Thursday, July 30, 2015

Doofus Of The Day #848

Courtesy of Wirecutter:

Miss D.'s going to laugh when she sees that.  She tells me that in Alaska, which she still regards as 'home', it gets too cold in winter for the roads to be salted to melt ice and snow.  Instead, the Anchorage municipality scrapes away what snow it can, then layers fine gravel and dirt on the ice.  By spring the city has up to a foot or more of an ice/gravel/mud mix on the roads, and as the ice melts the muck gets all over everything.  (I remember noticing that while I was flying up to Anchorage to court her.  I couldn't figure out, until she told me, why there was so much crud on the roads, and why most vehicles had a mud-brown tide mark halfway up their doors!)

Anyway, what that means in winter is that the roads are permanently hazardous (most drivers up there use studded tires, or something like Blizzaks or the equivalent).  She says with a grin that when some idiot comes flying past you in Anchorage in mid-winter, you simply sit back and smile, knowing that within a mile or two you'll pass him upside-down in a ditch, or spun out in the central median, or having met some other unkind fate thanks to his careless driving.  I noticed, too, that there are a lot of tow trucks making a circuit of the city on all the major roads.  Miss D. informed me that as soon as they see someone in a ditch, they stop and offer a quick tow back onto the road for a flat fee in cash (it was $60 when I visited).  If the driver has any sense, he'll hand it over and be on his way again in five minutes.  If he doesn't, he can wait for his insurance to send a driver, and pay a lot more than $60 (as well as have his premiums increase).  Needless to say, the tow trucks do a roaring trade during winter.  (Apparently in summer their drivers mostly switch to lawn care and garden services for three or four months, until the snow and ice return.  A man does what he can to make a living in the frozen North.)

I think the doofus depicted in the pictures above would probably make a lot of Anchorage drivers smile, and a lot of Anchorage tow truck operators very wealthy!


I'd have preferred him to aim more steadily, but . . .

. . . he still took care of business - his and theirs!

I wish more store owners were as resolute.  It'd cut way down on crimes like that.  Congratulations, Sir.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Why rising interest rates may destroy the US national budget

We've spoken many times before about the parlous state of the US government in financial terms.  Most of its programs are funded by deficit spending, borrowing money today to pay for current needs and promising to repay it out of future earnings.  Trouble is, as we've seen, future repayments never happen:  instead, the debt gets bigger, and bigger, and bigger, until . . .

The inimitable Karl Denninger has summed up the effects of such debt levels - and the impossibility of repaying them - in an article today.

You borrow $1,000,000 @ 5% interest on a one-year bond.  You must pay, at the end of one year, $1,050,000.

But you don't pay it off, you just pay the $50,000 interest.  In the meantime, over the next year, the interest rate goes down to 2.5%.

When you roll over the debt you find that your interest on the new bond is now $25,000.  Or, you can borrow another million and pay the same $50,000! 

Guess what you do?

You borrow another million, of course.

Then another year passes.  The rate is now 1.25%.  You can now borrow $4 million for the same $50,000 in interest and not pay any of it off.  Remember, you started with one million but now, you have $4 million to spend!  Huzzah!

There's a wee problem with this -- zero is a lower boundary, and a hard limit.  Therefore, your continued borrowing of more and more money, which allows you to appear to be doing quite well when in fact you are not, must end.  Even if rates don't go up and simply stay pinned near zero, you can't access any more borrowed money because doing so requires that lower and lower rates come every time you renew the bond, and mathematically that must (and now has) come to a stop.

This is why the so-called "economic prosperity" (which was fake, by the way) over the last 30 years happened.  It is particularly where the so-called "recovery" since 2008 happened, all of which was driven by an explosion of non-economic borrowing made possibly by continual rate reductions.

This has now ended and it's why "growth" has disappeared.

But -- if rates rise to, say, that former 5%, you suddenly don't owe $50,000 in interest any more.

You now owe $200,000 each and every year on a permanent basis, or one fifth of the original million you borrowed!

Worse, there is only one way to make that number smaller: You must pay back some or all of the $4 million you have out -- but you spent it!

This is the trap that The Fed, the Government and corporations now find themselves in -- a trap of their own design.

