Saturday, June 15, 2024

No Snippet today


I'm getting ready for another surgical procedure on Monday, and trying to deal with a lot of bits and pieces before then;  so I haven't had time to prepare the usual Saturday Snippet.  Meanwhile, please amuse yourselves with the bloggers listed in the sidebar.

Prayers for a successful procedure on Monday, and a full recovery, will be gratefully appreciated.  Thanks!


Friday, June 14, 2024

So much for Pride Month!


First prize to whoever dreamed up this position statement.



Venezuela: will it go to war to avoid internal collapse?


Venezuela appears to be in a very parlous state, according to Peter Ziehan.  The brief video below is worth watching.

That puts a different emphasis on Venezuelan President Maduro's threat to take over a resource-rich area of neighboring state Guyana.

Venezuela continues to build up military infrastructure and hardware close to the border with Guyana as President Nicolas Maduro and his supporters scale up their threats to annex an oil-rich piece of Guyanese land.

In a report shared with CNN, the Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) warns that while the Venezuelan government “has little to gain and much to lose from a full-blown conflict” it continues to play “a dangerous game” over its claim over the densely forested Essequibo region.

“The constant drumbeat asserting ‘the Essequibo is ours,’ alongside the creation of new military commands and legal structures to oversee the defense of the region, is helping to institutionalize a sense of perpetual prewar footing,” it wrote.

There's more at the link.

That's a very old tactic indeed:  distract one's population from severe internal or local problems by focusing them on an external grievance, war or other provocation.  Argentina did it with the Falkland Islands when the former's military junta was about to lose control of the economy and drive the nation into ruin.  An appeal to patriotism, particularly in a continent that fought a war over a soccer match (!), is almost guaranteed to divert attention.

Unfortunately, that won't help Guyana, which is much smaller and weaker than Venezuela;  and it won't help peace and stability on the entire South American continent, where drug cartels and other evils will use the distraction to shore up their own positions (and, probably, fight with each other to gain "market share" in the perennial drug war).  It might also drag the US into intervening in a war nobody except Venezuela wants.

This will bear watching.


A ... er ... sticky (legal) situation?


Well, here's a conundrum if ever I heard one.

A federal appeals court on Wednesday heard arguments over whether car insurance should pay out benefits to a woman who caught a sexually transmitted disease from a policyholder in his insured vehicle.

. . .

"Upon review of the parties’ arguments, the court finds that consensual sexual relations inside a car do not constitute a 'use' of the automobile within the meaning of the subject policy," the judge wrote in his decision. 

But M.O. and Brauner appealed to the Eighth Circuit to have the district court's decision reversed. The couple contends that the language of Brauner's insurance policy is so broad as to justify M.O.'s bodily injury claim ... Attorneys for GEICO disagree ... A three-judge panel consisting of U.S. Circuit Judges Steven Colloton, Michael Melloy and Raymond Gruender heard these arguments in court on Wednesday.

The judges questioned M.O.'s attorney, David Mayer, on whether his client's argument would make GEICO responsible for every unwanted pregnancy that might have occurred in an automobile.

"I don't believe that's a cause of action but that's a good question," Mayer responded.

. . .

... by quibbling over the meaning of what is an "appropriate" use of a car, Beck told the judges, "you are turning what is an automobile policy into a general liability policy without restriction."

There's more at the link.

If one takes the plaintiff's view to its logical conclusion, if a woman becomes pregnant after sex in a car, doesn't that make the car insurer liable for any and all medical costs incurred by the child during its entire life?  After all, none of those costs would have been incurred if pregnancy had not occurred.  Does that mean the insurer can insist that the woman must have an abortion, so as to avoid those costs?

Simple basic common sense should surely dictate that the insurer is not liable.  However, this is the USA, where litigation has long since lost all sense of balance and reasonableness.  Who knows how it'll turn out?

What's next?  A clause in insurance policies stating that no teenagers should ever be allowed to use the vehicle - or even get into it - except under the policyholder's direct and immediate supervision, for fear of the carnage that might result?


Thursday, June 13, 2024

Quote of the day


From Sgt. Mom at Chicago Boyz, writing about "the LGBT-BLT lifestyle":

It used to be said that it was the love that dare not speak its name, now it’s the love that never shuts up.

Word (or words!).


