Monday, December 27, 2010

The future of work

As I mentioned back in 2007, I believe that we will eventually enter an age of leisure, largely due to robots and technology. We are seeing this trend accelerate in the United States currently, as companies are finally beginning to see real cost-savings from technology. In the initial ramp-up, technology improvements employed a ton of engineers and programmers. In its later phases, these contractors will be out of work. Martin Ford has written a lot about this and his blog Future Economics and Technology keeps up on the developments in that direction.

It seems to me that this view is quickly becoming more common. A few days ago I saw What happens when we have enough technology that there is no need for a work force? on Reddit. There were some people who said this could never happen, such as "skeeto", but when pressed it was noted to him that the robots could be designed to be identical to humans (the Japanse are already making humanoid robots - see video). It's true that there will always be some demand for workers, but I think it's naive to think that more than a small percent of potential workers will be needed in the long-run. We'll have to figure out some way to keep the rest of people occupied, and we'll have to have a system which supports them.

I do not expect the unemployment rate in the United States to drop back to 5% in the next few years, and possibly never. I actually expect it to be in a slow uptrend, although we'll probably see a dip if the baby-boomers actually retire like they should. We might have to figure out a different economic system sooner than people think. The Reddit thread directed me to an interesting story called Manna which describes the possible future. It's not exactly as I see the future, but fundamentally a lot of it is plausible.

Friday, December 17, 2010

VBA and bankers' rounding

Most children learn in elementary school that you round 5 up. That's how Excel works. But the language used to write programs in Excel, Visual Basic for Applications, does not do that with its Round() function. It uses bankers' rounding, which is described by a Microsoft blogger. You can write a custom function such as one here, but that's kind of a hassle.

It's annoying, but there is a workaround: call the Excel Round function, as described by this guy.

If VBA was open-source, I imagine that this would have been fixed a while ago. Regular round would be Round(), and Bankers' round would be Bankround() or something. VBA seems like a mess.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Institute of Medicine's vitamin D report

I watched about 50 minutes of the IOM's video of the new report's press release. I thought it was remarkable how sincere the scientists were: they truly do not understand a lot of things going on with these vitamins, they're upping the vitamin D required significantly for most population groups from a 200 IU adequate intake to a 600 IU Recommended Dietary Intake with a 4,000 IU tolerable upper limit. They ignore vitamin D from sunlight.

They say later that most people in the United States get about 200-300 IUs from the diet. They grudgingly admit that most people are going to have to take vitamin D supplements; later they discuss that people could specifically target fatty fish (e.g. salmon) or specific fortified foods. When asked about what they think about people taking 1,000 or 2,000 IU supplements just in case, they said it probably wouldn't increase risk, although one cautioned against it noting the beta carotene and vitamin E examples, which looked good in observational trials but proved unhelpful or even harmful in randomized trials.

It's rather sad that they've done all these randomized controlled trials on bone health, but they didn't collect all this other information on these trial patients (cancer, immune system, etc). Without the randomized trials, the IOM could not say anything, which I don't blame them for given the history of observational trials. I'll be taking a 2,000 IU supplement to be on the safe side, and I'll be upping it from the occasional couple times a week to a routine thing. I'm still partial to the idea that the seasonal flu is caused by vitamin D deficiency.

If you aren't looking for something then you'll never find it, which is why I'm constantly disappointed by people who seem to reject the idea that focusing on the nutritional basics (rather than taking a bunch of drugs) can effectively improve health. It's also rather sad that we still don't even understand how something as basic as vitamin D relates to immune function when we've expended enormous amounts of money on various drugs which were harmful dead ends.

I may add more thoughts on this later.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Interest rates, banking profits, and predatory lending

I like to get firsthand experience of things. When I heard that a local bank of mine was missing its TARP payments and possibly close to bankruptcy, I thought about opening an account. I wouldn't mind getting the experience of having my accounts transferred or being paid by the FDIC. Lately I've been lucky: I have an open directors & officers' insurance policy claim (I didn't file the lawsuit) and I recently got a $1,000 payout for a dink in my car (first insurance claim).

About a week ago I went into Wells Fargo to wire some money to China. I had purchased a credit report on a Chinese stock that I was invested in - the credit report used the SAIC (State Administration for Industry and Commerce) financials, which are often different from the financials that these companies file in the United States. The credit report confirmed my suspicions and I closed my investment at a loss. I was helped by a personal banker, and while I was there she suggested that I take out a personal line of credit.

I told her I didn't need it, but I was easy to sell on the idea: I wanted to see what the experience was, and I wanted to see what kind of interest rate they'd offer me. They found I have a credit score of 777 and I disclosed that I make about $45k a year. I have no debt. They offered me $6,600 with an interest rate of 8.750% plus the Prime Rate published in the Wall Street Journal Western Edition. As of November 29, 2010, that meant an interest rate of 12%. However, this was subject to a floor of 14.50% and included a discount of 25 basis points for automatically deducting payments from my checking account. I also went through a process of upgrading my checking account, and in that process I discovered in the documents provided that Wells Fargo actually does payday lending through a program called "Direct Deposit Advance".

I had reminded the banker several times that I was not interested if there were no fees. Reading the contract, I saw an annual fee of $25. I spoke to her about it and she said her manager assured her that it was waived the first year. So I went along with it. When I get the line, I was immediately charged $25, and interest began to be charged soon after ($0.03 was charged as interest). She offered to remove the fee, but I was glad to be rid of the line. I guess that goes to show that you can't trust words. If it had been serious, I would have gotten it in writing first, although I doubt that would have mattered much with the computer's programming.

