When is a (warming) trend real?

Here is the problem. A cartoon by XKCD


..and of course it got a boost from the Bad Astronomer:

It’s not like my pal Randall needs the traffic from me, but his xkcd comic on the new normal from global warming is just perfect, so I’m putting it here

Now I followed the link given in the cartoon but Randall had not put in upper and lower case, and I got nowhere.

I went searching for temperature information for St Louis, Missouri and got this page  and in that page there are spreadsheets to data about weather extremes for St Louis especially numbers of cold days below 32F and 0F for each year since 1893!

From that sheet I was able to reconstruct the number of days per year where the min temperature reached 0F and the maximum temperature reached 0F and a plot a much longer series of the number of days where the temperature reached 0F every year since 1895.

cold days in st louis

One of the interesting things is that in 1936, the height of the Dustbowl, St Louis had far and away the most 0F days in the entire record.

What IS interesting is that I did not reproduce Randall’s diagram in the cartoon. There are clearly days below 0F in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

There might be a climate signal in the noise, who knows? But I am very wary of drawing any sort of trend through that data because of the inherent noise of temperature data and the filter used.

The question is: is the distribution of days below 0F distinguishable from a random process?

More to follow…

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A new decade, another stock bubble

We’re on the edge of a new stock bubble. First we get good IPOs (LinkedIn and Facebook in the near future) with reasonable growth and profits, then the quality goes south as investors pile in to ever shittier prospects.

And here comes the head of the crud IPO wave: Groupon

Groupon is running out of cash because a) although its growth in revenue is crazy high, its growth in overheads are even higher and b) its founders are stealthily cashing out using venture capitalists money and the forthcoming IPO.

See here: http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2011/06/06/does-mason-want-to-get-out-of-groupon/

Groupon is losing money by choice. In early 2010, the company was profitable, then it embarked on its aggressive expansion to stay ahead of competitors. Hypergrowth is expensive. Thanks to sales and marketing costs, Groupon is spending money even faster than the insane pace that it has been bringing it in. This approach, not uncommon in startups, is risky: It works if all that spending keeps revenue growing over time. But there are already worrying signs that might not be the case; according to Groupon’s own data, it’s already seeing diminishing returns on its investments in established cities like Boston.

This leaves Groupon in a fairly precarious financial position. Total liabilities are $534 million, only $7 million less than total assets. It may be premature to declare that Groupon is “effectively insolvent,” as some commentators have, but companies hoping to go public normally wait until income statements and balance sheets are in a healthier state. There is something rushed about this IPO, as if the company is acting in desperation. Desperation is never the mark of an attractive IPO.

Groupon is burning through cash so quickly that, without new financing, it will run dry come autumn. But again, the company chose to put itself in this position. The company raised $950 million in January, but 85 cents of every dollar went toward stock repurchases for Mason and other insiders. (In 2009, Groupon gave Mason a loan to buy some shares, which he repaid only in part.)

One of the founders has a lot of “previous” in this sort of thing: http://tech.fortune.cnn.com/2011/06/10/groupon-eric-lefkofsky/

The strategy is clearly to pump up the growth and revenue at the expense of profitability, but like Amazon.com, anybody holding this stock for any length of time will risk losing nearly all of it when the laws of economic gravity reassert themselves.

Groupon is nearly insolvent and is issuing shares that values it at $30 billion, greater than Google’s IPO value . The shares are non-voting.

If there’s an IPO where the all of the risk is to be born by the ordinary investor and not at all by the founders or by the IPO underwriters [Morgan Stanley (MS), Goldman Sachs (GS) and Credit Suisse (CS), its like its 1999 all over again] then its this one.

If CNBC had any credibility it would run a story: “Groupon – run away screaming”. But I’m not expecting any credibility.

I’m watching Yet Another Tech Stock Bubble, this time in social networks. I wish I had the money to buy Put options on companies like this. I’d be sure to make a fortune from investors whose memory spans are shorter than Leonard Shelby

The iPad dead-end

In a slight departure from my normal blogging, I thought I’d tackle a subject close to my heart – the iPad. Or more accurately, in my opinion the iPad is not the dominant computing paradigm of the future, it’s a diversion to Nowheresville.

I actually own an iPad, albeit by accident after I applied to go on a cloud computing course where the iPad was thrown in as an incentive. I didn’t need the incentive but I did take the iPad and I loved it for a long time.

But I realise that the iPad is actually preventing me from properly functioning on the Internet and I think it’s reached a natural peak and its all downhill if someone can produce (or Michael Arrington can reproduce) the Crunchpad or similar.

