Thursday, June 30, 2016


Received via e-mail, source unknown:

Works for me!


This might be very good indeed

I'm looking forward with interest to a new documentary movie, 'Notes on Blindness'.

The Telegraph writes:

John Hull, a professor of religious education at Birmingham University, went blind in 1983, and spent much of that decade compiling detailed thoughts on the experience of sight loss – a condition he grieved at first, before finding in it much of philosophical value.

His book Touching the Rock, considered a masterpiece by no less an authority than the neurologist Oliver Sacks, is a collection of excerpts from the audio-cassette journal that John began to compile as a newly blind person, attempting to map out the strange new world confronting him.

Now those same recordings, a treasure trove of frontier thought on the subject, have formed the basis for Notes on Blindness, a fascinating documentary from the first-timer team of James Spinney and Peter Middleton.

The actor Dan Skinner, playing John behind a thick black beard and with his eyes typically closed, plays John by lip-synching passages of his testimony – an eerie, slightly other-worldly effect. Since this is not actually John, it puts us in mind of a blind person imperfectly imagining the impression they might be making on the world, just as he describes.

Hull’s wife Marilyn, also present on many of the recordings and with her own perspective to contribute, is played just as memorably by Simone Kirby, who does expressive things with thoughtful silence, not just the words she’s given. John’s anxieties about the quality of life any blind person will be made to sacrifice are hugely poignant, needless to say – he never has any visual reference point for his newly born son, for instance, or the physical changes in his children as they grow up.

But his determination grows, over the course of the film, to grasp the specifics of his disability as an opportunity, not just a setback.  In lacking one sense, all the others gain value inestimably; and thanks to one person explaining what the loss of sight entails, many others, listening in, are able to appreciate and ponder more fully what seeing means.

There's more at the link.

Here's the trailer for the movie.

I think I'll have to go see that one.  It looks like it might be a whole lot more interesting than most of the dreck coming out of Hollywood these days.


What happens to retirees when the money runs out?

A Maryland couple is finding that out the hard way.

We never expected to live this long. My parents died when they were in their 70s. My brother was 62 when he passed away. My wife's father died while she was still a little girl. I believe her mother was in her 70s when she died. And my wife's big sister was a teen-ager when she died. And yet, my wife and I are still standing.

We did plan for our retirement. We paid off the mortgage on our 1950s rancher to guarantee that we'd have a roof over our heads no matter what. And, while I was still working in the small business I had founded, I stashed away a couple hundred thousand dollars in some relatively safe investments. I was confident that with just a six percent average return on our investments, plus our combined Social Security benefits, and memberships for both of us in Medicare and supplemental health care insurance policies, ours was a fail-safe plan. Man, was I ever wrong. Ten years and about a $100,000 dollars wrong.

Things haven't quite worked out as planned. A number of substantial reversals in the stock market, coupled with unanticipated departures of several major clients from my business proved disastrous. Less business. Less income. No fail-safe retirement. We now have no income other than our Social Security benefits. Interest paid on our severely depleted "savings" is practically non-existent.

We now have to deal with the ever-growing problem of stretching our dwindling retirement plan resources and Social Security benefits to maintain an acceptable lifestyle and standard of living. This surely won't be easy.

There's more at the link.

This is going to be an increasingly common experience as retirees live longer, and as the rate of return on investments steadily shrinks.  At present, thanks to zero interest rate policies and other official measures, that rate has been reduced far below historical averages - and there's no sign of improvement in the short to medium term.

Since the 1990's the so-called '4% Drawdown Rule' has dominated US retirement planning.  However, under the impact of the 2007/08 financial crisis and its aftermath, that may no longer be good enough.  In a recent analysis of retirement planning, the New York Times reported:

In a recent analysis, Mr. Pfau compared several withdrawal strategies in an attempt to illustrate how spending patterns might change to guarantee that a portfolio will last for 30 years, even if low rates persist or retires face some other awful combination of events.

He found that people who spend a constant amount adjusted for inflation — similar to the 4 percent rule — would have to reduce that rate to 2.85 to 3 percent if they wanted assurance that their spending would never have to dip below 1.5 percent of their initial portfolio (in inflation-adjusted terms).

So a retiree with $1 million could securely spend nearly $30,000 annually for 30 years, in the best and worst of market conditions. The big drawback, though, is that if economic conditions are generally average, retirees would be left with $794,000 in unspent money. If they were unlucky and experienced terrible market conditions, they would be left with $17,900.

That’s the trouble with this strategy. “Most of the time, you underspend,” said Mr. Pfau, who is also a principal at McLean Asset Management. “Yet you still run the risk of running out.”

