fishsupreme: (Default)
Flying a German Airline

I am writing this while enroute to Frankfurt on Lufthansa Flight 451. This is my first trip to Europe, and it's been an interesting experience already.

I checked a bag at the counter upon arriving at the airport. All the Lufthansa gate agents have nametags that indicate what languages they speak (aside from English, which is assumed at the Seattle airport for obvious reasons.) Everyone there had either German or French, with some having both. I dropped off my bag, and met my first surprise for the trip -- no charge for checked baggage, even with my presence in economy class.

I went through the ever-inefficient TSA security checkpoint, declining to be exposed to low-speed ionizing radiation from SeaTac's shiny new irradiating nudatrons. After the mandatory groping, I gathered my stuff and went on to the gate. Boarding was typical, aside from all the announcements being made first in German then in English (usually by different announcers.)

In the jetway, there were a selection of complementary American and European newspapers in German, French, and English. I picked up a copy of the Financial Times (basically the European equivalent of the Wall Street Journal, only with less Rupert Murdoch.)

I sat down in the very last row of economy, conveniently located next to the only empty seat on the aircraft. Every seat contained a package with a pillow, blanket, headphones (hey, another thing American airlines make you pay for), and the standard ad-filled in-flight magazine. I explored the monitor on the headrest, and it has the typical flight-tracker that displays a map of where you're flying. From this I learned that the Americans and English are not alone in randomly mutilating foreign place names into our own language -- at least, I'm pretty sure the occupants of Mexikostadt and Grosser Slavensee do not call their homes by these names. The blanket has proven very useful as the flight has been freezing cold the whole way.

Food service has come by twice so far. The first time was with pretzels and drinks (alcoholic beverages -- no charge. I had a glass of fair Syrah.) The second is enroute as I write this, and consists of an actual hot meal (no charge.) I would not be so surprised by everything being free had the original ticket been expensive, but I've paid more than this in airfare to fly to Las Vegas. (Although the $900 of taxes and fees bring it up to much more, of course.) At this point I'd like European airlines to start offering American domestic routes.

Sadly, I can't post this yet as the in-flight WiFi does not appear to actually work, and thus this will all get put online after I land and get back to my hotel. As of now it's 3:45 in Seattle, 4:45 where we are (in the sky north of Calgary), and 12:45 AM in Frankfurt. Despite the lack of WiFi, I've spent the time on the flight so far writing and revising my presentation (yes, the one I'm flying off to give), and it looks to be in good shape and ready to submit, as are the rest of the work-related tasks I brought that don't depend on the WiFi working.

(It's too bad it doesn't work, too. While normally I think using open (unecrypted) WiFi is almost insanely dangerous, since I'm on my work laptop I have a DirectAccess tunnel back to work -- kind of like an always-on VPN with split tunneling -- and can actually safely do real work with sensitive data on open WiFi. But only open WiFi that, you know, works.)

--

It's now 6pm Seattle time, and we're north of Hudson's Bay, making local time around 9pm. It's still a little light out due to the altitude. Dinner was served shortly after my last entry -- pasta primavera, Caesar salad, a rosemary dinner roll, tiramisu, and a glass of Syrah. Once again, no charge, and there was real metal cutlery -- assuming you consider the stainless-steel spork to be one of the three traditional dining implements. After dinner, they came around with Congac. Yes, seriously. I watched True Grit on the in-flight entertainment system -- well, the pan-and-scan, profanity-and-blood-free version of it, at least. It was actually pretty good, albeit compromised by the fact that I could only understand Jeff Bridges so well between the roar of the engines (the back of the plane is loud) and the relatively crappy headphones (the plug is a dual-mono-jack arrangement so you can't use your own headphones -- presumably a sop to airlines that do charge you for them.

After dinner, they turned off the lights, so I'm considering trying to sleep. On one hand, I've never managed that on a plane, but on the other, it's dark, I'm in the last row, it's a smooth flight, I have a pillow and a blanket, and I just had a glass of Congac, so it might be worth a try. The fact that my body thinks it's only 6pm may make this challenging, though. If it doesn't work, I'll listen to German tapes for a while. Inasmuch as they're tapes when they're just digital files on my iPhone (which iTunes thoughtfully rearranged into random order for me. Thanks, iTunes.)

5 1/2 hours to go on the flight, at a ground speed of 566 miles per hour. It's interesting watching the map on the seatback display -- due to the fact that it's a Mercatur projection, it looks like we're only about 1/3 of the way there, instead of almost half way. We're about to fly over Greenland (or as the Germans call it, Godthab.) Still no WiFi, alas, so I cannot send IMs to my wife.

--

I'm now north of England, flying over the North Sea, with less than two hours to go -- 10pm in Seattle, 7am in Frankfurt. I tried sleeping, but it didn't work so well -- I dozed enough for my mind to wander to strange topics, but didn't get any actual sleep. Finally we got to a level of turbulence that was not bothersome so long as I was doing something, but was rather distracting for lying there in the dark, so I decided to watch Megamind on the in-flight entertainment system. It actually turned out to be quite good (much better than the summer's other supervillain movie, whatever it was called) and entertained me for another 90 minutes. They just brought by the second hot towel service a few minutes ago (mmm, warmth), so I'm guessing they'll be bringing breakfast here in a moment.

