Thanks Marf for capturing the spirit of last night’s PB gathering at Dirty Dicks in the City of London. This was the best attended PB event that we’ve ever had and it was great to compare notes and betting strategies with fellow PBers.
The pub was absolutely packed with Friday night drinkers that our little corner felt very over-crowded at first but it worked well and I, for one, had a great time.
We had people with five different party allegiances there and the conversation and company was very civilised. It really is good to meet fellow PBers face to face.
The first poll out tonight looks set to be Opinium for the Observer followed by YouGov. I’m expecting a UKIP boost.
Tories slip back 4 & LAB retake lead with Opinium
2004-2014: The view from OUTSIDE the Westminster bubble
This isn’t perhaps the most interesting pair of results that have come from research into the patterns on Twitter and of tweets. But they are two of the interesting markers that the research has found. What was done was to look at a subset of all tweets made in Spain over a time period and then map that over unemployment rates and geolocation information. What was being looked for was any pattern that matched: is there any difference in the general pattern of tweets from low unemployment areas and high?
What was found that there was and those findings included the two in the headline. Tweeting started (or rather peaked) later in the day in areas of high unemployment rather than low. And the spelling of tweets was worse in areas with high unemployment. The abstract of the paper is here:
In the present work, we investigate whether deviations from these universal patterns may reveal information about the socio-economical status of geographical regions. We quantify the extent to which deviations in diurnal rhythm, mobility patterns, and communication styles across regions relate to their unemployment incidence. For this we examine a country-scale publicly articulated social media dataset, where we quantify individual behavioral features from over 145 million geo-located messages distributed among more than 340 different Spanish economic regions, inferred by computing communities of cohesive mobility fluxes. We find that regions exhibiting more diverse mobility fluxes, earlier diurnal rhythms, and more correct grammatical styles display lower unemployment rates.
The grammatical thing is easy enough. Any recession, any bout of unemployment, hits the less educated more than the well educated. It’s the working classes that stop working, not the middle and professional classes. So that linkage is simple to understand. The change in diurnal rhythm seems obvious enough too: why leap out of bed if you’ve not a job to go to? There are all too many of us who have to force ourselves to get up on time, after all.
But of course what the full paper is trying to work out is not what are the markets and why, but can we use these markers?
And that’s where I get a bit worried about these sorts of tests on Twitter. For they’re thinking that if the pattern of tweets changes, in a known manner, with rising unemployment then we could monitor tweets for this pattern and thus see unemployment rising before it appears in the official figures. In essence I’ve no problems with that. There’s all sorts of people trying to mine Google Trends, Facebook and Twitter to see what might be happening out there in the fog of the economy. Quite famously there’s one investment company that used to buy satellite photos of supermarket parking lots. So they could count the cars and see which way they thought sales numbers were going. I’m fine with all of that.
However, the intention here is to see whether public policy can be improved by having earlier information. And this strikes me as getting close to the Keynesian delusion that that macroeconomy can be managed in detail by the appropriate little nudges on the policy levers. Please note that this is nothing to do with the basic Keynesian economics, of trying to goose demand in a recession, or of having fiscal contraction in a boom. I’m worried instead about the political delusion (common in the 60s and 70s) that politics and politicians had enough information to be able to do this in near real time and in detail.
They didn’t, of course, they were all relying upon data that was months out of date by the time anyone saw it. But there are those, like our intrepid researchers, who think that if we could get more data, better data, faster data, then it would be possible to micromanage that macroeconomy.
And my objection to that is the point that Hayek made. Which is that in basic theory you simply cannot ever gather enough information in time to be able to plan an economy. Yes, of course, you might well be able to get better, or more timely, information but that’s simply never going to be good enough for any sort of micromanagement. Simply because the only thing we actually have able to calculate the economy is that economy itself. It doesn’t matter how good your information is, how much better it becomes, you still cannot beat that problem.