Again, more at the link.

There's also the real danger that Social Security payments - on which many plan to depend for a significant proportion of their retirement income - may be so drastically reduced in purchasing power terms (due to not increasing in line with the real, as opposed to 'official', rate of inflation), that they may no longer be adequate.  Some even believe the entire Social Security system may become bankrupt, and its payments be suspended indefinitely.  I don't know about that, but given lower payments (in real purchasing power terms), we'll be more and more dependent on our own savings for retirement - and most Americans don't have much saved at all.  What's more, increasing medical costs may bankrupt Medicare and Medicaid, so that the relatively low-cost medical care anticipated by many approaching retirement simply won't be there.  They'll have to fund such expenses themselves to an ever-increasing extent.

Look at it this way.  If you expect to need $30,000 per year in retirement income, over and above Social Security payouts, and if you accept as valid the 2.85% annual withdrawal rate mentioned in the New York Times article above, that means you'll have to have saved over a million dollars by the time you retire.  That's a frightening figure . . . and you'll need more than that if you survive for 35, or 40, or 45 years, which is entirely possible given modern medicine.  I doubt whether many Americans have even a tenth of that sum saved for retirement!  I certainly don't.

There's also no guarantee you'll be able to sell your expensive home for as much as you expect, and use some of that money to fund your retirement.  We've discussed that in these pages before, most recently earlier this month.  Non-liquid assets are worth only as much as someone is prepared to pay for them - or as much as they're able to finance through the banks.  If no-one can afford the asking price, or no mortgage is available, sellers are as badly hurt as buyers - as are, in this case, the former's retirement plans.

Food for thought . . .


How to guarantee theft, fraud and other crimes in business

If ever I've heard a dumb idea, it's this one.

Businesses that ask a job applicant about his or her criminal history during the hiring process could be fined and forced to pay the applicant up to $500 under a new law being considered by city leaders.

A Los Angeles City Council committee backed a plan Tuesday to penalize businesses that weed out applicants based on criminal convictions.

The rules are part of a law under consideration by the council aimed at giving former convicts a better shot at obtaining employment.

. . .

Los Angeles non-profits, churches, and other groups support the law, contending it will cut jail recidivism rates by helping former convicts land jobs.

Both the state and federal governments have similar rules in place for applicants seeking public sector jobs, while San Francisco has laws that also apply to private companies.

There's more at the link.

I can understand what the framers of this law (and the existing regulations along the same lines) are trying to achieve.  They see a problem (which really does exist, let me add) with former convicts unable to get work because of their criminal history.  They therefore intend to deal with that problem by making it illegal to even ask about applicants' criminal history.

However, this ignores the reality that over two-thirds of those convicted of crimes in the United States will commit further offenses.  I wrote about this problem in my memoir of prison chaplaincy.  Since I wrote that book, further authoritative research has confirmed and extended the statistics I cited in it.  The National Institute of Justice states baldly:
Bureau of Justice Statistics studies have found high rates of recidivism among released prisoners. One study tracked 404,638 prisoners in 30 states after their release from prison in 2005. The researchers found that:
  • Within three years of release, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Within five years of release, about three-quarters (76.6 percent) of released prisoners were rearrested.
  • Of those prisoners who were rearrested, more than half (56.7 percent) were arrested by the end of the first year.
  • Property offenders were the most likely to be rearrested, with 82.1 percent of released property offenders arrested for a new crime compared with 76.9 percent of drug offenders, 73.6 percent of public order offenders and 71.3 percent of violent offenders.
Again, more at the link, and at the referenced BJS report (link is to an Adobe Acrobat document in .PDF format).  Those figures track an earlier BJS study (which I cited in my book) very closely.  You can read more about the problem of recidivism here.

This demonstrated, proven reality means that two out of three of those whom businesses are forced to hire under this proposed regulation are likely to act in such a way as to harm that business, either by association, or by crimes committed within or against it and/or its customers.  Therefore, how can it possibly be a good idea to force businesses to hire them?

Those behind this proposed new law don't care about that, of course.  They're solving the problem of one group in society at the expense of another - and the first group has families, friends and supporters who vote, whereas businesses don't have the vote.  That says it all, right there.  They're pandering to their electorate.  The rest of us can go pound sand, as far as they're concerned.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Seagull with a punch

Back in February I reported on Israel's new Seagull unmanned naval patrol vessel.  It's now been tested firing a small anti-submarine homing torpedo.

You can read more about it here.

