Thursday, 22 September 2011

08:17 – Greece is shut down by strikes today, in response to the announcement yesterday by the Greek government that it intended to make some trivially small spending cuts. The problem is that Greece has been living far, far above its means for many years now, partying on borrowed money that it never had any hope of repaying. Now that lenders are no longer willing to continue subsidizing the party, Greece is going to have to admit belatedly that it is poor. Not just poor, but dirt poor. Living standards will plummet to third-world levels, and all the strikes and riots in the world can’t change that. Greece is a basket case, and is likely to remain so for decades.

Greece, about the size of North Carolina and with a population of only about 10.7 million, has about 800,000 government employees. (Just to put this in perspective, if the city of Winston-Salem was in Greece, our share of that would be about 18,000 government employees.) About 800,000 Greek government employees, all of whom are paid what would be considered a good salary in the United States, let alone a third-world country, and all of whom can retire young with excellent pensions. Is it any wonder that Greece is bankrupt? And, despite its repeated promises to the EU and IMF, Greece has done essentially nothing to cut government employment and spending. It’s no surprise that Germany and the other wealthier northern-tier nations have had about enough.

Work on the biology book continues.

12:07 – Someone asked me what I’d do if I were the Greek government. First, I’d continue lying, as the Greek government has been doing for more than 10 years now. I’d promise the EU/IMF authorities anything to get my hands on that next $10 billion tranche of aid, and I’d ask for it in small bills with non-consecutive serial numbers. As soon as I had my hands on that money, I’d announce immediately that Greece is defaulting on all foreign debts, whether owed by the government or by Greek companies or persons, and that it plans to pay zero cents on the euro. Instead, it will pay off in new drachmas, with those new drachmas valued at one drachma per euro, and only if the debt holders agree that that payment constitutes full and complete payment. The new drachma would quickly lose a bit of value, of course, probably from 1:1 drachma:euro to something in the 100:1 range and falling in the first day or so. I’d also announce an 80% cut in government employee headcount, and that henceforth all salaries and pensions will be paid at their former levels at one new drachma per euro. Oh, and I’d confiscate all real property and financial assets held by the church, which has been a leech on Greece for far too long.

That done, I’d immediately apply to the UN for emergency humanitarian aid to feed the starving people of Greece, which is to say nearly all of them. And I’d plan for a slow recovery that will probably take literally decades. Meanwhile, I’d run ads to let Americans and Brits know that they could enjoy a fantastic Greek vacation for only a few dollars (or a few million new drachma) per day. Because tourism is going to be about the only way that Greece will be able to earn foreign currencies for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

09:00 – It’s official. I’m crazy, or so says the IMF. Those of us who think a eurozone breakup is likely are engaging in crazy talk according to the IMF. The eurozone situation is fixable, they say, if only the EU will take certain actions. The article didn’t go into details, but as it happens I have a mole within the IMF. He or she tells me that the IMF’s proposal to fix the euro situation includes the following:

Tell them to make us a cambric shirt,
Without any seams or needlework.

Tell them to wash it in yonder dry well
Where water ne’er sprang, nor drop of rain fell.

Tell them to find us an acre of land,
Between the salt water and the sea strand.

Tell them to reap it with a sickle of leather
And tie up the sheaves with a rope made of heather

If they tell us they can’t, we’ll reply,
Let us know that at least you will try.

EU, when thou hast finished thy task,
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme,
Come to us, our loans for to ask,
For then thou art a true love of mine.

The bank runs are spreading. Greek, Portuguese, Spanish, and Italian banks have been under siege for some time. No one–people, companies, or other banks–wants to have money on deposit with a bank that is likely to go bust. And now French banks are coming under siege. It was announced yesterday that Siemens had withdrawn $6 billion–that’s billion with a “b”–from the French banking system and put it on deposit with the ECB, a strong indication that Siemens expects the French banking system to fail. And Siemens is by no means alone. Capital flight has become critical, with Europe being sucked dry by depositors fleeing to the US dollar, UK pound, Japanese yen, and other currencies that are perceived as safe havens.

