Wednesday, February 29, 2012

By popular demand!

After putting up that car chase video yesterday, I had several comments and requests (both at the post, and by e-mail) claiming that the famous car chase scene from Bullitt was 'the best of the best', and suggesting I should put it on my blog.

Well, who am I to disagree? It's certainly among the best car chase scenes ever filmed. You can read more about it here.

Aaaahhh . . . they made some good movies back then, didn't they?


The Secretary of Energy puts his foot in it

I note with a certain amount of schadenfreude that US Secretary of Energy Stephen Chu put his foot in his mouth in no uncertain terms today.

Chu admitted to a House committee that the administration is not interested in lowering gas prices.

Chu, along with the Obama administration, regards the spike in gas prices as a feature rather than a bug. High gas prices provide an incentive for alternate energy technology, a priority for the White House, and a decrease in reliance on oil for energy.

. . .

The consequences of the policy are not likely to be of benefit to the Obama administration. The Republican National Committee has already issued a video highlighting the spike in gas prices and the failure of the administration to address the issue.

. . .

Add into the mix green energy fiascos like Solyndra, and Chu might well have kindled a full blown scandal.

There's more at the link.

I should darn well hope the Administration's opponents will take advantage of such a slip! We're all suffering under high gasoline prices at present; so to have a senior Administration official tell us that they're OK with this, and it's in line with their policies, is enough to make everyone's blood boil!

I note, too, that oil and gasoline prices have risen steadily since this Administration took office, a little over three years ago.

Of course, much of the increase has been caused by the fall in the value of the US dollar, thanks to the Fed's 'quantitative easing' programs: but those programs were made necessary in part by the massive borrowing needed to sustain the Administration's financially ruinous rates of expenditure. In the end, it all comes back to President Obama's policies, and those of his party. I rather suspect they'll have to pay a price for that come November - at least, I hope so!

(That hope has nothing to do with the fact that it's a Democratic Party administration, either. Any Administration this feckless and incompetent should suffer for it, irrespective of their party!)


Painting music?

I was intrigued to read about the latest project of German photographer Martin Klimas.

How do you paint with sound? It’s a good question and the answer comes from German photographer Martin Klimas.

He starts by putting different colored paint on top of a speaker over some translucent material, then cranks up the volume.

Martin Klimas - Kraftwerk, 'Transistor' from the album 'Radio-Activity'

The vibrations of the speaker shoot the paint into the air creating beautiful patterns and sculptural forms, and Klimas snaps them with his camera while in flight.

Martin Klimas - Steve Reich and Musicians, 'Drumming'

Each image becomes an abstract portrait of whatever song he plays—from Miles Davis to Kraftwerk.

Martin Klimas - Miles Davis, 'Pharaoh’s Dance' from the album 'Bitches Brew'

The New York Times says he spent six months and about 1,000 shots to get the required results and also that his influences were abstract art and Hans Jenny, a scientist versed in cymatics, the study of waves and vibrations.

There's more at the link; also here and here.

I'm fascinated by the creative vision it takes to imagine something like this, then bring it to fruition. Congratulations to Herr Klimas on a highly original art project.


After reading this, I itch all over!

I was left feeling very uncomfortable after learning today about the prehistoric ancestors of modern-day fleas.

New fossils found in China are evidence of the oldest fleas - from 125 million to 165 million years ago, said Diying Huang of the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology. Their disproportionately long proboscis, or straw-like mouth, had sharp weapon-like serrated edges that helped them bite and feed from their super-sized hosts, he and other researchers reported Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Scientists figure about eight or more of today's fleas would fit on the burly back of their ancient ancestor.

"That's a beast," said study co-author Michael Engel, entomology curator at the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas. "It was a big critter. I can't even imagine coming home and finding my miniature schnauzer with one or more of these things crawling around on it."

. . .

These flea beaks "had almost like a saw running down the side," Engel said. "This thing was packing a weapon. They were equipped to dig into something."

There's more at the link.

I guess, if prehistoric fleas had to dig through dinosaur hide and feathers to get a meal, they'd need something like a Sawzall to do it . . . but I'm very glad that particular feature didn't make it down the evolutionary pathway to their modern (and thankfully much smaller) descendants!


The Secret Archives open their doors, just a little

The Vatican's Secret Archives have existed in approximately their present form since 1611, when Pope Paul V ordered that the existing, fragmentary archives be gathered together at the Novum Archivum in the Apostolic Palace in Rome. In 1630 Pope Urban VIII established the Secret Archives as an independent organization, separating it from the Apostolic Library. Since then, apart from Napoleon's theft of the Secret Archives in 1810 and their final return in 1817, the Archives have remained in what is today the Vatican.

New regulations concerning their operation were promulgated by Pope Leo XIII in 1884, and Pope John Paul II inaugurated a new fireproof subterranean bunker (shown below) in 1980 to house the Archive's most valuable records. The Archives' Web site describes it as follows:

It is a fire-proof, two-storey reinforced concrete structure with a storage capacity of 31,000 cubic metres [almost 1.1 million cubic feet]. Its fixed and revolving shelving system runs 43,000 linear kilometres [26,719 miles] and is designed to optimize high density, rational storage and efficiency. New technology monitors security, climate and humidity and the bunker is also provided with a HVAC system, an emergency lighting system and a paging system.

Ironically, the term 'secret' in the title of the Archives doesn't mean what most speakers of English assume it means. Rather, it derives from archaic usage, denoting that the contents of the Archives are the personal property of the current Pope as head of the Catholic Church. Their 'ownership' passes from one Pope to the next in line of descent. In that sense, they are 'secreted' (an old way of saying 'segregated') from the common property of the Church, and assigned instead to the personal custody and ownership of the Supreme Pontiff.

Be that as it may, they contain some of the oldest and most valuable documents in history. For example, there are 81 parchment documents with solid gold seals, which are kept in a specially secure, air-conditioned environment to better preserve them. Also in this section are the proceedings of the trial of Galileo Galilei; the 'Privilegium Ottonianum' dated 962, clarifying the relationship between the Church and the Holy Roman Empire, handwritten in gold script on a purple parchment; and the Liber Diurnus Romanorum Pontificum, the oldest formulary of the Papal Chancery, dating from the 8th century.

