Saturday, January 31, 2015

In Memoriam: Otto Carius

Otto Carius, one of the outstanding German tank commanders of World War II who was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves for his exploits, has died at the age of 92.

His book 'Tigers In The Mud' is one of the classic accounts of armored combat on the Eastern Front.

It's a must-read, IMHO, for military history buffs and anyone interested in armored combat.  His war record was exceptional by any standards.  His last interview was given to a Russian journalist last year;  it can be read in translation here.

May he rest in peace.


Friday, January 30, 2015

A follow-up to Doofus #811

In a comment to our Doofus Of The Day #811, reader Merlin linked to this video clip from the movie 'Robocop 3'.  Not having seen the movie, I didn't know it:  but it fit so well with our latest Doofus that I simply had to include it here.


Ebola: not down and far from out

The news media has allowed reporting about the Ebola crisis in West Africa to die down to a dull background murmur, but things are still pretty bad over there.  The disease is now having a 'knock-on' effect across the entire health care sector.  The Telegraph reports:

Ebola is devastating Sierra Leone's health-care system, with a dozen medics and more than a hundred healthcare workers dead so far.

At the Princess Christian Maternity Hospital in Freetown, Ebola’s deadly legacy greets visitors the moment they walk in the doors. Occupying pride of place on the peeling lobby wall, in a spot where a portrait of the hospital’s founder might normally hang, is a picture of staff member, Samuel Batty. A caption above reads: “In loving memory of our beloved brother and colleague.”

Mr Batty died from Ebola on December 2 at the age of 37. He was one of about 110 health-care workers killed by the virus since it hit Sierra Leone last March. Yet when his colleague Amadou Jawara walks past the picture each day, he feels pride as much as sadness.

Like Mr Batty, Mr Jawara is not a doctor but a community health worker, and the pair were on a training programme to teach them how to deal with basic surgical operations and the complications of childbirth. In a country where the health service is patchy at the best of times, it helps for even the most junior health workers to be able to “act up” – and when Ebola hit Sierra Leone, that is just what Mr Batty and Mr Jawara found themselves doing.

“In November, the junior doctors in Sierra Leone went on strike for two weeks, saying it wasn’t safe enough for them to work, and wanting better protective equipment,” said Mr Jawara, 40. “During that time, those of us on the surgical training programme helped fill the gaps, but it was very tough work.”

Too tough, as it turned out, for Mr Batty. Quite how he contracted the virus remains unclear, but his colleagues believe it was on a particularly busy day in late November, when a pregnant woman came in with a mild fever. Mr Batty had no choice but to conduct the usual internal examinations, in the interests of her unborn child. “The woman died shortly afterwards [from Ebola], and by that time it was too late for Samuel,” said Mr Jawara.

As ever with Ebola, the tragedy did not end there. Mr Batty’s wife also died, meaning that his son (who also caught the virus but recovered) and four other children are now orphans. Mr Jawara also spent time in quarantine, fearing he had become infected, too. “The whole thing was terrible,” he said. “And Samuel was such a decent, gentle and hardworking man.”

Such tales can be heard these days in nearly any hospital in Sierra Leone. It is now the worst-infected of all the West African nations hit by the Ebola epidemic, with 3,145 of the 8,641 deaths recorded so far since this outbreak began in Guinea in December 2013.

. . .

The deaths of so many health workers – coupled with the ongoing reluctance of many others to return to work – has thrown a health service already crippled by civil war into an all-out crisis. Many of the country’s hospitals and clinics remain shut or are operating at a fraction of their normal capacity, meaning that people seeking routine A&E treatment, be it after a car crash, for malaria or just for severe diarrhoea, may die.

“We estimate there are 3.8 deaths from normally treatable diseases for every Ebola death,” says Adam Forrest, an NHS consultant gynaecologist with Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust.

There's more at the link.

