Saturday, November 30, 2013

That's the fastest pontoon boat I've ever seen!

I'm sure many of us have seen pontoon boats on local lakes, dams, rivers and streams.  They're very popular for family entertainment.  However, they're usually relatively slow movers.  I've certainly never seen one perform like this!

That's a South Bay Pontoon 900 Sport series boat, with a third, central pontoon for stability, powered by a Mercury Racing 525EFI engine - the same unit that's won several offshore world championships.  It certainly makes that thing zoom across the water, despite the drag of three pontoons in the water and the aerodynamic inefficiency of its big hull - but it apparently consumes no less than 40 gallons (over 150 liters) of fuel per hour in doing so.  That makes even my pickup truck look economical by comparison!


If you're planning to retire soon, READ THIS!!!

In all our discussions about the Fed's Quantitative Easing and Zero Interest Rate policies, we've acknowledged many of the dangers inherent in them.  However, another risk has emerged over the past few years, focused particularly on savers and those about to retire or already retired and living on their savings and investments.  It's now a clear and present danger, not just a prospective problem.

As John Mauldin points out in his latest 'Thoughts From The Frontline' newsletter, which he ominously titles 'Arsonists Running the Fire Brigade' (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format):

I am becoming increasingly exercised that the new direction of the US Federal Reserve, which is shaping up as "extended forward rate guidance" of a zero-interest-rate policy (ZIRP) through 2017, is going to have significant unintended consequences.

. . .

It is this neo-Keynesian fetish that low interest rates can somehow spur consumer spending and increase employment and should thus be promoted even at the expense of savers and retirees that is at the heart of today's central banking policies. The counterproductive fact that savers and retirees have less to spend and therefore less propensity to consume  seems to be lost in the equation. It is financial repression of the most serious variety, done in the name of the greater good; and it is hurting those who played by the rules, working and saving all their lives, only to see the goal posts moved as the game nears its end.

Central banks around the world have engineered multiple bubbles over the last few decades, only to protest innocence and ask for further regulatory authority and more freedom to perform untested operations on our economic body without benefit of anesthesia. Their justifications are theoretical in nature, derived from limited-variable models that are supposed to somehow predict the behavior of a massively variable economy. The fact that their models have been stunningly wrong for decades seems to not diminish the vigor with which central bankers attempt to micromanage the economy.

The destruction of future returns of pension funds is evident and will require massive restructuring by both beneficiaries and taxpayers. People who have made retirement plans based on past return assumptions will not be happy. Does anyone truly understand the implications of making the world's reserve currency a carry-trade currency for an extended period of time? I can see how this is good for bankers and the financial industry, and any intelligent investor will try to take advantage of it; but dear gods, the distortions in the economic landscape are mind-boggling. We can only hope there will be a net benefit, but we have no true way of knowing, and the track records of those in the driver's seats are decidedly discouraging.

There's more at the link.  Underlined text is my emphasis.

As if to drive home the point, the Telegraph this week pointed out precisely these consequences for British pensioners.

As the baby boomers approach retirement, many face a pensions crisis thanks to quantitative easing. Central bank money-printing has impoverished a generation of older, small savers.

. . .

Say you have done the right thing throughout your working life, and saved when means allowed.

A typical middle-income earner might in that time reasonably hope to accumulate a pension pot of perhaps a couple of hundred thousand pounds. This, at least, is the position a friend finds himself in approaching retirement age. As it happens, the average pot on buying an annuity is much smaller – just £33,000.

To his dismay, my friend has discovered that his own, considerably larger sum will buy him and his wife a pension of little more than £10,000 a year, and that’s assuming both no inflation-proofing and that he invests the lot, rather than take his entitlement to a tax-free lump sum.

Together with the basic state pension, this may be just about enough to keep the wolf from the door, but it can hardly be thought of an example of rampant intergenerational unfairness. Many retirees face much worse, leaving them reliant on benefits.

One reason for these now painfully low annuity rates is rising life expectancy. Yet the bigger explanation is officially sanctioned, ultra-low interest rates. Central bank money-printing may or may not have saved Western economies from ruin in the aftermath of the financial crisis, but it has also disfranchised a generation of older, small-time savers.

Just as the main demographic bulge of post-war retirees come to buy their pensions, they find themselves – thanks in part to these interventions – confronted by the lowest rates of return in history.

A recent report by the management consultants McKinsey tried to put hard numbers on the consequences. Their findings were shocking. Since 2007, the world’s four most influential central banks have injected more than $4.7 trillion of new money into the world economy.

The effect has been to help drive both short- and long-term interest rates to record lows. The chief beneficiaries, as you might expect, are governments with big deficits. In the UK alone, ultra-low interest rates are reckoned to have saved the Government some $120 billion since the start of the crisis.

Highly indebted households will also have derived a major benefit. Without these interventions, many would be facing foreclosure. What tends to be forgotten, however, is that most households are net savers, not debtors. On the McKinsey figures, households as a whole have lost out to the tune of $110 billion – a massive transfer of income from people to government, amounting to nearly half of what the Government collected in income tax last year.

Again, more at the link.

Obviously, the Telegraph's article applies to British pensioners;  but precisely the same problems are evident in the US pensions industry.  Just look at the number of pension funds that are still rosily calculating their growth in terms of utterly unrealistic projections that haven't been achieved in practice for years.  Despite this fact, they're still basing their promised payouts to their members on those impossibly high projections.  I personally regard that as fraudulent, plain and simple;  but the law doesn't go that hard on them.  That's a pity, IMHO.  (Read these three links to get more information about this issue, or search for more information yourself.  The problem affects both private and public pensions, the latter including local, regional, State and Federal funds alike.)

QE and ZIRP have effectively run the majority of savers' pension plans into the ground.  We'd all better be planning accordingly.  Last week there was a headline that '80 is the new 60 when it comes to retirement'.  Sadly, that's probably absolutely correct.


I've never seen one like that before . . .

From NASA's Astronomy Picture Of The Day, here's an image of a cap cloud over the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain.  I've reduced the image size to fit this blog.

Mother Nature never ceases to impress!  Click the link for a full-size version.


Friday, November 29, 2013

More steam train memories

After yesterday's post about steam engines on South African railroads, I received a couple of questions about it.  The first was about Garratt-type locomotives, which were never used on US railroads and thus sparked the curiosity of several knowledgeable readers.  The second was about the Montagu Pass, which I described as 'magnificent'.

Garratt locomotives were a unique design, of particular value on narrow-gauge railroads that couldn't support the weight of very large or powerful engines.  They were articulated, with a steam engine at either end fed by a set of boilers in a central unit.  This meant that a single Garratt engine could generate 60% to 80% more power than a conventional locomotive.  The central boiler unit also meant that it was more economical in its use of coal and water than two locomotives would have been, and required only one crew to operate it instead of two.  The weight on the rails was also more evenly spread, as a single Garratt engine would put less pressure on rails, bridges and ballast than two conventional units.  Finally, its articulated design meant that it could handle tight curves and restricted conditions much better than fixed units.  You can read a good summary of the Garratt's advantages and disadvantages here.

