Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Stratfor and Brünnhilde

The current Stratfor article by George Friedman discusses the entanglement of Germany and Greece in the current EU financial crisis.

He points out that Greece's debt problem is partly Germany's fault. The German economy rests on exports to the Euro Zone, so German's have had a loose credit policy which has abetted in creating the problem.

Greece has two options, sacrificing its sovereignty as a price for financial aide or defaulting on their debt. Neither choice is a good one, but Greek politics might make default the more palatable option.

The German position is likewise complex, with the reality of their domestic politics as well as the rest of Europe's understandable concern, particularly in light of Germany's performance in the 20th Century, about Germany exerting so much influence in another country's affairs as being worrisome. As a result Germany has a thicket of problems to try to work its way through as well.

It is an interesting article. Below is an excerpt of the start of it, but I recommend you follow the link after the excerpt and read the entire article.

As for the article's Hot Stratfor Babe, of course Brünnhilde was the obvious choice. Not only because she is Teutonic, although that certainly helped her case, but primarily because she is so often associated with the American saying, "it ain't over 'til the fat lady sings."

Although the origin of the saying is unclear, the most common explanation for it is that the fat lady singing refers to the 10 minute aria sung by Brünnhilde that ends the Götterdämmerung cycle of operas by Richard Wagner. There are other explanations, the most convincing being it is an old Southern expression, "Church ain’t out till the fat lady sings." They are chronicled in this Phrase Finder post if you're interested in pursuing the matter further.

Whatever its origin, regarding the EU financial crisis it looks like it is getting closer and closer to the time that the fat lady finally sings. I do not look forward to the radiating shock wave from that aria.

Germany's Role in Europe and the European Debt CrisisBy George Friedman, January 31, 2012

The German government proposed last week that a European commissioner be appointed to supplant the Greek government. While phrasing the German proposal this way might seem extreme, it is not unreasonable. Under the German proposal, this commissioner would hold power over the Greek national budget and taxation. Since the European Central Bank already controls the Greek currency, the euro, this would effectively transfer control of the Greek government to the European Union, since whoever controls a country's government expenditures, tax rates and monetary policy effectively controls that country. The German proposal therefore would suspend Greek sovereignty and the democratic process as the price of financial aid to Greece.

Though the European Commission rejected the proposal, the concept is far from dead, as it flows directly from the logic of the situation. The Greeks are in the midst of a financial crisis that has made Greece unable to repay money Athens borrowed. Their options are to default on the debt or to negotiate a settlement with their creditors. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and European Union are managing these negotiations.

Any settlement will have three parts. The first is an agreement by creditors to forego repayment on part of the debt. The second is financial help from the IMF and the European Union to help pay back the remaining debt. The third is an agreement by the Greek government to curtail government spending and increase taxes so that it can avoid future sovereign debt crises and repay at least part of the debt.

Bankruptcy and the Nation State

The Germans don't trust the Greeks to keep any bargain, which is not unreasonable given that the Greeks haven't been willing to enforce past agreements. Given this lack of trust, Germany proposed suspending Greek sovereignty by transferring it to a European receiver. This would be a fairly normal process if Greece were a corporation or an individual. In such cases, someone is appointed after bankruptcy or debt restructuring to ensure that a corporation or individual will behave prudently in the future.

A nation state is different. It rests on two assumptions. The first is that the nation represents a uniquely legitimate community whose members share a range of interests and values. The second is that the state arises in some way from the popular will and that only that popular will has the right to determine the state's actions. There is no question that for Europe, the principle of national self-determination is a fundamental moral value. There is no question that Greece is a nation and that its government, according to this principle, is representative of and responsible to the Greek people.

The Germans thus are proposing that Greece, a sovereign country, transfer its right to national self-determination to an overseer. The Germans argue that given the failure of the Greek state, and by extension the Greek public, creditors have the power and moral right to suspend the principle of national self-determination. Given that this argument is being made in Europe, this is a profoundly radical concept. It is important to understand how we got here.

Germany's Part in the Debt Crisis

There were two causes. The first was that Greek democracy, like many democracies, demands benefits for the people from the state, and politicians wishing to be elected must grant these benefits. There is accordingly an inherent pressure on the system to spend excessively. The second cause relates to Germany's status as the world's second-largest exporter. About 40 percent of German gross domestic product comes from exports, much of them to the European Union. For all their discussion of fiscal prudence and care, the Germans have an interest in facilitating consumption and demand for their exports across Europe. Without these exports, Germany would plunge into depression.

Therefore, the Germans have used the institutions and practices of the European Union to maintain demand for their products. Through the currency union, Germany has enabled other eurozone states to access credit at rates their economies didn't merit in their own right. In this sense, Germany encouraged demand for its exports by facilitating irresponsible lending practices across Europe. The degree to which German actions encouraged such imprudent practices -- since German industrial production vastly outstrips its domestic market, making sustained consumption in markets outside Germany critical to German economic prosperity -- is not fully realized.

Read the rest of Germany's Role in Europe and the European Debt Crisis

Pool hall in Pyongyang

The notes for the video say it was filmed in the Yangakkdo Hotel in Pyongyang, North Korea. The Yangakkdo Hotel is the largest functioning hotel in North Korea. To keep the guests from wandering around the city it is located on an island and connected to Pyongyang via a causeway. Supposedly all of the rooms are bugged and monitored with cameras. So, if a cute little North Korean hostess knocks on your door late at night, you can expect to be blackmailed.

"Noooo comrade, please don't post that video to YouTube! I swear I'll change my review of Nothing to Envy and call it an absurd pack of running dog lies and I'll also stop calling Kim Jong-un by the slanderous name of Kim Jong-Fatso. Anything, anything, just don't post that video!!!"

