Monthly Archives: July 2015

New Ebola vaccine 100% successful in trial

Using a different experimental approach aimed not only to test a new vaccine but also to stem an Ebola outbreak, scientists have found the new vaccine is 100% successful in providing exposed individuals protection from the virus.

Rather than create a complicated time-consuming trial with a control group getting a placebo — which also allows the epidemic to rage undisturbed — they focused on a different approach:

The Guinea trial — called ‘Ebola, ça suffit’ in French (‘Ebola, that’s enough’) — tested a ring vaccination design, a strategy that was borrowed from successful smallpox eradication efforts in the 1970s. After one patient contracts the disease, their close contacts are vaccinated in the hope of stemming the onward spread of the virus.

The Guinea trial included two arms: one in which adults who had been in contact with someone infected with Ebola and their subsequent contacts were vaccinated shortly after the original patient developed Ebola, and a second in which contacts instead received the vaccine three weeks later. The trial tested a vaccine called rVSV-ZEBOV, which is composed of an attenuated livestock virus engineered to produce an Ebola protein. The vaccine was developed by the Public Health Agency of Canada and then licensed to the drug companies NewLink Genetics and Merck.

Of the 2,014 people who received the vaccine immediately as part of the first arm, none developed Ebola ten days after getting the vaccine. The 10-day window allows the vaccine to summon an immune response and accounts for any pre-existing Ebola infection. (A few people in the immediate vaccination group, however, did develop the disease between 1 and 10 days after vaccination.) That compares with 16 infections among the 2,380 people in the second arm.

The findings mean that the vaccine provided 100% protection from the virus.

The results bring hope that Ebola is now a defeated virus.

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Alan Stern gives the IAU a piece of his mind

New Horizons’ principle investigator yesterday told the International Astronomical Union what he thinks of their definition of a planet:

“It’s bulls—,” he told Tech Insider (and said we could quote him on that).

The problem, Stern said, is that the reclassification largely stemmed from the opinions of astronomers, not planetary scientists. His beef here is that astronomers study a large variety of celestial objects and cosmic phenomena, while planetary scientists focus solely on planets, moons, and planetary systems.

“Why would you listen to an astronomer about a planet?” Stern said. He compared it to going to a podiatrist for brain surgery instead of a brain surgeon. “Even though they’re both doctors, they have different expertise,” Stern said. “You really should listen to planetary scientists that know something about this subject. When we look at an object like Pluto, we don’t know what else to call it.”

Stern’s opinion is not unique among planetary scientists. I have interviewed many, and read reports by others, which consistently say that they object strongly to the IAU’s definition. To them, if a object has enough mass to force it into a sphercial shape, it is a planet.

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Philae results published

Cool image time! The Philae science team yesterday published in Science a set of papers describing their results from the lander’s approach and bouncing landing on Comet 67P/C-G.

Data were obtained during the lander’s seven-hour descent to its first touchdown at the Agilkia landing site, which then triggered the start of a sequence of predefined experiments. But shortly after touchdown, it became apparent that Philae had rebounded and so a number of measurements were carried out as the lander took flight for an additional two hours some 100 m above the comet, before finally landing at Abydos.

Some 80% of the first science sequence was completed in the 64 hours following separation before Philae fell into hibernation, with the unexpected bonus that data were ultimately collected at more than one location, allowing comparisons between the touchdown sites.

The images from lander so far released show the approach to the first site, with one boulder getting larger and larger as it descends, followed by images at the final landing site, showing a fractured, uneven, and very rough surface with the lander apparently sitting sideways with one foot off the ground.

An animation of the first touchdown, created by these images, can be viewed here.

Update: A good summary of the results can be read here.

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The supernova of 1987 finally begins to fade

Almost thirty years after Supernova 1987a became the first naked eye supernova since the invention of the telescope, the necklace ring of spots that the explosion’s shockwave ignited in the late 1990s are finally beginning to fade.

