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Post US Black Market in WWII
Created by John Eipper on 07/07/14 3:40 AM

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US Black Market in WWII (Robert Whealey, USA, 07/07/14 3:40 am)

I know Ángel Viñas personally and have had many private conversations with him about the abstract subject of economics.

In response to Ángel's post on Spain's Famine years (6 July), I will add a modest footnote to my experience with the World War II black market in the US. My lower middle-class father working on a small sales job in Nassau County, New York, made $100 cash on a short hauling trip to the Pocono Mt resorts with black market gasoline in 1945-46, when gasoline was still rationed. He used jerrycans of gasoline for the return trip. Second case: My rich uncle who worked for tractor-trailer motor line (80 trucks) gave my father a case of black-market butter (2 gross) in 1946 when NYC had a temporary butter glut at the retail grocery level due to demobilization screw-ups.

The big black market deals on Long Island were made from bootleg whiskey and wine from French and Canadian launches six miles off shore delivered to the dozens if not hundreds of fishermen, along the 100-mile coastline. This business was big from 1920 to 1933 when the "temperance experiment" turned into Prohibition. My father knew of at least two bootleggers in the town of Baldwin, NY in the 1920s.

As a idealistic student, 1947-1960, I met three capitalists who told me how they made money. One had his own pinball machine in his private cellar bar. When his guest went to refill his drink or go to the men's room, the manufacture host pressed a secret button under the machine. "The bells rang, the lights flashed but the total score in numbers was slightly lower than previously."

At age 23, I hitchhiked a ride to Las Vegas. I spent three hours walking around casinos, watching the players work. Or was it play? I never spent a quarter, and continued hitching eastward at 8:30.

Capitalist number 2 told me in 1950, how he made money as a highway contractor, even though he only had a high school education. He answered. "The governor of this state is a friend of mine who I knew from high school."  Point two, "I can always hire brains."

Capitalist number 3: an electronics manufacturer. "I'd rather pay my workers more than the minimum wage just to keep the union out. Therefore I can invent my own technological advances without interference."

Since 2000 the corruption on Wall Street is so widespread, the survival of the US, EU and China are now in grave doubt. If nobody believes in Christian, Jewish, liberal, democratic or socialist ethics, the global market may going back to a tribal period of self-destruction described by Thomas Hobbes.

JE comments:  Why do we hear so little of the US black market during WWII?  Is it because it was not that prevalent, or have we become accustomed to viewing the "Greatest Generation" as too selfless and honorable to engage in such a thing?  My mother tells stories of ration book shenanigans, such as her father exchanging unwanted coffee coupons for a neighbor's gasoline, but I've not heard of any family dealings in the black market.

Class A drivers were limited to three gallons of gas per week.  Miss Leech, Mom's elderly neighbor, didn't take the old air-cooled Franklin out much, but she did enjoy her coffee.

I hope other WAISers who lived through WWII will join this conversation.

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  • US Black Market in WWII (Henry Levin, USA 07/07/14 5:57 AM)
    On the black market during WWII (see Robert Whealey, 7 July), I was in elementary school, but remember none of this.

    As with other families with many children (5 at the time, a 6th later) in a small industrial town in New Jersey (about 1,200 souls), there was little evidence of cheating when I would accompany my mother to the local shops. My mother had taken old fabric and sewn small bags to hold the myriad tokens and ration stamps for a family of seven and a live-in teenager who watched us while Mom and Dad both worked. I believe that there were even rations for shoes for the children and adults.

    Once we ran out of fuel oil in the cold winter. We had to get the local police to come and put a dip stick in the tank to confirm its barren state before they would authorize refilling it and the heat would resume. We had an old Packard sitting in the driveway, completely immobilized because we had no ration for gasoline. I do not recall my father making any attempt to argue for an A stamp. We dutifully cut the ends out of the tin cans and stamped them flat and tied them with twine as well as stacking newspapers in piles to be picked up. We also were conscientious about not throwing out the fat from cooking which was put in a large tin can and also picked up by a man who asked each week or two if we had a "fat can," his bit of humor.

    Our milk for such a large brood was delivered by a horse and wagon, whose trail could be traced by the water dripping from the melting ice placed between the bottles in their crates. Mr. Terhune gave the brood a ride in his wagon for "being good." We had regular "air raids," meaning that with a siren in the night almost all lights were extinguished and cardboard was placed in the windows to block out even a cigarette or match that might be lit. The "wardens," an organized group of volunteers in each town, never knocked on our door to tell us that they could see a light in the windows. Local freight from the railroad station (Rahway Valley Railroad, a spur between more important lines) would be delivered in an open, horse-drawn wagon by Mr. Stein, an old immigrant who knew horses and ancient wagon maintenance.

    My Dad bought as many war bonds as he could afford. We also had a small victory garden, but seemed to have little difficulty getting produce from local farms. Patriotism was very strong in our town. The Volco Brass and Copper Company was a block from our home, and we could see the bright flames of the furnaces casting artillery shells and other artifacts of war. There was no unemployment, zero. My uncle came to live with us and got a job immediately. By the way, all of this crowd lived in a two-bedroom home; perhaps a barracks would be a better description.

    JE comments: A most vivid recollection; thanks, Henry!  Although Europeans think of the Americans' relative comfort and plenty during the War, there certainly were sacrifices all around.

