Friday, August 31, 2012

Echoes of Azimov's Foundation

The New Scientist has an article entitled "Calculated Violence: Numbers that predict revolution." Mathematician Peter Turchin claims to have discovered a method of analyzing history with mathematics that has revealed regular cycles of stability and revolution. From the article:
Reasoning that the fate of an empire rests ultimately on social cohesion, he has used historical records to track the prevalence of what he calls collective violence - deaths due to political assassinations, riots and civil wars, but not international wars or ordinary crimes - in three major civilisations, the Roman Republic, medieval Europe and Tsarist Russia. Applying mathematical tools borrowed from population biology, he has found that in each case deaths from collective violence follow two superimposed cycles, one spanning two to three centuries and the other about 50 years (Secular Cycles, Princeton University Press, 2009). What's more, he thinks his data provide enough leverage to understand what drives the longer cycle.

The likeliest explanation, he says, is an idea known as demographic-structural theory, proposed two decades ago by Jack Goldstone at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia. This argues that in a prosperous culture, population growth or advancing technology eventually leads to an oversupply of labour. That is good news for an expanding upper class who can more easily exploit an increasingly desperate labour force. Eventually, though, the society becomes so top-heavy that even some members of the elite can no longer afford the good life. Factionalism sets in as the upper classes fight among themselves, social cohesion declines, and the state begins to lose control of its citizens. Then, and only then, does widespread violence break out. Anarchy reigns until enough people fall out of the elite classes, at which point growth and prosperity can return.

A tidy story, but is it true? Fortunately for Turchin, the theory makes predictions that can be tested. In particular, it predicts that social collapse and widespread violence do not rear their heads when life first gets grim for the working classes, as you would expect if workers' misery were the catalyst. Instead, unrest should follow a generation or two later, because it takes that long to accumulate an excess of wealthy, highly educated elites. This is exactly what Turchin found when he compared the timing of collective violence with economic indicators such as wages, social inequality and population growth - a measure of labour supply - in the three civilisations. As a further test, he looked at the dates on coins in hoards unearthed by archaeologists. Coin hoards are an excellent proxy for political unrest, since their owners must have buried them in fear during dangerous times and then experienced some misfortune that prevented them from digging them up later. Again, he found that civil war lagged behind economic hardship by a generation or two. Moreover, the same pattern holds true for the US over the past 200 years, he reports in a new paper (Journal of Peace Research, vol 4, p 577 and see diagram).

Turchin is less certain about the causes of the 50-year cycle. His best guess is that people who grow up in times of strife come to crave stability, while those who grow up in stable times are more willing to rock the boat. This leads, he thinks, to a two-generation cycle of stability and violence. "It's not as well tested," he says. "Take it with a grain of salt."
So what does he predict in our near future?
Two years ago, Turchin put his reputation on the line by predicting publicly that political instability in the US and western Europe will shoot up in the coming decade (Nature, vol 463, p 608). In his new paper he provides more evidence for an impending crisis in the US, where both cycles look to be approaching a peak in 2020. Allowing for some imprecision in his calculations, Turchin says that if we make it to 2030 without major turmoil he will conclude that his prediction - and hence the underlying theory - is wrong. He doesn't think that will happen, though, and estimates that he has an 80 per cent chance of being right.
I don't know if a prediction of political instability made in 2010 really counts. It was (and is) obvious that the West had gone over a financial cliff. And critics note that his theory doesn't account for the influence of a particular leader, or black swan events like epidemics. Says the article:
Turchin's cyclic theory of history also seems to leave out any role for unique events such as changes in climate, disease outbreaks or the appearance of a remarkable, history-changing individual. "The patterns are more complex, more chaotic, than the patterns created by his model," says Preiser-Kapeller.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

DHS Performing Biological Agents Tests in Boston Subway

The Department of Homeland Security will begin releasing a dead bacteria into the Boston subway tomorrow in an operation it says will test sensors designed to detect biological agents that could be released as part of a terrorist attack.

Little is known about what exactly the bacteria consists of, and the DHS has not been very forthcoming with information, saying only that it is a “non-infectious” material that has been “approved as a food supplement”.

The Boston Globe reports:
The tests will begin Wednesday and will be held periodically over the next year at the Harvard and Porter Square stations in Cambridge and the Davis Square station in Somerville.
“A rapid alert from a detection system can locate and identify these materials and provide for immediate and appropriate response to protect people and contain the hazard,” stated DHS scientist Anne Hultgren in the agency’s press release.

“This detection system will be one of the first such installed in the country, and, if it proves to be effective, could serve as a model for other mass transportation venues throughout the nation and the world,” said MBTA Transit Police Chief Paul MacMillan in the joint press release Monday.

Back in May when the plan was announced, Federal officials said that they were to release a bacteria called B-subtilis, noting that it “has been rigorously tested and has no adverse health effects for low exposure in healthy people.”

What effect the tests will have on unhealthy people or those exposed to higher doses is unknown.
The article goes on to note various incidents where government tests have not been so benign. However, the Wikipedia entry for B-subtilis notes that it is typically found in the soil, and apparently is one of the bacteria that naturally grow in our gut. So this may be much ado about nothing (other than wasting tax-payer dollars on unlikely threats).

Second Day of Rioting in Kenya

Riots have rocked Kenya's second-largest city for a second day, again turning deadly. The violence was triggered by the killing of a Muslim cleric accused by the United States of aiding Islamist militants in Somalia.

Police battled stone-throwing youths on Tuesday, firing tear gas and warning shots as the rioters barricaded streets with burning tires in Majengo.

The district is a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Mombasa, Kenya's second-largest city. Looting was also reported.

In support of the rioters, Islamist militant group al-Shabaab called on Kenyan Muslims to "take all necessary measures" to defend their religion.

"Muslims must take the matter into their own hands, stand united against the kuffar (unbelievers) and take all necessary measures to protect their religion, their honor, their property and their lives from the enemies of Islam," the group said in a statement posted on Twitter. Al-Shabaab is considered a terrorist organization by the European Union and the US.
* * *

The violence in Mombasa erupted after cleric Aboud Rogo Mohammed, popularly known as "Rogo," was shot dead on Monday by "unknown people," according to Kenyan police. Mohammed was on the US and UN sanctions lists for his alleged support of al-Shabaab, a Somalia-based group linked to al Qaeda, which was said to have included fundraising and helping the group recruit new members.

The preacher was driving with his wife and children when gunmen opened fire on his vehicle, riddling it with bullets. Images released by his enraged supporters showed his bloody body slumped behind the wheel. Protests then erupted, with one person hacked to death, cars torched, businesses looted and at least five churches set ablaze.

Declining Birth Rates in the U.S.

One of the premises of "How Civilizations Die" is that civilizations die when they stop having children. At the time the book was written, the United States seemed to have escaped the demographic collapse other countries were seeing. Alas, that may no longer be true. From Open Market (h/t Instapundit):
Earlier, I wrote about how exponentially growing student loans are driving up tuition and creating a demographic time bomb as well as a higher-education bubble that could explode in taxpayers’ faces.

As college costs and student loan debt soar (partly due to opulent university spending) and unemployment rises, young college graduates, crushed by student loan debt, are deciding not to have kids, resulting in demographic decline among the educated in America. In recent years, student loan debt has skyrocketed from $100 billion to nearly $1 trillion, creating a potential debt bomb for the American economy.

France and England now have higher birth rates than America. College-educated people in their 20s are definitely more likely to have kids there. “American fertility is now lower than that of France” and the United Kingdom, notes The Economist, even though American fertility was higher than France or England in 2007.

Why the recent change? Could it be because college graduates in England and France have less student loan debt? Tuition is lower there. Per capita expenditures are lower at their elite schools. France and England spend much less on physical plant for colleges and universities. Faculty salaries don’t get as high there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

When the Mississippi Changes Course

Reading about Isaac headed up the Mississippi River Valley reminded me of this article: "Mississippi Rising: Apocalypse Now?"
There is an event coming to the Deep South that is as inevitable, and as imminent in geologic time, and as unpredictable in human time, and as dangerous to human life and enterprise, as are the Great California Earthquakes. It is as easy to say as it is hard to imagine: the Mississippi River is going to change course, and when it does will reach the sea 65 miles west of New Orleans, at Morgan City. This meandering of the great river is not at all unusual – it happens frequently in geologic time – and is the process that created the Mississippi River Delta – a 200-mile-wide, three-million-acre arc of coastal wetlands stretching roughly from Lafayette, Louisiana, east to Biloxi, Mississippi. As the river nears the Gulf of Mexico, on the flat coastal plain, the current slows, allowing its massive loads of silt to settle out, creating new wetlands and building up the river bed, which eventually becomes higher than the surrounding area. Eventually the river breaks out, seeks a new and quicker way to the Gulf until the process repeats in about a thousand years.

