Thursday, December 29, 2011

When will solar pay for the grid?

Right now whenever someone connects a rooftop solar installation in most of the country they get to sell electricity back to the grid at retail price. This means that if you send as much energy into the grid as you take out than you pay nothing for electricity.

There is just one problem with this though. The utility pays something. The utility still must pay for all of the wires which connect to your home, all of the power plants which will run on cloudy days and so on. The value of the solar they get from the rooftop does not nearly equal these expenses. So utilities lose big when people install solar. While solar is rare this doesn't matter. The utility has guaranteed profit from the state and can just raise rates on everyone else to subsidize these people.

At some point someone will cry foul though. The relatively rich people who can install solar cells are making the rest of the people pay for their electrical infrastructure. I am starting to see signs that this will happen soon. San Diego Gas and Electric is trying to change that in California right now. If they fail, than a few years from now it is almost certain to happen.

Articles on Saving

I have seen some good arguments on investing recently.

Best is probably the article Normal People Shouldn't Need to Invest. This makes a lot of sense to me. Individual investors dramatically under perform relative to the markets even when markets do well. In times like the past decade, they get slaughtered as they buy high sell low again and again. Unfortunately with the skewed age distribution we are likely to face in the near future there just won't be enough young people to support all of those who want to retire unless productivity gains are enormous. This is true whether we use a massive social security system or try to make everyone invest money while young. So I don't know that any system whether it involved investment or not will be able to live up to expectations.

Then there is a usual rant about why you should save a whole lot more than you do. Followed by a particularly good description of what to do with your savings. I am not sure how well I have done at this, but I imagine that I have at least close to a 20% savings rate so I haven't missed the mark by so much.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

TED talk on aging

Aging research certainly makes the top ten list of most interesting science out there. Good to see that it is moving along:

Midlife Crisis Economics

I rather like the New York Times article Midlife Crisis Economics. It really does seem to me that the problem with government today is that it does too much which either helps no one, or helps some particular special interest who does not deserve tax payer money. Whether reformers can get the entrenched government agencies to improve I am less than convinced of though.

New Computer

After three or four months of no computer I finally have one again. Perhaps I will actually use this again.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Why I still like Ron Paul

This is a pretty good article which sums up why I still like Ron Paul. He has a lot of crazy ideas like the gold standard, but despite this most of his party has much crazier ideas like the war on drugs and war on terror.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Why I can't vote Republican

This is a great example of why I can't vote Republican. With the exception of a few outliers such as Gary Johnson, Rand and Ron Paul the party has become the party of government control over the lives of Americans. Sure the democrats want to spend more, but most of their spending is fluff which won't really hurt me.

I might register as a Republican just to vote for Ron Paul. I only agree with him on about half of topics, but I think that the mainstream Republicans really need a message sent to them. Being the police state party while shouting about freedom will not fly.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Labor force participation rate

A particularly striking graph showing the change in our country in the past fifty years is the percentage of males and females who are employed: There really is room to grow the economy a lot if we can just find work for that twenty percent of men who stopped working.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Unemployment by major.

I found an interesting page giving unemployment rate by major. Some are surprising, but for the most part it is what you would expect.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Rental Market

I have been looking for a new apartment. It really is striking how different things are than they were two years ago when I got my last one. At that time the apartments clearly were having to try hard to stay afloat. Now they all seem nearly filled up. Many large buildings we stopped at were in fact completely full.

This should drive construction soon. While few people want to buy a home these days they clearly still have interest in apartments. The slow climb out of our recession is underway.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Stray Voltage

While this isn't exactly what I work on, this article is about one of the problems which can develop when substation grounding goes wrong. Rarely do I find it makes the news.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Prison costs

I have known for quite some time that the war on drugs has been killing education. It is just too expensive to lock people in cages. In California prison guards make similar salaries to professors. I doubt prisons cost less than colleges to construct and unlike college time in prison makes it almost impossible for people to find jobs. So the long term economic damage is greater than the cost of locking prisoners away.

This article has some great statistics on this subject. For example, California spends seven times as much per year locking up someone than it would spend putting that same person through college.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

I fixed Forbes!

On October 2nd after many months of being really annoyed with's mobile version I sent them the following letter under the title "please fix your mobile site"

Your mobile site is completely inadequate and needs a major revamp. Please fix the following bugs:

It is impossible to send someone a link to a story on the mobile site. If you copy the url at the top of the page it sends the reciepient to the main forbes mobile page.

