Dust flux, Vostok ice core

Dust flux, Vostok ice core
Two dimensional phase space reconstruction of dust flux from the Vostok core over the period 186-4 ka using the time derivative method. Dust flux on the x-axis, rate of change is on the y-axis. From Gipp (2001).

Monday, May 27, 2013

Denial of authoritarianism--no, end the Fed

Salon has an article on denial of science by mainstream society. The article asks why people deny the unpleasant truths that modern science has to offer--apparently preferring to chance of the impending hell of global warming and non-fluoridated drinking water.

The thing the authors don't understand is that the general public is not pushing back against the science per se. They like the science. Science gives them big, flat-screen TVs, Blu-Ray players, cars, airplanes, special effects, laptops with more computing power than ENIAC, the internet, and so forth. They love science.

They don't like authoritarians telling them what to do. So bugger off.

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Okay, I'm a little calmer now. There is another point in this entire discussion I would like to mention.

Past environmental issues have been dealt in a top-down, authoritarian fashion. Acid rain and ozone depletion were both attacked, with considerable success, by legislating against the sources. But this only worked because the main sources were few in number, easily tracked, and there were solutions available for the problem. CFCs were replaced by other coolants with less effect on the ozone layer, but this solution was only possible because the alternate coolants existed.

In earlier articles we have discussed the issue of multistability in the climate system. During periods of relative stability, negative feedbacks dominate, with the effect that the system appears to resist changes. The capacity for resistance to change is not infinite, and eventually a tipping point is reached, beyond which positive feedbacks dominate, leading to very rapid change. This idea would suggest that the climate system will resist changes to atmospheric composition for a time, which may be why there hasn't been the warming that was predicted by the IPCC models (pdf).

Governments would like people to stop emitting so much CO2 (through driving, power requirements, and industrial use). Well, alright then. 1) What replacement is there that won't significantly impact on lifestyle; and 2) has the government considered its role in the CO2 problem?

In an earlier article I discussed how the increasing number of disasters in the US is more a function of urban sprawl than any increase in frequency of natural events.

A big part of the reason that per capita CO2 emissions are higher in North America than in Europe is our urban structure--in particular the vast suburbs that surround most city centres. The big suburbs mean lots of people commuting, but the density of the sprawl is too low to favour high-capacity transit.

Big suburbs are only possible due to easy money. With no easy money, working families would not aspire to owning (alongside their bank) a huge home with a vast lawn and with neighbours within 5 m. Without easy money there wouldn't be two or three cars in the driveway.

Governments like this model of city development--it gives people hope, which helps keep the system going. Banks certainly like it--there's a lot of interest payments stretched out over 30 years, and until recently, people would practically starve rather than miss mortgage payments. People imagine they are happy, although I wonder what the future generations will think of people who willingly bought homes that took 30 years to pay for, instead of the more historically common few weeks to months. But I don't think the owners of these houses have done as well on the deal as the government or the banks.

So having created the template for massive CO2 emissions, the authoritarians wish to deny responsibility and shift the blame to their debt-serfs. Because the debt-serfs are refusing to absorb the costs, the authoritarians decry their denial of science.

If you really care about global warming, end the Fed.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

A cycle in commodity prices

I've pulled together a few longer time series for commodity prices, now going back to 1984. As done before I've plotted two ratios against each other--in this case I've used the gold-oil ratio (gold in $/oz, oil in $/barrel) and the silver-barley ratio (silver in $/oz, barley in $/tonne). I haven't found a consistent rough rice price series going back that far.

The first thing to notice is that the data are all pretty much confined to an ellipse, the main exception being the recent large excursion in silver two years ago. The second thing to notice is that the observations do not all occur throughout the ellipse, but seem to be confined to its edge. Almost as if the system were tracing out a large cycle (or series of cycles).

The direction and rate of change of the cycles can be seen by plotting the dates of observations on the scatterplot.

Starting at the lower right in 1984, the observations follow the outer edge of the above ellipse in a counter-clockwise direction, completing the upper half in about five years. The trajectory is not smooth, but very noisy, with some backtracking.

The trajectory is much noisier after 1990. The trajectory is confined into four areas in sequence outlined by ellipses in the above figure. The overall rate of evolution along the elliptical trajectory has slowed dramatically, as it has taken nearly 25 years to complete the lower half of the big orbit.

Interestingly, the direction of the orbit is the opposite to what I had supposed it would be when I first graphed the scatterplot. I had assumed we would see higher silver (industrial activity) followed by higher oil price, leading to higher food prices, which I thought would scare people into gold. But what we observe since 1984 is the opposite--higher silver prices leads to higher gold prices leading to higher food prices (anticipating inflation?) followed by higher oil.

The peak in the Au/oil ratio in 1988 is a reflection of low oil price rather than high gold. Perhaps the high silver/barley ratio is a reflection of low food prices, which allows more savings in India and China which translate into gold demand, raising the price of gold first, and food prices secondly due to increased demand.

