Thursday, 18 December 2008

Australia’s shameful response to climate change

When Kevin Rudd announced a 5% target for emissions reductions for 2020, you could almost hear John Howard laughing from the political grave. It's small comfort to me that in discussing climate matters since then, a Labor supporter called Rudd “Howard” by mistake. Freudian?

The science the government has in front of it says you have to reduce emissions by 25% by 2020 to save the Great Barrier Reef. Of course Australia cannot achieve this on its own because it accounts for a relatively small fraction of worldwide emissions – even if you account for its role as the world’s biggest exporter of coal (about a third of worldwide exports).

Another thing not widely talked about is that carbon emissions accumulate. Around half are absorbed by the environment; the rest dissipates very slowly over centuries. That means that if we have not achieved a target by 2020 that stops CO2 accumulating to 550 parts per million or more, we can’t just turn off the tap and expect the atmospheric CO2 level to drop.

How soon will the rest of the world regard carbon emissions as a serious, urgent problem? That Europe has committed to a 20% cut by 2020 is some indication.

Why should Europe care more? Partially, it’s because Europe has a stronger tradition than English-speaking countries of taking science seriously. But another factor is Europe’s proximity to the Arctic. A growing number of scientists is predicting an ice-free Arctic summer by 2015. It was a big enough shock when it was reported in 2007 that the Arctic could be ice-free in summer by 2030.

So in a sense the self-styled sceptics are right. The science has enough uncertainties that we have to be cautious about accepting predictions without a wide allowance for error. The problem is, the majority of cases that are breaking out of the modelled predictions are on the worse rather than the better side. How is this possible? With the vast bulk of “sceptics” accusing scientists who predict anything remotely bad of being “alarmist”, the natural tendency of scientists to avoid alarming claims without overwhelming evidence is accentuated. So work predicting rapid ice cap loss for example is not getting the attention it should. Another example: concerns about the possibility of the urban heat island effect (UHI) skewing the temperature trend has resulted in NASA compensating for this effect. While it is true that a temperature sensor put next to an isolated hot spot would be bad for once-off measurement, if that hot spot is not constantly being hotter, it would not add a trend to the stats.

NASA eliminates local anomalies by a process called homogenizing, where temperatures of each station are in effect corrected for excessive variation beyond others in similar terrain.

Let’s look at how over-estimating the effect of UHI could have on the temperature trend. If NASA weights down temperatures from urban area, they could be underestimating the general increase in temperatures, because some of these areas could naturally be heating faster than their surroundings.

In conclusion, here’s an ad GetUp is running.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

When Old Men Kill their Children

Robert Mugabe is doing it.

The leadership of the old powers of Europe did it in the First World War.

The climate change denial movement wants it too.

When conditions change so that the old logic no longer applies, leaders whose time is past are wont to cling to the old ways, no matter how inapplicable. One of the sorriest outcomes of this sort of stubbornness is the damage to those not responsible, the younger members of society who must live and sometimes die with the consequences.

In Zimbabwe, the economy has collapsed. Schools, once the best in Africa, have mostly stopped functioning. Health services and clean water are all but gone, resulting in an unprecedented cholera epidemic. Life expectancy has plunged to the mid 30s. In the midst of this, Robert Mugabe stands defiant, the liberation leader who is killing his children.

George Monbiot in The Guardian has accused the old men of Europe of killing their children in World War I. He didn’t mean this in quite the sense that I do. The way I see it, the old men of Europe, faced with an unravelling political situation, resorted to the Old Way of calling in treaty obligations to settle matters in a war. What they failed to take into account was that the industrialisation of warfare meant death on an industrial scale. When the horror of their approach started to become clear, instead of pulling back, they poured more young soldiers into an increasingly efficient death machine.

In World War I, as in Zimbabwe, the old men in charge could not put their heads in the new space that had developed since they formed their world view. They insisted they were right despite clear and obvious evidence to the contrary.

How does this relate to climate change?

A surprisingly high fraction of scientists who’ve lined up against climate change are relatively elderly, people who are no longer actively researching. These are people who did their science in a world where environmentalists were bunny huggers, and the science in the environmental movement was often vague or ill-informed. They cannot conceptualise a world in which environmentalism is based on sound science, and the opposing position is junk. They therefore stick with positions that are easily debunked, take common cause with non-scientists whose views are obvious drivel and obstruct moves to mitigate climate change.

The climate change inactivist movement, like the old men of Europe in 1914 and Robert Mugabe, do not care about their children – at least not as much as they care about their pride. They will not admit they are wrong even when the ocean is lapping around their ears.

The sorry thing is that if previous examples of this kind are anything to go on, they may well succeed.

Finally, here's a picture (from NASA; if you’re prejudiced against NASA, the Belgian Solar Influences Data Analysis Centre, SIDC, has consistent data) showing where we are in the 11-year sunspot cycle, which is a good indicator for solar output.
What's important to note about this picture is that two record years for temperature, 1998 and 2005, were both close to minima. The next minimum is expected to be in 2009. Despite the fact that we have been on a downward trend in sunspots since 2000, most years since then would have set temperature records as compared with years before 1998. What this means is that the “it’s only the sun” crew have some explaining to do. And we can look forward to even more record years once we pass through the solar minimum in 2009.

So this is just one more pointer to the fact that we have little option but to take on the old men – otherwise we too will be responsible for killing our society's children.

Monday, 27 October 2008

The Obama Landslide

With just over a week to go to the US presidential election, I now feel confident in predicting not only an Obama win, but a landslide of historic proportions. The Obama and McCain campaigns are both playing this possibility down, claiming the result will be close. They have to. If Obama relaxed now and predicted a landslide, it could result in some of his supporters staying at home. If McCain conceded now, not only does he lose the improbable chance of a last-week turnaround, but he also (further) sabotages other Republican races.

So both sides have to say at this stage that it will be close; if Obama didn't say this, paradoxically, it would be more likely to be true.

Let's look at the indicators for a massive Obama win.


What of the “Bradley effect”, the alleged tendency for polls to be biased against black candidates because those polled don’t want to be seen to be racist? There is considerable dispute as to whether this effect was real. For example, one of the polls that erroneously predicted that Tom Bradley had won the 1982 California gubernatorial race was an exit poll, that failed to take into account absentee ballots, and the Republicans won on absentee ballots. On the whole, there is evidence that the “Bradley effect” is more likely to be a cover for weak polling technique rather than a real effect. In the current campaign, Obama has several times done better than predicted in the polls.

A big difficulty with polling in a game-changing election is that pollsters rely on demographics from past polls to predict future outcomes. In an election where some constituencies that have low participation rates come out in force, all those numbers could be skewed.

This close to an election, it would be an extremely rare event if polls showing the sort of lead Obama now holds reversed. Absent a real Bradley Effect and taking into account that it is his campaign that is mobilising key groups with a history of low participation, any error is more likely to be in his favour than not. So based on polling, unless his campaign makes a truly significant blunder in the last few days, his chances of not only a win, but a big win, are high.

The ‘it’s time’ effect

Again, all the pressures are on his side if you look at desire for change. The McCain's camp is trying to argue simultaneously that his short time in Washington makes him both inexperienced and a Washington insider, while McCain’s lengthy period in office makes him not only experienced but an outsider. That these contradictory arguments are implausible only helps Obama.

The ”it’s time” effect that worked so well for Gough Whitlam and Kevin Rudd in Australia (the latter against the backdrop of economic prosperity) is amplified by a widespread agreement that the Bush presidency has failed on all fronts. The war on terror has lost direction, the economy is in the toilet and social divisions are as deep as at any time since the civil rights movement. For McCain to claim to be an outsider, he would have had to disavow many more Bush positions than he has; it is not enough just to say that Bush was right on strategy but wrong on tactics, which is what the McCain position amounts to.

