Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Japan Crumbling

There had been some discussion about Japan being the first Domino to collapse in the house of cards known as the world economy.  Well some of the first numbers are out and they are not very good.  There is some hope that the additional money spent to repair all the earthquake and tsunami damage will boost the economy, but the government is already carrying so much debt they are going to be having a hard time covering their non-discretionary costs as it is.
Takashi Nakamichi, Wall Street Journal, 19 May 2011
TOKYO—Japan's economy contracted at a much-worse-than-expected 3.7% annualized rate in the January-March period, tipping the country into a recession as the March 11 earthquake and tsunami caused declines in consumer spending, business investment and private-sector inventories....
The contraction was almost double the annualized 2.0% drop expected by economists surveyed by Dow Jones Newswires. GDP, or the total value of goods and services produced by the nation, shrank a revised annualized 3.0% in October-December.
The first quarter decline was the sharpest since a record 18.3% contraction in January-March 2009, according to the data.
The supply problems in the world's third-largest economy also hit some of Japan's trade partners. U.S. manufacturing output fell 0.4% on month in April, the first decline in 10 months, as Japan's disaster limited the supply of parts needed to assemble cars in the U.S.

Japan's Nominal Economy Approaching 20 Year Low  (ht NC)

Bloomberg details:
The March disaster hit an economy already weighed down by years of deflation and subdued consumer spending.
While real GDP was down 3.7% in the quarter (annualized basis), nominal GDP was down an even higher 5.2% due to continued deflation. The chart below shows that nominal GDP is now at an almost 20 year low, hitting the lowest point since June 1991.

For a country indebted with an increasing amount of nominal debt, it makes you wonder how they will ever be able to get out of this situation.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Regulating life to death: and beyond

Barbara Szafranski was certified accountant.   But something must have been missing. That she always had an interest in people is indicated by her original advanced degree at the University of Vermont: a Masters in Psychology. 
At 53 she quit her job,  left her husband, and opened up Angelica of the Angels, a metaphysical gift shop, where she specials in psychic readings and sells crystals, angel figurines, books, aura photography, incense, candles, jewelry and other items that “reflect the light and love which Angels bring”.   She now has two stores in Salem Massachusetts.  And she has standards:
Salem psychic Barbara E. Szafranski puts her mediums through the toughest test of all. ``They all have to give me a reading,'' she said.
Inside Szafranski's busy shop, psychic medium George Fraggos sat before a collection of crystals and talked to the spirits for me. The dead see me traveling to warmer climes in February and enjoying aerobics.
The spirits also honed in on my taste for fruits and vegetables and advised me to pick up yoga - not exactly bombshells from the beyond.
But Fraggos, and two other psychics, I visited quickly pinpointed a major breakup I endured recently. Their insight seemed especially eerie because I tried not to offer any clues.  Original Tremont Tearoom, from Boston Herald Story by J.M. Lawrence
Katie Zezima, New York Times, 27 May 30, 2011 via the Bend (OR) Bulletin

Like any good psychic, Barbara Szafranski claims she foresaw the problems coming.
She says she has lost business since the licensing change.
Her prophecy came in 2007, as the City Council was easing its restrictions on the number of psychics allowed to practice in this seaside city, where self-proclaimed witches, angels, clairvoyants and healers still flock 319 years after the notorious Salem witch trials. [The original battle was brutal].

“Many of them are not trained,” she said of her rivals. “They don’t understand that when you do a reading you hold a person’s life in your hands.”
Now, talk has started about regulations that would include a cap on the number of psychic businesses...
Note that the 1998 laws only allowed 4 shops with only 5 psychic readers per shop.  So it is understandable that having that licensed monopoly would help Ms Szafranski's shop. 

At one time people could open up a little shop out of their home, or a little rented space, and make a go of it.  But there were not as many people than as their are today.  Where there were a lot of people was also where you tended to get the regulation first.  In a completely open market,  with low barrier to entry, profit generally gets driven to zero.  Thus most licensing schemes first priority is to restrict trade.  I understand the incentive, but we are at a point now where our society is so rigid with rules and regulations it is very difficult to get anything accomplished at the individual level, because you cannot affort the army of attorney and accountants to get through all the obstacles:  as illustrated here in our previous post.

