Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Little Book That Beats the Market

I listened to several audiobooks last week when I drove across the state sightseeing. One of them was "The Little Book That Beats the Market," by Joel Greenblatt. The author describes his "magic formula" for investing that he has developed by backtesting on 17 years of data from CompuStat's Point in Time database. He openly admits that the magic formula isn't perfect and even describes how, and why, it can fail. Here's the 2 cent tour. Using a portfolio of 20 to 30 stocks and a minimum hold duration of 3 years, the book preaches the benefits of 2 simple indicators for reliably finding growth stocks: high earnings yield and high return on capital (ROC > 25%).

I didn't learn much from this book, however it was interesting to hear how the strategy was tested and retested. On the whole, I would only recommend this book to people who want to invest with little effort and who want to leave their investments in place for at least 3 years. I would not recommend it to fellow traders, like myself.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

The Black Swan

I recently finished the audiobook "The Black Swan - The Impact of the Highly Improbable" by Nassim Taleb. It currently has 3.5 of 5 stars from 199 Amazon reviewers. Taleb is a philosopher, mathematician, analyst who used these talents successfully on Wall Street as a "quant" and later as a hedge fund manager. Taleb's personal home page is here.

If nothing else, I was happy to learn more about what a quant was. These are the PhD egg heads that analyze mounds of economic and market data for use in devising trading strategies. The Wall Street brokerage firms employ them by the truck load and pay the good ones a ton of money. I've heard of them, but little more.

Taleb uses the black swan theory in his discussion of why people are so bad at predicting the future. Here is an excerpt from a review by Chris Anderson:

Our brains are wired for narrative, not statistical uncertainty. And so we tell ourselves simple stories to explain complex things we don't--and, most importantly, can't--know. ... The problem, Nassim explains, is that we place too much weight on the odds that past events will repeat (diligently trying to follow the path of the "millionaire next door," when unrepeatable chance is a better explanation). Instead, the really important events are rare and unpredictable. ... Nassim argues that most of the really big events in our world are rare and unpredictable, and thus trying to extract generalizable stories to explain them may be emotionally satisfying, but it's practically useless. September 11th is one such example, and stock market crashes are another. Or, as he puts it, "History does not crawl, it jumps." Our assumptions grow out of the bell-curve predictability of what he calls "Mediocristan," while our world is really shaped by the wild powerlaw swings of "Extremistan."

I found the book to be a bit of a mess. At times he is clever and descriptive in his discussions and arguments, and at others he is confusing, taking unnecessary tangents, and including a few rambling egotistical diatribes (IMNSHO). I didn't toss it out because it actually had a compelling message. One that I had an interest in hearing. The text is laced with all sorts of new words like: mediocristan (the land of bell curves), extremistan (where chaos reigns), empiricism, erudite, epistemic arrogance, empirical skepticism, Platonism, and the narrative fallacy. For those interested, Taleb has posted a glossary of black swan terminology. He calls himself a skeptical empiricist.

I would recommend this book only to those who have read about it from several sources and are still not dissuaded by the subject. Translation: if you can read the reviews and comments about the book, and still retain an interest in the subject, then you'll probably enjoy the book.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Straight Roads Draw My Attention

It's often surprising to me when I see a very straight road. It shouldn't be. Road construction is managed by civil engineers, who use surveying which is well suited for straight lines. Straight roads consume minimal materials and labor for construction and maintenance. It all makes sense. I guess it's just my understanding that, in a natural environment setting, straight lines are a clear indication of something made by humans. I saw this even on my recent trip to the panamint dunes. I spotted a dark shape that appeared straight. I figured it must be man-made, so I hiked over to it to discover a fallen sign prohibiting motorized vehicles. And so another vote is registered in my mind's life-long tally of "things that appear straight." It was oddly mezmorizing though. The photo is taken looking east across Panamint Valley down highway 190 in the early morning.

