China: the new space superpower

China: the new space superpower
For years, its space programme was shrouded in secrecy. Now, with plans for lunar and Mars missions, and crowds at its launch sites, China is ready for liftoff
By Stuart Clark
Aug 28 2016

At 8pm Beijing time on 25 June this year the tropical darkness over China’s Hainan province was temporarily banished by a blinding orange light. Accompanied by the thunderous roar of engines, a 53m-tall rocket pushed itself into the sky.

An increasing number of Chinese rockets have launched in the past few years but this one was significant for three reasons. It was the first launch of the new Long March 7rocket, designed to help the Chinese place a multi-module space station in orbit. It was the first liftoff from China’s newly constructed Wenchang launch complex, a purpose-built facility set to become the focus for Chinese space ambitions. And it was the first Chinese launch where tourists were encouraged to go along and watch.

For a space programme that has long been shrouded in secrecy, it’s a major step. The Wenchang complex has been designed with large viewing areas, and in the sultry heat of that June night, tens of thousands of spectators stood cheering as the rocket began its 394km journey above the Earth and into orbit.

“China is developing very rapidly into one of the major space players,” says Fabio Favata, head of the programme coordination office at the European Space Agency’s (ESA) directorate of science.

China launched a pioneering “hack proof” quantum communication satellite, called Quantum Experiments at Space Scale, on 16 August from its older Jiuquan launch centre in the Gobi Desert. This is the first large-scale satellite designed to investigate the weird quantum phenomenon called “entanglement” that so unnerved Albert Einstein he once called it “spooky”. In addition, China is preparing to launch another new rocket design, a new space station, an X-ray telescope and a crewed mission before the year is out.

China is estimated to spend around $6bn a year on its space programme. Although that is almost $1bn more than Russia, it is still a fraction of the American space budget, which is around $40bn a year. Despite its large budget, the US made only 19 successful space launches in 2013, compared with China’s 14 and Russia’s 31. With numbers like this, it is clear that China has arrived in space, and is set to become stronger.

“You will see the Chinese quite visibly begin to match the capacity of the other spacefaring powers by 2020,” predicts Brian Harvey, space analyst and author of China in Space: The Great Leap Forward . Key to this will be the large manned space station, Tiangong, which they plan to have in orbit by then. Although not as physically large as the International Space Station America, Russia, Europe, Japan and other countries have been building and using since 1998, China’s space station will have a broadly similar capacity to perform science.

“Science is becoming more and more important in the Chinese space programme,” says Wang Chi of the National Space Science Centre, Chinese Academy of Sciences. “We are not [just] satisfied with the achievements we have made in the fields of the space technology and space application. With the development of the Chinese space programme, we are trying to make contributions to human knowledge about the universe.”

Perhaps most impressive is the broad front on which the Chinese space programme is advancing. They are making strides in everything from human space flight to space science and planetary exploration.

So do the Chinese want to take over space? Brian Harvey, space analyst and author of China in Space: The Great Leap Forward, believes the Chinese simply want to be seen as equals. “To use a Chinese phrase, I think they are wanting to bring their own mat to the table,” he says. “They are looking for equality, they want respect from the world’s space community.”

To that end, China’s biggest inroad has been made with the ESA through the space science programme. Soon after the turn of the century. ESA launched the Cluster mission to study so-called “space weather” and the electrical malfunctions this could cause on satellites. The Chinese were keen to learn more about space weather too and came to the European agency with a proposal: they would build extra satellites to enhance the Cluster mission if ESA would collaborate with them.

“They understood that space weather was a key challenge as we rely more and more on technology in orbit,” says Christopher Carr, a physicist at Imperial College, London, who worked on the Cluster mission. ESA took care of the negotiations, allowing scientists, including Carr, to build the instruments unhindered. Although there were some differences in working methods that had to be ironed out, Carr says: “Overall it was an enjoyable collaboration.”

The Double Star mission was launched in 2003 and became China’s first scientific satellite. Cluster and Double Star have so far produced 2,300 peer-reviewed science papers. “That is an enormously successful, astonishing scientific output,” says Carr.


The Secret Justice System That Lets Executives Escape Their Crimes

The Secret Justice System That Lets Executives Escape Their Crimes
A parallel legal universe, open only to corporations and largely invisible to everyone else, helps executives convicted of crimes escape punishment. 
By Chris Hamby
Aug 28 2016

Imagine a private, global super court that empowers corporations to bend countries to their will.