    I would imagine that the Levin's two-bedroom home also had just one bath.  Americans today wouldn't put up with that.

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    • Family Vignettes of WWII, London (John Heelan, UK 07/07/14 10:26 AM)
      My memory dump of a child's view of WWII In London and elsewhere:

      Air raid sirens blaring: being dressed by my mother in a one-piece "siren suit" (Modeled by Churchill): taking shelter in the underground garage of a nearby apartment block until the All-Clear sounded.

      Later my grandfather built an Anderson Shelter in our garden, sunk about 3 feet into the ground, covered with curved asbestos sheets and turf with a brick "blast wall" between the entrance and our house.

      Nights in the shelter on bunk beds, listening to the aircraft overhead, distinguishing their identity by the sound of their engines (the Luftwaffe bombers had a more ragged engine sound than the Spitfires), being told that the sound of anti-aircraft gunfire was "thunder" or just "God moving his furniture about." A local target was a factory--about 500 yds away--that made engine parts for aircraft and was frequently the target of bombing raids.

      Mornings after air raids, burning my hands on still hot pieces of shrapnel which we scoured in the street.

      Noticing a house about 100 yds away had suffered a direct hit that cut it in half, leaving the double bed hanging out of the open side into the street.

      Long journey north to Yorkshire in a train packed with soldiers when I was evacuated to a small mining village aged about four. (I lived with a family of coal miners who bathed in a tin bath in front of the fire after their shifts with the miner's wife scrubbing his back.)

      Throwing apples from the garden to convoys of soldiers.

      Being shot at by a lone German bomber. Some young friends and I were investigating frog spawn in a nearby pool. I can still recall diving into bushes when we heard the firing and the sound of rounds hitting the bushes.

      Being warned not to pick up toys or kick footballs found in the road because they would hurt me. (I found out later that they were anti-personnel weapons dropped by German aircraft because there was an army camp nearby.)

      Returning to London two years later with a broad Yorkshire accent (e.g. "I brat t'bullock oop") when talking about taking cattle back to the nearby farm. My London-Irish cousins never let me forget that accent! (A V1 "Doodlebug" landed opposite their house but, luckily for them, the blast wave went away from them, destroying many houses and taking lives. When we were older that bombsite and ruined buildings provided us with an exciting place--if a bit dangerous--in which to play.)

      Being sent to collect the ration books for the family: the joy of being able to buy sweets and clothes when staying with relatives in Ireland without having to hand over "sweet coupons" or "clothes coupons."

      And the worst memory of all: Aged about 10, waiting for a bus and letting out a cry of terror at the badly disfigured face of a woman who must have suffered badly in a bombing raid. Hearing my wail and seeing my terrified face, she burst into tears and fled back to her house. I still feel the guilt about the episode.

      JE comments: This conversation is inspiring some unforgettable posts. Thank you, John.

      Curious about the Anderson Shelter?  Wikipedia has a good description (scroll down a bit):


      To the Yankee eye, they look like smallish Quonset huts.  Over three million were issued to British citizens before and during the war.

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    • Family Vignettes of the WWII Years; American Church in Paris (David Duggan, USA 07/08/14 5:40 AM)
      Having been born in 1951, I of course have no memories of WWII rationing, and my parents having passed on, I can't plumb their memories.

      One bit of family folklore may be of interest, however. My father's Uncle Joe Duggan, Colonel Robert McCormick's personal lawyer, was sent to New York City when the Colonel gained control of the New York Daily News under the terms of the McCormick-Patterson Trust which controlled both the Daily News and the Chicago Tribune. His family lived in Pelham Manor, New York, an upscale community in Westchester County, and though they had worshiped in an Episcopal Church in Chicago, the Presbyterian Church was closer so that is where they went. Their son, Thomas E. Duggan, went on to become a Presybterian missionary (to Thailand), and pastor of the American Church in The Hague, and later the American Church in Paris (probably as good a pastoral gig as you are likely to find: a parsonage on the Quai d'Orsay). His collection of sermons, Sermons Abroad, was published in 1999 and is available on Amazon.

      JE comments: The American Church in Paris, which traces its origins to 1814, is the oldest US congregation in a foreign country. Certainly it's a plum assignment for a US cleric:


      The American Church is not to be confused with the American Cathedral in Paris, an Episcopal parish, whose former Dean is WAISdom's own Ernie Hunt.  (Our colleague Robert McCabe, if I'm not mistaken, is a member of the Cathedral's congregation.)  Since we've been focusing on the WWII years, I'd be interested to know more about how both the Church and the Cathedral survived during the German Occupation.  Perhaps Bob McCabe can give us some details.
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    • A, B, C Gasoline Ration Coupons (Robert Whealey, USA 07/08/14 6:24 AM)
      Henry Levin's family (7 July) probably had A gasoline coupons for their Packard. My father had C coupons for a ton-and-a-half truck through 1942. He then got a job delivering newspapers to boys and candy stores in 6 or 7 towns in suburban Nassau County, New York. The previous deliveryman had a 1932 Packard; so the publisher ordered a B coupon for that route. My father did the some job with a 1935 Ford pickup to save his gas to do extra delivery jobs and give an extra five gallons to his friends. OPA lasted into 1947 and was key to the Republican Congressional victory of November 1946.

