Friday, September 30, 2011

The bad old days of moonshine

Having grown up outside the USA, I'd heard occasional stories about the moonshiners of the Appalachians, but only in the context of 'folk legend'. We had similar stories in South Africa, of course, where what Americans call 'moonshine' was known as witblits ('white lightning') if made from grapes, or mampoer if made from fruit (usually peaches or marula berries). Indeed, there was a law on the books in the old Cape Colony to the effect that any merchant selling a case of witblits was obliged to include a white cane in the price, because of the likely effects of drinking twelve bottles of the stuff!

(I used to have access to unlicensed witblits made by a farmer I knew near Oudtshoorn. He triple-distilled the stuff in an old swimming pool filter! It certainly packed a kick - it tested out at something like 170 proof! Unfortunately, I couldn't bring any of his product with me when I immigrated to the USA. I was advised that for some strange reason, US customs officers looked askance on things like that. Pity . . . )

I've been learning more about American moonshine from Miss D. She tells of driving down the road with her parents as a child. She says she was able to look up at the hilltops and tell instantly which haze was morning mist, and which was produced by the fire beneath a moonshine still. She also informs me that the only proper way to buy (or drink) moonshine is in a Mason jar. I've also heard from other friends in Tennessee that the old days aren't necessarily past and gone. Apparently there are still parts of the Appalachians where one treads carefully; and, if one smells the distinctive odor of old mash, one turns around and walks (rapidly) the other way, for fear of a bullet from a suspicious 'shiner who thinks you might be a 'revenuer' snooping around.

Anyway, in honor of my education in the field of American moonshine, I thought I'd put up Steve Earle's classic hit, 'Copperhead Road'.

I think I've seen a few characters like that around Knoxville . . .


Two excellent blog reads

Two articles on other blogs caught my eye today.

The first is at Sic Semper Tyrannis, where the author tells an interesting (and amusing) tale of espionage and skullduggery during the last days of the Cold War. Here's an excerpt.

I was hunched over my scarred desk in a building that bore the architectural signature of Albert Speer. Spread out before me was the Berliner Morgenpost—they didn’t understand Gorbachev either. I had started to re-read a particularly arcane and badly written article when a Army major with Ranger tabs and “Rogers” inscribed on his nametag tapped at my door.

“Got a minute, Sir?

“Come on in.” I recognized him vaguely as one of the members of a very buttoned-up operation down at the end of one of the halls of our sprawling headquarters.

Do you know what ‘unter Vier Augen’ means? It’s German.” He had a guileless face and innocent blue eyes.

“Uh, yeah, I know.” Young whippersnapper, I thought. I made my bones as an agent handler before I rose to the exalted position as Chief of Staff. All the Agents I had recruited were German.

I looked down on the guys who ran Russians. They relied mostly on the drunks and the guys who stole Party funds or slept with the wrong person’s wife. Recruiting Russians was like shooting injured fish in a barrel, all you needed was patience and luck. Recruitment of Germans, on the other hand, was all artistry. I trolled for the ones that hated to be bossed around by the Untermenschen Russians, and for the ones who felt the crushing weight of Nazi guilt. Recruiting Germans was all about history and politics, and occasionally Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen or the Horst Wessel Lied.

“Well, what’s it mean?” Rogers still stood there with his head cocked a little to one side.

“Unter Vier Augen? It means something like ‘eyes only,’ well, no, that’s too strong, more like ‘strictly between us’ I guess; it’s literally ‘under four eyes.’ Why are you asking? I thought you guys strictly worked the Russian problem.”

“Yeah, that’s right, but we just saw that phrase right in the middle of something special. Everything else is in Russian, encrypted in ‘Commander’s key.’ That phrase was in German, and in the clear.”

“What was the rest of the message about?”

“We don’t know. We can’t read that stuff. Maybe somewhere higher up, I’m not sure,” he shrugged. “We’ve got a guy at the Kommendatura who photographs message blanks for us. It’s all between army commanders and up.”

“Yeah, so which commanders? Do you know that?

“Yeah, Two Guards Tank, and Twenty Guards Army,” he said. “Two Guards Tank is apparently the one doing the inviting.” He spoke in the shorthand of the order of battle analysts. The Second Guards Tank Army faced NATO across the Inter-German border. The Twentieth Guards Army was in the second echelon lined up behind the other four frontline armies.

“So two army commanders want to have a secret meeting?”

“What?” the young major blinked, “how do you know that?”

“That’s what unter Vier Augen implies, don’t you think?”

“Hmmm,” he looked puzzled. He was probably a section chief, but his team, composed of a few old Department of the Army Civilians and a few bright-as-buttons young enlisted folks, did the mental heavy lifting.

“So, do you have any guesses?”

“I need to go talk to my analysts. If Postnikov wants to do anything in secret, it can’t be good.” The major had a discomforted look on his face.

There's more at the link. Very interesting (and entertaining) reading.

The second is from my blogbuddy and bestselling author Larry Correia, who has a few words about the reality of business and commerce for our esteemed (?) leader.

Ask any businessman, you’ll get the same story. Assuming you can make your way through the paperwork process to actually start your business, the fun begins and never lets up. Heaven help you if your business actually does something that might involve a committee of bureaucrats somewhere, because then you get to waste lots of time begging for permission to exist.

You want employees? Get ready for the DoL. Better get your EEOC reports done on time (one of the only places left where anyone actually gives a damn what color you are). When I opened my first business, I was rather surprised to discover that I had to contact 5 different state and federal entities before I could hire my first employee. You want to actually build something? Get ready for OHSA and the EPA. The approvals alone will eat up an eternity of time you could be productive. And you’d darn well better make sure you do your quarterly filings with the IRS and your state tax commission, or they will eat you.

And every time you turn around, there is a new regulation. Since there are like twenty different agencies that can screw with you on a whim, you’d better keep up on all of them. You need to know every clause! Not that that matters in real life anyway, because I’ve personally witnessed government employees totally ignore their own regulations and jerk a business owner around, usually through laziness or apathy, because it is easier than just doing their stupid job by the book.

Remember, no actual wrong doing on your part is required. Your company pops up on a list and now you get to spend hundreds of man hours kissing butt and playing fetch the report for a bureaucrat, simply to earn the right to stay in business. You can be fined or shut down, all without breaking a law.

Again, more at the link. Unfortunately, it's all true. The burden of regulation is one of the most stifling checks on the US economy right now. I know how to fix it - repeal the damn regulations! - but the bureaucrats and 'ruling class' would have a fit at allowing those of us in the hoi-polloi to do our own unregulated thing.



Bears and toilet-paper?

Sounds like an unlikely combination, but a recent article in Slate magazine points out that the former have been used to market the latter for a while now. Here's an excerpt.

When did bears get to be associated with bathroom hygiene?

Over the last few decades. The preponderance of bears on toilet-paper packaging — along with angels, babies, and puppies — derives from the dominance of the major players in the bath-tissue industry. Procter & Gamble, Georgia-Pacific and Kimberly-Clark together control about two-thirds of the market, and their brand icons — the Charmin bear, the Angel Soft baby, and the Cottonelle puppy — showed up in the United States over a 15-year span beginning in the late-1980s.

The first commercial brands of toilet paper emerged 100 years earlier, at a time when the product was rarely associated with specific images. In the 1880s, most were sold as "medicated paper" for treating hemorrhoids or other health problems, and decorated with wordy display copy reminiscent of the labels on Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap.

The Scott Paper Company became the first to offer toilet paper on a roll in the 1890s, and its products were marketed under private labels that each had their own advertising scheme. Many used words and pictures to connote luxury, as in The Waldorf and The Statler, two brands named after fancy hotels. Some showed images of ladies in ball gowns or gentlemen riding in horse-drawn carriages.