The back button does not work. On every other website in the world I hit the same button on my iphone to go back. On your site I must scroll to the top and hit your special button. This is annoying, let me use the normal back button.

Often I can only read the first page of an article. Then at the bottom there are words for pages 2,3, and so on. However these are just words, not hyperlinks. So there is no way to get to page 2.

There is no way to read user comments nor add my own comments on the mobile site. This feature needs added.

I am automatically redirected to the mobile site and there is no way to return to the full site. If you had a decent mobile site I would not need this feature, but the fact of the matter is the full site is less buggy than the mobile site. Let me access it without having to resort to a google cache!

Then today I went to and for the first time in at least a year wasn't redirected to the mobile site! Coincidence? Maybe. As I made quite clear their mobile site was among the worst in the industry, someone else must have noticed. Still, I prefer to think my letter saved Forbes.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Kelvin Water Dropper video

It was easier to upload a video of my Kelvin Water Dropper than it was to get a picture on here. I haven't watched the videos off of by phone so I am unsure if formatting worked.

Another Video

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Kelvin Water Dropper

I managed to build a fairly impressive Kelvin Water Dropper. It throws approximately 1cm sparks which I would guess means that it is producing 10-20kV.

The materials were dead simple: Two large pans, two fruit cans with the top and bottom removed, six baby food jars, scotch tape, two straws, two alligator clips and a milk jug.

I was hoping to upload a picture but my computer has died and my phone is refusing to upload. It follows the typical design though, the baby food jars insulate the two big pans. The fruit cans are held in place/insulated with scotch tape. When you pour water in the milk jug it pours out two straws. Then it falls through the fruit cans which are positioned right where the stream of water separates into drops. Finally it lands in one of the large pans. I position the pans so that they are close enough for a spark to go between them.

I found that it only works perfectly about half the time. The rest of the time it just won't spark. This can be solved by rubbing a pvc pipe with a sweater. Then I hold the pipe up to one of the cans right after starting it. Every time I have done this it has worked perfectly.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

2 parts in 100000

At first glance it sounded exciting. Neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light.

Then I started to read the commentary. The speed of light is: 299,792,458 meters per second; the speed the neutrinos were measured at is 299,798,454 meters per second. A velocity difference of about 2 parts in 100,000. Since they did 10,000 tests this might show some minor correction to relativity. More likely they measured a distance incorrectly.

A much better comparison came from detecting the light and neutrinos from a super nova. Sure enough when this has happened the light and neutrinos arived at the same time.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

More vetoes

And Jerry Brown earns more points by vetoing a bill restricting medical marijuana while signing a bill removing the ban on infused alcohol drinks and making internet shipments of wine easier to make. There is still hope that the long descent of the Democratic party into the nanny state party will recede.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Real time electricity use in California

I recently found out that you can get graphs for daily electricity use, wind production, and solar production in the state of California.

This doesn't have much real value for me, but watching it the last two days it became pretty clear that wind power has some issues. It is hardly producing at all when electricity use is at its highest in the afternoon. Unless we get some storage system capable of holding electricity at night then releasing it in the day time that could seriously impede the use of wind power. Instead of competing with high cost natural gas, it is competing with low cost nuclear.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Zoning laws

I have become increasingly against zoning laws. In particular, I am against any regulation which puts a maximum on the density in urban areas. This really does make the most sense of any explanation I have heard for why housing prices are so high in cities like San Francisco or New York City. When people cannot build new, higher density, construction they are forced to fight for existing properties. This bids prices way up over the price of construction.

Anyways, here is another article I have come across on this topic.

Robotic fast food

I just ordered fast food from a computer for the first time. A jack in the box I went to had a bonus two tacos for anyone who used the machine.

It was a pain. I had to hit a whole bunch more buttons because they kept trying to get me to upgrade in some expensive way or another. Still, once made less annoying, or even if not made less annoying, I have little doubt that it will become common place. The fact of the matter is that machine probably costs less than a year of a minimum wage labor. I strongly suspect that over the next twenty years fast food restaurants will slowly transform into high tech vending machines. There will probably be one person there to watch over things, much like most gas stations, but that is about it.

I must admit to getting worried that we won't have enough jobs. The only thing that gives me hope is that we have so many useful things we could be paying people to do. They could be returning the Los Angeles River to an attractive state, building a StarTram, teaching English to immigrants, fixing the absurd numbers of potholes in roads, cleaning up all the trash that makes downtown LA so ugly and so on. Still, neither private industry nor government seem to actually be hiring people to do these things.