Modern economies are credit-based. To state the obvious, no one can borrow if no one is willing to lend. In Europe, increasingly, that’s the case. So, on top of a debt crisis, we now have a liquidity crisis. Germany is moving to recapitalize its own banks, allocating available funds to that rather than to more subsidies for Greece and other debtor nations. Although doing that is sensible for many reasons, it’s also the first step Germany would take if it intends to withdraw from the euro and introduce a new DM or thaler. That could happen today, or it could happen six months from now. But one way or another, I think it will happen. Parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

09:37 – If I were subject to fits of giggling, I might have been incapacitated at the statement by a European authority the other day that the EU and the euro were “running out of time”. Technically, that’s true, as it would be for someone who fell from the top of the Empire State Building and has just passed the first floor, going down. Now all anyone can do is watch the catastrophe unfold, like a not-so-slow-motion train wreck. Using the standard calculation method based on CDS prices, the probability of a Greek default is now about 120% (yes, I know…) CNN Money currently estimates Greek default probability at 0.999, with Portugal at 0.62, Ireland at 0.51, Italy at 0.33, and Spain at 0.28. Of course, those last four probabilities are based on current conditions. Once Greece defaults, the probabilities for defaults by Portugal, Ireland, Italy, and Spain skyrocket as the dominoes begin toppling. The euro, and almost certainly the EU itself, are deader than Python’s Parrot.

I just issued a purchase order for most of the components I need to build the first dozen biology kits. The contents of the kit are not yet finalized, but here’s where they stand as of now.

Reagents and Stains

Acetic acid, 6 M
Agar, 10 g
Antibiotic sensitivity test paper, 5×5 cm, amoxicillin
Antibiotic sensitivity test paper, 5×5 cm, cephalexin
Antibiotic sensitivity test paper, 5×5 cm, ciprofloxacin
Antibiotic sensitivity test paper, 5×5 cm, metronidazole
Antibiotic sensitivity test paper, 5×5 cm, tetracycline
Ascorbic acid
Barfoed’s reagent
Benedict’s reagent (qualitative)
Biuret reagent
Bromothymol blue
Dextrose (d-glucose)
Hydrochloric acid
Lead(II) acetate
Methyl cellulose, 1.5%
Resorcinol, 1% (Seliwanoff’s reagent part A)
Sodium hydroxide
Stain: Eosin Y
Stain: Gram’s Iodine
Stain: Hucker’s Crystal Violet
Stain: Methylene Blue
Stain: Safranin O
Stain: Sudan III
Stain: Toluidine Blue


Beaker, PP, 100 mL
Beaker, PP, 250 mL
Beaker, PP, 50 mL
Centrifuge tubes, 50 mL (6)
Chromatography paper (8.5×11” total)
Cover slips, glass, 22x22mm (oz.)
Graduated cylinder, 10 mL
Graduated cylinder, 100 mL
Inoculating loop
Petri dish, PS, 90x15mm, two-compartment, sterile, pk/10
Pipettes, PE, graduated
Reaction plate, 24-well w/ lid
Reaction plate, 96-well
Slide, deep single cavity, glass, 1”x3”, bx/12
Slide, flat glass, frosted, 1”x3”, bx/72
Stirring rod
Teasing needle, bent
Teasing needle, straight
Test paper, pH
Test paper, phenylthiocarbamide (PTC)
Test tube brush
Test tube clamp
Test tube rack
Test tubes, 16x100mm (6)

The resorcinol item deserves comment. Originally, I intended to include a bottle of Seliwanoff’s reagent, which is a dilute solution of resorcinol in fairly dilute hydrochloric acid. Instead, I’m going to include an aqueous solution of resorcinol and have kit users make up their own Seliwanoff’s reagent from the resorcinol and hydrochloric acid.

I’m doing it that way because the paragraph 173.4 “small quantity exemption” regulations allow me to ship small quantities (no more than 30 mL or 30 g) of most hazardous chemicals without paying hazardous material shipping surcharges. But the rules are written strangely. For example, I could ship 30 mL of concentrated (12 molar) hydrochloric acid under SQE in one 30 mL bottle, but if I diluted that 30 mL of concentrated HCl with 30 mL of distilled water and put that 60 mL of 6 M HCl in a 60 mL bottle (or two 30 mL bottles), that package could no longer be shipped under paragraph 173.4, and kit buyers would have to pay a $30 hazardous shipping surcharge.