Images courtesy of the Virtual Toilet Paper Museum

By the 1920s, the Scott Company had created its own genteel paper-products spokesman named Mr. Thirsty Fibre. Created in the mold of dapper brand icons such as Mr. Peanut and Rich Uncle Penny Bags (or Mr. Monopoly, as he's now known), Mr. Thirsty Fibre resembled a fuzzy, angry Abraham Lincoln — a gaunt man in a top hat and tails, brandishing his fists at moisture.

A few other manly toilet-paper icons populated the early years of the product, like the grizzled seafarer from packages of Life Guard, but the industry soon adopted a more lady-like approach. The Charmin brand got its start in 1928 with a woman's cameo silhouette on the package—a "charming logo" that connoted femininity and elegance. (Virile cleaning-product icons like Mr. Clean and the Brawny Lumberjack wouldn't show up for another few decades.)

There's more at the link. (The Virtual Toilet Paper Museum has lots of images of 'historic' toilet paper . . . if one can call it that!)

Funny thing - all my friends who live in real bear country (including Alaska) find the Charmin bears to be somewhat less than convincing portrayals of reality . . .


Inflation or deflation? Depends what you measure

I've written many articles here about the parlous state of the US and world economy, most recently last weekend. I don't see much about which to be positive right now, and I think that state of affairs is set fair to continue, not for months, but for years.

However, I may have been too focused on money supply and the threat of inflation. From the point of view of Austrian economics, of course, this is almost inevitable; but from another perspective, examining different economic indicators, the opposite problem - deflation - may be a greater threat. I'm indebted to Mike Shedlock ("Mish") for examining this issue and providing some interesting reading.

In August Mish wrote a blog post called 'Yes Virginia, U.S. Back in Deflation; Inflation Scare Ends; Hyperinflationists Wrong Twice Over'. It's fairly technical, so if you're not an economist or a follower of economic theory, you might find it a bit daunting: however, it repays careful perusal. It's not comforting reading, but it analyzes fifteen trends in our economy right now and shows how, together, they may be pointing to an overall deflationary trend. I'm not going to post an excerpt here, because you really need to read the whole thing to get the big picture.

In September, Mish followed up with another look at where we're at. He put forward a list of twelve specific policy recommendations for Washington that would address our problems, and hopefully avoid the worst of both inflation and deflation. Some of his suggestions make me wince, but I can support many of them.

  1. Banks and bondholders should take a hit. Banks are not going to lend anyway so bailing them out at the expense of taxpayers is both morally and economically stupid. End the bailouts, all of them, and prosecute fraud, the higher up the better.
  2. Implement serious bank reform now, not 9 years from now. Banks should be banks, not hedge funds. This proposal will necessitate breaking up banks. So be it.
  3. Scrap Davis-Bacon and all prevailing wage laws. Such laws drive up costs and have wreaked havoc on many cities and municipalities, now bankrupt or on the verge of bankruptcy.
  4. Pass national right-to-work laws. Once again, we need to reduce costs on businesses and local governments to spur more hiring and reduce costs.
  5. End collective bargaining rights of all public unions. The goal of unions is to provide the least service for the most money. The goal of government should be to provide the most services for the least money.
  6. Scrap ethanol policy and end all tariffs.
  7. Legalize hemp and tax it. Prison costs will go down, tax revenue will grow, and biofuel and fiber research will expand as hemp produces very soft fibers.
  8. Corporate income tax rates should be lower in the US than abroad. Current policy encourages capital flight and jobs flight via lower tax rates on profits overseas than in the united states. This penalizes businesses that work only in the US, especially small businesses that do not have an army of lawyers and lobbyists.
  9. Stop the wars and set a plan to bring home all US troops from Iraq, Afghanistan, and 140 or so other countries.The US can no longer afford to be the world's policeman.
  10. Implement Paul Ryan's Medicare voucher proposal. It is the only way so far that anyone has proposed that puts much needed consumer "skin-in-the-game" that will reduce medical costs.
  11. Legalize drug imports from Canada.
  12. End the Fed and fractional reserve lending. Both have led to boom-bust cycles of ever-increasing amplitude.

There's more at the link. I've added links to explanatory articles for terms with which some readers may not be familiar.

Evidence that Mish may be on to something when it comes to deflation comes from an article today at CNBC.

Home prices are unlikely to recover before 2020 and mortgage defaults will persist for years, says a survey of bank risk managers out Friday.

. . .

The findings, which authors called “a decidedly pessimistic outlook”, are a sharp reversal from cautious optimism the survey respondents expressed late last year and in early 2011.

In addition, 73 percent of surveyed bankers say they expect mortgage defaults to remain elevated for at least another five years. And 46 percent believe mortgage delinquencies will increase over the next six months.

. . .

A large number of respondents says they also expect to see an uptick in delinquencies on auto loans, credit cards and student loans.

Small businesses are expected to continue face a challenging credit environment. More than one-third of respondents forecast an increase in delinquencies on small business loans.

Bankers also appear to be pessimistic about recovery in consumer spending, with 64 percent of respondents expecting credit card usage to remain below pre-recession levels for at least five more years.

Again, more at the link.

Certainly, if these forecasts are correct, then the stifling of consumer demand will force producers to lower prices on at least some goods, otherwise they won't be able to sell them at all. That translates directly to deflationary pressures on at least some sectors of the economy. I'm not seeing that affecting things like gasoline, food, etc. right now - but housing? Oh, yeah . . . many US housing markets resemble economic slaughterhouses right now. Far too many people bought into the hype that their property(ies) would always increase in value, so they invested everything in their homes, and sometimes in investment properties too. Now they're underwater, and their savings - which were never in cash, only on paper, expressed as the increased value of their real estate - are non-existent.

An awful lot of Baby Boomers expected the increased value of their homes to provide several hundred thousand dollars of retirement capital when they sold them and moved into something smaller. As a result, they didn't bother saving money for retirement in other ways. Now that their homes are worth far less (sometimes they owe more on them than they're worth), their retirement funding no longer exists. They can't possibly survive at their present standard of living on Social Security, and their kids are in sufficient financial hot water in today's economy that many of them won't be able to support their parents. The upshot is that consumer demand from the older generation, which has been counted upon by business and commerce for years (since they tended to have more disposable income than younger people with families), has dwindled drastically. It's not going to come back anytime soon.

I'm still not convinced that deflation is a certainty. Indeed, many economists (particularly of the Austrian school) think that the opposite is more likely to happen. However, thanks to Mish's analysis, I've now got deflation on my radar screen. I'll be watching this area with great interest.


Thursday, September 29, 2011

Skill, fate, or just dumb luck?

I don't know how he did it, but after he got back down, I hope he bought a lottery ticket!

That was a pretty amazing recovery. I wonder if he tried again?


Of music, microbes and muck!

I've posted many articles from The Local on this blog over the years. It began as an English-language news Web site covering Sweden; added a second site to cover Germany; and has recently tacked on two more to cover Switzerland and France. However, I don't think I've found a stranger story than this one on any of its sites!

Operators of a sewage treatment plant in eastern Germany have saved around €10,000 [about US $13,500] over the last year – apparently by playing Mozart to their microbes. They are now calling for scientists to come and investigate.

Roland Meinusch, manager of the plant in Treuenbrietzen, Brandenburg, said the plant some 70 kilometres southeast of Berlin produced 1,000 cubic metres less sewage sludge than normal last year – and the only thing he had changed was the music.

“We play them Mozart’s Magic Flute, on a half-hour loop,” he told The Local.

The better the microbes work, the more they digest the sewage, producing more clean water and less sludge.

“And the less sludge we produce, the less we have to pay to farmers for them to put it on their fields,” said Meinusch.

