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.

Americans wait longer for health care.

One thing I keep hearing in this debate is talk about the horrible wait times in single payer healthcare systems... When I tried to get my first doctors appointment the other week, the soonest they would take me was two weeks! Now, if I had anything urgent than I am sure it would be quicker, but it sure seems like a long time to wait.

Turns out that is not unusual. The United States ranks among the worst in the world in wait times to see a doctor. The only area we do a lot better is elective surgeries. This is why Republicans always use hip replacements as their example of something that takes a lot longer to get in Canada. They prefer to ignore that we wait a lot longer than people in most countries for primary care.


I commonly wander around my neighborhood looking for somewhere interesting to go. I have wandered across a few reasonably interesting places, most notably a ridiculously nice restaurant that really is quite hidden...

However one of the places right across the street from me just got listed at the end of a New York Times article as one of the best places to go listen to live Narcocorrido music. Apparently I shall have to stop by the El Rodeo. I have walked past it many times when looking for food but never stopped to see if it was interesting. I guess I shall have to try sometime when it doesn't look deserted. Although given the subject matter of the music, and my dancing abilities it probably won't be a regular hang out spot.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Death from natural causes

I am often in a conversation with someone about some medicine, dietary supplement, or food additive when they make some point like "its not chemical, its all natural, it's from a plant so it can't be bad for you!" At this point a little bit of me dies and I get the urge to go track down their high school biology or chemistry teacher and demand they do a better job.

Plants have had several billions of years experience with chemical warfare. Under most circumstances they really don't want to be eaten so they have developed some of the nastiest poisons known to man to protect themselves. A great example is the hemlock that killed Socrates. Others include Ricin, which you will likely hear about in connection to terrorism and Nicotine. Tobacco kills more people than any other plant I know of... Really, we all know this. Very few of us go out in fields and eat random plants, even I usually know what I am eating when I do because it is really dangerous. Extract any chemical out of one of these random potentially deadly plants and put it in a bottle. Suddenly legions of people will buy into its safety with no further thought.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Skills verses Information.

I played Rock Band the other night. Despite having not played in many months it was nowhere near as painful as the first time I played. In fact it was hard to tell from my playing that I ever took a break at all...

This is hardly a new observation, anyone who has tried to ride a bike after a break of a decade or longer has seen much the same thing. It seems reasonable to me that skills do not degenerate at anywhere near the rate of knowledge. I realized long ago that I seem to be forgetting knowledge at nearly the rate I am learning it. This was easiest to see in my colege bowl scores. Despite learning a great deal in undergrad, my scores in trivia competitions were about the same every year. I forgot my history nearly as fast as I was learning science.

If this is the case it seems that I should be trying as hard as I can to learn new skills rather than new information. Getting better at things like computer programming, drawing, math, public speaking, and so on seems like one of the best uses of my time.

Competing With Peers

I just saw a Bob Herbert article about unemployment rates:

Only 65 of every 100 men aged 20 through 24 years old were working on any given day in the first six months of this year. In the age group 25 through 34 years old, traditionally a prime age range for getting married and starting a family, just 81 of 100 men were employed.

It really does amaze me how much of my competition in dating is really not putting up a fight. College graduation rates are rapidly approaching a 60:40 female to male ratio. A fifth of my age group is unemployed, stuck in endless education, in prison or has given up looking for work. It really does make sense why the girls I date never seem lacking in stories about how pathetic some of their ex boyfriends are.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Malcolm Gladwell is among my favorite writers. So I may as well pass along this new article of his about overconfidence.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Our criminal justice system has gotten way out of line. It needs to face up to the fact that its primary goal should be turning unproductive members of society into productive ones. Sure there are a few people too dangerous to rehabilitate, but these people are serving life sentences. If we release them we want them to rebuild their lives and be productive. When people have stable lives they are far less likely to comit crimes so everyone comes out safer when we do this.

From this perspective the sex offender policies are insane. How are people expected to rebuild their lives with that hanging over their heads? What is worse, most people on those lists were nonviolent. Common fairly harmless crimes like streaking or statutory rape get you lumped with someone who raped and murdered a six year old. I guarantee your neighbors will assume the later, not the former when they see your name on the list though.

Anyways, the Economist has a great article on this subject.