Which leaves us in an interesting place. It may well be, in fact some people are showing that it is, possible to diagnose certain specific factors as a result of monitoring social media like Twitter. But we’ll not be able to get to the point where that can inform government action in detail. Simply because while it is possible to count cars and guess at sales it’s not possible to compute or calculate a whole economy without using that whole economy as our calculating machine.
The following seats have selections in progress and are currently advertising for candidates:
Esher and Walton, 23rd November
Havant, 24th November
Keighley, 25th November
Shipley, 25th November
Beverley and Holderness, 28th November
Bolton North East, 28th November
Bolton South East, 28th November
Bolton West, 28th November
Croydon South, 28th November
High Peak, 28th November
Halton, 28th November
Leeds West, 28th November
Leigh, 28th November
Meon Valley, 28th November
Pudsey, 28th November
Warwick and Leamington, 28th November
Barrow & Furness, 1st December
Paisley & Renfrewshire North, 1st December
Paisley & Renfrewshire South, 1st December
Beckenham, 5th December
Bromley & Chislehurst, 5th December
Blyth and Wansbeck, 5th December
Coventry North East, 5th December
Coventry North West, 5th December
Coventry South, 5th December
Huntingdon, 5th December
North West Cambridge, 5th December
Ochil & South Perthshire, 5th December
Orpington, 5th December
Perth & North Perthshire, 5th December
Peterborough, 5th December
Stoke on Trent North, 5th December
Stoke on Trent South, 5th December
Wantage, 5th December
Hemel Hempstead, 8th December
Hertford & Stortford, 8th December
Bridgwater and West Somerset, 12th December
East Hampshire, 12th December
Luton North, 16th December
Luton South, 16th December
Ashford, 19th December
Crawley, 20th December
Horsham, 20th December
Further information, including Returning Officer contact details, can be found on the Lib Dem members’ website: http://www.libdems.org.uk/forms/user_ses
This is one of the great entries in Ellwood & Atfield’s Political Cartoon of the Year 2014:
You’ve got until midnight on 1 December to enjoy all the shortlisted entries and to vote for your favourite.
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) November 22, 2014
William Hill betting http://t.co/orbZ1ewJDz UKIP 5/1 to be part of a coalition – 18 months ago they were 33/1
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) November 22, 2014
William Hill http://t.co/orbZ1ewJDz now make CON 4/6 to win back Rochester. Yesterday morning they were 2/1
— Mike Smithson (@MSmithsonPB) November 22, 2014
The last few days have seen us regaled with a serious of stories about how the world is going to run out of chocolate. That would be, I think we can all agree, almost as bad as running out of bacon. So it’s worth thinking through the reasons as to why we might be running out. After all, cocoa, from which chocolate is made, is a plant, it’s obviously renewable in that it grows each season. So how can we be running out of something we farm? The answer is, in part at least, that there’s some bad public policy at the root of this. As there usually is when something that shouldn’t happen does.
Here’s the basic story in a nutshell:
A recent chocolate shortage has seen cocoa farmers unable to keep up with the public’s insatiable appetite for the treat–and the world’s largest chocolate producers, drought, Ebola and a fungal disease may all be to blame.
Much of the world’s chocolate comes from West Africa so the disruption by the Ebola outbreak is one obvious part of it. But the shortage is not something immediate, it’s something that has been coming for some years. Ebola is right now, not a medium term influence. Drought similarly, that’s a short term thing, and this is a medium term problem. It’s also true that as the world gets richer more people can afford and thus desire that delicious chocolate.
However, we’ve a bit of a puzzle here. Markets are usually pretty good at sorting these sorts of things out. OK, so demand rises, prices rise, farmers plant more (or in more general terms, producers producer more) and thus supply grows to meet that rising demand.
And in a proper market we can never actually have a “shortage”. We can only have a shortage of something at the price that people want to pay for it. For prices move to balance supply and demand. And yes, this really does happen to everything. The United States is pretty much out of gasoline at $1 a gallon for example, despite many people desiring to purchase it at that price. The price is actually somewhere around $3 a gallon which is what balances the number and volume people are willing to supply with the number of people and the volume they desire to purchase.