Also, despite the prejudice at the start of the primaries that Hillary Clinton would be a divisive figure, she turned out to be be surprisingly popular. Obama in many ways has similar pluses and minuses to her. Both have a sharp intellect (a plus or a minus, depending on how dig you deep into social strata), with backgrounds in law. Both have had relatively short periods in elective office; the talk of his inexperience somehow failed to touch on hers. Both represent demographics that have traditionally been excluded from high office. Both therefore represented change even before they articulated a platform. McCain, on the other hand, represents the past, and has failed to say how he really represents change. Had he campaigned as himself rather than the lapdog of the hard right, he may have stood a chance. But having allowed his campaign to look like George W. Bush, the remake, he has totally lost any chance at claiming it's his time. The Palin mistake only compounds his problems. McCain would have been a better president than Bush, but he's 8 years too late. If something happened to him and Palin was put in charge, very few people honestly believe she will do an even halfway competent job. She is the one part of his campaign that does represent change, but it's a scary kind of change: not what people are looking for in a time of multiple crises.

That brings me to the next range of issues.

Crisis Leadership

It's very seldom to have as wide a range of crises as is currently facing the US: peak oil, mitigated by worldwide economic collapse (as if that is a solution), all layered on top of climate change.

The US now needs a leader with the mass appeal of a JFK, the long-range vision of an FDR, and the unifying skills of a Nelson Mandela.

It’s not totally clear to me that Obama has all of the above, but it is clear that McCain falls far short. His campaign has been one of the most divisive I've witnessed. It is all very well for the ignorant to label Obama's tax proposal (that goes back to the tax rates in the time of one of the most popular presidents in recent times, Bill Clinton) as “socialism” but for McCain to repeat this is just absurd. His campaign has not done enough to stop ridiculous claims that Obama is a Muslim (as Colin Powell put it, it's not true and anyway why should anyone care?). They also keep harping on the by now thoroughly debunked “palling around with terrorists” claim. This is not even smart campaigning, let alone the question of dishonesty. When you are up against a candidate who can outspend you by as much as seven to one in battleground states on advertising, going negative assumes a level of risk not seen in previous campaigns.

Obama certainly has crowd appeal; even his opponents recognise that. On long-range vision, his case for heavy investment in alternative energy is a good sign, even if he is putting too much store on the bogus concept of “clean coal” (contrary to what we are widely lead to believe, even if this technology works, it will not fix existing coal power stations, so it is a total fraud to use “clean coal” as an excuse for continuing to build coal power stations). On unifying, he seems to be doing pretty well.

So as the transformational figure needed in a time of extreme crisis, Obama at least has the potential to do what needs to be done. Before the election, I would have scored McCain higher. Back in February, I blogged on the US election, starting with the words “Lucky, lucky Americans”, comparing their options with the incumbent. But his entire approach is to appeal to the section of the Republican Party that didn't like him before (Palin, calling Obama a “socialist”, allowing others to label Obama as a close associate of a “terrorist”). Ignoring the rest of the country is a massive failure of judgment at a time when the US demands clear and decisive leadership of a kind only required in the past at rare times of extreme crisis.

Reality Check

That in my judgment the US requires such a transformational figure doesn’t mean that the average US voter sees this. All the polls point that way, but I don’t recall seeing one that directly asks the exact questions needed to determine if people agree with my assessment of what’s required. Nonetheless, the fact that Obama is a better fit to my requirements and the fact that he is energising a wider base than any candidate for decades indicates that he is making some strong connections with broadly-held perceptions.

Given how much hangs on this election, I hope Obama is up to the challenge.

Another Opinion

The New York Times has recently editorialized on the same subject, giving Obama one of the strongest endorsements I've ever seen them give a candidate.

Check Your Views

Electoral Compass USA allows you to compare your position on the issues with those of the two candidates. This is an interesting way of seeing which candidate your are really closer to, independent of your preconceptions of which is closest to your views.

On the Lighter Side

The right has been trying desperately to label Obama as a socialist. Here's a YouTube response:

Another version

This article has also been published at On Line Opinion.

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Climate Change, Peak Oil and the Meltdown

Some people are already talking about how mitigating climate change is a luxury that will have to await recovery from the economic meltdown. That is loser talk. Governments at least in countries with sound economic management that haven't run up massive debt can and should look at this as an opportunity for long-term infrastructure spending. And what better way to plan for the future than to reduce the future impact of higher energy costs and climate change mitigation?

Here are a few ideas for consideration. First, funding efficiency drives will gear the economy for future competitiveness.

Another idea is to fund free solar hot water for 100,0000 and free solar power for 40,000 low-income households (each at a cost of about $400-million); both would generate jobs and save poorer people money. Why is this a better idea than existing Australian state and federal rebates? Because there rebates cause no downwards price pressure; the price rises to whatever the market will bear. I've seen solar water heaters in South Africa for sale at less than the post-rebate price in Australia. If the government buys a large number of systems and pays for installation, the vendors will build economy of scale, then have to drop prices to continue with that scale in the broader unsubsidized market. To me this makes more sense than an ongoing price subsidy, the effect of which is to keep prices high.

Of course "free" doesn't mean no one pays for all this; it comes out of our taxes. But the same is true of roads, the vast majority of which don't have tolls. Building roads contributes to carbon emissions yet somehow "free" roads are acceptable to some, where a plan like this is seen as somehow wrong because someone is getting something for nothing. I wonder, do the same people argue that you can't mitigate climate change because the poor will suffer the most from extra costs of energy?

The government should support development of sustainable biomass and wind turbines on farms. Measures here could include direct subsidies and decent feed-in tariff policies for supplying clean energy to the grid. Both interventions would generate an income stream for farmers, reducing the pain of higher energy costs for their operations. Good for the environment, good for the economy. There are some interesting biofuels options out there. Legumes for example do not need nitrogen fertilizer. Peanuts are one of the oldest sources of biodiesel; better still are legumes that grow on land unsuited to food crops, such as the Pongamia tree.

Improved urban public transport should be another priority. Again, it creates more jobs, is better for the environment and reduces the impact of high energy costs on those on lower incomes. Add to this putting more services into outer suburbs to cut travel distances. Again good for the environment, good for the economy, good for those on low incomes.

Better inter-city rail is a longer-term project. But why not start planning now? What will we do when air travel becomes prohibitive? Already, fast trains are competitive in time for travel up to 1,000 km, allowing for the inconveniences of getting to and from airports and on and off planes. Europe and parts of the Far East already have this infrastructure; countries like Australia and the US need to catch up, otherwise they will be severely disadvantaged in sectors of the economy where medium-range travel is a significant cost.

All of this except the inter-city rail project that would be a longer-term project could be funded for less than the $10-billion the Rudd government is pumping into the economy mainly by cash handouts, as their response to the worldwide economic meltdown.

We have had a brief breather from high oil prices thanks to the financial meltdown, but don't expect it to last (prices are already heading up). Oil is not made by melting down markets ...

Friday, 10 October 2008

Lies, Damn Lies and The Australian

On 9 October 2008, The Australian's foreign editor, Greg Sheridan, published an opinion piece expressing disappointment with both US presidential candidates. He attacked McCain in particular for his proposal to refinance bad mortgages at the level the house actually turned out to be worth to the tune of $300-billion as rewarding those who made bad decisions.

It seems that Obama pretty much agrees with Sheridan; I hope the latter will follow up with an article backing Obama.

In addition, for good measure, Sheridan repeated a criticism of Obama's running mate, Joe Biden, that has been doing the rounds on right-wing blogs:
And he said three weeks of US expenditure in Iraq equalled seven years of US expenditure in Afghanistan, which turns out to be completely wrong.

I posted the following response at a time when responses were still being taken:
Greg, Biden was comparing military expenditure in Iraq with nation-building expenditure in Afghanistan (not total expenditure in both cases). On that score he is about right. See CNN's fact check.

If his point was that at a fraction of the cost of the Iraq war, the Afghan exercise could have been completed, i.e., rebuilding the infrastructure and setting the country on its feet, he's dead right.

