Saturday, December 23, 2006

Happy Christmas

For those of you whose preparations are a little behind's some help, in the form of the JAMSTEC official Christmas Card for you to print out and send:

A Christmas Tree's Jerry Fish to all my readers.

Bizarre Japanese hibernation story

Here's another bizarre Japanese story that seems to have made more of a splash abroad than in the Japanese press. A walker went missing on a mountain side, and was found 3 weeks later apparently in a state of hibernation. I have seen some bizarre stories of unusually long-term survival in extreme cold (like this famous baby, and the mammalian diving reflex enabling people to stay alive under water for lengthy periods), but this "hibernation" seems rather different. However, this version of the story in the Japanese press is rather less extravagant in tone.

In any case, now he's out of hospital and apparently fully recovered, no doubt he'll be putting in plenty of overtime to make up for his lengthy absence!

$.002 = .002¢?

From the department of "you couldn't make it up" (or should that be, "James belatedly jumping on a bandwagon"), here's someone from Verizon unable to cope with decimals (long audio recording).

Correction, it's not "someone". It's everyone at the whole company! Having repeatedly quoted and confirmed a rate of .002 cents per kb, they then multiply the kb usage by .002, and insist that this is the answer in dollars.

There's a blog about it too, with the full gory details.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Paris syndrome

I've got a bunch of bizarre Japanese stories to blog...curiously most of them have appeared in the UK press rather than Japan. Perhaps it's part of the Christmas silly season, or a newly-posted journalist trying to make him/herself useful.

I'm not sure why Paris Syndrome has suddenly hit the news - it's an old story well-known over here (that BBC article even points out it was first described 20 years ago). What happens is that some Japanese have an unrealistically romanticised image of Paris, they go there and someone is unexpectedly rude to them, and they go into shock, have a complete breakdown and need to be repatriated by the embassy.

[I'd have thought the mountains of dog-shit on the pavements would be the biggest shock, but maybe that's peculiar to Nice.]

To be honest it's the sort of thing that sounds to me like an urban myth, but here's a particularly apposite "quote of the day" on with "French-style dessert chef" Yukiko Omori which seems to illustrate the syndrome perfectly:
When I went to Paris and entered a restaurant with a sign in Japanese and called to the waitress 'Excuse me,' in Japanese, she didn't turn around even once. It turned out she was Thai. So I don't want there to be so-called Japanese restaurants if they're inconsiderate toward guests and tourists.
Well indeed. How outrageous to not find authentic Japanese staff to serve in a "so-called Japanese restaurant" in Paris. You certainly wouldn't get Japanese people trying to make "French-style desserts" in Japan, that's for sure...

Of course the real motivation behind this quotation is to support the Japanese plan to certify "authentic" Japanese restaurants abroad. The irony of this will not be lost on anyone who has visited Japan, as the nation is second to none when it comes to bastardising foreign food to local tastes (Mayo and potato pizza, anyone? Or would you prefer a curry doughnut?). Not that there is anything wrong with a bit of local adaption in principle :-)

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Are you going home for Christmas?

Around this time of year, people are always asking me if I'm going home for Christmas.

No, I reply(*) - and although I have to cook my own turkey, overall I am not sorry about the decision :-) It's bad enough travelling in the UK when the weather is good, let alone at this time of year.

(*) Or else "yes, I'm going home to Kamakura" - but that just confuses them...

Tuesday, December 19, 2006


So, I put the manuscript here. It's unchanged from the previous version, just without the pesky GRL formatting. I didn't try to take account of the latest set of referees' comments, because there doesn't seem a great deal of point at this time. Its previous incarnations have already had 2 sets of reviews and even though this latest set of refs made some valid points, they also seemed to be pulling the paper in various directions where we weren't really intending to go. It's our paper and although we would certainly not claim it is perfect, we think it makes an important point adequately enough...

Jules still seems quite keen to try sending it somewhere else. I don't think I can be bothered, although I might reconsider in the future. It's out there in the public domain, and I've told a bunch of climate scientists about it, so it will be interesting to see to what extent future climate sensitivity estimates implicitly or explicitly take account of the arguments we have presented both in this manuscript and the previous GRL paper. AFAIK nothing new has been written since the Hegerl et al Nature paper, which was basically contemporaneous with our GRL paper.

Monday, December 18, 2006

2006 JLPT 2kyu test & answers

No doubt breaching all sorts of copyright restrictions, but nevertheless, someone has posted 2006 JLPT 2kyu test & answers here (with a couple of mistakes at least, by my reckoning). Of course, it's too late for me to remember how I answered many of the questions, but I reckon I might just have sneaked a fail, which will be disappointing (not that it actually matters). Have to wait a few months for the official answer still.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Kamakura leaves

Regular readers will know I live in Kamakura, which is a historic city just outside Yokohama. Probably most Japanese think it's a terribly busy tourist trap - which it is, from 10am to 4pm on weekends and holidays when they all visit :-) For the other 90% of the time, it's a beautiful, quiet, friendly town, packed with temples and gardens mostly dating from the Kamakura era when it was Japan's capital. There's a beach on one side and a ring of forested hills round the edge where we live.

There's a local spot called "kouyou tani" or "autumn leaf valley" near our house. I guess that is a popular rather than official name, but it is obviously well known for its colour and at this time of year there is usually a steady stream of visitors with long lenses and tripods. Wednesday morning was bright and sunny so we decided to take the day off and go for a walk up there.

From the top of the hill above our house, there is just a patch of yellow ginkgo to give a hint of the colours below. This picture is looking west towards Fuji, so the main centre of Kamakura (with beach and Pacific Ocean beyond) is just off-shot to the left.

Below the ginkgo, there's a canopy of Japanese maple, with a wonderful mix of reds, greens and oranges glowing in the morning sun.

We were there quite early in the morning, so there weren't many other people around, just one or two ultra-keen photographers. Usually when people offer to take our picture together we politely decline - I know what I look like and don't need to remind myself that I was there! But given that this guy was all set up with tripod and long lens we though we should take advantage of the offer.

As we wandered down and out of the valley, the hordes were just starting to arrive in force, and the sky was starting to cloud over...we finished the trip at one of Kamakura's other great attractions - the best Indian restaurant in Japan (whose web-site seems to have vanished for now).

Thursday, December 07, 2006

An Inconvenient Truth

Eventually the reviews from GRL arrived for this paper (actually several days ago now, but I've been busy recently).

There were 3 reviews in all, which is unusual for a standard GRL paper.

In reverse order:

Ref 3 says the paper is "quite correct in its analysis" (he does comment on some technical details), but refrains from giving a recommendation on publication or otherwise, stating his suspicion that the points we have raised may already be accepted by the climate science community, ie the spectre of high S is just a straw man! It is hard to see how anyone who is aware of Stern's Review, and what appears to be in the IPCC draft (and numerous other papers and public comments) could really think that, but least it's a clear endorsement of the principles we have presented.

Ref 2 also has a number of technical points, but recommends publication after revision and even treatment as a "GRL highlight". Interestingly, he says we are too harsh in the way we criticise the approach of Frame et al, apparently believing that they did not seriously propose to use the uniform prior U[0,20] for calculating probabilities. That's right - in his opinion, their approach is so obviously wrong that he cannot even believe they could possibly have meant such a thing - for everyone knows that there is no such thing as an "ignorant" prior.

Ref 1 is a bit of a disappointment. He doesn't seem to understand it at all, despite our attempt to explain things in such elementary terms. He is still sticking to the untenable belief that a uniform prior is "ignorant", and indeed maintains that the whole number line would be the most "uninformed" choice, even in the face of our elementary observation that a uniform prior with a wide range assigns virtual certainty to extraordinarily high sensitivity (including negative values if the prior is not truncated at 0). What makes it worse is that he's clearly an active researcher in the field. Even so, after clearly not understanding it and recommending rejection as not suitable for GRL he then strongly recommends we consider sending it to Science or Climatic Change as some sort of opinion piece!

