Saturday, May 31, 2008

Winding down

Since last October there has been a drop in U.S. Casualties in Iraq that has been shocking in its extent. Despite the surge increasing the number of troops in the line of fire to around 170 000 at one point May ended with the lowest number of U.S. soldiers killed in any month since the war started, 19. Saying the war is over is probably premature, but it shows every sign of winding down. There have now been more than six months of relative calm, assuming the lives of the average Iraqis start to improve I see every reason to think the country will be stable in five years.

Friday, May 30, 2008

In Defense of Food

I was just listening to the Audiobook for In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. It is one of the very few books that can tear into a branch of science while still not offending me by following some pseudoscientific extremism. This is more shocking by his masters degree in English.

Anyways I heard something obvious, and fairly shocking to me about white flour, rice, and other similarly processed grain. One primary reason it is so popular is it can last a great deal longer than normal grain. Why does it have this property? It is pretty much that it is just too nutrient deficient to grow most microbes. Pretty scary when we expect the stuff to be able to grow children...

My current understanding of an ideal diet pretty much comes down to this:

Avoid any product from a store with more than about 5 ingredients particularly if you are fuzzy on what those ingredients are. There are exceptions to that rule health wise, but most products in a box that make health claims are a scam. The oatmeal is better than any breakfast cereal that breaks this rule no matter how healthy its label claims to be.

Avoid processed grains like white flour, and white rice.

Avoid all sweeteners. This includes Sugar, Corn Syrup, and all zero calorie sweeteners. They have no redeeming value and make up about a quarter of the calories the average American eats. An extension of this is to avoid any sweetened beverage. Yes this includes juice, which is pretty much an incomplete sugar extraction from a fruit removing a great deal that is good, there is little evidence it is any better for you than soda, and is unquestionably worse than water.

Stop using Margarine, Corn oil, Vegetable oil, and any other grain based oil. Canola, and olive oil can, and should be substituted as we already have too much corn and soybeans hiding in our diet.

While I don't see myself doing this because it is expensive, replacing industrial with grass fed meat is probably also worthwhile.

Notice all those are rules of thumb on things to avoid, not things to eat. There is a reason for this, there are societies where people have lived quite healthily on an amazing range of whole foods. From the Eskimos, and Masai eating almost entirely meat, to vegetarian cultures. None of these societies had problems with heart disease or diabetes nearly as bad as us(although obviously infectious diseases were worse). Yes, you can have an all meat diet at little risk of heart disease, another hole in the hypothesis that eating fat and cholesterol leads to heart disease. Modern industrial food processing(which mostly consists of taking good things out of food, or making them worse before sending them back to you) is worse than almost any conceivable diet you can make out of whole foods.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Housing price graphs

I like this graphic, it shows pretty clearly how the housing situation is in America today. I cannot help but notice how much has to happen before the area under the curve equals the area above it. This is a likely conclusion since incomes haven't increased much, and households have become smaller. If it happens though we are a long ways from done with the housing price drops. Looking at the inflation adjusted numbers I would say the crash is about 1/3rd to 1/2 over. That may be thrown off a fair amount by how poor the current inflation numbers are though...

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Why the murder rate will continue to drop

It is impressive the degree with which the most important stories are rarely told. One of the more interesting things I heard in the book microtrends is that young Black Americans are doing a great deal better than their parents or grandparents. Sure, they still have a ways to go to match White, Asian, or Middle Eastern Americans, but the change is impressive nonetheless. This will have huge beneficial effects on society as Blacks have historically been the race committing more crime than any other. Bringing large numbers of them out of poverty, and into mainstream American life would therefore make the United States safer for everyone.

Since Barak Obama would have to die, or get caught with a dead hooker, to lose the next election it is safe to say this trend will continue. I cannot imagine him not encouraging a great many young Black Americans to get an education.

"Among blacks 25 and older, 80 percent had at least a high school diploma in 2005, and about 1.1 million had advanced degrees, up from 677,000 in 1995. There were 2.3 million black college students in the fall of 2004, more than double the number in 1989. In 2005, there were 44,000 black physicians and surgeons, 79,400 postsecondary teachers, 45,200 lawyers and 49,300 chief executives. There were 1.2 million black-owned businesses in 2002, up 45 percent since 1997. Annual revenue: $88.6 billion."