In the 1950s the Mississippi was ready for another change, exploring in ever greater enthusiasm the Atchafalaya River basin. But this time the river had a new enemy: money. If the river succeeded in doing what it had always done, it would leave high and dry the Port of New Orleans, devastate the city’s economy as well as that of Baton Rouge, cut off nearly 20 per cent of the country’s oil imports and 16 per cent of the nation’s fisheries harvest, and choke off a major outlet for U.S. Agricultural exports. It would leave high and dry a chain of refineries and factories stretching from Baton Rouge to New Orleans that depend for their existence on the barges and the fresh water that the river wants to give to the Atchafalaya. It was, well, unthinkable. The Congress ordered the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to go to war with the Mississippi. “We are fighting Mother Nature,” the Corps declared in a promotional film, “It’s a battle we have to fight day by day, year by year; the health of our economy depends on victory. Our opponent could cause the United States to lose nearly all her seaborne commerce, to lose her standing as first among trading nations.”

The result of this declaration of war was named, with typical Corps hubris, the Old River Control Structures. The Old River was a natural east-west channel that had opened between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers about 200 miles above New Orleans. By the 1950s, 30 per cent of the Mississippi’s flow was roaring down the steeper, lower Atchafalaya drainage, scouring it ever deeper, getting ready to switch its course entirely. The Corps’ war on water consisted of throwing a dam across the Old River, then building, 10 miles upstream, a 560-foot-long set of 11 floodgates across an artificial channel that henceforth would bend the Father of Waters to the will of the United States Congress. That body declared it illegal for the Mississippi to yield more than 30 per cent of its flow to the Atchafalaya. That is how much it gave up in 1950, and by law, for the Mississippi, it was to be forever 1950. The implementation of the law began in 1963, when the Control Structures took over. It was all part of the Corps of Engineers’ “Mississippi River and Tributaries Project” — the war to end all floods for all time from Cairo, Illinois, to New Orleans.

Ten quiet years followed, for which the Corps took a great deal of credit. Then came a most unquiet year, when a combination of heavy rains in the fall of 1972, heavy winter snow and repeated deluges in the spring of 1973 brought massive flooding. The Corps ran up the white flag and opened all the floodgates at Old River, and still, day after day, the Father of Waters hammered on the bars of its cell, shook the structure as if it were in a Magnitude 8 earthquake, threw nine-ton boulders at it and ate away at its massive foundations. If you stopped a car on top of the control structure (yes, there’s a road – Route 15 – across what you might call the bridge to San Luis Rey, Louisiana) and opened the car door, the vibration of the structure would slam it shut. One of the massive walls that gathered the flow of the Mississippi in to the floodgates collapsed. When the whole thing was a whisker away from total failure, the waters began to recede.

Afterward, the badly frightened engineers of the Corps wondered how close it had been. As John McPhee described one of the more riveting moments in the long history of man’s war on nature:
“As soon as the water began to recede they set about learning the dimensions of the damage. The structure was obviously undermined, but how much so, and where? What was solid, what was not? What was directly below the gates and the roadway? With a diamond drill, in a central position, they bored the first of many holes in the structure. When they had penetrated to basal levels, they lowered a television camera into the hole. They saw fish.”

The Corps propped the structure up, poured more concrete, set more pilings, built even more floodgates (the so-called auxiliary structure, deployed in 1986) and saw it withstand major flooding in 1983, 1993 and 1997. But the river will win this war, and will go to Morgan City, and bring down the Control Structures and with them the economy of the United States. As a study conducted by the Water Resources Research Institute, at Louisiana State University, concluded: “It could happen next year, during the next decade, or sometime in the next thirty or forty years. But the final outcome is simply a matter of time and it is only prudent to prepare for it.”

Isaac Upgraded to Hurricane--Headed for New Orleans

'Many parts of the state could see 24 to 38 hours of tropical storm-force winds,' Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal told a news conference. 'We're going to see a lot of downed trees and power lines,' he said. 'We need people to stay safe.'

Hurricane Isaac has made landfall in southeast Louisiana with winds near 80 mph.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center says the storm's center reached land at 6:45 p.m. in Plaquemines Parish, about 90 miles southeast of New Orleans.

Brandishing automatic assault rifles to ward off any threat of looting, the troops in military vehicles took up positions on mostly deserted streets. Their arrival came as driving rain and stiff winds battered the city's famous tourist district, The French Quarter, and its boarded-up storefronts.

White-capped waves formed in Lake Pontchartrain.

Earlier, the Army Corps of Engineers closed for the first time the massive new floodgate on the largest storm-surge barrier in the world, at Lake Borgne, east of New Orleans. In other preparations, oil production in the U.S. Gulf of Mexico nearly ground to a halt, and ports and coastal refineries curtailed operations as Isaac neared.

At 5 p.m. CDT (2200 GMT), the Hurricane Center said Isaac was centered about 105 miles southeast of New Orleans with top sustained winds of 80 miles per hour.

The storm, becoming better organized as it nears land, was traveling at a relatively slow 8 mph. That pace is a concern for people in its path since slow-moving cyclones can bring higher rainfall totals.

Isaac was about 370 miles wide and due to make landfall at the mouth of the Mississippi River within the hour. Heavy rains and big storm surges were also forecast for parts of Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Panhandle.

Isaac spared Tampa, Florida, where the Republican National Convention began on Monday. But it forced party leaders to revamp their schedule. They may have to make further revisions so as not to be seen celebrating Mitt Romney's presidential nomination while Gulf Coast residents struggle through the storm.

President Barack Obama urged Gulf Coast residents to take cover and heed warning, saying, Now was 'not the time to tempt fate.' He issued emergency declarations for Louisiana and Mississippi earlier this week because of Isaac.

The president's stern warning comes as terrified New Orleans residents fear a repeat of the devastation inflicted by Hurricane Katrina after Isaac, which has now been declared a Category 1 hurricane, veers towards the Louisiana city.

Shop owners last night boarded up their businesses and the streets of the normally-bustling French Quarter are now eerily empty amid preparations for winds of over 100mph, which are predicted to hit the Gulf coast either this evening or tomorrow morning.

Although, the storm is currently generating surface gusts of 75mph, forecasters believe Isaac could pick up wind speed before it hits land in the same spot as Katrina, meaning roofs could be plucked from homes and cause extensive power outages in the city.
The shut-down of the refineries should jack up oil prices, which will further dampen the economy. The only thing that will bring us out of the economic doldrums will be cheap energy and fuel, which is anathema to the current administration.

More Bank Woes from Spain

Spain's debt-ridden region of Catalonia will seek a rescue bailout of £4billion from a central government fund, it emerged today.

The northeastern region, which has Barcelona as its capital, became the third region after Valencia and Murcia to officially ask for aid.

Many of the 17 semi-autonomous regions are struggling with the recession, the country's second in three years, following a real estate crash in 2008 that has pushed the unemployment rate to near 25 per cent.
* * *
A rush by consumers and firms to withdraw their money from Spanish banks also intensified in July, with private sector deposits falling almost five per cent, to £1.2trillion at end-July from £1.26trillion a month earlier.

George Bernard Shaw's Prediction

In reviewing portions of "How Civilizations Die", I came across the following:

"The day is coming when great nations will find their numbers dwindling from census to census; when the  six-roomed villa will rise in price above the family mansion; when the visciously reckless poor and the stupidly pious rich will delay the extinction of the race only by degrading it; whilst the boldly prudent, the thriftily selfish and ambitious, the imaginative and poetic, the lovers of money and solid comfort, the worshippers of success, of art, and of love, will all oppose to the Force of Life the device of sterility."

