Monthly Archives: October 2014

Exercise and Happiness

From Fast Company.  An explanation of why exercise makes us feel good when we are done:

The line around our “endorphins are released” is more something I throw around to sound smart, without really knowing what it means. Here is what actually happens:

If you start exercising, your brain recognizes this as a moment of stress. As your heart pressure increases, the brain thinks you are either fighting the enemy or fleeing from it. To protect yourself and your brain from stress, you release a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor). This BDNF has a protective and also reparative element to your memory neurons and acts as a reset switch. That’s why we often feel so at ease and things are clear after exercising and eventually happy.

At the same time, endorphins, another chemical to fight stress, is released in your brain. Your endorphins main purpose is this writes researcher McGovern:

These endorphins tend to minimize the discomfort of exercise, block the feeling of pain and are even associated with a feeling of euphoria.

Overall, there is a lot going on inside our brain and it is in fact oftentimes a lot more active than when we are just sitting down or actually concentrating mentally:

So, now we know there are at least two mechanisms that cause happiness after exercise.

Here’s the depressing part:  All that working out doesn’t really do a lot of good (for your mood, that is) unless you are doing it in the morning:

Now here is where it all gets interesting. We know the basic foundations of why exercising makes us happy and what happens inside our brain cells. The most important part to uncover now, is of course how we can trigger this in an optimal and longer lasting way.

A recent study from Penn State university shed some light on the matter and the results are more than surprising. They found that to be more productive and happier on a given work day, it doesn’t matter so much, if you work-out regularly, if you haven’t worked out on that particular day:

“Those who had exercised during the preceding month but not on the day of testing generally did better on the memory test than those who had been sedentary, but did not perform nearly as well as those who had worked out that morning.”

New York Times best-selling author Gretchen Reynolds has written a whole book about the subject matter titled “The first 20 minutes”. To get the highest level of happiness and benefits for health, the key is not to become a professional athlete. On the contrary, a much smaller amount is needed to reach the level where happiness and productivity in every day life peaks:

“The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits. You get prolonged life, reduced disease risk — all of those things come in in the first 20 minutes of being active.”

So really, you can relax and don’t have to be on the look-out for the next killer work-out. All you have to do is get some focused 20 minutes in to get the full happiness boost every day:

“On exercise days, people’s mood significantly improved after exercising. Mood stayed about the same on days they didn’t, with the exception of people’s sense of calm which deteriorated.” (University of Bristol)

I have to say, I disagree with all of this research, anecdotally, for myself.    It would be interesting to measure the amount of these brain chemicals released in individuals, and then see if these later effects follow in proportion.

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Nirvana = Green energy + Detroit renaissance + Beer

So these two brothers are opening a brewery in Detroit which will run on green energy.  Part of which will be bicycle power.  Fun!

“Honestly, I think it’s a bit of a gimmick,” said Steve Tanner, a math professor at Eastern Oregon University who was visiting Detroit, with sweat streaming down his face. “But it’s a fun gimmick,” he said, having logged 15 minutes on the bike.

Mr. Tanner’s “gimmick” assessment isn’t unfair. Pedal power enjoyed a boom in popularity in the 1970s amid a spike in oil prices and increased enviro-consciousness. Leg-driven power has some allure with environmentalists, minimalists, doomsday believers and people providing simple machines to third-world nations. But there are far more efficient ways to produce energy.

That fact doesn’t square well with Windmill Pointe Brewery’s pitch. Even customers producing 150 watts of electricity, for example, would take 7.5 hours to build up about a dime’s worth of electricity.

The WSJ article cited above also includes this interesting tidbit:

In Pittsburgh, ZeroFossil outfits homes with pedal-powered devices to provide backup power. Steven Kovacik, the founder and president of the company, says his business has thrived since the end of 2012, when some people believed a Mayan prophecy of an-end-of-civilization event would be fulfilled, causing people to buy pedal-powered generators. Now, he thinks the growth is coming from a desire to be more energy independent.

“I believe it’s a combination of being more sustainable, and a desire for energy independence,” he said. “But also, if you are going to get exercise, why not put that energy to use.”

Great idea!  Instead of using an exercise machine that consumes power, why not make power?  That actually makes a lot more sense to me than the beer for biking gimmick.  It’s cute though;  I hope they are successful.

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Self Driving Car

Living on a dirt road, I have been pretty skeptical about self driving cars all along.  Hopeful, but skeptical.  This article from Business Insider really adds to that doubt.

The issue is that the computer power in the car is devoted to assessing moving objects around it, not stationary objects.  The stationary objects are all already included in the car’s computer based on the detailed maps that are required for every street that the driverless car navigates.