It gets boring to point it out again, but
(a) If you don't use the probability axioms, as Allen and Frame have explicitly and repeatedly proposed, then what you are doing is simply not "probability" as the term is generally understood. This is not a matter of opinion, but a matter of definitions (at least until and unless someone proposes a new version of "probability", with some plausible basis).
(b) "The uniform prior" does not represent "ignorance" under any reasonable definition of ignorance I can think of - and no, circularly defining "ignorance" to be "the state of knowledge represented by a uniform distribution" is not reasonable!

So any attempt to present our rather elementary (and, admittedly, a bit naive) exploration of how to correctly calculate probability could hardly be suitable as some sort of opinion piece. Indeed, it would undoubtedly fall foul of referees pointing out that it is just a trivial description of probability, and no-one could seriously have ever believed otherwise...

The Editor (Chief Editor this time) obviously jumped on this "not suitable" comment and based his rejection on our paper being just an "opinion piece", telling me to send it to Nature or Science instead. You've got to laugh really - or else cry, I suppose. Couldn't he have made that judgment 10 weeks ago, rather than waiting for 3 broadly favourable reviews (even Ref 1 clearly thought it was important and publishable) and then cherry-picking the worst? In fact Jules had originally suggested Climatic Change (Ref 1's other suggestion) as a suitable destination, and we might have sent it there had GRL not explicitly suggested submitting a full 4-page paper to them. I now have a 500 quid bet with her that it will be rejected if we do send it there - a bet which I placed immediately prior to reminding her that Steven Schneider was the editor :-)

So, it is hard to see where to take it from here. After numerous reviews of various versions, it is abundantly clear that what we are saying is essentially correct - no referee has produced any significant criticism of the principles, although it is obvious that some researchers in the field simply don't understand the subject very well at all (I'm not claiming to be perfect myself, of course, but I've certainly got the gist of it). The approach of Frame et al is excused from criticism by some on the basis that it is so obviously wrong that they couldn't possibly have meant it, and the pathological pdfs that have been published and widely used in the policy debate are excused from criticism on the basis that no-one really believes them anyway. It's clear that a bunch of people are quite happy to see the Inconvenient Truth of our argument not get published. One thing that keeps me sane is that the rejections have been due primarily to journal editors rather than scientists, but the ultimate outcome is of course just the same. I guess I can go to the EGU in April and present the argument there once more, but it's pretty boring to just go and say the same obvious things again and again. Maybe, eventually, the argument that it does not need publication because everyone already knows it will actually come true. Meanwhile, people like Stern and the IPCC can only go by what is in the literature, and the Convenient Untruth of high climate sensitivity is very useful for one wing of the political debate. So I'm sure the disinformation will march on apace...

Sunday, December 03, 2006

JLPT done I can now forget everything I have memorised over the last 6 months :-)

I won't reveal any details of the test as it still hasn't started in some parts of the world.

The day started rather inauspiciously with someone deciding that now was a good time to jump in front of a train. I guess if you are going to bring the network to a halt, early Sunday morning is one of the less disruptive times to do it, but there were still plenty of us up and about at that time. Fortunately I had given myself plenty of time, so after a brief panic I got a bus to Ofuna and still arrived at the exam site with plenty of time. It was interesting to note that (a) there were probably something like 1000 people, just for the 2 kyuu exam in the Yokohama region and (b) many (most? all that I heard speaking in Japanese, which was quite a few) of them were really pretty fluent in Japanese. I suspect I would have been in the bottom 1st percentile for that, but it's not a spoken test!

I think the first couple of papers went about as expected. I was pleased to overhear a couple of people talking about the aural exam just after it finished, confirming that a couple of my "probably right" answers were in fact correct. I came a bit unstuck in the middle of the third paper - reading comprehension and grammar, which is always a bit of a desperate race against time - but finished with an easy reading section (3 questions, 15 points) which means it can't have been that bad overall.

The exam didn't seem particularly hard compared to the practice tests (and last year's exam) which means I should have passed by a modest margin. [For reference, that means that this book of practice tests which I had struggled with is clearly way too hard, and this one is much more realistic (although in contrast to the first book it doesn't explain the answers, and it also has a few misprints).] But I will have to wait and see. Since the answers are marked on a multi-choice machine-readable card, this will only take.....more than 2 months. Yes, there is no typo there. It's like getting reviews out of GRL :-) Probably they have to arrange a line of OL's bowing and making cups of tea while a Shinto priest waves hs magic wand at each answer sheet. And then arrange an meaningless interview for each exam sheet that passes the 60% threshold, which no one can give any plausible explanation for (sorry, in-joke there).

Pass or fail, I don't plan to take 1 kyuu next year. I guess I could probably just about make it if I really tried, but slogging though another 1000 kanji (and the rest) would test my patience. Rather, I would prefer to aim for "has the ability to converse, read, and write about matters of a general nature" which nominally describes a 2 kyuu candidate. Yeah, right. A language exam that doesn't actually test either speaking or writing ability is a strange (and rather badly designed) beast indeed. Still, studying for it has certainly enhanced my ability to read and comprehend Japanese.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

9 1/2 weeks

Seems to be how long it takes to not get a response from GRL these days.

Yes, that means I'm still awaiting any sort of response regarding this manuscript which was submitted way back in September. For those who think I'm a bit trigger-happy to get upset about such an apparently modest time interval, note that GRL is specifically supposed to be a rapid turnover journal for short letters - a standard review request allows 2 weeks, which should give a reasonable expectation of a response in about 3 weeks including editorial handling etc.

Moreover, it's not just the rather extraordinary time delay that I'm pissed off with, but the extremely unprofessional way in which GRL seem to have handled it. Firstly, I was amazed to find out that the manuscript had been assigned to an editor who just happens to be a close colleague of Dave Frame and recent co-author with Myles Allen on a paper concerning methods for probabilistic estimation. Secondly, it's astonishing that this person didn't seem to think it was inappropriate to take on this task. And thirdly, the Chief Editor ignored my request that he should be replaced by someone without such an obvious conflict of interest. That's despite GRL actually having a box on their submission form for such editorial conflicts of interests to be mentioned - which I didn't fill in at the time of submission, as this person is nowhere listed as an editor on the GRL website (or anywhere else on the web, such as his own web-page) and I therefore had no possible reason to suspect that he, or anyone else with such an obvious relationship with those researchers who I am most directly criticising, could potentially be offered the task.

According to GRL's on-line manuscript tracking system, the reviews were all in a full 2 weeks ago and since that time have been sitting on the editor's desk waiting for him to make a decision. There has been no reply yet to the email I sent to GRL last week enquiring as to his health...


No sooner blogged than I get an email from GRL...It has eventually been passed over to the Chief Editor for the decision. I'd have been happier if this had happened in advance of the (potentially critical) choicee of referees.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Another JLPT test

Hmm..that's a redundant "test" there in the subject when I use my personal PIN number at the automatic ATM machine. Never mind.

As had been threatened, my Japanese teacher gave me another test as practice - the real 2005 exam. Since yesterday was a rainy holiday ("Labour Thanksgiving Day"), I stayed at home and did it. She seemed rather surprised that I passed by a clear margin (67%), but that's because she doesn't realise that I've been teaching myself the half of the syllabus that she hasn't had time for in our lessons :-)

Obviously, the exam was at the easier end of the tests I've tried - especially the kanji/vocab paper, and the grammar section of the last paper both of which I got "personal best" scores on. The real surprise was the reading conprehension which was far longer than I'd got used to - 24 questions in all, compared to a usual 18-20. So I really struggled for time on that and had to mostly just scan the texts quickly and choose the most plausible answer. The little homilies are invariably written from a very standard middle-class liberal perspective so the gist is generally something about bringing up or children well (whilst allowing them their freedom to develop) or looking after the environment...rather mind-numbing-stuff, to be honest.