This is an important development.  Sure, such torpedoes are small, with limited range, depth capability, etc.;  but the Seagull is designed to patrol littoral waters, along a country's coastline and not too far out to sea, where the water usually isn't very deep and submarines are limited in their ability to maneuver (or escape) by the proximity of the bottom and the coastline.  Such torpedoes are a huge threat in such an environment.  If you can blanket littoral areas with underwater sensors and low-cost, relatively capable unmanned vehicles like the Seagull, they effectively become no-go areas for submarines.  If they penetrate it, they're going to die there.

I think Israel's onto something very interesting here.  I know there are similar developments in other nations, but this is highly likely to be used operationally before any others.  After all, Israel's developing offshore gas fields, and a fleet of Seagulls armed with short-range missiles (to take out terrorist-manned boats trying to attack the production platforms) and/or torpedoes like these (to take out 'swimmer delivery vehicles' doing the same thing, or even small submarines [which Iran manufactures and might supply to its terrorist clients, Hezbollah or Hamas]) would offer a potent protective force for them.


Higher education and IQ

There's a very interesting article in Quartz titled 'Your college major is a pretty good indication of how smart you are'.  Here's how it begins.

Do students who choose to major in different fields have different academic aptitudes? This question is worth investigating for many reasons, including an understanding of what fields top students choose to pursue, the diversity of talent across various fields, and how this might reflect upon the majors and occupations a culture values.

In order to explore this, I used five different measures of US students’ academic aptitude, which span 1946 to 2014, and discovered that the rank order of cognitive skills of various majors and degree holders has remained remarkably constant for the last seven decades.

An important caveat: The data presented looks only at group averages and does not speak to the aptitude of specific individuals. Obviously there are people with high academic aptitude in every major and there can be larger aptitude differences between entire schools—for example the University of Chicago and a local community college—than between majors within a school. Also interests, which are not directly assessed here, likely play an important role in which major someone selects. One could argue that any one specific test and sample may not be an accurate reflection of the aptitude of specific majors, and this would be a valid point. However, this analysis uses five independent measures and samples of academic aptitude at different points in time—which include everything from tests of cognitive abilities to tests of academic achievement—showing these findings replicate and are quite robust.

There's more at the link.

This also has implications for the current emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) qualifications.  From the article:

According to a recent Payscale college salary report, STEM majors tend to be the most highly compensated. That STEM majors have consistently had the highest average academic aptitude may also reflect the fact that STEM disciplines are highly complex and require such aptitude. Even scientists in the “hard” STEM fields (e.g. physics, math) tend to believe that these fields require brilliance or genius ... Perhaps the STEM disciplines have always selected on academic aptitude and employers have rewarded that aptitude and skillset due to STEM’s usefulness in a variety of fields.

I found it particularly significant that in studies spanning almost three-quarters of a century, the correlation between IQ and choice of major subject(s) or field of specialization held true.  I would have expected automation, the rise of information technology and subsequent, transformative changes in many fields of study might well have required students with a different kind of personality or different aptitudes to master them.  Consider that architects, for example, worked with pens and pencils and drafting boards in 1946, whereas today everything is computer-based.  I would have thought that change would require different and/or additional competencies.  It seems that wasn't the case.

On the other hand, the military is finding that young entrants who are skilled in computer games are able to adjust much more quickly to high-technology equipment and the new tactics it enables.  Drone piloting, for example, is a skill the Army is imparting to tech-geek soldiers, with considerable success.  However, until very recently the USAF had resisted training non-pilot-qualified personnel to operate drones.  I understand that's changing now, partly due to the Army's proven track record, partly due to a shortage of pilots willing to accept the change in career path that UAV operations entail.  Does this mean that to be a soldier today is somehow different from what it was in the past?  I beg leave to doubt that.  IQ has never been the determinant of a warrior, although more intelligent warriors might tend to last longer in combat.  The physical demands of that environment, and the necessity to kill one's opponent, can't be automated - or, if they are, when the batteries run dpwn, it'll be back to the same old, same old!



Courtesy of CenTexTim:

You can say that again . . .


A sad memorial to a murdered people

I was profoundly moved to read this report in the New York Times.

A team of archaeologists and mapmakers say they have uncovered a forgotten tunnel that 80 Jews dug largely by hand as they tried to escape from a Nazi extermination site in Lithuania about 70 years ago.

. . .

From 1941 until 1944, tens of thousands of Jews from the nearby city of Vilnius, known as the Jerusalem of Lithuania, were brought to Ponar and shot at close range. Their bodies were dumped into the pits and buried.

