Friday, February 12, 2016

I think they liked my 'Mex Mix'

I cooked my 'Mex Mix' for the Phlegmfest bloggers tonight.  One person found it too spicy, but the other dozen-odd liked it well enough that several came back for seconds (and, in one case, thirds).  I guess I can call that a success.

A couple of people have asked what 'Mex Mix' involves.  It's basically a home-brewed commingling of Cajun and Tex-Mex traditions with a heavy dash of South African intuition added.  I begin with the Cajun 'Holy Trinity';  onions, bell peppers and celery, cut small.  (Tonight I used four onions, two bell peppers and two-thirds of a head of celery.)  While I'm cutting them into a mixing bowl, I sautée in lard a pound or two of ground beef (amount dependent on how many I want to feed - tonight I used two pounds), usually seasoning it with salt, pepper and Worcestershire sauce.  When the meat's browned, I add the chopped vegetables and cook them together for ten to fifteen minutes, stirring frequently;  then I add (canned) black beans, whole kernel (not cream style) sweet corn, regular tomatoes and tomatoes with chilis (i.e. Ro-Tel or similar).  For regular-sized meals, one can of each will do;  tonight I used two cans of each, because of the numbers involved.

I heat everything together, then add seasonings (I use a combination of salt, Tone's Six Pepper blend, chili powder [I like Pensey's Chili 9000], Cajun or Creole seasoning [I used Tony Cachere's], and hot sauce [tonight I used Cholula's Chili Garlic version, but I've used other varieties of Cholula as well - I find it the most generally flavorful of the commonly available hot sauces]).  I combine the seasonings to taste;  usually it's pretty spicy, but tonight I toned down the blend to allow for as wide a taste spectrum as possible.  I'm sorry I can't provide exact measurements, but as I said, I make this dish for different numbers of people and judge the quantities by eye with that in mind.  When the mix is seasoned to taste, simmer everything together for half an hour on low heat, then serve on tortillas or burritos with side dishes of shredded Mexican cheese blend, sour cream, guacamole and salsa.

Miss D. and I are back home now, pretty tired after a long day.  We'll head for bed soon.  Tomorrow morning everyone will rendezvous at our local greasy spoon joint for breakfast, then we'll plan the day's activities.  Old NFO is smoking a whole beef brisket for supper, while Gay Cynic plans to inflict on us for lunch his cheesy grits made with hickory smoke flavored Spam.  I'm not a fan of grits in general, but that does sound interesting . . . I'll let you know.


Some very hairy moments

We've seen some difficult and dangerous landings at Madeira's airport in these pages.  Here's a compilation of the most hazardous landings and takeoffs there of 2015.

Good work by the pilots.  I'm glad I wasn't aboard any of them . . .


"Is a single-family home the new luxury item?"

CNBC asked that question in a recent article.  Here's an excerpt.

As finances and bad credit prevents homeownership for many, a single-family home may soon be considered a luxury item.

Almost half of those people who don't own a home said their financial situation is standing in the way, according to a report by released Tuesday. Additionally, 29 percent said they can't afford a down payment and 16 percent said their credit isn't good enough to qualify for a mortgage.

. . .

These days, first-time homebuyers, who are primarily in their 30s, are spending a bigger chunk of their incomes to buy their first house — coughing up about 2.6 times their annual pay; in the 1970s, first-time homebuyers purchased homes that cost only about 1.7 times their yearly salary, according to Zillow.

Tighter lending standards and hefty down payments have further deterred some buyers.

. . .

As a result, rental occupancy is at the highest level in 30 years and homeownership, which peaked in 2005, is at the lowest level in half a century.

Millennials, more than those in other generations, were most likely to say they don't want to own a home right now. Because of their hefty financial obligations, such as student debt, they are also postponing getting married and starting a family, according to a separate survey by TD Ameritrade, which polled 1,000 adults age 18 and older.

Forty-eight percent of those polled said their financial constraints prompted them to delay buying a house, while 38 percent said they put off having children and 29 percent said they postponed getting married.

There's more at the link.  It's very worthwhile reading.