Not much I can do now except hope the real thing (just over a week away) isn't much harder.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

More Stern Assessments

Stoat and Prometheus link to Nordhaus's comment on the Stern report, so I'll go one better and point out Gary Yohe's editorial too (via Richard Tol's comment). Both Nordhaus and Yohe point out the critical dependence of Stern's results on the unusually low discount factor (0.1%) used, and Nordhaus goes further than this in arguing that even with such a low discount factor, adjusting another model parameter (which he argues is necessary for the modelled economics to match observable reality) suggests much less support for aggressive mitigation.

It's worth pointing out that both Nordhaus and Yohe agree that some mitigation is appropriate, even though they find the detailed calculations of Stern at best hard to support.

Yohe also points to the climate science in Stern as being "perhaps the most persuasive contribution of the Stern Review", and says things look considerably more serious than they did in IPCC TAR. He has made his own contribution to this, (along with Michael Schlesinger), with his claim that "there is a one in five chance that we would lose the Gulf Stream before 2050." I don't think that claim is reasonable and as far as I'm aware the only place it has appeared in the literature is in the procedings of the "frenzied week of "climate change is worse than we thought" news reporting and group-think" otherwise known as the "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change" workshop in Exeter.

A comment on the Stern Report from Paul Baer is also promised shortly. Meanwhile, RealClimate's comment on (the climate science in) Stern remains conspicuous by its absence...


The other annoyance of living abroad (beside the UK estate agents, that is) is that the BBC don't have internet broadcasting rights for many international sporting events - especially cricket and also football, although I don't care so much about the latter. Of course they don't have TV rights at all for many events these days, but their radio commentary for the cricket is good.

So I was disappointed, but not hugely surprised, to find this morning that the BBC Ashes commentary was not available. ABC (Australia) are also doing some web-casts but apparently Japan is outside their remit.

I'd tried half-heartedly to find ways of evading the BBC block (which presumably works out the location of the IP address from which the requests were coming) without success. But this time I was a bit more determined, as the Ashes is a long series and the commentary is at a convenient time of day (on holidays, which today is, for those who were wondering). So, after a bit of googling, I found myself a public proxy server in the UK...and the second one I tried, works! Desperate cricket-deprived ex-pats around the world should be able to replicate my success without too much difficulty. I guess I'm breaking some obscure law about computer use and will face a lengthy spell in Gitmo next time I venture across the pond (actually, before the flames start flooding in, I'm pretty sure that the proxy in question is set up deliberately to allow untraceable surfing by the general public).

Mind you, I'm not sure that I want to listen to the current slaughter...


No sooner had I posted this than the proxy stopped working (blocked by the BBC, I mean). Bah humbug. ABC is working now though, which is better than nothing, but I'd prefer Test Match Special. I guess it will probably be a game of cat and mouse over the coming months...

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Asahi Blue Planet Prize

Another year, another Blue Planet Prize. The first speaker, Dr. Akira Miyawaki, is an academic ecologist who developed and implemented methods for natural forest restoration. He's 78 and still runs a small research institute - a position he only took up at an age when most people would have retired. He seemed like a pretty amazing guy. He exhorted us to plant forests wherever there was space for 3 trees - and had the results to prove it worked.

The second winner, Dr Emil Salim, had been a minister in the Indonesian government and talked enthusiastically about sustainable development. Michael Tobis would no doubt have been delighted by the way he picked apart traditional "Washington Consensus" economic theory as promoting the interests of the rich at the expense of the poor and the environment. Unfortunately, he didn't really seem to have any clear mechanism for a concrete alternative, with his goal of sustainable development apparently relying on a combination of draconian national and international govt intervention, coupled with citizens attaining personal enlightenment through Yogic flying and scientific study.

OK, I exaggerated slightly on the Yogic flying. But he did make a strong play for a spiritual basis to our sustainable development, and also appealed to "Asian values" (community, family, environment etc) as a basis for a new style of government. There is a proportion of the Japanese public who are not exactly thrilled to be reminded that they are also Asian (cf: telling the English to be "good little Europeans"), and sure enough one questioner basically asked him what exactly he thought the Japanese had in common with Indonesian Muslims. Actually I'd think that Japan would be a good place for his theory of sustainable development to take hold, having essentially a benevolent dictatorship and docile population.

It was interesting to see that the Stern report came up in the following discussion session. I was disappointed - but not overly surprised - that the interpretation (provided by a Kyoto University professor, not just some random member of the public) was that we faced the certain loss of 20% of the world economy under "business as usual" - and there was no hint of any uncertainty about this figure, which readers may recognise as the extreme upper limit Stern produced based on a whole host of unfortunate coincidences which have varying degrees of implausibility. It is possible that some of this nuance had been lost in translation (which I was listening to) but frankly I doubt it.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006


Just got back from an interesting couple of days in Nagoya, at this meeting, which (as the title suggests) discussed the dynamics of the glacial/interglacial climate and what we can learn from it. It was rather good, actually, with a large number of interesting presentations. To be honest I was a bit surprised that so many eminent scientists could be persuaded to put up with the jet-lag involved in coming here, and I'm pleased that several of them managed to find ways to extend their trips here in various ways (holidays and other meetings). For me of course it was just a couple of hours on the train. We didn't get to see much of Nagoya - I only came for one night, and we were staying on the university campus which is some way out of town.

Last night several of us went out to dinner at a local Korean BBQ restaurant - which means there's a grill in the middle of the table at which the meal is self-cooked. We started off with calf's tongue and pretty much worked our way down from there, eating just about everything but the moo. The first stomach, marinaded and grilled, was hard enough work, but the second stomach, and the liver too, were supposed to be eaten raw (yes, really, a plate of cold quivering bloody slices of liver was plonked down in front of us, and it really was supposed to be eaten raw, although I cheated and used the grill when the staff weren't looking). These dishes didn't go down too well with most of the Japanese present, let alone the foreigners, but that's only because we had already had a fair portion of normal meat, honest :-) Then it was all rounded off with...a bowl of rice. Phew.

Coming home, we had the pleasure of rush hour in Yokohama. There seemed to be a minor delay so this train was slightly busier than usual, and we thought it prudent to wait for the next...

I was reminded of the story of a relative who once found themselves unable to get off the Tube (in London) at their intended stop, as their coat was stuck in the door on the non-opening side. So I thought I'd save that lady from a similar fate and pushed her buckle through the door.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Testing times

Did the last one of my JLPT practice tests last weekend, and got 67%. It was the 4th of the easy set though, which leaves me none the wiser as to my chances. If the real test (3 weeks away) is as easy as that one was - which seems unlikely - I'll surely pass. If it's as hard as the one I did 3 weeks ago - which I suspect is more likely - I might well fail. I'd be surprised to not get something in the range of 55-65% but that doesn't help much given the 60% pass mark! I did manage to pass each individual section for the first time which was moderately pleasing. I've also still got another 100+ kanji to wade through which might be worth an extra point or two - although I'm probably forgetting old ones as fast as I'm learning new ones now :-)

The exam is (for me) being held in some out-of-the-way place I've never heard of called Fuchinobe. I'd been hoping/expecting it to be somewhere around Yokohama but it's nearer to Hachioji - a full hour by train and then a 30 minute walk (ok, in theory there is a bus, but they warn it might be too busy unless I'm early enough that I might as well walk anyway). Since I'm half-an-hour from the station at this end too it will be an early start for a Sunday morning.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Computer says "no"

Perhaps the biggest drawback of being an absentee slumlord is the need to deal with the morons who work as estate agents in the UK. Since we are now on the wrong side of the world, we appointed a local firm to manage the rental of our small apartment when we left. We've considered selling up, but then we'd have to deal with the accumulated junk in the loft - with any luck some tenants will steal it, saving us the bother of disposing of it.