Today an unprecedent exhibition of 100 of the most important documents from the Secret Archives, titled 'Lux In Arcana' (literally 'Light On The Arcane'), opened in Rome. It'll remain on display until September this year. The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

CONTAINING more than 80 kilometres of shelves packed with an unknown number of papal documents spanning 12 centuries, including correspondence with Genghis Khan's grandson, Wolfgang Mozart and Adolf Hitler, the Vatican's secret archive opened to the public for the first time yesterday, putting on show 100 documents in Rome.

Usually the preserve of select scholars, the archive boasts such treasures as a letter, bearing 81 wax seals, sent by British nobles to Pope Clement VII in 1530 demanding King Henry VIII be allowed to divorce Catherine of Aragon, a request the Pope refused, helping prompt the formation of the Church of England.

The letter, lost on the shelves until 1920, takes pride of place alongside an 1887 letter from a North American Indian chief, written on a strip of bark, addressing the Pope as the ''Grand Master of Prayers'', and Galileo Galilei's shaky signature on his retraction in 1633 of his heliocentric views after the Vatican put him on trial for heresy.

From 1493 there is the papal bull that split the new world between Spain and Portugal after Columbus's return from the Americas.

There's more at the link. Further information may be found at the exhibition's Web site, and at the Web site of the Secret Archives themselves. Here's a video preview of the exhibition.

I once had the opportunity to visit the Secret Archives. It's a strange place, very hushed and solemn - or at least, it was on the day that I was there. It's a very rare privilege to be granted access, and my visit (arranged by a friend and colleague who was working in the Vatican at the time) did not include the right to inspect any documents; but I'm glad to have had the opportunity to see the place for myself. I wish I could visit this exhibition, too.


Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The world's most frenetic car chase?

Courtesy of The Feral Irishman, who embedded the video in his own blog, I came across what Jalopnik calls 'The Biggest Movie Car Chase Ever'.

What happens when you seamlessly cut and splice together chase scenes from 14 of the biggest big budget action flicks — including The Rock, The Matrix Reloaded, Transformers, and Bad Boys II? You get this absolutely amazing eleven-and-a-half-minute short film called Chasing Trinity: Part 2. It's the biggest, baddest, most Michael Baygasmic car chase... in the world. Ever.

There's more at the link.

I've no idea where Part 1 is, or even if it exists, but the creator of Part 2, YouTube user blueyoda2, describes it like this:

The story thus far: Will Smith is chasing Trinity after she tries an escape with the secret documents. Sean Connery is not far behind and Nicolas Cage tries to keep up, but Matt Damon intervenes. A huge meta car chase ensues.

Brace yourselves - here it is! I recommend watching it in full-screen mode, if possible.

The 14 movies are identified at about 11m. 25s. into the video. I'd love to know the total value of all the cars that were damaged or destroyed in that compilation . . .


Lissa's going to hate me . . .

. . . but I have to raise my eyebrows at her product review today.

LookingForLissa Product Review: Kensington Keyfolio (iPad stand and keyboard)

The short version: I like it. A LOT.

The longer version: For someone who types as much and as fast* as I do, the iPad keys are irksome. They’re large . . . but not QUITE large enough to type normally. The electronic keys mean that just as you’re starting to get up a rhythm autocorrect will pop up and ruin your day. (Damn you, autocorrect!!)

As long as I’d had the iPad I’d been using one of those magnetic cases that shuts off the device once closed (yeah, I do miss that feature). But in the interest of more and easier typing – and posting – I purchased this doohickey.

There's more at the link.

Looking at that combination, I can't help but compare it to a conventional laptop computer, like this Acer Aspire model (similar to my own system):

The cost of the laptop is considerably less than the iPad-and-case combination, and it's far more powerful as a computer than any tablet, and it already has a keyboard: so why not buy a laptop in the first place, and save several hundred dollars? Or am I missing something?

(OK, Lissa, you're free to return fire about how I just don't understand the appeal of the iPad!)


Quote of the day

At least half a dozen people sent me a version of this today, for which my thanks. I've no idea where it originated, but it appeals to me, so I'll keep it in circulation!

The US Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is distributing more food stamps than ever before.

Meanwhile, the US National Park Service asks us not to feed the animals, because they may grow dependent and not learn to take care of themselves.

What did I miss here?

I'd call that a facepalm sort of question, all right . . . for all except government bureaucrats!


Looks like the Navy's having fun again!

The US Navy's Office of Naval Research has just announced the successful testing of the first prototype electromagnetic railgun. Here's an excerpt from ONR's press release.

The firing at Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) kicks off a two-month-long test series by the Office of Naval Research (ONR) to evaluate the first of two industry-built launchers. The tests will bring the Navy closer to a new naval gun system capable of extended ranges against surface, air and ground targets.

“We are starting our full-energy tests to evaluate the barrel life and structural integrity of the prototype system,” said Roger Ellis, program manager of the EM Railgun, part of ONR’s Naval Air Warfare and Weapons Department. “It’s the next step toward a future tactical system.”

The EM Railgun launcher is a long-range weapon that fires projectiles using electricity instead of chemical propellants. Magnetic fields created by high electrical currents accelerate a sliding metal conductor, or armature, between two rails to launch projectiles at 4,500 mph to 5,600 mph.

The 32-megajoule prototype demonstrator, built by BAE Systems, arrived at NSWCDD on Jan. 30.

One megajoule of energy is equivalent to a 1-ton car being thrust at 100 mph. The prototype — which now looks more like a naval weapon compared to previous lab-style launchers — is the first of two industry-built launchers to be delivered to the Navy. General Atomics is building the second launcher, scheduled for delivery in April. ONR previously relied upon laboratory-built systems to advance the technology.

. . .

When fully developed, the EM Railgun will give Sailors a dramatically increased multimission capability. Its increased velocity and extended range over traditional shipboard weapons will allow them to conduct precise, long-range naval surface fire support for land strikes; ship self-defense against cruise and ballistic missiles; and surface warfare to deter enemy vessels. The Navy’s near-term goal is a 20- to 32-megajoule weapon that shoots a distance of 50 to 100 nautical miles.

