Wednesday, April 30, 2014

What's a few billion between friends?

I was taken aback to learn that Bank of America has admitted to a $4 billion mistake in its accounting over the past several years.

Bank of America disclosed on Monday that it had made a significant error in the way it calculates a crucial measure of its financial health, suffering another blow to its effort to shake its troubled history.

The mistake, which had gone undetected for several years, led the bank to report recently that it had $4 billion more capital than it actually had. After Bank of America reported its error to the Federal Reserve, the regulator required the bank to suspend a share buyback and a planned increase in its quarterly dividend.

While regulators still believe Bank of America has sufficient capital, the disclosure of the accounting error will most likely add fuel to the debate over whether the nation’s largest banks are too big and complicated to manage.

There's more at the link.

So, let me get this straight:

  • BoA employs how many bookkeepers?
  • And how many accountants?
  • And how many internal auditors?
  • And its Board of Directors has a special 'audit committee'?
  • And it hires one of the world's leading accounting firms to audit its books?

And with all that, they made this mistake years ago, and kept on making it?

I don't believe it.  Sorry, but that stretches credulity too far.  I think this was a deliberate misstatement of the bank's accounts, and they finally got caught at it - or realized they couldn't hide it any longer.  Banksters indeed!

(YMMV, of course.)


A botched execution - and a simple solution

I'm sure most of my readers have heard by now of the botched execution of Clayton Lockett in Oklahoma yesterday, so I won't go into the details all over again.  Suffice it to say that the usual suspects are in an uproar about it.

I'm opposed to the death penalty not because I regard it as wrong, but because there's so much evidence to suggest that innocent people have been executed for crimes they haven't committed.  In the absence of a foolproof method to convict and sentence only the genuinely guilty, I'd prefer to take the death penalty off the table altogether.  You can exonerate an innocent man in prison.  It's too late to exonerate a corpse.

In this particular case I think there was more than enough evidence to convict Mr. Lockett of his crimes and justify the sentence carried out yesterday.  I agree that things went very wrong in the process of executing him, and there should be follow-up to ensure that those responsible understand what happened and can make sure it doesn't happen again.  However, I don't have much time for those complaining that Mr. Lockett 'suffered unnecessarily' during the process.  In the first place, as far as we know, he was unconscious.  The physical reactions he exhibited did not in and of themselves signify that he was conscious or feeling any pain.  In the second place, he buried a young woman alive, leaving her to suffocate beneath the earth of her grave.  As far as I'm concerned, that greatly reduces my dismay over his somewhat protracted death.

If Oklahoma - or any other state - wants to simplify the administration of the death penalty and ensure that it's painless, a single shot to the base of the skull from a suitable handgun will do the job at a cost per round of a few cents.  If no volunteers can be found to pull the trigger, one could build the gun into a seat or framework and have it fired automatically by a timer or other means.  That would be a lot simpler and more reliable than the complex rigmarole currently employed - and a lot cheaper, too.


Sarah hits another one out of the park

Novelist, blogger and friend Sarah A. Hoyt has hit another home run in an article this morning.  She examines the strange ideas about femininity and feminism held by many authors, particularly in the science fiction community, and points out several home truths that tend to expose the silliness of their positions.  Here's a brief excerpt.

In these older societies that women, now, imagine were patriarchies (and were, in outward form) women had their power too, and often more power than the men who were nominally ruling. Yes, they stood in danger of the man finding out. See Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Yes, the law often left them unprotected. But women could do things and arrange things and often got to positions of prominence if they wished to. And they were often the holders of the line.

Sexual persuasion? Sometimes. Look, no one said it wasn’t a weapon. Oh, okay, idiots convinced young women it’s empowering to just give it away. Tell me, if this were a plot of men to get ah… laid without any ties, how would it be any different? Right.

But there were others. “Woman” in man’s mind has incredible power. Elizabeth I used the power of the “Seductive but untouchable virgin” to get what she wanted not a few times. In fact, by dint of makeup she kept it up into her old age. Because those archetypes have power over men’s minds.

As does the fact that women nursed them as children and likely women will look after them as old men. I found a thing in a book, can’t remember where “We start out surrounded by women and we end surrounded by women.” If you think that doesn’t have power you don’t understand human psychology.

Trading it all in for being shouty and saying “me and my army?” Ah… that is throwing away the gift and keeping the wrapping.

Even Elizabeth the first didn’t do that. She played the game as well as she could, in her very restricted role, and she shamelessly used her femininity to play both foreign princes and her subjects, which was no small part of her success. (That said, do I admire her? Not really. Like Isabel of Castille, she did some truly horrendous things, and it’s hard to tell how many she HAD to do. Power on that scale deforms the mind.)

There's more at the link - and the comments from her readers are great, too.

(I contributed a comment linking to several articles that contain an exchange of views a few years ago between Labrat, the female half of the Atomic Nerds, and myself on the subject of the male role and identity in relationships.  If you missed them, they were a lot of fun.  See here for all the links in chronological order.)


Doofus Of The Day #768

Today's award is made courtesy of the lovely Phlegm, who put up this video clip on her blog the other day.  It's self-explanatory.  The comments from onlookers are priceless.

Thirteen men versus the machine . . . and the machine nearly won!


Tuesday, April 29, 2014

The birth of the Israeli Air Force

There's a new movie in production that will tell the story of the beginnings of the Israeli Air Force and the role played by foreign volunteer pilots in its formation.

Above and Beyond: The Birth of the Israeli Air Force

In 1948, a group of World War II pilots volunteered to fight for Israel in the War of Independence. As members of “Machal” – volunteers from abroad – this ragtag band of brothers not only turned the tide of the war, preventing the possible annihilation of Israel at the very moment of its birth; they also laid the groundwork for the Israeli Air Force.

Above and Beyond is their story.

The first major feature-length documentary about the foreign airmen in the War of Independence, Above and Beyond brings together new interviews with pilots from the ’48 War, as well as leading scholars and statesmen, including President Shimon Peres, to present an extraordinary, little-known tale with reverberations up to the present day.

Above and Beyond is currently in production.

There's more at the movie's Web site, and in an article written about it for Warbird Digest magazine (the link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format).

Here's a teaser trailer for the movie, almost eight minutes long.  Highly recommended viewing.

If it's well done, this might become a must-see movie.  Our family doctor in South Africa was one of those who volunteered to fight for newly-independent Israel in 1948, so I already feel a connection to it.


