Archive for December, 2009

Is climate change mostly man-made or natural?

December 30, 2009

The more I look into this the more I am mystified. The problem appears quite polarized, both sides claiming the other is biased, refusing evidence and careless, and it is difficult to form an opinion. The political and economic consequences of the question make it very important and sensitive.

The minority (so-called “skeptics” or “realists”) who do not think that climate change is mostly man-made (either because they can’t tell or they think it is mostly nature-driven) bring up some convincing points and studies, and seem like reasonable people and scientists (see the ICCC conference videos).

It is difficult to know what is going on. I think that the public would benefit from additional vulgarization by the experts from the majority side (guys, Youtube…).


Personally, I am curious about the chain of logic leading to the conclusion that increased CO2 is main driver for recent change. From what this analysis, it may not be that solid. In particular, I am curious about the role played by the models/simulations and the assumptions that went into the models.

Also, there is the question of validating models mostly against historical rather than present data. I read an article comparing such models to Galileo’s or Newton’s work on gravitation, which also did use historical data as validation. Intuitively, this analogy seems dubious to me. The output of Newton’s formulas very closely matched the actual position of multiple celestrial bodies, recorded and present.

It seems that climate is more similar to the problem of simulating a mousetrap and ping pong ball chain reaction, in that we understand the basic physical laws very well, and yet can’t simulate the details accurately. Furthermore, it seems difficult to get reliable conclusions from “macro” behaviors of the naturally imperfect models. Is there historical precedent for this approach? How do you falsify or invalidate such a model?



Flaws in the IPCC 2007 report on climate change

December 24, 2009

The presentation (sorry, in french) is very educative. It is pretty convincing: the global warming issue is not as well understood as the media and politics want us to believe, and it deserves more scrutiny and debate in the scientific community.

Vincent Courtillot is a geologist, whose research connected to the field of climate a few years back. He and his colleagues discovered evidence which suggests that sun activity could be the primary cause for climate changes in the last century, rather than carbon dioxide. This fits the new observations (temperatures falling in the last 10 years) better than the IPCC models (which predict continued rise in temperatures).
The presentation outlines many issues with the findings by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Clearly, the report overestimates the accuracy and its confidence in the key results, and deserves much scrutiny.

Much of the data requires great care because it is indirect and imperfect (quality, accuracy or resolution), such as estimating historical temperature using tree rings, using different instruments of measure over different time periods, or using ice cores as proxies for atmosphere contents.
Also, major factors are not sufficiently accounted for in the models, such as water/steam, which we have reasons to think do play a significant role in climate (heat and cosmic radiations create clouds which cool down the earth by reflecting sun rays away).
Finally, there are huge methodological difficulties, such as the notion of an average temperature (a meaningless physical concept, as temperature is not additive) or accounting for climate locality.
He points to and summarizes alternative studies, including some of his own, which attempt to replicate the key IPCC findings with greater care to data quality and improve on or contradict the IPCC results. Those often do not get as much attention in the media.

In his conclusion, he highlights a few points:
The modern scientific method for natural sciences is built on three pillars: observation, theory and modelling/simulation.
Models should be falsifiable. Models that need tweaking to fit new observations should raise questions.
Studies should be careful with margins of error and avoid exaggerated statements.
In particular, we cannot state at this point that the issue is understood with 90% probability, as the IPCC report does.
There is an interesting issue of mechanisms for building expert consensus and dealing with mediatic and political bias towards fear and simplification. Such discussions also need to be clear to separate the role of the scientist (what do we know?) and the citizen (what do you do about it?).
There is no science without verification and without debate. He worries of a backlash against the scientific community if the so-called “consensus” is found to be wrong.
He is concerned that important problems for the coming century are getting too little attention: drinkable water, garbage management, hunger.
There is climate change. There was a warming over 150 years, but it is irregular and not out of bounds in larger time scale (2000 years to millions of years). Climate has always been changing.
The models and observations are complex, but uncertainty is often not well accounted for in the models. 
Finally, there is a growing body of evidence that the variations in sun activity, the physics of water/steam in the atmosphere and cosmic radiations play a primary role on climate change, as opposed to man-produced CO2.

