Greek debt again

I came across this interesting visual presentation on the size of the Greek national debt… maybe staggering is a better adjective.

Recall that the talented presenter was dwarfed by half a trillion dollars. Now let’s go across the pond to the US.

The US national debt is roughly $15,717,900,000,000

That is $15.7 trillion if my conversion is correct – a tad more than Greece and a huge $50,000 for every US citizen.

In principle the US has a better capacity to repay creditors given the debt is 107% of GDP compared to 143% for Greece, but I just can’t get my head around the absolute number. And even though I lay no claim to an understanding of economics I am sure that owing more than you earn is not a good place to be.

You can see why climate change action is neither here nor there when the world has chosen to walk along this kind of fiscal knife edge.

Climate change action and Greek debt

A few days ago I asked this question on HubPages

Why has action on climate change stalled?

More than 250 views and over 30 answers and comments in 48 hours suggests that the topic still fires people up.

HubPages has a useful counter that shows how many people vote each comment up or down. As most of the comments were at the margins reflecting strong views for or against climate change action, the up votes were almost always balance by down votes.

Then today I came across an ‘advertisement’ for the 2012 climate change intercessional meetings – the discussions held between the main UNFCC Conference of the Parties – this year to be held in Bonn, Germany.

Here is an extract:

[Bonn] will need to pick up the momentum generated in Durban. The Durban Platform has the goal of “enhancing mitigation ambition to identify and to explore options for a range of actions that can close the ambition gap with a view to ensuring the highest possible mitigation efforts by all Parties”, and includes a commitment to develop a “new protocol, another legal instrument or agreed outcome with legal force” by 2015.

As the youngsters would say ‘What the…’ Talk about disappearing up our own rear ends.

Somewhere in our subconscious we know that this stuff is important. A wicked problem it may be but it talks to the very fundamentals of our survival as individuals. Not least the challenges of where we will get our food, water and shelter.

Only this importance is playing out as denial. There isn’t a problem, go away and get on with you life and don’t bug me and really don’t expect me to pay to fix a problem that isn’t.

Or if not denial then a fear of catastrophe. If we don’t fix climate change the sky will indeed fall in.

What are we thinking? Feeding us all is, like the Greek debt, not something we should still argue about. We should be figuring out and implementing the best solutions.

For me solutions will have two pillars.

The first is nipping out the drivers. For climate change this will be to hasten the transition to sustainable energy and land management. In Greece (and a whole host of other countries) it is to stop spending money you don’t have.

The second pillar, and the one we seem to have completely ignored so far, is to implement adaptation. We should be channeling all that argumentative energy to think up and implement ways to cope with the change. In climate that is to change our water use, land management and plan for more extreme weather, shifts in seasonality and rising sea levels. Noting that all of these will be easier if we have cheap alternative energy.

In Greece it will be thinking up and implementing ways to employ a generation. Tough call.

$6 a gallon, heck no!

I came across this quote in a biofuels newsletter

Mad as heck about $5 gasoline? According to new research from Iowa State, the price would have hit $6 per gallon, if the US had not had its ethanol supply

And next to it was a picture of a dude in a white T-shirt with the slogan

“I saved you $1220 last year, ask me how”

in green letters.

Research is suggesting that ethanol production saved US householders $143 billion, or roughly $1220 per household in 2011. And for the headline, a dollar a gallon.

No doubt the transition away from fossil fuels will have to be as gentle as possible. There will be any number of tactics to ease the system through to avoid cost and supply discomfort.

At the same time the oil people will want to keep selling every last barrel at top prices. The dance to oil at $200+ a barrel will be interesting to watch.

So here is the thought.

If we measure the success of our economic system on wealth and lifestyle it generally stacks up. Measure it on the number of people it sustains and its performance is stellar.

And so far that system has been supported by ancient fossilized energy. Power that the sun sent to earth millions of years ago that was captured by plants and stored by quirks of decomposition and sedimentology.

Ethanol is power from today’s sunshine that is captured by plants and converted to a liquid fuel.

Seems like a very clunky way to do things. Why not just harness the power directly?

I am sure you know the answer.


The new gold

You would never call an actuary sexy. Number logic people just don’t have the suave of a James Bond or the sass of a Marilyn. They are just too precise. Absorbed by detail and loving that a + b = c, especially when b is the reciprocal of the square root of f, they just lack that playful oomph.

