Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Leaving expensive areas

I ran into another reason for home prices to keep dropping; Although even I am starting to expect bottom to be hit within a year or so as the rate of fall has been quite impressive.

This article pointed out that people have been migrating from expensive areas to cheaper areas for quite some time now. So parts of the country that can freely put up new homes are sucking the population out of areas like San Francisco that have trouble finding room for more homes.

Studies on economic expansion by the Dukakis Center have demonstrated that there is a powerful correlation between extremely high housing costs and slow economic growth. Since 2000, those areas with the very highest housing costs - such as Greater Boston, San Francisco, Honolulu, and the New York metro area - have experienced net domestic outmigration and slower employment growth than regions with more modest housing costs. Indeed, the 10 most expensive metropolitan areas in the country all experienced net out-migration and slower employment growth than average while those areas with somewhat more modest home prices enjoyed the fastest growth in new jobs.

Monday, April 27, 2009

I ran into this video, of this experiment on reddit today. They should have done it side by side with a block of steel being dropped through the tube though. I really wish I had a big magnet, magnetic braking is one of the coolest effects to watch.

a related and possibly more awesome video:

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cancer, glad I left that hornets nest

The New York Times had a good article that points out just how poor we are at treating cancer:

Yet the death rate for cancer, adjusted for the size and age of the population, dropped only 5 percent from 1950 to 2005. In contrast, the death rate for heart disease dropped 64 percent in that time, and for flu and pneumonia, it fell 58 percent.

Want to take bets on what percentage of that drop goes to anti-smoking campaigns? I doubt even much of that 5% drop went to modern medicine. Barring a few types of leukemia, skin cancer, and a couple other types I am not entirely sure I would bother getting treated for cancer. The cost is so high, and the effects so small.

Really it seems to me that our healthcare system as a whole needs to just waste less time treating cancer. Our treatments don't work, and if we put that effort into treating diseases we actually understand we could probably save a lot more lives. I am not of the school of thought that says a cure will never happen, but it certainly hasn't come yet.

Marrying Young

There is an article in the Washington Post that talks about reasons why people should marry young. I suspect both that it will make many people in my age group unhappy, and that it is quite accurate. There is little to be gained by waiting past the age of 20 or 22 to get married. I guess that makes me old.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bagels, Yogurt, and Granola

I have never made Bagels, Yogurt, or Granola. Thanks to this article I just may have to try. I made butter last night which was also quite exciting so I may as well keep going with this type of cooking.

Supreme court

I have decided that I agree with the Supreme Court every time it tells the government it can't do something, and disagree with it every time it tells the government it can do something. So I guess I should be happy about this case restricting the right of police to search cars. If they actually uphold school strip searches for drugs based on hearsay than they lose all the points they earned for that case though.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Predicting Performance

Malcolm Gladwell had an interesting article from a few months back that is about predicting performance of quarterbacks, and teachers. Essentially the take home message was that in a great many professions you simply can't predict in advance who will be good at the job. That leads to interesting predictions about how we should bring people into the field.

"Eric Hanushek, an economist at Stanford, estimates that the students of a very bad teacher will learn, on average, half a year's worth of material in one school year. The students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and a half's worth of material. That difference amounts to a year's worth of learning in a single year. Teacher effects dwarf school effects: your child is actually better off in a "bad" school with an excellent teacher than in an excellent school with a bad teacher. Teacher effects are also much stronger than class-size effects. You'd have to cut the average class almost in half to get the same boost that you'd get if you switched from an average teacher to a teacher in the eighty-fifth percentile. And remember that a good teacher costs as much as an average one, whereas halving class size would require that you build twice as many classrooms and hire twice as many teachers."

"Douglas Staiger, an economist at Dartmouth; and Robert Gordon, a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress—have investigated whether it helps to have a teacher who has earned a teaching certification or a master's degree. Both are expensive, time-consuming credentials that almost every district expects teachers to acquire; neither makes a difference in the classroom. Test scores, graduate degrees, and certifications—as much as they appear related to teaching prowess—turn out to be about as useful in predicting success as having a quarterback throw footballs into a bunch of garbage cans."