Monday, 19 September 2011

09:52 – I’m sure Reed Hastings’ email will be reproduced elsewhere on the web, so I won’t bother. The big news, of course, is that Netflix is splitting into two independent companies, with Netflix keeping that name for streaming and the disc rental service renamed Qwikster. Separate memberships, separate queues, separate billing, separate user ratings, separate everything. Oh, and Netflix might as well have casually announced that GameFly is now toast, since Qwikster will also be renting games.

My first reaction was negative; I don’t really want to have to manage two separate queues without any links between them. The stuff we watch sometimes changes from disc-only to disc-plus-streaming and then back again. More than once, we’ve watched the first episodes of a long series on disc, watched others streaming, and then had to switch back to discs when the streaming contract ended. That hasn’t happened as much lately. Of the 92 titles in our instant queue, only three–The Planets, Walking with Cavemen, and Occupation–are currently showing as expiring. As usual, we get only a few days notice, in this case until the 23rd.

I really do wish that Netflix would negotiate permanent unlimited streaming licenses. It’s fine if they delay streaming availability until a few months after the DVD releases. For example, series 3 of Sons of Anarchy just released on DVD. Series 1 and 2 are available streaming, although only Netflix knows for how long. Series 3 will, no doubt, be available streaming in a few weeks or months. So why doesn’t Netflix negotiate a standard contract with the rights owners to Sons of Anarchy? Agree to pay them a fixed sum for permanent unlimited streaming for each episode as the new seasons become available, after a window to allow DVD sales. Most DVD set sales occur very soon after the set is released, and there’s little in the way of paying markets for old series episodes after that. Sure, a few people may buy episodes or even the entire season from iTunes or whatever, or they may be able to sell re-run rights to local TV stations, but an old series is basically spent in economic terms once the DVD set releases.

Licensing on this basis would be win-win-win for the copyright owners and for Qwikster and for Qwikster subscribers. The copyright owners would get “free money” from Qwikster, and Qwikster would build its back-catalog of good TV series and subscribers would have a lot of good content waiting to be discovered.

Of course, people like Barbara and me would love to see such a plan. More and more people are doing what we do; wait until a new series is available on Netflix/Qwikster before starting to watch it. I adore Emily VanCamp, for example, and she stars in a new series that debuts in a couple of days. In the past, I’d have set up our DVD recorder to record the episodes as they were broadcast and then zap the commercials. But we won’t watch it on broadcast TV. Instead, we’ll wait until next summer, when it will release on DVD, and watch it commercial-free.

Work continues on the biology book. I’m currently prototyping the biology kit and putting together purchase orders for a small number of the kits. I plan to have the book 100% complete by year-end, so I have to have kits ready to ship soon after that.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

09:23 – Some people apparently have poor reading comprehension. I got email the other day from someone who asked why I was cheering for the euro to crash.

In the unlikely event that any of my other readers believe I’m cheering for the euro to crash, let me be clear: I believe the collapse of the euro is inevitable, but what I believe will happen and what I would like to see happen are not necessarily the same thing, and in this case are definitely not. The collapse of the euro will be catastrophic, and not just for Europe. The consequences of that collapse will be felt worldwide. Those consequences will include a great deal of human suffering, and a reduction in standard of living across the board. Most of southern and eastern Europe will become what amounts to third-world countries, but the rest of us will not escape entirely. The US, Canada, Australia, and the rest of the first world will also suffer, the UK more so, and northern Europe even more so. And the effect of this economic collapse will be catastrophic in many of the world’s poorer countries, which depend on subsidies from the formerly wealthy nations even to feed their populations.

All of this has happened because governments have been living beyond their means and encouraging their citizens to do the same, consuming now with a promise to pay later. Well, it’s now later, and we’re all going to pay the price in the form of lower standards of living, much higher unemployment, cuts in salaries and benefits in real terms, later retirement age, drastic cuts in government social programs, and so on. Well, at least those of us who are not members of privileged classes, such as government employees. And even they will suffer cutbacks, as taxpayers revolt.

Our financial mess a couple years ago lit the fuse, which is now rapidly approaching the European powder keg. The result is not going to be pretty.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

09:09 – The video of the Reno air race crash was up on YouTube shortly after it happened. Reading the article in the paper this morning, I was surprised to see that the pilot was 74 years old. Now, at 58 years old myself, I’m certainly no ageist, but it strikes me as insane to allow a 74-year-old man to fly a high-performance aircraft in close proximity to crowds of people on the ground, if indeed it can be considered sane to allow anyone to do so. As the paper described the race, there were aircraft flying wingtip-to-wingtip 50 feet (15 meters) off the ground at speeds exceeding 500 mph (800 kph). From the video, that wasn’t taking place when the crash occurred, but even so. Current speculation is that the crash was caused by mechanical problems rather than pilot error, but again, even so. We may never know if reaction time was a factor, or if a pilot 40 or 50 years younger might have avoided hitting the spectators. Maybe not. Maybe no pilot could have avoided those spectators, but again, even so.

