Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Doofus Of The Day #719

Courtesy of a link provided by Australian reader Snoggeramus, today's winner is from Virginia.  (Talk about an international award!)

Jay Matthew Riley, 21, of Woodmark, Virginia, freaked out when an "FBI Warning" message appeared on his computer while he was allegedly looking at child pornography at home.

The message, which was a virus, told Mr Riley he had to either pay a fine or would be subject to a criminal investigation, Prince William County Police Department said in a statement.

Instead, Mr Riley took himself and his computer down to the police station, to ask if there were any warrants on his file for child pornography.

Police found inappropriate messages and photos of girls as young as 13 on the computer.

Mr Riley has been charged with five sexual offences related to the content found on his computer.

For once - just for once - let's hear it for a computer virus!  At least this one helped to put a scumbag where he belongs - behind bars!


'Black Tot Day'

43 years ago today, on July 31st, 1970, the final rum ration was issued to sailors of the Royal Navy.  The Telegraph reports:

For over three centuries, until 1970, all Royal Navy vessels would ring out their ship's bells just before noon every day. The famous call, 'Up Spirits' would go out, calling sailors to report to deck and receive their daily 70ml ‘tot’, or shot, of rum.

. . .

In early 1970, the Admiralty Board issued concerns over the safety of its sailors concluding that, in the face of technologically advanced machinery and weaponry, “the rum issue is no longer compatible with the high standards of efficiency required now that the individual's tasks in ships are concerned with complex, and often delicate, machinery and systems on the correct functioning of which people's lives may depend."

On January 28, 1970 the House of Commons sat to discuss these concerns in a meeting now known as the ‘Great Rum Debate’. Mr James Wellbeloved, Labour MP for Erith and Crayford at the time and an ex-wartime sailor in the Royal Navy, argued that there was “no evidence readily available” to suggest that the rum ‘tot’ affected the operational efficiency of the Royal Navy, and that in fact the rum enabled the sailors “to face the coming action with greater strength and greater determination”.

However, evidence such as that provided by Dr David Owen, the Under-Secretary of State of Defence for the Royal Navy, opposed this view. He stated that if “to an individual's naval tot, is added a proportion of another man's tot, which happens all too frequently” then the individual has the same blood alcohol levels in which it is declared illegal to drive a car in Britain.

And so the end of the ‘rum ration’ was declared, and on July 31, 1970 the Royal Navy sailors boarded their ship's decks to take their last ‘tot’ of rum, many wearing black armbands in tribute. ‘Black Tot Day’ was born and each year, on this day, the history of the British Navy is celebrated (and toasted, I am sure, with a ‘tot’ of rum).

There's more at the link.

For those wanting to mark the anniversary in true nautical tradition, there are two ways to go about it - both expensive, I'm afraid.

  • British Royal Navy Imperial Rum is original Royal Navy issue rum, the last of the Admiralty's stocks when the rum ration was discontinued.  It's hard to find and frightfully expensive if you succeed, but for those who want the real deal, there's simply no substitute.
  • Lamb's Navy Rum and Pusser's Rum both claim to be made to authentic Royal Navy recipes.  I've tried Pusser's Rum, and it's not bad (I've also had Royal Navy rum, the original stuff, so I can compare them from experience).  Either is also a whole lot cheaper than the original!

So hoist a glass, me mateys, to the sad day when jolly Jack Tar became a whole lot less jolly!


So much for quantitative easing!

In the latest Casey Daily Dispatch newsletter, Alasdair Macleod writes about 'The Blindness of Modern Economists'.  In the process, he shows graphically why so-called 'quantitative easing' has been such a disaster, and why it's diminished the relative value of the currencies of every country that's tried it.  Here's an excerpt.

The ownership of wealth has been replaced by debt, and savings replaced by bank credit. The financial crisis of 2008 was merely the end of this unsustainable road. It represented a systemic refusal to continue down this route.

Since then, central banks have sought to blow more air into the deflating credit bubble by creating more raw money. Central bankers are acutely aware that if they did not do so, many banks would go bankrupt. By subscribing to the GDP fallacy, they justify printing money to maintain government spending. Their naïve belief in the quantity theory of money persuades them that they need to print money to make prices rise by a targeted 2% per annum, and moreover that the relationship between the quantity of money and prices can be managed.

These combined errors lead central bankers to print too much money, a grave mistake illustrated by the chart below, which shows that growth rate of the US money supply is now at hyperinflationary levels.

True money supply is the sum of cash, checking and savings accounts, plus a few other minor deposit categories. This measure of the money supply quantifies deposits that can be withdrawn at short notice, making it superior to other measures. The black dotted line represents an exponential rate of growth—the fastest rate at which this measure of money can grow without eventually tipping into hyperinflation. Today, the actual money supply is about $3 trillion above the hyperinflationary level. Thus to avoid monetary hyperinflation, $3 trillion must be withdrawn from the Fed and bank balance sheets. Ain't gonna happen.

We are already seeing early signs of price inflation, closest to where the money enters the economy. The wonkish name for this is the "Cantillon effect." Asset prices are rising, and the cities that are major financial centers are thriving, with prices significantly above those in rural areas. Next, expect raw materials and commodities prices to rise as foreign exchanges try to recycle excess currency.

I find the complete blindness to monetary hyperinflation in the economic and financial establishment remarkable, even in my most cynical moments. But there is no consolation in this knowledge—only the drive to prepare for what I consider inevitable nasty inflation.

There's more at the link.  Recommended reading.

Not all commenters agree with Mr. Macleod that 'nasty inflation' lies ahead;  some argue that deflation is a more likely trend, citing Japan's example.  However, there are so many intangibles out there right now (particularly the parlous state of the derivatives market) that it's simply impossible to predict with any certainty what's going to happen.  I remain convinced that whatever it is, it's not going to be pretty or enjoyable.


Tuesday, July 30, 2013

An unexpected gardening hazard!

I can just see Oleg's cat Gremlin doing something like this . . .


Diapers and poverty

I was annoyed to read an article concerning the inability of poor mothers to pay for diapers.