Hopefully I'll have WiFi on the train, but then, I've got a window on the train so I might end up looking at Germany instead of using my computer anyway. I just need to upload all my work files. So far I'm not too horribly tired... which I guess makes sense since my body thinks it's only 10pm, and I wouldn't be tired at 10. I'm looking forward to being on the ground and eating German food, though. Despite the lousy schedule it gives me on the way back, I'm glad I decided to take a train for the second leg of the trip instead of a connecting flight -- I don't really want to spend any more time on an airplane today. Of course, I say this assuming I will actually make it onto my train and not be stuck in Frankfurt.

I think I've watched everything I could possibly want to on the in-flight entertainment system, which is unfortunate only because I'll be on this same airplane flying back on Wednesday. I guess I could watch The Name of the Rose again. (Of all the weird choices for in-flight movie...)
fishsupreme: (carp)
Google has added the ability to access their search engine via SSL.  The interface couldn't be simpler -- you just go to https://www.google.com instead of http://www.google.com.  The news media has been quite favorable to this -- after all, search queries are at least semi-private in that you might not want your employer or neighbors to know what you're searching for.  With SSL searches, only Google knows what you're searching for.  From a consumer-privacy perspective, it's a good thing.

On the other hand, search is not exactly something people have been clamoring for SSL on.  Implementing SSL for large amounts of web traffic is not cheap (done right it's not terribly expensive, either, but it's an engineering effort at least,) so normally it's only done in response to either regulation or customer demand.

I think Google has an ulterior motive here -- possibly two of them.  Current web browsers, as a privacy feature, will not pass extra headers from an SSL site to a non-SSL site or vice-versa.  This means that if I click a link on the SSL Google site, the web site I clicked on will not receive a Referrer: header indicating what I had searched for on Google.

(Incidentally, yes, this does mean that right now every time you click a link or ad on Google, the site you click through to gets to see what you searched for.  It's always been this way, most people just don't know it.)

There's a big business in website analytics.  People run various statistics packages on their website to find out what searches lead to them, what sites link to them, etc.  It's critical for optimizing marketing or advertising strategies.  There are also several analytics services that will do this for you, including Google's own product Google Analytics.  If everyone started using SSL for searches, all of these would be broken... well, except Google's of course, because Google Analytics doesn't need to rely on the Referrer: header -- it has the inside scoop from Google Search itself.

In addition to this, in the pay-per-click advertising world, conversion tracking is very important.  One advertiser may pay for thousands of keywords and run dozens or hundreds of ads.  They track each click all the way through to sales -- in other words, they look not just at which ads people click on, but which ads buyers click on, vs. ads that only attract browsers who don't follow through and purchase.  Once again, these usually work via the Referrer: header, which SSL takes away.  And once again, Google offers its own conversion tracking system, which will no doubt still work when all the others are broken.  This one can be worked around -- you can make a third-party PPC conversion-tracking system that doesn't use Referrer:, it's just a little more work -- but not everyone will work around it.

Both of these results would mean, in a world where many searches were over SSL, rather than just a tiny fraction as it is today, that advertisers & webmasters would have the choice of either operating "blind" or giving all their data over to Google.  And they have a very good reason not to want to do this -- if you're an ad buyer, and Google is the supplier you buy from, do you want Google to know exactly what keywords & placements are most profitable to you?  Clearly Google can use this inside knowledge of their customers' businesses to maximize prices on the most effective advertising spots.

This is the sort of thing that can lead to an antitrust lawsuit.  So far Google has managed to spin it as a consumer-friendly privacy feature, but we'll see if that lasts.
fishsupreme: (Default)
Gold's up to $1250 an ounce, pretty much a record (though not in inflation-adjusted dollars -- $700 in 1980 was a lot more than $1250 today.)  A lot of people seem to be taking gold's rocket-like price increase as a reason to buy more gold.

However, I think it's near-peak at this point (though it may go up another $100 first), for two reasons:

1.) The media: A month ago, if you watched a news channel, every commercial break was filled with companies that wanted to buy your gold.  They were all exhorting you to take advantage of the high gold prices and send gold to them for cash.  Yesterday, every commercial break in the news was filled with companies who want to sell you gold.  Invest in gold!  It's at record high prices and still going up!  This tells me that the gold brokers & dealers have switched modes from trying to get in to trying to get out.  Oh, also this.

2.) Exchange rates: There are only three reserve currencies in the world -- the dollar, the yen, and the euro.  It's not because other currencies are "worse" or less trustworthy; indeed, as fiat money, none of the reserve currencies are objectively very "good."  They're reserve currencies (currencies that world governments & major institutional investors put their money in) simply because there are so many of them -- if you buy 50 billion dollars or euros, the dollar or euro is still worth the same amount it was when you bought them.  If you buy 50 billion dollars worth of Guatemalan quetzals, you'll actually drive up the price of the currency by your own actions!  (Well, unless the quetzal is pegged to the dollar, which I think it is, but that's beside the point.) 

