Monday, September 8, 2008

iPhone review

I had been long overdue for getting a new cell phone...so when the iPhone 3G was offered in my region, I decided to jump on the bandwagon -- after some hesitation.  (Questions like: "How much will I use will I get out of the bells and whistles?" and "Will the on screen touch-screen keyboard be suitable for typing?" popped to mind, among others.)

I've had the phone for a couple of weeks now, and overall I'd say I'm pleased.  I've explored some of the built-in features, as well as downloading a handful of free apps available through the app store.

The on-screen keyboard initially took a bit of getting used to, however once I became accustomed to using the tips of my fingers/thumbs, typing speed increased notably.  Without much practice I'm reasonably over 20 words per minute, and expect that 30-40 WPM would be manageable with regular use.  One quirk regarding the on-screen keyboard is that you are presented primarily with the qwerty layout for letters, with a key to switch to entering numbers/symbols and back again -- you get used to this pretty quickly, though, and being presented in this fashion does allow for more accurate typing, as there are fewer keys crammed into your "fingerspace" at any one time.

Connecting via wireless access points at home/work/on the road is quite painless, and a boon for anyone who's a big data user, as it allows you to do what you will on the net without cutting into what's allotted by your data plan.

Initially accessing the app store was interesting.  There were no problems viewing the apps available for download out-of-the-box, however when I went to download my first free app is where things became a little more complicated.  When trying to grab my first free app, I was on a coffee break at work -- as I had not yet plugged it in at home, it didn't have an association to any iTunes account.  Being at work, I didn't want to install iTunes on my work machine.  When going to the iTunes site, there didn't appear to be any way to create an account without having a working installation of iTunes.  For those of you who haven't installed iTunes, this may be a necessary step in order to access even the free apps, even if you won't have a use for iTunes beyond that.

There's a built in calendar with alerts -- allowing you to keep track of appointments and events, a photo album, a simple camera (picture quality is 'ok'...but not great, with no immediately apparent means for recording video), built in gps with mapping/route planning functionality, a clock configurable to show time zones of interest (complete with timers/stop-watch functionality), a simple note-taking application, a stock market info widget, local weather, and a fairly well thought out contact manager.  There are also widgets for quick access to youtube and iTunes, as well as your iPod library, but I haven't put them through the wringer yet.

There's a widget built in to make it easier to connect to your e-mail service, whether Exchange, gmail, yahoo, or what have you, and a built in web browser, Safari.  It's unfortunate that this rendition of Safari doesn't support Java or Flash -- I don't miss them much at the moment, although having Flash support would have made things easier on one occasion, where a site didn't have any real alternatives to their Flash interface.

Although I'm not surprised, it was a little disappointing to find that the SDK for the platform is only usable on OS X.  Along with that, it sure would be nice if wrappers for other languages were openly accepted by Apple.  As it is, rather than playing around and whipping up a few things in python to feel things out, I'll have to make the time to familiarize myself with their Objective C.  Although there is a python port out there, I believe, it's not in a state suitable for general consumer use...while it would be fun to try it out, that does take the wind out of the sails a bit, as if you do whip up something nifty, how will you share it with friends?  (Get them to apply what's needed for that python port to work?  Umm, no.)

The App store is quite a mixed bag...I've been quite satisfied with the free apps I've grabbed so far, including VNC, telnet, and RDP clients, and a few games.  There are a number of apps at a cost that appear to be decent, too, although keep your eyes open -- sometimes the free alternatives appear to be more feature rich than the pay-for alternatives.  Your milage may vary, depending on the author(s).  With apps at a cost typically ranging from $0.99 to $24.99 (rarely more), the outlay isn't much, regardless, although it would be a shame to spend your money on a lemon.

Battery life seems to vary wildly, although I haven't put my finger on why, yet.  I imagine it's tied to what apps I've been using that account for this difference -- even though apps appear to be closed/minimized, when sleeping, the phone's battery may last on standby for days, or it may be completely drained over the course of a few hours.  For the most part, though, it's fallen into the 'days' category.

Sound quality: when using the phone as...a phone (imagine that), I find that I can hear a conversation with reasonable quality, although the people I speak to have commented that background noise can be an issue.  A quick google search reveals others with this problem, however this appears to be readily dealt with by getting a bluetooth earpiece that has decent noise-cancellation.  The phone detects when it's by your head, and turns off the screen so as to not bathe you in a surreal glow.  When you're on a call and pull the handset away, it presents you with the options to mute, switch to/from speaker, put a call on hold, and so on. 

It does have built in accelerometers and the like, allowing apps to be built that detect the orientation and motion of the phone.  (you can download a free level, for example, as well as game that put this functionality to use -- like those wooden mazes which you tilt to move a marble about therein, etc.)

Off the top of my head, the main other nice-to-have would be the ability to copy and paste text...it would be handy for pasting the contents of a note into e-mail or a web form, for example.

All in all, I'm quite happy with the phone.  It's pretty sleek, and its usability has been for the most part well thought out.  I have it in a Griffin hard case, so that it doesn't become a nice looking paperweight as a result of a clumsy moment, and find that there are no issues with using it, protective plastic over the screen and all. 

As it is relatively new, I expect that future revisions will see the addition of more nice-to-have features, along with filling in the gaps where people find it most lacking.  Meanwhile, I'll carry on as a happy camper. 

Of course, my productivity will no doubt increase notably, just as soon as I delete that free version of Solitaire I installed ;)

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Personal update: Recharging batteries

Well, it's been a very busy time, to say the least.

I've been taking some time to rest and recharge my own batteries, although even when resting, my mind's usually far too active for my own good.  One of the drawbacks in this state is that although the ideas keep flowing, they are more transient -- if I don't jot them down, they're there one minute and gone the next.

As a distraction, I've been working on an autonomous agent that will "play the stock market" and manage its own virtual portfolio.  Initial runs against historical data have met with decent success.  I'm now taking it from a "parse historical data" state to a "pull in 'live' (delayed) data from a website" state, making buy/sell decisions, and posting its actions and progress. 

Although there have been some delays in doing so, mainly due to suddenly deciding that the agent should be written using code and design that's all prim and proper, it's coming along well enough.  Hopefully, I'll be able to have the agent 'go live' by the end of August.  This has mainly been an effort to provide a distraction that's enjoyable, allowing me to recharge, and to keep my mind from gathering too much dust in the interim.  That being said, it would be pretty nifty if it managed to beat some of the managed funds (along with tried and true method of throwing darts at a stock listing ;).

So far, the live version will pull in data in a multi-threaded fashion, buy and sell stock according to whatever rules are specified, and can post to its own blog.  Once I've finished off its ability to save its state, so that it can be stopped and started without losing track of what it's doing, I'll set it loose and will pass on the URL, in case you want to follow its progress.

If I find the time for an updated version of the agent beyond that 'go live', I'd like to adjust it so that it can manage portfolios of commodity futures and options...two things favour venturing into this area:
- commodity markets can be nice and volatile, but with more predictable minimum/maximum values
- although commodities values fluctuate, they're always worth something, whereas a stock can become worthless

I hope that once this little side project is complete my batteries will have recharged enough for me to pursue my environmental efforts with renewed vigor.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Going green: Powering it all (Part 2)

Boy, this whole "Let's save the world" thing takes a bit of time and effort ;)

Things are moving slowly, but they are moving, thankfully.

Initial design and simulation for the whole wave/tidal power generation thing is promising, which is nice to find. I'd initially planned to set out and build a small prototype in a MacGyver-esque fashion, but have held off for the time being. Rather than slapping something together willy-nilly to demonstrate feasibility, I feel it would likely be more beneficial and fulfilling to put together a more sound prototype, and demonstrate what's necessary to be able to power n homes by scaling up the design. Knowing me, I'll wind up building a prototype that's a compromise of the two in the coming month or so.