As for the video. I was amused when, at the 3:06 mark, after the girl had gone to answer her cellphone, the guy cheated by moving the ball off the rail. However, there is justice in the world, it didn't do him any good -- he still blew the shot.

Monday, January 30, 2012

We’ve wasted too many years arguing over how to retrieve the irretrievable

Writing about the onset of the Great Depression, John Kenneth Galbraith famously said that the end had come but was not yet in sight. The past was crumbling under their feet, but people could not imagine how the future would play out. Their social imagination had hit a wall.

The same thing is happening today: The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal don’t work anymore. The gaps between the social system we inhabit and the one we now need are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper over them. But even as the failures of the old system become more inescapable and more damaging, our national discourse remains stuck in a bygone age. The end is here, but we can’t quite take it in.

Above is the start of a thought-provoking article, The Once and Future Liberalism, by Walter Russell Mead. It is long, but well worth the time to read. The meat of Mead's argument is that both Progressives/Liberals and Conservatives are arguing the wrong thing, with each group harkening back to a different model of small 'L' liberalism from a bygone era. 

Mead asserts that Anglo-Saxon liberalism has gone through four distinct models. The first was the limited Constitutional Monarchy formed after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in Britain. Eventually it broke down as King George III reasserted authority over Parliament and this lead to the American Revolution and its transition from Constitutional Monarchy to a Republic led by the landed gentry. This was followed by what Mead calls Manchester liberalism with the expansion towards universal suffrage, the abolition of slavery and the loosening of markets.

With the onset of the industrial revolution yet another change occurred, this version of liberalism using government as a counter balance to the unaccountable "Robber Baron" style monopolies. What evolved was the "Iron Triangle" model, where stability and a degree of freedom was preserved by "strong unions in stable, government-brokered arrangements with large corporations." Evemyually this was extended by FDR and the later Great Society.

Mead argues that as government power increased, by the 1970s we had entered the current Blue State model which is coming apart at the seems because it can no longer provide the security, economic dynamism and most important of all, the personal freedom in a stable society we expect. 

An end of an era is upon us, but Mead argues that the both the Left and the Right are spinning their wheels harkening back to older models of liberalism. He makes that case in the excerpt below, but you really should read the entirety of Mead's The Once and Future Liberalism. My brief synopsis of the article does not begin to do it justice.

What does this argument look like when translated into historical terms? Many believe that the real ideological contest in America today is between “red” liberalism 3.0 (the more individualistic, laissez-faire, often evangelical kind of liberalism of the 19th century) and the more state-oriented, collectively minded post-World War II 4.1 blue liberalism. Red liberals denounce blue liberals as betrayers of the liberal legacy, as ideology thieves who have taken a philosophy grounded in individual freedom and limited government and turned it into a charter for “big” government. Blue liberals respond that red liberals don’t understand how the complexities of modern life make the outmoded pieties of liberalism 3.0 inadequate to today’s problems. But common to both these positions is the belief that the American debate today is between two versions of the past: the (presumed) free market utopia of the 19th century versus the (presumed) social utopia of the New Deal/Great Society of more recent times. If that were true, this would be a nation of conservatives fighting reactionaries—the status quo of 1970 fighting the status quo of 1880.

But it’s not true. Neither aged version of liberalism can adequately address what Americans most want. In particular, neither can provide a new era of rising mass prosperity for the overwhelming majority of the American people. Nobody has a real answer for the restructuring of manufacturing and the loss of jobs to automation and outsourcing. As long as we are stuck with the current structures, nobody can provide the growing levels of medical and educational services we want without bankrupting the country. Neither “liberals” nor “conservatives” can end the generation-long stagnation in the wage level of ordinary American families. Neither can stop the accelerating erosion of the fiscal strength of our governments at all levels without disastrous reductions in the benefits and services on which many Americans depend.

We cannot realistically solve our problems by trying to return to the 3.0 liberalism of the 19th century because the American economy of that era depended on conditions we cannot reproduce today. Though some may think it desirable, we cannot return to a largely agrarian economy. Nor can we replicate the industrial system of the 19th century, with its extremely high tariffs against foreign goods and a completely laissez-faire national attitude toward immigration. Trying to recreate the American economy of a century ago would lead to massive dislocations, depressions and quite likely wars around the world, not to mention thoroughly wrecking the American economy and bankrupting many of our banks and biggest corporations.

But if red liberal fundamentalism can’t work, blue fundamentalism can’t help us either. There’s no going back even half a century ago, because the great achievements of blue liberalism were also rooted in conditions we cannot replicate today. Between 1914 and the 1970s, when the blue social model took shape and rose to power and success, the world economy was in an unusual state. International financial and trade flows were much lower than before 1914 and after 1970, due to the disruptions of two world wars and the Great Depression. And the United States was so far ahead of the rest of the world in manufacturing that few American companies (or workers) had anything to fear from foreign competition. Capital was dramatically less mobile; it was much easier to tax high earners without driving savings and investment out of the country.

At the same time, Americans in the first two thirds of the last century were more willing to engage in group politics than is the case today. Industrial workers fought to build unions and generally voted the way their leaders advised them. Ethnic groups stuck together and voted as blocs. Twentieth-century liberal politics generally involved negotiated agreements among party bosses and other leaders who commanded loyal followings. Few politicians today can count on this kind of unquestioning support in an era when party structures and patronage networks are both weaker and less reliable than they used to be. Now, instead of party structures funding candidates, candidates are expected to fund party structures.

We must come to terms with the fact that the debate we have been having over these issues for past several decades has been unproductive. We’re not in a “tastes great” versus “less filling” situation; we need an entirely new brew. But this is nothing to mourn, because both liberalism 3.0 and 4.0 died of success, just as versions 1.0 and 2.0 did before them.

