Trump meets Kim.

Now the dust has settled and the media seems to have got bored with this meeting, what was achieved, and who, if anyone, came out ahead? Some of the comments about this meeting seem to me to verge on the ludicrous, but my answer to those questions, what was achieved was that the two countries at least started talking to each other, and nobody came out ahead.

The meeting led to a statement where the north agreed to “work towards complete denuclearisation” and the US committed to provide security guarantees to the North. Commentators have moaned that the statement left out “verifiable” and “irreversible”. Actually, the document gave no hint as to how this denuclearisation was to be achieved or what the terms mean, which is hardly surprising because such details need to be worked out, and that takes a long time. Equally, the US gave no clue as to how it was to provide security guarantees. This will be significantly more difficult because US Presidents have a habit of tearing up commitments made by previous Presidents. Ask Gaddafi, who gave a promise not to go after nuclear weapons in return for security. If I were Kim, I would expect this to be clarified well before I started to throw away what security I have.

Just to be clear, North Korea has adopted a porcupine strategy for security. The porcupine knows that in an all-out contest it will die. What it tries to do is to make it so obvious at the start that such a victory will come with a price that the predator will not wish to pay. Kim would know he cannot win an all-out fight with the US, but with nuclear weapons he can exact a very undesirable price. The reason they have been developed has been obvious too. George Bush invaded Iraq on a totally trumped up charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, and then killed Saddam in an example of “victor’s justice”. He then put North Korea on a list of “the axis of evil”. The then Kim had to do something, and nuclear weapons were as good as any other option for a security guarantee.

Many commentators seem to think Trump gave away the shop and got nothing back. How? Apparently by talking to Kim, he promoted Kim to being an international figure. Well, I think that is the nearest to total rubbish that there is. Trump wanted Kim to give up nuclear weapons, his security blanket. How, short of all-out war, was this ever going to happen if he refused to talk to Kim? You can’t get anyone to do what you want without talking to them. Trump also said he would cancel future military exercises along the border. That is not much of a concession. The US military is very highly trained, and these exercises were more for show than anything else. Added to which, Trump claimed the cancellation saved the US a lot of money, so it was as much a gift to himself as to Kim. In the meantime, Kim has apparently destroyed a bomb-testing site and declared no more nuclear tests. In reality, he probably decided that he needed no more tests, and destruction of the site gave news, and stopped people from further investigating the site. He has also agreed to have US bodies from the Korean War repatriated to the US. Again, neither of these are big deals, but Kim has at least given them. Both sides made small concessions to the other that were not that meaningful, but they each gave something.

In my opinion, very little has actually happened, and the biggest gain is the two leaders have stopped prodding each other and started talking to each other. It is hard to know where this will end up, but I suspect that as long as Kim keeps a low profile and stays polite, the up-coming potential trade war will take up far more attention.


What do Organic Compounds Found on Mars Mean?

Last week, NASA announced that organic compounds had been found on Mars. The question then is, what does this mean? First, organic compounds are essentially chemicals formed that involve carbon, which means Mars has carbon besides the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The name “organic” comes from the fact that such compounds found by early chemists, with the exception of a very few such as carbon dioxide, came from organisms, hence there is the question, do these materials indicate that Mars had life? The short answer is, the issue remains unresolved. One argument is that if there were no organic compounds on Mars, it obviously did not have life. That it has taken so long to find organic compounds does not say anything about the probability, though, because the surface of Mars is strongly oxidizing, and had any been there, they would have been turned into carbon dioxide. The atmosphere already has a lot of that. The reason none has been found, therefore, is because most of the rovers have not been able to dig very deeply.

I shall try to summarise the results that were reported [Eigenbrode et al., Science 360, 1096–1101 (2018)]. One important point is that the volatiles analysed were obtained by pyrolysing the mudstone the rover dug up, so what was detected may not be the same that was in the rock. The first compounds were identified as aliphatic hydrocarbons, from C1 (methane) to C5, and these were stated to be typical of that obtained from Kerogen or coal on Earth. One problem I had with these data was there were odd-numbered masses, BUT they all indicated that the cause was a fractured hydrocarbon, i.e. the pyrolysis had chopped that bit off something else and produced a radical.