They were an ingenious solution to a set of conditions often encountered on colonial railroads.  More than 1,600 were built, in a large range of different models and sizes, and a large number have survived in museums.  At least two are still in use on South African railroads, in private hands as far as I know.

The Garratts were often used on the Montagu Pass, because it's very narrow in parts, very twisty, and extremely steep, so the higher power output of the double-engine design was very useful there.  Here are two video clips illustrating the pass and the Garratts that worked there.  I recommend watching both in full-screen mode.

The first shows the departure from George and the ascent of the Pass.  I remember this trip so well that it made me almost painfully homesick to watch this clip this morning.  I don't want to go back to South Africa - there are too many very bad memories for that - but this made me smell the fynbos vegetation again, and the coal smoke from the engine.

The road you can see across the valley from the railway line is the Outeniqua Pass, built using Italian prisoner-of-war labor during and after World War II to replace the much narrower and steeper Montagu Pass, which was originally designed for ox-wagons and horse travel, and thus less suitable for motor vehicles.  It was extensively modernized during the 1990's.  Again, I've traveled that road many, many times.

The second video clip shows the Union Express - once a mainline train, but now an occasional tourist event - leaving Oudtshoorn, in the Little Karoo, and heading towards the Montagu Pass and George from the inland plateau.  It shows the Garratt engines to good advantage, as well as the beauty of the route - one of the loveliest I've ever traveled by rail or road.

Yes . . . I may never want to go back, but I can still feel homesick . . .


Computer update

Thank you very much to everyone who responded to my earlier request for advice about replacement computer systems, either in Comments here or by e-mail.  I appreciate your help.

I followed all the links you provided, and compared all the systems you recommended.  Most of them were reasonably attractive deals, but if I were to go with a laptop system, most had one or more limitations - display resolution, or memory size, or processor, or whatever.  It began to look increasingly as if my idea to spend as little as possible, buy a less capable system, and replace it again after two to three years, was probably the most cost-effective solution.

However, a number of you suggested that I consider a desktop system, as portability was a now-and-then requirement rather than an everyday thing.  Others suggested an external monitor for a laptop computer, which would effectively treat it as a desktop system.  (I already use such a monitor, BTW, but it's older technology, unable to handle 1080p resolution or even true 720p.)  I looked at some of the alternatives out there, and began to think hard about this option - particularly as it turned out I can upgrade the RAM on my present notebook to 8GB (its maximum capacity) and replace the defective hard disk drive with an equivalent unit for a combined total of under $100.  If I upgrade to a 250GB SSD, total costs will rise to about $200, but the overall system speed will probably go up by a factor of two or three.  That'll make it a longer-term viable solution for on-the-road needs and a backup to my desktop system.

I accordingly started to price desktop systems.  I'd built more than a few of them in past years, so I understood them well (I started in computers - as a mainframe operator - in the mid-1970's, and can remember using the first generation of IBM PC with its green monochrome monitor, one single-sided floppy disk drive and a whopping 64KB - yes, that's kilobytes! - of RAM).  Shopping around on sites like Newegg and Amazon, I priced components to build a very capable modern system, to get an idea of what a high-end desktop computer would cost if I built it myself;  then I began looking at offerings from computer vendors and retailers.

Miss D. came up with the solution.  She e-mailed me a list of Costco's current computer deals, among which were three absolutely outstanding packages - priced so low I couldn't build them myself for even 10%-25% more than Costco's price.  The three were:

  1. A HP Envy 17.3" laptop (including MS Office 2013) for $999.99;
  2. A Dell XPS 8700 desktop without monitor for $699.99;  and
  3. A HP Envy 700qe desktop with 23" 1080p monitor for $999.99.

If I'd needed Microsoft Office, the laptop would have represented an extraordinarily good deal;  but I already have that software, so its inclusion in the bundle made it less economical overall.  The Dell desktop was tempting, but faded in comparison to the HP desktop package, which is absolutely stuffed with everything to make it a thoroughly competent and capable system.  It has the latest-generation Intel quad-core CPU, a full 32GB of memory, a fast video processor with 4GB of dedicated memory, a 23" LCD backlit monitor, and all the other bells and whistles.  I couldn't build a comparable system using quality components for less than about $1,200 (excluding shipping costs for the components and sales tax), so Costco's price was very attractive indeed.  That's what I eventually chose.  It was simply too good a deal to turn down, even though it was more than I initially wanted to spend.  I'll call it a Christmas present to myself.

My new system should be here in about three weeks.  When it arrives, I'll order a replacement hard disk drive or SSD and more memory to upgrade my laptop, and do a full re-installation of the operating system and software while I'm at it.  (A number of you have recommended that I look at Linux for the laptop. I'll read more about that while I'm waiting, to see whether it's a worthwhile option for me.)  I already have a decent-sized UPS for the desktop system, and I'll replace its batteries with new ones while I'm waiting.

Thanks to everyone who responded, for all your suggestions.  I'll let you know how the new box performs when I've got it up and running.  It's going to be a quantum leap in performance compared to my present system, that's for sure!


Thursday, November 28, 2013

A happy and blessed Thanksgiving to all my readers

May your thanks be deep and heartfelt, and may you have much for which to give thanks!  If you don't, at least give thanks that you have enough breath to complain!


Memories of steam trains

Earthbound Misfit has been putting up a regular series of steam engine video clips on her blog every Friday.  I've enjoyed them, and they've brought back many memories for me.  You see, in South Africa steam engines were in everyday use on the railways until the early 1990's, and still are for a few private tourist companies such as Rovos Rail.  I've traveled countless thousands of miles behind steam locomotives, from Cape Town to Johannesburg and back on the Trans Karoo Express, from George to Oudtshoorn and back over the magnificent Montagu Pass, and on the coastal light rail between George and Knysna (the so-called 'Outeniqua Choo Tjoe', sadly now defunct).  There's nothing like moving slowly up a steep mountain pass, head out of the window of one's compartment, smelling the coal smoke wafting back from the locomotive (thick and heavy as one passed through frequent short tunnels), and wiping the ashes and coal smut from one's hair and off one's face, leaving black streaks by the time one got to the end of the journey.

I thought I'd put up a few video clips to illustrate South African steam locomotives and the trains they pulled.  I recommend watching all of them in full-screen mode.  (There's a large selection on YouTube if you'd like to see more.)  To begin, here's a look at 'The Great South African Steam Festival', when many of the last surviving steam engines were put to work in a final celebration before they were retired, to be replaced by diesel locomotives.

A series of DVD's was issued in 2009 under the collective title 'Steam in South Africa'.  Here's a promotional video clip showing excerpts from each of them.

