Sunday, October 31, 2010

Musical fun and games

I laughed out loud when Roberta posted links to these videos on her blog this morning. I've been smiling all day at the memory, and watched them more than once for renewed giggles. I couldn't resist linking them here as well.

There are many more videos of this group on Paul Edison Swift's channel on YouTube. Click over to that channel for some very entertaining performances.

Thanks, Roberta!


The wealthiest sportsman in history?

We're used to hearing about the millions of dollars earned by sportsmen like Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant, Peyton Manning or Roger Federer. However, a report in the Daily Mail indicates that a charioteer in Ancient Rome makes them all look like pikers by comparison.

The highest paid sportsman of all time was a slave-turned-chariot racer from Ancient Rome who earned a staggering £9.42 billion [about US $15.13 billion], researchers have revealed.

Experts found details of Gaius Appuleius Diocles who was plucked from humble beginnings as a slave to become the a champion charioteer in second century Rome.

The immensely strong but illiterate athlete pocketed a cool 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money during his career - the same as £396 million [about US $636 million] a year in today's terms.

Historian Peter Struck from the University of Pennsylvania uncovered the figures scrawled by his fellow charioteers on a monument to the sportsman in Rome earlier this year.

. . .

Professor Struck, Associate Professor of Classical Studies, said: 'The modern sporting spectacles we manage to stage—and on occasion be appalled by—pale by comparison to the common entertainments of Rome.

'The Circus Maximus, the beating heart at the center of the empire, accommodated a quarter million people for weekly chariot races.

'Drivers were drawn from the lower orders of society.They affiliated with teams supported by large businesses that invested heavily in training and upkeep of the horses and equipment.

'The best drivers were made legends by poets who sung their exploits and graffiti artists who scrawled crude renderings of their faces on walls around the Mediterranean. They could also be made extraordinarily wealthy.'

. . .

The racing equipment consisted of a leather helmet, shin guards, chest protector, a jersey, whip, and a curved knife—handy for cutting opponents who got too close or to cut themselves loose from entangling reins in case of a fall.

They adopted a Greek style of long curly hair protruding from under their helmets and festooned their horses’ manes with ribbons and jewels. Races started when the emperor dropped his napkin and a referee tried to keep order from horseback.

After seven savage laps, those who managed not to be upended or killed and finish in the top three took home prizes.

Professor Struck added: 'Twenty-four years of winnings brought Diocles — likely an illiterate man whose signature move was the strong final dash — the staggering sum of 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money.

'The figure is recorded in a monumental inscription erected in Rome by his fellow charioteers and admirers in 146, which hails him fulsomely on his retirement at the age of ''42 years, 7 months, and 23 days'' as ''champion of all charioteers''.

'His total take home amounted to five times the earnings of the highest paid provincial governors over a similar period—enough to provide grain for the entire city of Rome for one year, or to pay all the ordinary soldiers of the Roman Army at the height of its imperial reach for a fifth of a year.

'By today’s standards that last figure, assuming the apt comparison is what it takes to pay the wages of the American armed forces for the same period, would cash out to about $15 billion. Even without his dalliances, it is doubtful Tiger [Woods] could have matched it.'

There's more at the link.

OK, I have to admit it: my mind is truly boggled by that sum! I wonder who inherited whatever was left of it when he died? That's enough to make any government - particularly an avaricious Emperor with an Empire to pay for - very sticky-fingered indeed!


A spammer bites the dust

I'm delighted to hear that one of the worst e-mail spammers in the world, a Russian by the name of Igor A. Gusev, is now under investigation by the police in that country. He appears to have fled the country, and they're looking for him.

What surprised me is the sheer volume of spam he (or his operation) was putting out. According to the Consumerist, worldwide spam e-mails have dropped by a staggering one-fifth since his operations were targeted. There are apparently 200 billion (yes, that's B for Billion!) spam e-mails generated every day. This one man, and his operation, were apparently sending out 40 billion of them!

Makes my efforts to reach readers through this blog (which is, I hasten to add, hardly spam!) seem rather amateurish by comparison, doesn't it?


This makes me want to hang Big Brother!

I'm seething with anger at a news report from Pennsylvania. It seems a mother had her child taken away from her, three days after birth, because the hospital tested her blood for opiates and it returned a positive result. The hospital didn't bother to investigate further; they simply informed Pennsylvania's Children and Youth Services (CYS), which came to her house and seized the child. (Apparently that State's laws allow both the blood testing and the seizure of so-called 'at-risk' children.)

The problem in this case is that the mother wasn't using opiates at all. She'd eaten a poppy-seed bagel shortly before admission, and the poppy seeds skewed the results of the tests. Nobody bothered to ask her whether any factors like that might be operative, or checked whether there was any other evidence of drug abuse: they simply reacted in knee-jerk fashion to confiscate her child. As she said, "When she was gone, our family was just at a loss of words . . . I couldn't stop crying. Alex just didn't even know how to be himself. It felt like our heart was ripped in pieces. The most important person was missing, and we didn't know when we would see her again."

Fortunately, the bureaucrats came to their senses, and returned the baby to her after five days when they could find no further evidence of drug abuse. The mother and the ACLU have now filed suit against the hospital and CYS. Quite frankly, I hope they take both parties to the cleaners, financially speaking. This is a sickening example of Big Brother getting too big for his boots.

Let's be clear: if there's a genuine threat to the health, safety or welfare of children, I support the State's right to remove them from their parents. However, to do so without any investigation at all, on the basis of a single blood test, with no corroborating evidence whatsoever . . . that's just too sick for words! It's bureaucracy gone mad! If any hospital or social agency tried to do that to me and/or mine, particularly on the basis of 'evidence' which I knew to be false and/or misinterpreted, I'd be damned if I'd surrender my child to misguided busybodies! I'd make darn sure they didn't get their hands on her - and if they tried to push things, so much the worse for them! I can only marvel at the parents' self-control.

I'd like to think that as a result of this egregious breach of sanity, human rights and basic common decency, the relevant law(s) will be either modified or repealed, to prevent such a travesty of justice from happening again. However, I suspect my hopes are in vain . . .

Bureaucrats! Grrr!


A very important book

I've begun reading a new book by Ian Morris: 'Why the West Rules--for Now: The Patterns of History, and What They Reveal About the Future'. My initial reaction is that this is one of those books that breaks new ground in analyzing the past and how it relates to the present and future. Examples of books that did likewise (at least, in my opinion) would include Jared Diamond's 'Guns, Germs And Steel: The Fates Of Human Societies', Paul Kennedy's 'The Rise And Fall Of The Great Powers', David Landes' 'The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor', and the like. Each of the latter books re-evaluates human history by putting familiar facts and developments into a new context, examining them from a new paradigm or perspective that (sometimes radically) changes our understanding of their import. I submit that Ian Morris' new book falls into the same category.

Morris has summarized some of his findings in two articles for the Daily Mail. Rather than try to make my own summary (yeah, I know, I'm lazy), I'll provide some extracts from those articles. There's much more at the links, for those interested.

One of the most popular theories about the West’s lengthy dominance is that Westerners are simply better than everyone else. However, if we look back far enough we see that this cannot be correct.

Archaeologists and geneticists have shown that our kind, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago. We spread across the world, and by 10,000 years ago, a single kind of human had colonised virtually every niche on the planet. Wherever we go, people are biologically much the same.

Another widely shared idea is that the West has been blessed with better leaders, but that does not hold up to historical scrutiny. A century ago, the humourist Ambrose Bierce defined history in his Devil’s Dictionary as ‘an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools’.

An overstatement, for sure; there have been blameless rulers and clever soldiers, and non-royal, non-military women and men have done plenty of important things.

But when we run through the history of the world, we see strikingly similar mixes of knaves and fools, saints and sinners, great men and bungling idiots in every part of the planet.