Thursday, September 15, 2011


I know a few government contractors. They all seem to make many times as much money as actual government employees.

Looks like that isn't just my small sample size. Sure enough, private contractors are more expensive than government workers in a wide variety of fields. This shouldn't be surprising. Government workers get part of their benefits as really secure jobs. Therefore you would expect them to be willing to work for less.

I have become pretty skeptical about contracting out work in general. Some utilities have gone as far as contracting out almost all engineering. Of course, what is the inevitable outcome of this? Yes, if no one at your company understands what they own than sooner or later you get held hostage. Employees might not be all that loyal, but they at least think of themselves as on the same team as other people at the company. Contractors are much more likely to have a mindset of taking the company for all it is worth. There is a place for it of course, but only for work where you do so little of it that you cannot afford enough full time people to get the necessary economies of scale to do the work efficiently.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Have we stopped cowering in fear yet?

The ten year anniversary of September 11th seems to be bringing out a whole bunch of articles which are pointing out the obvious absurdity of spending a trillion dollars to save what might be a couple thousand lives, but given how few terrorist attacks we have stopped from government action may well be no lives at all.

Does this mean we can stop cowering in fear over an unorganized bunch of thugs who seem to only be able to pull off an attack on American soil every decade or so?

Here are a few of these articles:

Businessweek, Slate. The Atlantic, LA Times, SF Gate.

Jerry Brown has earned my respect

I never really knew much about Jerry Brown. About the only thing I really knew about him was that he seemed more sane than the Republican he ran against.

I am starting to think I like the man though. He recently vetoed two bills which makes me respect him a whole lot more.

He vetoed a ski helmet law a few days ago with this comment:
"While I appreciate the value of wearing a ski helmet, I am concerned about the continuing and seemingly inexorable transfer of authority from parents to the state. Not every human problem deserves a law."
And vetoed a phone fine bill with this comment:
"I certainly support discouraging cell phone use while driving a car, but not ratcheting up the penalties as prescribed by this bill. For people of ordinary means, current fines and penalty assessments should be sufficient deterrent."
They still allow politicians to say things like this? I thought this was the sort of thing only Republicans would spout in between shouting that the war on drugs and the war on terror means you should give up all rights and let the Federal government run your life. The democrat party needs to come up with a few hundred politicians willing to take stands like this. Maybe then we can get our priorities in order.

Monday, September 5, 2011

An upgraded simple three phase generator design.

After my failed attempt at getting an output I deemed acceptable out of the simple three phase generator I built I went ahead with a redesign. Instead of four large disc magnets, I used 8 smaller block magnets. Instead of six 500 turn coils I used twelve 200 turn coils. Once again I used 30 gauge magnet wire.

This generator becomes a rats nest of wires and is therefore less simple than the previous version. Still, it can be constructed fairly cheaply without expensive tools.

The first step was to wrap the coils. This time I wanted coils just barely larger than the magnets which would be rotating. Therefore I decided to wrap wire around the magnets. It is very important to wrap the wire in the same direction for every coil, and remember which way they are. If you flip the rotation on the coils, it will dramatically lower the output of the generator, perhaps even to no output at all.

After making 200 turns around the magnet I did one more turn where I wrapped the wire around the coil to hold the wire in place.

Once all twelve coils were constructed, I mounted them on a CD with super glue. This is the step you need to be careful that all are placed in the same orientation. If you install some upside down wiring the generator will become a real mess. It is also important that all the coils are evenly distributed. One coil should be at 0, 30, 60, 90, 120, 150, 180, 210, 240, 270, 300, and 330 degrees. Here is them just before I glued them.

Positioning the magnets was done on a saw blade this time, rather than the CD used in the design I based this on. This is for two reasons. The saw blade being steel acts as a backing iron and helps direct the magnetic fields through the coils it also is a little easier to rotate than the CD. I assume this generator would work with a CD, but would produce a little less power.

Similar to the toys from trash design a large washer was glued to the top and bottom of the hole in the center of the saw. A toothpaste cap with a hole drilled in it was glued to the top of the rotor. The magnets were placed at 0, 45, 90, 135, 180, 225, 270 and 315 degrees which was made easier by the holes in the saw blade. Once positioned they were glued in place, although I am not sure that was necessary with how strong the force between the magnets and saw was.

As before the magnets must alternate. The magnets at 0, 90, 180, 270 degrees will all have north pole facing up when the magnets at 45, 135, 225 and 315 degrees are all have north pole facing down.