Let me explain myself.

The greatest gift that the iPad has brought is easy-to-use, always-on Internet browsing, email and twittering. It certainly beats a laptop for passive consumption of the Internet (or at least, the part of the Internet that doesn’t use Flash). The iPad is a consumer device for people who don’t want to contribute too much but do want to browse a lot. I use iTunes a lot to download courses from premier academic institutions worldwide (especially MIT’s excellent OpenCourseware library). I watch these courses while commuting, or simply sitting in Starbucks. The iPad is great for downloading and watching movies and TV shows (as long as it’s on iTunes).

But let’s face it – this is a consumer device with less memory and storage capacity than an average netbook, and with a proprietary operating system and hardware locked down to prevent upgrades or any non-Apple approved modifications. The iPad 1, which I have, has 256MB of RAM while the iPad 2, just released, has 512MB of RAM.

My daughter’s netbook, by comparison, has 1GB of RAM and a 120GB hard disk. It runs Windows 7, but could run Ubuntu netbook Linux or any number of other Linuxes. And I could go anywhere to get movies and applications – including iTunes.

Can I work on an iPad? No, is the honest answer. Typing on a touchpad for anything more than a quick email is a trial of endurance – and it gets quickly painful if I try to enter some mathematics equations.

Let me demonstrate: try entering the following on an iPad

x= \frac{-b \pm \sqrt{b^2 -4ac}}{2a}

That took me 20 secs on a laptop keyboard using LaTeX. Now try it on an iPad any way you can think of. You have to jump from alphanumeric to numeric to symbols and back again at least 10 times. (Good luck finding \pm by the way)

Painful? Yup.

Never mind equations – is Mathematica, Maple, Mathcad, Sage, Matlab or R available for iPad? No. The math software on iTunes are all basic and real math software will never be available under such draconian limitations as are imposed by iPad’s crappy hardware specification.

I can run any of the above math software on my daughter’s netbook, as underpowered as that is.

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The Ecosystem Myth

A very interesting article by Adam Curtis on the origins of the “self-organizing human society” myth.

What you were seeing in that interchange was the expression of a very powerful ideology of our time. It is the idea of the “self-organising network”. It says that human beings can organise themselves into systems where they are linked, but where there is no hierarchy, no leaders and no control. It is not the old form of collective action that the left once believed in, where people subsumed themselves into the greater force of the movement. Instead all the individuals in the self-organising network can do whatever they want as creative, autonomous, self-expressive entities, yet somehow, through feedback between all the individuals in the system, a kind of order emerges.

Where have I heard this before? The notion of self-organizing societies is rooted in biological studies of phenomena such as ant colonies, which superficially look self-organized but in fact are rigidly controlled hierarchies.

Of course some of the ideas come out of anarchist thought. But the idea is also deeply rooted in a strange fantasy vision of nature that emerged in the 1920s and 30s as the British Empire began to decline. It was a vision of nature and – ultimately – the whole world as a giant system that could stabilise itself. And it rose up to grip the imagination of those in power – and is still central in our culture.

Here Curtis shows that James Lovelock’s “Gaia Hypothesis” has a very clear antecedent.

But we have long forgotten where it came from. To discover this you have to go back to a ferocious battle between two driven men in the 1920s. One was a botanist and Fabian socialist called Arthur Tansley. The other was one of the most powerful and ruthless rulers of the British Empire, Field Marshal Jan Smuts.

It all started with a dream. One night Tansley had an unsettling nightmare that involved him shooting his wife. So he did the natural thing and started reading the works of Sigmund Freud, and even went to be analysed by Freud himself. Then Tansley came up with an extraordinary theory. He took Freud’s idea that the human brain is like an electrical machine – a network around which energy flowed – and argued that the same thing was true in nature. That underneath the bewildering complexity of the natural world were interconnected systems around which energy also flowed. He coined a name for them. He called them ecosystems.

But Tansley went further. He said that the world was composed at every level of systems, and what’s more, all these systems had a natural desire to stabilise themselves. He grandly called it “the great universal law of equilibrium”. Everything, he wrote, from the human mind to nature to even human societies – all are tending towards a natural state of equilibrium.

But this is a Romantic biologist’s wild speculation and it has a counter-point – that all societies are manipulated by those who want to rule – often by force.

