Archive for the 'General' Category

Jan 17 2010

The economy is improving?

Published by under General,retro

Friday, the postwoman brought us two unsolicited offers of credit cards! The first offers I’ve recieved in I don’t know how long. Probably about a year. Used to get them by the bushel, but that all dried up during the height of the ‘credit crisis’ which is now must be seriously easing. Or, maybe this was a fluke to be followed my more months of bleak economic news. No one can forecast the economy very well. I sure can’t

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Jul 19 2009

Better Fire Fighting?

Published by under General

How to fight fires is not a topic I know much about, but the ‘hose’ and method described in this article is interesting and sounds promising. A laser like jet of water cuts a small hole for the water to enter a closed space. Less water used, less need for people to go into a burning building. That description doesn’t do it justice. Read the better description.

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Jul 14 2009

“Unburdening Made Easy”

Published by under General

I don’t know what this site represents. It appears to be a professionally prepared site and I stumbled on it via an ad in Facebook. What does the company do besides take your money?!

“Is money tight?
Offer your soul out for rental and save up to 70% on the extraction procedure!”

Anybody has had their soul stored? Rented someones else’s soul? What’s it like?

Update (7/27/2009) – There is an ad for this company in the paper edition of the New Yorker dated today! Get em (or give em) while they’re hot!

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Jul 14 2009

Machine vs. Machine

Published by under General,Speculative

A small financial trading firm, Themis Trading LLC, has published an interesting paper on how various firms use extremely fast short term trading program to make/scam/steal profits from the various electronic exchanges and ultimately from everyone else who is dependent on efficient markets (i.e. almost everybody via mutual funds, pensions, etc.). The process involves using programs running on machines with extremely fast access to the exchanges’ machines to place transactions based on what other machines are doing (e.g. breading up and trading blocks of shares). This paper was published about six months ago and other press articles has described aspects of it. It seems that a lot of people know about this game, but it was new to me.
Recently, a former Goldman Sachs programmer was accused of stealing their program trading code which may have been used in implementing such a scheme. In that case, the U.S. Attorney said in court “..this program could use it to manipulate markets in unfair ways..”. Fair when G-S uses it, unfair when someone else does? That seems a little odd.
What intrigues me is the battle of machines involved in this game. From the descriptions, the ‘intelligence’ is programmed in by their owners and the machines just implement the strategies very, very quickly (microsecond?) before other participants can trade. It feels like ‘front running’ and old game in which a trader hears of a coming trade and buys/sells in front of it (which in turn sounds a lot like insider trading).
The machines do not represent “smart machines” which figure out strategies or tactics. Or, maybe they do……

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May 11 2009

Botnets

Published by under Books,General

The book “Daemon” described in my prior post is built around an imaginary ‘botnet’ set loose after its builder dies. That botnet is imaginary, as far as I know, but less capable botnets are very real and cause a lot of problems on the Internet and in the wider world. Botnets are the source of much of the spam, data theft, and disruptive attacks on legitimate web sites that seem to be a daily occurrence.
A botnet consists of a large number of Internet connected computers owned and operated by unsuspecting, normal, users that have been infected via email or via accessing a web site that injects malicious programs into the machine. These programs allow a remote controller of the botnet (a person using a computer somewhere) to tell the machines to send email, attempt to log on to a web site, or just take data from the machine and send it off over the internet to some place from which they retrieve it. The number of machines in a bot net can be huge; at least hundreds of thousands and probably in the millions. The BBC has a video of a simple use of a botnet to send spam. That activity by the BBC spawned its own controversy .
Recently, researchers at UCSD manage to get temporary control of a different botnet and analyzed the data that would be collected by the botnet’s controller. What they found makes interesting reading.

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Mar 14 2009

“Congestion Charges”

Published by under General,Speculative

“Congestion charges” have been used for decades in Singapore and more recently in London. A simple concept: if you want to drive into congested zones, you pay more. Makes sense to me and we should try it (along with taxing gasoline) here in SF.

I don’t know of any systematic study of the results of using Congestion Charges, but this post reminded me of them and provides a positive anecdote.

The congestion charge has reduced traffic in London enormously and made it much more livable. It has also made the bus system usable again.

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Feb 25 2009

Secondary Effects

Published by under General,retro

It is no secret that newspapers are in serious decline and a number of them have filed for bankruptcy protection. I haven’t subscribed to a paper in many years and hence am part of their problem. Like many others I get all the news I want via the internet, radio (most radio is via podcasts) and talking to other people. I still read one magazine printed on paper that arrives via the U.S. Mail which includes news related material.
I don’t miss the rather dirty and voluminous newspapers except when I want to cover a floor to protect it from paint or the trunk of my car to protect it from very dirty objects (like loads of garden mulch or compost). What will fill this niche if newspapers disappear? Purchased plastic sheets? That doesn’t sound like a step forward.
Speaking of plastic: In San Francisco, grocery stores can no longer provide plastic bags. This opens up the market for people to sell plastic bags as there still is a needed to line garbage cans.
Somewhere, someone must be saving old plastic grocery bags or newspaper mastheads in hopes of starting a museum for each. Maybe in what used to be a gas station along some highway.

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Nov 30 2008

Long election “coat tails” wanted!!

Published by under General

Hope springs eternal
This gave me a chuckle on the way home yesterday! Clever entrepreneurs out here in silicon valley.