That said being a good number cruncher was never a bad career. Thanks to the acute need for their skills, especially from insurance companies treading the tightrope of premiums over risk, data people have always been well paid and in reasonable demand. Over the years it has been quite tricky to get a place on an actuarial degree.

Now, however, sexy is in for the statisticians too, because the mad men need them. Or more strictly, there is a new breed of advertiser who have taken the mix of imagery and psychology invented to persuade us all to buy things to a whole new level. Now it is possible to predict as well as persuade.

Thanks to the already huge and rapid accumulating databanks on our online profiles, our offline purchases and even where we are throughout the day (yep, that handy little app in your smartphone does more than tell you where you are and how long it takes to walk three blocks), it is now possible to track behaviours and from that predict what might happen next, or better still intervene with an irresistible offer.

The mad men who want to place that person specific ad on the right device at the right time need the data crunchers to do the sums.

Here is a simple example. Your Facebook profile says that you like the delectable British soul singer Sade (mine does) and your mobile pings a GPS signal that you are in Sydney. Instantly the ticketing website you use puts two and two together and sends you an email with Sade tour dates. Not only that but her Sydney concert listing is flashing with a special offer of 10% off the usual ticket price. Outcome obvious, you have an outstanding night out and can’t wait for her next tour.

Here is another example. Your credit card purchases at the casino hotel, activity at the gaming tables and even what goes out of the mini-bar in your room are monitored in real time. What you buy, win, and loose on your casino weekend break are matched to a predictive model based on thousands of previous punters that tells the hotel staff the optimum time to offer you a free meal voucher or a discounted show ticket for the next evening. That optimum being the point being just before your instinct tells you to cut your losses and check out.

This is just the start of the thousands of uses that analysis of data can support. Take a moment and you will think of plenty yourself.

Usefulness readily translates into products and services that become a new gold, the nuggets that come from data mining. The vast datasets on what people do, where they do it and when trawled, filtered, analysed and modeled to predict what, where and when they will do next. All so that businesses can deliver a timely intervention.

The talk is of a multi-billion dollar industry built around analysis, interpretation, and prediction, followed by delivery of highly targeted suggestion. It is a whole new field for anyone unfazed by terabytes of data and permutation algorithms…. and who are also unfazed by where the money comes from.

I wonder how many of the new gold diggers will dare to ask.

Population clocks

In an idle moment just before Christmas I gave in to my obsession with population growth and checked a few of the world population clocks.

These are neat web enabled algorithms that calculate and display an estimate of the number of people in the world. They tick or scroll along in real time as they make a virtual count of the births and deaths of people around the planet.

At 10.30am Sydney time on the 21 December 2011 a sample of them read

  • 6,880,986,220 on Poodwaddle
  • 6,933,668,504 on Metapath
  • 6,940,632,100 on Tranquileye
  • 6,982,567,212 on US Census Bureau
  • 7,010,439,251 on Worldometers

Clearly the algorithms and the underlying data sources produce some variability in the numbers.

Chances are that the true number is somewhere between 6,906,205,940 and 6,993,111,375 which is the 95% confidence interval for this sample of five estimates.

This confidence interval is 87 million roughly the population of Italy and Poland combined suggesting to the cynic that these clocks are not that precise.

Moving forward 101 days to 1 April 2012 and at 9.30 in the morning Sydney time the population clocks said

  • 6,854,561,707 on Poodwaddle up  26,424,513
  • 6,953,660,825 on Metapath up 19,992,321
  • 6,962,506,474 on Tranquileye up 21,874,374
  • 7,004,421,653 on US Census Bureau up 21,854,441
  • 7,031,948,549 on Worldometers up 21,509,298

This is an average increase of 22,330,989 new people in the world in just 101 days.

That is 221,098 per day or, if you prefer, 9,212 per hour.

I use to say it was 8,000 an hour, maybe I should now say 9,000 although what is another 1,000 between friends?

And yes, there is some uncertainty. It may be only 7,000 per hour. Or it may be the upper end of 11,000. Either way it is a sizable village every hour and a small city each and every day.  Scary.

Read more in my Hubpage article, What do population clocks tell us?