Monday, August 25, 2008


My garden took quite a hit from the local critters that consistently eat all my cilantro, and larger tomatoes. Some of it at least is working out though.

They still need some luck to survive much longer, but I have a couple watermelon growing. Perhaps all I can hope for growing them in Ithaca NY. The above one is a Cream of Saskatchewan melon, below is a Blacktail Mountain.

My larger tomatoes have been decimated by the local rodents, but I seem to at least be getting Cherry Tomatoes, these are Super Sweet 100 tomatoes I bought at Lowes when some of my ones I grew from seed died..

I was able to save one White Wonder tomato and ripen it in my kitchen. Not as white as I would have hoped, but better than nothing.

Before I stopped paying attention to the fact it stopped raining my Lemon Cucumbers were doing really well. Now they are starting to die, hopefully they can bounce back though and finish producing cucumbers.

My Cayenne Peppers at least avoided the damage from pests. I was able to put them in the ground, never really water them or anything, and get 8 or so peppers from the plant. I guess that is better than average for my gardening skills. I am trying to dry them then make them into powder.

Anti-Grad School Propaganda

In an attempt to justify my actions I am passing along this article on the problems in the science world today.

"Instead of paying universities to use grad students and postdocs as very smart migrant laborers, the U.S. government needs a funding structure that provides large numbers of them a solid career ladder into the life that so many were implicitly promised. The jobs on that ladder need not compete financially with corporate law, medical specialization, or investment banking, because science offers intellectual riches so much more dazzling than money that they long enticed the ablest young Americans to accept more modest remuneration in exchange for the chance to do great research. But the futures we provide to the young people we ask to devote their lives and talents to learning and doing science must match those other careers in providing at least a reasonable likelihood that hard work and devotion can attain their goal."

Another article from the same source

"according to the Urban Institute, “S&E occupations make up only about one-twentieth of all workers, and each year there are more than three times as many S&E four-year college graduates as S&E job openings.” It is simply wrong for public policy in this country to seek the production of more scientists without a commensurate effort to ensure that the job opportunities for them are also expanding."

On the plus side, the field I am looking to get into looks to be really booming.

"Over in Silicon Valley, stalwart venture capital funds like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Khosla Ventures, headed by Sun Microsystems cofounder Vinod Khosla, are spreading huge bets around on a staggering variety of start-ups. In the second quarter alone, some $2 billion in venture cash flowed into the[energy] sector, according to the Cleantech Group, an all-time record, beating out a $1.8 billion influx in the third quarter of 2007. Watch the VC funds' spending for new investing ideas once markets improve and start-ups begin going public again in full force.

U.S. government support could soon be improving, too. Almost everyone agrees that the next administration will be kinder to green technology than the current one. John McCain has said he'd like to offer a $300 million prize to the inventor of a battery strong enough to power a car. Barack Obama has made investing in clean energy a core element of his economic plan. Both candidates also want to create a carbon emission cap-and-trade system, an almost seismic event for green-tech firms as companies would rush to meet new pollution regulations by adopting new technologies."Source

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Book Ratings

I have read, or listened to quite a collection of books in the past couple years. In an attempt to come up with new books I added my ratings to most of these books on I decided to post my ratings. These are all number of stars out of five:

5 Stars
The Black Swan
Made to Stick: Why some Ideas Survive, and Others Die
In Defense of Food
Kabloona: Among the Inuit
Guns Germs and Steel
The Solar Fraud
A Case for Nuclear Generated Electricity
The World is Flat
Surely you're Joking, Mr Feynman!
The Omnivore's Dilemma
The Tipping Point
Ender's Game
Speaker for the Dead(book 2 Ender's Game)
Predictably Irrational
Stumbling on Happiness
Beyond Oil
Atlas Shrugged

4 Stars:
A Short History of Nearly Everything
Inheritance(book 1 of Eragon)
Eldest(Book 2 of Eragon)
Relationship Cure
Reading Lolita in Tehran
Animal Farm
American Soldier: Audiobiography of General Tommy Franks
The Republic
American Gods
Darwin's Radio
The Father of Spin(biography of Edward Bernays)
Sleeping with the Devil
The End of Oil
The Art of the Long View
The Wheel of time(11 book series)
Harry Potter(7 book series)
Team of Rivals
A Scanner Darkly
The life of Pi
The Kite Runner
I am America(and so can you)
Don't Lets go to the Dogs Tonight
A decade of Curious People, and Dangerous Ideas
Confessions of an Economic Hitman
The Know it All
Our Inner Ape
His Dark Materials
The Origin of Species
Starship Troopers
Sway: the irresistible pull of Irrational Behavior