Although not clearly related to the above story, I've sometimes idly wondered what the net effect the Fed lowering interest rates was on banks. The banks charge less in interest, but they also pay much less in deposits, so the effect on the net interest margin could be OK. As my experience shows, banks can still charge a fairly hefty interest rate to me, a borrower with very good credit. Plus, the lowered interest rates stimulates additional loans. The Dallas Fed's Southwest Economy said in 2003 that the lowered interest rates have, prior to 2003, been closely correlated with higher net interest margins, basically because low short-term interest rates are typically associated with a steep yield curve, and banks (accepting the risks of maturity mismatch) invest the deposits for which they are paying very little interest in longer-term assets. The effect had notably broken down in 2001-2003, and the author says this is because "interest income on many of [bank's] floating-rate loans falls with market rates, but deposit rates on short-term accounts fall by less as overnight rates get closer to zero and account management expenses become relatively more important". I don't exactly follow how this is different from the earlier years, but I guess it has something to do with the trend towards banks getting involved in money market funds.

A propos of the above discussion, Morningstar recently sent out an article on the implications of interest rate hikes (When Interest Rates Rise, Will the Tide Lift All Boats?). They target retail brokers as the greatest beneficiaries,

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Accepting web design and funky CSS

I've made a few websites from scratch in notepad and played around with programs like Dreamweaver, but I was never very happy with the results and my understanding. The websites felt amateur, and CSS always seemed to do weird things. I gave up on further work on websites thinking that I was missing something about web design - that I wasn't quite up to the standards and secrets. In the meantime, I've collected a mess of links on web design which I thought someday might help me. HTML Dog and W3Schools are the two that I am most familiar with. In my quest to understand CSS, I'd also bookmarked, HTML Source, HTML Help from The Web Design Group, Good Tutorials which lists a bunch of other tutorials, an interesting extension of CSS called "HSS", and the Open Directory's listing on CSS. For general web design, I'd also found a list of 100+ resources, a handy "complete color chart". Suffice it to say that I did not read all these links carefully. It's the problem with bookmarks: it's easy to file away and forget. However, after all this I never took the time to look at the official source, W3's official specification (see the CSS 2.1 draft). I did look at it today, and found it somewhat helpful although still not completely clear. In my quest, I also bookmarked Wikipedia's Comparison of HTML editors; now, I also see another list of web design programs on

In my search, I found articles which I thought offered solutions, such as strange hackish One True Layout, and teaser samples of Sitepoint books such as HTML Utopia: Designing Without Tables, The Art & Science Of CSS or Everything You Know About CSS is Wrong I never bought those books. I also found that I wasn't the only one frustrated by CSS. In February 2009, I found an article by Eric Meyer (Wanted: Layout System), lamenting the fact that CSS has historically lacked any decent layout system. I also found a Reddit discussion (Does anyone else who doesn't work with CSS on a regular basis feel like a champ whenever they get it to work?). I didn't really understand what these posts were talking about at the time, and I still only vaguely follow them. For example, I don't understand Eric's point that the only reason floats are used is that there's the clear value which allows footers to be set at the bottom. I can use floats to create a decent layout without clearing at all. However, I agree with the general idea. When I think of web design, the tables based method is the most intuitive. I should be able to cut the screen into little pieces which don't overlap into each other. Floats are a hackish way to do that, but there should be something better.

One of the commenters to Eric's article mentioned Blueprint (and the similar program 960 Grid System as a way to get past this issue. I don't understand that. I get that Blueprint is a handy way to deal with defaults and special Internet Explorer quirks, but I don't understand how their grid makes CSS more intuitive and less hackish. Why split a webpage into 24 columns, and then use those 24 columns to create a basic layout with 3 columns, or however many columns? Working with the grid has its own rules (shown pretty well in the tutorial A Closer Look At the Blueprint CSS Framework). Further, it uses a fixed layout, and I generally come down on the side of using a relative "liquid" layout (see The Great Fixed Vs Relative Width Page Layout Debate).

After all this, I'm still rather confused. I think ultimately I need to get down to actually working on websites and hacking through problems however I have to. I don't actually need a perfect layout system. I can work with what's there, and what's really important in my website ideas are the databases and related programming. So I'll be trimming out my web design links and leaving instead the bookmarks on databases and programming. Perfectionism is the enemy of productivity.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Programmed music?

The problem with bookmarks is that there's no schedule reminding you to look at them at a certain period or deal with them. I used to use them for interesting articles or stories that I'd read later, but instead they built up as I moved on without finishing what I'd bookmarked.

One of these stale bookmarks is a press release about a program called Inmamusys (for Intelligent Multiagent Music System) which can compose pleasant music on the fly. No use to me, but I thought it was cool and it promises great, non-repetitive elevator music. Of course I'd be wowed and completely believe this kind of hype...

Giving What We Can project

I added this as a bookmark while I considered joining the project, but I'm pretty firm at this point that I will not join it. I'm looking to give about 10% of my income away in various causes, but not all of them are charity-focused. When I've built a small fortune I plan to return to this.

Trimming a few blog and other bookmarks

As part of an effort to continue to trim my bookmarks of old articles and half-thought ambitions, I'm removing a few blogs from when I was more obsessed about health, plus an article ("knol") about eyeglasses possibly exacerbating myopia ("Advisory on Eyeglasses for Myopia"), the Building a Mining Company website, Mines and Communities website, and all my privacy websites (Guerrilla Mail for temporary websites, Bugmenot for free logins). Not sure what to think about the knol, and my interest in mining will continue but somewhat more from an investor-based perspective (where I can look at the ecological impacts as well). I also trimmed the only link in my funny folder: Motivational Posters.

The blog include the Heart Scan Blog, which is about a doctor who advocates vitamin D and other things (thyroid stuff?). Caught my eye, but I haven't read much of it lately. Another is Whole Health Source, who caught my eye with an interesting article on Weston Price's research on tooth decay. I actually agree with both of the bloggers to some extent, or at least in the idea that mainstream medicine is often wrong and that the importance of nutrition is overlooked. But since I don't have as many health issues as I used to, I'm less into this area. Another is Modern Dragons, which seems like a guy with a common interest in tackling "modern dragons". There's also The Scholarly Kitchen (academic publishing blog), This week in batteries (need more technical background to follow).