One possible answer is suggested by someone from the Fair Trade movement, which is that too little of the profits of cocoa growing flow through to the actual farmers. Thus everyone should buy Fair Trade which pays the farmers more. An interesting idea but not quite as persuasive as this next one.
Which is that the shortage is simply a matter of bad public policy. Two facts to show this:
The government tells a different story. It says the raft of cocoa reforms it introduced in 2012 to try to keep farmers in the industry – including a return to price fixing – has raised incomes by 30%. And in general, the industry is booming in Ivory Coast. This year’s crop was the largest in the West African nation’s history at nearly 1.8m tonnes of beans; an increase of more than 10% on 2013. It coincided with the government raising the farmer price, for the second year in a row, to 850 CFA francs (£1.02)) per kilo.
That’s in the Ivory Coast, the world’s largest producer. See, production increases as prices do: markets work then. But note also this:
London futures (£ sterling/tonne) 1868.33
Ahhh….the government is paying the farmers £1 a kg or so and the market is indicating that supply and demand will balance at £1.88 a kg. So, what we’ve actually got here is some price fixing. And the price to the producers is fixed well below the market clearing price (although the government most certainly gets that market price). So, we’ve a wedge in between the prices that consumers are willing to pay for a certain volume and the price that the farmers get for production. So, therefore, instead of it being the price that balances supply and demand we end up with an imbalance of the supply and demand as a result of the price fixing.
This is how it always goes, of course, whenever anyone tries to fix a price. If that price is fixed above the market clearing one then producers make more than anyone wants to consume (think the EU and agriculture, leading to butter mountains and wine lakes). If the price is fixed below the market clearing one then producers don’t make as much as people want to consume. This is why it’s near impossible to get an apartment anywhere where there is rent control. And if prices are fixed at the market clearing price then why bother in the first place? Quite apart from the fact that we’ve got to use the market itself to calculate the market clearing price.
This has been especially pernicious over the decades in West Africa as well. Ghana, under Nkrumah, deliberately set the exchange rate high. This meant that the urbanites, where his political support came from, could buy imported goods cheaply. It also meant that the cocoa farmers, then as now largely illiterate and living out in the deep country (and thus having very little influence over politics) got very low prices for their cocoa. And thus the crop declined in volume over the years.
Or at least that’s what is being suggested in the European Parliament, that search engines should be forced to be divorced from other business activities. It’s also true that they don’t directly mention Google but that’s obviously who it is aimed at. Fortunately, as a matter of public policy this isn’t going to go very far. Because the European Parliament doesn’t actually have the right to propose either actions or legislation. Only the European Commission can actually propose something and then the Parliament gets to say yea or nay to it.
So, in terms of anything being likely to happen in the immediate future there’s not much here. But it is an indication of quite how wildly the (would be) policy makers over here in Europe are out of touch with the way that the real world works:
The European parliament is reportedly poised to call for a break-up of Google in a drastic escalation of Europe’s long-running antitrust case against the tech giant.
Or as the earlier report in the Financial Times put it:
The European parliament is poised to call for a break-up of Google, in one of the most brazen assaults so far on the technology group’s power.
The gambit increases the political pressure on the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, to take a tougher line on Google, either in its antitrust investigation into the company or through the introduction of laws to curb its reach.
A draft motion seen by the Financial Times says that “unbundling [of] search engines from other commercial services” should be considered as a potential solution to Google’s dominance. It has the backing of the parliament’s two main political blocs, the European People’s Party and the Socialists.
Recall what I pointed out above: the EU Parliament doesn’t have the power to introduce its own bills or laws. It can only approve or not those proposed by the Commission. So we’re some way off anything like this happening. But it is an insight into the way people are thinking: or not thinking, as I would put it in this case.
