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Today's prompt was Talk to me about New York City.

I've only been to New York twice -- once in college to visit friends, and once last year to visit restaurants.

It's kind of funny, having moved to the country 4 years ago (from the suburbs), I find I actually appreciate cities more now. I really like the ability to walk to places (especially with a subway to mitigate longer walks.) I used to think I wouldn't want to live in a city, but at this point I think I could be happy doing so -- I just also love where I live right now and wouldn't want to give that up.

New York is kind of ridiculously dense, at least in Manhattan. The way the downtown is contained to an island actually makes it look a lot more impressive -- from outside, it's a solid wall of skyscrapers, making the city more a giant three-dimensional block than the sloped mountain of other cities (with skyscrapers in the middle, mid-height buildings further out, and shorter ones in the suburbs.) It's clear how much of cyberpunk film was inspired not just by cities but this one in particular.

We visited several museums while we were there. As someone who likes looking at things and learning things, I'm pretty easy to entertain with museums. I recall the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History, though I don't remember if we visited any others. This is certainly something New York has over Seattle -- our art museum is kind of pathetic unless you really like abstract modern art.

Mostly we ate fancy food. New York is pretty much the best place in the world for this -- Las Vegas probably comes in second. We had Scandinavian food at Aquavit, French at Restaurant Jean-Georges, Cafe Boulud, and Bouley, and Japanese fusion food at Momofuku Ko.

The drawbacks of New York seem to be the same as any other city, only writ large -- it's crowded, to the point where it can be hard to even walk around, let alone drive anywhere. You have to allow a pretty large amount of time to go a mile, a distance that I would normally consider pretty much negligible. On the other hand, all of Manhattan fits in about 12 square miles, so a mile is actually a long way there. I didn't, however, find the place particularly dirty, nor did I feel unsafe anywhere, both of which seem to be part of New York's reputation (likely a holdover from the 80's, when, from what I understand, it really was dirty and unsafe.)

Overall, it was a cool place to visit and I think I'll visit it again. I wouldn't want to live there, but that's less because of what day-to-day life would be like as because it's staggeringly expensive. The cost of my house would be lucky to get me a tiny one-bedroom apartment, and in my particular field, I wouldn't make any more money in New York than I do now. (If I wanted to make a fortune, my destinations would be either the Bay Area or Washington, DC.)
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Hey, [ profile] evelynne's prompts are back! Yesterday's was Talk to me about the logistics of traveling and vacationing.

I really like traveling; I like to see new places. I'm one of those people who can really enjoy just looking at stuff -- it's mostly why I like hiking, too.

Logistically, I'm usually a light packer. [personal profile] anjelabug and I are usually able to fit all the stuff for both of us for a long weekend into a pilot case and just carry it on a plane; even for long trips like two weeks in France or three in New Zealand, one large suitcase has generally done it for us (though both of those trips involved laundering in the middle to be able to rewear things.) We also always try to stick a day's underwear & socks into our carry-ons in case of lost luggage.

My airplane carry-on is a nylon DefCon bag I've had for several years. It can hold a laptop (even a big one) if desired, but I still use it even when not packing one. These days, all I need to carry on is generally my Kindle, now that Delta lets you use those during takeoff and landing. Before, I always had both the Kindle and a "takeoff and landing book" for the annoying 15 minutes when the Kindle had to be stowed. If I do have a laptop, it's convenient to have a Linux partition since I can generally get on the WiFi for free if I'm not stuck in Windows.

The only trip I can recall where we packed like normal people instead of incredibly light was our trip to New York City last year. It was a "foodie vacation" -- we pretty much went to New York to eat for a long weekend. And unlike Seattle, which has exactly one jacket-required restaurant in the entire city, top New York restaurants have dress codes. The requirement to pack a suit and nice shoes (plus Anjela's shoes & dress clothes) vastly increased the required volume of stuff. Previously, the only times I'd packed a suit when traveling were for business trips where I was running off to give a presentation, and these were such short journeys that I didn't need to pack much else. I also have to pack a lot of stuff for DefCon, but that's not packing like a normal person -- that's a case full of weird electronics to play with. I always kind of wonder what the TSA thinks of looking at my bag ("Who needs three computers, a lockpick set, a magstripe writer, an RFID reader, and multiple cell phones in their suitcase?"), but I think on DefCon weekend I'm one of a thousand bags like that and they likely think nothing of it.