This time instead of iron filings, which were quite a bit of work to collect, I decided to use steel wool for the cores of the generator. I simply cut up the steel wool into small pieces then mixed it with wood glue before filling the cores with it. This didn't seem to be quite as good as the filings, but it clearly performs the basic task.

The next step was wiring, which requires some thinking. A good description of the theory of wiring such generators can be found here. For this generator it was necessary to connect 4 coils together to make each phase. The coils at 0. 90, 180, and 270 degrees make up one phase; the second phase consists of the coils at 30, 120, 210, and 300 degrees; while the third is made from the coils at 60, 150, 240 and 330 degrees.

The coils must be connected together so the current adds rather than subtracts. First for each magnet you connect the low side of one coil to the high side of the coil on the opposite side. which side you declare to be low is arbitrary. I decided I wanted the right side wire on each coil to be low. Once you have connected each with the opposing coil, you need to connect the low side of one group with the high side of the group perpendicular to it.

I made some simple sketches showing the wiring, first of one phase, then of all three phases combined. Notice that the low side of all three phases gets connected together. That is where neutral connections are made. This makes it a typical Y connected generator, leaving me with three phases neutral. I could have done a delta connection but I wanted to have the neutral.

This time I decided not to use the sewing machine bobbin for a rotor. It just allowed too much wobble, making it too difficult to get the distance between the magnets and the coils as small as possible. So, I decided to glue a nut and washer together. I then placed additional nuts and washers in place to adjust the height. The rotor then simply rotated on a washer which I lubricated with WD40.

This generator worked a better than the previous version. It produces about 1 Volt phase to neutral, and 1.7 Volts phase to phase. I can light LEDs by connecting an it to any 2 of the four wires.

Still, the rotor could be a lot better. Two washers rubbing against each other do not exactly make the most efficient bearing. I will be keeping an eye out for a way to mount the rotor in a lower friction manner.
Another step which could be done to improve the generator is a backing iron on the coils. So far I just haven't found an easy way to modify this design to allow that. Unlike the backing iron for the rotor, the backing iron for the coils cannot be solid iron. Doing so would create eddy currents which sap the efficiency of the motor. So I would need to make a laminated steel or iron filing based replacement for the bottom CD. Nothing simple comes immediately to mind.

A failed upgrade to the three phase generator

After I created a three phase generator, my first thoughts were about how could I upgrade it to increase the power. Ideally I wanted a generator which could produce three phase power at a low enough frequency that I could see the A B C phase rotation in real time on LEDs.

The most obvious way I could upgrade my generator was with a iron core. The iron in the core gets magnetized whenever a magnet passes by. This dramatically increases the magnetic flux through the core and therefore increases the voltage produced by the generator. The best material for such a core is laminated steel. This is complicated and expensive if you don't have the tooling. So I followed another DIY generator page and used iron filings for a core.

The first thing I tried was to go into my side yard with a magnet. This failed. The soil was too hard for me to get any significant number of filings from it.

Next, I tried to destroy an old rusty pan with a file. This worked, but was way too much work. I then tried drilling a whole bunch of holes in the pan with a drill. This also worked, but also was too much work. There just isn't as much steel in a muffin pan as you would expect.

Next, I tied two large neodymium magnets to a string and went for a walk dragging the magnet around. Eventually, I found a big area with loose dirt next to a road. This was just full of iron filings and in ten or fifteen minutes I was ab to get what I needed.

After getting home, I cleaned the filings by dumping them on the ground and picking them back up until I got the dirt out of them.

Then I mixed the filings with wood glue and filled my cores with the sticky mess.

I then put the rotor on the generator and tried to spin it. Nothing. Not that it didn't produce any Voltage, but it didn't spin. The magnets were so strong that they bent the cd pulling all the magnets right up to the core. The rotor was just not strong enough to spin them.

I thought I could fix this with a stronger rotor. So I went and bought a 4.5 inch saw blade and mounted the magnets on it. This failed too. Instead of the top CD bending, the bottom CD bent.

I tried gluing the bottom cd to the acrylic plate. Still, no luck. The magnets could rotate if I got them high enough, but not fast enough to produce a reasonable voltage.

The last thing I did was put 8 smaller magnets on it. I couldn't rotate unless the magnets were well above the cores, but finally I got a volt out of the generator. I was still not all that happy with the output though. So I went ahead with a redesign of the generator.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A simple three phase generator

About two years ago, I built a simple generator. It was just about as simple a generator as is possible to produce a box, a coil of wire, four large magnets, and a nail to rotate them on. This has been sitting in my office for some time and makes a really good demonstration. Even many people with a strong electrical engineering background seem to have never really understood what was going on in generators.