"In teaching, the implications are even more profound. They suggest that we shouldn't be raising standards. We should be lowering them, because there is no point in raising standards if standards don't track with what we care about. Teaching should be open to anyone with a pulse and a college degree—and teachers should be judged after they have started their jobs, not before."

"Similarly, all quarterbacks drafted into the pros are required to take an I.Q. test—the Wonderlic Personnel Test. The theory behind the test is that the pro game is so much more cognitively demanding than the college game that high intelligence should be a good predictor of success. But when the economists David Berri and Rob Simmons analyzed the scores—which are routinely leaked to the press—they found that Wonderlic scores are all but useless as predictors. Of the five quarterbacks taken in round one of the 1999 draft, Donovan McNabb, the only one of the five with a shot at the Hall of Fame, had the lowest Wonderlic score. And who else had I.Q. scores in the same range as McNabb? Dan Marino and Terry Bradshaw, two of the greatest quarterbacks ever to play the game."

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Cause of Death

Since I got into an argument over how dangerous guns are, I thought I would estimate my risk of death from a whole bunch of sources. I found a good list of causes of death by a whole bunch of sources separated by race and sex. This is the white male top causes of death in number of deaths per 100 000 men per year:

1. Malignant Neoplasms(cancer) 222.3
2. Heart Disease 258.0
3. Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease 52.8
4. Cerebrovascular disease 44.7
5. Diabetes 26.5
6. Pneumonia 23.0
7. Motor Vehicle Accidents 22.2
8. Suicide 19.6(11.5 by firearm)
9. Alzheimers 19.4
10. Renal Failure 15.8
11. Accidental Poisoning/exposure to noxious substance 11.3
12. Septicemia 11.2
13. Parkinson's 10.4
14. Falls 8.6
15. Pneumonitis 7.6
16. Alcoholic Liver Disease 6.6
17. Aortic Aneurysm 6.6
18. Hypertension and hypertensive renal disease 6.6
19. Homicide 5.3(3.5 by firearm)
20. HIV 3.6

I didn't include several sources as they seemed to be a bunch of unrelated diseases, and I lumped together heart disease and cancer. If I had included each individual type of cancer, 16 types of cancer each would have been higher on the list than HIV.

Interesting things I ran into: As a white male my risk of death from homicide is low. It is in fact much much lower than this table suggests. In New York City for example 70% of murder victims had a previous arrest history. Quite interesting though is to compare the white male, and black male number though. The black male number is 37, nearly eight times as high. If you are white and around a reasonably good crowd worrying about whether you will get murdered is silly, your risk is so low there is nothing you can do to lower it more. If you are a black male however it probably is something you should worry about. Still not as risky as smoking (I didn't include the lung cancer death rate but for a white male 68.7 it is and for a black male it is 86.4), but as far as preventable causes of death go it is something you should probably work on.

The male-Female gap on accidents and murder is pretty much what you would expect. As a white female you are half as likely to die of an accident than a male, and your risk of being murdered is something like 60% lower than if they were male. What is perhaps more surprising is just how much better women have it on other issues. They die less because of just about every single cause. The only exceptions I could find on the list were Pregnancy, Alzheimer's, breast cancer, and cancer for body parts males don't typically have. I guess they really do earn those extra 7 years.

Another interesting thing to note is the gap between deaths from drinking, and smoking. Smoking leads to lung cancer, as well as heart disease, various respiratory diseases, several other types of cancer such as bladder cancer and esophageal cancer. The vast majority of lung cancers however are from smoking so lets just look at that. The death rate is 52.7 averaged over all races and sexes. Now compare that to the drinking numbers. Alcoholic Liver Disease is pretty clearly the result of alcohol, that has a death rate of 4.2. Now, alcohol and cancer is a much more sticky subject than tobacco and cancer so estimating the percentage of deaths from alcohol is a real pain. However lets just go out on a limb and say all cancer of the esophagus(4.4) as well as of the lip oral cavity and pharynx(2.5) are the result of alcohol(in reality both of these can be caused by smoking too). There may be a minor component to other types of cancer, but it is so heavily argued that it clearly isn't all that big a component. Of course alcohol also leads to murders and accidents. This sounds worse than it actually is, even if as many as 80% of accidents(39.1) and murders(10.5) are the result of alcohol the death rate of alcohol is lower than that by lung cancer alone. Add in other causes of death related to smoking such as whatever percentage of cardiovascular disease it causes, chronic lower respiratory disease(42.3), bladder cancer(4.3) and emphysema(4.3) and it is pretty clear that smoking has the far greater death rate.