Panamint Dunes

Last week I went camping/hiking at the Panamint Dunes in Death Valley National Park. Here's a Google Map of the location. The dunes are centered in the map. The Natl. Park Service has an excellent map of death valley. The link is at the top of the right column.

About 4.5 miles east of Panamint Springs, a graded (somewhat) and unsigned road extends for about 6 miles north from highway 190. At the end, there's a flat area for use as a parking lot or campground. Backcountry camping rules apply there and you can camp along the road once you're 2 miles from 190. The road is passable by most cars, as long as you go slowly. Recent rain will cause more problems by deepening the many washouts across the road. If you zoom in on the Google Map link I provided, you can see this dirt road approaching from the lower right and ending to the south east of the dunes. My first photo shows the dunes as seen from the parking area.

The end of the road is surely not exciting. It's dry, hot, dirty, and absolutly devoid of anything to do. You need to bring your own shade and entertainment. I brought books. I waited until closer to sunset before hiking to the dunes. There was no wind. And something else ... it was totally silent. Eerily quiet. Deafeningly quiet. (suitable hyperbole) I was actually annoyed by the ringing in my ears. Probably some form of tinnitus.

Within 30 minutes of arrival I was treated to the first of many aerial shows as F-18s from China Lake came rushing up the valley toward the dunes and disappearing over the hills behind them. A couple times, it was 2 or 3 jets and they'd bank hard and turn around at the dunes to return south. I didn't get any photos of these because ... jets fly very fast. By the time I heard their engines, I'd look up and finally find the jet(s) to be well past me. One time, I had some odd premonition and I looked up to see a jet right in front of me. Flying past me, about a half mile away, and banked at about 80 degrees. So, basically I was looking at the underside of the F-18. Cool! By the time I grabbed my camera, I couldn't find the plane.

It's supposed to be about 3 miles from the parking area to the dunes.
It took me 35 min to reach nearest edge of the dunes' sand (where progress is slowed), and 1 hr 15 min to reach the opposite side of dunes (where I could have the setting sun to my back). I was surprised to find a lot of small-scale rippling on the dune surface. I didn't see this at Kelso dunes and only a little of it at the Ibex dunes.

My earlier failure to photograph the jets bothered me, and I was hiking with my camera in hand, ready to snap photos at the first sound of them. My effort was finally rewarded. I had already hiked around and atop the dunes and was getting bored. I stood on a somewhat flat section about half way up the largest dune. Again, some sort of ESP-like thing made me stare closely at the air to the south. Then I saw it. A lone F-18 was flying almost straight at me! I grabbed my camera and took a video as it flew overhead and over the hills. That was really cool. Blogger doesn't let me post videos, so I just posted one frame.

The mountains on both sides of the valley provide for long dusk and dawn periods. When it finally came up, the full moon illuminated the entire valley. neat. Unfortunately, it also prevented me from doing much star gazing. Sunrise didn't bring the photo experience I was hoping for. The sky was hazy. I packed up and left for some 4WD touring adventures in the area. If you've got a 4WD and want to use it, then Death Valley has some terrific places to go, ranging from the mild and scenic, to the high-pucker-factor scary trails that should have more warning signs. If you're interested, just let me know and I can supply loads of info.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mojave Walkabout

Last week, after finishing a hike in the Mojave desert, I wandered over to a small dry lake that I had spotted. A lot of interesting features are pretty easy to reach using the web of dirt roads that criss cross the desert. I saw this playa from the highway and it was easy to get there. So easy that I wasn't surprised to see lots of tire tracks and trash from other visitors. I spotted 3 former bonfires with piles of debris ranging from bottles, cans, a bicycle, mysterious metal pieces, and lots of propane fuel tanks. It almost looked as if people wanted to tempt fate and see what happens when you disregard the ubiquitous warnings and toss those tanks into a fire. It was probably teenage boys.