3 Stars
The Dark Tower(7 book series)
Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army
The Bear and the Dragon
The Soul of Battle
Slaughterhouse five
A Man in Full
Fast Food Nation
The Case for Democracy
The Bottomless Well
Microtrends: The small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes

2 Stars
The hero with a Thousand Faces
Fahrenheit 451
Death of a Salesman
Revolutionary Wealth
The World of the Ancient Maya
The Warning
The Ancestor's Tale
On Bullshit
Status Anxiety
Alexander the Great and His Time

1 Star
Tomorrow's Energy
Are Men Necessary?
Xenocide(book 3 Ender's Game)

I make no claim that I am in any way objective. many of the books I gave high ratings would not interest the average person at all. Several of the books I ranked lower down the list have reasonably high ratings on There is no ordering among books which I gave the same number of stars.


The story of Merced is an impressive one. I remember a few years back hearing the statistic that only 3% of households could afford a median priced home. Since then the bust has become as big as the boom. Some quotes from todays New York Times article on Merced:

In the three years since housing peaked here, the median sales price has fallen by 50 percent. There are thousands of foreclosures on the market. The asking prices on those properties are so low that competitive bidding, a hallmark of the boom, is back.

He was selling houses for $300,000. That means a buyer would have needed a household income of about $100,000 to comfortably make the payments. But Merced’s per capita income of $23,864 ranks among the lowest for metropolitan areas in the country. “None of us paid much attention,” Mr. Glieberman says.

three out of four existing-home sales in Merced County are now foreclosures, the highest percentage in the state, according to DataQuick Information Systems. The only group for whom selling makes sense, real estate agents here say, are the elderly entering assisted-living facilities, who often have decades of appreciation built into their home’s value.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wednesday, August 20, 2008


One of the great drunken biologist conversations is are we breeding stupid people. In other words, are smarter people having less children, therefore evolutionarily selecting against smart people. I thought I would point out new data from a paper I found online entitled Fertility of American Women: 2006.

For some reason blogger is having trouble reading the image, but it is on page 5 of the linked report. As you go down the column education level increases. The last Column is children per 1000 women. The numbers go from 2,447 for women who didn't finish high school, to 1,596 for those with graduate degrees.

A graphic showing how this happens. More educated women clearly don't have children until later, and never catch up. Since one of the best predictors of how children do is how educated their parents are, and those with graduate education are not reproducing at near replacement levels while those who don't finish high school are well over replacement levels, you can see why drunken biologists will always worry about the world descending into stupidity. More likely however this is temporary, and something in society will cancel it out a few decades down the line.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Run for your life, it is something new!


And you thought random bold and capital letters followed by multiple exclamation points and used to rally people against something new, and therefore scary, was started by the internet...

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

It Is Done

It is now official, I will be in Ithaca until December or January, then I am moving back to California. This semester I will devote to trying to finish up some research for the masters degree, and taking several courses on energy technology and economics.

The decision to leave really came down to a few things. For one, every time I call Makayla I had to deal with explaining again to her that I couldn't come and pick her up right now because I was in New York. This was always something that bugged me, but when she was too young to remember me being gone it was a lot easier for me to justify to myself. Originally I had hoped to get done with the PhD in 4-5 years. That would get me being back in California sometime between her starting school, and starting first grade. When I started in Materials Science that was a reasonable goal. Most students in that field finish on that time scale. Right now it is fairly clear to me that this is impossible however. By working in a biophysics lab the possibility of that is fairly low to start with. I know several sixth to eighth year students in my lab who seem to me to me every bit as intelligent as me, and if anything more productive. Few people seem to be graduating faster than that. Since my research hasn't been amounting to much I have every reason to think I would be somewhere on that time scale. My best estimate of when I would graduate if I stayed to finish the PhD is seven years. That puts Makayla in something like third grade. A whole lot harder to justify to myself than coming back to California when she is just starting school.

An equally large problem is I found I never bought into the dream. A PhD is training to be a professor. It is relevant in large government research labs, and in conservative fields like pharmaceutical companies. All jobs that don't particularly interest me. In most corporate settings it is just a way to get respect, and even that is limited as it is common for Business people to look down on Academics in the same way Academics look down on Business people. In the energy sector I am quite confident I can leverage the education I have for just about any position I would be interested in getting.