"A sharp drop in teen pregnancy in the Washington area has been especially steep among African American girls. The nation's black teens now have lower rates of tobacco, drug and alcohol use than their peers. The number of black students graduating from the nation's high schools and going on to college continues to rise."


War Nerd

People usually underestimate how much demographics change the world. The equation is usually pretty simple: Shakers had no children, so today there are almost none of them, Mormons had lots of children so today they are huge. Since most people follow the religious and political views of their parents this is fairly inevitable. You can predict what the world will look like in 50 years most accurately by looking at where in society the babies are coming from. A scary proposition in a world where 25 of the 26 states with the highest White birth rate voted for Bush in 2004(Actually I loaded that sentence with the word White, once you include Blacks and Hispanics it is pretty clear the Democrats will do just fine, but White America is set to get even more ultra religious and conservative).

Anyways, there was an interesting article on this subject from the war nerd I thought I would pass on.

Sunday, May 25, 2008


In honor of my being too lazy to shave, I give you World Beard and Moustache Champions:

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Can't hold some people down

While people often ask Hillary why she is still in the race, few ask why Ron Paul is still in the race. Mostly this is because they don't realize he is still in the race. If you do notice him though, it is pretty obvious he is a man with an opinion that he will share with as many people as he can. Given his huge campaign donations I suspect he is living the high life, since the donations can't be used for much else he may as well use them to travel around the country and talk to people

Anyways, I thought I would pass along this article on his campaign. He really has made quite a stir, and there is every reason to expect more people like him in office as time passes.

"In Michigan, where Mr. Paul received 6 percent of the vote, 34 percent of Paul voters were under 30, compared with 13 percent of voters there over all. (Mr. Paul is also, largely, a guy thing. In the New Hampshire primary, where the candidate received 8 percent of the vote, his support was 77 percent male, according to exit polls.)"

"Mr. Paul was supposed to be a memory by now. But in the Oregon primary last week, he won 15 percent of the vote, and the campaign appears to be growing into something beyond a conventional protest campaign. Some supporters have helped turn the outspoken congressman’s campaign into a colorful, loud sideshow with their guerrilla marketing tactics — self-penned Ron Paul anthems on YouTube, a Ron Paul blimp, T-shirts that portray Mr. Paul as a world-historical icon like Che Guevara. Attendance at Ron Paul campaign stops has nearly returned to pre-Super Tuesday levels."

Friday, May 23, 2008

Death Cab

I am impressed I got to the end of the intro on this video.

Apparently Death Cab for Cutie has a new album. Once again, I won't buy it because I am cheap, but I rather suspect that it will be amazing.

Ramblings on oil statistics

In May 2005 the world produced an average of 74, 298 thousand barrels of oil a day. Despite oil prices increasing there was not a month that matched that average in all of 2006. There was also not a month that matched it in all of 2007(although some initial numbers said there was, they were eventually revised down)

I am therefore somewhat surprised that Jan 2008 this number was finally surpassed after 2.5 years. The world averaged 74 431 thousand barrels a day. It was then beaten by even more in February when the world averaged 74 657 thousand barrels a day. I am therefore pretty confused why oil prices are picking now to skyrocket. It really seems like this year is the year that oil production is finally going somewhere, albeit it very very slowly. Maybe after February production dropped(I won't know for a few months since EIA numbers are usually three or so months behind), or maybe this gain was just too puny to get any real notice. It after all is less than a 1% gain on a two year old record.

Green Heresies

I rather like this series of mini articles on There are quite a few environmentalists who seem to think that they are somehow helping the environment by buying organic food, opposing nuclear power, and opposing genetically modified crops among other things. They are not. There is good reason to make us as efficient as possible in most of what we do. Wasting land on crops with lower yields, or ignoring the one low carbon electricity source that we could scale up the easiest while waiting for a solar utopia are pretty silly.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Monday, May 19, 2008


"New investigators supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation are also typically 6 to 7 years post-Ph.D. In the biomedical sciences, the average age at which an investigator first obtains a regular research grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) is 42 for a Ph.D. and 44 for MDs. No wonder there is concern about filling the pipeline of scientists. One has to wait until near middle age before getting one's own research program in full gear."

