Monday, April 30, 2018

COTW: Where the Homeless Are

New York and Los Angeles according to this chart.  One out of 5 homeless live in one or the other city.  There over 500,000 homeless adults in the US in 2017.

Infographic: The U.S. Cities With The Most Homeless People | Statista
According to the latest study (Dec 2017), homelessness in the US rose for the first time since the "Great Recession". Experts say the rise was propelled by rising home prices and rents on the west coast. Several cities including Seattle have declared homeless emergencies.  One Seattle street resident told interviewers, “Most homeless people I know aren’t homeless because they’re addicts, Most people are homeless because they can’t afford a place to live.”  A lecturer at San Jose State University, has been sleeping out of a car for about a decade, ever since she lost her housing while an undergraduate at the school.  She now teaches four English courses, a job that pays $28,000 a year. Home is an old Volvo.  When she could not find a job in the tech industry, she went back to school to obtain a college degree.  Now she owes tens of thousands of dollars for student loans. AP found 168,000 homeless living in California, Oregon and Washington, 19,000 more than two years ago.   The number of those unsheltered has climbed 18%.

AP: Father & son in Portland, OR.  A few miles away the city owns a former
US Army Reserve building that was used as a temporary homeless shelter until
neighbors cried NIMBY.  It now stands empty.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Toontime: Twixt Stormy and a Hard Guy

credit: Nate Beeler, Columbus Dispatch
BC Idonwanna sez: Where flying monkeys to pull out?
The Denier-in-Chief has got himself a very sticky wicket, as the British would say. Porn star Stormy Daniels is suing him for release from a contract to remain silent about their sex affair, and Robert Mueller is zeroing in on an obstruction of justice charge for firing the FBI Director, if not more.  The Senate Judiciary Committee passed a bill out of committee this week on a bipartisan vote to protect Special Counsel Mueller from being terminated by Mr. Yuge without judicial review. It will not become law, but the bill does send a loud message down Pennsylvania Avenue that the Special Counsel enjoys the confidence of the Senate as his investigation continues.

The latest development:  we knew that Trump Jr. met with a Russian lawyer at the Trump Tower in Manhattan to talk about getting political dirt on 'Crooked Hillary', but what what has been revealed now is that Natalia Veselnitskaya--the lawyer in question--was a Russian government informer for years.  She also numbered the spy agency, FSB, among her clients according to Russian court documents reported by Reuters.  Veselnitskaya told NBC she is, “a lawyer, and I am an informant. Since 2013, I have been actively communicating with the office of the Russian prosecutor general.” IT MUST GO ON!

credit: John Cole, Stanton TImes-Tribune
Wackydoodle sez:  Ah hear they're double Ds!

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Russia Buys More Gold

Russia bought 300,00 ounces of gold in March bringing its gold reserves to  60.8 million troy ounces.  The move reflects President Putin's policy of accumulating gold in defense of trade, currency and financial sanctions.  In short Russia is using gold as a hedge against the dollar, its possible devaluation, and eclipse of the dollar as the world's reserve currency.  Russia's accumulation now passes China's.  This chart shows that other countries are following Russia's lead by removing gold assets from the United States, one such country is Turkey, its erstwhile ally in the war torn Middle East. Turkey's President Erdogan express his desire to diversify the world's money supply: “With the dollar the world is always under exchange rate pressure. We should save states and nations from this exchange rate pressure. Gold has never been a tool of oppression throughout history.”

The lesson here for the investor is to act as your own central bank by owning physical gold and storing it a safe jurisdiction, if you have enough of it (US Person does not recommend under your mattress.)  It may come to pass that Americans will once again not be allowed to own bullion.  It happened before during a financial crisis.