A wartime mystery explained at last

Military history buffs will recall that prior to the D-Day landings in 1944, there was consternation in security circles when some of the code-names for major elements of the operation appeared as solutions to crossword puzzle clues in the Daily Telegraph.  The crossword compiler was actually arrested and questioned, but cleared of any wrongdoing.

Many years later, an explanation emerged.  The Telegraph reports:

As part of the commemorations for the 40th anniversary of D-Day, the Telegraph revisited the crossword saga. Bill Deedes, then the paper’s editor, was alarmed by the scandal afresh, and instructed the puzzles editor to check that no codewords relating to the Falklands had appeared in the crossword during the recent conflict. None was found.

A few days later, Ronald French, another Old Strandian who had been encouraged by the renewed interest, wrote to the paper to admit to inserting the clues himself. [Leonard] Dawe [the crosswords' compiler], it emerged, would invite his pupils to fill in his blank crosswords with any words that came to mind. He would later devise clues to match the boys’ solutions.

With the war at its height, the excitable teenagers were obsessed by the vocabulary of the era, which is why other solutions of the time included “warden”, “Poland”, “aircraft” and “disarm”.

Likewise, the codewords were no coincidence. US and Canadian soldiers preparing for D-Day were camped close to the school, and the boys would regularly mix with them.

“The soldiers were obviously lonely,” recalls Bryan Belfont, a year below French. “Many had children of their own, and they more or less adopted us. We’d sit and chat and they’d give us chocolate.”

It was during one of these conversations that French heard the codewords. Security was remarkably lax, and he had struck up close friendships with the soldiers, regularly taking the colonel’s dog for a walk and even, on one occasion, driving a tank.

“Everyone knew the outline invasion plan and they knew the codewords,” he explained. “Omaha and Utah were the beaches, and they knew the names but not the locations. We all knew the operation was called Overlord.”

Perhaps to show off his knowledge, he slipped these words into the crossword. He bitterly regretted it, however, once he learnt of the trouble he had caused.

“Soon after D-Day, Dawe sent for me and asked me where I had got the words from. I told him and he asked to see my notebooks. He was horrified and said that the books must be burnt at once.

“He then gave me a stern lecture about national security and made me swear that I would tell no one about the matter. I have kept to that oath until now.”

There's more at the link.

Fascinating to learn that an episode I'd thought was overhyped and possibly apocryphal was, in fact, absolutely true.


Sounds like a recipe for success to me . . .

I note that many people seem to have developed what some call 'Amazon Derangement Syndrome' - knee-jerk opposition to anything does, says, introduces, etc.  I've run into this in the publishing world, where authors like myself can now bring out our own work and reap the benefits and rewards, bypassing the 'gatekeepers' of publishing houses that haven't been able to keep up with technological and social change.  Needless to say, I'm an unabashed fan of Amazon.

One begins to get an inkling of how successful the company has been at building, not just its customer base, but also its 'fan base' (if I may call it that) from an article at the Huffington Post.

Consumer Intelligence Research Partners (CIRP) released analysis of Amazon Prime members and Kindle device owners from Amazon, Inc. This analysis indicates that these programs have become significant drivers of Amazon sales, even in light of the recent Amazon Prime price increase, and significant competition in the tablet computing market.

42% of buyers [are] Amazon Prime members and 48% have a Kindle Fire, Kindle e-Reader, or both (see charts).

Based on the survey data, we estimate that as of March 31, 2014 Amazon Prime [h]as 27.8 million members in the US, and that 31.3 million Kindle Fire and Kindle e-reader devices are in consumers' hands. Both serve as superb affinity programs for Amazon, as Kindle owners spend 30% more, and Prime members spend twice as much, as the rest of Amazon's customers.

There's more at the link.  Interesting reading, particularly the charts.

This analysis reveals a couple of interesting aspects about customer loyalty.  For a start, Amazon is now charging $99 per year for Prime membership.  If the survey's figures are correct, that means Amazon's generating annual revenue of two and three-quarter billion dollars from its Prime customers even before any of them buy anything!  That's a substantial amount by anyone's standards - yet Prime customers don't mind paying for their membership, and continue to do so in ever-increasing numbers.  (I find the benefit of free two-day shipping justifies my Prime membership many times over, given how much I spend on each year.  The free streaming videos and other benefits aren't of much interest to me, but I know others value them.)

The second is how ubiquitous has become in the consumer marketplace.  I know that when I want to buy almost anything, one of the first things I'll do is check whether it's available on Amazon.  I do my initial research more widely than that, and see where the best deal is to be had.  However, once I'm sure that a given product is on Amazon at a competitive price, and can be delivered to me in two days, why would I want to look anywhere else?  I simply re-order it there as often as I need it.  I don't have to take time out of my busy day to run errands, spend money on gas or parking, cope with traffic, or anything like that.  I know millions of other people do as I do for the same reasons.

It's no wonder that malls are struggling to keep their doors open, and mainstream retailers are battling to cope with competition from online vendors.


The not-so-sweet smell of success?

I was highly amused to come across an advertisement on YouTube for something called Poo-Pourri.  It's a deodorizing spray that one uses in one's toilet before a No. 2, which the manufacturers claim will 'seal' the resultant odor beneath an impermeable layer on top of the water.  I've no idea whether or not it works, but they offer a money-back guarantee, so I daresay it can't be too bad.

Here's the first advertisement that I saw.

Next, one directed at men.

And finally, a blooper and out-take reel.

I'm guessing this might sell well to churches.  After all, they're all about the odor of sanctity, so why not the non-odor of sanitation while they're at it?


Monday, April 28, 2014

More great pictures

The 2014 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest is currently under way.  Entries close on June 30th.  The Atlantic has put up 30 of the best images submitted so far.  Here are a few of them to whet your appetite, greatly reduced in size to fit this blog.

A short-eared owl in a nature reserve in Kuwait

An ice cave in southeast Iceland

Svalbard, Norway

There are more (and much larger) pictures at the link.  Great photographs and interesting viewing.


We have it so easy today . . .

When I look at some of the challenges my father's generation had to overcome - the Great Depression, World War II, and everything that followed - it seems sometimes that we have it awfully easy compared to them.  I was reminded of that by the obituary of the late Colonel Miloslav Bitton.  The Telegraph reports:

Colonel Miloslav Bitton, who has died aged 94, ran escape lines out of Czechoslovakia in the Second World War before serving with the Desert Rats in the Eighth Army and then as an RAF fighter pilot in bombing raids over Germany.