When I saw the news headlines the other day–“US Postal Service proposes to end overnight delivery”–and so on, I assumed they were talking about Express Mail. They weren’t. They were talking about reducing the first-class mail service standards. As things stand, local mail is delivered the next business day, with “local” having a pretty broad definition. For example, we have one-day service between us and Greensboro–30 miles away–but also to and from Charlotte and Raleigh/Durham/Chapel Hill (~90 miles), and usually Atlanta (~250 miles) and Washington DC (~350 miles).

Now, the USPS would like to eliminate that service level, changing first-class standards from 1-3 day to 2-3 day. That would apparently allow them to shut down a pretty large number of distribution centers, cut their staff by about 35,000 employees, and greatly reduce evening overtime work. I’m in favor of all that, but it must be said that it will significantly impact those of us who get discs from Netflix. As things stand, we along with most of the country have one-day service both directions. If I receive a disc on Monday and return it Tuesday, Netflix logs it in on Wednesday and sends me another disc to arrive Thursday. I return that disc Friday, they log it in on Saturday and ship the replacement disc to arrive the following Monday. Going from one-day to two-day service doubles the transit times and cuts the number of discs one can get on any given plan significantly. Of course, Netflix will be delighted by this if it comes to pass, since it’ll cut postage costs way down for frequent renters. On balance, I’m still in favor. As Barbara said, so what? I just bumped our plan from $16/month for one disc at a time to $20/month for two at a time. Worst case, I’ll bump it to $24 for three at a time.

09:45 – I see that CNN and Money Magazine have ranked Winston-Salem #6 among the 25 best places to retire. The image in the article is of a street in Old Salem, with some of the taller buildings in the city center visible on the skyline. Although the article says that we’ve had a cultural renaissance, that’s actually nothing new here. Winston-Salem has been known for decades as the city of the arts. The crowning jewel is the North Carolina School of the Arts which, along with New York City’s Julliard and Tisch, is on nearly everyone’s list of the top three arts schools in the nation, and by no means always as #3.

The article lists state income tax as a factor but ignores property taxes, which are low in Winston-Salem (and, generally, in North Carolina). When Barbara and I considered moving to New Hampshire, which has no state income tax, we were surprised to find that a house similar to our own, on which we were paying something like $2,000/year in property taxes, might have property taxes literally five to ten times that much.

Friday, 16 September 2011

09:01 – Not all politicians are liars, or at least not all the time. Occasionally, they accidentally tell the truth. For example, here’s my favorite quote from a politician: “Typhoid fever is a terrible disease. Either you die from it or you become an idiot. And I know what I’m talking about, I had it.” (Hint: No, it wasn’t Dan Quayle, although admittedly he did accidentally tell the truth more often than most politicians. Other than perhaps our current vice president.)

I remember some advice my mother gave me when I was a little fellow, back during the 1960 presidential campaign. Never, she said, believe anything good any politician says about himself or his own party; always believe anything bad a politician says about an opponent or opposing party. Which, I think, sums things up pretty well for the ages.

It’s still summer for a few more days, but autumn weather has already arrived in Winston-Salem. Yesterday, the high was in the upper 80’s (~ 30C). Today, the high is to be in the mid-50’s (lower teens C). There’s also a stiff breeze, which makes things feel considerably colder. I just took Colin for a short walk, and it was chilly enough that I wore my hoodie.

Speaking of autumn, I remembered to grab a specimen of the Acer rubrum (red maple) leaves from one of our trees, while the leaves are still green. I’ll do paper and/or thin-layer chromatography of an alcoholic extract of these leaves, along with other leaves I gather just as the leaves begin to change color and still other leaves I gather once the colors are fully developed. The chromatograms of A. rubrum leaves should illustrate that the intense green of chlorophyll conceals the yellow/orange color of carotenoid pigments that are present in leaves throughout the year, along with the presence of red/violet anthocyanin pigments, which develop only in late summer and early autumn as the leaves begin to change.