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Land of Leopard Park a Huge Success

Some good news for lovers of wild felines from Russia.  Camera traps installed in Land of the Leopard National Park show a dramatic increase in the world's rarest and most endangered cats, the Amur leopard, Panthera pardus orientalis.  Four hundred cameras have harmlessly captured 84 adults and 19 cubs living in the Park, up substantially from the 2000 census estimate of just 30 leopards, and a 2015 survey of just 70.  Land of the Leopard was only established in 2012 and is the core area for leopard habitat in Russia's far east. {19.04.12; Russia Makes Room for Leopards} Already the leopards are responding to human protection by increasing their numbers. Scientists observe individual spot patterns to distinguish photographed cats.  Experts believe that more leopards live outside the Park boundaries, and are working to collect  photographic evidence from nearby China.  Environment Minister Sergey Donskoy said, "our forecasts were optimistic", but he must be pleased with the increase in leopards living on land set aside for them with plenty of prey and protection from poachers. The Park is also home for Amur tigers.  Green Kudos to Russia

Garbage Patch Clean Up Begins

A sixteen year old Dutch student faced a familiar problem--what to do for his high school science project.   Except this teenager got real serious, abandon his aerospace engineering program, and came up with a genius idea:  an ocean sweeper that would clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the 87,000 ton vortex of plastic debris and discarded fishing gear swirling around in mid-ocean between Hawaii and California.  Boyant Slat (not kidding) had only one problem, all the companies he presented his idea for a floating clean up device were ignored.  One company even bothered to respond, telling him it was a terrible idea.  The situation changed for the better quickly, after he made a hugely popular TED talk. [photo] Funding soon followed from entrepreneurs, and just plain folks.  His vision was to let ocean energy do most of the work by funneling plastic debris into v-shaped screens that filter out the junk.

Trials of his design took place in the North Sea with "Boomie McBoom Face", the boom that supports the filter screens.  The project engineers learned as the project continued, devising new sea anchor designs that allows the entire contraption to drift more slowly than the surrounding surface currents.  The trials proved successful enough that the Ocean Clean Up Foundation with $30 million in funding plans to deploy a full scale version in the Pacific with the intent of starting the enormous task of removing the detritus of man's exploitation of the planet's resources.  The machine will be the first attempt to reduce the size of the garbage patch since it was discovered in 1997.  According to the Foundation about 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the oceans each year.  Single use plastic takes about 450 years to breakdown into microplastic particles which themselves pose a lethal threat to sea creatures.  An estimated 100,000 dophins, whales, and seals die each year from entanglement or ingestion; not to the mention uncounted sea birds, turtles and fish.

The machine will consist of 40ft, air-filled pipes made of, yes, plastic, that will float in an arc a mile long.  The plan is deploy 60 of these starting in July from San Francisco to collect plastic debris and discarded fishing gear that makes up half of the trash.  Boats will go out every six to eight week to haul away what the sweepers have collected.  Fish will be able to escape the screens by swimming underneath them.  Mr. Slat is an inspiration to any young person willing to think outside the box in which she or he finds themselves to tackle the Earth's health emergency with creative, innovative ideas.  "Why can't we clean this up?"   Indeed, Mr. Slat, indeed.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Toontime: Off With His Head!

Kevin Siers, Charlotte Observer
BC Idonwanna sez:  He more Mad Hatter!

Robert Mueller's, or his boss Rod Rosenstein's, that is. Hr. Yuge's hysteria is increasing as he rails weekly and alternately against the Special Counsel's "witch hunt" and former FBI Director Comey, whose memoir just hit the shelves. Right now it is just talk, but Attorney General Sessions has had to warn the White House that if Trump fires the Deputy Attorney General, he would be forced to resign. Trump has yet to realize that he is no longer on the "Apprentice" TV show and that political acts in Washington have consequences.

To add to the fever pitch over the Russian Connection, the Democratic National Committee filed a civil suit against the Trump Campaign and the Russian government for its interference in the 2016 election. The suit is as much a fund-raising gimmick as serious lawsuit with a probability of recovery. The last time the Democrats sued the Republicans for foul play was during the Nixon era. The party recovered a measly $750,000 settlement after Nixon was forced to leave the capital in disgrace. Will there be a repeat of that historic moment?  Stay tuned:

