Thursday 17 December 2009

Strato Shield and Geoengineering: hurrah!

There's an episode of "The Simpsons", where invasive lizards are found to be an effective predator of pigeons in Springfield (S10:3, "Bart The Mother").  Principal Skinner and Lisa have the following conversation:

Skinner: Well, I was wrong. The lizards are a godsend.
Lisa: But isn't that a bit short-sighted? What happens when we're overrun by lizards?
Skinner: No problem. We simply release wave after wave of Chinese needle snakes. They'll wipe out the lizards.
Lisa: But aren't the snakes even worse?
Skinner: Yes, but we're prepared for that. We've lined up a fabulous type of gorilla that thrives on snake meat.
Lisa: But then we're stuck with gorillas!
Skinner: No, that's the beautiful part. When wintertime rolls around, the gorillas simply freeze to death.

I thought of this when reading of the concept of spraying aerosol of Sulphur Dioxide into the atmosphere, to reduce Carbon Dioxide induced global warming.  Geoengineering, with the Stratoshield.  Lisa: But isn't that a bit short-sighted?  What happens when we're overrun with Acid rain?
"No problem, we simply release wave after wave of alkalines into the oceans, they'll wipe out the acid rain".  Lisa: but aren't the alkalines even worse?  “Yes, but we’re prepared for that, we’ve lined up some more SO2 to cool down and re-balance the oceans".  Lisa: But what if we get it wrong and it's too cold?  "No, that's the beautiful part, when winter rolls around we simply freeze to death …"  Al Gore has weighed in on the concept: “in a word, it’s nuts”.
But here’s the real beautiful part: it would probably work!  And it would work quickly.  We have a pretty good idea of what happens when we have increases in SO2 into the atmosphere, from the eruption of Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.  That led to worldwide reductions in temperatures of a few degrees for a few years.  The SO2 precipitated out in 2-3 years, but in such small quantities that it did not add to ocean acidity.
I’d heard about geoengineering some time ago on the radio, but thought at the time that it sounded rather like crazy science, “nuts” as Gore said.  But I took a closer look, thanks to Super Freakonomics.  I think I bagged the book a little prematurely in my earlier post, for it’s worth the price of purchase just to read the chapter on the global warning debate and issues (“Why is Al Gore like Mount Pinatubo?”). 
That chapter covers at the Stratoshield concept (aka "Budyko's Blanket), and some others as well: like the use of ocean spray to help promote localized cloud cover, which can help to cool the globe.  I’d said that SF was thin gruel, but this chapter is a hearty stew.
Who’s promoting the idea?
Intellectual Ventures: set up by Nathan Myhrvold in 1990.  Myhrvold was the technical and strategic guy at Microsoft for many years, described by Bill Gates as “the smartest guy I know”.  He has set up IV to develop ideas and concepts, to register patents and see them commercialised.  Others involved in the project have strong green credentials: Ken Caldeira,  John Latham, et al.   
1.     Quick fix: to put out the fire while we work out fire-control measures.
2.     Simple: can be done with existing technology.
3.     Cheap: would only cost in the tens of millions, vs. the trillions per year that are being       mooted to get the world “carbon free”.
4.     Stop-gap: can be deployed for only as long as needed then can be dismantled within a few months.
5.     Place-specific: can be situated at the poles where the temperatures are rising at four times the rate of the poles.   Can keep the polar regions, especiall the Arctic, at pre-industrial levels of ice cover.
1.     Diversion: In doing so, we risk diverting attention from the need to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere.  But as Nathan Myhrvold says, that’s like criticizing the doctor for doing a heart by-pass on a patient that should have exercised more and eaten more sensibly.
2.     Acid rain: the amount of SO2 needed is one one-thousandth (IV) or one two-thousandth (Freakonomics) of the amount that goes into the air every year, from natural and man-made sources (about 50/50).  One of the options in any case, is to pump the SO2 already been released by power stations further into the troposphere by long light plastic chimney tunnels.  
3.     Technical issues: is it practicable?  Well, the smart guys at Intellectual Ventures think so and have written a White Paper to show how.  Testing the concept would be in the millions or tens of millions of dollars, mere fractions of the billions being discussed for global warming amelioration.

Wednesday 16 December 2009

DESK WARC... "Four sides to every story" on global warming

Which are you: DEnier, SKeptic, WArmer or Calamatist?
This is a great summary of the four main views on global warming, from the International Herald Tribune today (in the New York Times, pdf here).
Me, having been buffeted hither and thither by the evidence, I find myself somewhere between the Skeptic and the Warmer.   That is, there’s warming (nearly everyone agrees on that),  it’s faster in recent decades than for thousands of years (most agree on that), there’s evidence of connection with CO2 emissions (most agree on that) and man has contributed to that CO2 emission (most agree on that, though the argument is to what extent that’s had an impact more than the natural sources of CO2 or other drivers of climate exchange, such as solar causes).

Tuesday 15 December 2009

When I'm 57 to 85...

