Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Books for the Collapse

I am pretty skeptical of arguments for the collapse of civilization. The way most people live has been improving for four hundred years and I would be pretty surprised if it stopped now.

However, much of my world view is also based on regression toward the mean. World population is the highest it has ever been; Energy use is the highest it has ever been; Farm output is the highest it has ever been; life expectancy is the highest it has ever been and so on. What goes up certainly can go down. In the highly interconnected world we live in it is quite possible for things to go downhill quickly. A month of little or no food, water, or gasoline shipments to southern California and I doubt many people would be doing well. Six months and this will no longer be a population center.

I recently got to thinking, if that is happening or already happened and somehow I am still alive what books would I want to own? I don't know whether the disaster kicked us back to the 1890s or 10,000 B.C. but I certainly am no longer in the 21st century. There are many skills which are almost lost which all of a sudden may be of life or death importance.

First things first. I would want a proper wilderness survival book. While in the long run the only real chance you have might be to join a gang, in the short run you want to get away from people. Too many hungry people.

Primitive Wilderness Living and Survival Skills seems like a good start.

While water shortages will get most people the book Edible and Medicinal Plants of the West also seems prudent. A huge percentage of plants are edible or have edible parts and if I end up in the wilderness for a few months I would want that book with me.

The next problem is basic medical skills. If something bad happens to me, which is likely, I would want some basic guidebook. The books Where There is No Doctor and Where There is No Dentist seem about as good as I could do.

Most people in history were subsistence farmers. If I survive that is the only way to go in the long run. Therefore A basic gardening book seems to be a good idea. The New Self-Sufficient Gardener seems about as good a source as any. More interesting might be Oxen: A Teamster's Guide to Raising Training & Showing. Most good draft horses were killed off ages ago since they eat more food than the smaller horses people like to keep as pets. Getting a good horse for farm work is unlikely. Most beef cattle on the other hand can be trained to be perfectly acceptable oxen.

Another lost skill which would be good to know if you make it in the long term is Blacksmithing. This is enough of a lost art that there would be little competition in this field. The Backyard Blacksmith: Traditional Techniques for the Modern Smith seem to be as good as any source on this field.

I am debating whether to buy this collection. A few would be interesting enough in their own right for me to justify having. On the other hand, in this situation who would want to carry around a bunch of books anyway? If I truly thought it was a risk I would go buy bulk water, food, and bullets.

Orange County Still Overpriced

This blog post does a really good job of covering my favorite reasons to think Orange county home prices will continue their recent declines. Another 100k drop over the next five years seems the most likely outcome.

Two ratios need to come back to historical norms for me to believe that things are back to normal. The ratio of prices in Orange county to Riverside county and the ratio of home prices to median income. Neither of these numbers make sense, funneling new home buyers into inland counties while prices fall further.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Almost one in five live with parents?

This statistic rather impressed me:

The percentage of American men aged 25 to 34 who are living at home has increased from 14.2 percent in 2007 to a record 18.6 percent

Thinking of the people I know this sounds about right though. With the average job search being so long few people have much choice in the matter. I am not sure that if my company ditched its engineering department I would do any better.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

5 Percent American?

I just ran into this statistic in an IEEE article:

This table lists the top 25 universities from which the 2008 class of American engineering PhDs earned their bachelor’s degrees. Less than 5 percent of these PhDs are products of American universities.
5 percent? I can't help but wonder if they actually mean 50%, which is more close to what I would expect. Still either way it is a huge number.

I am torn on whether or not I consider this a good thing. Clearly we are hosting a competition where the very best from around the world come to America and see if they are good enough to make it among the best. As long as we can keep that true, we can depend on a special place in the world economy.

On the other hand, many of these people have poor English skills and little understanding of American culture. This creates real problems with educating the general public about science and engineering. There is already a huge divide where America has a scientific elite which is the best in the world and a general public which is clueless. If all of our talent is imported, that problem will continue to get worse.

Friday, March 16, 2012

More powerful simple generator

One of the best science toys I have ever built is the simple generator built from magnet wire wrapped around a box spinning around a nail.

I therefore decided to build a new one, improving on the original design to meet my purposes.

First, I decided I wanted stronger magnets. So I replaced two of the four magnets with similar size rare earth magnets. These are fairly dangerous as a pinch hazard, but with a little care I was able to place them as the outer two magnets.

Next I used a hockey puck display case with two holes drilled in it as a replacement for the cardboard box. It has the advantage of being the perfect size and being clear.

I still used a nail to rotate the magnet. I however added some paper so the two magnets on top are parallel to the two magnets on bottom. I also taped the magnets together so they are less likely to move.

One big problem with the original design is that the nail slips when spinned rather than moving the magnet. This I cured with blue stik. It is temporary if I ever want to disassemble the generator but does a good job increasing friction between the magnets and the nail.

Then I replaced the 30 gauge magnet wire with about 400 feet of 24 gauge magnet wire. This was a mistake, 30 gauge wire is ideal. 32 gauge is so small as to drive me nuts when I wire the generator. 24 gauge wire just doesn't get enough voltage. Even with the huge magnets I only get 6 volts out of the generator. This is even less than my original generator with the smaller magnets!

Still this new generator does have its perks. It does produce a lot more current than one with smaller magnets or lower gauge wire. The total power is therefore a lot higher. This means you can actually feel when it is powering something. When shorted out it really fights you. Also, unlike the original generator it can power small electromagnets or motors.

Here is an example of it throwing coils up in the air. I simply placed the coil on a large magnet with a bolt connected to it. Then I run the generator:

Monday, March 12, 2012

Stolen Books are Better

After about an hour of searching I have determined that stolen audiobooks are superior to all other options.

I bought a few audiobooks from itunes once. Never again. The copyright protection was a pain whenever I would switch computers and nothing about it made up for this added hastle.

Since Amazon dropped DRM from its music I thought that would be the way to go. Nope, no luck at all. They only sell audible audiobooks which are if anything even worse than itunes books. As best as I can tell the only way to get audiooks which are not a pain in the ass is downloading from torrents.

The only other option I consider reasonable is purchasing CDs and burning them. I think I will pass on that. The next best option is just get old books. Many audiobooks of old books are free available for free online.

Almost enough to make me start reading for Librivox, but I don't have the voice for it...

Index Funds in the 84th Percentile

I am a big fan of index funds. They seem to beat managed funds most years and virtually never are far below average.

Still, this past year was particularly impressive. Index funds beat 84% of managed funds!

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Energy content of Uranium

The statistic that a barrel of oil contains the energy equivalent of three years of human work inspired me to do the same calculation for Uranium 235.

A barrel of oil is about 138kg.

The energy density of Uranium 235 is 79 500 000 MJ per kg. So a little multiplication gives the total energy of 128kg of Uranium 235 is 1.097 x 10^16 J.

A person on average burns about 100Watts, or 100J/second. This works out to 3.2 x 10^9 J/year

Some division shows that an amount of Uranium 235 with the same mass as a barrel of oil contains the energy equivalent of three and a half million years of human labor! If there was ever a better summation for why I believe in nuclear energy, I sure haven't heard .

Friday, March 2, 2012

Less interest

I have finally paid off the last of my credit card debt and student loan debt. I actually had to think about whether to keep the student loan debt longer because the interest rates are so low, but even the loans at 2.2 percent are a good deal more than any similarly safe investment can earn these days.