Monday, June 28, 2010

Friday, June 25, 2010

Michael Pettis on Europe and China

There are a couple of very smart thoughtful posts by Michael Pettis that are worth reading on the European sovereign debt crisis and global trade flows.  The first from yesterday is here.  A sample:
3. The European crisis will be accompanied by a trade shock.

In the early 1980s Latin America countries were suddenly cut off from funding during what was subsequently called the LDC Debt Crisis, or the Lost Decade. These countries had been running large current account deficits, and of course current account deficits require capital account surpluses. These surpluses were financed by the the huge petrodollar recycling of the 1970s, when commercial banks around the world made staggeringly large loans to many developing countries.

Of course after 1981-82 it became clear that the loans exceeded the repayment capacity of the borrowing countries, and suddenly financing dried up – almost overnight. What’s worse, the debt crisis had already been preceded by flight capital, so that when financing dried up, a capital account surplus quickly became a capital account deficit. Of course once Latin America began to experience capital outflows, its trade deficit necessarily had to become a trade surplus. This is exactly what happened.

The deficit countries of Europe, whose combined trade deficits are nearly two-thirds the size of the US trade deficit, will also be forced into a rapid contraction in their trade deficits for the very same reasons – they are going to find it hard enough simply to refinance themselves, let alone receive net capital inflows. Without a capital account surplus, however, they simply cannot run current account deficits. This contraction must, one way or another, be absorbed by the very unwilling rest of the world.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Computers Make Strides in Recognizing Speech

There's another good installment in the NYT's Smarter Than You Think series. This one concerns progress in computer speech recognition and human-computer interaction in general.
The number of American doctors using speech software to record and transcribe accounts of patient visits and treatments has more than tripled in the past three years to 150,000. The progress is striking. A few years ago, supraspinatus (a rotator cuff muscle) got translated as “fish banana.” Today, the software transcribes all kinds of medical terminology letter perfect, doctors say. It has more trouble with other words and grammar, requiring wording changes in about one of every four sentences, doctors say.

“It’s unbelievably better than it was five years ago,” said Dr. Michael A. Lee, a pediatrician in Norwood, Mass., who now routinely uses transcription software. “But it struggles with ‘she’ and ‘he,’ for some reason. When I say ‘she,’ it writes ‘he.’ The technology is sexist. It likes to write ‘he.’ ”

Energy Generation in Zero Carbon Britain 2030

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Computers Now Competitive at Jeopardy?

Interesting piece in the NYT:
‘Toured the Burj in this U.A.E. city. They say it’s the tallest tower in the world; looked over the ledge and lost my lunch.”

This is the quintessential sort of clue you hear on the TV game show “Jeopardy!” It’s witty (the clue’s category is “Postcards From the Edge” ), demands a large store of trivia and requires contestants to make confident, split-second decisions. This particular clue appeared in a mock version of the game in December, held in Hawthorne, N.Y. at one of I.B.M.’s research labs. Two contestants — Dorothy Gilmartin, a health teacher with her hair tied back in a ponytail, and Alison Kolani, a copy editor — furrowed their brows in concentration. Who would be the first to answer?

Neither, as it turned out. Both were beaten to the buzzer by the third combatant: Watson, a supercomputer.

For the last three years, I.B.M. scientists have been developing what they expect will be the world’s most advanced “question answering” machine, able to understand a question posed in everyday human elocution — “natural language,” as computer scientists call it — and respond with a precise, factual answer. In other words, it must do more than what search engines like Google and Bing do, which is merely point to a document where you might find the answer. It has to pluck out the correct answer itself. Technologists have long regarded this sort of artificial intelligence as a holy grail, because it would allow machines to converse more naturally with people, letting us ask questions instead of typing keywords. Software firms and university scientists have produced question-answering systems for years, but these have mostly been limited to simply phrased questions. Nobody ever tackled “Jeopardy!” because experts assumed that even for the latest artificial intelligence, the game was simply too hard: the clues are too puzzling and allusive, and the breadth of trivia is too wide.

With Watson, I.B.M. claims it has cracked the problem — and aims to prove as much on national TV. The producers of “Jeopardy!” have agreed to pit Watson against some of the game’s best former players as early as this fall. To test Watson’s capabilities against actual humans, I.B.M.’s scientists began holding live matches last winter.
Any of you AI sceptics feeling at least a little chill of obsolescence here?

US Crude Production

Global Temperature Records

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Lithium and other Minerals in Afghanistan

Pretty interesting article in the NYT this evening:
WASHINGTON — The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.

The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.
and
Just this month, American geologists working with the Pentagon team have been conducting ground surveys on dry salt lakes in western Afghanistan where they believe there are large deposits of lithium. Pentagon officials said that their initial analysis at one location in Ghazni Province showed the potential for lithium deposits as large of those of Bolivia, which now has the world’s largest known lithium reserves.

For the geologists who are now scouring some of the most remote stretches of Afghanistan to complete the technical studies necessary before the international bidding process is begun, there is a growing sense that they are in the midst of one of the great discoveries of their careers.

“On the ground, it’s very, very, promising,” Mr. Medlin said. “Actually, it’s pretty amazing.”
Of course, the administration is strongly invested in trying to justify the Afghan war, which isn't going very well, and no doubt this news should be seen as part of the P.R. campaign. Still, the Obama administration does not have a history of large lies, so I assume the basic facts here are true.

That lithium would come in pretty handy if we are going to try and run the planet on plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles.  Lithium is a key constraint in that scenario.  Whether anyone will ever get it out of Afghanistan is another question altogether though.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Radio Ecoshock Podcasts

Just a note that Alex Smith of Radio Ecoshock invited me on his radio show to talk about the heat stress posts I did.  I don't think I'm that great at radio, but if you'd like to check it out with appropriately modest expectations, Alex's blog post is here, the whole show is available as an mp3 (either CD quality 56MB, or 14MB low-fi version), and my 15 minute segment is here.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Construction Wage Animation

'Animated' Jpg
1998

Monday, June 7, 2010

Squatting in Buffalo

Not much from me this morning as I have discovered the BEA Table CA06, which has details on compensation by industry, for every county in the country and I am busy figuring out how to digest all the data.  In the meantime, there is a fascinating article in the New York Times on squatters in abandoned houses in Buffalo, NY.  This is the kind of thing I expect gradually more and more of as we go forward - as industrial society continues to need a smaller and smaller fraction of the population in order to function, people will find various ways to survive on the fringe of it.

Also, this link comes courtesy of Ran Prieur, who seems to be a thought leader amongst career drop-outs.  His manifesto is here.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Tuesday, June 1, 2010