More interesting was the very green rocks that were lying about on the playa. Nearby there appeared to be a surface mining site where this green rock was being harvested. Here's a link to a Google map of this lake bed. I had tried to drive up Cronese Lake road, off the Basin Road exit, but was stopped short by the very deep sand when the road crossed a wide wash. I wanted to visit the East and West Cronese Dry Lakes. Maybe another day, with a better SUV.

Then I drove up to the powerlines that parallel I-15 all the way from Los Angeles to Primm, NV. Actually, according to one of my topo maps, they continue on to the Hoover Dam. There were 4 separate columns of towers carrying high voltage lines. Like lines of soldiers marching toward Los Angeles from the generators at the Hoover Dam. You might notice in the photo (from left to right) that 1 set carries 2 triplets of lines, 1 set carries 3 single lines, and 1 set carries 3 pairs of lines. I got out my handy-dandy EMF sensor to check the magnetic and electric fields. The electric fields were off the scale for all sets. The magnetic fields were lowest for the set with 2 triplets - and that seems reasonable since they'd have a good deal of field cancellation. The set with 3 pairs of lines was next lowest. The set with 3 single lines showed magnetic fields off the scale also. Here's a Google map of the powerline road that I visited.

Friday, October 19, 2007

We Owe This Man a Lot

Clair Patterson (1922-1995) was a modest geochemist from Iowa. Most people have never heard of him. That's a bit unfortunate given what he has done for us all. He is most often remembered as the man who first determined the age of the Earth to be 4.5 billion years, which stands to this date. That would be enough to put anybody's name in the history books, but Clair Patterson did so much more that has benefited all Americans in a real way.

Patterson received an undergraduate degree in chemistry from Grinnell College and a masters from the University of Iowa (his thesis was in molecular spectroscopy). He then went to the University of Chicago where he worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II. He continued his classified work in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at the uranium isotope separation plant. After the war he returned to Chicago for his PhD where his research focused on developing methods for measuring isotopic composition and concentrations of lead in igneous rocks as well as meteorites. It was this lengthy period of almost five years, developing the methods for separating and analyzing lead isotopes in microgram and sub-microgram quantities, that allowed him to estimate the Earth's age. He applied these techniques on the Canyon Diablo iron meteorite and in 1953 published the results. By this time, he had moved to California as a Research Fellow at CalTech.

This new ability to isolate microgram quantities of lead from ordinary rocks and sediments opened up new research areas for geochemists. Patterson began collecting data from across the world and this led to a frightening discovery. He compiled the amounts of industrial lead entering the environment from gasoline, solder, paint, and pesticides and showed that they were extremely high. He estimated the concentration in blood for many Americans to be over 100 times that of the natural level. Patterson reported this in his famous 1965 paper titled "Contamination and Natural Lead Environments of Man." [1] He found, from Greenland ice core samples, that atmospheric lead levels increased dramatically soon after tetra-ethyl lead became a common gasoline additive (to prevent engine knock).

Patterson felt so strongly about this subject that he lobbied California and national legislators. While he gained many enemies, especially in the Ethyl Corporation, he also gained many followers. Their efforts led to the enactment of the 1970 Clean Air Act. The U.S. began reducing lead in gasoline around 1973 and it was completely removed in 1987. In 1991, scientists reported that lead in the Greenland snow/ice had fallen by a factor of 7.5 since 1971. By 1993 lead solder was removed from all food containers in the United States, as well as from paints and water lines. And, most important to us, by the late 1990s lead levels within the blood of Americans has reportedly dropped by as much as 80%.

Patterson was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1987. In addition to receiving numerous awards for his work, the Vesta family asteroid 2511 was named after him, as was a peak in Antarctica. The international Geochemical Society offers the annual Clair C. Patterson Award for innovative breakthroughs in environmental geochemistry. CalTech interviewed him as part of their Oral Histories project and offers the transcript here.