“I call Ponar ground zero for the Holocaust,” Dr. Freund said. “For the first time we have systematic murder being done by the Nazis and their assistants.” According to Dr. Freund, the events at the site took place about six months before the Nazis started using gas chambers elsewhere for their extermination plans.

An estimated 100,000 people, including 70,000 Jews, died at Ponar. Over four years, about 150 Lithuanian collaborators killed the prisoners — usually in groups of about 10. In 1943 when it became clear the Soviets were going to take over Lithuania, the Nazis began to cover up the evidence of the mass killings. They forced a group of 80 Jews to exhume the bodies, burn them and bury the ashes. At the time they were called the Leichenkommando, or “corpse unit,” but in the years that followed they were known as the Burning Brigade.

For months, the Jewish prisoners dug up and burned bodies. One account tells of a man who identified his wife and two sisters among the corpses. The group knew that once their job was finished, they, too, would be executed, so they developed an escape plan.

About half of the group spent 76 days digging a tunnel in their holding pit by hand and with spoons they found among the bodies. On April 15, 1944 — the last night of Passover when they knew the night would be darkest — the brigade crawled through the two-foot-square tunnel entrance and through to the forest.

The noise alerted the guards, who pursued the prisoners with guns and dogs. Of the 80, 12 managed to escape; 11 of them survived the war and went on to tell their stories, according to the researchers.

Dr. Freund and his team used the information from survivors’ accounts to search for the tunnel.

There's more at the link.  It's well worth reading in full.

The work of the Sonderkommandos (of which the Leichenkommandos were part) was particularly sickening for those forced to take part.  All of them were concentration camp inmates themselves.  (A few photographs of their work survive, including the one below.)

You can read more here about the various Kommandos (work teams) in which Jewish and other concentration camp inmates were forced to serve.  It's a sickening record.

I can only say, God bless the members of the Lithuanian Leichenkommando for their determination to escape and tell the world of the atrocity they had witnessed.  Less than 14% of them survived . . . but their success meant that the evil that was done in that country could not be concealed or covered up.  It joins the abominable record of man's inhumanity to man down the ages.

What makes me shake my head in depressed disbelief is that precisely the same inhumanity is at work today in the Middle East, but the world seems disinclined to do anything realistic to stop it.  ISIS/ISIL is as brutal, genocidal and xenophobic as the Nazis ever were, if not more so.  It's a pity the world's often-expressed determination to ensure that the Holocaust never happened again has not been sufficient to motivate more action to protect the victims of the Nazis' latest successors.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

More book news

I'm pleased to report that 'Brings The Lightning' is now available in a paperback edition, as well as its original e-book and later hardcover editions.  This is the first of my books that's available in all three formats, and it won't be the last.  Castalia House and Vox Day have done a great job, including hiring freelance assistance to increase their throughput, and are planning to offer hardcover and paperback formats for most of their books as quickly as they can feed them through the system.  That's pretty impressive for a small publisher - in fact, I don't know of a single large publisher that offers the same variety and flexibility of formats to almost all its authors.  Well done, those people!

I'm working on the fifth volume of the Maxwell Saga, 'Stoke the Flames Higher'.  It's taking longer than I would have wished, and I'm hitting some roadblocks, but I'm also making progress.  God willing, I expect it to be out within the next six to eight weeks.

After that, it'll be the third and final volume of the Laredo War Trilogy, 'Knife to the Hilt'.  Expect that towards the end of the year.  I'm also pleased to announce that the Laredo Trilogy won't be the end of that story arc.  There are some interesting plans afoot and discussions under way for a follow-on trilogy, set a couple of decades later.  I'll have more to say about that in due course.

Thanks for being patient.  It's a lot of hard work to produce so much, so quickly, particularly given delays over the past year caused by ill-health.  (This time a year ago, I was rolling around in agony trying to deal with a kidney-stone!)  I don't want to make everyone wait years for the next volume, as seems to be happening to at least one (very) well-known series right now!  I'll do my best.


Realistic emergency preparations had a very good article recently titled 'Venezuela, and why Gold and Barter Items are Terrible Preps'.  Here's a brief excerpt.

People are shooting each other in the streets over food–not ammo, cigarettes, liquor, gold coins, silver coins, or any of the other crap that preppers love to stockpile “for barter when TSHTF.” That’s right, it turns out that good old-fashioned food is the only thing that you can actually eat in a collapse, and as worthless as the Venezuelan bolivar is right now, “sound money” is pretty much totally absent from all the discussions I’ve read of what the average Venezuelan is desperately worried about scoring when he wakes up every morning.

. . .

In a collapse, food is scarce and people are hungry. Nobody is going to trade you a box of .357 or a Gold Eagle for a chicken, because unlike the latter two things, chickens are edible, and the edible stuff takes priority.

