Friday, December 25, 2009

Live Crabs

Even a week later I was hearing stories from over my cubicle wall about the person who brought live crabs to the white elephant gift exchange. That went over pretty well.

This was a work party mostly around a White Elephant Gift Exchange. Somehow I hit upon the idea that I would bring live crabs as a present. As soon as I thought of it the idea stuck in my head and I had to try it.

I ended up buying three live dungeness crabs from a grocery store while I was driving to the party. Then putting them in a giant box with paper towels at the bottom. The box was wrapped and I put a sticky note that served as a warning label. It said not to shake the box, to move it as little as possible before opening it, and to open carefully.

Because of the size, and the warning label it got opened early in the event by someone I had never met. First he picked up the box, than someone noticed the warning label and he quickly and carefully set it down. He then opened the box. Every previous person had taken there present and shown it to the entire group. That clearly was not possible, so he just said they were live crabs in a shocked voice and rather quietly so most of the room didn't hear. People didn't believe what he said, so they just got up and crowded around to see. Eventually after two or three minutes of the event being stopped, someone reached in and pulled out a crab to show the rest of the room one of them.

The present got stolen a few times, so I know it ended up with someone who wanted it. At the end of the event after fifty presents my boss came up for some final words. His first comment was "who agrees live crabs the most ridiculous present ever?" which resulted in loud cheering. A shame I will never come up with a present to match it next year.

Getting Close

Looking at home prices in my area leaves me a little confused. They all do in fact seem to be stabilizing, but are all still way above where I expect them to stop. Not sure whether that is a sign my expectations are wrong, or whether this is just a false upturn. Looking at the graph I can't help but to notice just how symmetrical they are around the peak. Prices have gone down at about the same rate as they came up. Maybe that trend is about to break, but with high foreclosure rates and high unemployment rates I am still betting on hitting inflation adjusted 2000 prices(about 1.25 times the 2000 price). One or two towns is even there. Looking at the areas they range from Pico Rivera which is almost there only having another few thousand dollars to fall, to Brea which should go down more than 100k more to match my guess. If nothing else we are most of the way to my expectation so I won't have been too far off if I guess right.

There really is no risk in waiting, prices simply aren't going to rise rapidly. There are just too many people who watched their friends get burned. At the same time rental prices are really quite reasonable in comparison to the price of owning... Even if prices don't fall, following the ultra-conservative rule of only buying a home that is three times my income, there are many areas where I could afford a house today. All I must do is get to saving a down payment. Whether or not the market is bottoming out now, by the time I can save money it will have.

Zillow Home Value Index
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Thursday, December 17, 2009

Fashionable Generation?

If there is ever a New York Times article I am calling bullshit on it is this one. It is trying to make the argument that males in their teens to thirties dress more formally than the generation before it. I just don't see it. This is not to say that there are not members of my generation who are that way. The Wedding and Prom fetish seems to prove that case. However it is just as easy for me to go to hollywood and find hundreds of people my age in torn clothes with tattoos and piercings. Watching the author try to prove his point is painful:

“But the younger generation is looking at getting dressed up and making their mark,” Mr. Cohen continued. “It’s a real generation gap here. I teach at three different colleges, and I am amazed how dressed up some of the students are. Girls still come in their hoodies and pajamas, but boys come in their suits.”

I have never seen a college student come to class in a suit, except occasionally for a presentation... Girls in my class were almost always putting more attention into their appearance.

NPD figures for the year ending Nov. 1 indicate that sales of tailored clothing among men ages 35 to 54 were down 17 percent. Among men ages 25 to 34, sales were up almost 4 percent.

Oh my, four whole percent! If there is any story to be found in those statistics it is that America as a whole is running from suits. America's obsession with Weddings holds up the numbers for one small demographic group.

The rest is just marketing and cherry picking characters from pop culture. If you ask someone at a suit company of course they will say suits are popular with young people! And of course you can find a character in an obscure TV show who fits any stereotype you want to make.

Monday, December 14, 2009

I ran into the following quote in a New York Times article the other day:

Among those who dropped out, nearly 6 in 10 got no help from their parents in paying tuition. Among those who got degrees, more than 6 in 10 had tuition help from their families.

Half of students graduate college, so that works out to half of students who start college get any help paying tuition from their parents. 

That really makes the FAFSA seem silly to me. It simply assumes students are getting quite a lot of money from their parents then offers students an amount of money based on that assumption. I doubt one in three students gets the expected family contribution. 

There goes that hobby

The ballot initiative legalizing marijuana now has enough signatures to get on the ballot. It only took half the time we legally had to get the signatures. I guess I need a new hobby.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Trapped in a walmart

Well, that may well be the most exciting thing I have ever done. I went to walmart because I needed a box to put live crabs into for tomorrow's White Elephant gift exchange. Anyways, since I learned I have the legal right to say no, I now refuse to show my reciept upon leaving. I have done this at least a half dozen times without event. So when asked this time I promptly said no thanks and kept walking.

This lady was having none of that. She got between me and the door and insisted that since I had no bag she had to see my reciept. I said something to the effect of "you have the legal right to ask for the reciept, but I have the legal right to say no. It is my reciept I won't show it to you." Now, clearly this had never happened to her, so we repeated what we said in different wording a few times. Then another two or three security people showed up. I repeated that I would not show them the reciept, that I had one but planned to keep it. One was smart, he asked what isle I checked out on, I answered, and he ran off to see the security camera. I waited twenty seconds, got bored, and asked if I was under arrest. She said no, so I said I was leaving. She blocked the door, so I slipped between her and the door. Now I was a step outside, only she was determined to not let me leave. So she grabbed my wrapping paper so I couldn't get out with it. Now I faced a quandry, I could pull it and leave but a clever cop could probably label that assault. So I stood there defiantly tooking at her two or three seconds trying to figure out my next move. Then the security guard who previously left to check the camera showed up again, I didn't see him but he must have waved me on. With a stunned look she let go of me. She was sure she caught a criminal, rather than just someone who was stubborn.