. . .

He said he was approached by a company making special loudspeakers which had supposedly achieved interesting results at a sewage plant in Austria and wanted to try out their idea at a plant with more advanced technology.

“Last March, we fitted in the speakers and started playing the music to the microbes. They are very sensitive to environmental factors, particularly to temperature, and so at first nothing was really happening and in May we nearly stopped the experiment," he said.

But after a local newspaper reported about the test, the amount of interest generated was great, that the plant managers decided to continue.

“After a year, we were left with 6,000 cubic metres of sludge, compared with the usual 7,000 cubic metres we produce in a year. That saved us about €10,000 which is quite a lot of money," Meinusch said.

There's more at the link.

This is most intriguing. Just consider the possibilities for future research:

  • If opera produces less sludge, would other varieties of classical music do likewise, or could one tailor the music to the desired quantity, quality and smelliness of output?
  • Would live music produce greater effects, or would the stench of the sewage lead to a symphonic strike?
  • Could this be weaponized? I mean . . . if you surreptitiously replaced your enemy's Dvorak tapes with death metal, would The Blob rise up out of their sewage plants and wreak havoc?

Heaven alone knows what Wagner would produce! "The Ride Of The Valkyries", repeated ad nauseam on a tape loop, ought to make any self-respecting microbe positively mutinous!


Larry's got another book out - this time with a friend

My blogbuddy and bestselling author, Larry Correia, has a new book out this week. He co-wrote this one with Mike Kupari, who in real life is an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) technician with the US Air Force. The book is called 'Dead Six'. You'll find a review of it here, and Larry's linked to a few more on his blog.

I stand second to no man in my admiration for Larry Correia and his literary success . . . but I'm sure he'll be the first to agree that, if you want to see a true hero in the flesh, look no further than Mike Kupari. This guy goes out each and every day to defuse bombs that could vaporize him in an instant, and deal wholesale death and destruction to his comrades in arms. There aren't any words to describe the cold, calculated courage needed to do that, not just once, not just for a week or two, but for a whole freaking year-long tour of duty in Afghanistan!!! He's over there right now. All I can say is, if I ever meet Mike in meatspace, the food, the drinks, and anything else I can afford are on me.

I haven't yet received my copy of the book, but it's on the way. I can hardly wait! Congratulations to Larry on another book, and to Mike for his first book in print. May there be many more, both jointly and severally!


Restoring grasslands to their former splendor?

I'm sure many of us have heard about the problem of desertification, particularly in Africa, but also across large swaths of America (remember the Dust Bowl of the 1930's?). Well, today a very interesting article appeared in the Atlantic, looking at grassland management and preservation, what's been done wrong in the past, and how to fix it using nature's own techniques. Here's an excerpt.

The underlying technique is called holistic management, and was developed by biologist Allan Savory in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia) beginning in the 1960s. He saw that the arid grasslands on which the region's people, livestock, and wildlife depended were succumbing to desertification. In looking for a solution, Savory recognized that the grasslands had evolved out of a symbiotic relationship with large, grazing herbivores. In time he saw that the same was true of similar ecosystems around the world, including that of western South Dakota and the rest of the Great Plains, with its once-great herds of bison.

In arid environments, plant matter doesn't degrade easily on its own -- it needs these large animals to break it down in their rumens and stamp it into the ground and generally work the land. This was accomplished naturally: As the herbivores traveled in large herds for safety against their predators, they would cause a great disturbance to the land; then, for their own sake, they would leave and not return until the plants had had enough rest to regenerate.

Now take away the Great Plains' bison, or the equivalent animals elsewhere, and replace them with cattle, property lines, and fences. The equation still includes large, grazing herbivores, but because they are relatively stationary within the landscape, the symbiosis is lost. Certain areas are overused, and elsewhere plants simply oxidize and die off from under-use; microorganisms decline, water cycles fall apart, and the land gradually collapses.

The basic premise of holistic management is to use livestock like wild animals. But whereas bison on the Great Plains moved through the landscape by instinct, now ranchers must supply that direction. Rather than simply turning cattle into a pasture, these ranchers conduct them like a herd, concentrating bodies to graze one area hard, then leaving it until the plants have regenerated. The effect can be tremendous, with benefits including increased organic matter in the soil, rejuvenation of microorganisms, and restoration of water cycles.

According to Howell and his colleagues, there can also be an exponential increase in the land's ability to sequester carbon. Savory explains in his paper "A Global Strategy for Addressing Global Climate Change" that there are already 12 million hectares (29.7 million acres) of rangeland managed holistically in Australia, Africa, and North America. Increasing those soils' organic matter by one percent would remove 3.6 gigatons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) from the atmosphere. (For context, he offers that "the annual total emissions from all sources for the year 2000 was an estimated 44 gigatons.") Savory goes on to argue that increasing the organic matter by just 0.5 percent across all of the world's 4.9 billion hectares of rangeland would sequester 720 gigatons of CO2e; increasing it by two percent would sequester 2,880 gigatons. In a nutshell, the Brown Revolution consists of sequestering massive amounts of carbon by bringing holistic management to the world's arid grasslands.

"It has to be done on a freaking massive scale," Howell says, "so it's going to require huge flows of capital to make it work. We're not going to own the whole world, but hopefully we're going to be a significant player at the table and influence land management policy on a global scale."

Howell's goal is two-fold: to implement holistic management on enough land as to have an impact on climate change, but also to provide a model that becomes the standard for grasslands management around the world.

There's much more at the link. It makes very interesting reading.

This African boy, who's seen (up close and personal) the Sahara, the Kalahari and the Namib Deserts expanding for years, hopes and prays that the project will succeed.


John Moses Browning and a new blog meme

Blogbuddy and meatspace friend DaddyBear put up an interesting article today.

I want to shoot every weapon that John Moses Browning ever designed and that went into mass production, preferably in the original caliber. If it's legal to own without an additional tax stamp, I want to own it.

. . .

I highlighted the ones I've already pulled a trigger on. I've got a good start, but still have a long way to go.

I figured I'd play too. Here's the list of firearms DaddyBear posted. I've underlined the ones I've fired (either originals, or reproductions, or the same weapon manufactured under license or updated by another company, like the Baby Browning, which is an updated version of the Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket pistol in .25 ACP).

  • U.S. M1895 Colt-Browning machine gun
  • FN Browning M1899/M1900
  • Colt Model 1900
  • Colt Model 1902
  • Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammer (.38 ACP)
  • Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammerless (.32 ACP)
  • Colt Model 1905
  • Remington Model 8 (1906), a long recoil semi-automatic rifle
  • Colt Model 1908 Vest Pocket (.25 ACP)
  • Colt Model 1908 Pocket Hammerless (.380 ACP)
  • FN Model 1910
  • U.S. M1911 pistol (.45 ACP)
  • Colt Woodsman pistol
  • Winchester Model 1885 falling-block single shot rifle
  • Winchester Model 1886 lever-action repeating rifle
  • Winchester Model 1887 lever-action repeating shotgun
  • Winchester Model 1890 slide-action repeating rifle (.22)
  • Winchester Model 1892 lever-action repeating rifle
  • Winchester Model 1894 lever-action repeating rifle
  • Winchester Model 1895 lever-action repeating rifle
  • Winchester Model 1897 pump-action repeating shotgun
  • Browning Auto-5 long recoil semi-automatic shotgun
  • U.S. M1917 water-cooled machine gun
  • U.S. M1919 air-cooled machine gun
  • U.S. M1918 Browning Automatic Rifle (BAR)
  • U.S. M2 .50-caliber heavy machine gun of 1921 (the famed "Ma-Deuce" weapon)
  • Remington Model 24 semi-auto rifle (.22) - also produced by Browning Firearms as the SA-22, and several others
  • Browning Hi-Power (Grand Puissance or GP), the standard sidearm of many military and police forces
  • The Browning Superposed over/under shotgun was designed by John Browning in 1922 and entered production in 1931
  • Ithaca Model 37 pump-action repeating shotgun

I seem to have shot quite a few of them! If you want to learn more about any of them, you'll find each one linked to a reference in DaddyBear's article.