The euro's rise against the dollar since its inception is really due to the fact that the euro became a viable reserve currency and governments & companies wanted to diversify.  But with the Greek debt crisis, which may spread to other countries, faith in the stability of the euro is waning, which may cause a capital flight -- which has nowhere to go except the dollar and the yen.  You'd think it could also go to gold, but it really can't -- there's just not enough gold on Earth (all the gold ever mined is worth about $6 trillion at today's price.)

If institutions flee from the euro, they'll flee to the dollar, which will drive its price up, thus (indirectly) lowering the price of gold denominated in dollars.  (Actually, if I knew a way to short the euro against gold I'd be quite tempted to invest in it.)  The euro's already down to about $1.27, and I expect it to fall closer to $1.17 in the next couple months.

I find it interesting how everything is connected in the global economy.  Interestingly, there is one other currency with the circulation volume to be a legitimate reserve currency -- the Chinese renmimbi.  This will be even more true in a few years, since by the end of the decade China will become the largest economy in the world.  However, the renmimbi is currently unusable as a reserve currency for other reasons -- for one, the government puts restrictions on the free flow of capital in and out of the country, which makes is totally unacceptable for, say, governments who want to store money.  They also manipulate the exchange rate to peg it to the dollar (so as to keep Chinese exports cheap) and have a primitive bond market.  If China relaxes these currency controls over the next decade, though, it could collapse the value of the dollar.

On the other hand, that's a decade away, and right now the dollar is looking pretty good simply because the euro is looking so bad.  Next year might be a good, cheap time to take a trip to Europe.

Olaf

Mar. 18th, 2010 01:21 pm
fishsupreme: (Default)
So, it has come to my attention that my parents have not yet seen pictures of our new pet.  As this must be remedied, I present Olaf the cat:Read more... )
fishsupreme: (Default)
One thing BioWare has done in their last two games (Dragon Age: Origins and Mass Effect) is create a level of depth, history, and mythology for their game worlds that is vastly more intricate and well-defined than pretty much any other game world.  The only ones that are comparable are major franchises (Warcraft, Ultima, and inherited franchises like Star Wars) which have had years or even decades to accumulate mythology.  BioWare produces that kind of well-thought-out detail for a single game (though it's obvious with DA:O and ME that the games were produced in the hope that they would become a major franchise over time.)

Probably of interest only to Dragon Age players... )
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A couple weeks back, [livejournal.com profile] sheeplass and I went down to the Willamette Valley in Oregon for a wine-tasting tour & to see the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, home of the Spruce Goose.  It was a fun little weekend trip.  The wine tasting tour focused mainly on Pinot Noir -- as that's what's primarily grown in the Willamette Valley -- so while there were certainly some good things we didn't discover any new favorites (Pinot Noir isn't a favorite for either of us.)  The Spruce Goose is... very large, being the size of a 747 only made of wood.  It looks even bigger than it is, since the wings stick straight out rather than being sloped back like most modern aircraft; it towers over everything in the entire museum, which looks to have been built around it.

We also had a very interesting dinner at The Joel Palmer House, a restaurant specializing in wild mushrooms.  There were various mushrooms in everything served, including dessert (candy cap mushrooms taste amazingly like maple syrup.)  There was wild mushroom soup, a savory wild mushroom tart, scallops over mushroom pasta, pork tenderloin with chanterelles, and various other mushroomy goodness.  I recommend it highly if you really like mushrooms -- and advise you to go elsewhere if you don't. :-)

This last weekend, I spent a lot of time hacking my classic Xbox.  The old Xbox (i.e. not the 360 that's currently sold) is a great platform for all sorts of things; it's very cheap (easily under $50 on eBay), has 720p HDTV output (component only, no HDMI), has an Ethernet port and Internet capabilities, and is a well-understood system, being 8 years old at this point.  Now, Microsoft designed it so that you can't do anything with it but play Xbox games and watch DVDs; however, it's old enough that many holes have been found in the security.  You can (using a PC) craft saved game files for Mechassault, Splinter Cell, or a variety of other games with known bugs that will allow you to rewrite the boot sequence of the Xbox to start up something other than Microsoft's Xbox software.

I have mine set up to start a dashboard called UnleashX, which is a rudimentary app with two major functions -- a menu for running programs off the Xbox's hard disk, and an FTP server so that you can read and write the Xbox's hard disk from a PC.  It's this last feature which lets you install whatever you want on the Xbox.

Currently I have three things installed on mine -- one is XBMC, the same media center software we use on our media center PC, which is far better than any commercial media-center device I've found.  This lets us play all our TV, movies, etc. over the network (from the 2.25 TB NAS upstairs) and is why we haven't actually bothered to hook up cable.  The second is a copy of SNES9x X, which is a Super Nintendo emulator, along with a few dozen games.  Sure, they never made Super Mario Brothers for the Xbox, but I can play it anyway.  For people like [livejournal.com profile] sheeplass and I who grew up as nerds, we like having access to all the games of our youth.  (There are also emulators for basically every game system up to the PlayStation available; the SNES one is just the only one I've installed.  Systems after the PlayStation are too powerful for the little classic Xbox to emulate; I'd need to run those on a real PC.)  And finally, I have a copy of StepMania 4.0, which is an open-source version of Dance Dance Revolution.  This was actually the hardest thing to get; while it's open-source, the license agreement for the XDK (the app that allows you to build Xbox applications from source) forbids distributing binaries, and so I couldn't find a binary copy of it from any of the usual places.  (Technically XBMC and SNES 9x X have the same legal issues, but they're more popular and haven't been updated in a long time, so copies are pretty widely distributed.)  I easily found binaries of StepMania 3.9, but it tended to crash my Xbox; after much searching, I finally found binaries on a site in Brazil written entirely in Portuguese.  So I downloaded those, replaced the localization files with ones from an English copy of the PC version of StepMania 4.0, and stuck that on the Xbox.  This worked.