So I decided to take the next step. The generators on the power system are three phase generators with some having a forth wire for a neutral. Having essentially no tools, I started to look around the internet for DIY plans I could use to make one. This one caught my attention. It is really simple requires no special tools to make but is not a three phase generator. However I realized that I could modify the basic design to make a three phase generator.

By increasing the number of coils from 5 to 6, you get six phases where any two coils on opposite sides are in phase with each other. All that must be done to make a three phase Y connected generator is connect together opposite sides then connect one end of each group of coils together to make the neutral. The wiring of this sort of pancake generator is best explained at this site.

Once I assembled the materials, the first step was to create the six 500 turn coils of 30 gauge magnet wire which are required. I found that wrapping the magnet wire around a film bottle made acceptable, if a bit messy, coils:

Once I got to the end of wrapping the coils, I did one more turn where I wrapped the wire around the coil to keep it from falling apart. Here is the final set of coils I constructed:

These coils were then mounted on a CD with superglue. Spacing between coils was kept even so that the coils on opposite sides would have current in phase to each other.

The rotor I used was mostly the same as that in the generator project I mentioned before. Magnets were glued to a CD at 0, 90, 180, and 270 degrees. The magnets flipped orientation so magnets on opposite sides were pointing the same direction. A toothpaste lid was glued to the top, a large washer was glued to the bottom.

The components were connected together as in the toys from trash design, except for an acrylic sheet being used to substitute for the wooden block the bottom CD is . I also put some washers on the back of the magnets to make a crude backing iron.

Once everything was connected together, opposite side coils were connected together. You have to be a little careful about getting the two sides to be in phase with each other. Assuming the coils are in the same orientation, opposite side wires should be connected together. I was fortunately careful to keep the alignment constant so this was straight forward. If one coil was wound in the opposite direction than the wiring must be reversed.

One phase of each coil on one half of the CD were then connected together. This left the generator with three phases on one half of the generator and a neutral which connects on the other half of the generator. A classic Y configuration.

After connecting together all components, I spun up the generator. It would produce 0.3 Volts phase to ground AC and 0.5 Volts phase to phase. Theoretically, this generator should produce 1.732 times as much phase to phase voltage as phase to ground voltage. This was close enough to convince me I set everything up correctly.

Overall, I was pretty happy with this generator. I managed to produce a three phase generator with about $20 in components and no tools beyond a soldering iron and wire cutters. After looking around online for a while, I believe that this is the simplest three phase generator design out there. Because of this, you can really get an idea of what is happening in the black box that is the usual generator. For example when you are thinking abstractly of phases, the idea that A phase leads B, leads C can be difficult to understand. When you actually see the magnet reach A phase, then B phase, then C phase it starts to make more sense.

The disadvantage of this generator is that it really cannot do anything. If you spin really hard you can make a LED blink a little bit. Unlike the simple one phase generator I made it isn't easy though. I was hoping to make a simple straight forward 3 phase motor to go with this generator. I didn't even try. it isn't much good for powering anything but a volt meter. To try and eliminate these problems, I altered the design to include iron cores. This created other problems though.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Wealthy areas are Still Bubble Prices

Looking at home price graphs on zillow it really is impressive how they fall into one of the categories. First, there are areas whose home prices have fallen to pre-bubble levels, then there are those which are still fighting the fall.

First, a few which have lost all bubble gains:

Merced Zillow Home Value Index
San Bernardino Zillow Home Value Index
Riverside Zillow Home Value Index
Las Vegas Metro Zillow Home Value Index
Orlando Zillow Home Value Index
Phoenix Zillow Home Value Index
Miami-Fort Lauderdale Metro Zillow Home Value Index
Atlanta Zillow Home Value Index
Minneapolis Zillow Home Value Index
Chicago Zillow Home Value Index

These cities all had a huge bubble, then prices returned to what they were before the bubble and stayed there.

