2019: A short review

With the close of 2019 and the decade, I thought I’d put together a quick highlight reel of the content produced on this blog in the past year. Enjoy the resulting meta-blog post, and if you haven’t already, follow this blog by clicking the button at the bottom of this page.

Top Posts in 2019

The top five most-read blog posts of 2019 were all written in the same year. (That sounds self-evident, but it’s not—some of my older essays remain stubbornly popular, even if I consider them somewhat embarrassing in hindsight.) Here’s the list, with [2019] view counts:

  1. The Kids Are All Right (98)
  2. Summer Vacation to the Southwest (75)
  3. What Colleges Sell (58)
  4. “IRL Impressions” (50)
  5. Birds, Bees, and (Abortion) Bans (48)

It’s hard to infer much from this list, but if I had to guess, it would be an endorsement of graphs and photos—both of which do well on social media and thus bring people to the site. Speaking of which…

Favorite Data Visualizations of 2019

Last year I really leaned into adding data visualizations to these blog posts. This was mostly motivated by a desire to get better at R and statistics. Here are my favorites from this past year, in no particular order:

religious nones

This one is from Kicking Away the Ladder? The rich-world’s flight from religion is one of the defining phenomena of our era. The relationship between religious affiliation and fertility rates, which became one of my favorite topics this year, makes it even more interesting. Also, I think the blue confidence band is pretty.

MGM revenueMarijuana revenue

Both of these graphs are from State of Sin, which looked into the revenue generated by the newly legalized casinos and pot shops across Massachusetts at the end of fiscal year 2019. Mostly, I just think the gap between the state’s expectations and reality is funny. It’s also nice to look at local data. (The MGM casino is two blocks from my apartment.)

One of the cool things I learned from chatting with readers is that the dearth of pot shops across Massachusetts, combined with the ease of growing marijuana in one’s own home, has actually stimulated the “illegal” marijuana market.

abortion any reason

This graph, from Birds, Bees, and (Abortion) Bans, displays the differences (or lack thereof) in men’s and women’s views on whether abortion should be legally attainable for any reason. This is probably my favorite graph of the year, for a few reasons: it contradicts a popular assumption about public opinion, and it effectively and aesthetically displays information. As a bonus, I even managed to throw it and the accompanying essay together while the topic was still hot (during the rash of abortion bans in the summer).

Conservative have more kids

Finally, this year-old graph shows the differences in mean number of children had by men and women of various political persuasions. As I’ve mentioned, I think this is one of the most important political quirks out there. This graph is from The Kids Are All Right, which set an unattainably high bar for essay names.

Improving readership?

As you saw above, there isn’t a tremendous readership at this blog. That’s okay with me, as this is just for fun, but more is obviously preferable! That said, it does seem like this blog has hit its stride in some sense. The site had more views this year than in any other, despite me having only written nine blog posts. That’s efficiency, bay-bee.

Views and posts of eddiethoughts.jpeg
New aesthetic courtesy of ggplot2. Thoughts?

The fact that the blog is doing better by most metrics on a per-post basis leads me to believe that simply writing more would go a long way. Since I, uh, parted ways with my previous employer a little over two weeks ago, I suppose that’s more feasible at the moment than it has been for the last three years.

per post statistics

I’m also up for covering topics that are more interesting to readers, as long as they’re aligned with what I usually write about. (This isn’t about to become a wellness blog or something.) If you have suggestions or requests, get in touch! Use the contact form on the about page or leave a reply below.

Here’s to the new year.

Money to Burn?

First of all, Happy belated New Year to all 16 people who read this blog. Sorry for the lapse in posts; I’ve been busy basking in the relative success of my last article, looking for a new job, and freezing my ass off in the midst of this cruel phenomenon called New England winter.

Whilst taking shelter from the subfreezing temperatures–emerging only to go on job interviews and buy scotch–I’ve done my best to keep up with the world beyond the attic in which I reside. I know, for example, that the Federal Reserve raised rates for the first time in 2016, signalling that inflation may be returning and the US economy might finally be moving towards normalcy.