To achieve this, the Navy is moving ahead with the EM Railgun program’s next phase: to develop thermal management systems for both the launcher and pulsed power to facilitate increased firing rates of up to 10 rounds per minute. Toward this end, BAE and General Atomics have been contracted to begin concept design of a next-generation thermally managed launcher.

There's more at the link. Pictures are courtesy of ONR, as is the video clip below.

I'd call that pretty impressive! It's the first time I've seen a railgun prototype that's reasonably close to something one might see aboard a ship. The next question, of course, is the electrical generation capacity ships will require to power the darn thing! I suspect that only a nuclear-powered ship will be able to provide enough electricity to sustain prolonged rapid fire. I guess all that's on the drawing board, too.


Monday, February 27, 2012

Frozen canal crossing FAIL!

You already know what's going to happen, don't you?

Yep . . . it happened!


Some great landscape photography

A recent article in the Daily Mail introduced me to the photography of Sandro Santioli. Here's a short excerpt.

With their strange coloured surfaces and unusual landscapes, these stunning photographs look like they were taken on an alien planet.

But the incredible shots were actually captured aboard a Cessna light aircraft flying over Iceland.

The beautiful images reveal some of the country's most incredible scenery, ranging from explosive volcanoes to colossal mountains.

Photographer Sandro Santioli racked up 70 hours of flight time as he took the extraordinary images while holding his camera out the window of the aircraft.

There's more at the link, including more photographs.

Intrigued, I found Mr. Santioli's Web site and Flickr photostream. Here, from his Flickr 'My Favourites' set, are a few more examples of his work, reduced in size to fit this blog. (See them at full size by clicking on the thumbnail images in his Flickr set, then clicking on the larger picture thus produced and selecting larger sizes where these are available.)


Mount Etna, Sicily

Near Siena, Italy

There are many more pictures in Mr. Santoli's Flickr photostream. They make interesting viewing.


The over-regulation of US businesses

The Economist has a very thought-provoking article about how over-regulation is stifling US businesses and strangling economic recovery. Here's an excerpt.

Consider the Dodd-Frank law of 2010. Its aim was noble: to prevent another financial crisis. Its strategy was sensible, too: improve transparency, stop banks from taking excessive risks, prevent abusive financial practices and end “too big to fail” by authorising regulators to seize any big, tottering financial firm and wind it down. This newspaper supported these goals at the time, and we still do. But Dodd-Frank is far too complex, and becoming more so. At 848 pages, it is 23 times longer than Glass-Steagall, the reform that followed the Wall Street crash of 1929. Worse, every other page demands that regulators fill in further detail. Some of these clarifications are hundreds of pages long. Just one bit, the “Volcker rule”, which aims to curb risky proprietary trading by banks, includes 383 questions that break down into 1,420 subquestions.

Hardly anyone has actually read Dodd-Frank, besides the Chinese government and our correspondent in New York (see article). Those who have struggle to make sense of it, not least because so much detail has yet to be filled in: of the 400 rules it mandates, only 93 have been finalised. So financial firms in America must prepare to comply with a law that is partly unintelligible and partly unknowable.

Dodd-Frank is part of a wider trend. Governments of both parties keep adding stacks of rules, few of which are ever rescinded. Republicans write rules to thwart terrorists, which make flying in America an ordeal and prompt legions of brainy migrants to move to Canada instead. Democrats write rules to expand the welfare state. Barack Obama’s health-care reform of 2010 had many virtues, especially its attempt to make health insurance universal. But it does little to reduce the system’s staggering and increasing complexity. Every hour spent treating a patient in America creates at least 30 minutes of paperwork, and often a whole hour. Next year the number of federally mandated categories of illness and injury for which hospitals may claim reimbursement will rise from 18,000 to 140,000. There are nine codes relating to injuries caused by parrots, and three relating to burns from flaming water-skis.

Two forces make American laws too complex. One is hubris. Many lawmakers seem to believe that they can lay down rules to govern every eventuality. Examples range from the merely annoying (eg, a proposed code for nurseries in Colorado that specifies how many crayons each box must contain) to the delusional (eg, the conceit of Dodd-Frank that you can anticipate and ban every nasty trick financiers will dream up in the future). Far from preventing abuses, complexity creates loopholes that the shrewd can abuse with impunity.

The other force that makes American laws complex is lobbying. The government’s drive to micromanage so many activities creates a huge incentive for interest groups to push for special favours. When a bill is hundreds of pages long, it is not hard for congressmen to slip in clauses that benefit their chums and campaign donors. The health-care bill included tons of favours for the pushy. Congress’s last, failed attempt to regulate greenhouse gases was even worse.

Complexity costs money. Sarbanes-Oxley, a law aimed at preventing Enron-style frauds, has made it so difficult to list shares on an American stockmarket that firms increasingly look elsewhere or stay private. America’s share of initial public offerings fell from 67% in 2002 (when Sarbox passed) to 16% last year, despite some benign tweaks to the law. A study for the Small Business Administration, a government body, found that regulations in general add $10,585 in costs per employee. It’s a wonder the jobless rate isn’t even higher than it is.

There's more at the link. Highly recommended reading.

Charles Hugh Smith points out that over-regulation is particularly inimical to small businesses.

... it's very easy for well-paid pundits who have never started a single real enterprise or met a single payroll to pontificate about "opportunity" and small business as the engine of growth, blah blah blah. It's also easy for those with no actual experience to reach all sorts of absurd conclusions about how easy it is to turn a small business into great wealth. (No, Bain Capital or other Wall Street outposts of financialization are not "small business.")

In real life, it's only easy to run a small business into the ground, especially when there's a thousand tons of junk fees, taxes and useless bureaucratic requirements on your back.

. . .

There is nothing mysterious about the cause of this Kafkaesque Status Quo: each city, county, state and Federal fiefdom must justify its existence and payroll, and everyone in each fiefdom will fight with every fiber of their being to protect their turf. Politically, it's a fight to the death to trim even the thinnest slice of bureaucracy, and so little if any ever gets trimmed.

Nobody will care until the city, county and state's revenues collapse as people opt out of supporting the bloated dead-weight of the Status Quo with their own sweat and blood.