For every mass murderer such as Mao Tse-Tung in the East, the West had a Hitler; for every sage such as Socrates in the West, the East had a Confucius. As we would expect if people really are all much the same, no part of the world has a monopoly on virtue or vice.

. . .

For 90 per cent of the 15,000 years since the end of the last Ice Age, the West has been the most developed part of the world. Why?

To a great extent, the answer comes down to a single word: geography.

To make sense of this, we need to look at the full story. When the world warmed up at the end of the last Ice Age, climate and landscape conspired to provide a few areas (basically, a band of ‘Lucky Latitudes’ running from the Mediterranean to China) with species of plants and animals which could be domesticated – that is, tamed and genetically modified to meet human needs.

Within these Lucky Latitudes, the densest concentrations of domesticates (wheat, barley, sheep, cows, goats) were at the Western end, in the hills running through what are now the borderlands of Iran, Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Israel; and so, because people are all much the same and cultures all develop in much the same ways, it was here that foragers first turned into farmers (around 9500 BC). Fed by domesticated plants and animals, they settled in villages that turned into the world’s first cities (around 3500 BC) and empires (around 750 BC).

In other parts of the Lucky Latitudes, like China and India, the concentrations of domesticates were less dense, and so it took people longer to invent villages, cities, states and empires.

Outside the Lucky Latitudes, where there were almost no domesticates, villages, cities and states never developed at all – until conquerors from the Lucky Latitudes brought them. Australians, Siberians and Africans stayed with hunting and gathering not because they were lazier, less clever or better attuned to nature than people elsewhere; geography had simply given them fewer resources.

Geography meant it was likely that some part of the Lucky Latitudes would go on to dominate the globe, and likeliest of all that it would be some part from the Western end.

But geography is full of complicated paradoxes. It shapes the development of societies, but the development of societies simultaneously shapes what geography means. It does this in all kinds of ways. In ancient times, the rise of great empires set off migrations, spread plagues and triggered wars, and by 200 AD all the empires along the Lucky Latitudes were falling apart.

But while Germanic, Arabic and Turkish invaders fought over the ruins of Rome, a great new empire reunited China, and by 700 AD politics began changing what geography meant.

Political division left the war-torn West languishing for centuries in its Middle Ages, while political centralisation let China’s rulers bring together the wealth of East Asia.

This fuelled an extraordinary golden age of artistic, literary and scientific advances – only for these advances to shift the meanings of geography once again.

In the 12th and 13th Centuries, the Chinese came up with two astonishing inventions: ships that could cross oceans and guns that could shoot the people on the other side.

Such self-evidently fine tools leapt from one end of the Lucky Latitudes to the other. The magnetic compass, first mentioned in a Chinese document in 1119, was in the hands of Arab and European sailors by 1180.

The gun moved even faster. The first known true gun, with enough bang to shoot out a lead bullet, was a modest, 12in-long bronze tube made in Manchuria in 1288; by 1327 a manuscript illuminator in Oxford, at the far end of Eurasia, was portraying far superior versions.

For millennia, the lands bathed by the frigid waters of the North Atlantic had laboured under huge geographical disadvantages. They lay far from the real centres of action, in the Mediterranean, and their development lagged far behind.

But ships and guns changed that. Suddenly, sticking out into the Atlantic became a huge plus. A voyage of 3,000 miles would take a 15th Century West European sailor such as Christopher Columbus all the way across the Atlantic to the Americas, while the great 15th Century Chinese admiral Zheng He (a eunuch said to be 8ft tall and 6ft around the belly) would have needed to sail twice as far to get there across the Pacific.

Before seafaring ships existed, this was a trivial geographical detail, but now it was the most important fact in the world. Given time, East Asian sailors would surely have run into the Americas eventually, but it was Columbus rather than Zheng He who opened up this new world to colonisation and plunder.

Chinese sailors were just as daring as the Spaniards, its settlers just as intrepid as Britons; but the new meanings of geography stacked the deck in the West’s favour.

It was therefore the Europeans who went on to create a new kind of maritime market economy in the 17th Century. They swapped guns for slaves in Africa, sailed to the Caribbean and traded slaves for sugar, then headed home to sell the sugar and buy more guns – promptly setting out on their triangular trade route all over again, reaping profits at every point.

Wi th so much money being made, European labourers flooded into new factories, and European thinkers saw what gains would come from explaining how winds and tides worked, measuring and counting in better ways and cracking the codes of physics, chemistry and biology.

Europeans, not Chinese, hurled themselves into these tasks, not because they were smarter but because geography was thrusting new questions on to the West. Europe, not China, had a Scientific Revolution, and Europeans, not Chinese, turned science’s insights back on to society itself.

Voltaire, the sharpest wit in this 18th Century Enlightenment, remained convinced to his dying day that Europe had more to learn from China than the reverse; but by then it was clear to everyone else that something very special was happening in the West.

Europe’s success was raising entirely new questions. In some countries, particularly Britain, the demand for factory workers was pushing wages up to levels that made exports uncompetitive. British entrepreneurs responded by bringing together science and the new market economy, unleashing the awesome power of fossil fuels.

In 1776, the same year that Adam Smith finished his masterpiece The Wealth Of Nations and America’s founding fathers signed the Declaration Of Independence, James Watt launched the first really effective steam engine.

By 1870, Britain’s steam engines would be generating four million horsepower, equivalent to the labour of 40 million men, who would have consumed more than three times our entire wheat output.

Between 1500 and 1900 wheat yields had roughly doubled in the Western core, thanks to better organised farming and more draft animals and manure.

But by the 1890s farmers were reaching the limits of ingenuity. Adding animals could only drive up productivity so far, and by 1900 a quarter of America’s farmland was being used to feed horses.

Thanks to the new meanings of geography, Britain was responsible for the world’s first Industrial Revolution and was the first nation to be able to project power globally. Britain’s population boomed, spreading across the planet in what the historian

Niall Ferguson has vividly called a ‘white plague’; and Britain, not China or Japan, carved out an empire on which the sun never set.

Unfortunately for Britain, however, geography did not stop changing its meanings. As the 19th Century wore on, the British-dominated global economy drew in the resources of North America, converting the United States from a rather backward periphery (like Britain had been half a millennium earlier) into a new global core.

Between 1850 and 1900, Americans felled 168 million acres of forest, more than ten times Britain’s total farmland, and put it under the plough. The U.S. economy was half the size of Britain’s in 1840. By 1904 it was twice as big. But the United States was no more able to stop the ancient interplay of geography and social development when it was on top than Britain had been.

In the 20th Century the American-dominated global economy drew in the resources of Asia just as Britain had once drawn in those of America.

Japan cashed in first, doubling its share of world production between 1960 and 1980. Next came the so-called Asian Tigers: the economies of Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

And then, most spectacular of all, the People’s Republic of China. Its share of world production tripled in the 30 years after Mao’s death in 1976; rare indeed is the Westerner who does not now put on at least one piece of made-in-China clothing every morning.

Chinese industry has sucked 150 million countryfolk into cities – the biggest migration in history. According to Businessweek magazine, ‘the China price’ now represents ‘the three scariest words in the English language’.

So, whatever the analysts may think, the West’s global dominance and ongoing crisis have precious little to do with flukes, great men, or bungling idiots – and nothing at all to do with racial or cultural superiority.

Rather, they are the entirely predictable outcomes of the complicated interaction of geography and social development across the last 15,000 years – an interaction which, in just the past 200 years, has given the West unprecedented wealth and power. And which, within our own lifetimes, has begun tilting the playing field in China’s favour.

. . .

When we imagine what life will be like over the next century, many people worry how the rise of the East will affect our lives in the West. They need not bother: the reality is that by the year 2100 our planet will have changed out of all recognition and even the concept of East and West may be meaningless.