Saying no to people who think they are authorities is great fun. The danger is really there that the situation could go out of control though. There were about four people questioning me, all hyped up on adrenaline since they usually have a boring job. One worker trying to be a hero could really make for a rough day. Walmart has deep pockets though, someone throwing punches could probably pay for Makayla's college.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Home Loans, Getting more Straightforward

The best thing to come from this economy is increased consumer protections. A lot of the services we pay for cost a fortune, but we don't notice them because they are funded from hidden fees rather than upfront fees. That results in us spending way more than we should be for financial products that really are not necessary.

This trend continues today, with increased protections for home loans. Not entirely sure how much this matters, but at the very least the companies will have a harder time sneaking in fees such as ones for paying off a loan early.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Rare Turkeys

Turkeys haven't done so well in recent years. They are bigger than chickens, and therefore less commonly raised in people's back yards. Only one breed is commonly raised in factory farms, therefore a lot of the old breeds are really quite rare. Here are some pictures of a few of these breeds taken from

Fish Food

I wish I had a saltwater predator aquarium in LA. There is much more fun fish food than in Fresno. Live snails, clams, shrimp, small crabs and so on are really cheap and available at Asian Markets. $3.99 a pound for live shrimp? I think frozen krill costs that much in Fresno. Watching triggerfish eat clams is rather fun, they must outsmart them. I suppose a sea Urchin would be even more fun though


HIV in retreat

To the list of reasons the world is improving, add the retreat of the HIV virus. New cases have fallen by 17% in the past eight years while death rates have fallen by 10%.

Cheap Cars

I just spent a day with a rented Hyundai Accent. It was depressing. Why is a compass not standard in every car? this is tenth century technology people! I got so lost losing it and my navigation system. I went the wrong way on several roads getting myself quite lost.

Also, come on ringing when I put my car into drive or reverse and don't have my seat belt is fine. But if I want to put on my seat belt after I turn off my car stop beeping at me there is nothing unsafe about this. Also, if I start driving with it off, than I don't want it on. Stop beeping at me. Once is enough! That alone would stop me from ever buying this car. I am good about putting my seat belt on. I realize that for some people cars substitute as a girlfriend, but nagging should not be part of that relationship.

And I really understand why we traded gas mileage for horsepower. I had to fight that poor thing to go 65mph on the freeway.

That's Science

Mr. Ovshinsky knows as much or more about the development and production of alternative energy as anyone on the planet. He developed the technology and designed the production method that made it possible to produce solar material “by the mile.” When he proposed the idea years ago, based on the science of amorphous materials, which he invented, he was ridiculed.

I ran into that quote in a recent New York Times opinion piece about alternative energy. It demonstrates something about science that I feel is not generally understood. That is, every scientist is ridiculed for his ideas. This is normal, this is how science works.

Spend any time at all in science seminars and you will pick out a few people, every department has at least one, who will attack any idea presented to them. They are almost always quite reasonable people, but the vast majority of ideas in science are wrong. It is not the ability to produce ideas that separates science from philosophy or religion, its the ability of scientists to throw out bad ideas. These people are absolutely necessary for science to function. If an idea cannot produce solid statistics from reproducible well controlled experiments it absolutely deserves to be ridiculed. Every idea starts out this way, therefore every idea is ridiculed until someone can set up a good experiment that silences critics.

The case in the article shows how this works quite well. Scientist comes up with idea, idea gets attacked, scientist goes back to the lab with this criticism in mind and produces a device that anyone can test, idea gets accepted.

The biggest issue I see that people uneducated in the ways of science have is that they simply don't understand the standards scientists use. Scientists know that if they want an idea accepted they must set up proper controls, blind or double blind the experiment if possible, produce results that use valid statistics, and write up a procedure that can be duplicated by its critics. The biggest disputes between scientists and non-scientists come from areas where the use of these methods leads to a clear conclusion that the effect does not exist, but not knowing about these methods makes it easy to fall into the trap.

Astrology makes a wonderful case in point. It is really quite easy to use the scientific method to test astrology. Go find astrological data for people, than give people either the correct astrological prediction, or one for another person, and compare the results. If the statistics then showed that people's lives were better predicted by astrology charts made for them, than ones made for strangers than science would have no choice but to conclude there is something there.

Sure enough these experiments have been done. For example one study gave half of people their own astrological reading, and the other half the reading for the birth date of a famous serial killer. They then asked the subjects how well the astrological reading applied to them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people said that astrology readings were quite accurate. Only they said they were just as accurate when they were given their own reading, or when they had been given the reading for a serial killer. The only reasonable conclusion any scientist would make is that the descriptions astrologers make are so generic that they describe everyone equally well. Scientists have known this for hundreds of years, but the general public just knows too little about science to ever even realize that just because an astrological reading describes them well, does not mean it has anything at all to do with the stars.

Similarly, The phases of the moon could predict how people behave, this is an easily testable hypothesis. Only they don't. It has been well established by several mechanisms such as watching crime rates and comparing them to the phases of the moon, comparing admissions to psychiatric clinics or emergency rooms. Sure enough, no connection. This is not surprising, there is no clear mechanism that the time of day on the moon could alter human behavior. However people are quite poor at statistics without being really careful. Normally we count the hits and ignore the misses. A crazy day with a full moon might get blamed on the moon, but a normal day will not be used as evidence against the hypothesis.


I have way too much fun watching superstition that passed as science getting debunked. Sports are particularly full of such wisdom.

Anyways, another article about how stretching is not really much good unless you plan to be a gymnast.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Lead Acid Batteries

I spent two days this week learning about Lead acid batteries. One particularly interesting fact I learned is that Lead dissolves in water but not acid. This has some odd consequences.

When a battery is charged it consists of Lead sheets in acid. When you discharge the battery the acid reacts with the lead leaving behind just water. This is a big problem, in a reasonably short time the plates will have dissolved enough to be useless. The battery cannot be recovered.

So, if your car battery dies because you left your lights on, it might be alright for a day or two, but leave it for a month and you have one very dead battery. Even a week would be pushing your luck... Also this means that batteries must be stored while charged. For long term storage they need to be recharged every couple of months. Otherwise they slowly lose the acid needed to keep the Lead out of solution.

Nice Homes

I have spent a lot of time in some really ugly homes in my life and am starting to notice a trend. The difference between a nice house and an ugly house is not the construction, it is not how nice the furniture is, it is not even how much time the occupants spend cleaning(although that helps more than anything).