The only way to survive is to not have a "real" business, i.e. you write code in your living room or parents' basement, or you do enough business in the informal sector (cash) to support your high-cost formal business.

Again, more at the link.

Finally, of course, it's not merely over-regulation we have to worry about. Over-taxation is also a very important factor in the health (or otherwise) of businesses: so much so, in fact, that a Florida physician recently placed this advertisement in the Panama City News Herald.

Politicians! Grrrr!


Fasting to avoid Alzheimer's disease?

I have to admit, it sounds strange, but according to an article in the Daily Mail it may be possible to slow down, or even prevent, the onset of dementia in elderly people if they fast for a couple of days each week. Here's an excerpt.

Fasting was a common medical treatment in the past, but now new research suggests there may be good reason for it to make a comeback. This is because it seems to trigger all sorts of healthy hormonal and metabolic changes.

Researchers have long known that cutting back animals’ calories over an extended period can make them live up to 50 per cent longer — it’s been harder to prove benefits in humans because few people can stick to this restrictive regimen.

But there’s now emerging evidence to show occasional fasting — which is much more manageable — also carries benefits. Fasting days involve eating between 500 and 800 calories (the usual daily intake for a woman is 2,000 calories, for a man, 2,500).

This intake appears to cause a drop in levels of growth-factor, a hormone linked with cancer and diabetes, as well as a reduction in ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (fats) in the blood.

Meanwhile, free radicals — the damaging molecules linked to disease — are dampened down. Studies also suggest that levels of inflammation can fall. And now there is the suggestion that fasting protects the brain, too.

‘Suddenly dropping your food intake dramatically — cutting it by at least half for a day or so — triggers protective processes in the brain,’ explains Professor Mark Mattson, head of neuroscience at the U.S. National Institute On Ageing.

‘It is similar to the beneficial effect you get from exercise.’ This could help protect the brain against degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

. . .

According to an article that will be appearing in the leading science journal Nature Neuroscience next month, calorie restriction can protect the cells from damage and make them more resistant to stress.

‘Part of this effect is due to what cutting calories does to appetite hormones such as ghrelin and leptin,’ he explains. ‘When you are not overweight, these hormones encourage growth of new brain cells, especially in the hippocampus.’

This is the area of the brain which is involved in laying down memories. If you start putting on weight, levels of ghrelin drop and brain cell replacement slows. ‘The effect is particularly damaging in your 40s and 50s, for reasons that aren’t clear yet,’ he says. ‘Obesity at that age is a marker for cognitive problems later.’

The good news is that this brain-cell damage can be reversed by the two-day fasting regime, although so far Professor Mattson has shown this only in rats. A human trial is starting soon. There is reason to think it should work.

There's more at the link.

There'll need to be a lot more research and testing, of course, but if it can be proved that fasting is conducive to mental health, it'll shed a whole new light on the Biblical emphasis on fasting as a spiritual exercise. Could it, perhaps, help one's spiritual life by helping one's physical processes, and one's mind, to focus more clearly on God and spiritual things? Now there's an intriguing thought!


'Smart meters' and their danger to privacy and health

Yesterday I posted an article about the illegal jamming of signals (GPS, cellphone, etc.) on which we depend. In a comment, an anonymous reader asked whether such jammers could also block signals emitted by so-called 'smart meters'. I've never thought of jamming meter signals, but it may be possible if you could establish the wavelength on which they operate. Trouble is, you might jam other nearby meters as well as your own: but the owners of those meters might not want them jammed. This could cause all sorts of nastiness with your neighbors.

Some readers may not be aware of the controversies surrounding these meters; so I've embedded a short video clip that our anonymous contributor linked to in his comment.

(The sample letter referred to in the clip, forbidding installation of a smart meter, may be found at its YouTube page. Click the 'Show More' button below the video to see it.) I'm pleased to see that some jurisdictions are now rolling back the previously mandatory installation of these meters. Click here to see what the California Public Utilities Commission is doing about it.

In general, I see no reason why power companies can't design a 'smart meter' that doesn't also act as a 'smart snooper', invading my privacy. When they do, I'll allow them to install one on my home. Until then . . . fuggetabahtit!


Sunday, February 26, 2012

The perils of parenthood!

One can only wince in sympathy . . .


Good advice on protecting yourself and your loved ones from criminals

Fellow blogger 'Officer Smith' has some cogent advice for anyone concerned about their safety and security, and that of their families. Here's an excerpt.

I'm going to say something here that is going to raise some hackles. Then I'm going to explain my statements and, hopefully, make everyone buy it. Here we go. Ready?

Buy a gun. Get a bat. Own some weapon and have enough skill to use it to save your own life and the lives of your family members. DO NOT RELY ON THE POLICE TO SAVE YOUR LIFE FOR YOU.

. . .

Suppose some bad guy comes into your driveway and starts to attack you. When you (or perhaps your hopefully observant neighbor) call 911, what happens? The phone rings in some dispatch center and hopefully gets answered immediately. Now, let's assume for simplicity's sake that you are calling from your own home phone and your call is actually going to your local police. Remember that if you call 911 from your cell phone the call is usually routed to a mobile 911 call center, not to mention they will have the added chore of figuring out where you are if you're unable to tell them yourself.

Anyway, your call in this scenario is answered by your local police and a call taker begins collecting information from you such as your location, the type of emergency and what response is required. Elapsed time so far while you're getting your ass kicked: 2 minutes.

Now the call goes to a dispatcher who has to read the call, decide which officer(s) to send, and dispatch the call. On a good day: probably another minute.

So now you've been fighting for your life, or more likely laying there being beaten upon, for three minutes. The police are on the way. If an officer is immediately in your neighborhood, you may get a response within a minute or two. With four officers covering your entire city, figure 5 minutes is more likely. So you've now been under attack for 8 minutes. And that is under ideal circumstances. Longer times are far more likely. If your attacker is using a weapon of some sort you are most likely already dead or dying if that was their intent. Otherwise, they have most likely made whatever point it was they were trying to make and they have probably fled the scene. At this point the police arrive and find your bloody, beaten carcass in your driveway.

There's more at the link. I highly recommend reading the whole article. It's worth it.

His article brought three previous references to mind. One 'Street Robberies And You - The Basics', was published on the forum, where it's deservedly become a classic. Here's a short excerpt.