Woot, I am only 17 more years from being able to do my own research!

Actually that is pretty optimistic since that number is only those who ever make it to the point they are doing independent research.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Mmmmm, Corn

Really it is just because we eat more beef, and chicken that we use more corn. Still it is pretty impressive seeing that blip...

Thursday, May 15, 2008


This is something that was never pointed out to me before. For all its talk about giving its students good financial aid deals in the past few years Harvard, and several other similar schools, have really been ripping off students.

"For what's been estimated to be about $300 million a year (less than 1 percent of their endowment's value) Harvard could completely waive tuition, room and board for every single one of their students. Instead, they announced an increase in those fees of about 3.5 percent for next year. Being a student at Harvard will now cost a staggering $47,215 a year."

Universities really should start thinking of undergraduates as important, rather than an income stream... When a university could pay all its students tuition on much less than the interest on its endowment they really should be.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


I ran into a graph that I rather like. It is a bit small to read below, but you can see it here, or in context here. They did some calculations I once did myself for corn, but for a great many other crops. what "percent of existing U.S. crop land needed to produce enough fuel to meet half of U.S. demand." This is the question that totally kills biofuels in general. It just takes too much land we don't have.

So, that pretty much sums up why I think algae is the only viable biofuel. We can spare the 2-4% of our crop land needed to supply all our fuel needs. Still not convinced it beats using CO2 Chemistry but it has a hope. The only other shock was Canola. That is one plant that never ceases to impress me. Not only is it a healthy oil in comparison to any other cheap one, it is apparently absurdly efficient. Still not efficient enough for me to declare it a good biofuel, but its a huge step up from corn and by some measurements beating the cellulosic ethanol.

Thursday, May 8, 2008


I was reading through Robert Weinberg's the Biology of Cancer tonight when I came across something a bit surprising:

"Do Man-made xenobiotic mutagens ever cause cancer?
The heated debate about the man-made carcinogens in the air and food chain-specifically the products of synthetic organic chemistry- has continued unabated for half a century. Much of this debate has been focused on trace contaminants in the food chain, notably pesticides, and on the possibility that they become metabolically activated into potent mutagens and thus carcinogens once they have entered our bodies. Bruce Ames, of the Ames test, has estimated that, by eating naturally occurring foodstuffs humans are exposed on a daily basis to between 5000 and 10,000 distinct natural chemical compounds and their metabolic breakdown components. Included among these are about 2000 miligrams (mg) of burnt material (the products of cooking various foodstuffs at high temperatures) and 1500 mg of naturally occuring pesticides (used by plants to protect themselves against insect predators). In contrast, the average daily exposure to all synthetic pesticide residues contaminating the food chain is about 0.1 mg. About half of the naturally occurring plant pesticides are found to be carcinogenic when tested in laboratory rodents using standard testing protocols. Since (1) synthetic pesticides are as likely to register as carcinogens in rodent tests as are randomly chosen compounds of natural (i.e., plant) origin; since (2) plant-derived compounds, such as those in the vegetables we eat, are generally presumed to be save; and since(3) concentrations of synthetic pollutants in the food chain are many orders of magnitude below the natural (and equivalently carcinogenic) plant compounds, this raises the question of whether synthetic pesticides are ever responsible for significant numbers of human cancers is Western populations. It may be that the role of synthetic chemical species in creating human cancers (with the exception of tobacco combustion products and the products of cooking food at high temperature) is limited to those chemicals that are encountered repeatedly and at very high concentrations in certain occupations, such as agriculture workers who handle large quantities of pesticides routinely"

Sounds to me like it probably isn't worth changing your behavior to prevent cancer beyond not smoking, and some preventative testing and vaccines.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Passive Funds

I ran into a couple old articles on that are interesting. They have to do with how bad of investment choices people make. My current view is that picking stocks is a suckers game, but investing in the stock market is the easiest money you can make. I am therefore pretty convinced that the only intelligent investment is an index fund. These articles encourage my viewpoint.