There's more at the link.  Indispensable reading, and 100% accurate.

This is why the enormous debt loads being carried by our Federal, state and local governments, and by so many of our corporations, are like millstones around our collective necks.  They're dragging us all down, as individuals, as a society, as a nation.  Sooner or later we have to deal with them.  It won't be possible to pay them off unless we deliberately 'print' so much new currency that it devalues the US dollar to an unprecedented extent, and causes rampant inflation.  The other option is to default on our debts . . . which will destroy the 'good faith and credit' of the United States.

We're in a cleft stick.  We're caught in a trap of our own devising - and because we elected politicians who pandered to their electorate, and spent all this money, and incurred all this debt, to feather their own nests and ensure their re-election, and because we failed to stop them, we're all going to suffer together.

Look at the size of Federal government debt in the graphic above.  That doesn't tell the whole story.  It doesn't account for future promises - Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other programs - that have been promised to us, but for which there's no money in the bank.  (The so-called 'Social Security trust fund' exists in theory but not in practice.  Anyone who tells you otherwise is deliberately lying to you.)  The Federal government's total liabilities, including those future promises, were estimated to total almost $87 trillion in 2012, and (thanks to Obamacare) have been estimated at well over $120 trillion today.  Alan Greenspan noted today that this enormous increase in entitlement spending is 'extremely dangerous'.  State and local governments and US corporations owe an incalculable amount more.  I've seen estimates ranging anywhere from $25 trillion to four or five times that.  Who knows the real numbers?  I've no idea.

How can we possibly fund such outlays?  Where can we find the money?  The answer is simple.  We can't.  There isn't enough money in the world to fund them.  That's the cold, hard fact.  If you were relying on Social Security and Medicare for your retirement, the odds are pretty good that they won't be there for you:  or, if they are, they'll be paid in deliberately inflated dollars that won't be worth anything like what you expect (which is already happening;  see Sprott Money's analysis in this article - scroll down to read it).

Hang on to your hats, folks.  It's going to be a bumpy ride . . . and it's not going to be fun.


The Lost Cause (puppy version)

The cat is amazingly patient with him, but this ten-week-old puppy ain't gettin' his bed back . . .


I need advice from travel trailer/5th wheel owners, please

Miss D. and I are considering longer-term options, including possible relocation and lengthy writing-related journeys.  As part of the process, I'm looking into travel trailers and 5th-wheel trailers.  However, both of us are complete novices in this field, so we've got a lot of research to do.  That's OK, because we're not looking to buy anything right away.  This will work out over a couple of years, I'm sure.

Unfortunately, the Internet is full of 'sponsored' information sites that are nothing more than an attempt to entice one to buy from a particular dealer or manufacturer.  Some sites even contradict each other.  It's hard to separate the wheat from the chaff.  We also want to find out which dealers are reputable and worth doing business with - again, there's an awful lot of them out there, and we've heard enough horror stories to last us a lifetime!

I'd be very grateful if those of my readers who own (or have used) travel trailers and 5th wheel trailers would please contribute advice in these areas:

  1. The best Web sites to turn to for accurate, reliable information;
  2. The best dealers (i.e. reliable, honest, worth doing business with), particularly if they operate over the Internet;
  3. User guides, forums, etc;
  4. Is it worth buying something used, or is it better to bite the price bullet and pay for a new unit?

My assessment so far (based on admittedly incomplete information) is that it's better to look for a smaller, lighter travel trailer (but not too small), so as not to need a huge towing vehicle.  A 5th wheel trailer would offer the ability to carry a significant amount of weight if we make a permanent move somewhere (in effect, it becomes a cargo trailer), but a regular travel trailer isn't quite so flexible.  I'm thinking something in the mid-20-foot range, pulled by a truck of decent but not excessive size and power, is what we want.  It will have to be 'winterized', because we'll probably drive it up north (including a trip to Alaska) in due course;  so we want a trailer that's well insulated, probably with double glass windows.  Good suspension and decent ground clearance are probably must-haves as well, given conditions on the Alcan Highway and Alaskan roads!