Click on the above to enlarge, also see here. [Wayback]
All my mates turning or turned 60 this year, and some over that true milestone, no longer just joking about the "big three-oh" or the "big five-oh", but real live appreciation of one's mortality.  Just came across this rather sobering table on the Herald Tribune's site.

"Difficult to deny global warming"

My mate Peter Sherwood weighs in on the climate debate, in yesterday’s South China Morning Post.  Must say it’s refreshing to see a letter on a subject other than the most parochial, plastic bags levies or schools’ language policies.  And I think Peter’s got the balance about right, in particular that even if there’s dispute about the extent of global warming and who or what’s responsible, there’s benefit in taking the mitigating mesasures anyway.  For a contrast to what the US has done, or we in Australia, there’s the story of Denmark , which took the 1973 oil shock seriously and weaned itself off a full diet of oil, to one that’s now 20% wind and will be non-fossil by 2035 (hey, that's not so far away....).  

Dubai Expatriates

Heatstruck economy
Numbers of my mates are now in Dubai, some there for many years, some just going.   Given the meltdown of Dubai World, what's life like there for the expat?  

Monday 14 December 2009

Kidney transplants and post-Ramadan birth weights

Just been reading “Super Freakonomics”, the sequel, which has been much lambasted for being more pop than economics and truth be told, if the first “Freakonomics” was a bit of porridge then the sequel's been watered down to pretty thin gruel.
But it’s got a couple of interesting points:

Friday 11 December 2009

Oh dear, it's those Swiss Minarets again...

But they, the MSM, won't let it go, and keep on keeping on, with the International Herald Tribune coming in predictably with a 10 to one ratio of articles critical of the ban, vs those looking at what it means.
So, another one fired off to the editors...

Terrorist Organisations List

Updated list here .  79% of all currently active organisations and 98% of religiously-based ones are Islamic.

Wednesday 9 December 2009

"Right idea on bubble busting"

They ran my letter on 5 Dec in the South China Morning Post, as follows (only removed one word, "basilisk" a word I liked, rather...).

"Invisible minarets"

The minarets vote just won't go away.  One day there's a pro-ban article (eg Ross Douthat yesterday ) and next day there's anti-ban one, such as Peter Stamm's today .  It's good that it gets publicity, for the more it does, the more the baleful doctrines of Islam get publicity.  And the more publicity there is for the symbolism of the minarets to Islam.
“The minarets are our bayonets, the domes our helmets, the mosques our barracks and the faithful our army.”
---  Ziya Gökalp, a 1912 poem, quoted by Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in 1997 (Erdoğan was then mayor of a small town; today he is, of course, Turkish Prime Minister and pushing a resurgent Islamist line for Turkey, as well as pushing for the accession of Turkey into the EU, which would, in my view, be a major tragedy for Europe and its values).

Tuesday 8 December 2009

"Europe's minaret moment"

Ross Douhat's piece in today's International Herald Tribune makes some points that not long ago would not have passed muster in the likes of a liberal paper such as the IHT.  Perhaps they're being mugged by reality and maybe they're reading the blogs....  
The article is here .
My comments to the Trib....

"The price of being born Muslim"

An article by Dr Tariq Ahmad, a doctor at a Boston hospital, in the International Herald Tribune, 5 Dec, here.

My letter to IHT....

Monday 7 December 2009

Our "Grandfatherland"...

Like: when can we have democracy in Hong Kong, as you promised.... wahhh...

Michael Chugani is a local columnist here in Hong Kong that I have a lot of time for.  Here he introduces the nickname Hongkongers have for Peking (aka "Beijing"):  阿爺.

Sunday 6 December 2009

Those minarets again....

The leaning minaret of Mossul
Andrew Bostom points out that minarets have traditionally been more about projecting power, including military power, than they are about religion.  Indeed, even the conservative Saudis think so.  The current Turkish prime minister did indeed say, way back in February 1998 when he was a mayor:
"The mosques are our barracks, the domes are our helmets, the minarets are our swords, and the faithful are our army."
This is quoted in the venerable and left-of-centre New York Times , so it must be true...

Friday 4 December 2009

"First cast out the beam..."

Re the Swiss Minarets ban:
Matthew 7.5
King John’s Bible
Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother's eye.
Basic English
You false one, first take out the bit of wood from your eye, then will you see clearly to take out the grain of dust from your brother's eye.
As helpfully explained at “Some sins are as motes, while others are as beams; some as a gnat, others as a camel.”  There’s one monster camel wandering round here, while many remain fixated on the gnat of the minaret ban….

Graphs for "Bubble trouble"

Click to enlarge (ref the article immediately below):

Bubble trouble?

Letter to South China Morning Post:
I agree with Tom Holland (“Bubble muddle ”, Dec 04): keep the government out of bubble-busting.
The IMF has cast its fierce and basilisk eye on our equity and property markets and determined that they are developing bubble-like tendencies.  It then proposes “remedies”.  Quite why the IMF should have any credibility after the fiascos of its interventions in South America in the eighties and the Asian Financial crisis of the nineties, is beyond me.  Countries did best which did the opposite of the IMF credit-tightening prescriptions in those crises.  In the Hong Kong property market, counter-cyclical attempts at control by the government have been shown time and again to lag so badly that they exacerbate downturns and magnify upturns.
Memo to Chief Executive Tsang: listen to the wise advice of Mr Holland, not that of the pointy-heads at the IMF!