Here's a South African Railways Class 25NC locomotive hauling freight in 1985.  These were very impressive engines, typically hauling passenger trains (including the Trans Karoo Express mentioned above) at an average speed of over 60 mph, and heavy freight trains not much slower than that.  (If that doesn't sound impressive, remember that South African railways are narrow-gauge, where high speeds are correspondingly more difficult.)

Here's the most powerful Garratt-type locomotive class ever built, the South African Railways Class GL.  It's on an excursion for photographers, so it makes a pass, reverses back down the railroad, then makes a second pass for their benefit.  You can clearly see the unique Garratt design, with a single set of boilers driving two steam engines, one in front of and one behind them.

Finally, here's the beloved 'Outeniqua Choo Tjoe' tourist special, run each day between George and Knysna and back again along the coastal route.  I've traveled aboard it many times.  It's sadly defunct now, South African Railways having refused to make the investment required to keep it running.  Steam train lovers all over the world mourned its passing, as it was one of the most scenic and interesting rail journeys in the world.  Of particular interest is the turntable you'll see from 0m. 18s. through 1m. 16s., which turned the engine around at the end of the line so it could make the return trip.

I hope you enjoyed these 'blasts from the past'.  I can still smell the smoke in my nostrils . . .


EDITED TO ADD:  I've written a follow-up post to this one, giving more details about Garratt-type locomotives and the Montagu Pass, with more videos.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Might Israel nuke Iran?

I said yesterday that I thought Israel might be preparing to attack Iran if it felt that the Geneva agreement wasn't having the desired effect (which, in my opinion, it won't).  Now Foreign Policy has a very interesting look at the possible use of nuclear weapons by Israel against Iran.  Here's an excerpt.

The recognition of Israel's nuclear capabilities will continue to matter over the next six months because, if we are to take Tel Aviv seriously, Israel could undertake a unilateral military attack against Iran's known nuclear facilities. Should the IAEA's outstanding questions about the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear program go unaddressed, or access to sensitive sites remain restricted, there are intentionally ambiguous undefined conditions under which Israel might attack Iran, with or without the United States. For example, Iran's Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant could be one target of an Israeli nuclear weapon. Fordow is a uranium-enrichment facility located beneath 60 to 80 meters of granite near the city of Qom. The facility at Fordow, according to Iran's declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency, is designed to contain up to 2,976 IR-1 centrifuges in 16 cascades. The Institute for Science and International Security has estimated that this set-up could produce one bomb's worth -- or "significant quantity" -- of highly enriched uranium per year.

In August, Yuval Steinitz, Israel's minister for international affairs, strategy, and intelligence, claimed that Iran's uranium-enrichment facilities can be "destroyed with brute force," which he described as "a few hours of airstrikes, no more." Yaakov Amidror, who recently stepped down as national security advisor, asserted this month that Israel can "stop the Iranians for a very long time." Asked whether this includes Iran's deeply buried nuclear installations, he responded, "including everything."

Most U.S. government and nongovernmental experts in weaponeering effects disagree with Amidror. They have concluded that Israel's conventional air-dropped bombs cannot penetrate the bedrock to reliably destroy the centrifuges located within Fordow. Moreover, both George W. Bush's and Barack Obama's administrations have refused to provide Israel with the Pentagon's largest (and recently further improved) conventional bunker-buster bomb, the Massive Ordnance Penetrator. Respected defense reporter David Fulghum quoted an anonymous U.S. defense specialist as saying, "Right now the Israeli capability against deeply buried targets is not much more than a noise-level effect." Given Israel's inability to deliver what one U.S. official termed "a knockout blow" against well-defended nuclear sites like Fordow with conventional bombs, a low-yield nuclear weapon could be the only viable alternative for a unilateral Israeli strike.

There's more at the link.  Interesting reading.

I have no doubt that if Israel felt terminally threatened by Iran (or anyone else), she would use nuclear weapons against them without hesitation.  Look up Masada and the Holocaust to understand why.



It seems three whales washed up on the shores of the Faroe Islands the other day.  The islanders decided to cut them up in order to remove the bodies more easily.

Unfortunately, the man doing the cutting seems to have forgotten that whales are big enough to decompose from the inside out - and that gas buildup in the internal organs will find an explosive way out if you cut into them.  You can see a video of the result here.  WARNING:  It's a pretty gruesome sight, so if you're sensitive of stomach or constitution, don't watch it!  It's an absolute explosion of blood, guts and internal organs, which is why I've chosen to link to it rather than embed it here.  It looks as if most of the detritus missed the cutter, but I'm sure he got a noseful of the associated odor!

(A tip o' the hat to reader Snoggeramus for telling me about it.  That man keeps his eyes open!)


A bleg for laptop advice, please

I'm in need of advice from those of my readers with greater technical and user expertise than mine in the field of laptop computers, please.

My present laptop is a fairly basic 2009 Gateway model (it's really a re-badged Acer unit).  Its hard disk is starting to give errors on boot-up, requiring more and more frequent CHKDSK runs to resolve them - a sure sign that it needs to be replaced.  (Yes, I have good backups, both local and online!)  However, the computer has only USB 2.0 ports, and I'd like a couple of the much faster USB 3.0 ports for use with an external hard disk drive for backup and data transfer.  Also, it's got a 15.6" screen at 1366x768 resolution.  I'd like a larger screen for working with multiple documents, with higher resolution for better sharpness and less eyestrain during long periods of editing.  Finally, its 4GB of memory becomes overloaded when I have multiple documents open, plus a couple of dozen Web sites in browser tabs, plus e-mail, music and other programs.  I'm therefore looking at replacing the whole computer, rather than just the hard disk.

My problem is that there's a massive price jump between low-end 'consumer' laptops and more sophisticated units.  On a disability income (until my book royalties improve to the point of providing a livable income stream) I find it hard to justify dropping a grand or more on a high-end unit when for half that sum, I can buy something that may be at least adequate for my current needs (albeit with the likelihood of having to upgrade or replace it within two to three years).  To illustrate the problem, here's a comparison between three Acer units, one low-end and two rather more high-end (see below the graphic for links to each one).  All are supplied with Windows 8, but none has a touch-screen display.

From a technical perspective, I'd say the second or third unit is more suitable for what I need, and for long-term growth.  However, they'll cost me double or more the price of the first unit.  My computer will be used primarily for writing, Internet browsing and blogging (including a limited amount of image processing - cutting, cropping, sizing, etc., but not Photoshop-type work), some YouTube viewing and occasional on-line movies, and simple single-player games to distract me when writing gets too frustrating.  For that sort of workload, are the more expensive units worth their much higher price?  I understand that I might have to upgrade or expand the lower-end unit within two to three years, but might I not have to do the same to the higher-end units anyway?  Technology is moving so fast that I'm not sure spending twice as much now will buy me twice as much 'future-proofing', if you know what I mean.

Battery life isn't a major issue for me.  I seldom take my computer out of my office, although I do need to do that from time to time.  I'll usually use it in hotel rooms or at friends' homes, where a power socket is available.  I need 2-3 hours battery life at most, and these units will provide that.  A user-replaceable battery is a nice thing to have, if possible - I prefer not to have batteries that can only be replaced by the supplier.