So, how about it, gunbloggers? How many of the weapons on DaddyBear's list have you fired? Copy it to your own blog and let us know.


Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Earworm of the day

I've always enjoyed the guitar work of Ritchie Blackmore, from his heavy rock days with Deep Purple in the late 1960's and 1970's, through Rainbow in the 1980's, to his medieval and Renaissance music with Blackmore's Night since the 1990's. He's a master of his instrument.

Here's Ritchie playing solo in Renaissance style from Blackmore's Night's album 'Secret Voyage'. This track's called 'Prince Waldeck's Galliard'. (A galliard is a form of Renaissance dance music.) It's a short piece, but entrancing.

Lovely stuff!


Remember the M16 controversy?

Back in the 1960's, when the US Army introduced the M16 rifle, there was enormous controversy about it.

Vietnam-era M16A1

The early models were certainly less than fully reliable. There were reports of US servicemen being found dead on the battlefield in Vietnam with jammed rifles at their sides - even with cleaning rods in their hands as they tried to get them un-jammed. Suffice it to say that many servicemen of that era developed a prejudice against the M16 rifle that has never diminished. (An outstanding two-part article about the experiences and conclusions of a US Marine expert may be found here and here - links are to Adobe Acrobat documents in .PDF format.)

A major historical document about the controversy has become available online. The 'M-16 Rifle Case Study' (link is to a .PDF file) was prepared by Col. Richard R. Hallock of the US Army in 1970. It's over 160 pages long, and goes into the development of US service rifles from the turn of the 20th century through the late 1960's, documenting not only technical information but also the 'power politics' and bureaucratic shenanigans of many players involved. It's an absolutely invaluable resource for the technical military historian.

Highly recommended reading for those interested in the M16 controversy, and as a useful case study in weapons development.


A new blogger makes a worthy entrance

The team at Popehat has been joined by a new member, Clark. His first two articles have greatly impressed me. Here's an extract from the first.

Thomas Kuhn’s "The Structure of Scientific Revolutions" is one of those books that everyone with pretensions to intellectualism should read.

For that matter, so is C.P. Snow’s essay “The Two Cultures”.

The difference is that I’ve actually read The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. It’s not quite as deep – nor as original – as its reputation suggests, nor could it be. The name of the book has become something of a totem – loaded (not “freighted”. I hate that term. Unless there are actual, literal forklifts or cranes involved you can stick your “freighted” right next to your “fraught” in your hipster-pretentious-J-school three ring binder, and shelve it next to and the NYT style pages).

Uh…where was I?

Right, right. “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. “Freighted”. “Hipsters”.

Anyway, the name of the book is loaded with a lot of cultural signifiers and baggage, because that’s what pretentious intellectuals do, and because the book is a convenient stick in the dirt and thus its title is as good a phrase as any to label that patch of ground.

The patch of ground being the social process by which conventional wisdom changes.

Kuhn argues (to simplify) that at any given point in time there is a dominant theory. If the theory is hugely dominant, and there are no observed problems with it, there’s little action, and no one much cares.

Had any rousing debates about electron shells, the mass of a neutron, of the photovoltaic effect recently?

Nor have I.

However, from time to time, a theory that was dominant gets some countervailing data piled up against it.

…and then a bit more.

…and then a bit more.

In theory there’s no difference between the model of the scientific process and the actual practice of science.

…but in actual practice there is.

In theory academics of whatever stripe – physicists, chemists, economists, political scientists – would welcome contrary opinions and contrary data.

We all know what we really see, though: anger, fear, and outrage.

This is because the theory of the scientific process oversimplifies: it forgets that academics are first and foremost humans, and humans are the end product of a whole butt-load of tribal living.

…and when it comes to tribal living, the powerful get first choice of meat and first choice of nubile hunter-gatherers-of-the-curvy-variety.

Thus we humans can be fairly prickly about power, status, and signaling (you can Google up Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson on your own). When it comes to power dynamics in the nerd – ah – academic set, there’s something a lot worse than being challenged by the first-row, second-seat sax player, or having your rook snatched by the kid with an Elo score one notch down from yours. These challenges will just have you lose one or two ranks. The thing that’s a lot worse is being kicked out of the group all together: being made a laughing stock and mocked as utterly, entirely wrong.

And, of course, this is exactly what the scientific process – as it’s SUPPOSED to work – threatens to do to non-ideal actual-human-meat academics.

So the Old Guard fight as hard and as long as possible…and they get more and more angry as the evidence piles up against them.

…and eventually they expire and the old much-hated ideas are allowed to be spoken in public.

There's more at the link. His second article is here.

Thank you, Clark, and welcome to the blogosphere! I'll be following your posts with great interest.


South Africa launches a new aircraft project

I was interested to read about a new aircraft project in South Africa. AHRLAC (Advanced High-performance Reconnaissance and Surveillance Aircraft) is described as follows:

Aerosud has always held the view that Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) will continue to play a key role in aerial reconnaissance and surveillance, but UAV’s are characterised by a number of constraints, including high acquisition cost, control complexity, control link security, limited payload capacity, difficulties associated with operation in Air-Traffic-controlled zones etc. and also requiring a large 'logistic footprint' for deployment and control.

A study was launched into the viability of developing a low-cost yet high-performance manned alternative to UAV’s, which resulted in the launch of a totally new aircraft optimised for this role and today known as AHRLAC (Advanced High Performance Reconnaissance and Surveillance Aircraft). Design characteristics include self-deployment to and from semi-prepared strips coupled to high cruise speed and much extended range and loiter capability. The aircraft will be optimised for multiple missions via the carriage of payload combinations including FLIR, SAR radars, COMINT and ELINT sensors etc, all integrated with an advanced avionics suite optimised for both onboard display as well as data relay. The total payload capability (excl. fuel and crew) is around 800 Kg [1,760 pounds].

Developed in close partnership with the South African Paramount Group, leaders amongst others in Land Systems, the AHRLAC mission definition focuses on “Homeland Security” covering applications such as border security, coastal and maritime/EEZ patrol, the combating of piracy, drug traffic control etc. and crew and mission protection is playing a major role in the design.

There's more at the link. There's a news article about AHRLAC here, and a CGI video clip may be found here.

The aircraft sounds somewhat similar to the Northrop Grumman Firebird, which we've examined before in these pages. However, Firebird is optionally manned, allowing it to function as a fully-fledged UAV if necessary, whereas AHRLAC (they really need to figure out a better name for this bird!) is (at least currently) a two-seater. I don't know whether or not there are plans to develop it into an optionally piloted or unmanned version as well. Furthermore, Firebird only carries a sensor payload at present, whereas AHRLAC will be able to carry weapons too. The image below shows it with a 20mm. cannon protruding from its nose, and two Mokopa anti-tank missiles and a canister of unguided rockets beneath its wing.

AHRLAC's pricing looks interesting. The Beechcraft T-6 Texan II turboprop trainer, used by the USAF, is being sold to Iraq for a unit price of approximately $14 million. That figure includes training and maintenance packages, making the actual cost per aircraft probably $8-$10 million. A light attack version of this aircraft, known as the AT-6B Texan II, is under development. It sounds as if it'll be comparable (perhaps superior) to the AHRLAC in capability, but will presumably cost more than the trainer version of the T-6. Brazil's Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano, an equivalent to the AT-6B, sells for $9 million according to this report. The AHRLAC is reportedly on the market for $10 million apiece, which puts it in the right ballpark. If its sensor and weapons fit is sufficiently advanced and comprehensive, that may even be a bargain price. An order for 50 aircraft has reportedly already been placed by an unnamed customer, although I'll be inclined to trust that news only when I see aircraft being delivered!