Say a nation tries to prosecute a corrupt CEO or ban dangerous pollution. Imagine that a company could turn to this super court and sue the whole country for daring to interfere with its profits, demanding hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars as retribution.

Imagine that this court is so powerful that nations often must heed its rulings as if they came from their own supreme courts, with no meaningful way to appeal. That it operates unconstrained by precedent or any significant public oversight, often keeping its proceedings and sometimes even its decisions secret. That the people who decide its cases are largely elite Western corporate attorneys who have a vested interest in expanding the court’s authority because they profit from it directly, arguing cases one day and then sitting in judgment another. That some of them half-jokingly refer to themselves as “The Club” or “The Mafia.”

And imagine that the penalties this court has imposed have been so crushing — and its decisions so unpredictable — that some nations dare not risk a trial, responding to the mere threat of a lawsuit by offering vast concessions, such as rolling back their own laws or even wiping away the punishments of convicted criminals.

This system is already in place, operating behind closed doors in office buildings and conference rooms in cities around the world. Known as investor-state dispute settlement, or ISDS, it is written into a vast network of treaties that govern international trade and investment, including NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Congress must soon decide whether to ratify.

These trade pacts have become a flashpoint in the US presidential campaign. But an 18-month BuzzFeed News investigation, spanning three continents and involving more than 200 interviews and tens of thousands of documents, many of them previously confidential, has exposed an obscure but immensely consequential feature of these trade treaties, the secret operations of these tribunals, and the ways that business has co-opted them to bring sovereign nations to heel.

The BuzzFeed News investigation explores four different aspects of ISDS. In coming days, it will show how the mere threat of an ISDS case can intimidate a nation into gutting its own laws, how some financial firms have transformed what was intended to be a system of justice into an engine of profit, and how America is surprisingly vulnerable to suits from foreign companies.

The series starts today with perhaps the least known and most jarring revelation: Companies and executives accused or even convicted of crimes have escaped punishment by turning to this special forum. Based on exclusive reporting from the Middle East, Central America, and Asia, BuzzFeed News has found the following:

• A Dubai real estate mogul and former business partner of Donald Trump was sentenced to prison for collaborating on a deal that would swindle the Egyptian people out of millions of dollars — but then he turned to ISDS and got his prison sentence wiped away.

• In El Salvador, a court found that a factory had poisoned a village — including dozens of children — with lead, failing for years to take government-ordered steps to prevent the toxic metal from seeping out. But the factory owners’ lawyers used ISDS to help the company dodge a criminal conviction and the responsibility for cleaning up the area and providing needed medical care.

• Two financiers convicted of embezzling more than $300 million from an Indonesian bank used an ISDS finding to fend off Interpol, shield their assets, and effectively nullify their punishment.

When the US Congress votes on whether to give final approval to the sprawling Trans-Pacific Partnership, which President Barack Obama staunchly supports, it will be deciding on a massive expansion of ISDS. Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton oppose the overall treaty, but they have focused mainly on what they say would be the loss of American jobs. Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine, has voiced concern about ISDS in particular, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren has lambasted it. Last year, members of both houses of Congress tried to keep it out of the Pacific trade deal. They failed.

ISDS is basically binding arbitration on a global scale, designed to settle disputes between countries and foreign companies that do business within their borders. Different treaties can mandate slightly different rules, but the system is broadly the same. When companies sue, their cases are usually heard in front of a tribunal of three arbitrators, often private attorneys. The business appoints one arbitrator and the country another, then both sides usually decide on the third together.

Conceived of in the 1950s, the system was intended to benefit both developing nations and the foreign companies that sought to invest in them. The companies would gain a fair, neutral referee if a rogue regime seized their property or discriminated against them in favor of domestic companies. And the countries would gain the roads or hospitals or industries that those foreign corporations would, as a result, feel confident building.


Pentagon Study Scrutinizes The Future Of Autonomous Robot War

[Note:  This item comes from friend Jen Snow.  DLH]

Pentagon Study Scrutinizes The Future Of Autonomous Robot War
By Kelsey D. Atherton
Aug 26 2016

Last summer, the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board commissioned a study to examine angles on a particular challenge for DoD, with participants drawn from consulting, defense and technical industries, as well as the military and academia. In possibly the worst John Lennon cover ever made, participants were asked to “Imagine if….We could covertly deploy networks of smart mines and UUVs [Unmanned Underwater Vehicles] to blockade and deny the sea surface, differentiating between fishing vessels and fighting ships… …and not put U.S. Service personnel or high-value assets at risk.”