      I made a long-distance ride (as a helper) in June '46 to deliver a boat to the Poconos. Also forgotten by many is that gasoline rationing began in the spring of 1941, prior to Pearl Harbor.

      JE comments:  OPA:  Office of Price Administration.  Henry Levin wrote that his family did not receive coupons for their wartime gasoline ration.  A question:  wasn't an A coupon (3 gallons per week; the lowest allotment) granted automatically?

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    • Family Vignettes of WWII, Southern California (Michael Sullivan, USA 07/10/14 3:20 AM)
      JE asked me to reminisce about any WWII experiences I had growing up in Southern California. I was seven years of age in 1941. Some memories are very clear and others are a bit hazy.

      First was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7th, 1941. I remember neighbors running up and down the street in front of our home Sunday morning, yelling the Japanese had just conducted a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. My folks were visiting a famous violinist, Jascha Heifetz, on Harbor Island, Newport Beach, and called to see if we were OK. I remember asking my dad if he had seen any explosions, as I had no idea where Pearl Harbor was.

      In 1942 things got antsy on the West coast, as there were two harmless shellings by a Japanese submarine, one in California and the other in Oregon. Then there was an air attack by a small aircraft that came over in a Japanese submarine. It was assembled and dropped two harmless bombs in Oregon. Because of this, authorities thought attacks were likely so we had constant air raid drills in school and periodically in the cities in the early years of the war.

      My dad was an air raid warden. He was in his mid 50s and had served in WWl so he volunteered to do this community service. They issued him an old-style, metal helmet with a CD emblem on it, an arm band, a night stick and a flashlight. His job was to walk around his assigned area and ensure lights were out and blackout curtains pulled shut during air raids. We had several false alarms at night in 1942. We would gather in the dining room and get under the big dinner table.

      I remember my mom and older sister going down several times a week to make bandages at the Red Cross. Everyone seemed to be involved in the war effort and we all saved tinfoil and made huge balls of it and then turned them in. My dad was always sending food and clothing packages to England, as the British civilians really had it very rough. My family kept in contact with a few English families well after the war ended.

      I'd pull my wagon to the market two blocks away, and pick up items for my mom. She'd give me the ration book and the clerks would take out the appropriate coupons. I remember coffee, butter, sugar and certain types of meat products were rationed. No cash was involved, as it went on a tab which my dad paid every month.

      Gasoline was rationed and you had an A, B or C sticker in your windshield. My dad had a "B" sticker as he used his car to get to work and there was no public transportation. A "C" sticker meant you used your car in your job and therefore, had a higher allotment.

      The citizenry was very patriotic and rallies, parades, bond drives and returning war heroes' personal appearances seemed almost a weekly occurrence. I remember buying stamps to put in my $25 War Bond book, and it felt so good every time you filled a book and started a new one. I remember getting rides in military jeeps or half-ton trucks when I'd buy more stamps at the special events.

      I collected military service emblems, rank insignias, unit patches and anything else a returning serviceman would give me. That was a big deal and would be comparable to trading baseball cards today. I remember the government from the President on down was popular, as were the military services, as the country was truly unified by a common cause. In 1942, I saw the movie Wake Island, and from then on I wanted to be a Marine fighter pilot, and I succeeded!

      JE comments: And succeed you did, General!

      These vignettes of the WWII home front have been outstanding.  One would imagine Southern California to be one of the best places to spend the war, but Michael Sullivan paints a vivid picture of the people's urgency and unease.  With their few Quixotic attacks on the Western US, the Japanese achieved what I assume was their goal:  to instill fear among the population, and to force the US to divert resources away from the war into civil defense.

      I'm sure I'm not alone with my curiosity about Jascha Heifetz, who some say was the greatest violinist of all time.  Did you ever meet the Master yourself, Michael?

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      • The UK Thanks You, Michael (John Heelan, UK 07/11/14 6:26 AM)
        Michael Sullivan (10 July) recalled that during WWII, his father "was always sending food and clothing packages to England, as the British civilians really had it very rough."

        I remember my family receiving such a package and being introduced to such unknown delights as canned tropical fruits and Hershey Bars. So a belated thanks (70 years late!) to the Sullivan and other US families for their very welcome gifts that made our austere times a bit better.

        JE comments:  Thanks for your thanks, John. Has there been a better example of US "soft power" than the Hershey Bar? Perhaps Camels and Luckys, and later Marlboros, but they are bad for you.  (Don't forget to wash down your Hershey with a Coke.)

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  • Savona's Black Market during WWII (Eugenio Battaglia, Italy 07/07/14 4:07 PM)
    Oh my goodness, a black market in the United States! (See Robert Whealey, 7 July.) I never thought about that, even if I should have known better from the day when an elderly relative of my wife, who lived in New Jersey, responded to my tales of wartime famine with: "Here we had problems too; for instance it was impossible to find prosciutto!"

    During the final years of WWII in Italy, the black market was widespread.

    In Savona the black marketers were collecting wood from the forests, almost completely destroying them, or taking wood from the bombed-out buildings, worsening the situation, in order to build fires and make salt from the sea water. Then the salt was mostly carried inland and exchanged for flour and meat from the farmers. The salt was also exchanged for olive oil. The latter was carried in small curved cans hidden under the dresses of the women.