The big difference between a nice and an ugly home is that most ugly ones hold too much stuff. I used to think this was some defect of my family. There are a great many of these places among my relatives, places with junk crammed into every corner. As I have spent more time in the homes of other people though it has been made clear this is a common problem across many races and income levels. Some of the homes are full of stuff from Yard Sales and others with stuff from Luxury Stores but the result is the same, a home that would be really nice if someone would just throw away two or three tons of useless junk.

This is a trap I am trying really hard to not fall into. I start way too many hobbies. As long as it is a closet full of junk I feel like I am ok, but if any spills out I will be over the edge. Right now I have an exactly optimal amount of furniture though. Any more and things would start looking bad. I might be able to fit an aquarium, a TV, some kitchen equipment, and some pictures on my wall but that is about it.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Different toolsets

At one point in Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman he mentions how he taught himself Calculus from a really old textbook. This turned out to help him a great deal, everyone else learned the same methods to solve problems, but he learned different ones. Every so often he would encounter a problem that was simple his way, but almost impossible using more common methods. This would allow him to solve problems that stumped some brilliant people, helping him make a name for himself.

I feel like I am encountering a similar situation. I am surrounded with power engineers. For the most part they are damn good power engineers but typically they have all learned the same subjects. This means that as an electrical engineer it is really hard to make a contribution, but it also means that where they get stuck is often when the problem is not an electrical engineering one. When that happens often a little Chemistry, Math or Physics knowledge can make a big difference.

This came up at an IEEE meeting I recently attended about a standard. In a room of about 30 electrical engineers they brought up a materials science problem in the standard. They had a table showing the specific heat of a composite material. No one had any clue where this data was coming from, so they were considering taking it out.

Now, this wasn't a hard problem. Any Chemist or Materials Engineer could have given an answer in a few hours at most. But there just weren't any in the room. So the other day I went ahead and did the math, confirmed the table was correct, and found mistakes in the standard that had been there for at least thirty years making it impossible to reproduce the values in the table as they describe.

While it is still unclear if my changes will be added, two of the leading engineers have agreed with my math, and none objected, so it almost certainly will make the next revision. For a recent graduate to correct a similar error in Electrical Engineering would probably not happen. Just too many good Electrical Engineers had seen it. But I doubt one person with a Chemistry degree had ever read the standard making those mistakes much easier to fix.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Gathering Signatures

I spent thursday night collecting signatures for the Tax Cannibus 2010 initiative at the art walk in downtown LA. It made for an interesting night, me and two other people working together managed to get 100 signatures in two hours. Something like one in six people who walked near the booth signed. There were some odd ones who didn't sign, like a guy who wouldn't sign because he was an anarchist and didn't believe in involving himself with the government. Over all though it wasn't too hard to get signatures. 

One thing I noticed was how much the medical marijuana laws lead to the present state. From what I can see the bill was written by, and most the volunteers are affiliated with Oaksterdam University. Which mostly seems to teach classes about marijuana. Without the semi-legal status this level of organization simply would not exist.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

It has been a few years since I have contributed, but I still am a top twenty reviewer at Looking at it, the site really is a lot more useful in areas I have spent a lot of time in. Southern CA has the more popular sites, but completely lacks the sort of entries where you park at a mile marker and climb down a long trail. For hunting these are always the best sites. I shall have to consult dive site books and pages such as Francko's maps and add to it as I explore. The site really does have potential to be amazing for such information.

Fruit Juice is not healthy.

I am glad media attention is being given to the fact that fruit juice is no more healthy than soda. As much sugar as soda, more calories, I have been amazed by the propaganda machine that has managed to make most Americans think of it as health food.

Overdraft fees

One of the best things to come out of the financial crisis is strong consumer protections from financial institutions. The Federal Reserve just made one of the most important rule changes yet.Starting July 1st if you over-spend with a debit card the transaction will be turned down instead of charging you $20-$40 in fees like they currently do. Those few consumers that prefer the current system can opt out, but I for one don't want a $40 dollar fee if I overspend by even a penny.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Tax Cannibus

I was bored last night, and decided to go to a meeting for volunteers to help with the tax cannibus ballot initiative. This is the ballot initiative to legalize and tax marijuana in California. I was rather expecting a disorganized group of stereotypical pot-heads. And there were some of them there. But more impressive, these people really have their act together. 

The meeting was smaller than I expected, maybe a dozen people. This made me think the gathering of 650,000 signitures would prove nearly impossible. Quickly it was clear I mis-judged though. The meeting was only for new volunteers, they clearly have a much larger force at work elsewhere. They are actually half way through gathering signitures after only a month, they have until Feb to finish!  

Tomorrow I will go out with some people to collect signitures. Should be exciting!

This will be a fun election.  

Sunday, November 1, 2009

iphone not playing music

My iphone stopped playing music at all for a few months. Whenever I would hit play, it would hesitate for a little while than go back to the main menu. It was as if it never even tried to play the MP3. The speakers clearly worked. I could play youtube videos just fine, and the ring tones sounded normal. I just couldn't play music.

I never was able to find a solution for this problem online. Mostly because it was hard to find proper keywords to describe this problem. Anyways I did find a general solution guide for the iphone. One of the more simple solutions they offered managed to fix the problem. I simply had to restore it to factory settings. After that it worked just fine.

The phone is now in the best shape it has been in for ages. It was giving error messages "This accessory was not made to work with iPhone" and asking me to enter airplane mode every few minutes. For no apparent reason these errors have disappeared. Now essentially every feature on this phone works like new, despite being a first generation phone that has been used a great deal. A good excuse to not bother buying a new phone for a few more months.

2.5 gallon planted aquariums

This is added to my post-credit card debt list of things to do. A 2.5 gallon planted aquarium:

From Here

From Here

From Here

From Here

Perhaps ill upgrade in size if I find an apartment where it is not necessary to hide the aquarium. If I am forced to tear it down though I don't want to have it be a real chore. Also at this size I think I might be able to keep the aquarium nice. A nice small aquarium seems a better deal than an ugly big aquarium.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Credit Card Fees

One of the silliest arguments against credit card reform(or for that matter reform in many related areas) is that if we ban practices such as charging huge fees for over-withdrawing a bank account or late fees for credit card payments these companies will have to charge everyone a yearly fee for the card or bank account. This is said as if it is some horrible thing that must be avoided.

