Thursday, October 19, 2017

Here's what you owe to make up your state's pension and debt shortfall

CNBC has a very interesting (and, depending on where you live, a potentially devastating) article showing the liability of residents of each state to pay off the current shortfall in that state's unfunded debts, pension shortfalls, and so on.  Here's a helpful chart to show where you stand.

There's much more information at the link.  It's important and highly recommended reading - and remember, the figures above exclude federal government debt and privately held debt, which together amount to far more.  Frankly, if you live in one of the worst-performing states on that list, it may be time to do anything and everything you can to get out of there before things get worse!


Interesting . . . did Trump beat Hillary through better data analysis?

Dave Karpf says that "digital inexperience paid off" for the Trump campaign, in a big way.

The 2016 Trump campaign’s digital director, Brad Parscale, was featured on 60 Minutes last week. Much of the interview focused on the central role of Facebook in Trump’s digital strategy. Parscale shared that he “understood early that Facebook was how Donald Trump was going to win. Twitter is how he talked to the people. Facebook was going to be how he won. …We did [ads] on Twitter, Google search, other platforms. Facebook was the 500-pound gorilla, 80 percent of the budget kind of thing.” He also revealed that the Trump campaign had been closely advised by Facebook staffers who were literally “embedded” within their offices. While this little fact led the news, the truth is that top tech platforms have been offering such services to political campaigns for years. What was news, however, was the revelation that the Clinton campaign had turned Facebook down.

. . .

Back before Trump was being treated as a serious candidate, the 2016 election was supposed to be the one when Republicans finally started to catch up with Democrats in their use of social science experiments in elections. Then Trump happened, and everything got, well, weird. Many Republican digital campaign professionals were active #NeverTrumpers, further isolating the Trump digital team from any established base of digital campaign knowledge.

As a result, the experienced digital politics professionals weren’t in the room for Trump when Facebook arrived with its marketing pitch. The Clinton digital team had seen the experimental results. They had been around for past cycles, and had heard all these bold social media promises before. Facebook was touting its new-and-improved lookalike advertising product and asking for a giant slice of the digital advertising pie. The data from past elections said otherwise. Parscale, meanwhile, effectively responded by saying, “Magic beans?!? Take all of my money!”

Google and Twitter sent embedded staff to the Trump campaign as well. And the Clinton campaign accepted some staff embeds from big tech firms, even if Facebook was not among them. The digital technology firms didn’t just have a seat at the table with Trump’s digital program; they were often the most knowledgeable and experienced voices in the room. That’s generally a terrible way to run a campaign. You’ll get sold a bill of goods more often than not.

Except this time, the beans turned out to actually be magic.

There's more at the link.

That's a fascinating thought.  Were the "experts" on the Clinton campaign so over-exposed to "hype" about technology that they automatically distrusted it, or at least some aspects of it?  And were Trump's "experts" less expert, and therefore less jaded and more willing to listen to technologically savvy advice?  Did that make the difference between victory and defeat?

I'm looking forward to learning more about this as the post-election analysis continues.  It may hold interesting implications for future campaigns.


So tell me . . . why are US taxpayers sending aid to Puerto Rico when it's treated like this?

I wonder which Puerto Rican officials are responsible for this?  (A tip o' the hat to reader Jason L. for sending me the link to the video.)

Probably some of the same officials responsible for this.

FBI agents in Puerto Rico have been receiving calls from "across the island" with residents complaining local officials are "withholding" or "mishandling" critical FEMA supplies -- with one island official even accused of stuffing his own car full of goods meant for the suffering populace.

The accusations come in the aftermath of deadly Hurricane Maria, which devastated the U.S. territory last month.

“The complaints we’re hearing is that mayors of local municipalities, or people associated with their offices, are giving their political supporters special treatment, goods they’re not giving to other people who need them,” FBI Special Agent Carlos Osorio told Fox News.

. . .

Some of the claims have come by phone and others have poured in over social media, but the allegations stretch across the island.

Osorio told of one allegation where a party official is accused of pulling his own car around the back of a government building and driving off after loading it full of FEMA supplies.

“We’re going out and investigating these claims,” Osorio said. “We don’t know yet if they’re accurate or not...but yes we have received many similar allegations from people in many different parts of the island.”

The allegations of misconduct come amid a pitched back-and-forth between island officials and President Trump over the federal response to Maria.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, a frequent Trump foil, reportedly accused Trump on Thursday of “genocide” for not doing more to aid in the relief efforts.

There's more at the link.