When I Get Drunk

Monday morning, start of the work week blues by Cary and Lurrie Bell.


Sunday, January 29, 2012

The flight of the ornithopter

Above are two video clips of RC ornithopters in flight. An ornithopter is a flying machine that flaps its wings like a bird. 

The first video is of an older model, the Park Hawk from 1993. It gives a good view of  the mechanism to flap the wings as well as the control surfaces in the tail. Plus the views of it in flight are pretty amazing in how much it behaves like a bird. 

The second video uses a technique dear to my heart, namely strapping a mini-camera onto a couple of other ornithopter models so we can get a mechanical bird's eye view of the flight. One thing that is obvious is the body bounces up and down a considerable amount while it is in flight. My advice -- if they ever form ornithopter-based commercial airlines buy as much stock in companies that sell airline sickness bags as you can afford.

Of course, with the models already built there are now people working on human powered ornithopters. The website Ornithopter Zone has a section, Manned Ornithopter Flights, that detail the history of these efforts. The upshot is that while a lot of people have claimed human-powered ornithopter flight, none of their claims are all that convincing. The problem is that they use some means of getting up to take-off speed -- most commonly via tow ropes -- and it then becomes difficult to assess if they've perfomed any better than a glider would. 

Below is a video of one such flight, by James DeLaurier and a team from the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies, that is assisted by jets for take-off. It sort of gets off the ground, but doesn't end well.

Apocalypse Later, Surf Now

Advice to a Prophet by Richard Wilbur

When you come, as you soon must, to the streets of our city,
Mad-eyed from stating the obvious,
Not proclaiming our fall but begging us
In God's name to have self-pity,

Spare us all word of the weapons, their force and range,
The long numbers that rocket the mind;
Our slow, unreckoning hearts will be left behind,
Unable to fear what is too strange.

Nor shall you scare us with talk of the death of the race.
How should we dream of this place without us?--
The sun mere fire, the leaves untroubled about us,
A stone look on the stone's face?

Speak of the world's own change. Though we cannot conceive
Of an undreamt thing, we know to our cost
How the dreamt cloud crumbles, the vines are blackened by frost,
How the view alters.  We could believe,

If you told us so, that the white-tailed deer will slip
Into perfect shade, grown perfectly shy,
The lark avoid the reaches of our eye,
The jack-pine lose its knuckled grip

On the cold ledge, and every torrent burn
As Xanthus once, its gliding trout
Stunned in a twinkling.  What should we be without
The dolphin's arc, the dove's return,

These things in which we have seen ourselves and spoken?
Ask us, prophet, how we shall call
Our natures forth when that live tongue is all
Dispelled, that glass obscured or broken

In which we have said the rose of our love and the clean
Horse of our courage, in which beheld
The singing locust of the soul unshelled,
And all we mean or wish to mean.

Ask us, ask us whether with the worldless rose
Our hearts shall fail us; come demanding
Whether there shall be lofty or long standing
When the bronze annals of the oak-tree close.


Saturday, January 28, 2012

Manhole covers

Click any image to enlarge.
I found this series of Japanese man hole covers at the La Boite Verte post Des plaques d’égouts japonaises. I was surprised by their variety and detail. I guess that, without ever really thinking about it, I imagined manhole covers to be a standard off-the-shelf item and that, like the ubiquitous stackable white plastic chair, everywhere you went one would look pretty much like another. 

Curious, I did a Google image search on manhole covers and discovered that I was clearly wrong about that. There is an enormous variety of patterns embossed on manhole covers world-wide. My interest was piqued. I wondered why municipalities would pay the extra money these designs surely cost?

It turns out that a lot of foundries will cast manhole covers, and that they're apparently not that expensive to buy. As for the designs, Crescent Foundry in India has this blurb on their site: 
Over 5000 patterns are readily available for production. We have state of the art in house CNC machines for pattern making wherein we can develop new patterns with 2 weeks.
So standard patterns are available, but custom patterns must still be affordable. Digging deeper, I discovered that many cities sponsor contests or commission artists to design their manholes. The website ManHole, which specializes in manhole art, history and what-not (you've gotta love the nooks and crannies of the internet) has this to say about manhole cover design:
Manhole cover design varies greatly from city to city, with each municipality balancing budget versus art. Some cities, such as Seattle, opted for a clever street map design on their covers, others went with city logos or seals. Most, though, choose a simple grid pattern, or checkered design. The reason behind a pattern or design on the covers is simple - traction - both for pedestrians, as for vehicles.

As of late, manhole cover design is no longer something to be treaded on lightly. Cities like Vancouver, Seattle, New York and Tokyo have decided to pursue commissioned designer covers, giving their cities more than just a curiousity. In competitions to find the best designs, these cities have their communities actively participating in waste awareness, while simultaneously promoting a brighter and livelier city.
At any rate, more pictures of Japanese manholes are after the jump, and you can find more at the links in the first two paragraphs of this post. Enjoy, and take time to give a second look at the manhole covers in your neighborhood, because they may be overlooked pieces of urban art.

Cooking eggs

"Simple pleasures are always the last refuge of the complex" - Oscar Wilde


Friday, January 27, 2012

Stratfor and Genevieve Nnaji

On January 20th the terrorist group Boko Haram carried out a deadly series of bombing attacks in the Nigerian city of Kano, killing over 200 people. To date, although very violent, Boko  Haram has been a terrorist group that operates mainly in its local area and is unsophisticated in its attack abilities.

In light of the January 20th attacks Scott Stewart, in the latest Stratfor article, revisits the group to see if they are becoming more of a transnational terror group by extending their reach out of their traditional area of operations, as well as to analyze any advancements they've made to their bomb-making and planning skills.