I'm adding the following to my Google Reader: Aaron Schwartz's Raw Thought, Andrew Garret's Blog, Wikimedia Technical Blog. These are programmers who have a connection to Wikipedia, although I'm trimming out Wikipedian blog Vox Populi Vox Cani. I'm not adding Vision Master Designs also I'll likely go back to check on it (same with all of these, now that I've got them stored here). It's unfortunate that Google Reader doesn't seem to have a really convenient way to just store blog links.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Extending time to qualify for the long-term capital gains tax to overcome short-termism

For the past few years I've been advocating that the long-term capital gains tax rate of about 15% (to move up if the Bush tax cuts expire) be shifted so that the "long-term" holding requirement is 5 or even 10 years rather than 1 year. The tax rates should be staggered so that very short-term trading is taxed high (more than the income tax, perhaps by 10%), 1 year is taxed less (perhaps 5%+ of the income tax), and so on. Of course, there are other things that need to be addressed - for example, shareholders and institutional investors have to rise up and start voting their shares instead of leaving the managers to essentially own companies with a high turnover in ownership. This is one of the reasons I like extending long-term capital gains tax: it encourages people to stick with a company and act like an owner, and therefore hold management accountable to the long-term stability and profitability of a company.

I haven't heard many people repeating the idea. A while back I heard one guy on Bloomberg say that maybe there should be an 80% tax on short-term trading, and saying that his comrades on the Street would probably kill him for saying that. However, I was very happy to see the Aspen Institute's Overcoming Short-Termism report released in September 2009.

Of course, there are other things that need to be done - executives and employees doing risky deals (e.g., traders on Wall Street) should be rewarded with restricted stock or, if options are necessary, LEAPS (plus clawback arrangements). But I tend to think that these things can happen if more individual investors take long-term stakes in companies. The recent SEC rule which allows investors to access the proxy statement is nice, but really it's not such a big deal with the notice and access rules which allow investors to spend a relatively small amount of money to mount a proxy contest. Steve Nieman and Richard Foley have run proxy contests against Alaska Airlines in the past few years with only a few hundred dollars, and his votepal website offers some guidance on how to do it. He hasn't won, but that's probably more because he runs a slate of director composed of himself and his friends and family. Plus he seems to want to turn the company into a cooperative. I've been thinking about running a proxy contest, but generally I don't hold onto companies where there's reason to be highly dissatisfied.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Back pain troubles, chiropractic, and the multifidus

I've had back pain for just about as long as I can remember, but it is usually mild and somewhat intermittent. Lately it's gotten worse. I know basically why I have back pain: I sit a lot - but at the same time, lots of people sit a lot without as much back pain. I also have bad posture.

The last time I had back pain this bad was a couple years ago, after driving straight for a couple days. I went to a chiropractor and he gave me a quick adjustment for cheap. He first applied heat, and then solidly cracked my bank (spinal manipulation) manually. I felt way better. I don't generally have faith in chiropractic, but I figured I should try it again. This time, the (new) chiropractor first made me go through a whole diagnosis session with an "Insight Subluxation Station", X-rays, and a lot of stretch "testing". Then chiropractor then gave me an adjustment with an "activator gun" which gave relatively little relief. The subluxation station apparently showed my back as registering all sorts of out of whack and out of balance electrical signals, and the X-rays showed evidence of compression in the past (big surprise) but not much else. I would have preferred to look at an MRI scan to see if I have any herniated discs, out of curiosity, but the x-ray is interesting too.

The subluxation station is essentially a surface electromyograph (see THE SCIENCE & VALIDITY BEHIND THE INSIGHT MILLENNIUM SUBLUXATION STATION). I'll try to scan the results and post them later. I'm a bit skeptical, but I'm willing to see how it goes. It does not surprise me that it showed messed up results. I was able to feel my muscles and legs twitching with spasms when I had the really bad pain. I'm guessing that's not uncommon when you have back pain as bad as mine. But now the twitching has basically disappeared and it seems likely that the readings would be a fair bit better - acute back pain is often transient and self-limited, like most infections. The chiropractor seems to want to test me again after doing a dozen or so more adustments, and I imagine the reading will be much better - unsurprisingly. He's also saying that he wants to keep going until my legs are equal length, which is something the activator gun wiki article (linked above) discusses as somewhat dubious. The chiropractor is now expecting me to be a long-term customer, which I'm not really interested in - but I'll play it out for a bit longer (cheap with insurance). In the picture below, the right is me and the left is a healthy control (balanced).

One of the reasons that I will no doubt feel much better is that I'm doing a lot of research and paying careful attention to posture. I've been aware of the Alexander technique, which had a very positive clinical trial published in the BMJ not too long ago. The easiest takeaway from that is to lay down on your back and lift your knees, which is a very relaxing and pain-relieving way to spend some time. I've also been reading through Dr. Jolie Bookspan's articles, and have been particularly intrigued by her article on hyperlordosis as a cause of lower back pain. My back pain is mainly from sitting (the article identifies hyperlordosis as related to standing) but I feel that my back is caused by hyperlordosis. I've tried to implement posture advice and it may have been partly counterproductive - I've been trying to arch my back too much, and every time I do it I can feel the pain and stress it causes. Ironically, in reviewing my x-ray results the chiropractor said I had too little curve and arch, which I think is completely wrong.