To make matters even more complicated, just as Ebola is merely the latest in a long line of viral hemorrhagic fevers in Africa (its genetic 'ancestors' include Lassa fever, Marburg virus, etc.), so it's now beginning to mutate into something different.  The BBC reports:

Scientists tracking the Ebola outbreak in Guinea say the virus has mutated.

Researchers at the Institut Pasteur in France, which first identified the outbreak last March, are investigating whether it could have become more contagious.

More than 22,000 people have been infected with Ebola and 8,795 have died in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.

Scientists are starting to analyse hundreds of blood samples from Ebola patients in Guinea.

They are tracking how the virus is changing and trying to establish whether it's able to jump more easily from person to person

"We know the virus is changing quite a lot," said human geneticist Dr Anavaj Sakuntabhai.

"That's important for diagnosing (new cases) and for treatment. We need to know how the virus (is changing) to keep up with our enemy."

It's not unusual for viruses to change over a period time. Ebola is an RNA virus - like HIV and influenza - which have a high rate of mutation. That makes the virus more able to adapt and raises the potential for it to become more contagious.

"We've now seen several cases that don't have any symptoms at all, asymptomatic cases," said Anavaj Sakuntabhai.

"These people may be the people who can spread the virus better, but we still don't know that yet. A virus can change itself to less deadly, but more contagious and that's something we are afraid of."

Again, more at the link.

An asymptomatic form of Ebola would be really, really scary.  All the precautions set up at entry points to most nations, and the initial assessment centers backing them up, focus on detecting the symptoms of the disease and responding to them.  If there are no symptoms, the entire screening process is at risk.  If an asymptomatic carrier of a new form of Ebola gets into a country, he or she could infect literally hundreds, if not thousands of people before the disease manifests itself in its final stages, just before it kills the carrier.

It looks like within a year or two, the 'Ebola' being treated in West Africa will not be the same 'Ebola' that we saw last year.  Will it bear the same name?  Who knows?  Those infected with it won't care, because they'll likely suffer just as badly.


"10 Things Weather Forecasters Won’t Tell You"

That's the title of an interesting article at MarketWatch.  I had no idea that weather was such big business (the weather forecasting 'market' was worth $6 billion in 2014, according to the article).  Here's just one of the ten points they discuss.

7. “The financial markets keep us on our toes.”

One way companies protect against unexpected weather is to buy weather futures — essentially financial contracts that pay off in the case of adverse weather like hurricanes or extreme temperatures. These contracts seem to be having a surprising side effect: They are making weather measurements more accurate.

The Chicago Mercantile Exchange, on which many such contracts trade, says they’re used as a hedging mechanism by companies like ski resorts, electric utilities, snow removal firms, and others that depend on certain weather conditions to profit. A company might enter into a contract with a financial institution. One bets that the temperature will be on average over 65 degrees in a certain location next month, while the other bets that it will be less than 65 degrees on average. The difference between the benchmark and reality (based on NWS measurements) determines who gets a payout at the end of the month.

And exchange-traded weather contracts are just one portion of a large base of weather futures, much of which takes place over the counter, says Brown, of Swiss Re.

Amiyatosh Purnanandam, associate professor of finance at the University of Michigan, and doctoral student Daniel Weagley did research on the weather contracts and the accuracy of the NWS’s measurements. Readings from NWS stations in the field can sometimes be off initially, as a result of calibration, maintenance issues, or external interference (the agency later issues corrected temps). But the researchers found that, after a weather futures contract was introduced in a specific city, those errors fell by about 10%.

The National Weather Service doesn’t often make mistakes in its measurements, but the added scrutiny of the financial markets puts pressure on the meteorologists to make measurements more accurate, Purnanandam says. It’s an example of how financial markets can influence behavior.

But while the market may have been one factor in improving weather data accuracy, the weather service says it’s always working to improve.

There are nine more points at the link.  Interesting reading, particularly if you only watch the weather forecast for your own area and don't think about how it can impact commerce and industry.