Meanwhile, I've been concentrating more on the solar/thermal power generation side of things, for a couple of reasons:
- it's where I feel the most bang for the buck will be found, long term, when considering all factors
- I can make and test prototypes at home -- no travelling to the shore required
- small-scale prototypes will still demonstrate proof of concept, and have negligible cost

Much work has already been done in the field, and things like improvements to Sterling Engine design and implementation are currently being researched by a variety of organizations.

What's a Sterling Engine? Well, it's a type of heat engine -- one that operates simply by applying heat (from combustion, solar energy, geothermal, or what have you). They are quite simple, with very few moving parts, and have been demonstrated to operate with just a few degrees difference in temperature between the cold and hot portions of the engine. (Some will even operate off of the heat from the palm of your hand) Google will lead you to a whole variety of resources, including how to build your own with a few tin cans.

With all that's been done in mind, why bother? Hrmm...well, I've got a variation on the theme in mind which I hope will scale up nicely -- at the moment the main design has only one moving part, although some additional parts may be incorporated to offer better efficiency, if needed. I'd like to run some computer simulations, however many of the nice simulation software packages that include computational fluid dynamics are rather costly...as such, I'm simply hoping to execute a design that works, based on simple high school/undergrad calculations. If the design can be shown to work, well, then I'll put in some effort to further optimize it.

Of course, if the variation doesn't work as intended, it'll be time to sip a soda and gather my thoughts. If it does, well, I'll wire it up as a generator to see what average power it'll generate over a reasonable amount of time. I'll keep you posted with the results, either way.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Going green: Powering it all

For the planned initiatives, a realiable and steady source of power would be a good thing, and of course choosing a green means for generating that power is the order of the day.

If the means established has enough of the desired features, there may even be the opportunity to connect it to the grid and sell surplus electricity to the power companies. A number of regions "out there" have good initiatives and processes for such things, making it easy to get connected, and offering nice rates. (for example, NC has, I believe, an easy plan in place for anything up to 10kWh) Here, things are a little more difficult...the capacity has to be greater than X, and it has to be consistent -- no wind/solar, unless you have a means to store the energy so that it may be delivered to them at a constant rate. Wind and solar are hard sells regardless, since it doesn't guarantee that they'll get anything from you. Additionally, last I heard, if you're after a rate greater than 2.5 cents per kWh, it has to go to tender -- at that amount or lower, though, it won't have to. (Meanwhile, elsewhere, two, three, even up to 15 times higher than that rate can be found)

Photoelectric, solar/thermal, and wind generation are nice, and will likely play a part in the overall design...I'll likely use them to augment the primary power source, though, rather than serve in that capacity. (Long term, if the whole shebang gets off the ground, I _would_ like to shift the primary source to solar, but that will only be possible with appropriate capitalization -- ideally generated from operating revenue...with the lessons learned in that implementation, I hope to establish a process that's easily duplicated and portable. If successful, it may provide a low cost means for power generation abroad, wherever it's needed most.)

I think I've got a pretty good handle on tidal/wave action power generation, and believe that this could prove to be an economically viable route to take at the onset, with a seemingly lower cost per kWh for setup and maintenance. It's been nice to see that more progress is being in this area...when the attention turned to some of the innovations for harnessing wave action out of Scotland, it made me think "ah, good, someone's on the right track". Theirs is a few steps removed from what I'd envisioned a number of years ago, but shows good promise. Me, well, I'll be seeing whether I can bring one of my old designs to light at long last.

Time permitting, I'll do an experiment or two this weekend to that end. In spite of the movies, with "1.21 gigawatts" popping to mind regularly, the interim goal is much more modest -- the planning at the moment is to provide a proof of concept for somewhere around 1 megawatt, although I'll be satisfied with 0.5 to 1 megawatts to begin with.

I'll let you know how it goes...meanwhile, wish me luck!

Friday, July 11, 2008

Going green: General overview (Part 1)

Alright, I admit it...I feel as though there are things that we can do to have less of an impact on the environment. I may as well take a moment to mention them here, as they've been keeping me preoccupied of late.

Some time ago I referred to the Virgin Earth initiative. I've put in some effort to create one or more solutions to be suitable for submission, and it's been an interesting path. Once I've formalized some of my findings, I'll go into additional detail -- for now, though, you just get a teaser.

First, it seems as though economically self sustaining processes can be put in place that will offset what's currently going on in the world. Where the economic side of things begins to run into challenges is in scaling it up to the point where it makes a notable difference on either a global scale, or at least on the scale represented by our global production of such things that we'd want to offset.

It turns out that the mechanisms for dealing with some of the notable byproducts aren't that complicated, and much research has already been done in numerous areas on the matter. Heck, you can even take the initiative to deal with those byproducts and wind up with an interesting variety of commercially viable end products as a result. Where the problem arises, though, is in the realization that for a number of those end products you'll wind up producing more than there's demand for (and so doing so will only be profitable to a point).

The approach I'm considering at the moment is a somewhat dynamic production line...that is to say, that a few key processes are in place which can be turned on and off as desired. Directing flow through some of the processes will produce "A", while 'flicking a switch or two' will result in the production of "B", "C", or what have you. In this fashion, you could produce as much A/B/C as the markets would bear sensibly, and turn the profit back into the operation to continue the clean-up initiative as much beyond that as those profits would allow on an ongoing basis.

Initial efforts are for a direct reduction of CO2 in the atmosphere, keeping in mind the target goal of removing 1 billion tons of CO2 per year, sustainably.

It actually turns out that removing CO2 from the atmosphere is relatively easy. That being said, what do you do with what you've captured? Well, I don't feel that sequestering the gas directly is a sensible long term solution...somehow pumping billions of tons of gas underground seems like a potentially bad idea. (What if by some geological quirk or shift it wound up escaping en-masse...sure it might dissipate _relatively_ rapidly, but what happens in the meantime, particularly if this occurred near a populated area? Temporary displacement of breatheable air in a region, even for a few minutes...well, you get the idea)

What, then? Well, solid carbon, water, oxygen when desired, and a variety of marketable byproducts seems like a step in the right direction.

Power for the operation will be using green sources...I'd prefer to leverage sunlight as much as possible, since at first glance it seems more sensible to put that energy to use "directly" -- the same energy which by a variety of mechanisms is what's warming the globe to begin with (enter the laws of thermodynamics). Other green energy sources can be used to good effect too, of course -- just need to keep in mind the end goals so that things don't go off track.

Hrmm...I'm rambling a little more than intended, so I'll close for now with that -- I'm at the tail end of a nasty cold that's making concentration difficult and coherence elusive.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Back at last

Just a quick post for those of you who wander by here, to let you know that I've not fallen off the face of the earth.

I'm rested after a much wanted vacation, and getting back into the swing of things. As is often the case with such things, my to-do list at work has seen a healthy growth spurt in my absence, so it will likely be a number of days before I resume rambling in earnest.

On reflection of recent posts -- namely the one regarding relativity/mass/etc., it does seem that I have a ways to go in order to present some of my quirkier thoughts in ways that aren't prone to misinterpretation. I'm a big fan of Einstein overall, Special and General Relativity included. (When I went out to seek out some answers and opinions, I think I initially came across as saying "hey, I think there's a problem with Relativity", which wasn't my viewpoint at all, but I digress)

Back on track, though -- hang in there, more posts will be forthcoming in the relatively near future!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Relativistic mass in introductory physics

There seems to be a slight issue with how some principles in physics are introduced nowadays.

If you've already had some exposure to Einstein's Special Relativity, you'll likely be familiar with the following equation (if not, stay tuned -- I'll give an overview in later posts):



Here we have m, the rest mass of the object, m[rel] - the relativistic mass of an object in motion, v - the velocity of the object, and c - the speed of light.