Bookspan's research led me to research which has identified more fatiguable trunk muscles in those with lower back pai (see, e.g., Chok et al 1999). Daneels et al (2000) found that only the multifidus was smaller in those with chronic low back pain, and in 2002 Daneels et al found that those with chronic low back pain weren't activating their multifidus. The Musculoskeletal Consumer Review suggests feeling for the multifidus and then exercising it mentally to help activate it, but I can't seem to do that. Suggestions at the SlowTwitch forum include the "pointer dog" exercise, which I imagine looks like the following. There's also the The Multifidus Back Pain Solution: Simple Exercises That Target the Muscles That Count book, which I'll probably buy. The "activation" problem is mentioned by one of the reviewers. The reviewer recommends Spinal Stabilization instead, but interestingly enough the first reviewer of that book similarly complains that there's no real discussion on how to activate these muscles or know if they are activating properly. This article describes how to activate these muscles, and apparently the practice also does real-time ultrasound imaging (RTUS) tests to confirm the activation (unfortunately not in my area). It's so mysterious that I don't know whether I'm activating them or not, and thus I can't blame a couple physical therapists at a forum for ranting a bit about the newest "fad" (although they still annoy me). UPDATE: This is called the motor control exercise in the literature, and a systematic review was published not long ago.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Audience measurement, Nielsen's validity, and surveying

A couple weeks ago I got in a debate with someone on the internet about Nielsen ratings. He said something to the effect of: "of course these are basically accurate; after all, the advertisers and networks rely on these for billions of dollars of expenses". I responded that comparable amounts of money were involved in the mortgage crisis - and he responded that that was "entirely different" and "involved collusion". I thought this was naive, but it sparked my interest in the topic.

I set about to learn more about ratings. According to Nielsen's website, it measures 40% of the world's TV viewing, and in the United States it has 25,000 meters. I didn't really understand what that means and tired of Nielsen's website quickly, so I went to my next source: Google Scholar. There I found an interesting, but rather lengthy Master's dissertation by Seles (Audience Research for Fun and Profit: Rediscovering the Value of Television Audiences). Seles referred me to the book Ratings Analysis, but I hadn't finished the first chapter before I wandered to the Wikipedia page - where I should have started, and which covers the gritty process details decently - and read this passage (referenced to a USA Today article):
The number of U.S. television households as of 2009 is 114,500,000.[12] As a result, the total number of Nielsen homes only amounts to 0.02183% of the total American television households, meaning that 99.97817% of American households have no input at all into what is actually being watched. Compounding matters is the fact that of the sample data that is collected, advertisers will not pay for time shifted (recorded for replay at a different time) programs.
Further, these sampled households self-select into this group. These are people who apparently care less on average about privacy. I'm not sure if they are being paid, if they are that would suggest they are also lower income. Seles points out that digital set-top boxes allow for an enormous amount of datamining which is much more valid than Nielsen ratings, but a confluence of factors have not led to these being fully exploited. As an odd sidenote, this 2004 Wired article reports that at that time, Nielsen was using diaries from samples of 500 to assess viewing. Diaries from 500 people, in the 21st century! It's worth noting that television networks should not be necessarily bothered by inaccurate data so long as the data overall does not underestimate viewers; it's only the advertisers that are screwed.

I've commonly heard people say that television advertising is more expensive than online advertising, but a 2009 eMarketer report abstract puts tv advertising at 13 cents/hour and online advertising at 17/cents hour. This suggests that advertisers are willing to pay up for the relatively rich and interactive data (e.g., click throughs and purchases). It's a topic which I need to become familiar with as I look into the media sector for investments, but like all these sectors it's mysterious at first. I've been looking at television networks (content owners) as a value alternative to the relatively "hot" area of Netflix, although I haven't gotten deep into it as of yet.

In my investigation into this topic, I ran across Reg Baker's The Survey Geek blog. This is an apparently honest, critical look into the survey industry which lays out the issues which I've suspected lie in the area: telephones increasingly difficult to access, surveytakers unresponsive, self-selection bias, etc. I'm still not clear on how the political surveys are accessing cellphone only users like myself. UPDATE: as I finish a survey on 9 Nov 2012, I have to say I didn't expect the surveys to be so terrible or tedious. There's really a lot of self-selection bias. I got $30, but not for sending it in (at least it's not biased towards poor people). Clearly this is only targeting really old-school cable; apparently the intelligent set-top boxes still haven't rolled out. Since I didn't have cable, I plugged my Hulu Plus shows but probably for no reason.

Cheap ink printers, Kodak marketing, and Consumer Reports

A while back I recall reading some article (probably the precursor to this 2008 article) about how Kodak was looking to enter the printer market through cheaper ink. People are constantly complaining about the price of ink. A couple months back I looked around at printers and, after hours of browsing, was not able to confidently conclude that Kodak were cheaper on ink. I recall that some consumers on Amazon said the apparently cheap Kodak ink did not last as long. It has been a while since Kodak tried its strategy

I was about to give up on making an informed purchase in frustration when I remembered my Consumer Reports subscription. I logged in and find a neat table with a column called "text cost", which is the estimated ink cost to produce a single page of paper. From the table Kodak does not stand out as having the cheapest printer for ink, with pages generally costing around 3-4 cents - about average. The Lexmark Prospect Pro205 ($200) stood out at about 1 cent a page, but the cheaper Lexmark printers are in the 4-5 cents/page range, with a high of 12.6 cents a page for the $50 Lexmark X267. Lexmark has actually been advertising its new "Vizix" line of printers as the cheapest per page since at least 2009, although some argue it's going to be difficult for them to break into the commercial market over laserjet printers even then. In the meantime, the market is favoring Lexmark quite a bit more than Kodak at P-Es of around 9 and around 5, respectively (trailing twelve months according to Google Finance).