Guess what happened to my response? Actually you don't have to guess. Go to Sheridan's article and look for it. The Australian's editors hate to be pulled up on matters of fact. I've tried to do this on several occasions in the past, and they have simply ignored my correction. So here it is. Maybe a small fraction of the people who read the original article will see this. Then again, if they like Greg Sheridan and The Australian, they are not likely to worry about the facts spoiling a good argument.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

The Zeroth Way

Social democrat parties have in recent years (going back to Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, more recently joined by Australian Labor leader and prime minister Kevin Rudd) been espousing the Third Way – supposedly a middle ground between capitalism and socialism. Socialism was widely believed to have failed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ascendency of tendencies like Thatcherism and Reaganomics, collectively amounting to a “greed is good” mindset. While supporters of this latter tendency called themselves free market capitalists, in reality, they were happy to support market distortions that supported particular interests. Thatcher herself denied that she was a strictly “laissez faire” capitalist.

Going back to the Third Way, rather than a reformation of social democracy to something less socialist with elements of fiscal responsibility, it was essentially a capitulation, an acceptance that the “greed is good” mindset had won.

With the 2008 Wall Street meltdown and the increasingly obvious problems purely market-based mechanisms are having in dealing with a transition from carbon-based fuels, it becomes useful to rethink the whole economic paradigm again.

With the failure of the Third Way, I advocate going back to basics: considering what humanity is actually collectively striving to achieve. Naturally in the process of doing so, we should not discard lessons of the past: the utility of the market mechanism when it works, the values of social goods such as a healthy society that are hard to quantify in a market and the limits of these mechanisms.

But since I want to go back to basics, I would like to call my approach the Zeroth Way.

What has proved to be a limiting factor on previous economic thought?

The inability to grasp the necessity of handling limits to trends has caused many of the problems we face today. Long-term growth in fossil fuels has led to the peak oil problem. Whether we have reached that point or not is something that will only be clear in hindsight but there is growing evidence that it will soon be impossible for oil supply to continue to meet growth in demand without big price increases, once sources of oil that are cheap to extract deplete. Another difficulty is a lack of understanding that risk in home loans depends on expectations of growth in house prices. While prices are increasing, the risk is low, as in the event of anyone defaulting on their loan, most if not all of the money can be recovered in a forced sale. When prices drop, any doubtful loans turn into liabilities not only for the home owner but for the lender. That same principle applies across many financial instruments: as long as the trend is up, the risk is lower, because failures can be covered by other successes.

The combination of a number of these effects has resulted in a major economic crisis, the like of which has not been seen since 1929.

What is the alternative, the Zeroth Way?

The alternative is to adopt a principle of sustainable economics. “Sustainable” in general terms as a description of a practice simply means that that practice can be continued without any reasonably foreseeable limit. This definition is very general, and can apply to an activity that is constant in time, one that is growing or even one that is shrinking. To give some examples, using solar energy is sustainable in the sense that the sun will continue to be available for as long as a human requirement for energy is likely to be an issue. Growth in demand can be handled up to a very high limit compared with demand today, though ultimately there is a cap. By contrast, fossil fuel use is clearly not sustainable, as we are already running out of some resources, and we are using fossil fuels up at about a million times the rate they were created.

Sustainability in energy terms is a well-known concept, but how does it adapt to economics?

The same definition applies, except the measure we are using becomes an economic measure. For example, returning to mortgages, lending money at a level that requires house prices to rise before the loan becomes secure (in the sense that the loan could be recovered by selling the propery) is not sustainable. Lending at a level that requires prices to be static could even be argued not to be sustainable. The lowest-risk strategy would be to limit a loan to the level that a valuation is likely to hold in any economic scenario short of a total collapse. In practice, this may mean limiting loans to something like 80% of the valuation in normal times, and less when the market was rising rapidly. Naturally banks do not like this sort of restriction, as a rapidly rising market is exactly the scenario where borrowers battle to find a higher fraction of the price as a down payment. However, a sustainability requirement such as this on mortgages would slow down rapid price spikes, and smooth out fluctuations in the market by reducing trends for price spikes to overshoot a reasonable level, and correct downwards. Why not just leave it to the market? Because the market results in the opposite effect to sustainability: practices that only work in a growing market tend to be amplified as growth increases, inevitably leading to a bigger than necessary collapse at the peak of the economic cycle.

There are two important things we have learnt from market capitalism and socialism:
  • The market is not good at ensuring sustainability, and
  • over-complex regulation has a tendency to become an end in itself, failing to deliver the intended benefits.

The example of mortgages illustrates a general principle. The notion of discouraging or preventing unsustainable practices could apply more broadly to the economy. The key trick to making the Zeroth Way work is to find simple mechanisms to enforce sustainability. Sometimes very simple measures can have profound effects. For example (I don't claim this example is one of sustainability, but of how simplicity can be effective), the German Reinheitsgebot (beer purity law) was a simple measure that prevented adulteration of beer by specifying the exact allowed list of ingredients. The economic effect was to prevent large-scale monopolistic breweries from forming. Such relatively simple measures have the advantage of simple implementation and enforcement, and avoid the downside of socialism, bureaucratic entanglement.

Why would we want to make this change? A simple answer is that the existing approaches have all failed. A more complex answer is that understanding sustainability in economics terms helps us to avoid considerable human misery. Think of thousands of people losing their homes and jobs in an economic collapse. Think of the hardships of the poor as energy gets expensive. Think of the impossibility of poorer countries ever having the advantages of an energy-intensive economy if the wealthy burn up all the cheap energy.

Another answer is that the market is designed to price short-term fluctuations accurately, and performs poorly when the requirement is to reconfigure the basic settings of the system. For example, agriculture could be severely impacted by rising energy costs (whether from peak oil or from carbon taxes). A solution is to include energy production as an income stream in agriculture. Options include biofuels and placing wind turbines on farms. Biofuels have started to get a bad name because of unsustainable practices, like using food crops as feedstock, and clear-cutting old growth forests to grow fuel crops. Both of these approaches can be avoided; there are options like using agricultural waste, and growing crops on land that is not suited to food crops. Sustainability in this instance is not only in ensuring the continued economic viability of farming by including farmers in energy production, but in ensuring sustainable practices for producing biofuels. Absent interventions like subsidies on research to jump-start new approaches to energy, however, these things will not happen on their own. Left to the market, farmers will simply go broke as costs get too high, as we reach the point where food prices are too high for poorer people, and consumption drops.

All of this is purely a question of sustainable economics. Add in the environment, and there is another important consideration that is often overlooked. Yes, environmentalists can and should worry about our furry and feathered friends in the wild, the great trees in our old growth forests, and the mysterious creatures of the air, the dark forest and deep sea. But we are also a species, and, like any other species, we have a habitat. Destroy that habitat and we destroy ourselves.

The challenge therefore I would like to throw out is to think through other areas of economics where the sustainability principle could apply, and how to enforce that principle with least effort.

Further Reading

There's like thinking in other parts of the world. For example, the Green New Deal idea from the UK is worthy of further study.

Sunday, 5 October 2008

Turmoil in Queensland major party politics

On 5 October 2008, Labor state member for Indooroopilly Ronan Lee jumped ship and joined the Greens.

Labor supporters have been quick to label this as an opportunistic move; in a state where the Greens have battled to win elections at any level, it's hard to see how this could be so.

I'd like to point out that the opposition Liberal National Party has a big problem. Inner city voters don't like the Nationals, and the Nationals are in control of the LNP. To anyone who says Lee should have resigned his seat: I hope you said the same about the LNP.

Views on comment sites are interesting. Some claim he is just jumping ship to protect himself against the shift away from Labor; that being the case, why didn't he join the second biggest party? There are many green-leaning Liberals in his electorate. It is hardly self-serving to join a small party that is struggling to win elections. At worst, it buys him another year in state parliament. At best, a lonely time in the next lower house with few if any members on his team. Anyone thinking he is taking the easy way out obviously has no clue how much harder members of small parties have to work just to keep up let alone to get ahead.

It's a hard adjustment to accept that there are some politicians with principles. Had I been a Labor state member, I would have had difficulty holding down my lunch let alone staying in my seat when Anna Bligh said not so long ago that Labor had such great environmental credentials, Greens would have no problem preferencing them.

If you are elected on the basis that you have certain principles and your party claims to uphold those principles but clearly doesn't, what do you do? Be honest and quit the party, giving up the perks of a parliamentary secretary and the possibility of being elevated to the cabinet, or stay on to become another Peter Garrett with a tight muzzle and a short leash?

