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2017 Addendum
(July)

The big news for American Independence Day, the 4th July (5th in OZ) is that North Korea has launched a rocket that travelled vertically to reach an altitude of 2,802km (1,731 miles). It flew for 39 minutes before hitting a target in the sea 933km away.  Journalists immediately got out their atlas (or Google Earth) and determined that its range is projected to be sufficient to reach: northern Australia; Alaska and western Canada, Pakistan and even Finland in addition of course to: China, Russia, Japan, India and other neighbours.  So it's being styled an ICBM  (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile).

Yet I'm not so sure as the journalists that this is all.  I'm not a rocket scientist but I have a basic grasp of the physics and this rocket now seems more than capable of achieving Earth orbit.  After all the ISS, the International Space Station, orbits at around 400 km.  Remember that it was the Russians putting Yuri Gagarin into orbit and returning him to land alive in 1961 that scared the pants off J F Kennedy and changed him from a space sceptic, during his election campaign, to an advocate overnight.  Now the Russians could place one or more nuclear warheads into orbit "and return them safely to Earth" without burning up, thereby threatening any city on the planet.  

Suddenly the Fractional Orbital Bombardment System (FOBS) was born and Washington, and Hyannis Port, were within range of a Russian bomb.  Kennedy quickly committed billions to catch up and 'peacefully' put a man on the moon. The 'Cold War' was getting out of hand.  So in 1967 the Outer Space Treaty was drafted in which space was declared off limits for nuclear weapons by United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union (ratified 27 January 1967). Since then 107 countries have signed up. But North Korea is not among them.

If accurately reported this launch could put North Korea into the same club as India, France, China, Russia, the US and the UK (ICBMs only).  A couple of other countries have a nuclear weapon (Pakistan and Israel) but no missile capable of reaching earth orbit. An unstable leader in any of these 'club members' poses a threat to every country on the planet. 

I was born two weeks after the second A-bombs was dropped by the US on Japan - to celebrate my birth?  Thereafter throughout my early life there were regular nuclear fireworks in Arizona, the Pacific, Siberia and even Australia. Thus nuclear annihilation has worried my generation for most of our lives.  The fear escalated with the first man-made satellites in the 1960's, could they be bombs (FOBS)?  Could we trust the Russians and Americans to honour the Outer Space Treaty? 

But although this worried us a lot when I was a student in the 1960's, like Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, we've learned to 'stop worrying and love the bomb'. This is largely because of MAD - mutually assured destruction. 

So, strangely, I find I'm not too worried.  Like the South Koreans, who live with these threats every day, I trust that Kim Jong-un's primary motivation is his own survival.  So I'm inclined to believe that this is what he says it is, a reaction to the imminent (or allegedly imminent) threat of attack by the US.  It's a tool primarily intended to shore up his domestic position as 'beloved leader' and also to give North Korea and entry badge to the international nuclear club and to stop the US threatening him with war games off his coast and with Presidential 'tweets'.

As I mentioned in 2016 (above) Kim Jong-un has always been able to attack Seoul, more or less at will, and has been able to 'nuke' Tokyo for several years now.  Yet he hasn't because of MAD.  On the other hand, the sanctions and the insults continue - despite all his bomb and rocket tests and bellicose posturing - so he keeps 'upping the ante'.   It might be a good idea not to push him to the point of actually declaring his hand by demonstrating his nuclear capability on Hiroshima or Nagasaki (the traditional demonstration sites) or on Washington DC. And to regularly reaffirm the consequences were he to do this. 

Unfortunately it seems that to date President Trump has been the least predictable player in this particular game of poker.

Meanwhile in South Korea the corruption issues, alluded to above, came to a head last year and the country now has a new President, Moon Jae-in, elected earlier this year after the impeachment of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye.  Moon Jae-in is on the record, during his campaign at least, as wanting to renew reconciliation talks with the North and last month suspended plans to site US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) interceptor missiles in the South.  According to USA Today: "...the Pentagon rushed to put {these} in place before the impeachment of his more hawkish predecessor."  In a clear attempt to make them a fait accompli, the system was declared partially operational a week before Moon Jae-in was elected.  Four batteries remain in place but are now in limbo until exposed to a future environmental impact analysis, followed by a parliamentary debate.