In a nutshell, the basic idea is usually introduced roughly like so: "the apparent or observed mass of an object or system that's moving will change from a stationary frame of reference as that object's velocity changes." The premise was that as the velocity of the object or system increased relative to the frame of reference, so did the relativistic mass. You can see, in looking at the equation, that as the velocity approaches the speed of light, the relativistic mass approaches infinity. (For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of delving into this area yet, wait for it -- time operates the same way! Yes, as that object travels faster and faster, time for it slows down, compared to the static frame of reference!)

All seems well and good as the ideas are explained one by one...but then a problem arises. You may have heard this yourself: "...and so we can see that it's impossible for an object to accelerate to the speed of light, since the closer the object gets to that speed, the greater its mass, and so more and more fuel would be required for it to continue to accelerate -- so the amount of fuel you'd need would approach infinity, too!"

On the surface, it seems reasonable. Take a moment to think about it, though -- if the object is carrying its "gas tank" with it, then the relativistic mass of the "gas" on board is approaching infinity, too. This isn't to say that it's gaining fuel as it goes -- just that the rate at which the apparent mass of the carried fuel is increasing matches the increase observed in the object itself! With that in mind, this argument for an object not being to accelerate so certainly appears to be false.

Don't go jumping about thinking that warp speed is around the corner, though -- there are a few other factors that need to be considered, too. While the "infinite fuel" argument in this fashion certainly seems to be false, there are other things at work: For an observer on that moving object, they may very well see a smooth and steady increase to the speed of light, maybe even beyond, too. If they had a means of constant acceleration, and the fuel to do so theoretically, given the object's rest mass, the change in the traditionally viewed relativistic mass of the system should have no bearing on whether it could achieve that velocity. "Oh good, we've achieved light speed, and just in time for tea."

For the stationary observer, though, they're not so lucky. If we take into account the time dilation side of things, the stationary frame of reference will never see that object achieve light speed. Why? Well, for the object in motion it's easy -- it's accelerating smoothly through light speed at a constant acceleration. For the stationary observer, though, the increase in velocity appears to be slowing down more and more as it approaches light speed, but due to time dilation rather than anything mass related.

Just to put some numbers to it: at 90% of the speed of light, what seems to take 1 second on the object takes roughly 2 seconds for the stationary observer. At 99%, it appears to take 7.01 seconds. At 99.99%, 70.7 seconds....and so on. (At 99.99999999999996% light speed, one second for the object equates to over 1 year for the stationary observer!) So that smooth, continuous acceleration from the perspective of the moving object appears to be an ever diminishing acceleration from the outside, getting ever slower as it approaches light speed!

If you could undertake such a journey, what would occur? Ever closer to lightspeed -- 1 second passes...oh, that's 10,000 years. Another -- oh, there went a million years. Who knows what you'd find upon your "return"? >>ZIP<< "Oh, lightspeed! Hooray!" -- at that moment, though, the traditional view will basically have it that an infinite amount of time will pass for that stationary observer...now where does that leave you..."Oh dear, where will I get crumpets from, and what happened to home?" Hrmm, perhaps that's not such a good idea ;)


----------------
More recently, there have been some modifications to the view on this -- taking a broader view for considering momentum and energy of a system...that's not relevant to our discussion at the moment, though. (What might happen to the object reaching "c" is beyond the scope of the article, too -- sorry ;)

Saturday, April 19, 2008

TiVo Review: For better or worse (Part 3 - extra features)

After you've let TiVo have fun for a while, it's easy to wind up with seemingly countless hours of recordings -- some of which you may even want to keep to watch again later...if by "seemingly countless" you mean 80, give or take, depending on what quality you have it using for saving your programs.

If this is the case, what can you do? What if you want to take your shows on the road?

Thankfully, you have options. Unfortunately, some of them aren't quite as good as others. You can archive things to a computer, and migrate your videos for viewing on a number of devices, including a PSP if you have one. You can play your iTunes library using TiVo, as well as display photos that may exist on a computer, if you've shared them.

We have a few systems running here, with a variety of operating systems. Our media center is a Mac running OS X 10.3 -- being that it's already hooked up to the TV, network, and has a 500GB drive hanging off it, it seemed like a sensible place to store whatever video we wanted to archive.

Enter stage right -- TiVo Desktop, and TiVoToGo...Desktop was being advertised as supporting the ability to transfer your videos from TiVo to a computer running TiVo Desktop. Not so fast, though -- if you're a Mac owner, it seems as though you actually have to purchase a second piece of software, too! Maybe it's different with 10.4, perhaps they've added features to the Mac version since the attempt, or perhaps I was simply missing a piece of the puzzle in my haste. Nonetheless, I thought I'd add it in to see just what the free component would do.

The installation process was both painless and painful: Installation would seem to proceed without a hitch. No complaints, nothing difficult --once complete, though, the results were anything but obvious. The documentation didn't help in this regard either. By the time I'd fumbled around to grant things the appropriate permissions, and so on, I'd already made up my mind it wasn't going to stay on the Mac.

Take 2 - Hang the archive drive off an XP system, and try again. In the case of Windows, TiVo desktop was actually supposed to allow you to archive things to your pc! Victory! Well, almost. Again, the installation went without a hitch, and there was visible evidence of the fruits of your labour -- a TiVo Desktop icon! Woohoo!

Archiving things to "Ye Big Olde Drive" did go without issues, but with two observations:
- data transfer rates were painfully slow (over 20 minutes to transfer a 1.5GB file); and
- moving isn't handled "seamlessly" -- it's more like a manual copy/delete operation...you choose to move stuff to your separate system, but it still exists on your TiVo and must be manually removed. Interrupting a transfer in progress is time consuming, and the Desktop is very slow to respond in general while one is underway.

You can choose to play things on your TV using your TiVo after they've been archived in that fashion, or you can simply play them on your PC. If you want to play them through the TiVo, in the version I'd played with, it seemed like it was a necessary step for it to transfer the file _back_ to the TiVo, again slowly, before playing it. No reading/buffering/playing over the network here, kids.

Playing iTunes and viewing photos were both painless enough, but not features I anticipate using beyond seeing them work.

In all, the features are good ones, but with a few kinks to work out:
- give the Mac users a break, both in cost and ease of installation/use (better docs would go a long way, and they shouldn't have to buy an extra component, particularly when Windows users get off scott free!)
- sort out the transfer process and optimize the Desktop so that it performs well while busy! (1.5GB shouldn't take 20-40 mins over a 100Mbps LAN to a locally attached drive!) I'm sure usability is under examination here, as I can't see people not commenting on things to them.

In all, very happy with the TiVo...like I said some kinks to work out, but they are continually improving things, which is nice to see, and a breath of fresh air.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Time flies when you're having fun

It's fairly common to hear comments about how time seems to pass more and more quickly as years go by, but how often do we stop to think about why this might be the case? The answer might be simpler than we think, and it may be for reasons that will allow us to influence how much time we have to enjoy life.

When we're very young, our attention and activities are quite immediate. We're very much in the "now" with wanting to play with that toy we see, or wanting some item on the shelf we're passing by in a store, as we're led by the hand through a store. Time isn't something that we generally pay much attention to at this point, and so it passes without much notice.

We move on to elementary school, and a little more structure is introduced to our lives. This is the time we spend at home, this is the time we spend at school. We look forward to seeing our friends at school as well as at the end of the day, and then there are weekends, where there's so much more opportunity for playtime.

Homework is introduced, and all of a sudden we have much more specific goals for the next day, or a few days hence. Scheduled tests are introduced, rather than pop-quizzes, and in this fashion more and more milestone moments are established at various points in the future. Midterms and final exams make there way into the mix, and now we've got to plan for events several weeks or months out.

