Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Oracle Speaks

My views of polling are perhaps familiar. I wrote on the subject about three years ago on the old LaMarotte (link). My chief problems are that the samples are exceedingly small—thus each respondent quite frequently speaks for 226,500 other adults—and the quality of the response is at best dubious. As I put it in that post:

Poll results have zero value. They have no basis in fact. Respondents have no specialized knowledge; they may or may not have thought about the subject. If they have thought about it, their reasoning may be muddled. They’re probably echoing snippets they’ve heard on the media. The practical value? Also nil. If no immediate vote is impending, politicians can’t gain anything at all by changing message with every whim of the media. Opinion is a Rorschach ink blot—read into it whatever you like.

My best mentor in the use of statistics was the chief statistician for Anheuser Bush, a very able and amusing man. Back in the good-old-days, when calculators had some size, he used to wear one strapped to his trouser belt as if it were a six-shooter. He used to say: “The basic requirement for credible work in our field? When you publish something, any one of your readers should be able to check your results at least arithmetically. You’ve got to give them all the numbers.”

Today comes a Gallup Poll on “Americans’” opinion of the Supreme Court ruling Thursday (on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act). Results? 46 percent agree and 46 percent disagree with the Court’s ruling. The sample? 1,012 people aged 18 or older. These results are then also subdivided by party affiliation into Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. But here comes the sticking point. Gallup publishes all of the questions asked of this random sample. Those questions, however, don’t include any query about the respondent’s political affiliation. How that sample breaks down by affiliation is not provided. And, yes. I followed every link Gallup provided offering additional information. Nothing there.

In my older post I urge that, given this situation, we might as well return to reading the flight of birds or the shape of the entrails of animals. Might be cheaper.

In the process of trying to figure out what Gallup’s numbers meant, I cam across this article (link) in USA Today which gives a picture of how many registered voters there were in 2004. The numbers are 72 million Democrats, 55 million Republicans, and 42 million Independents. The numbers have changed since, I am told, but that’s a recent benchmark. Gallup having failed me, I think I’ll go outdoors now and see if I can practice augury. There is a grey dove that comes this time of the morning…

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Three Cheers Supremes

For my pessimistic view of the future of the health care act, see the last post.

Today I am cheerful because, despite its flaws, the Supreme Court upheld the law. Indeed the majority of the Court saw the situation exactly as I saw it—namely that Congress can, too compel the public (“the tax and spend power”) even if it cannot force people to buy any specific thing. Here is a rare case where the Court’s decision was based on functional facts rather than narrow legalisms. I say Bravo! Needless to say, I had crow for lunch, having been so negative before. That stance, however, is also justified. But sometimes one is surprised.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Sacred Right of Purchase

People can be and routinely are compelled to purchase things by government, but the voluntary nature of that purchase is preserved by tying the obligation to such things as owning or operating cars. Meaning that the purchase remains avoidable—if you are willing to do without a car. The compeller is the government, the seller, however, is an insurance company. This is not the case when we pay for a driver’s license or a passport—provided we want to drive or travel out of the country. In those cases the government sells us the goodies. There are slight differences present here.

Those of us old enough also paid for our Medicare—which is, in effect, health insurance—but here again the slight difference is vitally important—we didn’t buy it. We just paid taxes. And while it is our sacred right (seemingly) to purchase or not to purchase as we choose, it is the government’s sacred right to tax us—and we cannot refuse unless government-provided loopholes allow us convenient escapes.

Forcing people to purchase health insurance? Good Heavens, Shriek, Cackle. The heavens will fall in. Some truths are self-evident, among these equality in creation, and unalienable rights, among these life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the sacred right to purchase or not to purchase as we choose.

How will the Supreme Court rule on Thursday? Will they uphold that sacred right? Probably. Would the health care bill have passed if it had imposed the cost of universal coverage as a tax? Probably not. My own view of that legislation has been negative all along (as documented on here and on the old LaMarotte) because it was a compromise. I wanted a much stronger law, entirely run by government. Congress imposed an indirect tax, in the form of a mandate to purchase, to keep the health insurance industry hale while escaping the charge that it was raising taxes. This law has been called “landmark.” It was nothing of the sort. Its crumbling began long before it passed—when its actual funding was turned into a finesse.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Aware 2, Meet Tomra T-820

A recent post reported on a camera, Aware 2, able to produce a photograph with 1 billion pixels of information—the chief purpose of which is to survey the world for purposes of defense or criminal investigations. On a short walk this morning, a discarded can on a lawn reminded me of returning cans at Kroger. It is done by feeding a machine. A belt takes the can, causes it to revolve very briefly before a camera. The imprinted image is interpreted; if the can is returnable in our location under Michigan laws—and presumably the band is also sold by Kroger—the can continues on and is swallowed; a display on the face of the machine credits me with 10 cents per can. If the can is persona non grata, why then the can comes back again and a message informs me of its rejection.