According to a report published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, diaper need — the inability to afford to keep a child in clean diapers — affects a "substantial" number of low-income Americans, with nearly 30% of mothers questioned in New Haven, Conn., reporting that they did not have enough for their children.

It's a problem that often goes unnoticed.

"I call it the silent epidemic," said Caroline Kunitz, who runs Pacific Palisades-based L.A. Diaper Drive, which will distribute 1.5 million diapers to nonprofit partners around Southern California this year.

. . .

Keeping a young child dry and clean can cost a pretty penny; the average is $18 a week. A single mother earning $15,080 a year in a minimum-wage job would need to devote more than 6% of her pay to diapers, according to the Pediatrics study.

Add in the fact that many lower-income families can't afford to buy diapers in bulk at stores like Costco and Target and the expense becomes prohibitive. Cloth diapers are often not an option because they require frequent and expensive trips to the laundromat.

There's more at the link.

My mom raised four kids using washable cloth diapers, and for a lot of the time didn't have her own washing machine.  There weren't any laundromats, either.  She soaked them in a bucket of detergent for a few hours, which dealt with most of the cleaning and sterilization.  She then stirred them around with a stick (to keep the icky stuff off her hands), lifted them out one at a time with the stick and dropped them into a second bucket for rinsing, after which she hung them out to dry in the back yard.  She could never have afforded an endless supply of disposable diapers, even if they'd been widely available at the time.  When she finally got a washing machine (very like this one, an old circular model with a built-in mangle or wringer) she was overjoyed at how easy it made diaper care.

Why can't poorer mothers today do the same thing?  It's what millions of mothers before them have done - and still do, in poorer parts of the world.  In many of those places there are no purpose-made diapers at all!  I've seen flour or grain sacks, threadbare blankets and sheets, discarded adult underwear, old shirts, and anything else that was available cut up and used for the kids.

How much money could be saved if poorer mothers used washable diapers in the USA?  How many mothers would be able to use the money they saved to feed their kids better?  How many millions of dollars of charity money would be freed to be used for more important purposes?

(As for a 'silent epidemic' . . . not in my experience!  I've found that a kid wanting his or her diaper changed can be downright noisy about it!)


Food for thought indeed!

Through an e-mailed link, I came across a very interesting and thought-provoking article titled 'The Blip'.  The author asks simply, "What if everything we’ve come to think of as American is predicated on a freak coincidence of economic history? And what if that coincidence has run its course?"

I don't agree with all of his points, but he provides enough evidence to back up his arguments that I find myself thinking long and hard about them.  I haven't come to a final conclusion yet, but I'm intrigued enough that I'd be grateful for your feedback.

Here's an extract to whet your appetite.

Gordon has two predictions to offer, the first of which is about the near future. For at least the next fifteen years or so, Gordon argues, our economy will grow at less than half the rate it has averaged since the late-nineteenth century because of a set of structural headwinds that Gordon believes will be even more severe than most other economists do: the aging of the American population; the stagnation in educational achievement; the fiscal tightening to fix our public and private debt; the costs of health care and energy; the pressures of globalization and growing inequality.

. . .

He believes we can no longer expect to double our standard of living in one generation; it will now take at least two ... If Gordon is right, then for all but the wealthiest one percent of Americans, the rate of improvement in the standard of living—year over year, and generation after generation­—will be no faster than it was during the dark ages.

Gordon’s second prediction is almost literary in its scope. The forces of the second industrial revolution, he believes, were so powerful and so unique that they will not be repeated. The consequences of that breakthrough took a century to be fully realized, and as the internal combustion engine gave rise to the car and eventually the airplane, and electricity to radio and the telephone and then mass media, they came to rearrange social forces and transform everyday lives.

. . .

The classic example of the scale of these transformations is Paul Krugman’s description of his kitchen: The modern kitchen, absent a few surface improvements, is the same one that existed half a century ago. But go back half a century before that, and you are talking about no refrigeration, just huge blocks of ice in a box, and no gas-fired stove, just piles of wood. If you take this perspective, it is no wonder that the productivity gains have diminished since the early seventies. The social transformations brought by computers and the Internet cannot match any of this.

. . .

The whole of American cultural memory, the period since World War II, has taken place within the greatest expansion of opportunity in the history of human civilization. Perhaps it isn’t that our success is a product of the way we structured our society. The shape of our society may be far more conditional, a consequence of our success. Embedded in Gordon’s data is an inquiry into entitlement: How much do we owe, culturally and politically, to this singular experience of economic growth, and what will happen if it goes away?

There's much more at the link.  Very interesting and highly recommended reading.

I don't know whether the author is right or not, and I find myself with visceral objections to some of his points.  On the other hand, he makes a strong case.  If you'd care to click over there and read the whole article, I'd value your input.  Let us know your reactions in Comments.


Why do Nigerian scammers say they're from Nigeria?

Courtesy of a link provided by commenter William Ockham at The Passive Voice, I found a scholarly, rather technical and mathematical, but very interesting article titled 'Why do Nigerian Scammers Say They are from Nigeria?' (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format).  It's from Microsoft Research, and analyzes how scammers operate and how they try to pick only the most gullible respondents.

The Abstract sums it up as follows:

Far-fetched tales of West African riches strike most as comical. Our analysis suggests that is an advantage to the attacker, not a disadvantage. Since his attack has a low density of victims the Nigerian scammer has an overriding need to reduce false positives. By sending an email that repels all but the most gullible the scammer gets the most promising marks to self-select, and tilts the true to false positive ratio in his favor.

There's more at the link.  Not casual or light reading, but interesting to those involved with computer security, or who want to understand how scammers make a living.


Monday, July 29, 2013

Top ten dog names - NOT!

Courtesy of Kent's "Hooligan Libertarian" Blog, we have Kent's Top Ten List of Dog Names.  They're a hoot!  He had me at Number 10 - "Rabies O'Piddler".

Go read the rest for yourself.  Great for dog lovers with a sense of humor!


The economy - "The Candy Man Can!"

It's seldom that I read a newsletter where every page, almost every paragraph, is so important that I find it impossible to select a meaningful excerpt to share with you here.  However, one such newsletter arrived in my inbox today.  It's the latest "Things That Make You Go Hmmm..." newsletter from Grant Williams, brought to you by Mauldin Economics.  This one's titled 'The Candyman'.