Thursday, January 29, 2015

Doofus Of The Day #811

OK.  You're a crook.  You decide to rob a store for some quick money.  What's the absolute worst kind of store you could pick?  The kind where you're virtually guaranteed to run straight into the long arm of the law?

That's right.  You guessed it . . .

An instant Doofus award to the criminal for what Massad Ayoob terms "A sudden and acute failure of the victim selection process."  How the hell is he going to explain that decision to his cellmates?


Snipers, war and political fallout

I'm both amused and somewhat sickened by the ravings from the politically left-wing and progressive about the film 'American Sniper'.  I'm sure readers have already seen press reports about comments by Michael Moore, Seth Rogen and many others.  The latest is from an interview with NBC reporter Ayman Mohyeldin:

MOHYELDIN: A lot of his stories when he was back home in Texas, a lot of his own personal opinions about what he was doing in Iraq, how he viewed Iraqis. Some of what people have described as his racist tendencies towards Iraqis and Muslims when he was going on some of these, you know, killing sprees in Iraq on assignment. So I think there are issues --

SCARBOROUGH: Wait, wait. Killing sprees? Chris Kyle was going on killing sprees?

MOHYELDIN: When he was involved in his -- on assignments in terms of what he was doing. A lot of the description that has come out from his book and some of the terminology that he has used, people have described as racist.

There's more at the link, but IMHO, Mohyeldin's words aren't worth reading.  I won't comment on his character, or his worth as a human being.

I get the feeling that a lot of the negative comments about 'American Sniper' are specifically directed at the entertainment industry in general, and this year's Academy Awards in particular.  The loony left simply can't abide the thought that the film may win an Oscar - or, horror of horrors, perhaps more than one! - so they're trying to shoot it down among Academy voters.  Frankly, it seems to me that compared to classic movies of years gone by, the modern Academy Awards aren't really worth having, but then, I'm hardly a Hollywood fanboi.

I found two comments by veterans to be far more sensible - and sensitive.  First, from former US Marine and now US Army active-duty serviceman (and qualified sniper) 'Arctic Specter', this:

As for the recent attacks that have been focused on my sniper brethren, that is a whole different line.  The insults towards what we do being “cowardly” are nothing short of inflammatory and ridiculous.  I have stayed more or less silent in regards to them, but once again, there are lines.  “I think most Americans don’t think snipers are heroes”.  Personally, I would say Michael Moore is pretty detached from the average American.  The “average” American household brings in approximately $50,000 annually, whereas Mr. Moore’s net worth is placed at $50 million (  I’m not entirely sure on this, but I’m fairly certain that a person worth $50 million runs in different social circles than most American citizens and probably didn’t get a fair census of what Americans truly think of snipers.  More accurately I would say his social circle is fairly limited to extremely leftist, highly pompous, and overly arrogant Hollywood elitists who’s major life accomplishment was winning an award for aiming a camera in a provocative manner.  It’s infuriating to suffer the comments generalized at my friends, colleagues, and myself, though it’s not for the insult itself, but rather the fact that such an insignificant person who hasn’t seen a shot fired in anger can judge the honor and courage of various roles on a battlefield.  Comparably, the irritation that I feel when I see these tweets is reminiscent of having your hands tied while a gnat gnaws on your cheek.  Ultimately, its not going to damage you, but fuck all if you don’t just want to swat the shit out of the damn thing to make it stop.  But then there’s those lines again.  It would be crossing quite a major one to swat such an insignificant little insect; as pleasing as it would be to many.