This is exactly what we want though! Companies should be forced to charge customers based on the cost of doing business, not their ability to jump through silly hoops. If a company is making half its income off of silly fees, it is impossible for a potential customer to evaluate whether or not a product is worth buying. They only find the true cost after getting slapped by unexpected fees. This makes comparison shopping impossible, and interactions with the companies maddening. Far better are transparent interactions where a company says "I will sell you this, and it will cost you this"

Cars are great

One thing environmentalists do that always bugs me is ignore just how great cars really are. The reason people drive them isn't that they want to pollute, its that they really are the best technology for medium distance transportation. I can Get in my car at any time, and drive any distance from a few feet, to three or four thousand miles. I don't have to work around anyone else's schedule, if I want to drive somewhere at 3am there are no issues, and I can get damn near anywhere. If the trip is less than 500 miles, it is probably the cheapest and fastest way to travel too.

I don't know what will replace cars. But I can predict that cars will remain with us until all of those features are matched by another technology, or the cost is so much lower that people give up cars. I for one will almost always use either the fastest, or the cheapest way from my front door, to the front door of where I want to be. The only times this has not been a car have been when Parking is severely restricted as in New York City, or Cornell or when the distance is so long that flying becomes the faster option.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Over 400 planets

The rate scientists have been finding planets is really quite remarkable. Right now we are at over 400 planets discovered, and that is without good enough technology to even see planets the size of most in our solar system.

Turtle Farms

One of my more odd encounters at the Hawaiian supermarket in Alhambra was live turtles in the seafood section. Both some big flat-shelled ones, and some smaller more normal looking ones were present.

This got me thinking. Where did the turtles come from? Turtles have had a really bad past few years, particularly in Asia where many species have been eaten to the edge of extinction.

Well maybe these Turtles came from the wild. Recently Florida closed its waters to turtle fishing along with nearby states though. Just too many were being shipped to Asia. The trade of turtles to Asia has not completely ended however. 

A more likely source though was a turtle farm. Surprisingly I had never heard of them but there are huge turtle farms popping up around the world. They have even produced a few Billionaires in Asia. I guess they are fairly cheap to feed and can be grown at moderate densities. It sounds like they have had trouble reducing pressure on wild stocks though, largely because there is a lot of demand for rare turtles as breeding stock.
Supermarkets in East LA may be the most racially segregated places I have ever been. Within about twenty minutes of my apartment it is possible for me to be the only White person in a store full of  Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese(Rosemead or Alhambra), a store full of Hispanics(Pico Rivera), a store full of Indians(Artesia), or a store full of Black people(I haven't yet tested this, but Compton isn't far so they must exist).

You can get some pretty amazing stuff in East LA though. In my last few weeks of searching I have encountered: Venison, Quail, Partridge, Pheasant, Squab, Wild Boar, Armadillo, Ribbon fish, live and frozen Abalone, Live Prawns/Shrimp, Live Snails and Conch,  live Turtles, live Lingcod, Betel leaves, fresh Durian, fresh Jackfruit, along with dozens of other fruit vegetables and fish I had never seen. 


Drinks like Snapple really don't make sense to me. They have as much sugar as sodas, so clearly aren't healthy, but don't taste as good as sodas. What is the point? 

Ponds with Windows

Ponds with windows are really cool. If I ever build a pond I would have to install one.
I am always amazed how much of human behavior is driven by our tendency to declair ourselves part of a group, then declair that group to be better than all other groups. Everything from our obsession with sports, to politics, to religion seems to be driven at least in partby this.

There are two routes this information makes me consider. One is the stubborn refusal to be part of more groups than absolutely necessary. This would go a long ways to promote independant thinking. A Republican feels quite a bit of pressure to cave to the party line, as does a Paegan, or a Knicks fan. Being totally independant would force me to evaluate ideas based on their merit rather than group loyalty. This idea in its extreme is impractical as I am still a citizen of a country, and employee of some organization. But it is easier to mark independant on a ballot or not declare loyalty to a religous group.

The other route is the opposite extreme. Become a member of as many groups as possible. Even perhaps to a life of Pi extreme (at one point in that book the main character was going to Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religious services). This way of living life has a huge social benefit. Because people think people who are a part of the same group as them are actually better people, it is an easy way to be liked and build connections that could be of future benefit.   

Monday, October 12, 2009

Roman Polanski

I have no idea who Roman Polanski is, or why the media cares so much about him being arrested.

I am rather surprised by the treatment this whole thing is getting though. Usually I am very libertarian on the subject of under age sex. I don't see how a thirty year old having sex with a fifteen year old is any worse than two fifteen year olds going at it. At least the thirty year old has a chance of being able to support any kids produced. I just don't see how the consentual actions of post-puberty individuals are any of the government's business.

Usually this opinion puts me out on the political fringe. In this case though a thirteen year old was drugged, and pretty clearly wasn't willingly going along with the sex. In my book this is a good reason for him to be spending a long time in jail. I don't even see how this case falls into the grey area of maybe he deserves a second chance. Who cares if he did whatever it was that made him famous? Lock him up and demonstrate no one is above the law.

11 Prizes

The Economics Nobel Prize was given out. It went to two Americans. By my count Americans earned 11 of the 13 prizes given out this year. So much for the death of America. We might have a general population who supports a larger alternative medicine section in Boarders than a medicine section, and who are absolutely convinced the relative position of the planets and the stars have a special deep significance that applies to only them; but they somehow manage to co-exist with the best scientists in the world.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

One of the most interesting lines of scientific research in recent years has been Calorie restriction and its effect on aging. The New York Times Magazine has an interesting article about clinical studies on the subject this week.