You really, really need to make the time to click over there and read the entire newsletter.  It's quite long (39 pages in the .PDF version), but it's crammed full of useful information, including one of the best summaries of our current economic plight that I've ever read.  I regard it as essential reading, and I can't recommend it too highly.

Go read the whole thing, and when you've done that, download and save the .PDF version.  This one goes into my permanent collection.


A real treat for Jethro Tull fans

I'm delighted to have come across the 'Cup Of Wonder' Web site, built by a Dutch fan of the group Jethro Tull.  He's put together a superb collection of information, including background information on Ian Anderson's lyrics that I've never seen elsewhere.  (For example, if you've ever wondered what the song 'Roll Yer Own' on the album 'Catfish Rising' was all about, here it is.  Warning - it's X-rated!)

I found the Site Map the easiest way to navigate through everything that's available.  For lyrics and details of what they mean, select the appropriate period, click on an album title, and scroll down to read the lyrics of each song.  Where text is underlined, click on it to read more about it.

There are also excellent collections of unreleased Tull tracks and video clips.  For example, I'd never heard of the group playing Bach's Double Violin Concerto, but there's a video clip of it from a 1985 concert that I thoroughly enjoyed.

All in all, I highly recommend 'Cup Of Wonder' to all Jethro Tull fans.  Be prepared to lose several hours there!


World's longest demolition?

I missed this when it happened in May, but came across the video report on YouTube while looking for something else.  A two-mile-long explosive demolition?  That must have been quite a series of bangs!

I'd love to know whether all those gas pipes and electrical cables survived . . .


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Desperation indeed!

The recent floods in North India led to several bridges being damaged or destroyed as rivers came down in spate.  About 100,000 Hindu pilgrims were left stranded at or near several shrines, and were desperate to get back to their homes;  but the downed bridges made this difficult or impossible.

This led to desperate measures, such as these pilgrims trying to cross the severely damaged bridge at Govindghat.

The Indian Army managed to rig up a temporary bridge to replace the damaged structure a few days later.  It still looks pretty flimsy, but it at least let people get home.

From my own experience, I can assure you that crossing rivers in spate like that is a tricky business at the best of times.  I wouldn't trust my life to a half-collapsed bridge like that, no matter how much you paid me!


History remade

I was very pleased to read about the win (on handicap or corrected time) of the yawl Dorade in this year's Transpacific Yacht Race from San Pedro, California to Honolulu, Hawaii.  The amazing thing about this victory is that Dorade first won the race in 1930!

Dorade in 1931 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

She was raced throughout the 1930's, competing very successfully against major racing yachts of that era, and continued her success in more limited competitions during the post-war years.  She was completely restored in Italy in 1997.

Interior of Dorade's bow during restoration (image courtesy of the shipyard)

It's amazing to see a race-winning yacht of the 1930's successfully competing against much more modern vessels that use the latest space-age materials to save weight and improve performance.  According to the New York Yacht Club:

On July 20, after 12 days and 5 hours at sea, Dorade crossed the finish line off Diamond Head.

“We thought if we could match Dorade's 1936 record of 13 days that would be absolutely fantastic,” said Brooks. “We actually beat that record by more than a day. To do what we've done exceeded all our expectations.”

According to a Transpac press release, she turned in an average speed of 7.8 knots, which was 8.1 percent faster than her performance in 1936, and also hit a lifetime record speed of 15.9 knots.

As more boats finished, however, it slowly became apparent that not only had Dorade set a new personal record for the course from Los Angeles to Hawaii, she’d also set a pretty tough corrected-time benchmark for the rest of the fleet. On Monday, July 22, it was finally confirmed, the oldest boat in the 2013 Transpac was also the overall winner, taking home the King Kalakaua Trophy as the fastest boat on corrected time.

There's more at the link.

Here's footage of Dorade filmed during the race.  She makes a very pretty sight.

Congratulations to her owner and crew on a spectacular performance.  You can find out more at the ship's Web site.


Doofus Of The Day #718

The video speaks for itself . . . and, yes, inevitably, she's blonde!


Saturday, July 27, 2013

The most astounding fact

Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, whom we've met many times in these pages before, was asked during an interview for Time magazine what he though was the most astounding fact he could share about the universe.  Here's his response.

It's part of a longer interview, in which he answered ten questions from Time readers.  You can see those responses here.  Recommended viewing.


The latest on the economic front

There's little or no real improvement in sight as far as the US and world economies are concerned.  Two issues in particular have dominated the past week's developments.

First, China's economic problems (to which we've referred several times in the past) are becoming clearer by the day.  Here are four articles from the past month that highlight important aspects:

  1. China’s great economic leap forward hits the wall
  2. China defies IMF on mounting credit risk and need for urgent reform
  3. China capitulates
  4. Recognizing the End of the Chinese Economic Miracle

All four are worthwhile reading.  In particular, the last article (from Stratfor) provides a good general overview of what's gone wrong and how it's likely to end up.

Next, the US national debt has long been of concern, and is now becoming of critical importance.  In particular, there are signs that the Treasury is hitting a brick wall.  There are serious questions as to whether or not it's actually surpassed the approved credit limit already, and is disguising this through bookkeeping maneuvers and shuffling money between accounts.  CNS News reported earlier this month that US Treasury debt had been 'Exactly $16,699,396,000,000.00 for 56 Days'. This is clearly mathematically impossible, given daily interest charges and rate changes - it's nothing more or less than an accounting sleight of hand.  If you believe that figure, you'll believe anything!

One way in which the Treasury appears to be keeping government spending going is by raiding the retirement accounts of government workers.  Back in January, Money Morning reported that this was happening.

The U.S. Treasury, in order to avoid default, has resorted to an eyebrow-raising move: it has borrowed from the federal employee pension fund as the country nears its debt ceiling.

The U.S. government stopped investing in the federal employee pension fund Tuesday "to avoid breaching the statutory debt limit," according to a letter Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner sent to Congress.

Geithner said that the move will free up some $156 billion in borrowing authority, while policy leaders in Washington wrangle over raising the $16.4 trillion debt limit.