credit: N. Beeler, Columbus Dispatch

Friday, April 20, 2018

COTW: Gerrymandering or Fun With Boundaries

You have heard the word, but are not quite sure what it means. It is relatively simple.  Politicians play games with voting district boundaries to insure incumbents win their districts easily, and the status quo can be maintained in Congress.  Look as this hypothetical example taken from the Quora website and posted by Jameson Quinn, a Phd candidate at Harvard. (He ought to know.)
'Square State' is to be divided into four Congressional districts. The southeast quadrant is urban and contains most of the population. The northwest is rural and the two remaining areas are suburban. You might answer that the logical way to divide the state is geographically with one rural district, one urban district and two suburban. Voting history shows the city inhabitants reliably vote blue, and the rural vote reliably red, with the two suburban districts containing the swing voters. (represented by blue and red dots) NOT. Gerrymandering is the art of drawing districts to suit those drawing the boundaries. Drawing boundaries based on geography produces the first smaller chart on the left. It skews the vote toward red. The last option with the snake-like boundary encompassing parts of all the quadrants produces four swing districts which skews the vote blue. This process explains why Congressional districts sometimes look like a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle. It is done to insure "safe" districts. Who benefits from perversion of the process? The incumbent politicians of their respective parties.

Below is a cartoon of the first ever gerrymandered district.  The painter Gilbert Stuart was inspired by the bizarre shape of an electoral district on a map he saw in a newspaper editor’s office. He lampooned the snake-shaped district making it out to be some kind of antediluvian monster. “That will do for a salamander,” he said to the editor. “Gerrymander!”, replied the editor to Stuart.
For the man responsible for the odd shape of that electoral district, in eastern Massachusetts, was Elbridge Gerry, governor of the state. Gerrymandering and money neatly explains this stark fact: Congress has an average 14% approval rating, but 95% of incumbents are re-elected!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Sperm Whale Dies from Eating Trash

A young sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) washed up dead on the southeast coast of Spain in February.  Not an unusual event in itself, but when scientists performed a necropsy on the whale, they found more than sixty pounds of plastic trash in his gut.  Unable to digest or expell the detritus, he died of slow starvation.  He weighed just 13,000 lbs at his death--emaciated for a mammal that can reach 120,000 lbs as an adult.  The tragedy demonstrates how serious the ocean's plastic pollution problem is.  Although sperm whales dive thousands of feet in pursuit of their favorite food, squid, they loitter at the surface to recover from their exertions.  There they are exposed to plastic debris that can be mistaken for food or simply accidentally ingested.  The sperm whale is highly social and has the biggest brain of any cetacean.

Plastic decomposes very slowly in seawater.  Patches of floating debris can be found in all the world's oceans.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is estimated to contain 87,000 tons of plastic and other debris such as discarded fishing nets and equipment.  The 2011 tsunami that destroy the Fukushima nuclear facility alone swept 5 million tons of debris into the Pacific. In a study published this month, researchers say the patch is 4 to 16 times larger than previously estimated and is growing exponentially.  Once thought to be a region primarily of microplastic debris, it actually contains larger pieces of trash.  Once these larger pieces breakdown in microplastic particles, it will be much more difficult to remove from the water.  This chart shows the increase in plastic trash concentration from 1962 to 2018.

Sperm whales were almost hunted to extinction in the 19th century for their oil and ambergris.  The peak of sperm whale hunting occurred in the 1840s and 1960s.  They have been fully protected but international convention since 1985, but whale recovery has been slow, especially in the South Pacific where breeding age males suffered a heavy death toll.  They are currently listed as vulnerable by the IUCN.  The whales dying of trash ingestion has been detected before.  In 2008, two sperm whales stranded in northern California.  One died of a ruptured stomach and the other of gastric impaction.  Both had large amounts of debris in their stomach included discarded nets and fishing gear.  One hundred and thirty four different types of plastic nets were counted.  No longer hunted, an has found yet another way to kill whales.

Monday, April 16, 2018

This Month in WWI: the German Offensive of 1918

Since 1914 the German army fought a series of sidestepping operations intended to outflank entrenched Allied forces to the northwest in what has become known as "the race to the sea".  This strategy culminated in the last major German offensive of the war, the Kaiserschlact.  The first battle occurred on the Somme sector in Operation Michael.  Seventy-two divisions were prepared to attack in waves after a five hour bombardment by over 6600 artillery pieces on March 21st.  Battles along the Picardy front continued into April.  Germany was successful in breaking through the southern portion of the Somme entrenchments at the Battle of St. Quentin.  By the end of the operation the Germans had captured about 1200 square miles of allied held territory including the towns of Péronne, Ham, Noyon, Roye, Montdidier, Albert and Bapaume. The loss of Bapaume was particularly bitter for the British as they had expended many thousands of soldiers to reach the town in 1916. However, the territorial gains were of no consequence; the Germans failed to achieve their strategic objectives of diving the French and British armies, and driving the British into the sea.