But stationary objects are important, and have different meanings, and change over short periods of time.   The article cites traffic signals used for construction.  An example on my dirt road would be a washed out area due to a rainstorm, that might not be fixed for weeks or months.

The details of the maps used has been extensively reported, but not the degree to which the cars depend on them to function, and their complete lack of functionality without ALL the detail.

Here’s what Google confirms that the cars can’t do right now:

  • avoid potholes or operate in heavy rain or snow.
  • It can’t currently find a space in a supermarket lot or multilevel garage.
  • It can’t consistently handle coned-off road construction sites, and
  • its video cameras can sometimes be blinded by the sun when trying to detect the color of a traffic signal.
  • Because it can’t tell the difference between a big rock and a crumbled-up piece of newspaper, it will try to drive around both if it encounters either sitting in the middle of the road.

Questions that Google did not answer:

  • Can the car currently “see” another vehicle’s turn signals or brake lights?
  • Can it tell the difference between the flashing lights on top of a tow truck and those on top of an ambulance?
  • If it’s driving past a school playground, and a ball rolls out into the street, will it know to be on special alert?

I would add:

  • How does the car navigate into my driveway and garage?  Will Google need to make a detailed (to the square foot) map of my property?  Will they do it for every driveway and garage so the cars can park anywhere? (don’t be evil)
  • Does the car know the difference between people and other cars, and wildlife?  The proper response to wildlife on the road is to slow down and NOT swerve.  The decision making process for avoiding a person in the road, or a potential crash into another vehicle, is much different.

The hurdles are many, and large.  If they continue working on it, it will act as a giant basic research project, with many benefits that are currently not even under consideration.

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Pam Grout on Forgiveness

From Pam Grout:

Forgiveness.

Most of us think it’s an act we’re forced to perform when horrific jerks do us wrong.

Forgiveness, as I see it, is realizing that no one HAS the power to do me wrong. To believe someone or something outside myself can hurt me is what started all the problems in the first place. It negates the Truth of who I am.

Being pissed off unplugs me from the F.P, this wild and crazy force that’s constantly trying to bless me. It erects a big wall between me and my highest good.

Believing outside forces can hurt me stunts my growth. Blinds me to all the miracles. Creates an illusory world that makes me want to hide, feel guilty, close down.

Each of us is here to strengthen the life force–in ourselves and in each other. If we point fingers and believe something outside ourselves can hurt us, we put the squeeze on this unbelievably cool and ever-present life force.

I think that the Power of Now approach to forgiveness is that if you are thinking about how someone has done you wrong, or wrong you have done to someone else, then you are living in the past.  Forgiveness requires you to stop living in the past, so that you can live in the now.  And only in the now can you connect to God, or the great life force, or whatever you want to call it.

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The Same Great Financial Advice As Always

Two posts brought this on.  It’s just the most basic, tried and true advice.

Motley Fool starts from an interesting viewpoint – to succeed, look at how people fail.

Here’s what I’ve learned from failures about the easiest ways to ruin your financial life.

1. Risk what you to need in order to gain what you don’t need

Warren Buffett was once ridiculed by a group of billionaire hedge fund managers who bet the farm and went bankrupt.

“To make money they didn’t have and didn’t need, they risked what they did have and did need,” he said. “And that’s foolish. It is just plain foolish. If you risk something that is important to you for something that is unimportant to you, it just does not make any sense.”

2. Anchor expectations to the most successful people you know

Step One is realizing that the correlation between money and happiness is probably a fraction of what you think it is. Step Two is realizing that wealth is the money you’ve saved, which people don’t see, not the stuff you’ve bought, which they do.

3. Have a life expectancy measured in decades and an attention span measured in minutes

4. Pay close attention to everything

According to investor Jim O’Shaughnessy, Fidelity Investments once ran a study to see which types of Fidelity investors performed best.

The winner?

“The accounts of people who forgot they had an account at Fidelity.” O’Shaughnessy said.

These people weren’t checking their accounts, fiddling, buying, selling, rotating, adjusting, or tweaking. They just let their money grow in blissful ignorance. And they did phenomenally.

In contrast, several studies have shown that those who trade the most perform, by far, the worst.

That Warren Buffett quote applies to a lot more than money, by the way.

Ben Carlson has a nice post about Thomas Dorsey and how his firm has been successful, and this contains one of the other keys to financial success:  Find a strategy that has been working in the long term (typically over long time periods and in separate countries, markets, and even types of assets) and makes sense.  Be sure you understand your strategy’s strengths and weaknesses, and then stick with it!  Thomas Dorsey uses a rules based momentum strategy, and it works.  I’m not endorsing his firm or strategy as ideal, or even necessarily efficient or appropriate.  And of course it could quit working at any time.  But if he had not done his homework, and most importantly, stuck to the discipline, he would definitely not be as successful.