Meanwhile the notion that the conservative side of politics stands for sound financial management has been ripped apart by the turmoil on Wall Street and, closer to home, the rates revolt in Brisbane where a Liberal (LNP now, I guess) administration is taxing unit owners out of their homes.

Anna Bligh has given the Greens a head start by claiming that her environmental credentials were so good, no Greens voter would have trouble preferencing the ALP. Tell the good people at the Mary River that. Tell the people at Felton who are threatened with having their farms ripped up for a coal mine that. Ms Bligh's first response was that this was a stange move, as only governments can protect the environment. Let me repeat my two-word response to that: Peter Garrett. She has also shot herself in the foot by making contradictory claims. On the one hand, Ronan Lee had never expressed any environmental concerns to her. On the other hand, he wasn't able to function as a member of a disciplined team. What does that mean? Either she was aware of his dissent from party positions, making her first claim nonsensical, or he was dissenting on some other range of undisclosed issues. And in any case, you do not appoint a loose cannon who is out of line with party principles as a parliamentary secretary, generally a precursor to elevation to the cabinet.

Interesting times, and Queensland politics is shaping up for a really interesting state election.

Saturday, 27 September 2008

Split in the ANC?

On 14 August 2008, I sent the following letter to The Star, South Africa’s leading daily, pointing to the possibility of a section of the ANC splitting on the basis of principle, rather than personal gain.

Once again, a brilliant article by Max du Preez (ANC fast sinking into a morass of hooliganism [retitled in this online version], 14/8).

For some time the conventional wisdom has been that a real opposition would form when Cosatu split with the alliance, and formed a Labour party. I wonder though if a more likely scenario is if the Third Faction (ANC members disgusted with self-serving factions) split to form a new party. The problem is that members of a liberation movement tend to have much more loyalty to the movement than is the case for a conventional party, so such a split would be extremely traumatic for the Third Faction.

Nonetheless, if we reach a point where it’s clear that the ANC leadership has sold out the revolution and is more concerned with plunder than good governance, I can’t see how anyone of good conscience will have any other alternative but to walk out. Let’s hope that it doesn’t come to that -- that the ANC is not quite as far gone as Du Preez indicates. Formation of a competitive opposition would be a positive development, but the cost to the country of rule by a criminal faction would be an extremely high price to pay to get there.

Now a web site has surfaced, called Friends of Democracy, hinting at such a movement in the wake of Thabo Mbeki’s forced resignation as president. A report in the Mail&Guardian, a weekly with good connections in the ANC, claims leading members of the Mbeki faction are behind the move.

Is this what I was predicting?

Not entirely, because this appears to be a personal loyalty thing rather than a split on principle – and the group behind the split appear to be one of the main factions, not Du Preez’s “Third Faction”. Mbeki himself was flawed in being over-concerned with loyalty and too little concerned with merit for example in his cabinet appointments.

Nonetheless, this is an interesting development. My personal view is that it may be a little soon for a serious challenge to the ANC; liberation movements elsewhere needed about 20 years for the gloss to wear off (partially arising from sufficient new voters without memories of the previous system).

Does anyone else think a split is inevitable? Mbeki himself in fact predicted that the ANC would eventually split, as reported in William Gumede's insightful and apparently well-informed book, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC (I reviewed the 2nd edition* at Amazon).

Watch this space...

*Zed Books, 2008

Friday, 29 August 2008

Multicore Multifiasco

Dave Patterson is one of the most respected names in computer architecture, and rightly so, having been one of the co-founders of the RISC movement, as well as being one of the prime movers behind RAID, among other things.

Nonetheless, when he posted an article on the potential and pitfalls of multicore designs on the Computing Community Consortion blog, I couldn't help but post the following, repeated here with a few additions.

It’s my experience that every decade or so, a packaging breakthrough allows some previously forgotten or abandoned approach to be resurrected at a lower price point, and all the previous lessons are forgotten.

Here are a few of those lessons:

  1. parallel programming is inherently hard, and tools and techniques claiming to avoid the problems never work as advertised
  2. heterogeneous and asymmetric architectures are much harder to program effectively than homogeneous symmetric architectures
  3. Programmer-managed memory is much harder to use than system-managed memory (whether by the operating system or by hardware)
  4. Specialist instruction sets are much harder to use effectively than general-purpose ones

I nearly fell out of my chair laughing when the Cell processor was launched. It contained all four of these errors in one design. Despite the commercial advantages in bringing out a game that fully exploited its features, as I recall, only one game available when the Playstation 3 was launched came close.

I hereby announce Machanick’s Corollory to Moore’s Law: any rate of improvement in the number of transistors you can buy for your money will be matched by erroneous expectations that programmers will become smarter.

Unfortunately there is no Moore’s Law for IQ.

The only real practical advantage of multicore over discrete chip multiprocessors (aside from the packaging and cost advantages) is a significant reduction of interprocess communication costs — provided IPC is core-to-core, i.e., if you communicate through shared memory, you’d better make sure that the data is cached before the communication occurs. That makes the programming problem harder, not easier (see Lesson 3 above).

Good luck with transactional memories and all the other cool new ideas. Ask yourself one question: do they make parallel programming easier, or do they add one more wrinkle for programmers to take care of — that may be different in the next generation or on a rival design?

Putting huge numbers of cores on-chip is a losing game. The more you add, the smaller the fraction of the problem space you are addressing, and the harder you make programming. I would much rather up the size of on-chip caches to the extent that they effectively become the main memory, with off-chip accesses becoming page faults (I call this notion RAMpage). Whether you go multicore or aggressive uniprocessor, off-chip memory is a major bottleneck.

As Seymour Cray taught us, the thing to aim for is not peak throughput, but average throughput. 100 cores each running at 1% of its full speed because or programming inefficiencies, inherent nonparallelism of the workload and bottlenecks in the memory system is hardly an advance on two to four cores each running at at least 50% of its full speed.

In any case all of this misses the real excitement in the computing world: turn Moore’s Law on its head, and contemplate when something that cost $1,000,000 will cost $1. That’s the point where you can do something really exciting on a small, almost free device.

Further reading

My PhD thesis, completed in 1996, but now relevant to a wider audience since multicore has become mainstream, is available on Amazon. See Other Links.

Some interesting stuff here: The Perils of Parallel: Vive la (Killer App) Révolution!

Monday, 7 July 2008

Nothing Like the Sun?

A popular affectation among climate inactivists is to insist that all climate change is driven by the sun. Let's look first at figures for total solar irradiance or TSI, a value giving the energy from the sun incident on the earth. This number has been available from satellite data since 1978. It has been estimated in the past by indirect means ("proxies") but let's stick with the modern data the accuracy of which is easier to determine. Also, there is a long-term record of suns spots but in the period when satellite TSI data is available, they are also an approximation – so let's stay with the more accurate data.

How does that data compare with the temperature trend over the same period? The HadCRUT3 data from the UK's Hadley centre is one of several that are widely used. This one is sufficient to illustrate the point. Look at the two graphs closely, and what do you see? Probably not that much: they look pretty different.

In both graphs, the points joined by the broken line are the actual measurements, averaged over each year, and the points joined by the unbroken line are the 5-year mean, which smooths out short-term irregularities. I also use these 5-year means (for each year, found by averaging the two years before and after plus the current year) for comparing the two trends, to eliminate short-term variations.

Note also the trend lines. In each, the number before the "x" is effectively the trend per year. The "R2" value is a measure of how well the trend line represents the main graph (in this case, the 5-year mean). An R2 near 1 means there is a strong relationship; near 0 means the trend line is a poor approximation to the original data. Note that the temperature trend is going up at 1.83 degrees per century, with R2 = 0.92, a very strong relationship, well outside chance. The sun trend, on the other hand, is -0.74 degrees per century, a slow downward trend, with R2 = 0.0143. If you plotted a series of random numbers, you would get a "trend" about this strong.

In other words, the temperature trend is strongly up; the sun is down, but not convincingly.