I think there are several contributory elements that CNBC hasn't factored into its analysis.  They include (but are not limited to):

  • The dearth of well-paying jobs.  Most of the new jobs created since the last recession of 2008/09 have been in the service industry, at hourly rates well below what many were previously earning.  I've read of people who used to earn the equivalent of $50-$100 per hour who are now making $10-$20 per hour in relatively menial jobs, because they simply can't find employment in their old industries and occupations at their old income levels.  If they don't have the income, they can't afford the homes they'd previously have bought.
  • The growth of other demands on income.  Medical insurance rates are just plain ruinous at present (due, of course, to the ridiculously high prices of US medical care compared to other nations).  Insurance for a couple is likely to cost at least $800-$1,000 per month for anything worthwhile, if they aren't eligible for Obamacare subsidies.  Student loans have also exploded in size and number, with many graduates leaving college or university carrying tens of thousands of dollars in debt.  With those repayments hanging over their earning ability, they often don't have sufficient disposable income to qualify for a mortgage.
  • The high prices of houses and apartments in most markets.  This is largely due to the surge in asset prices following multiple rounds of quantitative easing - all that cash had to find a home, and it found it in (among other things) property.  Investors have bought most of the forced-sale homes that came on the market as a result of the previous recession (click on these five links for more information), and they're not prepared to sell them at less than a very substantial profit.  Instead, they're renting them out, often at rates that appear extortionate compared to figures from only a few years previously.  This gives them a much higher, much safer return on their investment than they could get from the (currently dangerously unstable) stock and bond markets.  (As an example of how high rentals have become, Miss D. and I are paying approximately the same each month to own our new home, including mortgage principal and interest, insurance, rates and taxes, as we paid in Nashville to rent a duplex a little more than half as large and a lot less comfortable.)
  • The increase in the tax burden on individuals.  Thanks to Obamacare, tax rates went up this year by about 10%.  Obamacare itself imposes tax penalties on individuals who have non-qualifying (or no) medical insurance policies.  States and municipalities are increasing consumption taxes, fees and other levies to compensate for falling income levels, because they daren't cut services too far for fear that the electorate will vote those responsible out of office.
  • Inflation is costing people more and more for the basic necessities of life.  As we've discussed here before (most recently earlier this month), the real inflation rate affecting consumers in many US cities is probably a whole lot higher (by five to ten times) than the official government figure.  Families simply don't have enough disposable income to assume a heavier debt burden, even if it's a mortgage on a lasting asset.

There's another factor that I can't quantify for the country as a whole, but I can see its impact in individuals and families I know.  That's how they prioritize their financial needs.  To give you an example:  when Miss D. and I married six years ago, we decided to adopt a fairly simple lifestyle in order to live within our means.  As part of that, we gave absolute priority to paying off our respective debts, and secondarily tried to build up an emergency reserve.  After our debt load had been reduced as far as possible (with the exception of one consolidated long-term study loan at a very low interest rate), we didn't start spending a lot more;  instead, we saved more, so as to have a year's expenditure in the bank in case of need.  That's what enabled us to buy our new home when the opportunity arose.  We were able to put down a full 20% deposit and take a 15-year loan, instead of having to look for sub-prime finance.  We also made sure to buy a home we could afford, without over-extending ourselves.  As a result, our home-buying experience was relatively pain-free in financial terms (at least, so far).

I see far too many individuals and couples who aren't doing that.  Instead of being willing to live within their means and pay down existing debt, they continue to spend without any discipline.  They cite social pressures ("keeping up with the Joneses", as it used to be called), or the need to live up to their positions at work, or whatever;  but the fact remains that they're accumulating more and more and more debt.  They'll never be out of debt unless they change their ways, but they're not willing to do that, because it would mean the end of 'instant gratification'.  (Of course, business and commerce encourage the latter.  Can't afford to buy a car?  Why not lease one at a much lower monthly payment - and lease a better one than you could otherwise afford, while you're at it?  The fact that you'll never actually own a vehicle that way is neither here nor there . . . just as long as you can pay the lease every month.)

I suggest that these and other factors have a lot to do with why a lot fewer people are buying houses, apartments and condos these days.  If that's the case, it doesn't bode well for the economy as a whole, never mind the housing market.  It's yet another harbinger of what's bearing down on us.


A gathering of blogger buddies

The invited guests for Phlegmfest are beginning to gather.  Miss D. and I met Gay Cynic at the airport yesterday afternoon;  he'll be staying with us for the duration (our first house guest in our new home!).  Christina flew in from the frozen north the previous evening, and Jim has also arrived.  Jennifer and Michael are due later, and there'll probably be others.  (In true blogger gathering tradition, no-one's sure who'll actually turn up until the event is over and we've counted heads!)  Sadly, it appears that FarmMom and FarmDad won't be able to join us, which is a real pity.  We were looking forward to seeing them.  Oh, well . . . we'll just have to wait until Blogorado later this year.

We got together at Old NFO's place yesterday evening, along with Phlegmmy and Lawdog, to sample his 95-year-old family recipe for jambalaya (verdict:  goooooood!!!  The link is for the benefit of overseas readers who may not know the dish) and sundry other tasty things.  As always at such gatherings, the conversation ran the gamut of almost anything you can think of, with much laughter and giggling going on.  This morning we'll all meet at a local greasy spoon joint (a rather good one, IMHO) for breakfast;  then the day will be spent doing interesting things together.