Shaw wrote this in 1903.

Monday, August 27, 2012

"How Disciples of Christ Live in Times of War and Violence"

The September 2012 Ensign magazine has an article entitled "How Disciples of Christ Live in Times of War and Violence." From the introduction:
We live in a time of widespread war and violence. News sources report incidents of these awful events every day. The Lord’s prophet, President Thomas S. Monson, said, “We have come to the earth in troubled times.”1 He affirms what President Gordon B. Hinckley (1910–2008) said: “We live in a season when fierce men do terrible and despicable things. We live in a season of war.”2

While sobering, this should not be surprising. The scriptures teach that in the last days Satan will “make war” (Revelation 12:17) with the faithful and that “peace shall be taken from the earth” (D&C 1:35).

God foresaw our day and called the Prophet Joseph Smith to bring forth the Book of Mormon to help us (see D&C 1:17, 29; 45:26). Of the 239 chapters in the Book of Mormon, 174 (73 percent) deal with war, terrorism, murder, political conspiracies, secret combinations, threats, family collusions, and other hostilities.

Why did the Book of Mormon record keepers preserve so many incidents of war? President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) answered, “From the Book of Mormon we learn how disciples of Christ live in times of war.”3 Following are insights that can guide us as we live in troubled times.
While the article tries to present a positive lesson that God will protect the faithful and obedient, it notes that it is not always the case:
While disciples of Christ can be delivered from war, some disciples are called upon to suffer or die to stand as a witness against the wicked. This is a harsh reality not easily accepted or understood. Elder Neal A. Maxwell (1926–2004) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles reminded us that “the faithful will not be totally immune from the events on this planet.”9 President Hinckley acknowledged that some of us “may even be called on to suffer.”10
Read the whole thing.

Isaac Heads for New Orleans

The AP reports (h/t Drudge) that Isaac is headed for New Orleans. However, the storm will not be as severe as Katrina. 
The Gulf Coast region has been saturated thanks to a wet summer, and some officials have worried more rain could make it easy for trees and power lines to fall over in the wet ground. Too much water also could flood crops, and wind could topple plants such as corn and cotton.

"A large, slow-moving system is going to pose a lot of problems: winds, flooding, storm surge and even potentially down the road river flooding," said Richard Knabb, director of the National Hurricane Center in Miami. "That could happen for days after the event."

The storm's potential for destruction was not lost on Alabama farmer Bert Driskell, who raises peanuts, cotton, wheat, cattle and sod on several thousand acres near Grand Bay, in Mobile County.

"We don't need a lot of water this close to harvest," Driskell said.

However, Isaac could bring some relief to places farther inland where farmers have struggled with drought. It also may help replenish a Mississippi River that has at times been so low that barge traffic is halted so engineers can scrape the bottom to deepen it.

Forecasters predicted Isaac would intensify into a Category 2 hurricane, with winds of about 100 mph, by early Wednesday around the time it's expected to make landfall. The current forecast track has the storm aimed at New Orleans, but hurricane warnings extended across 280 miles from Morgan City, La., to the Florida-Alabama state line. It could become the first hurricane to hit the Gulf Coast since 2008.
 


Sunday, August 26, 2012

"The Rise and Fall of Sexual Promiscuity"

Interesting article from Forbes:
The study highlights several current theories of pair-bonding: instead of fighting, male hominids began to devote effort to caring for offspring, protecting their mate, or provisioning food for sex. But Gavrilets builds mathematical models to show how each of these hypotheticals leads to a “sub-optimal” outcome—how “investing more in offspring means that there is more paternity for other males to steal.” Run the model, and instead of choosing cooperation, the males will choose to fight. It’s not the outcome any one male desires, but the free-rider problem effectively “traps” the whole group in a benighted state.

Gavrilets proposes a modification to existing theory. What if we assume that males began to provide for one—and only one—female, and females, likewise, began to depend on a sole mate for food and help with childcare? First, not all men are created equal; there are few Ryan Goslings and many Kevin Redmons. The weaker among us quickly learned the futility of direct competition, and turned to “alternative reproductive strategies” to spread our genes. (I may not be a dreamboat, baby, but I’ll bring you coffee in bed.) Second, females make choices. Whereas previous models ascribe females a passive role, Gavrilets asserts that “because they receive direct benefits from provisioning males, females should be choosy, and they may become, to some extent, faithful” to their providers.

Promiscuity is a funny thing in nature. Despite what your mother and youth pastor spent so many years telling you, sleeping around has real (genetic) benefits. Polyandry—in which females take more than one mate—allows for better gene diversity, boots the likelihood of fertilization, decreases infanticide, and means more male providers. Gavrilets acknowledges that in switching from promiscuity to monogamy, females actually risked lower fertility. The tradeoff was security.

When he runs the model again, with these two assumptions in place, the outcome is different: instead of a spiral into violent competition, male provisioning and female faithfulness “co-evolve in a self-reinforcing manner.” Males escape the “social dilemma” and pair-bonding replaces promiscuity.
The issue is: If promiscuity among females were to increase, would it eventually cause an increase in "violent competition" among men? Anecdotal evidence would suggest it does (e.g., bar fights over women).

Chinese Steel Prices Plummet

From the Via Meadia blog:
The latest sign that China’s economy is slowing dramatically? A plunge in the price of steel and iron ore. The Financial Times has the numbers:
Hot rolled steel, an industry benchmark, traded at Rmb3,562 ($560) a tonne this week, having tumbled 19 per cent since April to its lowest level in almost three years.
The collapse in steel prices is already roiling the industry:
Last month the China Iron and Steel Association said domestic steelmakers saw profits plunge 96 per cent in the first half compared with a year ago, turning the industry into a “disaster zone”. . . .

According to Reuters, Chinese steel mills have either defaulted on supply contracts or deferred shipment of up to 4m tonnes of iron ore this month following the fall in prices.
Meanwhile, investors are taking money out of the country, exports have hit a six-month low and growth forecasts are down considerably.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

"Sword Fighting: Not What You Think It Is"

From io9:
Fortunately, during the Medieval and Renaissance eras, hundreds of detailed instructional manuals were produced by expert Masters of Defense. These knights and professional instructors in arms wrote and illustrated immense technical treatises and books on their "science of self-defense." Intended to preserve their secrets or instruct their students and patrons, these little-known works, some in excess of six hundred pages, represent time-capsules of the actual fighting systems and proven combative disciplines used at the time. Focused mostly on swordsmanship, these handbooks and study guides reveal highly sophisticated combat teachings. Further, their content and presentation is unmatched by any martial-arts literature from anywhere in the world. And we have dozens of them.

Only recently in the last decade or so has this extraordinary and all but forgotten material finally come to be properly examined and studied. Reconstruction of these remarkable teachings offers an unparalleled view into how fighting men prepared and trained themselves for duels, street-fights, and battlefield encounters. Their manner of fighting with swords is not the classical Western style we see today, which is largely a contrived 19th-century gentleman's version of a narrow, aristocratic Baroque style. What the surviving sources show us is wholly different from the familiar pop-culture version, as well as being dramatically distinct from what has gone on for years in assorted reenactments and contrived living-history efforts. Rather, Medieval and Renaissance sword fighting was a hell of a lot more violent, brutal, ferocious, and astonishingly effective. The way in which these swords were held, the way they can be maneuvered, and the postures and motions involved, differ substantially from common presumptions and modern-era fencing styles.
Read the whole thing. (This article was originally published on the Association for Renaissance Martial Arts website).

I think that one of the greatest tragedies of Western civilization is the loss of our martial arts history and knowledge. Not only swordsmanship, but the magnificent unarmed combat schools of the Greeks and Romans, and, more recently, the knife fighting schools and methods that developed here in the United States in the early 1800s oriented around the use of the Bowie knife. It is nice to know that there are people trying to preserve and recreate these arts.

The author of the article, John Clements, has published a book on Renaissance fencing called Renaissance Swordsmanship.

New Orleans at Risk from Isaac?

Brendan Loy (the Weather Nerd) notes that the latest computer models show Isaac hitting New Orleans. He also reminds us that the model's predictions often change.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Info Wars: TSA Exceeding Its Mandate

As we have previously documented, airport security style checkpoints and inspection procedures are already in place at bus terminals, train stations, and are rapidly being expanded to the streets of America.