As our attention turns more and more to those milestones, the time in between can pass with less and less notice paid to it. We're working on something now, but it's for a result we'll see in a few weeks time when we turn in that project or write that test. By this point summer vacation is a firm concept that gives us a yearly marking of time. "Only 2 more months until summer break!"

If we move on to university, we now regularly have end of semester goals, as well as a goal spanning several years -- the attainment of that degree, and planning for all of the courses that will allow us to meet the requirements.

Work comes into the mix, and for many this is a means to an end, rather than a passion -- the time at work is simply something we do to achieve other goals...paying rent, putting food on the table, and so on. The shorter term goals are things like paying rent and such, and are simply obligations that we try to meet but don't pay close attention to. (Including, of course, "Must get ready for tax season in a couple of months!")

The goals we notice at this point are often even further apart -- saving up for a downpayment on a car or property several months or even years down the road. Planning for a vacation that you'll take next year, or even later. Paying off a mortgage in however many years you plan to take.

Since these are the goals which stick in our minds more than others, things which happen in between are often lost or missed. We may have a few enjoyable or trying times that happen spontaneously along the way -- we enjoy or cope with these as best we can when they occur, then they are memories.

It certainly seems that as our goals or milestone moments that are planned for or anticipated move further and further apart, our perception of time is that it passes more quickly -- since what has happened in between is often a blur.

A way of reclaiming some of this lost time seems to be by getting closer to that old cliché of "living in the now". It's sensible and practical to make goals for the future, don't get me wrong. We all have responsibilities, and we need to embrace and handle those, not shirk them. I'm simply suggesting that we need to pay more attention to what we're actually doing in our day to day activities.

Do you enjoy work? If not, what can you do about it? If you enjoy what you're doing, it's time you'll enjoy spending, and can live it, rather than live through it while waiting to do other things. What are you doing today? Tonight? This weekend? Do you know, or is it simply time that will pass while you wait for the next milestone? Are you looking forward to going home to see family or participate in some activity tonight, or haven't you really taken the time to think about it?

It may be a cliché, but we are, to a large degree, in control of our actions and our thoughts. If we seize each day and enjoy what we can in life on a daily basis, we'll live fuller, healthier lives in however much time each of us have here to enjoy. Plan to do something today or this weekend, and enjoy it. Lather, rinse, repeat. Don't neglect what you need to do to plan for your future, but don't sacrifice all of your "Todays" in the meantime!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Learning from past successes (Part 1): the Million Dollar Homepage (is your idea unique?)

There's a seemingly endless supply of novel ideas out there, often concocted from a desire to make a quick buck or two. Depending on the nature of the idea, though, the person who "makes it to market" first and loudest might be the only one to enjoy the benefit of such novelty.

Take a loook at the "Million Dollar Homepage", for example. Some of you may recall the idea when it first started out -- some "crazy person" setting out to sell pixels off on a single page at a dollar each. If you bought a sizeable enough block of them, you could have your logo or some other message appear -- all with clickable areas to take you to the place they were there to represent.

It might have seemed crazy, but it worked. It hit the media, and sure enough, all pixels were sold off in relatively short order. The person that enjoyed the success of the idea is doing what they can to set off in similar but distinct directions, to try to enjoy similar gains from ideas with additional unique twists. Approached in a good way, I won't be surprised if they find similar success again -- they certainly aren't trying to do the same thing again, as the novelty has largely worn off.

As we can see from others trying to capitalize by using a cookie cutter model of that first million dollar homepage, some ideas just won't succeed in the same way when they're rehashed. The Million Dollar Homepage Canada and the Million Dollar Webpage appear to be two such casualties.

What can be learned from this?
1.) Novel ideas can work! With a good approach and enough exposure, even the strangest "That'll never work" concept can gain wings and fly.

2.) A success in business does not equate to that success being an appropriate business model for future successes.

It's not sufficient to assume that if you do something the same way that someone else did, you'll enjoy similar success. That's not to mean that you shouldn't try.

If you are planning to tread a similar path to a novel success, you need to ask yourself:
"Why will my endeavour succeed?" -- if you do something to set your idea apart from the original, and pursue it vigorously, you stand a much better chance of success. A few other questions go along with this: "What sets my idea apart?" and "Why will people choose to use what I offer over what the competition offers?"

If your idea has already been done, what can you do to set it apart to make it newsworthy once again? The Million Dollar Homepage creator isn't simply creating a "Million Dollar Homepage - take 2", and neither should you...put that unique twist on it that grabs people's attention, then drive it forward to success.

Most importantly, learn from the mistakes that you make as well as others, and don't give up. The most common traits that drive success in business are determination and persistence -- some ideas may have been flops along the way, but your efforts haven't failed if you're still adapting and pushing forward with new ideas.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

5 Easy things you can do to help the environment.

Many people would like to do their part towards "saving the environment" but stop short, usually with the idea that what they do, individually, won't make a difference. Read on and I'll demonstrate just how some of those easy to do little things can add up quickly. You'll be familiar with most of them, but may not realize yet what a difference they can make.



Let's use the people of the U.S. as an example for this exercise. First, we'll round the population down to 300 million people. In 2006 it was found that there are roughly 2.6 people per household -- even though the average household size is decreasing, we'll round that off to 3, to give roughly 100 million households.



1. Use compact fluorescent lightbulbs -- failing that, use a lower wattage incandescent bulb where possible. If every household replaced even just one 100W bulb with a 60W bulb in a lamp that they use regularly, the saved energy would be dramatic. Done with just one lamp in a household that's used 3 hours per night, in one year we'll have collectively saved more energy than the entire state of Colorado needs to operate for a month. Of course if you do go from a 100W incandescent to something like a 15W CFC, you'll more than double those savings.

2. Recycle your soda cans -- even if you don't return them for a refund. Common pop cans have around 13.6 grams of aluminum per can, or roughly 28 to make one pound. Just one can each week per household amounts to over 46,000 tonnes of aluminum. (If you don't have residential pickup of recycleables in your area yet, consider talking to your local politician)

3. Switch to getting your bills and statements online, if possible. If a household receives even just one statment each month, of only one page, the impact is substantial. On average, it takes "three trees" to produce roughly 25,000 sheets of paper. One sheet per household per month amounts to roughly 144,000 trees. Even if the people sending you those statements use paper with 50% recycled material, that still amounts to 72,000 trees every year -- just for one sheet a month! (Notice that we haven't even touched on the energy consumption and byproducts aspect of paper production -- this should be reason enough!)

4. Use a reusable travel mug when you get a coffee or tea to go. Let's be conservative and imagine that our coffee-cup use averages out to one paper cup per household per week. Even then that's 5,200,000,000 paper cups per year -- using old Starbucks numbers from 2000, that amounts to over 80,000 tonnes of paper, 174,000 tonnes of solid waste, and 14,100,000 trees per year. (Some places will even give you a discount when you bring your own mug!)

5. Use reusable grocery bags instead of disposable paper or plastic ones. We'll use the same conservative measure of one bag per household per week. That's 5.2 billion bags. That many plastic bags works out to 39,000 tonnes of waste, costs roughly $4 million to dispose of, and takes the equivalent of 429,000 barrels of oil to produce. Roughly 955,000 tonnes of paper bags were used in the U.S. in 1997 alone -- around 1.5 million trees worth of them. [EPA]

Monday, March 31, 2008

Starbucks -- tip sharing absurdity

Some of you may have heard, as indicated in the article at seattlepi.com, that Starbucks has been ordered to pay $86.7 million, plus interest, to baristas -- the total to be paid could easily exceed $100 million.

Why? Well, if you frequent any Starbucks you've likely seen a tip container by the checkout so that you can give a little extra to the staff. Those tips are pooled, weekly, then divvied up amongst the staff in proportions that are in line with the amount of time you worked that week. This is handled by the staff themselves, and all of the tip money that comes in is distributed in that way. It's a fair system in some senses -- it allows everyone who works to enjoy a uniform distribution of tips, and so those who work during quiet times aren't penalized by the lower value of tips that would come in during that time.

