Saturday, December 31, 2005

Thoughts for New Year's Eve...

Procrastinate more! Tyler Cowen points to words in praise of absent-minded professors:

That's the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. [....] they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

What's "small stuff?" Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. It's hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there's a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out: shaving, doing your laundry, cleaning the house, writing thank-you notes-- anything that might be called an errand.

...and offers what will, again, be my own motto for the coming year:

In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they're working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:
  1. What are the most important problems in your field?

  2. Are you working on one of them?

  3. Why not?
Hamming was at Bell Labs when he started asking such questions. In principle anyone there ought to have been able to work on the most important problems in their field. Perhaps not everyone can make an equally dramatic mark on the world; I don't know; but whatever your capacities, there are projects that stretch them. So Hamming's exercise can be generalized to:
What's the best thing you could be working on, and why aren't you?
Most people will shy away from this question. I shy away from it myself; I see it there on the page and quickly move on to the next sentence. Hamming used to go around actually asking people this, and it didn't make him popular. But it's a question anyone ambitious should face.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

New phone number

If you're trying to contact me, please note that my mobile phone is out of order after sustaining water damage. Instead, please feel free to email me for my new mobile phone number.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Pipeline profits and politics

"...the economically unclear mechanism for establishing the different prices suggest that while taking measures to increase the profitability of the gas it supplies, Russia wants to continue using gas prices as a tool of political pressure."
This is one interpretation offered by a Polish analyst in an International Herald Tribune story among many possible strategic reasons behind price hikes by the Kremlin-controlled giant gas company Gazprom. There are others: In particular, establishing a reputation for unreliability and political interferrence might seriously damage Russia's commercial reputation as a gas exporter.

If we see ExxonMobil with its own nuclear weapons and Microsoft sitting on the UN Security Council, then I might start believing Monbiot, Klein and the rest, but unlike many people with a preference for free markets, I tend to believe that commerce will be overriden by politics more often than the other way around.

Two things strengthen this conviction in the case of Russian energy: First, I inevitably get to see a mad paranoic glint in th eyes of any Pole or Balt I raise this with.

Second, we've just seen the Russian Duma enact a law that classifies NGOs ranging from the Open Society Institute of George Soros to the smallest donkey welfare society as potential enemies of the state.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Scrutinising Scruton Again

Although I thought of him as a reactionary crank, some of his Financial Times articles and then reading his autobiography recently have persuaded me otherwise. He used to teach at Birkbeck, but found academia, supposedly the cradle of non-conformism and originality, a cold and unwelcoming home for a thinker who was individual enough to endorse a most typically English instinctive conservatism.

The West and the Rest is on my American Foreign Policy reading list and it's erudite and widely-sourced. His own earlier books, on the sectarian constitution of Lebanon, on his personal beliefs and on English nationalism and architecture are all cited.

On the other hand, perhaps he's overgeneralising his analysis of Islam and is less comprehensive in giving references to current events - describing widespread public rejoicing among Western Muslims at 9/11 - where and when is he thinking of? He refers to almost no group among them but the extremist al Muhajiroun groupuscule led by the media-whore Syrian Muslim Brother Omar Bakri Mohammed known to the tabloids as the "Tottenham Ayatollah".

I assumed that he'd oppose the Iraq war also, but he argues in this OpenDemocracy article that Kant's enthroning of reason and proposal for a world republic were not to be assumed feasible until the dawn of universal freedom.

The idea of a world republic is just such a regulative idea. For Kant, it does not indicate a condition that can actually be achieved, but an ‘Ideal of Reason’ – an idea that we must bear in mind, by way of understanding the many ways in which mortal creatures inevitably fall short of it. The principal way in which we fall short is by failing to establish any kind of republic, even at the local level. And Kant is clear that a League of Nations can establish a genuine rule of law only if its members are also republics. Unless that condition is fulfilled, nations remain in the Hobbesian state of nature.