    In the newspapers there were calls to stand the black marketers before firing squads, but with a civil war on top of a regular war, if you start killing also the black marketers almost nobody is left.

    The authorities generally were doing nothing more than confiscating the goods.

    My mother, a strong patriot, never wanted to buy anything on the black market; of course the lack of money was helping her to reach this decision. We were only busy collecting grass and roots and occasionally walking through a minefield. (See my previous WAIS post on the subject, from January 2013:  http://waisworld.org/go.jsp?id=02a&objectType=post&o=74618&objectTypeId=66256&topicId=165 )

    Anyway if I am not mistaken, a 25-kilo bag of flour could be exchanged for a gold British pound.

    At the end of the war in the barracks of the Black Brigade, we kids found a room full of the above-mentioned oil cans and we used them as targets for throwing abandoned bayonets.

    Another pastime we kids enjoyed was dismantling the big gun shells to recover the explosive that we later used to make our own rockets, our homemade V2.

    One of my friends lost the fingers of both hands, and two died in a big explosion of a huge ammunition deposit. It was the 8 May 1945, the day of the final German surrender. The teacher had let us out of class at ten in the morning and we moved to a gallery (Galleria Valloria Savona) on the sea at the entrance to the destroyed harbor to get the explosives.

    But at a certain point I changed my mind and went home. One hour later, at about 11:00, the gallery exploded with 74 deaths and hundreds of injured, mostly kids.

    The communist partisans who were dominating the town, instead of putting the ammunition inside the gallery and under control since they were the new "authorities," screamed at first about a Fascist sabotage, the usual suspects.

    JE comments:  I'm struck in this discussion by the universality of child's play during wartime.  Eugenio Battaglia and John Heelan would have been great chums, except that they were enemies.  Eugenio's story of so many Savona children dying on the day the war ended is the stuff of tragic novels--too sad for words.  I think of the parents especially, who earlier that same day were relieved that their children at least had survived the war.

    This has been a memorable day of WAISing, with vivid personal accounts of ordinary people dealing with wartime deprivation.  I hope we'll be able to add a few more on the morrow.

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    • UK Black Market: The "Spiv" (John Heelan, UK 07/08/14 6:10 AM)
      The Black Market was rife in the UK from the early 1940s until the late 1950s. The perpetrators ("spivs") sold goods in the street and pubs, usually from battered suitcases. The goods themselves were usually stolen from the armed services (when I was in the RAF in the '50s, a quartermaster was convicted of stealing and selling bottles of ketchup--he diluted the remaining bottles for the canteens), the docks where dockers took their "tax" on incoming shipments, especially cigarettes, liquor and tropical fruit, robbery from trucks, etc. Goods from the last were termed as "having fallen off a lorry!"

      Spivs dressed to a stereotype. Trilby hat, smart suit with padded shoulders, thin moustache, smart shoes sometimes in aco-respondent style. In the streets, the spivs were accompanied by a lookout watching for the heavy tread and tall helmet of an oncoming constable. Once the authorities were spotted, the lookout would give a warning whistle, the spiv would hurriedly pack his goods back in the suitcase and disappear into the crowd or a network of narrow streets. In pubs, spivs would sidle up to a customer while casting an anxious look over his own shoulder and mutter: "'Ere Mate, fancy some cheap Scotch/gin/ciggies/Swiss watch/nylons and perfume for the missus," and so on. I never saw one selling ketchup though!

      Wiki has a good article on spivs: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spiv

      JE comments:  That was another time.  It's quaint to think of a black market for ketchup, but this Heinz-aholic should be more understanding.  (Actually, I don't fancy ketchup as much as I used to, and America seems to be in agreement.  The #1 condiment presently is salsa.  Here's the fair and balanced account from Fox:  http://www.foxnews.com/leisure/2013/10/17/changing-face-america-is-influencing-our-taste-buds-one-tortilla-chip-at-time/ )

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      • WWII Memories of Philadelphia; on the "Spiv" (Edward Jajko, USA 07/09/14 3:22 AM)
        Responding to John Heelan (8 July), a spiv known as Flash Harry, played by George Cole, is a major character in the 1954 movie The Belles of St. Trinian's, which starred Alastair Sim as the headmistress of the school and also as her brother.

        Since we are bringing up memories of WWII, I can add that I still recall much of those days. One thing that stands out in my memory is the Philadelphia Transportation Company strike of August 1944. Philadelphia was a major center for war production, with the Cramp Shipyard not far from our house, the Frankford Arsenal to the north (where my Uncle John made bullets and cannon shells), the Navy Yard at the extreme south end of the city (where my Uncle Stanley was a laborer), and hundreds of other factories contributing to the war effort.

        Workers of the Philadelphia Transportation Company went on strike to prevent the promotion of black employees, and they shut the city down. People could not get to their war jobs. President Roosevelt temporarily nationalized the PTC, threatened strikers with immediate drafting into the armed services, and sent the army, some 5,000 men, to run and patrol the PTC. To this day I can remember and see an army encampment, a miniature town of pup-tents, off Belmont Avenue in Fairmount Park. The strike lasted a week, but I believe that the army stayed around longer. And lingers in my memory.

        The PTC strike began on the same day as another event on the other side of the world, the 70th anniversary of which comes up in less than a month: the Warsaw Uprising.