Why the lawsuit, and the ruling, then? Well, shift supervisors have been included in the tip pool distribution, you see. It is due to the fact that they have some sway over the general baristas that California Law prohibits such sharing.

I've only known the staff at a handful of Starbucks well enough to comment, but I'd be surprised if it was much different elsewhere -- the shift supervisors referred to don't get much more in the way of compensation than a barista, but are required to do the same tasks and then some. To exclude them from the pool certainly lowers the incentive to take on the added responsibility, and in some cases may create an artificial divide between supervisors and staff which wasn't there previously.

It seems to go against the sense of "team spirit" to claim a right to the tips, but exclude one part of that team who's more or less a peer. Store managers, on the other hand, well tips aren't shared with them -- rightfully so, I believe. They do receive notably higher compensation than a barista, and hold the ultimate responsibility for the operation of the store as a whole. They are much more a management figure, holding sway over the staff, than a shift supervisor would ever be.

I may be convinced, with sound arguments presented, that shift supervisors should be excluded at some point. I'll concede that. Regardless of whether that happens or not, though, I think it's ridiculous to ask the corporation to repay something that they haven't received and didn't distribute in the first place. They may have set out the guidelines in the first place, in an attempt to establish a fair distribution system. Those guidelines have been used for years without complaint from the staff I know. No one has felt oppressed or hard-done-by as a result of the system.

With all of this in mind, it seems like a much more reasonable approach to say "Hey, things shouldn't work like that -- you need to revise those guidelines to exclude supervisors." than to impose a ruling requiring them to pay an exorbitant amount in this fashion.

Ignorance of the law is no excuse, of course. Intent, however is also a significant factor in law, too -- you'll have a hard time convincing me that the original distribution system was established with treating the baristas unfairly in mind...far more likely that they wanted all non-management staff to be treated and compensated fairly when distributing tips amongst themselves.

Of course I can say all of this, but at the end of the day I am neither a lawyer, nor a judge.

I would be much more supportive of the action if it were a simple motion to effect change. "It shouldn't be done this way. Change it." With how it's playing out so far, it seems much more like a cash grab which will line a few peoples pockets (probably most notably the lawyers'). I can just picture someone heading it up -- getting staff all riled about some injustice that they'd for the most part never felt or been aware of.

As I take a moment to reflect on what I've written, I stand by much of it -- I am glad, though, to see that there are those who are watching out for peoples best interests, in spite of whether or not they might have alterior motives. It is when people are unaware of their rights that it's easiest for them to be taken advantage of. It seems that there should be a line drawn for how such things are handled, and in this case that line seems to have been crossed.


Friday, March 28, 2008

TiVo review: for better or worse (Part 2 - Viewing Habits)

Welcome to Part 2 of my review of the TiVo experience. In Part 1 I described how easy everything was to set up. It is definitely easy to get everything up and running out of the box. It's not all a bed of roses beyond that, though, if you're not prepared -- it can change your viewing habits and behaviour.

I'd grown accustomed to Springsteen's old "57 Channels and Nothin's On" when it came to watching TV. There are a couple of shows I enjoy watching to the point that they can hold my attention. Beyond that, though, I would often simply put on The Learning Channel, Discovery or news as background noise (or some ridiculous reality show if the mood struck) while going about doing other things...occasionally a tidbit on the tube would catch my eye, I'd pay attention for a minute or so, then I'd turn my focus back to whatever I'd been doing.

Not any more.

If you have a relatively busy schedule and a few regular shows you'd like to watch but can't always squeeze in, you could be heading for trouble. Even if you're not that busy but have a longer list of viewing desires, you may be on the same path.

When it's so easy to set TiVo up to record things for you, you can quickly wind up with a backlog of those shows that can hold your attention, ready to watch when it suits you. In that case, any time that there's not much to watch on "live" TV, it's all too easy to watch one of the shows that's been saved for you.

By the time a couple of weeks had passed, I had a backlog of several hours of shows I could watch. I'd recorded them, so all were of reasonable interest to me. The first evening I had to sit back and relax to do the random things I do, it was all too easy to start watching those recordings. By the time the third show was on, I'd noticed the difference: During that time where I'd normally do my thing with the TV as background filler, instead everything on was attention getting. Those other activities and passtimes were left pretty much untouched that evening.

With my attention back in the real world, I took a bit of time to reflect.

If you don't take the time to pay attention to what you're doing and what you're watching, it's all too easy to miss out on those other activities -- it's very easy to simply focus on those shows that were interesting enough to record, since they're now easily at your fingertips.

Unless you want to spend hours on end watching TV, take a moment to evaluate what's really of interest or of importance to you. TiVo's a great convenience -- use it responsibly.

The programs I'm really interested in, well they're still readily available now. It didn't take me long to filter out those shows that would have been more interesting than others -- if nothing else had been on.

There's an initial reaction to focus more intently on a show you've recorded by the very act of you choosing to play it back -- you're in control, you can fast-forward through commercials and whatever else, and so it has your attention. Once you're aware of this tendency, it's relatively easy to reclaim that time for yourself -- enjoy other pursuits, be more in the "Here. Now." and not miss out on things in life and the real world which could just as easily be filled by "57 channels, and there's always something on."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

TiVo review: for better or worse (Part 1 - Setup)

It hasn't been too long since TiVo's services became available in Canada (well, available unless you're in Quebec, but that's a discussion for another time).

We'd contemplated setting up a digital video recorder for some time now, but I was hesitant to go with one of the free options out there like MythTV. Don't get me wrong -- MythTV and its peers have received glowing reviews from my friends. Setting something like that up can be a fun project, too. The thing is, though, if I implement something "homegrown", then I'm really the only one around to support it or fix it if something goes wonky. With time being a precious commodity, there are other things we would be better off doing than having me take the time to sort out whether a feature could be added or why something's not working properly.

With that in mind, when TiVo's Series 2 Dual Tuner model hit the local shelves at $200 per unit, it took no time at all to jump on the bandwagon. Setup was a breeze, taking only a few minutes out of the box. Although I've been told that there are ways of getting free feeds of programming data, we kept on the commercial path and signed up online at tivo.com for the relatively modest monthly fee. (Partly for the worry-free nature of it, partly because we make a habit of supporting those who put out products or services we like to use). Subscribing to the service was also painless, and only took a few minutes.

The TiVo unit was online and downloading our local programming information in short order. Although it had been mentioned that it could take days for it to buffer the next two weeks of shows, it really only took hours. The information for the first couple of days was in fact downloaded in minutes.

After a few more minutes, we had the remote that shipped with the unit set up such that we could control the TV and stereo, too, cutting down on the number of remotes floating around in the living room. Hooray for small victories.

It was a nice touch to find that brief instructional videos are included on the unit, which can be viewed, saved, or deleted to free up space. They provided a quick overview to using the basic features of the unit, allowing you to hit the ground running.

The menus are easy to use and logically laid out for the most part. It takes very little time to have the unit recording your favourite programs once, or on a schedule. You can specify what shows take priority over others when space becomes an issue, how to behave if a show is a rerun, and how long a given recording should be kept. You also have a few options relating to the quality of a recording -- tailoring your recordings to a quality that suits a particular program type allows you to store more shows in the long run (lower quality recordings require less space).

When it's not busy recording things that you've specified, TiVo will record somewhat random programs to begin with, trying to find things which match your viewing habits. You have a quick thumbs-up or down rating system for shows which allows TiVo to tailor what it's recording for you, so that over time it will be more likely to record random shows that meet your interests. If you're only in the habit of recording the odd show or so, then once it's trained sufficiently this could be a nice touch that allows you to find things that match your interests which you would have otherwise missed. If you have a busy lifestyle and record a number of shows, you likely won't have the time to view many of those recordings and will probably just delete them. The shows it records for you in this fashion are fortunately the first to go when space starts to become an issue.