I'm not sure what to make of the increased noise since 1990. It may have to do with the increasing amounts of easy money in the system encouraging more participants in the commodities markets. Maybe it was just that I was broke in 1990 and hung around with more broke people--but I don't recall anyone ever talking about investing in commodities back then. Not like today. I wouldn't ascribe it to central bank interference--if you were a CB, where is the sweet spot in the above plot?

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Precious metals price excursion not finished yet

Although it may be getting close.

This is the commodities plot we have been tracking for a couple of years--gold/copper ratio on one axis and silver/rice ratio on the other.

The breakout from the area that confined the graph for fourteen years that happened in March 2010 is still active, even after last month's whacking of PM prices. Now we are near the decision point. Does it fail, and fall back into the ellipse? Or does it continue tracing out a new ellipse to the right of the old one.

Even if it fails, it has been the most impressive excursion in the last 17 years.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Atlantis redux

This story is drawing a lot of attention to this post. (and why is that map upside-down?)

I won't say whether or not Atlantis exists. The topic isn't of great interest to me. But before you get too excited, be aware there are other means for large chunks of granite to find their way to the seafloor.

First of all, it is not clear whether the granite is embedded in the oceanic crust or is a clast (which we sometimes call a "raft"). It seems a long way offshore, but debris flows can go a long way.

Let's see where it is. According to the description, it is about 1500 km SW of Rio de Janeiro.

From the description of the location, I would place it somewhere near the red star. That sits on what does indeed seem to be a geologically interesting feature.

See all those roughly horizontal lines at the right of the image? Those are fracture zones. You can trace those all the way across the Atlantic to the find the corresponding point on the African coast where the two continents were attached prior to the opening of the Atlantic Ocean. The green on the left is part of South America. The light blue next to the green is the shallow water of the continental shelf, which we also consider to be part of the continent. The water depths of the continental shelf are generally no more than about 200 m.

The dark blue section between the continental shelf and the abyssal deeps where we see the fracture zones is  the continental slope, which is characterized by an increase in water depth from 200 m or so to about 4000 m. We normally consider this also to be part of the continent. It is covered by sediments and crap that have fallen off the continent (and is colonized by various organisms living on the seafloor).

The feature appears to be a relatively shallow area.

If we zoom in a bit, we can see what looks like a canyon running through the feature--whatever it is. Canyons on the continental slope are like the lower stretches of great river systems. They funnel flows of material from a tremendous area, all of which is higher up the slope. The flows through these canyons can be enormous, especially after earthquakes.

The Brazilian margin is tectonically similar to the site of the 1929 Grand Banks earthquake. If 180 cubic km of material got remobilized down the Brazilian slope by an earthquake sometime in the past, it would not surprise me if it contained some pretty impressive chunks of granite.

The feature looks like something that has come down the Brazilian slope. Google Earth images are insufficient for us to establish the age of the event--but that will probably come as more work is done on the feature.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Break in generational employment trend

It's been awhile since we last revisited unemployment. I have largely abandoned its study because of the distortions that have been built into its present calculation. These distortions become clear in looking at the labor force participation rate, which is the proportion of the adult population engaged in full time employment, and which is readily available at the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The website gives you monthly data going back to 1948.

Available data are monthly, but I have only used the year-end numbers in the above graph.

The profile of employment across the United States was no doubt greatly different in 1948 than at present. In 1948 it was a lot less common to see both parents fully employed than was the case in 2000. Assuming that all families have at least one parent working full time, the peak value of about 67% in the late 1990s would  suggest that 34% of families had two full-time working parents. Part-time workers are not counted in this statistic, and no doubt they were many.

The increase in participation from the early 1960s to the late 1990s reflects a major change in the structure of employment over the past two generations, with more married women entering the workforce.

In the lagged phase space we see two areas of attraction--the first in the 59% participation, and the second more recently, around 67%. We also note that the system has recently moved out of the higher area of attraction. The relative number of fully employed people is falling. How low can it go?

Below we see a topologically equivalent phase space constructed using the time-derivative method--plotting the participation rate against its rate of change, averaged over four years.

The same two areas of attraction appear, with what might be a third at around 64%. The current trajectory looks like it is heading there--so it doesn't appear that labor force participation will shrink much going forward.

Labor force participation increased during the period of falling interest rates after Volcker raised them so high in 1980. Their subsequent drop ignited a stock market bubble, which finally popped in the year 2000. The participation rate appeared to be heading lower--but intervention in interest rates inflated a bubble in real estate prices, "creating" lots of jobs in sales and construction--until it, too popped.

Based on the above graph, it looks as though most of the damage to employment of the bubble popping is over . . . unless . . .

Unless there is another bubble which we haven't considered. One that has been inflating since the early 1960s. One built on expansion of credit which has funded wars and expanded the economy to accommodate influxes of workers from family farms and young women wanting to take control of their own affairs.

Is this really logical? Did millions of jobs suddenly appear because there was this generation of young women who wanted to work?

One of the key features of a bubble is a story--a story that justifies the expansion, and which tells you that this time the expansion is not the inflation of a bubble. It looks to me that the happy story of women entering the workforce may be such a story--and there are still many millions more to leave the full-time labor force.