In 1939 Bitton had just begun his second year at the Commercial Academy in Bratislava when the Germans completed their occupation of Czechoslovakia. They were dealing harshly with men in the Army and Air Force, many of whom had gone into hiding. As Bitton spoke Hungarian, he was asked by several bank managers if he would help them organise an escape route, taking small groups by train and on foot to within a quarter of a mile of the Hungarian border.

Sometimes the escapees suffered from exhaustion and frostbitten feet as they made their winter crossing. Bitton’s mother, however, made white capes to hide the men from the border guards.

After security was tightened, escaping Czechs started to be caught and so Bitton had to cross the border with them, help buy them railway tickets and teach them a few words of Hungarian. The penalties for aiding escapees were severe. Slovak nationalists and zealous policemen were the main hazards and Bitton’s clandestine work placed him in increasing danger.

. . .

Bitton was warned that he could be arrested by the police at any moment and so, in February 1940, he crossed the border into Hungary under the cover of a blizzard. He had to bribe a farmer to provide a horse-drawn sledge to take him within walking distance of a railway station. Although his train was searched twice he arrived safely in Budapest. In the city he made his way to a “safe house” only to learn that his contact had been arrested by the secret police and the place was under surveillance.

Bitton set up a new escape route in Budapest. This time onwards to Yugoslavia. He would take between 10 to14 Czechs at a time, pretending that he was in charge of a group of sportsmen. He held their tickets and did all the talking to the conductor on the train to Nagykanizsa, in south-west Hungary. There he handed them over to another guide who arranged for them to be ferried across the River Drava to Yugoslavia.

About 100 Czechs were imprisoned in the Citadel of Budapest and rumours circulated that they would be handed over to the Gestapo. There were plans for a mass breakout in which Bitton’s role was to arrange for lorries and taxis to enable them to get away. The secret police had, however, found one of the safe-houses and roughed up the owner who subsequently betrayed Bitton’s hiding place. He was arrested. On the way to the interrogation centre, he tried to bribe the driver of the police car with his watch, a ploy which failed.

On arrival he was put in an iron cage measuring about 10ft by 12ft – along with 40 or so other detainees. When he was interrogated, he denied any knowledge of Hungarian, claiming that he wanted to get to Yugoslavia and then Paris. He was beaten so severely that he passed out twice.

After being transferred to a civilian jail, in April he was released and expelled to eastern Slovakia. He made his way back to Budapest, however, and used his own escape route to reach the River Drava. He and his companions hid in bushes on the river bank watching the guards’ patrol boat plying up and down, its searchlight sweeping over them. They waited for nightfall and, choosing their moment carefully, piled into their boat and crossed into Yugoslavia by moonlight.

. . .

After his escape to Yugoslavia in 1940, he acted as a liaison officer between the Czechoslovak military mission and the Yugoslav civil and military authorities. His job was to interrogate escapees and furnish them with travel documents for their onward journey.

In June, supplied with documents from the French Consulate, he travelled to Syria and then to a camp near Acre, Palestine. After a move to a transit camp at Gedera, west of Jerusalem, he and his companions were issued with uniforms and arms by the British.

By December, when they were in Jericho, their small force numbered about 400. There were, he wrote afterwards “hot and dusty winds by day, freezing temperatures at night, scorpions and tarantulas everywhere, insects and malaria – we had to cope with everything.”

In May 1941 they were ready for frontline duty and moved, as the Czechoslovak Infantry Battalion, to the Western Desert. Active service took Bitton to Egypt and then to Libya where he took part in the defence of Tobruk.

In 1942, requests came for more airmen to join the existing Czech squadrons in England and in October he boarded a ship bound for England. On New Year’s Day 1943 he joined the RAF Voluntary Reserve. Basic training in England was followed by advanced flying in Canada.

He won his wings in March 1944 and in January 1945 was posted to No 310 Squadron. His first assignment was to help provide fighter cover for 150 Lancaster bombers during a raid on Dortmund. He married, in April 1945, Joan Bitton, whom he met at a dance in Manchester (he took her maiden name in 1953).

A few days before the end of the war, his Spitfire lost power over Sussex and crashed. The aircraft turned over, pinning him to the ground, and caught fire. He was pulled out by farmers in the nick of time. By the time he was classified as fit again that September the war was over.

He rejoined his squadron in Prague and continued his flying career in the Czechoslovak Air Force but after the communists took power, he once again decided to escape. His wife and son were able to leave the country legally but Bitton had to dodge the border guards to cross into the American Zone in Germany.

He and his small group crossed at night but when one of them tripped on the railway line they came under heavy automatic fire. One of them was killed; four others were captured but Bitton reached safety. After a frustrating wait for a visa in a displaced persons’ camp, in June 1948 he was back in England.

There's more at the link.

Just think how many times he escaped enemies and death during those nine years!  The sheer guts, determination and drive he exhibited amazes me.  How many young men in a similar position today would be able to achieve as much?


The ratel escape artist

The BBC has produced a TV documentary about the ratel (the Afrikaans name for Africa's honey badger).  Despite its relatively small size, it's one of the most intelligent and aggressive predators on the African continent, treated with great respect by humans and most other animals.  Here's an excerpt from the program that demonstrates the animal's intelligence, cunning and determination.

I've met up with ratels in the bush on several occasions, and gave them a wide berth. My buddy Lawdog and his brother had an interesting (and hysterical) encounter with one in Nigeria during their youth.  You can read about the carnage in these episodes:

Very funny and highly recommended reading.

The South African Army named its first domestically-designed Infantry Fighting Vehicle the Ratel.  It wasn't a bad name association, as the steel version also did a great deal of damage to its enemies during its career. The basic version, armed with a 20mm. cannon, is shown below.

They're still in service today in several countries.


Sunday, April 27, 2014

Around The Blogs 2014-04-27

I hope you enjoy my weekly 'harvest' of interesting posts from around the blogosphere.  I don't get much feedback from my readers about it, although I get notes from other bloggers now and again thanking me for linking to them.