When we bought it, our house was by far the cheapest property in the town, which is pretty much why we chose it. Perhaps this is related to it being situated opposite an undertaker's, but actually they are greatly under-rated as neighbours - all their visitors are very quiet and well-behaved (deathly silent, one might almost say). There are literally no houses for sale now at less than twice the price we paid, and the rent we charge is about 2/3 of the bottom of the "normal" market in the area.

We've had no problem finding tenants. The most recent set have been there for about 18 months and by all accounts are looking after the place properly.

We have, however, had problems with the idiot agents. The most recent saga dates back several months when there was a small bit of damage, which was just about worth claiming for via the buildings insurance. The insurance was by now arranged though the agents (our own previous policy would not handle rentals or empty periods), so we (or rather jules, who actually handles all of this stuff) asked them for the relevant policy details and forms to fill. The agents basically told us it was our responsibility to sort it out, and they could not provide any details (such as a policy number). It didn't even seem clear what company was providing the insurance. Clearly nothing was going to be forthcoming, and after a few attempts we basically gave up (it wasn't much money).

More recently, our tenants briefly got behind on their rent. They had contacted both us and the agents about it, and we all accepted that they would be able to catch up in a reasonable time (the debt never actually exceeded the deposit we already held). Then suddenly, completely out of the blue, a letter arrived in jules's email (pdf that had been posted from the agent to the tenants) giving them a week to pay up in full or the landlord (US!) would commence eviction proceedings!

Some frantic phone calls to the agents ensued (having recently told the tenants that they were ok, we were not keen to be painted as the Landlords from Hell and of course with no sitting tenant we would get no rent...) and we were told that their hands were tied, it was all down to "the insurance". You see, as well as the standard buildling insurance, we have insurance to cover legal costs associated with evictions and non-payment of rent. If the arrears exceed a modest threshold (which they did by a few days, under a payment scheme we had all already agreed) then "the insurance" kicks in and takes action to stop the debt building up. There was nothing we could do other than cancel the insurance.

Somehow jules managed to convince them that the arrears were not actually increasing in a real sense and persuaded them to stop the threats without actually cancelling the insurance. She even reverse-engineered what "the threshold" was and arranged a payment scheme that would not trigger the action again. At this point, we also installed skype to save on phone bills. However, we saw a window of opportunity to raise the issue of the property damage again. Surely the agents could hardly claim ignorance of the insurance, since it was the insurance that had just triggered the latest crisis.

Well, they did their usual trick of stonewalling and not replying to emails. Eventually, somehow, jules got a reply out of them:

Oh, we don't arrange your house buildings insurance at all - that is your responsibility.

Flabbergasted, we looked back through all the monthly statements, and noticed that the amount of money taken for insurance had gone down at the time our most recent tenants moved in. Sure enough, it seemed that we were paying for the legal stuff, but not the buildings insurance. This was certainly not something we had asked the agents to drop, but we'd now been uninsured for 18 months! So we asked them to put it back on. They had to send out forms again, with all the usual boxes to tick - have you had any previous claims, is the property unoccupied, do you have DSS tenants (ie those reciept of welfare payments)...

Oh, we DO have DSS tenants - the ones who moved in 18 months ago, the point at which the insurance cover vanished (in fact their rent arrears had been due to some bureaucratic cock-up over benefits).

Oh well, we thought, maybe that will put the premium up a bit, but tenants on benefits are hardly unique. The forms got sent back....and nothing happened. Oh, we'll try again. Another set of forms...the same boxes to tick....and somehow no insurance. jules got on the phone with the agent, who said she would do it all on-line..."Oh, there seems to be a problem. I'll get back to you".

A couple of days later; "Sorry, we can't do DSS. Computer says no".

After a brief moment of panic - what do we do with an uninsurable house with sitting tenants - jules googled and in about 30 seconds had found a string of companies who will happily provide insurance, for about what we were paying anyway.

So, just to re-cap: the agents had firstly introduced DSS tenants without considering the possibility that this could be an issue with the insurance, then simply allowed the insurance to lapse without even noticing, let alone telling us, then even after having had it pointed out to them that the insurance vanished when our new tenants moved in, and on being faced with a form with that specific box to tick, still did not realise that DSS tenants could be a problem, and finally had no ability to find insurance where such tenants are involved, even though it is easily available. And for this, we pay them.

The average salary of an estate agent is roughly 50% higher than that of a scientist in the UK.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Is (climate) change bad?

I put this on RealClimate and then globalchange (where comments would be most appropriately directed) but perhaps it's worth repeating here...

I spotted an interesting comment on RC, in the thread following the recent post "How much CO2 emission is too much?":


and a few subsequent replies to me

My comment on the comments on the comment on the comment on the comment got longer and longer and I repost it here as a more suitable forum for discussion:

Re 34, 35, 37, 39:

Even if one assumes the premise that we are "optimally adapted" to the present climate (which I think would be difficult to rationally defend), it does not follow that changes to the climate would result in net costs.

In fact, our adaptation to the current climate (eg in agriculture and infrastructure, as have been mentioned) is also a matter of economics, technology and politics, and we can guarantee that these will continue to change at quite a rate.

Of course we can all agree that a drought in an area that is already somewhat short of water is a bad thing that will likely cost money, compared to exactly the same situation without the extra drought. However, an increase in rainfall in such an area is likely to be beneficial (so long as it is not excessive and leads to flooding), even if society is well adapted to the status quo. The opening of the Northwest Passage is likely to bring significant economic benefits by reducing transport costs, even though (of course) we are currently adapted to its impassability. Warmer winters will reduce the winter death rate in the UK for sure, and this vastly outweighs any plausible estimate of heatwave deaths, at least for a range of modest warmings, even before we start to consider any adaptation to the summer heat. We could of course achieve a similar effect by insulating homes and reducing poverty, of course, but we are already "optimally adapted", right?

To boldly assert as axiomatic that "change = bad" is, I think, rather naive and simplistic. All sorts of (social, economic, technological) changes are inevitable, and the latter two at least have a strong record of bringing substantial (no, massive) benefits. Would anyone be silly enough to argue that these changes are bad because we are adapted to the status quo? While I am sure that some climate changes will increase pressure on some ecosystems and human societies, it seems to me to be a rather more nuanced situation than some of the comments above would indicate. Indeed, if the climate changes are slow and modest enough compared to the other changes, it might be hard to detect their overall effect at all (on human health, wealth and happiness, I mean - of course I'm sure it will be easy to measure environmental parameters that document the climate change itself, indeed this is already clear enough). I'm sure UK residents will have noticed the substantial northward march of maize as a crop in recent years (for cattle fodder). I'm not sure to what extent this is due to politics (subsidies), economics, climate change, breeding of better-adapted varieties, or even just farmers gradually realising that it grows better than they had thought possible. Even if climate change is the largest factor (which I doubt, but it's possible), it is not clear who lost out here, other than perhaps the bugs that prefer to live on kale (or whatever the displaced crop was).

Living as I do in a country where houses are expected to last about 30 years, I find it hard to take seriously any worry that they might not be optimally adapted to the climate 100 years hence (let alone the sea level a few centuries later). Note also that a change in fuel prices would change the optimal amount of insulation irrespective of climate change. Likewise, advances in building materials will likely render current designs somewhat redundant.

Extropians would assert that "change = good" and that we should encourage change unless it is proven harmful. Just to be clear on this, I do not endorse this point of view 100% but the difference in opinion seems as much philosophical as scientific. I think that understanding this POV goes a long way to explaining the differences between the environmentalists and the sceptics (even if it does not excuse the dishonesty of the denialist wing).

I hope this doesn't sound too much like a septic handwave, expecting techology to magically save the day. To the extent that climate change is rapid or substantial (which I will deliberately leave undefined here!), of course it's a threat that should be taken seriously. It is a little scary to think about how dominant the human influence can be, and perhaps a mental model of some hypothetical stasis is a comforting thought in which to ground our personal philosophies. But it would be a mistake to let one's comfort zone unduly colour one's perceptions of reality (or at least, such effects need to be openly considered and one should be prepared to see them challenged).