Clocks, contracts and social changes

December 18, 2009

Clock time is a fungible measure of sacrifice.   Of all measurement instruments, the clock is the most valuable because so many of the things we sacrifice to create are not fungible.  The massive clock towers of Europe, with their enormous loud and resonant bells, broadcasting time fairly across the town and even the countryside, rather than the last relics of the medieval, were the first building block of the wealthy modern world.  The Europeans evolved their institutions and deployed two very different but complementary timekeeping devices, the sandglass and the mechanical clock, to partition the day into frequently rung and equal hours.   Europe progressed in a virtuous circle where bells and clocks improved the productivity of relationships; the resulting wealthy institutions in turn funded more advances in timekeeping.


The rise of the cities and the merchant revolution was given a temporary setback by the Black Plague, the very century that the clock was introduced, but thereafter economic growth renewed with unprecedented vigor.  The massive change on the farm, the dominant form of industry, in the 14th and successive centuries from serfdom and slavery to markets and wage labor, was caused not only by the temporary labor shortages of the Black Plague,  but more fundamentally and permanently by the time-rate contract and the new ability to accurately and fairly verify its crucial measurement of sacrifice, time.  Time rates also became the most common relationship for the mines, mills, factories, and other industries that rapidly grew after the advent of the clock.   


We take many things for granted, from technology to social conventions and solutions. This historical essay give a revealing perspective: by offering an independent measure of time –ultimately the most valuable resource–, bell towers and clocks enabled time-based contracts, an important social change. They increased productivity by allowing new kinds of exchanges and negotiations while alleviating many disputes.

The ???Hard Day???s Night??? Mystery

December 13, 2009

It took Dalhousie University professor Jason Brown six months and some advanced mathematical analytical techniques to crack the code behind one of the most mysterious sounds in music: the “prraaaaaangg” sound at the beginning of the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night.”

“The Chord:”

via Found via Tim Harford’s “More or Less” radio show.

Reverse engineering the unmistakable introduction sound by the Beatles using Fourier transforms: the secret is a piano chord behind the 3 guitars.

The method has since then been built into software.

Economic Freedom of the World 2009 Annual Report

December 13, 2009

Hosted by
Countries with more economic freedom have substantially higher per-capita incomes.

Hosted by
The share of income earned by the poorest 10% of the population is unrelated to the degree of economic freedom in a nation.

The Fraser institute defines and collects the “Economic Freedom of the World” (EFW) index every year. Just like other complicated indexes, it is imperfect, but it attempts to factor in the many dimensions of economic freedom (personal choice, voluntary exchange, protection of private property, etc.).

Their annual report ranks countries by the EFW index and analyzes other metrics (such as GDP, income per capita and longevity) in relation to this index.
The data shows a clear correlation between freedom and GDP per capita, ie. countries with more economic freedom are richer. Similarly, people live longer in those freer countries.
Those are positive results and reflects the lessons learned from this century, that central planning makes people worse off and the free market makes people better off.

The report also addresses a common concern: no, the poor are not worse off in free economies. The income share for the 10% poorest remains around 2.5%, both in less and more free countires. Actually, they fare better in actual income in free economies (which are richer), still getting a small share, but out of a larger pie.

Check out the latest report in its entirety. It also looks at trends, environmental performance, corruption and civil liberties.

Take credit card payments on your iPhone

December 10, 2009

An iPhone app with a cheap gizmo and supporting service to let anyone receive credit card payments on their iPhone.
The IRS probably loves making underground cash transactions traceable 😉 It’s a cool app and device, but I don’t see who would use it yet.

Also, I wonder what is the per payment fee to Visa/MasterCard/etc.

Update (2010/01/05): a competing product, Mophie, was shown at CES.

Applying Economics to American History

December 9, 2009

In an entertaining 30 minutes, Tom Woods shows that higher standards of living and better wages for the workers is not due to government or unions, but rather to the free market (ie. capitalism).

It is the accumulation of capital which allows the production of capital goods (tools, machines, factories) which let us produce more goods more productively, thus raising our standards of living.
One great illustration is the number of hours of work needed to earn money to get goods. Compared to a century ago, it takes half the time for many goods (bread, oranges, jeans, etc.) and even less for others.

In the same streak, he rejects the notion that legislation, rather than capitalism, could be an effective means to fight poverty or child labor.

He also tells the story of some successful entrepreneurs (some nice people, some not) to point out the social benefits they brought about, in comparison with state-granted monopolies.

He finishes with enlightening tidbits of history: the actually not-so-wild Wild West and the idolized environmentalism of native american Indians (see Chief Seattle’s made-up speech).

Surprised kitten

December 1, 2009

17 seconds to cheer up 😉