As time goes on, I get more and more fond of open platforms.  There's just so much fun stuff you can do with all this hardware when you're able to run arbitrary code on it.  The device I've turned my Xbox into now has capabilities that no device sold has -- you can't buy a machine that works as a networked media center and plays games for a dozen old consoles and combines the features of half a dozen arcade games into one game.  Nobody sells that, partially because of licensing issues and partially because of the admittedly niche demand for it.  The licensing issues are frustrating, because it's not like Nintendo or Sega are making any money off of SNES and Genesis games anymore -- they haven't been for sale for a decade.

I really like my iPhone, but the closed nature of the platform sucks.  There are so many good applications that can't run because Apple doesn't approve of them, and when you buy an iPhone, you own the hardware but Apple owns all the software on it and you're not allowed to mess with it.  Plus, iTunes is one of the worst applications ever (is there any software as terrible as the software Apple writes for Windows?) and is hostile to any variation on its normal usage patterns.  (Want to store your music on one computer but sync it to your phone on another?  Too bad.  Want to move your music library?  No, you get to rebuild a new one.  Want to use a file format other than the ones the iTunes Music Store uses?  Sorry, not supported.)  Even when you can get it to do something unusual, it struggles against you every step of the way, and it also just doesn't work very well (iTunes running causes all power management functions on the computer to fail, for instance.)

On the bright side, I've discovered that the latest version of MediaMonkey will successfully sync with an iPhone 3GS with the latest firmware, so I don't have to use iTunes for anything anymore.  It does require iTunes to be installed (it hooks some of its DLLs), but you don't have to have any part of it running.  The one drawback is that whenever Apple updates the iPhone firmware, you have to wait for MediaMonkey to update (to hack around whatever new protection Apple has added) before upgrading your phone firmware.

While I'm not much interested in having a Verizon Droid myself (call me when Android 3.0 comes out; they're making good progress), I'm very happy about their ad campaign.  They're promoting openness as a feature, thus calling attention to Apple's restrictive practices.  If customers actually demand open platforms, companies will provide them.  However, it's very difficult to balance openness with a consistent, usable user interface -- and right now there's a lot more demand for the latter than the former.  People like me are willing to put up with the usability issues of things like Linux in order to have a system that does precisely what we want; most people are not.  The trick is to make a system that's very usable for mainline scenarios while not shutting people out of the ability to hack the platform if they want to.  However, that trick costs time and money, and so unless customers are asking for it, companies aren't going to provide it.

On a mostly unrelated note, this weekend I finally completed Dragon Age: Origins.  BioWare's record remains unbroken -- like Blizzard, they have never made a bad game.  It was a true old-school RPG in the tradition of the Baldur's Gate games, with difficult tactical combat and a complex story with choices that matter.  This said, it was still a story-based RPG, not a sandbox game like Morrowind, Oblivion, or Fallout 3 -- while they keep railroading to a minimum, you can't choose to ignore the plot and become a bandit or something.  You're a Heroic Gray Warden whether you want to be or not (though you can be a pretty ruthless and nasty one if you want to be.)  The game was really a perfect example of its type -- if you like this sort of game, you'll love DA:O, and if you don't, you won't.  I have another post in me about the lore of the game, but I'm going to make that one separately from this one as it's going to be very uninteresting to people who haven't played it.  :-)  I'm very much looking forward to BioWare's next games -- Mass Effect 2 in February, then Star Wars: The Old Republic (an MMO) later in 2010.

Returning to the topic of open platforms for a moment, though I bought Dragon Age: Origins, I actually still (weeks later) can't play the copy I bought.  There's some kind of issue with their copy protection/digital rights management system affecting my account; in my legitimate copy of the game, I can't load any saved games without getting an error of "This saved game contains premium content for which you do not have a license."  Their tech support has been totally useless, sending me irrelevant boilerplate responses without investigating the problem.  Luckily, I was able to download a cracked pirate copy off the Internet in a couple of hours, only two days after the game came out, which installed easily and without issue and doesn't have any of these problems.  What's wrong with this picture?  When will game companies realize that copy protection inconveniences legitimate users while pirates never even encounter it, since the pirate copies come with it all stripped out anyway?
fishsupreme: (Default)
[livejournal.com profile] sheeplass posted this gaming meme, so I thought I'd give it a shot, too.