Here are a few more links for those interested. National Academy of Sciences Biographical Memoirs description of Patterson, his work and his life (cited above as [1]). Berkeley's description of Patterson's work in radiometric dating and dating the Earth.

Friday, October 12, 2007

North Polar Sea Ice Shrinks

NASA has released a very demonstrative photo of the sea ice coverage at the north pole. The photo shows this summer's ice to have shrunk to a new low. This is released right on the heels of Al Gore being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, along with the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for his work in raising awareness of the reality of global warming. I think I can see a navigable northwest passage in that photo.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Frozen Dinners That Actually Taste Good!

I've taken a liking to these new frozen dinners from Healthy Choice called Cafe Steamers. Not all varieties are available where I shop, but so far I really like the Grilled Chicken Marinara and Beef Merlot. The Grilled Whiskey Steak wasn't as good. I've discovered that the chicken marinara dish is easily made even better by sprinkling shredded italian cheese on top after cooking and after you've stirred it up. These dishes are nice because they're not too filling and I can actually taste the meat and vegetables.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre

Before I returned to California, I decided to visit the memorial for the mountain meadows massacre. I won't try to explain that very tragic event in 1857, but you can find some decent descriptions on the Wikipedia page and the LDS page where they attempt to describe the complicated circumstances that led up to the massacre. Suffice it to say that 120 men, women and children (members of a wagon train from Arkansas headed west) were murdered by LDS followers. There are several books that describe the subject. Here are a few: The Mountain Meadows Massacre and Blood and Prophets: Brigham Young and the Massacre at Mountain Meadows. A movie on the subject titled September Dawn was recently released.

The memorial is located on the site of the seige and killings in Mountain Meadow, southwest of Cedar City, Utah (Google Maps link). Tasteful and understated, it does a fine job of memorializing the event. I especially liked the layout. You park in a large dirt lot and then walk down a sidewalk lined with natural vegetation. Visitors then take a small bridge to cross a creek and continue up the sidewalk to the memorial. This layout, among natural plants with no distractions, forcing the visitor to take some time before arriving at the memorial, seemed to help imbue a peaceful, almost somber tone to the whole setting. They also have an overlook area with plaques and more to help describe the meadow setting, now and then. I was pleased to see that I was not alone. Several other visitors were there, and most of them had Utah license plates.

Hurricane Mesa Supersonic Test Track

After leaving Zion NP, I took a detour to drive by the Hurricane Mesa Test Facility. This is the only privately owned and operated supersonic test track in the US and it sits atop the mesa a few miles to the west of Zion NP. Formerly a USAF facility used to develop ejection seats for supersonic fighters (among other things undoubtedly). It's now operated by a subsidiary of Goodrich. Here's their official web site. This site by Paul Freeman has a lot of interesting information about the place along with photos of the aircraft cockpits used. The Wikipedia page for the site is unimpressive. Here's a Google Map of the facility. The Center for Land Use Interpretation has a couple pages on the facility: short description page; newsletter story about the facility. Finally, I found this story from the local newspaper about the facility giving some interesting details about the rocket sled test operations.

I turned onto Mesa Road a few miles west of Zion and stopped to take in the view looking up at the mesa. The first photo shows that view. I spotted a group of people running up the road with a large van following them. Knowing it was a narrow road, I decided to not follow them and interfere with their training / masochism / punishment. Instead, I drove a bit east and turned up Kolob Reservoir Road toward the upper section of Zion NP hoping to drive along Smith Mesa Road and loop back around to the Hurricane Test Facility. I was pleasantly rewarded with a beautiful drive across the scenic mesa tops. There were quite a few ranches and farms up there, and so the dirt road was well worn and easy to drive. It's probably a lot worse when the ground is wet, so I wouldn't recommend it during or after rain showers unless you had 4WD.