The whole printer and ink question is sort of interesting from the perspective of economics. It's similar to the whole "prisoner's dilemma" game theory applied to oligopolies in economic theory. The situation is theoretically an oligopoly where none of the printer manufacturers is willing to cut prices on the ink. It could be that Kodak cut ink and thereby forced the industry to cut ink prices and innovate. However, the article above on Kodak suggests that it did not really have much of an impact, but even a small impact could change the competitive strategy situation. The industry was happy to cooperate but one player (in this case Kodak, an outsider), disrupted the party and the others cut prices preemptively.

There are similar situations throughout all industries - Skype is disrupting the phone companies, Netflix disrupted Blockbuster and is now disrupting cable companies. Direct insurers disrupt agent-based insurers. Even a direct title insurer has entered the market - Entitle Direct - so use it to save yourself a few hundred. My savings bank account is left neglected ($0) as all my savings is invested directly through a retail brokerage. Disintermediation will continue to rule. Hell, these days when I go to my doctor I'm already more well-informed on my specific condition than they are. This is a good thing for people like me, but the end result of this trend is fewer jobs as unnecessary people and infrastructure are cut out. Slowly but surely, unemployment will continue, as Martin Ford (the author of The Lights in the Tunnel and the econfuture blog) has discussed at length.

Enough rambling. Sign up for a subscription to for $30 and promote efficient products while improving your pocketbook.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Self-loathing and philosophy professors?

Do philosophy profs have a tendency towards self-hate and embarrassment? I'm inclined to think that it's a possibility. This is understandable when one considers that we're talking about the ultimate profession of "intellectuals", yet most would not consider them to be smarter on average than the physics and math professors who are more like "rocket scientists".

I remember talking to one guy - a fisherman - who associated philosophy with poetry.

Notes on other purgings

Deleting some other links:
  • I like the idea of the distributism and think it will be increasingly important in a world where capital does most things and labor is left to do less and less, but I'm not sure I have time to read into the The Distributist Review. It moved from its old blogspot and now looks like a real publication! Chesterton and Friends was basically just related to this.
  • I really liked the blog Akinesis on Livejournal. It was basically personal with a few thoughts about the ongoing study of economics interspersed. Unfortunately "purged".
  • Dusk in Autumn is another interesting one similar to the two below, with fascinating topics and a data-centric, seemingly (!) well-informed perspective. Unfortunately it has the same issues and therefore I can't keep it up looking like a running endorsement, but I'll be checking in I imagine.
  • News Hounds shows clips from Fox News. I used to find this amusing in a cruel sort of way. It might have also had to do with bringing back childhood memories, as my parents watched this type of stuff. Now it just provokes some anger and frustration. I've matured.
  • Uncertain Principles. Not sure why I ever linked to this, which is apparently about pop culture and physics. If I'm going to read science I want to read something more instructional at this point.
  • Optimmen. I added Daniel Tammet's blog somehow hoping that the highly functional autistic savant could somehow maybe release his secret to genius. Silly me. Interesting story, but the blog content isn't that great.

Audacious Epigone and Mangan's Miscellany trimmed out

For a long time, I kept the above two bloggers on my blogroll. After skimming their recent work, I've removed them today. Basically, when I added them I was using my blogroll as a blog bookmark list, not as an endorsement list. Considering their controversial subject matter on race and "right-wing" perspective, I feel compelled to comment. I don't agree at all with their views on race, income inequality, politics, and probably not much on economics either. However, they push the contrarian button in me. They provide that different perspective in a slightly less crass manner than someone like Steve Sailer. I'm not sure how much the race stuff applies to Mangan but it applies very obviously with Audacious.

Both have interesting personalities and each has unique strengths: Audacious Epigone is data-heavy on intelligence; Mangan's Miscellany touches on nutrition and investing. But these are topics that are better to learn about elsewhere, such as through peer-reviewed review articles on the topics. Some might say that intelligence is too politically sensitive to be discussed properly in these channels. That's just wrong, because there are probably hundreds of articles discussing the topic, plenty of academics have advocated for it, and they have been responded to by other academics in the very recent past.

Having read into the debate and worked a bit on the Wikipedia article, I don't think that Flynn and Nisbett have really been engaged properly by Rushton and Jensen. In the response to Nisbett's latest book, Rushton and Jensen resorted to technical jargon rather than proper engagement. Overall, yes, we know there's a gap between the races as shown by measures used to test intelligence.

In any case, whether there truly is a gap doesn't really matter. All that matters are the social implications. Does bringing up this issue and trying to convince everyone of it serve any useful social purpose? Rushton and Jensen have tried to argue yes. While it's debated, I strongly suspect that in 1969 Jensen tried to argue that the correct takeaway was to teach black people in a more rote manner (see Harvard Educational Review 39: 1–123). I can't see any useful social purpose, and I see substantial risk of racism, discrimination, and stereotype threat. The fact that someone would advocate such a thing despite the vastness of the unknowns, individual heterogeneity, and the imperfect information available to people in everyday life is morally despicable.

In 1969, we did not even know that lead caused IQ deficits in children. In fact, "we" didn't really know that leaded gasoline caused any health problems at all. By "we", I mean the general public, since occupational health scientists were well-aware of the health hazards of lead when it was first used (see Kovarik 2005). However, this brings up another point: these two bloggers, like many others of the "right-wing" crowd, do not seem to recognize the four-dimensional nature of the political compass. Would these people have opposed lead regulation? Some might think that is a straw man argument, but I hardly think it is a straw man to say that in the 1930s, these type of people would be the most strident of corporate apologists, as those who are self-described "right-wingers" are similarly corporate apologists today.

There's a general antipathy towards moving forward which is evident in even the label "conservative". And this is more than just a worded label. Those who use it to describe themselves take it to heart. These are often people who think that we can save the economy by simply drilling more and more holes in the ground. These are the people who have strongly opposed the abolition, as more than half of the country at the time did.