In an interview in 2000, the economist Jeremy Rifkin suggested that: ‘Our way of life is likely to be more fundamentally transformed in the next several decades than in the previous thousand years.’

But this is, in fact, an understatement.

By my calculations, social development will rise twice as much between now and 2050 as in the previous 15,000 years; and by 2100 it will double again.

By 2100 we can anticipate cities of 140 million people – picture Tokyo, Mexico City, New York, Sao Paulo, Mumbai, New Delhi and Shanghai all rolled into one.

We should imagine armies with five times the destructive power of today’s, which probably means not more nuclear arms but weapons that make our intercontinental ballistic missiles, bombs and guns as obsolete as the machine gun made the musket.

Robots will do our fighting. Cyber warfare will be decisive. Nanotechnology will turn everyday materials into deadly weapons.

The 20th Century took us from hand-cranked telephones to the internet; the 21st will probably see everyone (at least in rich nations) gain instant access to all the world’s information, their brains networked in the same way as – or into – a giant computer.

All this, of course, sounds like science fiction. Cities of 140 million surely could not function. Nano-, cyber- and robot wars would annihilate us all. And merging our minds with machines – well, we would cease to be human. And that, I think, is the most important point.

. . .

Europeans and Americans live 30 years longer than their great-grandparents and enjoy an extra decade or two before their eyes and ears weaken and arthritis freezes their joints.

And in most of the rest of the world, life spans have lengthened by closer to 40 years. Even in Africa, plagued by AIDS and malaria, people live 20 years longer in 2010 than they did in 1910.

The human body has changed more in the past 100 years than it did in the previous 100,000 years. Our life spans and general health – not to mention our easily available augments such as hearing aids, artificial joints, Botox, and Viagra – would have seemed like magic to anyone who lived in an earlier age. But the changes over the next 100 years will be even greater.

. . .

Politicians can ban stem cell research, but outlawing therapeutic cloning, beauty for all (who can pay), and longer life spans does not sound workable. And banning the battlefield applications of tinkering with Nature is even less plausible.

The US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA – the people who brought us the internet in the Seventies) is currently working on molecular-scale computers built from enzymes and DNA molecules rather than silicon.

These will be implanted in soldiers’ heads, giving post-biological infantrymen some of the advantages of machines by speeding up their thought processes, adding memory, and even providing wireless internet access.

In a similar vein, DARPA’s Silent Talk project is working on implants that will decode preverbal electrical signals within the brain and send them over the internet so troops can communicate without radios or email. One recent National Science Foundation report suggests that such ‘network-enhanced telepathy’ should become a reality in the 2020s.

As early as next year IBM expects to have an array of Blue Gene/Q supercomputers running that will take us a quarter of the way towards a functioning simulation of a human brain.

Some technologists, such as the inventor Ray Kurzweil, insist that in the 2030s neuron-by-neuron brain scanning will allow us to upload human minds on to machines.

Kurzweil calls this ‘the Singularity’ – a stage of history when change becomes so fast that it seems to be instantaneous.

I have suggested that while geography drives social development at different rates in different parts of the world, rising levels of development also drive what geography means.

But if something such as Kurzweil’s Singularity comes to pass, development will not just change geography’s meaning: it will rob geography of meaning altogether.

The merging of mortals and machines will mean new ways of living, fighting, working, thinking and loving; new ways of being born, growing old, and dying. It may mean the end of all these things and the dawn of a world beyond anything our unimproved, merely biological brains can imagine.

. . .

When political pundits talk about what the future will be like, they imagine it as being much like the present, but shinier, faster, and with a richer China. They are wrong.

This is Star Trek thinking, assuming that we can change some things about the world without changing everything.

The 21st Century is going to be a race between some kind of Singularity and Armageddon. This means the next few decades will be the most important in history.

If Singularity wins the race, we will experience technological change so extreme that biology will be transformed; if Armageddon outruns it, we face the destruction of the civilisation we have built up so painfully over the last 15,000 years.

Either way, our rising social development is going to change everything. By the time the East overtakes the West, neither East nor West may matter very much any more.

You can read both articles in full at the links. Highly recommended - as is Morris' book. This is one to read slowly and carefully, with plenty of pauses to think. I submit everyone who takes history seriously should read this volume at least once. It's that good.


Saturday, October 30, 2010

Beat this!

Here's the Swiss 'Top Secret' drum corps performing at the Edinburgh Tattoo. Their performance seems to be a combination of military precision and free-form fun for all!



More Halloween precautions

Over the past few days I've linked to two other blogs providing useful lists of precautions on how to survive the witching season. Today Missouri Rebel weighs in with his ideas. A few examples:

  • If [the] goblin/creature/whatever took 20 rounds of 147gr 9mm JHP's and didn't even blink, then the old double barrel 12 gauge loaded with birdshot you brought along isn't going to help.
  • Use a weapon that has a history of making a mess. I recommend the M2 HB, cause .50 BMG rounds took apart Nazi and Japanese aircraft in WW2, they'll do wonders on Mr. Undead as well.
  • Never assume Mr. Undead is really dead, burn him after you tear him apart.
  • After burning, hammering the remaining bones into dust with a 10lb sledgehammer isn't really overkill, it's insurance and a damn good workout.

There are many more at the link. Amusing reading.


Doofus Of The Day #409

Today's Doofus is from Lockport, NY.

According to the Police Blotter for last Thursday, a certain Miriam Siemucha decided to return a set of sheets to a local store. The store manager inspected them and found they hadn't been bought at his establishment, whereupon he stalled her while he called the cops.

On arrival, the police asked Ms. Siemucha (in so many words) what she was playing at. While inspecting the bedsheets, they noticed a certain aroma. Further investigation led them to a marijuana pipe and some of the drug, wrapped in a corner of the sheets. Ms. Siemucha is now charged with attempting to defraud the store, plus possession of narcotics.

And all because she picked the wrong store to which to return the sheets . . .


Some very ancient history indeed!

I was fascinated to read that marine archaeologists believe they've discovered the site - or at least the general area - of the Battle of the Aegates Islands, the final naval engagement (in 241 B.C.) of the First Punic War between Carthage and Rome. MSNBC reports:

The remains of a sunken warship recently found in the Mediterranean Sea may confirm the site of a major ancient battle in which Rome trounced Carthage.

. . .

The shipwreck was found near the island of Levanzo, west of Sicily, which is where historical documents place the battle.

In the summer of 2010, Royal and his colleagues discovered a warship's bronze ram - the sharp, prolonged tip of the ship's bow that was used to slam into an enemy vessel. This tactic was heavily used in ancient naval battles and was thought to have played an important role in the Punic fights.

The ram is all that's left of the warship; the rest, made of wood, apparently rotted away.

"There's never been an ancient warship found - that's the holy grail of maritime archaeology," Royal told LiveScience. "The most we have are the rams and part of the bow structure."

. . .

The new ram is the third such recent discovery near that site.

In 2008, the same team uncovered a beaten-up warship ram with bits of wood still attached, which the scientists were able to carbon-date to around the time of the end of the first Punic War.

Another ram that had been pulled out of the water by a fishing boat three years earlier in the same area bore an inscription dating it to the same time period.

This third ram, Royal said, is almost identical in shape and size to the one found in 2008.

"At this point you've got to begin to say, 'We have for the first time archaeologically confirmed an ancient naval battle site,'" Royal said.

There's more at the link. Further information may also be found at the Web site of the RPM Nautical Foundation, which is conducting the project.

It's fascinating to think that a warship ram made almost 2,300 years ago is back above the water after so long. If only it could talk . . . the tales it could tell! Did the ship to which it was attached sink any opponents? Or was it sunk before it could do any damage? What happened to the crew?