There's no prototype of AHRLAC yet, but a full-size mockup has been built, and a radio-controlled scale model has flown. First flight is expected next year. If this is built 'African tough', able to take the pounding of unprepared airstrips and mistreatment by ham-handed pilots, it might be a very useful tool for many smaller Air Forces in the Third World.


Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Wildfires move fast!

I've been rather too close for comfort to wildfires in South Africa. I've not yet encountered them at halitosis range in the USA, but I daresay it's only a matter of time until I do. The video clip below shows how very fast they can move, given the right conditions (enough fuel, enough wind, and nothing and no-one to slow them down).

You may be tempted to think that the video has been speeded up, to show the fire moving faster than it does in reality. I can assure you, it isn't! Wildfires really can move that fast, given the right conditions. That's how some firefighters die almost every year . . . they're trapped by a fast-moving wildfire that cuts off their line of retreat, then burns right over them. It's a pretty horrible way to die.

Spare a thought - and a prayer - for those battling the current wildfires in Texas and other states, that they may be preserved in safety.


Fried WHAT???

My stomach is threatening spontaneous rebellion upon reading the news of the winner of the Most Creative Big Tex Choice Award at the recent State Fair of Texas. The Dallas Morning News reports:

This year’s winner of the State Fair of Texas’ award for the most creative new food will surely give fairgoers plenty to chew on.

It’s called Fried Bubblegum, but it’s not actually gum. You can’t chew it for very long. And you can’t blow bubbles with it.

. . .

State Rep. Eric Johnson, D-Dallas, acknowledged that the Fried Bubblegum wasn’t his “cup of tea.”

“I think the kids are going to go crazy for that one, so I voted for that one,” he said. “I knew that that would be a really big hit.”

The super-sweet small pink marshmallow domes are infused with bubblegum extract and fried in bubblegum batter, creator Justin Martinez said. Then they are topped with blue icing and sprinkled with colorful Chiclets.

“It’s ooey, gooey and sticky,” said judge Kristi Scales, sideline reporter for the Dallas Cowboys Radio Network. “I recommend parents bring some Handi Wipes.”

. . .

The treat was an employee’s idea, Martinez said.

“When we heard bubble gum, we thought you know what, if we can make that work, it could be something special,” he said. “It took months to figure out how to get the flavor of bubblegum without actually having to fry a piece of bubblegum.”

The sticking point: Gum won’t fry.

“It absolutely was a disaster,” Martinez said. “It just sits there and you bite into it and all you’re really eating is oil. The way we do it is a lot better tasting.”

. . .

The hardest part of the job may be the after-effect of all that fried food.

“There’s still no preparation for this much grease and bread in your stomach,” Johnson said. “I’m thinking about next year entering deep fried Pepto-Bismol balls for the competition so people can have those at the end.”

There's more at the link.

Fried Bubblegum, followed by Pepto-Bismol Balls. Doesn't that sound like the ultimate gastronomic nightmare?


Political correctness as a solution for Harry Potter's world

Readers may have noticed that political correctness is not among my besetting sins (many and varied though the latter may be). In fact, I enjoy a good laugh at the expense of the politically correct . . . which is what's just been provided by an article in Foreign Policy magazine. It examines 'post-conflict reconstruction' in the world of Harry Potter. Here are a few excerpts.

Surviving Death Eaters will have to be brought to justice or reintegrated into magical society. Long-standing rifts among magical communities that the war widened must be healed. Most of all, we must ensure that the values that triumphed in the final battle -- tolerance, pluralism, and respect for the dignity of all magical and non-magical creatures alike -- are reflected in the institutions and arrangements that emerge from the conflict. What ultimately matters is not just whether something evil was defeated, but whether something good is built in its place.

. . .

One way to address these challenges would be to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission modeled on the experience of Muggle South Africa. Rank-and-file Death Eaters and collaborators -- as well as those who fought against them -- would be given the opportunity to testify about their actions and be forgiven for those less serious offenses to which they fully and honestly confessed. Such a process would not only be cathartic, but would also help establish a more accurate and complete version of these traumatic events and could, in turn, become part of Hogwarts's curriculum. It would be important to ensure, however, that those who testify to such a commission tell the truth voluntarily, and not under the influence of Veritaserum.

. . .

Members of the anti-Voldemort Order of the Phoenix will presumably form the core of a transitional governing authority, which would then organize elections for a permanent government. As democratic forces in Muggle Egypt and Libya have recently discovered, the legitimacy of post-revolutionary but pre-election transitional governments can be tenuous. This problem could be minimized in the magical world by having the Hogwarts Sorting Hat assign ministerial positions in the transitional authority.

. . .

We trust that these preliminary recommendations will be helpful to all magical persons as they recover from their recent conflict. If we have been of service to the community of witches and wizards, we humbly hope they might render us Muggles a service or two in return. For starters, we would very much appreciate it if they could lift the Petrificus Totalus curse someone has clearly placed on the U.S. Congress.

There's more at the link. Very amusing, particularly to those who know the Harry Potter books and movies, and highly recommended.


Filling without drilling?

I've never enjoyed getting my teeth filled, partly because I'm no masochist and partly because I've had to have most of them worked on, thanks to problems with them early in life. I guess it's too late for this to benefit me, but I can hope that those born more recently may not have to undergo as much drilling as I did. Science Daily reports:

Researchers at the University of Leeds have discovered a pain-free way of tackling dental decay that reverses the damage of acid attack and re-builds teeth as new.

The pioneering treatment promises to transform the approach to filling teeth forever.

. . .

Their solution is to arm dentists with a peptide-based fluid that is literally painted onto the tooth's surface. The peptide technology is based on knowledge of how the tooth forms in the first place and stimulates regeneration of the tooth defect.

"This may sound too good to be true, but we are essentially helping acid-damaged teeth to regenerate themselves. It is a totally natural non-surgical repair process and is entirely pain-free too," said Professor Jennifer Kirkham, from the University of Leeds Dental Institute, who has led development of the new technique.

The 'magic' fluid was designed by researchers in the University of Leeds' School of Chemistry, led by Dr Amalia Aggeli. It contains a peptide known as P 11-4 that -- under certain conditions -- will assemble together into fibres. In practice, this means that when applied to the tooth, the fluid seeps into the micro-pores caused by acid attack and then spontaneously forms a gel. This gel then provides a 'scaffold' or framework that attracts calcium and regenerates the tooth's mineral from within, providing a natural and pain-free repair.

The technique was recently taken out of the laboratory and tested on a small group of adults whose dentist had spotted the initial signs of tooth decay. The results from this small trial have shown that P 11-4 can indeed reverse the damage and regenerate the tooth tissue.

There's more at the link.

I find it absolutely mind-boggling to think that someone can paint something onto your teeth that will actually cause them to regenerate! If they can get this right for dentine and enamel, can they do something similar for bones and other hard tissues? Could this be the beginning of regenerative medicine on a much broader scale?


Military purchasing - Death Star edition

I'm highly amused to discover an article in the September-October 2011 edition of Defense Acquisition University's magazine (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format). Lt.-Col. Dan Ward, USAF, writes about defense acquisition strategies in the light of the Death Star from the Star Wars movie franchise. It's a hoot! Here's an excerpt.