Agents have even been spotted roaming around at public events such as sports games and music concerts, and even at high school proms.

The TSA even moved beyond its own borders this summer as agents were dispatched to airports in London for the Olympic Games.

The TSA has also announced its intention to expand the VIPR program to include roadside inspections of commercial vehicles, setting up a network of internal checkpoints and rolling out security procedures already active in airports, bus terminals and subway stations to roads and highways across the United States.

These internal checkpoints, run by Homeland Security, the Department of Transportation, and the TSA, involve trucks being scanned with backscatter x-ray devices in the name of “safety” and “counter terrorism”.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

American Thinker--By Any Means Necessary

The Ulsterman Report's interview with the Military Insider is mentioned in this article, "Will Obama Keep Power 'By Any Means Necessary'?" at the American Thinker.

White House Insider Warns of Possible False Flag at GOP Convention (Updated)

Over at the Ulsterman Report, the White House Insider is warning of a possible false flag--i.e., arranged or engineered protest or disturbance--just prior to the GOP Convention, possibly involving V.P. Biden's trip to Tampa.

Update (Aug. 23): CNN: "Agencies warn of possible anarchists activity at convention":
Law enforcement officials are concerned about possible violence by anarchist extremists at the upcoming Republican and Democratic national conventions, according to an intelligence bulletin prepared by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

The bulletin, which was obtained by CNN, says that anarchists could try to use improvised explosive devices.

It also says that, as of March, the FBI had intelligence indicating individuals from New York "planned to travel to Tampa and attempt to close" all of the Tampa Bay-area bridges during the Republican National Convention next week.

According to the document, the FBI's information as of March showed that anarchist extremists proposed "engaging in potentially destructive criminal activities against critical infrastructure outside the security perimeter throughout the Tampa Bay region because they expected access to the main RNC venue to be tightly controlled."
Update (Aug. 25): I guess I should have noted why I consider the Anarchists to be an arm of the Obama campaign: In 2008, the AFL-CIO coordinated the Anarchists:
University of Minnesota staff were key coordinators of the recent violent protests at the Republican National Convention (RNC). The university employees are also members of the local clerical union of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees. The AFSCME is part of the AFL-CIO union.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Evidence of Chinese Economic Problems

Because of the press of work and other commitments, I am taking a short hiatus from blogging--probably one to two weeks. However, I wanted to share a few interesting articles on China that I've come across the past several days.

The first is from the Diplomat, entitled "Superpower Denied?" The gist of the article is that China has systemic problems that, if not corrected, will result in the last several representing the apex of Chinese power (at least in the next several decades). The author writes:
... Has China's rise peaked?

If one were to pose this question a few years ago, he would probably be laughed out of the room. The conventional wisdom then was that China's rise was certain to continue. But today, this question is very much on everyone's mind.

What has changed?

Almost everything.

If one has to take a position, it may be reasonable to argue that the Beijing Olympics in 2008 symbolically marked the peaking of Chinese power. Everything began to go downhill afterwards. Caught up in the global economic crisis, the Chinese economy has never fully recovered its momentum. To be sure, Beijing's stimulus package of 2008-2009, fueled by deficit spending and a proliferation of credit, managed to avoid a recession and produce one more year of double-digit growth in 2010. For awhile, Beijing's ability to keep its economic growth high was lauded around the world as a sign of its strong leadership and resilience. Little did we know that China paid a huge price for a misguided and wasteful stimulus program. The bulk of its stimulus package, roughly $1.5 trillion (with two-thirds in the form of loans from state-owned banks), was squandered on fixed-asset investments, such as infrastructure, factories, and commercial real estate. As a result, many of these projects are not economically viable and will saddle the banking system with a mountain of non-performing loans. The real estate bubble has maintained its froth. The macroeconomic imbalance between investment and household consumption has barely improved. Today, Chinese economic policy-makers are hamstrung in trying to revive economic growth. The combination of local government indebtedness, massive bad loans hidden in the banking system, anemic external demand, and diminishing returns from investments has made it all but impossible for Beijing to use the same old economic playbook to fire up the economy.
Short-term difficulties are not the least of Beijing's worries. In the coming decade, many of the favorable structural factors that have helped power China's double-digit growth in the past two decades are going to disappear. Topping the list is the demographics. The proportion of the Chinese population of working age peaked in 2011 and has started decreasing in 2012, according to a RAND study. At the same time, the share of the elderly in the population is beginning to rise rapidly.
The latter issue is the birth-dearth conundrum faced by many developed (and developing countries)--that they will become old before they become rich--due to costs for caring for the elderly while, at the same time, the number of workers supporting them declines. (The situation is, of course, aggravated when you have high unemployment rates, such as Spain and Greece, where more than half of young adults are unemployed; meaning that the number of workers supporting "pensioners" is less than it otherwise could be).

Anyway, the article goes on to summarize other problems facing China, including severe environmental degradation (having failed to realize the simple truth that you should not defecate where you sleep), the extreme legal and political bias favoring state-owned enterprises over private businesses, increasing resistance to its growing power by neighboring countries (although I suspect that China's "Vietnam" will be in Africa, Latin America or the old standby, Afghanistan), and increased political agitation within China.

On a related note is the article "You'll Never Be Chinese" at Prospect Magazine. The author, who lived in China in the 1980's as a student, and since 1996 as a businessman, relates:
When I returned to China in 1996, to begin the life and career I had long dreamed about, I found the familiar air of optimism, but there was a subtle difference: a distinct whiff of commerce in place of community. The excitement was more like the eager anticipation I felt once I had signed a deal (I began my China career as a metals trader), sure that I was going to bank a profit, rather than the thrill that something truly big was about to happen.

A deal had been struck. Deng had promised the Chinese people material wealth they hadn’t known for centuries on the condition that they never again asked for political change. The Party said: “Trust us and everything will be all right.”

Twenty years later, everything is not all right.

* * *

Modern day mainland Chinese society is focused on one object: money and the acquisition thereof. The politically correct term in China is “economic benefit.” The country and its people, on average, are far wealthier than they were 25 years ago. Traditional family culture, thanks to 60 years of self-serving socialism followed by another 30 of the “one child policy,” has become a “me” culture. Except where there is economic benefit to be had, communities do not act together, and when they do it is only to ensure equal financial compensation for the pollution, or the government-sponsored illegal land grab, or the poisoned children. Social status, so important in Chinese culture and more so thanks to those 60 years of communism, is defined by the display of wealth. Cars, apartments, personal jewellery, clothing, pets: all must be new and shiny, and carry a famous foreign brand name. In the small rural village where we live I am not asked about my health or that of my family, I am asked how much money our small business is making, how much our car cost, our dog.

The trouble with money of course, and showing off how much you have, is that you upset the people who have very little. Hence the Party’s campaign to promote a “harmonious society,” its vast spending on urban and rural beautification projects, and reliance on the sale of “land rights” more than personal taxes.

Once you’ve purchased the necessary baubles, you’ll want to invest the rest somewhere safe, preferably with a decent return—all the more important because one day you will have to pay your own medical bills and pension, besides overseas school and college fees. But there is nowhere to put it except into property or under the mattress. The stock markets are rigged, the banks operate in a way that is non-commercial, and the yuan is still strictly non-convertible. While the privileged, powerful and well-connected transfer their wealth overseas via legally questionable channels, the remainder can only buy yet more apartments or thicker mattresses. The result is the biggest property bubble in history, which when it pops will sound like a thousand firework accidents.

In brief, Chinese property prices have rocketed; owning a home has become unaffordable for the young urban workers; and vast residential developments continue to be built across the country whose units are primarily sold as investments, not homes. If you own a property you are more than likely to own at least three. Many of our friends do. If you don’t own a property, you are stuck.

When the bubble pops, or in the remote chance that it deflates gradually, the wealth the Party gave the people will deflate too. The promise will have been broken. And there’ll still be the medical bills, pensions and school fees. The people will want their money back, or a say in their future, which amounts to a political voice. If they are denied, they will cease to be harmonious.