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Batteries, California, and Tesla

Bloomberg reports that new battery technology really isn’t quite up to speed, or down to reasonable cost yet.  Even so, because of state legal mandates, the utilities are going ahead and installing bunches of whatever they think is the best they can get right now.  They are just going for it.  This is an interesting and, I guess, positive step.  Interesting to see if it has any impact on the quality or cost of batteries for storing wind and solar generated electricity.  I guess positive, because maybe it will.  But certainly at a cost for California consumers, oh, and the rest of us, too:

The U.S. is still a long way from having enough battery capacity to replace power plants, SCE’s Nichols said. The Tehachapi site, half funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, is capable of storing enough energy to power about 1,600 to 2,400 homes.

But what is really important to note here is that the biggest impact on the production of batteries seems to be Tesla Motors:

Tesla, based in Palo Alto, California, is planning a $5 billion “gigafactory” in Nevada with help from Japan’s Panasonic Corp. that will be the world’s largest battery factory, Musk said last month. Samsung is partnering with Chinese investors to build a car-battery plant in Xian, China. Electric vehicles may make up 10 percent of new car registries in Europe in the next decade, according to UBS, which estimates battery costs will drop by more than 50 percent by 2020.

‘Smart Grid’

Besides helping bring battery costs down, electric cars themselves may become a source of energy storage for the power grid, said Patrick Hummel, a utilities analyst for UBS in Zurich. In a “smart-grid world,” consumers would recharge cars while at work during the day, when solar output is the highest, and then feed some of that energy back to the grid during the high demand periods in the evening, he said. This could eliminate the need for some peak-load plants, he said.

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Krugman; on Virtue, and vs. Asness on Knaves, Fools, and Inflation

Paul Krugman recent wrote again about how austerity is bad (both lack of government spending and lack of debt forgiveness, which is just government spending directed at bad borrowers), or to flip it around, how virtue is killing the world economy.   And when he says “virtue,” what he means is, “Austerity when economies needed stimulus, paranoia about inflation when the real risk is deflation, and so on.”  In addition, he specified a need for debt forgiveness.  I agree with him on some of the basics:

A simplified but broadly correct account of what went wrong goes like this: In the years leading up to the Great Recession, we had an explosion of credit (mainly to the private sector). Old notions of prudence, for both lenders and borrowers, were cast aside; debt levels that would once have been considered deeply unsound became the norm.

Then the music stopped, the money stopped flowing, and everyone began trying to “deleverage,” to reduce the level of debt. For each individual, this was prudent. But my spending is your income and your spending is my income, so when everyone tries to pay down debt at the same time, you get a depressed economy.

This graph compares GDP to the total public plus private debt, starting in 1982:

fredgraph

It would appear that for the last 20 years or so, the rate of borrowing was increasing faster than the GDP was growing.  Or to put it another way, some part of GDP growth has been financed by borrowing.  I think that’s pretty widely recognized.

But then he adds:

So what can be done? Historically, the solution to high levels of debt has often involved writing off and forgiving much of that debt. Sometimes this happens explicitly: In the 1930s F.D.R. helped borrowers refinance with much cheaper mortgages, while in this crisis Iceland is outright canceling a significant part of the debt households ran up during the bubble years. More often, debt relief takes place implicitly, through “financial repression”: government policies hold interest rates down, while inflation erodes the real value of debt.

Well, that strikes me as just plain wrong.  I guess he’s forced to refer to those opposed to these tactics as being believers in virtue because, well, we are.  Savers are already feeling the brunt of the financial repression, which is certainly happening, just in slow motion.  That is, rates are 0, and inflation is 2%, instead of rates at 2% and inflation at 6%, which is probably more what the K man has in mind.  But hey, why not dig that knife in a little deeper to savers, by adding their neighbors’ bad loans to their overall government debt burden?  That really is infuriating.

And really, we already have done some debt forgiveness, but only for the banks through direclty through the bailouts and QE, as well as indirectly the accounting changes (FASB 157).  If Krugman wants to see bad debt written down, he should start with the owners of the bad debt acknowledging it as such.  But then the Fed would not be able to buy it at “full” value.  This makes QE a stealth debt forgiveness program, but only the inside big guys get the forgiveness.

One man’s debt is another man’s asset, so someone will have to take the loss.  God forbid that it should be a SI bank.  What should happen is rule of law.  If you don’t pay, you default.  You lose your credit rating and your collateral, and the bank loses whatever skin it had in the game.  If you are a bank and you become insolvent, then the FDIC does its thing.  Seems pretty straightforward.  But it is really not what happened at all, and it is still failing to happen.  The bad debt has not gone away.