Once we get to a place, our vacations tend to involve a lot of walking. We like to see lots of things when we're in a new place, and while I don't mind driving in a new city/country, I don't really enjoy it either. Plus in major cities having a car is mostly an expensive inconvenience, especially cities like New York and Paris that have excellent public transportation.
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Our next writing prompt: Talk to me about religion/spirituality.

I'm an atheist. I was raised as a mainline Protestant Christian (United Methodist, specifically), and I believed up until my mid-teens, at which point I considered myself agnostic until about 19 years old. Though religion did contribute a lot of guilt to me, and I found church pretty boring, that wasn't really what drove me away from it -- it was simply a slow, progressive realization that all of the statements it made about the supernatural were either objectively false or empirically unverifiable. Eventually I had stopped believing in enough of the facts that following their conclusions stopped making sense to me. Even "converting" from agnostic to atheist wasn't really a change in beliefs, only in terminology -- I realized (via reading Ayn Rand's nonfiction, actually) that if I were "uncertain" about anything else in the same way I was "uncertain" about the existence of God, I'd say I didn't believe in it, so why should religion get special dispensation that nothing else does? I was agnostic to God in the same sense that I was agnostic to elves or unicorns -- there is no evidence they exist, and the fact that I can't somehow magically prove they don't doesn't mean I have to say I'm "unsure" if there are elves or unicorns; there aren't.

I find a lot of Christianity emotionally appealing -- I like the sense of community, I like the encouragement of charity, generosity, and compassion, and as someone who doesn't want to die, I would certainly like to believe that there is life after death. I love the Christmas season, its messages as well as its trappings (the songs, decorations, etc., and giving gifts to people I love.) There's plenty I don't like about Christianity, too -- like all religions, it has a long history of being used by people in power to justify the oppression of those not in power, and over time it simply changes to oppress whoever the disfavored group is at the moment. This isn't a unique fault of Christianity, though -- any belief system, religious or secular, gets manipulated this way. But in any case, when it comes to my beliefs, I find all of the above to be irrelevant -- to my very rationalist and empirical way of thinking, what I want be true and what I feel to be true have absolutely no bearing on what is true. For me to believe in a religion, I don't need to be told why it would benefit me to believe -- I need to be shown the evidence, and apply to it the same epistemological principles as I apply to everything else.

People talk a lot about "spirituality," and I honestly don't know what that means. I gather from context that it's a combination of a generalized belief in the supernatural ("there must be something more than the world we observe") and a sort of vague mysticism (gaining knowledge from feelings.) In this case, I am not a spiritual person at all. Mysticism seems like intellectual laziness -- emotions are not tools of cognition. Emotions can tell you about yourself, but they can't tell you anything about the world.

And as for the supernatural, I have never found even a definition of "supernatural" that doesn't outright mean "not real." If you verified a supernatural phenomenon to be real, then it would cease to be supernatural -- it would simply become part of nature. If magic exists, then there must be a mechanism of action. If God exists, God has to be made of something, act in some manner, and come from somewhere. Certainly we don't fully understand all the mechanisms of action in nature, but that doesn't mean that those mechanisms don't exist, merely that we haven't figured them out. If there's a "higher plane of existence" beyond the universe, and we proved it to exist, it would then cease to be beyond the universe -- it would be an accepted part of the universe and we would begin puzzling out how it works. It's only supernatural as long as it's not real.

This is in some way just a semantic argument over definitions, but I think it's also indicative of how I think -- that everything fits into systems, and when it doesn't, it just means that we don't understand the system. Perhaps we'll never understand the system, but it's there.

It's interesting to ponder naturalist creation stories -- e.g. directed panspermia (humanity was created by aliens and "seeded" here on Earth) or the simulation hypothesis (the entire universe is a computer simulation being run in a higher-dimensioned universe.) I find them emotionally more plausible, for the simple reason that rather than asserting a systemless "supernatural" they just propose higher-order systems that we cannot yet observe or understand. However, they run into the same problem as religions for me. I can't disprove or even offer a convincing argument against the idea that "since one real universe can build computers to simulate many, many simulated universes, statistically speaking we are much more likely to be in a simulated universe than a real one," but I'd never say I believe that the universe is a simulation, because we have no evidence pointing to the fact that it is. We have no other universes to compare it to, so making statistical statements about the nature and behavior of other universes is just making stuff up.

It would be nice if the universe were created with a benevolent order in which the laws of nature favor the good and conscious beings live forever. However, as far as I can tell, the only way we get a benevolent universe is to make it that way.


Jul. 9th, 2014 12:40 pm
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Yesterday's writing prompt was Talk to me about marijuana.