But now the hotspots have slowly begun to fade, Claes Fransson (Stockholm University, Sweden) and colleagues report in the June 10th Astrophysical Journal Letters. The team studied images taken by the Hubble Space Telescope from 1994 to 2014, and spectra from the Very Large Telescope spanning 2000 to 2013. Based on the rate at which the hotspots are fading, the researchers predict the glittering necklace will fade away sometime between 2020 and 2030, with the calculations favoring closer to 2020. The clumps of gas in the central ring are likely dissolving, thanks to a combination of instabilities and conduction in the hot gas surrounding the clumps. In other words, the central ring is being destroyed.

The show really isn’t over. The aftermath of a star exploding goes on for thousands of years. So to will SN1987a’s show.

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Astronomers confirm existence of Earthlike exoplanet 21 light years away

Worlds without end: Astronomers have confirmed the existence of a rocky Earthlike exoplanet only 21 light years away.

HD 219134b is also the closest exoplanet to Earth to be detected transiting, or crossing in front of, its star and, therefore, perfect for extensive research. “Transiting exoplanets are worth their weight in gold because they can be extensively characterized,” said Michael Werner, the project scientist for the Spitzer mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “This exoplanet will be one of the most studied for decades to come.”

The planet has a mass 4.5 times that of Earth, and orbits its sun every three days, which means it is not likely to harbor life. Its sun also harbors three other small exoplanets, but little is known of them.

Expect a lot more news coming from HD 219134b, however. With transits every three days, astronomers are going to have a lot of opportunities to study its atmosphere and make-up.

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Arrested for playing Star-Spangled Banner on July 4, man reject plea deal

Fascists: A man who was arrested on July 4 for playing the Star-Spangled Banner on the street, has refused a plea deal.

What can I say? That the police even considered arresting him is beyond reasonable, no matter what excuses they give. That they did it anyway, and that the state has proceeded to press charges, illustrates again the madness that is taking over our society.

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Obamacare co-ops losing money

Finding out what’s in it: 22 of the 23 nonprofit co-ops created under Obamacare to replace for-profit insurance companies lost money, with the majority failing badly to sign up customers.

Under President Barack Obama’s overhaul, taxpayers provided $2.4 billion in loans to get the co-ops going, but only one out of 23 — the one in Maine — made money last year, said the report out Thursday. Another one, the Iowa/Nebraska co-op, was shut down by regulators over financial concerns. The audit by the Health and Human Services inspector general’s office also found that 13 of the 23 lagged far behind their 2014 enrollment projections.

The probe raised concerns about whether federal loans will be repaid, and recommended closer supervision by the administration as well as clear standards for recalling loans if a co-op is no longer viable. Just last week, the Louisiana Health Cooperative announced it would cease offering coverage next year, saying it’s “not growing enough to maintain a healthy future.” About 16,000 people are covered by that co-op.

In other words, the $2.4 billion was really a pay-off to friends of the Democratic Party, taken from the taxpayers and handed over to that party’s supporters. The Obama administration will never demand that money back, nor do I expect it to increase its oversight of these co-ops.

Read the whole article. It illustrates once again how terrible a law Obamacare is, and how it must be repealed — in full — if the American economy is ever going to have a hope of recovering from the slump it has been in since 2007.

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“I will haul into court the IRS Commissioner to hold him personally in contempt.”

A federal judge yesterday threatened to hold IRS Commissioner John Koskinen in contempt if he and the IRS continued to disobey his orders to release newly recovered Lois Lerner emails in connection with that agency’s harassment of conservatives.

During the a status hearing today, Sullivan warned that the failure to follow his order was serious and the IRS and Justice Department’s excuses for not following his July 1 order were “indefensible, ridiculous, and absurd.” He asked the IRS’ Justice Department lawyer Geoffrey Klimas, “Why didn’t the IRS comply” with his court order and “why shouldn’t the Court hold the Commissioner of the IRS in contempt.” Judge Sullivan referenced his contempt findings against Justice Department prosecutors in the prosecution of late Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) and reminded the Justice Department attorney he had the ability to detain him for contempt. Warning he would tolerate no further disregard of his orders, Judge Sullivan said, “I will haul into court the IRS Commissioner to hold him personally in contempt.”