Have I specified all the important bits and pieces above?  (For example, should I look for a touch-screen display if I want to get the most out of Windows 8?)  Also, what about a docking station or port replicator?  I presently attach external peripherals like keyboard, mouse, a 1TB HDD for backups, a larger monitor, etc. to my laptop when it's at home.  I've plugged them into a USB 2.0 hub until now, but that's definitely going to be a problem when I have a mix of USB 3.0 and 2.0 devices.  Is it worth investing a little in a universal docking station or port replicator like this one?  For less than $100, it looks like it might significantly extend my computer's connectivity.

I'd be grateful for responses and suggestions from those who deal with these things more often, or at a more technical level, than I do.  If I really should buy one of the more expensive units, I'll find a way (even if it means ramen for supper for a while), but I'm only going to do so if that's essential.  Over to you, friends!  Let us know your reactions in Comments.  (I'm not necessarily committed to the Acer brand, either, so if you want to suggest alternatives to that, fire away.)



Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The perils of social media - on camera!

I've written before about the danger to one's privacy of using social media.  Here's graphic proof.

Time was when identity theft was difficult.  Now we're making it easy for the perpetrators . . .


Doofus Of The Day #742

Today's award goes to a businessman in Arkansas.

A Jonesboro man has been charged with conspiracy to commit murder after police say the intended victim overheard the suspect planning the crime.

Jonesboro police arrested Larry Barnett, 68, on Thursday after being contacted by a Paragould man.

The man told Detective Jason Simpkins he received a phone call at 12:30 p.m. from Barnett.

He said it appeared Barnett had “unknowingly made” the phone call.

The intended victim said he overheard Barnett give another man directions to his home in Paragould.

During the call, which lasted approximately 1.5 hours and was ongoing when he contacted police, the victim said he overheard Barnett say, “I don’t care if you have to burn his house to the ground with him in it.  I don’t care what you have to do, make it look like an accident.”

. . .

Paragould police then went to the complainant’s home and found that it had been burglarized and the gas stove had been tampered with, according to a statement from Sergeant Doug Formon, public information officer for the Jonesboro Police Department.

There's more at the link.

Sounds like a classic case of 'butt-dialing'.  In this case, I bet the victim was glad to receive the call!


The Geneva interim agreement with Iran

I've delayed commenting on the recent agreement with Iran over that country's nuclear program, as I couldn't get enough information about it to be sure I was accurate in my reaction.  That information is now available, and it's worse than I feared.  The only appropriate historical comparison I can find is the infamous Munich Agreement between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler in 1938 - the one that produced "Peace for our time" . . . and World War II a year later.

In the first place, this unravels very long-standing relationships between the United States and two of its allies in the Middle East:  Israel and Saudi Arabia.  As Stratfor pointed out in its report 'Israelis, Saudis and the Iranian Agreement' (excerpts from which are reprinted here with Stratfor's permission):

While the unfolding deal involves the United States, Britain, France, China, Russia and Germany, two countries intensely oppose it: Israel and Saudi Arabia. Though not powers on the order of the P-5+1, they are still significant. There is a bit of irony in Israel and Saudi Arabia being allied on this issue, but only on the surface. Both have been intense enemies of Iran, and close allies of the United States; each sees this act as a betrayal of its relationship with Washington.

. . .

... the problem that the Saudis and Israelis have ... is that both depend on the United States for their national security. Neither country can permanently exist in a region filled with dangers without the United States as a guarantor. Israel needs access to American military equipment that it can't build itself, like fighter aircraft. Saudi Arabia needs to have American troops available as the ultimate guarantor of their security, as they were in 1990. Israel and Saudi Arabia have been the two countries with the greatest influence in Washington. As this agreement shows, that is no longer the case. Both together weren't strong enough to block this agreement. What frightens them the most about this agreement is that fact. If the foundation of their national security is the American commitment to them, then the inability to influence Washington is a threat to their national security.

. . .

The United States is not abandoning either Israel or Saudi Arabia. A regional policy based solely on the Iranians would be irrational. What the United States wants to do is retain its relationship with Israel and Saudi Arabia, but on modified terms. The modification is that U.S. support will come in the context of a balance of power, particularly between Iran and Saudi Arabia. While the United States is prepared to support the Saudis in that context, it will not simply support them absolutely. The Saudis and Israelis will have to live with things that they have not had to live with before -- namely, an American concern for a reasonably strong and stable Iran regardless of its ideology.

The American strategy is built on experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Washington has learned that it has interests in the region, but that the direct use of American force cannot achieve those goals, partly because imposing solutions takes more force than the United States has and partly because the more force it uses, the more resistance it generates. Therefore, the United States needs a means of minimizing its interests, and pursuing those it has without direct force.

With its interests being limited, the United States' strategy is a balance of power. The most natural balance of power is Sunni versus Shia, the Arabs against the Iranians. The goal is not war, but sufficient force on each side to paralyze the other. In that sense, a stable Iran and a more self-reliant Saudi Arabia are needed. Saudi Arabia is not abandoned, but nor is it the sole interest of the United States.

In the same sense, the United States is committed to the survival of Israel. If Iranian nuclear weapons are prevented, the United States has fulfilled that commitment, since there are no current threats that could conceivably threaten Israeli survival.

. . .

With this opening to Iran, the United States will no longer be bound by its Israeli and Saudi relationships. They will not be abandoned, but the United States has broader interests than those relationships, and at the same time few interests that rise to the level of prompting it to directly involve U.S. troops. The Saudis will have to exert themselves to balance the Iranians, and Israel will have to wend its way in a world where it has no strategic threats, but only strategic problems, like everyone else has. It is not a world in which Israeli or Saudi rigidity can sustain itself.

There's more at the link.  It's worth reading the whole report.

In the second place, the agreement appears to be based upon the perception that the government of Iran is comprised of rational actors who will take decisions in the light of logical, reasoned thought processes.  I doubt very much whether this is the case.  Iran's government has consistently demonstrated that it is motivated by a fundamentalist religious perception of reality that is far from rational.  Former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reportedly one of the extremists who invaded the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979 and seized dozens of diplomatic staff as hostages.  He's on record as wishing for the reappearance of the 'Twelfth Imam', an event that in Shi'ite Muslim expectations will take place 'when the world has fallen into chaos and civil war emerges between the human race for no reason'.