Meanwhile, what of the ethnic minorities and the factory workers, the people on whom it is more convenient for the government to dispense overwhelming force rather than largesse? If an outburst of ethnic or labour discontent coincides with the collapse of the property market, and you throw in a scandal like the melamine tainted milk of 2008, or a fatal train crash that shows up massive, high level corruption, as in Wenzhou in 2011, and suddenly the harmonious society is likely to become a chorus of discontent.

How will the Party deal with that? How will it lead?
How indeed.

Finally, this article from Yahoo! Finance which notes:
Just a few years after Chinese companies lined up to sell shares on Wall Street, a growing number are reversing course and pulling out of U.S. exchanges.

This week, Focus Media Holding Ltd., announced its chairman and private equity firms want to buy back its U.S.-traded shares and take the Shanghai-based advertising company private. The deal would value Focus Media at $3.5 billion, according to financial information firm Dealogic.

Smaller companies also are withdrawing from U.S. exchanges. In a sign of official encouragement, a Chinese business magazine said a state bank has provided $1 billion in loans to help companies with listings abroad move them to domestic exchanges.

The withdrawals follow accusations of improper accounting by some companies and a deadlock between Beijing and Washington over whether U.S. regulators can oversee their China-based auditors.

Some Chinese companies say they are pulling out of U.S. markets because a low share price fails to reflect the strength of their business. Withdrawing also eliminates the cost of complying with American financial reporting rules.
At first blush, this article could be interpreted as a slam against the U.S. economy--that it is not strong enough to support Chinese companies. But this is not the issue. It is the financial reporting rules.

Despite what the MSM would have you believe, the U.S. actually requires a higher level of financial transparency for the benefit of investors than most any other country in the world. Thus, publicly traded companies must not only comply with SEC regulations on necessary disclosures (as well as rules prohibiting insider trading), but must also produce financial statements that comply with GAAP (generally accepted accounting principles) and comply with the rules of the whichever exchange on which their stock is traded.

I suppose that "costs" of compliance may be a factor, but I suspect strongly that the real reason is that the Chinese companies don't want the transparency.  The question is: Why don't they want the transparency? It could be a culture of corruption in the management of the companies. It could also be that they don't want to release details of bad debts and investments, or declining revenue, or other financial ills that would otherwise have to be disclosed. The fact that the Chinese government is helping bail them out makes the latter more plausible.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Drought Causing Food Prices to Rise

Food prices are expected to surge after the worst drought in the U.S. for half a century destroyed one-sixth of the country's expected corn crop over the past month.

The hottest July in U.S. history has caused irreparable damage to crops, forcing corn farmers to abandon fields greater in area than Belgium and Luxembourg.

Soyabeans, which are used for animal feed and to make vegetable oil, have also been affected, with this harvest likely to be the worst for five years.

The crisis has prompted the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) to forecast record-breaking price rises, and some of the world's largest food manufacturers, including Kraft, Tyson and Nestle, have already indicated that they will pass on the increase to consumers.

USDA now expects 10.8billion bushels of corn to be produced this year - 2.2billion bushels less than the projection it made last month.

USDA chief economist Joseph Glauber told the Financial Times: 'We're going to see very high prices.'

The problem could have far-reaching consequences internationally.

In 2007-08, high food costs led to riots in more than 30 countries, but Jose Graziano da Silva, the director general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, said the current crisis was not as severe.

'We do not have the demand pressure from China and India as five years ago.'
(Full story here).

The Age of Cheats

From Forbes (h/t Instapundit):
Cheating in sports is but a single facet of the cheating that’s rampant today in everything from education to finance to government. The financial meltdown of 2008 was a bonfire of bad behavior on all sides. Fannie Mae is built on the lie that every American is capable of paying a mortgage. Mortgage lenders steered victims into loans they could never pay. But the victims were not all innocent. Many lied on loan applications, claiming incomes they never had.

President Obama wrote a biography based on fabrications, which he admitted to this year. The oddest of those lies concern the “girlfriend” he now says was a “compression” of real people. Even small lies reveal character.

A new and growing form of cheating is taking place in our high schools. During tests, particularly SATs, kids are popping speed and prescription drugs meant to treat attention-deficit disorder. Anything for an edge.

Make no mistake, our Age of Cheats is a sign of rot. The U.S. government fudges its numbers (by way of the monetary printing press). Our politicians call reduced growth rates “cuts in spending.” Our biggest banks take obscene risks and cry poor when they don’t work out. But we’ve risen above moral rot before. The U.S. has transcended slavery and civil war, as well as periods of rampant corruption and paralyzing resentment.

Let’s hope the Age of Cheats is drawing to a close, because a full recovery won’t be possible until it’s over.
Ezra Taft Benson spoke of the decline in public morality at the April 1987 General Conference, and parallels with the decline of the Nephites. He said:
The record of the Nephite history just prior to the Savior’s visit reveals many parallels to our own day as we anticipate the Savior’s second coming. The Nephite civilization had reached great heights. They were prosperous and industrious. They had built many cities with great highways connecting them. They engaged in shipping and trade. They built temples and palaces.

But, as so often happens, the people rejected the Lord. Pride became commonplace. Dishonesty and immorality were widespread. Secret combinations flourished because, as Helaman tells us, the Gadianton robbers “had seduced the more part of the righteous until they had come down to believe in their works and partake of their spoils” (Hel. 6:38). “The people began to be distinguished by ranks, according to their riches and their chances for learning” (3 Ne. 6:12). And “Satan had great power, unto the stirring up of the people to do all manner of iniquity, and to the puffing them up with pride, tempting them to seek for power, and authority, and riches, and the vain things of the world,” even as today (3 Ne. 6:15).

"10 Things Gun Guys Never Say"

Some gun humor from the Daily Caller:
Every gun guy knows the list of things you should never do with a gun. Don’t point it at anything you don’t intend to shoot for instance . If you have been around gun guys as long as I have you can spot a wanna-be gun guy quickly. Sometimes it’s their actions, other times it’s with their words. Here are 10 statements a real gun guy will never say.
I like No. 4: "John Moses Browning? John Moses Browning? Nope, never heard of him. What did he do?"

Thursday, August 9, 2012

145 Cases of Swine Flu Since July

Nothing to be worried about now, but just a reminder of how malleable viruses can be.
On Thursday, the CDC confirmed 145 human cases of H3N2v since July, most of them involving persons exhibiting pigs, their family members, or people visiting fairs where swine are present.

"At this point, there's no evidence of sustained, efficient human to human spread in the community," Bresee said.

Of the 145 cases reported nationally, 113 are in Indiana, 30 in Ohio, one in Hawaii and one in Illinois.

Children appear to be most susceptible to the virus and account for the vast majority of cases. So far, the cases have been generally mild, with most patients exhibiting symptoms similar to seasonal flu and usually recovering on their own.

Two patients required hospitalization, but have since been discharged. There have been no deaths reported in connection with this particular outbreak which began in July.

India Planning On Launching Ballistic Missile Submarines

It was inevitable, I suppose:
INS Arihant, planned to be the first of five submarines of its class, will be ready to begin sea trials, said Admiral Nirmal Verma, the navy commander. When the vessel eventually becomes operational, India will be able to launch nuclear missiles from the sea, land and air, joining a handful of countries possessing the "nuclear triad".

The strategic aim is to deter China and Pakistan and establish India as the leading power in the Indian Ocean.

* * *

INS Arihant will carry the K-15 ballistic missile, which carries a nuclear warhead. However, this weapon has a relatively modest range of less than 500 miles, raising questions about its ability to hit a target in China.

* * *

He pointed out that India is also planning to launch six nuclear-powered attack submarines, adding that within seven years the country should have a varied fleet which would, in theory, be able to block Chinese access to the Indian Ocean via the Strait of Malacca. "They could be sitting off Karachi – or China. It's an investment for the future," said Mr Guruswamy. 

(Full story here).

500 miles may not seem much, but it is sufficient to reach the major Chinese cities if parked somewhere off the coast of China...or detonate high over China to produce an EMP burst. Probably more importantly to India, though--at least over the short run--is that it is sufficient to threaten Pakistan.