Until he actually throws some of the IRS officials or their lawyers into jail, however, nothing is going to change.

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Kazakhstan gets a cut rate deal from Russia

It’s who you know: Russia has sold Kazakhstan Sarah Brightman’s space tourist seat at a price more than a third less than it charges NASA.

Kazakhstan will pay a mere $20 million to send an astronaut to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket — less than half the sum reportedly asked of a British passenger to make the same trip and less than one-third of the price routinely paid by NASA for U.S. astronauts, news agency RIA Novosti reported Wednesday, citing a Kazakh space agency official.

Tourists pay somewhere around $35 million while NASA pays $75 million. Kazakhstan, however, owns Russia’s spaceport Baikonur, so they have some leverage in the negotiations. Moreover, there are hints that it won’t have to lay out any cash at all, and that the fee will simply be deducted from the $115 million annual rent that Russia pays.

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Counting bats on a Saturday evening

While most normal people spend their Saturday evenings going out to dinner followed by either a movie or a show, I spent this past Saturday doing something entirely different: counting bats!

There is a local cave here in the Tucson area that is a maternity colony for one species of bats. During the summer the females gather here to gossip and then give birth to their babies, after which they move on until next year. Because of a desire to help these bats, a few years ago the managers of the cave decided to close it during the summer months. This way humans wouldn’t be there to disturb the mothers during their labor.

The managers also decided to do regular bat counts of the bats leaving the cave each evening to feed, in order to get an estimate of the population size. To everyone’s delight they found the numbers rising year-to-year, following the summer closure. The total population of bats isn’t actually going up, but it appears that bats are finding this cave to be a good place to give birth, so more and more of them are making it their summer residence.

In the end the situation will contribute to an actual rise in population, as providing the maternity colony a safe haven will allow for more successful births and more babies.

In the past three years the bat count numbers over each summer would exhibit a typical bell curve, going up and then declining as the summer progressed, with the largest numbers ranging between 75 to 150 each night. However, last year there was one evening in which no bats left the cave. The bat biologist leading the bat count, Sandy Wolf, has theorized that this might be because the mothers are synchronizing their labor so that everyone gives birth at the same time and, because of that, on that night no one exits for feeding.. She knows that some species do this, but for this particular species such behavior has never been documented.

Anyway, she decided to find out. This has required that someone be at the entrance counting the bats at least every other evening. (In past years the counts were only done about once a week.) This has required more help, and thus Sandy has called for volunteers to do the work.

And that is how I and fellow caver Jerry Isaman ended up hiking up the hill to the cave with digital camera, infrared lights, and monitor this past Saturday.

» Read more

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Puzzling red arcs on the Saturn moon Tethys

Red arcs on Tethys

Baffling image time! Images taken in April 2015 by Cassini of the Saturn moon Tethys have produced the best images yet of the puzzling red arcs on the moon’s surface, first identified in 2004.

The origin of the features and their reddish color is a mystery to Cassini scientists. Possibilities being studied include ideas that the reddish material is exposed ice with chemical impurities, or the result of outgassing from inside Tethys. They could also be associated with features like fractures that are below the resolution of the available images.

Except for a few small craters on Saturn’s moon Dione, reddish-tinted features are rare on other moons of Saturn. Many reddish features do occur, however, on the geologically young surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. “The red arcs must be geologically young because they cut across older features like impact craters, but we don’t know their age in years.” said Paul Helfenstein, a Cassini imaging scientist at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, who helped plan the observations. “If the stain is only a thin, colored veneer on the icy soil, exposure to the space environment at Tethys’ surface might erase them on relatively short time scales.”

I could also file this under “the uncertainty of science”, as the scientists at this point haven’t the slightest idea what created these arcs.

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Four skeletons at Jamestown identified

Archeologists have now linked four recently discovered skeletons at the first British North American settlement at Jamestown with historic individuals among the first settlers.