Raising IQ

I rather liked the Kristof article in the New York Times. It does a particularly good job of pointing out how malleable IQ scores really are:

One gauge of that is that when poor children are adopted into upper-middle-class households, their I.Q.’s rise by 12 to 18 points, depending on the study.
...Another indication of malleability is that I.Q. has risen sharply over time. Indeed, the average I.Q. of a person in 1917 would amount to only 73 on today’s I.Q. test. Half the population of 1917 would be considered mentally retarded by today’s measurements, Professor Nisbett says.

...Good schooling correlates particularly closely to higher I.Q.’s. One indication of the importance of school is that children’s I.Q.’s drop or stagnate over the summer months when they are on vacation (particularly for kids whose parents don’t inflict books or summer programs on them).

of course he also points out the genetic component when mentioning:

Identical twins raised apart, for example, have I.Q.’s that are remarkably similar. They are even closer on average than those of fraternal twins who grow up together.
but he does a pretty good job of ignoring it. Which is probably reasonable in all but the smartest and dumbest people. Even in the smartest people, IQ doesn't correlate so strongly with success that it really matters. As Malcom Gladwell points out above a certain cut-off you are smart enough to do anything. At worst the few point IQ difference will require you to practice a little more. This is why Terman's mass testing of IQ in the first half of the twentieth century failed to identify any great thinkers in advance, but ruled out two future Nobel prize winners(William Shockley and Luis Alvarez) as not being geniuses.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Ugh, more interviews

Well, it was my understanding they were supposed to have already made the decision on the position last week. However I got an email today telling me that they want me to come back Friday for a Second Interview.

I don't exactly know how to interpret it. Either they have essentially made the decision and this is going to be really easy where they tell me I am hired almost as soon as I walk in the door, or they just had too many candidates to choose from and they are looking for reasons to cut back on the number of people they are hiring. I suppose either way I am getting closer to getting a real position and have a high probability of getting the job, but I really don't want the suspense to last any longer than it has.

Friday, April 10, 2009

I am on BusinessWeek's Page

Well, it was hardly my finest writing, me rambling about how silly an article about the job market was, but a picture and comment is on the Businessweek.com page right now and will be until morning. It also got added to this blog on their site. That may well be about as famous as I will ever be.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Power Grid

As I am sitting patiently waiting for final word on an electrical engineering job from Southern California Edison I may as well link this article talking about what bad shape the electrical grid is in. It really does seem like a good time to get involved with the subject as it is one of our bigger energy issues in America, yet does not attract the number of interested people that say Solar power does.

They invited me down to Rosemead twice, and the person doing the hiring has done nothing but tell me how amazing I am and how I am almost certain to get the position. But they are making final decisions this week and sending out a letters with the offers. I should hear by the end of tomorrow, Monday or Tuesday at the worst. Until I get something in writing I will be freaking out a little bit though. Everyone I have talked to seems to have a story about a job they were sure they got based on what the people at the company told them, but that ultimately turned them down. As long as he isn't an amazing liar, or they lose funding for the position, I imagine I will have it though.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Portugal Drug Decriminalization

Scientific American had an interesting article on Portugal's experience with drug decriminalization. They had an interesting strategy to the whole thing which seems like a conservative enough one that it might be possible to replicate in the United States. The main premise is stop putting users in jail, but keep the penalties for dealing the same. Users who are caught go in front of a panel that has three options: mandate drug treatment, give a fine, or no penalty. This system seemed to have really good results for them dramatically reducing deaths from both HIV, and drug overdoses.