I don't know enough right now to ask more questions, but I'm sure some of my readers can set us straight anyway.  Please leave your advice in Comments, or e-mail me (my address is in my blog profile).

Thanks in advance.


EDITED TO ADD:  Thank you very much to everyone who's responded in Comments here or via e-mail.  You've given me a lot of food for thought.  Miss D. and I will work through it all over the next few months - we're in no hurry, as I said earlier. You've given us a very good start.

Cherry-picking anti-gun material

The latest approach of the anti-Second-Amendment and anti-gun brigade seems to be to point out how difficult it is to use a handgun appropriately and effectively.  The Washington Post reports:

The study was commissioned by the National Gun Victims Action Council, an advocacy group devoted to enacting "sensible gun laws" that "find common ground between legal gun owners and non-gun owners that minimizes gun violence in our culture." The study found that proper training and education are key to successfully using a firearm in self-defense: "carrying a gun in public does not provide self-defense unless the carrier is properly trained and maintains their skill level," the authors wrote in a statement.

They recruited 77 volunteers with varying levels of firearm experience and training, and had each of them participate in simulations of three different scenarios using the firearms training simulator at the Prince George's County Police Department in Maryland. The first scenario involved a carjacking, the second an armed robbery in a convenience store, and the third a case of suspected larceny.

They found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, people without firearms training performed poorly in the scenarios. They didn't take cover. They didn't attempt to issue commands to their assailants. Their trigger fingers were either too itchy -- they shot innocent bystanders or unarmed people, or not itchy enough -- they didn't shoot armed assailants until they were already being shot at.

There's more at the link.

It's nonsense, of course.  First the WaPo trots out the same old lying 'statistics' about 'more guns lead to more gun homicides -- not less' and 'guns are rarely used in self-defense' (all of which have been resoundingly debunked, but anti-gunners will never admit that).  Then they try to tack on claims like those above - ignoring the reality that the mere display of a weapon by the intended victim is often enough to drive away a criminal predator without a shot being fired.  What's more, there's abundant evidence from news reports and police files to prove that ordinary citizens successfully defend themselves, their loved ones and their property thousands of times every year using firearms.  The study cited above completely ignores such evidence.

Of course, I'm not opposed to everyone getting firearms training - in fact, I think it's an excellent idea.  I've been through half a dozen week-long shooting courses since coming to the USA, and learned a great deal from them (over and above what I learned during my military training and experience, and later civilian firearms training, in South Africa).  However, many people don't have the time or the money to participate in such training.  Are the authors of this latest study suggesting they should be disarmed because of that?  Why should they be penalized for something beyond their control?  The Second Amendment never speaks of qualifications at all - only a right that 'shall not be infringed'.  Any attempt to tie that right to training would, IMHO, represent an infringement.

The situation is actually very simple.  Some people believe that the thing is the problem.  They ascribe morals, motives and opportunity to an inanimate object.  It's 'the gun' that's the problem, rather than the person wielding it.  That's a lie, of course.  Consider:

  • If a drunk driver runs over a pedestrian, we don't charge his vehicle with a crime - we charge him.
  • If a contractor erects a shoddy building, and the facade later falls off and kills or injures someone passing below, we don't charge the fallen rubble with a crime - we charge the person or persons who caused the problem.
  • If a murderer shoots someone, we don't charge his gun with a crime - we charge him.

To say that 'guns are the problem' ignores that reality.  A hammer can be a useful tool to drive a nail, or it can cave in someone's skull.  It has no moral volition of its own;  it can't choose how and when and where and for what purpose it's going to be used.  A gun is precisely the same.  It can be used to shoot targets, or be carried on the hip of a police officer to keep the peace and enforce the law, or be used to commit robbery or murder.  The gun itself is not the problem - and if it wasn't available, the criminal class would find other tools to use in their crimes (just as they did for millennia before the gun was invented).  To outlaw guns, or restrict their availability, won't outlaw or restrict crime at all.

All too often, 'sensible gun laws' morph into 'any excuse we can find to disarm law-abiding citizens'.  That's not about to happen where most of us are concerned.