Conflicting Claims Over the South China Sea

I've blogged before about the increasing tensions between China and other nations (most recently, the Philippines) over the South China Sea. The Economist has a nice overview of the issues. Notable points:
Tensions in the sea have mounted this year, especially between China and the Philippines on the one hand, and between China and the Vietnam on the other. Although there has not been a serious armed clash in the sea since 1988, and none is likely now, there are worries that in the current climate some low-level confrontation might escalate by accident.  

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Barbarization of Mexico

Small Wars Journal has an article, written in 2011, that discusses the increasing barbarization of Mexico. (The article is a PDF that you can download here). The authors make the following observation:

Perhaps the most prominent element of Mexico’s narcoviolence is the increasing tempo of atrocity. Daily media reports recount beheadings, dismemberments, persons hung from bridges, the discovery of mass graves (narcofosas), grenade attacks, drive-by shootings, rape and
femicide, running gun battles in the streets, assassinations of police, mayors, and journalists. Refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are increasingly a factor in the conflict. While illegal immigration to the US as a whole has declined, a quiet exodus of affluent Mexicans across the border is emerging. Meanwhile, one in three murder victims go unidentified and few cases reach prosecution, highlighting a state of impunity.
In one recent example of atrocity, a casino in Monterrey—Casino Royale—was the scene of a deadly assault on Thursday 25 August 2011. Initially pegged as a grenade attack, it was in fact an arson attack where a group of at least eight assailants (believed to be linked to Los Zetas) poured gasoline inside the casino before setting it on fire, trapping dozens of people inside and killing 52 people. The brutality of the attack shocked Mexico and led to the government to characterize it as an act of terrorism. In a nationally televised speech, an angry President Felipe Calderón declared three days of mourning on Friday and labeled the attack—the worst against civilians in the nation's recent history—an act of “terrorism.” In Calderón’s words, "We are not
confronting common criminals... We are facing true terrorists who have gone beyond all limits."
 
It is easy to lose sight of the violence’s human toll in the debate over insurgency tactics, flurry of statistics, and high-profile events like the casino attack. One of the most saddening cultural artifacts of the drug war is a video of a Mexican schoolteacher keeping her students close to the ground while gunfire rages outside. She leads them in song to try to keep them calm while simultaneously keeping their heads down from stray gunfire. Such daily descriptions of horror belie assertions that Mexico’s ongoing conflict with drug cartels is mere criminality.
Just as an example, here is a recent article posted at Borderland Beat about increased violence and collapse of the rule of law in the Tarahumara Mountains:
At the municipality, the local area's government center, the inhabitants have turned their homes into "tanquetas" (light armored vehicles) and live with the uncertainty that at any moment and at any hour, they will see armed men, with or without hoods, come to fight with each other or with the townspeople.

On weekends, teachers, medical personnel and residents leave the town, because the violence gets worse on those days.

"When we return, we find out there have been murders, abductions (levantamientos), kidnappings. Ransom demands are made in millions of pesos, generally 5 million pesos. People work hard to get the money together, it's very common for them to work the gum opium (la goma); they sell it and resell it and get the money," explains one of the town's school teachers.

People get together early in the day and behind closed doors to celebrate birthdays. "There's so much fear, that you lock the door, and if somebody knocks you don't open the door or ask who it is until you hear the voice of whoever is knocking. Or, if they come to visit, they have to call ahead by phone to warn you. Schools are always locked up, kids only go out for recess, and they don't leave until their parents come (for them). Only a few are allowed to leave by themselves because they live close by," he emphasizes.

According to the teacher, more than half of the students in one of the grade schools are orphaned of either a mother or father. In fact, there are class groups in which out of 23 students, 18 are orphans, since women are also murdered because they're the partners of men involved with criminal groups, he points out.
Read the whole thing.

Bad News from the Consumer Sector

Sometimes in the midst of all the economic news we here, it is easy to forget the importance of the consumer "sector". Even when the MSM reports on consumers, it is "consumer confidence" that is focused on, and not whether consumers actually have the disposable income to make consumer purchases.

I came across a couple articles a few days ago at Business Insider on the related topic of where consumer spending is going. First is this one on "The Fate of the U.S. Economy Depends on Two Things":
As always, you should read New Deal Democrat's take on the latest weekly high-frequency economic data.

The gist is that things are mixed: Employment data is okay. Housing data is good. Consumer data is bad.

In fact, you can see from this chart that retail spending is threatening to roll over in a way that we haven't seen yet since the last recession. It's not decisive, and the year-over-year growth is still positive, but it is worrisome.
The author suggests looking at two factors to determine where consumers are going to go: energy prices and personal income. I can already tell you where it is going because energy prices are guaranteed to rise, and personal income (for those still with jobs) is largely stagnant.

On to the second article, titled "The American Consumer Rebellion is Gaining Speed":
Despite the Fed’s insistence that inflation is “contained,” or its periodic fear-mongering about deflation, consumers have been hit with rising costs. Tuition has been ballooning—up 21% in California in 2011 alone! Student loan balances exceed $1 trillion. Some parents who are still paying for their own student loans are now watching their kids piling them up too [read.... Next: Bankruptcy for a whole Generation].

Healthcare expenses have seen a meteoric rise. And so have many other items that cut deep into the average budget.

Inflation is a special tax. It’s not that horrid if it’s small, if higher yields compensate investors and savers for it, and if higher wages compensate workers for it. But that hasn’t been the case. The Fed’s Zero Interest Rate Policy has seen to it that entire classes of investors and savers get their clocks cleaned; and wages haven’t kept up with inflation since the wage peak of 2000—with the very logical but brutal goal of bringing wages in line with those in China.

But for a welcome change, disposable income adjusted for inflation, reported earlier this week, actually rose 0.3% in June from May. So spending should have gone up as well. It didn’t. The inexplicable American consumer spent less in June than in May. And April. The decline was focused on goods, the lowest since January.

And instead of buying goods with the additional money they’d earned, they saved! What temerity! It wasn’t a one-month fluke. The savings rate reached 4.4%, after a fairly consistent uptrend from the November low of 3.2%. An unusual and courageous act of rebellion in face of the punishment the Fed inflicts on savers.
The article goes on to note that sales of new cars is on a downward trend. Sales of GM and Ford have fallen, and the burst of sales for Toyota and Honda is largely due to pent up demand (because of supply chain problems caused by the earthquake in Japan last year, and flooding in Thailand) which is largely spent.

The most disturbing point of the article, however, is that the Commerce Department is towing the party line rather than exhibiting any independent thought.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Best Wishes for the Landing of the Curiosity Rover Tonight

The landing is supposed to be at 10:31 PDT.

Second Half of the White House Insider Interview

The Ulsterman Report has the second half of the recent interview with the White House Insider:
WHI: As long as it takes to get it done right son. You don’t know how…how difficult this kinda thing can be. This administration…these people around Obama – they got no fear on this stuff. Cold blooded. During the Clinton years…hell…things were done. Yeah…things that leave me wondering…we all got blood on our hands. Some more than others. How’d I put that to you before – you don’t ever wanna do the things I’ve done?

But these Obama people…they are different. A whole other level. Never seen anything like it. There’s stuff I won’t ever tell you. Never. You don’t want that kinda knowledge son. You throw out a question like how many people been killed under Eric Holder? Sh-t…you don’t even know what you’r askin’. You got no f-cking idea how far these people will go to keep pushin’ this agenda of theirs. Everything I told you was coming – now it’s here. The dismantling of the American system. The drones, the race riots, the promises to other countries…the open borders, the destruction of our domestic energy productions, the Obama government at war with the Catholic Church…the massive inflation that is just perched above us waiting to fall down on all our heads…so much sh-t they got ready to fire at us. That second term…that’s their moment. Obamacare, the deficit…cities going under…military cutbacks…I can’t keep track of it all it’s going on so damn fast now. This election coming up – people better know…they ain’t messing around now. This is the real f-cking deal right here. Right now.
Read the whole thing.

The War on Christianity (Updated)

The American Spectator has an article on the anti-Christian bias of the Obama Administration. 
Get out of the military, get out of major cities -- this is the voice of Obama's commissars from San Francisco to Boston in his war on the religious. He is building a secularist and socialist animal farm in which no higher power exists than the will of the new Napoleons.

