Irene and the Wrath of History (update)

Since I hope that I may be reading some of those posts in a few years time, I better start by stating the obvious: Irene is the first hurricane of the 2011 season and may barely make it all the way to New York without being downgraded to a tropical storm. (The threshold is 75mph somewhere in the storm – which will be on the eastern side of a north-moving storm, over the sea and not in the city … and in fact it has now more-or-less been downgraded during the time it took to write this post. No hurricane force winds could be detected anywhere on land or near the shore.)

It is not the first. Although it is unusually weak, compared to those other five. The media frenzy is mostly a product of ignorance, as all the other Hurricanes have faded from living memory. There has only been a single Hurricane that reached New York in the 20th century, but there had been four in the 19th century.

CNN, meanwhile, has turned into the Comedy News Network – with reporters holding up twigs and small branches of trees, warning that those are dangerous projectiles and pointing at small puddles of water as evidence of flooding. Oh, give me a break.

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What’s next in Libya?

I cannot and will not claim any expert knowledge on the topic, but what we are seeing does not bode well. There are now reports of executions on both sides (although massacres may be the correct description) and (finally) ever more concern about the stashes of weapons that have been plundered and carried away by rebels. (I’m discounting the reports of chemical weapons and nuclear material – as the CIA has not proven to be particularly reliable with their public announcements in such matters.)

There is practically no reporting on who those rebels are. In the media, they are being treated almost as a monolithic bloc – which is very unlikely to be the case. I wrote a comment on this topic yesterday, which I will quote and expand on after the break:

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Coincidences in reporting

Maybe I’m just being smug and possibly I’m trying to fight the impostor syndrome – but sometimes I simply like to take note of certain coincidences. As for example my comment of August 4th:

Given the experience of 2008, the USA is probably already back in a recession.

If you remember, there was talk about the possibility of slipping into a recession throughout 2008 – but it wasn’t until October or so that a “correction” of the economic indicators suddenly “unveiled” that the USA had been in a recession since November of 2007.

And an article of the Economist of August 25th:

America’s economy is certainly weak. It grew at an annualised rate of just 0.4% in the first quarter and 1.3% in the second. Future revisions may push both numbers into negative territory: the economy would have already double-dipped.

Now, I’m not deluding myself into thinking that that my comments have much of an impact on articles weeks later … but it’s certainly nice to see some vindication of my views. Before that, there had been virtually no admission of the unreliability (or perhaps systematic positive bias) of quarterly economic indicators. Not that I’m looking forward to a further worsening of the economy, but unfortunately I’m forced to merely watch it all unfold and my views have precious little influence on the outcome.

Virginia Earthquake

Virgina has been hit by a 5.9 earthquake a few minutes ago. The worst in at least 30 years anywhere in a 1000km distance. It is perhaps a testament to the fact that I’m not an American, that I immediately thought about the New Madrid Earthquake before remembering that Virginia, as one of the original colonies, was along the coast. (New Madrid is in fact smack in the middle of the USA, not along the coast. It caused the Mississippi to flow backwards at some point.)

Just to put the quake into perspective – New Madrid was struck by a quake at least 100 times as powerful (with estimates going as high as 1000). It has been about 200 years since that earthquake – one shudders to imagine what will happen to this woefully unprepared area when it repeats.

What does a factor of 1000 mean in terms of earthquake magnitudes? It is the difference between a mag 5.9 and a mag 7.9 earthquake. (The recent Tohoku Earthquake was a mag 9.0 – about 30.000 times as powerful as the Virgina one.)

99% certainty (updated)

A month ago, one of the greatest scientific experiments of the world yielded tantalizing results, regarding one of the unsolved mysteries of physics. It is all about the question how particles gain their mass. The story is rather exciting, most of all for the involved physicists, whose models predict that this is supposed to happen through the Higgs mechanism.

The collisions of protons in the LHC are supposed to create a particle that is predicted to exist, if the mechanism works the way physicists think it should. The particle itself would remain elusive, even if the theory is right. It would be highly unstable and disintegrates into other particles, W-Bosons, with a certain amount of energy. Those bosons are what the scientists at CERN hope to see.

Last month, CERN announced that several of such particles had been detected and statistical analysis showed a 99% certainty, that this was not just down to mere coincidence. CERN called the finding ‘tantalizing’ and remained cautious to announce that the long sought-for proof of the theoretical models had been found.