To this day Iran is officially categorized by the US State Department as an active state sponsor of terrorism.   To this day, the Revolutionary Guards, the Quds Force and the Ministry of Intelligence and National Security act independently of the authority of Iran's government, forming in essence a 'state within a state', under the nominal control of the Supreme Leader but in reality having its own factions that periodically struggle for control.  Most Iranian support for international terrorism flows through those organizations - and crucially, none of them are under the direct control of the President of Iran or his Cabinet.  Any agreement entered into by the latter parties is unlikely to restrict the formers' activities.  Right now, Iran is supporting the Syrian government in its crackdown against internal dissidents, and Iran is sponsoring the terrorist activities of Hezbollah and Hamas directed against Israel.  (Hezbollah has already come out strongly in support of the nuclear agreement with Iran because "our side will be stronger locally, regionally, and internationally".)  Iran was also in dialogue with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt., and has supported terrorists acting against US servicemen and interests in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Against that background, I can't take seriously any commitment by Iran to do anything that might weaken its influence in Shi'ite Islam or in the Middle East.  Abandoning or restricting its nuclear program would certainly do both.

There are also the wider geopolitical implications of the current agreement.  Casey Research thinks it knows what those involve.

Over the weekend, the world changed.

Officials from Iran made a deal with six countries (the US, Russia, China, England, France, and Germany)—in exchange for suspending the world's sanctions on Iran, Iran will curb its nuclear weapons program.

Though it's only a six-month interim agreement for now, it's an important first step toward bringing Iran economically closer to the rest of the world.

This is, by any standards, a historic deal (or a historic mistake, according to Iran's archenemy Israel): the United States and Iran haven't had diplomatic relations since 1979.

This is like Wile E. Coyote suddenly signing a peace treaty with the Road Runner.

But the more important question is "Why?" Why did Iran suddenly have this change of heart after pounding the table and claiming that enriching uranium is an inalienable Iranian right?

Is it really as the media portrays? Did the tough American and European sanctions placed upon Iran finally bring the country's leadership to its senses?

As much as President Obama would like you to believe that, we think the answer is far more complicated.

All of these countries have some sort of agenda that they are pushing—and this deal is going to give them exactly what they want. And if you think that this is about "Middle East stability" and "world peace," there is a bridge I would like to sell you.

There is only one thing on the minds of these countries: oil.

Again, more at the link, and worthwhile reading.

I believe the present agreement is nothing more than a smokescreen, disguising two realities.  The first reality is that Western efforts to restrain Iran's nuclear program have failed dismally.  The country is even sending scientists to North Korea to work on the joint development of a long-range missile with which either could target the USA.  Why would either nation want such a missile if they didn't intend to put effective warheads on it?  The second reality is that Iran has consistently lied about its nuclear program in the past and evaded almost all diplomatic and other restrictions placed upon it. There's no guarantee whatsoever that it isn't going to do precisely the same thing again.

In the light of those two realities, I have no expectation whatsoever that this new agreement will lead to any worthwhile results.  Instead, I suggest that it may move the Middle East closer to regional nuclear war, as I believe neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia will be willing to accept the new status quo.  I suspect Saudi Arabia will now move to acquire its own nuclear weapons, while Israel will prepare a military strike against Iran, possibly involving the use of nuclear warheads.  This will probably be held in reserve for now, but I expect it to be launched if Iran makes any overt moves towards becoming a nuclear-armed power - in particular, a nuclear test.


A tomato in space?

I had to smile at this photograph of a freshly-delivered tomato, floating in mid-air in front of a window aboard the International Space Station orbiting the Earth.

You'll find a full-size version of the picture here.  It was taken by Japanese astronaut Koichi Wakata.  He's putting up lots of interesting photographs of his time aboard the ISS on his Twitter feed.


Monday, November 25, 2013

Exploring a firearm via ultra-slow-motion video

Several readers sent me the link to this video, made by Tom Guilmette. It looks at a Ruger SR9c pistol in ever-increasing detail through slowing down the camera speed as the weapon is fired.  It's fascinating to see how each reduction in speed reveals more of what's going on.  I recommend watching it in full-screen mode.

Kudos to Mr. Guilmette for a very interesting idea.  He's used the same camera to produce another slow-motion video in Las Vegas, which you'll find here along with an accompanying article.


Doofus Of The Day #741

A tip o' the hat to Australian reader Snoggeramus, who sent me the link to today's winner:  an Australian medical insurance provider.

After an investigation spanning almost a year, government-owned Medibank Private has cancelled at least 30 service provider registrations nationally, finding some of its affiliated therapists were in fact prostitutes subsidising sex under the guise of ''remedial massage''.

. . .

Earlier this month, Fairfax Media found numerous illegal suburban brothels engaging in the health rebate rort. While street signage might depict services as purely therapeutic, the parlours are being exposed by thousands of clients who rate sex workers on underground brothel review forums.

In one front window, a ''Remedial Massage Centre'' offers both legitimate treatments and fund rebates. But on the Australian XXX Reviews website, where members post restaurant-style reviews of brothels in Melbourne and other cities, several subscribers refer to sexual services, all culminating in a ''happy ending''.

On the same forum, punters have lodged their anger and frustration at the Medibank clampdown. One, who boasts of a full rebate from a male practitioner who has one of his ladies ''do the work'', proclaims: ''We're doomed.''

There's more at the link.

Oh, boy . . . 'happy endings' paid for by the government!  That certainly lends a new meaning to 'down under', doesn't it?  (Is that why Old NFO seems to visit the place so often?)


Sarah Palin lays it on the line about Obamacare

Say what you will about Sarah Palin, she can cut to the heart of a matter as well as anybody when she sets her mind to it.  She's written a devastating article about Obamacare, laying out precisely what's at stake - and what's behind it.  Here's an excerpt.

From the very start, we knew that any health care reform could move us in one of two directions: closer to a genuine free market and patient-centered system to allow choices, affordability, and continued economic freedom, or closer to full socialized healthcare in the form of a single-payer system. President Obama and many Democrats have always openly admitted they want socialized medicine in the form of a single-payer system.

It can be argued that Obamacare isn’t full socialized medicine… yet. Right now it is a sort of corporatism, which is the collusion of big government with big business. With Obamacare, the government has taken over an industry that comprises a sixth of our economy, radically changed the way it operates, and is mandating that we purchase the services of that industry. This is unprecedented. It’s radical.

For those Obama voters who are now flummoxed by the rise in their health care premiums, let me explain why they went up. Obamacare has changed the very nature of insurance, which is a hedge against a future possibility. A 27-year-old marathon runner is much less likely to suffer a major illness than a 57-year-old obese chain smoker with a pickled liver. But Obamacare has ruled that there be no adjusted costs for pre-existing conditions, which means we threw out the actuarial data and everyone is now required to pay more to cover those who are more likely to be sick. But now average Americans – especially those healthy 20somethings who probably don’t even want to buy insurance – can’t afford to pay for Obamacare.

Obamacare in its current corporatist form isn’t meant to last. It’s meant to push us towards full socialized medicine with a single-payer system. How do I know this? Simple. Let’s compare Obamacare with the Canadian single-payer system.