Of particular interest is how they got people to endure a diet consisting of 25% less calories than they typically ate:

Most of the recipes seem to steer participants toward foods that are nutrient-rich but low in calories, or what dieticians refer to as “low in energy density.” A number of recent experiments — notably by Barbara Rolls at Penn State — demonstrated that humans tend to eat a consistent weight of food from day to day, but not necessarily a consistent number of calories. For the Calerie study, this has proved a useful tool in the defense against hunger. By building a diet around foods with a low-energy density, especially vegetables, fruits and soups, participants can conceivably ingest the same weight of food as they might on a regular diet while taking in fewer calories... Roberts said she didn’t think anyone would be successful by reducing portion size. “If you don’t change your diet to a high-satiety diet, you will be hungry, and you will fail,” she told me. A high-satiety diet, she said, was bound to be a healthful diet with a lot of vegetables, fruits and insoluble fiber — the kind found in some breakfast cereals, like Fiber One — that her research indicates has a unique effect in helping calorie-restriction subjects feel fuller, probably because they activate certain receptors in the lower intestine. Roberts added, “If people are doing this on their own and succeeding, well, I’d be surprised if they’re eating a lot of Hostess Twinkies.”

i didn't really believe this technique for a long time, but Jamie sounds like she lost a ton of weight on this Diet, and if these people are losing thirty plus pounds on it than there must be something to it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Boosting home prices

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced home prices have a long ways to fall. They are just not low enough yet. Prices are currently 41% higher than they were in 2000. At the same time income has not increased at all and unemployment has doubled. Where are people going to get the extra money to afford that? Spend less on energy than 2000? Health Care? Education? This seems way less likely than a continued drop in home prices.

It is true prices have stagnated recently but this is just the government wasting tax payer money. Without the 8,000 dollars for first time buyers, or the FHA insuring low down payment loans, prices would still be falling. Even all this effort hasn't completely stopped the decline, and the best they can really hope for until inflation eats up the last 40%. More likely is a 3-10 year period of slowly declining prices. The larger part of the decline is over though so nothing so dramatic as the past two years can be expected.

One depressing thing is how poorly the people in power seem to understand the problem. Prices will fall. People simply cannot afford these homes. Therefore any government involvement should center around keeping as many people in their homes as possible while bringing prices to reasonable levels as quickly as possible. Instead they seem to be trying to find more suckers willing to over-pay and prop up prices. Inevitably many, if not most, of these people will find they cannot afford the home and go into foreclosure. Resulting in the same declining prices they tried to avoid.

Rape gets rarer

I have made a big deal about the decrease in the number of murders over the past decade. This has been impressive, but I have mostly ignored other crimes. The drop in the number of rapes is even more impressive, they just hit a twenty year low, and the rate is probably the lowest in history.

Relative to Murder it has been getting easier and easier to convict rapists before they strike again. DNA evidence has made convictions possible when it just wouldn't have been possible in the past.

It should also be noted that pornography did not lead to the often predicted spike in sex crimes. If anything would be rapists have chosen to stay home and watch porn instead.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Big Homes

The low end of housing in CA is rapidly getting into line. Median household income in LA is about $54 000 a year. The median home price this past month was 329 000. Still a bit over six times median income, but LA has nice weather and beaches. Prices relative to income will always be a bit high. This number may drop a bit, but since it is coming down from a high of over a half million a year it has probably already done the majority of its dropping. Even if prices stop at 200k, which is quite plausible as the median was 210 000 a decade ago, more of the drop is behind than ahead.

One problem though. The high end of the market still isn't selling. There are way more million dollar homes than there are families with incomes to really be able to afford them. So the high end of the market is just sitting waiting for buyers that simply don't exist. Watching this issue resolve itself should be quite exciting for me. Homes slowly coming closer and closer to what I can afford.

I think the best hope I have in this market is to do things old school. Buy a typical starter home, three bedroom two bath rather far inland something in the $250 000-300 000 range using a 20% down payment and a 20 year mortgage. The sort of home everyone owned in 1950. Then do everything I can to pay off the mortgage as quickly as possible. I would imagine that I could do so in a decade if I have a working wife, and still in twenty if I was using just my salary. As soon as the place is payed off, sell it and upgrade to something about $200 000 more expensive. Repeat as necessary.

I like this plan because in the long run it results in far less interest payments. It is just too easy to get in over your head in mortgage payments. If you never get too large of one than that is a ton of money you are not paying interest on. In the long term that ends up putting me in a much nicer home, I just got to sit through a few decades of low end ones... Still a great step up from a studio apartment though.

Jaguar Article

I saw a rather unusual article about a Jaguar on the New York Times. Not the cat, the car. Anyways, they were talking about a guy who has driven his 1968 E type for 38 years keeping it in reasonable condition.

The part that caught my attention most was the mileage. A whopping... Drum roll please... 185 000 miles!

Wow, if I could keep my car running that long it would put this car to shame. My car is 32 years newer, with 45 000 more miles on it... Now if I could just dig myself out of debt and make my car look as nice as his does. Or for that matter get my car to run six months without needing a major repair.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Lobster Diving

Underwater hunting scares me. I suspect I will be ultra-conservative about it in the future. Here is an example of why.

Census data.

The Census releases all sorts of interesting numbers. While poking around it, I found this graph that I thought particularly interesting:

(clicking on it makes it bigger)

The degree that the increase in family income over the past few decades has been from women working more is really quite impressive. Male income has really been stagnant. Although since you can get a lot now that you previously couldn't get at any price it isn't all that bad in any absolute sense for men.

We made it?

For some time I have been predicting that 2000 prices were where home prices would settle. I just ran into this quote:

"In America the Case-Shiller index of national prices is back to where it was in the fourth quarter of 2000. And, despite the falls, the ratio of average prices to average incomes, a measure of the affordability of housing, is still nearly 20% above where it was in 2000, a few years into the house-price boom."
The Economist

I guess I hadn't been paying close enough attention to Case-Shiller index, so I went and downloaded the numbers. The current Case-Shiller numbers there are listed as 144.23. This is what home prices were in 2003, in December 2000 the index was at 111.58, it wasn't until August 2003 the index hit 144. So I feel the economist is a bit confused.

Maybe the Economist is including inflation and Case-Shiller isn't? So far as I can tell that isn't what is happening, but the economist usually doesn't make big mistakes like that.

Worst decade ever

the S.& P. 500 is on track for its worst decade ever. I still think this is a sign that this is a great time for me to invest in stocks! Typically when demand for stocks is low returns are high, and when demand is high returns are low. People are definitely afraid enough of stocks right now for demand to be low(then again I thought the same thing a year and a half ago, so my crystal ball is pretty muddy).

