Friday, May 31, 2013

Friday Links

  • Above - European unemployment continues to worsen.
  • US Department of Transportation supportive of at least semi-autonomous cars (basically with an auto-pilot).
  • 5.3 new diseases emerging per year.
  • What kind of money should cyber-criminals use?
  • The Arab Spring countries may be worse off economically as a result.  A general lesson of history seems to be that revolutions are really hard to do well.  Running a country is not easy, and even if the current government really sucks, it's quite easy to make things even worse.
  • A cyclone in the Arctic might be making a big hole in the ice early in the melting season.
  • On the CO2 in the Bakken thing, I found this: "Harju said he knows of two field tests of CO2  injection into Bakken rocks – one in Mountrail County and one in Montana. Neither was economically successful, but they will help researchers with their laboratory experiments."  Sounds like it might be premature to get too excited.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Thursday Links

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

International Power Outage Comparisons

A Parallel

A stray thought I had last night.  I was thinking about the compulsion we in computer science have to develop artificial intelligence.  My experience is that most of my colleagues in the field simply don't really question whether or not it's a good thing that they are working on trying to build algorithms that are smarter than we are.  Whatever our reasons are, it's by and large not because we've really thought it through with an open mind and have decided it's a great idea.  Instead, we are compelled by powerful unconscious motivations, and then try to justify it after the fact.

The analogy that occurred to me is the physicists in the first half of the twentieth century figuring out nuclear physics ("splitting the atom") and eventually developing nuclear weapons.  They remain humankind's most destructive weapon.  And yet, in a strange way, they have led to marked moral/spiritual progress on the part of the species.  They were used twice, and then we've refrained from using them in anger since.  And as a result, there's been no open war between major powers since 1945.  To see how remarkable this is, here's a list of major wars in Europe - there have been wars between major powers every few decades since time immemorial.  But the prospect of nuclear war was so awful that we finally learned to stop.  At least, I hope it stays that way.

So perhaps that's the hope here.  In starting to build something that has the potential to completely tear our society apart altogether, maybe it will force us to finally confront the unconscious forces that drive us to blindly innovate and grow our economy, whatever the cost.  Being a bit more conscious about where we want to go would be a good thing.

Wednesday Links

  • The end of the world isn't as likely as humans fighting back.  Always worth remembering.
  • The agricultural sector in the US uses less than 2% of total energy usage.  Also worth remembering.
  • Sounds like Saeed Jalili is Iran's next president (I'm pretty convinced after 2009 that Iranian elections are effectively fixed).  Doesn't sound like relations with the rest of the world are likely to improve much: "The goal of Iran and its allies, Mr. Jalili said, is to 'uproot capitalism, Zionism and Communism, and promote the discourse of pure Islam in the world.'"
  • China shipping too many crappy solar panels?  Caveat emptor!

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System

I am currently reading Terrorism and the Electric Power Delivery System.  From the summary:
The electric power delivery system that carries electricity from large central generators to customers could be severely damaged by a small number of well-informed attackers. The system is inherently vulnerable because transmission lines may span hundreds of miles, and many key facilities are unguarded. This vulnerability is exacerbated by the fact that the power grid, most of which was originally designed to meet the needs of individual vertically integrated utilities, is now being used to move power between regions to support the needs of new competitive markets for power generation. Primarily because of ambiguities introduced as a result of recent restructuring of the industry and cost pressures from consumers and regulators, investment to strengthen and upgrade the grid has lagged, with the result that many parts of the bulk high-voltage system are heavily stressed.

A terrorist attack on the power system would lack the dramatic impact of the attacks in New York, Madrid, or London. It would not immediately kill many people or make for spectacular television footage of bloody destruction. But if it were carried out in a carefully planned way, by people who knew what they were doing, it could deny large regions of the country access to bulk system power for weeks or even months. An event of this magnitude and duration could lead to turmoil, widespread public fear, and an image of helpless- ness that would play directly into the hands of the terrorists. If such large extended outages were to occur during times of extreme weather, they could also result in hundreds or even thousands of deaths due to heat stress or extended exposure to extreme cold.

The largest power system disruptions experienced to date in the United States have caused high economic impacts. Considering that a systematically designed and executed terrorist attack could cause disruptions that were even more widespread and of longer duration, it is no stretch of the imagination to think that such attacks could entail costs of hundreds of billions of dollars—that is, perhaps as much as a few percent of the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP), which is currently about $12.5 trillion.

Electric systems are not designed to withstand or quickly recover from damage inflicted simultaneously on multiple components. Such an attack could be carried out by knowl- edgeable attackers with little risk of detection or interdiction. Further well-planned and coordinated attacks by terrorists could leave the electric power system in a large region of the country at least partially disabled for a very long time.
Alert readers may note that the $12.5 trillion figure for GDP is inconsistent with the 2012 publication date of this National Academies of Science report.  Apparently it was written in the 2004-2007 timeframe, but then classified until last year.