Geithner promised the fund would be "made whole once the debt limit is increased," and maintains that federal employees and retirees would not be affected by the action.

But an IOU from the federal government isn't very settling for those relying on the fund for retirement.

This is not the first time the government has dipped into pension funds to pay for its overspending.

The Treasury has suspended reinvestments in the federal pension fund, aka the G Fund, six times over the past two decades in order to keep the country under the legal debt limit. The most prolonged delay in raising the limit came in 1995 after congressional Republicans came into power during the Clinton administration.

. . .

In effect, the federal government is playing an accounting game to avoid the legal debt limit.

There's more at the link.  Since then, of course, the debt ceiling has been first suspended, then increased;  but given that official US Treasury debt has remained static for so long, as reported above, the Treasury is clearly getting money from somewhere to replace what it can no longer legally borrow.  It's almost certainly funding the federal deficit from federal pension funds.  Those currently drawing federal government pensions, or expecting to do so in future, may wish to take note and plan accordingly.

Time magazine observed earlier this month:

Continued deficit spending has swelled our national debt to nearly $17 trillion. Servicing that debt (the equivalent of monthly minimum payments on your credit cards) is costing us roughly $250 billion a year, an amount that will only rise as deficit spending continues and interest rates climb. These numbers are a drag on future economic growth.

That’s a recipe for disaster, as Admiral Mike Mullen warned when he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “The most significant threat to our national security,” he said in 2010, “is our debt.”

That challenge cannot be met with vague promises to further “tax the rich.” Nor will defense-budget cuts alone suffice. While the defense budget can certainly stand some reductions as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, it is a simple fact that there’s not much more to cut from the military, without compromising force readiness.

America, instead, requires a responsible, balanced approach to budget control that encompasses spending reform at the Pentagon, and in the nation’s entitlement programs.

Programs like Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid were established as safety-net programs to protect the most vulnerable Americans against poverty. Unfortunately, these programs have grown so large that we cannot pay for them as they are currently structured. It’s time for real leadership in Washington, D.C., to reform them so they remain sustainable for the future.

There's more at the link - and I couldn't agree more!

Finally, the inimitable John Mauldin observes that in economic terms, the USA is dealing with 'A Lost Generation' (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format).

We are watching the Fed employ a trickle-down monetary policy. They hope that if they pump up the banks and stock market, increased wealth will lead to more investment and higher consumption, which will in turn translate into more jobs and higher incomes as the stimulus trickles down the economic ladder. The kindred policy of trickle-down economics was thoroughly trashed by the same people who now support a trickle-down monetary policy and quantitative easing. It is not working.

We have a younger generation that is having trouble finding full-time work and developing the skills needed for the transition to more stable, higher-paying employment. The longer the situation persists, the more difficult making up lost ground and lost time becomes for them. As Charles wrote, we may be seeing a new underclass develop, which has disastrous implications for the country. This week President Obama gave a speech on the economy that sounded like a campaign speech except that he should not be running any longer. He blamed the rise of technology for the loss of jobs, the decimation of the power of unions for flat incomes, and the policies of his predecessor for the current malaise. The speech was a wish list of new programs and promises, yet nothing is getting done. He fails to engage with the most pressing problems of our time and doubles down on a healthcare plan that is a train wreck even his most ardent supporters are walking away from. Did you see the recent letter from multiple union leaders asking for a course correction on healthcare?

The Congressional Budget Office now estimates that 7 million people will lose their employer-provided health insurance at the end of the year. One would assume that those are almost all full-time workers. So instead of getting health insurance in some form as a benefit, they will likely soon be paying $1400 a year (minimum) in mandated taxes (the level set by the Supreme Court), and those costs will rise dramatically over the next few years, according to the current schedule. That is a HUGE tax increase for those people.

Young people who have no insurance and are making more than $10 an hour will be paying about $1300 a year, or close to 10% of their after-tax income. That blows a monster hole in their disposable income at those levels. There is no other way to look at this: it's a huge lower-middle-class tax increase. Yes, they get a benefit (health insurance) that someone somewhere in society was already paying for, but they personally did not have these costs before.

The unintended consequences of the healthcare bill are going to be vicious. Not only is there a tax increase on the rich and on small employers, there is a tax increase on young people and the middle class. And it's a tax increase that comes in the middle of the slowest recovery on record. It is possible that we grew at less than 1% this last quarter. And the burden piles on top of a secular shift in employment practices that is making life more difficult for the younger generations.

We are getting close to the point where not only are there no good choices left, but the difficult choices are starting to look pretty bad indeed. And no one in DC is talking about the budgetary choices we are going to be forced to make. The recent drop in the deficit is temporary, fueled by people taking income in 2012 and paying taxes at a lower rate. That "tax dividend" is just about done. Deficits are going to be the number one topic in 2016, with jobs a close number two. Hide and watch.

Again, more at the link.

Keep your powder dry, friends.  You'll be needing it, economically speaking.


So much for the conspiracy theorists!

Last year I wrote (angrily) about the malicious stupidity of conspiracy theorists, who were twisting the known facts about the Benghazi affair into something ridiculously overblown.  In particular, I cited this rumor about General Carter Ham, who was then the commanding officer of US Africa Command (Africom).

The information I heard today was that General Ham as head of Africom received the same e-mails the White House received requesting help/support as the attack was taking place. General Ham immediately had a rapid response unit ready and communicated to the Pentagon that he had a unit ready.

General Ham then received the order to stand down. His response was to screw it, he was going to help anyhow. Within 30 seconds to a minute after making the move to respond, his second in command apprehended General Ham and told him that he was now relieved of his command.

The story continues that now General Rodiguez (sic) would take General Ham's place as the head of Africon (sic).

At the time I called this 'scurrilous nonsense'.  That's now been proven to be true.  CNN reported recently:

Ham was in Washington for a meeting of all combat commanders when the attack was under way. Although a decision was made to send a drone from eastern Libya toward Benghazi, by the time it arrived above the facility, the attack on the mission was winding down.

Ham knew Ambassador Chris Stevens was missing and believed he could have possibly been kidnapped. Stevens and three other Americans died in the attack.