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Nov 04 2008

Election Forecasting

Published by under General

Wired has an interesting article on the first use of a computer to predict the outcome of a national election: Eisenhower vs. Stevenson (of Illinois) in 1952. CBS News didn’t believe the machines ultimately correct prediction.
This was a clear case in which all the machine added was rapid processing of data to get a result in a useful time frame. The analysis was directly specified in advance of the election. Still true or are machines more capable?

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Sep 15 2008

Paper

Published by under General,retro

At the beginning of 2000, we wrote about 35 paper checks per month. For the most recent four months, we’ve averaged about 9 per month with a high of 11 and only 6 last month. We don’t live much differently in most regards, but use electronic bill payment services and credit cards more. A significant portion of the remaining checks are charitable contributions for which the IRS requires a paper trail; more paper than before since acknowledgment letters need to be kept.
Additionally, more credit card statements, bank statements are provided electronically. They can be printed as needed, but why keep a moldering pile of paper?
Newspaper readership is shrinking. Want ads are moving to Craig’s list or equivalent.
Paper books are still useful to use and nice to read, but a gradually increasing portion of our reading is done on a screen. Nice paper used in invitations, etc. still looks and feels good (at least to my generation).
Overall, we seem to be making some progress toward chopping up fewer trees to make paper.

PS. A New York Times artivle on the paper usage from earlier this year.

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Jul 19 2007

Inflation?

Published by under General

Depending on what numbers you read, the US “cost of living” has recently been increasing by 2.5% to 3% annually. At my local BuyRite grocery store, the cost of a gallon of milk, non-fat, has gone from $3.99 to $4.99 in the last four to six weeks. That’s pretty close to a monthly increase of 20%. Let’s hope it is a very rare annomoly.
Or, maybe a bargain is being eliminated. A Google search comes up with $4.65 for a gallon of fat free milk in Danbury Connecticut. In any case my personal CPI has gone up.

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Jul 18 2007

The Machine Stops

Published by under Books,General,retro

E. M Forster

I have long remembered reading this short story in some high school English class. I didn’t remember it very well, but it is probably the only specific story that I can remember reading after around 50 years. It obviously had a strong impact, and I wanted to ‘read’ it again to refresh my memory. This time I listened to an audio recording provided by Libivox rather than turning pages. The story was written almost 100 years ago and is amazingly prescient about some aspects of the Internet as it now exists. But, it is a dark tale and very much a cautionary tale about over reliance on technology. A highly recommended listen or read. (Internet “haters” will love it.)

If reading it via the Internet is not too uncomfortable, the full text can be found here, and here.

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Jul 10 2007

Stupid; but funny

Published by under General

This afternoon I noticed this message written on the sidewalk outside a corner bar on 16th St. “The liver is evil, punish it!”. Maybe an old line, but new to me.

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Oct 08 2006

Sign of the times?

Published by under General

The October 9th issue of the New Yorker includes an ad for the New Yorker store which is selling a ‘blazingly fast portable hard drive’ that contains every page of every issue from February 1925 to April 2006. Who would have thought that the New Yorker would be selling hard drives. I wonder what license accompanies the content of the 80GB disk? Future content updates are not mentioned.

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Oct 01 2006

Killing Time

Published by under Books,General

by Caleb Carr

I found this book at the SF Library’s big used book sale which ends today. I wasn’t looking for it, but recognized the author’s name as being a previously ‘recommended’ detective story writer. The first chapter was short but effective in pulling me interested into story. Good writing. But it went downhill and in the end this book is no more than an ok “airplane book”. “Killing time” is an appropriate title.

It is an action thriller that is peopled with super smart men and one super smart and ruthless woman who come together in secret to manipulate the world’s information in order to demonstrate how gullible we’ve all become in the digital information age. They can whip up and manufacture the best toys (flying ships, weapons, forgeries, etc.) without any trouble or any apparent external resources. The lead character is a “shrink” and the story is set in the third decade of this century when the world has mostly gone to hell in a hand-basket. Rampant pollution, political corruption, wars over water, trees, and you name it. The super smart group of eccentric geniuses are out to pull of major hoaxes to demonstrate how unreliable the digital information age has become. People can be led to believe anything. In the process they accidentally set off a series of events that leads to a terrorist nuking of Moscow, but that doesn’t deter them. An event which causes the hero shrink to abandon the group. Believability is extremely low and the ending absurdly unjustified and unbelievable.

However, the real world issue that is the starting point for the story, i.e. what information can you trust in a digital age and how can all that digital information be turned into useful knowledge, is an interesting issue and worthy of more serious exploration.

  • What does the general public do with the content of “Docudramas” that admit to fiction in their “small print”, but present a story intended to be seen as true. As far as I know, this genre can trace its lineage back to Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” which was well written and interesting, but not out to intentionally mislead.
  • There have been several high profile cases of reporters for reputable papers creating stories or reporting out of ‘thin air’ and typically this has been done from a PC or e-mail terminal. So easy to fabricate that the temptation is high.
  • The internet makes it relatively easy and fast to spread lies that they can overwhelm real information. Who is going to assess and counteract such deceptions. No one has the time to look at them all critically and some seep into the brain as ‘truth’.
  • And lastly, digital images are so manipulatable that they make a mockery out of “seeing is believing”. Yes, digital manipulation can be detected but it can’t be easily detected by the un-aided eye.
  • So how does the world work when deception, and truth, can be disseminated and manipulated quickly to a large population. So large and dispersed that ‘direct participation’ is usually out of the question. How is this digital information age qualitatively different from the industrial age and what should/can we do about it?

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