As your library of recordings grows, you have the option for it to group shows for you, in a folder-like fashion -- a nice touch, helping you avoid having to go through just one big long list of programs.

Having a unit like this is a big step up from the old VCR days. There's no scrambling for a tape with space on it, all of your recorded shows are at your fingertips, nothing needs rewinding, and you can record a show at the press of a button. Hey, you can sometimes even record a show that's going to air at some point in the future at the press of a button when a preview for that show is being played. Yes, yes, you can also pause "live" TV for up to 30 minutes, too...one of the people I know of starts watching their "live" shows 20 minutes late, having kept it paused, just so that they can fast forward through all of the commercials.

Overall, the unit and experience get a big "thumbs up" from me. I've been very pleased with the primary DVR functions so far, and am often amused with some of the shows it records that it thinks match my interests (admittedly, it does get it right some of the time). Although the "random" recording behaviour is one of the features they promote, it would already have been a worthwhile purchase without it.

"Ok, so you like the unit and the service...what more is there to say to warrant additional commentary?"

I'm glad you asked.

So far I've mentioned how I like the unit, how it's easy to use, and so on. There's more to it than that, though. At the moment I have two additional parts planned -- how making recording/playback of your favourite shows so convenient changes your viewing habits (not necessarily for the better, if you don't pay attention to it), and my experience with setting up some of the other features it supports (like viewing digital photos, playing your iTunes library, archiving recordings when you start running out of space, or taking shows on the road).

Test Sudoku Puzzle Template



This post exists in order for me to play around with the layout for including a "Sudoku Puzzles" category...you're welcome to solve it, of course ;)



This puzzle exists simply as an image, meant to be printed for solving with good ol' pen/pencil and paper. I am considering putting up scripted puzzles which could be solved online in your web browser of choice, though.




Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Patent challenges - EFF and online gaming

I was told the other day that someone had filed a patent related to certain aspects of online games. That alone wouldn't necessarily raise an eyebrow -- however, this one was vague enough that it covered a fairly broad spectrum of how online games are run in relation to holding tournaments, pairing up competitors based on rankings, and so on. Ultimately patent holder's efforts would likely have homed-in on the ladder ranking systems used in a variety of popular and highly profitable MMO games, such as World of Warcraft, Everquest, and so on.

A number of these systems use a rough equivalent to the way chess tournament rankings take place -- the "Elo" system of which was adopted by the US Chess Federation around 1960, although other numerical ranking systems predated that one.

Granted, patents can be obtained when making old technology new, by putting some innovative new mechanism to work or by improving on the old ways in some fashion. In this case, however, it's been argued that no new technologies or methods were introduced, and that in fact all claims in the patent filing related to systems and methods already in use or in the public domain.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a watchdog for people's rights, has managed to file sufficient evidence to have the patent in question reexamined. To quote their press release found here, the party that filed the patent "used this bogus patent to coerce licensing fees from numerous small businesses". The EFF in fact has a "Patent-Busting Project" that attempts to protect the rights of consumers and businesses from such endeavours.

One such example of them approaching a business can be found here.



To challenge this, they need to trying to establish a timeline for events, in relation to "when were the various revisions of the patent filed" vs. "when were such technologies demonstrated that precede that filing".

If I recall correctly Battle.net had its own ladder ranking system for various games, albeit not as sophisticated as we see today. They would have been hard-pressed to code the Battle.net infrastructure after the earliest filing related to the questionable patent and still gone live in January of '97, if you want to go as far as seems reasonable in the filer's favour -- mind you, I'm not a lawyer. Of course, similar systems did ultimately predate even the inception of Battle.net, and so the patent holder appears to be standing on thin ice indeed, even when trying to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Who knows -- perhaps the filing party will be vindicated in the end, like in the looong uphill battle fought by the inventor of the intermittent windshield wiper. At the moment, however -- particularly when considering how quickly businesses were approached after the filing -- it seems more like a quick attempt at a cash grab, preying on unsuspecting small businesses trying to make their way.

The EFF's activities aren't for everyone -- they've been around for a relatively long time, and their stance on certain subjects related to privacy and personal freedom don't sit well with some. In this case, though, I think that most will applaud their efforts.

Without appropriate attention to detail, it's only a matter of time before someone tries to patent the wheel. Oh wait -- that's already been done. ;)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Books: "A million bucks by 30"

I'm sure we've all seen the slew of "Get rich, here's how" books that hit the shelves at a frantic pace. For some reason this one caught my eye, and in a moment of weakness, I bought it.

In a nutshell the author, Alan Corey, decided at the age of 22 that he wanted to be a millionaire by the time he hit 30. Well, he did it, without fanfare, complicated systems, or get rich quick schemes. Afterwards, he decided to write about it matter-of-factly -- perhaps he'll make his next million off of the royalties ;)

While I don't expect he'll win a Pulitzer Prize for the effort, the book is an easy read, and follows a logical, easy-to-follow timeline from start to end, with a few key points to remember reinforced along the way.

For the first significant portion of the book I was left wondering "ok, when's his marvelous 'system' going to come into play...inevitably the greatest thing since sliced bread". It never happened, and it's (in my opinion) more modest and far better off for that fact.

He had a reasonable income, $40K, from his day job, and he put it to work to make it happen. At times his pursuits go off on random tangents -- one-off gigs here and there for some extra fame and coin...with this sort of progress, you start to wonder how it's going to play out that he achieves his goal. At the same time, you may wonder along the way if one of these tangents is going to be the key to his achievement ("Oh no, he wants me to strike it rich doing reality TV?!"). In spite of (or perhaps because of) these tangents and his matter-of-fact manner, the book has a very down to earth feel, relating the story of a real person, not some icon you hope to emulate. It comes as a relief to find that these quirky excursions aren't the key to his success, but simply stops along the way.

Simply put, he set out rules for himself. First, he saves as much as he can bear along the way -- including retirement savings plans. Eventually he realizes that "all work and no play make Jack a dull boy", and adjusts accordingly, within reason. He adapts his living arrangements to reduce his costs and boost his income and net worth when possible -- once he'd taken a foothold in real estate by purchasing a modest apartment, he takes on a roommate (someone he knew) to offset his monthly mortgage payment.

We're taken on a casual guided tour of how he got into other properties, and why. You're not left feeling that it was a whirlwind trip, but a slow methodical one such that he was certain to reach the desired destination, even if not by the date he set out.

As you'd expect, he does achieve his goal by the end of the book -- and he's only been involved in a few properties to do so, along with his disciplined plan for saving. [Admittedly, the degree of discipline in his method for saving will be a bit much for most, but adhering to the principles will achieve similar results, just not as quickly]

So: no rocket science here, but if you're up for a quick easy tale of how a real person got there, this could be your ticket.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Population of the World in perspective

Recent estimates put the world population at around 6.6 billion, with projections having us reach 7 billion somewhere around 2011. (Wikipedia cites a few good references for such things, like the CIA World Factbook)

Seven billion people. That's quite a bit, isn't it? I'm not relating this here to go on about the logistics of supporting a steadily growing population, or anything of the like. What I am doing, though, is trying to put this number into perspective.

Imagine a game like seeing how many people you can cram into a phonebooth (or that ol' VW Bug) on a much larger scale.

For this exercise, we won't give people much room -- to begin with, assign a footprint of 30cm by 60cm (roughly 1 foot by 2 feet) per person. We'll use this as a very rough estimate, with the idea that with men, women, and children averaged out it won't be ridiculously off base. (A variable degree of smooshing together should allow for a bit of a fudge factor, too).

