Tuesday, January 26, 2010

New Yorker on the Financial Crisis

Insightful short piece by James Surowieki commenting on discussions at the US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. Bottom line:
"In a way, the moral-hazard argument ascribes far too much foresight, intelligence, and rationality to the banks. It assumes they were coldly calculating the chances and consequences of failure and forging ahead nonetheless, when the reality seems to be that for the most part they were blissfully ignorant and arrogant about the flaws in their lending and investment strategies. The crisis, in that sense, was caused less by the fact that the banks were too big to fail than it was by the fact that they never seriously considered the possibility that they might fail."
Feels right to me.

Monday, January 25, 2010

The Oil Crunch and its Intersection with the Climate and Financial Crises

I've just announced to the members of The Scottish Oil Club our event for Feb 25 where Jeremy Leggett is our guest speaker.
"Growing numbers in industry believe the global oil industry has probably got its collective asset assessment systemically and ruinously wrong, in the manner we now know the banking industry had in the run up to the financial crisis. Leggett examines these fears, the chances of proactive mobilisation to soften the peak-oil landing, prospects for retroactive mobilisation, and what the oil crunch means in the context of the ongoing climate and financial crises."

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Thought Provoking Photo

Here is an interesting photograph which shows the downstream effect of windfarm on the atmosphere. Saw this from Sustainable Energy blog. What immediately comes to mind are the following:
  • What is the climate cooling affect of these artificially created white clouds (because more sun energy presumably will be reflected back into space). Is this modelled by the climate change models?
  • Extrapolating to the limit for when the planet is carpeted with these devices, what will be the actual efficiency we are left with?

(Linked from http://ict-aeolus.eu/images/horns_rev.jpg)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Found in the Economist's "The World in 2010" magazine:
It’s all very well to recycle, pester your parents about fuel efficiency and aspire to holidays that need no flights. But the best thing a bright young person can do to help rid civilisation of fossil fuels is get an education in engineering.
(Emphasis by me).

Sunday, January 10, 2010

You Could be Sued if You Remove Snow from Your Sidewalk

We've had a lot of snow in the UK recently. Well, a lot of snow compared to recent memory in the UK. Normally we get no snow in a winter season.

The problem is made worse because many streets and sidewalks (pavements) are not shovelled clear of snow. This makes the the snow turn to ice and chaos prevails. Yes, I know that the TV and newspapers are full of stories about how the government has failed yet again due to shortages of "grit and salt". But, I've often wondered why we don't just remove the snow instead of relying on "grit an salt".

Now I know. Apparently, if you remove snow and someone then falls on the cleared patch of sidewalk (pavement), you could be sued. Sigh.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Modelling of Lake Erie Water Levels (1870-1970)

During my university days in Civil Engineering, I was interested in hydrology and modelling. I guess this explains my current interest in the debate and science of climate change. I dug out a paper I wrote in 1973 to analyse the the "extraordinary" high-water levels of Lake Erie. My home was near Lake Erie and it was abundantly clear, because of the severe flooding along the lakeshore, that the "environment" around the late was changing. We did not blame anthropogenic global warming (AGW), of course, but as I was required to a project for my Hydrology course (CE 499P) I decided to attempt to model the historical record with the idea being it would be a basis for predictions about the future.

I'm not sure that the idea was sound; but what in retrospect seems to be sound upon re-reading the paper 37 years later:
  • We gathered actual environmental data and reviewed the data for relevance
  • We published the raw data
  • We modeled the time series using current technology (auto correlation, frequency analysis, statistics, etc.)
  • It is clear that the environment changes. That's what Nature does.
  • We worked very hard to validate the model parameters by confirming that we could model "history". Our view was that unless the model "predicted" historical data, then we had no basis to accept that the model was valid.
We confirmed that we could build a model which accurately "predicts" historical data. I'm not sure now, with the passage of time, that I would feel comfortable using this model for future prediction, however. If I get time and energy I may attack the data with tools now available, e.g. Monte Carlo simulation, more hydrologic/climatic science in the model, etc.

