Friday, December 17, 2010

Political Forum Civility

I recently made the mistake of commenting on a post over at NewsBusters. I asked for someone to provide evidence for a statement they made and provided links to and articles indicating that their statement was false. It turned out that they were making a more general comment than I was refuting with my links, but the initial reaction of the individual was to call me a jerk and question my intelligence. Other responders accused PolitiFact and FactCheck of being liberally biased or accused me of being someone who I assume was kicked off the forums in the past.

I spent a good two hours researching my responses to everything, which probably doesn't surprise anyone who has read some of my past entries, especially this one. No one else did much in the way of research that I could see. They spent most of their time calling each other names, insulting various people's intelligences, and/or making vague statements and insisting that they are obviously true. It was quite maddening. However, this got me thinking about how to improve the system.

It seems to me that the entire situation, or at least my involvement in it, could have been avoided if the original statement in question had been backed up with evidence to begin with. And wouldn't it be nice if every forum post was thoroughly evidenced? When it takes half an hour to research a response, it is very unlikely that you'll make said response include a personal attack. Why is that? Because it wouldn't fit in with the tone of a research paper. The other forum members would have also spent half an hour researching each of their comments, so there would be a shared experience and the understanding and empathy that goes along with that. Finally, it's very difficult to sustain anger for thirty minutes of reading about policy. Thus, I think the discourse would start, and remain, civil.

Then, with all these informative links being included, perhaps something could get resolved. First, the validity of various links and/or the arguments therein could be established. One pattern that would emerge pretty quickly is that people bring up the same articles as evidence over and over again. Some would be agreed to be accurate, and others would be shown to be flawed. The forum could be tied to a database of links and their truthiness rating. The comments would then have the links color coded using some well-established and meaningful color code. The only problem remaining is how to decide on the truthfulness of the links. Which, of course, is a huge problem, as evidenced by people dismissing PolitiFact and FactCheck as biased. (I am not saying for certain that they aren't, but no one has yet shown me solid evidence that they are.)

So, anyone have any other ideas on how to keep online political (or other) discussion civil and informative? Perhaps more importantly, does anyone have any idea on how we can at least agree on the facts?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Bo Burnham Saves My Schedule

I didn't think I would have time for a blog post today, but just before I went to bed last night, Bo Burnham posted a song from his Words Words Words special.  This song really grabbed my attention when I heard it in the show, and I'm glad he posted it online so I can share it.

art is dead. (NSFW)

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

New Camera: Cat Photos

I got that new camera I was thinking about getting awhile back. I also used it exactly how I planned. I have tons of new cat photos! My current plan is to post a sampling of cat pictures whenever I don't have a better idea for a post. So, if you don't want this to become another cat blog, leave a comment telling me what you'd like me to write about!

What big eyes Apple has!

Mac was quite happy to find a way up to a new high place.

Apple being cute.  Imagine that.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Biblical Analysis: Samson's Death

25 While they were in high spirits, they shouted, "Bring out Samson to entertain us." So they called Samson out of the prison, and he performed for them.
When they stood him among the pillars, 26 Samson said to the servant who held his hand, "Put me where I can feel the pillars that support the temple, so that I may lean against them." 27 Now the temple was crowded with men and women; all the rulers of the Philistines were there, and on the roof were about three thousand men and women watching Samson perform. 28 Then Samson prayed to the LORD, "O Sovereign LORD, remember me. O God, please strengthen me just once more, and let me with one blow get revenge on the Philistines for my two eyes." 29 Then Samson reached toward the two central pillars on which the temple stood. Bracing himself against them, his right hand on the one and his left hand on the other, 30 Samson said, "Let me die with the Philistines!" Then he pushed with all his might, and down came the temple on the rulers and all the people in it. Thus he killed many more when he died than while he lived. Judges 16: 25-30

I don't think I've ever seen two structural pillars close enough for a single person to put a hand on both at the same time. Consequently, the preceding passage has always made me wonder about the temple Samson died in. Especially after reading it as an adult: What kind of temple can hold three thousand people on the roof and still have two critical supports that close together? I figured someone out there had already done the research, what with it being in the Bible, and the Bible being the most popular book ever.

I wasn't disappointed. John Roskoski, PhD, seems to have written quite a bit on the subject. I first found his paper that describes the size of the temple, among other things. It was "26 feet wide by 47 feet long," according to Dr. B.G. Wood, as quoted by Roskoski. "The pillars would be within the reach of Samson, a huge man according to most scholars, as they were situated approximately six feet apart." This is based on the excavation of Tell Qasile, which is believed to be very similar to the temple in Gaza. With that question somewhat answered, I moved on to the three thousand people on the roof. A roof that is definitely too small for three thousand people.

John Roskoski's article on Samson's death addressed the number of people in the section appropriately titled "How Many People?"
The Hebrew term ‘elep represents the numeral 1,000. However, there are several specialized meanings attached to this term. One meaning is that the term represents the “largest basic division of leadership in political oversight or military leadership.” Also, “it is occasionally alleged that since ‘elep means a company of a thousand men it could mean any military unit, even of reduced strength” (Scott 1980: 48). Therefore, it seems as though the text is referring to three distinct contingencies that were in attendance, in addition to the followers of Dagon who filled the temple.
I have no way of really evaluating the information in that section. For now, I will accept it as it is. I will say that it doesn't strike me as a particularly strong argument, though. It seems odd to have to use some specialized meaning of a word in order for it to make sense. We go from "three thousand men and women" to "three distinct contingencies." It seems rather vague.

For the record, my favorite fact comes from a footnote in the first paper by Roskoski: "The columns were wider at the top and tapered at the bottom, a result of inverting the cypress trunk so to prevent sprouting once in place." I had no idea that was a problem, and I love the mental image that comes to mind when imagining some engineer encountering that problem for the first time.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Trade Deficits and Trading

There's been a lot of talk over the years about the trade deficit as concerns imports and exports. I understand that concept - we buy more than we sell, so money is leaving the country. I also understand, roughly, that that's a bad thing. Well, I used to understand that. Looking at a section of the previous link, there seem to be a lot of smart people that think trade deficits could be a good thing. That may be a topic for later.

I've been curious as to whether money is actually leaving the country, overall. This balance of trade really only covers the import and export of physical goods and real services, as near as I can tell. I can find no indication that the portion of treasury auctions purchased by foreign entities counts as either an export or import. This statistic also doesn't count profits and losses from stock trades, bonds, forex trades, etc.

Awesomely enough, some of that data can be found. It looks like I could spend a few years sifting through the data at the Treasury International Capital (TIC) site. It took me most of a day to read the FAQ! But, there's some absolutely great data, such as this grand total table of foreign transactions. And these grand total tables of foreign liabilities and foreign claims. And this other table of derivatives contracts stuff. There's a lot of information to read on how to use all this information. Then there's this table of everything (Flow of Funds Accounts) over at the Federal Reserve statistics site.

Perhaps you can see why I said I found a lot more information than I expected to. I still don't think this covers everything. For one, the FAQ says there are a lot of errors due to a variety of factors. And even with all these statistics being complete, I don't think they would be able to answer my question. I'm still not sure if these show any profitability in all these trades, and I'm almost positive they don't cover forex transactions, since that has an average daily volume of $3.98 trillion, and I don't see any figures with large enough values to cover that. I have to admit that I'm tired of looking into it at the moment. However, if anyone has the answer, or even just another piece of the puzzle, please do let me know in the comments!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Filler: Bug Videos

I was talking with a friend the other day and mentioned videos of bugs flying around porch lights and the like. Because I like the videos, but mostly because I found a lot more information than I was planning to for today's scheduled blog post, I'll share the videos I had in mind while talking with my friend.