When I arrived at the tall chain link fence perimeter of the test track facility, I was surprised to encounter a group of high school aged girls resting and gasping for breath. These were the leaders of that pack of runners that I saw starting at the bottom of Mesa Road. The road skirted the facility and led me to the very steep hill down Mesa Road. At the top of the hill I stopped at a pullout to let the remaining runners and their escort van pass by. Several girls smiled and waved at me as they ran by. They were certainly not in too bad of shape, and that's amazing because I could never run up that hill! The van drove by with a man shouting encouragement from the passenger seat to the final two runners, who were obviously very very tired.

On the way down the road I stopped a few times to take photos. I zoomed in on the trailer that extends out over the cliff's edge. I had read, on one of those sites I linked above, that this trailer is an employee lounge. I'm sure it has a terrific view.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Bighorn Sheep in Zion NP

I just returned from a fun road trip to southern Utah. I had 3 destinations, so I'll post them separately. Here, I'll describe my time at Zion National Park (which is one of my favorites). My goal was to wander around the backcountry on the east side of the park, and enjoy the scenery, maybe climb some hills to get some good photos, and maybe see some wildlife. In the end, I hit 2 out of 3.

The first photo is just a shot of the South Campground (under those trees) with the nice cliffs in the background. I had camp site 19, which I do NOT recommend. While it had great shade from large cottonwood trees, it was right next to the road and the intersection with the turn to the visitor center. That resulted in loads of traffic noise which didn't subside until very late. I walked around the campground and decided that camp sites 59 to 74 are the best. They're near the river and far from the road. I'll get one of those next time. Over half of the campers were using RVs or trailers. There were almost no children - probably because the school season has begun. The second photo was taken from a small rise on the east side of the park.

The weather forecast was for wind on my first day and a beautiful and mild second day, so I planned most of my hiking for the second day. Unfortunately, the weather front must have slowed a bit and the wind arrived on the second day. It was horribly windy. Dangerously windy. I would have been bothered if I were paying hotel rates. But since I paid $16/night, I can't really complain. Honestly, there were many times when I thought my tent was going to be blown off the ground, Wizard-of-Oz style. And that's when I was inside, with all my gear in there to help weigh it down.

While hiking in the early morning, before the wind came up, I stumbled upon a group of 4 rams. The first 3 left pretty fast and I was barely able to get pics of them before they were out of sight. The fourth one was larger, slower, last in the line, and spent a lot of time watching me. This matches the behavior I've seen with another ram on a previous hike there. So I had more time to take pics of him. I still didn't have enough time to retrieve my good camera from my backpack, so these were taken with my smaller camera and so are of lower quality in color and resolution. I spoke in a calm voice (note: I have no idea how I am supposed to react to a potentially hostile ram) just in case it might help him to believe that I was not a ram and I was not a threat to his territory or whatever.

That's him there, in silhouette. Then again in the zoomed views. He even seemed to glance back at me as he walked away slowly. The whole encounter was really fun. Too bad it lasted all of about three minutes. Shortly after this excitement, the weather turned bad as the wind arrived.

I ventured over to another area with the hopes of hiking up to a high vantage point for some nice photos of the tunnel entrance. By the time I arrived at the steep incline that I've climbed before to get up atop the mesa, the wind was blowing fiercely straight down it. The clouds were dark and moving fast, so I didn't know what kind of weather might be blown in. I decided it was too dangerous to climb up the steep hill (which I rate at class 3/4) because of the wind and because any rain would make that route entirely unusable. So I returned to the valley and hiked around some of the boring easy trails down there.

The next photo is looking back on the town of Springdale as I was leaving the next morning, which looked to become a beautiful day. I made sure to dine at my favorite place, the Zion Pizza and Noodle Company. I even tried one of their local microbrews. It's a great way to satisfy your hunger after a day of hiking. I recommend that place to all my friends.

The last photo is a gratuitous pic of Eagle Crags, a large rock formation outside of Springdale. On a future trip, I plan to hike the trail there that winds its way around and up into the rocks.