        JE comments: The heroic Powstanie Warszawskie began on 1 August 1944. We will be in Poland on the 1st, although not in Warsaw. However, if there are commemorative events planned, I'll try to change our itinerary and attend.

        My mother grew up in Wilmington, Delaware, not far from Philadelphia. I'll ask her what memories she has of the PTC strike, which given the reason inspiring it, was definitely not a heroic moment in labor history.

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  • Is a Financial Collapse Imminent? How About EMPs? (Enrique Torner, USA 07/08/14 7:25 AM)
    Robert Whealey brought out a question in his post of 7 July: is the US and/or the global economy going to collapse sometime in the future? I have kept hearing this on television on and of for several years, and my wife is especially concerned about a possible financial crash.

    And, related to that, is an EMP attack on the US possible? Judge Janine, from the Fox channel, had a whole program devoted to this not long ago. That could also lead to a crash and many tragic events. Any experts in WAISland who care to discuss this?

    JE comments: Today is a day of unfamiliar (to me) acronyms, BTW and LOL. First we had OPA (from Robert Whealey), and now EMP. GoogleWiki to the rescue: EMP is an Electromagnetic Pulse, pronounced E-M-P, not "emp" as in rhymes with hemp.


    An EMP attack would really get us talking, or more precisely, not talking: it's Jules Verne stuff, but the cataclysmic zap might knock WAIS off-line (as well as void our bank accounts, send us Amazon stuff we don't need, and possibly even launch the nukes).

    Is this science fiction or something to keep us awake at night?  Oh, and how about Enrique Torner's other question--the financial collapse?  We're still recovering from the last one, but it has been a depressing week so far on the stock market.

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    • Things to Worry About: Financial Collapse, Ecological Disaster, Man-Made Apocalypse (Tor Guimaraes, USA 07/09/14 4:34 AM)
      I appreciate Enrique Torner's post of 8 July, regarding the common fear that the US and global economy might collapse.

      Those who were afraid of a second post-Bush/Cheney financial collapse and have acted accordingly are now extremely frustrated. I have been worried about it, but paid close attention to the great Maynard Keynes: the market might remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent. I adapted this wisdom in reverse: the market and economy might remain viable much longer than you can remain short. Therefore, I decided to just hedge and implement a strategy based on the premise the market will muddle through: it won't crash violently but, given government interference and slowly creeping inflation, it is likely to keep going up with short-term corrections.

      Unfortunately, I also worry about a few events which scientists have warned us could happen at any time now. I did a considerable amount of homework on these events which we can't do anything about and can cause tremendous damage to our society and the world. First the most likely in the near future or next few decades:

      1. In the Canary Islands (Las Palmas) there is a volcano whose geology is a serious potential problem (there is a large land mass overhanging the Atlantic and the soil is porous). If the land collapses (trusted scientists say it is a matter of when, not if), the mega tsunami will hit North America's East Cost many miles inland. God have mercy on our country.

      2. Yellowstone Park is sitting on top of a huge volcano. When it erupts (again, trusted scientists say it is a matter of when, not if) the destruction to several states is expected to be horrific. This event may derail the economy for a while, but may be recoverable.

      3. There are many other earth-generated threats, but they are less likely or the damage to the economy less severe.

      4. Coming from the heavens, we have possible but perhaps less likely massive threats such as large solar storms, which depending on how powerful they are, can bring an end to humanity. Also a much less likely Gamma ray burst will cause no pain, but potentially destroy the whole planet. Just as damaging but much more psychologically challenging because we would know it's coming, we could have a more likely large asteroid or a less likely comet strike.

      JE comments:  For more things to worry about, yesterday was perhaps the worst day in history for Tor Guimaraes's native Brazil:  a humiliating 7-1 World Cup semifinal defeat by Germany.  The Hemisphere's second-largest country is in a state of collective shock and depression.  Will there be unrest?  Germany should be congratulated for its brilliance, but this match will go down in history as the day Brazil collapsed.

      Today, on its national holiday (9 de julio), it's up to Argentina to defend Latin American honor against the Netherlands.  But an Argentine victory will/would be no comfort to Brazil, and more probably the opposite.

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      • Things to Worry About (Enrique Torner, USA 07/10/14 2:06 PM)
        I don't know whether to thank Tor Guimaraes for his alarming response or not (9 July), but I appreciate his honest appraisal of possible catastrophes that might happen.

        I will, however, keep my wife from hearing about some of them! I would like to know, however, if scientists have any idea regarding the possible time frame of the horrific events Tor mentions. I had never heard of the impending eruption of a volcano in the Canary Islands, even though I am from Spain. I will have to do some research about this. I had not heard of the coming eruption of the volcano in Yellowstone either. I had heard, however, about the threat of solar flares, and there is even a contemporary Spanish novel devoted to this possibility: El ángel perdido ("The Lost Angel"), by Javier Sierra. It has become an international bestseller, having been translated into over 40 languages. It's also about the search for Noah's Ark: an amazing thriller. Tor didn't make any direct mention of the possible EMP [Electromagnetic Pulse] which could also be caused by a solar flare. This already happened in Canada in March of 1989, causing a blackout in the whole city of Quebec, and causing all kinds of problems, like satellites losing control because of several problems, NASA Discovery having problems, garage doors opening and closing as if there were ghosts, car engines stopping, and all kinds of weird things. For a short while, they were concerned about a possible nuclear attack. You can read about it in http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/March_1989_geomagnetic_storm , but that is quite incomplete. So this possibility is not very far-fetched.