I'm cooking for the gathering tonight, making what I've come to call 'Mex Mix'.  It's my South African variation on Tex-Mex cuisine, with everything cooked in one pot to blend the flavors rather than being added bit by bit as one's tortilla or burrito is assembled.  It's spicy and rather yummy, if the comments of all who've tried it before are anything to go by.  I'll have to make a run to the shops this morning to stock up on guacamole, salsa, burritos and sundry other goodies to go with it.  (The wine's already chilling in the fridge.  For those who think that beer is the automatic choice to drink with Tex-Mex cuisine, well, I daresay we'll have some of that too.)

Oh - on a side note, here's something to make Lawdog fans insanely jealous.  Not only have we persuaded the man to begin editing and assembling in book form some of his best stories (including a number that have never before appeared on his blog or anywhere else), he's also trying his hand at a particular genre of fiction.  As you'd expect, his inimitable style carries over very well.  I'm looking at a printed excerpt from his latest effort as I write these words - it's sitting on my table next to my computer.  It's rather good, and I'm looking forward to seeing how his talents unfold in this new endeavor.  No, I won't post it here;  you'll have to wait until he's good and ready to release it.  Mine!  All mine!  (At least for now.)


Thursday, February 11, 2016

It's enough to make you seasick just watching it

A couple of weeks ago a merchant vessel was 100 miles offshore when a major winter storm caused havoc across Britain and in the North Sea.  Here's highlights from a longer video, showing what the massive waves looked like as they slammed into her.

Looks as bad as anything I ever encountered off the southern Cape coast in South Africa, where the warm Agulhas Current runs into the cold Benguela Current.  The confluence gives rise to more of the dreaded 'rogue waves' than perhaps anywhere else on earth.


Iran: an uncertain world for the Ayatollahs

Yesterday I linked to a StrategyPage article about Russia in Syria.  Today I found this article about the problems Iran is facing in Syria and elsewhere.  Here's an excerpt.

Iran points out that ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and all the other Islamic terrorist rebels in Syria are the result of the Saudis and other Gulf oil states' generous supporting Islamic radicals worldwide for decades. Iran is able to keep these Sunni terrorists out of Iran and the West has managed to contain them as well. So the Sunni Islamic terrorists mainly kill other Sunnis in Moslem countries, as well as a lot of Shia. This gives Iran a legitimate excuse to get involved in nations where there are significant Shia minorities and having provided this aid for so long Iran has become the indisputable leader of the Shia world.

While Iran is technically part of the international anti-ISIL coalition it often uses rather than attacks ISIL because this group of Sunni radicals is more of a threat to Sunnis than to Shia. You can see this in Syria where ISIL is less concerned about overthrowing the Assads and more into expanding the “caliphate” they have created out of eastern Syria and western Iraq since 2014. So while the Arabs and the Americans bomb ISIL Iran and their ally Russia concentrate on the other Sunni rebels (most of them Islamic terrorists affiliated with al Qaeda). ISIL have been at war with these other Sunni Islamic terrorists for two years now and the pro-Assad forces will step aside to allow the Sunni fanatics to kill each other and then go after the winner. ISIL and many other Sunnis Islamic terrorists were aware of this early on and had worked out some informal, and quite fragile, alliances. Everyone knew this was temporary because once the Assads were gone the victorious Sunni Islamic terrorist groups, who believe democracy is heresy, would fight it out for supremacy.

Iran exploits that mentality (which is less common among Shia) and, along with Russia, says they are in Syria to fight Islamic terrorists but in reality leave ISIL alone and concentrate on rebel groups that are the biggest threat to the Assads. Meanwhile it is to Iran’s advantage that ISIL hold the attention of the West and the Arabs. Iran is fighting ISIL, but mainly in Iraq, where Sunni Islamic terrorists have long focused their attacks on Shia civilians. Since the Shia are a majority in Iraq Iran becomes even more popular there as Iran backed militias and other military assistance plays a crucial role in driving ISIL (and eventually all Sunni Islamic terrorists) out of the country. Iranians speak openly (especially inside of Iran) of how well they have exploited their enemies and duped [them] into fight[ing] for Iran instead of against Iran.

Iranian media (and the government) is less interested in publicizing how the Gulf Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia have driven the price of oil so low, and kept it there, that Iran has been greatly weakened. This is a defeat the Iranians are quietly seeking a solution for. The Saudis say their oil price war is directed at American frackers but savvy Iranians (especially those with kin in America) know that is a lie or a delusion on the part of the Saudis. The American oil industry has proved itself very resilient and innovative since the Americans invented the oil business in the 19th century. The frackers, as expected, shut down much of their production as it got unprofitable but are hibernating, not dying. Iranians believe they are the real target of the Saudi oil price campaign because low oil prices, which went from a 2014 peak of $120 a barrel (159 liters) to less than $40 now, keeps Iran weak. At the same time the math indicates that the Saudis cannot keep it up for more than another five or ten years. At that point the Saudis run out of cash reserves and borrowing ability. The Saudis are betting that Iran will crack first while the Iranians believe they can outlast the Saudis. Place your bets. Inside Saudi Arabia the media openly boasts of this particular victory over the hated Iranians.