So the trend lines are different; how come some people then are saying that the sun is the best explanation of climate variation? Let's look at another measure: correlation. Correlation tells you how well two different data sets track each other. A strong positive correlation, near 1, tells you they are following the same trend. A strong negative correlation, near -1 tells you they are heading the opposite way. Anything closer to 0 tells you they are (relatively, depending how close to 0) unrelated.

Let's look then at the correlation of the temperature trend for the given years with the TSI data. It comes out as 0.37 – a reasonably strong positive correlation. What is interesting though is to look at the correlation since 1990, when the warming trend has strengthened. The correlation is -0.11 – negative but no longer a strong relationship. Look at the correlation for the period 1978-1989, and it's 0.17. Positive, but not very strong.

How could this have happened?

Answer: the sun does indeed drive climate, but something superimposed on that trend from 1990-2007 disguises that relationship. In other words, a good explanation of what's going on is that the sun is responsible for the irregular dips and peaks in the temperature graph, but when you try to make the sun explain an upward trend, it doesn't work anymore.

For some reason, at this point, I'm reminded of a line from one of Shakespeare's sonnets:
My mistress's eyes are nothing like the sun

Monday, 30 June 2008

Brisbane's Touch and Go Card

If you make a mistake in using the ticketing system in Brisbane's public transport, you are penalised. Isn't it time we were given the right to charge the system a penalty when the system screws up?

Here's an example to illustrate the point.

Public transport in and around Brisbane is on a single ticketing system (with the exception of the airport train, which operates to its own rules). Recently a smart card system called Go Card was introduced, with different pricing rules. Although the price per zone is the same, the Go Card has more generous transfer rules, making it possible to do a reasonable long trip with stops of up to an hour as a single trip, as long as you don't do more than three transfers.

The Go Card is cumbersome in operation. You have to touch a reader both whenever you enter and exit any vehicle except a train; with trains you have to touch the reader as you enter or exit a station. At no point is there any mechanism to force you to touch the reader, like a gate that is opened by touching the reader. So it's easy to forget, especially if you are in a hurry. If you do forget, a penalty is charged in excess of the likely maximum fare for the trip you were on. So, for example, if you are taking a trip that should cost $2.70, you may be charged $3.

The Go Card has had a bad press because it relies on a GPS system to tell where you are and if the GPS system has lost coverage, it fails to record your attempt at touching the reader. The effect is as if you forgot to touch the reader, and you are penalised. You can reverse the penalty by a cumbersome process of complaining by phone, and reversal of the penalty takes several days.

Considering all this, although I bought a Go Card, I did not use it much. I did however try it out in one mode, where the generous transfer policy made it cost effective. I had a trip that included:

  1. a train to the city centre
  2. a City Cat ferry
    a bit of shopping
  3. a City Cat back to the city centre
  4. a train back home

These four individual trips combine as a single trip because only three transfers are involved, provided there's a gap of at most an hour (and the last trip starts within three hours of starting out).

So let's see what happened the second time I tried this. Spot the difference? How did this happen? On the way out of the City Cat, I missed the reader. Why? Because I had to run to make the train connection. The concept that different modes of transport should have synchronized timetables has apparently not reached Brisbane.

The effect of this was that despite the fact that every trip up to the one where I missed the reader registered as a continuation of the initial trip, the whole transaction was split. I was charged $2.70 for the inititial train trip, and $3 for the City Cat trip, a penalty of 30c over the $2.70 it would have cost me to do two zones on the ferry. The total penalty though was actually $3.00 But that's not all. I still had to get home from the city. I now had to buy another ticket costing $2.70 (not reflected on the Go Card because it was now below the minimum balance permitted for buying another ticket). So the whole trip cost me $8.40. This contrasts with $4.10, which I would have paid without a Go Card, had I bought an off-peak daily.

So for one mistake, I ended up paying more than double the price I would have paid for a paper ticket, or $5.70 more than the trip should have cost on the Go Card.

How should the system actually work? The necessity to "touch on" and "touch off" every time introduces redundancy, a concept widely used in systems design to correct for errors. In the case of my trip, for example, the missing touch does not create the possibility that I had cheated. The City Cat only does zones 1 and 2, and I had up to that point only travelled in zones 1 and 2. A smart system would have picked up the fact that although something was missing, I was still on a continuous sequence of trips. My exit from the Cat could only have been in zone 1 or zone 2; the worst case for the rules for transfers would have been had I jumped off the cat immediately after my card was read, and somehow found my way back to the city centre. The gap in the record is less than the allowed transfer time.

But isn't this a whinge? Shouldn't I expect to be penalised if I make a mistake? It would be fair if I could penalise the system when it made a mistake. I would settle for $5 every time a train didn't show up when it should, or a bus, train or ferry was more than 5 minutes late. This is less than I was penalised for this mistake.

Fair's fair. How about it, Queensland Transport? You penalise us for mistakes. We should be able to penalise you for mistakes.

Saturday, 28 June 2008

The Great Brisbane Rates Kerfuffle

The Brisbane city council's 2008 budget has resulted in widespread angst and anguish over a proposed change in the property rates formula for units (apartments on community titles, what the Americans call condos). The proposal is to add a parity factor, an Orwellian name if ever there was one, to ensure that some people pay on a higher scale.

The issue as I understand it is that dwellings are assessed on the basis of the rateable value of their land, and not the building. This formula may in some cases mean that an apartment is rated less than a house of equivalent value. For example, an upmarket penthouse which is 1% of the area of a large unit block on land worth $40-million may be rated at a value of $400,000 – despite being worth several million dollars.

Applying this formula can therefore an result in rateable values not equivalent in comparison with market value. The Brisbane Lord Mayor Campbell Newman (this is what they call mayors of big cities here, after the UK practice) obviously felt that this was inequitable, citing examples of million-dollar penthouses being assessed at a lower rate than houses in the outer suburbs that sell for much less. The obvious fix would be to change the valuation formula so that it correctly reflected the true resale value.

Absent that, the approach in the latest budget has been to add in a "parity factor" that increases the rent of units on higher-valued land. The problem is that this formula does not take into account the size of the land, or the number of units. This, a smallish $20-million block of land with a small number of luxury apartments on it has the same multiplier as a largish block of land of the same value, with hundreds of apartments on it. Worse, if you have multiple buildings on a single block of land, the exact same configuration of buildings would have a lower multiplier if the land were subdivided. To take an extreme case, if 10 buildings were on a block of land worth $10-million and the land was not divided, they would attract a multiplier near the top of the scale. If that land had instead been divided with one building per subdivision and each block of land was now worth $1-million, the multiplier would be zero.

Some ratepayers have found that this new formula results in increases of the order of 700%.

Or does it?

Others interpreting the formula, including city council employees and opposition councillors, have interpreted the table defining the formula as having the same effect as something like an income tax table. It's worth quoting the text of the current Australian Tax Office income tax table here for comparison. The key thing to note here is the wording in each category, which defines the amount to accumulate to the total, e.g., "$3,600 plus 30c for each $1 over $30,000". Remember the important bit: so many cents for each $1 over the current threshold.

Right, now let's look at the table in the budget papers. Look for page 290 (or page 18 of the PDF document). Observe here the crucial difference in the wording. Each entry in the table under the heading "factor 1" is just a number, a small fraction. It is not so many cents in the dollar.

Let's look at how this formula, if applied exactly as specified in the table, applies in the case where your unit is on land valued at $20-million. Each row of the table says something like for the following portion of the value of the property, factor 1 is x, and factor 2 is y. Factor 2 is 0 in all cases but one, so let's focus on factor 1.

  • Band A of the table says you add 0 on for the first $1-million: so for, 0
  • Band B of the table says you add 0.0110 on for the next $4-million: that's 0.0110
  • Band C of the table says you add 0.0150 on for the next $5-million: another 0.0150
  • Band D of the table says you add 0.0175 on for anything over $10-million: another 0.0175

Next step: how do we combine all these values? The difference of opinion comes in the wording in the table saying "for each dollar of rateable value of the land upon which a community titles scheme is constructed from $1,000,001 up to and including $5,000,000" (to take Band B as an example). My interpretation of this is that the relevant factor 1 should be weighted according to the fraction of the purchase price that is covered by this band. For example, for our hypothetical $20-million property, Band B represents a quarter of its value. Doing the same for all the bands results in the following:

  • Band A: 0
  • Band B: 0.0110 times 0.2 ($4-million is a fifth of the value); that's 0.0022
  • Band C: 0.0150 times 0.25 ($5-million is a quarter of the value); that's 0.00375
  • Band D: 0.0175 times 0.5 (the value over $10-million is 50% of the total): another 0.00875

So the overall total of Bands A+B+C+D should be 0 + 0.0022 + 0.00375 + 0.00875 = 0.0147. to complete the formula, we must add 1, then divide by factor 2, which is also 1, resulting in a final calculation of 1.0147.