Read more... )

Now, what's funny is that it turns out that she got this meme from my journal, in 2003. My original answers were here. It's amusing to me how little they have changed. I had merely forgotten Day of the Tenatacle this time; it really should be under favorite adventure game. Most of the changed answers are due to games that didn't exist in 2003. What most surprises me is how many answers are almost word-for-word the same; that and that I've apparently been carrying a torch for Imoen for six years. :)
fishsupreme: (Default)
I haven't posted in a while, but then I figure there's no better way to get back to it than to just start doing it.

This morning [livejournal.com profile] sheeplass and I went for a short hike (about a mile) in the Redmond Watershed Preserve.  It's a nice little 800-acre park just a few minutes outside of Redmond, and after today we've explored only about 10% of it, so I'm sure we'll be back (there are trails as long as five miles there.)  While we were walking, along with some more mundane animals (an adorable and very curious little grey squirrel, and a snake) we saw an owl.  It was enormous, a mostly-uniform blue-grey color, and looking straight at us despite being oriented facing the other way (I knew owls could do that, but I don't know if I've ever seen one do it.)  We're not sure what kind of owl it was, but we're guessing either a western screech owl or a banded owl.  It was probably 20" tall and only a couple dozen feet from us, though, and was quite a cool thing to see.

After the standard taco lunch, we went out house shopping, which is pretty much our standard Sunday afternoon activity these days.  Our condo is almost ready to sell; we'll probably be putting it on the market this week.  It looks better than it ever has, of course; after we move we're going to make a concerted effort to remodel and improve the house when we move in instead of waiting until we're moving out.  How well that will work is mostly a function of how expensive the place we buy is (we have a $100,000-wide price range, and we can afford a lot of renovation at the bottom of it and very little at the top.)  We've been very happy with our real estate agents we have handling our condo; while they're nearly full-price (5% commission) in a day when discount brokers exist that charge half that, we've essentially had the services of a general contractor for free in terms of upgrading our condo to get it ready to sell.  So the savings in contractor costs pays for half the commission, and the savings in headache & work I don't have to do easily makes the rest very well worth it.

We then went to a taiko drumming performance at Bellevue college, came home and made steak for dinner (with a Washington syrah from Page Cellars), and have overall had a pretty great day.  I only wish weekends were followed by, you know, additional weekends.
fishsupreme: (Default)
Spoileriffic comments below.
Read more... )

Where I get TV at all: Since I don't have cable or an antenna, I have to download TV.  And let me recommend http://etzv.it.  Extremely high-quality commercial-free encodings of a vast list of shows posted within a couple hours of when the show first airs (usually ahead of their appearance on The Pirate Bay and such.)  And posted in a downloadable way, too -- both BSG and Dollhouse tonight had 10 seeders & over 100 peers within 30 seconds of appearing on the site, and were downloaded in less than 25 minutes (for 350 megs.)

Yes, it's all pirated.  Yet the shows' producers -- who actually have the source material and could put out higher-quality versions ahead of the pirates -- instead put out only lower-quality versions, and only long-after the pirates.  Ah, media companies, how good you are at failure.

With some (not terribly simple) setup in Azureus or uTorrent, you can even set up your computer to automatically download any shows on eztv's list the moment they're posted.  Maybe in a few years the actual TV stations will have something half this slick.

While we're on the topic of how far ahead the pirates are compared to Hollywood, there's an app for Android phones where if you snap a photo of the barcode from a DVD case, it sends a message to your home PC to automatically BitTorrent the movie so you have it when you get home.
fishsupreme: (Default)
I've recently been watching the TV show Leverage, which I was introduced to by [livejournal.com profile] sheeplass.  It's about a former insurance investigator and a bunch of criminals who come together to use their various illicit skills for good... or, perhaps more accurately, against evil.  Essentially, their self-imposed mission is to steal from bad guys, striking a blow for justice while simultaneously getting rich.

At first, it was a pretty enjoyable show -- I like caper movies in general, since they play well with my security mindset, and this show is essentially a series of one-episode caper movies.  And there have been some clever plots that have been fun to watch.  They also wrap them up pretty well... out of 11 episodes, there have only been a couple where it was pretty obvious to me that they left way too much of a trail and would have been caught had they pulled that in reality.

However, I find my interest in the show waning for a couple of reasons:
  • The main character is an alcoholic and quite thoroughly in denial about the condition, which makes him not a terribly sympathetic character.  He spends a lot of time alienating his friends.
  • The specific heists they pull are in many ways a sort of liberal fantasy -- they're often based on the conceit that social ills are all caused by self-aware bad guys doing evil for personal gain.  Thus, when bad things happen to people, there's always someone to blame, and that someone always has a bunch of money to steal.  This gets increasingly annoying because it's simplistic -- in the real world, sometimes bad things happen and it's not anybody's fault, and even when it is, it's not usually someone cackling evilly and stroking his Persian cat.
So, it's been a reasonably fun show, but probably not something I'll keep downloading.

Inflation

Feb. 18th, 2009 11:08 am
fishsupreme: (Default)
With the current trillion-dollar "stimulus package" in the news, a lot of people have been worried about inflation, or even hyperinflation. The concern is at least warranted -- after all, when you create a trillion dollars out of thin air, you increase the supply of money, but the supply of goods & services has not changed, so each dollar is worth less. However, I'm not convinced it'll be a problem this time.