No one wakes up in the morning one day and decides to become an armed robber. It is a gradual process that requires some experience and desensitizing. Before a man will pick up a gun and threaten to kill people who have done him no harm in order to get their usually meager possessions he has to get comfortable with some things.

He has to get used to seeing others as objects for him to exploit. He has to accept he may be killed while robbing. He has to accept the felony conviction for Robbery will haunt him all his life. He has to accept he may need to kill a completely innocent person to get away with his crime.

This is a process that starts with stealing candy at the corner store as a child. It progresses through bigger property crimes that may also involve violence. But one day [he] gets tired of selling his stolen property for nothing and decides it would be better to steal cash. Cut out all that tiresome sales stuff.

Keep in mind many petty thieves, auto burglars, residential and commercial burglars, paper thieves, and hustlers will get to that point and decide not to become armed robbers. Most will. It is a special group of outliers who decide threatening to kill people for a few dollars is the way to go.

Once a man starts armed robbing he has crossed a line most won't. Don't forget that when you are looking these bastards in the eye. Their decision to kill you is already made. Your life means nothing to him. Only his does. His sole motivation for not killing you is he doesn't want a murder case. He has already accepted he may pick one up though.

Again, more at the link. Please, for your own sake, go read the whole thing.

Finally, fellow blogger, fellow forum moderator and all-round good guy 'Xavier' wrote two excellent articles on personal defense back in 2006. The first was titled 'Surviving A Gunfight'.

Rule #1 Don't Get Shot! When people get shot, they get hurt. When people get hurt, their survivability dwindles. With each bullet that enters their body, their ability to survive another minute evaporates. Not getting shot is the crux of the matter. The witticisms seem to accept the idea that a gunfight is unavoidable. In fact, the opposite is true. Many conflicts that end in death are avoidable. Therefore:

Corollary #1 Don't get into gunfights! If you can avoid a gunfight, avoid it. People get killed in gunfights. They are not healthy environments to be in. The risk factors with lead flying past you are greater than the risk factors of most other endeavors. Compromise. Let the other guy win verbal challenges. Walk away with hoodlums heckling you. If you do not have to engage others in a lethal conflict, do not do so. It may be your last day on Earth, and you just don't know it yet. Luck plays a huge part in gunfights. A lifetime of building shooting skills of every type can be blown away with just a smidgen of luck, good or bad. Because you are right does not mean you will survive a gunfight. The goal in a gunfight is to survive, not to win, and not to prove you are right. People get the idea that being right is more important than being alive. It isn't. You can prove the veracity of your argument some other time, but not if you are dead. Avoid gunfights if at all possible.

Corollary #2 If you are getting shot at, make it to where you are NOT getting shot at. This may involve running away. There is no shame in running away from things that might kill you. Ferocious animals do this all the time. It is the instinct that allows grizzly bear cubs to become big bad ass grizzly bears, who may still chose to run away rather than become injured in an unnecessary fight. Distance is a target's best friend. A shooter's skill is negated by distance. The more an opponent has to chase and hunt, the quicker he will lose interest.

His second article was 'Recognizing Threats'.

To recognize threats, one has to understand how the criminal mind works. The criminal is a predator. He (or she) sees the world as having two types of people . . . other predators, and prey. Many honest gun owners like to think of themselves as "sheepdogs" but to the criminal, the sheepdog is simply another brand of predator. Like other beasts, it is a matter of survival for the criminal to prey on those weaker than themselves. To select the wrong victim is to become prey. If you want to survive in the criminal's world, you must be seen as a superior predator. Once you understand the criminal's thought processes, most attacks can be avoided simply by removing oneself from the victim selection process. There are several steps to victimization.

Both his articles are well worth reading in full, and highly recommended.

There you are. Four articles and associated comments and responses, all of which will help to keep you safe if the worst happens and you're targeted by one or more criminals. I hope that never happens; but if it does, the information they contain will help you to prevail and survive.


If Ron Paul becomes President . . .

. . . all sorts of problems may arise, according to a light-hearted and satirical article by Andrew Golden, writing at the wonderfully off-beat Timothy McSweeney's Internet Tendency. Here's an excerpt.


. . .

Stop 5: Aspinwall Avenue to Edgewood Street – Prone to long delays. Many former EPA employees lived in this area before the Agency was shut down. They continue to wander the streets, confused, asking people if they’ve seen any gray wolves around. They will cause traffic backups. They might get on the bus and ask if it goes to Chlorofluorocarbon Boulevard. Instruct the bus drivers to just say yes to any questions like this — it won’t matter what the driver says anyway. The cognitive functions of the EPA zombies no longer operate as a result of drinking trichloroethylene like it was f****** ginger ale since Inauguration Day to stay alive. Instead of paying the fare in our new currency of gold doubloons, they might try to pay with shredded slips of the Clean Water Act. To avoid even longer delays, instruct drivers to just take them.

Stop 6: Edgewood Street to The Eternal Gasoline Fire Pit Where the Interstate Used to Be – Inform the driver to use caution. He should start applying the brakes well before the edge of the pit is visible. If he waits until its flames enter his sight, it will be too late. The cannibal refugees from what was once South Dakota have booby-trapped its charred earthen ring. Do not stare into the abyss where the Wendy’s drive-thru once stood. Who could have foreseen that when an executive order closed the Department of Education a vortex would open into a 5th dimension land of mist and pain? The bus will be pulled into the molten hellfire, and the half-humanoid South Dakotans will feast on the desiccated flesh of each screaming soul unfortunate enough to be caught on the bus. Plus, the 11A will then be hopelessly behind schedule.

There's more at the link. Good for a laugh!


Jamming the signals on which we depend

A few weeks ago I rented a car for a few days. It had a GPS navigation system, and although I didn't need it in the areas where I was driving, I began to use it out of curiosity, to get accustomed to its operation. It didn't take long before I began to notice periods - usually on an interstate highway - when the system lost the GPS signal altogether. Observation led to the conclusion that they usually coincided with the passage of a large commercial truck or van.