However, I offer the original paper to anyone (especially climate change modellers) who wishes to learn from the approach or use the data.

Yemen's Economy

Yemen is in the news again. Slate's running a short article "Why is Yemen So Poor?".

Bottom line: corruption, no significant agriculture, declining oil revenues (forecast to end in 10 years) being spent on unproductive and destructive activities.

Apple Magic Mouse

I won't normally write here about computer hardware as it's not something I am normally particularly interested in. However, I will make an exception to take note of how terrific the new Apple "Magic Mouse" is. It's wireless and touch sensitive. It's the the best innovation in computer mouse ergometrics since the mouse was invented.

CIA Classified Photos of Environmental Change

The NY Times reports today that the CIA is making available to selected scientists information from spy satellites and other classified sensors.
"... the monitoring effort offered an opportunity to gather environmental data that would otherwise be impossible to obtain, and to do so with the kind of regularity that can reveal the dynamics of environmental change."
Wow. This could prove valuable, especially for measurements of change of Arctic ice.

Monday, January 04, 2010

De Vere Cameron House gouges customers

Every year my wife and two sons take time out just after New Year to treat ourselves at the close of the holiday season, and to celebrate our wedding anniversary. This year we went to the De Vere Cameron House Hotel in Scotland. It's a beautiful hotel on the shores of Loch Lomand and with this year's snow on the ground and surrounding mountains it's gorgeous.

However the Hotel is over-priced and they gouge customers. Beware.

Our rate included Dinner, Bed, and Breakfast. The inclusive dinner rate was that it included £35 for each person and anything above that was for our own account. The dinner items were not priced. Many (most?) of the entrees for dinner for "extra" (between £4 and £20) and desert cost an additional £6.95 each. With a bottle of Sancerre (expensive at £35/bottle, but it was our anniversary) and all the "extras", we ended up spending more than £120 extra for dinner for four. There was also an obligatory 10% Service Charge added on to the dinner--yet the service was extremely slow. They didn't even set the table properly (we had a pepper shaker, but had to ask for salt). More than once we had to ask them to "can we please order?", "can we please move on to the next course?", etc. The people serving the food even had to ask us who ordered what! Why didn't they just know who ordered what!

To top it all off -- at checkout when I presented my MasterCard for payment, they informed that there was a £2.50 surcharge for credit cards. Gosh. That really annoyed me. I reluctantly agreed that they use the credit card as I did not have sufficient cash nor did my debit card account have enough money to cover the bill). I also asked to speak to the manger.

The manager informed me that it was a recent corporate policy by De Vere to charge for credit cards. This policy was recently put in place because "the banks charge us [De Vere] for credit card transactions." I pointed out that the hotel didn't charge me a line item for electricity, property tax, salaries, heating, etc. and I was more than disappointed that the hotel has audacity to feel it is appropriate to pass on costs like this.

They told me they were going to refund the the £2.50 fee. I told them I would write about this experience on my blog. So here it is.

Scratch De Vere hotels from my future business travel plans.

Saturday, January 02, 2010

Y2K Bug a Decade Late?

It's taken a decade, but I finally experienced the affect of a bug related to date changes on a computer. I recall with fond memories working in a global coordination role on the so-called Y2K bug which after a few months of work in 1998 we concluded it was pretty much a non-isssue. This forecast was proved right that without doing much nothing really happened in our world-wide corporation that was highly dependant on automated control and information systems.

Well, today my home-based spam detection system failed. Starting yesterday (unknown to me) SpamAssassin, running on our home server, started tagging all incoming mail as "spam". Apparently there is a test in SpamAssassin to check for dates "grossly in the future" and the year 2010 is one of those dates.

As most things are, information on this bug is now available on the internet. My family now happy since the were missing a lot of "happy new year" emails!