Sunday, October 28, 2007

Friday, October 19, 2007

Picture of the Day: Lake Lanier

The drought in Georgia is very worrying - estimates are that Atlanta has less than 60 days of water supply left. This picture (courtesy USA Today) is of Lake Lanier in Cummings, Ga. where the drought has exposed several docks.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

No no Grandpa, Don't Overload Stocks!

This morning, as I chowed down my Raisin Bran, I happened to catch a personal finance "expert" who recommended that even people in their 60s should have 70% of their financial assets in stocks. 70 percent!! That's the highest I've ever heard, and while I have no readers that old that I know of, I hope younger readers can be the light and advice Grandpa and Grandma against this foolhardiness.

I've ranted before that any asset is only worth the price you pay for it. There is no such thing as a free lunch, and those who thought there was now make up the numbers in the foreclosure listings. But since I'm way too busy writing that epic called a dissertation (seriously, at times it does feel like one!), I'll leave you with this one great article from the one great magazine called the Economist. An excerpt (emphasis added):

Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton of the London Business School examined the record of 16 stockmarkets which were in continuous operation over the course of the 20th century. In itself, this selection showed survivorship bias by excluding the likes of Russia and China. The academics found that only three other countries could match the American record of having no 20-year periods with negative real returns. Other investors were far less lucky. Japanese, French, German and Spanish investors all suffered instances where they had to wait 50-60 years to earn a positive real return; in Italy and Belgium, the waiting period stretched to 70 years. It was no good following the famous advice to “put the shares in a drawer and forget about them”; the furniture would not have lasted that long.

My point isn't to stay away from stocks. It's just that stocks appear kind of pricey to me. If not for some special circumstances, I'd probably invest mostly in high quality issues, or better yet market-neutral funds which invest in these issues (actually about half my money is in one such fund), and overweight TIPS and cold hard cash (paying attention to yield, of course)

Monday, October 08, 2007

Big Brother Is Indeed Watching You

Washington has been swamped with talk of legal and illegal wiretaps and other intrusions on the privacy of individuals who, depending on who you believe, may or may not be related to terrorists. But the media has largely ignored the much greater story of surveillance on US citizens who are most definitely not involved with terrorists. The latest camera law in Baltimore is a troubling new trend of cities that are using CCTVs to intrude on the privacies of ordinary citizens. While the National Security Agency is not incorruptible, I'm much more disturbed (even as a foreigner) with surveillance by local officials, where I'd suspect the checks and balances are much weaker.

At what point are we going to discuss this issue without using it as an opportunity to take potshots at the Bush administration?

Sunday, October 07, 2007

And the IgNoble goes to ...

The Ig Noble awards are out! If you have never heard of them, where have you been? Here is the Wikipedia article on the awards.

Here are some of my favorites from this year's award winners (here is the story)

  • Brian Witcombe of Gloucester and Dan Meyer of Antioch, Tennessee, for their report in the British Medical Journal, Sword Swallowing and its Side-Effects

  • Mayu Yamamoto of the International Medical Centre of Japan, for developing a way to extract vanilla essence from cow dung

  • Juant Manuel Toro, Josep Trobalon and Núria Sebastián-Gallés, of Barcelona University, for showing that rats cannot tell the difference between a person speaking Japanese backwards and a person speaking Dutch backwards

  • The Air Force Wright Laboratory, Dayton, Ohio, for instigating research on a chemical weapon to make enemy soldiers sexually irresistible to each other

To be fair, I think some of the research is useful - a previous awardee, for example, studied why woodpeckers don't get headaches. That could be a blockbuster drug of the future.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Terror Democracy Dilemna

Now that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmedinijad is safely back in Iran and the excitement (and not in a good way!) surrounding his visit has subsided, it's worth considering one little detail that has been routinely ignored by the press, and even an academic such as the President of Columbia University. Read this line ....

Mr Ahmedinijad is not a dictator

That's right - despite all the brouhaha over Mr Ahmedinijad, he is many things but not a dictator. Rather, he's been elected in relatively free and fair elections. That's the little detail everyone seems to be ignoring - Iran is a democracy. Now, I have no love lost for Mr Ahmedinijad, and I do think his rhetoric is unfortunate, but I think the hype's getting ahead of him. He actually doesn't really have that much power, and certainly there's enough reason to believe his sabre-rattling is to boost his popularity that's taking a beating thanks to an economy that's tanking despite soaring gas prices.

But this presents a dilemna for our idealist leaders. We'd like to believe democracy goes hand in hand with all we hold good, but this is hardly the case. Remember Adolf Hilter was a democratically elected leader. Ditto Russian President Vladimir Putin, who despite his oppressive rule seems to have record-breaking popularity. It just doesn't fit. In fact, a failing democracy is more likely to have leaders whip up sentiments to distract the electorate.

That's not to say we should not support the installation of democracy globally. Let's just not be so idealistic to believe that democracies are good for us in the absence of taking other steps to deal with real issues. Oh yeah, and dial down that rhetoric - we don't need a war with Iran!