In other words, the increase over the normal general rates calculation is 1.47%.

Is this right?

I argue that the interpretation others are placing on the formula requires that it be rewritten (taking Band B as an example) to read something like this:

    1.1c for each dollar of rateable value of the land upon which a community titles scheme is constructed from $1,000,001 up to and including $5,000,000

Without this wording to read it the way I did is perfectly reasonable. To read it otherwise requires an interpretation that is not actually in words in the budget papers. The description of the calculation clearly tells you to that "The parity factor referred to in Table 'B' is calculated to be the sum of factor 1 divided by the sum of factor 2" – and the table has a heading of "factor 1" over the fractions, and not over the descriptive text describing the bands. It is therefore a stretch to say that "factor 1" is calculated as the given fraction times the dollar amount represented by the band. There is nothing in the text suggesting you should do so. It is in fact not entirely clear that the weighted average that I calculated is correct either, but that is the best interpretation I can put on this document.

The conclusion?

The city council should not have made this change without consultation. Not only has it had unintended consequences of penalising people who are not wealthy in the intended form, but the wording in the budget papers is open to another interpretation with a radically different effect.

I'm not a lawyer or an accountant; I would be curious to see if the council's interpretation would stand up in court.

Peak Oil and Climate Change

Peak oil is increasingly on people's minds as they refuel, watch air travel costs escalate, and wonder why no one warned them it would happen. Possibly, just possibly, this is the wake-up call that will liberate us from shorty-term politics, and focus everyone on long-term solutions.

But should this have been such a surprise?

For starters, let's look at where the oil price is. As I write this, it's already gone off this chart (source: WikiPedia; sorry about the caption with the error in the start year: that was how it was on WikiPedia) to over $140 a barrel. Some of course are saying this is just a bubble, that speculators are driving the price up. This seems unlikely since the last time we had these conditions in a bad way (instability in the Middle East encouraging speculators), around the end of 1979, the price spiked to $39, about $100 in today's money, and we've already exceeded that level by 40%.

There are two new factors since 1979: new demand from developing economies, especially China, and the threat of a decline in production as we hit peak oil. With BP chief executive Tony Hayward declaring an end to the era of cheap energy, we have to sit up and take notice. No energy company would talk up the long-term price if they weren't sure, because doing so increases the push for alternatives.

So what is peak oil theory? In 1956, Shell oil geoscientist M. King Hubbert made the observation that since oil extraction lagged discovery by a specific period of years, oil production in the USA would peak somewhere around 1971. This picture (source: WikiPedia) illustrates his model (blue line) and reality (black dots). He was ridiculed in 1956; by the mid-1970s, we should have been basing future planning on his model.

What about the worldwide peak? That's more difficult. In the USA, once cheap sources of oil were depleted, there was the option to move to the rest of the world. Once oil extraction has gone worldwide, we don't have another planet to move to, so depletion of cheaper resources leads to a switch to more expensive resources.The picture therefore in recent times (source: WikiPedia) is blurred, with predictions ranging roughly around 2008-2016, but some putting the peak way out into the future.

Wherever the exact peak, we've had warning of this for decades. Aside from the very obvious risks or relying heavily on one commodity, the source of which may not always be politically stable, the threat of a sudden price spike as we are experiencing today is nothing new. So why aren't we throwing out politicians who have failed to work on long-term solutions? In some parts of the world, notably Europe and Japan, there are alternatives to cars, trucks and planes in the form of high-speed intercity rail and good urban public transport networks. Countries like the USA and Australia, on the other hand, are terribly positioned for expensive oil. Many of their cities have developed unplanned urban sprawl, and their inter-city rail networks are decrepit.

For further thoughts on what Australian politicians deserve, see my views at the Australian ABC's QandA web site.

But back to the main topic.

What, you may ask, are some of these more expensive forms of oil extraction? Some are obvious, like deep sea wells. Others include tar sands and oil shale. Pushing these to the limit some claim is available starts to touch on an aspect of practicality: net energy. Some of the more extreme claims of available oil do not take into account that the energy cost of processing some of the less viable forms of oil exceeds the energy you could extract.

The "more expensive to extract" option that I find most fascinating though is the notion that it is now becoming possible to drill for oil in the Arctic. Could it be something to do with this I wonder? Look at NASA's temperature trend since 1880 (source: NASA GISS) – not that different to graphs published by others. It shows a distinct upwards trend.

Now, there are people out there claiming that climate change is a hoax. A fair number (though I will not argue all or even a majority) are funded by oil interests. Could those taking oil dollars please tell us how, if climate change is a hoax, it has suddenly become possible to drill for oil in the Arctic?

For the more visual, I also talk about this at YouTube; go there to rate the video or post a comment on it (or if lazy, just view it here).

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Death by a thousand blogs

The fact that anyone who has an internet connection to the outside world can publish anything they like doesn't mean that everything published on the net is good. On the contrary, it's likely that as the fraction of the world's population with internet connectivity grows, more drivel will be published -- unless there's a mechanism to edit or select content. For example, although anyone can edit most material on WikiPedia (material subject to malicious edits, or wars over content does get locked down), the fact that the information is in one place on the whole makes it possible to arrive at some sort of reasonable standard.

When it comes to blogs, though, there is nothing to stop anyone from posting whatever they like (aside from laws on libel, copyright, and anything that applies if you live in a police state).

So if you try to find out something, it's possible that you will find a slew of drivel -- especially if there's a campaign going to push a point of view.

Let's try a few experimental searches.

First, the claim that Einstein said humanity would die out if bees disappeared... Search for the words Einstein bees. What do you see? Of course the internet is a moving feast so the hits you will get will not be the same as mine. What I found was a fair number of articles putting the case that this quote was a myth, as well as a few that treat the quote as fact. In this case, it's not hard to determine that the quote should at best be treated with suspicion.

Next, try this one: bumble bees can't fly. Again, there's a fair mix of articles, and it's not hard to arrive at the conclusion that the original story may (possibly) not have been a myth, but certainly has become a bit garbled. A bumble bee's wing area is insufficient to generate lift (taking into account its weight) but that calculation is based on the theory of fixed-wing aircraft. A bumble bee's wings aren't stationary, so the mathematics doesn't apply.

Here's another: HIV causes AIDS. This time the majority of the hits on the first page (when I did this on 24 June 2008) were articles supporting the conventional theory, with a small number opposing – the group who for whatever reason claim that HIV does not cause AIDS.

So it seems we have a general pattern: while there is a fair amount of garbage or controversial material, you get a good balance and can find the most plausible position fairly easily. Relatively few authoritative-looking sources are making strong claims that are hard to dismiss, against the "correct science" position.

How about this one? Search for passive smoking harm. This time, while the majority of articles agreed with the conventional position, I found some surprisingly vehement articles in mainstream media, not just amateur blogs, pushing the line that the science has to be wrong.

Next, let's go to a more current issue, climate change. A couple of searches will illustrate the point. Try climate models fail to predict. Now this one is admittedly a bit different from the others by addition of the words "fail to". But the result is startling. Almost the entire first page of hits is articles claiming that climate models are not able to predict future climate change. Take out the word "fail" and you do get a very different result. With that in mind, I tried adding "less" onto the end of the smoking search: passive smoking harmless. The result? A slew of articles claiming that environmental tobacco smoke was harmless, research to the contrary was fraudulent, etc.

There are two questions that arise out of this experiment. How is the ordinary person with no training in searching to arrive at a reasonable mix of articles? How is someone without a research background to tease apart the mythology from the worthwhile content?