I’m not an obtuse man.  I have a bit of clarity that most people see movies and see snipers in movies and have a general belief that a sniper is some guy that gets up in a bell tower somewhere and shoots a bad guy in the face.  While that’s not completely untrue, there is much more to it than it seems.  Snipers operate in the smallest groups on the battlefield.  We have less guys watching our backs.  We go deeper into unfriendly territory than everyone else, and we survive against the greatest odds.  We are masters of precision fire.  A sniper and his rifle can do with one well placed shot what it would take an artillery barrage to accomplish, and do it with a lot less collateral damage.  We are more than just a gun.  We are a psychological factor.  If you need proof, Mr Moore’s uncle was shot by a sniper and to this day he feels the need to demonize them.  Psychologically effected an entire generation into the future with one single shot which Mr. Moore didn’t even witness.  Now imagine the enemy’s resolve after the man next to them is taken out by a single accurate shot.  You just took two men out of the fight, maybe more.  We create chaos.  Imagine trying to ask your boss what your tasks for the day are, but he decided not to show up for the day.  What work gets accomplished?  Who takes charge?  Who has to do the work of the guy that took charge?  Disorder ensues.  Leadership is the priority target of a sniper.

Snipers are not as base as an anti-war sensationalist would lead you to believe.  We are feared on the battlefield and can do more to shape it than an entire battalion of soldiers.  A single, well-placed, arrow completely ended the Battle of Hastings in 1066 by reportedly piercing the skull of the then crowned king, King Harold.  This one arrow changed the future of England and allowed the Normans to conquer it and establish a new ruling dynasty in Britain.  Obviously, when you are that effective there is going to be some animosity thrown in your direction.  There is going to be a lot of misunderstanding and fear.  There are, apparently, even going to be people calling you a coward.  All you can do is toe the line, keep your finger straight and off the trigger until you intend to fire, and, from time to time, shoo away some gnats gnawing at your cheek.

There's much more at the link.  Go read it all.  He's good.  (Oh - and read his reactions to his first post on the subject 'going viral' in the blogosphere.  They're fun.)

The second article appears at the oddly-named 'OAF Nation' (it describes itself here), and is titled 'American Sniper:  The Voice of Veterans'.  It's by someone calling himself 'Grifter'.  He comes across as genuine, even though I don't know his personal background.  Here's an excerpt.

American Sniper portrayed Chris Kyle as a guy trying to do the best he could in shitty situations. Doing what he had to in order to protect American lives. It highlighted perfectly that coming home is almost impossible. There’s always an urge to go back and keep working. Not for fortune or glory, but for each other. The way I always thought was, “if I don’t go, who will?” I couldn’t bear the thought of some 18-19 year old kid taking my perceived place in the long line of casualties. American Sniper showed the anguish at the bureaucracy of the Iraq war and the tough decisions that had to be made and later scrutinized by someone at home on the couch. He even said, “we’re at war, and I’m going to the mall.” It accurately shows the disillusionment of returning to a country that isn’t engaged in any capacity with what’s going on with their troops. It captures the essence of what it’s like to come home and try to assimilate into a society that is oblivious.

It’s most powerful statement was that it clearly shows the absolutely bitter loneliness a vet can experience coming home. I don’t mean loneliness as is synonymous with solitude. Kyle was surrounded by family and loved ones. He had reasons to celebrate his life, his wife, and his babies. Yet, he still felt a void. He had the support structure of a family that needed him, yet he couldn’t relish in the love they gave. He could not sit back and enjoy being home, due to the longing for his brothers and a crippling grief for the men he could not keep from harm.

. . .

However, I read a piece by Amanda Taub ... in which she bashes the film and accuses it of “rewriting American history.” Her point of contention was that the film was too black and white for her tastes. She calls the war in Iraq a grey area, which I agree. I also agree with her disdain at the treatment of the conventional troops in the film as cannon fodder or inferior to the SEALS in importance. However, she smashes on Eastwood’s flick by calling into question the lack of mention of G.W. Bush, WMD, or Saddam Hussein. She accuses the movie of inventing fictional characters for Kyle to fight. I’m taking this as she is mad the movie didn’t take a political stance or mention any of the media hype, hot buttons, or buzzwords normally associated with the war in Iraq.

My answer to that: Yeah, no shit.