Another one from Mark Steyn

On Thursday night I posted links to four articles by Mark Steyn, analyzing the real issues at stake in the mid-term elections next week. Yesterday he published the fifth and final article in the series. Here's an extract.


In the Nineties, the “culture wars” were over “God, guns and gays”. The overreach of the statists has added a fourth G: Government itself is now a front in the culture war, and a battle of the most primal kind. Is the United States a republic of limited government with a presumption in favor of individual liberty? Or is it just like any other western nation in which a permanent political class knows what’s best for its subjects? Pat Cadell, the former Carter adviser and Democratic pollster, surveying popular discontent over the summer distilled it to a single question:

Who is sovereign? The people or the political class?

To which the political class responds by modifying Barbra Streisand:

People? People? Who needs people?

In California, the people can pass a ballot proposition, but a single activist judge overrules them. In Arizona, the people’s representatives vote to uphold the people’s laws, but a pliant judge strikes them down at Washington’s behest. It is surely only a matter of time before some federal judge finds the constitution unconstitutional. It is never a good idea to send the message, as the political class now does consistently, that there are no democratic means by which the people can restrain their rulers. As Pat Cadell points out, the logic of that is “pre-revolutionary”.

What Judge Bolton in Arizona and Judge Walker in California have in common and share with Mayor Bloomberg’s observations on opposition to the Ground Zero mosque is a contempt for the people. The rationale for reversing the popular will in all three cases is that the sovereign people are bigots. In Arizona, they’re xenophobic. In California, they’re homophobic. In New York, they’re Islamophobic. Popular sovereignty may be fine in theory but not when the people are so obviously in need of “re-education” by their betters. Over in London, the transportation department has a bureaucrat whose very title sums up our rulers’ general disposition toward us: “Head of Behavior Change.”

Perhaps re-education camp will work, and Californians and New Yorkers will shrug and decline to take to the ramparts for gay marriage or minarets over Ground Zero. But it’s harder to ask Arizonans to live with the dissolution of the national border. To the enlighted coastal progressives, “undocumented immigrants” are the unseen servant class who mow your lawn while you’re at work and clean your office while you’re at home. The TV celebrity Joy Behar provided a near parodic example the other day when she taunted Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle about her views on illegal immigration: “I’d like to see her do this ad in the South Bronx,” said Miss Behar. “Come here, bitch, come to New York and do it.”

The bitch doesn’t need come to New York. Sharron Angle and her fellow Nevadans live on the front line of America’s evaporating sovereignty, where immigration means more than remembering to tip your Honduran busboy. In border states illegal immigration is life and death.

. . .

What is happening on the southern border is the unmaking of America. And if a state under siege cannot pass even the mildest law of self-defense, what then are its options?

. . .

The United States cannot continue on its present path and hold its territorial integrity.

There's more at the link. This, and the previous four articles, are highly recommended reading - and food for thought before voting on Tuesday.


Friday, October 29, 2010

I have an aversion to this sort of inversion!

I've heard of, and seen, inverted flight . . . but inverted landings? That's new to me, but a stunt pilot, Craig Hosking, modified his Pitts Special, 'Double Take', for the purpose.

Weird, but certainly entertaining! I particularly liked the second tail-wheel on top of the tail . . . but when I'm in a plane, I think I'd greatly prefer the more conventional variety of landing, thank you very much!


So that's why they do it!

I'd always wondered why there were Braille instructions provided on drive-through automatic teller machines. After all, a blind person can hardly drive through them, can he? It turns out there's a good reason, after all.

Mainly, it is because it is required by law, thanks to the ADA Accessibility Guidelines for Buildings and Facilities. There are certain exceptions, in terms of these requirements, when it comes to drive-up ATMs vs. walk up ATMs, such as the differing requirements on the “Reach Ranges” in section 4.34.3. However, being able to get rid of the Braille is not one of these exceptions, despite initial protests from the American Banker’s Association who argued that any visually impaired person could simply get the driver to help. The committee in charge of coming up with these standards rejected this argument because it would no longer allow a visually impaired person to use the ATM independently.

Blind people actually do use the drive up ATMs all the time too, contrary to what many people think. It’s not uncommon at all for them to run errands in a taxi-cab, for instance. When they do, a drive up ATM is certainly more convenient for a blind person, given someone can drive them right up to the ATM, and they probably wouldn’t want to trust the cab driver with their card and pin number.

Up until somewhat recently though, a more interesting question would have been, “why do even walk up ATMs have Braille when many ATMs don’t have any facility for letting the blind person know what was happening on the screen?” This situation has since been improved, but for a long time, there were no set way to make the interaction with the ATM, beyond the Braille, accessible to the visually impaired. Initially, no one was really sure what the best way to handle this aspect of accessibility would be, so the Accessibility Guidelines didn’t address it. ... today there also generally is some sort of audible system to let the visually impaired user know what’s happening the screen (usually through a headphone jack, for privacy).

There's more at the link. The site also provides these interesting factoids, amongst others:

  • The most northern ATM in the world is in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, Norway, which is about half way between Norway and the North Pole (about 800 miles from the North Pole).
  • The most southern ATM is located in McMurdo Station, Antarctica, which is about 840 miles from the South Pole.
  • The world’s highest ATM is in Nagchu County, Tibet and is about 14,800 above sea level.
  • The world’s lowest ATM is in Ein Bokek, near the Dead Sea in a grocery store that is just shy of 1400 feet below sea level.

The things you learn out of the blue!


More hints to survive Halloween

Old NFO has published another useful list of how to survive the weirdness of the season. Hints include:

  • If someone tells you that you are the Chosen One and must save whoever or whatever, kill them and change your name.
  • Same bloody well goes for any harbinger of any "prophesy". If possible, resurrect them and kill them a second time.
  • Bullets may or may not work. Either way, shoot the evil entity. A lot.
  • Fire always makes a situation better. Or more entertaining, and that's the truly important thing.
  • If anyone says "But Whatever Bad Entity doesn't exist", kneecap them and leave them while the rest of you wait to see if he or she is right.

There are many more at the link. Go read, and enjoy!


A debt collector gets creative

According to a report from upstate Pennsylvania, a debt collection agency tried a novel approach to force its victims to pay up.

Authorities charge that Unicredit used civil court subpoenas to summon consumers to fake court hearings that were used to intimidate consumers into providing access to bank accounts, making immediate payments or surrendering vehicle titles and other assets. Sometimes, the complaint charges, Unicredit employees were sent to consumers' homes in order to retrieve documents or have consumers sign payment agreements.

The fake courtroom allegedly contained furniture and decorations similar to those used in actual court offices, including a raised "bench" area where a judge would be seated.

During some proceedings, authorities charge, an individual dressed in black was seated where observers would expect to see a judge.

"This is an unconscionable attempt to use fake court proceedings to deceive, mislead or frighten consumers into making payments or surrendering valuables to Unicredit without following lawful procedures for debt collection," Attorney General Tom Corbett said.

"Consumers also allegedly received dubious 'hearing notices' and letters -- often hand-delivered by individuals who appear to be sheriff deputies -- which implied they would be taken into custody by the Sheriff if they failed to appear at the phony court for 'hearings' or 'depositions'."

There's more at the link.

I've heard of some pretty raw and distasteful tactics used by debt collectors, but never of them setting up a complete fake courtroom and staging their own sham 'trials'! This has to be a whole new level of chutzpah, even for that benighted industry. One hopes those responsible will be speedily convicted, and spend an altogether unfaked period behind real bars.


The end of the world has been . . . er . . . postponed . . .

I'm highly amused to find that the doom, gloom and disaster crowd, who are predicting the end of the world next year on the basis of the Mayan 'long count' calendar, might have to revise their plans.

Doomsday believers, you might be able to breathe a sigh of relief.

The much-hyped "prediction" that, according to the ancient Mayan calendar, the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012 may be based on a miscalculation.