With Obamacare we have crappier health care (fewer choices, fewer doctors, and an IPAB rationing panel of faceless bureaucrats, aka the ol' “death panel” that has been admitted to existing in Obamacare), but it is very expensive for the individual American. For instance, you’ll find that the so-called Bronze Plans are just as expensive as the Platinum Plans when you factor in the $5,000-$10,000 deductible in addition to the monthly payments you’ll shell out. And those Americans who aren’t being pushed onto the Obamacare exchanges are still seeing their insurance premiums skyrocket as the industry shifts onto consumers the cost of not factoring in various conditions.

Now let’s look at what Canadians have. I dare say our good neighbor to your north, and my east, has even worse health care coverage, but at least it’s “free” for the individual.

Americans, if you’re faced with a 300% increase (or even a 65% increase like my family) in your health care premiums for crappier coverage, doesn’t “free” socialized medicine all of a sudden sound appealing?

And that’s how Americans will be led down the primrose path to a single-payer system. People will be frustrated, worn out, and broke under this new government burden. Many will end up concluding they’ll settle for – then demand – full socialized medicine because they’ll see how the unworkable Obamacare will break our health care system (where, presently, no one is turned away from emergency rooms and we have many public and private safety nets for people in need), along with busting our personal bank accounts. The cry will go out, “Can’t you just put us all in a sort of Medicaid-like system? It’ll be much less confusing than these awful exchange websites and a lot less expensive!” As things stand, many who are getting slammed by Obamacare will inevitably settle for less out of necessity. And that’s the left’s declared plan: a single-payer system. They said it. I didn't.

Of course, the Canadian system isn’t really “free." It comes with high taxes and even more rationing, which is precisely why the Obama-friendly economist Paul Krugman makes a point of reminding us that we’ll only bring health care costs “under control” by employing “death panels and sales taxes.” And, of course, our already broke country will go bankrupt even faster under the unsustainable strain of this expanding welfare state, and our economy will suffer under the stagnation of permanently higher taxes.

There's more at the link.  Recommended reading.


Talk about overloaded!

Received via e-mail, origin unknown:


Sunday, November 24, 2013

Determination in action!

You have to admire the little critter's persistence, don't you?


I presume this was the fashion police?

Bizarre news report of the week:

Deputies had to use force Sunday to subdue a naked man wearing only high heels and a turban after spotting him hiding behind a tree trying to put on pink women’s panties and pantyhose.

The man, identified as 28-year-old Jermaine Lloyd, fled from deputies while trying to pull on the undergarments and carrying a purple bag and sweatpants, according to a police report.

There's more at the link.

Clearly, pantyhose and a turban just don't go together . . .


A grim reminder of prison gangs

Those of you who've read my memoir of prison chaplaincy will recall that I devoted a chapter to prison gangs.  I mentioned six particular 'problem gangs', those who pose the greatest threat to internal security and stability.  One of them was the Black Guerrilla Family (BGF), which is in the news again.

A large group of Baltimore corrections officers and members of a notorious prison gang have been working together to peddle drugs, phones and sex inside the city's jail, prosecutors say.

. . .

... the U.S. Attorney's Office for Maryland says this [involved] a prison gang, the Black Guerrilla Family ...

"Correctional officers were in bed with BGF inmates," said U.S. Attorney Rod Rosenstein.

Rosenstein seemed to mean that both literally and figuratively, court documents show. According to one indictment, alleged gang member Tavon White had a sexual relationship with four jail guards while he was incarcerated.

He impregnated all four of them and they all helped him smuggle items into prison, according to the indictment.

One of the guards had "Tavon" tattooed on her wrist, the indictment said.

In January, White summed up his standing in the prison while talking on a cell phone that had been smuggled in, the indictment says

"This is my jail. You understand that? I'm dead serious. ... I make every final call in this jail ... and nothing go past me. ... Any of my brothers that deal with anybody, it's gonna come to me. Before (somebody) stab somebody, they gotta run it through me," White said. according to the indictment.

There's more at the link.  Earlier this year Slate reported on a BGF takeover of Baltimore jails.

I can't for the life of me imagine how Baltimore authorities allowed things to deteriorate to this level.  Someone dropped the ball - probably several someones.  I imagine heads will roll . . . or, if they don't, it'll be time to investigate corruption and mismanagement in that department at an altogether higher level!


The NSA is an out-of-control rogue agency

The latest revelations about the National Security Agency (NSA) and its total disregard for the interests and privacy of US citizens are breathtaking in their arrogance.  Three articles in particular sum up what they've been doing.

  1. NSA infected 50,000 computer networks with malicious software
  2. Meet the Spies Doing the NSA's Dirty Work:  This obscure FBI unit does the domestic surveillance that no other intelligence agency can touch
  3. N.S.A. Report Outlined Goals for More Power

The last-mentioned report is particularly chilling, as these short excerpts demonstrate.

In a February 2012 paper laying out the four-year strategy for the N.S.A.’s signals intelligence operations, which include the agency’s eavesdropping and communications data collection around the world, agency officials set an objective to “aggressively pursue legal authorities and a policy framework mapped more fully to the information age.”

Written as an agency mission statement with broad goals, the five-page document said that existing American laws were not adequate to meet the needs of the N.S.A. to conduct broad surveillance in what it cited as “the golden age of Sigint,” or signals intelligence.

. . .

The agency also intends to improve its access to encrypted communications used by individuals, businesses and foreign governments, the strategy document said. The N.S.A. has already had some success in defeating encryption, The New York Times has reported, but the document makes it clear that countering “ubiquitous, strong, commercial network encryption” is a top priority.

There's more at the link.

In other words, the NSA wants to proactively shape and frame the laws that tell it how it may operate.  The fox wants to not only guard the henhouse, but draw up its plans and supervise its construction as well, in order to make stealing the chickens that much easier.  It also wants to get around our perfectly legal and legitimate use of encryption to ensure our privacy, in order to render the latter null and void, electronically speaking.

This is sickening.  It's the hallmark of an agency that considers its mission more important than the constitution and laws of the United States.  I can think of only one adequate remedy - complete and total dismantling of the agency.  Its important work must be continued, but under new leadership in a radically overhauled structure.  All those who've not merely acquiesced in, but engineered this utter disregard for the privacy of citizens and their constitutional rights must be dismissed from government service of any kind, and never again permitted to exercise authority over others in any administrative or executive capacity.  They've fouled their own nest so irretrievably with their catastrophic indifference to law and rights that they're no longer a national asset, but a liability - an albatross around America's neck.

I no longer consider Edward Snowden to be a traitor, for all that his actions were technically treasonous.  He's revealed so much about the 'shadow dictators' who do as they please in the name of national security that I must now regard him as a patriot, deserving of our grateful acknowledgment for the service he's rendered us.

To hell with every NSA technician, manager, administrator and executive who had any share in making this organization into the ethical and moral cesspit that it's become.  Fire them all, and prosecute those guilty of the most grievous overreaches - then make sure none of them ever again occupy any position of importance, anywhere.  They deserve only our contempt, scorn and derision.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

About that stadium . . .