There's more at the link.  Highly recommended reading, particularly because Iran is one of the nations the USA is most likely to face in a shooting war if anything goes wrong.


Military technology: losing our 'edge'?

A recent report claims the West is losing its military advantage over other nations and regions because of the proliferation of high-technology weapons to 'niche' players.  At the launch of 'The Military Balance 2016', the latest edition of its annual report, John Chipman, Director General of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, pointed out that unmanned systems, missiles and 'smart' bombs were no longer the preserve of the larger powers, but were being encountered even in smaller third-world arsenals.  Chinese CH-4 UAV's, similar to the US Predator, were now operational in Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan;  accurate, long-range cruise missiles such as those recently used by Russia against Syrian rebels are available on the international arms market;  and advanced missiles and 'smart' bombs were entering service in many countries.

I spoke of a related issue in my article 'Weekend Wings #41', where I said about South Africa's arms industry:

The Cheetah and Carver programs, and all the projects related to them, were remarkable achievements by a country that until the 1970's was relatively unsophisticated, technologically speaking. They bear stark witness to an unintended consequence of international sanctions; in striving to circumvent them, the target country may develop far more advanced technologies, and far greater capabilities, than it had before. This was certainly the case with South Africa. Indeed, the expertise that its arms industry gained during the sanctions era, and continued to develop since then, is now helping other nations, including China and Pakistan, to develop and field sophisticated weapons of their own. Both countries are arms suppliers to nations such as Iran, which in turn has ties to Syria, North Korea, etc. We really, really don't want countries such as the latter three to have access to such technology. It would be bitterly ironic if the armed forces of the USA and NATO countries one day found themselves confronting weapons and systems that were developed as a direct result of their sanctions and embargoes against South Africa.

If I may use South Africa as an example of just how easy it is for technology to proliferate first to, and then from, other countries, I'd like to offer a few examples.  In my younger days, I was involved in the early stages of the development of some of these weapons.

  1. As discussed in Weekend Wings #41, South Africa reverse-engineered an early model of the US Sidewinder air-to-air missile during the 1960's, and used the knowledge thus obtained as the starting point for successive models of its V3 Kukri missile during the 1970's and 1980's, each more capable than its predecessor.  Its latest development is the so-called 'A-Darter', a fifth-generation infrared-guided air-to-air missile that's claimed to be equal to or better than the latest-generation Sidewinder, the AIM-9X.  It's currently in joint production with Brazil, and will enter service this year.  It's on offer without restriction to other nations - even those barred from obtaining equivalent US or European air-to-air weapons.  (As discussed in Weekend Wings #41, South African missile technology might also have helped China develop some of its more advanced air-to-air weapons.)
  2. South Africa fielded the ZT-3 Ingwe (Leopard) laser-guided beam-riding anti-tank missile in the late 1980's.  It was based on Israel's MAPATS missile, which was itself based on the US TOW missile, upgraded to use laser rather than wire guidance.  The Ingwe has since been sold to other countries (for example, in Weekend Wings #41 you'll find a photograph of eight Ingwe missiles carried by an Algerian Mi-17 helicopter), and continuously upgraded.  Its latest iteration incorporates an improved multi-mode warhead, with a thermobaric warhead also under consideration.  Its design also contributed to the considerably more advanced Mokopa air-to-ground missile, an equivalent to the US Hellfire weapon.
  3. The US JDAM kit is attached to Mark 80-series aerial 'dumb' bombs to convert them into 'smart' bombs.  The USA was selective in who it allowed to buy JDAM's, but the concept has been copied by several countries.  Israel produced its 'Spice' kits, including most recently the Spice 250, which appears similar to the US Small Diameter Bomb, and has sold them to many countries.  South Africa developed its own equivalent in the form of the Umbani smart bomb kit.  Arab nations, of course, can't buy the Israeli weapon, and some of them could not obtain US JDAM kits due to political considerations.  Therefore, a company in Abu Dhabi has formed a partnership with South Africa's Denel to manufacture the Umbani in the former country, under the name of Al Tariq.  They'll be available to any nation (Arab or otherwise) that can afford them, irrespective of US political or military concerns.  The partnership might lead to the manufacture of other precision weapons and guided missiles in due course.

So, from my own experience, I can attest that technology - military or otherwise - is like Pandora's box.  Once it's out there, for good or ill, it will be analyzed, studied, copied and imitated.  Using modern computer technology, such analysis and imitation is considerably easier than it was in the past.  The copies and imitations will be sold to anyone with the money to buy them.

