Friday, October 30, 2009

Credit Card Fees

One of the silliest arguments against credit card reform(or for that matter reform in many related areas) is that if we ban practices such as charging huge fees for over-withdrawing a bank account or late fees for credit card payments these companies will have to charge everyone a yearly fee for the card or bank account. This is said as if it is some horrible thing that must be avoided.

This is exactly what we want though! Companies should be forced to charge customers based on the cost of doing business, not their ability to jump through silly hoops. If a company is making half its income off of silly fees, it is impossible for a potential customer to evaluate whether or not a product is worth buying. They only find the true cost after getting slapped by unexpected fees. This makes comparison shopping impossible, and interactions with the companies maddening. Far better are transparent interactions where a company says "I will sell you this, and it will cost you this"

Cars are great

One thing environmentalists do that always bugs me is ignore just how great cars really are. The reason people drive them isn't that they want to pollute, its that they really are the best technology for medium distance transportation. I can Get in my car at any time, and drive any distance from a few feet, to three or four thousand miles. I don't have to work around anyone else's schedule, if I want to drive somewhere at 3am there are no issues, and I can get damn near anywhere. If the trip is less than 500 miles, it is probably the cheapest and fastest way to travel too.

I don't know what will replace cars. But I can predict that cars will remain with us until all of those features are matched by another technology, or the cost is so much lower that people give up cars. I for one will almost always use either the fastest, or the cheapest way from my front door, to the front door of where I want to be. The only times this has not been a car have been when Parking is severely restricted as in New York City, or Cornell or when the distance is so long that flying becomes the faster option.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Over 400 planets

The rate scientists have been finding planets is really quite remarkable. Right now we are at over 400 planets discovered, and that is without good enough technology to even see planets the size of most in our solar system.

Turtle Farms

One of my more odd encounters at the Hawaiian supermarket in Alhambra was live turtles in the seafood section. Both some big flat-shelled ones, and some smaller more normal looking ones were present.

This got me thinking. Where did the turtles come from? Turtles have had a really bad past few years, particularly in Asia where many species have been eaten to the edge of extinction.

Well maybe these Turtles came from the wild. Recently Florida closed its waters to turtle fishing along with nearby states though. Just too many were being shipped to Asia. The trade of turtles to Asia has not completely ended however. 

A more likely source though was a turtle farm. Surprisingly I had never heard of them but there are huge turtle farms popping up around the world. They have even produced a few Billionaires in Asia. I guess they are fairly cheap to feed and can be grown at moderate densities. It sounds like they have had trouble reducing pressure on wild stocks though, largely because there is a lot of demand for rare turtles as breeding stock.
Supermarkets in East LA may be the most racially segregated places I have ever been. Within about twenty minutes of my apartment it is possible for me to be the only White person in a store full of  Chinese/Japanese/Vietnamese(Rosemead or Alhambra), a store full of Hispanics(Pico Rivera), a store full of Indians(Artesia), or a store full of Black people(I haven't yet tested this, but Compton isn't far so they must exist).

You can get some pretty amazing stuff in East LA though. In my last few weeks of searching I have encountered: Venison, Quail, Partridge, Pheasant, Squab, Wild Boar, Armadillo, Ribbon fish, live and frozen Abalone, Live Prawns/Shrimp, Live Snails and Conch,  live Turtles, live Lingcod, Betel leaves, fresh Durian, fresh Jackfruit, along with dozens of other fruit vegetables and fish I had never seen. 


Drinks like Snapple really don't make sense to me. They have as much sugar as sodas, so clearly aren't healthy, but don't taste as good as sodas. What is the point? 

Ponds with Windows

Ponds with windows are really cool. If I ever build a pond I would have to install one.
I am always amazed how much of human behavior is driven by our tendency to declair ourselves part of a group, then declair that group to be better than all other groups. Everything from our obsession with sports, to politics, to religion seems to be driven at least in partby this.