The advance appeared to be going well, but German troops were tiring as the land was wrecked with shell holes and deliberate destruction of infrastructure, including poisoning of wells, by German forces retreating to the Hindenburg Line in 1917.  German losses during the operation were recorded at 31,000 killed and 190,000 wounded.  Allied casualties in the offensive were 160,000, and 90,000 were captured.  Both sides used chemical weapons (phosgene, chlorine and mustard gas) during 1918. Although counter-measures had been created, gas attacks were particularly demoralizing for exposed troops.  German long-range artillery [photo right] was able to sporadically bombard Paris, and the first nighttime aerial bombing raid by German Gotha bombers against London took place.  The first tank versus tank battle in history occurred outside the town of Villiers-Bretonneux on April 24, 1918. [photo top]  All of these developments indicated the increasingly technological nature of modern total warfare against which human flesh and bone was nearly defenseless.

Ludendorff decided to rest his troops on the Somme and turn efforts towards Flanders in Operation George, but American reinforcements had finally arrived on the battlefield and several successful Allied counterattacks discouraged the German command.  Germany was rapidly running out of resources, manpower, and resolve for another full scale offensive. Ludendorff and his staff reduced George to Georgette with the limited aim of recapturing Yprès (the fourth battle of the war for the town). On April 5th, after the British halted the German advance at Villiers-Bretonneux [photo right] Ludendorff called a halt to Operation Michael. Georgette failed to reach its objectives due to heavy losses among German stosstruppen and French reinforcements.  German high command called off Georgette on April 29th. The end of the deadliest war in history was now in sight for the Allies.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Toontime: Paul Ryan Calls It Quits

credit: R. Matson

Perhaps tired of dealing with an uncontrollable enfant terrible in the White House, Rep. Paul Ryan announced this week that he is retiring from politics.  As one Democrat congressman observed, Hair Further is not above using military engagements overseas to ward off an increasingly disastrous criminal investigation at home.

Trump, without consulting Congress¹, ordered cruise missile and aircraft strikes on Syrian facilities associated with chemical weapons production in retaliation for an alleged Syrian gas attack on the rebel held suburb of Douma, east of Damascus.  At least forty-two people died in the gas attack.  It was apparently intended to break the will to resist of rebels in control of a group of suburban towns known as East Ghouta.  The US missile attack immerses the United States ever deeper into the multi-sided proxy conflict that began as a domestic uprising against the Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad.  The strikes were limited so as not to affect Russian forces in Syria.  However, the chlorine gas attack worked, as Russian military police moved in to secure Ghouta for the regime soon afterwards.

Robert Mueller's investigation of Trump's Russian Connection is now reaching a climax.  According to McClatchy DC Bureau the Special Counsel can prove Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen made a secret trip to Prague during Trump's  2016 campaign for office.  The reason for the trip is not clear, but Cohen has denied in a post on Twitter ever visiting the Czech capital.  The Steele Dossier alleges Cohen made the trip to meet Vladimir Putin's ally, Konstantin Kosachev.  He chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of a body of the Russian legislature, the Federation Council. Kosachev was also one of the Russian oligarchs recently hit with financial sanctions issued by the US Treasury.

Steele's dossier goes on to allege that Cohen was deeply involved in a “cover up and damage limitation operation in the attempt to prevent the full details of Trump’s relationship with Russia being exposed.” US attorneys confirm that they are investigating possible bank fraud and campaign finance violations in connection with Cohen's efforts to tamp down damaging stories about Trump during the 2016 campaign.  Earlier, FBI agents raided Cohen's Manhattan office looking for evidence. Revealed late this week is the fact that Cohen made a $1.6 million payment to a Playboy "playmate" for silence about a sexual relationship with a major Repugnant donor that ended in an abortion.  The donor, venture capitalist Elliott Broidy, was deputy finance chair for the party of the rich.  He resigned when his story surfaced.  The sleaze mounts².