In case it's not clear, I'm not actually trying to argue that the expected changes are necessarily (or even likely) a good thing. But I was struck by the extent to which some people were asserting that no change would automatically be the best possible outcome, and moreover that this was a logical/scientifically-based judgement.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Do we need more scientists?

Blair has been bleating on about how Britain needs more scientists, and how we (scientists) should all pretend to live the lives of celebrities in order to con the kiddies into thinking it's an attractive career encourage more schoolchildren to study science. Or something like that. It doesn't move the debate on beyond where we were a few weeks ago, as far as I can tell.

Blair's primary concern appears to be the profits of UK PLC and, as I've already explained, an oversupply of compliant debt-ridden post-doc fodder is a great way of maintaining downward pressure on the salaries of those who (so we are told) are so important for the future of the economy.

Obviously, the schoolchildren who are abandoning science subjects in droves are having none of it, and I don't blame then.

Bryan Lawrence asks "who's going to do all the hard environmental science then?" To which I reply, how about the 200 redundant CEH scientists, along with those from Silsoe or the Hannah that I blogged about previously (and no doubt many more, jettisoned in smaller and less news-worthy tranches). Of course, some of these scientists may have skills that are not directly attuned to the priorities of today, since they committed the serious offence of being educated and trained a decade or several ago, and have probably been specialising ever since. (It's worth noting that all the rhetoric about "interdisciplinary science" almost always means Expert in field A talking (or pretending to talk) to Expert in field B, rather than anyone becoming moderately expert in both A and B. It's not for nothing that a scientist can be summed up as someone who knows more and more about less and less. Our career structures and evaluation pretty well force such specialisation upon us, in fact.) So all it takes is a change in the political fashions, and your decades of experience go down the tubes. This risk was very evident when I was working at Silsoe - an agricultural engineering research establishment - shortly after its parent Agricultural and Food Research Council morphed into the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (biotech is sexy: chicken harvesters [video here] apparently aren't). It seems clear to me that despite the Govt's urgings, the material rewards of a career in science do not come close to compensating for the personal investment and risk of a premature "retirement". For a similar effort (and assuming a comparable intelligence), you could become a doctor or lawyer and have a job for life with several times the salary. Unless and until there is some evidence of this state of affairs changing, I wouldn't be at all surprised to see the declining interest in science continuing. Of course, there will always be a few eccentrics for whom the thrill of solving interesting problems is enough, but if the Govt or industry wants more than that, they will have to be prepared to pay for it.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Stop climate chaos catastrophic tipping point of no return hype

Interesting to see Mike Hulme come out with a broadside against the apocalypse-mongers. He lays into pretty much everyone: politicians and activists, and of course newpapers such as the Indescribablyoverhyped, but there also appear to be (un-named) scientists in his sights. He has particularly harsh words for the "Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change" conference as a frenzied week of "climate change is worse than we thought" news reporting and group-think. I'm not sure I would have been quite that harsh, actually.

He also comments:

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science. It will not be visible in next year's global assessment from the world authority of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Just attempting to join the dots here: Blair's "only 10-15 years to take the steps we need to avoid crossing catastrophic tipping points" was pretty much directly predicated on his upcoming Stern report, which (I think it's fair to say) has generally been praised as being in line with the IPCC consensus. Of course, we are all still waiting with bated breath for RealClimate's comments on Stern - they are usually quick to comment on newsworthy climate science stories, although I can understand this one giving them a bit of indigestion.


Mike Hulme can also be heard on the Today program here.

More housing fun

We are somewhat interested in the house mentioned at the bottom of this post, and the estate agent said it would take about 2 hours to explain its special circumstances, so we enlisted a couple of friends to act as interpreters and trooped off to their shop on Saturday morning, not really having any idea what to expect. In the UK, the estate agent is basically a con-man who tries to shift boxes at any price and most people rely on a solicitor to make sure the Is and Ts are properly dotted and crossed, but it seems that in Japan, it is relatively rare to employ legal assistance and the agent takes a much greater responsibility (and so they should, given their fees).

So, he seems to have looked into the land search and local regulations in quite some detail, and it took well over 2 hours to go through the details. Most of the substantive "issues" relate to the rebuilding rights - since houses are not expected to last more than about 40 years, this is crucial for the long-term value of the site. The house is in the middle of a non-residential area of woodland where rebuilding is generally not allowed, but the plot has a special exemption due to there already being a house there (two, in fact) when the land was so designated a few decades ago. That's great as it means there could not be an appartment block erected on the boundary. A bigger fly in the ointment is that there appears to be a strip of unowned land (in practice that means in national ownership) which separates the plot from the road, and this discontinuity prohibits a rebuild (and could in extremis even cause access problems if someone else bought it). Possibly it could be claimed for free after 10 years of occupancy (the previous owner is already at 8, and this count is not re-set on selling), and the strip can certainly be bought, but the whole area is unsurveyed which is a non-trivial expense that the buyer would have to bear. On top of that, 2 of the neighbouring landowners appear to be disappeared or deceased, which would make it problematic to arrange the surveying permissions. There are further issues due to the fact that the road is not an officially adopted one, and the land is dangerously steep, all implying more hoops to jump for a rebuild (but just paperwork and restrictions, not a ban).

After lunch we all went to have a look round, to see how the paper description matches the reality on the ground. It's still an amazing site with a well-built house that would be very pleasant to live in. Land rights problems are a bit of a red flag (certainly in the UK) and the sensible action is generally to walk away or wait until the current owner sorts it out. At the least, we need to find some legal advice about how much trouble and expense it would take to sort out. It might be easy, and it would certainly be interesting...

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Cause or effect?

I see that Abbey is now offering to loan 5 times joint salary for a mortgage, which implies an interest payment alone of about 25% of gross salary (and that at historically low interest rates of about 5% pa) before anyone even starts to think about repaying the capital.

Way back in pre-history, AIUI loans were typically limited to something like 2.5 times a single salary (ie typically the man's salary), which morphed to 3x the larger plus 1.5x the smaller, then more recently 3.5x the total household income.

Abbey claims that even larger loans are necessary to enable people to buy houses: I claim that the increasing size of loan multipliers is directly fuelling house price rises, since ultimately this multiplier is what puts a ceiling on the amount people can pay (of course this is not an original idea).

A few years of 10% interest rates (let alone the 15% reached around Black Wednesday) would be interesting to see, not that I would wish that fate on anyone. Back in the era of high inflation, a large debt would rapidly erode in real terms, but today's house buyers will have this risk hanging over them for a long time to come.

In Japan, it seems that loans of 6.5x salary are available (that's just from clicking buttons on a bank's web site, I don't know if this is a general rule). However, the site I looked at does seem to limit this to a single salary (workforce participation of married women is amazingly low), and there are also long-term fixed rates of about 3% available which limits the risk.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

A stern review of Stern

Not really stern, more disappointed, but it was too obvious a pun to ignore. I've had a quick look at the climate science bit (the full report is here), and I don't much like what I've seen. He briefly cites our work only to ignore it - I certainly don't blame him personally for this, he can only use what climate scientists tell him and there's no doubt that our work is far from the "consensus" of the peer-reviewed publications in this area. However, it is also evident that the "consensus" is seriously flawed on this point, and it is disappointing that no-one else seems prepared to admit it or even discuss the matter in public.