The basic background is that some quite large number of continental European politicians are annoyed at Google. Not for any real reason that people can see other than that they’re not from here, are here and are being very successful here. That’s enough to get certain of the political classes riled up here.
Google is dominant in search, yes, that’s true. And it is also public policy over here that dominant firms ought to be regulated. Instead of taking the correct approach and insisting that only those with uncontestable dominance need to be regulated. But, that’s just the way it is.
Further, as a matter of public policy, breaking up Google is simply insane. The proposal is that search engines should be only search engines, should have no other business ventures inside the same company. That’s something that would entirely kill off search engines, of course, as they all function as advertising resellers as well. So, if the advertising business must be divorced from the search engine then there is no search engine any more as it is advertising that provides all of the revenue.
My suspicion is that this is all to do with the recent contretemps over Google News. It started in Belgium but the latest iteration of the fight has been Germany. The German press insisted that Google News was stealing copyright by linking to articles using headlines and snippets. Therefore Google News (despite it carrying no advertising) should pay for the use of that copyright. They even managed to get German law changed to reflect that idea. At which point Google News simply stopped including the German media in its index. Traffic to all of those sites fell precipitately and they all begged Google to come back and yes, of course, don’t worry about paying us anything.
This, of course, did not go down well. No media baron likes to be told that he needs Google more than Google needs him. So, given that it is German politicians behind this latest move my best guess is that this is all just being driven by a fit of pique. Well, if we can’t beat Google by that first change in the law let’s see if we can get them some other way, eh? And of course the local media in Germany has quite a lot of power to influence German politicians to suggest things in Brussels:
Four German ministers, including Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel, have sent a letter to Brussels to back the idea behind the breakup resolution, a German government spokeswoman said.
It all seems just a bit too nakedly done to work really, doesn’t it?
Global Quickies: The Reaction to White “Saviors” in Africa, “Hunger Games”-Inspired Activism in ThaiNov. 22nd, 2014 02:00 pm
In pictures: A male feminist’s view on African women – “Photographer, blogger and poet Nana Kofi Acquah uses his travels around Africa to chronicle the lives of women at their most accomplished and at their most vulnerable. A self-declared male feminist, he says his mission is to change the narrative around African women where they are often portrayed as victims of circumstance. The artist was interviewed by BBC Africa’s Vera Kwakofi for the 100 Women series.”
Africa Nears Eradication of Polio – “A rigorous vaccination campaign has nearly eliminated the crippling infectious disease from Nigeria and the continent at large, according to a new CDC report.”
‘We got this, Bob Geldof, so back off’ – “As Western stars re-release 1980s charity hit, many Africans say it’s a demeaning relic that can do more harm than good.”
Creationist legislation in Brazil – “A bill introduced in the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies would, if enacted, require creationism to be taught in the country’s public and private schools.” Why can’t religious people ever be OK with creationism being taught in church, where it belongs? From CriticalDragon1177.
Cuba’s health diplomacy in the age of Ebola – “Amid the worst Ebola outbreak of our time, it has been the small island nation of Cuba that has provided arguably the most impressive policy response. Instead of offering financial assistance to those West African nations most in need, the Cuban government has focused on providing skilled healthcare workers passionate about helping Ebola victims.”
China calls for enhanced dialogue to resolve conflicts – “China’s Defence Minister, Chang Wanquan, says he wants to enhance dialogue to manage disputes with neighbouring countries. Speaking at a security forum in Beijing, Mr Chang said China was considering opening defence hotlines with South East Asian countries. Four of them, including Vietnam and the Philippines, are involved in territorial disputes with Beijing.”
China Sends Chilling Warning To Teachers Speaking Critically Of Government – “During visits to more than 20 schools, the regional paper wrote last week, it found exactly what it said it was looking for: Some professors compared Mao Zedong, first leader of China’s communist government, to ancient emperors, a blasphemy to party ideology upholding Mao as a break from the country’s feudal past. Other scholars were caught pointing out the party’s failures after taking power in 1949. Some repeatedly praised ‘Western’ ideas such as a separation of powers in government.”
