could pick out was a toll-free number: 800-922-0204. I plugged that number into Google and found out that it was supposedly a number for Verizon.
OK, the plot thickens: I don't have a mobile phone. Further investigation revealed that this number is well-associated with a billing scam. I felt reasonably certain at that point that I was getting ripped off, but that was puzzling, too. How did the scammers get into my checking account? Could they have done so without knowing my charge-card number? If they had my charge-card number, then why was there only one draft on it? The last time I got my charge-card number ripped off, the scammers piled up as many charges as they could while the window was still open -- the charges being from New Zealand, incidentally.
In any case, unless I could learn different, I had to figure my charge card had been compromised, possibly by a hack of some corporate database. I sent an email in to my bank's service center for clarification. Alas, I haven't got an answer back yet, which hints that either the response center is swamped -- or that what I've got is only one example of a widespread calamity, and the response center is scrambling to get on top of it.
* As mentioned here earlier, book sales traditionally peak from November through January, then peak again in the summer. My November sales for ebooks were good, my January sales were like gangbusters -- but sales were, to my disappointment, sluggish in December. I was puzzled for a while as to why the curve had this "notch" in it, until I thought: Nobody buys cheapo ebooks for Christmas gifts.
Indeed, I noted that sales started to rise again on 26 December. Sigh, I get returns on ebook sales every now and then. Amazon.com permits returns for a week after purchase; since readers can read the first chapter or so online, and the length of the ebook is listed, it's not like they generally don't know what they're getting, so all I can think is that some readers are just buying one of my ebooks, reading it, and then getting a refund.
This impression is reinforced by the fact that the returns tend go in bursts, as if somebody's looting my ebook library, and then moving on. This is doubly irritating, since all my ebooks are also on my website for free, and there's no particular reason to go through the rigamarole with Amazon.com. It doesn't really make any difference, since such folk are unlikely to buy one my ebooks in any case; indeed, getting more exposure, if not more sales, is all for the good. Nonetheless, it is annoying.
I persist; I just uploaded my 37th ebook. As my suite grows, of course maintenance is becoming more of an issue. Some of the ebooks I know need some development, but others just aren't selling. I end up giving them better titles and covers. It's not like I'm expecting to turn them into best-sellers, but if I go from one sale every three months to two sales every three months, I've improved 100%.
It also helps to get good reviews; the ebooks that get the reviews get top sales, and so more reviews. I get a review less than once a month, but so far they've been highly positive. I'm presuming as sales continue to increase, reviews will increase as well.
* Thanks to two readers for donations to support the websites last month. That is very much appreciated.COMMENT ON ARTICLE