The scenario, and several others like it, were at the core of the study on autonomy, specifically autonomous machines and computers and systems, and what they mean for the Pentagon and the wars of the future. This matters a great deal, because what the Pentagon thinks of autonomy will shape the weapons it orders and the way it fights wars, and, likely, the way that laws of war are written.

Here’s how the report defines autonomy:

To be autonomous, a system must have the capability to independently compose and select among different courses of action to accomplish goals based on its knowledge and understanding of the world, itself, and the situation.

Okay, so what does that mean for a machine with guns attached? First, the report clarifies, expect to see a lot more autonomy in non-killing jobs than in ones with weapons. From the report:

The overwhelming majority of potential military applications for autonomy are non-lethal and offer the potential for improved efficiencies or entirely new capabilities. Skepticism about the employment of autonomy in military operations is almost wholly focused on the use of autonomous weapons systems with potential for lethality. For this reason, any new autonomous capability may meet with resistance unless DoD makes clear its policies and actions across the spectrum of applications.

There are many, many jobs in the military that aren’t really about direct combat, from running communications to manning radar to simply driving the trucks that move ammunition from where it’s delivered to the planes that will take it abroad to bases where troops will pick it up. So expect to see autonomous cars and radar systems as part of the military first.

There’s only one specific deadly application of A.I. recommended in the report. The Defense Science Board suggests “U.S. Navy and DARPA should collaborate to conduct an experiment in which assets are deployed to create a minefield of autonomous lethal UUVs.”



Today’s Inequality Could Easily Become Tomorrow’s Catastrophe

Today’s Inequality Could Easily Become Tomorrow’s Catastrophe
Aug 26 2016

Economic inequality is already a concern, but it could become a nightmare in the decades ahead, and I fear that we are not well equipped to deal with it.

Truly extreme gaps in income and wealth could arise from many causes. Consider just a few: Innovations in robotics and artificial intelligence, which are already making many jobs uncompetitive, could lead us into a world in which basic work with decent pay becomes impossible to find. An environmental disaster like global warming, pollution or disease could sharply reduce the ability of people of ordinary means to live in specific regions or entire countries.

Future wars using ever more highly destructive technology, including chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons, could devastate vast populations. And it’s not out of the question that dire political changes, like the rise of racist or otherwise exclusionary social structures, could have terribly damaging consequences for less privileged people.

Of course, I dearly hope none of these things ever happen. But even if they are unlikely, as part of our progress to a better world, we should be thinking now of how we might address them.

The current presidential campaigns in the United States have not really touched on long-range issues like these. The campaigns have instead been focused primarily on short-term concerns, and on issues facing people of middle income instead of those in extreme poverty.

The private sector isn’t helping much, either. It has not gone very far in developing insurance or hedging markets to protect against these risks. That raises an important question: Can we depend on the benevolence of society to compensate and care for those who would lose out if dire events actually happened?

One way to judge the likely outcome is to look at what has happened in the past. In their new book “Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe” (Princeton 2016), Kenneth Scheve of Stanford and David Stasavage of New York University looked at 20 countries over two centuries to see how societies have responded to the less fortunate. Their primary finding may seem disheartening: Taxes on the rich generally have not gone up when inequality and economic hardship have increased.

Instead, they found that taxes tend to rise when warfare increases, largely “because war mobilization changed beliefs about tax fairness.” These tax changes were generally aimed at ensuring national survival, not correcting economic inequalities.

Professor Scheve and Professor Stasavage found that democratic countries have not consistently embraced more redistributive tax policies, and most people do not vote strictly in their narrow self-interest. As the right to vote broadened through the centuries, for example, and people without property began to vote, they did not consistently act to tax the rich. These findings run counter to a popular narrative. Recall that in 2012, Mitt Romney said that in a democracy, a candidate who offers tax breaks to the less well-off at the expense of the rich will win mass support “no matter what.” That claim does not appear to be supported by the historical record.

Instead, it appears that, for better or for worse, the majority of people share simple notions of entitlement and fairness. Professor Scheve, Professor Stasavage and their colleagues found that in 2014, when people in the United States were asked what marginal tax rates they would “most like to see” on family incomes of $375,000, the median answer was 30 percent, with the bulk of answers ranging from 20 percent to 40 percent. (The federal marginal tax rate for that income is 33 percent.)