Eating Domino’s Pizza in Haiti – “Ahead of a recent trip to Haiti, I was surprised to learn that there is only one American fast-food joint in the country, which is a mere 700 miles from the coast of Florida. Turns out, it’s a Domino’s located on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Tim McIntyre, Domino’s vice president of communications, told me that the company expanded to Haiti in 1997 and used to have four stores there, but that three were destroyed by the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake.”
Good Mexico vs. Bad Mexico – “A young Mexican president assumes office and surprises the world, not least his own nation. He proposes unprecedented reforms that don’t just clash with the entrenched ideologies of his party, the ever-mighty PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party), but also with some of the country’s most powerful interests: hitherto untouchable economic titans, union bosses, and local chieftains. International observers laud the potential of the reforms to make Mexico less corrupt, and more prosperous and just. But at home, the reforms are met with distrust and seen by many as just another ploy that will benefit the greedy elites who build fortunes on the backs of the poor.”
When Life Imitates ‘The Hunger Games’ in Thailand – “While we continue to measure the ideological scope and reach of dystopian cinema on its young acolytes in America, elsewhere, life is beginning to imitate art in a very real way. Earlier this year, protestors in Thailand cribbed the gesture of resistance featured in The Hunger Games following a coup in May.”
Palace Of Ousted Ukrainian President Yanukovych Is Now A Museum – “As crowds of Ukrainian protesters seized control of the public spaces and government buildings in Kiev this past February, embattled former President Viktor Yanukovych made a hasty moonlight escape from his opulent palace. He left behind an absurd treasure trove on the 340 acre estate — from exotic animals to a fleet of luxury cars — that in the aftermath of the revolution served as an indictment of his corrupt regime.”
Pope Francis has told us all that we’re really very naughty indeed to allow food to become a product like any other, a product in which people can speculate and profit. Which leads to a rather sad observation about Il Papa‘s understanding of basic economics: he doesn’t, essentially, he doesn’t understand basic economics. It is indeed an outrage that there are still 800 million or more of our fellow human beings who are malnourished. Appalling that while the world grows the calories to feed all not all get fed. But once we’ve noted those points, decided (as we damn well should) to do something about them, the interesting question becomes, well, what? At which point we might note that it’s the places with well functioning markets, subject to all that horrible speculation and profit making, that have the people who are not malnourished and not starving. Something Pope Francis might have considered before he said this:
The 77-year old said the world had ‘paid too little heed to those who are hungry.’
While the number of undernourished people dropped by over half in the past two decades, 805 million people were still affected in 2014.
‘It is also painful to see the struggle against hunger and malnutrition hindered by ‘market priorities’, the ‘primacy of profit’, which reduce foodstuffs to a commodity like any other, subject to speculation and financial speculation in particular,’ Francis said.
Before I go further in arguing with this distinguished and holy man perhaps I should point out that I was brought up as a Catholic, indeed expensively educated in an attempt to turn me into a Catholic Gentleman (something that has obviously failed on both points), so I do understand the background to these remarks. There’s nothing unusual about them in the context of Catholic social teaching. However, they are still wrong: not in the goal, of course not, we all want the hungry to be fed. But in the understanding of the policies that are required to make this happen.
But just to lay it out in very simple terms in one place. Regarding that first point, about profit. Profit is the incentive for people to do things. If people don’t profit from their actions then they won’t do them. Of course, we can take a wide view of what “profit” is: we could, for example, say that the warm feeling a farmer gets from watching a starving child eating the food he has grown is a profit. And it would be as well. But as we’ve found out over the past century or so (looking at those various attempts at the collectivisation of agriculture is really most instructive) that that good feeling of having produced what others need is not actually enough. Any and every society that has relied upon such public feelings has had extensive malnutrition if not out and out famine.
So, we want the producers of food to profit from their having produced it. Otherwise we just don’t get enough food.