To create even more difficulty, modern high-technology weapons might be hard to identify as such - and if you don't know they're there, or where they are, how can you counteract or destroy them?  For example, Russian 3M54 Klub cruise missiles can be disguised in standard shipping containers.  They can be trucked anywhere under the pretense of being commercial cargoes, and fired without warning at any targets within range (which might be hundreds or even thousands of miles, depending on the version of the missile involved).  Here's a sales video from the Russian manufacturer showing how it would work.

If the USA finds itself in a war with a third world nation today, the odds of our forces facing 'smart' weapons that can inflict significant damage and casualties on them are considerably greater than they were even a few years ago.  That's not an encouraging prospect.


Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Progress report

It's been a hectic ten days getting settled into our new home.  Today Miss D. and I both agreed that things have pretty much come together in terms of the living-room, kitchen and dining area.  Our bedroom's about 80% organized, the spare room is ready for our first guests this weekend, and her and my offices are taking shape, although more slowly than the rest of the building.  We've paid more attention to common and entertainment areas, obviously.

My books are now largely unpacked and set up in the living-room.  After last year's big weed-out I've got eighteen 3' shelves of general non-fiction and reference, five of general fiction and four of science fiction.  I've got to assemble a new bookcase that arrived today, then my religious books will fill five 2' shelves, and that'll be everything.  It's been a lot of work getting them all unpacked, but my idea back in Nashville to box them in their alphabetical order by author meant that unpacking and racking on this end went much more quickly and easily.  I'll have to keep that in mind for next time (which hopefully won't be anytime soon!).

I've been struck by how few new or new-ish books I have in my shelves.  For the past several years, if I've wanted something new I've tried to buy it in e-book format.  I now have several hundred books in my e-library;  they weigh nothing, are accessible on multiple devices whenever I need them, and when it comes to moving they don't weigh a thing and don't take up any space in the truck.  What's not to like?  I've kept in paper mostly the older volumes that aren't available in e-book format.  In some cases they are, but at a price that's too high for my budget.  In such cases I'll either keep the paper volume I have, or order a used copy for much less than the cost of any new edition.  However, I've made a new rule for myself.  My categories of books have to fit into the shelves I've allocated for them, without expansion.  If I get a new paper book and there isn't space for it, another book has to go out.  No exceptions.  That's the only way I'll keep my library under control!

The garage is still half-full of boxes, but there are a lot less of them than there used to be.  We made a run to the local landfill yesterday to dump a pickup load of flattened cardboard boxes, bags of packing paper and other materials, and I daresay we'll make another one within a week or two.  Now that the initial urgency is over I'll tackle a box or two a day, and we'll slowly but surely pare down the outstanding stuff over a couple of months.  Miss D. should be able to park her car in there by the end of this week.  I suspect my pickup may be a bit too big to squeeze in alongside her vehicle, even when the garage is otherwise empty, but we'll see.  I'll be selling my 5'x8' enclosed cargo trailer, as I've nowhere to park it and I don't want to pay monthly storage fees.  (If any of my readers in or near northern Texas need a small cargo trailer in good condition, with new tires and spare tire, for half the new price, and can come to collect it, drop me a line - my e-mail address is in the 'About Me' section of the sidebar.)

It looks as if repairs to our problematic HVAC system will be covered by the move-in insurance policy provided by the seller as part of buying the house.  That's good news, as it would have been tricky to find so much money out of our own resources.  Upon investigation, it turns out that the entire housing development of which our home is a part was built with geothermal HVAC systems that are too small for the very hot weather conditions here during summer.  Most people seem to run one or two window A/C units to ease the load on their overburdened central systems.  We're planning to do the same, and in due course, after I sell enough books to make it possible, we'll consider upgrading or replacing the entire thing.  That won't happen for a couple of years at least, though.

Phlegmmy is holding her annual blogger gathering, known as Phlegmfest, over this coming weekend.  Her guests start to arrive tomorrow (most of them also our friends and acquaintances), and we expect to accommodate anywhere from one to three of them.  The festivities will center on Old NFO's home;  it has the biggest and best-equipped kitchen of all our residences, so he's been dragooned graciously volunteered his facilities.  We'll provide some of the food, of course, preparing it here then carrying it over there to be devoured by the ravenous horde.  We're looking forward to the festivities.


Economy watch

Some food for thought about our dollars and cents.  Click each link to go to the article concerned.

1.  Is this the graveyard of the world's economy?

These dramatic images show more than a dozen retired oil rigs parked off the coast of Scotland - hauled into the harbour as stock markets across the world crash and barrel prices tumble, forcing firms to cancel off-shore explorations.