I got to thinking. Here is the same technology I saw in Aware 2: optical sensors interfaced with a computer. But who makes the object that—I discovered later—is called a Reverse Vending Machine; lets abbreviate that to RVM. The answer is (trumpets) Tomra.

Quite an impressive company. It is headquartered in Asker, Norway, began in 1971, and a year later it had already produced its first RVM. In 2011 the company had world-wide sales of 3,690 million Norway Krone ($619 million). Furthermore, it had expanded into all manner of recycling and sorting—always involving the same technology: optics and computing. Tomra’s machines can sort potatoes, lemons, meat, stone, and trash collected from a football stadium (it takes about 15 minutes to render the vast collection of a football game’s detritus into paper, plastic, metal, and other more or less homogeneous wastes). Tomra is big in the mining business sorting ores, in the food industry, and, of course, in can and bottle recycling.

I am impressed. I used to run the Recycling Division at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. In fact I was that division’s first director. Long ago and far away. Sorting was then strictly a matter of gravity and of magnets, the magnets able to retrieve the metals, ramps and shaking sorting rock and other debris by size and density. No sign yet of optics anywhere—except for human eyes staring at a moving belt where people sorted waste by hand. Now technology can do it faster and better. People, of course, are still needed—but in such sophisticated roles as designing machines, lenses, and in programming computers.

The most ambiguous feelings always arise when I come across something like this and my mind comes to a focus. Here is a high art made for a wasteful age—in which we use hair-thin aluminum to package sugary drinks that make us obese. They’re elegantly processed by wondrous machines produced by that can-do, enterprising Norwegian spirit…
Image of the T-820 courtesy of Wikipedia Commons (link).

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Is That Really Helpful?

When we suddenly realize—thanks to a happy (or should I say unhappy) context—that we have one child older than Angela Merkel of Germany (11-17-1954), two older than Barack H. Obama (8-4-1961), and a third child who is just two years younger than the President, why then one sits down for a moment to think.

Such a moment came recently in this household. And it recurred again today when both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal featured front page photographs of Angela Merkel enthusing with raised arms over Germany’s victory over Greece in the quarter finals of the World Cup held in—of all places—Gdansk in Poland.

Here is a conjunction of venues, individuals, pop culture, and media that signals to the fading adults in this space that things are really out of joint—but we feel too feeble, actually, to intervene. Our time of routinely intervening passed about 30 years ago.

Is it all that helpful for world leaders to be seen exulting at an event that they are surely old enough to know will be exploited massively by the hyenas of the media? Is it responsible for the New York Times to splash the picture on its front page—or is that just a reflexive hatred for all things German combined with a revulsion for austerity? Does it make fiscal sense for the Wall Street Journal to inflame the markets with the same image? Is that responsible journalism? The context here, of course, is soccer, surely the biggest modern circus sport and almost automatically linked to the word “hooliganism.” Should adults, be they elected officials or the guardians of the “people’s right to know,” engage in such tactics?

Is there a subtle sophistication involved here? Is Merkel signaling to German voters? Do the papers have an agenda? Or is immature behavior the very meat they want to serve a public even more infantilized than its masters?

Thank God the sun is out. Next to a brick that holds up our sagging miniature picnic table we bought when our grandchildren were small, tiny ants are busy raising large mounds of very fine dirt. I think I’ll go out there to have a conversation with them. There are still real adults around, however small.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Sauron's Eye

The papers today carry a story about a new camera, called Aware-2, developed at Duke University in a $25 million project sponsored by the Defense Department. It can take a picture made up of 1 billion pixels. The image is taken by 100 tiny cameras, each able to capture an image with 1 million pixels. The camera (about the size of a football) has a computer that merges the products of each camera into the final image, but using the different images singly produces enormous detail of any selected part of the image when desired. Use? Military, defense, surveillance, etc. As you jaywalk across an intersection, a camera like that can look down into the deep chasm of your sweating pores.