Might rapprochement with the North be renewed?  Will the 'chaebol' reassert their manipulative hegemony over the Korean body politic?  And where is Michael Richard Pompeo, the new Director of the US Central Intelligence Agency, in all this?

Only time will tell.

 

A further update
Jan 1 2018

From July onwards North Korea continued to test even larger or improved rockets.  Then on September 3 2017 they tested their sixth and by far largest nuclear weapon said to be a fusion bomb (H-Bomb) capable of being missile carried.  The explosion created a magnitude 6.3 tremor, making it the most powerful weapon Pyongyang has ever tested.  North Korean state media released pictures of Kim Jong Un inspecting what it claimed was a nuclear warhead small enough to be placed inside a missile.  In response to some western sceptics doubting this image Kim Jong Un then threatened to launch and detonate a similar weapon over the Pacific.

At a result of this test and the subsequent threats even China came on board with tougher sanctions that will turn down the oil tap to a trickle and very much restrict his country's access to foreign currency.  So in September, in response to that country's sixth nuclear test, the United Nations Security Council unanimously strengthened its oil sanctions regime against North Korea:

S/RES/2375 11 September 2017

'At the current annual level of 4 million barrels and limits exports of refined petroleum products to the country to 2 million barrels annually. They together slash North Korea's oil supplies from outside by 30 percent. It also bans overseas sales of North Korean textiles and further restricts the country's exports of its workers.'
 

 

Meanwhile President Trump became similarly bellicose; released a series of threatening 'tweets'; and got red in the face.

Notwithstanding these sanctions, in November North Korea launched it's Hwasong-15 missile, the most powerful yet.  It travelled for 50 minutes and reached an altitude of 4,500 km (2,800 miles), over ten times the height of the International Space Station.   According to Wikipedia its potential range appears to be more than 13,000 km (8,000 miles), able to reach Washington and the rest of the continental United States.

To avoid an attempt to 'take out' the missiles, preliminary to a land based attack, North Korea can hide them and launch from multiple 'green field' locations.  There is no fixed launch pad and based on satellite imagery, and Wikipedia reports that some experts believe that they may now be able to fuel missiles horizontally, shortening the delay between when a missile becomes visible to satellites to when it can be launched.

Let's hope that with a New Year commonsense prevails - all the while remembering that the last time the world successfully turned off the oil tap on an underestimated nation the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. 

See my travel notes on Japan (Here...) for more on that.

 


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Travel

Thailand

 

 

In October 2012 flew to India and Nepal with Thai International and so had stopovers in Bangkok in both directions. On our way we had a few days to have a look around.

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Fiction, Recollections & News

The Book of Mormon

 

 

 

 

Back in the mid 1960's when I was at university and still living at home with my parents in Thornleigh, two dark suited, white shirted, dark tied, earnest young men, fresh from the United States, appeared at our door.

Having discovered that they weren't from IBM my mother was all for shooing them away.  But I was taking an interest in philosophy and psychology and here were two interesting examples of religious fervour.

As I often have with similar missionaries (see: Daniel, the Jehovah’s Witness in Easter on this Website), I invited them in and they were very pleased to tell me about their book.  I remember them poised on the front of our couch, not daring or willing to sit back in comfort, as they eagerly told me about their revelation.  

And so it came to pass that a week ago when we travelled to Melbourne to stay with my step-son Lachlan and his family and to see the musical: The Book of Mormon I was immediately taken back to 1964.

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Opinions and Philosophy

The Chemistry of Life

 

 

What everyone should know

Most of us already know that an atom is the smallest division of matter that can take part in a chemical reaction; that a molecule is a structure of two or more atoms; and that life on Earth is based on organic molecules: defined as those molecules that contain carbon, often in combination with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen as well as other elements like sodium, calcium, phosphorous and iron.  