Perhaps the best disaster relief for Puerto Rico might be to remove from office every state and local government official, and replace them with qualified, competent, honest people from the mainland - perhaps retired businessmen and administrators, who can teach and/or show them how it's done.  Many of them need the jobs, and Puerto Rico needs better government, making it a win-win situation.  What say you, readers?


Wednesday, October 18, 2017

A lot of exciting medical "discoveries" may be false

Courtesy of a link at Vox's place, I came across this very troubling article.

Researchers warn that large parts of biomedical science could be invalid due to a cascading history of flawed data in a systemic failure going back decades.

A new investigation reveals more than 30,000 published scientific studies could be compromised by their use of misidentified cell lines, owing to so-called immortal cells contaminating other research cultures in the lab.

The problem is as serious as it is simple: researchers studying lung cancer publish a new paper, only it turns out the tissue they were actually using in the lab were liver cells. Or what they thought were human cells were mice cells, or vice versa, or something else entirely.

If you think that sounds bad, you're right, as it means the findings of each piece of affected research may be flawed, and could even be completely unreliable.

. . .

Serge Horbach from Radboud University in the Netherlands ... and fellow researcher Willem Halffman wanted to know how extensive the phenomenon of misidentified cell lines really was, so they searched for evidence of what they call "contaminated" scientific literature.

Using the research database Web of Science, they looked for scientific articles based on any of the known misidentified cell lines as listed by the International Cell Line Authentication Committee's (ICLAC) Register of Misidentified Cell Lines.

There are currently 451 cell lines on this list, and they're not what you think they are – having been contaminated by other kinds of cells at some point in scientific history. Worse still, they've been unwittingly used in published laboratory research going as far back as the 1950s.

"After an extensive literary study, we believe this involves some 33,000 publications," Halffman explains.

"That means there are more than 30,000 scientific articles online that are reporting on the wrong cells."

There's more at the link.

This has enormous implications for medical research.  For example, if the FDA approves a new drug to treat a certain illness, and it turns out that the drug was tested on the wrong cells, its usefulness may be overstated at best - perhaps even overturned entirely.  Furthermore, our understanding of certain diseases, like some types of cancer or tumors, might be completely wrong.  Doctors and scientists may have to revisit some issues from the ground up, repeating all the flawed research using cell lines that are proven to be correct - a massive, perhaps unsupportable expense.

The potential lawsuits stemming from this might be mind-boggling in their complexity.  I suspect medical malpractice lawyers are, right now, setting up urgent conference calls and preparing advertisements.  As far as they're concerned, this might just be bonanza time.


New favorite lower-cost wood grips for handguns

I recently tried a pair of Pachmayr Renegade wood laminate grips on one of my snubnose revolvers.  I liked them so much, I've just ordered another pair, and I daresay I'll be "re-gripping" a number of my revolvers with them.

They look very attractive, and are usually available in plain or checkered form.  Here's a composite image, showing one of each style sized to fit a snubnose revolver.

The smooth finish is very smooth, and seems to be finished in polyurethane.  The combination can be slippery if your hand is wet;  but that's not been a problem for me, since I make sure to use a firm grip.  The smooth finish lets the gun slide easily into a pocket (which is where I usually carry a snubnose revolver).  They don't "grab" the pocket material at all, which is a big help.  The checkered version offers more traction, which will be useful to control more powerful rounds, but still isn't overly "grabby" on pocket material (unlike soft rubber grips).  I think my .357 Magnum snubbies will carry the checkered grips, while my .38 Special snubbies will sport the smooth versions.

The Renegades are a little larger than standard snubby grips, so that the gun fits my hand better (giving a full 3-finger grip) and points very naturally.  I find, as I bring it up into line with my target, the front sight nestles almost instinctively into the dovetail of the rear sight.  That's handy.  However, they're slightly less concealable because of the larger grips;  something to keep in mind, and compensate for if necessary in the way one dresses.  The gun still conceals well in an ankle holster, too.  People with smaller hands may not find the Renegade grips a good fit.

I haven't tried the Renegade grips on larger-frame revolvers yet, but I plan to do so soon.  They're available for several models of semi-auto pistols as well.  Best of all, they're priced very reasonably, much more so than some other "fancy" wood grips.  The rosewood grips look good on either blued or stainless firearms.  There's also a charcoal finish that I find too dark for my taste, but I'm sure there are those who'll prefer it.

No, Pachmayr isn't paying me to advertise their products, and I've received no compensation in cash or in kind for mentioning them.  I simply like to tell my readers when I find a product I really like, that does its job well.  These Renegade grips are worth a closer look, if you're a shooter.