Although Scruton would certainly disapproveove, I've found reading him with this soundtrack is particularly stimulating.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The blackline, the hardline and the online

Having recently suffered oppression myself at the hands of the Islamic Republic (have a look at my photos and story at flickr), the news that music has been banned in Iran caught my eye. On the positive side, they won't have to suffer Coldplay, it's surely good news for Iranian tribute bands...

Viral Marketing?

I wrote in Magill recently about Ireland's preparations for dealing with an outbreak of the Asian bird 'flu. The FT reports Thursday that some patients suffering from bird 'flu appear to not respond to treatment with Tamiflu, the antiviral drug made by Swiss firm Roche that the Irish government is frantically stockpiling. The virus, doctors conclude, may have already developed resistance, so that new drugs are needed:
The reports increase suggested levels of resistance to nearly 10 per cent, or three out of the 31 known human cases of H5N1 treated with Tamiflu, which is marketed by Roche of Switzerland.

The study raises new questions about the drug, which more than 50 governments have ordered in significant quantities in recent months to stockpile as a potential prophylactic and treatment in the case of a flu pandemic.

An accompanying article in the journal reinforced calls for alternative approaches to treatment for a pandemic, including the stockpiling of the rival drug zanamivir, or Relenza.

The lesson here for policy seems to be not that breaking pharmaceutical patents can guarantee supplies of the necessary drugs - as the disease looks likely to need a broad spectrum of therapies, including cutting edge biotech products - but that a big diverse pipeline, which we can expect in an industry with secure intellectual property rights and funding allocated by deep, sophisticated financial markets is the key to fighting a pandemic. More here at TCS.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

A spoonful of sugar

Two stories stand out in the latest monthy Oil Market Report put out by the Paris-based Internatioanl Energy Agency, the OECD body charged with co-ordinating oil users' energy policies. The full report is here.

First, high oil prices, concern for the political risk to the global energy industry and the prospect of taxes on greenhouse gas emissions have revived interest in the use of biofuels, made partly or completely from agricultural crops. Cash-poor but sugar-cane rich Brazil pioneered this in the 'seventies and with the prospect of genetic modification to increase crop yields, this looks like a good prospect for other countries too. Talk in London is already of regulations that would require a minimum biofuel content for standard petrol. The economic switching costs should be easily handled by the car industry and fuel suppliers in the medium term. However, opposition from environmentalists worried about mutant ten foot tall stalks of sugar cane taking over the planet a la Day of the Triffids. The IEA comments (p.12)
Looking to the future, the growth of Brazilian ethanol demand will depend on oil prices and continued government support. Brazil is a relatively low-cost producer of ethanol, at some $30-35/bbl, so even if oil prices decline from current levels there is reason to believe that domestic demand for ethanol will remain strong. Estimates of future domestic demand growth are in the range of 20-35 kb/d per annum. Brazil is also pushing to satisfy growing demand in othercountries, such as the United States, which is the second largest producer/consumer of ethanol.
Brazil has been one of the strongest advocates of the liberalisation of agricultural trade under the Doha round and it could easily become an exporter of ethanol, given the opportunity:
Analysts have estimated that Brazilian ethanol could be delivered to the US market for a selling price of approximately US$1/gallon, well below the current gasoline price. Although Brazil has some success in increasing exports, currently approximately 45 kb/d, it faces substantial barriers to entry as most foreign ethanol markets are protected in an effort to support domestic agriculture.
The IEA is also sanguine on the prospects for the growth in oil supply next year, forecasting a growth of over a million and half barrels of production per day over 2006. Along with a more benign political situation in Iraq, to my mind, this points to crude prices below $50/b, possibly in the low forties, compared with today's level pushing $60.

Terror and Tranquility

I was out having a jar with one of the new crop of Irish Times journalists last night. I wouldn't necessarily agree with him on many things, but he's nothing as lazy or complacent as some others on the opinion pages.