If you can't take the heat, keep this out of the kitchen


I was amused, but also concerned, to read this BBC headline:  "Denmark recalls Korean ramen for being too spicy".

Denmark has recalled several spicy ramen noodle products by South Korean company Samyang, claiming that the capsaicin levels in them could poison consumers.

. . .

But the maker Samyang says there's no problem with the quality of the food.

"We understand that the Danish food authority recalled the products, not because of a problem in their quality but because they were too spicy," the firm said in a statement to the BBC.

"The products are being exported globally. But this is the first time they have been recalled for the above reason."

It's unknown if any specific incidents in Denmark had prompted authorities there to take action.

The Danish Veterinary and Food Administration said it had assessed the levels of capsaicin in a single packet to be "so high that they pose a risk of the consumer developing acute poisoning".

There's more at the link.

Actually, I can understand the Danes' concern.  I regularly buy various flavors of ramen noodles, because both my wife and I enjoy them as quick snacks.  Some of the Korean offerings have proved to be so hot that I got heartburn after only one or two mouthfuls, and one left me with a very tender feeling in my chest, almost as if I'd been punched there.  I don't like super-spicy foods anyway, and I've learned to avoid the so-called "red and black label" Korean offerings as just too spicy for my palate.

I wonder if we're seeing with Korean ramen noodles what we've already seen in the so-called "hot sauce" market?  Ever since some hot sauce manufacturers realized that there were individuals who'd try anything once, they've been competing to make their sauce hotter than anyone else's.  There are innumerable videos on YouTube showing a "hot sauce challenge".  Some of them are downright scary, judging by the looks on their participants' faces.  I get particularly worried when I see kids being suckered into these contests.  I suspect their less developed bodies might suffer real injury if the spice levels are too high.

Be that as it may, I'll continue to avoid red-and-black-packaged ramen noodles.  I've already had two heart attacks, and I don't want a third!


Saving on household running costs


We've spoken often in these pages about preparing for emergencies.  Food supplies, weapons, security issues, and a host of other topics have been covered.  However, there are several areas that are seldom mentioned in "prepping" circles:  threats that are so everyday, so routine, that we lose sight of how they might escalate into a real problem - or make preparing for a real emergency harder to afford, because of other drains on our wallets.  I've been discussing some of them with correspondents in recent weeks, and in this article, I'd like to tackle a few of them.

Let's take property and vehicle insurance.  They've gone up a lot over the past few years:  I've seen estimates that they're up more than 25% since 2020, and some estimates put it at over 40%.  Certainly, my wife and I have seen ours go up steeply, but that's partly because our insurer calculates the replacement value of our home at a considerably higher figure than we do.  I'm in the process of discussing that with our insurer, citing local costs and sales prices to prove our point.  That should help to bring our premiums back down, but it won't erase the higher costs completely.

How does one "prepare" for such increased costs?  It's important to watch your premiums closely, particularly notices warning you of an increase.  Your insurer will rate the value of your home according to a formula for your area, which might add too much value for your specific town or location (e.g. a valuation formula for "Northern Texas" is not as focused as one for "Arlington TX" or "Muenster TX").  Don't be afraid to raise such issues with your insurer, and negotiate the replacement value of your home down to a more reasonable level - one that'll cost you less in premium increases.  By doing that every year or two, the cumulative increase in your insurance costs over several years might be quite a lot lower than if you didn't.

Another option is to buy less expensive vehicles;  either a smaller, cheaper new car, or a used vehicle at a lower price than a new one.  Their insurance rate is calculated according to their value.  Buying the higher-end model might cost as much as $50-$100 more per month to insure than buying the entry-level model - and does it really make that much difference to drive the less luxurious version?  When considered along with all the other increases, those savings start to look attractive.  (Until recently, given the outlandishly high prices being asked for used vehicles, it was in many cases cheaper to buy a lower-priced new one such as Kia's Soul or Ford's Maverick light pickup.  Not only did they cost less than a used smaller SUV, but they offered similar interior space for passengers, and depreciation losses in today's market are minimal compared to years past.  I know a number of families who did that, and they've generally been happy with the deals they got.)

How about electricity bills?  They've been rising pretty steeply in our part of the world.  Even though we aren't major consumers of electricity, we're paying several hundred dollars a month for it, particularly now as the heat of summer makes big demands on our HVAC system.  There are many ways to save electricity, from shutting off major appliances like water heaters, not using ovens to cook, adjusting the internal temperature to levels that don't require as much electricity to maintain, and so on.