Tuesday, July 28, 2015

An amazing set of crime statistics

Courtesy of a link at Second City Cop, we find a study of how much Chicago spent on incarcerating criminals from each block of that city in recent years.  It's mind-boggling.

In just five years, the State of Illinois dedicated more than $2.4 million to the 4800 block of West Adams Street in Austin.

But don't look for new developments or freshly paved roads on that stretch of street, because that's not where the money went. No, $2.4 million is the amount of money the state spent on incarcerating people for drug offenses from that block alone.

. . .

The 4800 block of West Adams and 4,636 other blocks in the city were the focus of Chicago's Million Dollar Blocks, a new data project published Monday. A collaboration between social justice advocates and tech company DataMade, the site features an interactive block-by-block breakdown of how much money the city spent on jailing criminals from 2005 to 2009.

. . .

"All we hear about is how the state is in billions of dollars in debt, and meanwhile we have more than a billion dollars every year pumped into a corrections system that's had a track record of failure," said Cooper, the co-director of Adler University's Institute on Social Exclusion. "We're always hearing about money being spent on development, and here you have this shadow budget pumping tons of money into taking people out of neighborhoods, instead of bringing them in."

There's more at the link.

The project's home page offers an amazing perspective on crime in the Windy City.  You can run your cursor over an interactive map of the worst-affected areas.  Each block will show you, in a window at the foot of the screen, how much was spent there on drug-related incarceration over a five-year period.  One block I picked at random showed a cost of no less than $5,138,247 - more than a million dollars per year in incarceration costs for a single city block.  (In the screen capture image below I've added the circle and line joining the block to the cost figure, for ease of reference.)

The numbers show two factors very clearly:
  1. How much it costs Chicago to endure certain neighborhoods in its midst;
  2. How much it costs Chicago to not clean up those neighborhoods.  I can't believe that cleaning them up would be any more expensive than policing them, and if they could keep them cleaned up, it would save a bundle in the future.

It's also sobering to think that those figures are for the high-crime area of only one city.  I'd love to see the numbers for each of the 100 largest US cities, and tally them up.  I think taxpayers across the nation might revolt if they could see the costs involved!


Quote of the day

Courtesy of The Lonely Libertarian, part of the ongoing to-and-fro between herself and Wirecutter (which has amused many of their mutual readers).



Throw rug thief

This made me smile.

Sorry about the lack of 'in-depth' content today - my pain levels are a bit too high for comfort.  More later.


China's economy: the gyre widens

I'm sure many readers are familiar with W. B. Yeats' (in)famous poem, 'The Second Coming'.  Written in the chaos and uncertainty following the First World War, it expresses the anguish of many and their loss of belief in old ways and older promises.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world ...

That's how things seem to me in the world today, in many senses.  One of them is economic - and China's stock market, which we've visited several times this month, is showing unmistakeable symptoms of 'falling apart' because the (State-mandated and -imposed) 'center cannot hold'.  Yesterday stocks there suffered their worst one-day loss since 2007, and some analysts are predicting further losses.  This morning has seen more wild price fluctuations.  As the Telegraph noted:

The violence of the moves unnerved investors worldwide, stirring fears that the Communist Party may be losing control after stoking a series of epic bubbles in property, corporate investment and equities to keep up the blistering pace of economic growth.

. . .

Mark Williams, chief Asia strategist at Capital Economics, said the Chinese authorities appear to have been testing the waters to see what would happen if they stopped intervening. The market verdict was swift and brutal.

“They have got themselves into a very difficult situation. They have put a lot of credibility on the line to shore up prices and this credibility has been badly damaged,” he said.

. . .

The Chinese media reported on Monday night that the state regulator is ready to intervene with yet more stock purchases. It has already bought an estimated $250bn of equities and has borrowing lines for a further $450bn if necessary.

Western banks say they are coming under heavy pressure from Chinese officials to refrain from negative comments. They are effectively gagged if they wish to do business in China.

“Large parts of the market are closed, and those stocks that are still trading are selling off regardless of support measures. Clearly something very serious is happening,” said one economist.

The long-standing assumption that the Chinese authorities know what they are doing has been shattered.

The government’s heavy-handed measures include a ban on short sales and on new share issues, as well as pressure on the 300 largest companies to buy back their own stock, and forced purchases of stocks by brokerage houses.