        What is troubling is the lack of preparation in this country for these kinds of threats. Ironically, Spain is better prepared than the US! I hope more people provide feedback to this topic, especially economists and scientists in related fields.

        JE comments: Can Enrique Torner tell us how Spain is prepared for disaster--and what type of disaster(s)?  We'll be in the Basque Country next week, so I should feel good about that.

        A related question:  does American Exceptionalism, which is fundamentally an optimistic worldview, lead to an ill-preparedness for the worst?

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      • Another Thing to Worry About: Artificial Intelligence (Luciano Dondero, Italy 07/11/14 4:55 AM)
        I appreciate Tor Guimaraes's list of worrisome things (9 July). I think there is something else of pure human production that should have us worried: the field of artificial intelligence.

        It's rather controversial. Some exclude AI almost as a matter of faith, so to speak. Others look forward to "The Singularity." Some are concerned that unless work is seriously undertaken as of now to create a "friendly AI" (FAI), a sudden breakthrough a few years or decades from today, the planet might be overtaken by a hostile superintelligence. I don't know enough about the matter to lean either way, but other WAISers may know better.

        JE comments:  Luciano Dondero's post makes me think of Samantha, the seductive girlfriend inside Joaquin Phoenix's phone in the film Her. Samantha's intelligence is as good as human, and most of the time, far nicer. (Having the voice of Scarlett Johansson doesn't hurt.)  Contrast Samantha with my own Siri, the ornery pixie that inhabits my iPhone.  Siri's favorite response is "I am unable to take requests right now."  She likes to do things like turn on spontaneously when I feed the cat, or direct me to the nearest Starbuck's in North Carolina.  Siri did have one triumph recently, however.  I asked her about the Brazil-Germany match.  Her response:  "Germany trounced Brazil, 7-1."  Apple tells us that Siri is a Norwegian name, meaning a "beautiful woman who leads you to victory." This is nonsense, but she's undoubtedly a Germanophile.

        Siri is also pretty good with the metric system.  Once again, she's a Germanophile.

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        • Things to Worry About: Tsunamis, Volcanoes, and Machines Taking Over (Tor Guimaraes, USA 07/12/14 3:42 AM)
          I was quite pleased that Luciano Dondero and Enrique Torner appreciated my list of worrisome things (9 July), but I need to elaborate on a few points.

          Regarding Enrique's question of 10 July, whether scientists have any idea regarding the possible time frame of the horrific events, I could have been more clear that depending on the event, the scientific time horizon ranges in precision from it is possible with low probability to close to 100 percent probability anytime now. More specifically, the Yellowstone super volcano will detonate anytime from tomorrow into the rest of the century (perhaps beyond). But they know it will happen as sure as they know our sun will grow into a red giant in a few billion years.

          Also, Enrique commented, "I had never heard of the impending eruption of a volcano in the Canary Islands, even though I am from Spain." I never said the volcano in Las Palmas was going to erupt. It has already erupted, and accumulated a large amount of lava overhanging the Atlantic. Given the geological nature of the lava, the overhang will fall into the ocean, thus become the only known phenomenon (tested in the lab) capable of producing a mega tsunami expected to hit the American East coast anytime from tomorrow into the next few decades.

          Finally, but very exciting since recently I was re-reading some of Norbert Wiener's work, I was intrigued by Luciano's worry about artificial intelligence (AI). My colleagues and I have done much research on Expert Systems (Knowledge-Based, Neural Nets, Model-Based, and Case-Based) over the years (and on the more recent Intelligent Agents capable of completely controlling a NASA spaceship for a few hours), so I know about the impressive (even scary) power of AI technology. Further, it is humbling that AI despite its basic simplicity has steadily and ubiquitously improved its ability to outperform humans on many tasks we thought only humans could do. It is true that bad people can and are using AI to do harm to other people. This is an issue that Wiener faced head-on when he refused to cooperate with the US military using his enormous mathematical genius. That is a problem we must increasingly face today, not by hiding under the table, but by outsmarting the bad guys.

          Luciano specifically mention his concern that decades in the future "the planet might be overtaken by a hostile super intelligence." Why would machines want to do that? Humans would have to program the machines to want to do that, provide the means for them to implement their plans. Clearly possible, but not likely before the mega tsunami hits the East coast or Yellowstone erupts. I will be long gone, but would love to know how the machines will fuel their spaceships to populate other worlds and escape Earth's possible destruction. Oops, my lunch is getting overcooked...

          JE comments:  Science Fiction is not my thing, but if the point of AI is to make machines more human, shouldn't greed and self-interest be programmed in?  Yesterday I introduced WAISdom to my Siri "assistant."  She has already developed the very human trait of shirking work.  I'll get really concerned when she asks for my credit card info.