As Krugman noted, borrowers have really not reduced their balance sheets by much.  He likes % of GDP measurements, but I prefer real dollars.  Here’s what private borrowing, government borrowing, and the sum of the two look like historically.  These are real 1982 dollars:

fredgraph

And here’s what they look like over just the past few years, again in 1982 dollars (to be consistent).  Sorry about the annual data on this, and thank you to Arthurian for helping direct me to the correct data series:

fredgraph

So public debt (people and corporations) has gone down about 15% but is flattening out now.  And as it went down, public debt went up to compensate, so that overall debt really didn’t change much.

Another reason that the debt load has not gone down more is that banks are simply not foreclosing.  Look at the overhang, shown on this chart from Calculated Risk:

MBANDSQ12014

It seems like what Krugman really wants is not so much for bad debt to be erased as private debt to be replaced by public debt.  That’s moral hazard, even more of it than we already have.  My vote for the cause of economic sluggishness still goes to moral hazard.  We all know that when it happens again, the same guys are still going to get paid.  Literally.  The same EXACT guys.

Well, this is a very poorly written post, but I don’t have time to work on it any more today.  Maybe I will edit it another day.

Right on time, as I was considering this post, Cliff Asness included this gem of a paragraph in his recent letter:

Focusing my attention, as was predestined, Paul Krugman lived up to his lifelong motto of “stay classy” with a piece on the subject entitled Knaves, Fools, and Quantitative Easing. Some lesser lights of the Keynesian firmament have also jumped in (collectivists, of course, excel at sharing a meme). Responding to Krugman is as productive as smacking a skunk with a tennis racket. But, sometimes, like many unpleasant tasks, it’s necessary. I will, at least partially, make that error here, while mostly trying to deal with the original issue separate from Paul’s screeds (though one wonders if CPI inflation had risen in the last four years if Paul would be admitting his entire economic framework was wrong – ok, one doesn’t really wonder – and those things never happen to Paul anyway, just ask him).

Asness then goes on to describe why he was wrong about inflation with regard to the obscene level of money printing (answer: he didn’t think velocity of money would disappear even more quickly than new money was printed), and what he thinks might happen next (not known, because the money is still out there).  Krugman fires right back, with a post that essentially says, “I’m right because I’m smart, you still don’t understand this stuff, and you should leave it to us smart guys.”  I’m sure Asness is flattered to get that personal attention from the Great and Powerful Paul.

Greg Mankiw does a much better job of explaining exactly why inflation didn’t occur, but, like Krugman, he still is not getting the point of those who feared inflation.  Mankiw writes:

…it is very clear to Paul Krugman and to his back-up singers that quantitative easing’s effects are small unless it is taken as a credible signal of a régime change and thus generates a significant shift in expectations of inflation. It wasn’t. So it didn’t. That it had at best small effects is an intellectual win for the Keynesian side here.

Everybody who has done their homework recognizes that.

Cliff Asness appears to believe that Paul Krugman’s beliefs are in some sense the flip side of his–that while Asness believed that QE would produce high inflation, instead Krugman believed that QE would produce a real economic boom: The Fed clearly wanted this money lent by banks and spent…. They didn’t get that, and we didn’t get the inflation we feared…. How this is a victory for one side of the debate or another is beyond me….

It is as if Asness never bothered to read things like this:

Paul Krugman:Not so easing (wonkish) – NYTimes.com: “Goldman Sachs report (no link) suggest[s] that the Fed’s policy of ‘unconventional easing’…

…isn’t very effective… that it would take between $1 trillion and $1.6 trillion of unconventional easing to accomplish as much as the Fed can achieve, in normal times, by cutting the Fed funds rate by 1 percentage point…. Bernanke and the Fed… have been gaming out what they would do if ‘it’ happened here for years. And a key element of the strategy was altering the composition of the Fed’s balance sheet–that is, unconventional easing. But that tool isn’t proving very potent.

This is an interesting argument, but it is not the one that Asness is making.  By the way, if they didn’t think that QE was going to lead to an improved economy, why did they do it?  Was it really just to make rich people richer, right on its face?  This seems to have been the only large measurable effect to this point.  I digress.  The point Asness makes, quite directly, is that inflation is certainly still possible.  All that new money is still out there, albeit parked in equities and real estate and excess reserves.  But until it gets bought back again by the Fed, the Keynesians really cannot honestly declare victory.  It will be great if that happens, and there is no horrible inflation, and we all get to keep on keeping on.  But we are not there yet.

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