Optimistic’ed to Oblivion

Good read in Climate Progress on Nature’s latest set of climate change articles

For a long time the vast majority of climate scientists never modeled the impacts of high CO2 concentrations because they assumed humanity would never be so self-destructive as to allow them to occur.

Time to move to higher ground…

There are a lot more people saying that 2ºC almost automatically leads to 5ºC (due to feedbacks involving tundra, albedo, methane clathrates, etc.) and 2ºC is now all but inevitable. The weasel words “all but” are the same ones that have allowed the inaction to go on for decades. It’s hard to image the world ‘hitting the brakes hard‘ for all the same reasons.

The graph referenced in the Climate Progress piece is indeed very nice… but the commentary is telling. The article notes that it is good because it comes from peer-reviewed articles. Which tells you that the real battle is still convincing people that we need to act. Sticks to beat the anti-science brigade.

It’s interesting to see the interaction point with the economy. At a time where we need to cut energy use (good correlation to both emissions and economic growth) by something like 80%, a relatively minor drop, say 5%, in the growth rate of world economy gives us an idea of the whirlwind we shall reap.

Growth at any cost…

Japan: debt to GDP ratio

This is still going over my head… but what i think i understand of it makes sense:

I don’t understand the Japanese economy.  Never have.  Probably never will.  Will they be a locomotive for the rest of the world?  Everything’s possible but not everything’s likely. Japan’s public debt to GDP ratio is 180% of GDP and rising.  Yet even long-term rates on nominal public debt remain very low.  The main reason is, I believe, that while the Japanese state runs a massive financial deficit, the Japanese private sector runs an even more massive financial surplus.  The consolidated financial position of the country has been one of persistent current account surpluses.  Private financial wealth is huge and the net international investment position of the country is a large positive number.  (Italy has a milder version of the same configuration of private and public saving and borrowing propensities).

So if the markets believe that the Japanese political system is and will be capable of achieving, sooner or later, the large resource transfer from the private sector to the public sector that is required to make the public finances sustainable, the overall financial position (flows and stocks) of the country is what matters.  And these consolidated national flows and stocks still look pretty good.  This in contrast to the US and the UK, where looming fiscal deficits combine with low private saving propensities to create enduring doubt about fiscal sustainability.  As regards Italy, I am less than fully confident that the Italian tax payer/beneficiary of public spending will do as (s)he is told by the nation’s fiscal authorities, now or in the future.

Ignoring the parts about Italy (confusion i really don’t need!) there is a fairly simple idea that the private surplus in some way balances the public deficit. Quite how this works in practice isn’t clear, but i suspect there are deeper connections between the state and industry (ie. fascism) in Japan and Italy than elsewhere… cheery thought.

Jeopardy

In the New York Times (via. KruzweilAI.net):

I.B.M. plans to announce Monday that it is in the final stages of completing a computer program to compete against human “Jeopardy!” contestants. If the program beats the humans, the field of artificial intelligence will have made a leap forward.

Hmm. This must be some definition of intelligence with which i’m not familiar… 

Isn’t this a little like Blue Gene and chess? Sure the rules are a little more complex here, requiring natural language analysis, key word searching, more language analysis of the results, and then presumably some ranking of the results… but in essence it’s the idea that intelligence can be reduced to brute force, top down analysis. 

There is some skepticism among researchers in the field about the effort. “To me it seems more like a demonstration than a grand challenge,” said Peter Norvig, a computer scientist who is director of research at Google. “This will explore lots of different capabilities, but it won’t change the way the field works.”

Exactly! It’s more of the same…

Must find some more up to date thinking on the nature of human thought. Interested in what the alternatives (mainstream view) has to say about how we manage things like inspiration, dreaming, etc.

Revenge

Following up on last weekends musing on the possibility of China regarding the US printing money as a de facto default. This article in the FT makes it pretty clear that is exactly what is happening:

China has quietly almost doubled its gold reserves to become the world’s fifth-biggest holder of the precious metal, it emerged on Friday, in a move that signals the revival of bullion after years of fading importance.