What this did do, is convince me that stocks should never be invested in for less than twenty years. There is a risk of their value falling over this time scale, so other investments like bonds make the most sense.

Speaking of bonds, I am becoming more and more convinced of two things: Most investors buy too few of them when investing in retirement, and now is a horrible time to buy bonds. The first I am convinced of from watching how much worse investors with primarily stocks did in the last two years. The rule that bond % should match age in retirement savings makes a lot of sense to me. You want to trap gains made in stocks over the long-run into bonds. The second makes sense for the same reason that I think stocks are a good bet. Demand for bonds is really high. This is pushing returns for bonds down, right when there is a nice rally in the stock market.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Science vs Psychologists

I have long noticed a disconnect in psychology. There seems to be a combination of some really clever scientists with very interesting experiments, and some absolute nuts with one of a few dozen whacko ideas that simply aren't supported by evidence.

Anyways, ill pass on an article arguing that point.

I am fairly convinced that science education needs to spend a whole lot less time teaching facts, and a whole lot more time teaching philosophy. For example too few people understand what a double blinded experiment is, or why it is so necessary. People can delude themselves into believing just about anything if they don't understand how easily we are fooled. Even highly trained scientists have fallen into believing into incorrect things such as N Rays when they have not used such rigor.

Tricking little kids

I ran into the following quote in a fairly interesting article in the NY times.

Bodrova and Leong drew on research conducted by some of Vygotsky’s followers that showed that children acting out a dramatic scene can control their impulses much better than they can in nonplay situations. In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than four minutes. In another experiment, prekindergarten-age children were asked to memorize a list of unrelated words. Then they played “grocery store” and were asked to memorize a similar list of words — this time, though, as a shopping list. In the play situation, on average, the children were able to remember twice as many words.
That seems an awful good thing to know. Now to figure out how to make up lots of games that involve being quiet.

Humpback Whales

Humpback Whales might leave the endangered species list. The current population is up to around 20 000 up from about 1400 in 1960.

This shows a pretty common trend in modern times, which explains why many environmental trends won't be as bad as we expect. First we hunt something almost to extinction, not realizing that there is even a real chance of us doing so. Then we realize what we have done, make reasonable laws, than the species comes bounding back. Just off the top of my head I can think of a whole bunch of examples of this: White Tail Deer, Elephant Seals, American Bison, Wild Turkeys, American Alligators, Mountain Lions, Grey Whales, Wolves in Yellowstone. All were brought to low numbers, many almost brought to extinction and now are quite common. Of course we always take the risk of creating another passenger pigeon when we do this. But a lot more species will bounce back than is generally acknowledged.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Life expectancy increases in America

And while people whine about the recession, the world continues its improvement. Over the past 12 years life expectancy has increased by 1.4 years! reaching the highest it has ever been in America.

It is decreasing in a few counties in the south probably because of smoking and bad diets combined with the highest poverty and murder rates in the country. Obesity is a serious threat to continued improvement, but until we actually see it decline I remain optimistic.

From what I can tell heart disease and decreasing smoking rates are the biggest reasons for the improvement in recent years. Although lower car accident death rates, and murder rates probably don't hurt either.

Safer than ever

Another year, another drop in the crime rate. Continuing the decades long trend that makes today the safest time in my life.

The murder rate dropped by another 3.9% in 2008 with other violent and property crimes also declining. This is more impressive when seen in context. We have had falling violent crime rates since 1993, and murder rates since 1980. While the period between prohibition and the war on drugs was probably more peaceful, we are living in one of the most crime free times in America.

Other interesting facts from the articles: You have more to fear from family members(23% of murders) than strangers(22 percent of murders, which is actually a whole lot higher than I thought). Acquaintances are the most dangerous though(55%). Men are several times more likely to be murdered than women, blacks are several times more likely than whites.

Recessions have odd definitions

A recession is really an odd creation of economists. It means nothing in absolute terms. It is entirely defined by relative terms. When the economy is shrinking it is in recession, when it is growing it is not.

Lets say an economy has the following relative GDP per capita:

year 1: 100
year 2: 60
year 3: 65
Year 4: 70
Year 5: 90
Year 6 101

From the perspective of anyone in that country the economy in years three to five is horrible. GDP is way down from what it was in year 1. However by year five the recession has been over for years. The only recession was in year 1 to 2 when the economy contracted. Yet the economy never really recovered.

That sort of thing seems to be happening right now. The recession is quite possibly over. As some prominent economists have pointed out the economy is not contracting. This really only matters to economists though. Until the economy reaches its 2006 levels again than we may as well be in a recession.

Perhaps a better definition of a recession would be from the point GDP per capita starts declining, until the point the economy returns to that same level again. This would likely be a much more depressing statistic. By that measure we are at least a year away from the end, and five would not be that unlikely.

Parenting Styles

Trends in parenting are pretty funny to watch. Rare is the person whose opinion is based on actual evidence rather than some abstract principal or another. Even more rare is evidence that actually is solid. Quite possibly it just doesn't exist.

Well, bring up another round. Spanking has fallen out of style, so parents moved on to things like time-outs. Well, surprise surprise, kids were pretty much the same as before. Now I see that new trends are slowly building. The New York Times has an article that from how I read it pretty much says that any form of punishment or rewards for behavior results in kids with issues. It never said enough about its evidence for me to decide if it is more than rambling, but some of what he says makes sense to me. For example I have never seen a teenager punished into behaving well. Some of what he says makes little sense to me though:

The positive kind sometimes succeeded in getting children to work harder on academic tasks, but at the cost of unhealthy feelings of “internal compulsion.”
If there is one thing parents should try to give their children it is feelings of "internal compulsion." Nothing great has ever been accomplished without it. It just takes too much work.

Slate had an article similar in some ways, saying essentially that if what you are trying isn't getting a kid to do what you want, just stop for a while. Most of it was just alright, but one line caught my attention:
The research consistently shows that the more commands parents give a child, the more oppositional and deviant the child's behavior, and the constant barking of orders only makes it worse by raising the child's stress level.
This rather drives me nuts. I regularly see a young mother and child out in public, and the mother shouting order after order that the kid completely ignores. The mother is just stressing both of them out, and if she just shut up the kid would likely listen to her when she made a command that was actually important. As it is, the kid has obviously learned that mom just likes to talk a lot and blocks it out as background noise.