The Cromarty Firth, north of Inverness, is currently packed with more unused rigs than it has been at any point in the last decade.

Crude oil prices have collapsed of late - falling from more than $115 a barrel in summer 2014 to less than $28 now - which has had a crippling effect on jobs, housing and revenue in Aberdeen and wider Aberdeenshire.

Because of this - and a number of other worrying factors - more than £50 billion was wiped off the value of Britain’s leading companies yesterday as fresh worries about the global economy set off panic on financial markets around the world.

2.  Europe's 'doom-loop' returns as credit markets seize up

Credit stress in the European banking system has suddenly turned virulent and begun spreading to Italian, Spanish and Portuguese government debt, reviving fears of the sovereign "doom-loop" that ravaged the region four years ago.

“People are scared. This is very close to a potentially self-fulfilling credit crisis,” said Antonio Guglielmi, head of European banking research at Italy's Mediobanca.

“We have a major dislocation in the credit markets. Liquidity is totally drained and it is very difficult to exit trades. You can’t find a buyer,” he said.

. . .

Mr Guglielmi said a key cause of the latest credit seizure is the imposition of a tough new “bail-in” regime for eurozone bank bonds without the crucial elements of an EMU banking union needed make it viable.

“The markets are taking their revenge. They have been over-regulated and now are demanding a sacrificial lamb from the politicians,” he said.

Mr Guglielmi said there is a gnawing fear among global investors that these draconian "bail-ins" may be crystallised as European banks grapple with €1 trillion of non-performing loans. Declared bad debts make up 6.4pc of total loans, compared with 3pc in the US and 2.8pc in the UK.

The bail-in rules were first imposed in Cyprus after the island's debt crisis, stripping European bank debt of its hallowed status as a pillar of financial stability, and of its implicit guarantee by states. The regime came into force for the whole currency bloc in January. Both senior and junior debt must now face wipeout before taxpayers have to contribute money.

. . .

Mr Guglielmi said the mood is starting to feel like the panic in the summer of 2012 ... “We all know that QE2 is not really going to work but the feeling in the market is ‘I’m a smoker, I know it kills me, but so long as I can get cigarettes, I’m happy,'” he said.

3.  Creditors must brace for a tsunami of losses in a world awash with debt

Most people will agree that the global financial crisis of eight years ago was as a result of too much debt. Yet since then, the world has if anything taken on even more of the stuff.

In advanced economies, private sector deleveraging has been modest to non existent. Government debt, on the other hand, has taken off like a rocket. On one level this is perfectly logical. As everyone knows, when a car is skidding out of control, the instinctive thing to do is to turn the wheel against the skid. This will only make things worse. Instead you must turn into it, which has been broadly the strategy adopted by governments and central banks since the crisis. A crisis caused by excessive debt has been fought by encouraging the world to borrow even more.

How much debt is too much? Nobody really knows, but in any credit cycle there will come a point when creditors begin to question whether they are ever likely to get their money back, and that’s when crisis hits.

If you think we have already had that crisis, think again. The best way of looking at the Lehman Brothers meltdown is as a mere staging post in a global credit super-cycle. Where Western economies left off, China and other emerging markets have taken up the chase. Data compiled by McKinsey Global Institute suggest that between 2007 and 2014, global debt, public as well as private, has far outstripped economic growth, rising from $142 trillion to $199 trillion, or from 269pc of global GDP to 286pc. If this is not too much, it's hard to know what would be.

. . .

The world has taken on far more debt than can ever be repaid. As the European banking sell-off is already signalling, creditors are in for a brutal awakening. Get ready for debt restructuring mayhem.

The last paragraph above says it all as far as debt is concerned, which is why I've drawn attention to it with bold, underlined text.  I've written many times before, most recently last month, about debt's effects on us as individuals.  Those effects are already making themselves felt - and this is just the start.  Brace yourselves.


Doofus Of The Day #881

Today's award goes to a drunken doofus in Hangzhou, China.  See for yourself.

He fell from the fourth to the first floor, but fortunately for him suffered only a broken leg.  One hopes the building's owners will now sue him to recover their expenses in repairing the damage he did.  Doofidity like that deserves the added (financial) pain!


"Russia Lives The Lie" in Syria

StrategyPage reports:

The current UN sponsored peace talks have been delayed until February 25 th largely because Russia has been lying about why it is really in Syria and that lie is both obvious and a major factor in preventing the peace talks from starting. The problem is that Russia is concentrating most of its considerable firepower on rebel groups that are hurting the Syrian Assad government forces the most. By American count only about ten percent of Russian air strikes have been against ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) and those targets were usually hit to protect Assad forces ... Not surprisingly these rebels refuse to participate in peace talks as long as the UN allows Russia to get away with their lies. In the last week this Russian support has enabled Assad forces to cut rebels in Aleppo off from Turkey (a primary source if reinforcements and supplies). This is a major defeat for the rebels.