Skeletal remains buried beneath a historic church in Jamestown, Virginia, belonged to four prominent settlers of North America’s first English colony. The group included a minister, two military captains and the first English knight ever buried on the continent, a research team announced on 28 July at the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC. “These men witnessed the first three years of the establishment of the colony,” said James Horn, the president of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation.

Smithsonian anthropologists teamed up with archaeologists at Jamestown Rediscovery to identify the four incomplete skeletons, which were excavated in 2013. First, the researchers narrowed down the potential candidates by analysing a handful of surviving documents from the colony’s early years. Then they used chemical tests, genealogical records, digital analysis of bones and artefacts and contextual clues to make the final identifications.

Having studied the history of Jamestown in great detail for my own masters degree, I can say that this scientific work is spectacular. I would add that I hope that the researchers, having identified these remains, will now allow them to be buried again in peace.

If you want to be amused, you can also read Science’s short article on this discovery. As is typical of that politically driven journal, the article feels compelled to insert a comment about global warming, even though it has nothing to do with this particular research and the claim — that “some scientists think Jamestown (on the Virginia coast) could be overtaken by rising sea levels by the end of this century” — has not yet been proven and is in fact a very speculative assertion.

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Hawaii government not enforcing Mauna Kea emergency rule

Surprise, surprise! The emergency rule imposed by the Democratic governor of Hawaii at Mauna Kea, restricting access and forbidding camping, is not being enforced.

A week after Governor David Ige signed the rule into effect on July 14, signs informing the public were posted on along the Mauna Kea summit access road. Days later on Thursday, July 23, DLNR Conservation and Resource Enforcement officers started distributing what officials are calling educational handouts.

Cell-phone video taken by protesters, who say they’re standing in protection of the mountain as a sacred Native Hawaiian place, captured the first exchange. “We’re here just to serve you these papers, okay? And basically what you need to do is just to read them and understand that this is the emergency proclamation that went through,” a DOCARE officer explained.


DLNR officers have been back five times since then, but no citations or arrests have been made.

This is typical behavior when faced with liberal illegal protesters for most modern political leaders, especially Democrats. Even when they talk a good game, when it comes time to actually enforce the law, they chicken out. And until Governor Ige enforces the law, I do not see how construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope can resume.

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How Comet 67P/C-G interacts with the solar wind

Accumulating data from Rosetta is now giving scientists an excellent picture of how this comet interacts with the solar wind as it moves in towards its closest approach to the Sun.

They have seen that the number of water ions – molecules of water that have been stripped of one electron – accelerated away from the comet increased hugely as 67P/C-G moved between 3.6AU (about 538 million km) and 2.0AU (about 300 million km) from the Sun. Although the day-to-day acceleration is highly variable, the average 24-hour rate has increased by a factor of 10,000 during the study, which covered the period August 2014 to March 2015.

The water ions themselves originate in the coma, the atmosphere of the comet. They are placed there originally by heat from the Sun liberating the molecules from the surface ice. Once in gaseous form, the collision of extreme ultraviolet light displaces electrons from the molecules, turning them into ions. Colliding particles from the solar wind can do this as well. Once stripped of some of their electrons, the water ions can then be accelerated by the electrical properties of the solar wind.

Not all of the ions are accelerated outwards, some will happen to strike the comet’s surface. Solar wind particles will also find their way through the coma to hit home. When this happens, they cause a process called sputtering, in which they displace atoms from material on the surface – these are then ‘liberated’ into space.

There’s more at the link, including animations and simulations.

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Where the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean

An evening pause: But not very relaxing. Hat tip to Phill Oltmann, who notes “This video is of commercial fishing boats returning from fishing off the coast of Washington and Oregon. They are crossing the Columbia Bar, which is the site the Columbia River meets the Pacific Ocean.”

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SpaceShipTwo accident report released

The National Transportation Safety Board today released the results of its investigation into last year’s SpaceShipTwo crash, concluding that the accident was caused by pilot error combined with the failure of the ship’s designers to include systems that could have prevented that error.

The National Transportation Safety Board concluded Tuesday that the developer of a commercial spacecraft that broke apart over the Mojave Desert last year failed to protect against the possibility of human error, specifically the co-pilot’s premature unlocking of a braking system that triggered the in-flight breakup of the vehicle.