It was likely if I was to finish the PhD I was going to make a switch in fields to energy research. I tried to enter this area twice before, the first time the professor I was going to work with on Solar Cell research got fired the semester I was supposed to start. The second time I was unable to find funding from anyone doing what I considered interesting energy research. Interesting biology research sounded like a better plan than research in a field I preferred, but that I was convinced wouldn't go anywhere. That left my reasonable options for breaking into the sector: Dropping out of school and getting a job, dropping out of school and starting a PhD again elsewhere, and finishing the PhD then getting a post doc in the field. Until recently I had expected I would do the last option. It is fairly common to switch fields directly after a PhD, and because as a post doc you are cheap labor it is easy to do. That would delay anything from happening four to six years however at a time when the field is so hot that Petroleum Engineers have been getting $100 000 starting salaries, and even math majors have been getting jobs as engineers in the field. I am fairly convinced the extra four years of experience, and getting a job while the market is hot, will get me farther than the Dr. before my name.

Monday, August 11, 2008


We are Scientists is the only band that I like mostly because of the awesomeness of their music videos. Once you watch their videos a few times they then get trapped in your head and don't leave. Apparently they recently came out with a new album:

And in case you hadn't seen their old ones.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Electricity in Germany, Denmark, and France

If you pay attention to energy issues you will often see someone praise Denmark, or Germany. From the viewpoint of most environmentalists their high percentage of energy from renewable sources makes them the countries to emulate. Most of these countries however ignore a much better example, France. This becomes apparent when you look at graphs showing where each country is getting its electricity from.

Source, which is easier to read



So, while Germany and Denmark have more of their electricity coming from renewables than elsewhere in the world, they still don't come close to France in avoiding fossil fuel use. While it is hard to say an exact number from the graph, I would estimate 10% of France's electricity comes from hydrocarbon based sources, 70% of Denmark's and 60% of Germany's. Since Germany is currently phasing out nuclear power, and dramatically increasing its number of coal plants. It is not likely they will do better than they are now any time in the near future. Even ignoring global warming, from a toxins released in the air standpoint France is almost certainly doing a better job than either Denmark or Germany. Coal power plants cause acid rain, release a whole lot of Mercury into the atmosphere, it even releases significant amounts of radioactive waste into the atmosphere because of Uranium, and Thorium in the coal being released into the atmosphere.

Of course, France isn't the end of the story either. If you add up the percentage of electricity France gets from Nuclear, with the percentage Denmark gets from renewables, than you just about have a country that doesn't use carbon to create electricity. Of course you would probably need some natural gas peaker plants to function when the wind doesn't blow, but this is as close as I can imagine us getting to carbon free electricity. Add in plug in hybrids and you came really close to a carbon free economy.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Ferromagnetic liquid

Artists are more interesting when they stay near the cutting edge of science.

Poor Economists

I have been reading The Black Swan, OK I don't actually read I listen to people talking while shooting lasers at cells but I am fairly convinced it is the same thing. Anyways one of the points this book is making is that there simply are not experts in many fields. Put another way if I walk into the stock market and buy stocks at random I will not do significantly worse than someone with a decade of experience in the field. The same is true in most fields that do not do repeatable experiments. Economic forecasts may as well use astrology for how poor their predictions are. It is pretty amazing how many articles I am now seeing that connect exactly to what this book is saying. For example has an article today about why economic forecasters are so wrong, so often. Risk managers are another group that really do not do terribly well. Because we can't predict the economic state in the near future, it is impossible to be really certain of the risks we face on an investment, or a bar fight. The economy may pull out a knife and attack that part of the economy we felt was the lowest in risk. The economist has an interesting related article today.

Judging by his reputation I suspect his other book, Fooled by Randomness is nearly as good. Although I suspect he will occasionally make a fool of him self by talking about topics he knows nothing about just like he does in this book. That is a hard problem to avoid when you try to write a book about everything.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Women, trying to be like men?

I am not sure I buy into this all that much, but I couldn't resist posting this graph that I ran into on an article in the New York Times.

I am too tired to read the paper right now, but I suspect this paper on the subject would make for an interesting read. This is the sort of thing that will be debated for ages though and I doubt people will ever agree.

By most objective measures the lives of women in the United States have improved over the past 35 years, yet we show that measures of subjective well-being indicate that women’s happiness has declined both absolutely and relative to male happiness. The paradox of women’s declining relative well-being is found examining multiple countries, datasets, and measures of subjective well-being, and is pervasive across demographic groups. Relative declines in female happiness have eroded a gender gap in happiness in which women in the 1970s typically reported higher subjective well-being than did men. These declines have continued and a new gender gap is emerging—one with higher subjective well-being for men. Our findings raise provocative questions about the contribution of the women’s movement to women’s welfare and about the legitimacy of using subjective well-being to assess broad social changes.