"Why Crypto-Currencies are the Next Dotcom Bubble"

That's the title of a very interesting article by Aaron Clarey, a.k.a. Captain Capitalism.  If you've been wondering about Bitcoin (the original "cryptocurrency"), "Initial Coin Offerings" and the like, he provides a great deal of information of which I hadn't been aware.  In particular, he highlights the risks involved in dealing in such pseudo-commodities.

... unlike say, a bond, a stock, or a rental property, currencies (crypto or not) do not produce income.  They are a tool of economic exchange, a store of value, and naturally forming and evolving economic phenomenon since humans existed.  Silver bars do not poop out little silver coins and gold coins do breed to make little gold coins.  And since all currencies produce nothing, there is no means by which to value them.  The value of currencies are therefore determined by their rarity relative to one another, whether they have intrinsic value (precious metals), utilitarian/commodity value (silver is used in electronics), purchasing power (the Big Mac Index) and the amorphous, whimsical, and impossible-to-measure trust and faith of the entire world's people.

. . .

I'm no economist, but as far as my logic takes me, the world should only need ONE cryptocurrency.  Maybe three or four in order to account for the fact people would want to diversify out of being reliant upon just ONE cryptocurrency.  But when I did the research for my approaching 4 months ago...there were....(drum roll please)

967 cryptocurrencies!

But wait, it gets better!  In those four short months the number of cryptocurrencies has increased by 200!

Do not tell me this isn't Dotcom II all over again.

. . .

Very simply "The We Accept Index" reconnects and measures the only thing that matters with a currency - whether it is accepted as such.  Whether you can use that currency to purchase ACTUAL TANGIBLE PHYSICAL THINGS IN THE REAL WORLD.  Whether other people deem it to have value.  And it is here we find out just how few cryptocurrencies have value.

In all honesty, only two, MAYBE four have value:
    Ethereum, and
    Dogecoin (and this was started on a lark!)

The remaining 99.7% of cryptocurrencies, in literal economic terms, have no value.

There's much more at the link.

This is a very informative and useful guide to the area of cryptocurrencies, and the explosively expanding market for them.  I'm forced to agree with Mr. Clarey;  this looks like yet another bubble, one that may take the fortunes of many investors with it when it (inevitably) implodes.  There is no real, tangible value underlying it at all.


Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Yet more effects of our national debt: increased taxes and a poorer retirement

I've written frequently about debt and its effects on our economy.  John Mauldin draws the inescapable conclusion about federal government debt, and how it may - almost certainly will - impact our retirement.

The projected total US debt will be $30 trillion within 10 years, using the CBO’s own numbers. But the CBO also makes the rosy assumptions that there will be no recessions and that GDP will grow at a 4% nominal rate ... If you asked me to bet the “over/under” on the debt in 2027, I would bet the over at $35 trillion.

. . .

Note: That ... does not take into account the off-budget deficit that still ends up having to be borrowed. Last year the deficit was well over $1 trillion—but we were told it was in the neighborhood of $600 billion.

If any normal company tried to use accounting like the US Congress does, the SEC would rightly declare it fraudulent and shut it down immediately.

. . .

... looking at the demographic reality of longer lifespans and lower birthrates, it’s hard to believe Social Security can survive over the long run in anything like its present form.

But any major change will mean that the government is breaking its promise to workers and retirees.

And now we come to the really uncomfortable part.

Larry Kotlikoff wrote in an article on Forbes that we would need an immediate approximately 50% increase in taxes to fund our future deficits. That’s what we would need to create a true entitlements “lockbox” with the funds actually in it.

But surely everybody knows by now that there is no lockbox with Social Security funds in it. That money was spent on other government programs and debts. And so when the CBO doesn’t count the trust funds as part of the national debt, they are not only being disingenuous, I think they are committing financial fraud.

The money that will actually pay for Social Security and Medicare down the road is going to have to come out of future taxes, just as for any other debt of the US.

So at some point – even though Republicans are jawboning hard about cutting taxes now – we are going to have to raise taxes in order to fund Social Security and Medicare. I personally think it will have to be done with a value-added tax (VAT), because the necessary increase in income taxes would totally destroy the economy and potential growth.

. . .

But the simple fact of the matter is that no Congress is going to fund Social Security and Medicare through tax hikes. Before they ever go there, they will means-test Social Security and increase the retirement age – which they should.

There's more at the link.