They're both from the same person - Katers17 on youtube. There may be better ones out there. I really haven't ever looked. As I said, this is filler. Feel free to share your favorite bug video(s) in the comments, though!
  1. Night Light
  2. Night Light 2: Firefly Bug Ballet

Monday, October 18, 2010

Nerd to Jock

I'm making the transition from nerd to jock. It doesn't surprise me that you don't believe me, which is why I'm presenting evidence!

A couple of years ago, I went to Microsoft Tech-Ed and got 14 t-shirts! A couple were medium-sized and so I gave them away, but I'm pretty sure I kept the rest. And added them to my collection of IBM t-shirts. That is to say, virtually all my t-shirts were related to technology companies. My mom tried her best to counteract this by buying me the occasional t-shirt that she found hilarious, but I don't think I'd go so far as to say that they made me less nerdy.

Recently, however, I've been running [I didn't end up running in this 5K due to food poisoning] some 5Ks and other benefit things that give out t-shirts. Thus, my t-shirt wardrobe is gradually transitioning from technology t-shirts to running t-shirts. Plus, I wrote recently about football, though admittedly I was on the outside of the conversation. Still, incontrovertible evidence that I am changing from being a nerd to being a jock!

To be fair, there is some evidence that this is a very slow process in its earliest stages. But only a little bit of evidence, really. And I suppose that this post kind of contradicts itself. And all but one of the fitness-related tags below are new....

Friday, October 15, 2010

Quantum Tunneling and The Matrix

As I'm sure you know, quantum tunneling involves a particle not impacting a barrier. One would expect that a particle hitting a barrier would bounce off, just like a baseball off a wall [I wanted to link that to a clip of The Great Escape with Hilts in his cell, but due to copyright enforcement the closest I can get is the final scene - SPOILER ALERT]. A curious thing can happen with individual particles in quantum mechanics, though. There's a probability, dependent upon the speed and mass of the particle and the thickness and other properties of the barrier, that the particle will tunnel through and appear on the other side. This has a number of absolutely cool applications: pressure sensors, a bunch of physics and semiconductor stuff, and of course the scanning tunneling microscope.

All this strikes me as similar to something else, though, and that is the errors in collision detection that some games have. I had a friend in high school that made an awesome QBasic platformer called Bouncy, which was just a bouncy ball that had to bounce around a screen to get to the exit. In some of the early versions, it was quite possible to get bouncing so fast that you'd run straight through the platform you were on and die. The probability of going through the platform was dependent upon your speed, the thickness of the platform, and the length of time between calculations. Sounds quite a lot like quantum tunneling! Which is why I think we're in The Matrix, and that our simulation needs to calculate things at a finer time resolution. Quantum mechanics is very probably just a programming error. Q.E.D.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dangerous Fox vs Invaluable Olbermann and Maddow: Part II

In my last entry, I went over the negative sides of the implication that the White House was incorrect in calling Fox News dangerous while praising Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow as invaluable was false. I looked at a sample of NewsBusters articles on Rachel Maddow, and listed the arguments Media Matters made for Fox News being dangerous. The Fox News part stands on its own. Unfortunately, in order to make a decision on Rachel Maddow, you'll have to combine these two posts and weigh the NewsBusters articles against her videos below. For Keith Olbermann, I have only listed a few videos, which can't be weighed against any NewsBusters articles. As I mentioned on Monday, their search feature was removed. It has since reappeared, so perhaps I will write a Part III, but probably not. If you have good examples of Olbermann being less than invaluable, share them in the comments of Part I!
I found at least a few of the above videos invaluable, personally. This is by no means an exhaustive list of good segments. It is much harder to browse video clips than blog posts, currently. It also doesn't include (many) segments that show them being vindictive, save that last one. Anyway, do you have other favorite clips from The Rachel Maddow Show or Countdown with Keith Olbermann? Share them below in the comments!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dangerous Fox vs Invaluable Olbermann and Maddow: Part I

As I mentioned in my post on looking for conservative facts, I've been reading the NewsBusters blog. They've taken issue with Barack Obama calling Fox News dangerous while White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton called Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow invaluable. I decided to investigate a bit. First, let's look at what each side has to say about the other.

I'll start with NewsBusters' articles about Rachel Maddow, since I was already at the site. NewsBusters' search is done using a Google custom search, so this is effectively random stories. Because of this randomness, I wanted a good sample size, so this is approximately two pages worth:
So, Rachel Maddow is liberal, possibly distorts a fact on her show every once in awhile, is liberal, makes lots of money, is liberal, possibly hypocritical, and is liberal. This is what NewsBusters has to say about Rachel Maddow at random times. I have to say that I wasn't too terribly impressed. NB's recent site redesign does not include a search box anymore, and this post is very long (for me) already. Consequently, I'll be skipping Keith Olbermann articles. It should be noted that Keith Olbermann is probably a more divisive figure, though.

Contrast that to what MediaMatters has to say about Fox News. MediaMatters has wonderful search functionality, and they regularly do issue-summary articles, so I didn't have to do a random sampling at all.
Fox's dangerousness is pretty well documented by MediaMatters. It's a rare day when most every major program on Fox doesn't have an article or blog post on it. Most of those entries are related, showing a long history of coordinated efforts at presenting their agenda, often with disputed facts and other problems.

With the negative stuff out of the way, I'll explore the other half of the argument in my next entry: Does Maddow (and/or Olbermann) provide any sort of invaluable service? In the meantime, please comment below if you have more and/or better examples of Maddow (or Olbermann) being bad, or of Fox being dangerous. If you disagree with my characterization of any of these links, or the opinions therein, then please enlighten me!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Health Care Reform: Federal Funding of Abortions

I realize I'm a bit late to this party, but while researching for another blog post, I read this article accusing Maddow of lying about abortion funding over at NewsBusters.
Count me as a fan of the cite-the-page-numbers trick as well. I'm especially enamored of what's in the section of the Senate health bill immediately preceding the one cited by Maddow (follow this link for the bill; see page 2,071) The section is titled as follows, with capitalized letters in the original -- "ABORTIONS FOR WHICH PUBLIC FUNDING IS ALLOWED".

As in, public funding for abortions. Once again, a la Maddow -- public funding for abortions. A third time, in case she still misses it -- P-U-B-L-I-C F-U-N-D-I-N-G F-O-R A-B-O-R-T-I-O-N-S.

Gee, where would Congressman Stupak get that impression?

Who knows, maybe the section cited by Maddow trumps the one I'm referring to. The bill is written in such dense legalese that only high clergy of the courts would be able to decipher it and they wouldn't agree on the language either. [emphasis removed because copy/and paste doesn't keep boldness and I didn't want to add "[emphasis in original]" editor's notes]
I went ahead and visited the pdf link and went to page 2070-2071:
(A) IN GENERAL. — Notwithstanding any other provision of this title (or any amendment made by this title) —
    (i) nothing in this title (or any amendment made by this title), shall be construed to require a qualified health plan to provide coverage of services described in subparagraph (B)(i) or (B)(ii) as part of its essential health benefits for any plan year; and
    (ii) subject to subsection (a), the issuer of a qualified health plan shall determine whether or not the plan provides coverage of services described in subparagraph (B)(i) or (B)(ii) as part of such benefits for the plan year.
The services described in this clause are abortions for which the expenditure of Federal funds appropriated for the Department of Health and Human Services is not permitted, based on the law as in effect as of the date that is 6 months before the beginning of the plan year involved.
The services described in this clause are abortions for which the expenditure of Federal funds appropriated for the Department of Health and Human Services is permitted, based on the law as in effect as of the date that is 6 months before the beginning of the plan year involved.
I'm not a "high clergy of the court" but I think I deciphered it without much trouble. Paragraph (A)(i) states that abortion coverage is not required by any health plan. Paragraph (A)(ii) says that the plan issuer has the responsibility of determining what abortion coverage is included in the plan. This has consequences in the next section which describes how payment for such coverage must be separately accounted for such that no Federal funds are used for abortion coverage - unless specifically allowed. What does it mean for abortions to be allowed/prohibited from using Federal funds? That is described in the next two paragraphs. Rather, it is referenced in those paragraphs. This legislation does not alter the existing abortion funding laws. It just states that when determining how abortions are classified for funding purposes, the law as stated six months prior to the plan year shall be used. This gives time for lawyers to go over existing law, brochures to be printed and distributed, etc. It makes perfect sense to me.