1. Field Marshall Hermann Goering made these remarks during the Nuremberg trials: "It is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country."  
2.  Why do Evangelicals give Trump a free pass on his numerous infidelities?  Read this opinion piece in the Cleveland Plain Dealer from history and religion professors about the patriarchal nature of Christian evangelicalism.

Six Rangers Killed in Virunga Park Attack

Mai Mai rebels ambushed a park vehicle killing five rangers and the driver.  One ranger survived the attack on April 9.  Virunga National Park is the home of the highly endangered mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei).  Virunga is Africa's oldest national park established in 1925.  Unfortunately it is also the locus of a long-running civil war in which militias, rebels, and poachers have killed 175 rangers to date.  The attack on Monday, April 9th was the deadliest in the Park's history, coming just a few days after the killing of another range on April 1st.   Park authorities said the rangers killed were:

  • RANGER Jean de Dieu BYAMUNGU, aged 25
  • RANGER Barthelemie KAKULE MULEWA, aged 28
  • RANGER Théodore KASEREKA PRINCE, aged 25
  • RANGER Liévin MUMBERE KASUMBA, aged 28
  • RANGER Kananwa SIBOMANA, aged 22
  • ILA MURANDA, aged 30 
  • Faustin Biriko Nzabakurikiza, on April 1st
A fund has been established to aid the families of rangers who have died in the line of duty.   Chief warden,  Emmanuel de Merode, issued a statement of condolence in which he praised the fallen for being deeply committed to a better future for eastern Congo.  

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

COTW: The Promised Land?

Hair Further's promise to build a border wall at Mexico's expense is laughable, if it were not made by the chief executive of a waning superpower.  This chart shows that detected illegal border crossing have declined significantly.  A wall will not stop determined immigrants or invaders--history has repeatedly demonstrated that.  His folly is only effective as a public relations ploy intended to rallying his nativist base around one of their bête noirs, immigration.  They fail to realize that up until 1924 the United States had no immigration quotas (except for the Chinese hordes building the westward railroad expansion).  All an immigrant had to do was show up at Ellis Island, and if he was literate in his own language, he was admitted.  'Merica was built on the backs of immigrants.  The last majority northern European "white" immigrant population was way back in 1840s.

Sunday, April 08, 2018

'Toontime: Look Ma, No Collusion!

credit: Steve Sack, Star Tribune
BC Idonwanna sez: Duroc swallow hook, line & sinker!

More:  A dramatic turn in the Russian Connection investigation took place this morning as the FBI raided the apartment of Trump's personal attorney, Michael Cohen.  The G-men seized documents, records and emails including those related to a payment to Stormy 'Abudanza' Daniels in return for her silence about an affair with the Donald.  Mr. Yuge's reaction was typically vitirolic, calling the raid an “attack on our country in a true sense.” His impulsive remark set off another speculative storm in the Swamp that he would fire Mueller or even his boss Deputy General Counsel Rosenstein before the investigation is over.  Mueller's office did not initiate the search pursuant to warrant, but Manhattan federal prosecutors did.  They may legall share any relevant evidence they obtain with Mueller's office, however.

New York Times reports that Konstantin V. Kilimnik is the alleged Russian agent ("Person A") mentioned in the sentencing documents submitted by the Special Counsel last week at the hearing for US lawyer, Alex van der Zwaan. Kilimnik worked for a about a decade at Paul Manafort's Kiev consulting office as a go-between with Ukrainian officials. He is a former military intelligence translator who speaks near perfect English. A Ukrainian attorney who requested an investigation of Kilimnik by the Ukranian government for his alleged spying activities said of him, “He was a student of a military school in Russia. Everybody in the former Soviet Union knows what that means. They produce professional spies.” According to Robert Mueller, Kilimnik and Manafort cooperated on an ultimately unsuccessful business venture financed by Mr. Deripaska one of the oligarch sanctioned by the Treasury Department, known as the Pericles investment fund. Mr. Manafort’s business in Ukraine was registered in Mr. Kilimnik’s name.