Field Marshal Smuts was one of the most powerful men in the British empire. He ruled South Africa for the British empire and he exercised power ruthlessly. When the Hottentots refused to pay their dog licences Smuts sent in planes to bomb them. As a result the black people hated him. But Smuts also saw himself as a philosopher – and he had a habit of walking up to the tops of mountains, taking off all his clothes, and dreaming up new theories about how nature and the world worked.

This culminated in 1926 when Smuts created his own philosophy. He called it Holism. It said that the world was composed of lots of “wholes” – the small wholes all evolving and fitting together into larger wholes until they all came together into one big whole – a giant natural system that would find its own stability if all the wholes were in the right places. Einstein liked the theory, and it became one of the big ideas that lots of right-thinking intellectuals wrote about in the 1930s. Even the King became fascinated by it.

But Tansley attacked. He publicly accused Smuts of what he called “the abuse of vegetational concepts” – which at the time was considered very rude. He said that Smuts had created a mystical philosophy of nature and its self-organisation in order to oppress black people. Or what Tansley maliciously called the “less exalted wholes”.

“Less exalted wholes” was ironic considering what was to come in South Africa: apartheid.

Because, although Tansley and Smuts and their argument about power would be forgotten, hybrid combinations of their ideas were going to re-emerge later in the century – strange fusions of systems engineering and mystical visions of organic wholes.

Thirty years later, thousands of young Americans who were disenchanted with politics went off instead to set up their own experimental communities – the commune movement. And they turned to Arthur Tansley’s idea of the ecosystem as a model for how to create a human system of order within the communes.

But they also fused it with cybernetic ideas drawn from computer theory, and out of this came a vision of strong, independent humans linked, just like in nature, in a network that was held together through feedback. The commune dwellers mimicked the ecosystem idea in their house meetings where they all had to say exactly what was on their minds at that moment – so information flowed freely round the system. And through that the communes were supposed to stabilise themselves.

But they didn’t. In many communes across America in the late 1960s house meetings became vicious bullying sessions where the strong preyed mercilessly on the weak, and nobody was allowed to voice any objections. The rules of the self-organising system said that no coalitions or alliances were allowed because that was politics – and politics was bad. If you talk today to ex-commune members they tell horrific stories of coercion, violent intimidation and sexual oppression within these utopian communities, while the other commune members stood mutely watching, unable under the rules of the system to do anything to stop it.

Of course this Utopian vision reached its logical conclusion in Jamestown, Guyana in 1978. People think that Jamestown was an aberration caused by religion – which it was, except the religion was Christianity and Communism and the Ecosystem Myth mixed together by the clinically paranoid Jim Jones.

In the late 70s an idea rose up that we – and everything else on the planet – are connected together in complex webs and networks. Out of it came epic visions of connectivity such as the Gaia theory and utopian ideas about the world wide web. And human beings believed that their duty was not to try to control the system, but to help it maintain its natural self-organising balance.

At the end of 1991 a giant experiment began in the Arizona desert. Its aim was to create from scratch a model for a whole self-organising world.

Biosphere 2 was a giant sealed world. Eight humans were locked in with a mass of flora and other fauna, and a balanced ecosystem was supposed to naturally emerge. But from the start it was completely unbalanced. The CO2 levels started soaring, so the experimenters desperately planted more green plants, but the CO2 continued to rise, then dissolved in the “ocean” and ate their precious coral reef. Millions of tiny mites attacked the vegetables and there was less and less food to eat. The men lost 18% of their body weight. Then millions of cockroaches took over. The moment the lights were turned out in the kitchen, hordes of roaches covered every surface. And it got worse – the oxygen in the world started to disappear and no one knew where it was going. The “bionauts” began to suffocate. And they began to hate one another – furious rows erupted that often ended with them spitting in one another’s faces. A psychiatrist was brought in to see if they had gone insane, but concluded simply that it was a struggle for power.

And a struggle for power is exactly what you get when human societies form and interact. In a sense, all of human history makes a mockery of the utopian visions of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek, for example. I have always wondered why people like to wear uniforms, but then I realise that they are accepting of a hierarchy controlled by a benevolent dictator whom they admire.

The article is well worth reading.

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Questioning Roy Spencer: Can a cooler object warm a hotter object?

In the blog post “Yes Virginia Cooler Objects can make Warmer Objects warmer still” published in July 2010, Roy Spencer makes the following claim:

One of the more common statements is, “How can a cooler atmospheric layer possibly heat a warmer atmospheric layer below it?” The person asking the question obviously thinks the hypothetical case represented by their question is so ridiculous that no one could disagree with them.