One big problem was they could not say whether nitrogen or oxygen was present ” because mass spectra are not resolvable in EGA and other molecules share the diagnostic m/z values. ” I really don’t understand that. First, the identification of aliphatic hydrocarbons was almost certainly correct, because they form series of signals that are very recognizable to anyone who has done a bit of this work before. They stick out like an organ stop, so to speak. However, the presence of nitrogen species in any reasonable amount should be just as easily identified because while hydrocarbons, and their like with oxygen, basically give even mass signals, nitrogen, because of its valency of 3, gives odd numbered mass signals that is 1 bigger than a hydrocarbon. Now, a few of the fragmentation patterns of hydrocarbons give odd numbered mass signals, but if you cannot tell where the molecular ion is, you do not know what the mass of your molecule is. If all you have are fragmentation ions, then the instrument was somewhat poorly designed to go to Mars. With any experience, you can also tell whether you have oxygenated materials because hydrocarbons go up by adding 14 to the basic ion, and the atomic weight of oxygen is 16. If it has oxygen, it abd the fragments containing oxygen have an entirely different mass.

Of course the authors did note the presence of CO2 and CO. These could arise from the pyrolysis of carboxylic acids and ketones, but that does not mean life. Carboxylic acids would pyrolyse at about 400 – 550 degrees C and ketones a bit higher. They also found aromatic hydrocarbons, thiophenes and some other sulphur containing species. These were explained in terms of sulphur –bearing gases coming in contact, and further chemical reactions then taking place, in other words, these sulphur containing species such as hydrogen sulphide do not necessarily provide any information regarding what formed the original deposit. The sulphurization, however, was claimed to provide a preservative function by protecting against mild oxidation. If it carried out that function, it would be oxidized, and none of the observed materials were.

Unfortunately, the material is not directly associated with anything related to life. The remains of life can give rise to these sort of chemicals, as noted by our crude oil, which is basically hydrocarbon, and formed from life, but then altered by tens of millions of years change. These Martian deposits are believed to be in rocks 3.5 billion years old. However, the materials were also obtained by pyrolysis at temperatures exceeding 500 degrees C. The original molecules could have rearranged, and what we saw was the sort of compounds that organic compounds might rearrange to. Nevertheless, the absence of nitrogen is not encouraging. Nitrogen is present in all protein and nucleic acids, and there tends to be high levels of these in primitive life. Pyrolysis would be expected to produce pyrazines and pyridines, and these should be detectable. Pyrazines, having two nitrogen atoms, tend to give even numbered ions, and give the same mass as a ketone, but since neither was seen, that is irrelevant. Had there been such signals, the fragmentation patterns are quite distinctive if you have done this sort of work before.

Other possible sources of organic compounds, besides carbon, are from chondrites that have landed, and geochemically. It is hard to assess chondrites, because we do not have other information. It is possible to tell the difference between oxygen from chondrites from oxygen from other places (because of the different ratios of isotopes of mass 17 and 18 compared with 16), but they never found oxygen. The materials could be geochemical as well. The same reaction used by Germany to make synthetic petrol during WW2 can occur underground, and make hydrocarbons. So overall, while this is certainly interesting, as is often the case it raises more questions than it answers.

The Strange Case of Arkady Babchenko

They say truth is stranger than fiction, and I must say, I cannot conceive of any reasonable fiction writer coming up with a plot that included these rather bizarre events.

The first reports I heard were on the radio, where it was announced that the Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko, who had been a strong critic of Vladimir Putin and who had fled to Ukraine a year previously, had been shot in the back on a Kiev street, and had died on the way to hospital. There were strong protests from Ukraine and a number of other countries at the Russians for using murder as an act of revenge. The Kremlin denied any involvement. Of course, they would, wouldn’t they? My first thought was, since Ukraine is a bit anarchic, maybe we had better wait for more information. The next morning’s paper gave more details, and it looked bad. The story now changed to this murder had been pulled off outside their apartment, and his wife had phoned for the ambulance.

But the morning radio news had an even more bizarre twist. The Ukrainian police had given a press conference, and in the middle of it, in walked Arkady Babchenko. Yes, Putin was definitely innocent of his murder. It turned out the whole episode had been staged, which left open the question, why? The official statement was Arkady had had threats, and this was staged to “flush out the perpetrators” who were alleged to be Russian Intelligence. Even Arkady’s wife did not know this stunt had been pulled. My thought at the time was, he may not be dead yet, but when he gets home . . . But wait – his wife phoned for the ambulance?? A little short on self-consistency here. Well, there is worse to come.

Let’s think about this for a moment. You have been instructed to murder Arkady, then you hear on the news that he has been murdered? What do you do? Get flushed out? Or sit back and say to yourself, “Well, that was easy,” and have a glass or two of whatever beverage take your fancy? Even the highly suspicious agent (and note, this is Ukraine) might like to check out that there is indeed a funeral and see how sad the mourners are, but whatever, they are not going to jump up and down and be “flushed out.”