...if happiness is assessed relative to outcomes for one’s reference group then greater equality may have led women to compare their outcomes to those of the men around them. In turn, women might find their relative position lower than when their reference group included only women. An alternative form of reference-dependent preferences relates well-being to whether or not expectations are met. If the women's movement raised women's expectations faster than society was able to meet them, they would be more likely to be disappointed by their actual experienced lives. As women's expectations move into alignment with their experiences this decline in happiness may reverse...

...the relative decline in women’s well-being is ubiquitous, and holds for both working and stay-at-home moms, for those married and divorced, for the old and the young, and across the education distribution...

Monday, August 4, 2008

Why Americans Aren't Dumb

I ran into this article on MSN earlier today and thought I would pass it on. It tries to make the argument that Americans are smarter today than they ever have been, and are getting smarter. If you actually look at hard data, rather than listen to the usual collection of old people, who for thousands of years have liked to think, despite all evidence, that their generation is superior to the younger one, it is a pretty hard conclusion to avoid.

"The average IQ has increased steadily for decades, at a rate of about three points every ten years. The phenomenon's even got a name: the Flynn effect."

"Almost every age group of students has shown increased [math] scores over the last 30 years, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Almost twice as many students are taking advanced math as were 20 years ago. In general, we are just better at solving problems. The huge leaps in IQ have come in areas such as pattern recognition."

""Kids today don't know their facts." Evidence conflicts. The government stats say knowledge of history and geography is actually up slightly."

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Save up to one cent!

I ran into this at the local P&C. The text at the bottom right is advertising that if you do not have their savings card you have to pay $2.99 for a cantaloupe. With the card however you only pay 2.98! What a deal!

Ron Paul

I remember why I support the guy despite his large number of crazy ideas to go along with his common sense:

I doubt many people can go on fox news, and make the case better than he can.

Saturday, August 2, 2008


Cornell's webpage on crop varieties has about 450 varieties of melon. Since there are at least 2000 of them I have been helping them track down more, particularly watermelons. It really is a neat page, but it rather lacks in pictures of varieties it lists. This makes it difficult to figure out what is interesting, and what is like everything else.

While chasing down rare seeds I found this page on watermelon varieties. They actually grew over 100 watermelon varieties side by side! They then posted the yield for the variety in Washington State. That makes for a much more impressive way to see just how many types of watermelon there are. It also allows me to know that it would be really interesting to grow:

Desert King:

Petite Perfection:

Golden Midget

Yellow Bird:

Orange Sweet:

Japanese Cream Fleshed Suika:

Unfortunately no one on the internet sells seeds for this last variety!

And the two that are the size of gumballs in my garden.

Blacktail Mountain:

Which is among the best cold weather melons

And Cream of Saskatchewan

A variety that originally was from Russia before it was grown in Canada.

They also did similar for some other crops such as beans. I found these pages less impressive however.

Iphone number storage

I finally have an iphone again. A used 2g one, not 3g. While the whole experience was generally a pain, I was happy to find out one thing about the iphone. When you lose your phone, you don't lose your phone numbers. Usually whenever I lose a phone I spend weeks chasing around the phone number of everyone I know. With the iphone however I just had to tell my computer to restore my old settings on this iphone and sure enough it gave me all my phone numbers without any trouble.

Why do SWAT teams dress like thugs?

Recently SWAT teams have taken a lot of flak for incidents where innocent people have been killed. A common case goes like this: SWAT team breaks into wrong home. Home owner sees them and assumes they are trying to rob them and someone gets shot in the chaos. This is a fairly reasonably situation. If I saw these people in my house and I had a gun I cannot say that I wouldn't shoot:

They look like military commandos, or convenience store robbers, not police. If I was dressing up for a crime I would want to look pretty much the same. All black, with my face behind a mask. These are police officers however, they really should look like police officers.

If these guys broke into my house, I wouldn't shoot. It is fairly obvious what they are, and why I shouldn't be shooting them. Now, I understand that protective gear is rather important to the people who break into homes in the middle of the night, but there really needs to be more effort put into making these people look like police.

Friday, August 1, 2008


Some good news that I haven't seen anyone call attention to is that July just beat the record for fewest deaths of U.S. military in Iraq for a month period. That record had been set in May with 19 deaths, unless some last minute additions get tacked on the current number for July is 13. Just one year ago 80 people were killed in the same month. It really is getting fairly reasonable to expect that within two years Iraq won't be an issue. The relative calm has managed to hold up since last October. Afghanistan however has been getting worse so it may be the net effect isn't much of an improvement.