Many investors are effectively trapped with margin debt used to buy the stocks. These liabilities cannot be covered without selling the stocks. The longer the market remains partially frozen, the more likely it will lead to extreme stress.

David Cui, from Bank of America, said $1.2 trillion of stock holdings are being carried on margin debt. This is 34pc of the free float of the Shanghai and Shenzhen stock markets. “When the market ultimately settles at a level that can be sustained on fundamental reasons, we expect that the financial system may wobble, due to high contagion risk,” he said.

“Most leveraged positions may suffer from losses ultimately, likely in trillions (of yuan). The risk is that the unwinding of the leverage will be disorderly: due to implicit guarantees behind most shadow banking products, investors could easily panic,” he said.

Mr Cui said the brokers and trusts have barely 1.6 trillion yuan ($260bn) to absorb losses and may be overrun. “Given the particularly thin front line of the financial institutions, we suspect that it’s a matter of time before banks may have to face the music,” he said.

This in turn risks setting off a “bank run” on the shadow banking system as investors lose trust in wealth management funds, fearing that their deposits in the $2.1 trillion industry no longer have an implicit guarantee.

There's more at the link.

China's economic woes are spreading around the globe, causing ripple effects that threaten major calamity to smaller markets.  From the same Telegraph report:

Brazil, Russia, South Africa and a string of commodity states face a double-barrelled stress test. The Chinese are freezing imports just as the US Federal Reserve drains worldwide dollar liquidity and prepares to raise rates, calling time on emerging markets that have together borrowed $4.5 trillion in US currency.

The Brazilian real fell to a 12-year low of 3.38 against the dollar on Monday. The South Africa rand hit a record low of 12.69. The Russian rouble flirted with the danger line of 60. It was the same story across much of the emerging market nexus.

“One by one the dominoes are starting to fall,” said Societe Generale.

The trouble is, no-one seems to know why the market crashed so abruptly.  Bloomberg reports that confusion reigns.

It’s days like Monday that reassure Tony Hann he was right to avoid stocks in mainland China.

The severity of an 8.5 percent drop in the Shanghai Composite Index is bad enough, but what irks him the most is not knowing why it tumbled so much. In a market where unprecedented intervention has made government money one of the biggest drivers of share prices, authorities aren’t transparent enough for investors to make informed decisions, said Hann, the head of emerging markets at Blackfriars Asset Management Ltd.

Monday’s plunge was all the more surprising because it followed a government rescue package that had helped drive a 16 percent rally since July 8. That support appeared to vanish without warning, leaving analysts guessing whether authorities shifted their policy stance or just got overwhelmed by a flood of sell orders. After the close of trading, the securities regulator denied speculation that the government has exited the stock market.

Investors “are concerned and lost,” said Alex Wong, a Hong Kong-based asset-management director at Ample Capital Ltd., which oversees about $155 million. “China’s market is distorted, so you can’t sell short very confidently and you can’t buy up very confidently either.”

. . .

The International Monetary Fund has urged China to eventually unwind its support measures, saying share prices should be allowed to settle through market forces, according to a person familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified because the talks are private.

“The markets in China now are not really markets,” Donald Straszheim, head of China research at New York-based Evercore ISI, said on Bloomberg Television last week. “They are government operations.”

Again, more at the link.

This is what happens when governments delude themselves that they can dictate to markets.  Markets are affected by all sorts of factors, sentiment and delusion being high among them;  but at bottom, they're subject to mathematical reality.  As economist Herbert Stein famously put it, "If something cannot go on forever, it will stop."  His eponymous law applies in China just as much as it applies in the USA.  The Chinese government can demand, dictate and decree until it's blue in the face, but sooner or later economic reality is going to override the delusions of bureaucrats and politicians - just as it appears to be doing right now.

King Canute has gone down in history for demonstrating the folly of imperiousness.  One wonders whether it's time for the Chinese government to decree that his example should be studied by its bureaucrats and commissars.  The lesson might be unpalatable, but the insights it provides might be very helpful at a time like this.