Inflation

How you feel about inflation depends on where and when you live. In the developed world, hyperinflation, once a real problem, has largely been tamed by central banks, which use monetary policy to constrain the money supply when inflation starts to get out of hand. In fact, since the financial crisis inflation has been so weak that some central banks have pursued negative interest rates with the hope of staving off deflation.

In other parts of the world, hyperinflation persists. Venezuela is slated to experience 1,600% inflation in 2017, per the IMF.

The combination of cold weather and thoughts of inflation brought to mind some famous pictures of residents of the Weimar Republic using increasingly useless money for purposes other than exchange.

 

Anyway, that got me wondering: what kind of inflation would we need to see to make dollar bills an efficient heating source? To find out, I compared dollar bills to other sources of heat on a cost/megajoule basis. While the nominal cost of other heat sources would increase with inflation, it would remain constant with dollar bills because their heating value is independent from their monetary value.

Difficulties, Assumptions, and Deficiencies

In order to turn this into an answerable question I had to build some assumptions and omissions into my calculations.

First of all, all prices listed reflect only supply costs associated with different fuel types. Energy costs are typically broken down into charges for supply (rate times quantity) and delivery, which, depending on the energy source in question is either a fixed cost, a function of supply, or a function of “user profile.” For example, delivery charges for electricity are often higher during hours of “peak demand.”

Second, all calculations are based on prices from my area. I also didn’t go crazy trying to find the best deals on things like pine firewood, but instead relied on the most available source (in the case of pine wood, the Stop and Shop down the street). Different prices would obviously mean different equilibrium points.

The third assumption, assuming the price of these energy sources would not be influenced by anything other than inflation, is highly unrealistic. You can bet that if the price of natural gas doubles for 10 years in a row, people will start coming up with new heating sources or moving south for the winter. But again, for simplicity’s sake we’ll assume nothing will change in response to increasing prices.

One last assumption: that no one would be foolish enough to burn dollar bills in any denomination other than $1.

Data

screen-shot-2017-01-27-at-11-54-36-am

Far and away the most challenging part of this was doing the data conversions; as you can imagine, kerosene isn’t commonly purchased by the kilogram. I haven’t taken a math or science class in about 4 years. Add to that my stubborn insistence that I do my own calculations by hand and you’ve got a recipe for a very humbled author.

Nevertheless, I persisted. The second column in the table above shows lower heating values–the net amount of energy released by burning–for various fuel sources, measured in megajoules per kilogram (A friend explained this concept to me–thank you, Zane). The third lists the cost per kilogram, and the fourth displays the cost per megajoule of energy.

With the exception of dollar bills, finding heating values for these different substances was easy. I found a couple reliable websites (like this one and this one) that listed heating values. Wikipedia also lists heating values for common fuels. There were a few discrepancies when I looked to confirm values, but nothing too major.

Dollars are made of a blend of cotton and linen fibers (about 75% and 25%, respectively), so I wanted to take a weighted average of the two heating values. Unfortunately, even that information proved too difficult to find. I thought it would be easy to find similar pieces online, but I turned out to be wrong about that. I only found one article that was trying to get at the same thing and in the end, I just decided to go with the value they suggested: 4 btu per bill or 4.22 mj/kg.

If you want to cut to the moral of the story, here it is: Don’t burn dollars for heat. It’s a terrible, terrible idea.

How Terrible?

Barring some kind of extreme and sustained change to US monetary policy, it will probably never make sense to burn dollar bills for heat. Here’s a chart showing how long it would take for dollars to become an efficient fuel source over years at 100% annual inflation (prices doubling every year):

years-100

The price of natural gas would have to double every year for 16 years before you could produce more heat by burning singles than buying natural gas. However, as Venezuelans know, prices can increase faster than that. Here’s the same graph with the Venezuelan inflation rate of 1600%:

1600
“That escalated quickly.”–Ron Burgendy

So maybe we’ll see some Venezuelans burning currency in the near future, but hopefully not–a lot of human misery comes along with that kind of inflation. A regime change and some monetary restraint would be a much better outcome.

If anyone out there has some other heating source they’d like to see added to the graphs, leave a comment below and I’ll gladly include it.