In its recommendation, the board took pains to make clear that Scaled Composites, an aerospace company that has partnered with Virgin Galactic to develop the spacecraft, should have had systems in place to overcome the co-pilot’s mistake. NTSB Chairman Christopher Hart said he didn’t believe the company took shortcuts that compromised the spacecraft’s safety. Rather, he said, it didn’t consider that the crew would make such a mistake. “The assumption was these highly trained test pilots would not make mistakes in those areas, but truth be told, humans are humans,” Hart said after the hearing’s conclusion. “And even the best-trained human on their best day can make mistakes.”

This really isn’t news. This was the conclusion reached only weeks after the accident. It also does little to ease the problems at Virgin Galactic.

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The UK launches a 3D printed airplane drone

A University of Southampton team, under a project for the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, have built and launched an entirely 3D printed unmanned air vehicle (UAV) from a navy ship.

Produced under the institution’s Project Triangle, the Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft (SULSA) UAV was launched via catapult from the patrol vessel HMS Mersey, and flew over the Wyke Regis training facility near Weymouth in the south of the country to land on Chesil beach. The 5min sortie covered a range of some 500m, with the UAV carrying a small video payload to record the mission so that operators could monitor it during the flight.

SULSA measures 150cm (59in) and weighs 3kg (6.6lb), and is made via 3D printing using laser sintered nylon. The university claims that SULSA is the world’s first UAV made entirely via the technique. It consists of four separately manufactured main parts that are assembled without the need for any additional tools.

The specific achievement here is interesting, but its significance in illustrating the growing use of unmanned drones and 3D printing is more important. Very soon, a large percentage of everything we own will be built with 3D printing technology, lowering the cost while making construction easier. As for drones, they carry both positive and negative possibilities.

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Proton failure investigation finds quality control the root problem

In the heat of competition: The Russian investigation into the most recent Proton rocket launch failure has now found that the cause of the turbo pump failure was because of significant management failures.

The investigation into the MexSat-1 failure established that a fast spinning shaft inside a turbine of the RD-0212 engine propelling the third stage can break easily due to excessive vibrations. (The turbine is designed to pump propellant into four thrusters which steer the rocket in flight.) Yet, despite the problem lingering in the engine’s design for decades, the fact that two of these three accidents had happened in the past 15 months was itself is not an accident!

In an interview with the Russian business web site BFM.ru, the head of Roskosmos Igor Komarov disclosed that due to recent easing of requirements for the quality of metal that had gone into the production of the shaft, the turbine became more vulnerable to vibrations. Additional fascinating details on the same issue had surfaced on the online forum of the Novosti Kosmonavtiki magazine.

As it turned out, dangerously low requirements for the turbine shaft were set in the design documentation during the development of the rocket. However the issue was identified early during testing and the production team self-imposed extra margins for the affected components to remedy the problem. However in 2013, the new management began questioning why so much manufactured parts had been disqualified during production, even when they had met lowest requirements set in the design documentation. By that time, the new generation of workers and mid-level production managers no longer saw a reason to fight for more stringent requirements, which were actually making their own work more difficult. As a result, the hardware which was barely making through the quality control was certified for the installation on the engine, thus giving the old design flaw more chances to surface. [emphasis mine]

The description above reminds me strongly of the circumstances that took place prior to the Challenger failure in 1986: Engineers trying to fix a problem that managers don’t want to see.

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India’s space agency calls for more hiring

The competition heats up: India’s space agency ISRO says it is facing a manpower shortage caused by its recent successes and increased demand for more space achievements.

ISRO Satellite Centre (ISAC) director M Annadurai – who is also considered one of the heroes of the India’s Chandrayaan-1 mission to the moon (October 2008-August 2009) and the November 2013-launched MOM – has said after a steep increase in ISRO’s workforce expansion between 1982 and 1992 there has been no significant growth in ISRO’s workforce, which has remained in the region of 16,500 over several years. “There is a crunch,” he admitted on the sidelines of the Aerospace & Defence Manufacturing Summit 2015, although adding that it was relative in nature. “The requirements have increased but the workforce has remained more or less the same.”