Right now, I’m writing up a lab session about plant population surveys. I’m using the front yard of the house across the street, which has been vacant for a couple of months. Species diversity is quite high for a residential yard. Although it’s not a plant, I found this spectacular fungi yesterday.

The cap is about 10 cm in diameter. It’s Amanita sp., but, not being a mycologist, I’m not certain which species. Whatever it was, it had disappeared this morning when I took Colin for his first walk.

15:45 – Oh, my. The troika have decided to withhold the next €8 billion tranche of the Greek bailout, which means Greece can’t receive any more funding until at least next month. For Greece, the rational decision is now to declare bankruptcy–possibly as early as today–and default on all of its sovereign and bank debt, whether euro-denominated or otherwise. Even if Greece fails to declare immediately, I’d expect a serious bank run, which should have the same effect on Greece’s banks. Greece may be faced with no immediate choice but to declare bankruptcy, default on all of its debts, and begin re-issuing the drachma, which will of course be worthless outside of Greece.

All of our Border Collies have had odd personality quirks. Kerry, for example was terrified of ceiling fans and AA cells. Not C cells or 9V batteries, you understand, nor even AAA cells. Just AA cells. Now Colin is exhibiting a quirk of his own. He dislikes my laser printers. When one of them fires up to print a page, he runs over and growls at it. When I remove the paper tray to refill it, he attacks the paper tray viciously. Very strange.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

08:24 – Building science kits uses labels by the thousands. I’m down to my last box of Avery 5160 labels (1″ x 2-5/8″, 30 per sheet), so I went looking yesterday for a good on-line source. Actually, the labels I use are Maco rather than Avery, because the Avery labels are priced outrageously even at a discount.

I can buy five boxes of Maco ML-3000 labels of 100 sheets each (15,000 total labels) from Maco for $60, or $12/box including shipping, but I decided to look elsewhere. I found the same labels at another on-line vendor for $7.43 per box, but shipping was $17 on one box. So I added more boxes for a total of 5 boxes and found that shipping was still $17. Apparently, most of that $17 is a handling charge, so I wondered what else I might need that I could add to the order.

I’d bought a Brother HL-3070CW color laser printer just for printing labels. I remembered that the Brother manual said the printer included “starter” toner cartridges, so I figured I might need replacements soon. I checked the manual and found that the HL-3070CW requires TN210-series cartridges, with the black cartridge rated at 2,200 pages and the cyan, yellow, and magenta cartridges rated at 1,400 pages each. Each of those costs $60 or so on-line, so replacing the toner would cost about $240. Fortunately, I checked the manual again before I ordered toner cartridges. The starter cartridges are all rated for 1,000 pages. Given that I’m using that printer only for printing kit labels, those starter cartridges are probably less than 20% used.

Colin peed on the bed again last night, for the third or fourth time. Barbara warned him the last time he did that that the next time he did it that she’d get rid of him. He doesn’t seem to believe her. So, I have two more loads of laundry to do mid-week, but I guess that’s just part of having a puppy.

I think most of the problem is that Colin doesn’t get enough activity. I do what I can, but I simply don’t have time to spend all day outside with him as he’d like. Yesterday during the day I took him on ten short walks, down to the corner and back, and sometimes down to both corners and back. That’s a total of about two miles (three kilometers). At a brisk walk, that takes maybe five or six minutes each time, for a total of roughly an hour. Of course, while I got in two miles, Colin was running back and forth and around in circles each time, so he probably got in at least three or four. Still, it’s not enough for a 7-month-old Border Collie puppy.

I’m still hard at work on the biology lab book, as well as prototyping the biology kit.

13:43 – Well, that was interesting. The street vacuuming truck just passed our house. In the past, that was always a standard dump truck with a huge vacuum assembly on the back and a swinging hose that’s maybe half a meter in diameter. There were three crew, one driver and two guys walking along the curb, one swinging the hose back and forth to suck up leaves and dirt, and the second with a rake to position stuff for the hose guy and free up stuff that was matted and clumped. This time, it was a different-looking truck, still obviously a dump truck, but with the vacuum equipment looking more integrated with the vehicle. There was only one crew, the driver.