Taking the climate change one again, I spend a good fraction of my blogging time debunking climate change myths. The claim that models have no predictive power is only one of these (in fact, the IPCC validates the models in their previous reports by comparing them against subsequent measurement). Another is the claim that solar variations (search for sun explains all climate change) are sufficient to explain all climate change. Again there is a mix of articles, including some that clearly overturn the claim. This time around, bizarrely, if you change the search to the negative, sun does not explain all climate change, you get a higher fraction of hits pushing the case that climate change is purely down to the sun.

So what's the take-home point from this?

Blogging is not science. Neither, for that matter, is journalism. Blogging seldom is even as good as amateur journalism; very occasionally a whole lot better. Whatever the case, beware of following the line of least resistance, and only reading the material that comes up in the first page of searches. It's not that hard for a small number of people (possibly with an agenda; now who could care so much, I wonder, about confusing people about how harmful tobacco is?) to generate a lot of material, aided and abetted by the gullible who copy their line.

Information on the net is free, but so too is junk. Making life-and-death decisions based on a web search without digging deeper to understand the underlying science, whether it's how to tackle the HIV pandemic, how to deal with the health threats of tobacco or what to do about climate change is silly. Yet many people seem to do exactly this. South Africa delayed its response to HIV by almost a decade. Progress worldwide against public smoking was delayed even more. And the rate of progress on climate change, it appears, is more in the hands of the blogosphere than of informed decision-makers.


Monday, 23 June 2008

Robbing Units to Pay Whom?

The recent Brisbane City Council budget included double digit rate rises for many ratepayers. Single digit rate rises were promised at the election: did Campbell Newman mean by this a raised middle finger? Because that's what he's delivered. The updated rates calculation includes a multiplier based on the value of the land a unit is situated on, which does not allow for how many units are on that land. So a $20-million block of land with 200 units on it gets the same multiplier as the same land value with 4 units on it, resulting in absurd general rates increases of up to 700% for modestly-priced units – at least according to the Labor opposition in council. Campbell Newman claims that the maximum increase is "only" 150%.

On 19 June, I attended a Labor meeting at City Hall. There, angry inner-city unit owners had picked up the idea that they were being asked to pay for the tunnels wanted by residents of suburbs like Kenmore. This may not be strictly accurate in that the tunnels blow-out, as far as I can tell, is only hitting the budget next year. Nonetheless, I suspect this is news to the people who attended the Greens rally on 12 June, protesting the Kenmore bypass. No one there spoke in favour of tunnels; the most popular alternative to the bypass was better public transport.

What I find a bit rich about Labor's attack on the rates increase is that they voted for the tunnels project, and they also have a long history of talking public transport, while failing to deliver. If Labor doesn't want inner city unit owners to be slugged with an unfair rates increase, who, exactly, are they proposing should pay for their unfunded, fiscally irresponsible welfare for tunnel builders policy, which they share with the Liberals?

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Easy Low-Fat Gelato

How do they make low-fat gelato at Italian ice-creameries?

Most home ice-cream recipes are relatively high in fat, because this makes it easier to set the ice-cream to a nice texture. If you use an ice-cream machine it also works better with a high-fat mixture. If you make ice-cream by hand, the lower the fat content, the more you need to take the mix out of the freezer as it sets, and give it a thorough beating to stop it setting solid.

There are two things you need to do to get the right texture: aerate the mix, and prevent icicles forming.

Here (in a change of pace) I present a relatively easy technique for making low-fat gelato, with a new wonder tool I discovered, which you can buy at most kitchen stores.

To start, you need some fruit. Frozen fruit works really well. As illustrated here, I'm using about 500g (about a pound for the neolithics) of freshly hulled strawberries. Frozen actually works better; I should probably have put them in the freezer a few hours for the best result.

Next step: add sugar. My approximate measure is to about half the height of the fruit. You can judge this to taste. Too little, and the mixture is likely to set too hard. But you can regulate that by adjusting the milk content.

Next, add milk. I add slightly less than covers the fruit. You need to judge this as it can vary for fruits. Too much, and it sets too hard. Too little, and you have something more like a sorbet; maybe not such a bad thing. I have a little too much in this mix. What kind of milk? As pictured here, I am using low-fat soy. Just about anything vaguely like milk works. I've used soy, oat and rice milk, with equally good results.

At this point, I start using the wonder new tool: a potato masher. This turns out to be a good combination of the features you need. It can crush fruit, it can aerate the mix, and it can mix in the sugar. If you are starting with frozen fruit, it will be hard going at first, until the coolth transfers to the milk, and the fruit thaws slightly. Once that happens, start mashing more vigorously. Your aim is to break up the fruit, while mixing the sugar in thoroughly and adding enough air to soften the overall texture. Do this right, and it will set reasonably soft without stirring during the freezing stage.

In this case, I have slightly too much milk in the mix, and need to do a bit of stirring in the freezing phase. In the end, I lost patience and let it freeze hard. It was still not too bad; to serve, I had to shave it off rather than take scoopfuls.

Even with the sort of mistakes you can make, you still end up with a result that tastes a lot better than factory ice-cream and you know exactly what went into it.

Some may say there is a bit of justice in the fact that I had to do a bit of stirring. Read the rest of my blog to see for yourself.

If you use a plant-based milk, you can make a pretty good totally vegan dessert. Who says only carnivores have fun?

One warning: since you are using uncooked ingredients, you should not keep this gelato as long as you would keep a factory frozen product. Freezing doesn't kill most microbes; it does however slow their growth. So if there are some bad bugs in the original fruit (which I hope you remembered to wash), freezing won't kill them. But I've never had to keep one of these much longer than I'd have kept the fruit in the refrigerator, so I have not had a problem with proliferation of frozen microbes.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Electric cars, trains or buses: which is cleanest?

There's been some debate in Australia in the wake of prime minister Kevin Rudd's announcement of financial backing for Toyota to build a hybrid Camry in Australia on whether hybrids represent a big saving in carbon emissions or not. This is an old debate, starting with a claim that a Toyota Prius's lifetime energy cost was higher than a big SUV, when you took into account manufacturing and the environmental cost of the battery.

That's an old story and well trawled over so there is little point in going over that again.

The bigger picture story is should we be fussing over conversion to electric cars or hybrids, when electricity is mostly generated from carbon emitting fossil fuels? An electric car or hybrid can add some efficiencies like regenerative braking, so it should overall have better efficiency than directly burning fossil fuels in the engine -- even if as in the case of a purely electric car or plug-in hybrid, it gets some power from fossil-fueled mains electricity.

I argue that instead, we should be looking at how to get as many people as possible into public transport. Even without changing the mode of energy, there are huge savings to be had there. If we work on an average of 50 litres/100 km for a diesel bus and 10 litres/100 km for a car, and 30 times as many people in the bus, the bus uses one sixth of the fuel per passenger, a saving of nearly 85%. A hybrid or small car will do significantly better, but a bus will still win easily, provided it is reasonably full. A train may not do better because electricity in most countries is mostly generated from very dirty sources, with a relatively low efficiency. A diesel engine may have an efficiency of up to 45% (with the rest wasted as heat); a coal power plant may be as low as 30%. Add in transmission losses, and an electric train is getting quite low value for the emissions produced -- though still significantly better than a car carrying the typical 1.5 people.

Buses then are the obvious quick fix. But as with cars, they have the problem that every bus has to be changed once improved technology is available.

Longer-term, trains are a better strategy to pursue, because cleaning up power generation for them fixes every train.

So, should the Australian government be encouraging local manufacture of hybrids? I do not see any great harm in it. But it is really only a very small part of the solution. The big ones are encouraging more use of public transport, putting in more train lines and services and cleaning up power generation.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Australian (Anti-)Environment Foundation

In a recent article, I explored the link between organized tobacco's obfuscation of science, and the climate denial industry, based on facts reported by George Monbiot.

Today, The Australian features a letter from one Max Rheese of the Australian Environment Foundation (AEF), in effect claiming that global warming is a hoax.