It's been impossible not to notice the massive inflation of the last few years. Not only did housing go through a bubble, but the price of most everything went up. The government only managed to mask this and show a relatively-normal rate of inflation in their figures by excluding food and energy costs from their indexes (on one hand, those things really are volatile price-wise, but on the other hand, food and energy are a major part of most people's expenses, so excluding them gives a false impression of the state of the economy.)

I think what people forecasting inflation are missing is that the fiat currency is not the only source of monetary base inflation -- not just the government creates money out of thin air. Banks do it, too, thanks to fractional-reserve banking: when you put $1000 in your savings account, the bank turns around and loans $1000 to five different people, thus effectively creating $4000 just as much as if the Federal Reserve had printed new bills. The real financial system is even more complicated, with as many as five different layers each creating money based on the previous one.

So the government's creating a trillion dollars out of thin air. But how much imaginary money has been destroyed in the last three months? People have asked, as their investment portfolios drop 40%, where the money went -- who gained all that wealth that they lost. Well, the unfortunate answer to that is "no one did; it just ceased to exist because it was never real to begin with." When you take into account the real estate crash, the drop in the stock market, etc., far more than a trillion dollars of paper wealth has disappeared. And while the argument can be made that that money was never circulating in the economy (as it was locked into houses -- large assets with slow turnover), I don't think that rings true. Due to wealth effect (the tendency of people who feel wealthy to spend more, regardless of their actual financial circumstances) and the massive use of home equity loans (the so-called "Housing ATM"), people have been behaving as if all that extra money really existed -- and we've seen the inflation to prove it.

So, in other words, I'm not expecting massive inflation from the stimulus plan not because I don't think creating a trillion dollars is inflationary, but because I think we've already had the inflation from this creation of money. For the most part, this will be replacing just-vanished paper wealth with newly-created paper wealth, merely moving money around rather than adding it. Now, in the long run, there are certainly still negative economic effects -- after all, we're all going to have to repay that trillion dollars in taxes over the next 10 years, which will be a lasting drain on growth and productivity. But the inflationary threat itself I think is relatively small.
fishsupreme: (Default)
I always delay posting things like book reviews on my LJ, because I post so seldom I figure that people want to hear about my own life and not just media I'm consuming.  But then I get out of the habit of posting at all, so I figure this delaying is silly and if I feel like talking about something, I might as well.

I've recently (as of 3 months ago) been reading the Culture novels by Iain M. Banks.  A series starting with 1988's Consider Phlebas and continuing until 2008's Matter, the Culture novels are utopian science fiction about a galactic civilization that's a sort of libertarian commune of humans (well, humanoids), drones (autonomous robots; the word's used as a rough equivalent of Star Wars's "droid"), and Minds (hyperintelligent artificial intelligences.)

Read more... )
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I just finished the computer game Mass Effect.  It was actually very good; if you like sci-fi RPGs, I strongly recommend it -- it's the best one since Knights of the Old Republic, which was also excellent.

One thing I really liked about the game was that this was the most fully-realized hard-SF world I've ever seen in a game that wasn't just taken from some other source (e.g. a franchise like Star Wars.)  There was a large, detailed galaxy with a rich history in which humans had a significant but not paramount role -- it struck a balance between the "everyone is vastly more powerful than us" world of transhumanist sci-fi and the "humans, inexplicably, have far better technology than all the other alien races" world of Star Trek.  Humanity had a role to play, but was not in control, either.  It did trot out the usual sci-fi trope of "and there is this ancient, forgotten race called the Protheans who had vastly greater technology than all of us, but they mysteriously died out," which I've only seen a thousand times (Privateer, Star Control II, etc.), but it went somewhere very different with it that turned out to be quite interesting, contrary to my early expectation.  There are a dozen alien races with interesting histories, and the game is fond of throwing moral dilemmas your way because of them: in several cases, the solution to a problem has gone on to create an even worse problem, and doing the "right thing" may have negative consequences.  Also, there is a constant conflict between whether, as a human who works for the (non-human) Galactic Council you should do the right thing for humanity -- or the right thing for everyone, even if that harms humanity.

All the game's technology is predicated on the discovery of a new particle they nickname "element zero."  When exposed to various radiation, this substance generates a field called "mass effect," which can raise or lower the mass of objects while they conserve velocity (not momentum.)  This has a host of uses -- the Mako battle tank can drive up nearly-sheer surfaces and fall hundreds of feet without damage, since it's a tank with the mass of a beach ball.  The problem of carrying enough fuel for maneuvering in space is nullified by reducing the mass of the ship whenever you want to accelerate.  Kinetic barriers (force fields) work by nullifying the mass of incoming projectiles so they just bounce off you.  Railguns can achieve phenomenal projectile speeds by reducing the mass of the projectile until it leaves the railgun.  And FTL travel is made possible by this effect as well, though really fast travel requires flying your ship up to a huge concentration of the element (like a sphere a few hundred meters in diameter), so it tends to be point-to-point from established stations.