"In my mind, at that point we were no longer in a response to an attack. We were in a recovery and frankly, I thought, we were in a potential a hostage rescue situation," Ham said.

Ham said although he had authority to scramble a jet to the scene, he decided there was "not necessity and there was not a clear purpose in doing so."

"To do what?" he asked. "It was a very, very uncertain situation."

There's more at the link.

So, to all those idiots who disseminated unfounded, patently ridiculous rumors such as that above . . . thanks for nothing.  Your cretinous conspiracy theories have damaged the reputation of this country, probably damaged the reputation of General Ham, and done nothing whatsoever to clear up the mess surrounding the Benghazi affair.  We can do without your involvement in future crises, thank you very much.


Friday, July 26, 2013

World's fastest shopping cart?

A British man has fitted a shopping cart with go-kart wheels and a jet turbine (the auxiliary power unit from a Chinook helicopter).

I'd like to see him drive that up and down the aisles of his local supermarket at 40+ mph, trying to grab what he needs as he roars past the shelves and toss it into the cart.  I predict lots of misses!


When Big Brother becomes actively dangerous

I'm sure that by now most readers are aware of demands by the Federal government that internet service providers hand over the passwords of their users.  This is, of course, an egregious overreach of government power, and a slap in the face to anyone who values what few shreds of online privacy we have left.  I'll never willingly surrender my passwords to them - in fact, this might be an occasion to move to highly encrypted passwords, and change them more frequently, to thwart this kind of bureaucratic overreach.

There's a dangerous side to it as well.  We've all read about how the present Administration used the IRS to target opposition political groups.  Just think what a politically-motivated bureaucrat could do with the passwords of an opposition figure.  For example, that figure might suddenly find him- or herself accused of promoting terrorist activity, or plotting to commit a crime, or accessing child pornography, with 'incontrovertible' evidence of their 'misdeeds' being uncovered on their e-mail or social media accounts.  That evidence would have been put there by someone with their passwords, and it would be almost impossible to prove that the accusation - and the evidence - was false.

Can't happen, you say?  Guess what?  It may already be happening.  Only yesterday Oath Keepers reported an attempt to inveigle its founder and another senior member into accessing child pornography.  That attempt was uncovered before it could succeed . . . but what if the hackers try again, this time using account passwords to actually access the data from the Oath Keepers' officers' own e-mail accounts?  Do you really think the news media would give them the benefit of the doubt when the story breaks?  Yeah . . . I thought not.

This nonsense must be stopped, one way or another.  We have got to defy attempts by the NSA and other government security agencies to monitor every detail of our lives.  If we don't, they'll be able to manipulate, victimize and penalize us to their hearts' content . . . and there won't be a damn thing we can do about it, except to vow to take some of them with us when we go under.  I don't know about you, but I've got no intention of going out that way.


Doofus Of The Day #717

Today's award goes to CNN anchor Jonathan Mann, for this slip of the tongue.

Uh-huh.  And the hero of 'The Hobbit' is 'Dildo' Baggins.



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Thursday, July 25, 2013

Speaking of vehicle trials . . .

. . . like the Rolls-Royce Centenary event in the post below, here's footage of crashes, bumps and bangs in the 2013 rally season so far.

All I can say is, "Ouch!"


Rolls-Royce gets its wookie on

I greatly enjoyed reading about the Rolls-Royce 2013 Centenary Alpine Trial, which ended earlier this month.  The event traversed much of Europe, following the trail of the 1913 Alpine Trial event.

The company reported:

After 16 days and more than 1,800 miles, the 2013 Centenary Alpine Trial has now drawn to a close. The sight of 47 magnificent Silver Ghosts wafting their way through the Alps, accompanied by the Rolls-Royce Motor Cars ‘Works Team’, will live in the memories of those that saw the marvel at first hand for many years to come.

History was brought to life by the intrepid owners as they piloted their machines with consummate skill up challenging Alpine passes and across the borders of five countries, before emerging in Vienna just as the original competitors did exactly 100 years before. The 2013 Centenary Alpine Trial was also graced with British Royalty, Lords and Ladies, Ambassadors and participants from 12 countries as far flung as Australia and the United States.

There's more at the link.

Here's a short video clip of the cars in Riva del Garda, Italy.  There's footage of them on the road starting at about 2m. 25sec.

Rolls-Royce released a limited edition of its current Ghost model to commemorate the centenary.  The Telegraph reports:

Rolls-Royce is also celebrating the Trial with a run of 35 limited-edition 2013 Ghosts in a rather sudden blue inspired by the paintwork of their century-old ancestor.

The rather clumsily named Rolls-Royce Centenary Alpine Trial Collection Ghost flaunts fashionable with black wheels, a black radiator grille infill and handpainted coachlines to produce a car of striking demeanour and sufficient appeal to have seen all 35 examples sell out at £250,000 [about US $384,700] apiece.

This blue-bodied Ghost also ushers in some modest upgrades for Rolls-Royce’s smaller saloon, including upgrades for the infotainment, stereo and nightvision systems. Particularly ingenious is a gearbox whose activities are satellite navigation-controlled, to select the ideal ratio for the terrain.

Again, more at the link.

I'd have loved to be able to participate.  Talk about elegance on wheels!


An even larger helicopter

A couple of days ago I put up a video clip showing the Mil Mi-26, the biggest production helicopter in the world.  I mentioned at the time that the only bigger helicopter had been the Mil V-12, of which two prototypes were built in the 1960's, but which never went into production.

Mil V-12 prototype at Groningen in the Netherlands, 1971 (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I've discovered on YouTube this video clip of the V-12 in flight, along with a narrated history.  Out of sheer aviation nostalgia, I decided to put it up too.  Remember, as you watch, that one of the V-12's design goals was to lower huge intercontinental ballistic missiles into their silos in remote territory where cranes couldn't go, and to shuttle them around the country when necessary.  Its cabin was sized accordingly.  Designed to carry up to 33 US (short) tons (50% more than the Mi-26), it actually lifted 44 US tons successfully during one record attempt - twice the freight capacity of a Lockheed C-130 Hercules!  It's about as long and as high as a current-production stretched Boeing 737-800, with a much greater cargo capacity.  When fully loaded, it usually took off after a forward run, much like a fixed-wing aircraft, using either a taxiway or a runway.