So, Rachel Maddow was much more correct in her analysis than NewsBusters was. For those curious, current Federal abortion funding is based mostly on the Hyde Amendment. This allowed federal funding for abortions only in the case of rape, incest, or life endangerment. Others, more credible than I, have also verified that the health reform legislation did not increase federal funding of abortion.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

What's Been Wasting My Time

I'm currently working on a couple posts that require some research (maybe a few posts, depending on how much research I do). Consequently, this post is pretty much just filler.

A couple of months ago, I found Freddie Wong's youtube channel. I've really enjoyed his videos. They tend to involve video game jokes, which are always fun. To get a bit more nerdy, check out his second channel where he discusses the editing and other behind the scenes type stuff. It's a decent way to waste time, if nothing else! The quality is also pretty good considering they are weekly videos.

A few of my favorites:
Chrono Trigger: Short Action Scene
Flower Warfare - Psychedelic Action Scene
Time Crisis - Ft. Andy Whitfield
Gun Size Matters (with Shenae Grimes!)

Monday, October 4, 2010

Future TV Series Won't Be Watched

I've decided to not watch TV shows until they enter their second or third season, at least. There will be exceptions to this, I'm sure, but I'm tired of becoming interested in a story and getting attached to the characters only to have the show canceled. I know I'm not the only one that is tired of this happening. As more people give up, the problem is likely to get worse, too.

Just compare the story of Cheers' first season and following success to that of any other show in the last decade. No, Cheers would have been canceled halfway through it's first season. Or earlier - take the recent canceling of Lone Star after only two episodes. That's rather ridiculous, in my opinion. I wonder if Lone Star was scheduled for a full 20+ episode season, or if they were doing the frustrating 9 to 14 episode half-seasons.

Actually, I had subscribed to Lone Star on Hulu despite the horrible ads that didn't interest me in the slightest except for having Jon Voight. I hadn't gotten around to actually watching the pilot episode before its cancellation was announced. I wonder if Hulu viewership is counted in the decision making process, or if TV viewership is all that matters, still. I had briefly considered the possibility that, in the future, new shows wouldn't be produced for TV until a successful run as a web series, like The Guild. I don't think people used to watching online shows would all tune in at one particular time when it transitioned to broadcast, though.

Anyway, here are some shows that I was particularly sad got canceled so early, even if I didn't watch them all as they came out. Nice and alphabetized for you!

I'll use Hulu to watch those shows I do decide to follow after their probationary period. My TV is useless to me except for watching tennis. Hulu even has excellent movies they make available every once in awhile. Like Real Genius or Glory! Goodbye broadcast TV.

Friday, October 1, 2010

My Failure as a Man

It's time to report one of my few failures. The last time was a few years ago when I failed as a homeowner. This time, I failed at being a man. Or at being manly. Or at being a stereotypical man. Whatever your view of being a man and/or manly is.

The block I grew up on, where my parents still live, threw a block party a couple weeks ago. As the families trickled in, there was the usual separation - the husbands positioned themselves near the food and discussed manly things and the wives went off to gossip, or whatever it is wives do. Thinking only of the food, I found myself stuck with the men, in unfamiliar territory.

You see, there was frequent talk of that manliest of manly sports: football. "Did you see the K-State game yesterday?" "That was an awesome game!" "I can't believe the Chiefs won!" "[Some guy] did [some play]!" And as each new husband arrived, it started again: "Boy, that was some game!" Players were gradually substituted, and the same verbal plays were repeated over and over. There was no defense in this conversation, so the plays worked every time.

They had a common language; a common experience on which to base their communication. I knew what they were talking about, generally, but I didn't see either game - or know they were on - and I didn't know what each of the exciting things they were talking about were, specifically. I could have parroted some of the more common phrases, but that wouldn't necessarily be intelligible.

There was nothing I could do but stay quiet and hope no one noticed my lack of knowledge. Thankfully, there seems to be an almost-universal rule of not engaging others in conversation. Except that the football conversation started somehow.... Perhaps I didn't have the right stance? Or maybe I wasn't making strong eye contact like manly football watchers do? Did I make too much eye contact? I was probably expected to have grunted or something. Or maybe my soft hands and pale skin gives me away as someone who sits in front of their computer all day. I suppose it's most likely that I didn't show the proper appreciation for the insightful commentary on why the local team won.

There are other topics of conversation that men have, but they don't seem to be nearly as universal as football. For example, I've been known to make the occasional Star Trek reference (see previous two links) among friends, or discuss video games and the like. But, those aren't reliable topics of conversation when it comes to gatherings of pseudorandom males (i.e., casual acquaintances). I even suck at the video game talk. I don't keep up with the latest games, usually, and I've never owned a console. I didn't even play the classic games, for the most part. I don't often get the references to awesome character X, or video game series Y. I'm afraid I fail again.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Gardening 101

Tuesday night is the evening before trash day, and hence the time when I take out the garbage. I also like to weed my lawn around this time - technically it's usually around 12-1am on Wednesday morning. When you weed the lawn when the trash can is already at the curb, you can avoid the decomposing yard waste stinking up your garage. It would be better to use those paper yard waste bags, I suppose, but I never seem to have those on hand, and I definitely wouldn't fill one up with just weeds. Even though I have a lot of weeds.

I have a wide variety of weeds, too. There are a few growing in the back that get to be almost two feet high in just a couple of weeks. When I pull them, it smells vaguely like something vegetable-y I've eaten in the past. Though, given what I like to eat, that doesn't mean what I'm remembering was a quality ingredient.

This is where my first rule of weeding comes in: Nothing worthwhile grows that quickly. If it's taller than the (living) grass after a week of growing, it gets pulled. Maybe these aromatic weeds are actually wonderful delicacies, but I doubt it. I would have taken pictures so someone out there could enlighten me as to their culinary uses, if any, but as I mentioned, I weed late at night. I think a flash would produce bad pictures and maybe even disturb the sleep of a neighbor or two. And my camera is locked in my car and is therefore too much of a hassle to get.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Trimming Expenses

After my friend Brian's post about trimming expenses, I've been thinking about my own complete lack of doing so. It's a bit of a problem, potentially.

I've been eating out a lot more than usual, lately. I've been driving more than usual, too, partially as a result of eating out more. I'll need to make repairs to my car pretty soon, and I'm not sure how much those will be yet. Speaking of repairs, I also repaired my file server, to an extent. I bought a couple 2TB hard drives for $99.99 each. I was able to save most of my files, and all of my important files, so that was good. Still, $200.

I'm also thinking of buying things that I really don't need at all. For example, I want to buy another digital camera. Why? Because I keep one in the car to take pictures of personalized license plates. Why does that mean I need two? Because I never have one with me when the cats are doing cute things, and taking videos of cute cats is the quickest way to youtube stardom! I fully recognize that this is not the best investment, but I'll probably end up doing it before too long.