There are two routes this information makes me consider. One is the stubborn refusal to be part of more groups than absolutely necessary. This would go a long ways to promote independant thinking. A Republican feels quite a bit of pressure to cave to the party line, as does a Paegan, or a Knicks fan. Being totally independant would force me to evaluate ideas based on their merit rather than group loyalty. This idea in its extreme is impractical as I am still a citizen of a country, and employee of some organization. But it is easier to mark independant on a ballot or not declare loyalty to a religous group.

The other route is the opposite extreme. Become a member of as many groups as possible. Even perhaps to a life of Pi extreme (at one point in that book the main character was going to Christian, Muslim, and Hindu religious services). This way of living life has a huge social benefit. Because people think people who are a part of the same group as them are actually better people, it is an easy way to be liked and build connections that could be of future benefit.   

Monday, October 12, 2009

Roman Polanski

I have no idea who Roman Polanski is, or why the media cares so much about him being arrested.

I am rather surprised by the treatment this whole thing is getting though. Usually I am very libertarian on the subject of under age sex. I don't see how a thirty year old having sex with a fifteen year old is any worse than two fifteen year olds going at it. At least the thirty year old has a chance of being able to support any kids produced. I just don't see how the consentual actions of post-puberty individuals are any of the government's business.

Usually this opinion puts me out on the political fringe. In this case though a thirteen year old was drugged, and pretty clearly wasn't willingly going along with the sex. In my book this is a good reason for him to be spending a long time in jail. I don't even see how this case falls into the grey area of maybe he deserves a second chance. Who cares if he did whatever it was that made him famous? Lock him up and demonstrate no one is above the law.

11 Prizes

The Economics Nobel Prize was given out. It went to two Americans. By my count Americans earned 11 of the 13 prizes given out this year. So much for the death of America. We might have a general population who supports a larger alternative medicine section in Boarders than a medicine section, and who are absolutely convinced the relative position of the planets and the stars have a special deep significance that applies to only them; but they somehow manage to co-exist with the best scientists in the world.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

One of the most interesting lines of scientific research in recent years has been Calorie restriction and its effect on aging. The New York Times Magazine has an interesting article about clinical studies on the subject this week.

Of particular interest is how they got people to endure a diet consisting of 25% less calories than they typically ate:

Most of the recipes seem to steer participants toward foods that are nutrient-rich but low in calories, or what dieticians refer to as “low in energy density.” A number of recent experiments — notably by Barbara Rolls at Penn State — demonstrated that humans tend to eat a consistent weight of food from day to day, but not necessarily a consistent number of calories. For the Calerie study, this has proved a useful tool in the defense against hunger. By building a diet around foods with a low-energy density, especially vegetables, fruits and soups, participants can conceivably ingest the same weight of food as they might on a regular diet while taking in fewer calories... Roberts said she didn’t think anyone would be successful by reducing portion size. “If you don’t change your diet to a high-satiety diet, you will be hungry, and you will fail,” she told me. A high-satiety diet, she said, was bound to be a healthful diet with a lot of vegetables, fruits and insoluble fiber — the kind found in some breakfast cereals, like Fiber One — that her research indicates has a unique effect in helping calorie-restriction subjects feel fuller, probably because they activate certain receptors in the lower intestine. Roberts added, “If people are doing this on their own and succeeding, well, I’d be surprised if they’re eating a lot of Hostess Twinkies.”

i didn't really believe this technique for a long time, but Jamie sounds like she lost a ton of weight on this Diet, and if these people are losing thirty plus pounds on it than there must be something to it.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Boosting home prices

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced home prices have a long ways to fall. They are just not low enough yet. Prices are currently 41% higher than they were in 2000. At the same time income has not increased at all and unemployment has doubled. Where are people going to get the extra money to afford that? Spend less on energy than 2000? Health Care? Education? This seems way less likely than a continued drop in home prices.