Tuesday Links

  • At high speed, on the road to a driverless future.
  • Weakness in air cargo industry.
  • Tom Murphy corrects some common bad thinking about entropy.
  • Prosecutors claim Liberty Reserve handled $6 billion in criminal transactions over seven years and was the leading online money-launderer.  That's a big number, and yet also not, in the context of a $74 trillion global economy.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Weekend Links

  • No clear evidence that tornadoes are likely to get worse under climate change.  Well, that's something.
  • How a big bank failure could unfold.
  • The jet stream - what it is and how it's changing.  This is a very good, long, primer on the changes in the weather that appear to be occurring as a result of the melting arctic.  I blogged about this last April.
  • Could Europe surprise to the upside?
  • Suicide on the rise.  I expect the causes are complex, but at a minimum this is consistent with something I would predict as we continue to move towards the singularity: humans need a sense of meaning, and in the industrial west, a lot of us are used to this coming from work.  As the economy starts to need fewer of us, I expect more depression and suicide.
  • China contemplating economic reform, and perhaps slower growth.
  • Climate change creates some high-class problems too.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Thursday Links

  • The above is Markit's PMI index for Chinese manufacturing.  The scale is from the beginning of 2008 through May 2013.  Thus the big dip near the beginning is associated with the great recession.  The recovery, initially strong, has become anemic in the last couple of years.  It was a bit better in the last six months, but May's number is anemic again.  This is presumably associated with weak demand for manufactured goods in contracting Europe and the weakly growing US.
  • America's greenest office building.
  • Asset values probably are being propped up by the Fed.
  • Norbert Wiener back in 1949 on the coming age of the machines.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

April Saudi Oil Production


The above graph summarizes the data on Saudi oil production (and oil rig count on the right scale).  The feature of most current interest is the large production cut that was implemented in the last months of 2012 (more background here).

It appears that in April there was a noticeable uptick in production of around 100-150kbd.  That is nowhere near enough to offset the cut in late 2012, but since it shows up in both sources with data available for April, it's most likely a robust feature of the data.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Tuesday Links

  • The above is Eurostat's European construction index.  The great recession never ended as far as this is concerned - it's still falling rapidly six years after its peak.
  • Syria may break into pieces.
  • Losing the High Plains Aquifer.
  • Google getting into the massive cloud computing business.
  • Bruce Schneier on the future of privacy: none.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Thursday Links

  • Above is European and US GDP from Eurostat, including the latest data for Europe (Q1).  The European economy continues to shrink.  Some enterprising university over there needs to make Paul Krugman an offer he can't refuse so that he can nag their elites endlessly to reinflate the economy.
  • The weather is really losing it in the US midwest.
  • A bibliography of papers on artificial intelligence risk.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Tuesday Links

  • The above is the Yen/$ exchange rate since 1970.  The uptick on the far right is the initial effects of Abenomics (essentially making somewhat credible threats to increase inflation by increasing the money supply).  Some more interesting charts here from Edward Hugh, along with a rather sceptical take.  I'm inclined to think it's a bit too soon to draw any firm conclusions.
  • Someone may be studying how to perform destructive cyber-attacks on energy infrastructure.
  • The children of the upper class and upper middle class are increasingly stressed out by the process of being prepared for today's hyper-competitive globalized society.
  • Related: student debt and the crushing of the American dream.
  • There are severe financial consequences to firmly predicting global doom and being wrong.
  • Kevin Drum has a very good piece about the economic consequences of approach to singularity. His views and mine are rather similar in the short to medium term (and he even uses one of my graphs).  In the long term, I'm rather less optimistic about the "robotic paradise of leisure and contemplation" than he is.  That assumes that a highly intelligent economic system with no need at all for humans will continue to prioritize their welfare for many generations.  Building the system to guarantee that strikes me as very hard to do.
  • This Bertrand Russell essay on the value of idleness was written in 1932, but still seems trenchant today (I'm personally struggling with how to think about these issues in the context of the approaching singularity).  H/T Ran Prieur.

Monday, May 13, 2013

April Oil Supply Little Changed


The April numbers are out from the IEA and OPEC, and the overall pattern of flat supply since 2012 is continuing (graph above, not zero-scaled).

I refer you to last month's update for a much more detailed explanation of the context.  April seems to have changed the picture so little that it doesn't make sense to repeat everything in there.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Weekend Links

Friday, May 10, 2013

Poem for Friday

I don't feel like blogging this morning.  Accordingly, this post is being outsourced to poet and farmer Wendell Berry:

Even while I dreamed I prayed that what I saw was only fear
and no foretelling,
for I saw the last known landscape destroyed for the sake
of the objective, the soil bludgeoned, the rock blasted.
Those who had wanted to go home would never get there now.

I visited the offices where for the sake of the objective
the planners planned
at blank desks set in rows. I visited the loud factories
where the machines were made that would drive ever forward
toward the objective. I saw the forest reduced to stumps and gullies; I saw
the poisoned river, the mountain cast into the valley;
I came to the city that nobody recognized because it looked
like every other city.
I saw the passages worn by the unnumbered
footfalls of those whose eyes were fixed upon the objective.