In an earlier version of the article, now edited away, was this quote:

Hou Huimin, vice general secretary of the China Gold Association, said China should build its reserves to 5,000 tonnes. “It’s not a matter of a few hundred, or 1,000 tonnes. China should hold more because of its new international status, and because of the financial crisis,” he said. “The financial crisis means the US dollar’s value is changing fast, and it may retreat from being the international reserve currency. If that happens, whoever holds gold will be at an advantage.”

Not much doubt about that then. Rather odd that the quote was edited out.

In other news, Alistair Darling is now my favourite comedian. Managing in his budget to say that the current down turn is serious as the Great Depression, and that the growth resuming by Christmas, is one of the funniest things i think i’ve ever heard a politician say… well, except maybe for that Hatoyama idiot and “his friend in Al-Qaeda”.

Mercy Mercy

That track has been rattling around in my brain for the last couple of week. It seems to have got stuck there when i recently read / saw reference to Nick Cave being ‘a deeply religious’ man. His work has always been allegorical, with Bible (fucking bible!) stories obviously having a big influence. My assumption was that he was intrigued by the obvious flaws of the old testament god, a deity best described as ‘a mean motherfucker, with some serious issues’, with the crazy contradictions of the apocryphal books…

It never really occurred to me that he might actually be serious considering the idea of a personal god / personal salvation. I’m having a hard time putting the drug using, hard drinking, good living, wildly misanthropic man that provided much of the soundtrack to my youth, into the context of a God fearing seeker of forgiveness for past sins…

Hot on the heels of Penrose comes H.P. Lovecraft (haven’t enjoyed fiction this much in ages!) with this rather pithy quote:

All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hair-splitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.

Which comes pretty close to my view of things: i see no reason to care, but given that so many do, i’ll happily sign up as an ardent non-believer.

Thinking with Roger

It took a while but i eventually made it through to the end of ‘Shadows of the Mind‘. Most thought provoking book i’ve read in a long time.

As you can see from that link it’s rather controversial. The AI community has spent a great deal of time belittling the idea that it is impossible to build a computational (turing machine based) consciousness. Penrose, however, is more than up to the task of defending his work. It’s a rather strange situation for me, a little like the case of nuclear fusion – the big breakthrough in AI is always just around the corner.

Someone coming at this believing the consensus point of view (of AI) would be surprised that the massive increase in computing power over the last 20 years hasn’t resulted in a corresponding increase in AI ability. Maybe the comparison isn’t fair, but surely by this point we’d be able to have a computer with general inquisitiveness (for example) of a new born. Not even close.

All of which makes it all the more surprising to me that a book that attempts to plot an alternative way forward is so badly received. From my perspective, outside of the (dismal) science of computing (honestly, it’s as much a “science” as economics!) it seem pretty logical. If there are areas of human thought that (provably)  cannot be reduced down to algorithmic operations, isn’t it time to consider that maybe trying to reduce all human thought down to algorithmic operations isn’t the answer? Reading some of the criticism (esp. McDermott, linked above) you’d have to wonder if he’s actually read the book, or is simply offended by the idea that there may be limitations to what hard AI can achieve!

For my part, i found the mathematical formalism stuff difficult to follow (but well enough explained that i could get by). The section on quantum effects, superposition, reduction was something of a flashback to university lectures, and therefore quite good fun to relive. And the final section on the micro (or is it nano?) structure of the brain amazingly thought provoking.

I don’t know if Penrose’s specific conclusions (that quantum effects might play a role in the process of consciousness) are all that controversial. There are obviously holes in our understanding of brain function. Therefore putting forward a hypothesis that might fill in some of those holes, even if it is at odds with the existing thinking, is just what is needed. This isn’t like climate denial where most of the answers are known, but unfortunately unpalatable to many who would resist the logical conclusions. The brain really is deeply mysterious, and therefore new ideas should be welcomed in usual scientific spirit!  

Humility

This is a great read. If it doesn’t make you want to take up your pitchfork, you might need to get your blood pressure (or bank balance?) checked: 

 “I think he doesn’t have an appreciation for how hard it is to build these companies, the blood, sweat, and tears that goes into them,” says a senior executive from a failed Wall Street firm. 