Really though, we probably all obsess over parenting styles a bit too much in America. A result of not having a stable culture telling us how to behave. Each generation learns everything from scratch. Even those order barking mothers who bug me often end up with kids who do just fine. I see every reason to think the main thing kids do is imprint on their parents, so just get your life together and don't traumatize them too much. Everything will be fine.

College Graduation has an interesting article about what factors best predict how likely people are to graduate college. Some of them are quite interesting, some fairly boring.

A few of the more interesting:
SAT scores don't predict graduation rates. Also they can be a risk sign for failure, when people go to schools where they are well above average they often perform worse relative to lower scoring students... AP scores however are really good predictors. People who do well on AP tests are a lot more likely to do well in college.

The high school you attended is meaningless. Once people from bad high schools get to college they do just as well as those from good high schools. So much for stretching to put your kids in a good school district... The college you attend however means a lot more. The better the college you go to, the higher your chance of graduating. This is a little counter-intuitive, but those who go to stretch schools do better than those who decide to take an "easier" alternative. Most likely this is because your peer group in college influences you a lot. If you go to a community college, that influence is probably for the worse, if you go to Harvard it is almost certainly for the better. Also, in my experience the professors are far more brutal at lower end schools; thinking nothing of failing large numbers of students. Grade inflation gets a bad name, but from the point of view of the student it is wonderful.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Pick the Professor

This New York Times article reminds me of the best advice I got in college. Pick the professor, not the subject. You will learn nothing taking a course with a bad professor. There are dozens of courses I have taken where I didn't learn much of anything. A complete waste of time. Often they were in subjects I was actually interested in learning too. Many other times I have taken courses that sounded silly, post colonialism comes to mind. However they were taught by great professors. So despite little real interest in the subject matter, I both had a far more interesting time taking the course, and learned a lot more...

In graduate school I solved this problem by going to a whole bunch of courses for the first week. Then dropping the half of them that seemed worthless. As an undergrad you must try harder though to ask older students who the good teachers are.

Email Hacking

I don't know enough about the subject to really know if I should be worried, this may be hype.

This Washington Post article makes it appear that it really is quite easy for a competent computer hacker to steal email passwords. I guess there are services online where people sell their services, so if you really want someone's email password than for a reasonably small fee it is available.

"This is an important point that people haven't grasped," said Peter Eckersley, a staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. "We've been using e-mail for years, and it's been insecure all that time. . . . If you have any hacker who is competent and spends the time and targets you, he's going to get you."

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Atlantic healthcare article

This quote from the article How American Health Care killed My Father shows just how out of whack the incentive system in our health care system is:

the federal government spends eight times as much on health care as it does on education, 12 times what it spends on food aid to children and families, 30 times what it spends on law enforcement, 78 times what it spends on land management and conservation, 87 times the spending on water supply, and 830 times the spending on energy conservation. Education, public safety, environment, infrastructure—all other public priorities are being slowly devoured by the health-care beast.

Some of that is skewed. The federal government doesn't spend much on education, and there really is little sign that what it has spent has done much good. States are quite capable of handling education on their own and including the money they spend would likely close some of the health care-education gap. Still, education does a great deal to increase life spans(educated people live a lot longer than uneducated ones), and almost certainly more to increase our economic output than health care does.

This becomes an even bigger deal since health care spending is poorly directed to the uses that would help patients the most.

The rest of that article really understands the issue we face and is worth reading.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

401(k)'s not making nearly as much

The more I read about investing, the more it becomes clear to me that it is way over-rated. Those ten percent return rates people talk about are unreasonable expectations. All the investment propaganda loves to show you what amazing rates of return you can get. What they neglect to mention is that the rates they tell you are before including taxes, inflation, and fees. So what starts as a ten percent rate of return on a mutual fund becomes 7% after inflation. Then it becomes 6% after typical fees. Then it becomes something like 4 or 5% after taxes.

A forbes article this week does a good job talking about the fees issue. This is the only one that an investor has real control over. I have therefore keep a majority of my 401(k) money in two index funds, and a low fee vanguard bond fund. I wish I had some low fee international stock options. It bugs me that I do not have more money spread around the world.

Friday, September 4, 2009

2005, Still Peak

It is interesting how much oil numbers change over time. I have been watching the monthly EIA oil production numbers for years. In that time they keep claiming the world surpassed its 2005 production, only to change their mind and downgrade the production numbers.

Here are the values for the last Decade of oil production in thousand barrels per day:
1999: 65 922
2000: 68 495
2001: 68 099
2002: 67 158
2003: 69 433
2004: 72 481
2005: 73 728
2006: 73 466
2007: 72 989
2008: 73 709
2009: 71 847

The reason this jumps out at me in three months ago, the 2008 numbers were a little higher than the 2005 numbers. Six months ago the 2008 numbers were a lot higher than the 2005 numbers. As time passes the 2005 peak seems more and more likely.

This information alone isn't terribly interesting. Production dropping for oil on a four year time scale isn't that unusual, much more than that happened in the early 80s when the floor dropped out of the price. What makes this surprising was that in 2005 the price of oil averaged only $55 a barrel, less than the $62, $66,and $92 for the following three years. These high prices mean that for those years every country in the world was trying to squeeze as much oil out of the ground as they could. Despite all that effort though, production actually dropped.

Even more surprising, today the price is up around $70 a barrel. Near historical inflation adjusted highs for the time period before 2006. Only from 1979-1982 was oil more expensive than it is now. This despite a huge decline in demand. That really does jump out and scream peak oil at me. However to really be sure I would want to see what the price and production do when the economy recovers. I haven't been watching the numbers as much recently because the last year is a nightmare to make sense of.

Stop Blaming Republicans

The Democrats have control of the house. They have control of the senate. They have a President. They can shut up about Republicans now. It doesn't matter that many of their claims on health care seem to have come from mars. It doesn't matter if they spread misinformation about Obama. The democrats can do whatever they want and they have no one to blame but themselves if they fail. They will probably never have this much of a majority again in my lifetime. So far the only decent legislation they have passed is the credit card reform. They better get moving. Obama is immune since the economy will be better by 2012 even if he sits around doing nothing, but the Democrats in the house are going to take a pounding if they don't get their act together on health care, or renewable energy, or more protection of individuals from corporations who have made penalty payments into their business model.