I'd like to encourage other bloggers to do something like this on a regular basis.  It helps to publicize other good blogs, and increase their readership;  it gives all of us a source of material that we can bookmark every time we come across it, and simply collect the links each week in a post like this;  and I think it gives our readers a wider selection of interesting material.  Everybody wins.  What's not to like?

# # #

I'm going to begin this week by re-linking one of my own articles from last year.  I've had a couple of e-mails from school students who were asked to research various aspects of apartheid in South Africa.  Their Internet searches led them to my blog, amongst other sources, and some of them wrote to me to ask for a more personal 'take' on what life was like under apartheid.

I wrote about this last year, shortly after Nelson Mandela's death.  You can read the whole article here, if you missed it at the time.  I hope it sheds some light on a very dark chapter in human history.

# # #

Dean Carder offers a very interesting primer on sharpening knives and other blades, including illustrations of various sharpening stones and systems.  Very useful to a relative novice in the field such as myself.

This is an appropriate point to mention that Wirecutter links to a detailed history of the pocket-knife, also complete with illustrations.  I enjoyed it - as well as this video to which a commenter linked at Wirecutter's place.

(By the way, that knife is real. You can buy it here, if you've got lots of money lying around doing nothing better . . . )

# # #

For those interested in the history of rail, Chickenmom has an article on railway signals and what they mean.  She links to another article with even more information.  Useful stuff.

# # #

My friend Kathy Jackson has an excellent article on personal boundaries when it comes to self-defense - things that she absolutely WILL NOT do, even if someone tries to force her to do so at gunpoint.  It's not a new article, but it came to my attention this week through correspondence with one of my own students, who mentioned it.  I think she covers the subject very well, and I fully endorse what she says.  Recommended reading.

Also self-defense-related,  the Gun Divas report on various quality control issues affecting a number of firearms and manufacturers.  It's yet more evidence that you can't trust any firearm as a tool for your defense unless and until you've tested it sufficiently to be sure it'll function reliably.  Even the 'biggest' names in the industry have produced lemons from time to time.  I'm often amazed (and horrified) to hear how individuals have bought a gun for self-protection, fired a few rounds through it, then put it away 'until needed'.  Massad Ayoob has long taught the necessity to put at least 200 rounds of one's defensive ammunition through any semi-auto pistol without a single malfunction, using the same magazines on which one will rely to defend oneself, before trusting that gun with one's life.  I've followed his advice religiously, and recommend it to my own students.

# # #

Homestead Survival has linked to all twelve episodes of a very interesting 2005 BBC TV series, 'Tales From The Green Valley'.  It's an in-depth look at life on a farm 400 years ago, including all the arts, crafts and skills needed to survive in a pre-industrial rural environment.  It's fascinating history, as well as very educational for certain aspects of prepping.  Highly recommended.

# # #

Melody Byrne, the feminine half of the Anarchangels, writes about what the serious illness of a spouse can mean for the other partner.  She describes likely reactions, problems and pitfalls, and offers suggestions about how to deal with them.  From my own experience (as the seriously ill partner) I have some knowledge of this:  when Miss D. (then my fiancée) made a rapid flight south from Alaska to nurse me back to health after my heart attack in 2009, she went through some of the same issues.  I highly recommend this article to all couples.

Meanwhile, Melody's husband Chris is dismayed (to say the least) to discover the existence of 'IMITATION fake cheez'.  Sounds like something out of the 'Little Shop of Horrors', if you ask me . . .

# # #

Greylocke brings us more than a little food for thought by demonstrating (through video clips) how easy it is to defeat many common domestic security features.  In a climate of social deterioration, it makes sense to 'harden' one's residence as effectively as possible.  His article will give you some useful starting points.

# # #

Nicki at The Liberty Zone is outraged by the unconscionable conduct of a Department of Veterans Affairs administrator at a hospital in Arizona.  Her policies may have lead to the premature deaths of some veterans whose medical appointments were deliberately delayed or sidetracked.  She hopes murder charges will be considered.  Under the circumstances as reported, I agree with her that they appear to be justified.

# # #

American Mercenary discusses the challenges faced by the US Army's officer corps in adapting from the War On Terror to the demands of a post-WOT world, and the new challenges of a resurgent China and conflicts elsewhere.  He offers an 'inside look' at the process.

Although it isn't a blog post, it's perhaps appropriate to add a link to an article at Bloomberg View titled 'Why Militaries Mess Up So Often'.  The author points out:

In peacetime, it’s easy to observe inputs but impossible to observe the output -- which is to say, how ready your troops are to go out and kick some enemy butt on the battlefield. When you get into a war, this completely reverses. In the chaos of battle, it’s very difficult to know exactly what your people are doing. On the other hand, it’s relatively easy to observe whether they killed the people they were supposed to kill and took the territory they were supposed to take.

That means that the people who advance in a peacetime army are, unfortunately, not necessarily the same people you want around when the shooting breaks out.

I don't agree with all the author's points, but the article makes for interesting reading.

# # #

Karl Denninger waxes vitriolic over ridiculously high vehicle prices.  Here's an excerpt.

What did surprise me, as I recently shopped for a new car (and ultimately bought one as I wrote about here a few weeks ago) was how utterly outrageous vehicle prices had gotten over the last few years in comparison to what you actually got for your money.

Why, one might ask?

That's pretty simple -- the financialization of vehicles has advanced to the point that we no longer do "traditional" car loans from a bank or credit union, or paying cash, as our primary means of purchase. This has taken what should have been a dramatic and continuing technology improvement process that reduces price and led to everyone along the way, from manufacturers to banks to dealers scalping all of the value add from that process for themselves, increasing prices so that all but the last ten cents of that value goes to them and only a tiny bit comes to you.

There's more at the link.  I think it's an important perspective on, not just the auto industry, but the entire economy - as Karl pointed out in another article that we mentioned last week.

# # #

There's the usual ration of humor around the blogs this week.  Here are a few selections.

# # #

Finally, Francis W. Porretto has two thought-provoking articles for us this week.  The first looks at social fascism as the ultimate development of statism.  The second looks at the racial kerfuffle precipitated by rancher Clive Bundy's remarks last week, and points out that everything he said is factually correct, even if not politically correct.  (On that subject, I was fully expecting an attack on Mr. Bundy from the usual suspects, along the lines of "He's raaaaa-cist!"  They've done it so often, to so many people, that it's hardly surprising any more.  Unfortunately, it's also still effective among those who don't bother to think, and investigate the reality of such allegations for themselves.)