Modern technology is really all about optics and computing. The soldier is weighted down by carrying a huge weight of batteries—just to see in the dark, as it were, to communicate instantly, to sense what eyes can’t see, to direct destruction to the machine-seen target. The overhead of all this complexity is getting burdensome—so that the other day, in the Wall Street Journal, I think, there was a story or headline saying: “I don’t want any more features—give me simplicity.”

When Orwell wrote his 1984, little did he imagine what the eyes of Big Brother actually look like—or, for that matter, J.R.R. Tolkien writing about Sauron’s all-seeing eye. Now we know. Let me introduce you to Aware-2. Here’s looking at you.
Image source: Duke University (link).

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The 32 Degrees of Frost

They turn out to be an interesting, indeed an amusing, subject—in the general category of “Everybody knows it but virtually no one knows why.”

The beginnings of thermometers go back to what might as well be the dawn of time, at least from our ignorant perspective. We live in a scientific age, but it’s not the first one. Early in the Hellenistic era (which began, let’s say, with the death of Alexander the Great, 323 BC), Philo of Byzantium (circa 280-220 BC) discovered that air increases in volume when heated, decreases when cooled, and to demonstrate this he used a little glass tube sealed at the top. He put the open end into a jar of water. A little of the water came up into the tube. As the air got hotter, the water level in the glass went down; as it got colder, the water rose. Then, early at the beginning of our scientific age, several people, who knew of these discoveries, repeated the experiment, among them, most notably Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). He called his device a thermoscope.

These early devices, of course, had no scale. The indicator inside them would go up or down, but no little lines, with numbers, to mark where they stopped moving. That began in the seventeenth century with the Danish physicist Ole Rømer (1644-1710). There is no Rømer scale today, but Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit (1686-1736), a German, started with Rømer’s. Rømer, however, is not forgotten. His fame is linked to measuring the speed of light. Rømer set the bottom of the scale at the temperature of brine—thus a mixture of water, ice, and salt. This sort of mixture is colder than frozen water. This was Rømer’s 0° of temperature. Water froze at 7.5°, the human body’s temperature was 22.5°—we’re still talking about Rømer’s own scale. But here is where Fahrenheit started. He too began with brine—rather than the temperature of water ice.

Fahrenheit reasoned as follows. It’s hard to work with fractions—like 7.5 and 22.5. Therefore he multiplied each by four: 30 and 90. Zero times 4 was, of course, still zero. Fahrenheit set about to mark his glass tube. It was a little hard to do. He had another idea. He decided to set the freezing temperature at 32 and the body temperature at 96—and this for entirely practical reasons: ease of marking. The difference between death and life, as it were—frozen stiff and throbbing with heat, was 64 degrees. But 64 is 2 to the sixth power, so Fahrenheit found it easy to mark his glass tube. He divided the area between 32 and 96 by six equal length. Later work by others showed that water actually boils at 180 degrees above its freezing point. This introduced slight modifications to the Fahrenheit scale—so that the human body temperature came to be adjusted to 98°.

Physical substances actually reveal temperature. The scale added is arbitrary. Anders Celsius (1701-1744), a Swedish astronomer, decided that the boiling point pf water should be 0 and the freezing point 100. But this got turned on its head later on—so that now we boil water at 100° C and freeze it at 0° C.

The genuinely scientific measurement of 0° came with a man born as William Thomas (1824-1907); later he was ennobled and became Lord Kelvin, therefore the Kelvin scale. Kelvin thought that 0 should be reserved for the absolute absence of any temperature. This turns out to be at -459.67° F and ‑273.15° C. I first met 0° K when, in my youth, I did my first serious study of cryogenics while working for an engineering company—and discovered that there was life beyond Celsius. Rømer, Fahrenheit, Celsius, Kelvin; that’s the order in which our scales appeared. But who is next. And where will this person start. With brine? While watching a pot boil? While holding a thermometer into a nuclear explosion? Or focused squarely on the body’s temperature, as Rømer and Fahrenheit were? Such thoughts arise when the temperature outside is the same as the temperature inside—and I am miserable enough to start thinking, again, about central air.
Illustration courtesy of Wikipedia commons (link).