Had CERN been the IPCC, it would have called the discovery of the Higgs particle, a virtual certainty. And with this sentence I am crossing the Rubicon. Be warned. There be dragons on the other side of the break. Continue reading

Energy Circus: Solar Millenium

It seems to be true that in the end plans rarely survive contact with reality.

When I introduced the Energy Circus, had a plan in mind to start out discussing the general characteristics of diverse sources of energy and especially electricity. I will do that, but right now there is some current news that should be discussed.

We do have a bad day at the stock markets in Germany, but when a company’s stock plummets by 50%, there must be something else going on. Solar Millenium is not one of the small guys – until recently they had plans for a billion dollar 250MW solar power plant in California, they were also the guys who build Andasol – the prototype for the Desertec project that is supposed to be a $0.5 trillion investment, but it never added up and is presented in strangely contorted and opaque ways to say the least.

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All doom and gloom?

I think it has become clear, that I am a bit pessimistic about the economic development in the USA and also the European Union to say the least. This is because it seems a severe decline is the most coherent narrative of what lies ahead, when you extrapolate the past developments – not so much of the economics, but the politics – into the future. I will try to substantiate this point in future postings, but for now, I want to have a look at the rest of the world.

The outlook for the rest of the world is radically different from the developed countries. It is very hard to draw historic comparisons between the development of formerly underdeveloped countries to the contemporary state of the art and not paint a rosy picture of the economic future of places like China or India.

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The depression ahead

It is by now clear, that the industrialized countries of Europe and the USA have entered a new recession at some point in the second quarter of 2011, or maybe even earlier. Japan did so anyway, after suffering from the worst tsunami in recorded Japanese history. (*)

The strong reaction of the stock markets to this earthquake already suggested some frayed nerves among the traders, which is often an indication of economic troubles – and the slow, two week long crash this August is not proof of a recession, but certainly more reliable than the official figures of the governments.

Yes, the 11 month delay in the announcement of the 2007-2009 recession after its onset is not to be taken lightly. It is foolproof evidence that economic statistics are used to try and sooth the population – just as the Soviet Union, Eastern Germany or the rest of the eastern bloc did before their economic collapse.

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Is Double A plus enough?

Barack Obama has his own opinion that says, the US is a AAA nation, has always been a AAA nation and will always be a AAA. Well, color me as unimpressed as the stock markets were.

Why did the the downgrade happen in the first place? Well, answering to another comment on an article of the Economist I put it this way:

Ratings agencies don’t rate the potential ability to pay, but the likelihood of default. Given that the US has effectively tied its hands regarding tax increases and austerity measures have proven to be very effective in initiating yet another deep recession (just three examples: USA 1937, Japan 1997, Greece 2010), the likelihood of default is undeniably there.

Basically, it’s all in there. The performance of an economy that is stuck in the kind of situation that the USA is in, depends a lot on state expenditure. Why? Well, in my original comment to this article I explained it thus (with some small corrections):

There is simply not enough demand by the people to justify investments, for a large part because they are still paying off the unreasonably large mortgages that they put on their houses during the days of the housing bubble. Now, the debt is still there and will be there for decades, but the “value” of their houses evaporated in a matter of two years. And while they are paying back debts, they won’t be able to consume as much and the corporations won’t have reason to invest as much as before. Somebody else will have to do the consumption and investment that the economy requires to run (because this is how wages and salaries find their way to the general population).

Unfortunately, the political climate in the USA makes sure that the government won’t intervene on a sufficient scale. The government must provide money to the consumers in some way, if it wants to restore the economy. Simply giving it away might work – but it doesn’t provide the right kind of incentive and in fact there are much more efficient ways to make it work. The government should invest and make sure that the money is not merely lost in corporations but ends up paying employees and creating additional demand.

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Introducing the Energy Circus

This one is bound to become a recurring theme on this blog, so I might as well give it an introduction (and even its own tag).

One of the most discussed subjects in our spoiled industrialized neck of the woods is energy. Directly or indirectly it keeps showing up in discussions all over the place. Politics are a huge part of it, much larger than is warranted by such a deeply technological issue.

Why? Because politics in western countries is prone to leave the reality of technologies altogether behind, as soon as cronies have to be pleased or voting preferences be followed – the latter being an indelible part of our current political systems. The result is all too often that actual policies are contradictory to their stated goals (often intentional) and incoherent (often unintentional).

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