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          • Still More Things to Worry About: Biological Warfare and Pandemics (Mike Bonnie, USA 07/13/14 4:09 AM)
            In response to Tor Guimaraes's post of July 9, perhaps number 3 on Tor's list of catastrophes is meant to include biological pandemics. Wide-spread viral or bacterial carnage may have one or more of three possible sources, naturally occurring, man-made, or just plain stupidity, as in the recent accident at the US Center for Disease Control (CDC), which mislabeled anthrax virus samples: http://news.sciencemag.org/biology/2014/06/cdc-says-75-workers-may-have-been-exposed-anthrax

            The world became a more dangerous place last week as the "Islamic State extremist group (Isis) has taken control of a vast former chemical weapons facility north-west of Baghdad." Whether the present cache of chemicals are inert or not, the basis for making more is established. The Guardian reports, "Bunker 13 contained 2,500 sarin-filled 122mm chemical rockets produced and filled before 1991, and about 180 tonnes of sodium cyanide, a very toxic chemical and a precursor for the warfare agent tabun."


            We might ask, why was this facility not destroyed during the American occupation?

            JE comments:  US officials say the cache includes no "intact" chemical weapons, and that they have no military value.  Still, I'll second Mike Bonnie's question:  11 years after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, why was this facility still there?

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            • Still More Things to Worry About: Smallpox (Brian Blodgett, USA 07/14/14 3:28 AM)
              Recent news in the United States has reported the discovery of smallpox vials, some of which are still viable, from the 1950s. They were found in an unused storage room at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.

              I recall that when the deadly virus was being eradicated through worldwide efforts, that there were to be only two storage areas for remaining samples, one in the US and the other, appropriately, in the Soviet Union (this was still the Cold War Era). However, with the US and the Soviets having the only remaining samples, would it surprise us if other nations had vials of smallpox as well? As teams were rushing around the world at the end of the smallpox era, tracking down the last known cases and treating folks with the vaccine, teams from other countries were likely going to those places trying to find samples of smallpox that they could store back in their own country. After all, if the two superpowers could have the samples, why could they not have them for their own use (protective of course) in case smallpox ever escaped from the depths of the US or Soviet containment areas (which we just discovered were not always buried so deep in those depths)?

              I have to wonder how many leaders and scientists of those countries that might have collected vials are now making sure that theirs is still viable? Just as importantly, how many of these countries, many of whom might have suffered multiple leadership changes over the years, no longer know that they have a sample and they are also stuffed away in an unused storage room?

              JE comments: You would think the United States, which hasn't experienced regime change, would keep better track of its disease collection. But then again, I'm often surprised by what turns up in my basement, and I've lived here only six years.

              According to USA Today, the Bethesda smallpox samples were moved to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta.  The world's only other "official" smallpox repository is in Novosibirsk, Russia.


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          • Still More Things to Worry About: Artificial Intelligence Run Amok (Luciano Dondero, Italy 07/13/14 4:29 AM)
            When commenting Tor Guimaraes's post of 12 July, JE wrote: "if the point of [Artificial Intelligence] is to make machines more human, shouldn't greed and self-interest be programmed in?"

            As far as I can understand, the whole idea of developing AI is not to make machines human or almost-human. In principle the intended aim of AI was to develop abilities that would help mankind, regardless of how much a particular AI would look or behave like a human.

            In fact, it seems that right now the more promising fields of development for AI are those that tend to emulate human beings.

            With respect to Tor's question, regarding a concern that AI could take over the world, the most likely scenario is rather more boring than a sci-fi "Terminator" scenario. What people in the know talk about is a blob-like situation, where a super-intelligent machine could start turning every available resource into paper clips--or something like that.

            Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has said that AI systems with goals that are not perfectly identical to or very closely aligned with human ethics are intrinsically dangerous unless extreme measures are taken to ensure the safety of humanity. He put it this way:

            "Basically we should assume that a 'superintelligence' would be able to achieve whatever goals it has. Therefore, it is extremely important that the goals we endow it with, and its entire motivation system, is 'human-friendly.'"

            JE comments: Sounds good, but humans are often not human-friendly.

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            • AI and Knowledge-Based Expert Systems (Tor Guimaraes, USA 07/14/14 4:11 AM)
              Luciano Dondero (13 July) is correct in saying that "the whole idea of developing AI is not to make machines human or almost human, [but rather to] develop abilities that would help mankind, regardless of how much a particular AI would look or behave like a human. ...In fact, it seems that right now the more promising fields of development for AI are those that tend to emulate human beings."

              While areas of AI as robotics and pattern recognition have made significant progress, the development and use of Expert Systems is extremely impressive. John Eipper commented earlier, "if the point of [Artificial Intelligence] is to make machines more human, shouldn't greed and self-interest be programmed in?" This is not a game. We want to produce systems that mimic only useful human traits such as expertise in specific domains. Thus we developed very effective Knowledge-Based Expert Systems based on the knowledge and decision rules of the best medical experts, electric locomotive mechanics, and people in hundreds of other problem areas requiring human expertise. We have also developed expert systems requiring no experts by programming Neural Network systems for variables. plowing through large databases looking for likely (hypothesized) relationships among input and output variables. We also have developed Intelligent Agents capable of linking Expert Systems in different domains, moving well beyond the capability of just one expert and behaving more as a team of experts in different areas.

              JE comments:  I do tend towards skepticism when it comes to AI, but I should acknowledge its concrete achievements.  Even Siri did a good job of updating me on yesterday's World Cup final.  (We were shopping for our Europe trip, and I couldn't watch the match.) 

              Don't make me share the road with self-driving cars, however.