Combat is real-time and 3D shooter style, but based on an RPG stats system in the background, and with the ability to pause at any time to give orders to your squad, so it requires some dexterity without being "twitchy."  Some people have complained about the learning curve, but I didn't think it was bad at all.  The game has a lot of variety -- combat sequences, a lot of exploring & talking to people, and vehicle sections (your ship can airdrop a small tank called the Mako which you can use to explore planets.)  The variety keeps anything from getting boring.  There's a pretty big world to explore and a lot of side quests -- if you just did the main plot, straight through, the game would be very short.  However, I did every side quest available, and while the game wasn't Morrowind-sized or anything, I was satisfied with it.  Though doing it that way meant my party was absurdly overpowered by the end of the game, and defeated the end boss with barely an injury.  You play with a party of 3 -- yourself and 2 others chosen from 7 people you accumulate through the game.  At first it's tempting to bring combat-oriented characters all the time, to make battle easier, but as the game progresses, if your main character is very combat-oriented you get to the point where you can practically handle that yourself, and you need others for hacking computers and picking locks and such.  Also, the biotic characters (a kind of psionic powers) start out weak but can become insanely powerful by the end -- in the late game, Liara could walk into a room full of enemies and have some stapled to the ceiling, others juggling around in psychokinetic winds, some smashed into the walls, etc., all at once.  I didn't need help in combat anymore, because with Liara around combat was basically shooting fish in a barrel.

Overall, if you like sci-fi RPGs, especially KotOR, it's well worth picking up.  It's a good 20-30 hours of fun.
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The second day of BlackHat was much the same as the first.  I got up at 8:00, and went downstairs to a little restaurant that serves quiche and espresso drinks, and had quiche and an espresso drink (they also, of course, serve other things, which I did not have.)

Course details... )

After class, I took a shuttle bus over to the Rio where I had a light dinner and went to Penn & Teller, who were funny and pretty good.  They reveal how they do several of their tricks (often that's part of the trick), and they were actually more impressive when you could see how it was done, due to the seemingly-effortless sleight of hand it involved.  After that it was back over to Caesars for banana cheesecake, and now I think it's time for sleep.
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So, I arrived in Vegas last night, albeit too late to get to conference registration.  However, it was early enough to get some chicken taquitos.  Mmm, taco.  Since missing registration meant needing to be at the conference at 8am the next day, I wanted to get to sleep early, so after dinner I went back to the room to read (The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin) and chat with [livejournal.com profile] sheeplass via videophone.  I went to sleep around midnight, and woke up about 5 times -- only sleeping alone about one week a year will do that, I suppose.

Course details... )

After the class, I went for a walk outside.  Yes, it's 105 outside, but I like the heat. Specifically, I like the way it's not cold.  I spent about 3 hours out, walking down to Planet Hollywood, up to Fashion Show Mall (past Treasure Island), and back to Caesar's.  I ate at a cantina in Planet Hollywood, where there were Baja-style mahi-mahi tacos that were quite excellent, and a margarita that was quite average.  And now, I am back to my room, writing LJ posts and video-phoning my wife again.

I have found that I don't really know what to do in Vegas by myself.  No one I know gets here until Tuesday night, so I'm pretty much entirely on my own.  I'm enjoying myself a lot, but I may run out of activities.  I do still plan to see Penn & Teller sometime, though (one of the few shows I want to see that [livejournal.com profile] sheeplass does not, so a good prospect.)
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I've recently read a small pile of Charles Stross books (the four existing books in the Merchant Princes series, plus Saturn's Children) and thought I'd write up some reviews and observations.  Though I talk very little about the main plot thread of either book, it is the nature of a Stross novel that to talk about its setting and world and themes necessarily gives away much of the plot and what's most interesting about the book, so if you plan on reading them, you should probably not read this.  (In short: I really liked them all, but then, I usually do with Stross, and Saturn's Children is much more than it at first appears.)

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I was passing some time at the mall today, and stopped into a CD store for the first time in probably well over a year. I looked over a bunch of CDs, and found quite a few albums by artists I used to like but haven't listened to in quite a while. I briefly considered buying quite a few of them. However, I was stopped by the following thought process:

"If I buy the CD, I'll have to rip and encode it before I can use it, and then I'll have all these physical discs that I'll need to put into the CD binders, which will necessitate rearranging them, and then find somewhere to put the CD cases if I want to keep them. I'd like to support these artists, but it would be so much easier to just write down what I want and download it when I get home."

Note that I'm too picky for MP3 files or DRM, so my downloads have to be FLAC or other lossless files. And this means I can't use the paid download services; it has to be the Pirate Bay.

After thinking about the above, I realized two things:
1.) For me, at least, physical CD music has actually become an anti-feature. Getting the CD and box and booklet actually decreases the value of the music purchase. This is not good for the RIAA -- their "value-add" to the music production process is subtracting value from what the musicians have originally created. Anything they add to the base product (the music itself) lowers its value. I am not necessarily yet the typical consumer, but already I have no need and no use for recording companies. And eventually I will be the typical consumer.

2.) The above thought process is completely crazy. There is no good reason why, if I really don't want the physical CD around, I couldn't buy it, rip it to digital, and throw it away. But I won't. It's well established in psychology that people do this (any given thing is worth more to you when it's already yours -- the amount you'd be willing to pay for item x is less than the amount you'd charge for someone to buy that x from you) but that doesn't make it any less crazy. It's only when I do not yet own the physical CD that I intuitively recognize that it has negative value to me.