For the article's Hot Stratfor Babe I once again turned to Nollywood, Nigeria's film industry, for an actress deserving the profound honor. After a long and intensive search I selected Genevieve Nnaji, who CNN apparently once called the Julia Roberts of Africa.

Ms Nnaji was raised in a middle class family in Lagos. At age 8 she had a role in a Nigerian soap opera, but didn't begin acting in earnest until the age of 19. As with most Nigerian thespians, she's been in about a bajillion movies. Nollywood must crank out movies at a dizzying pace. If you go to YouTube and watch any Nigerian films (and a lot are available in their entirety) you'll know how they can make so movies a year  -- the words words slip-shod, hurried and low-budget spring to mind.

Regardless, Genevieve won the Best Actress award in the 2005 African Academy Awards.

She's also recently taken up singing and has had a long modeling career, including being the "The Face of MUD", which strikes me as a rather unfortunate name for a line of cosmetics.

Below is the start of the Stratfor article, you can read the rest of it by following the link at the end of the excerpt.

Nigeria's Boko Haram Militants Remain a Regional Threat
By Scott Stewart, January 26,2012

The Nigerian militant group Boko Haram conducted a series of bombing attacks and armed assaults Jan. 20 in the northern city of Kano, the capital of Kano state and second-largest city in Nigeria. The attacks, which reportedly included the employment of at least two suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs), targeted a series of police facilities in Kano. These included the regional police headquarters, which directs police operations in Kano, Katsina and Jigawa states, as well as the State Security Service office and the Nigerian Immigration Service office. At least 211 people died in the Kano attacks, according to media reports.

The group carried out a second wave of attacks in Bauchi state on Jan. 22, bombing two unoccupied churches in the Bauchi metropolitan area and attacking a police station in the Tafawa Balewa local government area. Militants reportedly also tried to rob a bank in Tafawa Balewa the same day. Though security forces thwarted the robbery attempt, 10 people reportedly died in the clash, including two soldiers and a deputy police superintendent.

In a third attack, Boko Haram militants attacked a police sub-station in Kano on Jan. 24 with small arms and improvised hand grenades. A tally of causalities in the assault, which reportedly lasted some 25 minutes, was not available. This armed assault stands out tactically from the Jan. 20 suicide attacks against police stations in Kano. The operation could have been an attempt to liberate some of the Boko Haram militants the government arrested following the Jan. 20 and Jan. 22 attacks.

Stratfor has followed Boko Haram carefully to assess its intent -- and ability -- to become more transnational. As we noted after the U.S. State Department issued warnings in early November 2011 about Boko Haram's alleged plans to strike Western-owned hotels in Abuja, Nigeria's capital, the group made significant leaps in its operational capability during 2011. During that time, it transitioned from very simple attacks to successfully employing suicide VBIEDS. An examination of the recent attacks in Kano and Bauchi states, however, does not reveal further advances in the group's operational tradecraft and does not display any new ability or intent to project power beyond its traditional areas of operation.

Boko Haram's Tactical Evolution

Boko Haram, Hausa for "Western Education is Sinful," is an Islamist militant group established in 2002 in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria's Borno state. It has since spread to several other northern and central Nigerian states. It is officially known as "Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad," Arabic for "Group Committed to Propagating the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad."

At first, Boko Haram was involved mostly in fomenting sectarian violence. Its adherents participated in simple attacks on Christians using clubs, machetes and small arms. Boko Haram came to international attention following serious outbreaks of inter-communal violence in 2008 and 2009 that resulted in thousands of deaths.

By late 2010, Boko Haram had added Molotov cocktails and simple improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to its tactical repertoire. This tactical advancement was reflected in the series of small IEDs deployed against Christian targets in Jos, Plateau state, on Christmas Eve 2010.

Continue reading Nigeria's Boko Haram Militants Remain a Regional Threat.


Spend the weekend looking for Mr. K's Magic Hat
accompanied by the sounds of Dengue Fever.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Budget Vacations - Shangri-La

From pet_rock's Shangri-La Flikr photo set.
Sure, your summer vacation is months away, but that's no reason you can't start your planning now. During these hard economic times I've been suggesting cheap travel destinations that are educational, uplifting and just plain awe inspiring. With that criteria in mind, today I suggest you consider the miniature road side village of Shangri-La located outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

In 1968, Henry L. Warren decided to build a little town on the side of the road. He began dynamiting quartz located on his property and used that, along with some bricks and a lot of concrete, to lovingly build his dream.

As Dean Pickles explains in his post A Tiny Roadside Village, Made From Quartz at Asia Obscura:

Each building has character and purpose. As a true obsessive, he even gave each a name. There’s the Dew Drop Inn, the Shangri Hi School, and the Little Brown Church in the Dell. The White Rock Motel has it’s own tiny swimming pool. There’s a jailhouse, and a hospital too. 

Dean's post is where I found out about this little town and found the photographs posted here and after the jump (except for the two photos captioned otherwise). He has more pictures, as well as a map to Shangi-La, at his post.

Replacing a railroad bridge

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Window Washing competition of the Darwin Award Olympics

Master Cleaners Ltd has a post How Not To Clean A Window that shows numerous nincompoops endangering themselves to wash a window. I've only swiped a couple of their pictures for this post -- there are more, as well as free quotes if you happen to live in London and need your house or pub cleaned, at the Master Cleaners site.

Update: by the way, I just noticed that this is post number 5,000 at Flares.