Then on to speculation and financial speculation. These move the prices of things through time. This is also highly desirable (as Adam Smith pointed out 238 years ago) as by moving prices through time we also move supplies of food through time (see the linked pieces for this in more detail). We move food from, as Smith said, a time of plenty to a time of dearth: thus reducing malnutrition and starvation. And yes, again, the incentive for people to do this highly desirable thing is to make a profit.
So we actually want both profit and speculation in food. For the end results are desirable. We get both the production of food in the first place and the movement of it, in both geographic and temporal, terms, to where it is needed.
This week saw the publication of an important report from the think-tank British Future called ‘How to talk about immigration’.
Its central thrust is that the majority of the British public’s views about immigration are more moderate, pragmatic and nuanced than the polarising debate often allows:
How to talk about immigration challenges both the pro and anti-migration voices to respond to the public’s desire for a sensible conversation about immigration.
It highlights pro-migration liberals’ tendency to dismiss public concerns as simply based on misconceptions and myths, or to try to ‘change the subject’ away from immigration altogether. ‘Myth-busting’ exercises can boost the morale of those already onside but they struggle to persuade others and risk actively hardening attitudes against immigration, especially as official migration statistics are widely mistrusted – because people don’t believe the system works.
There are challenges, too, for migration sceptics pushing for big cuts in numbers. Sceptics need to move on from “why can’t we talk about immigration?” to showing whether they have a plan, with constructive answers that can work for Britain today.
The majority of people want solutions, not divisive rhetoric.
First, the racism worry.
Many pro-migrant liberals fear above all that the immigration debate is just a proxy for the prejudices of those who are, in reality, racists.
Some are; but many are not. And one of the quickest ways to stop those with concerns about immigration from listening to us is to accuse them of being something they aren’t. (See also my May article, “Label the behaviour not the person”: why we shouldn’t call Ukip a racist party.)
The report is very clear on this point: “It isn’t racist to talk about immigration – as long as you talk about it without being racist.” It cites data from the British Social Attitudes survey showing moderate majority in Britain today holds liberal views on race, and rejects the views of a prejudiced minority. For instance, inter-ethnic marriage concerns just 15% of Britons today. That’s 15% too many you might say; true, but in 1993 it was 44%. That’s a massive, liberal shift in a relatively short timeframe.
Tellingly on the immigration debate, the key question for many of the public is how skilled immigrants are. By 63%-24% the public thinks professional migrants from countries like Poland coming to fill jobs is good for Britain. And by a strikingly similar 61%-22% the public thinks professional migrants from Muslim countries like Pakistan coming to fill jobs is good for Britain. However, most people believe that unskilled migrants, whether they came from Eastern Europe or from Pakistan, are bad for Britain. Such an attitude may well be wrong economically and/or morally; but it’s not racist.
Secondly, how should Lib Dems talk about immigration?
The report has a section offering advice to each of the main parties about how they should talk about immigration.
Its key point for the Lib Dems is that we should be authentic in our liberal stance on immigration; but should also take seriously the political challenges and work harder to build alliances with the moderate majority, rather than be quick to taint them for holding concerns we feel to be unjustified.
That need to reach out to pro-migration sympathisers who aren’t Lib Dems is a point I made last year when Nick Clegg dropped the policy of an amnesty for undocumented migrants — a policy this week adopted by President Obama.
Liberal Democrats are inauthentic on immigration if they mute their own voice and try not to say anything at all, for fear that the other parties are more likely to be in touch with public attitudes. Liberal Democrats are authentic when they do provide a liberal voice which speaks up for the positive cultural and economic contributions of migration to British life, and could do so more successfully when they acknowledge, as democrats, that they take seriously the political challenges of rebuilding public confidence for managed migration, and handling its pressures, so as to broaden support for the values of Britain being an inclusive, welcoming and fair society.