Greasy Influence: Republican version

Well the Republican’s are now in charge in North Carolina for the first time in over 100 years.  This is the group that the Chamber of Commerce made robo-calls in support of.  So of course we are going to see less regulation and climate more friendly to small business.  LOL
The newspaper story starts of a slippery tale to increase the penalties on stealing the left over kitchen grease from restaurants.  This grease is one of the main a sources of alternative diesel fuel.  The Republican legislator, Representative John Torbett of Gaston County NC, said that he “heard” it was difficult to get convictions under existing law.
But then the real purpose of the bill becomes slides into place:
Anne Blythe, News & Observer (Raleigh, NC), 27 May 2011
It also would require collectors of the waste to be licensed and inspected by the state if they plan to resell the animal fats or vegetable oils as fuel.
And it would require anyone with such an operation to show proof of general liability insurance of at least $1 million…
"I think this stinks," said Lyle Estill, a founder of Piedmont Biofuels, a Chatham County cooperative that collects, processes and resells used vegetable oil. "This is just a bunch of Republicans trying to pass a bunch of new regulations to crush the little guy"…
Torbett disputes notions that his bill is designed to crush the small fry in the alternative fuel industry and leave the new energy world to the larger corporations.
"This is about what's rapidly becoming a commodity," Torbett sad. "I found out about this and thought it needs to be brought up."
One imagines that the check from the rendering industries is already in the mail.
Rendering Plant

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Entrapment under the lampost

A number of anti-government activists used the Freedom of Information Act to have the FBI send them their (heavily redacted) files.  It appears that if you are opposed to our government’s activities and make this known, there is a very good chance the FBI has a file on you.
Now to some degree I can understand why the FBI had an interest in Scott Crow.  Since he calls himself an Anarchist, the historical association with bombs and that name would raise some eyebrows.  But remember the FBI at this time had very few Arabic speaking agents.  So to some degree what we have is looking for your lost keys under the street light because “that is where the light is.”
Colin Moynihan and Scott Shane, New York Times, 29 May 2011 via the Denver Post
"You have a bunch of guys and women all over the country sent out to find terrorism. Fortunately, there isn't a lot of terrorism in many communities," said Michael German, a former FBI agent now at the American Civil Liberties Union. "So they end up pursuing people who are critical of the government."
Complaints from the ACLU prompted the Justice Department's inspector general to assess the FBI's forays into domestic surveillance. The resulting report last September absolved the bureau of investigating dissenters based purely on their expression of political views.
Some of their activities apparently involve getting an ‘informant” to try and convince Anarchist protester, Scott Crow, to get involved in a firebombing plot.  At which point the FBI would step in and arrest him. link  This has been a very common complaint within the American Muslim community.

Weakling Children

I guess the news that children are not as strong as they used to be is not all that surprising.  At some point the better access to vitamins, protein sources, etcetera runs into the generally sluggish lifestyle that many children live.  My little one gets out playing a lot, but he will also spend time at the Lego Games website when he gets a chance.  His school starts late in the morning, so fortunately he can get the sedentary activities out of the way in the morning, and play outside when he gets home from school.
This study is from England, but I am sure it applies to most of the advanced western countries. Ht NC.
Denis Campbell, The Guardian, 21 May 2011.
Children are becoming weaker, less muscular and unable to do physical tasks that previous generations found simple, research has revealed.
As a generation dedicated to online pursuits grows up, 10-year-olds can do fewer sit-ups and are less able to hang from wall bars in a gym. Arm strength has declined in that age group, as has their ability to grip an object firmly.
The findings, published in the child health journal Acta Paediatrica, have led to fresh concern about the impact on children's health caused by the shift away from outdoor activities.
Academics led by Dr Gavin Sandercock, a children's fitness expert at Essex University, studied how strong a group of 315 Essex 10-year-olds in 2008 were compared with 309 children the same age in 1998. They found that:
1.   The number of sit-ups 10-year-olds can do declined by 27.1% between 1998 and 2008

2.   Arm strength fell by 26% and grip strength by 7%

3.   While one in 20 children in 1998 could not hold their own weight when hanging from wall bars, one in 10 could not do so in 2008.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Making Better Predictions

We are constantly listening to the predictions of others.  The predictions of friends, family, experts….