Oh, the delicious irony. As Taleb is found of saying, the banks have never made any money. Profits from one period are eaten by the losses from another. The bankers are just skimming off the top.

That Damion Berger shot is also very smart. Looks like a still from something like Citizen Kane, but is presumably current.

Defeat

Interesting things going on in the world of gloom, doom, and despair recently.

The FT is running an article where the US secretary of agriculture basically warns that there is food crunch ahead:

The US agriculture secretary has warned that unless countries take immediate steps to sharply boost agricultural productivity and food output and reduce hunger, the world risks fresh social instability.

“This is not just about food security, this is about national security, it is about environmental security,” he said on the sidelines of the first meeting of the Group of Eight ministers of agriculture.

Charming.

Lots of talk about the US Treasury ‘stress tests’ for the banks. The worst case scenario that they are using is predicated on the headline unemployment number hitting 10.4% by the end of next year (it’s currently 8.5%, and rising fast… it’ll probably hit 10% in a couple of month, maximum) and a decline in house prices of 29% from the start of this year, and over a similar period… they are currently down 22%, and, you guessed it, falling rapidly.

The other issue is that while stress tests might have seemed like a good idea at the time, now that the results have to be released, there are all sorts of dilemmas. If all the banks pass with flying colours were the tests rigged? If some of the banks fail, and are sent off to secure new capital over the next six months, what is going to happen to their shares? Will it provoke runs on the failing banks? Perhaps the results could be kept secret.. that always inspires confidence.

This is looking like a slightly different take on the old, ‘good bank / bad bank’ discussion. The outcome doesn’t stand much chance of being much different… the people will end up assuming the position (all of the risk) while the banks try to hide their losses. What a mess.

This piece by Cynicus Economicus is really worth reading (as are the comments). He makes a pretty good case for believing that the anglo-saxon system of capitalism has run it’s course, and that we are now going to live through a very different (and declining) part of the cycle. I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that societies develop in cycles, going from youthful exuberance, middle aged stability, to staid old age. There seem to be many examples of this… and i’m sure a lot has been written about it. I’m already reading too much.

The other aspect of that piece, that is far more worrying, is the idea that the Chinese have twigged to the idea that Fed printing money <cough> embarking on quantitative easing, is a de facto act of default on the debt. There is evidence out there that China is positioning itself to survive this figurative middle finger to the developing world. 

Graphs like that (from here) make it clear that the Chinese are very aware of the “dollar trap” and, if the reports of them moving to buying up natural resources, precious metals, etc. are to be believed, actively working to insulate themselves from the US attempting to inflate themselves out of debt.

It’s a disturbing prospect on many levels. Defaulting on debts denominated in the worlds reserve currency… seems like a road to terrible instability, economic warfare, and eventually, outright conflict. It’s always said that war is only way out of depression, and it’s easy to see why. Personally, i’m not convinced that it’s inevitable… an odd moment of optimism?

On another positive note, the sheer size of China’s dollar denominated reserves mean that they aren’t going to unduly rock the boat. They’ll be trying to beat an orderly retreat, reallocating into other currencies, and assets. This movement is going to take time. Meaning that those of us with exposure to the dollar might see a period of relative stability until the endgame (a new world reserve currency, that greatly reduces America’s influence) becomes obvious / inevitable.

It’s looks to me that China has their eyes on the prize and is very much playing to win… will be interesting to see if Japan choses to go ‘down with the ship’ or makes like a rat. There is a lot of historic baggage to be lugged around, but surely pragmatism will force Japan to reconsider it’s current position as the outsider in Asia.

Cruel Mistress

Ilford SFX 200 is one tough bitch to shoot well in the city…

I’ve just souped a couple of rolls, and i guess i got… maybe 4 shots out of the 12 i shot today. Just leave the shutter open for… ever! It’s like shooting with paper – wait for the sun to burn a pattern.

Bah!

Having been cooped up all week it was nice to get out and about, but the inspiration never seems to co-operate on days like that… fickle fucking muse. Still, feel better for having got out of the house and reminded myself (again) that Tokyo is just plain ugly in the daylight.