Organic molecules can be very large indeed and come in all shapes and sizes. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle molecular shape is often important to an organic molecule's ability to bond to another to form elaborate and sometimes unique molecular structures.

All living things on Earth are comprised of cells and all cells are comprised of numerous molecular structures.

Unlike the 'ancients', most 'moderns' also know that each of us, like almost all animals and all mamals, originated from a single unique cell, an ova, that was contributed by our mother.  This was fertilised by a single unique sperm from our father.

This 'fertilisation' triggered the first cell division. These two cells divided; and divided again and again; through gestation and on to birth childhood. So that by the time we are adults we've become a huge colony of approximately thirty seven thousand billion, variously specialised, cells of which between sixty and a hundred billion die and are replaced every day. Thus the principal function of a cell, over and above its other specialised purposes, is replication. 

As a result, the mass of cells we lose each year, through normal cell division and death, is close to our entire body weight. Some cells last much longer than a year but few last longer than twenty years. So each of us is like a corporation in which every employee and even the general manager has changed, yet the institution goes on largely as before, thanks to a comprehensive list of job descriptions carried by every cell - our genome.

Cell replication is what we call 'life'.  The replicating DNA molecule can therefore be regarded as the 'engine of life' or the 'life force' on Earth.  So it is quite a good thing to understand. 

 


What makes us human?

Different animals and plants have different numbers of genes and chromosomes that together make up their genome.  Many are far more complex than humans.  The 32 thousand  human genes are organised into 23 pairs of chromosomes within each of our cells.  But the protein-coding genes, that differentiate us, form only a fraction (about 1.5%) of the instruction and memory data that is stored in DNA. The remainder, coding for other aspects of cell chemistry, seems to be administrative overhead.

When human girls are born, they have about a million eggs in each of their two ovaries, nestled in fluid-filled cavities called follicles. But this number declines quite rapidly so that it is depleted by the time of menopause (usually before 50 years of age). Unless fertility treatment is in use, just one or sometimes two of these (apparently randomly selected) ova descends from the ovaries each menstrual period - down the woman's fallopian tubes where it (or they) may become fertilised if the woman has recently engaged in coitus (had 'sex').

As in vitro fertilization (IVF) demonstrates every day; we now understand that a unique version of your father's genome was injected into your mother's egg by just one of his millions of spermatozoa. So that when the two genomes merged a doubly unique cell, that became you, was the result.

Our genes, that are encoded in their DNA, come in equal proportion from both parents.  Unless we have an identical twin, resulting from division of the zygote (see below) after fertilisation, each of us is genetically unique; our genetic identity determined by that successful fertilisation. 

 

 


Human Reproduction - Click here to Expand

 

Within our species we are said to be of Caucasian or Asian or African appearance, to have dark or fair complexion and so on, and possibly to bear a ‘family resemblance’.  These traits are due to the particular gene variants we have inherited from our parents.

These have been passed down to us, with regular variations, from parent to child, and through many ancestor species, since life began on the planet. And all plants and animals on Earth belong to a single family because we all inherit the same system of reproduction from one original replicating cell, our last universal common ancestor (LUCA) 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago.

 


Replication

The DNA molecular structure resembles a zip fastener, where each tooth can be any of four molecular bases.  The bases G-C and A-T are each small organic molecules that at one point are covalently bound to a triphosphate (containing three phosphorous atoms) and a sugar group that binds them in a ribbon.  At their free end Guanine is attracted to Cytosine, with triple hydrogen bonds, and Adenine is attracted to Thymine, with double hydrogen bonds. 

In the following notation: black = Carbon;  blue = Nitrogen;  red = Oxygen; white = Hydrogen.   Bars joining them indicate a covalent bond, an electron shared between the atoms.  A double bar indicates two shared electrons.   