Decline of War

Slate's article about how we live in the most peaceful time in twelve thousand years says nothing I didn't know. Still I am always excited to see articles that agree with me.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Slaves verses Nukes

The amount of power a person is capable of producing can be easily calculated. Assume a 2000 Calorie diet, convert to Joules then divide by the number of seconds in a day:

[(2000 Calories)*(1000 calories/Calorie)*(4.19Joules/calorie)]/[(24 hours/day)*(60 minutes/hour)*(60 seconds/minute)]= 96W

So round up to 100W to make the math easy.

Now there were about four million slaves in America at the time of the Civil War. A reasonable approximation of the most work those slaves could do is four million times 100W or 4 x 10^8W or 400MW

The San Onofre Nuclear Power Plant that Southern California Edison owns is capable of generating 2150MW(2 reactors). So this Single power plant does more than five times the work all the slaves in the south did! Since slaves can't work nearly the hours of nuclear reactors, many of those slaves were too old or young to work, and are notoriously lazy the gap is actually much bigger. No wonder just about the only slaves remaining are sex slaves, it is a whole not cheaper to build a nuclear power plant than feed and house twenty million slaves. Sex is about the only thing a slave can provide for less cost.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Mobile Phone Sites

Mobile versions of webpages are right up there with call centers staffed by people with poor English, excel automatically changing what I typed in because it thinks its a date, spell checkers automatically making a correctly spelled word incorrect, things not being where I put them and parrots in my list of most annoying things...

Iphones are quite capable of handling any website, but many major sites assume that on a mobile phone what we must want is a version of the website with big buttons but an eighth the information. They then forward me to this useless hell hole every time I visit. The only site smart enough to let me turn off this "feature" is wikipedia. Every single time I go to some sites they waste my time loading a scaled down version of the page that is useless, and make me find the hidden link that will turn it off... The only site other than wikipedia I have seen be rational is the San Francisco Gate. They make me click to enter the mobile site, not click to leave it. That way if there is someone who prefers a webpage with half the utility they can have it, while the rest of us don't have to waste our time. Best though are sites like the New York Times that treat phone users the same as PC users.


I have become increasingly convinced that obsessiveness is more important to success than IQ. I know many brilliant people who don't get much done, and less smart people who get a great deal done. The difference really does seem to be obsessiveness. Anyways there is a great article in the boston globe on the subject.

This explains many things: How can low IQ Austic people master such difficult skills? Why are adopted children closer to their adoptive parents in most measures of success(say college graduation), when they are closer to their birth parents in both IQ and personality? Why did I barely understand anything in Algebra or Geometry but go on to get an A in calculus and get a perfect score on the GRE math section? Whenever I have decided I am smart I inevitably go into decline. I can keep up with almost anyone but only if I am working as hard or harder than them.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Canadian Rolemodels

While it is an admittedly small sample size I have never met anyone who had spent significant time in both the U.S. And Canada who didn't greatly prefer the Canadian system. At this point we spend nearly twice as much as them and by almost any measure of patient well-being they beat us.

The LA times has a great article pointing this out.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Not quite bottom

I am getting pretty close to calling bottom in the housing market. It has really fallen a spectacular amount. There are a few facts still making me think it may go a bit longer though:

Default rates on mortgages in California are 9.5%. That number is huge! One in ten home owners can't afford, or refuses, to pay for their home. A recent historical figure is 60% of defaults go to foreclosure. That means it is reasonable to think that within the next couple years 6% of California homes will be sold as foreclosures. I can't imagine any sort of rebound under those circumstances.

Next, I am predicting the end of the bubble to be the inflation adjusted start of the bubble. Actually the trough before this bubble was in 1997 and home prices may have been legitimately too low at that point. So I have maintained that 2000 price levels are where the crash stops. There is no philosophical reason commodities beat inflation in the long run unless their supply is limited. Housing is no exception.

Looking at Case-Shiller(click on the graph if it is unclear), which follows individual homes as they are bought and sold and is therefore immune to the phenomenon that average home prices are being brought down because expensive homes just aren't selling at all, it is pretty clear we have a ways to go in the drop. We went from 225-150, and will likely settle at 100(I am not sure it is inflation adjusted, if not something like 125 may be bottom). Either way we are more than half way to the bottom.

Another way to see we are closer to the bottom than the top is the case shiller graph in percentages. The most rapid percent drop in prices is probably that peak a few months behind us. If my prediction is correct the area below the curve will equal the area above the curve from 2000-2006. That much of a fall would actually leave a surprising amount of gain since 1997 since during those years home prices were increasing by 4-10% a year. This means a worst case scenario would probably go farther than my prediction and meet 1997 prices.