Then there's utilities. The hot weather of late has skyrocketed my power bill along with everyone else's. I've also tried watering my lawn to get some grass seed to grow. That didn't really work, but I'm sure my next water bill will be higher than I've ever seen it. I also bought that new grass seed, some starter fertilizer, and a small spreader at The Home Depot using gift cards. And for the little remaining grass I have combined with the small amount of new grass that came up, I'll need a new lawnmower soon. I'd like a nice quiet electric one, which apparently means $300 or so. I'd also like to avoid the battery problems people have reported, which means $200 or so instead, but having to use an extension cord. So far, I'm leaning toward this cordless 36V mower. We'll see.

Finally, I've been donating (or pledging to donate) more to charity. If that isn't a stupid use of money, I don't know what is! Seriously, though, I'm going to try eating at home more often again. When I do, it tends to be really cheap. Hopefully the fall brings more reasonableness to my power bill, and whatever lawn mower I buy is reliable and durable. You all can hope that I don't buy that extra camera so that you're not flooded with videos of my cats. And you can also thank me for keeping the economy going these past few months!

Friday, September 24, 2010

Combining Two Food Posts

I have talked before of my love for macaroni and cheese. If my love for macaroni didn't come across in that post, rest assured that I love macaroni. I have also alluded to my worship of Parmesan cheese.

Imagine my joy, then, when inspiration struck to combine these two items into THE ULTIMATE CULINARY CREATION. I went about my usual macaroni and cheese process and wound up with a wonderful pot of macaroni for lunch. Oh no! I ate it all and forgot to add the Parmesan cheese!

No matter, I was having macaroni and cheese for lunch the very next day! How fortuitous! And unsurprising. This time, I set out the Parmesan right next to the butter so I wouldn't forget. And I didn't! After the usual preparation, I took a couple of bites and it was as excellent as always. I sprinkled a bit of Parmesan in a small area, and it was glorious! Well, it mostly tasted of Parmesan, but that's glorious! I sprinkled a bit more over the entire top and stirred it in. I sprinkled a bit more over the entire top and stirred it in. Eh, maybe one more time. Three is a good number, but it's definitely not an OCD thing.

And then I ate it. And with the Parmesan stirred in, it tasted like my regular macaroni and cheese. Perhaps someone with a more refined palate could appreciate it more. I was disappointed. On the other hand, my macaroni and cheese preparation process doesn't have to change, and my minimal ingredient list increases the availability of my most common meal (see Single Point of Failure).

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Looking For Conservative Facts

I like reading most of the articles on Media Matters for America. They have a nice format where they will outline the claim(s) of some conservative, then detail some facts in rebuttal. In addition to factual errors, they'll discuss biased reporting, misleading on-screen graphics, or anything else they take issue with. There is apparently enough misinformation out there for them to write several research articles and several blog posts a day.

The blog posts, incidentally, are less fun to read. They often use name calling in their arguments and are lighter on the facts. It's where the quicker and smaller updates happen, though, so I still give them a read most of the time.

Media Matters is definitely a liberal website. For example, almost all of their articles are debunking claims made on Fox News. I don't think this is a complete picture of the world. I'd really like to hear conservatives countering liberal reporting with supporting facts.

Unfortunately, I haven't been able to find those facts. The closest thing I've been able to find is the Media Research Center. Mostly, their articles are just reporting that some reporting was done, and we are supposed to recognize the liberal bias - somehow. They rarely counter with facts, which is a bit disappointing. There's also (a project of the Media Research Center), but that has the same problem of being light on facts.

Maybe that's just the way things are, currently. Perhaps liberals have facts to back up their positions - or at least tear down the opposition, and conservatives just complain that reporting they don't like is liberal. But there have to be some facts somewhere, right?

Amazingly enough, the best source I've found for "liberal-media" bashing is The Daily Show. However, most of their media bashing is showing the ridiculousness of the reporting and not usually an issue with the facts or arguments. Except when they cover Fox News. is useful in fact checking politicians, but they rarely cover the media directly, so they are usually only active around election time. They do an excellent job of remaining impartial, though. FiveThirtyEight does an excellent job of discussing political bias in polls, among other things, but this only helps indirectly. I know that Rasmussen tends to favor conservatives, so Fox News uses it a lot, but there aren't always matching polls from other institutions readily available to compare to.

Which is another problem entirely - facts themselves are often biased. People choose the poll with the results they want to report. Conservative think tanks will make certain assumptions in their studies to yield facts that support the conservative point of view. I imagine there are probably some liberal think tanks that are similarly biased in their studies, but there doesn't appear to be anyone calling them out on it. So, I humbly ask for help. Where do you go when you want to be informed (with facts) on the conservative side of things, and how can you trust those facts?

Monday, September 20, 2010


A few months ago, I was doing my regular shopping at Walmart. Among other things, I bought two cans of Parmesan cheese. I wasn't entirely sure I bought them at the time, though.

I wasn't paying all that much attention, but it looked like the kind lady at the register had put one of the cans in the bag without scanning it. I consider myself a pretty moral and honest person, but I didn't seriously consider pointing it out. It'd be nice if my subconscious had quickly ruled out that course of action as either unnecessary or inefficient; it'd be even nicer if I believed that to be true.

No, I immediately justified the unintentional discount in several ways. My subconscious was definitely thinking, but it was thinking greedily. But, when you think about it, they've overcharged me for a couple items in the past. And I definitely do way more than my fair share of correcting the product placements on the shelves. And when I take my shopping cart to the car, I always put it back in its designated area - and compact the carts already there, too! Why, I'll even go out of my way to remove shopping carts from the handicapped spaces when I see them. And I do give Walmart a lot of regular business. Retailers build these kinds of mistakes into their prices, after all.

In my defense, there were also a couple of points in Walmart's favor in the battle in my head. I fully appreciated that not ringing up the Parmesan cheese would throw off their inventory until their next manual recount. And, it is Parmesan cheese, and if there was ever a product that deserved to be paid for, it is cheese - especially Parmesan! But I've done cycle counting, and the mistake would be corrected remarkably shortly - if people were doing their jobs properly. And food does taste better when it's free.

Yeah, that Parmesan was going to stay mine. Guilt lasts until you forget about it, and that was likely to be before bed. Parmesan lasts all the way until you eat it (which wasn't actually all that much longer)!

It's remarkable how easy it was to justify an action I knew was wrong. Incidentally, this post is proof that I underestimated my memory when it comes to guilt. I'm sure I understated the awesomeness of Parmesan cheese, too, though. Also, I did check the receipt on my way out, so I didn't leave the store thinking I'd stolen cheese. I still like to think I would have gone back and paid for it had I seen that it was, in fact, missed.

Friday, September 17, 2010

I Think I Could Learn Something From Paige Worthy

It's hard for me to call my writing inspired, but this post was inspired by the wonderful writing of the always lovely Paige Worthy. The stories she tells have a way of making me feel like my life is lacking something, though. For example, compare a recent meal of hers with a recent eating experience of mine:

For the fourth meal in a row, I prepare to make a box of Great Value macaroni and cheese. During a commercial break in Modern Marvels, I pre-scrub my macaroni and cheese pot (its only purpose), a black plate, and a small spoon until they are all but clean. I carefully add two small drops of dish soap into the pot and clean and rinse the three required dishes. I let them dry until the next commercial break, when I fill the pot with water and turn the burner on high.

The busiest part of the meal has begun. As quickly as possible, the box of macaroni is opened, the cheese packed down into the bottom of its packet, and a sausage and a stick of butter extracted from the fridge.