 

  Cytosine (C4H5N3O) has a shape that attracts (fits)   Guanine (C5H5N5O) 


but not  Thymine (C5H6N2O2)  or   Adenine (C5H5N5), that attract (fit) each other.

 

Each of these bases is bound to a ribbon of  sugar molecules and at its other end lightly bonds to a matching base on the other half of the 'zipper' such that when it is 'unzipped' each attracts its opposite number (like magnets attracting the opposite pole) thus recreating a new matching half in the same sequence.

 


DNA replication. 

 

This unzipping and reforming is called self-replication. It is going on continuously in all living things as new cells are created to replace those that die. In an adult human around three quarters of a million of our cells divide every second.  This cell division is the process we call organic life and may continue (usually briefly) after we are legally (brain) dead.

Other chemical mechanisms within the cell translate the genetic information stored in the DNA sequence to manufacture the proteins from which new cells are built and differentiate themselves, organising to become our various organs and to thus arrange themselves to form a human; and not a gorilla or a crocodile or a kola or a rose or a cabbage. The human genome project had now identified 32,185 human genes.

Accurate reproduction is very important to the viability of an organism.  Just as: 'WOLF' does not have the same meaning as 'FOWL' the location and order of sequence G-A-T-C within a particular DNA string (chromosome) will result in a different outcome to the sequence C-A-G-T .   And this difference will influence cell structure and purpose:   'The wolf eats the fowl' has a totally different meaning to: 'The fowl eats the wolf'.

This method of storing and reproducing instructions and data is twice as efficient as the binary method we presently use in electronic devices.  For example the binary processor in your computer or reading device requires each character in in each word in this sentence to be encoded in two bytes (each of 8 characters or bits).  In other words 16 ones and zeros are required for every character on this page (eg 'a' = 0000000001100001) and a similar number for each pixel in a simple colour image.  But DNA can encode the same information (sufficient for every unique character and symbol in every language in the world) in just eight characters.

There are a fraction over 3 billion characters in the human genome (3,079,843,747 base pairs).  In computer terms this is equivalent to about three quarters of a gigabyte of information storage. The same data is stored in the nucleus of each of our cells.  This is in nuclear DNA, before taking into account separate, but smaller, storage in each of the mitochondria (see below). 

A 'gig' isn't much you might say (less than $1's worth) but the actual data storage density is in excess of anything offered by our present electronic technology.  Cells are a lot smaller than the chip in a memory stick - there around a billion cells per cubic centimetre in hard tissue.

This also points to another reality.  Had not this replication chemistry been available, and the conditions for the reactions been just right, life could not have occurred in its earthly form. 

Life relying on another replication method that was say binary would be at a disadvantage and would have to use different replication mechanisms.  If there was a chemistry, at different temperatures and chemical concentrations, allowing say six base pairs it would be different again.  We and our cousins (the other animals, plants and other organisms) that are all descended from the original replicating cell (LUCA - see above) are here because the conditions on Earth were and are just right for our kind of life to prosper.

Elsewhere in the universe it may be different.

 


Gene Mapping

Genes are just patterns of chemical molecules that are held within the replicating DNA mechanism.  The way they are encoded onto DNA can be likened to any other mechanism for copying and recording data: a DVD or even a vinyl record or the memory in this computer.  As a result they can be altered or damaged from time to time and some of these variations are successfully copied into subsequent offspring.  If they are particularly advantageous to survival and reproduction these changes, or mutations, rapidly spread throughout the species, so that over tens of thousands of years, individuals successful in one environmental niche are so different from those successful in another that a new species has formed (followed by a new genus, family, order, and so on). 

This process of periodic differentiation has been likened to the branching of a tree but because of the activity of bacteria and viruses and residual DNA that may be reactivated as well as limited cross-species reproduction  (for example later Humans and Neanderthal) it is no longer believed to be quite that simple.

DNA encodes the instructions for creating each cellular colony, defining each species, and each individual within a species. DNA changes over time in such away that each change is a development on previous generations. So it is possible to trace DNA ancestry back through generations of a particular species over time.  For example, DNA studies are increasingly shedding light on the questions around human origins. 