. . .

As the Venezuelan collapse amply illustrates, you need to have your priorities straight, and a dependable source of calories should be at the very top of the list. Don’t get suckered into wasting money, time, and space on stuff you can’t consume but that you think someone will trade you a bit of their food for, because you’re certain to be gravely disappointed.

There's more at the link.

That's a very important point.  We need to prioritize our emergency supplies;  and right at the top of the list, before just about anything else, should be an emergency food supply for a realistic period.  'Realistic' will vary depending on our circumstances, of course:
  • If you're living in an area prone to natural disasters (earthquakes, hurricanes, tornadoes, whatever) you're likely to need emergency food supplies more, and more often, than someone in a quieter, less disaster-prone region.
  • If your budget is very limited, your 'realistic' emergency food supply will be a lot smaller than someone with extra money to spend on it.
  • If you're preparing for yourself alone, or for a couple, it's a lot easier (and cheaper) to build up reserves than it would be for a family of six.
Nevertheless, this remains good advice.  Stock up on the essentials first.  The rest can follow as and when time, money and other resources are available.


More about the automation revolution

In an article titled 'Why The World Hates Silicon Valley', Newsweek makes some points that expand upon the Guardian's six-part series on artificial intelligence that I mentioned yesterday.  Here's an excerpt.

Artificial intelligence is a game-changing technology, much like cloud-based apps over the past five years. It will be the basis for inventions we can hardly imagine now. (How about an AI-driven tiny drone that learns to buzz around and keep an eye on a building, replacing security guards? It’s coming!) And 3-D printing will get good enough so that a company like Nike will no longer make shoes in Asia and ship them back to the U.S. Instead, it will “print” them in a network of thousands of small factories peppered throughout cities and towns—so you can pick up your ready-made sneakers locally. Blockchain—the complex technology behind bitcoin—is only beginning to remake the financial industry. Virtual reality will get good enough to reinvent stuff like tourism, sports and doctor’s office visits. Biotech, robotics—an incredible array of technology is ready to burst upon us.

The impact will be so dramatic, Hemant Taneja of General Catalyst Partners tells me we’re heading into a “global application rewrite.” We are about to take apart every product and service in the world and put it back together with data, AI and all this other new stuff.

. . .

If you pick up your mobile phone, you’ll see a lot on there that you used to pay for and now comes free or cheap. You have a camera and a flashlight, both of which you used to buy. News is free—no need to buy a newspaper. International calls are cheap on Skype. Music—free or cheap on Spotify.

That device is just one example of the impact of technology and globalization. It’s increasingly making more things cheap or free, in many ways lowering our cost of living. That works on physical goods too—tech and global manufacturing are why you can buy nice clothes at H&M for way less than similar items cost 20 years ago. Technology will only accelerate this trend. Mike Maples, partner at tech investment company Floodgate, tells me we’re heading into an age of abundance, when we’ll have access to much more for much less than ever before. We’ll live better lives on less money. Which seems quite good.

However, ... that same dynamic crushes the middle class by killing jobs and shrinking salaries. If more stuff is free or cheap, fewer people can earn money making and selling things. Instead, when something gets reduced to a cloud-based app, relatively few people can make it and sell it around the planet—and rake in all the money. Consider maps. Lots of companies used to print them, and lots of stores sold them. Today, there’s one consumer map company that matters globally: Google, based in Mountain View, California. Google gets all the map money, and most of those map jobs are gone.

For much of the world outside of Silicon Valley, the bad is starting to feel worse than the good. We love our phones and apps and cheap things, but we don’t like feeling economically marginalized.

There's much more at the link.

It's certainly thought-provoking stuff.  I've been saying for years that a great many 'conventional' jobs are under threat from the rise of artificial intelligence, robotics and automation in general.  I fear that far too many people are simply shrugging their shoulders and 'giving up' because they don't think there's anything they can do about it.  Others are turning their faces away from the prospect and refusing to face it, pretending it won't happen to them.

I fear it's going to happen to a lot of us.  We need to be preparing our game plan now, so that we can re-train for jobs that won't be automated out from under us, or make other plans for a sustainable future for ourselves . . . because nobody else will.


DON'T "Just shoot him in the leg!"

One often hears impassioned, emotional (and ill-informed) comment from bystanders or family members after someone has been shot in the commission of a crime.  Whether by their intended victim or by police, the complaint is often heard that "They shouldn't have shot to kill!  They should have shot him in the leg, so they didn't hurt him too much!"