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    • Is a Financial Collapse Imminent? From Ric Mauricio (John Eipper, USA 07/12/14 7:28 AM)
      Ric Mauricio sends this response to Enrique Torner's post of 8 July:

      And ye shall hear of wars and rumors of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. --Matthew 24:6

      Truly, as a Zen master once commented, the man to whom this quote is attributed to is an enlightened one.

      Enrique Torner's question on whether one should worry about a financial collapse reminded me of when the late Sir John Templeton admonished the late Louis Rukeyser on Wall Street Week. When Louis commented after a particularly bad week on the global stock exchanges that perhaps we should move our assets to safer alternatives, Sir John said, "Louis, Louis, Louis." Ah alas, the wise man told the student, one should be salivating at the opportunities.

      In the last 2,000 years, there have been many predictions of the end of the world. Even the Apostle John expected the end in his lifetime, and yet we continue to wallow in this Godforsaken world. In my almost 50 years of investing, I have heard so many predictions of financial collapse.

      Sure, some predictions do come true in the financial markets and of course, the predictor becomes the guru of the day. But where is Elaine Garzarelli today? Why did your mutual fund do so terribly that she had to close it? Why does George Soros keep telling the same old story of how he shorted the British pound and made a fortune? Why did he have to close his hedge fund and give his investors back their money, less the 25% he lost?

      But Louis Rukeyser, having learned from the master, really laid it out when his monologue after the Crash of 1987: "Ok, let's start with what's really important tonight... It's just your money, not your life. Everybody who really loved you a week ago still loves you tonight. And that's a heckuva lot more important than the numbers on a brokerage statement. The robins will sing, the crocuses will bloom, babies will gurgle, and puppies will curl up in your lap and drift happily to sleep--even when the stock market goes temporarily insane! And now that that's all fully in perspective, let me say Ouch! ... and Eeek! ... and Medic! Tonight we're going to try to make sense of mass hysteria, to look behind the crash of ‘87, and most perilously but most important of all, to look ahead."

      If you listened to Rukeyser in 1987 and held on to your stocks, you've witnessed a tenfold increase in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in the past 3 decades. This return outperforms every major asset group. Note his calmness during the crash contrasts to the current state of financial news. While Rukeyser helped investors focus on the long term, modern financial news wants investors to focus on the short term.

      In the short term, every piece of news is "breaking," significant, meaningful, and market-moving. In the long term, none of these events individually matter. They're merely noise.

      Financial news networks (CNBC, CNNfn, Fox Business, Bloomberg TV) focus on the short term to create the narrative that you should always be concerned about your money. This narrative is essential for their business model.  Concern drives viewership, and viewership sells advertising time. This is the veritable raison d'être of financial news.

      It is amazing that when I look at the investing track records of the talking heads on TV, I realize that they are really not that good. Jim Cramer has averaged a 4% return over the last 10 years. Now, how do I know that they are not really good investors? When they underperform a passive index like the S&P 500, I don't think it is so good. Now when they underperform my performance, now that is a true indicator that they are not so good, because, folks, I am not an investing genius by a mile.

      Without concern that a grand piano tethered to a string is looming over the market, people would stop watching and the ad dollars would migrate to other channels. Exciting program titles such as "Squawk Box," "Mad Money," "Fast Money," and "Power Lunch" emphasize your need to be concerned.

      If we look at CNBC's viewership numbers over the past 17 years, viewership spiked at times when investors were concerned, such as the tech bubble and the financial crisis. Fully cognizant of these numbers, CNBC creates the illusory narrative that a market-moving event is lurking around the corner. An event that needs to be closely watched, because this event could wreck your portfolio. If CNBC anchors are talking about an upcoming event, the risk is likely already priced into the stock market.

      Known risks don't cause unexpected selloffs. Known risks mean that investors are making contingency plans through hedging or selling stocks. Known risks mean that the market is braced for the event and its impact should be muted. Known risks mean that the market is more likely to be higher after the event passes.

      For instance, let us consider the 43% rally in the SPY over the past 2 years. Every little dip along the uptrend represents events that might have derailed the markets, but eventually they turned out to be inconsequential. Remember these negative narratives from the past 2 years:

      The Fiscal Cliff


      Government Shutdown

      Debt Ceiling Negotiations

      Russia Invades Ukraine

      China-Japan Tensions

      While each caused short-term pullbacks, none of these events changed the current drivers of stocks: low interest rates, buybacks, strong earnings growth, and a gradually improving economy. These are long-term drivers that are resistant to change once set in motion. If Louis Rukeyser were still around today, he would be humorously highlighting these positive long-term themes, not the negative short-term narratives.

      So do yourself a favor. Turn off the talking heads (be they on TV, in the newspapers, especially the Wall Street Journal, or in Money magazine). There is one exception to this rule, however. If you can turn on the talking heads and go contrary, then you'll be a man, my son. As the saying, keep your head while others are losing theirs.

      JE comments: Ric Mauricio's are comforting words.  Think in the long term (although not in the very long term, as we're all dead).  Hot tips and "breaking news" on financial TV have already been built into the price.  "Corrections" make me grimace, but I try to think of them as times when stock goes on sale.

      WAISers know that I'm also obsessed with gasoline prices.  Can anyone tell me why they've gone down 10% or so in the last two weeks?  Is this merely a local phenomenon?  Summer driving season is usually a time for prices to move north, not south.

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