UN officials believe they can work out the disputes between the rebels and the Russians in time to get the peace talks going by the end of the month but that remains to be seen because the Syrian rebels blame Russia for most of the current government success. As a result the rebels contribute to the failure of the UN peace talks by demanding a lot of pre-conditions aimed at the Russians. At the very least the rebels wanted the Russians to halt their Assad support while peace talks go on. The rebels are asking for other concessions, like release of captured leaders lifting of sieges of some pro-rebel civilian areas. Russia refuses to comply with these demands.

Another issue the rebels are angry about was the UN agreeing to keep the Syrian Kurds out of the peace talks. This was something Turkey insisted on. There were other problems, like the tensions between Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran which have also helped cripple UN efforts to get Syria peace talks going. The growing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran has made cooperation over brokering a Syria peace deal less likely. Russian efforts to mediate are also compromised because of tensions with Iran and the Saudis. Russia has backed away from earlier suggestions that they would support forcing the Assads out of the government (while allowing Assad allies to carry on instead) and offering the Assads refuge in Russia.

So far Russian bombers and attack helicopters have killed over 3,000 people. Russia claims that about a third of these dead have been ISIL with the rest being other rebels and civilians. These Russian air attacks are now frequently hitting over a hundred targets a day. Western critics accuse Russia of ignoring civilian losses. That is true but because of that the Russian air attacks have been more effective and have been of great assistance to the Western war against ISIL. Russia calls Western criticism hypocrisy especially since Western and Arab leaders backing the fight against ISIL are not pressuring Russia to change its ROE (Rules of Engagement) over this because everyone admits that this would just encourage ISIL to use civilians as human shields even more.

There's much more at the link.

It's a long report with a lot of detail, but well worth reading in full.  In particular, I recommend its analysis of the actions and reactions of other players in Syria - Iran, Israel, Turkey and the Kurdish groups in Iraq, Syria and Turkey.  The Syrian conflict is a tangled web of alliances, interests and chain reactions, and its complexity means there won't be any quick solution.

As a matter of fact, looking at the complexity of the situation there, one wonders whether Russia isn't being drawn into a similar situation to what the USA faced in South Vietnam.  Over the past decade of the latter conflict, it was obvious that the South Vietnamese government only retained power and control because the USA backed it.  When that backing was withdrawn, collapse soon followed - and the USA was humiliated in the eyes of the world for a generation or more.  Will the same fate befall Russia in Syria?  It's a good question.  Students of history will doubtless already have noted the parallels.


Great aviation photographs

Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine has announced the winners of its 2015 Photo Contest.  The overall winner was this spectacular image of a B-29 Superfortress on the ground at EAA Airventure 2015 in Oshkosh, WI, during the final fireworks display.  (Click this and the other images for a larger view.)

One of the finalists in the Defense section of the competition was this image of an F-15E Strike Eagle taking off from Nellis AFB in Nevada during one of the Red Flag exercises held each year.

One of my personal favorites, and an Editor's Pick,  is this derelict World War II-vintage Curtiss C-46 Commando at an airstrip in the Brazilian rain forest.

There are lots more photographs at the link.  The winners are provided there;  scroll down to the bottom for links to finalist images, at which pages you can also scroll down to find more links to previous entries.  It's a great time-waster for aviation enthusiasts.


Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Bubble wrap as decor?

Miss D. and I bought and used an outsize roll of bubble wrap to protect our more sensitive belongings during our move to Texas last month.  While unwrapping them, I found out something about bubble wrap that I didn't know before.

Bubble wrap is so much more than a protective cushion in packing boxes. The irresistible popping plastic has inspired questionable fashion choices, spawned numerous fan pages and even has its own day of appreciation (every last Monday of January).

But bubble wrap’s original purpose was far different from what it’s used for today.

Engineers Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes stumbled upon the product in 1957 when trying to create a textured wallpaper. The duo initially sealed two shower curtains together in a way where air bubbles were trapped in between, giving the material a textured appearance.

Their home decor innovation never did catch on. Perhaps, fortunately so or we would never be able to leave our houses until we’ve popped every bubble on the wall.

There's more at the link.

The thought of popping the wallpaper is amusing, to say the least!  There's also the two-wheeled version, courtesy of comedian Eric Buss.

And then there's Mythbusters' take on the product.

Dare I say, "Finger-poppin' good!"?


Still rockin'!

I've enjoyed the music of the Moody Blues since my youth, and recently came across this live version of their 1971 hit 'The Story In Your Eyes'.  It was recorded during a 2010 live performance at the Royal Albert Hall, London, complete with orchestral backing.

They're still rockin' after all these years . . .


Ereptile dysfunction?