# # #

That's all for this week.


Another big load - this one from Australia

A tip o' the hat to Australian reader Sven W., who read my previous post and e-mailed me these photographs of a mammoth mining truck being moved by road in Australia.  I've had to drastically reduce their size to fit here.

Thanks, Sven!  Much obliged to you.  (I was struck by how similar to parts of Africa the terrain is in your part of the world - parts of the southwestern USA, too.)


Big load!

Courtesy of a link at Dark Roasted Blend, this transport of a mammoth mining truck caught my eye. First, a photograph to give some idea of comparative sizes:

Next, a video:

It brought to mind an even bigger load, reportedly the biggest ever moved by road in the USA - 1,157 tons carried by 384 wheels! Here's a video report.

It's amazing to look at the level of detail that had to go into planning that move, plus constructing all the bypasses and reinforcing all the roads too weak to carry the load. I can believe it took two years . . .


Saturday, April 26, 2014

Doofus Of The Day #767

Today's award goes to a hapless wannabe bank robber in Florida.

Felipe Cruz was doubly doomed, FBI agents said, when he tried — but failed — to rob the Chase Bank in Pompano Beach on April 10.

First, agents said, Cruz chose a teller who, protected by bulletproof glass, rebuffed his robbery. Second, as if it wasn't enough to botch the stickup, he left behind a robbery note conveniently containing his name.

. . .

The teller simply backed away from her bulletproof window. Cruz, stymied, fled the bank empty-handed.

But, agents said, he left his stickup note behind. His demands had been penned on the back of an online job application form, complete with the handwritten username of CRUZFELIPE36. It also included a password, Gioielli stated in a federal criminal complaint.

There's more at the link.

How nice of him to have entered all his personal information into an online profile even before committing his crime.  The FBI didn't even have to re-enter it all themselves!


'The Devil comes back to Georgia'

I'm sure most readers are familiar with the hit tune 'The Devil Went Down To Georgia' by the Charlie Daniels Band.  If you don't know it, you can listen to it here.  It's famous in country rock circles.

I wasn't aware until recently that there are many take-offs of that song, including this one, 'The Devil Comes Back To Georgia'.  It features narration by Johnny Cash, the devil's fiddle by Charlie Daniels, and Mark O'Connor playing Johnny's fiddle solo, among other stars taking part.  It's a lot of fun.

I'll try to put up some of the other 'variations on a theme' over the next few days.


Move over, "Far Side" - here comes "Tundra"

I've been cackling with mirth at Chad Carpenter's 'Tundra' comic strip.  Miss D. introduced me to it this morning.  She says Alaskans view it as their answer to Gary Larson's 'The Far Side', and I can see the resemblance.  Here are a few of Chad's cartoons to whet your appetite.

There are many more at the link.  Great fun!


Friday, April 25, 2014

Doofus Of The Day #766

Today's award goes to an unnamed deputy sheriff in Davis County, Utah.

A Federal Audit was recently conducted, as per the terms to The Department of Defense Excess Property Program, and the Davis County Sheriff’s Office was missing an M-16 that they were given in 1998.

. . .

According to KSL, [in 2006] a deputy checked one of the M16s out for training exercises with the county SWAT team ... According to a statement released by the Sheriff’s Office, “During the investigation, partially because there was a lack of paperwork and partially because of human error, the employee never heard about an investigation into a missing M-16 rifle. It wasn’t until he was reading in the newspapers that DCSO had a missing assault rifle that his memory was sparked, he went to his gun safe to check, then made the call to his superior.” The statement continued, “His employment never ceased and the gun was never on the streets being used for criminal purposes. He simply forgot it was there.”

The Sheriff’s office had no idea that this M-16 was missing until the 2013 federal audit.

There's more at the link.

So a deputy sheriff gets to keep a full-auto assault rifle in his safe for eight years, and nothing happens beyond an administrative slap on the wrist.  Guess what would happen to you or I if we were found to have a US Government property full-auto assault rifle in our gun safe?  What was that about "one law for the rich and another for the poor"?


Our Earth Day story revisited

Last Tuesday, Earth Day, I reported about an apparent success story in restoring the salmon fisheries used by a Canadian 'First Peoples' tribe. In a comment to that story, Paul of the blog 'Hawsepiper: The Longest Climb' offered a different and very interesting perspective. He's a qualified marine biologist and ship captain (his current occupation), so he knows whereof he speaks.  I'll reproduce his comment in full here.

Peter - I found this a couple of days late (been at sea), but the science behind this, while not 'settled' is poor. First Nations people aren't going to care about secondary impacts, chances are, but they should.

Allochthanous nutrient import (bringing in energy subsidies from outside the ecosystem) is relatively well-understood, and artificial micronutrient import is not as well understood, but there are some obvious problems. Iron is a limiting factor, especially in pristine waters, for nutrient uptake - to pull out the nitrogen, potassium and phosphorous that's available. The problem is, when you create an algal bloom in an area that doesn't have algal blooms, you have oxygen production during the day (photosynthesis), but that oxygen gets consumed after the sun peaks for the day. End result is that oxygen becomes scarce in the algal bloom where the food is. Water doesn't carry oxygen for crap. 5mg per liter at absolute best. Drop that to 4,3, or 2 or even 0, and you've got a 'dead zone', and that's very easy to do when you dump iron in an environment where algae blooms are not natural. Everything else that isn't a highly-migratory species, such as pacific cod and pollack (the largest fishery in the world currently), won't run out of the oxygen-deficient zone. They're either doomed or going to experience stress and reduced growth rates in that area at best. And in the case of the cod and pollack, unemployment and impotent tears for those who like sashimi and fish sticks. End result is a cascade effect. Consider that marshes, deltas and other fresh-water outlets are already lower-oxygen environments.

One other problem - the volume of salmon runs are super-sensitive to disturbance - it's not unusual for massive swings and population crashes. There wasn't any sort of analysis to show correlation between the iron dump and population increase. It was an example of magical thinking at its best. "It Just Works" is also the mantra for the correlation between female circumcision and female marital fidelity in Muslim lands.

Russ George is a snake oil salesman, and that's another problem. He made a tidy living running around on a grant where he tried to raise support for his corporation's attempt to do the same thing in the Gulf Stream, which was VERY easy to show would create more harm than good for everyone but Russ George. Perhaps I'm biased. I don't like seeing a charlatan and fraud succeed.