Given their strong civil liberties commitments, Liberal Democrats, like the Green Party, should certainly remain a clear voice for protecting Britain’s core humanitarian obligations, and in pressing for these to be reflected in practice in our immigration system. The ‘moderate majority’ analysis of this pamphlet suggests that it would be a mistake for the party to measure the purity of its liberal conscience by the unpopularity of the principled and defiantly unpopular positions it can strike. That would risk making liberalism little more than a badge of political differentiation, rather than taking seriously the challenges of building the alliances and support to make liberal change possible – as it successfully did on child detention.
So the Lib Dems should work with civic movements to build support for reform, while constructively challenging its civic allies to help find answers to address the public, political and policy barriers to creating a system that is both effective and humane. Broadening alliances for liberal reform across civic and party boundaries is an important way to maximise the chances of influencing the policy debate in other parties, or making progress if the Lib Dems should find themselves once again negotiating over coalition policies after a future general election.
As I wrote in the summer after Nick Clegg’s most recent (and not at all bad) speech on immigration, “We need to work together, across parties, to win support for humane, liberal policies which offer the country a more prosperous future.” There’s some sound advice here from British Future about how we can do that.
* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.
When I'm playing a game normally I'm using a keyboard/mouse or a gamepad. Either way, I'm _mostly_ looking at the screen, but occasionally looking down to work out why I'm pressing all the wrong buttons, or reminding myself which button "A" is.
You can't do that with a Rift - your eyes are completely enclosed, and there's no way to see the controller, so re-centering yourself after you've lost your bearings is really hard. And if you put the controller down for a second...
Meanwhile, back in the dark days of 2010, the "Leap Motion" was launched. Essentially a small, chocolate-bar sized, detector that can tell where your fingers are, it failed to find any real traction. There just weren't enough uses for it, it was a bit glitchy, and frankly you were better off with a mouse/keyboard or a touch-screen for most uses.
And then some people had a genius idea - strap a Leap Motion to the front of an Oculus Rift and use it to detect the hands of the person wearing it. Like this:
And now you've got something which is constantly detecting exactly where your hands are, works entirely intuitively, and gives you an actual workable control system for virtual reality.
Workable enough, in fact, that you can strap the office cleaner into it, and she picks it up in moments:
More details, and a good video of it being used to control something more complex here.
*Other than, I wonder how they're going to stop version two from making people sick.
Well, this is interesting: The folks at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and SETI Institute have just released a remastered image of Jupiter’s moon Europa, and it’s breathtaking:
That’s not even full-res; click it to see it in its splendor.
Europa is 3120 km (1930 miles) in diameter, a hair smaller than our own Moon. Unlike our Moon, which is rock through and through, Europa has a rocky core covered with water. And by water, I mean liquid water, an undersurface ocean covered with a kilometers-thick shell of ice. The water may be in a layer 100 km thick, and salty, making it a true ocean. In fact, it may have more liquid water than Earth does!
The cracks you see are where ice floes fit together; the brighter areas are nearly pure water ice, but the red/orange regions are cracks, possibly where briny water has been squeezed to the surface, and materials in it chemically affected by the intense radiation environment surrounding Jupiter (caused by its very strong magnetic field interacting with material blasted out by volcanoes on Jupiter’s moon Io).
All of this has made Europa a prime target for exploration for a long time. I was going to write a bit about that, but then saw that JPL made a very informative video explaining it all.
That video is very well-done, and as I watched it I couldn’t help but think it felt like a trailer or promotional video for a new mission in the works. I know a lot of planetary astronomers have wanted to send a dedicated mission to the moon to investigate it far more thoroughly…
… and then I found that, due to the mid-term elections, Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex) is now head of the House's Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations subcommittee. He’s long been an advocate for a Europa mission.
It cannot be coincidence that this new image and video were put out now. The feeling I got while watching it, I suspect, is based on reality. I will not be surprised in the least if, for the next fiscal year budget, NASA asks for a Europa mission, including something as dramatic and unprecedented and as some hardware that can penetrate the ice and take a peek into Europa’s dark, briny depths.