The film wasn’t about any of that because for US, the war wasn’t about any of that. Do you think any of us gave a fuck about Saddam Hussein, WMD, Bush, Cheney, or any of that shit that was being ejaculated by the news? The film wasn’t about grey areas, because to us it didn’t matter. All that mattered to us was the guy to our left, and the guy to our right…and especially the guy that still had a can of Skoal. It wasn’t that we were willfully ignorant of the issues surrounding the Iraq, or that we were in denial, but when your finger is on a trigger, when you’re face is covered in your friends’ brain matter, you aren’t thinking about “good and evil” or “grey areas.” That is the entire point this civil rights attorney misses, the film was about a man on the ground and the struggle to come home with a head full of grief and regret, not the Iraq war itself.

. . .

To the people that saw the movie for what it was, it was a glimpse into our world. It offered up our collective hearts to you in a manner a typical, movie-going civilian would understand. That is powerful, and hopefully opens a broader dialogue about our struggle to really come home. This is what we’re thinking and why we’re still fighting. As far as our silent war goes, this movie got it right.

To those that saw it as more “pro Bush/Iraq/Right Wing/anti-Muslim” political statement and want to bash it and our military, I say this:

The movie wasn’t for you. It was for the guy with mud on his boots and a hole in his heart, and for the families that are left to pick up the pieces. Go back to your latte.

Again, much more at the link.  Go read.

To both 'Arctic Specter' and 'Grifter', as one combat veteran to another:  Thanks, guys.  If we ever meet, the first beer's on me.


EDITED TO ADD:  Kurt Hofmann has an interesting take on this subject over at JFPO.  Recommended.

John Deere would be green with envy

Here's a Claas tractor with multiple attachments designed to cut grass in and around ditches and other complex surface features.  They call it the 'Octopus', and one can see why.

Seems like an ingenious design.  I've seen tractors mowing the verges of US Interstate highways and other roads with a single extending arm like that, but never more than one.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

ISIL, AQAP, Saudi Arabia - and lots and LOTS of money

Last Sunday I posted an article titled 'Wheels within wheels in the Middle East', in which I postulated that the Islamic fundamentalist terrorist movements ISIL and AQAP were almost certainly planning an attempt to raid Saudi Arabia, and possibly even take over the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, while that nation's rulers were in a state of transition following the death of its King.

Today I came across a fascinating article by John Robb at Global Guerrillas offering an additional perspective on why Saudi Arabia would be such a tempting target for the jihadists.  I think he makes a very strong case.  Here's an excerpt.  (Note:  the acronym ISIS is interchangeable with ISIL, referenced above.)

ISIS still hasn't entered the big leagues.  To do that, it needs to do one thing.  It needs Saudi Arabia.  Saudi Arabia offers one thing to the jihadi entrepreneurs that no other place can offer.  It's not Mecca and Medina.  Those holy sites, although extremely important to the cohesion and legitimacy of the jihad, come in a close second to the real goal. 

To the jihadi entrepreneurs consumed 24x7 with making enough money to keep ISIS going, Saudi Arabia is the end game.  Almost unlimited amounts of loot.  A mountain of loot.  Enough loot to finance the unlimited expansion the jihad.   A chance to mint new Emirates by the boatload.

To these entrepreneurs, this is the IPO (initial public offering) of the Century.  An event so financially fruitful it makes the IPOs of Google, Facebook, and all of their Internet brethren pale in comparison.  Given this trajectory, the only question is when? When will ISIS pivot south and go IPO?  Soon.

There's more at the link.  Go read.  It's worth your time.

(In case you're wondering, Saudi Arabia was reported to have cash - cash - reserves of over $740 billion in November last year . . . and that's not counting the personal wealth of its thousands of princes, their gold and silver, their works of art, and so on.  You're probably talking well over a trillion dollars in easily accessible, readily convertible cash and hard assets - not to mention one of the largest oil reserves in the world.  Loot?  Heck, yeah!  LOOT!)


Seal hearts dog (really!)

A seal at Cap Ferrat in France apparently loves dogs - particularly this Labrador retriever.