Of course, no-one in his or her right mind shoots to kill.  One shoots to stop, which is a very different consideration.  It may cause injuries sufficiently serious to kill the target, but that's not our primary intention.  We want to stop the bad guy from continuing his attack/assault/whatever.  That's almost the only legitimate reason for any civilian to fire on another human being.

However, there are always those who tell us we should aim for some allegedly non-vital part of the body, like the leg.  Yesterday, via an e-mail list of which I'm a member, I received a link to a video clip showing an Iranian policeman trying to wound a knife-armed bank robber by shooting him in the leg.  The shot proves almost immediately fatal due to massive blood loss, because it punctures the femoral artery.  It proves conclusively that shooting someone in the leg can, indeed, inflict a lethal injury.

Furthermore, you'll notice the bad guy was still walking around almost unhampered until blood loss took effect.  Clearly, no bones were broken.  If the femoral artery hadn't been hit, the wound wouldn't have done much to slow him down.


There's a lot of blood, and you'll see a man die.

If you aren't able to handle that reality, DO NOT WATCH IT!!!

That said, if you want to see it, click here to be taken to its Web page.  Don't say I didn't warn you!

Note, too, how bystanders crowd around, filming the action on their cellphones but not helping the policeman in any way.  When the criminal goes down, they gather around, forming a thick throng that would surely prevent any ambulance or other assistance from reaching the injured man.

Take this lesson away from that video.  You need to know how to use a tourniquet, and be able to apply it in 20-30 seconds if it's to be effective on such an injury.  Any longer and blood loss will lead to permanent brain damage, if not death.  You certainly won't have time to get to your car to collect a tourniquet.  If you go shooting, keep a tourniquet in your range bag - and make sure you know how to use it!  It might also be worth considering carrying one in your car, or your handbag.  Under the circumstances shown in this video, it might have saved a life.

(I might add that in the first chapter of my latest book, 'Brings The Lightning', one of the characters is shot in the upper leg/groin area, and bleeds to death within a minute or so.  I've had e-mails from readers protesting that's not possible, and it wouldn't have happened in the real world.  I'm here to tell you, on the basis of my own experience - yes, it would!  I've seen it more than once in military combat and civil unrest.  This video provides graphic proof of just how fast you can die from massive blood loss.)


Monday, June 27, 2016

Does this "make up" for being captured?

Courtesy of By Other Means, we can speculate about that question - and perhaps put this to good use on the next Talk Like A Pirate Day in September.

Hmmm . . . So, when a pirate's ship is hit by an enemy cannonball, is it merely cosmetic damage?


Artificial intelligence and our future

The Economist has published a six-part study of how artificial intelligence and robotics are likely to impact our future (particularly for those in the workforce).  The parts are:

Click on each link to read the associated article.  Here's an excerpt from the first article in the series to whet your appetite.

THERE IS SOMETHING familiar about fears that new machines will take everyone’s jobs, benefiting only a select few and upending society. Such concerns sparked furious arguments two centuries ago as industrialisation took hold in Britain. People at the time did not talk of an “industrial revolution” but of the “machinery question”. First posed by the economist David Ricardo in 1821, it concerned the “influence of machinery on the interests of the different classes of society”, and in particular the “opinion entertained by the labouring class, that the employment of machinery is frequently detrimental to their interests”. Thomas Carlyle, writing in 1839, railed against the “demon of mechanism” whose disruptive power was guilty of “oversetting whole multitudes of workmen”.

Today the machinery question is back with a vengeance, in a new guise. Technologists, economists and philosophers are now debating the implications of artificial intelligence (AI), a fast-moving technology that enables machines to perform tasks that could previously be done only by humans. Its impact could be profound. It threatens workers whose jobs had seemed impossible to automate, from radiologists to legal clerks. A widely cited study by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of Oxford University, published in 2013, found that 47% of jobs in America were at high risk of being “substituted by computer capital” soon. More recently Bank of America Merrill Lynch predicted that by 2025 the “annual creative disruption impact” from AI could amount to $14 trillion-33 trillion, including a $9 trillion reduction in employment costs thanks to AI-enabled automation of knowledge work; cost reductions of $8 trillion in manufacturing and health care; and $2 trillion in efficiency gains from the deployment of self-driving cars and drones. The McKinsey Global Institute, a think-tank, says AI is contributing to a transformation of society “happening ten times faster and at 300 times the scale, or roughly 3,000 times the impact” of the Industrial Revolution.

. . .