But the human ability to actually make accurate predictions is limited.  Within a complex system the variables are enormous and it is very hard to separate the various inputs.  Small external inputs, the proverbial “flap of the butterfly’s wing”  can have exceedingly large effects on the timing and ultimate results.

Dan Gardner has a new book coming out Future Babble, based Philip Tetlock’s very well known book on political forecasters Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?.   They had a recent article in Forbes magazine that discussed how to get better results from your predictions.

Philip Tetlock and Dan Gardner, Forbes.com, March 17, 2011
[A]s natural science has revealed, our ability to predict is limited by the nature of complex systems. Weather forecasts, for example, are quite accurate a day or two out. Three or four days out, they are less accurate. Beyond a week, we might as well flip a coin. As scientists learn more about weather, and computing power and sophistication grow, this forecasting horizon may be pushed out somewhat. But there will always be a point beyond which meteorologists cannot see, even in theory.
Prediction horizons vary, but the general idea is the same whether experts are trying to forecast the weather, economies, elections or social unrest: No matter how brilliant the analysts may be, no matter how abundant the resources at their disposal, their vision can only go so far.
A second point is even more humbling: People are really bad at predicting the future. This very much includes experts. In the largest and best-known test of the accuracy of expert predictions, a study reported in Philip Tetlock's book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?, the average expert was found to be only slight more accurate than a dart-throwing chimpanzee. Many experts would have done better if they had made random guesses. And even the best forecasters were beaten by arbitrary rules such as "always predict no change" (a rule that worked very well for the first 30 years of Hosni Mubarak's regime).
It's easy to conclude that all hope is lost. But that would be wrong. In the Tetlock study, what separated those with modest but significant predictive ability from the utterly hopeless was their style of thinking. Experts who had one big idea they were certain would reveal what was to come were handily beaten by those who used diverse information and analytical models, were comfortable with complexity and uncertainty and kept their confidence in check.
What this and much other research suggests is that the right training, tools and organization can make people better forecasters. Their vision will be not be perfect, so they won't see to the prediction horizon. But they will see closer to the horizon. And their vision will be as good as anyone's can reasonably be expected to be.
The people who are riding the one-trick pony do not do very well.  The world has gone through many enormous changes.  Yet the doom predicting crowd usually mistimed, or gets these events completely wrong.  Often a real disaster preempts the predicted one.  Other times the conditions that created the concern work themselves out.
Being flexible is important.  It is important because there is always more noise in the data then you first suspect.

Predictability is elusive because randomness holds much more sway than most of us would like to believe. Drawing on his own research, Watts shows that messages on Twitter don't spread through a predictable set of influential hubs. Similarly, when you ask large numbers of people to relay an e-mail to a stranger through someone they know, there turn out to be no star intermediaries through whom most e-mails find their way. "When we hear about a large forest fire, we don't think that there must have been anything special about the spark that started it," Watts wrote. "Yet when we see something special happen in the social world, we are instantly drawn to the idea that whoever started it must have been special also."
Another way to separate the wheat from chaff is to distinguish between trends and causes that have a very broad base of inputs (population growth) and those that are more transitory (which political party is in charge).  Events in which many people have an input into (economic outcomes) are going to be harder to control, with differences distinguished by percentage points, than issues where only a few people can make major decisions (war).
Short term trends may vary greatly, but long term trends are very difficult to reverse.  The population cycles of Malthus required an industrial revolution to break out of.  Our current trend of the declining rate of technical advancement will require something equally profound.
Long Term Trends
1.      Increases in Population
2.      Increase in consumption per person
3.      Slowing growth in new fossil fuel discoveries
4.      Slowing growth rate technological advancement
5.      Slowing productivity increases by leading edge economies
6.      Rapid increases in productivity by second tier economies
7.      Increase (from a very low point) of solar energy utilization
8.      Decline in absolute terms of available water
9.      Increase in number of parties with access to nuclear warheads
10.  Increase in micro manufacturing
11.  Increases in communication technology
12.  Increase in surveillance technology

Friday, May 27, 2011

Drug Battles Go Deep into Mexico

Mochoacán is an agricultural state in Mexico that lies between the capital and Guadalajara, the second largest city.  It is also the home state of President Felipe Calderón.  It has been ruled by the crime gang La Familia.