According to recent research, the mythological date of the "end of days" may be off by 50 to 100 years.

To convert the ancient Mayan calendar to the Gregorian (or modern) calendar, scholars use a numerical value (called the GMT). But Gerardo Aldana, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, says the data supporting the widely-adopted conversion factor may be invalid.

In a chapter in the book "Calendars and Years II: Astronomy and Time in the Ancient and Medieval World," Aldana casts doubt on the accuracy of the Mayan calendar correlation, saying that the 2012 prophecy as well as other historical dates may be off.

"One of the principal complications is that there are really so few scholars who know the astronomy, the epigraphy and the archeology," Aldana said in a UCSB press release. "Because there are so few people who are working on that, you get people who don't see the full scope of the problem. And because they don't see the full scope, they buy things they otherwise wouldn't. It's a fun problem."

The GMT constant, named for early Mayan scholars Joseph Goodman, Juan Martinez-Hernandez and J. Eric S. Thompson, is partly based on astronomical events. Those early Mayanists relied heavily on dates found in colonial documents written in Mayan languages and recorded in the Latin alphabet, the release said.

A later scholar, American linguist and anthropologist Floyd Lounsbury, further supported the GMT constant.

But, through his research reconstructing Mayan astronomical practices and reviewing data in the archeological record, the release said Aldana found weaknesses in Lounsbury's work that cause the argument behind the GMT constant to fall "like a stack of cards."

"This may not seem to be much, but what it does is destabilize the entire argument," he said.

. . .

At the height of that Mesoamerican civilization from 300 to 900 A.D., advanced mathematics and primitive astronomy flourished, creating what many have called the most accurate calendar in the world.

The Mayans predicted a final event that included a solar shift, a Venus transit and violent earthquakes.

There's more at the link.

Aw, gee! Apocalypse postponed? But what will we do with nothing to worry about next year?


Thursday, October 28, 2010

This is why I'll never try drag-racing!

I've never seen so much concentrated carnage in my life!


Doofus Of The Day #408

Today's Doofus is from Plainville, Massachusetts.

[17-year-old Ryan Gelineau] decided to burglarize a pharmacy in Plainville, Massachusetts. So ... he cut a hole through the roof, repelled 20 feet down a rope, and found himself a delightful bounty of stuff to steal.

He loaded a duffel bag with cough syrup, pills, cartons of cigs and $320 in cash. Then he encountered a small problem. Though Gelineau showed rather remarkable larcenous instincts in getting into the store, he'd neglected to figure out how he was going to escape. Ooops!

So he decided to hide in a crawl space until morning, then make his escape after the store opened. With all that time on his hands, he thought it wise to sample his larcenous goods. So he pounded two bottles of prescription cough syrup, which conked him out like a dead carp on the banks of the Mississippi.

Alas, he was still conked by morning, when he was scheduled to make his daring escape. In fact, he was so conked he couldn't hear his cell phone ringing. But pharmacy employees could. They called the cops, who used Gelineau's ringing phone to find him in the crawl space.

There's more at the link.

Some crooks are so dumb, they give the profession a bad name . . .


The cost-effectiveness of killing

That sounds like a pretty cold-blooded title, doesn't it? Yet it's pretty much the equation that's directing a great deal of military thought and practice today. It's exemplified in the field performance of a new weapon, the Raytheon/BAe Systems M982 Excalibur guided artillery round.

The new round can be fired from all existing 155mm. artillery pieces. It's designed to be fired at a high angle, and then 'glide' to its target, obtaining target information from satellites and other sources, as illustrated below.

Excalibur uses a combination of inertial and GPS guidance, and was designed to deliver an accuracy on target (a 'circular error probability', in tech-speak) of about 20 yards at a range of 25 miles. Its operational performance has been significantly better than that target, averaging about 3 yards at that range, according to one report, which goes on to say:

Excalibur’s greater accuracy has several effects beyond the obvious one of destroying the target with greater certainty. It allows artillerymen to operate a much lighter logistics tail. More accurate shells means far fewer shells are needed and fewer artillery pieces. Given the enormous costs of moving materiel to Afghanistan Excalibur could have a significant cost effect on the Army and Marine’s resupply efforts.

The services have changed the tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) governing Excalibur use. When it was first deployed, artillerymen were required to use two rounds for each target, Riley said. That has been changed to one shell, clear testament to the system’s accuracy.

The Army apparently plans to cut the number of Excalibur shells it buys from 30,000 to 6,264. That, of course, will drive up the politically sensitive unit cost. The unit cost ranges roughly from $47,000 to $99,000 per shell, depending on how many are bought. A Raytheon program official said the Army could save 30 percent of the unit cost if it buys the shells at full production rates of roughly 1,500 per year.

What does the enemy think of the weapon? As our own Christian Lowe reported from Afghanistan this summer, the Excalibur is fondly known by the Taliban as the Finger of Death.

There's more at the link. Here's a short video clip of Excalibur rounds during testing.

The cost factor is becoming more and more important, not just in terms of military budgets and government expenditure, but in terms of logistic reality on the ground. With limited access routes to Afghanistan, every round fired, every meal consumed, every gallon of fuel expended, has to be shipped or flown to a neighboring state (sometimes a very long way from the front lines), then trucked or flown into the country itself, then distributed over a very poor road network (or by helicopter or light transport) to the units doing the fighting. (We know, for example, that the delivered cost of fuel to the US Army in Afghanistan is approximately $400 per gallon!)

A standard 155mm. artillery shell might cost well under $500 when it ships out the arsenal door in the USA, but getting it into the hands of an artilleryman in Afghanistan might cost fifty times that sum, or even more. Add to that the fact that, using standard shells, the battery might have to fire eight to twelve rounds to destroy a target, and the cost of destroying it becomes astronomically high - certainly enough that the cost of a single 'smart' round like the Excalibur, which can do the same job on its own, is cheap by comparison.

If the army can ship a hundred Excalibur rounds to Afghanistan, it needn't ship several thousand conventional rounds which would otherwise be required to do the same job. That saves not only shipping costs, but also lives . . . supply convoys and flights are targeted by the enemy, after all. The less of them that are required, the fewer servicemen will be killed or injured escorting them. However, Congressional representatives and Senators back home won't look at it that way. They'll froth at the mouth and demand to know why the Army wants to spend $99,000 per shell. Clearly, that's a boondoggle! It can't possibly be cost-effective! Well, yes, it can, particularly because this program has been proven in combat to be even more effective than its developers promised . . . but politicians can't be relied upon to value facts more than they cherish a cheap sound-bite for their constituents.

As advanced technology moves into more and more areas of warfighting, this sort of conundrum is going to become an everyday problem for the military, and for our politicians. How can we kill our opponents most cost-effectively, whilst exposing our own forces to the smallest possible risk? Can cost-effectiveness be calculated only in monetary terms, or must it also be considered in terms of 'casualty cost'?


Mark Steyn lays it on the line

The inimitable Mark Steyn has published four articles on the key issues we should be looking at in terms of the mid-term elections next week. I'll link to each one, followed by a short excerpt from it. Click on the title of each article to read the whole thing.


... without serious course correction, America is doomed. It starts with the money. For dominant powers, it always does – from the Roman Empire to the British Empire. “Declinism” is in the air these days, but for us full-time apocalyptics we’re already well past that stage. In the space of one generation, a nation of savers became the world’s largest debtors, and a nation of makers and doers became a cheap service economy. Everything that can be outsourced has been – manufacturing to by no means friendly nations overseas; and much of what’s left in agriculture and construction to the armies of the “undocumented”. At the lower end, Americans are educated at a higher cost per capita than any nation except Luxembourg in order to do minimal-skill checkout-line jobs about to be rendered obsolete by technology. At the upper end, America’s elite goes to school till early middle age in order to be credentialed for pseudo-employment as $350 grand-a-year diversity consultants (Michelle Obama) or in one of the many other phony-baloney makework schemes deriving from government micro-regulation of virtually every aspect of endeavor.