Then there is a second group of cities which has held on to gains, at least so far. They seem to be following the same trajectory as the rest of the country. They just aren't dropping as fast.
Boston Zillow Home Value Index

Washington Zillow Home Value Index

New York Zillow Home Value Index

Honolulu Zillow Home Value Index

Seattle Zillow Home Value Index
Brea Zillow Home Value Index
Chino Hills Zillow Home Value Index
Fullerton Zillow Home Value Index
West Covina Zillow Home Value Index
Rowland Heights Zillow Home Value Index
Orange Zillow Home Value Index

I am willing to bet that the crash in home prices in the entire rest of the country will suck people out of many of these areas until the prices reach what they were a decade ago. Incomes haven't gone up enough to explain these prices, or at least they have not in Southern California. It mostly seems like wealthier people just refusing to sell.

What does stand out is that these are all places known for being actually interesting places to live. Bubble prices in places like Merced went away pretty quickly. At the end of the day, few people wanted to spend a fortune to own a home there. In New York City, even the thought of crashing home prices was not enough to keep people away. I am not convinced any are actually much more interesting places than a decade ago though. So I expect most to see a slow draining down of prices until inflation adjusted they get near previous values.

Hitting Richer areas

Early on when the bubble was crashing, Orange county and LA county held up well while San Bernardino and Riverside counties crashed. Richer people were able to hold out longer and avoid selling. This created a problem though. There is currently an absurd price differential between these poorer areas and the better off areas. This differential is much greater than what was present before the bubble since bubble prices reign in the richer areas while all the drop from the bubble is over in poorer areas.

Now this price differential is finally starting to rectify itself.

The Riverside Metro area is down 3.9% in the past year.Typical cities are:
Chino 6.5% down year over year
Chino Hills 7.5% down
Corona 4.9% down
Fontana 0.7% down
Riverside, 0.8% up
San Bernardino 2.6% up

The Los Angeles metro area is down a whopping 7.2%. Typical cities are:

Brea, 7.5% down year over year
Compton 2.6% up
Diamond Bar 6.3% down
Fullerton 7.9% down
Irvine 16.8% down
Rowland Heights 9% down
Laguna Beach 21.5% down
Long Beach 7.4% down
Los Angeles 7.4% down
Malibu 7.9% down
Orange 10.2% down
Pasadena 5.7% down
Pico Rivera 0.5% up
Mission Viejo 7.9%
Walnut 6.7% down
West Hollywood 9.5% down
Yorba Linda 6.8% down

That means a 300k home in Orange lost about 30k in value in just the past year even without counting the additional 2% homes dropped because of inflation. This was even before the last few weeks of chaos in financial markets too. Richer people own more stock, so now that it is so volatile I expect even fewer people will feel like buying.

The areas that are no longer falling are cities like Compton, Pico Rivera, and San Bernardino. Places where people simply could not afford to prop up prices at all and pre-bubble prices reign. The places which are falling like crazy are ones like Orange,

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Tax Reform

Two of the most insane aspects of our tax code are that capital gains are taxed at a lower rate than income and mortgages lower tax rates.

Our tax code should be encouraging people to make their money from working, not gambling. It also should discourage debt. The mortgage deduction encourages people to take our very large mortgages. This helps the banking industry but is a tax loophole that almost entirely goes to wealthy Americans who really don't need the help.

At least I am seeing some talk about removing the mortgage write-off and Warren Buffet is talking loudly about the tax rates for the rich being lower than the middle class. Unfortunately I don't believe than many in Congress are willing to do something so reasonable to help lower our debt.

Strong Magnets are dangerous.

I just blew $30 on magnets. I want to make my three phase generator work and upgrade my old generator. So I bought several disk magnets and two bar magnets and ten cubical magnets. The bar magnets are plastic coated so I don't have the typical problem of chipping when something gets pulled too fast towards the magnet. The cubical magnets are going to be used to build at Halbach Array which I am hoping to use in a future project to build a model maglev train.

Anyways, I just looked at Amazon reviews for a $30 magnet. Wow. I think the 12-25lb pull force on the magnets I bought is as much as I am going to play with.

"The first time they flew together my finger was in the middle. Before I got my finger out it had pinched and pulled about a quarter inch of skin with a little meat off. "

"One last thing. You will pinch your fingers between them no matter how careful you are. You will see what I mean if you get a couple! "

"I also bought a few of these, and also lost part of my finger. I bled more than I have since I was about ten and fell off my bicycle, way back then.

That's not really significant, though. What's significant is that I read all of the other horror stories about people losing small pieces of their fingers to these magnets, before I even ordered mine. So I planned a lot and I really tried to be careful. I wasn't careful enough, though. I used some plastic pieces pieces to separate my magnets, out of their original packaging, but I didn't use long enough plastic pieces, and so, snap."