I asked a friend in the local law enforcement community about this phenomenon. He ascribed the problem to GPS jammers. He said that many companies use GPS systems to track their vehicles' location and movements. However, corporate drivers frequently object to this, and so use GPS jammers to disable such systems. Furthermore, law enforcement agencies have been known to attach GPS tracking devices to vehicles, in order to follow them and/or build up a record of their drivers' movements (although this will be more restricted in future, in the light of a recent Supreme Court decision). Criminals use GPS jamming devices to frustrate such efforts. He believed the 'dead spots' in GPS navigation that I'd encountered were caused by a vehicle carrying a GPS jammer, traveling in close proximity to me for a few miles.

Intrigued, I did a bit more research on the topic. Truckers and other drivers using GPS jammers have been known to interfere with aircraft and airport navigation systems. Military jamming tests have disrupted not only GPS signals, but also cellphone, pager and other important commercial systems. In the UK (and, presumably, in this country as well) organized crime routinely employs GPS jammers when stealing or hijacking vehicles, to frustrate any tracking hardware or software that may be hidden on board. Prisons are faced with huge security risks in the proliferation of cellphones among inmates, who use them to communicate with family members and gang associates, arrange drug deals, plan escapes, and even organize 'hits' on criminal rivals, or potential witnesses against them. There have been proposals for many years to restrict (i.e. jam) or control cellphone transmissions in and around prisons, but so far this has been resisted by cellphone service providers and the FCC (the latter having also increased enforcement against illegal jamming of signals). Schools, too, want to prevent students using cellphones during class, and at least one school has successfully tested a cellphone jamming device.

I was surprised to see that, despite their sale being (at least technically) illegal, jamming devices are freely available online. One company even advertises quite blatantly that you should buy one of their jammers to ensure a cellphone-free evening at the movie theater! Clearly, the law hasn't kept up with the problem - and, given that one can order such products from overseas suppliers, it probably never will succeed in effectively controlling them.

I'd be interested to hear whether readers have encountered problems with jammed GPS or cellphone signals in their daily lives. If you have, please let us know about it in Comments. Also, if you know of ways to get around the problem, please tell us about them. We might all learn something.


Foodies and their foibles

I was very entertained by an article in the Atlantic about Italian food and those who are purists about it. Here's an excerpt.

I ask myself, what is authenticity and does it really matter? Italians are, of course, passionate about their food culture and ready at all times to chastise a foreigner for not understanding that right combinations or sequences of flavors. Salad always comes after the entrée -- never before. Pasta and soup fill the same slot in the meal, so you eat one or the other and not both. Plum tomatoes are for pasta sauce, globe tomatoes are for salad. And so it goes, a dizzying array of rules and regulations for how you eat. But still I wonder, what is the importance of authenticity?

Italian food and flavors changed dramatically after 1492 with the influx of the New World fruits and vegetables -- tomatoes, corn, beans, peppers, potatoes -- that were gradually integrated over four centuries of gardening and cooking and are at the core of today's version of Italian food. If we wanted to be really authentic with Italian food, shouldn't we do away with all the invasive species? Doesn't that make tomato sauce and polenta inauthentic?

Food is not static. What we eat is constantly evolving and changing. New things become available. When I was a child in Rome, cilantro, limes, and yams were unknown and unavailable; today, thanks to immigration and the global produce trade, you can probably find all three at the corner vegetable stand. When I first started paying attention to my neighbors' farm in Tuscany, they were extremely self-sufficient in terms of their food. They grew, raised, and foraged probably 90 percent of what they consumed. Their food and flavors were delicious and unvarying, and the dishes Mita cooked formed the basis of my understanding of Italian food.

And yet as the times changed and they began to watch television and shop for some food at the supermarket, variances drifted in. One year we had pasta with a canned truffle and cream sauce. Another Easter my mother was surprised by violets in the salad. "I saw it on TV," Mita said. Is it inauthentic to be inspired by new ingredients? Is it inauthentic to take the combination of insalata Caprese and manipulate the ingredients until they no longer resemble mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil but the flavor combination remains the same?

I cringe when Americans do strange things to classic Italian food: Spaghetti and meatballs has me running out the door with an excuse about my house burning down. Yet while I have never seen spaghetti and meatballs on a menu in Italy, I have seen plenty of fresh-off-the-boat Italian chefs appropriate the dish and add it to their repertoire.

Much as Italian food was changed by the discovery of the Americas and recently by immigration and a global market, Italian immigrants who came to America 100 years ago were influenced by the new ingredients and the lack of availability of ingredients that were common back home. Is it inauthentic to use Vietnamese fish sauce when we are pretty sure that 2,000 years ago the ancient Romans made and consumed fish sauce themselves?

There's more at the link. Funny, interesting, and worthwhile if you enjoy Italian cooking (and eating).


Saturday, February 25, 2012

How the current credit crisis unfolded

As a result of my numerous blog articles on economic topics, I've had a few requests from readers to explain in fairly basic terms how the current recession began, and what sparked it. The situation is, of course, very complex, but it basically boiled down to an over-extension of credit. If that hadn't happened, much of the resultant implosion of the markets would never have happened either.

This video report by Jonathan Jarvis gives a fairly accurate overview of what happened, how it developed, and how the whole mess blew up into the recession of 2008 and everything that's happened since. It doesn't address excessive US government expenditure, or the national debt, both of which are very important elements of the situation; but it does a good job of explaining the banking, investment and consumer credit issues involved. If you aren't familiar with the background to the problem, I think it's worth the eleven minutes of your time it'll take to watch it.

Kudos to Mr. Jarvis for a very well put together presentation.


The US military may have a hard time leaving Afghanistan

One of my concerns for some time now has been how the USA will manage to extricate from Afghanistan its tens of thousands of troops and tens of billions of dollars worth of military hardware. The road and rail links through Pakistan are closed at present, and tenuous at best, and the alternative route through former Soviet republics to the North is much longer (and lacks access to seaports where US ships could load the equipment).

Military Times has published an article highlighting this dilemma.

As of Wednesday, the Pakistani supply routes for American forces into Afghanistan had been closed for 89 days. With no resumption in sight for normal supply lines, Army leaders are coming to grips with the startling reality the U.S. military might not have access to Pakistan’s ports to haul out the massive infrastructure it has built up in Afghanistan.