A long slice down the length and another to complete the cut, and the sausage is perfectly halved on the plate. Three quick strokes cause two chunks to fall off the end, each pair not quite exactly a quarter of an inch thick - just to prove I don't have OCD. The sausage chunks enter the warming water. A lick of each side of the knife ensures no flavor goes to waste, and makes the blade clean of all sausage pieces before cutting the butter - two and two thirds tablespoons that will rest on the cheese packet.

Soon, the water reaches a boil and the macaroni cascades from the box. I stir in clockwise circles, counterclockwise circles, and then a nice grid pattern. This is repeated every couple of minutes: nary a noodle can stick to the bottom. At long last, it's time to drain the macaroni. Thus the plate returns as a pot lid, and the last of the water is shaken out.

The appropriate amount of milk is splashed over the noodles after the butter and cheese have been added. Stirring until the butter is melted hurts as the small spoon digs into my index finger, but I persevere! I place the pot on a couple of cork trivets I've had since college and eat on the couch. As I sit down and see today's wondrous engineering topic on the TV, I have a moment of pride in my own efficiency in cooking. However, I savor the Modern Marvels and barely notice when I reach the end of the macaroni and cheese.

And for dinner, four grilled cheese sandwiches consisting of nothing but eight pieces of bread and four slices of American cheese. All cooked with minimal entropy. And minimal spontaneity.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Q&A: How Many More Topics Do You Have?

Zero! The answer is zero! Wow, that was a quick blog post. Want more? If so, let me know what you want me to talk about! It can be about anything. Just because most of my recent posts have been financial in nature doesn't mean that's all I will discuss. So, give me some ideas!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Q&A: Should I Buy a Bigger House for Roommates?

Following last week's post on the ROI of rental properties, another interesting question is whether you should buy a small one-bedroom condo (for example) to keep expenses low, or a three- or four-bedroom house to gain some rental income. There are two main considerations: ROI and overall financial safety.

As far as ROI is concerned, I think it's very similar to last week's calculations. There are some differences in the details, though. Your principal and interest (P&I) payment will be higher, but when determining the ROI on the rental portion of your property, I think it should be specified as the difference between the large house's payment and the small home's P&I. You would have had the base P&I payment anyway, so it's not really a cost associated with the renters. Similarly for most of the expenses. Property taxes and insurance will be higher for a larger house, usually. Maintenance costs will be higher with the increased wear and tear, and you'll need a larger refrigerator, but maintenance costs haven't risen that much for me. Utilities will be higher, but probably not terribly so.

Your investment amount should be the increase in down payment, or the difference in overall home value. In this scenario, I am strongly inclined to use the overall home value in my calculations. This gets into the overall financial safety aspect. A pure rental property can be abandoned and sold off if you don't want to deal with renters anymore. If you get tired of having roommates, you can kick them out, but you still have to pay for the entire house. Lowering your expenses requires moving and the house-buying-and-selling process and headaches associated with it.

Consequently, I think it is very important to buy a house with many financial cushions included, even when you plan on having roommates. As I mentioned ages ago, I bought my home knowing I could afford the payments and other costs using just my base salary after all my preferred expenses had been taken out - 401(k) contributions, IRA contributions, miscellaneous spending money. Each of these expenses was a cushion, and any rental income was a nice bonus.

And there are other reasons why you may not have roommates anymore. I would guess that most people are single when they contemplate having roommates in a house they are buying. It's possible you meet that special someone that thinks you're a special someone, too. Roommates may get in the way then. It's possible that special someone comes with a second income that's much higher than that provided by roommates, but they might also be going (back) to school, or you might be having kids right away and one of you will be staying home. Either way, it'd be nice to be able to spend your first year together in wedded bliss, rather than struggling to downgrade your home.

For me, it seemed to make sense to buy a bit bigger. It's definitely worked out so far. On the other hand, I'd have a much lower debt than I have now, and might have purchased a standalone rental property already. It's hard to know exactly how things would have been different, but I can't say I've had any major regrets with my house and/or roommate situation.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Q&A: What's My ROI on My Rental Property

When evaluating the return on investment of a rental property, you have a few different options on which numbers to use. The numbers depend on what exactly you consider income, and/or what exactly you consider an expense, and what exactly you consider your initial investment.

On the income and expense side, you have the following:

  • (+) Rent.
  • (-) Principal and interest payment.
  • (-) Property taxes.
  • (-) Homeowner's insurance. The cost of homeowner's insurance will vary based on location, age of the house, construction type, environmental factors, etc. Mine costs 0.4% of my home value, so I've been using that as a starting point.
  • (-) Maintenance costs. For my house, I estimate 1% of my home value in maintenance costs each year. For a rental property, I think I'd estimate 2%. A common rule of thumb is to use 3%, and you can't really go wrong planning conservatively.
  • (-) Utilities. This depends on the setup you have for rent - utilities included, a fraction of utilities per room, or utilities in the name of the tenants. In other words, it might not be applicable, but it's not really optional.
  • (+ optional) Principal portion of P&I, because it is adding equity to your net worth, but it doesn't help your cash flow.
  • (+/- didn't forget about it) Taxes. The interest portion of your P&I isn't directly tax deductible like it is for your primary home, but it is a business expense that offsets your business income. (Your business in this case is being a slum lord.) This applies to all expenses above, plus depreciation of the house, if you go that route. Tax laws concerning business income and losses are somewhat complicated, so I'm not going to go into them.

The net income is fairly straightforward to calculate once you choose what exactly you're including. It's much harder to estimate before you buy the property, unfortunately. Other than the estimates I listed above for insurance and maintenance, many house listings include the previous year's tax amount. Some will also include a history of utility costs, but you usually have to talk to the listing agent and/or current owner. Estimating the rent you can charge requires looking at rooms and/or houses in the area. I use and Google Maps (with the "Real estate" overlay enabled under the "More" button/menu and the Listing type selected as "For rent"). Then, just to be safe, I assume I will rent to college students that move out every summer and leave me with a 25% vacancy rate.

After all that, you find yourself with a net monthly income. You then have to determine how you want to calculate your return on investment. It comes down to whether you consider your initial investment as the amount of cash you parted with - your down payment, or the amount that you're responsible for - the total property value. You can also reevaluate your return on investment at any time using your current equity as your investment amount.

Personally, I'm not a fan of using your current equity to reevaluate. The theory is that as your equity increases, you can increase your ROI by selling the house and using the increased equity to get a new house (or two) with higher income potential. To me, this seems like messing with a good thing. I also hate being in debt, so this might be an entirely emotional position on my part. I also don't view increased equity from home appreciation as an increase in your investment. It's more of an unrealized gain. The only equity I would count is principal reduction, but in that case I would definitely include the principal portion of the P&I as income. The amortization schedule, where the principal portion increases each month, will then take care of the principal reduction to some extent.

Naturally, I made a calculator for this. Utilities aren't included because of the complexity in options. "Maintenance Costs" is a good place to tack that on if you need to. It's fun to play with, if nothing else. I view my maintenance cost and vacancy rate assumptions as conservative. If I can have a positive ROI even with these estimates, I consider it a win. Any extra is a nice bonus. Plus, rent will increase with inflation while P&I should remain constant (until it goes away completely!).

Home Value ($):
Down Payment ($):
Interest Rate (%):
Property Taxes / Year ($):
Homeowner's Insurance / Year ($):
Rent Income / Month ($):
Vacancy Rate (%):
Maintenance Costs / Year ($):
Count Principal as Income?
Yearly ROI?
P&I Monthly Costs Monthly Income Net Income ROI down payment ROI total value

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Divisibility by Nine

When I was a GTA at The University of Kansas, I once taught a proof for a number being divisible by nine if and only if the sum of its digits is divisible by nine. I stumbled across the proof the other day and thought I'd go ahead and share it. It's one of my favorites, though I've since learned that it is by no means the simplest. The pdf linked to at the bottom includes multiple proofs related to divisibility rules. It uses modular arithmetic, though, and I've never had an intuitive grasp of that. This proof makes more sense to me, even if it is hard to read. Let me tell you, it was even harder to write in HTML, as I recall - so many subscripts and superscripts!