Monday, July 27, 2015

Some interesting cutaways

Miss K. recently put up a series of pictures of objects that have been cut away to show their interiors.  Some are a real struggle to identify.  This one in particular caught my eye - a Leica camera lens with its insides exposed.

There are many more images at the link.  Interesting viewing.



Remember that post I did last week about pain?

Yeah.  That one.

I finally got to see a urologist this morning, three and a half weeks after the problem began, and after two visits to my own physician plus a CAT scan and an ultrasound examination.  Turns out I have a fairly substantial kidney stone, which has been causing all the pain and blood in my urine.  No fun at all.  I'll be going into hospital to have something done about it within the next week or two.

At least the urologist was able to prescribe a fairly strong painkiller.  My regular physician didn't dare do so, thanks to Tennessee's insanely convoluted pain medication laws and regulations.  I've had to make do with only semi-effective medication until this morning.  I filled the new prescription on the way home, and popped the first of them a few minutes ago.  Here's hoping it takes the edge off the pain, which has been distinctly un-funny over the past couple of days.

Anyway, so far, so good.  I've heard it said that "Pain is nature's way of telling you that you're still alive".  In that case, I'm so alive it hurts!

(There's also an alternative saying:  "Pain is nature's way of reminding you that you're only one bear attack away from being the hamburger in the bun of life".  At present, that feels about right . . . )


I'm still not sure how he made that work

This is definitely one of the hairier cross-wind landings I've seen lately.  It's a KLM Boeing 777 at Schipol Airport in Holland.

I'd say that was just a mite twitchy . . .

Of course, one of the things that makes such landings possible, rather than disasters in the making, is modern undercarriage technology.  Here's a video of a Boeing 767 making a very hard landing at Birmingham in the UK.  Note how the undercarriage absorbs the impact - it's repeated in slow motion near the end of the video to illustrate the point.

That's some pretty good engineering.


Sunday, July 26, 2015

Rescuing prisoners of war in the Pacific, 1944

A bit of wandering the Web led me to a fascinating series of videos.

I found an article in the Guardian titled "From Burma to Nagasaki: the man who walked through hell".  It's the story of Jan Bras, a Dutchman who was a prisoner of Japan through most of the Second World War.  He traveled on one of the so-called "hell ships", the merchant vessels used to transport prisoners of war in truly hellish conditions.  Many of them were sunk by Allied submarines and aircraft, either because the attackers didn't know that POW's were aboard, or because the ships' cargoes included strategically important material that had to be sunk regardless.

In reading more about the subject, I came across a documentary on YouTube in five parts.  It describes the sinking of the SS Rakuyō Maru, one of the "hell ships", in September 1944 by a wolf pack of US submarines.  A few days later, two of the submarines returned to the area and realized that many of the bodies on the surface (and the few survivors still alive) were Allied POW's.  They mounted a major rescue effort, plucking 159 of the victims from the sea with the aid of two more submarines called in from hundreds of miles away to assist.  The submarines involved were USS Sealion, USS Pampanito (an account of her rescue efforts may be read here - scroll down to find the relevant section), USS Queenfish and USS Barb.

A documentary program was later made about the rescue, titled 'The Crossing'.  It's available on YouTube in five parts.  I was so taken by the story that I thought you might enjoy it too - particularly a much later reunion between two of the survivors and the submariners who rescued them.  Here it is.

An account of the rescue by one of the Australian POW's may be found here, adding more details from the victims' perspective.

To call that a "remarkable experience" is to grossly underestimate the tragedy - but at least some were saved.  May those who died rest in peace.


Doofus Of The Day #847

A few weeks ago I posted a video clip of a driver who didn't notice a drawbridge opening ahead of him.  Fortunately for him, he managed to jump the gap and suffered only minor injuries (mostly to his pride, I should think).

A Dutch man wasn't so lucky earlier this week.

He apparently got out alive, but with a few broken ribs.  I bet that'll make him more careful next time!


A pictorial definition of the word 'Kitten'

This picture defines the entire species pretty well, I'd say!

(Picture courtesy of Reddit.)


Surfing - while on fire???

I thought I'd seen it all, but Jamie O'Brien just proved me wrong.

Details at the link.