This is consistent with my own survey results, which focused on inheritance taxes. In 1990, Maxim Boycko, then with a Moscow think tank, the Institute of World Economy and International Relations, and I asked both New Yorkers and Muscovites: “In your opinion, what inheritance tax rate for really wealthy people do you think we should have?” The average answers in the two cities were virtually identical: 37 percent in New York, 39 percent in Moscow. Taxing around a third of wealth, more or less, seemed fair to people. And perhaps it is reasonable, in the abstract, yet what will we do in the future if this degree of taxation won’t produce enough revenue to meaningfully help the very poor as well as the sagging middle class?


G.E., the 124-Year-Old Software Start-Up

G.E., the 124-Year-Old Software Start-Up
Aug 27 2016

It may not qualify as a lightning-bolt eureka moment, but Jeffrey R. Immelt, chief executive of General Electric, recalls the June day in 2009 that got him thinking. He was speaking with G.E. scientists about new jet engines they were building, laden with sensors to generate a trove of data from every flight — but to what end?

That data could someday be as valuable as the machinery itself, if not more so. But G.E. couldn’t make use of it.

“We had to be more capable in software,” Mr. Immelt said he decided. Maybe G.E. — a maker of power turbines, jet engines, locomotives and medical-imaging equipment — needed to think of its competitors as Amazon and IBM.

Back then, G.E. was returning to its heavy-industry roots and navigating the global financial crisis, shedding much of its bloated finance arm, GE Capital. That winnowing went on for years as billions of dollars in assets were sold, passing a milestone this summer when GE Capital was removed from the government’s short list of financial institutions deemed “too big to fail.”

But in 2011, G.E. also quietly opened a software center in San Ramon, Calif., 24 miles east of San Francisco, across the bay.

Today one of San Ramon’s most important projects is to build a computer operating system, but on an industrial scale — a Microsoft Windows or Google Android for factories and industrial equipment. The project is central to G.E.’s drive to become what Mr. Immelt says will be a “top 10 software company” by 2020.

Silicon Valley veterans are skeptical.

“G.E. is trying to do this the way a big company does, by throwing thousands of people and billions of dollars at it,” said Thomas M. Siebel, a technology entrepreneur who is now chief executive of C3 IoT, a start-up that has done work for G.E. “But they’re not software people.”

The San Ramon complex, home to GE Digital, now employs 1,400 people. The buildings are designed to suit the free-range working ways of software developers: open-plan floors, bench seating, whiteboards, couches for impromptu meetings, balconies overlooking the grounds and kitchen areas with snacks.

Many industries see digital threats, of course. Yet the scope of the challenge is magnified at G.E., a 124-year-old company and the nation’s largest manufacturer, with more than 300,000 employees worldwide. Employees companywide have been making pilgrimages to San Ramon for technology briefings, but also to soak in the culture. Their marching orders are to try to adapt the digital wizardry and hurry-up habits of Silicon Valley to G.E.’s world of industrial manufacturing.


Busting the billion-dollar myth: how to slash the cost of drug development

[Note:  This item comes from friend David Rosenthal.  DLH]

Busting the billion-dollar myth: how to slash the cost of drug development
A non-profit organization is proving that new drugs don’t have to cost a fortune. Can its model work more broadly?
By Amy Maxmen
Aug 24 2016

First, there was the pitching and rolling in an old Jeep for eight hours. Next came the river crossing in a slender canoe. When Nathalie Strub Wourgaft finally reached her destination, a clinic in the heart of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she was exhausted. But the real work, she discovered, had just begun.

It was July 2010 and the clinic was soon to launch trials of a treatment for sleeping sickness, a deadly tropical disease. Yet it was woefully unprepared. Refrigerators, computers, generators and fuel would all have to be shipped in. Local health workers would have to be trained to collect data using unfamiliar instruments. And contingency plans would be needed in case armed conflict scattered study participants — a very real possibility in this war-weary region.

This was a far cry from Wourgaft’s former life as a top executive in the pharmaceutical industry, where the hospitals that she commissioned for trials were pristine, well-resourced and easy to reach. But Wourgaft, now medical director for the innovative Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative (DNDi), was confident that the clinic could handle the work. She was right. With data from this site and others, the DNDi will next year seek approval for a sleeping-sickness tablet, fexinidazole. It would be a massive improvement on existing treatment options: an arduous regimen of intravenous injections, or a 65-year-old arsenic-based drug that can be deadly.