Despite my talk of the political compass above, I genuinely believe that conservative is a mindset - perhaps a genetic predisposition - which has been generally against every progressive (defined as a change which equalizes power among the units of a society) change in society, ever. An example from American History can be provided. Abraham Lincoln was an extreme liberal in his day. Seward, his secretary of state, almost won the Republican nomination but was considered too left-wing as he had been more open in his views toward abolishing slavery, and had also been a typical liberal spendthrift as Governor of New York. I have read that Abraham Lincoln ran on a platform of increasing federal power and government infrastructure investment. When the Democrat party began to become liberal, the conservatives swiftly shifted to the Republican party. Many are aware because of the Trent Lott incident that the infamous Strom Thurmond, a Republican Congressman who ran on a desegregation campaign, was originally a Democrat - but the hyper-racists have switched parties as conservatism has switched to the Republican party. And there they persist in their campaign to make sure that the productive energy of the world is used in making sure that the rich can have more luxuries, with a caveat that the lower classes can be helped through oil subsidies to the companies to which the rich own.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Modern Work Life

This. Although I don't have the balls to chat at work (just trade stocks on occasion, which I do rarely and apprehensively).

Trimming old stuff

Lately I've been trying to go through my bookmarks and cut stuff. Many of my bookmarks are cool sources of reference information. I don't use these often but they could be handy sometime. Others are articles that I plan to read but still haven't read after several years. The former I should probably keep, but the latter I feel like I should definitely read and then cut out. Then again, I'm not sure of that - what if I want to refer to the articles in the future? Maybe I could keep a separate little folder of articles, or write an article about the interesting articles. But that's a lot of work. One thing I try to do is add them to Wikipedia since then I can find it through my contributions, but some of this information really shouldn't be in Wikipedia. In the long-run, I want to record everything I've read somehow in a database, along with notes on how extensively I read it, as I do for the books that I read. Which reminds me of how I need to write up that program, as well as a program which makes it easier to track where I'm spending all my time. But for that I need to study more programing. Sigh.

It's hard going. I got down to the Economics folder of my bookmarks and started reading through QuickMBA, where I got through about half of it. It is a great site - the accounting section is particularly nice for someone like me who does not have a strong accounting background.

I also glanced to some of the old blogs linked from here. With a couple exceptions I haven't really read any of them with any regularity in the past year or so, probably longer. In my trimming quest, I started with Barely Legal (and quickly drifted from there to the hilarious In It But Not Of It). Barely Legal is probably the funniest of the blogs (example), and also has a great message: law school is not all its cracked up to be. See, for example, Law School Student Story #4. Law is something that I get constantly sucked into learning about. It's handy to know about bankruptcy law, trusts and securitization, and the dirty details of corporate taxation, but ultimately it distracts me from what I keep telling myself I need to learn about: programming, math, and science, in that order. So I'll be trying to trim excessive legalese out of my life, and I may be recording some of what I've read here while I do that.

The foreclosure fiasco

I'm not exactly sure about what to think about Matt Taisbi's latest article "Courts Helping Banks Screw Over Homeowners". Matt makes the argument that many of these homeowners are making their mortgages and they are being foreclosed on anyway. This seems unlikely, and Matt bring a lot of statistics,or even many (any?) homeowners who feel they are being unjustly foreclosed upon. However, he does bring lots of evidence that there is ridiculously sloppy paperwork, and rather than punishing the banks for the poor paperwork, the judge in question is accommodating the banks and allowing them to "fix" (forge?) the paperwork.

One of Taibbi's main argument seems to be that banks have been suggesting that homeowners stop paying so that their loans can be modified, and then when the homeowners stop paying they are foreclosed upon. Of course, the fact that these people need a modification suggests that they are going to default anyway.

Thanks to Seeking Alpha and Ellen Browns' "Homeowners’ Rebellion: Could 62 Million Homes Be Foreclosure-Proof?", I had heard about this issue in August, a couple months earlier than when it hit mainstream media in full force.

Google Trends "foreclosure" in 2010


When I initially heard about the whole foreclosure issue, I figured that ultimately these foreclosures should go through because these people are not paying their mortgages. But after reading Matt's article I'm not so sure. I've been working as a regulator of a financial services industry for a state government for the past couple years. Sloppy paperwork doesn't surprise me. I see sloppy paperwork all the time, and I'm not just talking about companies not complying with arcane regulations that only I would really know - I'm talking about basic statistical work that the companies should know a lot better than I do, or carefully worded legal contract language that is entirely ambiguous. And while we manage to avoid pandering to the industry's whims, my impression is that we are perhaps more the exception than the rule. We have a statute which prohibits companies from knowingly providing misleading or false documents, but we generally don't bring it up. Like the judges in the case, we bend over backwards to let companies fix their mistakes, but in our case the mistakes just waste our time. In this case the mistakes cost people their homes.

I think the perpatrators of this sloppiness should be punished severely. However, one wonders whether the banks should be punished. Many of these banks have ownership which turns over all the time. The investors should not necessarily be punished, either, as they are fraud victims. Rather, one should punish the managers of the banks. I'm talking about the executives who have collected hundreds of billions of dollars in stock options with little downside risk, many of whom owned little in stock at the time of the crash. These people should be going to prison in some cases. Of course we know that's not going to happen.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Mysteries of the rich

Having just watched the documentary Born Rich on Netflix (watch instantly), I've been consumed for the last couple hours in reading about the super-rich. Jamie Johson's articles at Vanity Fair are a great source. I can't really point to any in particular as more worth reading - although his story of a Christmas party was bizarre - but this article on why the rich people congregate together reminded me of Lapham’s Rules of Influence, which I found immensely interesting when I read it briefly in Goodwill one time. I'll have to check that out again.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Linux assessment and standardization

I've had Ubuntu on my laptop for the past couple years. It's dual-partitioned with Windows XP, but oddly enough Ubuntu recognizes my wireless driver correctly while Windows does not. Score for Linux, eh?