All together, now:  Awwww!


Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Sometimes the truth hurts - but it's still true

The new Greek finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, may be a rabid Socialist - not far off a full-blown Communist, judging by some of what I've seen and heard and read from him - but he's spot-on in an interview he gave to CNBC today.  You can read the article here, and view the video interview in full (which I highly recommend).

For those who don't want to click over there, here's the money quote.

Q:  You owe the European Central Bank six billion Euros between July and August.  Are you not going to pay?

A:  Well, if you look at the existing agreement, the existing agreement recognizes that, ah, we can't pay.  And it imposes upon us the very strange notion that as a bankrupt state, we must borrow money from our partners - even more money than they've already given us - to repay a central bank which is in the process of printing one trillion Euros.  Now, you only have to state this to realize that this is not a God-given, Divine imperative which Europe shouldn't be discussing.

That's precisely the right answer, irrespective of Mr. Varoufakis' politics or ours.  Basically, the European Central Bank (and most commercial banks in Europe) lent money hand-over-fist to Greece from the moment of its entry into the European Union, even though it was plain as a pikestaff that the country was economically and politically incapable of paying back those loans.  When the whole mess eventually blew up during the 2007/08 financial crisis, Europe insisted on Greek austerity measures to repay the debt that have resulted in a 25% contraction in GDP and an unemployment rate of something like 50% among young people.

At long last the Greek people have demonstrated that they've had enough.  They've proven themselves to be, on the whole, fiscally irresponsible, self-centered and greedy, but I can't disagree with the step they've just taken.  They've elected a government that's dedicated to restoring Greek financial sovereignty, and in the process will punish those who lent irresponsibly.  If banks lend responsibly, to credit-worthy borrowers, they tend to get their money back with interest.  If banks get greedy and lend to anyone who's capable of signing a piece of paper, they should by rights lose their shirts.  In the case of Greece at least, it looks like that may now happen.  It should have happened to many banks in this country during and after the financial crisis, but thanks to the Fed's "too big to fail" mantra we, the taxpayers, were forced to pick up the tab for the bankers' recklessness and fecklessness.  We're still on the hook for it.  It's a big part of the doubling of the US national debt that's occurred under President Obama's administration (although, to be fair, it began under his Republican predecessor).

(Note, too, that from 2008-2011 Iceland chose not to follow the Greek model, but held its nose and took its medicine the hard way.  It rejected calls from politicians and central bankers to assume national responsibility for the bad decisions of its banks.  It showed them the finger, allowed its financial institutions to go bankrupt, and rode out the resulting national and international fiscal storm.  Guess what?  Six years later it's doing very nicely, thank you.  I've no doubt that the lessons learned - and imparted - by Iceland have been absorbed by the upstart wave of rebellious Greek politicians . . . )

Perhaps it's time for a Yanis Varoufakis of our own in Washington.


Another pilot saved by an aircraft parachute

The crew of a Coast Guard HC-130 patrol aircraft filmed a Cirrus SR-22 parachuting into the Pacific Ocean about 250 miles north-east of Hawaii yesterday.  Flight Global reports:

After alerting the authorities to his plight, the pilot ... was directed by the US Coast Guard towards a cruise ship in the area and ditched in the Pacific Ocean. The pilot was able to exit the four-seat aircraft onto a life raft and was rescued by crew from the ship. Crew on a USCG Lockheed Martin HC-130, flying overhead, coordinated, and filmed, the rescue.

The pilot, who had left California for Lahaina on the island of Maui on 25 January, contacted the authorities at 12:30 local time to say he had 3h of fuel remaining and would be forced to ditch in the sea.

Cirrus says it is the 51st time the Cirrus Airframe Parachute System has been deployed, “resulting in 104 persons returning safely”.

There's more at the link.  Here's the video.

That's another save for a very innovative system.  I still can't figure out why more light aircraft manufacturers aren't offering it as a factory-installed option on their planes.