After watching the climactic battle scene in Return of the Jedi for the first time, my 8-year-old daughter said, “They shouldn’t build those Death Stars anymore. They keep getting blown up.” She may be a little short for a stormtrooper, but the kid’s got a point.

Yes, the Empire should stop building Death Stars. It turns out the DoD shouldn’t build them either, metaphorically speaking. What sort of system fits into this category? I’ll resist the urge to give specific examples and instead will simply point out that any enormous project that is brain-meltingly complex, ravenously consumes resources, and aims to deliver an Undefeatable Ultimate Weapon is well on its way to becoming a Death Star, and that’s not a good thing.

. . .

The Death Star’s lackluster contribution to the fight is reason enough not to build one, but serious problems emerged long before it was declared operational. In Return of the Jedi, viewers gain a fascinating insight into the programmatics of Empire acquisitions. In the single most realistic scene in the whole double-trilogy, Darth Vader complains that the second Death Star construction project is … behind schedule. In fact, much of the drama in Episode VI revolves around this delay.

Consider the implications of pop culture’s most notorious schedule overrun. In the Star Wars universe, robots are self-aware, every ship has its own gravity, Jedi Knights use the Force, tiny green Muppets are formidable warriors and a piece of junk like the Millennium Falcon can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs. But even the florid imagination of George Lucas could not envision a project like the Death Star coming in on time, on budget. He knew it would take a Jedi mind trick beyond the skill of Master Yoda to make an audience suspend that much disbelief.

Even worse, it turns out getting a moon-sized project back on track requires the personal presence of a Sith Lord. Let me assure you, if your project’s success depends on hiring someone whose first name is Darth, you’ve got a problem. Not just because Sith Lords are make-believe, but also because they’re evil.

There's more at the link. Entertaining and highly recommended.

While on the subject of the Death Star, did you ever wonder how much it cost? Fear not - Gizmodo has the numbers!

The total: $15,602,022,489,829,821,422,840,226.94.

Yes, that's a whooping 1.4 trillion times the current US Debt. Or a sightly more meaningful number: 124 trillion years of war in Iraq.

Again, more at the link.

There, that's your dose of nerd news and geek grok for the day!


Monday, September 26, 2011

Getting wet in spectacular fashion!

Instead of jumping off a mountain into the air, as we saw yesterday, how about paddling off one in a kayak?


Doofus Of The Day #525

Today's winner is the Chief of Police on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Stout, Ms. Lisa A. Walter. An article in Reason magazine links to this report at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

On September 12, 2011, Professor Miller posted on his office door an image of Nathan Fillion in Firefly and a line from an episode: "You don't know me, son, so let me explain this to you once: If I ever kill you, you'll be awake. You'll be facing me. And you'll be armed." On September 16, UWS Chief of Police Lisa A. Walter emailed Miller, notifying him that she had removed the poster and that "it is unacceptable to have postings such as this that refer to killing."

Amazed that UWS could be so shockingly heavy-handed, Miller replied by email, "Respect liberty and respect my first amendment rights." Walter responded that "the poster can be interpreted as a threat by others and/or could cause those that view it to believe that you are willing/able to carry out actions similar to what is listed." Walter also threatened Miller with criminal charges: "If you choose to repost the article or something similar to it, it will be removed and you could face charges of disorderly conduct."

Later on September 16, Miller placed a new poster on his office door in response to Walter's censorship. The poster read "Warning: Fascism" and included a cartoon image of a silhouetted police officer striking a civilian. The poster mocked, "Fascism can cause blunt head trauma and/or violent death. Keep fascism away from children and pets."

Astoundingly, Walter escalated the absurdity. On September 20, Walter emailed Miller again, stating that her office had removed the poster because it "depicts violence and mentions violence and death." She added that UWS's "threat assessment team," in consultation with the university general counsel's office, had decided to have the poster removed, and that this poster was reasonably expected to "cause a material and/or substantial disruption of school activities and/or be constituted as a threat." College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences Interim Dean Raymond Hayes has scheduled a meeting with Miller about "the concerns raised by the campus threat assessment team" for this Friday.

There's more at the link.

As Warren Meyer points out:

To call this a threat is absurd. In fact, in its original context, it was an anti-threat. It was a statement of old-fashioned honor by a character who lived in a violent world. And of course it is freaking fiction, and has no more relevance as a threat to real-life visitors to the professors offices than a picture of the Governator saying “I’ll be back.”

Not to mention the fact that such actions against speech are seldom enforced in a content-neutral sort of way. One wonders how many Che Gueverra (a real life killer) posters the university tolerates, or how many “well-behaved women seldom make history” (arguably encouraging women to break the law) bumper stickers can be found in the parking lot.

Again, more at the link.

Heaven preserve us from the politically correct . . .


Some amazing digital art

I was astonished to read about a Japanese artist who uses the 3½" screen of an Apple iPod Touch as his canvas, along with a $2.99 app, ArtStudio, to produce some amazing pictures. The Telegraph reports that Seikou Yamaoka took about 3½ hours to produce the image shown below, creating it during his train journey to work.

Here's a speeded-up video showing how he did it.

That's amazing! You can see more of his creations in an online picture gallery at the Telegraph, and more videos on YouTube showing him at work. He also has a Facebook page.


Is this really such a good idea?

I'm somewhat nonplussed to read that during the funeral of the recently-deceased inventor of Doritos, his product is to be sprinkled over his grave.

With the greatest of respect to the late Mr. Arch West, is this really a good idea? I mean . . . won't it seem corny?


Imperial By Design

That's the title of an article in The National Interest. It was published in December last year, but I only just came across it. It's a very interesting look at US foreign and military policy over the past few decades. Here's an excerpt.

The United States has been at war for a startling two out of every three years since 1989, and there is no end in sight. As anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of world events knows, countries that continuously fight wars invariably build powerful national-security bureaucracies that undermine civil liberties and make it difficult to hold leaders accountable for their behavior; and they invariably end up adopting ruthless policies normally associated with brutal dictators. The Founding Fathers understood this problem, as is clear from James Madison’s observation that “no nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” Washington’s pursuit of policies like assassination, rendition and torture over the past decade, not to mention the weakening of the rule of law at home, shows that their fears were justified.

To make matters worse, the United States is now engaged in protracted wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that have so far cost well over a trillion dollars and resulted in around forty-seven thousand American casualties. The pain and suffering inflicted on Iraq has been enormous. Since the war began in March 2003, more than one hundred thousand Iraqi civilians have been killed, roughly 2 million Iraqis have left the country and 1.7 million more have been internally displaced. Moreover, the American military is not going to win either one of these conflicts, despite all the phony talk about how the “surge” has worked in Iraq and how a similar strategy can produce another miracle in Afghanistan. We may well be stuck in both quagmires for years to come, in fruitless pursuit of victory.

The United States has also been unable to solve three other major foreign-policy problems. Washington has worked overtime—with no success—to shut down Iran’s uranium-enrichment capability for fear that it might lead to Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons. And the United States, unable to prevent North Korea from acquiring nuclear weapons in the first place, now seems incapable of compelling Pyongyang to give them up. Finally, every post–Cold War administration has tried and failed to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; all indicators are that this problem will deteriorate further as the West Bank and Gaza are incorporated into a Greater Israel.

The unpleasant truth is that the United States is in a world of trouble today on the foreign-policy front, and this state of affairs is only likely to get worse in the next few years, as Afghanistan and Iraq unravel and the blame game escalates to poisonous levels. Thus, it is hardly surprising that a recent Chicago Council on Global Affairs survey found that “looking forward 50 years, only 33 percent of Americans think the United States will continue to be the world’s leading power.” Clearly, the heady days of the early 1990s have given way to a pronounced pessimism.

This regrettable situation raises the obvious questions of what went wrong? And can America right its course?