Socialism and secularism overlap in Obama's political philosophy. He can see that religion is the natural rival of the state, an obstacle that must be destroyed or coopted if he is to succeed in his central planning. For the key to central planning is coerced universal participation. No one can be allowed to leave the animal farm. This is why, even though it makes little political sense, he will not expand the religious exemption beyond purely sectarian organizations. If he were to concede that the right to religious freedom trumps his invented right to "reproductive services," his animal farm would stall and collapse.

Even Americans who don't support organized religion should see that it serves as an important buffer to the overweening state, and that the extinction of freedom for those groups will one day imperil their own. When government replaces God, its pitilessness affects everyone.

On August 1, all employers, whether they realize it or not, became cogs in Obama's socialist and secularist machine. If they refuse to subsidize the sex lives of their employees, Obama can now bankrupt them through punitive fines. The fine is up to $100 per employee, per day, according to an estimate by the Congressional Research Service. The official position of Obama's Justice Department in defense of this fiat is that businessmen lose their religious liberty the moment they decide to open their doors to the public. Their money and their consciences belong to the government.
Read the whole thing.

Update:

After reading this, I thought of a recent op-ed from the New York Times on defining religious freedom down:
THE words “freedom of belief” do not appear in the First Amendment. Nor do the words “freedom of worship.” Instead, the Bill of Rights guarantees Americans something that its authors called “the free exercise” of religion.

It’s a significant choice of words, because it suggests a recognition that religious faith cannot be reduced to a purely private or individual affair. Most religious communities conceive of themselves as peoples or families, and the requirements of most faiths extend well beyond attendance at a sabbath service — encompassing charity and activism, education and missionary efforts, and other “exercises” that any guarantee of religious freedom must protect.

I cannot improve upon the way the first lady of the United States explained this issue, speaking recently to a conference of the African Methodist Episcopal Church. “Our faith journey isn’t just about showing up on Sunday,” Michelle Obama said. “It’s about what we do Monday through Saturday as well ... Jesus didn’t limit his ministry to the four walls of the church. He was out there fighting injustice and speaking truth to power every single day.”

But Mrs. Obama’s words notwithstanding, there seems to be a great deal of confusion about this point in the Western leadership class today.

You can see this confusion at work in the Obama White House’s own Department of Health and Human Services, which created a religious exemption to its mandate requiring employers to pay for contraception, sterilization and the days-after pill that covers only churches, and treats religious hospitals, schools and charities as purely secular operations. The defenders of the H.H.S. mandate note that it protects freedom of worship, which indeed it does. But a genuine free exercise of religion, not so much.

A similar spirit was at work across the Atlantic last month, when a judge in Cologne, Germany, banned circumcision as a violation of a newborn’s human rights. Here again, defenders of the decision insisted that it didn’t trample on any Jew’s or Muslim’s freedom of belief. But of course to be an adult Jew in good standing, as The Washington Post’s Charles Lane pointed out, one must circumcise one’s son at 8 days old. So while the ruling would not technically outlaw Jewish theology or Jewish worship, it would effectively outlaw Judaism itself.

Now we have the great Chick-fil-A imbroglio, in which mayors and an alderman in several American cities threatened to prevent the delicious chicken chain from opening new outlets because its Christian president told an interviewer that he supports “the biblical definition of the family unit.” Their conceit seemed to be that the religious liberties afforded to congregations (no official, to my knowledge, has threatened to close down any Chicago churches) do not extend to religious businessmen. Or alternatively, it was that while a businessman may have the right to his private beliefs, the local zoning committee has veto power over how those beliefs are exercised and expressed.

I have described all these incidents as resulting from confusion about what freedom of religion actually entails. But of course every freedom has its limits. We do not allow people to exercise beliefs that require, say, forced marriage or honor killing. You can believe in the gods of 15th-century Mesoamerica, but neither Chicago values nor American ones permit the use of Aztec sacrificial altars on the South Side.

To the extent that the H.H.S. mandate, the Cologne ruling and the Chick-fil-A controversy reflect a common logic rather than a shared confusion, then, it’s a logic that regards Western monotheism’s ideas about human sexuality — all that chastity, monogamy, male-female business — as similarly incompatible with basic modern freedoms.

Like a belief that the gods want human sacrifice, these ideas are permissible if held in private. But they cannot be exercised in ways that might deny, say, employer-provided sterilizations to people who really don’t want kids. Nor can they be exercised to deny one’s offspring the kind of sexual gratification that anti-circumcision advocates claim the procedure makes impossible. They certainly cannot be exercised in ways that might make anyone uncomfortable with his or her own sexual choices or identity.

It may seem strange that anyone could look around the pornography-saturated, fertility-challenged, family-breakdown-plagued West and see a society menaced by a repressive puritanism. But it’s clear that this perspective is widely and sincerely held.

It would be refreshing, though, if it were expressed honestly, without the “of course we respect religious freedom” facade.

If you want to fine Catholic hospitals for following Catholic teaching, or prevent Jewish parents from circumcising their sons, or ban Chick-fil-A in Boston, then don’t tell religious people that you respect our freedoms. Say what you really think: that the exercise of our religion threatens all that’s good and decent, and that you’re going to use the levers of power to bend us to your will.

There, didn’t that feel better? Now we can get on with the fight.
However, if Christians lose this war on Christian values, it will not go well for the victors. We were studying Chapter 36 of Alma today. There, Alma teaches his son, Helaman, "that inasmuch as ye shall keep the commandments of God ye shall prosper in the land; and ye ought to know also, that inasmuch as ye will not keep the commandments of God ye shall be cut off from his presence." Alma 36:30. Also, in 2 Nephi: "Wherefore, this land is consecrated unto him whom he shall bring. And if so be that they shall serve him according to the commandments which he had given, it shall be a land of liberty unto them; wherefore, they shall never be brought down into captivity; if so, it shall be because of iniquity; for if iniquity shall abound cursed shall be the land for their sakes, but unto the righteous it shall be blessed forever." 2 Nephi 1:7. See also 3 Nephi 21:12-29. God doesn't punish peoples merely through natural disasters, or even miraculous disasters. Often, it is by allowing the wicked to destroy themselves.

The Libor Scandal

The Libor and Euribor (Euro Interbank Offered Rate) are used worldwide as the benchmark rates for financial transactions worth hundreds of trillions of euros. When a savings bank issues a loan to a business at a variable interest rate, the loan agreement is based on the Euribor. "In many cases, the Euribor is even the key guideline for the structuring of call money," says Falko Fecht, a professor at the Frankfurt School of Finance, referring to overnight and other such short-term loans. In Spain, in particular, tens of thousands of construction loans are based on the Euribor, while millions of mortgage loans in the United States are pegged to the Libor rate.
What happened?
They [the banking cartel] wanted to influence the giant market for interest rate and foreign currency derivatives in their favor. The volume of outstanding transactions in this area amounted to €567 trillion at the end of 2011 alone. Changes of as little as 0.01 percentage points can translate into hundreds of millions in profit or loss for some banks. This makes the lax approach to the calculation of rates taken for years by banks and regulators alike seem all the more astonishing.
According to the article, in the middle of the 2000's, traders began to conspire to fix the Libor:
Moryoussef traded in interest rate derivatives during his time at Barclays. He and his fellow traders knew exactly how much money they stood to lose or gain if the Libor or Euribor changed by only a fraction of a percentage point in one direction or the other.

And they apparently did everything they could to eliminate happenstance. Moryoussef communicated by phone or email with colleagues inside and outside the bank almost daily to steer interest rates in the right direction. To do so, they sent inquiries to the people who were responsible for inputting the Libor rates: the money market traders.

In the glitzy world of investment banking, money market traders were at the bottom of the pecking order before the financial crisis. They were not involved in major deals, and they could only dream of the kinds of bonuses stock and bond traders received. "They were always at the bottom of the food chain," says a former investment banker.

It was a conspiratorial group of underdogs who worked for various banks and met at least once a month for a beer or a mojito in New York, London or Frankfurt. By the middle of the last decade, when there seemed to be a surplus of money at the banks, they all had the same problem: They were derided or, worse yet, ignored by their colleagues in the trading rooms of major banks.

But what if it were possible to know where interest rates were headed at the end of the day, or even in the next hour? What if a few traders could manipulate the ups and downs of interest rates?