It seems these thoughts finally struck the Ukrainian authorities so the story changed. Now a hit-man had been hired and instead of doing it, he went to the police, and the Ukrainian intelligence services staged it so it looked as if it had been done, so the man who hired him would have to identify himself when he paid for the hit. The next question is, if so, why not wait a bit and let him identify himself. However, no need, because a day later, we knew who he was. The hit-man was an ultra-right wing priest who was known to be violently anti-Russian, and who liked to dress in military attire and take part in “exercises”. The man who hired him was Boris L. Herman, and he was alleged to have a list of some thirty others Moscow allegedly wanted eliminated. He is supposedly in custody for two months. Herman then claimed he hired the priest to kill Babchenko at the request of Ukrainian counterintelligence. Ukrainian counterintelligence denied this. Herman is reported as claiming that he hired the priest, on the basis that the priest would go straight to the SBU, Ukraine’s security service.

The SBU has conceded that he priest told them about this and they collaborated, but denied the matter had anything to do with Ukraine’s counterintelligence operations. That is like saying, “We did it, but it wasn’t us.” It then turns out that Herman is

the only private enterprise arms manufacturer in Ukraine, and was similarly right wing. Is this some sort of oligarch shakedown? They get his company and he lives if he cooperates? Whatever, who can believe anything out of Ukraine these days.

Meanwhile, a small commercial break. My ebook “Dreams Defiled”, the second in the first contact trilogy is 99c/99p from 7th – 14th. A story of a person gradually descending into being thoroughly evil, and the havoc he causes to everyone else. Also, why Mars can never be terraformed to be like Earth, and a different form of government.

Can We Feed an Expanded Population?

One argument you often see is that our farmland can easily feed even more people and that our technology will see that famines are a thing of the past. I am going to suggest that this may be an overenthusiastic view of our ability. First, the world is losing a surprising amount of good soil every year, to water and wind erosion. Seawater rising will remove a lot of prime agricultural land, but there is a much worse problem that needs attention. The 18th May edition of Science had some information that might give cause to rethink any optimistic view. Our high intensity agriculture depends on keeping pests, weeds and fungi at bay, and much of that currently depends on the heavy use of certain chemicals. The problem is what we are trying to keep at bay are gradually evolving resistance to our agents.

Looking at fungicides first, there are basically four classes of fungicides licensed for use, and some of these, such as the azoles, have a number of variations, but the variations tend to be those to differentiate the compounds from someone else’s, and to get around patents. The fundamental activity usually comes from one chemical group. As an example from antibiotics, there are a large number of variation on penicillin, but they all have beta lactams, and it is the beta lactams that give the functionality, so when bugs evolve that can tolerate beta lactams, the whole set of such penicillin-like drugs becomes ineffective. For fungi, the industrial scale production of single crops in some regions optimises the chance of a fungus developing a resistance, and there appears to be the possibility of gene transfer between fungi.

This has some other downstream issues. Thus medical advances lead to people having a much better chance of survival through cancer treatments, but they then become more susceptible to fungi. Apparently Candida auris is now resistant to all clinical antifungals, and is a worse threat in hospitals because it can survive most standard decontamination procedures. A number of other fungi are very threatening in clinical situations.

So what can be done about fungi? Obviously, seeking new antifungals is desirable, but this is a slow process because before letting such new chemicals out into the environment, we have to be confident that there will really be benefits and the chemicals are sufficiently effective under all circumstances, and we also need to know there are no unintended consequences.

Insecticides and herbicides (and following the article in Science, these will be collectively termed pesticides) have the same problem. It was estimated that even now the evolution of such resistance costs billions of dollars in the US. With regard to weeds, in 1996 plants were produced that were not harmed by glyphosate, and the effectiveness of this led to over 90% of US maize, soy and cotton being planted with such plants. (Some will recall the fact that some were bred so the plants did not produce viable seed, and further seed had to be purchased from the company that developed the plant.) Now there are at least forty serious weeds that have developed resistance to glyphosate. Plants have been engineered that are resistant to chemicals mimicking previous herbicides but the weeds are defeating that. Weed species have evolved to resist every known herbicide, and no herbicide has been developed with a new mode of action over the last thirty years.