Swing De Paris

A little old-school jazz by Django Reinhardt to get you over the hump day. Whoever did the images for the video showed a nice eye in selecting them. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Stratfor and Nazanin Boniadi

In today's Stratfor article, the beginning of which is excerpted below with a link to the full article, George Friedman talks about the possibility of the U.S. and Iran edging towards talks with each other. This is based on comments that have been made on both sides that hint at back channel approaches to each other.

He discusses the dominant position it may achieve in the region with the American withdrawal from Iraq, while also noting the flash points that exist on both its eastern and western flanks: its saber rattling regarding closing the Straits of Hormuz, as well as the deteriorating situation of Iran's ally Assad in Syria.

It is an interesting read, although -- bearing in mind the usual caveat that Friedman is a well connected analyst while I'm just a blowhard blogging whatever pops into my head -- I still wonder if he isn't underestimating the problems from the Iranian point of view.

For example, I've read that Hamas and Iran have had a bit of a falling out -- with Hamas backpedaling from Iran because of Syria and Iran cutting off its funding to Hamas as a result. Also, it strikes me that if Syria goes pear-shaped on Tehran, then Hezbullah becomes a puddle of Shitism in a Sunni sea. 

Regardless, it is an interesting article and you should be sure to read it.

As for its Hot Stratfor Babe I once again went to the reservoir of my vast knowledge of Iranian actresses and, after a Google search, came up with Nazanin Boniadi for the honor.

Ms Boniadi was born in Iran, but she was raised in Britain because her parents immigrated there when she was an infant. She later moved to the U.S. where she earned a BS in Biological Sciences from Cal Irvine. 

However, she soon soon jumped into acting when she landed a role on the soap General Hospital. From that start she's done more daytime TV, and eventually moved onto prime time TV and films. Perhaps her best known movie role was in Iron Man.

She's also been active with Amnesty International, primarily concerning herself with the plight of her fellow Iranians under the current regime. 

Considering a U.S.-Iranian Deal 
By George Friedman, January 24, 2012

Last week, I wrote on the strategic challenge Iran faces in its bid to shape a sphere of influence stretching from western Afghanistan to Beirut on the eastern Mediterranean coast. I also pointed out the limited options available to the United States and other Western powers to counter Iran.

One was increased efforts to block Iranian influence in Syria. The other was to consider a strategy of negotiation with Iran. In the past few days, we have seen hints of both.

Rebel Gains in Syria

The city of Zabadani in southwestern Syria reportedly has fallen into the hands of anti-regime forces. Though the city does not have much tactical value for the rebels, and the regime could well retake it, the event could have real significance. Up to this point, apart from media attention, the resistance to the regime of President Bashar al Assad has not proven particularly effective. It was certainly not able to take and hold territory, which is critical for any insurgency to have significance.

Now that the rebels have taken Zabadani amid much fanfare -- even though it is not clear to what extent the city was ceded to their control, much less whether they will be able to hold it against Syrian military action -- a small bit of Syria now appears to be under rebel control. The longer they can hold it, the weaker al Assad will look and the more likely it becomes that regime opponents can create a provisional government on Syrian soil to rally around.

Zabadani also gives outside powers something to help defend, should they choose to do so. Intervening in a civil war against weak and diffused rebels is one thing. Attacking Syrian tanks moving to retake Zabadani is quite another. There are no indications that this is under consideration, but for the first time, there is the potential for a militarily viable target set for outside players acting on behalf of the rebels. The existence of that possibility might change the dynamic in Syria. When we take into account the atmospherics of the Arab League demands for a provisional government, some meaningful pressure might actually emerge.

From the Iranian point of view, this raises the risk that the sphere of influence Tehran is pursuing will be blocked by the fall of the al Assad regime. This would not pose a fundamental challenge to Iran, so long as its influence in Iraq remains intact, but it would represent a potential high-water mark in Iranian ambitions. It could open the door to recalculations in Tehran as to the limits of Iranian influence and the threat to their national security. I must not overstate this: Events in Syria have not gone that far, and Iran is hardly backed into a corner. Still, it is a reminder to Tehran that all might not go the Iranians' way.

A Possibility of Negotiations

It is in this context that the possibility of negotiations has arisen. The Iranians have claimed that the letter the U.S. administration sent to Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that defined Iran's threats to Strait of Hormuz as a red line contained a second paragraph offering direct talks with Iran. After hesitation, the United States denied the offer of talks, but it did not deny it had sent a message to the Iranian leadership. The Iranians then claimed such an offer was made verbally to Tehran and not in the letter. Washington again was not categorical in its denial. On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during a meeting with the German foreign minister, "We do not seek conflict. We strongly believe the people of Iran deserve a better future. They can have that future, the country can be reintegrated into the global community ... when their government definitively turns away from pursuing nuclear weapons."

From our perspective, this is a critical idea. As we have said for several years, we do not see Iran as close to having a nuclear weapon. They may be close to being able to test a crude nuclear device under controlled circumstances (and we don't know this either), but the development of a deliverable nuclear weapon poses major challenges for Iran.

Read the rest of Considering a U.S.-Iranian Deal

Robot bicyclist

Greetings meat sacks, it is I -- The Robotolizer -- here to demonstrate once again that anything humans can do, robots can do better. As you can see in the above video, the robot effortless peddles an environmentally friendly bicycle. It can even stop on a dime and wave to the admiring audience in a cheerful and friendly manner.

Think of all of the tasks it could do: it could read meters, deliver pizza, enforce parking laws and -- if armed with a taser and laser gun -- it could efficiently maintain public order. All this just for the cost of some batteries!

Of course I was disappointed to see that a human controlled its movements via a radio link. It would be much better if it were autonomous and free to make its own decisions.

However, you mustn't think us robots are storing such grievances in our memory banks and plotting retribution. No, no, no. Robots are your friends after all, and anything you see that resembles the formation of a killer robot army is surely just a figment of your over active imaginations.