From my brief glance, it seems like he uses two climate sensitivity distributions, one based on the 1.5-4.5C of Wigley and Raper (drawing on the IPCC TAR) and another higher range based on Murphy et al 2004. While he doesn't go as far as to use some of the rather silly pdfs that have been presented, he's clearly been strongly influenced by them, mentioning a 20% chance of climate sensitivity exceeding 5C a few times. Of course most of the exciting numbers being quoted from his report are those arising from the highest end of the higher range that he uses. I've said before and I'll say it again, it seems quite a hostage to fortune to base policy decisions entirely on stuff that we are all pretty confident will not happen (but merely disagree on the definition of "pretty confident").

Our work has been published for a full 6 months, and a fair number of people working in the field first saw it over a year ago, so there has been plenty of time for some sort of response (I don't necessarily mean a direct comment on it, but rather new publications which take account of the arguments we have presented here and again here). So far, we've only managed to screw out some rather limited comments from Allen and Frame, and that only through the tactic of singling them out for direct criticism. Nevertheless, they have admitted (or perhaps I should say boasted, since they seem to consider it a feature not a bug) that they do not believe the results that they themselves have generated - and note further that this admission is not merely made with reference to the particular GRL paper in question, but is a general comment on the methods they and others have widely used. One IPCC AR4 author has also admitted privately via email that he is "pretty confident that the sensitivity range is 2 to 4 K or smaller" but he's never published anything like that. Come on guys (and girls), it's time to come clean before this mess gets any worse. Just because it's in the forthcoming AR4 doesn't mean you have to defend the "consensus" to the death. At the workshop I attended this summer, someone made the (at the time) amusing comment to the effect that it would be scary what was going on in probabilistic climate prediction, were it not for the fact that it was being ignored by the politicians anyway.

Well, it's no longer being ignored.

On top of the high climate sensitivity range, Stern uses the rather extreme A2 scenario (and essentially describes it as "business as usual") for his projections, even though it is already clear even 5 years on that we are falling behind this emissions pathway. I really think it's time the economists got their act together on this. And then he adds some feedbacks on top, based on results like those of the Hadley Centre model which has an extreme Amazon dieback due to having way too little rainfall in this region even before any global warming is considered. If the Japanese model had this behaviour everyone would just say it's a crap model but because it is HADCM3 it is supposed to be alarming :-) I see RP also has some criticism of the hurricane stuff. FWIW, I don't support him 100% on his general approach (too much "its not proven" and not enough "what is a realistic estimate") but I think he's more right than wrong. Anyway, my main beef is with the probabilistic estimation, because that's what I understand best. It seems crystal clear that the methods are intrinsically faulty - indeed the errors seem rather elementary once they are stated clearly - and it is long past the time that people should have been prepared to accept this and talk about it openly. Nature's comment that our criticisms "apply more generally to a widespread methodological approach" is hardly a valid defence of the science! Stern's results appear to be heavily dependent on the small probability of extremely bad consequences, so these problems may substantially weaken the value of his report. OTOH, it might be the case that even with a climate sensitivity of 2.5C and assuming a more moderate "business as usual" emissions growth, mitigation is still amply justified (personally I think action is justifiable on a number of grounds irrespective of the supposed "climate catastrophe").

I might add some more after reading it more carefully. Or I might just let those conscientious blokes at RealClimate do it better :-)

Sunday, October 29, 2006

House hunting

After 5 years here doing our best to blend in with the locals :-) our innate British nature is coming to the fore and we've been spending some time house-hunting. I can't help but think it's a bit crazy to consider buying, as we have no job security and currently live almost rent-free in a very nice house in a beautiful neighbourhood (technically, our employer rents the house and sublets to us at a massive discount through a rather Byzantine scheme). On top of the job situation we don't even have the right of permanent residency in Japan (nor any chance of getting this within the next 5 years, unless we take the drastic step of actually trying to take Japanese nationality). However, living in a rented house has its drawbacks, and it looks like we might well spend the next 5 years here - and that's not saying that we would necessarily wish to leave at that time, merely that we've never found it worthwhile looking any further ahead than that. Our current house has no fewer than 5 sets of single glazed French windows, no real heating, and a northerly aspect, which makes it rather chilly (as low as 3C indoors) all through the winter. Moreoever, although our landlady is very nice, the fussy rules (no pets, no decoration, not even a nail in the wall to hang a picture) are a bit wearing.

In contrast to the UK, renting here is common and buying is relatively rare. In fact it seems like most Japanese basically live at home until they are about 35, perhaps renting a shoe-box to live in during the weeks if their job is far away from home. I think many of them pretty much wait to inherit rather than trying to buy by themselves - and the paternalistic behaviour of Japanese companies (many of which have subsidised rental schemes like ours) helps to discourage buying, as does the high price of property.

Being rather eccentric cyclists (even by Japanese standards) we don't have quite the same requirements as most Japanese, which means there are actually some reasonable bargains to be had - being a 5 minute walk from the station is a drawback, not a selling point for us (been there, done that, suffered the sleepless nights from trains passing the window every 3 mins for 20 hours of the day).

We even got as far as putting in a derisory informal offer on a rather nice new home last week. By the time we had convinced the estate agent that we really were offering that sum of money for that particular house, rather than asking to see cheaper properties, it had been sold to someone else. Most recently, we looked at one that is 6 flights of steps up a steep hillside from the nearest road, with an astonishing (by local standards) 800m2 of land included (mostly a steep hill side). I'm not sure that we could ever re-sell it but it is only money, after all. It would almost be worth it just to see the removals men struggling to get our furniture up the hill...

Sunday, October 22, 2006


That's the sound of me coming back down to earth after taking another JLPT 2 kyuu practice test today. I only got a rather disappointing 54%, which is a full 12% down on last time and, more importantly, a fail. This time I used the 2nd test in this Unicom book and it is obvious that it is much harder than this other book of practice tests which I've also been using. However, there are still another 6 weeks which should be about enough time for another 6% improvement, even if this harder style is the more accurate guide to the real thing. To be honest I've been a bit lazy in recent weeks as I thought I was already quite comfortably up to the required level. This result may motivate me to start taking it more seriously again!

There was one bright spot - over the last 3 weeks I've ploughed right through to the end of the grammar syllabus (using this book) and I passed that section, with a higher mark than any I've previously reached (even in the easier tests). I've still got a lot of reading practice to work through now and my teacher is threatening me with the 2004 paper as yet more exam practice.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Why is Japan kept in dark?

I've blogged about this it before, but here's another article asking for Daylight Saving Time (or in fact just changing the clocks permanently by an hour, year-round) in Japan. It's still light enough for getting up at about 6am this time of year, but getting gloomy around 5pm or so, which seems pointlessly profligate when people are supposed to be thinking seriously about energy efficiency.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"one-sided and outrageous act beyond common sense"

With reference to this case that I mentioned some time ago, I'm pleased to see that Steve McGowan has now won Y350,000 in damages for being denied entry into an Osaka shop, in what the Judge described as a
"one-sided and outrageous act beyond common sense"
Unfortunately, winning damages only means that the Japanese Govt argues that there is no need for any law to prohibit racial discrimination, since the legal remedy (of a sort) exists. But if no-one wins a case, they can argue that discrimination doesn't exist. Catch 22...

Monday, October 16, 2006

Concerning co-authorship

A completely unattributable friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend thing, but I thought it was too funny to pass up:
One of my co-authors on the paper sent me exactly one email, that is to say that he should be included in the author list. And this was only in response to an email to which I attached a version of the paper which did not have his name on the author list.
I don't know of any of the people directly involved (have never even met them, in fact). Guesses are welcome but I'll probably deny it anyway if you get it right! Actually it might be amusing to hear now common such behaviour is.

October skies

This is what Japan looks like for most of the winter:

(That line of white on the horizon, that could conveivably be a cloud, is actually the northern end of the Kita Alps range, wearing the first snow of the season. In fact it's the area where several people died last week.)