I see drug dealers as the moral equivalent of liquor store salesmen. Poor guys just trying to make a few bucks who neither make the drugs nor force the drugs upon people. So I am inclined to do something more radical than Portugal, but I can see the political reality. The Portugal model if pushed hard enough just might be viable in the short term here in America. There is even a chance this system would work better than the one I would want. After all it leaves drugs difficult to get while making treatment and clean needles easy to get. That may be the best compromise.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

This is a rather interesting talk. I don't entirely agree with some of the premises but she does a really good job at making her point. I am glad that Obama put her in an important position in fixing the financial problems we have.

skip to about 4:50 into the talk.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Single Digits

I don't think I heard anyone in the media mention this, but last month was the fewest American Soldiers killed in Iraq since the beginning of the war. Down from a high of 137 deaths in Nov 2004, the number lost in March dropped to 9. The first time since the invasion that number was in single digits. We haven't had more than twenty deaths in a month since September so this isn't just a particularly good month. It is becoming more and more safe to say that the war in Iraq is over, and we won.

So much for all the Vietnam Analogies, we lost about 55 000 troops there and about 4500 in Iraq. Iraq never got even close to as bad as Vietnam

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Stress and Education

I ran into this article in the Economist today. It seems like it could have interesting implications if the concept holds up to further scrutiny. Essentially they are arguing that stress levels decide how intelligent children turn out to be:

That stress, and stress alone, is responsible for damaging the working memories of poor children thus looks like a strong hypothesis. It is also backed up by work done on both people and laboratory animals, which shows that stress changes the activity of neurotransmitters, the chemicals that carry signals from one nerve cell to another in the brain. Stress also suppresses the generation of new nerve cells in the brain, and causes the “remodelling” of existing ones. Most significantly of all, it shrinks the volume of the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. These are the parts of the brain most closely associated with working memory.

If true that seems like it may have huge implications for the education profession. If the most important thing that can be done for young children is keeping them in a low stress environment could all that testing actually be causing more problems? I of course would want to see some study on this subject before making any conclusions as the home environment may be the much more stressful place but it could be an interesting line of research.

Buying everything new

At some point in the next year(hopefully sooner rather than later) I will have to buy almost everything new. I have a decent set of silverware, clothes, a car, a computer, and some random hobby gear but that is about it. This means I will have to start buying furniture and kitchen equipment in large amounts over the next year. I also am likely to stay in the same general part of the country for some time meaning that I will likely be able to keep most things I own whenever I move.

Now, my first priority is cheapness. I don't believe in wasting money on stuff like this when I can go spend it on silly hobbies. This however is a complicated question to figure out. Sometimes when you buy the more expensive item you are paying for style, and the total cost will simply be higher if you buy expensive stuff(most cars and clothes are this way). Sometimes however when you buy cheap items it is because they are poorly made and will break. Buying an expensive item that lasts 50 years is cheaper than buying a cheap item every year for that same time period. So I have been reading up on the subject trying to figure out what is actually worth blowing money on.

The real point of that rambling was to pass along this article. I never really understood the physics of why you would want to buy one kind of pan or another. This article does a really good job of explaining why some pans are good and some poor though.

The Banker Who Should be Getting Bailout Money

One of the most annoying aspects of the bailout is that it is giving money to the worst offenders. There were a great many banks that were quite responsible throughout the boom, are not in debt, and in some cases are even using the crash as a time to dramatically expand. If we gave the bailout money to these responsible bankers, and let the less responsible financial entities go bankrupt, they could buy up assets of failing companies putting them in the hands of people who are quite a bit more trustworthy. Instead those few responsible banks are finding that they are eligible for next to nothing, and the irresponsible banks are getting propped up despite their failure.

Here is a great article on one such banker, who pretty much completely stopped making loans for four years when it was obvious the market was irrational, and is now stocking up at assets that are now priced at reasonable levels.