"But the bigger issue is that active money management—aka stock-picking, the strategy employed by most funds—doesn't usually work. According to study after study, the vast majority of fund managers can't generate enough extra performance from active trading to offset the costs of their efforts (costs that include salaries, bonuses, and fund company profits). This problematic finding doesn't stop fund companies from selling active-management prowess, of course—or from collecting huge active-management fees even when performance stinks. Your odds of picking a market-beating fund are somewhere between one in six and one in 30 (roulette-like); the fund industry's chance of collecting big fees, meanwhile, is 100 percent.

If alternatives didn't exist, active managers could just hide behind the rhetoric about offering small investors a simple way to pool resources and diversify, etc. Alas, alternatives do exist. Passive funds buy all the stocks that meet given criteria and leave stock-picking to folks who hope that they can defy the odds (and to their customers). Because passive management costs less than active management—fewer expensive MBAs, lower trading costs, lower research costs, lower taxes—passive funds generally do better than active funds: What they lose in performance (surprisingly little), they more than make up in costs."

"past performance is nearly worthless as a predictor of future results. Any firm that argues, therefore, even indirectly, that a mutual fund will do well because it has done well is taking advantage of your natural tendency to be too impressed by the past."

"Over the last 20 years, the stock market has averaged a 12 percent annual return. But according to a study by Dalbar Financial, individual mutual fund investors earned only about 4 percent. A survey by Vanguard finds participants in its 401(k) plans earn only about one-half the average—6 percent a year. It is almost impossible to believe, and unpleasant to contemplate, but practically all individual investors are below average."

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Post American World

Newsweek had an article today, I believe it is an excerpt from a book, called The Post-American World. Considering the title I expected it to be pretty alarmist. Surprisingly it wasn't, and actually put the world in fairly good perspective. Poor countries are getting richer, wars are becoming less common, the world is generally becoming a better place. Just one where there are more countries that are nearly as wealthy as we are, and therefore we are unlikely to maintain our influence.

Random quotes from the article:

"Americans—particularly the American government—have not really understood the rise of the rest. This is one of the most thrilling stories in history. Billions of people are escaping from abject poverty. The world will be enriched and ennobled as they become consumers, producers, inventors, thinkers, dreamers, and doers. This is all happening because of American ideas and actions. For 60 years, the United States has pushed countries to open their markets, free up their politics, and embrace trade and technology. American diplomats, businessmen, and intellectuals have urged people in distant lands to be unafraid of change, to join the advanced world, to learn the secrets of our success."

"But America's hidden secret is that most of these engineers are immigrants. Foreign students and immigrants account for almost 50 percent of all science researchers in the country. In 2006 they received 40 percent of all PhDs. By 2010, 75 percent of all science PhDs in this country will be awarded to foreign students."

Really? in 4 years it is on track to go up by 25%? I have never heard that one. I know Cornell is still about 50% foreign students. I would be surprised to see schools 80 or 90% to counter balance us.

"Twenty years ago, the United States had the lowest corporate taxes in the world. Today they are the second-highest. It's not that ours went up. Those of others went down."

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Planes are difficult

I have to get to Fresno from Ithaca. I essentially have 4 choices in plane tickets

Ithaca to Fresno $600
Syracuse to Fresno $450
Ithaca to San Jose $480
Syracuse to San Jose $350

I usually do Ithaca to Fresno. After seeing the price of Syracuse to San Jose I am more confused. It looks like a really good deal at first glance. However it is a 2 week trip, so I will probably end up paying $100 parking, and a total of 3 hours of driving getting myself to and from Syracuse is probably another 40$. In San Jose it is similarly confusing. I save $120 by going there instead of Fresno. If I was simply driving too, and from San Jose I would probably spend a total of $60 in gas. If I rent a car I think I am stuck worse off than just getting ripped off on the plane tickets.

How difficult.

Fan Fiction

Sports have become significantly less popular. That is not to say that people are playing less sports, simply that they watch them on television less. The old school sports like baseball, basketball, and football have taken the biggest hits. Perhaps that means we will see more of the following, people knocking sports fans into their place:


Can people stop pretending Hillary has a chance at winning the nomination? Short of assassination, or something ten times as huge as that whole reverend issue, she doesn't have a mathematically plausible route to the presidency.