I'm seriously considering installing a mini-split air conditioning system for our main room in addition to the central HVAC system, because the former functions off a 120-volt circuit instead of 240, and consumes less than a quarter of the power needed by the central system.  If we shut off our central HVAC system when we're out and about, and run only the smaller unit for six to eight hours a day, it'll keep the central part of the house at a comfortable temperature but consume a lot less electricity.  I figure that in two years, the savings will pay for the entire mini-split system, including installation, and after that the savings are all gravy, so to speak.  I've not made a final decision yet, but it's a tempting thought.

If your HVAC system is getting old and you're considering replacing it, it might be worth your while to look at installing two or more mini-split or multi-split systems instead of one big central system.  The cost of installing the former can be half to two-thirds the cost of the latter, and their power consumption, even taken together, will usually be at least a third less than a central system.  Add up those savings and it becomes a rather attractive option, provided your home is constructed in such a way that the smaller systems can be "plumbed into" it relatively easily.

What about municipal and/or county rates and taxes?  It's worth checking on their valuation of your home, and contesting any sudden increases.  Too many counties issue bonds to construct new infrastructure such as schools, emergency services, etc. and then clobber residents with big increases in their rates.  These can be contested, particularly if actual sales prices achieved by comparable properties in your area demonstrate that the valuation is too high.  A lower valuation leads to lower rates, saving you money.

These are just some ways one can economize on one's overall household expenditure.  I'm sure readers have more they can contribute.  If you do, please share them with us in Comments.  We're almost all finding it hard to make ends meet these days.  Why not help each other to make our dollars go further?


Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Knowledge workers run headlong into the threat from artificial intelligence


A journalist and writer ponders what she calls "My last five years of work".

I am 25. These next three years might be the last few years that I work. I am not ill, nor am I becoming a stay-at-home mom, nor have I been so financially fortunate to be on the brink of voluntary retirement. I stand at the edge of a technological development that seems likely, should it arrive, to end employment as I know it.

I work at a frontier AI company. With every iteration of our model, I am confronted with something more capable and general than before. At this stage, it can competently generate cogent content on a wide range of topics. It can summarize and analyze texts passably well. As someone who at one point made money as a freelance writer and prided myself on my ability to write large amounts of content quickly, a skill which—like cutting blocks of ice from a frozen pond—is arguably obsolete, I find it hard not to notice these advances. Freelance writing was always an oversubscribed skillset, and the introduction of language models has further intensified competition.

The general reaction to language models among knowledge workers is one of denial. They grasp at the ever diminishing number of places where such models still struggle, rather than noticing the ever-growing range of tasks where they have reached or passed human level ... The economically and politically relevant comparison on most tasks is not whether the language model is better than the best human, it is whether they are better than the human who would otherwise do that task.

. . .

Many expect AI to eventually be able to do every economically useful task. I agree. Given the current trajectory of the technology, I expect AI to first excel at any kind of online work. Essentially anything that a remote worker can do, AI will do better. Copywriting, tax preparation, customer service, and many other tasks are or will soon be heavily automated. I can see the beginnings in areas like software development and contract law. Generally, tasks that involve reading, analyzing, and synthesizing information, and then generating content based on it, seem ripe for replacement by language models.

There's more at the link.

Hers is a timely article.  With more and more white-collar workers being displaced by artificial intelligence and expert systems, it's going to be an ongoing and increasingly important debate:  what will we do when there's no longer anything that we're needed to do?

This also calls for a re-examination of the much-derided concept of universal basic income.  If automation reduces the number of available jobs far below the number of workers available to fill them, who's going to provide for the unemployed workers?  They can't be abandoned to starve, so some form of UBI appears to be inevitable.  What form that might take is currently being debated world-wide, but that it will be required seems incontrovertible.

Food for thought - particularly for a wordsmith, blogger and writer like myself.


A giant of the Cold War skies bids farewell


It's been announced that Russia's Air Force will retire its last remaining Antonov An-22 strategic transport aircraft this year.  The photograph below shows the prototype aircraft at the Paris Air Show in 1965, the year it first flew.