In agriculture, it is easy to see how this situation could arise. When you spray a crop, not every part of every plant gets the same amount of spray. Some of what you don’t want will survive in places where the dose was less than enough. From the farmer’s point of view, this does not matter because enough of the pests have been dealt with that his return is not hurt by the few that survive. However, the fact that some always survive is just what evolution needs to develop life forms capable of resisting the chemicals.

So, what to do? Obviously, more effort is required, but here we meet some problems that might be intractable. Major companies have to invest large amounts of money to provide a possible solution, and they will only do so when there are likely to be guaranteed very large sales. However, to defeat resistance, it is most desirable to pulse agents, thus using agent A one year, agent B the next, and no repeat for a number of years. That maximises the chance of avoiding the generation of further resistance, but what company wants to participate in the sort of sales future? We could try natural procedures and live with the fact that yields are lower, but that implies we really do not want to eat that much more, which in turn suggests population growth needs to be curbed. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers.

The Price of Inequality

Recently, the United States has had a glut of school shootings, and you may be wondering what that has to do with the title. I am going to suggest, quite a lot, indirectly. It also illustrates society’s inability to reason. There are continual calls for gun control, and while I agree there is a rather bizarre lack of responsibility in the ability to buy guns in the US, I do not think that is particularly relevant to what has happened. When I was a boy, I had access to a 22 calibre rifle that I used to go rabbit shooting (rabbits are a real pest in Australia and New Zealand because there are no controlling predators) and yes, I went out and shot rabbits, as did some of my friends, but nobody even thought about going out and shooting a person, let alone a bunch of school children. Why not? Because we all were looking forward to joining society, and we had ambitions. Not big ambitions, but we saw our future place. Of course it did not turn out as we envisaged, but it never does.

So, what is different now? My guess is that too many of the younger generation do not see a future they want. In the US, they see the rust belt, they see the jobs have gone to Asia. Of course the more capable ones see a future, but my betting is the shooters are the very disgruntled ones that see themselves heading to the bottom of the heap. They see nothing to live for, so their warped thinking says they should take out some others first.

And here I come to inequality. What can a young person aspire to, if they are of the pessimistic style nature? In many places, house costs have risen hopelessly so as to price out such ownership from the below average income earner, and worse, more and more people are becoming below average. That is because all the wealth has rocketed into the hands of a few. They see the elderly coming to the point where they cannot retire because they cannot afford to. It is all very well to say that the elderly like working. Some do, but many have started a decline in their health and can’t. Too many people spend most of their income balancing a debt problem. Now you may say, that is their fault, and to some extent it is, but what sort of society are we if there is no way out for the tolerably useful?

An added problem is that as the general income declines, and governments seem determined to lower taxes on the rich, who, by and large, pay surprisingly little anyway, then we see a decline in social welfare, like healthcare, pensions, and an increase in education costs. And what is bizarre, and shows that in a democracy you cannot go wrong by assuming the general population is mathematically illiterate, we find the poor voting for a tax cut that will save them the odd few dollars a week only to find their costs for social services have risen astronomically. And a further odd thing about this is that governments tell their people that they are making progress by privatising such social requirements. “The private sector does things more efficiently,” the economists say, without bothering to check whether the private sector is actually doing it for any but the rich. If you don’t believe me, check the US drug prices, and compare them with many other countries with a state-run single buyer system. Of course the private sector is more efficient but that is at making money, its only real objective.

So, what we see are a few who are making money in truly gross amounts by taking from the many. By and large they are not adding anything to society. Since when did credit default swaps increase the general well-being? And this is what the young see. Something needs to be done, but they feel helpless. Except for the unfortunate monster with a gun.

Fake News and Provocation

Fake news is the theme of the year. The worst, of course, is that with an element of truth, but which is deliberately massaged to give a different meaning. As an example, this week Israel launched attacks on Iranian positions in Syria and announced this was in response to an unprovoked missile attack by said Iranians. There was, apparently, such an attack, although not a very effective one. Twenty missiles were launched, and 16, (80%) never even made it to the Israeli border, and the remaining four were shot down by Israeli defences. What the Israelis did not mention was that these missiles would presumably be launched in response to “unprovoked attacks on Iranian positions previously”. But previously, the Israelis would have said those raids were because the Iranians had done . . . Get the picture. The truth is there had been a festering problem for some time. Not that knowing that would make much difference.

There had been previous examples that I have posted about. The assertion that only Russia could have made Novichoks was a lie. The chemistry is very clear and would be reasonably easy for a skilled organic chemist to make, with the right equipment. There were the alleged “chemical attacks” in Syria that needed cruise missile attacks, but there has never been any evidence of the victims. The interesting thing is that very few have questioned any of this.