Their passing had obliterated the graves and the monuments
of those who had died in pursuit of the objective
and who had long ago forever been forgotten, according
to the inevitable rule that those who have forgotten forget
that they have forgotten. Men, women, and children now
pursued the objective
as if nobody ever had pursued it before.

The races and the sexes now intermingled perfectly in
pursuit of the objective.
the once-enslaved, the once-oppressed were now free
to sell themselves to the highest bidder
and to enter the best paying prisons
in pursuit of the objective, which was the destruction
of all enemies,
which was the destruction of all obstacles, which was the destruction
of all objects,
which was to clear the way to victory, which was to clear the way
to promotion, to salvation, to progress,
to the completed sale, to the signature
on the contract, which was to clear the way
to self-realization, to self-creation, from which nobody who
ever wanted to go home
would ever get there now, for every remembered place
had been displaced; the signposts had been bent to the
ground and covered over.

Every place had been displaced, every love
unloved, every vow unsworn, every word unmeant
to make way for the passage of the crowd
of the individuated, the autonomous, the self-actuated, the homeless
with their many eyes opened toward the objective
which they did not yet perceive in the far distance,
having never known where they were going,
having never known where they came from.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Thursday Links

  • Above - continued decline of retail trade in Europe.
  • Vaunted venture-capital fund Kleiner Perkins has lost money on its green-tech investments.   I think probably this bet will be a winner eventually, but, as a sage investor friend once told me "Being right too early is just as bad as being wrong".  Making this kind of portfolio pay is going to take stronger government action to even up the playing field between renewables and fossil fuels (which don't currently pay their externalities of wrecking the global climate).
  • One for the Annals of Unnecessary Innovations.
  • How the town of Dryden, NY banned fracking and has so far made the ban stick in court.  I live in Dryden, and Marie McRae, mentioned in the story, lives just up the road from me.  I think the story underplays a bit the influence of Ithaca/Cornell in Dryden; the western part is very heavily influenced by commuters and I think it makes the town quite a bit more affluent and progressive than a typical rural upstate town.
  • Another computer scientist concerned about what automation is doing to the economy and the middle class.
  • It'a a good time of year to do an energy audit of your house, if you didn't already do so.  
  • The paradigm seems to be shifting away from austerity.  If more expansionary thinking were to take hold, particularly in Europe, it considerably raises the odds of an oil price shock in the next few years.
  • Return on equity for oil and gas producers in the US (2011/2012).  Pure oil producers did ok (not fantastic) with about 12% ROE, but pure natural gas producers were losing money hand-over-fist.  So US natural gas prices were unsustainably low, but US oil prices (ie mainly WTI probably) were roughly where they needed to be.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

OECD Oil Consumption

Tuesday Links

Monday, May 6, 2013

Sunday, May 5, 2013

April PDSI Map for California and Nevada


From the West Wide Drought Tracker.  Lots of -5 and -6.  Looks like a very bad fire season indeed.

For newer readers who don't understand the PDSI scale, try this post.

Weekend Links

  • The above shows estimates of the maximum volume of ice in the Arctic each winter (red), and the amount of it melting each summer (blue).  When the two curves meet, then the Arctic will be ice free in September.  Hard to see how it's more than a decade off.  Could even be just a couple of years off if the noise goes the wrong way.  At any rate, it's a done deal I think.  We are irrevocably committed to having melted the North Pole, and now we get to find out the consequences.
  • Australia slowing down due to (relative) slowdown in big Asian economies.
  • New nationalist party making gains in the UK.
  • Putative new motto for Silicon Valley: First Security, then innovate.  Good luck with that.
  • Interesting essay on why we tell children so many stories about animals.
  • Early wildfires bode ill for California.  Below is a NOAA map for the soil moisture anomaly across the US as of yesterday.  A lot of California has 4-7" less water in the soil profile than a normal year (1971-2000 is the base period).  That's a lot.  Given that the rainy season there is over by now, there's no way to make it up.  So likely this is going to be a rough fire year.  And a lot of the western US looks only slightly better off.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Thursday Links

  • We're about to cross 400ppm of carbon in the famous Mauna Loa measurement series.  399.5 ppm today.  If you look at the monthly graph, there have been some hourly averages that have tipped over the line.
  • Storage options for renewable power (nice summary by Robert Rapier).
  • Bakken recoverable oil estimates are growing again.  At a 5% depletion rate, 7.4 gb gives about 1mb/d of production.
  • Completely off-topic, but it really sounds like scientists are starting to get somewhere with cancer.  Pretty exciting stuff.
  • Speaking of amazing but off-topic medical progress: possible new understanding of aging being regulated by the hypothalamus.  I've had a strong suspicion that aging must be centrally regulated just from reflecting that dogs and cats get a lot of the same chronic diseases as humans, just on a much accelerated timeline, suggesting they are somehow part of the normal aging process.
  • Hopefully, scientists will get on this stuff promptly before I get too much older (although, I have to admit very uncharitably that I'm hoping not before Ray Kurzweil gets too old).

Wednesday, May 1, 2013