I can’t say I’m opposed to that. There’s a lot of reasons to look around Europa as the video makes clear. You could argue the same for Enceladus, the icy moon of Saturn that has water geysers erupting from its south pole. In many ways Enceladus is a juicier target… but on average Saturn is twice as far from Earth as Jupiter, making the mission longer and more difficult. I figure go close first, learn the lessons, then push the distance boundaries more. As much as I’d like to see what’s under the ice of Enceladus, the shorter trip to Europa makes it an easier goal.
I’ve had my issues with Culberson about NASA, but, depending on how it’s done — extra funding for NASA so that no current or other future missions will get bled of funding, for starters — then an orbiter, lander, and sub-lander to Europa could very well be something I could get behind.
This is something I think NASA should be doing: Pushing the frontier, doing what only a national space agency can do. This would be a huge undertaking, and one that would fire up the public imagination like nothing before it since Apollo. I'd very much like to see that happen.
The Russian central bank has been buying more gold this year. This could be taken as some form of support for the price of gold, could be taken as simply the bank deciding that the price has plateaued and thus the yellow metal is a good investment. That’s certainly how some people are taking it. But it’s more likely that it’s to do with a small financial detail, a little wriggle in Russian public policy about precious metals sales. The combination of that little detail with the current sanctions meaning that the central bank doesn’t really have much option but to purchase in domestically produced gold.
Here’s Zero Hedge telling us about the purchases:
Russia’s central bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina told the lower house of parliament about the significant Russian gold purchases. She is an economist, head of the Central Bank of Russia and was Vladimir Putin’s economic adviser between May 2012 to June 2013.
This announcement is unusual and to our knowledge has not happened before. The announcement by the Russian central bank governor was likely coordinated with Putin and the Kremlin and designed to signal how Russia views their gold reserves as a potential geopolitical and indeed financial and currency war weapon.
Gold currently constitutes for around 10% of the bank’s gold and forex reserves, she added. Official purchases were about 77 tons in 2013, International Monetary Fund data show.
We might, as above, take that to be a strong signal for the gold price. That isn’t quite the way that I would read it though. The always excellent Craig Pirrong adds a little more to the story:
Russia’s central bank has been forced to step up its gold buying this year to absorb domestic production that Western sanctions are making it hard for miners to sell abroad, and to boost liquidity in its foreign reserves, sources said.
Most Russian gold mine production is sold to domestic commercial banks, such as Sberbank or VTB, which can then sell the metal on to either the central bank or to foreign banks.
This year, sources say, foreign banks are holding off buying Russian gold after Western powers implemented sanctions against the country over the Ukraine crisis.
And as Pirrong points out, the central bank can pay for that gold in rubles meaning that it can simply print the money to boost those reserves.
However, there is one more little wrinkle in the way that precious metals are treated under Russian law. Miners themselves aren’t allowed to export them (my information is a little old but I’m almost certain that this is still true, I was working in Russia in the metals business when this system was set up). They must be sold by the miners, at market prices, to a select few domestic dealers in those metals and the central bank has the right to purchase at or near the market price. Certain of those dealers are allowed to make export contracts which is what is referred to above. But some of those dealers are being affected by the financial sanctions imposed which is what makes the western banks wary of contracting with them for the export.
If the miners were allowed to export directly, as most precious metals miners can in most jurisdictions, then the problem simply wouldn’t occur. Because they would export directly and thus sidestep those sanctions affected intermediaries. At least part of this is therefore to do with the fact that the Russian state has promised to purchase, at market prices, all domestic production in return for which domestic producers must offer their production for sale through those approved channels. And if those channels get blocked, as they seemingly are, then the Russian state is obviously going to end up purchasing more domestically produced gold.
Which zombie movie should we watch tonight?
Dawn of the Dead (1978, obv)
Don't watch a zombie movie! Zombie movies are the worst!
I have no opinion, but I love completing polls