Saturday, March 28, 2009

Purple Needle Grass

I thought this an interesting picture. Native grasses stay green several weeks longer than the annuals that have taken over California, sometimes maintaining at least some green all summer. The following is an example where the purple needle grass is still green while the surrounding grass is all dead. If the whole landscape was native grass it would all be green:

Friday, March 27, 2009

Cheap oil?

I just ran into this Businessweek article from 2006 that reminds me just how expensive oil still is:

The tale of Mideast money is not just a local story, however. This year, with oil prices stuck in the $55-to-$65-per-barrel range, perhaps half a trillion dollars will land in OPEC coffers -- more than at any time since the boom of the 1970s and 1980s. The Mideast oil states alone will gather in $320 billion in oil and gas export revenues.

At that time $55-65 dollar a barrel oil was shockingly expensive. Businessweek was writing articles about this huge transfer of wealth to the middle east. After all in 2002 the price of oil was averaging $22 a barrel($26 if inflation adjusted). So the price had more than doubled in a four year period!

Today the price of oil on the NYMEX is $52 a barrel. That is exactly twice as expensive as it was in 2002. What is shocking about this price level is that we now think of it as cheap. OPEC is slashing production because many of its members simply cannot afford to produce oil at these prices. The biggest recession in my life time, and the price of oil is still quite high. If this trend holds, expect really expensive oil to return as soon as the economy rebounds.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Another home price graph

I ran into this graph from this article which I particularly like because it shows two things clearly: Inflation adjusted home prices usually stay in the range between 125k-16k; and housing bubbles have happened before but the post-bubble prices approximately equal the pre-bubble prices. So, when we hit a median house price around 140k it is time to be calling the bottom. We have been doing so much building that it may drop below this number for a while but don't expect prices to stop falling before then. I had previously predicted that home prices would fall to 2000 levels. Looking at this graph that shouldn't be too far from correct, 1997 prices look closer to long term trends but if income has risen at all than 2000 prices are probably sustainable.

There is a lot of talk in washington about stopping this decline in home prices. It won't happen no matter how much money people throw at the problem. People simply cannot afford houses unless they drop to this price range. Until then, rent.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Don't mess with people.

A couple of free divers managed to down a 12 foot long tiger shark the other day. It took them two hours, seven shot shots from a speargun, ultimately finishing it off with a knife. That certainly has to put them in the category of one of the biggest bad-asses of all time.


This is one of my favorite evolution experiments. Taming of foxes. I had heard of it a long time ago, but seeing them in a video is sort of cool.

I want to repeat the experiment with servals or monkeys.

Decline in Manufacturing?

I am not quite sure why I always hear people saying that the United States should manufacture more. I suppose now that I think of it, I hear it mostly from people like politicians with little real background in economics. Still, despite all the talk, manufacturing in America it is doing just fine. As this article points out:

“Manufacturing makes up about two-thirds of U.S. exports, and contributed more to G.D.P. growth over the last 20 years than any other sector of the U.S. economy,” said David Huether, chief economist for the National Association of Manufacturers in Washington. “Our share of global manufacturing output has remained steady at 20 to 23 percent over the past decade.”
With 5 percent of the world's population it really seems to me like we are doing more than our fair share of the manufacturing. What has changed is low skill factory workers have been replaced by robots. So there are a lot less jobs in the field. This is a good thing however as it frees up labor for other tasks. Just like when we reduced the percentage of the population that worked on farms this will ultimately improve the lives of most Americans.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Too many people like me.

Ugh, Optisolar has just laid off another 200 people. I hope I got this Southern California Edison job because that is a whole lot of people looking for similar jobs to me who have more experience than me.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Housing crisis video

Here is a great Libertarian response to what we have been doing in the financial crisis. It really makes a lot of good points, we should be letting a lot more companies go bankrupt for incompetence, and the price of housing will come down one way or another.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Looking pretty affordable

I was looking a bit more into LA home prices, and it seems encouraging:

Low mortgage rates combined with price cuts brought the typical monthly payment to $1,090 -- a level almost half that of February 2008, when a buyer of a median-priced home at prevailing mortgage rates would have had a monthly payment of $1,940, according to DataQuick.

That isn't really much more than I would have expected to pay for rent. Three to five years of saving and I would think I would be be in really good shape.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Book List

I thought I would update my list. I haven't read much that exciting since the last time I did it, but it interests me to keep this list updated.

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
The Time Traveler's Wife
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
For Whom the Bell Tolls
The Glass Castle

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
Altered Carbon
Anansi Boys
Snow Crash

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
What Happened

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)

Thursday, March 12, 2009

The Wealth Still Exists.

I just ran into this quote on a reuters article:

"Between 40 and 45 percent of the world's wealth has been destroyed in little less than a year and a half," Schwarzman told an audience at the Japan Society. "This is absolutely unprecedented in our lifetime."

I can't help but thinking this is absurd. To destroy 45% of the worlds wealth would require massive war. Close to half the homes, food, cars, factories, roads, airports and so on would have to be destroyed; technologies would need to be lost forever and so on.