La Familia’s big splash was in 2008 when they captured and tortured to death 12 federal police officers.  But the Federal government has been on the offensive sending over 5,500 soldiers and police into the state. Regular fighting ensued, and in December of 2010 there strange cultic leader Nazario Moreno González was killed during a two day gun battle with security forces. [a New York Times source]

Since his death a power struggle has emerged between at least two factions trying to take over the territory.

Fighting broke out between the gangs on 23 May 23, 2011 and lasted for three days.  News was slow to get out because the drug cartels have instructed the local news media to stop covering the mayhem.  A police helicopter was forced down by gunfire, and at least 800 refugees took shelter the nearby towns of Buenavista and Apazingan.

David Luhnow and José de Córdoba

The cartel has infiltrated local police forces and city halls throughout the state, experts say, and largely displaced local governments in many areas.

The situation is so bad that Mexico's three main political parties on Wednesday signed a joint statement saying they were exploring the possibility of fielding a single, unity candidate in November's gubernatorial race in an attempt to set aside partisan bickering and save the state.

"It's indicative of how badly the wheels are falling off," said James McDonald, an anthropology professor at Southern Utah University who lived for many years in Michoacán and is an expert on it. "I think Michoacán is lost, like Tamaulipas. And it could be the realization that they need to get together on this and deal with it, or else."

The march of food prices continues up the steps

Prices continue to rise for food.  Although they are called an outcry for democracy now, the increasing price of foods was one of the sparks in the Tunisia uprising.
The causes are varied.  Certainly poor weather –even apart from weather blamed on global warming- has always caused  fluctuations in food pricing.  But we are getting to the point were both demand, because of increased world population, and supply, because of high oil prices, is acting in concert.
Alan Bierga and Leslie Patton, Bloomburg, 25 May 2011, ht NC
Groceries and restaurant meals rose 2.4 percent in the four months through April, the most to start a year since 1990, government data show. During the period, rice, wheat and milk futures touched the highest levels since 2008, and retail beef reached a record. Yesterday, J.M. Smucker Co. announced an 11 percent price increase for Folgers coffee, the best-selling U.S. brand, after the cost of beans almost doubled in a year.
“It’s going to be a tough year” for U.S. shoppers, said Lapp, who is president of Advanced Economic Solutions, an agriculture consultant in Omaha, Nebraska. “You’re looking at an economy where a lot of consumers are under some serious pressure from food and fuel costs.”
Meat Costs Rise
In the first four months of 2011, meat and fish prices rose 4.3 percent, according to the bureau. Consumers paid about $2.722 for a pound of ground beef, a 14 percent increase, while a fresh whole chicken cost $1.261 a pound, slightly lower than $1.28 at the start of the year.
The price of a pound of field-grown tomatoes last month reached $2.27, the highest since 2004 and up 43 percent from the beginning of the year, the bureau said. Fresh fruit and vegetables, which are more volatile because of weather, fell 1.3 percent in April. They have already risen 3.4 percent this year, according to government data.
Paul Ziobro, Wall Street Journal, 26 May 2011.
Starbucks Corp. is raising prices on bagged coffee sold at its U.S. cafes by an average of 17% in response to escalating coffee costs...
Coffee makers have been dramatically raising prices in response to increases in green coffee costs. Tuesday, J. M. Smucker Co. raised prices on Folgers, Dunkin' Donuts and Millstone coffee by an average of 11%.
Future prices of Arabica coffee, the bean variety Starbucks says it uses exclusively, have doubled over the past year on Intercontinental Exchange, boosted by consecutive poor harvests from major grower nations, a slumping dollar and speculative buying.
Karen Talley, Wall Street Journal, 26 May 2011
"We saw quite a bit of inflationary pricing," during the third quarter, and the pressure is expected to continue in the current period, Chief Financial Officer Richard Galanti said during a conference call with analysts.
"Everything from dry dog food up 3.5%, to all your detergents of 10% plus, to various waters 10% or so, to all your plastic, your plates and your plastic cups and everything, 8% to 9%," Mr. Galanti said. "We're fighting to keep them lower, keep them delayed."
GRFA [Global Renewable Food Alliance] Press Release

TORONTO, CANADA--(Marketwire - May 24, 2011) - As the G20 Agriculture Ministers meet for the first time today in Paris to discuss food security, the Global Renewable Fuels Alliance (GRFA) is urging those ministers to focus on the real driver behind rising food costs – the rising price of crude oil.
High oil prices impact global food prices in many ways. Oil price spikes can increase the cost of fertilizer, inflate the cost of packaging and raise the cost of transportation. The GRFA first highlighted the direct link between food and oil prices in March and are seeing this dangerous relationship continue today.
The following graph clearly outlines the strong correlation between the price of crude oil and the UN FAO's Food Price Index.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Will the Middle East Starve?