I'm left dumbfounded by this report.

Gator wasn’t on the menu but one did make an appearance inside a Wendy’s just east of Loxahatchee in Royal Palm Beach. And it wasn’t by choice.

. . .

FWC officials say 23-year-old Joshua James pulled up for his order and after a server handed over a drink and turned around James reached into the back of his truck and tossed the 3-and-a-half foot gator through the drive-thru window.

The incident report showed a picture of the gator inside the restaurant.

There's more at the link.

Why?  Why would anyone toss an alligator - even a small one - into a fast food restaurant?

  • Because he wanted a gator burger?
  • To speed up the service?
  • Because the gator was hungry?
  • Because there were too many customers and the servers were swamped?

Your suggestions are welcome in Comments.


Doofus Of The Day #880

The Telegraph reports:

While driving through Drumquin, Northern Ireland, this man pulled over after seeing two men attempt to roll a large, orange sofa down a street using a narrow dolly.

Both appear to have had one too many, and their teamwork soon disintegrates into an uncensored parody of ChuckleVision.

What ensues is a drunken struggle of epic proportions that results in a ridiculous amount of swearing.

No kidding!  Language alert for the more sensitive among us.

Perhaps I should establish a special "Drunken Doofus Award" category . . .


Monday, February 8, 2016

Boys and their highly explosive toys

This is what happens when a 1998 Nissan Maxima is loaded with 49 pounds of Tannerite and detonated with a bullet.

Not much left of it, was there?


What a great idea!

I'd never heard of this method of tunnel construction.  Odysseus, who first posted it at his blog By Other Means, called it 'Grown Up Lego'.  That's not a bad description.

I wonder if the truck has to be left in that configuration permanently, or whether they can dismount or uncouple the tunnel-shaped thingamajig to use the truck for normal work, then reattach it when it's needed once more?  Also, can the same technique be used for larger or smaller tunnels, or is it basically limited to what can be fitted to the truck?  If anyone knows the answers, please tell us in Comments.


I feel older and angrier just reading this

According to MarketWatch:

Americans will likely waste more than 900 million hours waiting on hold this year, according to an analysis of more than four million phone calls from consumers to businesses released this week by mobile advertising analytics firm Marchex. And a survey by text-message service TalkTo found that more than half of Americans say they spend 10 to 20 minutes every week — or 43 days of their life — on hold.

To consumers, this is incredibly irritating: One survey found that being put on hold was one of consumers’ top three phone pet peeves (the other two were automated attendants and the person on the other line having bad manners, or having a bad attitude).

There's more at the link.

What's even worse is to speak to a 'customer service representative' whose English is sub-standard, whose accent is incomprehensible, and who appears to be incapable of understanding or doing anything other than what's in the script in front of him or her.

"Sir, you need to reboot your router and see whether the signal returns."

"I've already done that three times, and my computer as well."

"Please do it again, Sir."

"You don't understand.  I used to be a computer systems engineer.  I know what I'm talking about.  The router isn't the problem."

"Yes, Sir, but you need to reboot your router before we can continue to the next step."



'Warp Resonance' - another great read for SF/F fans

My friend Cedar Sanderson is a pretty amazing person, IMHO.  She's come out of a very dark situation, hauling herself up by her bootstraps, so to speak, and is rebuilding her life, studying for a degree, and raising her kids as best she can.  I had the privilege of assisting with her wedding at Libertycon last year.

Cedar is also a writer with her own particular perspective on fantasy, place and perspective.  I was privileged to write the Foreword for her latest collection of stories, and said in it:

There is occasionally – all too rarely – a moment that comes when reading something new, a sort of mental frisson, when one realizes that one’s reading something special. This isn’t just another run-of-the-mill book or story, but something that is reaching out of the page and grabbing one by the throat and dragging one into its world and storyline, absorbing, entertaining, sometimes even enthralling. That’s what happened to me the first time I read Cedar Sanderson’s work. It was her novel, “Vulcan’s Kittens”, and I’ve never looked back from there. She’s one of the few authors whose work I’ll buy sight unseen, knowing that it’ll intrigue and challenge me and make me think.

Cedar's latest book, 'Warp Resonance' has just come out.

I highly recommend it to those who like to be challenged by space opera.  Cedar has woven some of the darker experiences of life into a science fiction universe which focuses on character rather than technology.  The technology is there, all right, but human beings have been pretty much the same for generations, centuries, even millennia;  and I'm willing to bet they'll be much the same in space, a few centuries and millennia from now. Civilization and political correctness are only skin deep.

Cedar puts the dilemmas of life, its moral and ethical complications, into very readable form.  'Warp Resonance' is free to members of Amazon's Kindle Unlimited subscription lending service, and only $2.99 if you want to buy the e-book.  Highly recommended.