I applaud almost any effort to cut unnecessary governmental involvement in self-management, but this is a case where the province was in the right to never consider doing something so dumb. The fact that it didn't cause a fish kill isn't sufficient justification to repeat it.

Thanks, Paul. Definitely food for thought there - and an object lesson that journalists don't always know what they're talking about.  Thanks for giving us a different perspective.

I looked for more information about Russ George, and found these articles helpful:

Read them for yourself, and make up your own mind.


Thursday, April 24, 2014

Another musical blast from my past

I've mentioned South African rock group Rabbitt before.  Today I came across another of their songs that I recall from my younger days, and it made me smile.  It's an odd recording;  the sound begins 26 seconds into the recording, and when it ends at 4m. 32sec. there's another four minutes of utter silence.  I'm not sure what the person who uploaded it was thinking of, but it's the only version of the song on YouTube, so we're stuck with it.  I've tried to code the embedding to avoid those blank bits, but if that doesn't work for you, adjust the slider with your mouse.

Here, from their album 'Boys Will Be Boys' in 1975, is 'Hard Ride'.  Trevor Rabin's father Godfrey (a classical musician) steps up to play the violin.

Ah, memories . . .


The economy: riding for a fall

Here's some worthwhile material on the current state of the US economy and where it might be headed.

1.  The record levels being achieved by the stock market simply aren't justified by the underlying economic numbers.  As Zero Hedge points out concerning one bellwether stock:

Moments ago CAT stock touched 52 week highs, or a level not seen since April 2012. Why? The chart below which shows Caterpillar dealer retail sales by region [over the past five years] surely has something to do with it.

. . . we can only assume the company is well on its way to an epic collapse in its top and bottom lines as well.

And since this is nothing short of the bizarro, insane new normal, it is only a matter of time before the crash in retail sales sends the stock to plus infinity.

I couldn't agree more.  With such pathetic sales results, the stock should be tanking, not rising!  'Bizarro World' indeed . . .

2.  Zero Hedge also charts the sales of new residential units in the USA from 1960 to date, using data from the US Census Bureau.

So much for the alleged current 'housing recovery' . . .

3.  Charles Hugh Smith has two long and thought-provoking essays on what's caused the current mess, and where it might be leading us.

Both are very useful and highly recommended reading.

All the above are food for thought.  I continue to believe we're overdue for a significant economic correction, and the only direction for it to go is downward.  YMMV, of course.


Lots of 'orthodox' SF panties are getting wadded . . .

. . . over the nomination of Larry Correia's novel 'Warbound' and Vox Day's novelette 'Opera Vita Aeterna' for this year's Hugo Awards.  You see, both of those individuals are unabashedly conservative in their views, whereas the Guardians Of Science Fiction Purity And Truth are nowadays largely of the left-wing and politically correct persuasions.  They recently succeeded in banning Vox Day from Science Fiction Writers of America because he refused to 'toe the party line'.  (I'm told his sales promptly doubled, to their incandescent fury.)

The explosion of apoplectic vitriol over these nominations has produced some wonderfully entertaining (as well as thought-provoking) reading.  It may not be of general interest, but to those interested in how political correctness has come to dominate certain areas of society and how those who now consider themselves 'gatekeepers' react when challenged, this whole affair is a Godsend.

Vox Day has commented at some length over the ensuing fuss.  Try these blog posts:

Larry Correia (whom I'm proud and honored to call my friend) has his own response to the controversy, giving a lot of background and setting out his own perspective.

Brad Torgersen (also a Hugo nominee this year) had this to say:

After the 2014 Hugo award nominee short list was released by Loncon 3 (the World Science Fiction Convention, or “Worldcon”) there was a substantial amount of consternation — social media hue and cry, one might call it.

As has often been the case when I observe these kinds of things, I remain puzzled that the group which dubs itself “fandom” (in the parlance of the original Worldcons of yore) and which is always self-analyzing so as to determine how it can bring in more young fans, more diverse fans, and more energetic fans, could react so poorly to Larry Correia bringing Monster Hunter Nation to the Hugo nominations — as if the state of New York were aghast that the state of Texas showed up for a national party caucus during the run-up to a major election.

Isn’t bringing new people into old-school fandom part of the point of Worldcon?

. . .

You can’t have a healthy fandom unless you run a big tent. And by big tent, I mean a fandom that doesn’t impose litmus tests. Fandom (that very-small piece of the consumer pie that keeps Worldcon alive) represents an increasingly monocultural segment of the overall fan market. The so-called TruFans work to marginalize and exclude the NeoFans. “Show us your cred!” the guards cry at the entry points to the science fiction “ghetto” that fandom jealously occupies — though Larry Niven once famously argued it’s not a ghetto, it’s actually a country club. Those with insufficient or bad cred (“You only like movies and games!” or “Your politics make you stinky!” or “Your favorite author is too commercial!”) are discouraged in both obvious and subtle ways. Go back to what Brandon Sanderson said: if you invite people in, it’s rather strange of you to then try to kick them back out simply because they’re not matching your taste and preferences 1-for-1. So while I am somewhat sympathetic to the notion of, “Well we liked science fiction before science fiction was popular,” I also think this is the slogan of a dying culture. And that makes me sad. Because as someone who came of age reading Larry Niven’s wonderful anecdotes about Worldcon, the picture he painted was not that of a dying culture. Worldcon fandom can’t be healthy if it imposes hard filters and actively shews away “interlopers” who haven’t been properly anointed or baptized into the field, per traditions of old.

. . .

Perhaps Larry and Monster Hunter Nation wouldn’t be getting such a ration of grief if the authorial persona known as Vox Day had not had a story on Larry’s slate? But then, Larry didn’t put Vox on the Hugo ballot all by himself. Vox has a blog too. And it gets a ton of traffic. Vox ran his own slate. And the Vox fans came to the Hugos along with Monster Hunter Nation and Wheel of Time fans. Look, for the sake of the Vox Day critics, I get it. Vox (the persona) throws verbal bombs. He is challenging, opinionated, controversial, and makes no apologies. Even to the point of saying things and making statements that occasionally cause me to step back and say, “Whoa, man, that’s probably not called for!” But again, my refrain: why not? If fandom evicted every author or editor who ever shot his or her mouth off about politics or religion or some other thing, we’d be showing many dozens of authors — and more than a few editors — the door.