What interested me was the steering arrangement. The driver was in what would normally be the passenger seat, so I just assumed the truck was right-hand drive. But then as it got closer I realized that it was both right- and left-hand drive, with a steering wheel on each side. Presumably there’s some kind of mechanism to select which steering wheel and pedals are operative, but perhaps it’s set up like a B-17, with two complete sets of controls, both of which work simultaneously.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

08:35 – I’m really getting disgusted with WordPress. It’s a dog of an application: slow, kludgy, and unstable. I wish I’d never started using it.

The export utility is particularly annoying. It claims to back up “All content This will contain all of your posts, pages, comments, custom fields, terms, navigation menus and custom posts.” Well, perhaps it does, but only if you don’t consider images content. I noticed this some weeks ago, the first time I added an image to a post. Comparing the size of the backup file from the previous day, it was obvious that the export function hadn’t backed up the image I just added.

And then there’s the fact that the process aborts frequently. To initiate an export, one goes to the Tools menu and chooses Export. When you click the Download Export File, WordPress is supposed to create a zipped file of all content and then initiate a download to your browser. What actually happens about half the time is that the zip process fails with a file-not-found error. Clicking Retry works about one time in ten. The rest of the time I have to go back and click the Download Export File again, which involves waiting for a minute or so for the file to be created. But even when that happens, the problems aren’t over. About three times in four, the download fails and the process has to be restarted from the beginning. Yesterday, it took me literally ten tries and probably half an hour of my time to finally get the file downloaded to my local drive.

After that experience, I decided just to connect directly to the server and transfer the raw files down to my hard drive. Unfortunately, I can’t find my content. I started at the top-level directory, which has as a subdirectory. That subdirectory contains a subdirectory called journal, which in turn contains a subdirectory called wp-content, along with wp-admin, wp-includes, and several files. I assumed that my WordPress content would be in the wp-content subdirectory, but if it is I can’t find it.

I wonder if my service provider, Dreamhost, has another blogging app that offers a one-click install, but I really don’t have time to go looking for something else. I’m pissed that they’d even offer this piece of shit. It’s not ready for prime-time. I suspect that what WordPress really wants is for users to sign up for their hosted service and either pay WordPress directly or let them run ads on the hosted blog. I’m not willing to do either.

So I guess I’ll keep running WordPress for now. But it does make me seriously consider just abandoning this journal and using the time I’m now spending on it for more productive tasks. Hell, I might as well create an account on Facebook as keep using this POS app. Or perhaps I’ll return to the way I used to do things: a static journal page that incorporates email comments I receive from readers.

Meanwhile, Greece is coming apart at the seams, not just economically but socially. Remember that as recently as the mid-70’s Greece was still involved in a hot civil war, and it won’t take much more to reignite that conflict. The media has described the confrontations that have already occurred as “protests”, but in fact they’ve been full-blown riots. Only our politically-correct media could describe people overturning cars and throwing Molotov cocktails as “protesters”. But Greece has so far seen only a tiny fraction of the pain that it will inevitably suffer when it is abandoned by the EU and defaults. There will be blood in the streets, literally.

And then there’s Italy, which just had a bond auction with disastrously bad bid-to-cover ratios and catastrophic yields. Italy is now grasping at straws, with the latest straw being the hope that China will bail out Italy by purchasing mountains of worthless Italian debt. But China has already made clear that it has no intention of doing that. What China intends to do is buy Italy, or at least the parts that are still worth buying. What money China decides to invest in Italy will be in the form of equities purchases, not debt purchases. To the extent that China buys any Italian debt, it will be a strategic move, in return for the EU granting China full trading status with the EU.

Meanwhile, the FANG nations are sitting on the sidelines watching all of this take place and no doubt wondering why they ever believed it was a good idea to tie themselves economically to the profligate, irresponsible southern-tier nations. And the UK is just happy that it was wise enough to refuse to join the eurozone in the first place, and considering what concessions it should demand in return for supporting the EU treaty changes that are currently being discussed. If the UK has any sense, it will distance itself as far as possible from the EU, negotiating common market status for itself with regard to the EU, but no financial or regulatory ties.

By definition, it’s difficult to predict what will happen in a disorderly Greek bankruptcy. Right now, Greece awaits the decision of the troika that will determine if Greece receives the next tranche of the current bailout. If that decision goes against Greece–which it should based on the facts but may not based on the politics–Greece no longer has anything to lose, and I would expect it to default within days of the decision. If the next tranche is approved, I would expect Greece to wait until it has its hands on that money and then default in short order.