So we’re not facing “decline”. We’re already in it. What comes next is the “fall” – sudden, devastating, off the cliff. That’s why this election is consequential – because the Obama-Pelosi-Reid spending spree made what was vague and distant explicit and immediate. A lot of the debate about America’s date with destiny has an airy-fairy beyond-the-blue-horizon mid-century quality, all to do with long-term trends and other remote indicators. In reality, we’ll be lucky to make it through the short-term in sufficient shape to get finished off by the long-term.

. . .

Within a decade, the United States will be spending more of the federal budget on its interest payments than on its military. ... In 2009, the United States accounted for over 43 per cent of the world’s military expenditures. So, within a few years, America will be spending more on debt interest than China, Britain, France, Russia, Japan, Germany, Saudi Arabia, India, Italy, South Korea, Brazil, Canada, Australia, Spain, Turkey and Israel spend on their militaries combined. The superpower will have evolved from a nation of aircraft carriers to a nation of debt carriers.

What does that mean? In 2009, the US spent about $665 billion on its military, the Chinese about $99 billion. If Beijing continues to buy American debt at the rate it has in recent times, then within a few years US interest payments on that debt will be covering the entire cost of the Chinese military.


In the 18 months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers in September 2008, over seven million Americans lost their jobs, yet the percentage of federal bureaucrats earning $100,000 or more went up from 14 per cent to 19 per cent: An economic downturn for you, but not for them. They’re upturn girls living in a downturn world. At the start of the “downturn” the Department of Transportation had just one employee earning more than $170,000 per year. Eighteen months later, it had 1,690.In the year after the passage of Obama’s “stimulus”, the private sector lost 2.5 million jobs, but the federal government gained 416,000 jobs. Even if one accepts the government’s ludicrous concept of “creating or saving” jobs, by its own figures four out of every five jobs “created or saved” were government jobs. “Stimulus” stimulates government, not the economy. It’s part of the remorseless governmentalization of American life.

. . .

In 2009, the average civilian employee of the United States government earned $81,258 in salary plus $41,791 in benefits. Total: $123,049.

By contrast, the average American employed in the private sector earned $50,462 in salary plus $10,589 in benefits. Total: $61,051.

So the federal worker earns more than twice as much as the private sector worker. “Experts” talk about the difficulty of restructuring entitlement programs, or of carving out a few billions in savings here and there. But here’s a thought experiment:

Imagine if federal workers made the same as the private workers who pay their salaries. Imagine if they had to get buy on 61K instead of 123 grand.

. . .

For the Obamatrons, government is what comes next. Government jobs, government “light rail” projects, government “green jobs” pork projects, government “WiFi-in-every-two-day-a-week-rural-library” makework schemes. Non-jobs for a Potemkin Main Street. The White House website is a positive cornucopia of fantasy employment, in which, day in, day out, President Obama and his sidekicks hymn the delights of such transformative innovations as “solar energy”. Does even the Obama cabinet seriously believe solar energy will create hundreds of thousands of real (ie, non-subsidized boondoggled) jobs? This is the official narrative of the Obama era, and there is nothing in it anywhere even to hint at the possibility of a growing economy holding its own against China, India and other rivals.

. . .

A statist America won’t be a large Sweden – unimportant but prosperous – but something closer to the Third World, corrupt and chaotic, broke and brutish – for all but a privileged few.


Where do you go to vote out the CPSC? Or OSHA? Or the EPA?

Or any of the rest of the acronyms uncountable drowning America in alphabet soup. “We the people” has degenerated into “We the regulators, we the bureaucrats, we the permit-issuers”. “Ignorantia juris non excusat” is one of the oldest concepts of civilized society. But today we’re all ignorant of the law, from the legislators who pass the laws unread to li’l ol’ you on the receiving end. How can you not be? Under the hyper-regulatory state, any one of us is in breach of dozens of laws at any one time without being aware of it. In a New York deli, a bagel with cream cheese is subject to food-preparation tax, but a plain bagel with no filling is not. Except that, if the clerk slices the plain bagel for you, the food-preparation tax applies. Just for that one knife cut. As a progressive caring society New York has advanced from tax cuts to taxed cuts. Oh, and, if he doesn’t slice the plain bagel, but you opt to eat it in the deli, the food preparation tax also applies, even though no preparation was required of the food.

Got that? If you own a deli, you better have, because New York is so broke they need their nine cents per sliced bagel and their bagel inspectors are cracking down.

In such a world, there is no “law” - in the sense of (a) you the citizen being found by (b) a jury of your peers to be in breach of (c) a statute passed by (d) your elected representatives. Instead, unknown, unnamed, unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats determine transgressions, prosecute infractions and levy fines for behavioral rules they themselves craft and which, thanks to the ever more tangled spaghetti of preferences, subsidies, entitlements and incentives, apply to different citizens unequally. You may be lucky: You may not catch their eye – for a while. But perhaps your neighbor does, or the guy down the street. No trial, no jury, just a dogsbody in some cubicle who pronounces that you’re guilty of an offense a colleague of his invented.

. . .

This is the reality of small business in America today. You don’t make the rules, you don’t vote for people who make the rules. But you have to work harder, pay more taxes, buy more permits, fill in more paperwork, contribute to the growth of an ever less favorable business environment and prostrate yourself before the Commissar of Community Services – all for the privilege of taking home less and less money.


What prevents the “state popular” from declining into a “state despotic”? As Tocqueville saw it, what mattered was the strength of the intermediary institutions between the sovereign and the individual. In France, the revolution abolished everything, and subordinated all institutions to the rule of central authority. The New World was more fortunate: “The principle and lifeblood of American liberty” was, according to Tocqueville, municipal independence.

Does that distinction still hold? In the 20th century the intermediary institutions were belatedly hacked away—not just self-government at town, county, and state level, but other independent pillars: church, civic associations, and not least (as the demographic profile of Dillon indicates) the basic building block of functioning society, the family. After the diminution of every intervening institution, very little stands between the central authority and the individual, which is why the former now assumes the right to insert himself into every aspect of daily life and why schoolgirls in Dillon, South Carolina think it entirely normal to beseech the Sovereign in Barackingham Palace to do something about classroom maintenance.

. . .

In its debased contemporary sense, liberalism is a universalist creed. It’s why the left dislikes federalism. Federalism means borders, and borders mean there’s always somewhere else to go: the next town, the next county, the next state. I’m pro-choice and I vote - with my feet. Universal liberalism would rather deny you that choice. America has dramatically expanded not just government generally, but nowhere-else-to-go government in particular. As Milton Friedman wrote in 1979:

From the founding of the Republic to 1929, spending by governments at all levels, federal, state, and local, never exceeded 12 percent of the national income except in time of major war, and two-thirds of that was state and local spending. Federal spending typically amounted to 3 percent or less of the national income. Since 1933 government spending has never been less than 20 percent of national income and is now over 40 percent, and two-thirds of that is spending by the federal government... By this measure the role of the federal government in the economy has multiplied roughly tenfold in the past half-century.

Even surviving local institutions aren’t as local as they used to be. The nearly 120,000 school boards of America in 1940 have been consolidated into a mere 15,000 today, leaving them ever more to the mercies of the professional “educator” class. Which is not unconnected to the peeling-paint problem.

The object is to reduce and eventually eliminate alternatives – to subsume everything within the Big Government monopoly. Statists prefer national one-size-fits all – and ultimately planet-wide one-size-fits-all.

. . .