In fact, this is happening all around us, all the time. The reason why we might be confused by the apparent incongruity of the statement is that we don’t spend enough time thinking about why the temperature of something is what it is.

  and posits the following thought experiment:

Imagine a heated plate in a cooled vacuum chamber, as in the first illustration, below. These chambers are used to test instruments and satellites that will be flown in space. Let’s heat the plate continuously with electricity. The plate can lose energy only through infrared (heat) radiation emitted toward the colder walls of the chamber, since there is no air in the vacuum chamber to conduct the heat away from the plate. (Similarly, there is no air in outer space to conduct heat away from the Earth in the face of solar heating.)

The plate will eventually reach a constant temperature (let’s say 150 deg. F.) where the rate of energy gain by the plate from electricity equals the rate of energy loss by infrared radiation to the cooled chamber walls.

Now, let’s put a second plate next to the first plate. The second plate will begin to warm in response to the infrared energy being emitted by the heated plate. Eventually the second plate will also reach a state of equilibrium, where its average temperature (let’s say 100 deg. F) stays constant with time. This is shown in the next illustration:

Roy justifies what he’s done with this statement:

But what will happen to the temperature of the heated plate in the process? It will end up even hotter than it was before the cooler plate was placed next to it. This is because the second plate reduced the rate at which the first plate was losing energy.

(If you are unconvinced of this, then imagine that the second plate completely surrounds the heated plate. Will the heated plate remain at 150 deg., and not warm at all?)

In the following few posts, I’m going to question the thought experiment and have a look at the Laws of Thermodynamics and how they apply to this situation.


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Camping goes for broke – “The Invisible Judgment” just happened

After the failed prophecy, Harold Camping aims for the bleachers once again. This should be his third strike:

“We had all of our dates correct,” Camping insisted, clarifying that he now understands that Christ’s May 21 arrival was “a spiritual coming” ushering in the last five months before the final judgment and destruction.


In an hour and a half broadcast, Camping walked listeners through his numerological timeline, insisting that his teaching has not changed and that the world will still end on October 21, 2011.

“It wont be spiritual on October 21st,” Camping said, adding, “the world is going to be destroyed all together, but it will be very quick.”

Camping had previously pointed to October 21 as the last day on earth for all humanity.

His former assertion was that a faithful three percent would be physically pulled into heaven by God through the Rapture on May 21, to be followed by a five month period of great suffering known as the Tribulation, ending, finally, on October 21. On Monday’s broadcast, Camping speculated that perhaps a merciful God decided to spare humanity five months of “hell on earth.”

“Hell on Earth” if you’re not used to everyone laughing at you, certainly. But in certain people, there are inexhaustible supplies of delusional thinking ready to block out reality – just look at Usenet or James Hansen.

Richard Dawkins certainly cuts to the chase:

Q. Family Radio evangelist Harold Camping believes that he has calculated the exact date of the rapture: May 21, 2011. While many are laughing at the suggestion, Camping’s followers are taking him seriously, bringing his message of impending doom to billboards and public spaces around the country. What does your tradition teach about the end of the world? How does end time theology impact real world behavior?

A. Why is a serious newspaper like the Washington Post giving space to a raving loon? I suppose the answer must be that, unlike the average loon, this one has managed to raise enough money to launch a radio station and pay for billboards. I don’t know where he gets the money, but it would be no surprise to discover that it is contributed by gullible followers – gullible enough, we may guess, to go along with him when he will inevitably explain, on May 22nd, that there must have been some error in the calculation, the rapture is postponed to . . . and please send more money to pay for updated billboards.

So, the question becomes, why are there so many well-heeled, gullible idiots out there? Why is it that an idea can be as nuts as you like and still con enough backers to finance its advertising to acquire yet more backers . . . until eventually a national newspaper notices and makes it into a silly season filler?

I suppose the best antidote to all of this, is that Reality causes the rest of us to reexamine our basic assumptions about the world around us – and to make adjustments where necessary.

Unless you’re Harold Camping, of course.



Rapture Day+1

Today is May 22nd, 2011.

As far as I can tell no Rapture has taken place. Which means that Harold Camping was wrong.

Here are the facts:

FACTS about May 21, 2011


Who or What is Family Radio?

Family Stations, Inc. is a non-profit, non-commercial, Christian radio network. It was established in 1958 with one FM station in the San Francisco bay area. Mr. Camping along with two other Christian men purchased KEAR with the sole intent of proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today there are sixty-six owned and operated radio stations throughout the U.S.

Along with these domestic stations Family Stations also broadcasts its programming from numerous international broadcast facilities throughout the world.