So. 30cm x 60cm. One person per 1800cm^2. With 10,000cm^2 in per square meter, we'd fit 5.5555... into that space. Seem a little cramped? Ok, let's take 5 people...heck, make it 4 per square meter, just to be generous. Everyone all comfy in a shoulder-to-shoulder fashion? Good. Let's move on.

Take a square lot 1km on a side (about 2.5 of the old Disneyland parking lots) -- in that space you could squeeze 4 million people!

If we take a moment to look at U.S. States by area, it doesn't take long to realize -- the whole population of the world, with room to grow for the next several years, would fit in Rhode Island. Forget about the engineering aspect of it, and have us all file in to pack an imaginary 12 storey building in the same way -- now we'd ALL fit into Washington, DC. (for more international examples, we could sprawl out in Luxembourg with room to spare for years of growth, or have our imaginary building in Aruba or Liechtenstein)

It's rather strange to think, when considering what we know of the wealth, poverty, sickness, health, war, and peace around the world, that everyone involved would fit in such a small space.

Come to think of it, our imaginary building could fit inside Las Vegas -- we could all have a party.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Off the shelf viruses

"I'll take these socks, a chocolate bar, and a computer virus, please"

What? Not quite what you had in mind?

I've dealt with my fair share of virus outbreaks experienced by friends, family, and clients. They're never a fun thing, although they can get the adrenaline going.

In this day and age, you've got to be more careful than ever when it comes to such things. It used to be that you'd run the risk of your system misbehaving -- you might wind up with a variety of colourful pop-ups, you may unknowingly become a host for file-sharing, or you could lose valuable data. Nowadays, though, you can wind up with your identity stolen, erroneous charges on your credit card, or even have money taken from your bank account. Some corporations are even finding that their systems will be compromised and data key to their operation is encrypted or copied, and held hostage for ransom.

There are a variety of ways to fall victim to such things. In future posts I'll go into more detail about what can happen, some ways to try to avoid being a victim, and some things that you can do if you've already been affected.

For the time being, though, I simply want to bring another potential source of infection to your attention. In reading the Globe and Mail's AP article at http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20080314.wvirus14/BNStory/Technology/home?cid=al_gam_mostview , we can see that it's not sufficient to worry about being infected from the internet.

According to the article, some products with software components to them (digital picture frames, iPods, and so on) are shipping with viruses or password stealing trojans already in the software package. You could buy that digital picture frame from Best Buy or Target, install the software that comes with it, and that's all it would take.

The easiest (and perhaps kindest) explanation is that the manufacturer of the affected products doesn't have sufficient quality control -- one of their employees may have wound up accidentally bringing a virus to their workplace that was passed on to the installation image for a product. Their are more ominous possibilities, of course -- that it was intentional, and done for future profit through one of the means mentioned above.

Although it's one of the more common ways, you don't even have to launch an attachement in an e-mail to become infected, either -- you can become a victim simply by going a web page that contains malicious code.

It's a broad topic, and so I'll go into further detail in later posts. For now I'll simply state:
- if you don't have antivirus software, consider getting some (McAfee and Symantec are common, although there are a few good free ones out there -- I'll try to make the time to review some of the options)
- if you do have antivirus software, make sure you keep it up to date -- new viruses and trojans come out all the time
- apply critical updates to your operating system -- some of them actually plug some of the security holes that viruses and trojans exploit

Leonard Cohen World Tour

I admit it, I'm a Leonard Cohen fan.

As such, the news article (http://www.cbc.ca/arts/music/story/2008/03/13/leonard-tour.html) announcing that more dates had been planned for his world tour in eastern Canada caught my eye.

World tour?! He hasn't been on tour in 15 years or more! My excitement was short lived, though -- a quick check on ticketmaster and a moment browsing the forums on his site (http://www.leonardcohen.com/community.html) indicate that western Canada isn't on the map for the tour.

He is around 74 now, though, so I must say that I appreciate that he's going on tour at all. Good for him. It sounds like the cost of tickets is in the $200 range, too -- not the cheapest, but worth it to catch a piece of history if it's in your area. With his often deep, slow, methodic style, I'd imagine that his performance will benefit with age -- maturing like a fine wine.

Time to dust off his tracks for my mp3 player, I suppose!

Meanwhile, if I hear of any dates being announced on the tour that will take place out here, I'll post an update. (Hey, if you hear such an announcement, please let me know!)

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Blogging: Why blog?

I've been organizing my thoughts regarding what direction this space should take, and of course "Why am I doing this?" has popped to mind.

As is often the case, this is partly as an outlet for self expression. Along with that, though, I hope that some of the ideas and projects I've got rolling around will become more concrete, to the point that I'll be able to polish them off in a less haphazard way.

I've been encouraged to start blogging for other reasons, too...I'd like to offer up my lessons learned, mostly in the "wonderful world of computers", in the hopes that it might save some people time and unecessary grief. If I can save someone some legwork in tracking down the cause of an aggravating problem, well, that's a good thing.

I hope that this will open the door for exchanging ideas and points of view with a broader audience. I'd like to learn what I can from other people's knowledge and experience, and hopefully can offer the same in return.

Lastly, I'd like to create a space where people feel comfortable coming not only for ideas and tech help, but to hang out and relax. To this end I'm working towards setting up a few daily features that I hope people will enjoy. In the not too distant future, keep your eyes open for regular sudoku puzzles, and mazes of varying difficulty. It's humble, but it's a beginning.

I'm open to suggestion. If you have a computer question or have an idea for a regular feature, let me know. Heck, if you have any sort of question at all, give it a shot -- no guarantees, but I'll do what I can.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

LONG term wealth planning

Most of us have experienced some challenges in life along the way, and many of those challenges have likely been related to money in some fashion.

Do any of these sound familiar:

  • You'd like to go to school, but student loans won't work out quite right, so you've got to hold down a part-time or full-time job, which interferes with your studies.
  • You'd like to buy your first house/car/etc., but the payments will be too high (or you don't have enough for a downpayment).
  • You'd like to run your own business, but don't have enough start-up capital.
  • You'd like to do anything at all (vacation, buy a new computer, etc.), but you're struggling to make ends meet as it is.

The list goes on and on, of course.

Many of us who have been in such a position will often want to save their friends and/or family some of the "trying" times we've seen ourselves. This desire seems to be more at the forefront for those who are planning to start (or have started) a family of their own.

There's so much self-help material on how to save, how to make sure you can retire comfortably, and so on (like "The Wealthy Barber" for example). In many such resources, you'll find some simple rules, which usually boil down to:

  • start young
  • save regularly (10% of your income is often suggested)

Sounds pretty easy, right? Well, if you're disciplined enough to stick to it, it is.

Many of us have likely looked at the sort of numbers involved, and know the power of compound interest, but dismissed them for the sake of heading off in our own direction. For those of you who are unfamiliar, here's a very simple example that doesn't take into account income tax (among other things):

If you saved $3600 per year ($300 per month) in some form which earned 6% interest, compounded annually, at the end of 40 years:

  • you'd have put $144,000 of your own money into these savings
  • your savings, with interest, would be worth over $567,000

So, we know these sorts of numbers. A question that popped to mind years ago was "what if we didn't stop there?" Suppose we had an altruistic bent which made it so that we wanted to do something which wasn't primarily for our own benefit, but for our family - or beyond - in generations to come? Even if you stopped contributing at that point, and just "let it ride" at 6% per year, at the end of 100 years your fund would be over $20,000,000. That far out, if you were able to get 6.5% along the way instead of 6%, you'd be over the $30,000,000 mark. At 8% you'd have surpassed $100,000,000. Even if inflation held at a steady 2.5% or 3%, you'd still continue to gain ground, since the amount your money would earn would be at a higher rate than it would be devalued.