The Special Counsel said in his court briefs that Kilimnik had communicated with Mr. Gates late during the 2016 campaign, and that Mr. Gates was aware of Mr. Kilimnik’s background in Russian intelligence. This information places Russian intelligence only a few degrees away from 'Mr. Yuge', now sitting in the White House. Manafort will go on trial later this year on charges of money laundering. He has refused to enter into a plea and cooperation agreement with the Special Counsel.

In another significant development, the Treasury Department imposed financial sanctions on seven Russian oligarchs loyal to President Putin and twelve of their companies. It also imposed sanctions on seventeen other senior Russian government officials for the Kremlin's "malign agenda" towards the US. The sanctions freeze any assets the sanctioned individuals hold in the U.S. and bar Americans from dealing with them. So the squeeze is in full force. Mueller may have told Trump's attorneys Trump is not a "criminal target" of his ten month investigation, but he has not been cleared of wrongdoing either.  Subjects can easily become indicted, especially as a result of their own testimony.  Still, the chances of an impeachment, essentially a political process, are at long odds.  Stay tuned to find what oozes out next.

credit: Steve Sack, Star Tribune
Wackydoodle sez: Technos is a two-headed god!

Friday, April 06, 2018

COTW: Pension Problem Gets Worse

State and local governments are deep in the red due to pension liabilities. In fact, derivative financing (credit rate swaps) of generous pension obligations was a key factor of the Detroit bankruptcy. Total unfunded liabilities in state and local pensions have roughly quintupled in the last decade according to John Mauldin writing at Market This chart shows the growth in pension debt:

Few governments have their pension programs fully funded--approximately 15%. Most rely on debt financing of one form or another. Kentucky for example has unfunded pension liabilities of $40 billion or more. Consequently, the costs of funding is extremely sensitive to changes in the discount rate. The chart shows that when the Fed took the discount rate to near zero to recover from the "Great Recession" of 2008, the cost of funding future pension payments went drastically up. Some pension programs were overly generous, declaring returns in excess of 6-7%.

The graph shows almost $2 trillion in liabilities if the expected rate of return is 7% (about average for pension funds). If that is recalculated at a more realistic 4%, then future unfunded liabilities up to $4 trillion. If there is another recession or even a depression and the stock market collapses by a historically average 40%, then future pension liabilities hit an unsustainable $7-8 trillion, or more than 3 times the tax revenue collected today by states and municipalities. The result: multiple bankruptcies on the scale of Detroit. Tell that to the police, firemen, and teachers banking on their retirement funds.

Thursday, April 05, 2018

Creature Feature: The Rusty Spotted Cat

BBC World produces the best nature programming on television, in US Person's opinion. The BBC once again demonstrates its prowess in nature filming with this preview in its Big Cat series. The rusty spotted is so cute you want to take one home, but it is a deadly hunter for its small size, the smallest cat in the wild:

Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Japan Whale Hunt Unappossed

Japan's commercial whaling fleet, thinly disguised as 'scientific research' killed another 333 Minke whales (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) in the Antarctic's southern ocean this season unopposed by the conservation action group, Sea Shepherds.  The organization usually sends its small flotilla to the southern ocean to harrass the whaling operation, but according to the organization's head the Japanese are employing satellite technology to keep track of Sea Shepherd ships, making it impossible for them to close in on the whaling vessels.  Sea Shepherd has sent ships south to confront the Japanese whalers since 2005, sometimes risking dangerous high sea collisions.  Minke whales enjoy a natural lifespan of 45-50 years.

The Japanese returned to port on Saturday with their illegal haul of whales that included pregnant females.  Japan's goal of defiance of international law is to eventually resume commercial whaling in earnest even though most Japanese no longer eat whale meat.   Japan intends to take 12,000 whales over the next twelve years.  Not coincidentally, the Japanese whaling port of Shimonoseki is in Prime Minister Abe's electoral district.  Continuation of whaling in the 21st serves no pressing human need, and should be relegated to the annals of history, but inaction by Japan's allies allows the inhumane hunt to go on.