It is true prices have stagnated recently but this is just the government wasting tax payer money. Without the 8,000 dollars for first time buyers, or the FHA insuring low down payment loans, prices would still be falling. Even all this effort hasn't completely stopped the decline, and the best they can really hope for until inflation eats up the last 40%. More likely is a 3-10 year period of slowly declining prices. The larger part of the decline is over though so nothing so dramatic as the past two years can be expected.

One depressing thing is how poorly the people in power seem to understand the problem. Prices will fall. People simply cannot afford these homes. Therefore any government involvement should center around keeping as many people in their homes as possible while bringing prices to reasonable levels as quickly as possible. Instead they seem to be trying to find more suckers willing to over-pay and prop up prices. Inevitably many, if not most, of these people will find they cannot afford the home and go into foreclosure. Resulting in the same declining prices they tried to avoid.

Rape gets rarer

I have made a big deal about the decrease in the number of murders over the past decade. This has been impressive, but I have mostly ignored other crimes. The drop in the number of rapes is even more impressive, they just hit a twenty year low, and the rate is probably the lowest in history.

Relative to Murder it has been getting easier and easier to convict rapists before they strike again. DNA evidence has made convictions possible when it just wouldn't have been possible in the past.

It should also be noted that pornography did not lead to the often predicted spike in sex crimes. If anything would be rapists have chosen to stay home and watch porn instead.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Big Homes

The low end of housing in CA is rapidly getting into line. Median household income in LA is about $54 000 a year. The median home price this past month was 329 000. Still a bit over six times median income, but LA has nice weather and beaches. Prices relative to income will always be a bit high. This number may drop a bit, but since it is coming down from a high of over a half million a year it has probably already done the majority of its dropping. Even if prices stop at 200k, which is quite plausible as the median was 210 000 a decade ago, more of the drop is behind than ahead.

One problem though. The high end of the market still isn't selling. There are way more million dollar homes than there are families with incomes to really be able to afford them. So the high end of the market is just sitting waiting for buyers that simply don't exist. Watching this issue resolve itself should be quite exciting for me. Homes slowly coming closer and closer to what I can afford.

I think the best hope I have in this market is to do things old school. Buy a typical starter home, three bedroom two bath rather far inland something in the $250 000-300 000 range using a 20% down payment and a 20 year mortgage. The sort of home everyone owned in 1950. Then do everything I can to pay off the mortgage as quickly as possible. I would imagine that I could do so in a decade if I have a working wife, and still in twenty if I was using just my salary. As soon as the place is payed off, sell it and upgrade to something about $200 000 more expensive. Repeat as necessary.

I like this plan because in the long run it results in far less interest payments. It is just too easy to get in over your head in mortgage payments. If you never get too large of one than that is a ton of money you are not paying interest on. In the long term that ends up putting me in a much nicer home, I just got to sit through a few decades of low end ones... Still a great step up from a studio apartment though.

Jaguar Article

I saw a rather unusual article about a Jaguar on the New York Times. Not the cat, the car. Anyways, they were talking about a guy who has driven his 1968 E type for 38 years keeping it in reasonable condition.

The part that caught my attention most was the mileage. A whopping... Drum roll please... 185 000 miles!

Wow, if I could keep my car running that long it would put this car to shame. My car is 32 years newer, with 45 000 more miles on it... Now if I could just dig myself out of debt and make my car look as nice as his does. Or for that matter get my car to run six months without needing a major repair.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Lobster Diving

Underwater hunting scares me. I suspect I will be ultra-conservative about it in the future. Here is an example of why.

Census data.

The Census releases all sorts of interesting numbers. While poking around it, I found this graph that I thought particularly interesting:

(clicking on it makes it bigger)

The degree that the increase in family income over the past few decades has been from women working more is really quite impressive. Male income has really been stagnant. Although since you can get a lot now that you previously couldn't get at any price it isn't all that bad in any absolute sense for men.

We made it?