There's much more at the link. I don't agree with all the points made, but they offer much food for thought. They also, to a certain extent, tie in with observations made in the latest Daily Dispatch from Casey Research.

I had friends in high school who ... constantly got into fights. And the more fights they entered, the bigger their problems became. Many of them would win almost every single fight, but it nearly got to the point where they couldn’t attend any social gathering without a situation like the one I faced. Someone somewhere was always looking to beat them up. It created an endless cycle of more fights and more enemies.

In my opinion, that’s where the US is right now. Sure, we’ve bombed the hell out of Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries. There’s no doubt that @$$ has been kicked, but at what price? Many countries tiptoe around the US, as if afraid to catch the federal government’s military ire, but at the same time they secretly plot to strike in case an opportune moment presents itself. And within the US, people now have to constantly watch their backs, as they’re monitored nearly everywhere, from porno scanners at airports to wiretaps on phone calls to sifting through email looking for “suspicious” words and phrases. This didn’t happen because we’re necessarily wrong – that’s just the way fights work. If you beat the living hell out of someone, that person will likely come back wanting revenge at some point down the road. It doesn’t matter if you were in the right. Unfortunately for the US, our military has been going around the world breaking a lot of bones.

In that process, there has been a lot of “collateral damage”. In Iraq alone, there have been over 100,000 civilian casualties; about 12% of those were caused by coalition forces. That’s the rough equivalent of four 9/11 attacks. Do you remember how mad Americans were on September 11th? Well, imagine many Iraqis being four times madder than that.

When a young man loses his parents or sister to an accidental US bomb, he won’t say, “Well, the US is right to be in Iraq, so I’ll forgive them. And by the way, thank you for freeing me from Saddam Hussein.” No, that person will likely look for revenge at an opportune moment in the future. The more people we knock out; the more people come looking for revenge.

The US government’s current strategy seems to be to fight everyone all the time and win every single battle. If a government can do that over the next hundred years, then that might be a reasonable security strategy. But anyone who’s been in a high school fight knows that this is a flawed strategy. It leads to either a life of paranoia or eventually being caught outnumbered in a dark parking lot, metaphorically speaking.

Again, more at the link.

Oh - and when it comes to the US military, check out this entry in Time magazine's Battleland blog. It links to a mind-bogglingly complex chart of the weapons development and purchasing process. After seeing it, I'm no longer surprised that so many weapons programs have ended up way over budget and years behind schedule . . .



Sunday, September 25, 2011

Taking a dive

A very long dive, as a matter of fact! This is worth watching in full-screen mode.

I'm afraid I just couldn't do that. I see no reason to abandon a perfectly safe, stable cliff in such a hurry. I'll take the long, slow way down, thank you very much!


'Machine politics' is alive and well . . .

. . . or at least, that's what two recent articles seem to suggest.

From Philadelphia comes a report of influence-peddling and strong-arm tactics that one hopes will lead to criminal charges; but I'm not holding my breath.

In 1999, when John F. Street first ran for Philadelphia mayor, he said his campaign contributors had "a greater chance of getting business from my administration."

"I think that's the way it works," Street said.

In 2004, insurance magnate William Graham IV explained why he cut politically connected insiders into his government contracts, even if they did little or no work.

"It's just so accepted," Graham said. "If the only way to get to Flourtown is on the bus, you don't say, 'I'm going to take the train.' "

And this year, a new report revealed last week, State Rep. Dwight Evans and School Reform Commission Chairman Robert L. Archie Jr. relentlessly twisted arms in back rooms to make sure their favored candidate got a lucrative contract to run a high school.

Archie turned out to be phrasemaker, too.

"This is Philadelphia," he reportedly told the candidate he was forcing out. "Things are different here."

As the details revealed in the exhaustive report made plain, there is little point disputing that.

Philadelphia remains a city where official business is routinely done in the dark. Despite indictments, new ethics rules, and scathing reports, it remains a town with an entrenched culture in which the powerful circumvent the rules to get things done and the cloutless find themselves on the curb.

"There is a lot of talk in the development community about how hard it is to do business here," said Harris Steinberg, the planner leading a drive to redevelop Penn's Landing after previous efforts fell prey to corruption.

Insider demands, he said "add costs to the project, and they create uncertainty. It's not a level playing field, and I think it does a disservice to the city as a whole."

There's much more at the link.

Next, John Kass of the Chicago Tribune finds that the Solyndra scandal 'reeks of the Chicago Way'.

Federal investigators want to know what role political fundraising played in the guarantee of the questionable loan. Washington bureaucrats warned the deal was lousy. And White House spokesmen flail desperately, like weakened victims in a cheesy vampire movie.

So forget optics. What about smell? It smells bad, and it's going to smell worse.

Or, did you really believe it when the White House mouthpieces — who are also Chicago City Hall mouthpieces — promised they were bringing a new kind of politics to Washington?

This is not a new kind of politics. It's the old kind. The Chicago kind.

And now the Tribune Washington Bureau has reported that the U.S. Department of Energy employee who helped monitor the Solyndra loan guarantee was one of Obama's top fundraisers.

Fundraising? Contracts? Imagine that.

Steve Spinner was the Obama administration official in charge of handing out billions and billions of tax dollars to "green" energy deals. According to the Tribune story, Spinner the other day invited Obama's national political finance committee to a meeting in Chicago.

The name of the Obama fundraising initiative?

"Technology for Obama."

The idea of the Obama fundraisers getting together, talking "green," and perhaps offering taxpayer loan guarantees to insider businesses in the interest of helping the environment — it all seems rather fresh.

Like a mountain meadow.

Until you realize it's the same old politics, the same kind practiced in Washington and Chicago and anywhere else where appetites are satisfied by politicians. When the government picks winners and losers, who's the loser? Just look in the mirror, hold that thought, and tell me later.

Republicans are hoping to hang this around Obama's political neck, and they're doing a good job of it now because his approval ratings are low and the jobless numbers are abysmal and the Democrats are in full killer-rabbit panic. But there have been Republican national scandals, too, and they're always ridiculously and depressingly similar.

At least in Illinois our scandals are quite ecumenical, with Republicans eager to help Democrats steal whatever they can grab.

. . .

So this is not about Washington optics after all. The Solyndra scandal is about the Washington smell of things.

Those of us from Chicago know exactly what it smells like. And It doesn't smell fresh and green.

Again, more at the link.

Mr. Kass is, of course, absolutely correct. Such scandals aren't exclusively a Democratic or Republican party prerogative. Both parties have been guilty of them in the past (I mentioned one example last Friday), and both will doubtless continue to be guilty of them in the future. I haven't yet heard of such a scandal affecting the Tea Party, but given that its members are human beings and therefore (as far as I know) subject to temptation, I daresay it won't be too long before they're affected as well.

However, it does give me a new data point for future elections. If a candidate - for any office, from POTUS to deputy acting honorary unpaid second assistant dog-catcher - comes from, or is supported by, one of the 'old-style' political machines - either party - that are still prevalent in North-Eastern and Mid-Western cities, they're automatically disqualified from my support. At once, if not sooner.


Doofus Of The Day #524

Today's award goes to whoever in the French Army was responsible for this.

The French army top-brass were left red-faced when a mobile command post worth 600,000 euros [more than US $800,000], complete with military computers, was stolen, judicial sources said on Tuesday.

The modular command post system, which resembles a cargo container, was discovered during the search of a warehouse in Bobigny, northeast of Paris, that had been rented by a man suspected of fraud, a judicial source said.

The 20-foot (seven-metre) unit contained computers with “non sensitive” data on them, a source close to the inquiry said.

The army noticed the command post was missing from its Montlhery barracks south of Paris during an inventory on July 18.