My own personal favourite is Tony Kinsella, whose qualifications or experience for gracing the pages of our national paper of record seem obscure, apart from being a old mucker of O'Foole.

Other than the juvenile piece of google vomit Post Washington published this year - which, to be fair to Fintan O'Toole, seems to have had little input from him, judging by the difference between it and his previous books - Kinsella has appeared from time to time to stoke complacency and spread cliche, as in this piece on the risks of terrorism.

Mark Steyn, who may or may not have lost his space in the Irish Times as well, highlights an interesting contrast that had not occured to me before:

...they like to mock Bush, Cheney, Rummy and co as the real terrorists – the ones determined to maintain America in a state of “terror”. Oddly enough, this was how the left chose to live during the Cold War, when the no-nukes crowd expected Armageddon any minute: fear of the phenomenon sold a gazillion posters, plays, books, films and LPs with big scary mushroom clouds on the cover. When nuclear weapons were an elite club of five relatively sane world powers, progressive opinion was convinced the planet was about to go ka-boom and the handful of us who survived would be walking in a nuclear winter wonderland. Now anyone with a few thousand bucks and an unlisted Islamabad number in his Rolodex can get a nuke, and the left is positively blasé.

Going Critical

Owing to space constraints, my recent TCS article on nuclear power in Britain didn't mention Chernobyl. In part, I wanted to keep this until the twentieth anniversary of the accident in April next year. Also, I had read in the press of a recent scientific consortium report(WHO press release is here, via Wikipedia) painting a less apocalpytic view of the consequences, but I hadn't followed the debate around this.

"As of mid-2005, however, fewer than 50 deaths had been directly attributed to radiation from the disaster, almost all being highly exposed rescue workers, many who died within months of the accident but others who died as late as 2004."
The other obvious issues left out are Sellafield and the performance of the British nuclear industry, both of which need a great deal more research before I'd feel comfortable in commenting on them in any detail. I suspect that nuclear weapons manufacturing rather than the civilian energy programs may have been a greater source of waste and accidents.

Also, the financial health of the British nuclear industry - including British Nuclear Fuels Limited and British Energy - which owns the power stations - has been fragile, to put it politely.

For my part, I suspect that most of the hostility in Ireland to Sellafield is a combination of the environmentalist scare-mongering together with "green" politics of a more traditional sort, namely that if our wicked colonial overlords across the water are doing it, it must be immoral. After the Good Friday Agreement, this gives a rare opportunity for Brit-bashing while remaining politically respectable.

If you're really interested in the whole subject, the Westminster Energy Forum is running a conference on the regulation of the nuclear power industry in London on January 19th.

Nevertheless, the question remains to be answered: Given this safety-obsessed, nappies-within-nappies society that they've done so much to foster, why aren't Greenpeace being held to account for their publicity stunts, given that they're more dangerous than the nuclear power industry? Feel free to discuss among yourselves....

Taking the uranium out

Hotwired reports on new directions in research on using fuel sources other than uranium for nuclear power:

Scientists have long considered using thorium as a reactor fuel -- and for good reason: The naturally occurring element is more abundant, more efficient and safer to use than uranium. Plus, thorium reactors leave behind very little plutonium, meaning that governments have access to less material for making nuclear weapons.

But design challenges and a Cold War-era interest in using nuclear waste byproducts in atomic bombs pushed the industry to use uranium as its primary fuel.

Now, as governments look to prevent the proliferation of nuclear arms and as environmentalists want to reduce the volume of nuclear waste building up around the world, thorium is again drawing attention.

Over the past several years, studies in the United States and Russia have yielded solutions to some of the issues that troubled earlier researchers. And in January, India -- which has the world's second largest reserve of thorium behind Australia --announced it would begin testing the safety of a design of its own.

Man The Lifeboats

Given that the FI blog is unable to publish, I'll be putting some posts here until our ... er... technical difficulties... are resolved at the main site.