The An-22 was a behemoth.  It could carry up to 80 metric tons (approximately 88 US tons) of cargo, roughly equivalent to today's Boeing C-17 Globemaster III and almost twice the payload by weight of the contemporary Lockheed C-141 Starlifter.  It was routinely used to ferry intercontinental ballistic missiles around the Soviet Union, as well as carry large, heavy cargoes to favored client nations.  It was the largest turboprop-powered aircraft ever built, using the same engines that powered the Tupolev Tu-95 strategic bomber.

The An-22 was regarded by the Soviet Union as a strategic asset due to its missile-ferrying duties, which led to a potentially serious incident back in 1975.  At the time, the Soviet Union was pouring armaments and surrogate forces into Angola to support its favored MPLA "liberation movement" (a.k.a. terrorist organization).  South Africa, with US encouragement, was at the same time intervening on behalf of another such organization, UNITA.  I'm informed by sources I consider reliable that in late 1975, some South African special forces were camped out within sight of the runways at the international airport in Luanda.  They managed to get their hands on a number of man-portable ground-to-air missiles (presumably taking them off MPLA forces that "no longer needed them"), and sent an excited signal back to South Africa saying that they planned to sneak up to the runway and shoot down as many as possible of the parade of An-22's arriving every day, filled with armaments.  They would have been "sitting duck" targets, having no alternative airport within range to which they could be diverted after their long flight down the African continent.

I'm told that this was mentioned in passing between a South African liaison officer and the US embassy in Pretoria, and led to seismic-level upheavals.  The CIA was convinced that if South Africa shot down some of the Soviet Union's scarce strategic transports (only 68 were ever built), the Soviets would react very harshly, escalating the war in Angola out of control, and would probably act against other important US client states around the world.  The reconnaissance forces near Luanda were duly told not to carry out their plan, but to allow the An-22's to arrive and depart undisturbed.  They were bitterly disappointed, and I was told that some of the signals they sent back to Pretoria were "sulfurous" - but they obeyed orders.  I've often wondered what would have happened if two or three of these monster aircraft had bitten the African dust . . .

As far as I know, there's only one An-22 flying outside the Russian Air Force, a privately-owned example operated by Antonov Airlines of Ukraine.  I don't know whether it's still operational.  To give you some idea of the enormous size of this plane, here are two video clips showing its arrival and departure at European airports.

So, at last, a giant of the skies goes to its rest.  It will not be forgotten.


Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Are vehicle service departments taking a leaf out of the "fast lube" racket's book?


I'm sure many of my readers have had the experience of getting an "instant lube" or "fast lube" for their vehicles from businesses like Jiffy Lube and others (there are thousands of them, all over the USA).  Basically, they promise to change your engine oil and get you back on the road within ten or fifteen minutes.  Of course, that doesn't always work that way.  I've several times been accosted by a service clerk showing me a dirty air filter, and suggesting I need to change it as well.  One time I demanded to see my vehicle with an empty filter casing, and the employees (and the manager) tried for all they were worth to stop me doing so.  Sure enough, my vehicle's filter was still in place - they'd shown me another one, hoping I wouldn't check.

Thing is, twice in a couple of months I've had the service department at an auto dealer (once at Nissan, the other at Toyota) show me dirty air filters, suggesting they need to be changed.  That's never happened before, and it's making me wonder.  Are manufacturers' service departments trying the same trick these days, hoping to generate extra revenue?

Of course, I have no way of knowing that:  but if more of us are experiencing the same thing, it might be worth investigating.  Therefore, readers, if that's happened to you at a branded service department, please let us know about it in Comments, as well as roughly how long ago it happened.  I'm curious to see whether this is becoming an industry-wide racket.



The trap of government subsidies


UnHerd has produced a masterly analysis of the trap into which government spending and subsidies has led much of American life today.  Here's an excerpt.

Democrats and Republicans alike, under the cover of good intentions, have been passing laws that undermine the economic well-being of American families. Even more disturbing, these policies have created a whole new class of robber barons, who rely on government policy to enrich themselves. But these new robber barons aren’t railroad tycoons or rapacious oil companies. Indeed, many of them are non-profits: they include universities and hospitals, drug companies, insurance companies, K-12 school districts, and real estate investors.

. . .

This is how it works: Claiming to be the guardian of “quality”, policymakers put up barriers to entry, making it extremely costly, for example, to launch a new university or hospital. This is the restriction of supply. At the same time, in the name of “helping” consumers, they push billions of dollars into student loans or healthcare payments. This is the subsidisation of demand.