NYTimes peak oil article

Well, since the New York Times had a well thought out article bashing peak oil I may as well respond.

What this guy totally seems to miss is that we have seen peak oil come again and again in many different countries. This isn't any longer a theoretical construct. Sure what he says about us finding out that the oil fields we have are larger than we thought is true. However none of that has made any difference at all in the countries who started oil production earliest, most notably the United States. If what he said was true than we would expect that the United States would be producing more oil now than ever. Instead the graph of oil production in the United States looks like:

For forty years now production has dropped and dropped. Now we produce only as much oil as in the late 40s. The mini peak after in the 80s was from oil in Alaska. Now even that isn't enough to stop the dramatic decline.

This is not for lack of trying. There are more oil wells in America than the entire middle east. This is not because the government tries to block oil companies, the only places closed to oil companies are national parts, off shore in CA, off shore in FL and a few other areas on the east coast, and a few other government held properties such as ANWR. Since all of this land was chosen for environmental reasons, not mineral reasons, there is no reason to expect that more than a tiny fraction of America's oil is locked in them.

If America was an odd outlier than maybe I wouldn't be concerned. This does not seem to be the case however. I have stared at enough country graphs to know they almost all either look like the graph of America in the 1960s, or like America now. Production is dramatically declining in places as diverse as Indonesia, Norway, Libya and Mexico. Sure some countries like Russia are increasing production but to increase world production these countries must increase output by more than it is declining in countries that are post-peak. Once half of the oil fields are post-peak expect production to drop for quite some time.

Even if this doesn't happen it doesn't help us one bit. Population has been growing faster than oil production for thirty years. We hit peak oil per capita in around 1980. There is less oil per person alive today than there was then and it continues to decline. This is a trend far enough behind us there is little reason to expect it will turn around.

Gender Differences

One of the things I find the most baffling in the world is why so many feminists want so badly to believe that the sexes are identical. I see another attempt at trying to convince the rest of the world of this nonsense in a recent Newsweek article.

This is very much a losing argument. There isn't a mammal I can think of that doesn't have dramatic behavioral differences between the males and females(and very few reptiles, fish, birds, or other higher animals for that matter). Think about animals you have spent time around. Some are more similar in behavior(rabbits, cats), some are less similar in behavior(sheep, elephant seals) but in any species I can think of there are measurable differences in behavior between males and females. I even remember it being true in mice. Female mice get used more in experiments because the males fight more if kept together. Why should humans be the one and only exception to this rule?

Also in most easily measured physical traits there are sex differences in humans. Height, weight, breast size, hormone levels, body hair, it even goes all the way down the list to symptoms of heart attacks being different between the sexes. If all these physical traits show differences between the sexes, than it would be pretty damn odd if the brain was exactly the same. The simpler conclusion is that it isn't the same.

For that matter, why should parents treat girls and boys the same? if people in every society treat boys and girls differently, than there is every reason to think there is a damn good reason for their actions. Lets face it, males and females do not get held to the same standards by society. Why shouldn't we raise our children to do well at what our culture thinks they should be good at? Certainly when it comes to dating, females who act like males, and males who act like females don't do well. Why handicap your children by letting them fall into these categories?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

No introspective ability

The following quote from a recent New York Times article sums up one of my favorite conclusions of modern psychology:

“We seem to have to have approximately no introspective accuracy as to what it is we want in a partner,” said Eli J. Finkel, a Northwestern psychology professor

The mere fact it is psychology probably means that in twenty years the prevailing opinion will be entirely different, but I see enough of this happen that it seems plausible to me. The classic example of this is the girl who is constantly saying she just wants a nice guy but ends up dating guys who are anything but. Either relationships work, or they don't, there is really no way to predict in advance what will happen.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Cost of Government Day was Months Ago.

I ran into this page the other day claiming that the "cost of government" day was August 12th. By this they mean that Americans work until this day to pay for the cost of government.

This claim is absolutely bogus. I was tipped off by the fact that they were not only including the cost of the government, but the cost of the "regulatory burden" imposed by government. By this they mean they have a giant fudge factor that they can manipulate at will(if say they disagree with the party in power).

On top of this they include the costs, but they don't include the benefits. Surely Americans benefit from our road system. We would waste days of our lives if it wasn't as good as it is. There are many of these benefits we get from the government. An honest calculation would try to include time the government saves us in the equation to give an actual cost of government. Every day of work government saves you from doing would be subtracted, and every day they make you work to pay taxes or sit in line at DMV would be added to it.

Pretending we can calculate the balance of costs and benefits is silly though. It is too easy to manipulate numbers political gain. The only intellectually honest way of calculating "cost of government" day is to simply look at what percentage of the GDP is government spending. That is the percentage of our work that goes to supporting the government. In 2009 this was 45.2%. Which works out to "cost of government" day being June 4th. Still rather scary in how late in the year it is, but it is more than two months earlier than the Americans for Tax Reform Center would have you believe(they claim it is 224 days, the real number is 164 days).

What a poor professor job market does

Here is an interesting statistic:

"Over the last century and a half, the average age of a Nobel Prize winner at the moment of his great breakthrough has risen more than five years, from 34 to almost 39 years old."

The authors take it as a sign that the amount of pre-existing work means that you have to be older to contribute to science, you just need to know more before you catch up with the state of the art.

I read it and think this is just a sign of how bad the job market is. You have to be so much older to get a chance at doing independent research. What the heck are we doing giving most of our funding to old people when the average age of a noble prize generating idea is a 39 year old! While I don't feel like looking up the exact number, right now the average age someone gets their first NIH grant is about 43. If they are in the life sciences they don't even get a tenure track position until something like 38. This means that most of the NIH grant money is being thrown at people with a comparatively low probability of generating truly breakthrough research, while the best minds languish in other people's labs waiting for someone to finally die or retire opening up a real position. Some sort of reform is needed so that the career path into science on average ends at people doing independent research by about 30.