Who is Harold Camping?

Harold Camping is the President and General Manager of Family Stations, Inc. He graduated from UC Berkeley in 1942 with a degree in civil engineering. Mr. Camping has been a full-time volunteer since Family Radio’s infancy and has never received compensation for his service.

What Qualifies Mr. Camping to make the pronouncement of May 212011?

Mr. Camping has been a tireless student of the Bible for over five decades.The tens of thousands of hours he has spent analyzing the Bible has given him a unique perspective of the entirety of Scripture. He has dedicated his life to prepare himself to answer questions raised concerning God’s Word to man.

More facts are:

How can Family Radio be so bold as to declare a date for Christ’s return?

Given the overwhelming biblical evidence, the Family Stations, Inc. Board of Directors made a determination to dedicate all available resources to proclaim the warning of May 21, 2011. God has prepared Family Radio for this important time in history. Given the population of the world, radio and the internet are the perfect vehicles to deliver this warning.

What proof is there for the date of May 21, 2011?

The date May 21, 2011 was derived solely from evidence found in the Bible. Mr. Camping saw God had placed, in Scripture, many important signs and proofs. These proofs alert believers that May 21st of 2011 is the date Christ will return for His people and begin a period of the final destruction of the world.

What signs precede the Day of Judgment?

Jesus warned of several spiritual signs, such as the complete degradation of the Christian church, the devastating moral breakdown of society, the re-establishment of National Israel in1948, the emergence of the ‘Gay Pride Movement’, and the complete disregard of the Bible in all of society today as direct evidence of His return.

What is the Timeline of History?

The timeline of history is God’s predetermined timetable for the unfolding of God’s Gospel program for this world. In other words the length of time between the day God created this world in 11,013 B.C. and the day he will destroy it in October 21, 2011.

The discovery of this information built the foundation for what God would later reveal from the Bible as the date for the end.

Judgment Day on May 21, 2011 is the culmination of five decades of intensive biblical study by Mr. Camping and other bible teachers who have discovered the same biblical data.

So, you may ask, what happened yesterday?

What will take place on May 21?

On May 21, 2011 two events will occur. These events could not be more opposite in nature, the one more wonderful than can be imagined; the other more horrific than can be imagined.

A great earthquake will occur the Bible describes it as “such as was not since men were upon the earth, so mighty an earthquake, and so great.” This earthquake will be so powerful it will throw open all graves.The remains of the all the believers who have ever lived will be instantly transformed into glorified spiritual bodies to be forever with God.

On the other hand the bodies of all unsaved people will be thrown out upon the ground to be shamed.

The inhabitants who survive this terrible earthquake will exist in a world of horror and chaos beyond description. Each day people will die until October 21,2011 when God will completely destroy this earth and its surviving inhabitants.

And the Biblical confidence is overwhelming:

What if May 21 ends and nothing occurs?

The Biblical evidence is too overwhelming and specific to be wrong. Christ’s people can look with great confidence to this date because God promises His “beloved” He will not come upon them as a thief in the night.

God in His mercy has revealed the vital information needed to know the day. Judgment Day on May 21, 2011 will occur because the bible declares it. Anyone whom God has not saved will arrive at that day with no hope for salvation. God warns simply the “door will be shut.”

As of this morning, the Rev. Camping has gone to ground.

With his millions of dollars, which he didn’t give away even though he knew he couldn’t take it with him. Odd, that?

It would be easy to mock the Rev Camping and his followers for believing all of the above – but just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done.

This from the BBC:

An atheist and entrepreneur from New Hampshire, Bart Centre, is enjoying a boost in business for Eternal Earth-bound Pets, which he set up to look after the pets of those who believe they will be raptured.

He has more than 250 clients who are paying up to $135 (£83) to have their pets picked up and cared for after the rapture.

They would be disappointed twice, he told the Wall Street Journal. “Once because they weren’t raptured and again because I don’t do refunds.”

Gawker Gizmodo had a contest for people to photograph what the rapture would look like. My two favourites are:

Why was that cute dog left behind to face the Tribulation?

and this made me laugh

How could she leave having read that it was all a delusion?

Of course, many other people took the opportunity to pour atheistic ordure on Harold Camping’s biblical head.

The Maker Faire found itself on the cusp of the Apocalypse, and decided to make a button out of it

Atheist groups in the US joined in the fun

Atheists in Tacoma, Washington have been holding a “Countdown to Backpedaling” and a big party to celebrate the non-event.

Oh well. Back to finding a job…