. . .

If science fiction truly loves the different, the strange, the alien, or the disturbing, as it always claims to love these things . . . well, here’s science fiction’s big chance to put its money where its mouth is: Vox Day, literary rogue. I, for one, look forward to reading his novelette. To paraphrase a Commander Riker line from Star Trek: The Next Generation, nobody ever said this field was safe. In fact, Harlan Ellison once famously branded the genre as the so-called dangerous genre. Is Worldcon fandom ready to get dangerous, or does worldcon fandom want to be safe?

We’ll see.

There's more at the link.

The whole affair is marvelously entertaining to minor authors such as myself and a host of science fiction readers who are thoroughly enjoying the mass slaughter of sacred cows.  I'll be watching further developments with interest.


OK, that's different!

Flying robots playing music?

"In the air on the G string", perhaps?


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

China's navy does "Top Gun"

It looks as if China's Navy has taken a leaf from the US Navy's collaboration with Hollywood in such movies as "Top Gun".  It's released this publicity video of its 'new' carrier Liaoning and its naval fighter pilots.  I found it a bit cheesy (as I did "Top Gun"), but it's not a bad publicity effort.


A Japanese account of the Pearl Harbor attack

I was fascinated to read a translated account by a Japanese torpedo plane pilot of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.  Here's a brief excerpt.

One day, shortly after I was transferred to the Omura Squadron, I was shocked to receive a telegram ordering me to report immediately to the carrier Soryu. This was highly unusual because it was navy policy to always send transfer orders to petty officers by written letter. Something’s up, I said to myself. I was filled with a sense of anticipation and foreboding. This was partly because much as I wanted to go to the Soryu, I still hadn’t yet landed on the deck of a carrier!

Training was soon arranged, and a few days later, there I was, looking down at the deck of a carrier and thinking: We’re going to land on that? It looked way too small. As I descended for my first approach I noticed  that the deck was not only tiny, it was moving up, down and sideways! Okay, calm down, breathe deeply and don’t do anything dumb, I thought. One hundred feet, fifty feet, thirty feet, then ka-chunk as the wheels touched down and the arresting hook jerked me to a stop. It was only then that I noticed that I was completely soaked with sweat.

While I was overjoyed to finally be carrier qualified and assigned to the Soryu, I was also acutely aware that this meant I would probably be going back to war.

With our carrier quals behind us we began special torpedo training in Kagoshima Harbor. Until then our torpedo training had been quite orthodox: maintain an altitude of 150 feet and drop the torpedo at a distance of 1,000 yards. At Kagoshima we were trained to come in at fifteen feet and drop at a distance of only 200 yards.

Although the navy prohibited low level flying, we were now turned loose to take our ships right down on the deck, and we loved it! The hard part wasn’t flying low — that was pure fun — but estimating the distance to target of 200 yards. Day after day we formed up over Mt. Kirishima at 12,000’ in nine-plane formations, then dove down in trail formation straight at the harbor. This put us at about 100’ as we came thundering over Kagoshima Station. What the frightened citizens of Kagoshima made of our antics I can only imagine. A few seconds later we were screaming along at 130 kts., a mere fifteen feet above the water. Because our altimeters were useless at such low level, in our free time we climbed up on something to put our eyes at exactly fifteen feet above ground to get used to the sight picture.

For lack of better targets we took to lining up our runs on the fishing boats in the harbor. Boats with their sails up were often knocked flat by our wind blast. Before long they were all jerking down their sails as soon as they saw us coming.

Training began every morning at 8:00 a.m. We flew two three-hour sessions during the day followed by night training and didn’t get back to our bunks until after midnight. The training was brutal, and the only days off we got were courtesy of bad weather.

It must have been sometime in October, as our training was winding down that a rumor began to circulate: “We’re going to war with America.”

There's much more at the link, with many photographs.

Thanks to the good people at Vintage Wings of Canada for putting this article on their Web site.  When the author's book is fully translated, I think it'll be a must-read for military buffs.


"The science is settled"? Like hell it is!

I've long since become fed up with the intellectual and academic dishonesty of those who claim that climate change is 'settled science' (when in fact it's far from settled), or who proclaim that this or that or the other study proves that this or that or the other dietary component is good or bad for us.  (Funny how those verdicts tend to change so often, isn't it?)

The problem of scientific misconduct is widely known.  What's less widely known is that many so-called 'scientific' journals have a pattern of misconduct as well - brilliantly described by an article in the Ottawa Citizen.

I have just written the world’s worst science research paper: More than incompetent, it’s a mess of plagiarism and meaningless garble.

Now science publishers around the world are clamouring to publish it.

They will distribute it globally and pretend it is real research, for a fee.

It’s untrue? And parts are plagiarized? They’re fine with that.

Welcome to the world of science scams, a fast-growing business that sucks money out of research, undermines genuine scientific knowledge, and provides fake credentials for the desperate.

And even veteran scientists and universities are unaware of how deep the problem runs.

When scientists make discoveries, they publish their results in academic journals. The journals review the discovery with independent experts, and if everything checks out they publish the work. This boosts the reputations, and the job prospects, of the study’s authors.

Many journals now publish only online. And some of these, nicknamed predatory journals, offer fast, cut-rate service to young researchers under pressure to publish who have trouble getting accepted by the big science journals.

In academia, there’s a debate over whether the predators are of a lower-than-desired quality. But the Citizen’s experiment indicates much more: that many are pure con artists on the same level as the Nigerian banker who wants to give you $100 million.

. . .

At the University of Saskatchewan, medical professor Roger Pierson wonders how can scientists trust the journal system to share knowledge.

“Basically you can’t any more,” he said, except for a stable of well-known journals from identifiable professional societies, where members recognize ethical work is in all their best interests.

He had just spent time with the committee that oversees tenure and promotions at his university.

“We had three cases where people had published things in what were obviously predatory journals, and they didn’t think anything was wrong with that.

“The reality though is that these (fake journals) are used for promotion and tenure by people who really shouldn’t be there. The world is changing fast ... It’s a big problem.”

He tracked a paper from one job applicant to the journal website and found the giveaway clue: It takes weeks to publish, the site said, but if authors needs faster service to impress their universities then “it costs another $500 and they’ll publish it in days.

“It’s got absurd. There are hundreds if not thousands” of shady publishers, Pierson said.