The numerous Middle East revolutions may put an end to the prevalent kleptocracy that makes these countries such economic basket cases.   Unfortunately that does not change demographic reality of the world, and their own region in particular.  More people in the world without a commensurate increase in food production means rising food prices.
Liam, Pleven and Matt Bradley, Wall Street Journal, May 19, 2011
Wheat prices jumped on Wednesday, taking the week's gains to 17%, an ascent that threatens to put fresh pressure on fragile Middle East governments that import the grain to feed their people.
Wet weather in the U.S. and dryness in Western Europe are driving the recent rise. Wheat futures jumped 53 cents, or 7%, to $8.17 per bushel Wednesday, the biggest single-day dollar gain in more than seven months, and are now up 91% in less than a year.
Rising wheat prices jarred global markets last summer, amid a harsh Russian drought, and have stayed high for months. Some analysts worry the bad weather that pushed prices up this week could further curtail supplies and send prices even higher.
That could be a boon to farmers in major exporting countries, but a threat to consumers around the world, and especially in the Middle East. Wheat is the biggest dietary staple in much of the region, providing cheap nutrition in bread, pasta and couscous.
"People are starving and bread is an easy way to feel full. Meat and fish are very expensive," said Fatheya Ahmed, a Cairo widow who pays about 17 cents to buy 20 small discs of subsidized bread, enough to feed her and her four children for two days. "We just eat bread and a piece of cheese"...
Middle East governments are hoping for bumper local crops this spring, which could put off or reduce a stiff bill. Many saw strong rains early this year, boosting chances for good harvests in coming weeks.
But even strong crops aren't likely to cover domestic needs, and importing wheat and other food makes it harder to provide the better jobs and higher wages Egyptians increasingly demand, said Mr. Sabra of Eurasia Group.
"Will the government be able to deliver? I don't think it will be easy," Mr. Sabra said of Egypt's leaders. If they can't, he added, "then they'll be in trouble."
The numbers for Middle East consumption with some comparison points follows.  The article feels the need to state the long historical background of wheat in the Middle East in detail.  Given that it was first planted as a crop in what is now Iraq, and it was Middle Eastern farmers who spread the agricultural revolution to Europe, the need for these details is a little amusing.
Per Capita Wheat Consumption
Tunisia            478 pounds
Algeria            464 pounds
Egypt              409 pounds
Iraq                 288 pounds
EU                    244 pounds
Thailand           32 pounds

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The super bugs are here!

My mother caught a staph infection some time ago when in the hospital.  It took almost a year for her to fully recover, and it is not entirely clear that it was the cocktail of antibiotics that did the trick.

Kevin Stovall, Wall Street Journal, April 7, 2011
Health experts renewed their warnings Thursday that a new form of superbug that gives bacteria the power to resist virtually all known antibiotics is spreading quickly, posing a global health threat.
The World Health Organization Thursday issued a plea for collective action to fight new superbugs like the New Delhi metallobeta-lactamase, or NDM-1 for short, warning that the threat is spreading fast.
NDM-1 enzyme destroys carbapenems, an important group of antibiotics used for difficult infections in hospitals, and has been found in a wide variety of bacterial types. New research published Thursday in the U.K. medical publication "The Lancet" shows NDM-1 is widespread outside the hospital environment in Delhi, India and is circulating in bacteria that inhabit drains and tap water, owing to sewage contamination. British researchers last August reported that infections involving NDM-1 had been found in patients in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Britain. ..
The danger is acute because the pipeline of new antibiotics is essentially empty. Some experts warn health-care provision is in danger of reverting back to a pre-antibiotic era in which hip replacements, care of pre-term babies and advanced cancer treatment are no longer possible.
Over the past three decades only two new classes of antibacterial medicines have been discovered, compared to 11 in the previous 50 years.