Annadurai said the requirements were from domestic as well as foreign origin. The ISRO on July 11 launched five British satellites in a single launch, which is considered a record as it was the Indian space agency’s heaviest commercial launch. On the domestic front, he said, there are plans to increase Indian satellite launches from the current four a year to ten in the near future – which requires manpower to meet the quality requirements.

Without doubt India’s recent successes demand a growth in its space industry. The danger here is that India will add jobs to its government space agency rather than hire private companies to do the work and let them do the hiring. If they do the latter, the companies will have flexibility and will be able to adjust quickly to changing conditions. If the former the government will instead be hiring employees who will be seen by politicians as a vested interest they must protect, whether or not it makes sense economically. The first option will allow the aerospace industry to grow naturally. The second will fossilize that industry around pork supporting inefficient political agendas.

Hopefully the new conservative Modi government in India will recognize the dangers of expanding its government agency and will go the private route. This quote from the article gives me hope:

“We need the same number of people (16,500) outside to support operations, which is why we are encouraging private partnerships,” he said. Senior ISRO scientists have also said they have been encouraging retiring space scientists to foster links with private firms to encourage them to work with ISRO in the future. This is with an aim to bring in an “outside manpower” to bolster the in-house activities by ISRO scientists.

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Dolly Parton – Jolene

An evening pause: Performed live, 2014. I especially like the dancing security guards.

Hat tip Danae.

Hey, I am still looking for tips for my evening pauses. Why let Danae have all the fun? If you see a video you think might fit, make a comment here mentioning that you have something, but don’t post the link. I will email you to get it from you.

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New Pluto data released

Pluto

Cool image time! During today’s New Horizons’ press conference, principal investigator Alan Stern noted that only 4%-5% of the data has been recovered. They have finished first phase of download and are moving into second phase, which will be dominated by engineering and other data, not images. So, for the next couple of months they will only be able to release images once and awhile. Beginning in September images, however, they will begin downloading images at a much faster pace.

Some results from today:
» Read more

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Cruz calls McConnell a liar in the Senate

Most interesting: Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) today called Senate Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) a liar in a speech on the Senate floor.

“We had a Senate Republican lunch where I stood up and I asked the majority leader very directly, what was the deal that was just cut on [trade legislation], and was there a deal for the Export-Import Bank? It was a direct question. I asked the majority leader in front of all the Republican senators. The majority leader was visibly angry with me that I would ask such a question, and the majority leader looked at me and said, “There is no deal, there is no deal, there is no deal.”

“Like Saint Peter, he repeated it three times,” Cruz added.

[Cruz also said,] “What we just saw today was an absolute demonstration that not only what he told every Republican senator, but what he told the press over and over and over again, was a simple lie,” Cruz said Friday morning. “We know now that when the majority leader looks us in the eyes and makes an explicit commitment, that he is willing to say things that he knows are false. That has consequences for how this body operates.”

I have embedded video of this speech below the fold.

The increasing public anger expressed by Cruz here against the Republican leadership is a sign of a growing power struggle within that party. About 20% to 30% of the Republican Party feels more loyalty to the Democrats and the Washington power structure than they do to the conservative voters that have supported that party. Unfortunately, it appears that this small minority in the Republican party is presently in charge.

Should the conservative majority ever unify to dump their liberal leadership, there is the risk that many of these Republican leaders will then abandon the party and join the Democrats. The Democrats will then likely regain control of Congress, but if so, they will at least be then fighting an opponent that is unified in support of conservative principles, rather than a party run by two-faced leaders who campaign as conservatives and, having won their elections, immediately team up with the Democrats to block any conservative reform.

It is also possible that these fake conservatives, once kicked out of the leadership, will meekly join the conservative majority, knowing that to join the Democrats will likely get most of them tossed from office at the next election.

Either way, the heavens are beginning to align in favor of a major power shift within the Republican Party. Stay tuned.
» Read more

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