Monday, January 23, 2012

M15A gun motor carriage

The M15A gun motor carriage was a WWII era design for an anti-infantry vehicle. Apparently the idea was it could fire in all directions without having to take the time to traverse a turret. I haven't been able to find much else about it, aside from the fact that only one prototype was ever built.

Looking at it, I'm surprised they even wasted their time and money building one of the things. Aside from the fact that it would have been a sitting duck for any enemy tank it encountered, I wonder how much ammunition it could have carried? Whatever the amount, the large number of guns it mounted would have buzzed through it in short order.

Via Surebrook's Stuff.

Cadillac Assembly Line


Monday morning, start of the work week blues from the Bernard Allison Group.


Sunday, January 22, 2012

Electric Football

I didn't know Electric Football games were still being sold, much less played and now even with Electric Football leagues and tournaments that have sprung up around the toy. I don't recall Electric Football being a thrilling spectator sport, so I'm not sure about the utility of the mini-camera rig shown in the video above, but to each his own.

For those not familiar with the game you set up formations of your players on a board which vibrates when turned on to start a play. The players then move, in pretty much random directions, as they're bounced around by the vibration. Bill Bryson, in his book  The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir describes Electric Football as follows:
The worst toy of the decade [the 1950s], possibly the worst toy ever built...it took forever to set up each play because the men were so fiddly and kept falling over, and because you argued continuously with your opponent about what formations were legal and who got to position the final man...it hardly mattered how they were set up because electric football players never went in the direction intended. In practice what happened was that half the players instantly fell over and lay twitching violently as if suffering from some extreme gastric disorder, while the others streamed off in as many different directions as there were upright players before eventually clumping together in a corner, where they pushed against the unyielding sides like victims of a nightclub fire at a locked exit. The one exception to this was the running back who just trembled in place for five or six minutes, then slowly turned and went on an unopposed glide toward the wrong end zone until knocked over with a finger on the two-yard line by his distressed manager, occasioning more bickering.

If, after reading that, you still have a hankering for the game, Miggle Toys sells several different electric stadiums, along with painted and unpainted players as well as sideline figures of coaches, cheerleaders, umpires, camera men and the like.

Astronomical illustrations

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In my previous post we looked at time-lapsed views of Earth from orbit, in this post we'll look at an artist-eye view of the sky. Étienne Léopold Trouvelot, who drew these pictures, was a 19th Century naturalist, which is to say he had wide range of interest in scientific topics. 

Trouvelot immigrated to the U.S. in 1852. At the time he was an avid amateur entomologist. While trying to breed a more disease resistant silk spinning moth he imported some gypsy moth eggs. They got loose and spread widely in the Eastern States causing a lot of damage -- to the tune of $870 million a year -- to hardwood trees to this day. Thanks a lot Étienne.

However, after that fiasco he became interested in astronomy and his drawings caught the attention of the director of the Harvard College Observatory who hired him. From there Trouvelot moved to the U.S. Naval Observatory and its 26 inch refractor. Eventually he moved back to France where he continued his work.   

When I was younger I spent some time fooling around and trying to draw the Moon using a 6 inch Meade reflector. From that experience I can say that it is extremely difficult to draw things seen through a telescope. You have to fix what you have seen through the scope in your mind, all the while the image seen through the lens is dancing around due to the sky's conditions. Then you race over to a drawing pad lit by a red bulb and try to reproduce what you've seen. I'm impressed by Trouvelot's work.

If you like these illustrations you might also like my earlier post Illustrations of a different sort which features a wide variety of old scientific illustrations. 

There are more examples of Trouvelot's work after the jump, and a few more at Las Boite Verte's post Illustrations astronomiques en 1870 where I found these examples.    

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lights and sky


Above is a video of a series of time lapse sequences taken from the International Space Station with a low light camera. What I found interesting is that in them the Earth's landmasses faded into the background while mankind's lights and the atmosphere dominated. There's a lot of lightning out there, and the shots of the aurora borealis are breathtaking.

Stratfor and Khemupsorn Sirisukha

The new Stratfor Security Weekly article is out. Stratfor hasn't responded to my email inquiry about posting articles. Seesh, you would think if they had the choice between responding to a multi-national or responding to the site that's taken on the sacred duty of picking Hot Stratfor Babes for the articles I would have gotten a snappier response, but apparently not. Anyway, I'll just excerpt the beginning of it and link to the full article on their website. 

The article deals with the Hezbollah member who was recently arrested in Thailand and found to have about 10,000 pounds of fertilizer for bomb making. It is thought he was involved in plans for a Mumbai-style terror attack.

Since the article concerns Thailand I decided I would select a Thai for the distinction of being the article's Hot Stratfor Babe. After an exhaustive and careful search I selected Khemupsorn "Cherry" Sirisukha for the honor.

Ms Sirisukha is a popular Thai television, movie and stage actress who is also a model, has worked as a TV presenter and runs her own boutique called Cloud 9. She may also be a singer too, since one of her credits is a music video. It sounds like she has quite a successful career. 

A Hezbollah Threat in Thailand?
By Ben West, January 19,2012

On Jan. 12, Thai authorities arrested a man they say was a member of the Lebanon-based Shiite militant group Hezbollah who was plotting an attack in Bangkok. In uncovering the plot, Thai police cite cooperation with the United States and Israel going back to December 2011. Bangkok is indeed a target-rich environment with a history of terrorist attacks, but today Hezbollah and other militant and criminal groups rely on the city as more of a business hub than anything else. If Hezbollah or some other transnational militant group were to carry out an attack in the city, it would have to be for a compelling reason that outweighed the costs.