The End of the Classical World: The Second Answer

The Second Answer
The fall of the Classical World is being pegged to the partial-collapse of the Eastern Roman Empire (called by historians the Byzantine Empire) that prevented them from regaining the Western Roman territories, and assured that there would be a break in the continuim of classical Greek and Latin thought in Western Europe.  Their capital, Constantinople did not fall until 1453, and when it did fall it allowed the Ottamn Turks to invade into the Balkans remain a viable threat to Western Europe as late as at least 1683 with the final seige and battle of Vienna.
The second cause of the collapse was the first wide spread appearance of what was to later be known as the Black Death (Bubonic Plague).  As we will see there are some reasons to link our first answer (Volcanic Eruption and temporary climate change) and the onset of the Black Death.   In this first onset it was referred to as The Plague of Justinian.
At one point there was some argument as to whether this plague was the same as the latter.  That has been proven (NYT Story) fairly conclusively.

Nicholas Wade, The New York Times, 31 October 2010

The great waves of plague that twice devastated Europe and changed the course of history had their origins in China, a team of medical geneticists reported Sunday, as did a third plague outbreak that struck less harmfully in the 19th century.
And in separate research, a team of biologists reported conclusively this month that the causative agent of the most deadly plague, the Black Death, was the bacterium known as Yersinia pestis. This agent had always been the favored cause, but a vigorous minority of biologists and historians have argued the Black Death differed from modern cases of plague studied in India, and therefore must have had a different cause.
One team of biologists, led by Barbara Bramanti of the Institut Pasteur in Paris and Stephanie Haensch of Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, analyzed ancient DNA and proteins from plague pits, the mass burial grounds across Europe in which the dead were interred. Writing in the journal PLoS Pathogens this month, they say their findings put beyond doubt that the Black Death was brought about by Yersinia pestis.
The Justinian plague occurred in the Mediterranean region in the 6th century AD and caused an estimated 100 million deaths” source

The epidemic of Justinian (AD 542): a prelude to the Middle Ages (pdf)

Justinian I (482-565 AD), who ruled the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) from AD 527 to 565, a century after the fall of Rome and the Western Roman Empire, was the most able of the Byzantine emperors. Supported by his dynamic wife, Theodora, and two outstanding generals (Narses and Belisarius), he succeeded in briefly rekindling the glory of the ancient Roman Empire. He also made a lasting contribution to the law by codifying the existing Roman legal principles in his Corpus Juris Civilis, which would continue to influence the practice of law even into modern times.

The plague was to afflict Constantinople on four more occasions during Justinian’s life. In 552 there was a severe epidemic among animals (including reptiles and mice).   Further epidemics among human beings occurred in 553/4, 555/6 (when children were particularly affected) and 558, when the plague was as devastating as that of 542, although it affected more men than women.

After Justinian’s death, epidemics struck the capital in 568/9, 570, 572/3, 580/1, 583/4 and 585/6. According to Euagrius, the greatest loss of life would always occur in the second year of a plague. The 7th century was relatively free of the plague until 687 and 697, when the final significant epidemics occurred.

The pandemic of 542 was a serious blow to Justinian, to the Eastern Roman Empire, and to nascent Europe. In Constantinople, economic decline and famine followed on the temporary collapse of agricultural activity. In 546 there was another shortage of grain and wine, and in May 556 (after a further epidemic) a three-month-long shortage of bread led to extensive rioting. In 560 it was rumored that the emperor was dead, and once again serious “bread riots” followed.

Justinian’s eventual inability to reunite the area around the Mediterranean under Roman control, despite very effective military actions by Belisarius in particular, may be blamed largely on the enervating effects of the plague. The Middle Eastern population decreased significantly during this time, and Allen (1979:17) notes that the victories of the Persian military by the year 573 may be directly attributed to depopulation and debilitation of the Byzantine army. There is little doubt that the swift victories of the armies of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries were also largely due to the destructive pandemic of Justinian.

It may also be speculated that the demoralizing and impoverishing influence of the plague delayed the development of Europe during a crucial phase after the demise of Graeco-Roman civilization, thus precipitating the “Dark” period of the Middle Ages.