. . .

... all of the universities, including elite colleges in the Ivy League, have reaped billions of dollars in economic rents — excess profits — from student loan programmes, even as the value of many of their degrees has fallen dramatically.

At the same time, the universities operate an accreditation system which makes it extraordinarily difficult and costly to launch a new university that might compete with them. In fact, you usually can’t get your new university accredited until four-to-six years after you open. That means that your first students aren’t eligible for federal student loans — their subsidies — until you get your accreditation. It’s a huge handicap for anyone who wants to disrupt the current oligopoly of higher education.

These dynamics play out in all of the most important sectors of our economy. In healthcare, new hospitals in many states have to apply for a “certificate of need”. Often that certificate has to be signed by the other hospitals in the area — in other words, their potential competitors. Meanwhile, federal and state governments flood the healthcare system with subsidies that increase demand and drive prices up: almost 50% of health care spending comes from governmental entities in the US.

In housing, similarly, we restrict supply by making it harder and harder to build new units, especially in city centres where demand is the highest. Meanwhile, we subsidise demand by providing government-guaranteed mortgages and by offering huge tax breaks for anyone who purchases real estate, especially investors.

And in K-12 education, school districts around the country are trying to stamp out charter schools, which increase supply, while at the same time arguing for higher and higher per-pupil spending. The cost to educate one child for one year has increased 173% (adjusted for inflation) since 1970, and half the kids still can’t read.

The pathologies of these sectors all follow similar patterns. Politicians proclaim their desire to “protect” quality and “help” consumers. Industry lobbyists step up to write bills that restrict supply and subsidise demand. Prices go up. Providers become more and more reliant on the government for their profits. Consumers become more and more reliant on the government to afford homes, healthcare, and schools. Instead of investing in innovation, providers spend their money on political donations and lobbyists. Politicians become dependent on those donations. Consumers demand more and more help because prices are going up, and they’re getting ripped off. And the beat goes on. “It really is a self-reinforcing process,” says Kling. “People don’t understand that the subsidies drive up prices, so they keep demanding more.”

There's more at the link.

To all those negatives, add two more:

  1. All those subsidies and other government programs add layer upon layer of bureaucrats to government to administer them.  In other words, government becomes a fulfilment machine rather than an administrator.  More and more of its money is spent on such subsidies and fulfilment programs rather than on the business of government.
  2. The level of government involvement in such programs affects how government governs.  Lower-level governments - e.g. town and city councils - don't have enough money to subsidize such programs, so they push it up to state level.  State legislatures don't have enough money either, so they put pressure on their congressional representatives and Senators to get that money from the federal government.  The feds duly provide it, but have to increase taxes and/or borrow more money to pay it;  and they also have to hire more bureaucrats to administer it.  The state governments also need more staff to administer where the money comes from and where it goes, expanding state government.  Finally, at the "coalface" where the money is paid out, more government staff are needed to administer, account for and report back on how it's used.
It's a self-perpetuating nightmare.

The only way to stop this perpetual motion machine is, of course, to take away many of the things it currently does that were never envisioned by the Founding Fathers.  They'd be horrified if they saw the myriad things on which the federal government spends its money, things that were never envisioned in or authorized by the constitution, but which now consume the vast majority of government income and effort.

The problem, as always, is this:  how do we break the cycle?  If we cut off the subsidies, those deprived of them will scream blue murder, and vote against the politicians who acted responsibly by terminating them.  That means the politicians dare not tackle the monster they've helped to create.  Argentina is trying to do so by dismantling whole swaths of its national government, but that's because the problem had grown so great there that the state had become a behemoth that was strangling the country as a whole.  President Milei has only just begun the job, and there's no guarantee his opponents - now united against him - will allow him enough space and time to finish the job.  I wish him every success, but the odds are against him.

Do we have a President Milei who can do the same for us?


Doofus Of The Day #1,114


Today's award goes to Artemio Sanchez-Ortega of New Mexico, who decided to demonstrate his burning passion for his former girlfriend literally rather than figuratively.  A full report may be found here, or you can simply watch the video below.

I'm very grateful that there were no casualties among his intended victims.  I hope the police catch him soon, before he has any more bright ideas.  Of course, he could try exercising matchless ingenuity . . .