I'm tired of arguing how global warming didn't end in 1998. Instead of going over that territory yet again, I decided to mosey over to the AEF's web site to see exactly what kind of organization they are. After all, with "environment" in their name, one would expect that they would at least occasionally run up against industry, even if they are coming at the matter from the right.


Here is a list of articles from their web site, with a brief commentary on each; you should of course check the originals:

  • Are environmentalists on the road to Damascus? On Line Opinion, 2 April 2008 – "it is now accepted by the head of the IPCC that whether global temperatures are benchmarked from 1998 or 2002, they have plateaued or fallen". True or false? The "facts" on which this is based are from an article by Christopher Pearson in The Australian which wait for it: quotes Jennifer Marohasy, another member of AEF as a source.
  • The Greens: illogical and treacherous, On Line Opinion, 12 May 2008 – the main thrust of the article is conveyed by this sentence: "The greens tell us that ethanol from maize, wheat or sugar, and biodiesel from palm oil is somehow more environmentally friendly than oil from oil wells." What's the reality? Do a search on "biofuels" and you will find, as you should expect from an evidence-based approach, an evolving position in which the Greens are moving away from supporting biofuels wholeheartedly to conditional support, taking into account what we now know of the risks of displacing food crops and replacing rain forest with palm oil plantations. Illogical and treacherous? What do you call attacking the Greens for a position that's way out of date?
  • Fighting for Red River Gums, The Land, 8 November 2007 – you fight for trees, it seems, by opposing increasing their protection through enlarging national parks. That wasn't so obvious. Under attack: Victorian Environmental Advisory Council (VEAC).
  • Red Gum Lock-up is not the Solution, The Age, 15 October 2007 – this time, it's the Victorian National Parks Association (VNPA) which is under fire for wanting to enlarge national parks.
  • Global warming zealots are stifling scientific debate, The Age, 12 July 2007 – ahead of the screening in Australia of The Great Global Warming Swindle, we are told that "If the conclusion that humans are changing climate by carbon dioxide emissions requires the omission of validated astronomical, palaeontologic and geological evidence, then the popular view of humans causing climate change is not science. We are seeing a revival of a form of zealous Western politics intertwined with poor theology, poor economics and poor logic." The Swindle movie relied on quotes out of context, manipulated data and a focus on the views of a discredited minority position. That, it seems, is perfectly sound.
  • The Great Great Barrier Reef Swindle, On Line Opinion, 19 July 2007 – the Great Barrier Reef will not only survive global warming but thrive. I suppose it takes a Marine Physicist to understand ecosystems properly. All those biologists clearly are ignorant, and corals around the world alleged to be dying of coral bleaching are probably actually dying back because global warming's too slow.
  • Climate recantation: IPCC models don't predict and are unscientific, Courier Mail June 28 2007 – This article quotes a few statements by an IPCC lead author, on a blog run by Nature in which he clarifies some aspects of what the IPCC reports. None of this is a mystery and is well known to scientists who read the research and IPCC reports. A few quotes are taken out of context and made to seem as if they destroy the entire basis of climate science. Read the original blog entry and decide for yourself. An example: "In fact there are no predictions by IPCC at all." This is no big deal. The IPCC (more accurately, the scientists whose work the IPCC summarizes) can't predict future greenhouse gas emissions because those are a factor of too many unknowns (economic growth, future technology, climate change mitigation policy). This is a problem with predicting future climate because emissions are an input to the model. So instead of predicting, they model a range of scenarios (low to high emissions, varying a number of inputs like population growth, carbon intensity of economic development and economic growth). Since they do not know how the economic and political side will play out, they can't say what the probability is of a given set of inputs. That the inputs are hard to predict doesn't mean you can't reasonably accurately model a scenario on the basis of "what if the emissions followed the following trend". If you don't understand why that is not predicting but is nonetheless useful, try again. If you still don't get it, see if they have a vacancy at the AEF. Or maybe The Australian. If desperate, try the Courier-Mail.
  • High price for load of hot air - climate change hysteria is costing us billions, Courier Mail June 18 2007 – more climate change denial.
  • GM: debate the science not the values, On Line Opinion, 4 June 2007 – "Anti GM groups have argued that the introduction of GM technology will have adverse effects on the environment without providing any evidence to substantiate their claims." I haven't done a comprehensive literature review on the subject but such evidence definitely exists. I am not making a value judgment on the quality of that evidence, just noting that the statement that there is no such evidence is manifestly false.
  • GM Canola or Nothing Soon, The Land, 26 April 2007 – pro-GM propaganda without any science, or consideration of environmental issues.
  • Green hypocrisy and environmental vandalism, On Line Opinion, March 2007 – opposition to legislation controlling land clearing (they may or may not have a point on this specific issue, but the irony here is that much of the legislation banning land clearing arose out of the Howard government's sleight of hand on Kyoto, where they had changes in land clearing in Australia scored as greenhouse gas reduction).
  • Integrity in the public debate - whose view? On Line Opinion, January 2007 – Two sentences sum it up: "Indeed the AEF has much stronger links with forestry and farming groups than it has with IPA." And: "AEF’s values, which are on the website for all to see, demand debate based on science and evidence not ideology." Consider their list of articles as evidence of a kind ...
  • An alternative perspective on land clearing, On Line Opinion, December 2006 – an earlier version of the "land clearing is good" article.
  • Fired-up forests have more impact than the loggers, The Age, November 2006 – logging is not so bad because major fires can be more destructive. Maybe, but this is a rather relativistic argument, isn't it? If you clearcut an old-growth forest, it's hard to see how a fire could be more destructive.
  • Integrity in the Public Debate - Whose View?" - Not Published by The Age, 2006 – This is a new one on me: you don't normally cite the place that didn't publish you. Good on The Age. In any case they managed to publish this later at On Line Opinion. Crybabies.
  • First Conference for New Environment Group, Border Watch, Mt Gambier, South Australia and The Daily Mercury, Mackay, Queensland, September 2006 – PR for AEF, nothing of real substance.
  • Not easy being green but we'll prosper, Herald-Sun, August 2006 – Two sentences again: "The green lobby has demanded and been given the mantle of environmental guardians and as a result have become rich and influential beyond their due." And: "Many of its members are pro-biotechnology, pro-nuclear power, pro-modern farming, pro-economic growth, pro-business and pro-environment." Guys, why did you pick industries that have no financial clout to back you when the traditional greenies have gone where the money is: the poor and the marginalized. Don't spend too much time wallowing in self-pity. You may drown.
  • Green group wants practical policies, The Land, August 2006 – One sentence: "A couple of years ago some farmers, foresters, fishers, university professors and others, got together in Ballarat to start a new environment group, the Australian Environment Foundation (AEF) – an environment group that believes in taking an evidence-based approach to issues." Guys, where's your evidence? Everything since this article has been bluster. Not a single paper listed on your site has appeared in an academic conference or journal, not even a third-rate one.
  • No More Excuses, The Courier Mail, August 2006 – proposal to get on with water alternatives, recycling, desalination. Other than that the article says nothing about environmental impacts (e.g. the arguments against desalination) at least it actually is about alternatives. Not just a beat-up on environmentalists.
  • Facts Catch the Loudmouths on the Hop, The Sydney Morning Herald, October 2005 – in favour of Kangaroo culls and eliminating feral invaders like cats. A fair start: whether you agree with culling or not, he knows what he's talking about.

There we have it. The vast majority of the articles (pretty much everything after the earliest two) are beat-ups on real environmental organizations, propaganda for climate change inactivism and defense of industry positions.

Despite the claim of being "evidence-based" there is no serious research behind any of the articles; taking words of others out of context is fair game, as is perpetuating myths like it stopped warming in 1998, and presenting opinion as fact.

After all this, that the AEF is accused of being a front for a conservative think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) should come as no surprise. Their denial of this claim is not very convincing (see "Integrity in the public debate - whose view?" above). Sadly, Australia's national daily is unable to see this for what it is, and allows these people free publicity without warning the public.

As for global warming being a hoax: methinks it's the AEF that's the hoax.

No wonder so many people are still buying large cars and SUVs; what a pity for them that the only signal they are getting that they are doing the wrong thing is that they can't afford to refuel...