And that is only a $30 magnet. Some magnets are for sale for more than a thousand dollars! That thing could probably crush your skull!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Has everything been thought of?

It is absolutely remarkable how as soon as I have a good, I go into google and someone beat me to it.
One of my favorite technological ideas are vacuum maglev trains. No friction at all makes for very fast very efficient travel. I realized that they can get a very high percentage of the way to escape velocity. So, it would be possible to launch a rocket up to very high speeds in a vactrain track, point the last part of the track straight up, than open a door right before the train hits it. You then fire the rocket, which now needs less than half the fuel it would otherwise require.

Of course, NASA was looking into maglev launchers quite a time ago. The wikipedia even has a huge page on the subject.

Reading some more papers on this subject, I am pretty close to writing my congressman trying to talk him into supporting this idea. For a few tens of billion dollars we really could build something which reduces the cost of things getting into orbit to a tiny fraction of the present cost.

Monday, August 8, 2011

How Science Works

Every so often I think about trying to do real science a Then I am reminded what actually doing real science is like.

If I ever try to do science again, I am most likely to do so in a hardcore hobbyist mode. It is just too much trouble having your life depend on producing results. There are a handful of people who have managed to make science a side job and because they work in fields with little real funding, a few thousand dollars in equipment and a whole lot of obsessiveness make them actually useful. This was common two hundred years ago, as science has become more specialized it is harder and harder to pull off. Still, if I ever had a phase of my life with nothing particularly important going on I might consider taking a shot at it.

Stocks on Sale

This was my first real stock crash. I starting investing soon after the 2008 crash and therefore made out like a bandit for most of the past two years. Recently that stopped though. I lost around $2500 in just the past week.

In twenty years, I am not sure how I will handle stock crashes. It won't be hard to lose a years salary in a few hours if I keep investing at the rate I have been. For this one though, I am just debating if I should stop putting money in bonds for a few weeks so I can focus on stocks. I see little good reason for this crash and I expect the economy to keep on growing with at least the rate it grew in the past six months.

Still, that is assuming that stock value is linked to the economy. The baby boomers retiring just might kill off the next ten or twenty years of stock returns even if the economy does just fine. Who has the money to buy as fast as that generation will sell to fund their retirements? Now that stocks don't seem to be providing much in the way of dividends and haven't provided any return on investment for over a decade they may in fact be useless pieces of paper. Since shareholders have so much power over companies and companies are making so much money things are almost certain to get better in the thirty to seventy year time scale which I care about though.

Friday, August 5, 2011


Not all that long ago, someone at PG&E lost his job for something posted online. Therefore I better cover myself by copying and pasting the following:

The opinions expressed on this site are my own and do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Southern California Edison, its parent company Edison International, or any of their affiliates

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Transfers of wealth

It really does seem to me that the government has been spending less and less tax payer money to actually do something and more and more money to transfer money between different groups in society. Still, I did not realize quite the scale of the change until I read this:

In 1960, national defense was the government’s main job; it constituted 52 percent of federal outlays. In 2011 — even with two wars — it is 20 percent and falling. Meanwhile, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other retiree programs constitute roughly half of non-interest federal spending.
That is pretty impressive. With how large the generation going into retirement is right now and how large the debt already is, I imagine the next decade will get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Fairbanks Alaska

I am going somewhere in January. Not sure where. At some point I suggested Fairbanks Alaska somewhat as a joke. The more I read about it though, the more likely I will actually go through with it:

“They do things like throw boiling water in the air and watch it freeze like marbles before it hits the ground. They blow soap bubbles, which freeze solid and roll around on the ground like Christmas ornaments. They put bananas outside to freeze and then use them as hammers to pound nails into two-by-fours.”

If nothing else it would make a whole lot better of a story than just about anywhere else.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Physics Works

While I generally trust that physicists do a good job in working out the details in their equations (at least the ones more than fifty years old) I am always impressed when I see them work.

At my job I was asked to produce a calculation of Induced Voltages on power lines. The problem was based around the idea that if a de-energized power line runs in parallel with an energized one than the magnetic fields from the in service line will induce a voltage in the other line. This is important because with large enough distances away from where a line is grounded, the voltage is high enough to electrocute a worker.

I set up a model entirely from Maxwell's equations and making some assumptions about power lines being straight lines. Then, since people's lives were on the line with the outcome of this calculation, we went out and measured actual induced voltages where several circuits were in parallel on the same poles for about a mile to compare with my calculations.