Most animals, including humans, carry two types of DNA.  Our main genome is carried by the chromosomes in the nucleus of each of our cells. This comes from both our parents. The secondary genome, mtDNA, is carried by bacteria-like organelles within each of our cells, that convert sugars for cell energy, called mitochondria. These are all cloned (reproduced by asexual division) from the mitochondria that were within the original egg cell provided by our mother.

Cells may contain from one mitochondrion to several thousand mitochondria depending on species and cell differentiation.  As a result this is the predominant DNA found in a cellular sample.

So our mtDNA comes only from our mother; in turn from her mother; and so on and mtDNA allows us to map the female ancestral line.  This original egg cell was fertilised by a sperm from our father (sperm do not contribute their mitochondria). Once fertilised, the egg cell then divided repeatedly, differentiating in accordance with the coding instructions in our DNA, into the many cells that form the cellular colony that became 'us'.

Males are differentiated from females by a Y chromosome in place of one X. So sons can only inherit this from their father (like their family name in our culture) and periodic mutations in the DNA of the Y chromosome allow the (actual) male ancestral line to be traced back.

As a result of this work we now know that humans on the planet are all descended from a single group that left Africa less than 70 thousand years ago. 

Recent DNA analysis shows that early humans sometimes interbred with the Neanderthal; a separate hominid subspecies that left Africa much earlier and settled in the Middle East and Europe over quarter of a million years ago.

It's amazing to think that we have only understood it within my lifetime. Now the ancient view that people grow from a seed, provided by their father, and gain the spark of life at 'conception' from a god is totally debunked. So throw away all those ancient texts.

 


Viruses

Viruses have been around since life began but they are 'of life', they are not technically 'alive' because they cannot themselves reproduce. They are extremely small - about 70 microns in diametre - and until the invention of electron microscopes in the 1930's their existance had only been inferred. 

To create copies of themselves they need a host cell with the necessary reproductive mechanisms. Over the millennia viruses have evolved the necessary mechanisms to penetrate cells, much like spermatozoa, and inject their DNA or RNA and capture the host's replication mechanisms so that the infected cell begins manufacturing thousands of virion (virus particle) clones of the invader. These then capture other nearby cells in the host animal or plant; or in similar bacteria.  Huge numbers of infected cells are usually destroyed in the process, sometimes killing the plant or animal.

 

Coronavirus particles (yellow) on the surface of a dying cell (that produced them)
Niaid/National Institutes of Health/Science Photo Library (from 
https://www.newscientist.com)

 

But animals plants and bacteria have become familiar with this threat and have in turn evolved means of dealing with or living with viruses to the extent that some are exploited for the benefit of the host.

In turn viruses evolve new strategies to perpetuate their reproduction. Thus new viruses arise from time to time, sometimes jumping from one species to another when an opportunity arises.

Many animals, including humans, have an immune system that has a memory of harmful viruses and means of neutralising them. Thus, once the animal has been infected and survived, the chances of reinfection are reduced.  Vaccines work by presenting our immune system with a harmless sample that allows it to recognise a particular harmful virus.

Since I first wrote this article the World has suffered a new viral pandemic.  It is a novel corona virus for which we have no established immunity and there is no vaccine.  At the end of June 2020 the Covi-19 virus has already killed half a million people.

It is estimated that this virus will no longer find sufficient vulnerable hosts to spread further after infecting around 70% of the populations in which it is spreading.  It has a case fatality rate of just under 1%, that is, of those who catch it just under one in a hundred die.  

Quarantine restrictions are in place in many countries to protect relatively uninfected areas, with local measures to eliminate 'hot spots'.  But the majority of the world's population, in excess of five billion, are in countries in which it is presently spreading.

Unless a vaccine is available soon it seems inevitable that many millions more will be killed.  The economic consequences are also dire.

 

 

 

 


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