Monday, June 4, 2012

Equilibrium and Growth

Our stumbling, tottering economy once more brought an old question to mind. Is our economic model sustainable in the long haul? And by long haul I mean centuries. Is the concept of sustained and, ideally, continuously increasing growth a fundamental mistake? To be sure, the current troubles may go away, the Dow shall rise again, and so on. Perhaps we haven’t as yet reached the breaking point when growth has finally piled enough straw on us so that the last one breaks the camel’s back. But eventually, as I keep harping here, oil will run out. One way or the other, our accustomed ways will come to an end. And in that context the “current troubles” may be a Godsend if we read the signals right.

Herewith I present a comparison of GDP and Population growth, side by side, each indexed at 100 for the year 1995—as if the modern age had just begun that year.

The GDP curve is based on chained-dollars, meaning constant dollars adjusted for inflation. The population data are from the U.S. Bureau of the Census. The uptick in population between 1999 and 2000 represents a correction, as it were, introduced by the full 2000 census. It suggests that annual intercensal estimates in the 1990s had been understating the actual population increase.

What this shows us is that GDP consistently grows at a rate well above that of the population. In this 15-year sampling, population increased at the rate of 1.08 and GDP at 2.46 percent a year. Population grew every year, as might be expected; the GDP dipped in 2008 and 2009—the Great Recession. The divergence of these curves really spell over-consumption, thus consumption significantly exceeding what we genuinely need. To be sure, today we need a great deal more than we needed in 1900. But if we just consumed, in 2010, what we did in 1995 (not exactly primitive times), the GDP growth rate would closely paralleling the population increase.

This sort of thing strikes the modern mind as naïve, at minimum, plain ignorant at max. After all our life style must improve, every year. Haven’t you heard? What doesn’t grow, declines. Equilibrium, however, is the real sign of sustainability. That also applies, to be sure, to population. And there we see the genuine paradox of growth. Our way of life is unsustainable even if our economy only grew at the population rate.

A good sci-fi novel comes to mind. It was Stand on Zanzibar, by John Brunner, 1968. Back then there was the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that all of the world’s population could fit on the Isle of Wight in England (147 square miles) if they were standing up. Brunner projected his tale to 2010 and figured that the then 7 billion, as he projected world population, would have to “stand on Zanzibar,” off Africa, 600 square miles. We’re getting there. We’re getting there…

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Job Gain/Loss by Sector, May 2012

Herewith once more the employment change by sector—the change between April and May 2012. Construction turned in the biggest loss, 28,000 jobs, this despite a very warm May. Information  (which includes the Media and Publishing), had losses last month of 1,000, this month of 2,000. The most dramatic changes have been in Transportation and in Professional and Business Services, one the inverse of the other.  Transportation had shown a loss of 16,500 last month, a gain of 35,600 this month. Professional/Business services had a gain of 37,000 in April, a loss of 1,000 in May. Government, as usually, had a sizeable loss, both in April (10,000) and in May (13,000). When our politicians claim to be job creators, it is well to keep in mind that they are unable even to create jobs in the sectors they clearly control. The chart follows:

Herewith a tabular explosion of the Government sector’s loss:

(in thousands)

   Excluding postal


   Excluding education
   State education


   Excluding education
   Local education

The big losses have come in postal services and in education. As in—wouldn’t you know it. The only sub-sectoral gain was shown in local government, excluding education. Let’s by all means hear more agonizing about the decay of education and the disappearance of the middle class.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Employment Update: May 2012

With its release of the May 2012 employment change numbers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also revised its April results, downward, by a substantial 49,000 jobs. We thought we’d gained 115,000 jobs last month; no; it was only 66,000. And the job gains this months were 69,000. Nothing to cheer about here. The graphic, obtained from numbers pointed to by the BLS press release (link), follows:

Our economy is stuck in the Horse Latitudes. Those regions of the globe are between 30 and 35 degrees, both in the northern and in the southern hemispheres, called the subtropical regions, where a high-pressure system dominates, little rain falls, and winds are mixed, weak, and often altogether missing. As tradition has it, the northern region got its name because the early Spanish sailors, who often transported horses to the American subcontinent, saw horses die on board as ships lay becalmed for weeks on end. Nothing furthers, as the I Ching might say—except our dynamically-changing explanations. The last is that problems in the Eurozone are throwing a big, threatening shadow.

The next graphic compares results, year-to-date, thus in each case for the January-May period, for the three years of our recovery from the Great Recession. This year we've managed to under-perform both 2010 and 2011.