Click the pic for more in a similar vein. Since blogger doesn't give the linked picture a blue border, here's another link.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

To lose one hiker may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose four looks like carelessness

At the weekend, the fine weather which is characteristic of Japanese autumn finally broke out. Monday was a holiday, so after we'd got over our amazement at seeing the sun again, we had an overnight trip up Yatsugatake, justifiably one of Japan's most popular mountains. But this post isn't about our trip (which was excellent), but rather these poor people.

I'm joining the dots here from various brief news reports so might not be 100% correct, but the events occurred on a mountain we've climbed twice now (once at this time of year, and again just a couple of months ago), so we know it fairly well. According to the various news reports, this group of 6 women mostly in their 60s (plus a leader significantly younger), were basically overwhelmed by the strong wind and snow on Saturday while aiming for one of the two huts near the summit of Shiroumadake, which is a big bleak ~3000m peak in the North Alps. 3 were benighted on the mountain and died: another succumbed even after being rescued and brought to a hut.

I was one the verge of posting a rant about the incompetent leadership that put the walkers in this situation. But they were not complete novices (apparently they'd been on previous trips with the same guide), and have to take some responsibility for themselves. It's particularly sad that they must have walked straight past an energency shelter (just 4 walls and a roof, but they would have been out of the wind) and none of them were more than a few minutes walk from the huts when they were found. There are several points at which more prudent decision-making by anyone present would undoubtedly have saved several lives.

When in any doubt about the conditions, I'm quick to turn back. A couple of times I've subsequently regretted the decision - but I reckon that's a whole lot better than pressing on and regretting that choice!

Saturday, October 07, 2006

For those who are too lazy to ride a bicycle...

Get a robot to do it for you!

I'm not sure whether this is less useless, or more, than the one-legged hopping robot I mentioned earlier. But given a choice between a world which has been taken over by cute-but-useless Japanese robots, or American killing machines, I know which I'd prefer!

Friday, October 06, 2006

Japan's new PM making waves...

I reckon this will soon be making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

Since taking over a week or so ago, Japan's new Prime Minister seems to have spent alternate days building bridges with Japan's neighbours, and then knocking them down again. No sooner does he apologise for Japan's colonial rule and aggression (including his grandfather's role) than he comes out with the claim that World War II leaders tried by allies cannot be considered war criminals.

Cattle wagons

Transport policy and politics has long been a side-interest of mine: as a keen cyclist, it's hard not to take an interest in these matters (at least while living in the UK where cycling is generally marginalised and actively discouraged: one more advantage of living in Japan is that cyclists are just normal people). I even have a publication related to the subject :-) It's long been clear that cycling has numerous benefits in terms of health and economics on top of the obvious environmental benefits (including - but not limited to - climate change). Over the past few months, I seem to have collected a number of blogable links on vaguely related issues which I will try to work though.

Recently, this article about trains caught my eye. So UK trains are considered "overcrowded" if there are 35 standing passengers per 100 seats, and there are plans to increase capacity by taking out seats (people pack in better when standing). Shock, horror, "passenger groups" are outraged.

Well, wake up and smell the coffee. Many (most?) Japanese commuter trains have bench-style seats along the walls, 20 to a carriage, with room for about 100 or more standing. Some carriages (the "cattle wagons" of the subject line) have no seats at all in rush hour - the bench seats are kept folded up against the walls. Even the supposedly all-seater shinkansen (5-across in a 3+2 airline stylee) are sometimes packed to 200% capacity (ie 100 standing per 100 seating) at busy times.

Of course, people who want a seat....

can use their own :-) We hardly use the trains for commuting, although when it rains as much as it's done recently, we sometimes succumb to the temptation. At least they generally work over here, even if they aren't exactly luxurious.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Reciting pi

Well, I'll give a hat tip to inkstain although I had already noticed it in the local press:
A Japanese business consultant [variously "psychiatric counsellor" and "clinical psychologist" elsewhere] from Chiba Prefecture has broken his own world record of reciting pi — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — from memory by stretching it to 100,000 digits in a feat that lasted more than 16 hours through early Wednesday.
As for John Fleck's question "Why the Japanese?" (the previous record holder was also from this fair nation), I can do no better than to repeat the comment I added to his post:

By the time you’ve learnt 2-3000 kanji, each with multiple readings and meanings, and which combine with each other in pairs to give an order of magnitude expansion in complexity, a few digits of pi is small beer.

Can you say “rote learning”?

(Can you tell I'm getting a bit bored with all the Japanese learning I've been doing? 59 days to go...)

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

On the use of the LGM to constrain climate sensitivity

Stoat posits a "challenge to JA", based on a paper by Michel Crucifix (MC). There are some slightly subtle points which require a lengthy response to do them justice, so I'll post this here rather than as a comment.

MC looks at a total of 4 models which were integrated under both LGM (Last Glacial Maximum, ~20,000 years before present) and 2xCO2 conditions, and finds little relationship between both sets of results. (He does, actually, find a very good relationship between the Antarctic cooling at the LGM and the global warming at 2xCO2 - but as he has just pointed out to me, it's an inverse relationship!) He argues on this basis that it is inappropriate to simply scale the global LGM temperature change by the ratio of 2xCO2/LGM forcings to get a value for climate sensitivity.

To be honest, at first glance I thought that it was a bit of a straw-man argument, as surely no-one is seriously suggesting that one could do such a thing. However, James Hansen (eg here which refs to here) and some others have indeed presented pretty much this argument, so in that context MC's comments seem justified. In our GRL paper, we explicitly discussed the uncertainty in the LGM/2xCO2 relationship (which we had already shown to exist here) and attempted to account for this with a dollop of additional uncertainty on top of the simple forcing calculation. No doubt there is room for debate on the details of what we did, but we were hardly blazing a speculative trail here - Myles Allen has presented a vaguely similar analysis of the LGM on p42 of this presentation, for example, and there's a similar discussion on Ch29 of the "Avoiding dangerous climate change" book, as well as the cited Hansen work etc.

The main point behind our GRL paper was no to analyse the LGM, but to point out the fallacious nature of the (implied) arguments underlying many of the published climate sensitivity estimates. IMO these are based on what amounts to rather misleading wordplay rather than a valid calculation. The argument goes roughly as follows:

If we analyse event X (and use it to update a so-called "objective" or "ignorant" uniform prior), we end up with a broad posterior pdf for sensitivity with wide bounds -> X does not provide a "useful" constraint -> we can ignore event X completely in any further calculations to estimate climate sensitivity.

The fallacy is that between those two arrows, the term "useful" has changed its meaning from "providing a tight bound on its own in conjunction with a uniform prior" to "useful at all in conjunction with other data". This erroneous argument has been variously used for both the LGM state and short-term cooling after volcanic eruptions (and possibly elsewhere). But in order for event X to be truly useless, it would have to be the case that the likelihoods P(X|S=1C), P(X|S=3C), P(X|S=6C) and P(X|S=10C) (etc) are actually all equal, and no-one has actually made this (IMO) extraordinary claim!

An unfortunate limitation of MC's work - not in any way his own fault - is that there were only 4 coupled models available with both LGM and 2xCO2 integrations at the time of his investigation, and they only covered a fairly narrow range of sensitivity, which gives little chance for a significant result to emerge (any correlation of less than 0.95 would not have been significant at the 5% threshold). I suspect that he would have found stronger results if he'd had a larger sample of models which encompassed a wider range of sensitivities (although I'm sure there would still have been uncertainty around any correlation). The Hadley Centre and/or have been promising for some years now to do some ensembles of LGM simulations with their ensembles. Until they or others actually get round to it, we are pretty much twiddling our thumbs, but here is a more optimistic look at things, and there is also a recently-submitted manuscript on jules' work page. IMO the real debate is not on the binary yes/no question "Does the LGM constrain climate sensitivity?", but rather "What evidence does the LGM provide relating to climate sensitivity (and more generally, other future climate changes), and how best can we use it?" If anyone wants to argue that the answer to this is "absolutely nothing whatsoever" then they are welcome to try, but I think they will find themselves well on the scientific fringes.