The DNDi is an unlikely success story in the expensive, challenging field of drug development. In just over a decade, the group has earned approval for six treatments, tackling sleeping sickness, malaria, Chagas’ disease and a form of leishmaniasis called kala-azar. And it has put another 26 drugs into development. It has done this with US$290 million — about one-quarter of what a typical pharmaceutical company would spend to develop just one drug. The model for its success is the product development partnership (PDP), a style of non-profit organization that became popular in the early 2000s. PDPs keep costs down through collaboration — with universities, governments and the pharmaceutical industry. And because the diseases they target typically affect the world’s poorest people, and so are neglected by for-profit companies, the DNDi and groups like it face little competitive pressure. They also have lower hurdles to prove that their drugs vastly improve lives.

Now, policymakers are beginning to wonder whether their methods might work more broadly. “For a long time, people thought about R&D as so complicated that it could only be done by the biggest for-profit firms in the world,” says Suerie Moon, a global-health researcher at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who studied PDPs and joined the DNDi’s board of directors in 2011. “I think we are at a point today where we can begin to take lessons from their experience and begin to apply to them non-neglected disease,” she says.

In that vein, the DNDi has started research on alternatives to pricey drugs for hepatitis C, and is spearheading an effort to create antibiotics for drug-resistant infections, a problem that pharmaceutical companies have been slow to contend with. If successful, the work could challenge standard assumptions about drug development, and potentially rein in the runaway price of medications. “We can’t match our financial figures one to one,” says executive director Bernard Pécoul. “But we believe that DNDi can demonstrate that a different model is possible for R&D.”


The EpiPen, a Case Study in Health System Dysfunction

The EpiPen, a Case Study in Health System Dysfunction
By Aaron E. Carroll
Aug 23 2016

Three times in the last two weeks, people — a patient, a colleague and my wife — told me stories about how out of control the price of EpiPens were. Monday, my New York Times colleagues recounted in detail how expensive the devices have become in recent years. All tell the tale of how much even basic health care can cost in the United States.

But by digging a bit further, the story of EpiPens can also explain so much of what’s wrong with our health care system.

When people think of allergies to drugs, food or a bee sting, they often think of a rash. And in fact that’s how many allergic reactions develop and proceed. Most can be treated with diphenhydramine (Benadryl) and careful observation. But some are more serious. Between 1 and 2 percent of people can develop what’s known as anaphylaxis, when the airways you need to breathe swell and close.

Luckily, there’s a simple treatment for such reactions. Epinephrine — or adrenaline — is a hormone naturally produced by the adrenal glands. It’s part of your “fight or flight” response, and it causes your heart to beat faster, your blood vessels to constrict, your pupils to dilate and — most important here — your airways to open.

Epinephrine is very, very cheap. Even in the developing world, it costs less than a dollar per milliliter, and there’s less than a third of that in an EpiPen.

But to save a life, epinephrine must be delivered quickly, and in the proper amounts. People suffering severe allergic reactions often can’t do it themselves. Drawing the drug into a syringe and then administering it to someone else requires training and precision that most people lack.

For that, there is the EpiPen.

What makes this auto-injection device so special is not the drug, but the ease with which it automatically administers the correct dose without delay. The instructionsare right on the side, and even if you don’t read them, it’s pretty easy to figure out. Pull off the safety cap, put the tip against the thigh, and push. Boom. Epinephrine delivered.

The EpiPen isn’t new; it has been in use since 1977. Research and development costs were recouped long ago. Nine years ago, it was bought by the pharmaceutical company Mylan, which then began to sell the device. When Mylan bought it, EpiPens cost about $57 each.

Few competitors existed, and for various reasons, that has remained the case. The device actually worked and saved lives. People needed it. Mylan raised the price. It also began to raise awareness.

Unfortunately, epinephrine is inherently unstable. Research shows that it degrades pretty quickly over time, and it’s recommended that EpiPens be replaced every year. When my friends ask me if they can take an expired over-the-counter pain medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, I shrug and nod. If they don’t get a full dose, it’s usually not a big deal. But epinephrine is no joke. People in anaphylaxisneed a full dose every time. They therefore need to replace all their EpiPens every year, again and again.