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?