When California goes bankrupt, the Golden State’s woes will be nationalized and shared with the nation at large. As with everything from mortgages to credit cards, so it goes for states: the feckless must have their pathologies rewarded and the prudent get stuck with the tab. Passing Sacramento’s buck to Washington accelerates the centralizing pull in American politics and eventually eliminates any advantage to voting with your feet. It will be as if California and New York have burst their bodices like two corpulent gin-soaked trollops and rolled over the fruited plain to rub bellies at the Mississippi. If you’re underneath, it’s not going to be fun.

A restoration of federalism offers America the possibility of a future. Further centralization will ultimately pull it apart.

There you have it. Four articles, each covering one of the major issues confronting the US population as they prepare to vote. I highly recommend reading each article in full. Mark Steyn speaks the truth, and isn't afraid to pull his punches in pointing it out.

I hope and pray that the American people will begin to put this country back on the right track next week . . . but I have my doubts. It's not even a question of choosing one political party over the other: as I've said many times before, the Democratic and Republican parties are two halves of the same statist coin, and I distrust both of them equally. The question is, are there enough of us who still care about liberty, and the Constitution (as our Founding Fathers meant it), and the rights of the individual versus the State? And are we prepared to 'go to the mat' for our values?

I guess we'll find out.


EDITED TO ADD: Mark Steyn published the fifth and final article in this series the day after I posted this summary of the first four articles. You'll find an extract and a link here.

The end of tax-free Internet shopping?

A court decision in Washington state appears to signal the beginning of the end for tax-free shopping on the Internet.

For Amazon and other pure-play E-tailers, this ruling isn’t exactly good news. A federal judge has ruled these companies have to open their sales records to state tax agencies, setting the stage for states to make a new run at sales tax revenue that has eluded them since the early days of E-Commerce.

And even if states can’t collect sales tax directly from E-tailers, there’s now a good chance customers will end up with a tax bill — one that will have E-tailers’ names all over it.

. . .

... next spring, North Carolina can send letters to residents saying, “You bought $117 of books, music and DVDs from, and now you owe sales tax on it.” That isn’t going to make customers feel happy about Amazon — especially when all that sales tax will be due at once.

What’s worse, even though Amazon fought and won its great battle to protect customers’ privacy, most of them won’t get that message. They’ll just hear that Amazon told the state about the books, music and DVDs they bought. Those customers won’t know what Amazon didn’t tell the state — just that the privacy of their online transactions was breached and Amazon must have been the one that did it.

There is a silver lining for Amazon, though. Now that Amazon has “won” its case, the door is open for North Carolina and other states with “Amazon tax” laws to go after other out-of-state E-tailers, too. That means Amazon will be turning over customer information, but so will all its E-Commerce rivals. With all E-tailers doing it, it won’t really represent a competitive disadvantage.

Well, at least not a competitive disadvantage against other E-tailers. But will this be a powerful competitive weapon in the hands of brick-and-mortar rivals? Will those physical chains—think of Sears, which has already laid the groundwork for an anti-E-Commerce tax argument—tell consumers, “When you price compare with Amazon, don’t forget to add in that wonderful bill you’ll get from the state, when it asks for all your E-Commerce taxes at once. Buy from us today, you get your item—and no mailbox mayhem.”

There's more at the link.

I'm sure that similar decisions will follow in other jurisdictions. What this means is that anyone selling anything over the Internet may, in time, be legally obliged to inform tax authorities in the purchaser's home state about the transaction. At the end of every tax year, the purchasers will receive bills from those authorities, demanding that they pay sales tax on their transactions.

Internet shopping has always had the advantage of being effectively tax-free (yes, I know that we're supposed to declare what we've bought online and voluntarily pay the tax on it each year, but how many people do you know who've done that?). Shipping charges have been a factor, but they've seldom amounted to anything like as much as the potential sales tax (and, for regular shoppers or larger orders, shipping has often been free of charge). Now that sales tax is about to be charged for all our Internet orders, whether we like it or not, we're once again going to have to compare prices with local stores, to work out how the latters' cost-plus-sales-tax numbers compare to the cost-plus-sales-tax-plus-shipping bill to buy online.

(Oh - and will we have to pay sales tax on shipping charges as well? Ten gets you one that our states' tax departments will try to make it so!)


Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Skill, flair and courage!

I was amazed to watch the short video clip below, and found myself wincing in anticipation of a wipe-out on several occasions. Amazingly, they never happened. The snowboarder, Eero Ettala from Finland, is apparently one of the world's leading athletes in that field, and (according to the biography on his Web site) has won many international competitions and awards. I can believe it!

Spectacular stuff, isn't it?


Cheap reading glasses may be hazardous to your health

I've been using reading glasses for several years, and thought that the availability of cheap versions in supermarkets and pharmacies was something for which to be thankful. However, it now seems that there may be hidden dangers. The Daily Mail reports:

By the age of 50, most adults have problems reading a book or newspaper without spectacles.

So the arrival of the cheap glasses in supermarkets, high street stores and market stalls less than ten years ago has been seen as a saviour for many.

A consumer might have to pay more than £100 for a pair of reading glasses from an optician, which might easily be lost or broken.

Instead, many buy several cheap versions to stash around the house so that they can always find a pair.

A researcher at consumer champion Which? checked 14 pairs from seven high street chains.

He found problems with half of them, with those carrying a higher prescription – +3.5 to +4 – considered to cause the most concern.

‘Off-the-peg glasses could cause eye strain, blurred vision, headaches or double vision,’ the Which? researcher said.

‘For people with higher prescriptions, they’re not suitable for walking or other mobile activities.’

They could even ‘cause a nasty accident’, he warned.

The biggest problem is that the centre point of the two lenses might not be aligned.

. . .

‘This could cause eye problems or a head tilt,’ the researcher said.

. . .

Which? advises people who have a prescription above +2 to test reading glasses for two minutes to check the centre points of each lens are aligned correctly.

Opticians say eye examinations are essential before buying glasses. As well as ensuring the correct prescription is used, they can detect serious health issues, such as cataracts and brain tumours.

There's more at the link.

*Sigh* . . . I guess I'd better make another appointment with an optician to get an accurate measurement of what strength readers I need. My last one was over five years ago, and since then I'd been relying on self-selecting cheap reading glasses at the supermarket. I guess that wasn't such a good idea.

(Oh - and a big "Thank you!" to the Daily Mail and Which? for alerting us to the risks involved.)


Pumpkin art, and a Halloween tutorial

In 2008 I published a picture of an exceptionally well-carved pumpkin. I'd no idea who made it, but it's since emerged that it was the work of US artist Ray Villafane (the link is to his Web site). The Daily Mail has just published an article about his extraordinary 'vegetable art'. Here's an excerpt.

It takes several months to grow the fruit but amazingly just two hours for artist Ray Villafane to sculpt these petrifyingly detailed portraits out of pumpkin.

The American model designer and former art teacher uses spoons and a scalpel to carve the innocent orange gourds into Halloween horrors in double quick time.

As you might expect Villafane, who has worked for D.C and Marvel comics, is very particular about his pumpkins.

'Not all pumpkins will look good and the most important thing about a pumpkin is its weight,' he says.

'You need to pick the meatiest pumpkin.

'Sometimes I pick up a beautifully shaped pumpkin but when I do I realise that it is not heavy enough. Its wall is just not thick enough for the carving rigours.

'I also like a pumpkin with character. One with knobbly ridges is good, so that I can utilise that in the carving procedure, like with sculpting noses.'

Villafane, 41, has become a minor celebrity in the States and his weird and wonderful work has featured on a range of TV programmes.

. . .

Over the last four Octobers his pumpkins have raised his profile to the point where he has become something of a Halloween staple on TV and across the internet.

There's more at the link, including several more photographs of Mr. Villafane's pumpkin art.

Intrigued, I looked up Mr. Villafane's Web site. On it, he has a very useful tutorial on how to carve your own pumpkin, including choosing the right one; the tools you'll need; and step-by-step instructions. Highly recommended for all those who'll be carving pumpkins this Halloween.