Such concerns have been prompted by astonishing recent progress in AI, a field long notorious for its failure to deliver on its promises. “In the past couple of years it’s just completely exploded,” says Demis Hassabis, the boss and co-founder of DeepMind, an AI startup bought by Google in 2014 for $400m. Earlier this year his firm’s AlphaGo system defeated Lee Sedol, one of the world’s best players of Go, a board game so complex that computers had not been expected to master it for another decade at least. “I was a sceptic for a long time, but the progress now is real. The results are real. It works,” says Marc Andreessen of Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley venture-capital firm.

In particular, an AI technique called “deep learning”, which allows systems to learn and improve by crunching lots of examples rather than being explicitly programmed, is already being used to power internet search engines, block spam e-mails, suggest e-mail replies, translate web pages, recognise voice commands, detect credit-card fraud and steer self-driving cars. “This is a big deal,” says Jen-Hsun Huang, chief executive of NVIDIA, a firm whose chips power many AI systems. “Instead of people writing software, we have data writing software.”

There's much more at the six links above.  Highly recommended reading.


This is my shocked face

It seems that naivety is a characteristic of US government bureaucracy (as well as our politicians).

Weapons shipped into Jordan by the Central Intelligence Agency and Saudi Arabia intended for Syrian rebels have been systematically stolen by Jordanian intelligence operatives and sold to arms merchants on the black market, according to American and Jordanian officials.

Some of the stolen weapons were used in a shooting in November that killed two Americans and three others at a police training facility in Amman, F.B.I. officials believe after months of investigating the attack, according to people familiar with the investigation.

. . .

The theft, involving millions of dollars of weapons, highlights the messy, unplanned consequences of programs to arm and train rebels — the kind of program the C.I.A. and Pentagon have conducted for decades — even after the Obama administration had hoped to keep the training program in Jordan under tight control.

The Jordanian officers who were part of the scheme reaped a windfall from the weapons sales, using the money to buy expensive SUVs, iPhones and other luxury items, Jordanian officials said.

The theft and resale of the arms — including Kalashnikov assault rifles, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades — have led to a flood of new weapons available on the black arms market. Investigators do not know what became of most of them, but a disparate collection of groups, including criminal networks and rural Jordanian tribes, use the arms bazaars to build their arsenals. Weapons smugglers also buy weapons in the arms bazaars to ship outside the country.

. . .

Word that the weapons intended for the rebels were being bought and sold on the black market leaked into Jordan government circles last year, when arms dealers began bragging to their customers that they had large stocks of American- and Saudi-provided weapons.

Jordanian intelligence operatives monitoring the arms market — operatives not involved in the weapons-diversion scheme — began sending reports to headquarters about a proliferation of weapons in the market and of the boasts of the arms dealers.

After the Americans and Saudis complained about the theft, investigators at the G.I.D. arrested several dozen officers involved in the scheme, among them a lieutenant colonel running the operation. They were ultimately released from detention and fired from the service, but were allowed to keep their pensions and money they gained from the scheme, according to Jordanian officials.

There's more at the link.

Corruption in the Arab world?  Say it ain't so!!!

Anyone who thought they could safely and securely hand over large quantities of weapons to any Arab security force for onward transmission - weapons that they must have known would be in high demand and easily exchangeable for cash, gold or anything else of value - was living in cloud cuckoo land.  We've known about endemic corruption in all Arab nations for decades!  What made these idiots think it would be any different in Jordan?


Swarming UAV's and a new way of war

It's perhaps inane to talk about a 'new way of war', because war has been with us for as long as the human race has inhabited this planet, and probably will be until we've become extinct.  Nevertheless, the ways in which we learn more about the enemy, and fight him, have improved along with technology.

It looks as if drones (in this case, unmanned aerial vehicles or UAV's) are about to provide another. reports:

The Navy will launch its first at-sea "air show" of dozens of drones swarming in formation late next month, officials with the Office of Naval Research said Friday.

The demo will feature more than 30 Raytheon-built Coyote unmanned aircraft systems launched in rapid succession and flying in formations, thanks to ONR's Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST).

At $15,000 per unit, the drones are cheap enough to be expendable if needed and, launched at high numbers, they can overwhelm enemy forces while requiring little human supervision.

ONR wrapped up a series of land tests this week with an experiment at Yuma Proving Ground, Arizona, where 31 of the 12-14 pound Coyotes were tube-launched in approximately 40 seconds and proceeded to conduct a series of swarm formations and maneuvers ...

The swarming technology allows the drones to relate to each other spatially and fly their swarm formations with minimal human direction or intervention, which Mastroianni noted is key for practical and efficient unmanned technology that decreases the warfighter's burden.