That's a hulking great brute of a helicopter, isn't it?  More information and photographs may be found here and here.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Rush hour in the Beijing subway

In the light of the article below on China's economy, perhaps it's appropriate to show you this video clip of the morning rush hour on Beijing's subway, line 13.

Looks like a disturbed ant farm, doesn't it?  Did you see that poor guy trying to get off the train, only to be carried backwards and disappear inside again, borne on a tide of boarding passengers?  Sheesh!


So wrong . . . but so funny!

Inevitably, the protests over the Trayvon Martin affair have led to parodies.  This one had me laughing, even as I shook my head at its poor taste.  Some of the comments on Reddit are even funnier!


The end of China's economic miracle?

Stratfor has published an excellent article summarizing the latest developments in China, and discussing their implications for that country's economy.  It's sobering stuff, because China's the manufacturing engine of the entire world's consumer economy right now.  If China suffers a serious economic downturn, it can't help but have a ripple effect around the globe.  Here's an excerpt.

... the past few months have seen a sea change. We have gone from China the omnipotent, the belief that there was nothing the Chinese couldn't work out, to the realization that China no longer works.

It has not been working for some time. One of things masking China's weakening has been Chinese statistics, which Krugman referred to as "even more fictional than most" ... Beijing ... uses its numbers to shape perceptions inside and outside China of how it is doing. The Chinese release their annual gross domestic product numbers in the third week of January (and only revise them the following year). They can't possibly know how they did that fast, and they don't. But they do know what they want the world to believe about their growth, and the world has believed them -- hence, the fantastic tales of economic growth.

. . .

We can say without a doubt that China's economy has grown dramatically in the past 30 years but that it is no longer growing nearly as quickly as it once did.

China's growth surge was built on a very unglamorous fact: Chinese wages were far below Western wages, and therefore the Chinese were able to produce a certain class of products at lower cost than possible in the West. The Chinese built businesses around this, and Western companies built factories in China to take advantage of the differential. Since Chinese workers were unable to purchase many of the products they produced given their wages, China built its growth on exports.

For this to continue, China had to maintain its wage differential indefinitely. But China had another essential policy: Beijing was terrified of unemployment and the social consequences that flow from it. This was a rational fear, but one that contradicted China's main strength, its wage advantage. Because the Chinese feared unemployment, Chinese policy, manifested in bank lending policies, stressed preventing unemployment by keeping businesses going even when they were inefficient. China also used bank lending to build massive infrastructure and commercial and residential property. Over time, this policy created huge inefficiencies in the Chinese economy. Without recessions, inefficiencies develop. Growing the economy is possible, but not growing profitability. Eventually, the economy will be dragged down by its inefficiency.

As businesses become inefficient, production costs rise. And that leads to inflation. As money is lent to keep inefficient businesses going, inflation increases even more markedly. The increase in inefficiency is compounded by the growth of the money supply prompted by aggressive lending to keep the economy going. As this persisted over many years, the inefficiencies built into the Chinese economy have become staggering.

The second thing to bear in mind is the overwhelming poverty of China, where 900 million people have an annual per capita income around the same level as Guatemala, Georgia, Indonesia or Mongolia ($3,000-$3,500 a year), while around 500 million of those have an annual per capita income around the same level as India, Nicaragua, Ghana, Uzbekistan or Nigeria ($1,500-$1,700). China's overall per capita GDP is around the same level as the Dominican Republic, Serbia, Thailand or Jamaica. Stimulating an economy where more than a billion people live in deep poverty is impossible. Economic stimulus makes sense when products can be sold to the public. But the vast majority of Chinese cannot afford the products produced in China, and therefore, stimulus will not increase consumption of those products. As important, stimulating demand so that inefficient factories can sell products is not only inflationary, it is suicidal. The task is to increase consumption, not to subsidize inefficiency.

The Chinese are thus in a trap. If they continue aggressive lending to failing businesses, they get inflation. That increases costs and makes the Chinese less competitive in exports, which are also falling due to the recession in Europe and weakness in the United States. Allowing businesses to fail brings unemployment, a massive social and political problem. The Chinese have zigzagged from cracking down on lending by regulating informal lending and raising interbank rates to loosening restrictions on lending by removing the floor on the benchmark lending rate and by increasing lending to small- and medium-sized businesses. Both policies are problematic.

There's more at the link.  It's well worth reading.

(This excerpt from 'Recognizing the End of the Chinese Economic Miracle' is republished with permission of Stratfor.)


This looks like a must-see

I was amazed to see this preview of a forthcoming IMAX presentation.  It's described as follows:

In Saturn’s Rings is a non-profit giant-screen art film that takes audiences on a journey of the mind, heart and spirit from the big bang to the near future via the Cassini-Huygens Mission at Saturn. Currently in production after years of development, In Saturn’s Rings aims for global release late next year.

Composed entirely of still photographs using innovative visual techniques developed by the filmmaker, In Saturn’s Rings stretches the boundaries of the motion picture form. The film will feature powerful music by Ferry Corsten, William Orbit, Samuel Barber and melds non-narrative visual poetry & science documentary into a rich experience for audiences.

In Saturn’s Rings is a film that’s both personal and universal, experimental and sincere, science and spirit , non-narrative and documentary. The goal is to use large screen imagery, synchronized to powerful but moving music, to create an experience for those who see it, hear it and feel it.

Using hundreds of thousands of still images manipulated to create full motion, using “2.75D” photographic fly-through technology. The film will be presented in IMAX® quality 6K resolution on massive screens and concert-level surround systems to audiences in giant screen institutions, IMAX® theaters, fulldome planetariums, museums and select 4k digital cinemas.

There's more information at the link.

Here's a preview of the movie.  I recommend watching it in full-screen mode.  Even on a small computer display, it seems almost like flying through space - so now I really want to see it on a giant IMAX screen!

Kudos to the filmmaker for a very interesting idea, well executed.