The Army is now testing whether soldiers and contractors can drive out the countless metal containers on a route called the Northern Distribution Network, that winds through the countries north of Afghanistan. If they must rely only on that route and air transport, it could as much as quintuple the cost, said Maj. Gen. Kevin Leonard, the head of Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command.

Pakistan closed the border to NATO in November after an air strike by a U.S. drone accidentally killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. The U.S. had enlisted a team of contractors driving what are called Jingo trucks through the Pakistan and Afghan mountains from Pakistan’s ports packed with military supplies.

NATO has since had to rely more heavily on air transport, as well as trucks and trains driven through countries north of Afghanistan. Leonard said the U.S. has even used trains traveling along a Siberian railroad to supply U.S. soldiers.

. . .

Yet another challenge for the Army today is a basic question of timing: Combat continues in Afghanistan even as plans for the pullout have begun. That means the Army must be careful what it ships into Afghanistan, said James Dwyer, deputy Army chief of staff for logistics.

The service must carefully track what exactly is left in Afghanistan what supplies are coming in over those last months. The amount of gear and equipment left at Iraq forward operating bases surprised many transportation officials who arrived to move it out.

"Everything going in must eventually come out,” he said. “We have to be careful about sending what they need.”

There's more at the link.

There are two additional aspects, not mentioned in the Military Times article:

  1. The Taliban can make life very difficult for US forces as they withdraw. They'll be exposed to ambush by gunmen or improvised explosive devices (IED's) as they assemble at major bases and begin the long drive out of the country. Casualties might mount significantly.
  2. It may be tempting to abandon a great deal of military equipment in the country, in order to speed up the evacuation of personnel. However, this could also backfire on the USA. Anything left behind is almost certain to end up in the hands of the Taliban, and, through them, other terrorist organizations. The US might end up fighting against enemies armed and equipped with our own hardware for years, even decades to come.

This is going to be a situation fraught with difficulty. I hope the generals have thought it through . . . and I hope the politicians can keep their sticky fingers out of it, and let the professionals handle it. The prospect of the Obama administration trying to micro-manage the withdrawal for its own political purposes doesn't exactly fill me with confidence!


Quote of the day

From my blogbuddy PDB, speaking about a review of a competition pistol:

"... that holster is gayer than Tom Cruise holding a box of pink dildoes."

Gee, thanks, PDB. You owe me a new keyboard!


US government spending and the deficit - how will it end?

I've written extensively about this subject in the past, so I see no need to repeat the same old, same old yet again. Briefly, I believe there are only three possible outcomes to excessive spending by the US government and the ever-increasing debt incurred to sustain it. At least one of the following results is, in my opinion, inevitable and inescapable; a combination of more than one is possible.

  1. The debt will grow so large as to be unsustainable. Investors will therefore refuse to buy any more US government bonds, and the government will therefore run out of money to spend. Effectively, the economy will hit a brick wall, and everything will go to hell in a handbasket.
  2. The government will rein in spending, either rapidly or over time, but in such a way that it begins to reduce the debt. This will mean years, perhaps decades, of real economic pain, but will restore the budget and the public purse to a healthier state.
  3. The government will continue to spend and incur debt, but this will be financed by the Federal Reserve's 'quantitative easing' programs (i.e. 'printing money'). This will inevitably result in massive inflation (which is already visible in its early stages), although the US government continues to misstate the true rate of inflation for political reasons. This may have the (questionable) 'advantage' that our current debt will be paid off in future, inflated dollars; but it will also mean the destruction of the value of our currency, and of everybody's savings and investments.

I believe option 3 above is the most likely short-term outcome, because it's the only one that appears to offer a way for politicians to - at least theoretically - escape responsibility for their past mistakes and malfeasance. John Mauldin, an analyst whose opinions I respect, inclines more towards option 2. In his latest weekly newsletter (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format), he writes:

My friend David Walker was the Comptroller General of the United States and head of the Government Accountability Office (GAO) from 1998 to 2008. He now tours the country talking about the need for fiscal responsibility. He heads a group called Comeback America.

David points out that if you simply eliminated all the “tax expenditures” (tax deductions), taxes would go up $1.3 trillion a year. If you combined that with serious entitlement reform, a much lower tax rate (the lows 20s as the top rate), and did $3 in spending cuts for every $1 in tax increases, you could balance the budget for the foreseeable future. His website lists numerous tax and budget proposals, besides his own. He points out the necessity (and I wholeheartedly agree) to have bipartisan cooperation to avoid a fiscal disaster. He demonstrates that we have $75 trillion in unfunded liabilities in Medicare, Social Security, and pensions.

Actually, the number $75 trillion is not all that interesting to me, for the simple reason that we can’t pay it. It will never happen. Far more interesting is the question, when will we realize we can’t pay it and what will we do? Or maybe, what will we do when the bond market decides we can’t pay it and begins to ratchet up interest rates? Unless we begin to get control of the deficit, we could face a very bleak future.

There are ways to get serious entitlement reform. The very conservative Congressman Paul Ryan and the quite liberal Senator Ron Wyden have combined to come up with a plan for reforming Medicare that goes a long way toward what is needed. And it has upset a lot of people serving in Congress with them. But such compromise and cooperation is precisely what must happen if we are to avoid a true crisis. Whether you agree with every small detail in their proposal, you should applaud their willingness to seek bipartisan solutions.

I get rather strong letters from my conservative friends chiding me for not “keeping the faith.” What we need, I am told, is smaller government and less spending. But when I press them as to whether the path we are on will result in crisis, they almost always agree that if nothing is done we will see a severe crisis. So my next question is, do they think we should hold the philosophical line, or allow the country to fall into economic chaos?

I have spent much of my life holding that line. But my analysis is that without a deficit solution we will enter another depression that will take years to come out of. And waiting until one party or the other has total control of Congress and the White House is not the answer. We are getting to the Endgame. Time is running out. We have a few precious years to set the ship of state back on a better course. I would rather keep the ship from sinking than argue about what should be on the menu at dinner. We can worry about that when the leaks in the boat are fixed.