However, all is not well with Linux. Before I used Linux, I was optimistic about its prospects. Now I'm baffled at the complexity. The general user interface (GUI) is not as good as Windows. For example, the Control Panel functionality is Windows is much less detailed and more scattered. I haven't been able to get deeply into the system and I don't use the command-line regularly. Even with Ubuntu with its general user focus, that means I'm essentially crippled. I could not even reinstall Flash, which I installed about a year ago, without digging deep into an online blog post and posting a few obscure commands. Recently, my Flash has seemingly broken for many websites; Hulu says that since "express install" is not enabled for my system, I can't view videos. Apparently upgrading from Ubuntu 8.04 sometimes fixes the problem. However, there are lot of people warning that upgrading with a weak integrated graphics card leads to huge issues. So I'm not upgrading. With that all said, I do plan to buy a System76 laptop soon, dual-partition it with Windows XP, and likely run Linux most of the time, just because I agree with the philosophy of a programmer nation.

The best overview that I've seen on the problems with Linux standardization come from Bryant Lunduke's "Linux (Still) Sucks" April 2010 video. This is one of those flash videos I can still watch. While I'm not qualified to give a critique on the specific issues, he points out that there's no standardization and (although he doesn't use the word) significant Balkinization. 300 distros, hundreds of shoddy programs which do the same thing, dozens of frameworks on various things - the list goes on. I'm guessing that this happens for various reasons, but mainly: first, when one founds (or forks) a project, one gets all the credit; second, the initial work is generally the easiest, especially when similar code is already out there. There's also just the general tendency for many people (particularly myself) to be ADHD and do a lot of projects without doing any of them well.

I do not agree with Bryant that getting more commercial software available on Linux is important. Linux is the long-run (20-30 years from now) future as more and more people become programmers and the basic software functions that people need become programmed by these people as open-source. With the exception of games, it's going to make most programmers unemployed and put most software companies out of business. Right now, I can do most of what I want on a Ubuntu laptop in my free-time without paying for anything. Now, that's not technically true - I do want a better spreadsheet than OpenOffice and I may want to play a game (but not likely). At some point I might want a computer-aided design (CAD) program. But that's really what's left that Linux doesn't have, and these specialized users are not a high percent of the market. Gamers are not a huge percent of computer users either and they will come when all the normal people who can trust the OS to browse the web and play music start not buying Windows to save a few hundred bucks on their initial investment. After that they'll start looking for games and play the Linux ones available (assuming WINE isn't good enough to run the Windows games anyway).

This issue of standardization is also timely since in the last few days I've been reading about the convergence of accounting standards (goodbye US GAAP, hello IFRS and international standardization in the next few years). I've also been working on my desktop - and have perhaps messed it up - and have found that my old Compaq is really not going to work with the new motherboard that I got for it (because I bought a new AMD Phenom II CPU) because the "system panel connector" calls for a 20-8 pin and the Compaq has a proprietary 10-1 pin. And now I've scavenged a new case, but I can't put the cd-drive in the new case because the screws aren't long enough. Standards are also a big topic in various other legal and regulatory initiatives (think the Uniform Law Commission for the United States and the various initiatives by the European Union).

Standards encourage choice. Perhaps surprising, perhaps not is that Linux people don't seem to be a big fan of reducing choice and focusing on making a few really good products. See "Would Linux be more popular with LESS choice" on Mint's forum. Mint is the major competitor to Ubuntu, which actually I'm inclined to seriously look at considering how much Ubuntu has seemingly fucked up in the past year or two.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Support Injustice Everywhere

There's no national collection for police misconduct statistics in the United States, so David Packman started his own based on media reports. He does an amazing amount of work, but he's had some tough times both personally (on the receiving end of police misconduct described here) and financially (described here). So check out the website and toss him a few bucks if you have any money.

Police misconduct is something that I have a very strong interest in, and I've been in communication with the local police chief on presenting statistics on these to the public in my small town.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Appetite issues, zinc, and celiac disease

I am a relatively small man, somewhere near the edge of the bottom 5% at 5 feet five inches, 125 pounds. I've been the smallest guy around for as long as I can remember, although I recall a friend's mom once saying that I was a big baby. I've also had dietary and gastrointestinal issues for as long as I can remember. I remember sitting at the table once when I was around 10, stubbornly refusing to eat the pea soup presented to me. The pea soup was an ugly greenish color. I eventually ran away for the evening to the excavated rock clear clearing nearby and hung around for a while, hoping to teach my parents a lesson about forcing me to eat.

Apparently picky eating is common among children, but I suspect there was something wrong with me. My parents suspected something as well and later flew me out for an endocrinology inspection (I grew up in a remote area), but they said I was normal but just small. They did not, however, do any sort of gastrointestinal examination. The endocrinologists were apparently unaware of the long literature which show that zinc supplementation can safely increase growth (see a 2002 meta-analysis which references a 1998 meta-analysis). If they had been aware of this literature, I would probably be a few inches taller.

When I was around 19-20, I became even more sickly. I suffered from constant constipation at first, and when I say constipation I don't mean hard stool so much as I mean incomplete evacuation, the most frustrating and terrible form of constipation. I also developed hemorrhoids, which oddly I was able to cure using some Chinese herb that I bought off the internet (can't remember the name). Embarrassed, I would sneak into the most remote bathroom on the college campus. I visited the nurse and she said I just had a "spastic colon", suggesting it was normal and untreatable. However, she also said it could be a dietary issue, but I could hardly try an elimination diet when I had to eat cafeteria food. I suspected celiac disease on some vague level, but she didn't mention it specifically (even though this like 2006) and I didn't want to go through the endoscopy.

