Sunday, February 22, 2009

Academic Earth seems like a pretty impressive webpage. It doesn't have much new, and still has far too few courses on it, but it does do a good job of finding college lectures and courses from around other sites, and it also does a good job of rating talks. It is fairly easy to locate the best of the lectures and avoid the worst.

This physics lecture is really how physics should be taught. Most physics courses seem to get bogged down in mathematics without ever giving you much understanding of the world around you. He seems to move seemlessly from talking about abstract concepts, to real world examples of how we have used the ideas.

And the Index Funds win again

I have been convinced for some time that managed mutual funds are little more than a scam. They don't do much better than index funds on average, and the fees you pay for them are high enough that the need to do a lot better than managed funds to make any sense at all.

I therefore cheer on yet another study showing this to be true.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

American Environmentalism

It has been pretty clear to me for some time that America is not as far behind Europe in environmental issues as most people seem to think. For example: we produce more electricity from Geothermal, Wind, and Nuclear power than any other country; our experiences with the dust bowl have resulted in us taking soil conservation far more seriously than much of the world; we have developed some of the most effective pollution control systems such as the sulfur trading credits. A newsweek article I just ran into makes this point pretty effectively:

California, with its 37 million people, emits 20 percent less CO2 per dollar of GDP than Germany. It generates 24 percent of its electrical power from renewable fuels like wind and solar, compared with only 15 percent in Germany and 11 percent in Japan. It also has the world's largest solar-power plant (550 megawatts in the Mojave Desert), the largest wind farm (7,000 turbines at Altamont Pass) and the most powerful geothermal installation (750 megawatts at The Geysers north of San Francisco). Although California isn't immune to the economic crisis—its finances are on the brink of collapse, which could translate into growing support for those who argue that green measures cost jobs—its green accomplishments put it at the head of the pack. If California were a country, its economy would rank as the world's 10th largest and could lay claim to be one of the world's greenest.

It seems to me that our main issue is we just use too much oil and coal. We certainly do more of that than Europe does. Once we get that under control we aren't doing so bad though.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Real Estate Supply

There seems to be a commonly held idea that it is population increase that is the primary driver of housing construction in America. For example in the New York Times today I ran into the following statement:

Consider housing starts, which have fallen to their lowest level in 50 years. That’s bad news for the near term. It means that spending on construction will fall even more. But it also means that the supply of houses is lagging behind population growth, which will eventually prompt a housing revival.

This idea while seemingly common sense is actually rather off base. The median sized home has more than doubled in size in the past fifty years, at the same time as the median household size has decreased by about one person. We are living in a lot more space than ever before. The times when the normal family lived in a one room farm house are long gone. This means that it is how much space we want to pay for that will judge how much housing we need. Predicting how much that will change is a far more tricky problem than looking at population growth, and assuming we will need more houses. What if we just decided we wanted to work less hours, and live in smaller houses?

Another way to look at it: It is quite likely the United States population will never double again. Right now it has something like a 72 year doubling time, and almost all of that is from immigration. The birth rate is at the replacement level, and if what has happened in Europe is any guide it is as likely to drop below replacement level as go above it. If however the population does double at the current rate, and we didn't build another house for the next 72 years, just maintaining what we have, than there would still be enough housing for us all to have the amount of square footage that the average American had in 1950. Because population is likely to never double a second time just maintaining what we currently have, and replacing homes destroyed by disaster or neglect, we could get by just fine without ever having to build another home.

Of course, since homes seem to have turned into little more than status symbols we might just decide we can't get by without 5000 square foot homes. Still, I feel safe in saying that Americans would be no happier if we doubled the size of our homes, than if we halved it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Poor Stock Market

I just ran into this Business Week article. It is pretty stunning just how bad a decade the stock market has had:

During the darkest 10 years of the Great Depression, from September 1929 to September 1939, the stock market dropped roughly 50%, adjusted for inflation. With today's drop in the stock market, the U.S. has now matched that unfortunate milestone. The Standard & Poor's 500-stock index, adjusted for inflation, is now down about 50% over the past 10 years from Feb. 17, 1999 to Feb. 17, 2009.

Of course all the Great Depression comparisons are still pretty silly when we don't even have double digit unemployment rates. Still, it is shocking to me just how bad the stock market has been hammered. Many really safe investments are starting to sound like a better, and better idea because of it.

Deep inside me though lurks a voice screaming "buy low, sell high!" I thought the same a year ago though since the stock market had already had one of its worst decades ever. Apparently having one of the worst decades ever does not imply that it can't get much much worse. Still, I have trouble believing that there really will be another decade drop like the last one.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Gratuitous Graphs

Looks to me like the real estate crash is a little more than half way over. In most cities the best bet for when it is over is when the prices reach their inflation adjusted 2000 levels. Why 2000? Because that was the price people were paying for homes before they expected them to be such amazing investments. Since no one is fooled into thinking homes are a good investment right now they will pay what they think they are worth as a place to live. I could see them getting cheaper than they were in 2000 but outside a few cities that really did get a stronger job market(Merced?) I really can't see them settling at a price higher than it was in 2000. Also the supply of housing in America is particularly high right now because we have been building so much. This factor could easily drive the price of a home to a level lower than it was in 2000, but will make it difficult to justify a higher home price than 2000 in most areas.