Yesterday's Doofus Of The Day award went to a proposed stadium in Qatar that looks like an unmentionable portion of a woman's anatomy.  Well, it turns out that's not the only anatomically reminiscent architecture out there.  Slate points out the existence of a neighborhood in England, and a church in Illinois, that both resemble a rather familiar shape from the air.

From street level, you probably wouldn't give either of them a passing glans . . .


Around The Blogs

It's been a long time since I put up an 'Around The Blogs' summary of posts I've found interesting, educational or amusing in the blogosphere.  Here goes with a belated edition.

# # #

I noted with displeasure that the story of 'Paul Mallory' and his labrador retriever 'Reggie' (a.k.a. 'Tank') is doing the rounds again, as it has several times since its first appearance.  This story is a fake.  It's another of those Internet myths composed by someone who had more time available than honesty or integrity.  If you come across it on another blog, please point the blog owner to the Snopes entry debunking it.

# # #

Linoge at Walls Of The City points out what laws do - and don't do.  It's a valuable summary of why passing laws won't do much - if anything - to solve the problems of crime and violence.  Recommended reading.

# # #

Ace Of Spades has a fascinating article pointing out how the progressive left wing of US politics began to experience mental and cognitive dissonance with the assassination of President Kennedy, and how the problem has only grown worse since then.  A sample sentence:

Rather than thinking in terms of the divine and magic in the area of theology and metaphysics -- which is really where thoughts about the divine and magic should be contained -- the left, being Bad at Secularism, instead permits superstition, myth, and magic to flood into all other compartments of their ship of the mind.

It's a very interesting article, but it also provoked me to think about how the right wing of US politics does precisely the same thing.  Both extremes, left and right, are closer to each other in the way they think and react than either would be happy to admit.  Makes you think, doesn't it?

At any rate, go read the article for yourself, then see whether you can identify instances where similar derangement occurs elsewhere on the political spectrum.  Useful food for thought.

# # #

Karl Denninger points out why you should never, ever buy any consumer product with a non-user-replaceable battery.

The reason?  You're buying something that has a pre-determined self-destruct built into it.

He has good arguments from his own experience to back up his point.  Worthwhile reading.

# # #

We looked at crass stupidity about the food stamp cuts in these pages recently.  Now DiveMedic brings us his experience of a couple who were upset at losing a baby - twins, actually - "because they were counting on the extra welfare and food stamps to buy a new car".

If you want a living definition of both 'welfare junkies' and the 'entitlement society', that's it, right there . . .

(See also Forbes on 'America before the Entitlement State' and the Daily Mail on how the UK's welfare system has created an Age of Entitlement.)

# # #

Charles Hugh Smith asked last year, "Is Anybody Else Tired of Buying and Owning Stuff?"  In the light of forthcoming Black Friday sales and the Christmas season, it's a timely question and one worth re-visiting (hence my mention of it here).  You may be sure I'm thinking very carefully about it, particularly in these hard economic times.

# # #

My friend, fellow blogger and fellow author Marko Kloos comes to some surprising conclusions about the best tablet for his use as a writer.  It's food for thought for those who use a tablet as more than a mere entertainment device.

# # #

Rev. Donald Sensing brings us an amazing video clip of falling dominoes, probably the most complex arrangement of its kind that I've ever seen.  Recommended viewing.

# # #

Momma's Gone City brings us a series of heart-warming photographs of a baby boy and his puppy, and the story behind them.  Here's one example.

Yes, it's your feel-good warm-and-fuzzy reading of the week!  Recommended reading.

# # #

Blue's Blog brings us a well-known story about the chemical properties of Hell.  It's been around for some time, but I'd forgotten it until Blue reprinted it.  It made me laugh just as much now as it did the first time I read it, so I thought you'd enjoy it too.

# # #

Never Yet Melted links to two articles discussing how professors are appointed in academia these days.  Infuriating reading to anyone with common sense, but informative as well - particularly to those who still have to deal with such institutions.

# # #

Borepatch brings us what he calls "The best argument against man-made global warming".  I'd say he's got a point.

# # #

Finally, author and publisher Kristine Kathryn Rusch brings us a reality check about what it takes to be a successful writer.  You may be sure I've considered her words long and carefully!  Those of you interested in the field will find much food for thought in her article.

# # #

That's it for now.  I'll try to produce more 'Around The Blogs' features, as I used to do before.  There's a lot of good material out there, and it deserves a wider exposure.


A kayak submarine???

This looks intriguing.

I'm still trying to figure out why you'd want to have a submersible kayak . . . particularly one that looks like an elongated seal, in an environment where there are things that eat seals!


Friday, November 22, 2013

Doofus Of The Day #740

Today's award goes to the team that's just submitted their design for the new Al Wakrah stadium in Qatar, to be used for the 2022 World Cup.  It's claimed the design is based on "a dhow boat that Qataris traditionally used for pearl diving", but its resemblance to something else has led to much hilarious (and frequently rude) comment around the world.

You can imagine to what that design might be (and is being) compared.  I don't even want to think about what the shape might inspire spectators to chant during matches held there . . .


What does the Senate's "nuclear option" really signify?

I've been puzzling over why Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, chose this week to push through a change to the rules governing the Senate, and why his caucus supported him almost unanimously.  I think there are wheels within wheels on this one.

Let me say at once that I agree with its critics:  the Republican Party is guilty of deliberate obstructionism and obfuscation in the Senate.  They seem to have gone into 'temper tantrum' mode, blocking anything and everything they can because they can't get their way on most legislation.  This is childish and ridiculous.  When a Republican president is in power, they expect all his nominees to be approved;  but when a Democratic president occupies the White House, they act like obstructionist cry-babies.  The way our system is set up, a President gets to nominate those he wants to see in office.  The Senate should get to vote on them, not hold them up out of pique or a fit of petulance.  As the New York Times correctly noted:

As Mr. Reid noted on the floor, half of all filibusters waged against nominations in Senate history have occurred since Mr. Obama was elected. Twenty of his district court nominees were filibustered; only three such filibusters took place before he took office. There has also been a record-setting amount of delay in approving the president’s choices for cabinet positions and federal agency posts, even when no objections have been raised about a nominee’s qualifications.

Nevertheless, the set of checks and balances that govern the Senate have been developed out of many years of experience.  They inhibit both sides from doing too much damage.  I believe the Republicans have indeed been misusing them, but that doesn't mean those checks and balances no longer have any value - because once they've been overturned, as the Democrats have now done, the other side can misuse the new rules to ram through whatever they want when they regain the majority.  Furthermore, once a single hole has been made in the ice, more holes can (and probably will) follow.  Who's to say the Senate rules can't or won't be further amended, to remove even more checks and balances?

I can see only two possible rationales for the Democrats' action in the Senate this week.