When I went home for the summer, the constipation became diarrhea and I started getting intense stomach pains which made me double over. I went to the doctor and told him I suspected celiac disease; he started with a blood test suggestion but instead I went ahead with a gluten-free diet on my own, and my issues instantly went away. For the average MD, the blood test is almost meaningless - whether it is positive or negative, it is unreliable enough that it likely should be followed up by an expensive endoscopy, which in my area would have meant a flight out of town or a several month wait. So I'm an undiagnosed celiac - doctors technically require the biopsy from the damaged colon, so they might be reluctant to so I have celiac disease at all. Nevertheless, I can tell when I accidentally eat gluten and there is no way I would eat a loaf of bread for a week simply to damage my colon enough to be "diagnosed".

I no longer have gastrointestinal issues at all, really. I spend less than 5 minutes on the toilet on average, usually substantially less than that. Ever since I had the constipation issues in college I have squatted on the toilet which probably has a minor beneficial effect overall, but it does little good when there are underlying diet issues. These days I don't even bother with squatting most of the time because it's so easy sitting. Gastrointestinal issues in the United States are common, and there's the impression that it's normal for it to take a fair amount of time - thus you have people reading magazine on the toilet. I guess I'm biased, but I don't think it is normal.

All this long story to say that I suspect, based on certain factors, that I may be zinc deficient. I've had continuing appetite issues as I try to bulk up and put on muscle, and I've been aware for a while of the scientific literature showing that zinc is related to appetite (and anorexia), but I was reading a scientific article in the Journal of Nutrition and this caught my eye:
After a few days, rats fed a severely zinc-deficient diet fail to gain, and essentially all of the food consumed is used for maintenance. '''Forced-feeding fails to stimulate growth and actually causes zinc-deficient rats to become ill and die sooner than otherwise''' (Chesters and Quarterman 1970, Flanagan, 1984). These observations have stimulated considerable research into the mechanism by which appetite is impaired by zinc deficiency.
Now, these are rats, but sometimes meself-control can only take you so far and underlying biological chemistry has to be addressed. For the past few months, I've been trying to force-feed myself and it hasn't been working - it's made me feel sick. I began supplementing zinc a couple weeks ago for different reasons, and I'm hoping that one side effect could be a stimulated appetite. There seem to be few other appetite stimulants which are as promising as zinc (although antipsychotics are one candidate!). Unfortunately, it's hard to tell one's zinc status since plasma zinc stays in a tight homeostatic range regardless of muscle and bone levels, although plasma levels on the low side of this range could be indicative of deficiency - see the above noted meta-analysis which notes that those with low serum levels are reasonably predictive of beneficial supplementation. However, the National Academies Food and Nutrition Board's 2001 book on the topic says "plasma zinc concentration is preferable because of the lack of contamination of zinc from the erythrocyte" (page 451).

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Example of Microsoft incompetence

While I won't say that this doesn't happen in the "open-source" arena, the Excel Object Model Map does not render correctly in any browser, and requests have been made to update it going back to October of 2009.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

First Past the Post, the world of the best of two evils

Is there any wonder that, as noted in Wikipedia, the "lesser of two evils" principle is closely associated to electoral politics? How could anyone consider this unrelated the first past the post system, in which one is only really allowed to make an affirmative statement about one candidate among the many? In a show of ideology (the ideology being that too many people are stupid), popular Austrianish economists did just that.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The worst word: notwithstanding

Working in a legal environment with no law degree, I'm frequently confused. Notwithstanding is of the words that continues to bother me.

This is a terrible word that I suspect was used historically in a different way than it is used today. Think about it.

Breaking it into two words gets: not withstanding. That it, something does not withstand some contrary contrary statement. Under this reasoning, if I say that "you'll get a bunch of money, notwithstanding some other person's asserting a more legitimate claim for that money", you would get money but if some other person had a more legitimate right, you wouldn't get money.

In fact, the word means the exact opposite. It means "regardless". So if I said the above statement in a legal context, I would be saying that "you'll get a bunch of money even if someone else asserts a more legitimate claim for that money". Thus, it is very easy to confuse those who don't speak legalese.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Change your life

In between procrastinating as I work on a database which would revolutionize my job and enormously increase the efficiency of a certain area of the financial industry, I have been reading Oliver Burkeman's This column will change your life. Written in the spirit of Getting Things Done, it is damn good.

The best post so far is the only one which has the same title as the column itself (link). Key advice:
1) Just pick three things. Don't make a list of everything you plan to do each day - that way lies failure. Instead, choose the three most important things you'd like to get done, preferably including one that's meaningful-but-not-urgent (or you risk spending the whole day putting out fires, which is fulfilling only if you're a firefighter). On a good day, you'll do plenty more, but you get to count as a success any day that you do your three.

2) Do the least enjoyable task first. Otherwise known as the eat-the-frog principle: if you eat a live frog each morning, you have the satisfaction of knowing that nothing else that day can possibly be as unpleasant.

3) Think quantity, not quality. If your life is unstructured, or you often worry about whether you're doing things well enough, return to the rigidities of the factory production line. Decide how many hours you'll dedicate each day or each week to a project, and the reverse of Parkinson's Law often kicks in: the work gets done in the time available.

4) Do one thing every day that scares you - a heuristic from Eleanor Roosevelt with good sense behind it, so long as you don't apply it to how you cross the road or under what circumstances you eat puffer fish. Risk-taking is how everything significant gets achieved, but it's much more comfortable to act according to habit than to take risks - ergo, turn risk-taking into a habit.

Of course, this has been said many times before, by many others. Reading it doesn't make the application any less easy. I have one more thing to add: switching tasks, as I often do, seems rather inefficient. If you can focus for at least one hour, preferably two, on a single task, you'll increase efficiency.