All this said, I discovered more music that I want but didn't know existed from browsing that store for a few minutes than I've discovered in years on the Internet. There needs to be an online way to replicate the music store browsing experience. The problem is that that's hard; it's like duplicating newspapers online. Both the newspaper and the music store give you vast amounts of data in a fashion where you can both rapidly scan it in aggregate and peruse it in detail, moving very quickly between levels of precision. Browsing music on Amazon or iTunes or reading the news on MSNBC is nothing like that.
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I write a blog about information security at http://perimetergrid.com.  I wanted to get a bit of content up before announcing it over here.

My target audience is technical people (IT staff, software developers) but not security professionals, so my hope is that it will be comprehensible to a general audience.  Also, many of the posts are about current issues in security (DRM, defending against terrorism) and thus not technical at all.

In any case, just thought I'd let everyone here know in case you were interested.  There is supposedly an OpenID-based comment system on the site, too, though I have not actually tested this yet.
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I haven't posted in quite some time, but it's been an interesting few weeks, so I thought I'd present some of my traditional walls of text for your perusal.

Three weeks back, [livejournal.com profile] sheeplass and I went up to Mt. Rainier again, for the first time this year. Ever since our trip to New Zealand a couple years back, we've been interested in exploring more of the natural beauty around the Seattle area -- it's very nice up here, with a lot of mountains, forests, etc. And we've both gotten in vastly better physical condition in the last several months, and realized that at this point we're in shape to actually do something about it.

It turns out that Mt. Rainier National Park suffered serious damage last autumn, when a massive rainstorm flooded the park. A lot of bridges were destroyed, including the major road through the park, making our usual drive-around-the-park impossible. However, the southwestern portion of the park was open and repaired, and that's a beautiful area, so we gave it a visit.

We drove up near Sunrise, and then took a short trail (very short, 0.1 miles, but severely sloped) down to a waterfall, and from there got onto a Wonderland Trail segment that lead to some reflection lakes. We only traveled around 3 miles from there (I think 1.8 each way, if I recall correctly), but it involved ascending and descending some 1700', so it was strenuous. A good time was had by both of us, with the only negative being that we discovered that while the Seattle area seems very free of annoying and biting insects, the woods of Mt. Rainier is not. It was, however, cool being far enough into the woods that there was literally no sign of civilization -- not the slightest human sight or sound. Well, other than each other. We'll have to do it again this summer.

Two weeks back, my parents and sister came to visit us in Redmond. It was good to see them again; last time was Christmas for me. Like visits from my parents always are, it featured a whole lot of eating out, which was pleasant (hey, expensive seafood for free!) but also involved eating a lot more than usual. [livejournal.com profile] sheeplass and I have been eating smaller, healthier portions for so long now that restaurant meals every day is just way too much food. We (by which I mean my parents & sister now) also went to downtown Seattle for the usual tourist spots, like the Pike Place Market and the waterfront, and went shopping a decent amount (it seems to be my sister's favorite activity.) Their next-to-last day in town was also my sister's birthday, so we celebrated with ice cream cake, and played some Apples to Apples -- as much as that game is ubiquitious in gamer-geek circles, it seems to be unknown to people like my family. :) I also introduced them to Chipotle Mexican Grill, because how can people survive without tacos? I think we ate a bit too much Southwestern food for my mom and sister, but then, such are the perils of visiting my wife and I.

After my parents left, [livejournal.com profile] sheeplass finished up her first job contract, so she took me out to Daniel's Broiler to celebrate. Daniel's is a stakehouse reputed to be the best on the Eastside, and after eating there I have to say that the reputation is well-deserved. The steak there tied for Best Steak I've Ever Had (the other being one from The Steakhouse At Camelot, a restaurant in the Excalibur hotel in Vegas.) I also had a very nice red wine whose name escapes me. In any case, it was a great meal.

Speaking of Vegas, this week, I'm attending two major security conferences, BlackHat Briefings and DefCon. Because of this, I was going to be in Vegas from last Monday until this coming Sunday. Since [livejournal.com profile] sheeplass and I love an annual trip to Vegas, she came out with me for the weekend before the conference started. We had a lovely weekend together, as we always do. We stayed in Caesars Palace, as that was where the first of my conferences was, and thus we had a heavily discounted conference rate. We ate a lot of good food, walked along most of the Strip (including picking up some souveneirs from all the hotels we've previously stayed at), and went to a show (Stomp Out Loud, which was fantastic.) One of the meals was at Nero's, the steakhouse in Caesars Palace, and while it was probably the 3rd best steak I've had, it didn't really come close to Daniel's the week before. On Monday, I bid my wonderful wife farewell and went off to my conferences.

And as this seems a good stopping point, I will put the conferences in separate posts.
fishsupreme: (carp)
I just finished reading Den of Thieves, a book by a Wall Street Journal reporter about the insider trading scandals of the 1980's.  Quite a bit of it was about Michael Milken, the financier best known as the "Junk Bond King," who remains a somewhat controversial figure.

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