Full text below as may not be available online:

By: Tom Holland, Dec 04.

The International Monetary Fund is worried about Hong Kong.
Yesterday it warned that "strong capital inflows and the resultant large liquidity overhang in the financial system could potentially lead to rapid credit growth, fuelling asset markets and creating macroeconomic volatility". In other words, its analysts believe bubbles are developing in Hong Kong's stock and property markets.
The fund is so concerned it called on the government to adopt "countercyclical regulatory action to mitigate the asset price cycle".
In plain English, that means it thinks the government should act now to pop the bubbles before they form. It even suggested five possible policy measures officials could employ.
The IMF's stance is hardly likely to win it many friends among Hong Kong's people, who tend to be rather more sanguine about the idea of stock and property bubbles. If anything, most rather relish the prospect as an exciting opportunity to make lots of money.
Cheung Kong (SEHK: 0001) executive director Justin Chiu neatly summed up the prevailing attitude a couple of weeks ago. "I don't really mind a bubble as long as it doesn't burst," he told a real estate conference. "If I drink champagne, I don't like to drink flat champagne." The government, he implied, should butt out and let market forces take their course.
Our increasingly interventionist officials are unlikely to heed his advice. Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen and others have vowed action to deflate any emerging bubbles. No doubt the government is already studying the IMF's policy proposals.
For the property market, the fund suggests requiring banks to hold more capital against their mortgage books to cool off the home loan market. Alternatively, regulators could force banks to increase their loan loss provisions during the upward leg of the cycle in order to curb their lending.
The government could also cut the permitted loan-to-value ratio on mortgages, or tighten lending procedures and standards. And, finally, it could step up land sales to increase the supply of flats coming onto the market.
If there were a bubble, it is unlikely any of these measures would have more than a marginal impact. Hong Kong banks already hold more than enough capital, so increasing ratios would have little effect. And considering that default rates remained below 2 per cent even in the depths of the property market crash 10 years ago, provisions already look adequate.
Lowering the minimum loan-to-value ratio from an already conservative 70 per cent wouldn't achieve much either. At around 64 per cent, the average ratio is well below the minimum anyway. Meanwhile, bank credit procedures are already considered fairly tight.
Finally, increasing land sales might work in the long run. But given the extensive lead time on new developments, it wouldn't do much to let the air out of a bubble in the short term.
The truth is, however, that there are no bubbles, either in the stock or property markets. The equity market has risen strongly over recent months, but as the first chart shows, the price to book valuation for the Hang Seng Index is bang in line with its long-term average and far below the bubble levels that developed in 1999 and 2007.
True, price-to-earnings ratios may look a little elevated right now, but given expected earnings growth of 20 per cent or more next year and the low cost of capital, analysts believe current valuations are fully justified.
Nor is there any sign of a bubble in property. Prices have risen this year, but as the second chart shows, affordability looks reasonable by historical standards. Certainly, it is way below the heights reached in the 1997 bubble. What's more, with some 50,000 flats sitting empty, there is no obvious shortage of supply.
And as the third chart illustrates, there is no evidence of a bubble-like rise in transaction volumes. The number of property deals has actually been declining for the last few months - just like the number of mortgage approvals - as buyers have baulked at the higher prices.
So although as the IMF says there is plenty of liquidity around, we needn't worry too much. Even if stock and property markets gain by another 20 per cent next year, it will be a long time before we have to begin taking its bubble warning seriously. And even then, there won't be much Hong Kong can do about it.

Thursday 3 December 2009

Extreme action in Hong Kong

We went out on the water for a sail and to see these Extreme 40' cats racing in HK harbour, on the 20th Nov.  They were a fine sight against the stunning backdrop of Hong Kong's skyline, but the course was short and we were the only spectators (apart from the press boat), so there's going to be a ways to go before it's a true spectator sport in Hong Kong.  Mind, we do have a good waterfront for it, and with the right promotion, it could take off.  The organisers did bill this first race series as a "getting-to-know-you, Hong Kong" event, mainly for the media, with next year to be more fully promoted.  With the coming of the Louis Vuitton Cup to Hong Kong next year, 2010 could be a good year for our harbour....  Our only downside is that the government has seen fit to decide to build a superhighway and tunnel right under the Royal HK Yacht Club in Causeway Bay, which is going to cause massive havoc with the facility and moving of many boats, mess on the very harbourfront it's hoping to promote;  sigh...)

Wednesday 2 December 2009

"A vote for Intolerance"?

A response to the Dhimmi International Herald Tribune, which can always be counted on to take the easy, cozy, comfortable, sleep-at-the-wheel view of the spread of Islamic sharia...
Letter below.