If a number is divisible by 9, then the sum of its digits is divisible by 9

A number n with digits [most significant] dk, dk-1, ... , d1, d0 [least significant] can be rewitten as dk*10k + dk-1*10k-1 + ... + d1*10 + d0

We start by observing that 10x = 10x - 1 + 1

Note: 10x - 1     =     9*10x-1 + 9*10x-2 + ... + 9*102 + 9*10 + 9     =     9*(10x-1 + 10x-2 + ... + 102 + 10 + 1)

Thus, our number in convoluted form is:
dk*(9*(10k-1 + ... + 1) + 1) + dk-1*(9*(10k-2 + ... + 1) + 1) + ... + d1*(9*(1) + 1) + d0*(1)

If we factor out everything with a 9 in it, we are left with:
9*(dk(10k-1 + ... + 1) + dk-1(10k-2 + ... + 1) + ... + d1(1)) + [dk + dk-1 + ... + d2 + d1 + d0]

We can see from here that if a number is divisible by 9, then a 9 must be able to be factored out of the part in []'s (a 9 is already factored from the left part. Note that if the digits are divisible by 9, then the number is divisible by 9, too. This follows since we did direct algebraic manipulation of the number without any implications (which are only one way). Thus, a number is divisible by 9 IF AND ONLY IF the sum of its digits is divisible by 9

The same proof except for the last paragraph is used to prove the same about divisibility by 3, since 9 is divisible by 3 on the left side.

------------------------------------ [pdf]

Monday, September 6, 2010

Q&A: What's a good down payment size?

This is actually quite a complicated question. For one, things can change rapidly. For example, the interest rate penalties for high loan to value (LTV) ratios used to be higher. I believe they have been reduced in many cases as part of the effort to improve the housing market. On the other hand, a lot of loan regulations have gotten stricter to avoid bad loans entering the market again. Basically, rate changes related to your LTV need to be discussed with your lender.

Private Mortgage Insurance (PMI) still needs to be purchased when your LTV is greater than 80%. PMI is typically equivalent to a 0.50% to 0.75% interest rate hike for the period it needs to be paid. Some lenders advertise PMI-free loans even when your LTV is greater than 80%. The PMI still has to be purchased, but for these loans the lender buys it. They will pass this cost on to you via a higher interest rate - there is no such thing as a free lunch. Because your interest rate won't change for the life of a standard 30-year fixed rate mortgage, this interest rate, even if it results in lower monthly costs than buying PMI, could very well cost you more in the long run. Again, go over the details with your lender.

When it comes to deciding between making a larger down payment and buying PMI (or accepting a higher interest rate to cover PMI expenses), you have to look at the best use of your money. My previous post on whether or not to prepay your mortgage could be helpful in evaluating your options. Personally, I would rather avoid PMI than invest a few thousand dollars, say. Whatever you invest that money in would have to earn you more than the PMI payments and extra principal and interest payment amount (minus taxes on the interest and PMI, since PMI is tax deductible like mortgage interest). In fact, this should be considered an addendum to my previous post: The return needed to overcome PMI probably warrants paying extra principal at least until you reach 80% LTV. Psychologically, I just hate the idea of paying private mortgage insurance because it only benefits the lender.

Paying extra principal at the beginning such that you have less than 80% LTV ratio mostly follows my previous post's recommendations. The only difference is that the extra principal in this case does reduce your minimum monthly payment. When determining the terms of your loan, though, you have another option to reduce your payment: you can pay points to reduce your interest rate. As you can see using my refinancing calculator, reducing your interest rate can reduce the interest portion of your payment more than the total monthly payment amount in some cases. You have a choice in which number you use in determining your break even point, but obviously the total monthly payment might be all you care about.

I would make a point-paying calculator, but the cost of each interest rate reduction isn't always the same. For example, it may cost you half a point to move from 5.000% to 4.750%, but another half a point to move from 4.750% to just 4.625%. The user interface of such a calculator would be clunky at best. You can use the refinancing calculator fairly easily to get individual values and compile your own table of break-even times, though. Just find a payment amount for a 0-point loan and plug that into the current loan information fields. Then zero out the closing costs and adjust the points value and find the resulting interest rate entry.

Overall, I would tend toward a 20% down payment if you can afford it so you can avoid PMI. After that 20%, paying points will usually reduce your monthly payments more than extra principal. I paid half a point on my first loan, I think, and zero points on my refinance, other than the quarter-point fee I paid to waive escrow. For the most part, it comes down to what you feel comfortable paying up front versus owing later. I'm not sure there's ever a clearly wrong decision!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Q&A: Should I Pay Down Extra Principal Each Month?

Whether or not to pay down extra principal each month is a complicated question, and one that doesn't have a universal answer by any means. For the purposes of this discussion, we'll assume that an extra payment fits in your budget. Otherwise, the question is a bit moot.

Paying down principal has two primary effects. First, it takes money out of your pocket. Second, it increases your equity. Increasing your equity has the effects of reducing the interest you pay over the life of your loan and increasing your borrowing power. We'll go backwards through these effects this time around.

The borrowing power I'm referring to here will usually take the form of a home equity line of credit (HELOC). If you make a larger down payment, your monthly expenses can be lower, which can increase your borrowing power for a new loan, but if you're just getting a mortgage, chances are you're not looking for many other new loans. (Indeed, you shouldn't be, as new loan credit inquiries can negatively affect your credit score! Wait for your mortgage to be finalized before looking at car loans, for example.) The only thing I would use a HELOC for is an emergency fund. It's a great way to be able to pay down principal and still have access to that money in a pinch. If the pinch comes and you don't already have a HELOC, you're unlikely to be able to get a HELOC, so it's important to plan ahead. HELOCs are usually restricted to whatever equity you've built beyond 20%, so that your combined LTV remains at 80% or less. They also usually require a recent appraisal, so even the no-fee HELOCs aren't entirely cost-free to set up.

To me, though, this benefit of paying down principal isn't a major selling point, as evidenced by the fact that I do not have a HELOC. For emergency funds beyond my cash on hand, I would rely on loans from my family. I haven't formalized that line of credit in any way, and maybe I should do so rather than taking it for granted. At the same time, I can make sure my family knows that I would be there for them, too.

I view principal reduction as an investment that returns a savings in interest payments. Unfortunately, the rate of return on that investment isn't always just the interest rate of your mortgage. I included a simple calculator in my post on your effective mortgage interest rate, but that doesn't give a complete picture of your investment.

First, just as in my discussion on S&P 500 growth, values were not inflation adjusted. When it comes to the returns of the S&P 500, you have to subtract the inflation rate to get an inflation-adjusted return (approximately, anyway). Your mortgage works much the same way except that inflation helps debt, so you get to subtract the inflation rate from the interest rate you pay and get an inflation-adjusted interest rate. You get a benefit now (the home) and pay for it with less and less valuable dollars. Not a bad deal for the purchase, but it lowers the rate of return on principal payments. For the default values in the calculator above, the effective interest rate is 3.75%. After adjusting for inflation by subtracting 3.3% (though recent inflation has been lower), you're left with a nice low 0.45% inflation-adjusted effective interest rate.