How and why I began writing fiction

Sarah Hoyt asked me to do, not just one, but two guest posts.  The first was for her personal blog, which I mentioned yesterday.  The second was for a joint writing blog she authors along with several other writers, called 'Mad Genius Club'.  She felt others might be interested in how and why I got into fiction writing in the first place;  so I wrote a guest article for her on that subject.  She posted it this morning.

If you've ever wondered what drives someone like me to do something like this, you can now read all about it.  While you're there, if you're interested in writing, check out the articles contributed by all the authors who form the 'Mad Genius Club'.  There's some interesting material there.


Tuesday, July 23, 2013

World's biggest helicopter

Here's an interesting video clip of the world's largest production helicopter, the Mil Mi-26, being wheeled out of a hangar in Belarus and taking off.  Note the size of the human figures for scale - this thing's huge!  It's rated to carry 20 tons of cargo, about the same as a Lockheed C-130 Hercules transport.  Officially it can carry up to 90 troops, but in practice it frequently carries more passengers.  (For example, in 2002 one was shot down in Chechnya, killing 127 out of at least 140 people on board.)

This particular aircraft was apparently painted in its camouflage pattern for use in the film 'A Good Day to Die Hard', the fifth episode in the 'Die Hard' movie franchise.

Impressive beast, isn't it?  Amazingly, Mil built a much larger helicopter, the V-12, in the 1960's.  However, only two prototypes were made, and it never entered production.  This leaves the Mi-26 and its predecessor, the Mi-6, as the largest production helicopters ever to enter service.


Guest post for Sarah Hoyt

Sarah Hoyt kindly invited me to write a guest post today for her blog, 'According To Hoyt'.  I discussed worlds and world-building, which is something SF and fantasy writers have to do all the time.  Click over there to read it, and while you're doing that, read the comments as well - they're sometimes screamingly funny.  Some of 'Hoyt's Huns' and 'Hoyt's Hoydens' have wicked senses of humor!  (The discussion of the 'glittering hoo-ha' was most . . . er . . . educational.)


Not bloviating

I'm afraid I really dislike the way Bill O'Reilly conducts himself on television.  I find him rude to his guests, opinionated to a fault, and generally an unattractive personality.  However, I have to hand it to him for this segment.  I don't agree with all his conclusions, but in 80% of them he and I are on the same page.

I don't think he's entirely correct in holding that everything boils down to individual choice.  When you've had nothing but bad examples, often with no father-figure or other sound example to counteract them, it's frequently all too easy to make (and keep on making) bad choices, particularly when no-one around you is making good ones!  (I'll be addressing that issue, among others, in my memoir of prison chaplaincy, to be published in mid-September.)

That aside, he's basically correct.  Address the one-parent-family issue, fix the schools, clean up the ghettoes, and you'll go a very long way to sorting out the 'race problem' in the USA.  Unfortunately, to do that will mean dismantling an entire 'ecosystem' that's come into existence to feed off the misery of urban black populations, and makes its living out of pretending to cater to their needs.  Therefore, it's unlikely to happen.


Monday, July 22, 2013


I'm pleased to hear that a unique piece of World War I history is being restored.

'Mephisto' is the only surviving German A7V tank, of which only 20 were built and saw combat during the final year of the war.  It was captured by Australian troops and smuggled out of France under the noses of the British authorities (who wanted it for their own war museum).  Australia planned to display it in Sydney, but the Digger troops (all from Queensland) didn't think that was fair;  so they unloaded it from the ship in Brisbane, where it's remained ever since.

The tank was damaged during the 2011 Queensland floods, and has been undergoing restoration.  Courtesy of Australian reader Snoggeramus, here's a video report about it.

It's good to know that so unique an exhibit is being restored to its former glory.  If I ever make it 'down under', it's on my list of things to see.

There's a replica A7V at The Tank Museum in Britain, probably the most comprehensive institution of its kind in the world.  Here's a brief video report, showing it in operation.


Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!!!

Color me happy!  Less than a week after launching the second novel in my science fiction series, I'm delighted to find that it's moved right up Amazon's "Hot New Releases" lists in my three genres in the Kindle Store.  It's already doing better than my first novel - which did pretty well in its own right, and is still selling well.

As of ten minutes ago, in Space Opera Science Fiction:

In Military Science Fiction:

And across all genres of Science Fiction:

Yes, that's third, fifth and ninth positions respectively - top ten ranking in all three lists, after less than a week on the market!!!  The lists change from hour to hour, of course, so my book will move up and down them depending on recent purchases;  but making it that high at all, even if it lasts only a short time, is a very satisfying achievement in itself.

Thank you all very, very much for your support.  You've helped me get both my books onto those lists with your early purchases, where it could attract the attention of a whole lot more potential readers.  I truly couldn't have achieved this success without you all, and I'm deeply grateful to you.

I think I'll go and make a celebratory cup of tea.


Doofus Of The Day #716

Courtesy of a link from JayG, today's winners are from Florida.

Two would-be robbers were shot Friday night after they burst into a home with a fake gun and, authorities said, met a person inside with a real one.

The two men were in serious condition at the hospital Friday night, and both had suffered multiple gunshot wounds, according to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office.

There's more at the link.

Yup.  Fake guns can't hold a candle to the real thing!  Kudos to the shooter for quick reactions and good marksmanship.  I hope the doofi stay locked up for a long, long time.


Sunday, July 21, 2013

As goes Detroit, so goes the US economy

The news of Detroit's bankruptcy should have surprised no-one.  Even the attempt by corrupt local politicians, unions and interest groups to derail it by obtaining injunctions against it in a state court (whereas the bankruptcy proceedings are in a federal court) was only to be expected.  They've stripped Detroit like hungry locusts, and they don't want to see their gravy train run out of juice.  Note, too, the expectation in certain quarters that President Obama will somehow 'bail out' Detroit, in the same way that he did the auto workers when GM and Chrysler teetered on the brink.  I'm sure he'd love to . . . but if he does, there are many more cities on the brink of bankruptcy that will expect and demand precisely the same concessions.  He can't afford that.