All of which was exacerbated by Trump pulling out of the Iranian nuclear deal. Interestingly, there was no claim that Iran had violated its side of the deal. That was because it was reasonably clear it had not.

There seems to be a belief among many that their leaders know the truth, and are honourable people. Consider this extract from Wikipedia from an interview with Hermann Göring, a little before his suicide at Nürnberg:

Göring: It is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.

Gustave Gilbert: There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.

Göring: Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.

That seems to be unfortunately true. How much real say has Congress had in the US military interventions recently?

Of course, it is not just the military that gets afflicted with fake news. In recent newspaper articles here, President Trump has accused a number of countries for being “free-loaders” and “extortionists” at the expense of the poor US pharmaceutical companies, through not paying properly for the costs of research needed to develop these drugs. There were two articles as examples. One had a company supplying a new anti-ebola vaccine to the Congo to deal with a further outbreak and gave the impression that this was essentially charity in that the company had developed this and would never recover its research costs. The other article said that the company had charged an “extortionate” $5 million for 300,000 vials of the vaccines, and that the company had never developed it; they had purchased the develop vaccine rights from a Canadian national laboratory. See the problem? Real fibs here. Also, note the massaging, by accusing the company of ripping off the purchasers. The cost is $16.66 per vial, and given that the vials have to be very carefully stored and handled, and of course there are significant manufacturing costs because somewhere along the lines they had to handle real ebola, maybe that is quite a fair price.

I recently saw a TV program where an old reporter was complaining that the standard of reporting had been shot to pieces. Yes, the old often find fault with the young, but maybe he has a real point.

The Start Towards Our Society

A number of people seem to think there is a distinct difference between humans and animals. Now there are obviously differences in quantity, thus chimpanzees have more hair, they are stronger, their feet work well as hands, etc, but is there a difference in fundamental quality. I think no; we just have more of some things and less of others than most mammals, but some people think there are fundamental differences between us and them.

One of the many things that have fascinated me in an amateurish sort of way is how did humans evolve from being simple animals to having a society? What were the intermediate steps? The usual answers are that somewhere about 30,000 years ago humans started to tame wolves to help them hunt, and about 10,000 years ago, they started to grow grain and tame sheep and cows, which led to permanent farm settlements as opposed to roving hunting and gathering, or maybe hunting and gathering from desirable sites with their own “range”. Leaving aside the dates, which may be somewhat inaccurate, that will have happened, but now it seems that was not the beginning.

A recent paper [Brooks et al., Science 360, 90–94 (2018)] puts the date for early progress far back. This was based on studies from the Olorgesaille basin in southern Kenya, where artifacts were found dating back to between 295,000 – 320,000 years ago, which predates Homo sapiens. Apparently the site was reasonably rich in fine-grained volcanic rock, which was used to make certain tools. However, also present were a number of obsidian artifacts, and greater than 46,000 small pieces of obsidian. There was no local source of obsidian, and the people may have had to walk 50 km as the crow flies to get any. The terrain is so rough that the actual distance would be significantly greater. Nevertheless, they brought the obsidian back to “home base” and made their artifacts there. Interestingly, over the period of time, it was found that innovation led to finer quality objects, and more standardization of them. Also found were the bones of what are presumably prey, including from small mammals and fish, that would have to have been caught by humans to be left there. (Major carnivores would eat everything from small prey.)

Also present were rocks in which attempts had been made to drill holes, sometimes successfully, and rocks that had been used for grinding ochre and rocks containing manganese dioxide (which can give brown or black colours). Neither of these rocks were available locally. The use of these is unknown but it strongly suggests the use to express status through self-decoration.

Thus it appears that innovation, standardization and the development of cognitive abilities were well underway 300,000 years ago. Further, the presence of large amounts of materials only available from distant sources suggests either procurement or trade over quite extended distances. Further, there were at least six of these distant sources. Extended social networks are common amongst hunter-gatherer societies, as they are a useful adaptation to unpredictable environments, and the new ability to stone-tip their hunting weapons would make larger-scale social relationships desirable. It would also help to ensure genetic diversity when finding mates.

Accordingly, we might now consider that the start towards technology was made at least 300,000 years ago. The idea of making fine stone flakes and securing them to the tip of a spear may not seem a great advance to us, but then it was because it permitted far more efficient hunting. Interestingly, the fossil evidence is also that it was around this time that brain size started to increase. It was a long road, but every journey has to start with the first step, and while this would not be the first such step, it was probably the start of more decisive steps.