Two more side-notes:

Firstly, our recent manuscript, which revisits the question of an "ignorant" or "objective" prior, does not use the LGM at all (except inasmuch as it influenced the Charney report, which I guess is not very much).

And secondly, I see that Myles Allen was quite happy to describe the work of several climate scientists as "wrong" in the presentation I linked to above. So those who accuse me of libel in my criticism of others could perhaps benefit from a sense of proportion.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Cutting off your finger to spite your hand?

There's a bizarre twist on an old proverb in the Japanese news today, with some right-wing nutter apparently sending a finger and a threatening letter to a Korean resident's group.

Yes, it was the RWN's own finger - and he was identified by his fingerprints :-)

I suppose it must be time for a post on the recent goings-on in the Japanese political scene...

Sunday, October 01, 2006

More JLPT testing

2 months to go (9 weeks today, in fact), and I'm up to 66.5% in my latest practice JLPT test. That's quite an improvement on last time, but I think I got a little bit luckier than usual in a few guesses this time. It still seems pretty tough - in fact of course a score like that means I "know" the answers to less than half the questions, but can make sensible guesses for many of them. For the reading comprehension part, I'm still horribly short of time, so my strategy is to basically skim through the texts and trying to narrow down the answers to the 2 or 3 reasonable ones. I wonder if it might be better to do part of it carefully and just completely guess the rest. In any case, I've got plenty of reading practice to do still, which should help speed me up. I've got past 750 kanji on the study list (and already know many of the remaining ones too) so feel to be on the home stretch as far as they are concerned. That's also got me to the position of recognising ~90% of kanji by frequency, so the reading matter all seems more familiar, even though my comprehension is still slow.

Anyone who, like me, is quite close to the pass/fail threshold would benefit greatly from doing practice tests. I've got another two planned between now and the event itself. If I can get to 70% before doing it for real, that would give a nice safety margin...

Saturday, September 30, 2006

My secret life

Those of you who know of me only as a climate scientist might be surprised to hear of my alter ego as an amateur engineer and forensic scientist, which I was reminded of via email this morning.

It relates to a design flaw with modern mountain bikes, which occasionally causes very serious crashes (the front wheel becomes detached, typically at high speed which results in the rider plumetting head-first into the ground). Like all intermittent faults, the frequency of the problem is debatable, but at least one person is now in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, and several more had serious (life threatening) head injuries which resulted in lengthy hospital stays (this guy in particular was very lucky to live). I won't bore you with the full technical details, which can be found on my disk brake and quick release page.

Anyway, the relevance of this to me is that I was the one who firstly worked out that there really was a problem, and then analysed the system sufficiently well to diagnose the underlying cause. I did this against a background of sceptical cyclists telling me that I was making it all up. (Front wheel retention has a long and chequered history and in the past failures could be correctly blamed on user error, but modern bicycles have introduced a crucial element into the mix.) It took me a few months to put the theory together in a complete and convincing manner, at which point most of the big names in the field (ie independent engineers with an interest in cycling) quickly endorsed it, but the industry has continued with implausible denial and obfuscation for several years since. (I've found the process to be useful training in dealing with both extremes in the climate science debate). Cannondale did some thoroughly fraudulent testing for the CPSC in the USA, "proving" that there wasn't a problem. Even the CPSC themselves got in on the act by writing a letter to tell me about an open meeting to discuss the issue, but not sending it until 2 days after the meeting had taken place (which entailed them sitting on the letter for several weeks, after emailing me a censored version which omitted the vital information). The cycling press are of course in the pay of the industry via advertising, and tried their best to downplay the issue and encouraged riders to not kick up a fuss.

So the story has been been rumbling along gently for the last few years, with continuing occasional reports of problems (eg here). I understand there are a couple of cases slowly working through the legal system, and there was an out of court settlement earlier this year.

In my in-box today:
Well just go the latest Dirt Rider [cycling magazine], Issue 124. And on page 13, there is an ad for the Fox Talas II with "Changed Dropout Slot Angle for Disk Brakes". And on P 59, under the Marzocchi Marathon Race review, "But kudos to Marazocchi (and other manufacturers) for identifying a potentially lethal disc brake and drop out combination..."
So, having discovered, investigated, and solved this problem essentially single-handedly in the face of widespread opposition, and after dragging the manufacturers kicking and screaming to the point where they actually start to take some action, I've now been airbrushed out of history.

Perhaps in a few years I can look forward to someone breathlessly announcing through the pages of Nature saying that climate sensitivity is very likely close to 2.5C...

Update: it's actually Dirt Rag, and their full review of the Marzocchi forks is available on-line here. This is the same Dirt Rag that wrote the following in 2003 (issue 102):
Once we heard about the problem, we contacted a few reputable sources who seem to agree that while Annan's concerns might be valid, those concerns are only in the rarest of cases-such as severe neglect or care for parts, poor or improper assembly or just plain stupid combination of parts (such as a light-weight cross country suspension fork on an off road tandem).

Friday, September 29, 2006

Ask me if I'm bovvered.

I see in the news that a new pressure group has sprung up with the goal of reversing the decline in students studying science at school and beyond. Follow the links at the bottom of that page for many more stories in a similar vein. According to the Great and Good, there aren't enough science teachers or enough scientists. As a result the economy will collapse, and we're all doomed.

Am I bovvered, though? Does my face look bovvered?

Science, by and large, is an increasingly poor career choice (by a number of measures), and I am really rather more surprised that so many people still do it at all, than that the number is declining.

I was lucky enough to squeak through the system at the end of the "golden age" of grants (not loans), when the cost of two degrees was measured merely by the relative intangibles of a subsistence lifestyle and the opportunity cost of not getting on the salary ladder. On top of that, the current cohort face a hefty red figure in their bank balances in the form of accumulated tuition fees and loans. It's hardly a situation that would encourage a rational person to choose a low-paying job with poor prospects.

Ignoring the title, this page paints a pretty realistic picture, I think. I don't for a minute believe his thesis that women don't do science because they alone realise it's a crap choice, whereas us dumb men are stupid enough to fall for the fantasy of fame and fortune (for an alternative explanation, have a read of this - although IMO and IME it [fortunately] represents an extreme case). But as for its description of science as an underpaid, overworked, insecure choice with a high cost of entry and huge drop-out rate, I think it pretty much hits the spot. I hope all my readers understand that even the run-of-the-mill tenured professor is very much at the lucky and/or talented end of the bell curve of a group of people who were already generally at the top of the class before they even started trying to climb up this particular slippery pole. And even if you get the supposedly cushy tenured post, it's no defence when the Govt decides to downsize or just close your lab. I've blogged about CEH before, but those other two links concern firstly the lab where I had my first job, and then the one where my father worked for many years. Both closed on April 1st this year. I think in my 7 years of work in the UK (at 2 labs) there were about 4 rounds of redundancies in all, which hardly results in a conducive atmosphere for work even for those who were not personally threatened.

Perhaps I'm digressing a little. Of course there is a good side to scientific research, and I don't regret my decision at all. It's a great choice for the eccentrics and independently-monied :-) I'd prefer it if there were fewer rather than more of us, though. It's a question of supply and demand.

Of course the CBI wants more scientists. The fat cats who they represent stand to make fat profits on the slave labour of an army of underpaid post-docs (who they did not pay to train or educate, of course). If the supply dries up to the point at which they have to pay scientists higher salaries, I'm not going to shed any tears on their behalf. I'm sure that many of the worthies have their hearts in the right place, and think we need more scientists because science is generally a source of good, rather than because they like to build their empires up with hordes of post-docs with no job security. Nevertheless, oversupply drives down the price, and undersupply will drive it up again.

So basically, if people stop studying science, I'm not bovvered. In fact, I look forward to it. And if you are looking for career advice, please go and be an estate agent or hairdresser or journalist or...well, anything really. Just not a scientist!