So, if you're expecting to rely on Social Security for any part of your retirement income (let alone a significant proportion of it), keep in mind:
  1. SS is very likely to become a means-tested program, meaning that only those who lack other means of financial survival will get it (or part of it).  No matter how much you, personally, have paid in Social security "contributions" (for which read "taxes"), you are no longer guaranteed a return on that money.  It'll depend on your net worth and other financial factors.
  2. Your tax burden is almost certain to increase, whether by direct or indirect means.  Therefore, you may get less than you expected from SS, and you may have to pay out more in taxes - a double financial whammy.

I think the odds of both happening are pretty darn good, as Mr. Mauldin points out.  Mathematics is a hard science, not a feeling or an opinion.  If the money isn't there, it can't be spent;  and if Congress wants to spend it, it has to find more money somewhere.  Either way, we're the victims.


Making Number 2 a little easier when off the beaten track

I was intrigued to find this video review at The Vulgar Curmudgeon's place.

He's also done an earlier review, on the original, smaller toilet paper "tablets".  Those may be found here, if you're interested, while the larger ones may be found here.  There are similar products from other manufacturers, too;  see some of them here.

I'd never heard of these things, but I have several friends and acquaintances who regularly hike in back-country areas, or go on hunting trips where they travel as light as possible.  I asked them whether they'd ever used such products.  Three said they had, and recommended them from personal experience.  They said they weren't as comfortable as toilet paper, but got the job done, and the saving in weight and space in their backpacks were so impressive as to make the choice a no-brainer.

A fourth friend, however, added a cautionary note.  He's from Minnesota, and hunts there in winter;  and he's traveled to Alaska to hunt there, too.  He reminded me that one has to dampen these things to get them to expand, and pointed out that in sub-zero temperatures, applying a damp piece of cellulose fiber to one's nether regions would be both exceedingly uncomfortable, and a potential health hazard if the damp material should freeze to . . . shall we say, delicate portions of one's anatomy.  He reckoned the defrosting process could also be hazardous to one's health, given that the only heat available would be from a fire or camp stove.  "What happens if the darned thing freezes to your tush, then catches fire when you try to warm it up to get it off?" he wondered.  Once he'd pointed that out, I wondered the same thing!

If you've used these or similar products, please let us know how you found them in Comments.  I might have to add some of these to my emergency kit.  At least, living in Texas, the freezing hazard is likely to be minimized!


Monday, October 16, 2017

The Las Vegas shootings: lots of smoke, but where's the real fire?

There are still many unanswered questions about the Las Vegas shootings a fortnight ago.  Law enforcement seems to be changing the timeline and other details to suit their own narrative, and they've done it so often as to call their professionalism and expertise into serious question.

Two articles summarize the current state of play:

Go read them for a very good summary of the issues that remain unsolved (at least, as far as the public is concerned).

I'm particularly concerned that little or no internal security footage from the hotel has been released.  I'm sure such video would be date- and/or time-stamped, and reveal the truth about who responded to the situation, at what time, where and how.  The fact that it has not been released speaks volumes about a potential police cover-up of a flawed, delayed response that may - I emphasize, may - have doomed dozens or scores of people to death or injury.  Unfortunately, in the absence of the release of this sort of information, we can only speculate;  and many are doing precisely that.  Law enforcement agencies are doing themselves no favors at all by their reluctance to provide details.

I'll let Karl Denninger sum it up.

As for the LVMPD quit covering **** up, especially whatever you know about that "guard's" legal status vis-a-vis being in the United States and why he doesn't show up on the Nevada License site as holding the license he would almost-certainly need to be a security guard.

Oh, and quit playing with the timeline too.

Finally, you and the Fibbies obviously can't find your ass with both hands.  How else does a (dead) suspect's house, which you breached violently and then searched, get broken into by burglars while you have it under surveillance?  Either cops broke into it (with your explicit permission so they could literally loot it) or you lack the basic ability to do your damn job and your entire department needs to be defunded since you are all a sufficiently-bad waste of oxygen that you deserve to get lost in the desert and expire. The rank incompetence during and immediately following the event is bad enough but this tops the list when it comes to getting paid to do literally nothing and nobody in your state should sit for one second more of that crap.

I'm not buying what you're selling -- I don't know why or what you're covering up but that you are is evident from the ever-changing timeline and your failure to address the inconsistencies, including said "Security Guard" who is a ghost according to the requirements of Nevada law to hold that position.  You knew damn well what was going on there within hours of the event and have intentionally blackballed all discussion of same.

There's more at the link.

Frankly, I think Mr. Denninger is right in almost every respect.  Why is the LVMPD still evading the issues in this case, two weeks after the fact?  This stinks of a cover-up at every level.