I just ran the calculations today in an excel program which includes the configuration of the conductors and the exact current on the parallel lines. Sure enough, Maxwell's Equations agree with experimental measurement to within about 5%. Remarkable. A few scribblings on paper and a few excel calculations actually do predict outcomes in the real world.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Reality Astronauts

It is amazing how every idea I have was already thought of.

A few months back while watching some silly show or another I determined that a trip to Mars would make an excellent reality TV show. Just put in 6-20 interesting and single young adults and film the chaos that ensues when they are all locked in a tiny space for years at a time with a high probability of dying.

Of course, I didn't think of exactly the idea that was mentioned in a recent New York Times article. The first part of that reality TV show could be the astronaut selection process. You could easily set up a Survivor or American Idol type show to pick who will be on the trip.

A shame that the billions that could be made with this funding mechanism is such a tiny fraction of the price of the trip. Maybe in 30 years.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Employment verses Manufacturing Output

Since this is one of my favorite graphs, I have probably posted it before. Here is a great graph of manufacturing output and employment in manufacturing:

The same trend has been occurring for centuries in farming. Retail and sales seem to be getting hit pretty hard too as technology wipes out jobs.

The article I found that graph in was pretty disturbing. If it is typical of the views of business owners I may start predicting a return to Marxism sometime in the next century... More likely though is those people who are willing to hire and train huge numbers of people will take over and out compete those who avoid hiring.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011


I may have just had the high point of my athletic accomplishments. Or at the very least a close second to free diving to 50 feet.

I tapped out a guy who wrestled for four years in College. Sure, he was 50lb lighter than me and obviously knew little about Jiu Jitsu. Sure, he got me about a minute later. Still though, I spent too many years being beat up on by athletes greatly inferior to him to not be impressed.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Engineers verses M.B.A.s

There will always be disputes between engineers and M.B.A.s. Both groups are of the opinion that they know everything, they often are asked to weigh in on the same subjects and they don't exactly have similar cultures.

This article in Time magazine
arguing that more power should go back to the engineers therefore amused me. He certainly has a point that people in power at a company need to be those most fanatical about what the company produces. Often those people are engineers, after all these people typically went through years of schooling just to learn more about a particular technology.

A similar article in Forbes argues that doctors make the best hospital administrators.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Real estate declines over the past year.

Just about everywhere around me seems to have had home prices which fell a lot more last year. I just summed up numbers from Zillow:

Alhambra, 35k drop in median home price
Anaheim 23k
Brea 44k
Chino 18k
Chino Hills 30k
Claremont 19k
Corona 10k
Diamond Bar 27k
Fullerton 38k
Orange 51k
Pasadena 21k
Pomona 5k
Rosemead, 10k
Rowland Heights 38k
San Gabriel 35k
West Covina 16k
Walnut 38k
Yorba Linda 42k

About the only places in the area I am looking at living in which had their prices hold up this last year were

Pico Rivera, median home prices rose $1k.
Riversida 3k

It seems like the really poor areas are done with their real estate crash, while wealthier places still have a beating. I really do not expect much more of a decline in Pomona or Riverside as the prices are back to pre-bubble levels. Outside these areas I would be terrified to buy right now. The price of the home is dropping faster than I could make payments. If it stops falling for two years, or if prices where I buy are at pre bubble levels than I will reconsider.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011


I have long thought homework was unnecessary and unfair. Kids from chaotic families are punished unfairly, more normal kids are taught to hate learning as they are forced to complete busy work and teachers get more workload since they must grade these assignments.

Apparently at least someone in the world thinks the same thing. LA Unified School District has just mandated that home work be no more than 10% of the grade of any student.

Monday, July 4, 2011


This aquarium has given me hope that it is possible to make a real ecosystem in a glass box. I didn't feed it at all for the few weeks I was in Costa Rica and while my cherry shrimp still won't breed they all seem to be alive. The tank is now being taken over by tiny seed shrimp. There must be two or three hundred of the tiny things.

I imagine with a slightly larger aquarium you could make an ecosystem dependent on only light and if you are trimming plants occasional nutrient additions to make up for what you lose. Still, to make an actually nice aquarium I would need to buy a new aquarium and get more diversity of plants.

Full aquarium pictures:

A Cherry Shrimp:

Some Seed Shrimp:

This would make a particularly good refugium. I could connect this small aquarium up to a larger aquarium separated by some sort of mesh so only small creatures could get out. Baby snails and shrimp would then feed fish in the larger aquarium.