The immediate effects of a Greek default will be catastrophic for Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, all of which will topple quickly into formal default as their banks fail. France and Belgium won’t be far behind, immediately losing access to capital markets, leaving only the FANG nations standing. Those nations will be badly hurt, and will have little option but to re-establish their own local currencies. The euro will plummet through parity with the US dollar, and eventually settle at some small fraction of its current value. Investors in euro-denominated instruments will be wiped out.

Fortunately, the US and UK have limited exposure to euro sovereign and bank debt, but that doesn’t mean we’ll not be badly hurt. Our own industries will be hammered coming and going. Exports from the US and UK to the eurozone will fall off a cliff, as eurozone countries will no longer be able to afford US and UK products. And sales by US and UK companies to their local markets will also suffer as a flood of cheap eurozone products floods those local markets.

And the real bitch is that no one can do anything to stop all this from happening. As Milton Friedman and others warned at the time, this collapse was inevitable because the euro itself had and has a fatal design flaw. The next few years are going to be interesting times in the sense of that old Chinese curse.

13:33 – Hmmm. As I was walking Colin a few minutes ago, I was surprised to see what looked like a full-blown race car parked at the curb a few houses down the street.

As we got closer, I realized that it wasn’t really a CanAm race car, but a facsimile. I checked it out on Google when we got home, and it’s apparently a one-off built by Dick Bear around a Honda two-liter four-cylinder engine as a facsimile of the McLaren M8B. It looks a bit worse for wear now compared to the image, but it still looks like a fun car to drive on nice days. It’s street-legal, as confirmed by its North Carolina license plate, MCBEAREN.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

08:02 – I’m really thinking about abandoning Firefox for Google Chrome. The only reason I haven’t already done so is that I deeply mistrust Google, whom I rank right up there with Apple and Microsoft among corporations I consider to have abhorrent business practices and lack of respect for people’s privacy. I really don’t want Google keeping track of every web page I visit and every link I click, and then storing that information forever. Who knows what they do with it, and, more importantly, what they’ll eventually do with it. I’m convinced that Google never discards any data, even data that any reasonable person would consider ephemeral (and private). I don’t trust Google not to spy on me, but there’s no other alternative to Firefox that I’d consider using. In fact, I’m not entirely sure I trust Firefox. It’s too close to Google.

Here’s another Kindle book you might want to grab. It’s normally $50, on sale for $0.00. Genes, Chromosomes, and Disease: From Simple Traits, to Complex Traits, to Personalized Medicine. I grabbed a copy last night and read 20 or 30 pages from several chapters. So far, it look interesting. It’s written at a non-specialist level. That is, you don’t have to be a biologist to understand most of what the author talks about, but it’s helpful to have at least a basic grounding in science. If you’re interested, grab it immediately, because free offers like this tend to go away quickly.

Things continue to get worse for the US Postal Service. Much has been made of the decline in first-class mail and correspondingly smaller revenues, but the real problem is personnel costs. It wasn’t always that way. My senior year in high school, 1970, marked the transition from the government Post Office to the semi-private US Postal Service. At that time, the starting wage for USPS workers was, IIRC, about $2.80 per hour. The highest wage, which required more than 20 years to achieve, was something like $4.20 per hour. There were no lavish benefits, either. At the time, the minimum wage was $1.60 per hour, so entry-level USPS workers made about 175% of minimum wage and those who’d been there 20+ years made just over 250% of minimum wage. Minimum wage is currently $7.25 per hour, which means entry-level USPS workers should now be making about $26,000 per year and those with 20+ years should be making about $38,000 per year. Instead, ordinary letter carriers are paid about $45,000 to start, and top out at about $58,000. That excludes overtime, of course, but more importantly it ignores the gigantic increase in benefits costs. In 1970, retirement and medical benefits were a tiny percentage of compensation costs. Now, they’re a huge part of it.

If the USPS is to survive, they have no option but to cut personnel costs dramatically, including chopping pensions and benefits for current retirees. As things stand, the USPS will default this month, unable to make a required $5.5 billion deposit to fund retirement and health care benefits. That’s the least of the problem, though. At the current rate, the USPS will be literally bankrupt by next summer, unable to pay its operating costs. At that point, post offices close and the mail will no longer be delivered.