Sunday, July 24, 2011

French and Italian meteo, I'm onto you

This blog entry started out about weather prediction but turned into a rant on economics, partly because the media is going crazy about the EU debt crisis again and partly because it's hard to pass through multiple countries without subconsciously comparing them, but here goes...

So, I saw the following in France over three consecutive days:

Day 1 French forecast: sunny, calm, Force 2
Day 2 French forecast: sunny, calm, Force 3
Day 1 actual weather: Force 6 wind, rain, thunderstorm

Day 2 French forecast: Force 6 wind, rain, thunderstorm, small craft advisory
Day 3 French forecast: sunny, calm, Force 3
Day 2 actual weather: sunny, no wind, but with big waves

Day 3 French forecast: sunny, no wind, but with big waves
Day 4 French forecast: sunny, calm, Force 3
Day 3 actual weather: sunny, with Force 3 winds, no waves

It's easy to tell how the weather prediction system works in France: they simply forecast yesterday's weather for tomorrow, and forecast the seasonal average for all days thereafter. This system must work really well when the weather is not changing drastically every day, and it usually isn't. But when there is a storm passing through, this is the absolute worst forecast strategy.

Perhaps this situation was an anomaly. Perhaps Météo-France does not consist of 3700 idle bureaucrats suckling at the teat of the great French Republic. Perhaps their computers were down, or perhaps they were all on vacation because it was the Bastille Day weekend when I was paying attention to their forecasts.

But the situation was much the same in Italy. They said it would be sunny and nice, and we had Force 7-8 winds with Force 9 gusts. Then they predicted Force 7-8 winds with gusts up to Force 9, and we had calm weather.

Weather prediction in the Med is not really rocket science. Especially in the summer, weather patterns move from the northwest down towards the southeast. You can just pick up the phone to your buddy who lives a few hundred miles northwest of you, say "alo Jean-Michel/Pierre/whatever," ask him how the weather is up there, and forecast that weather for tomorrow. If you're too lazy to make that phone call and forecast your own weather for tomorrow, you're doing it wrong!

To their credit, the Greek forecast is often spot-on. It's time to replace the French and Italian meteo offices with an HTTP redirect to the Greek website. That simple 302-redirect message would save about $1B/year immediately, not even counting savings from the pension plans and retirement packages to come later. There, I just did my part to help fix the great big European debt crisis.

As an aside, there is a lot of stereotyping and criticism of Greeks in the press these days. It's as if the whole world is on the side of the rentiers who loaned money to the Greek government, criticizing Greeks for being lazy, for instituting plans that allow government workers to retire at age 37, for having a large beaurocracy, and so forth. For all these people who are being so critical, I have one observation and one question.

Observation: I traveled through Spain, France and Italy on this trip. I saw absolutely nothing, either culturally or structurally, that would distinguish these countries' work ethics from each other. Frankly, all of Southern Europe seems stagnant, full of beaurocratic barriers and generally non-competitive to me, and, based on previous trips, I think this observation easily covers Northern Europe as well. Young people do not attempt to invent new things; they seem to want to migrate to finance centers to become cogs in the money-shuffling engines, or get slow jobs in the public sector or, if they are tech savvy, become mid-level managers in a tech company where they stop being creative. And everything works at a snail's pace. Try exporting anything out of France, and call me back when you've prepared the necessary paperwork. Or let me know if/when you've fully satisfied the requirements for a "translated document with apostille" required by the EU states (I have a diploma in Latin, and finding a certified Latin translator has been a bit difficult, to say the least). Commodity items whose prices I checked on this trip (e.g. things whose identical duplicates can be purchased elsewhere in the world, from outboard engines and cameras down to wires and electrical connectors) cost roughly 30-100% more in the EU compared to the US, and I can only attribute this to friction within the system. To make it concrete, it costs as much to extract an outboard engine from customs and sell it in Europe as it did to manufacture it from raw metals (WTO ensures that the price differences are not due to tariffs; and the profit margins seem similar in the EU because they seem to lead similar lifestyles as their American counterparts). That's insane. And I had the benefit of having been to India in the middle of this trip. The energy I saw there is just nowhere to be found anywhere else in Old Europe.

So the question: It's not as if the folks who loaned money to Portugal, Italy, Greece or Spain went through an anonymizing "microloan" service which masked the name of the loan recipient. They knew perfectly well to whom they loaned their money. They knowingly undertook the risk of not getting paid back. They actively chose to ignore other developing markets, with demographics that are young, eager and willing to work hard, and place their bets on Old Europe instead (yes, I'm looking at Turkey in particular, and every other country on the EU fringe, along with the manufacturing giants in the far east). So why is everyone, and I mean just about every talking head on TV and every idiot who has been granted real estate in newspapers, criticizing the sad-European-country-du-jour (Greece at the moment, but Iceland, Ireland and Spain have all been there recently) for being lazy/not saving enough/not investing well and demanding prompt payback along with severe austerity measures, damn the consequences? Since these noisemakers cannot be receiving kickbacks from the bond holders who actually loaned the cash, I can only assume that they're like the poor underclass in the US who votes Republican out of a desire to identify with the rich and powerful.

Anyhow, I've seen nothing that makes any EU country 'better' than any other. France has a tiny handful of sectors that bring in money; the rest of the country seems to be running a successful wealth redistribution scheme. England is buoyed by the finance sector, and I cannot name a British invention that came after the radar. One could go on and on, so I won't, except to note that economic growth seems to be a function of demographics first and foremost, and it's a pity to see people ignore groups of highly productive people who needed capitalization in favor of people whose only accomplishment was to vote for their neighbors' bad songs in the European song competition, and then get upset at them.


Timothy Weber said...

Are those forecast labels what you mean?

Interesting perspective on the economic situation; makes me feel better about not yet leaving the US.

Anonymous said...

In major cities here in the U.S. Democrats have institutionalizing the same lack of resourcefulness and generational dependency that alarms you in Southern Europe. Detroit, Newark, Cleveland, you name it, all have entrenched Democrat machines, high crime, bad schools and no political competition.

Pray that the underclass that votes Republican grows to give voters a choice in these cities so in need of reform. One party rule has resulted in stagnation.

Ill Wind

Anonymous said...

Thought Experiment Time:

Underclass individuals vote Republican because ?

1.Their personal views on abortion ?

2. Generational family affiliation ?

3. Contrarian stance ?

4. Conclusion that government handouts breed debilitating dependency ?

5. Dropped on their head as a baby ?

With a Smile,

Ill Wind

egs said...

@Ill Wind: :-) :-) :-)

The fact that I referred to the "poor underclass in the US who votes Republican out of a desire to identify with the rich and powerful" (let's call these the "wannabe-but-never-will"s) does not mean that there aren't lots of other people of all kinds who vote Republican for all sorts of other reasons. The wannabe-but-never-will demographic has always intrigued me -- in other countries, they usually pick up their pitchforks and go after the rich; in the US, they seem to want to punish themselves.

BTW, your reason #5 above undoubtedly explains a lot about American politics, on both sides.