For some time I have been predicting that 2000 prices were where home prices would settle. I just ran into this quote:

"In America the Case-Shiller index of national prices is back to where it was in the fourth quarter of 2000. And, despite the falls, the ratio of average prices to average incomes, a measure of the affordability of housing, is still nearly 20% above where it was in 2000, a few years into the house-price boom."
The Economist

I guess I hadn't been paying close enough attention to Case-Shiller index, so I went and downloaded the numbers. The current Case-Shiller numbers there are listed as 144.23. This is what home prices were in 2003, in December 2000 the index was at 111.58, it wasn't until August 2003 the index hit 144. So I feel the economist is a bit confused.

Maybe the Economist is including inflation and Case-Shiller isn't? So far as I can tell that isn't what is happening, but the economist usually doesn't make big mistakes like that.

Worst decade ever

the S.& P. 500 is on track for its worst decade ever. I still think this is a sign that this is a great time for me to invest in stocks! Typically when demand for stocks is low returns are high, and when demand is high returns are low. People are definitely afraid enough of stocks right now for demand to be low(then again I thought the same thing a year and a half ago, so my crystal ball is pretty muddy).

What this did do, is convince me that stocks should never be invested in for less than twenty years. There is a risk of their value falling over this time scale, so other investments like bonds make the most sense.

Speaking of bonds, I am becoming more and more convinced of two things: Most investors buy too few of them when investing in retirement, and now is a horrible time to buy bonds. The first I am convinced of from watching how much worse investors with primarily stocks did in the last two years. The rule that bond % should match age in retirement savings makes a lot of sense to me. You want to trap gains made in stocks over the long-run into bonds. The second makes sense for the same reason that I think stocks are a good bet. Demand for bonds is really high. This is pushing returns for bonds down, right when there is a nice rally in the stock market.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Science vs Psychologists

I have long noticed a disconnect in psychology. There seems to be a combination of some really clever scientists with very interesting experiments, and some absolute nuts with one of a few dozen whacko ideas that simply aren't supported by evidence.

Anyways, ill pass on an article arguing that point.

I am fairly convinced that science education needs to spend a whole lot less time teaching facts, and a whole lot more time teaching philosophy. For example too few people understand what a double blinded experiment is, or why it is so necessary. People can delude themselves into believing just about anything if they don't understand how easily we are fooled. Even highly trained scientists have fallen into believing into incorrect things such as N Rays when they have not used such rigor.

Tricking little kids

I ran into the following quote in a fairly interesting article in the NY times.

Bodrova and Leong drew on research conducted by some of Vygotsky’s followers that showed that children acting out a dramatic scene can control their impulses much better than they can in nonplay situations. In one experiment, 4-year-old children were first asked to stand still for as long as they could. They typically did not make it past a minute. But when the kids played a make-believe game in which they were guards at a factory, they were able to stand at attention for more than four minutes. In another experiment, prekindergarten-age children were asked to memorize a list of unrelated words. Then they played “grocery store” and were asked to memorize a similar list of words — this time, though, as a shopping list. In the play situation, on average, the children were able to remember twice as many words.
That seems an awful good thing to know. Now to figure out how to make up lots of games that involve being quiet.

Humpback Whales

Humpback Whales might leave the endangered species list. The current population is up to around 20 000 up from about 1400 in 1960.

This shows a pretty common trend in modern times, which explains why many environmental trends won't be as bad as we expect. First we hunt something almost to extinction, not realizing that there is even a real chance of us doing so. Then we realize what we have done, make reasonable laws, than the species comes bounding back. Just off the top of my head I can think of a whole bunch of examples of this: White Tail Deer, Elephant Seals, American Bison, Wild Turkeys, American Alligators, Mountain Lions, Grey Whales, Wolves in Yellowstone. All were brought to low numbers, many almost brought to extinction and now are quite common. Of course we always take the risk of creating another passenger pigeon when we do this. But a lot more species will bounce back than is generally acknowledged.