Demographic Shocks and the Factor Proportions Model: From the Plague of Justinian to the Black Death, Ronald Findlay, Matt Lundahl

As often noted, the nomads of the Arabian Peninsula escaped the ravages that the plague wrought on the more settled Byzantine and Sassanid empires. After the unification of the tribes under the Prophet and his early successors, the ‘rightly guided’ Caliphs, at the beginning of the seventh century, the Arabs rapidly captured Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa and western Mesopotamia from the Byzantines. Sassanid Iran was conquered later by the Arabs under the Ummayad Caliphate. The Byzantine emperor Heraclius (610-641) and his successors could not match the élan of the Arab onslaught with the depleted resources at their command. They retreated to the Anatolian plateau behind the security of the Taurus mountain range and then successfully resisted successive Arab attacks on Constantinople from the sea.
So we have the collapse of the Classical Era, and the eventual arrival of Europe of the Middle Ages.  You also have a collapse that leaves a vacume of power into which the Islamic Arabs moved into.

Why is that particularly important to us.  Well part of the problems is that the plague seems to be set off by unusual weather patterns.  In the case of the Justinian Plague, you would have had droughts and crop die offs, followed by a recovery period.  But rodents have a shorter birthing cycle than their preditors, and with the return of better weather their population tends to explode, spreading the plague. 

On the off chance that you might think this all just a bunch of hand waving by global warming panickers, The phenomena are with us today, in Africa:

Invasive Rats and Bubonic Plague in Northwest Uganda, Borcher, Mach, Linder, Ogen-Odoi, Santos Angualia
Weather, food presence (including periods of harvest), natural rodent mortalities (epizootic) and excessive human fleabites influence this enzootic cycle. Throughout Africa, excessive rodent population outbreaks often occur after periods of excessive rainfall, especially after periods of drought (Fiedler 1994, Leirs et al. 1996), which promotes excessive growth of vegetation, decreased competition, increased reproduction rates, and increased cover. It is believed that epidemics in some areas of Africa follow an unusually prolonged drought in the area, which may force many field rodents to seek food within human dwellings, thus passing infection to peridomestic and commensal rodents, domestic animals and humans. Observations in this region indicate that nearly allhuman epidemics are preceded by moderate to massive epizootics in rodents and excessive fleabites to humans (Ogen-Odoi, personal communication). These observations are yet to be studied in detail.

Cycles of Plague in Uganda

And on the off chance that you might be thinking it is only a problem in Africa, there are reported cases within the United States:

Human plague in New Mexico The first three cases were reported in 1949; the total through 2009 is 262, of which 34 (13%) were fatal. Since 1970, slightly more than half of U.S. cases have been reported from New Mexico. Most of the remaining cases come from Arizona, Colorado and California. Although plague in wild animals or their fleas has been found in every New Mexico county except one (Hidalgo), 213 of 262 human cases (81%) have occurred in seven northern N.M. counties (Bernalillo, McKinley, Rio Arriba, San Miguel, Sandoval, Santa Fe and Taos).

Plague occurs in a cyclical nature for reasons not completely understood, but probably related to favorable weather (above average rainfall and moderate temperatures) which leads to increased food abundance for rodents, thus supporting higher rodent populations and an increased risk for disease. Moderate temperatures and adequate humidity are also necessary for survival of fleas. Certain highly to moderately susceptible rodents and their fleas maintain Y. pestis in ongoing rodent-flea-rodent transmission cycles. A high population density among these susceptible rodents increases the rodent-flea transmission cycle and may result in amplification of plague over a wide geographic area. This is called the epizootic cycle of plague. Epizootic hosts in New Mexico include ground squirrels (especially the rock squirrel, Spermophilus variegatus), prairie dogs and woodrats.

Pandemics of bubonic plague have occurred in Eurasia since the sixth century ad. Climatic variations in Central Asia affect the population size and activity of the plague bacterium’s reservoir rodent species, influencing the probability of human infection. Using innovative time-series analysis of surrogate climate records spanning 1,500 years, a study in BMC Biology concludes that climatic fluctuations may have influenced these pandemics. This has potential implications for health risks from future climate change...
Using innovative time-series analysis of surrogate climate records spanning 1,500 years, a study in BMC Biology concludes that climatic fluctuations may have influenced these pandemics. This has potential implications for health risks from future climate change.