By 2005 at the latest, the traders would seem to have begun realizing just how much power they had were they able to collaborate within their small group. There was no need for formal contracts between large institutions, merely agreements among friends. A pointer here, a few traders meeting for lunch there, and soon the group had formed a global cartel that, according to investigators, reached from Japan to Europe to Canada.

* * *

While the traders were initially out to increase their bonuses, the manipulation took on a different dimension during the crisis. When the first banks began to wobble in 2007, it became more difficult for many financial companies to borrow money -- a problem that would normally be reflected in higher Libor rates.

Now even top managers at Barclays, alarmed by media reports, were instructing the Libor men to input lower rates. In October 2008, the manipulation became a question of survival for Barclays. On Oct. 29, a concerned Paul Tucker, now the deputy governor of the Bank of England, contacted Barclays CEO Diamond. Tucker wanted to know why the bank was consistently inputting such high interest rates into the daily Libor report.

Diamond told a parliamentary committee that Tucker had seemed to imply that lower interest rates be reported for the Libor, which Tucker staunchly denies. Diamond, for his part, prepared a transcript of the telephone conversation he had had with Tucker on that day, in which he had mentioned political pressure. After that, his chief operating officer spoke with the money market traders. The underdogs were suddenly being heard on the executive board, and had become the bank's potential saviors.

Barclays wasn't the only bank that was having trouble gaining access to money in the fall of 2008. UBS, Citigroup and the Royal Bank of Scotland, now prime suspects in addition to Barclays, had to be bailed out by their respective governments. Germany's WestLB, which was involved in the Libor calculation at the time, was also seen as a problem case, although this wasn't reflected in the Libor rates it was reporting.
Read the whole thing.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Fun in the Sun

Got a chance to go shooting today, including with the AK 74 I had built. (A few thoughts and lessons learned concerning the build are here and here). As long-time readers know, I had some extraction issues with this firearm last year, which appear to have been resolved. I haven't had any problems since.


As you can see, I used a tan U.S. made front stock and pistol grip from K-Var, as well as a folding metal stock from K-Var that was designed to fit into a standard trunnion and receiver. (I discuss 922r parts and options and what I used in the first part of my post on building the AK). I didn't like the standard AK sling--the front clip was noisy and scratched the finish. So I took an SKS sling with leather tabs, and trimmed the tab for the front sling loop so it would fit. Works great. Of course, now I have an AK sling that I don't need....

One of the problems with the metal folding stock is that it can get too hot (or cold, depending on the conditions), which is uncomfortable. I'd read that the Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan would wrap the stocks. The problem was trying to figure out what to use. I wanted something easy to apply, but that wouldn't slip around a lot. I had some Camo-Form wrap laying around (you can read my prior review of the wrap here), and decided to wrap the upper metal strut. It has worked out well.


I have several areas, including a public shooting range, that I shoot at depending on who I'm going with, whether I'm taking my dog, how long I expect to be out, whether the roads are passable, and my mood. The public shooting range is always crowded this time of year, so I tend to just find a place in the scrub that I can use. In winter, if I go shooting, I will use the public range because it is easier to get to.

This particular area is one that I hadn't used for a couple of years, and apparently neither had anyone else (the old refrigerator and plywood had already been there for years when I first stumbled across the site).

The stand is one that I put together with some odd pieces of PVC. The cardboard backing (just the lid from a photocopy paper box) fits into slots that I cut in the PVC tubing. As you can see, the right-side upright to hold the cardboard was the victim of an errant shot earlier this year. However, it still holds the cardboard backing. It's ugly and crude, but it works.

Florida Approaching 1 Million Permit Holders

The number of Floridians packing concealed weapons is booming and within a matter of weeks should hit the one million mark, making the state the first in the nation to reach that milestone in personal firepower.

That's the result of the state issuing between 10,000 and 12,000 carry permits a month.

"At the rate at which we are processing permits, we will sometime in the next six weeks to two months likely reach the million permit mark," Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam said Wednesday.

* * *

The upward trend in carry permit applications started about three years ago, coinciding with the election of President Barack Obama. "There always seems to be a concern when there's a change in federal administration, when there might be some attention placed on gun control laws," said Sterling Ivey, spokesman for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which handles carry permits.

"What was thought to be a spike has really turned into a sustained period of peak demand," Putnam said.

Men, mostly middle-aged, make up 80 percent of those carrying hidden guns, or about one in 20 of Florida's 19.3 million population. Of Florida's 952,000 total permit holders, the majority, 243,505, are between the ages of 51 and 65. About 11 percent of all permit holders are from out of state.

Gun sales in Florida have likewise risen, by 96 percent from 2002 to the end of 2011.
Speaking of using firearms in self-defense, here is a story of a recent armed robbery thwarted in California:
The [would-be thieves] pulled up to the store in a white Ford SUV and entered one by one, pointing their guns at the clerks and one customer.

They ordered everybody to drop to the ground, while opening up pillowcases and demanding cash in what was likely to be a violent smash-and-grab heist.

But the robbers were thwarted in their tracks when the 65-year-old storeowner heard the commotion from the back of the store.

She ran into the main room while firing two rounds, causing the men to panic and attempt to flee the store.

The one-minute incident, which was captured on surveillance camera, shows the men falling over and stumbling into each other as they try to open the door.
Video at the link posted above.

Detroit Has Become a Dumping Ground for Dead Bodies

Another chapter in the decline and collapse of Detroit:
Abandoned and neglected parts of the city are quickly becoming dumping grounds for the dead — at least a dozen bodies in the space of 12 months. And authorities acknowledge there is little they can do.

'You can shoot a person, dump a body and it may just go unsolved' because of the time it may take for the corpse to be found, Officer John Garner said.

The bodies have been purposely hidden or discarded in alleys, fields, vacant houses, abandoned garages and even a canal. Seven of the victims are believed to have been slain outside Detroit and then dumped within the city.

It's a pattern made possible by more than four decades of urban decay and suburban flight. White residents started moving to burgeoning suburbs in the 1950s, then stepped up their exodus after a deadly 1967 race riot. Detroit's black middle class followed over the next two decades, leaving block after block of empty homes.

Over time, tens of thousands of houses deteriorated. Some collapsed, others were demolished. Empty lots gave way to block-long fields.
 
* * *
Detroit has more than 30,000 vacant houses, and the deficit-strangled city has no resources of its own to level them. Mayor Dave Bing is promoting a plan to tear down as many as possible using federal money. The state is also contributing to the effort.

But it's hard to keep up. About a quarter-million people moved out of Detroit between 2000 and 2010, leaving just over 700,000 residents in a city built for 2 million.

Census figures from two years ago show 793 people living on Lyford and the other 20 or so streets near the Coleman A. Young airport. Two decades earlier, about 2,900 people lived there.
 (Full story here).

Australia Refuses to Base U.S. Carrier

Australia has risked a diplomatic bust-up with its closest ally America after rejecting a plan to base a U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier near Perth, the capital of Western Australia.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith ruled out the proposal yesterday, saying Australia does not want to host U.S. bases.

The plan, put forward in a Pentagon-commissioned report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested repositioning U.S. forces in the region by relocating an aircraft carrier from the U.S. East Coast.

Mr Smith said that while negotiations were underway to increase U.S. navy access to Australia's Indian Ocean base, HMAS Stirling, it would never become a U.S. military base.

'We have made it crystal clear from the first moment - we don't have United States military bases in Australia. We don't see the need for that,' Mr Smith told Australian Broadcasting Corp. television.
And why wouldn't they want the jobs that a new or expanded naval base would bring?

China - Australia's most important trade partner - has blasted the closer bilateral military ties as a return the Cold War divisions that risk the peace and security of the region.

Hugh White, head of Australian National University's Strategic and Defense Studies Center, noted that American combat troops had not been based in Australia since World War II and said that was unlikely to change in the future.

He said Chinese objections were the major reason why Australia was unlikely to ever allow U.S. bases on its soil.

'The government was surprised that China reacted as negatively as it has to the decision to have Marines rotate deployments through Darwin, and I think they'll be very careful not to risk further displeasure from China by doing anything that suggests they're supporting a U.S. military buildup in Asia,' Mr White said.