Second, paying down principal now takes off interest from the very end of the loan. Your minimum payment doesn't go down and you can't readily access that money except through a HELOC. It is definitely a long-term investment, and the rate of return is locked for that entire period. It's similar to buying a multi-year CD with a rather - even ridiculously - low rate, given the current interest rate environment.

Third, paying down principal really shows the nature of compounding. Every payment that goes by, the principal you pay down saves you one fewer compounding of interest. Take a look at a monthly amortization schedule (my favorite calculator). You'll notice that the principal you pay goes up each month, while the interest paid goes down. Where you are in the schedule depends entirely on the principal outstanding, so to move up the schedule by a month (and in effect take a payment off the back end), you just have to pay the principal for the next month ahead of time. Thus, the extra payment required to gain a month goes up each time. The rate of return doesn't go down, but the time horizon is shortened and the compounding reduced. If that shortening of the time horizon is your goal, there are definitely diminishing returns.

As mentioned above, paying principal takes money out of your pocket. Whether or not paying principal is a good investment really depends on which pocket the money comes from. If it's coming from a cash account, chances are good that you will get a larger return by eliminating interest. If you are paying extra principal instead of making an IRA or 401(k) contribution or otherwise investing, then you are missing out on what is very likely to be a higher return in the stock market. Remember that it is important to compare inflation-adjusted rates to each other, and non-inflation-adjusted rates to each other. Mixing and matching is not a valid comparison.

Basically, as near as I can tell, prepaying principal doesn't make financial sense unless mortgage interest rates are over ten percent or so. I don't think many people today would pay down their mortgage if it weren't for the psychological benefits. Being in debt just doesn't feel very good - especially when it's tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars and can result in being homeless. Conversely, there's no feeling quite like knocking another month off the end of your mortgage. It's also a lot of fun to reduce your principal by the first $1,000; the first $10,000; the first $100,000 (I imagine). I'm also really looking forward to the day (soon, I think!) when my various investment and cash accounts could pay off my mortgage if I liquidated them. That would mean I could pay off the house if I had to, significantly lowering my monthly expenses so that I could live off a minimum wage job, for example. However, when I get close to the end of my mortgage, I imagine that I will pay it off simply for the monthly cash flow improvement, whether I need it or not.

In the end, I pay a couple hundred extra each month despite the logic behind investing it instead. I guess that's the price I put on the psychological benefits above. Pretty cheap therapy, actually.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Q&A: What's My Effective Mortgage Interest Rate?

When you sign and initial the hundred or so times required to purchase a home, chances are good that you wind up with a mortgage to go along with the property. That mortgage has an associated interest rate that is used to calculate how much you're charged each month, but it isn't always an accurate measure of how much you pay, in the end. (The mortgage also has an advertised APR that includes points, lender fees, and any applicable PMI thanks to the Truth in Lending Act. Honestly, I've never found the APR that helpful, and it definitely isn't helpful in this discussion - we need to look at the base interest rate.) The net interest you pay depends on your tax situation, and results in what I call your effective interest rate (not to be confused with the more official effective annual interest rate - new name suggestions are appreciated!).

Mortgage interest is tax deductible, which is great in theory, but it doesn't always help very much, if at all. Individuals get a standard deduction of $5,700, and married couples filing jointly get $11,400. If your mortgage interest isn't greater than whatever standard deduction applies to you, then the mortgage interest deduction doesn't help you on its own. You may have other deductions like qualified medical expenses, 401(k) contributions, charitable giving, and the like. If you have a mortgage, chances are good that you have an income and pay state and/or local income taxes, and chances are even better that you have property and are paying real-estate taxes, both of which are deductible. With these deductions, the mortgage interest deduction can be more beneficial.

My medical expenses are well below 7.5% of my adjusted gross income, so those are not deductible. My 401(k) contributions go into a 401(k) ROTH account, so they are not deductible. I have some donations and the occasional miscellaneous deduction, but my main deductions are the state income and property taxes I pay. In the end, most of my mortgage interest winds up being deductible. That means I pay a lot of state and local taxes, though, so that's not entirely a good thing.... It doesn't apply to me this year, but your deduction can also span tax brackets, making the calculation that much more complicated. Some of the deduction may save you 28%, while some may save you 25%, for example.

The amount actually deducted (we can call it the effective deduction until a better suggestion comes in) affects the effective interest rate you pay. For a 5% mortgage with outstanding principal of $200,000, your interest payments will be around $10,000. Say you contribute to a 401(k) and so can deduct all your interest and are in the 25% tax bracket. You effectively reduced the interest paid by 25% * $10,000 = $2,500. You are now paying a net of $7,500 for an effective interest rate of around 3.75%.

Because I'm such a fan of calculators, I just couldn't resist making another one!

Interest Rate (%):
Interest Paid ($):
Interest Deducted ($):
Tax Bracket (%):

Monday, August 30, 2010

72 Hours Slightly Less Wasted

As I mentioned in my analysis of brain speeds post, I spent about 72 hours reading and researching various articles and topics. In my quest for facts on the physiology of the brain related to a few specific statistics, I stumbled upon some other very interesting (to me) facts. I thought I should go ahead and share them if for no other reason than to help justify that 72 hours a bit more.
  • Single sodium pump maximum transport rate = 200 Na ions/sec; 130 K ions/sec
    Typical number of sodium pumps = 1000 pumps/micron2 of membrane surface (from Willis and Grossman, Medical Neurobiology, Mosby, St. Louis, 1981, p. 36)
    Total number of sodium pumps for a small neuron = 1 million[1]
    -- That's a lot of ions being transferred. I wonder how that compares with the best methods we've been able to engineer.... I'll try to resist the urge to make this into another blog post.
  • Seasonal oscillations in neuron number in the song nuclei of canaries correlates well with singing ability (Goldman & Nottebohm 1983).[2]
    -- Canaries kill off parts of their brain and regrow it regularly. Awesome! Practically speaking, adult neurogenesis can probably be induced, possibly helping people recover from various brain injuries.
  • Conversely, in some instances increased neuron number has been shown to result in improved performance. Exposure of immature frogs and rats to excess growth hormone can boost neuron number 20 to 60% according to Zamenhof and colleagues (1941, 1966), and in several instances the hyperplasia or hypertrophy is correlated with improved performance on single-trial avoidance conditioning tasks (Clendinnen & Eayrs 1961, Block & Essman 1965). Similarly, the number of visual cortical neurons excited by one eye has been experimentally increased two-fold in both cats and monkeys, and this increase is associated with smaller receptive fields in visual cortex (Shook et al 1984). Preliminary work supports the idea that such experimental animals are able to resolve smaller differences in the offset between two lines than normal monkeys (M.G. MacAvoy, P. Rakic and C. Bruce, personal communication).[2]
    -- How long before we have growth hormone supplements for our kids to make them smarter? Is this more scary or awesome?
  • [Regarding axon transmission speeds] The higher the temperature, the faster the speed. So homoeothermic (warm-blooded) animals have faster responses than poikilothermic (cold-blooded) ones.[3]
    -- I've always wondered what the advantages to being warm-blooded are! This fact prompted me to read, which was full of interesting facts (and the correct spelling of homeothermic).
  • Neurons in layer IV receive all of the synaptic connections from outside the cortex (mostly from thalamus)[4]
    -- The thalamus is the key to The Matrix. We must not teach the machines about the thalamus.
  • The longest axons in the human body, for example, are those of the sciatic nerve, which run from the base of the spine to the big toe of each foot. These single-cell fibers of the sciatic nerve may extend a meter or even longer.[5]
    -- Just pretty darn cool.

Now then, tell me an interesting fact. I don't mind reading more than one, if you have extra to share. I obviously have plenty of time to kill....