Investigators suspect someone inside the barracks of involvement with the theft as the command unit can only be moved by a flatbed truck.

There's more at the link.

Let's see. Someone managed to sneak a very large, very expensive containerized command post (which presumes it was actually commanding something) out of a (nominally) secure military establishment where thousands of personnel live and/or work . . . and no-one noticed a thing? Tell me, what else might spies succeed in removing from that establishment, if they really tried? A main battle tank? Perhaps even a tactical nuclear missile on its transporter? After all, both can be moved more easily than a bloody great free-standing container!

I suspect someone's promotion (not to mention pension) prospects in the Armée de Terre have just taken a sudden nose-dive . . .


One possible reason for the decline of US industry?

Foreign Policy magazine has an interesting article comparing US industrial practice to that in Germany. Here's an excerpt.

"We have a line of Cherry office furniture that's just flying out of the showroom," he replied. "Where do you make it?" I asked. "Well," he said, "we cut the cherry trees in West Virginia. They have the best cherry trees in West Virginia. Then we ship the logs to Germany where they peel the veneer. Then we ship the veneer to China where it is glued to the frame and then they ship the finished furniture to us in Wisconsin where we market and sell it." Astonished, I asked in a tone of disbelief, "You ship the logs to Germany? Is there no one who can peel veneer in America?" "Yes," he admitted, but went on to emphasize that "the Germans do it far better than the Americans."

Veneer peeling never shows up on the lists of high-tech industries and is never discussed when there is talk of the need for more Silicon Valley style start-ups and innovation. Nor do veneer peelers need advanced college degrees. Yet veneer peeling in Germany is so high-tech and so innovative that furniture makers are shipping logs and veneer around the world to get something done in Germany that one would expect to be easily done in the United States. Innovation and high tech doesn't have to be Google or Silicon Valley. It may not necessarily take a lot of basic Research spending (although certainly some D spending) or advanced formal education.

What Germany has is a lot of family owned, medium sized businesses and a government and society that are committed to the long term and to keeping German-based production competitive in as many sectors as possible. It also has a system of training and maintaining skills that doesn't turn out PhDs, but does turn out supremely qualified workers. And, of course, to gain full advantage from those skills, it strives through cooperation between industry, government, and labor to keep producers competitive from a German production base.

There's more at the link.

I think the article is a little simplistic, in that it doesn't take into account the nature of the products manufactured in each country, or consider imports, consumption, etc. Nevertheless, it raises interesting questions. Recommended.


Google Earth reveals more long-hidden secrets

I've been following the work of some Australian archaeologists with great interest since 2008. They've been using Google Earth to survey large swaths of the Middle East where, for one reason or another (including war, terrorism, internal security concerns and regional tensions), normal aerial photography for archaeological research isn't possible.

The first report to attract my interest emerged in July 2008, when doctoral student David Thomas and some colleagues used Google Earth to examine Afghanistan.

Thomas and three colleagues ... used the Google Earth images of Afghanistan to glean new details from already discovered sites, map known sites that don't have any drawn plans and, most significantly, uncover hundreds of sites that were previously undiscovered.

Qal'a-i Hauz, a Ghaznavid fortress and reservoir, in Afghanistan

And the best part is they could do it all from the comfort of their armchairs, without shouldering the costs of travelling to Afghanistan and the threats posed by gangs of Taliban militants.

Before Thomas's project there was only one known site in the Registan desert region of Afghanistan and the last time a researcher visited the area was in the 1970s. Using Google Earth, Thomas's team have managed to catalogue 450 sites in the area, dating back centuries if not millennia.

There's more at the link. Mr. Thomas' paper, titled 'The Archaeological Sites of Afghanistan in Google Earth', may be found here in the form of a Scribd document. It includes several photographs of his discoveries, including the one reproduced above.

In February this year, another academic announced that he'd discovered many new archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia using a similar technique.

Professor David Kennedy, from the University of Western Australia, has never visited Saudi Arabia but scanned 1240 square kilometres of the country using Google Earth and found 1977 potential archaeological sites. This included 1082 ancient tombs shaped like tear drops.

Kennedy was able to confirm the legitimacy of two of the finds by asking a friend in Saudi Arabia to drive out to the sites and photograph them. He believes they may be up to 9000 years old.

Kennedy told New Scientist that Saudi Arabia was "not the easiest country to break into" and it was difficult to even fly over the nation - but he said Google Earth "can outflank them".

In his paper on the find, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, Kennedy writes: "It is readily apparent that the use of GE [Google Earth] for the prospection and identification of sites has great potential when dealing with a huge area that is otherwise largely inaccessible on the ground."

However, further ground verification is needed to confirm the significance of the sites.

"Just from Google Earth it's impossible to know whether we have found a Bedouin structure that was made 150 years ago, or 10,000 years ago," Kennedy told New Scientist.

In the journal paper Kennedy said initial investigations revealed most of the discoveries were "pre-Islamic". It is thought that the Islamic regime in Saudi Arabia is hostile to archaeology because it may focus attention on pre-Islamic civilisations there.

. . .

Britain's Daily Telegraph newspaper reported that 90 per cent of the archaeological treasures in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina had been destroyed to make way for hotels, apartment blocks and parking facilities. Last year, Saudi clerics reportedly renewed long-standing calls for the demolition of several historic Islamic sites.

Again, more at the link.

(I can understand Professor Kennedy's fear of destruction of ancient sites by militant fundamentalist Wah'habist clerics. Their brand of Islam isn't all that far removed from the Taliban in Afghanistan in some respects - and we all remember what the Taliban did to the Buddhas of Bamiyan in that country!)

Last Friday Professor Kennedy announced further discoveries.

Australia has unwittingly become the Google Earth archaeology capital of the world.

After announcing in February that he had unearthed almost 2000 potential archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia from his armchair, Professor David Kennedy, from the University of Western Australia, has now uncovered thousands more prehistoric man-made stone structures across the entire Arabian peninsula, stretching from northern Syria to Yemen.

. . .

Among Professor Kennedy's discoveries in the area are domestic dwellings, tens of thousands of stone burial tombs shaped strikingly like pendants and trumpets and 3000 "kites". The kites were named as such due to their shape and were in fact used as animal traps - ranging in diameter from 20 or 30 metres to 10 times that size.

An ancient 'kite' in Jordan

"The tails are guide walls, animals would be enticed into the open mouth of the guide walls and they'd be slowly funnelled down until they found themselves in a circular enclosure of some kind, where they would be killed," said Professor Kennedy.

These stone structures - which were about a metre high at the time but are now just 50 or 60 centimetres tall - were first discovered by British Royal Air Force pilots in the 1920s but the finds were very partial and fragmented. As at 1995 there were only about 507 known "kites" in the area but Professor Kennedy has now increased this six-fold.

"What has changed now - thanks to a programme of aerial archaeology in Jordan and the growing coverage of high-resolution imagery on Google Earth and Bing, is the ability to identify these structures over immense areas of Arabia, draw them, map them and begin the task of interpretation on which specialists in the region and period can base a multi-disciplinary research project," he said.

With Google Earth, Professor Kennedy and other archaeologists are able to build a much more complete picture and discover ancient structures in areas where they would never be permitted - or physically able - to access on the ground or by using aerial photography.

More at the link.

Professor Kennedy is the current director of the Aerial Photographic Archive for Archaeology in the Middle East (APAAME). Its Web site contains many photographs and details of discoveries made using both Google Earth and aerial photography. Many of its images have been copied to a Flickr photostream for greater ease of access. Another good source for information about 'aerial archaeology' in Saudi Arabia is this article by Professor Kennedy, including many more photographs. All three links are highly recommended reading for those interested in ancient history and archaeology.