“Universities are particularly vulnerable” to being fooled by these fake credentials.

It used to be pretty easy to spot them, said Pierson. “But the predatory journals are becoming a little more sophisticated, (and) new journals in every field are popping up weekly.”

Even Pierson didn’t know the latest trick. Journals are rated on their “impact factor” — how often their articles are used as references in later studies. And the predatory journals are now buying fake impact factors from equally fake rating agencies.

He believes this taints the reliability of what is published everywhere.

There's more at the link.

So, when 99% of published articles on a subject all agree about it . . . and more than half of them are published by these predatory journals . . . how trustworthy is their consensus?  As far as I'm concerned, it's not worth the paper it's printed on or the pixels used to display it.


Non-verbal communication?

Well, non-language, at any rate!


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A sexy TV news broadcast . . .

. . . but not the sort of which you're thinking, I'm sure.


Doofus Of The Day #765

Courtesy of a link from Rev. Paul, today's award goes to the Airport Police in Anchorage, Alaska.

Police at Anchorage’s airport briefly lost track of a small quantity of explosives used for training K-9 units Monday, but were able to recover them hours after a rental-car customer drove away the vehicle they were attached to.

There's more at the link.

And whose bright idea was it to attach the explosives to a car that was in the active rental pool, rather than one they knew would be hanging around for a while?

As a matter of fact, this isn't the first time I've heard of explosives in a rental car.  Back in the 1980's, in South Africa, a family bought a well-used Volkswagen Kombi from a car rental company.  They drove it for several months, and noticed that dirt and dust seemed to collect at several evenly-spaced spots on one of the side panels.  When they took it in for a routine service, they mentioned this to the technician and asked him to find out why those points in particular attracted road dirt.

When he took off the interior panel to check the bodywork, he nearly fainted.  There were four Soviet SPM limpet mines attached to the metal using their magnets - the same type of mine frequently used to target civilians as part of the terrorist campaign in South Africa.  (See here for one such attack.)   He called the police, who brought in the bomb squad to remove them.  They surmised that a terrorist or sympathizer had rented the vehicle and concealed the limpet mines inside the interior panel, but for some reason was unable to deliver them to their destination.  The magnets on the mines had attracted iron particles in the road dust and dirt ever since, causing the patterns noted by the Kombi's new owners.

As the technician observed, it's a good thing they never had a collision with that particular cargo on board!


A happy story for Earth Day

Just in time for Earth Day, and courtesy of a link at Instapundit, we find a heartwarming story of a Native American tribe based in British Columbia who've found a way to restore their vanishing salmon fisheries - and outraged the environmental lobby into the bargain.  National Review reports:

In 2012, the British Columbia–based Native American Haida tribe launched an effort to restore the salmon fishery that has provided much of their livelihood for centuries. Acting collectively, the Haida voted to form the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, financed it with $2.5 million of their own savings, and used it to support the efforts of American scientist-entrepreneur Russ George to demonstrate the feasibility of open-sea mariculture — in this case, the distribution of 120 tons of iron sulfate into the northeast Pacific to stimulate a phytoplankton bloom which in turn would provide ample food for baby salmon.

The verdict is now in on this highly controversial experiment: It worked.

In fact it has been a stunningly over-the-top success. This year, the number of salmon caught in the northeast Pacific more than quadrupled, going from 50 million to 226 million. In the Fraser River, which only once before in history had a salmon run greater than 25 million fish (about 45 million in 2010), the number of salmon increased to 72 million.

. . .

Native Americans bringing back the salmon and preserving their way of life, while combating global warming: One would think that environmentalists would be very pleased.

One would be very wrong. Far from receiving applause for their initiative, the Haida and Mr. George have become the target of rage aimed from every corner of the community seeking to use global warming as a pretext for curtailing human freedom.

. . .

The advent of higher carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere has been a great boon for the terrestrial biosphere, accelerating the rate of growth of both wild and domestic plants and thereby expanding the food base supporting humans and land animals of every type. Ignoring this, the carbophobes point to the ocean instead, saying that increased levels of carbon dioxide not exploited by biology could lead to acidification. By making the currently barren oceans fertile, however, mariculture would transform this putative problem into an extraordinary opportunity.

Which is precisely why those demanding restraints on carbon emissions and restrictions on fisheries hate mariculture. They hate it for the same reason those demanding constraints in the name of allegedly limited energy resources hate nuclear power. They hate it because it solves a problem they need unsolved.

There's much more at the link.  Recommended reading.

Let's see now:

  • Native American?  Check.
  • Restored and revitalized natural process?  Check.
  • Politically incorrect?  Check.
  • Environmentalists outraged?  Check.

What's not to like?


Try playing this game by hand!

It's nice to see companies get creative with their advertising.  Caterpillar has just done that by playing a giant-size game of Jenga using their earth-moving and construction equipment instead of hands.  I recommend watching it in full-screen mode.

And here's how they made it.

Full marks for originality!


Monday, April 21, 2014

A veteran strikes back

There seems to be a trend among certain politicians to decry veterans of military service as 'never having held a job', or something like that.  It happened in Maryland today, and last month an Arkansas politician claimed that his Republican opponent had a 'sense of entitlement' because he was a veteran.

The Republican veteran has struck back with this entertaining video ad, assisted by his former Drill Sergeant.

How to defuse an attack, make the voters smile, and make your opponent look like an idiot, all in one thirty-second advertisement.  I love it!


"Spring Break" = "Debauchery Central"?

As a teen I never took part in anything resembling 'Spring Break' here in the USA.  I've read reports about it since coming to this country, but I'd never paid them much attention.  I was therefore horrified to read this description of it in Taki's Magazine.  I'm not going to reprint any of it here, because it's frankly disgusting;  but the author goes into detail about the sexual debauchery and risks to the health and future of the participants.  Much of it is emphatically NSFW.

I can hardly believe that such goings-on are the norm.  I accept that they may happen in some places, and with some groups, but I simply can't understand how they could be the norm.  If they were, surely such details would have hit the mainstream media long ago?  Surely fathers would have taken up shotguns and handcuffs to confine their kids at home and prevent them from going on Spring Break at all?

I'd be grateful if readers who know more about the subject than I do would please let us know the truth.  Take a look at the article, then let us know whether what it describes is the norm, or the extreme.  Thanks.