None of this has happened. In fact very little real wealth has actually been destroyed. I see about the same number of homes in this town, we just decided to value them less because we have way more homes than we need. I don't see any sign that we are growing any less food, or maintaining less roads. We certainly are making less cars, but we have about as many of them driving around our roads as a year ago. Oil production is falling fast, which is a little surprising since prices are at fairly normal levels(it was the prices of the last three years that were unusual). Maybe this will throw a monkey wrench into the economy, but I am inclined to believe it is something that can be worked around.

What really changed is we decided all of these pieces of paper that we once considered valuable, are simply not of much use. They never had all that much importance, but we decided to label them as useful, and trade them back and forth. That is a far less scary problem to fix. We still have enough labor and capital for the economy to be doing just fine in five years. This isn't post war Europe. We just need to figure out who goes bankrupt, and who takes control of these resources, and figure out what jobs are simply no longer necessary.

Southern California Edison Job

I went to interview with Southern California Edison yesterday for an Electrical Engineering position. That was a bit of a scary position to interview for since they wanted electrical engineers with a power emphasis which is pretty hard for me to call myself with a straight face. Reading a text book on power engineering, and watching a whole bunch of lectures by Walter Lewin on Electricity and Magnetism was enough to make me not completely ignorant on the subject though.

So far as I can tell though they bought into the idea that an engineering degree at a good school, even in a completely different subject area, was a perfectly reasonable background for the position. It probably helped that I was able to do a fairly good job of describing the electricity generation, transmission, and distribution system when asked to do so. They wanted me to come back in a few days to talk to some people working at the company, and try to work out exactly where I would prefer to work. So far as I can tell there are a lot of people doing device physics, and a lot of people doing transmission planning both of which would probably be fairly interesting. There are also a lot of people doing safety jobs which I would probably find fairly boring.

One nice thing about the position is I could pick up a Professional Engineering License fairly quickly. This would be nice because at that point I am legally an engineer the fact that my undergraduate degrees are in science and my graduate degree was doing biophysics work won't matter any more. Engineering is a fairly flat profession educationally compared to the sciences. I am confident that with a PE license and a masters degree from Cornell I won't be limited professionally in the long run in the way I would if I entered the biomedical world where PhDs, and MDs are needed to be taken seriously.

It also has the unusual quality of being one of very few 40 hour a week jobs that both pay reasonably well and are fairly interesting. Compared to if I stayed in the biomedical sciences it is safe to say both that I would be payed more than as a post doc, or even a professor at a low end school like Fresno State, and that I will work a lot less 80 hour weeks fighting to get the position. I imagine in the next few months I will be studying in my spare time to catch up to the people that have actual electrical engineering degrees and to take the EIT exam, which is the first step to a Professional Engineer license, so I will be fairly busy but after that it sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

The down side is it is in Rosemead, near LA. That is five or six hours from where I would have preferred to live. I am not sure how big a concession that really is, its at least a drive I can do at a moments notice, but it certainly would complicate my life more than living in San Jose.

I imagine there is a 70% chance I will take this position. I really haven't had much luck getting myself noticed by bay area companies and the idea of another few months of unemployment are not appealing to me. There is a chance something else will come up at the last minute though and I will take it.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Unemployment rates seem to fall quickly

Looking at a graph of unemployment rates over the past fifty or so years gives me reason for hope with getting a job.

It really does seem that unemployment spikes are short lived events. They drop nearly as fast as they go up, and don't seem to last that long. The spike we are having right now is really quite normal on the scale of historical events, and therefore in two or three years I expect the employment situation to be America as usual.

If true, think of how amazingly well this turned out for Obama. Had this crisis come a year or two later he would have been blamed for it. If however in four years the unemployment rate is lower than it is today, which looking at that graph seems reasonable, than he can take credit whether or not his actions were the reason things improved.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Feeding your 128 slaves.

A typical person is burning energy at a rate of about 100 Watts. However if you add up the total energy usage of a modern American the number comes up at something like 12800 Watts. So, you have the equivalent of 128 slaves working full time for you.

This is a common thing for energy researchers to point out. After all it demonstrates the amazing progress of the human race over the past few centuries and the importance of energy in our lives. It also gives a great deal of perspective on just how massive the issues we will be facing are. It also happened to show me another way to think of the impossibility of using biofuels to keep our economy going at its present state.

Right now we are feeding these 128 slaves with mostly oil, coal, natural gas, and Uranium. Since we can't eat any of these it is really hard for us to think about just how energy rich these materials are. Switching to biofuels would require you to stop feeding them this inedible material, and start literally feeding them food. To keep our standard of living we would then have to grow 128 times as much food as we grow today. This is the equivalent of feeding thirty eight billion Americans!

Of course next generation biofuels will allow us to stop feeding these slaves corn and soybeans and swap them with switch grass or some other inedible plant. It doesn't really change anything though. We can certainly grow more switch grass than corn, but we can't even get close to 128 times as many calories of switch grass. Why waste research money on this when there are so much more promising routes to take?