Anyways, here are a bunch of graphs from Orange is for the particular city, green is the national average:

Chicago, IL:

Detroit, MI:

Miami, FL:

Los Angeles, CA:

Merced, CA:

Fresno, CA

Clovis, CA

San Jose, CA:

San Francisco, CA:

Las Vegas, NV:

Ithaca, NY:

Buffalo, NY:

Rochester, NY:

Syracuse NY:

Monday, February 16, 2009

Bill Gates

This TED talk from Bill Gates is really quite impressive. It is clear that there are good reasons the man made so much money, and that the world will be a better place because he amassed such a fortune. We absolutely should be making the changes to our education system that he suggests. It is amazing how much time has been wasted forcing teachers to spend more and more time getting degrees that don't help them be better teachers, while ignoring real changes in our system that could help.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Distribution of College Graduates

Here is an interesting phenomenon I had never heard of. It came from this article, although this previous article of his on the subject may be more directly on the subject.

Thirty years ago, educational attainment was spread relatively uniformly throughout the country, but that’s no longer the case. Cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Austin, Raleigh, and Boston now have two or three times the concentration of college graduates of Akron or Buffalo. Among people with postgraduate degrees, the disparities are wider still. The geographic sorting of people by ability and educational attainment, on this scale, is unprecedented.

Another interesting fact from the article.

Last year fewer Americans moved, as a percentage of the population, than in any year since the Census Bureau started tracking address changes, in the late 1940s.

Need Money to Make Money

It is amazing how when broke coming up with a way to make money is a flat out nightmare. To get these substitute teaching jobs there is one requirement after another all of them costing money. First there was the CBEST, which was like $110 to take. Then I find out that I need a TB test, which luckily I was able to get for $10, I expected it would be more. Now they want me to pay to get fingerprinted, another $71, then I have to pay the registration fee to become a substitute in California, that is another $55. I am glad I didn't wait until I was completely broke before trying to get this position. I am almost done at least, although it sounds like I will have to wait a while after I get fingerprinted for them to confirm I am not a criminal. I also need to come up with reccomendation letters for some districts, which is something I rather hate doing since everyone I could ask is busy and I am so over qualified for this position jumping through more hoops is silly.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Violent Crime

Reading another article trying to make it look like today's teenagers are more violent than previous ones drives me out of my mind. I couldn't help but look up real statistics, even though I am sure I have posted some before. Any way you look at it the current generation is a great deal better behaved than previous ones. Every so often the media tries to cover the issue, but usually it just looks really hard for that one rate where we are getting worse at while ignoring everything we improve at.

Here is about the best I could do to show the dramatic decrease in teen pregnancy rates:

Oh, and we are also more educated than at any time in the history of the country(you may have to click on it to see the whole graph, blogger does poor at image formatting):

Then of course there is the Flynn Effect. Apart from being less violent, and more educated we have the higher IQ scores to go along. That works out to about 3 IQ points a decade. So on average children will have a 6-12 point IQ than their parents once they get to their mid teenage years when IQ points reach their adult levels.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Well I passed.

I just got emailed my CBEST scores. A 47 on writing. Oddly by score on reading dropped by 4 points from what I was given at the site, but it was high enough I can't complain. My scores added up to 190 when they only needed to add up to 123. Now I must try to leverage these things into a part time job, hopefully I get the hard copy within a couple days. and either tomorrow or Monday I will try to come up with a position.

Gardening Again

One of the advantages of being in California is that it is a whole lot better place to grow a garden than upstate NY is. My dad's back yard has never really been landscaped, right now it has some small trees but in between those trees is a great deal of dead space. I have therefore determined that I will try my luck planting another garden.

There is an ancient farming method from Central America where they would grow corn, beans, and squash together. The beans would use the corn stalks as a pole to climb, while fixing nitrogen for the corn. The squash would fill the space between the plants to keep weed growth down, as well as keep small mammals away from the corn since they do not like the spines on their leaves. I don't actually like squash so I don't think I will plant any. However from what I have read cucumber, and melons can substitute for the squash.

I have a general philosophy that I should plant things that are rather rare or expensive if you buy them in stores. It seems silly planting corn that I can just buy 6 for a dollar, or 69 cent a pound cabbage. Also I have a peculiar bias towards heirloom species since many have had a great deal of trouble making the transition to modern agriculture.

For the corn, I settled on Dakota Black Popcorn. I eat a lot of popcorn, and while when popped the black popcorn looks like the yellow or white popcorn it is probably about as unusual as you can get in the world of corn.

For the beans I ordered Chinese Red Noodle Beans. Foot and a half long red beans sounded like at least something I don't see every day in the grocery store, and what I read about them online seemed pretty positive.

I got a heirloom cucumber from Australia, Richmond Green Apple. Nothing terribly unusual about this plant other than a Google search seemed to come up with a lot of people who really liked it.

For the watermelon I am going for another shot at growing white ones. This year I am trying the Japanese Cream Fleshed Suika. Washington State did a study where they grew about 100 varieties of watermelon, and recorded how well they grew. This variety soundly beat the other white ones, so I figure it is a good one to try.

I also got a small melon called Vert Grimpant. Not terribly sure about this one, but giving a try with a rare European melon seemed like fun. I almost bought seeds for Tigger melons, but the reviews online for this melon were horrible so I suspect it was simply bred to look nice and little else.

Then there are Tomatoes. If the local animals had not eaten most of what I grew my tomatoes would have done quite well last year so I am trying again with more varieties. I got seeds for: Transparent, Green Zebra, Paul Robeson, and Pearly Pink. That gives me a white tomato, a green tomato, a purple tomato, and a cherry tomato. I figure that is more tomatoes than I could possibly want.

I also got a few random seeds. I decided to try my luck with a Thai Eggplant, Thai Light Round Green, and a Purple Cauliflower, Violetta Italia.