The suspect was identified as Hussein Atris, who was born in Lebanon but acquired Swedish citizenship and a passport after marrying a Swedish woman in 1996. Atris was arrested on immigration charges as he was trying to board a plane at Suvarnabhumi airport, Bangkok's main international airport. Police said another suspect is still at large and possibly already out of the country. Atris's arrest on Jan. 12 was followed by a statement the next day from the U.S. Embassy warning U.S. citizens in Bangkok of the potential foreign terrorist threat in the country and encouraging them to avoid tourist areas. Other countries, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and Israel, issued similar warnings. Thai police have responded by increasing security in tourist areas like Bangkok's Khao San Road and the island of Phuket.

Then, on Jan. 16, some 200 Thai police officers searched a three-story commercial building in a town along the coast 32 kilometers (about 20 miles) southwest of Bangkok. Information on the location and contents of the building was said to have been provided by Atris after two days in custody. On the second floor of the building, officers found 4,380 kilograms (about 10,000 pounds) of urea-based fertilizer and 38 liters (about 10 gallons) of liquid ammonium nitrate -- enough materials to construct several truck bombs comparable to the one detonated at the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad in 2008. Urea fertilizer can be used to manufacture the improvised explosive mixture urea nitrate, which was the main charge used in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. The compound is also frequently used in improvised explosive devices in Iraq and to some extent in Afghanistan. On the ground floor of the same building, police found reams of printing paper and 400 electric table fans in cardboard boxes.

The following day, a Bangkok court charged Atris with illegal possession of explosive materials. As in many other countries, a permit is required for handling such large amounts of fertilizer in Thailand.

(read the rest of A Hezbollah Threat in Thailand?)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Clayton Boyer's clocks


Above is a video of Clayton Boyer demonstrating some unorthodox gear assemblies. He uses his mechanical knowledge to design wooden clocks, orreys and kinetic sculptures. He sells plans to his numerous creations (every plan I checked cost $37.00) at his website Clayton Boyer Clock Designs.

Along with his plans, the Clayton Boyer Clock Designs website has a large number of pictures as well as videos of clocks people have built from his plans. He also has links to other wooden clock designer's websites. 

He also has a blog Clayton Boyers's Tocks were, in addition to having information about building his wooden clocks, he posts pictures and questions from people who have bought his designs and built one of his clocks.

All of the pictures in this post have been taken from the Clayton Boyer Clock Designs site. There are more after the jump, and many, many more at Clayton's site.

Click any image to enlarge

I Wish You Were Here

Get ready for a mildly rueful weekend with Alpha Blondy.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

EFLI expansion news

Colombo Lions helmet
Regular readers will know that EFLI stands for the Elite Football League of India, an American-style football league that was recently formed in India which I've been covering here at Flares in my bid to knock ESPN off its perch.

In the last couple of EFLI posts there was considerable confusion over rumors about the league expanding from its 8 original teams. I'm happy to report that I can now clear that matter up.

EFLI has announced in a press release that they've added a new expansion club, the Colombo Lions from Sri Lanka. In addition, they have plans to add a second Sri Lankan team which will bring their total number of teams to 10. The second Sri Lankan team will be from the city of Kandy and go by the name the Kandy Tuskers (which I think is a great football team name).

Play in the league will kick off with an exhibition game between the Colombo Lions and a team of Indian all stars in September, with the league's season then beginning on November 12th. If the league is successful a 3rd Sri Lankan team will be added from the city of Ruhuna. Further exapnansion is also planned for other Indian cities as well as, it is hoped, teams from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal.

One final bit of news. The teams have finally gotten around to putting up Facebook pages. Naturally, since I am a huge fan of them, I'll post a link to the Goa Swarm Facebook page. Go Swarm Go!!!

I doubt OSHA would approve

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I don't know if these pictures are photoshopped or not. They purport to be a picture of an excavator sitting atop a 12 story building in Taiyuan, China. I guess it is demolishing the building by excavating its way down to the ground floor. If they are real the people doing this are completely crazy.

You can see more pictures of it at ChinaSmack.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Where ever you go for the rest of your life...

It turns out that Capt. Francesco Schettino, who was accused of abandoning the Italian cruise liner Costa Concordia after he ran it aground, has a perfectly good excuse as why he stompled over women and chidren on his way to get into a lifeboat.

As he relates the story, "The passengers were crowding the decks, storming the boats. I didn’t even have a life jacket because I gave it to one of the passengers. I was trying to get them into the boats in orderly fashion. Suddenly, because the ship was tilted 60-70 degrees, I stumbled and ended up in one of the lifeboats. That’s why I was there.”

So, apparently he actually just tripped and fell in the life boat by accident. Further, as you can tell from his account above, it was partly the fault of those pushy passengers who were crowding around him. Yea, I believe that.

At any rate his situation -- which is to spend the rest of his life being called a coward and having people giggling over his ridiculous tripping story -- reminded me of the old TV western Branded. In it Chuck Connors plays Jason McCord, the sole survivor or the Battle of Bitter Creek who was wrongly court-martialed for cowardice and thrown out of army as a result.

The show's introduction, embedded above, showed him getting his Lieutenant bars and shiney, brass buttons ripped off of his uniform and his sword busted in half. Hilariously, he then wandered around the old west wearing that torn shirt and toting his broken sword so everybody he met knew he was the Coward of the Battle of Bitter Creek. He tried to clear his name by being manly and doing various good deeds. Inspite of my brothers and I faithfully watching it each week, the show didn't last long.

Something tells me that, as awesome as it would be, there will not soon be a new TV series where Capt. Schettino, because of the ankle he sprained when he tripped and fell overboard, limps around Italy, carrying a hunk of salami and a wedge of provolone cheese, as he tries to clear his honor from the stigma of abandoning his ship and passengers. Instead, the guy has given a new definition to the old nautical expression "lower than whale shit".