"We have an operator that's monitoring it, keeping eyes on what's going on, and can reach in and change things if they want to," he said. "But the reality is, [the drones are] flying themselves, they're performing their mission and the operator's supervisory. So it tremendously reduces the workload to be able to control large numbers of UAVs."

The swarm can expend enemy resources by drawing fire or safely conduct tasks such as intelligence-gathering or jamming communications that might otherwise be accomplished with manned aircraft.

There's more at the link.

I note that the video of the land-based demonstration, above, did not use the little Coyote aircraft, but larger, lower-cost UAV's instead - presumably because they're designed to be used multiple times, making it much cheaper to repeat the tests.  The more expensive (and more capable) Coyotes will probably be used in the shipborne tests.  I understand some small UAV's (possibly including future models of the Coyote) will be capable of being launched from aircraft (e.g. the P-3 Orion and P-8 Poseidon) and helicopters (e.g. the SH-60 Seahawk) through sonobuoy tubes, making them very versatile.  That capability has been under development for some years.

When this technology is perfected, it'll be able to cover a very large area with a swarm of autonomous, networked UAV's, working together to detect anything worth finding in the area, then (if necessary) either attack it themselves or designate it for attack by weapons sent into the area by another launching platform (e.g. a ship or an aircraft).  This means that, for example, an air defense zone thick with anti-aircraft radars and missiles, that could not be penetrated safely by manned aircraft or (very expensive) high-end UAV's, could nevertheless be neutralized by sending in a swarm of these little robots.  They could find and mark every missile and radar site for a strike by missiles launched from outside the range of the air defenses, clearing the way for larger, more expensive (and therefore less expendable) strike aircraft or UAV's to pass through it to reach their targets.

I suppose this is a technological implementation of a long-standing fictional idea.

I wonder how long it'll be before someone names one of these little UAV's a 'Crebain'?


Sunday, June 26, 2016


This brings back many memories of my younger days, when I used to sing in the chorus (well, one of the choruses) of the Cape Performing Arts Board in South Africa.  Courtesy of Earthbound Misfit:

I've sung in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Pirates of Penzance, HMS Pinafore, and The Mikado.  Great fun!


Being observant on the road . . . or not

I found this video clip fascinating.  It's a traffic camera recording of a buckled road in Minnesota.  Watch how some attentive drivers see it in time to slow down;  their caution warns those behind them, so that strings of traffic form as a number of cars slow down (in the fast lane) to negotiate the obstacle.  Other cars' drivers are clearly looking further ahead, and don't even notice what is effectively a speed-bump in the road ahead of them.  Their cars are launched into the air, and land with teeth-rattling thumps.

I wouldn't have liked to be on that road at that time.  Things had the potential to get rather too interesting for comfort!


Guys, you may find this useful in the heat of summer

I have to give a shout-out to a product I've found extremely valuable in the very hot summer temperatures we're currently enduring in north Texas.  It's a little embarrassing to talk about, but since I know it's a widespread issue, I thought I'd take the plunge.

Lawdog tells me that it's not unknown in this area to endure up to three months or more in summer with daytime heat in the 100°F (38°C) range.  For the first time in my life, I'm being troubled by 'jock itch' after sweating a lot when working outdoors (pushing a mower to cut the lawn becomes a real chore in heat like that).  I found that normal cornstarch powder doesn't do anything to help.  In fact, on further research, I learned that it's actually counterproductive for such problems, because yeasty beasties like tinea cruris (or tinea pedis, commonly known as athlete's foot, for that matter) thrive on cornstarch - it actually feeds them.  Something better is needed.

After much looking around, I came across Zeasorb antifungal powder.  It's marketed in two versions, one for athlete's foot and one for jock itch, but they're medically identical, with the same active ingredient in the same concentration (see the labels below).  They're just differently labeled to go in different sections of a pharmacy's shelves.  It doesn't matter which version you buy.  Also, neither version contains cornstarch, which means they won't aggravate your problem rather than cure it.

I've found that on, buying individual bottles of the athlete's foot version is currently the cheapest option, at $6.17 apiece.  Multiple-bottle 'package deals' actually work out more expensive per bottle.  I now use this stuff regularly, and it makes a big difference.  Highly recommended, if you're having this problem - and I daresay it'll do just as well for athlete's foot, too.  My doctor told me that if the powder alone doesn't work, a prescription antifungal medication used in conjunction with the powder should solve the problem;  but so far, I haven't needed that.  Frequent showering, followed by application of this powder, is doing the trick.

(I'm not being paid or given any other consideration to promote this stuff.  I'm just glad it works for me, and I hope it does for you, too.  Jock itch is no fun at all!)