True dat

Courtesy of Donald Sensing:



Is becoming complacent, and resting on its laurels?

I was intrigued to read this article by Karl Denninger.

Walmart has said they expect a 40% e-commerce increase (in dollar terms) over the next 12 months.

Here's my view on them vis-a-vis Out-Amazoning Amazon: Amazon is in trouble.  Serious trouble.

WalMart has done a lot with their online presence of late.  Further, and far more importantly, they do not charge a "subscription fee" for some "premium" tier such as Amazon does with Prime.

Why is this important?  Several reasons:

  • Walmart now handily beats Amazon for a lot of products when it comes to price.  In fact if you don't check Walmart's online listing before ordering from Amazon you are a fool and almost-certain to overpay.  It's that blatant now, and has been getting more-so over the last few months.
  • You need buy no special plan to get free delivery.  You can, as with Amazon, get free delivery to your house if you have a modest amount spent in one transaction.  However, you can also get free delivery to any of WalMart's stores irrespective of the amount of the transaction and typically the product is there in 2-3 days -- in other words, just as fast as PRIME.  WalMart will hold it at their customer service desk for about a week and you can come get it at your leisure.
. . .

Next up Walmart has announced that they intend to make returns of their internet purchases zero hassle (requiring just seconds) at any of their stores.  That's a huge win over returning something via Amazon where you typically have to go to a UPS retail outlet or similar to drop it off and deal with printing their return label.  In this case just take it with you the next time you go to Walmart, check it back in at the store and it's done.

There's more at the link.

On Sunday morning, I was researching the purchase of some home gym equipment to supplement the strength training that Miss D. and I are currently doing.  After reading Mr. Denninger's article, I decided to do a direct, like-for-like price comparison between Walmart and Amazon (same equipment, same manufacturer, same model, just a different vendor).  To my astonishment, Walmart had the cheapest price every time - and it wasn't a small difference, either.  Across six different products that I wanted, Amazon and/or its third-party vendors averaged 258% - i.e. two and a half times - more than the prices at Walmart.  That's astonishing!  Admittedly, this was for relatively expensive specialty items, not "normal" shopping like groceries or clothing;  but even so, that sort of difference in price is mind-boggling.  What's more, Walmart offered the same free shipping I'd receive from Amazon.  In addition, it was far cheaper than every other online retailer I could find selling the same make and model of equipment - many of whom would have charged shipping and handling fees on top of their retail prices.

Needless to say, I dug out my credit card and ordered what I needed from Walmart without further delay, for about $450 less than Amazon would have charged me for the same goods.  I'll be able to pick up my order at my local Walmart on Thursday.  It's nice to know it'll be held securely for me;  I don't have to worry about someone stealing it from my front porch (which has happened in the past, in other towns).  That's a definite plus.

After that experiment, you can bet I'm going to be much more diligent about price comparisons between online vendors in future.  Amazon has done a wonderful job of making online transactions as easy and painless as possible.  Where the difference in price is very small, I'll probably opt for the convenience of using their tried and trusted services, rather than open accounts at more vendors.  However, when buying more expensive items, the kind of savings I've just enjoyed have been a real eye-opener.  I suspect Amazon has been "coasting", resting on their (well-earned) laurels for customer service, trusting that clients will value that so highly that they won't bother to check prices elsewhere.  For me, that's just come to a grinding halt!  I only have so many dollars to spend.  If I can stretch them further by taking a bit more time and trouble, so much the better.  I'll use Amazon to check user reviews of products I'm considering (it's still by far the best online resource for that), but I'll check prices elsewhere, too, and "follow the money" in terms of savings.

Kudos to Walmart for putting so much effort into improving its online ordering process, which is noticeably easier to use than it was in the past.  They've definitely upped their game.  If their handling of my order is equally good, they're going to become an e-commerce force to be reckoned with.  I think Amazon is going to have to work very hard to maintain its current leadership position.

(For another perspective on the e-commerce rivalry between the two behemoths, see "The Amazon-Walmart Showdown That Explains the Modern Economy".  It's a good article, and worth reading.)


Sunday, October 15, 2017

Sunday Morning Music

It's Sunday morning, but by some minor miracle my back let me sleep later than usual (I normally wake up in the small hours of the morning).  I'm not fully awake yet;  so what better time to give you a song or two about waking up?

Let's start with possibly the most famous Goon Show dialog of all time.  Eccles and Bluebottle are in "the ground floor attic of a nearby clock repairers", and have this conversation.

When you've stopped laughing, here's an Irish song about waking up.

I reckon that'll do it for this morning!