Mark Steyn points out:

To any American time-transported from the mid 20th century, the city’s implosion would be literally incredible: Were he to compare photographs of today’s Hiroshima with today’s Detroit, he would assume Japan won the Second World War after nuking Michigan. Detroit was the industrial powerhouse of America, the “arsenal of democracy,” and in 1960 the city with the highest per capita income in the land. Half a century on, Detroit’s population has fallen by two-thirds, and in terms of “per capita income,” many of the shrunken pool of capita have no income at all beyond EBT cards. The recent HBO series Hung recorded the adventures of a financially struggling Detroit school basketball coach forced to moonlight as a gigolo. It would be heartening to think the rest of the bloated public-sector work force, whose unsustainable pensions and benefits have brought Detroit to its present sorry state (and account for $9 billion of its $11 billion in unsecured loans), could be persuaded to follow its protagonist and branch out into the private sector, but this would probably be more gigolos than the market could bear, even allowing for an uptick in tourism from Windsor.

. . .

With bankruptcy temporarily struck down, we’re told that “innovation hubs” and “enterprise zones” are the answer. Seriously? In my book After America, I observe that the physical decay of Detroit — the vacant and derelict lots for block after block after block — is as nothing compared to the decay of the city’s human capital. Forty-seven percent of adults are functionally illiterate, which is about the same rate as the Central African Republic, which at least has the excuse that it was ruled throughout the Seventies by a cannibal emperor. Why would any genuine innovator open a business in a Detroit “innovation hub”? Whom would you employ? The illiterates include a recent president of the school board, Otis Mathis, which doesn’t bode well for the potential work force a decade hence.

Given their respective starting points, one has to conclude that Detroit’s Democratic party makes a far more comprehensive wrecking crew than Emperor Bokassa ever did. No bombs, no invasions, no civil war, just “liberal” “progressive” politics day in, day out. Americans sigh and say, “Oh, well, Detroit’s an ‘outlier.’” It’s an outlier only in the sense that it happened here first. The same malign alliance between a corrupt political class, rapacious public-sector unions, and an ever more swollen army of welfare dependents has been adopted in the formally Golden State of California, and in large part by the Obama administration, whose priorities — “health” “care” “reform,” “immigration” “reform” — are determined by the same elite/union/dependency axis. As one droll tweeter put it, “If Obama had a city, it would look like Detroit.”

There's more at the link.

If you think Mr. Steyn is being unduly pessimistic about Detroit, consider '25 Facts About The Fall Of Detroit That Will Leave You Shaking Your Head'.  They include:

2) Detroit is facing $20 billion in debt and unfunded liabilities.  That breaks down to more than $25,000 per resident.

4) In 1950, there were about 296,000 manufacturing jobs in Detroit.  Today, there are less than 27,000.

7) At this point, there are approximately 78,000 abandoned homes in the city.

14) There are 70 "Superfund" hazardous waste sites in Detroit.

20) When you call the police in Detroit, it takes them an average of 58 minutes to respond.

. . .

It is easy to point fingers and mock Detroit, but the truth is that the rest of America is going down the exact same path that Detroit has gone down.

Detroit just got there first.

Again, more at the link.  Bold, underlined text is my emphasis.

What far too many Americans don't realize is that the national economy isn't doing much better than Detroit's local economy right now.  All the optimistic headlines you read in the mainstream media are built upon foundations of sand . . . and the sand is shifting as we speak.  The reckoning cannot be long delayed.

Here are four video reports that I urge you to make time to watch in their entirety.  I endorse the warnings provided by these gentlemen, and believe that it's only a matter of time until they come to pass.  How long we have is a matter of opinion;  but I believe we're poised on a knife-edge.  Any major crisis that erupts somewhere in the world, locally or abroad, might be the trigger to spark a panic situation - and when people panic, it's 'Katie bar the door' and devil take the hindmost.

First, Karl Denninger predicts we're on the brink of a financial collapse worse than 1929.

Next, Peter Schiff believes that the Federal Reserve's policies are about to cause a massive financial collapse.

Marc Faber points out that the Fed's policies have created a series of bubbles, and right now the latest bubble is on the point of bursting.

Finally, David Stockman claims that the USA is fiscally, morally and intellectually bankrupt.

Note that all these commentators have been validated by events.  Their predictions are reinforced by their track records.  I take no pleasure in saying that I believe them.

I don't think there's much we can do to prepare for what's coming, other than make sure we have our own fiscal houses in as much order as possible.  Try to have what cash reserves on hand you can afford;  stock up on additional food and essential supplies, so that in the event of short-term disruptions you can cope for a few weeks or months;  and build local support networks, so that if we aren't able to obtain (or afford) the services of tradesmen or small businesses, we can help each other out.

It's coming, friends.  I don't see any way in which we can avoid it.  As Ann Barnhardt pointed out the other day, quoting a commenter at Karl Denninger's blog:

If we call the economy of the U.S. $15 Trillion, and the Obama regime and Federal Reserve dilute the currency by $1 Trillion per year (which they are at minimum), this results in a 6.66% reduction in purchasing power annually (1 divided by 15). Thus, personal income AND spending must increase at 6.66% annually in order for the economy to merely tread water at the consumer level. Any "growth" rate LESS than the dilution rate is therefore ECONOMIC CONTRACTION.

It's simple mathematics, folks.  Maths is a science, not some touchy-feely hand-wavium panacea.  That's what's been happening EVERY YEAR since the Fed began its massive quantitative easing programs.  They've diluted our economy by at least 25%-30% since 2008.

Those chickens are about to come home to roost for all of us.  In Detroit, they already have.


More on the Airbus and the Hawk

A couple of days ago I posted a photograph of an Airbus A380 flying in formation with a BAE Hawk advanced jet trainer, illustrating the vast difference in size between the two aircraft.

The planned formation fly-past of the A380 with no less than nine Hawks of the Royal Air Force's Red Arrows aerobatic display team took place at the Royal International Air Tattoo yesterday.  It re-emphasized the size difference between the aircraft.

The Red Arrows apparently had to maintain formation with extreme care, because the wake turbulence generated by so huge an aircraft as the A380 can throw around even large airliners for some miles behind it (which is why wake vortex separation classifications and distances are necessary).  A relatively tiny plane like a Hawk would be tossed around like a toy, possibly causing a collision or crash, if it got into such turbulent air.

You can read more about the display here.