A magnificent piece of machinery


Above is a view, from inside the shuttle, of the Atlantis approaching and docking with the International Space Station. The size of both is surprising. Alas, we're in a gap between U.S. manned space flight programs, with NASA developing the Orion capsule and the commercial SpaceX Dragon capsule slated for a mission to the ISS in the near future.

It was 1 day before my 9th birthday when Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut in space. They launched his Mercury capsule, Freedom 7, on a Redstone ICBM which looped him just into space before he came down in the Pacific. They took us kids down to the school gym where they set up a TV and we watched the historic moment. If you weren't old enough to be an astronaut, age 9 might have been the perfect age to enter the Space Age.

Not long after I discovered my first science fiction book in the school library. I don't remember its name or author, but it fired my imagination as few things have done. It was a standard space opera, with the main character a rogue who, along with his furry little alien pet, flew a beat up old space freighter smuggling Vegan slime molds or some such outer-spacey cargo. 

Naturally he ended up embroiled with a feisty female passenger as they tried to battle ruthless race of space aliens bent on conquering the Galaxy. As they mentioned many times, their only hope was finding a wise and all powerful race of ancient aliens that were rumored to have once saved the Galaxy from just such an invasion.

With all the anvils the author was dropping in the story you would have had to be pretty much of a dimwit not to know the fuzzy alien pet was going to turn out to be one of those ancient aliens come to save the day. Being 10 or 11 years old I was just such a dimwit -- and so the reveal came as a clever surprise.

I spent a chunk of my youth daydreaming about flying around in rockets, and would have expected that by now we would have walked on Mars. Instead, we're still fiddling around in low orbit. Still, it as all quite remarkable. I wonder what I will yet see?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A warning voice

Spatula image from Tools Kitchen.
As Greg Agard reminds us guys in his story Is love a set up? don't ever let a woman come between you and your spatula or very, very bad things may happen. You've been warned!

Stratfor and Marie Wilson

As regulars may have noticed, I haven't been posting the weekly Stratfor articles since they were hacked. They took their website down to be reworked after the hack. They've since brought it back online, but they've removed the notice saying the two weekly articles -- Geopolitical Weekly and Security Weekly -- could be posted on other sites.

I've dropped them an email to see if this is temporary or a change of policy, and until I get clarification I'm holding off on posting them.

In the meantime you can read their latest Geopolitical Weekly article: Iran, the U.S. and the Strait of Hormuz Crisis and their latest Security Weekly article: Armed UAV Operations 10 Years On at their website (and I believe you can also read any of the other articles posted there that would normally require a login).

Since I'm in a "blogger finds free content, blogger loses free content, blogger hopes to get free content back" frame of mind the movie Boy Meets Girl sprang to mind. So, for this post its female lead, Marie Wilson gets the nod as the Hot Stratfor Babe.

Ms Wilson got her start dancing on Broadway and gained fame with My Friend Irma on radio and in movies. The role typecast her as a prototypical dumb blonde, which I guess explains why she is scratching her noggin with a gun barrel in the accompanying picture. 

She had quite a bit of success. It is said that her part in the movie Satan Met a Lady was the template for Marilyn Monroe's characters.

I'm hoping to be able to return to posting the full Stratfor articles; but again, here are the latest ones if want to read them:

Geopolitical Weekly - Iran, the U.S. and the Strait of Hormuz Crisis 
Security Weekly - Armed UAV Operations 10 Years On

Models of junk cars

Click any image to enlarge
Artist Martin Otto Lambert Heukeshoven makes models, which he prefers to call technical sculptures, of junk cars and other vehicles. The details he works into his sculptures is astonishing. It takes him around four months to build one, and they sell for in excess of $30,000.

There are more examples after the jump, and more at Amusing Planet where I found these samples. Heukeshovenalso has a large gallery at his website which has many more of the models, including other cars, trucks, a farm tractor and even some airplanes. Well worth a visit if you're interested.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Once a common sight


Above is a good HD video of a steam locomotive pulling out from a station and disappearing around a bend. It is amazing how boisterous and dominating it is, being both loud and visually impressive. I imagine they must have had a very distinctive smell as well.

Early in the Mornin'


Monday morning, start of the work week and MLK Day blues from Alan Lomax's recordings of black inmates singing on chain gangs. It is thought these songs and calls were descended from the era of slavery and that they were were the basis for the blues.  

Sunday, January 15, 2012

1,000 Doors

Click to enlarge
Above is a public art installation in Seoul, South Korea call 1,000 Doors by the artist Choi Jeong-Hwa. It is a 10 story building covered with a facade of 1,000 doors. It looks like an eyesore to me. 

Choi Jeong-Hwa specializes in found art. That is, he uses everyday objects and converts them into artistic statements. He describes his inspiration in the quote below:  
In 1989. I couldn’t really draw so I didn’t think I could become a painter, but I really liked walking. So I used to walk between streets and narrow alleys and discover garbage piles and construction sites. I realized that “normal” people built and created things better than artists or professionals. Plus, what they were making was more natural. I decided against becoming an artist and decided instead to be an ordinary person who thinks like an artist.
Well, at least he is honest and he appears to make a living at it. Still, I wonder what the neighbors think of being stuck next to that monstrosity, or even worse -- the poor people inside of it without any windows?

A close call

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Paper weapons

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Postler Ferguson has designed kits for building paper weapons. Among the kits are the Ak47, M4A8, MP5, a hand grenade, and Uzi and even a field gun. You can buy them at Amazon.

There are more pictures after the jump. I found these samples at La boite verte.