And for those who asked, I still think we will do the right thing. Cutting spending will have consequences. We should do it slowly (over 4-5 years), and that will mean a Muddle Through Economy with more risks of recession. I talk of dire consequences only if we fail to fix the deficit. I think the former outcome is more likely. If you don’t share my optimism, then you should plan for a depression. And if we get to the end of 2013 and it is clear that no compromise is forthcoming, I will probably get much more concerned. Maybe even become downright gloomy. Just saying.

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

As for option 1, we're already seeing major international purchasers of US government bonds changing their behavior. Zero Hedge reports that China and Russia, formerly major buyers, have not only stopped buying them, but are actually reducing their holdings, as shown in the graphs below. (Open each chart in a new tab or window for a larger view.)

To compensate for the loss of this investment income, the Federal Reserve has drastically increased its purchases of US government securities over the past year. Of course, it's had to print money to do this - it's certainly not drawn money out of a national savings account for the purpose! In so many words, it's buying bonds with 'play money' - money having no intrinsic value whatsoever, existing only as a string of binary ones and zeroes on a computer screen. It's not even printing the banknotes any more. The whole charade is nothing more or less than a gigantic financial 'shell game', with no pea under any of the shells.

Something else to note in the graph above: two of the most indebted nations on earth, Britain and Japan, are buying more and more US treasury bonds. Three highly indebted economies are shuffling each other's debt around on a global financial table. What could possibly go wrong?

As I said earlier, my money's on the third of the possible outcomes I listed as the most likely short-term result of the present crisis. However, there's enough evidence out there, as outlined above, for options one and two to be possible as well - or a combination of any two, or even all three possible outcomes. I guess we're going to find out the hard way Real Soon Now.


Friday, February 24, 2012

'Ground Resonance' destroys a helicopter

Readers may be familiar with the phenomenon known as 'ground resonance'. Wikipedia has an article about it, but briefly, the dynamic balance of a helicopter's rotor system may become disturbed, leading to distortion between its axis of rotation and the system's center of gravity. This places excessive strain on the helicopter, which can lead to serious damage or even total destruction of the aircraft.

That's what happened to a rescue helicopter this week during a landing in Brazil. The Telegraph reports:

Brazil's Regional Service for the Investigation and Prevention of Aeronautical Accidents is looking into the reasons why a rescue helicopter disintegrated shortly after landing in the northern state of Para on Wednesday.

. . .

Officials believe the helicopter experienced what is known as ground resonance, a condition that happens when the aircraft's rotor is working while the helicopter is on the ground.

Four people that were travelling aboard the helicopter were injured.

Here's how it looked to a nearby cameraman.

I'm glad I wasn't aboard at the time! You can see more videos of ground resonance on YouTube.


A graphic example of how our privacy is being destroyed

It seems a major US supermarket chain has refined customer tracking to such an extent that it can now breach your privacy in entirely new ways. Forbes reports:

Every time you go shopping, you share intimate details about your consumption patterns with retailers. And many of those retailers are studying those details to figure out what you like, what you need, and which coupons are most likely to make you happy. Target, for example, has figured out how to data-mine its way into your womb, to figure out whether you have a baby on the way long before you need to start buying diapers.

Charles Duhigg outlines in the New York Times how Target tries to hook parents-to-be at that crucial moment before they turn into rampant — and loyal — buyers of all things pastel, plastic, and miniature. He talked to Target statistician Andrew Pole — before Target freaked out and cut off all communications — about the clues to a customer’s impending bundle of joy. Target assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they’ve bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources. Using that, Pole looked at historical buying data for all the ladies who had signed up for Target baby registries in the past.

. . .

As Pole’s computers crawled through the data, he was able to identify about 25 products that, when analyzed together, allowed him to assign each shopper a “pregnancy prediction” score. More important, he could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.

. . .

So Target started sending coupons for baby items to customers according to their pregnancy scores. Duhigg shares an anecdote — so good that it sounds made up — that conveys how eerily accurate the targeting is. An angry man went into a Target outside of Minneapolis, demanding to talk to a manager:

“My daughter got this in the mail!” he said. “She’s still in high school, and you’re sending her coupons for baby clothes and cribs? Are you trying to encourage her to get pregnant?”

The manager didn’t have any idea what the man was talking about. He looked at the mailer. Sure enough, it was addressed to the man’s daughter and contained advertisements for maternity clothing, nursery furniture and pictures of smiling infants. The manager apologized and then called a few days later to apologize again.

On the phone, though, the father was somewhat abashed. “I had a talk with my daughter,” he said. “It turns out there’s been some activities in my house I haven’t been completely aware of. She’s due in August. I owe you an apology.”

. . .

I can promise you that Target is not the only store doing this. Those people chilled by stores’ tracking and profiling them may want to consider going the way of the common criminal — and paying for far more of their purchases in cash.

There's more at the link. I highly recommend reading the entire article.

This infuriates me - but then, I've been told I'm out of step with the times on more than one occasion. I long ago decided to make any purchases that I consider sensitive in cash, without a paper trail, in order to preserve what little privacy I have left!


It's time for the Diagram Prize once more!

The annual contest for the Diagram Prize is under way. The competition seeks the book with the oddest title of the year. Past winners include:

  • Proceedings of the Second International Workshop on Nude Mice
  • Oral Sadism and the Vegetarian Personality
  • Reusing Old Graves: A Report on Popular British Attitudes
  • People Who Don't Know They're Dead: How They Attach Themselves to Unsuspecting Bystanders and What to Do About It
  • Managing a Dental Practice: The Genghis Khan Way

The Telegraph reports that some of the finalists in this year's competition are:

  • Cooking with Poo, a Thai cooking book by Saiyuud Diwong. 'Poo' is Thai for 'crab' and is also the chef’s nickname.
  • The Great Singapore Penis Panic And the Future of American Mass Hysteria by Scott D Mendelson ... an analysis of the 'Koro' psychiatric epidemic that hit the island of Singapore in 1967.
  • Mr Andoh's Pennine Diary: Memoirs of a Japanese Chicken Sexer in 1935 Hebden Bridge by Stephen Curry and Takayoshi Andoh ... is the story of Koichi Andoh, who travelled from Japan to Yorkshire in the 1930s to train workers at a hatchery business the art of determining the sex of one-day-old chicks.

There's more at the link. Great fun!