Friday, August 27, 2010

Thinking a Million Miles an Hour

The other day, someone said that they were thinking a million miles an hour. Naturally, this got me thinking about how fast they were really thinking, given all the various pulses traveling between all the various neurons. First, Google tells us that a million miles per hour is 670.616629 times slower than the speed of light. That's still pretty speedy. It's fast enough to take you around the world in 89.6447392 seconds, or get you to the sun in 3.87316198 days.

That's all well and good, but I really wanted to know: How fast do we think?

Unfortunately, I couldn't find the answer, or even enough solid information to compute an answer I was truly satisfied with. I will provide you with the best answer I can come up with, though. First, the relevant facts!

  1. Average number of neurons in the brain = 100 billion[1]
  2. Length of myelinated nerve fibers in brain = 150,000-180,000 km (Pakkenberg et al., 1997; 2003)[1,2]
  3. At the age of 20, the total length of myelinated fibers in males is 176,000 km while that of a female is 149,000 km[5]
  4. Number of synapses in cortex = 0.15 quadrillion (Pakkenberg et al., 1997; 2003)[1,2]
  5. The length of a single dendrite is usually several hundred micrometers. Due to branching, the total dendritic length of a pyramidal cell may reach several centimeters. The pyramidal cell’s axon is often even longer and extensively branched, reaching many centimeters in total length.[4]
  6. The number of dendrites varied between 4 and 13 (mean 9.1; ± 4.0) and the total dendritic length of adult cat VB neurons varied between 9,421 and 19,646 µm mean 13,120 µm; ± 2,605.[6]
  7. Dendritic length (µm) 1639 ± 341a 2140 ± 561 3397 ± 524[7]
  8. Apical dendrites possess a larger average total dendritic length (6332 vs 5062 micrometres) and surface area (12629 vs 9404 square micrometres) [this does not include spines].[11]
  9. Speed of impulses: 100 m/s (passive) ---- 20–30 m/s (thinking)8
  10. while nerve impulses in unmyelinated neurones have a maximum speed of around 1 m/s, in myelinated neurones they travel at 100 m/s.[12]
  11. The speed of propagation for mammalian motor neurons is 10 - 120 m / s, while for nonmyelinated sensory neurons it's about 5 - 25 m/s.[13]
  12. Human neurons fire approximately 200 times per second, using signals that travel at a maximum of 100 meters per second.[9]
  13. Frequency of impulses: Thus, a maximum of 1,000 nerve impulses per second is possible. However, firing rates of 1 per second to 300-400 per second are more typical.[9]
  14. Resting firing rates are generally a few times per second; a stimulated neuron might fire 20 or 30 times a second.[9]
  15. Simple spikes occur at rates of 17 – 150 Hz (Raman and Bean, 1999) either spontaneously, or when Purkinje cells are activated synaptically by the parallel fibers, the axons of the granule cells. Complex spikes are rapid (>300 Hz) bursts of spikes caused by climbing fiber activation, and can involve the generation of calcium-mediated action potentials in the dendrites. Following complex spike activity simple spikes can be suppressed by the powerful complex spike input.[10]
  16. Average = about 100 action potentials per second.[12]
  17. Number of neocortical neurons (females) = 19.3 billion. ---- Number of neocortical neurons (males) = 22.8 billion[1]

(Actually, facts [9] through [11] aren't particularly relevant, but I spent a lot of time reading about them so I forced you to spend a tiny bit of time reading about them, too. The speed of the pulses doesn't matter for our calculations - it's more than fast enough to cover the length between any two neurons in much less than a second.)

One problem with brain studies is that they tend to focus on specific parts of the brain. This makes it rather difficult to piece together whole-brain statistics. For example, [1] refers to the number of neurons in the entire brain, while [2] and [3] are talking about the length of axons in just the white matter - I think. [4] is at minimum related to the surrounding gray matter, but it's unclear if it includes any of the inner gray matter structures. Perhaps more importantly, the numbers vary considerably and are ambiguous as to exactly what they are measuring! [2] and [3] mention myelinated nerve fibers, which tends to be synonymous with axons, but the axon terminals aren't myelinated, so it's not 100% clear that they aren't included in this length measurement, or how long they would be otherwise. [5], [6], and [7] put the total length of dendrites per neuron at several centimeters, 0.9-1.9 cm, and 1.5-3.5 mm, respectively. Fact [8] gives an indication of where this difference comes from. Presumably, the length isn't tallied past a certain branching level, or below a minimum branch size, or something similar. [4] and [8] also indicate that the total length of all dendrites for a pyramidal neuron would be the sum of the two averages mentioned in [8], or ~11000 micrometers - again, not including the spines. In fact, the wording of [8] makes it unclear if that's total dendritic length for the cell, or for the single dendrite counting all its branches (up to a point). This uncertainty is frustrating, to say the least.

Neuron speeds vary, too, depending on the source. [9], [10], [11], and [12] give values between 10 and 120 m/s for myelinated axons, and between <1 and 30 m/s for unmyelinated fibers - dendrites and axon terminals? That's quite a range, but it isn't the only speed that varies. The frequency of the action potentials is reported as anywhere from 1Hz to 400Hz in [12] through [16], with a theoretical maximum of 1000Hz. So, what can we come up with using these ranges of numbers?

It turns out that we can be fairly pessimistic in our assumptions and still arrive at some staggering results. Let's take 150,000km of myelinated nerve fibers - the axons - and assume 10 impulses per second. 10 pulses seems to be a good compromise, given that we are thinking at a million miles an hour, not resting at a million miles an hour, but not all thinking would necessarily involve all portions of our brain. (That is not to say the myth about using only 3-10% of our brain is anything but a myth!) This alone gives us 150,000km * 10/s = 1,500,000,000 m/s5 times the speed of lightjust shy of a million miles a second! And we've only included one half of the synapse structure!

Let's be fairly conservative about the total length of the dendrites and axon terminals and any other unaccounted for lengths, and use 19.3 billion as the number of cells with dendrites, discounting everything but the neocortex (fact [17]). We'll go with 7.75 mm of dendrites per cell, since I really don't know what the source behind fact [7] was talking about, and source [14], which didn't have a fact to quote because the length had to be calculated out of other data, indicates total dendrite length of around 1.1 cm, so we're nearing a consensus of 1 cm or more. Anyway, I chose 7.75mm because 7.75 mm * 19.3 billion = 149,575 km, which means we can just double our previous results! Over 10 times the speed of light! 1,864,113 miles per second! And these are conservative estimates (I hope)!

Just for fun, let's see how fast I think. My neurons easily fire 100 times per second. I thought really hard about it, and sure enough all 100 billion neurons in my brain often fire at that rate. It turns out that my brain isn't very conservative when it measures itself, which makes my total dendritic length per neuron around the proposed average of 1.1 cm instead of 0.775 cm. So, when I'm thinking really hard, my mind is racing at (150,000 km + 100 billion * 1.1 cm) * 100/s = 125,000,000,000 m/s417 times the speed of light77,671,399 miles per second. I actually wouldn't be terribly surprised if this is closer to the true average speed of thinking really hard. (Are there any neuroscience folks out there that want to provide some different numbers?)

It's not a relevant fact, but it's pretty awesome: "% brain utilization of total resting oxygen = 20%[1]." I've always said that I remain thin because I think so much. Now I have evidence! Apparently, your brain running a million miles an hour is a pretty good workout. So, grab a puzzle book and lose some weight!

OK, so maybe this is the teensiest bit nerdy. And maybe it didn't warrant spending a total of about 72 hours of research spread out over three weeks.... But I lost 4 pounds!

  2. Awesomely, the most relevant paper cited in the first link is available in full:!
  7. which is part of