In today's dollars, assuming 2.5% inflation, that would be like having a trust today with somewhere between $1.7 and $8.5 million, earning anywhere from $100K to $685K per year.

If you really want to head for ridiculous territory, tack on another 100 years. The trust would then hold somewhere between $7 and $200 billion. ($50 million to $1.4 billion in today's dollars)

What would you want done with that fund? Are you making sure that your friends and family are looked after? Are you providing scholarships to people, and tackling whatever societal issues may exist at that point in time?

Playing a mind game like this has brought me down a few paths:

1. Is it even possible to create an entity that would allow for this to occur? It turns out that it's difficult to have something like this that could last up to 100 years, let alone beyond.

2. Is it possible to ensure that the use of the funds would remain true to your vision? Sadly, this doesn't seem likely.

3. If you had chosen for your family to be supported by this, what would their morals and work ethic wind up being like? Would the structure of the "trust" have any bearing on this?

4. What would happen if a significant number of people did this sort of thing, and set up similar vehicles for others? What would happen to the structure of society as this evolved? If everyone eventually wound up independently wealthy in this fashion, would those who wanted to work be sufficient to meet the demands of that society? If not, how would the structure of society change so that those needs would be met?

I've rambled on more than enough for now, although I'll likely flesh out some of these ideas at a later date. Meanwhile, I'm very interested to hear your opinions on such things -- the most common reaction I've heard so far boils down to "Why would I want to do something like that, it's of no benefit to me now?"

Global Warming - Run for the hills!

Ok, don't run for the hills just yet.

On the one hand we have Sir Richard Branson and the Virgin Earth initiative, Al Gore with his "An Inconvenient Truth", Bono, David Suzuki, and a number of other notables on the same side. There are an abundant number of public figures who have jumped on the climate change bandwagon.

On the other hand, we have things like "The Great Global Warming Swindle", articles like this: http://www.ocala.com/article/20080311/OPINION/803110316/1368/googlesitemapnews and a similar entourage of naysayers who are flat out against global warming being a cause for concern.

It seems like we're missing the point. It doesn't need to be that complicated. With a slightly different perspective you may decide that it doesn't matter whether global warming is occurring when it comes to deciding whether we should .

Take CO2 emissions -- we don't need to know whether our carbon dioxide output is causing global warming. We already know that a high enough concentration of CO2 in the air we breathe is bad for us -- enough of it can kill us. We're spewing CO2 into the environment at a steadily increasing pace. At the same time, we're cutting down on the planet's ability to handle the CO2 in the environment.

Do we really need to go any further than that? Regardless of how slowly it's occurring, we're gradually poisoning our own atmosphere against ourselves in this fashion. It shouldn't matter whether it will take 20 years or 200 years (or however long) to reach toxic levels. If we're decidedly poisoning the atmosphere with how we currently do things, then it should be our responsibility to alter the way we do things to limit or eliminate those toxic emissions.

I understand that carbon dioxide is a vital part of the ecosystem, required in a variety of processes. I'm simply suggesting that we should reduce such emissions (of not only CO2, but of toxins in general) to avoid the slow but steady poisoning of the environment that sustains us.

I'm certainly not perfect, nor am I a fanatic. I do feel that we have a responsibility to take care of the planet, though -- we depend on it. I do happen to be a fan of Branson's Virgin Earth initiative, and I take this sense of responsibility seriously enough that I'm preparing a proposal for submission, to try to do my part.

[Aside: I don't think that carbon sequestration is an optimal long-term solution. I'll expand on that later, though.]

Dwarf Fortress - simple interface, remarkable depth

A friend recently pointed me in the direction of "Dwarf Fortress" - a game freely available for download from its site (http://www.bay12games.com/dwarves/index.html).

While I haven't yet had the chance to try it myself, I've been advised that it's quite an enjoyable/playable RPG, and that you shouldn't be deceived by the ASCII style interface.

A quick review of the features indicates that this is likely the case -- there is a surprising level of detail and depth, the likes of which aren't found in many present day commercial releases. Take a look at the Features page -- you'll likely be surprised, too!

- Not only does it randomly create a map almost 200K x 200K, but it populates it with creatures, towns, resources, and fills in a history for the world, spanning 1000 years.
- It has a crafting system, and allows you to build your own fortresses in 3 dimensions.
- The old characters you've played can be incorporated into things, allowing you to group with them and such.
- The combat model is more detailed than many, incorporating strikes to specific body parts, along with cause and effect (e.g. you drop your shield when that arm is sufficiently damaged).
- The weather system is dynamic, with wind/humidity/air masses tracked to create fronts, with the appropriate weather resulting (clouds/rain/snow/etc.)
- Resources are placed appropriately based on terrain (with over 200 rocks & minerals distributed throughout the world)
- You can create your own creatures, weapons, and so on, simply by modifying text files

Overall, it appears to be a system with remarkable depth and attention to detail...and one look at the development pages indicates that they aren't resting quietly -- much more detail and functionality is in the works! All of this, with only two coders behind the scenes (and suggestions from the appropriate cult following).

It seems like the sort of game that's almost ripe for mainstream commercialization and success -- the straw which would likely break the camel's back in this regard would be for someone to swoop in and code a nice looking GUI to hang off the robust back end, making it market ready for the more general consumer.

[Of course, it's already got a loyal following, and there's no deterring avid gamers from such things, ASCII or not]

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Black holes

Post 2, already! Sorry for the mess, below -- I may come back and organize later ;)

I'll start off by getting a few random thoughts off my chest that have been hanging around for years (though they haven't nagged at me enough to seek formal answers).

Ok, I admit it, I've fallen behind and haven't studied astrophysics and the properties of stellar bodies like any good person should. That being said, I do wonder random strange things (for many such wonderings, the answers are likely already known -- I simply haven't had the good fortune to see them yet).

Take a black hole, for instance. It has an event horizon, yadda yadda, beyond which it was originally thought that nothing would escape, including light. (I seem to recall some rumblings of black holes being able to emit radiation and lose mass under some conditions, though...I'll have to take the time to dig into this some day when time permits).

Hypothetically, if the hole remained static (and so, too, the event horizon), then it seems as though you'd wind up with an ever increasing amount of light that was traveling at a tangent to the horizon in orbit at that distance. You'd also likely wind up with a fairly rapid accumulation of it, too. (Think for a moment about looking up at a starry sky...as you look around, light from those celestial objects is reaching your eyes, of course -- if you were standing at the event horizon, you'd be in the same sort of situation...some of the light from each of those bodies would reach the black hole at a tangent to the event horizon and wind up in orbit -- and this would happen continuously!)

If for whatever reason the event horizon began to retreat (the hole started to lose mass, or for some other reason I'm not aware of), then that "orbital light" might wind up escaping/being "emitted" from the black hole. If the event horizon could oscillate, then by the same token we could wind up with a black hole being a pulsating "source" of light. (Not so much a source, though -- more like a rechargeable battery)

If anyone knows how this actually does or doesn't work, please post your comments or a link to reference material -- it would be nice to put this thought to rest (or perhaps it'll spawn more random thoughts on similar tangents).

To blog or not to blog...(welcome!)

Welcome aboard!

What have you stumbled upon here?

This shouldn't wind up being a play-by-play of my daily life -- I find it exciting, but it may bore you to tears.

With some prompting, I've finally broken down to begin blogging, primarily as a clearing house for various random thoughts/ideas/questions and so on, which I hope that others will find stimulating or interesting.

Failing all else, of course, it'll be a great way for me to justify talking to thin air in order to express my ideas and give them body, without appearing overtly crazy ;).

Over time you'll likely see ideas expressed about mathematics, physics, psychology, business, programming, game design, philosophy, the Caramilk Secret, and other randomness.

Pull up a chair, get comfy...perhaps have a nap, too -- posts will likely be intermittent at best, to begin with.