  1. They're confident they can prevent the Republicans from ever gaining a workable majority in the Senate, either through the electoral process, or through co-opting liberal Republicans like Senators Collins, Graham and Murkowski.
  2. The Democratic Party leaders have resigned themselves to losing control of the Senate in the mid-term elections next year, and therefore have decided to "make hay while the sun shines".  They're going to ram through every Federal appointment they can, pursue their liberal/progressive agenda at every turn, and frustrate every bill sent through by the Republican-controlled House, so that they can have as lasting an effect as possible on the US Administration even after they lose control.  If they get enough of 'their' people appointed to Federal office, they'll be there for years to come, and significantly influence the way the US government operates.

Considering how many Democratic Senators are in danger from an electoral backlash in reaction to Obamacare, I have my doubts about the first hypothesis.  I suspect the second is true.

I'm even more convinced about that when I read the backing and wheeling being conducted by partisan sources in the US media, trying desperately to justify this development.  Take, for example, the New York Times.  During the Clinton administration it argued in favor of the 'nuclear option' to overcome Republican opposition to nominees.  During the second Bush administration, in 2005, it reversed its position:

A decade ago, this page expressed support for tactics that would have gone even further than the "nuclear option" in eliminating the power of the filibuster. At the time, we had vivid memories of the difficulty that Senate Republicans had given much of Bill Clinton's early agenda. But we were still wrong. To see the filibuster fully, it's obviously a good idea to have to live on both sides of it. We hope acknowledging our own error may remind some wavering Republican senators that someday they, too, will be on the other side and in need of all the protections the Senate rules can provide.

Now, with another Democrat in power, it's reversed its position again, headlining its editorial "Democracy Returns to the Senate".  The fact that it can so unblushingly change course every time the occupant of the White House is of a different party tells us all we need to know about the New York Times' objectivity - or the complete and utter absence thereof.

To me, this is yet another symptom that the 'old guard' in US politics is becoming more and more bitter, more and more entrenched in a war to the political death with young, 'upstart' politicians who are listening more to the people than they are to the party 'machine'.  It's "the party way or the highway", whether representatives - or the electorate - like it or not.  You want examples?  Sure.  Democrats have just done that in Colorado, while Republican 'insider' hard-liners are now threatening to do it to the Tea Party.  There are many other examples - all it takes to find them is an Internet search.  The checks and balances built into our political system are increasingly being bypassed or ignored, not least by the President himself (albeit like other Presidents before him).

The most troubling thing about all this, as far as I'm concerned, is that our politicians are wasting their time, talent (such as it is) and energy on bickering with each other over procedural issues, while all the time our economy is going down in flames.  I wrote about that earlier today.  The really important issues are being ignored for the sake of political one-upmanship . . . and that may be literally disastrous for our country.

My suggestion:  vote out of office every single politician, Republican or Democrat, who displays such attitudes and (by extension) such contempt for the electorate.  That includes every Senator currently in office.  We don't need any of them to be making decisions on our behalf.  Let's wipe the slate clean and start afresh.  It can't possibly be worse than what we've got now!


They're like fat bumblebees!

Here's a time-lapse video of last month's Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.  I love watching them lift off and fly away in speeded-up fashion like this . . . they remind me of nothing so much as multi-colored bumblebees! I recommend watching it in full-screen mode.

Note how the winds change at altitude.  From about 1m. 25s. you can see how balloons fly in one direction higher up, then drop down to go the other way in the countervailing winds at lower heights.


The economy: need any more evidence?

I've been writing for years (along with many, many others) about the slow-motion economic collapse in which we find ourselves.  (My latest article about it, from earlier this month, may be found here, and is an accurate summary of the present situation, IMHO.)

The quarterly results and economic forecasts from some of America's most important companies are grim evidence that what I described in that article is, indeed, reality.  Consider these articles:

When such problems are reported across the board, what does that say about the US economy?  That's right . . . nothing good at all.

Furthermore, consider the so-called 'Caterpillar indicator'.  As Robert C. Auer put it in a 2010 report:

Like a caterpillar, the economy must crawl before it can fly. And as indicated by Caterpillar the corporation, "you've got to move dirt before you build a building." So says Bob Auer ... who says Wall Street holds the world's largest earth-moving equipment maker in high regard ... Caterpillar is "very much of an early economic indicator."

That being the case, what's that 'early economic indicator' telling us right now?

Oops . . .

Zero Hedge put it very succinctly in a report in May this year.

And even though we have previously reported on the woes ailing the world's largest seller of bulldozers, excavators and wheel loaders, such focus was primarily targeted in the offshore markets, and especially China (the abysmal European market needs no mention). So maybe the time has come to shift attention to the US, where as Caterpillar just reported, not only are all foreign markets still trending at several impacted levels, but where US machine retail sales just saw the biggest tumble in three years, falling 18% Y/Y: the most since early 2010. What is more disturbing is that CAT equipment is used in far-broader economic activities than merely housing, and likely is a far more accurate indicator of true industrial end-demand than any other number cherry-picked by the government.

Whether one can extrapolate general trends in the US economy based on how Caterpiller is doing in its North American market, is an open-ended (rhetorical) question which we leave to readers.

However, maybe a far better question is whether CAT NA sales is the same true proxy for the state of the US economy, as electric consumption - that Achilles heel of Chinese economic data manipulation - is to China.

Compare and contrast the chart above, with the chart below, showing the collapse in Chinese electricity consumption.

If the answer is yes, and if indeed both the US and Chinese economies are now operating at a true level not seen since 2010, then just how bad is the rest of the world, if somehow the US continues to be perceived as the cleanest dirty shirt while the world's fastest marginal growing economy is in fact, crashing to earth?

There's more at the link.

Folks, despite all the warm-and-fuzzy, snug-and-cozy reports you're going to read in the mainstream media over the next couple of months (paid for by the corporate shills that control them), you can take it to the bank that this Christmas season is going to be a lousy one for most retailers and consumers.  I can tell you right now that I simply won't believe any spokesman who claims good sales or great business.  The fundamentals simply aren't there.  Take a look at the parking lots of most shopping malls and big-box stores these days.  With the exception of peak shopping days, they're half as full as they used to be, sometimes even less than that.  There are many weekday mornings when they're almost deserted, even in big cities.  It used to be the case that they had a constant flow of shoppers.  Not any more.  Consumers are simply tapped out.  They no longer have much discretionary spending money to play with.  That's why the quarterly results of most major retailers (some of which are linked above) are so dismal.

I have several sources of information (not just the mainstream media) concerning what big business is stocking, and how much of it they're ordering.  I can tell you their orders for this Christmas season are a lot lower than they were for the past few years.  They know what's coming . . . they just aren't willing to talk about it, for fear that would spook shoppers even more than they're spooked already.

This economy's in a downward spiral.  It's getting steeper, and we're moving faster.  All the political machinations and bureaucratic shenanigans in Washington D.C. aren't doing a thing to change that.  They can't, because none of our politicians or regulators - on either side of the aisle - are paying any attention to the real problems we face.  They're fiddling while Rome burns, or rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic, or whatever other idiom you care to use that describes their blind stupidity.  Meanwhile, we're suffering - and there's more on the way.

Brace yourselves.