A nice touch!

I had to laugh out loud today when reading about Sharron Angle's response to Joy Behar after the latter was extraordinarily rude about her on the TV program 'The View'. Politico reports:

Sharron Angle said it with flowers.

The Nevada GOP Senate nominee sent a floral arrangement to “The View” co-host Joy Behar on Wednesday, one day after Behar called Angle a “bitch,” and a “moron,” and said she’s “going to hell.”

Turns out Angle raised $150,000 on Tuesday and wanted to express her appreciation, spokesman Jarrod Agen said. The note sent to ABC’s New York studios read:


Raised $150,000 online yesterday — thanks for your help.

Sincerely, Sharron Angle"

There's more at the link.

St. Paul exhorts us, in Romans 12:20: "If your enemy is hungry, feed him; If he is thirsty, give him a drink; For in so doing you will heap coals of fire on his head." I wonder how Joy Behar's hairstylist on 'The View' is covering up the smell of burnt hair and the frizzed curls that must have resulted from that note?


'Helicopter government'?

The term comes from an article in the Sydney Morning Herald criticizing the 'nanny state' mentality. I think it's a wonderful description of that sort of attitude. Here's an excerpt from the article.

Here's a way to make driving safer: make it riskier.

A German safety expert recommends we raise speed limits on our roads, not lower them.

Ulrich Mellinghoff, head of safety at Mercedes-Benz, argues that raising the top speed on long stretches of Australia's roads to 130 or 140km/h could help combat driver fatigue.

Mellinghoff's argument is counter-intuitive. It will definitely make driving feel less safe, but it could result in fewer accidents. And it fits in with an increasing body of knowledge that suggests government attempts to protect us are have the opposite effect - making us less safe and, crucially, less able to manage risk.

We've had widely owned, personal transport for more than a century now. And we've learnt a lot about safety in that time. The University of Chicago economist Sam Peltzman famously studied the results of the American 1966 Motor Safety Act that mandated new car safety standards. Instead of making driving safer, Peltzman found, the new standards prompted drivers to be more reckless on the roads, and endangered the lives of pedestrians. Other risk analysts have found the same occurred when seatbelt laws were introduced around the world.

Economists call that ''moral hazard'' - when people feel they are insulated from the consequences of their actions and behave differently as a result.

. . .

We saw the moral hazard dynamic play out most dramatically in 2008, as the global financial crisis looked set to sweep away the entire world economy. Wall Street made riskier and riskier financial trades and employed ever more complex and precarious financial instruments because of an assumption, cultivated over decades, that if they got in too much trouble the government would bail them out. It would be bad if they lost their financial gambles. But they wouldn't lose the business over it. They were too big to fail.

Calling a company "too big to fail" is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The marketplace starts to imagine the company is unsinkable and relies on it.

Having bailed out other firms, the market really went into free fall when the US government declined to bail out Lehman Brothers in September 2008, dramatically reversing that assumption.

It wasn't the government's failure to bail out Lehman Brothers that caused the panic. It was implying they would do so, and at the last minute whipping the protective blanket away.

The long-term cause of the financial crisis was the suggestion the government would do anything to protect bankers. The short-term cause was that it didn't.

This isn't an argument against seatbelts or bike helmets. Seatbelts combined with drink-driving laws, education and cultural change have reduced Australia's road toll significantly. But it should be a warning: many of the well-meaning attempts to make us safer are counterproductive, making us more likely to take risks, and less likely to think about the consequences.

There are solutions. In a revolution in traffic management across Europe, a number of towns are removing traffic lights, stop signs, and other road markings. Once eliminated, drivers enter intersections more slowly and more attentively. Instead of focusing their attention on signs, they make eye contact with other drivers. They negotiate. Accidents in these towns have dramatically declined.

. . .

A spontaneous order emerges when people feel they are fully responsible for their own driving. And it's a safer one than in a traffic management system that tries to push drivers along pre-determined paths, barking orders along the way.

It's like the spontaneous order that emerges in society and markets when people are responsible for their actions. So let's hope risk and reward can be rejoined in the financial sector too.

We talk a lot about helicopter parents who over-parent and insulate their children from the world. The obvious downside of this kind of parenting is that children learn nothing about managing danger.

Perhaps it's time to talk about helicopter governments as well: always hovering above their citizens, ready to swoop in the moment they stray off the safest path.

There's more at the link. Bold print is my emphasis. Very worthwhile reading.

I love the term 'helicopter government'. It's a perfect conversation-stopper to toss at your statist friends when they start complaining that the government 'isn't doing enough' or 'could do more'. In most cases, why would any sane, normal, rational, self-reliant person want government to do more? Haven't they done enough damage already?


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

With friends like these, who needs enemies?

A backyard game of baseball leads to injury . . . to which, add laughter as an insult!


Ancient eroticism, updated

I'm intrigued to hear that the ancient Indian work, the Kama Sutra, is being updated in a modern translation. Judging from an initial report, however, it appears it may be undergoing a politically correct reinterpretation at the same time.

The Kama Sutra is getting a modern makeover, with the new edition set to be more of a lifestyle guide to love and relationships than a "pornographic sex book".

The erotic drawings and sexual illustrations (warning: link is not safe for work!) that have accompanied various translations of the ancient Hindu text are gone from the new Kama Sutra published by Penguin, Britain's Sunday Telegraph reports.

Instead, the Kama Sutra will be a text-only, pocket-sized classy manual presented as a "lifestyle guide for the modern man and woman".

"Until now the Kama Sutra has always been presented as a scandalous, '60s, hippie-influenced pornographic sex book," said Alexis Kirschbaum, the editorial director at Penguin Books.

"But it was originally written as advice to a courtly gentleman on how to live a well-rounded life, not just a passionate life."

The Kama Sutra is believed to have been written in the third century by Indian sage Vatsyayana.

Previous English versions of the Kama Sutra have been widely based on the 19th century translation by explorer and orientalist Sir Richard Francis Burton, often featuring erotic illustrations to accompany the old-fashioned language.

The new edition, written by A.N.D. Haksar, an Indian scholar and translator of Sanskrit texts, will include updated chapter headings such as "Making A Pass", "Why Women Get Turned Off", "Girls To Avoid", "Is He Worthwhile", "Getting Rid of Him", "Easy Women", "Moves Towards Sex" and "Some Dos and Don'ts".

"The common perception of the Kama Sutra is that it is only about sex, but any honest reading of the book shows that it is about lifestyle and social relations between human beings," Haksar said.

There's more at the link.

I've never been all that interested in the Kama Sutra (particularly because, as George MacDonald Fraser once famously commented, position 36 turns out to be much the same as position 35, but with your fingers crossed!). Still, it is a very ancient work, and it's been misrepresented and mistranslated in the past. Perhaps it's time it was updated in the light of modern scholarship . . . but it'll still be a pity if that scholarship is infected with political correctness.


First photograph of a human being?

Via NPR we learn of an 1838 photograph that might include the first human beings to ever be recorded on film.

This is a Daguerreotype taken by the inventor of the process, Louis Daguerre, in 1838. It is a view of the Boulevard du Temple in Paris. To achieve this image (one of his earliest attempts), he exposed a chemically treated metal plate for ten minutes. Others were walking or riding in carriages down that busy street that day, but because they moved, they didn't show up. Only this guy stood still long enough—maybe to have his boots shined—to leave an image.

Other primitive forms of photography had preceded this picture by over a decade. But this anonymous shadowy man is the first human being to ever have his picture taken. There is also the very faint image of the bootblack bent over his work.

There's more at the link.

Now there's a fascinating piece of technological history! I wonder who the unknown pedestrian was, and the bootblack? I'm sure they never knew they were being recorded for posterity.