I'm one of the few people who has no experience with the stuff. Due to allergies, I've never been interested in smoking anything, and never have. The idea of introducing more crap into my lungs for me to sneeze out does not have any appeal.

For that matter, I've never had any interest in mind-altering substances, either. I'm happy with life-as-experienced and don't feel any particular desire to change it. I don't even really care for being drunk -- I think I was well into college before I ever was, even even then only got that way maybe half a dozen times during my college experience. For the most part I found it an unpleasant feeling. I drink more now than I ever did in college, but even so, I kind of wish wine were non-alcoholic; I love the variety & taste of it, and the alcohol just adds calories and limits how much of it I can have. I can see some appeal to intoxication in a social environment (i.e. around other similarly drunk people), but still don't really find it appealing per se -- getting drunk alone would seem utterly pointless to me.

I live in one of the two states that's legalized marijuana. I fully support legalization; I don't think it's the government's business to dictate what people ingest anyway, and on top of that I think from a consequentialist perspective, prohibition is horrible. We as a society imprison countless people for harming themselves, heedless of the fact that the imprisonment harms them -- and the rest of our society -- even more than the drugs do, creating a permanent underclass compelled to a life of crime.
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So, today's (okay, yesterday's, I'm a day behind) prompt was Game of Thrones -- without spoilers. I'll do my best.

[personal profile] anjelabug and I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire since the first novel, A Game of Thrones, came out many years ago. I remember picking up the third book in New Zealand in 2005, since it was published while we were on vacation.

As a result, we were really looking forward to the show before it even came out, especially with Sean Bean cast as Eddard Stark. And by and large the show has been excellent; it's certainly the best TV adaptation of a fantasy novel/series ever. The casting has been very good (I have no idea how they were so fortunate as to cast so many good child actors), and it's been mostly faithful to the novels -- certainly faithful enough that for most of the series we book-readers have known what's going to happen, usually well enough to be watching our non-book-reading friends with great amusement when we know that some catastrophe is about to befall a main character.

And do they ever. Martin certainly doesn't shy away from killing his characters.

I like the complexity of the storyline, and the way the background and history is slowly unveiled as we go along. I like the variety of the viewpoints, and how events can turn even some of the most evil characters into sympathetic ones as the story progresses -- though they seldom manage to outrun the things they've done. And mostly I just really enjoy reading about some of the very interesting people Martin's come up with -- both major characters like Arya and Tyrion and minor ones like Varys the Spider (who has some very interesting commentary on the nature of power.)

It has its faults, too. For one, Martin's decision to split the last two books by character instead of chronology resulted in a lot of "filler" chapters for some characters in which not much happened. This was a change from previous books where in almost every chapter you were sad to see it end and the viewpoint change. Regarding the HBO show and the changes made to adapt the books to the screen, I think that the inability to see what's in the main characters' heads makes some of the plots not work as well, and I question how the producers of the show could possibly have read A Song of Ice and Fire and decided it needed more rape in it. Some of the changes also seem kind of random -- renaming certain characters, merging others, etc. -- and I'm not sure why they made them since it would have been no more difficult to just film the scenes as written, and sometimes these are going to cause problems along the line (i.e. early changes to a "minor" character might end up a problem if Martin makes that character more important later, which he's done before.)

All in all, though, it's a very enjoyable show and with the squad of nerds I have as friends has led to a ton of interesting conversations.
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And, another back prompt from June: Describe how you changed something about yourself, or are working on doing so.

I grew up a spectacularly unathletic kid. Throughout my childhood and adolescent years, I had absolutely no interest whatsoever in physical activity, and didn't really care for being outside (admittedly, being outside in Indiana is not usually terribly pleasant.) I was a chubby kid by the age of 8 (to the shock of all my relatives, since as far as anyone could tell I barely ate anything), and became a computer nerd around 9, so I suppose the lack of athleticism wasn't surprising. However, I was also extremely weak -- in high school, I literally never passed a single test in a gym class. They were always graded on a curve based on either the performance of the class or on Presidential physical fitness standards, and doing 15 pushups or a single pullup had always been beyond me; even running a 1/4 mile was. Luckily, phys ed was always a half-credit course so my straight F's didn't count much against me for GPA, class rank, etc.

It wasn't until my late 20s that I decided to try to get into better shape. It was a combination of two things -- first, in the Seattle area I found I really liked being outdoors. It wasn't so much being active as simply being out in nature. Walking, hiking, etc. weren't exactly strenuous, but they did depend on having at least some level of physical capability. The second was simply that by 2007 or so I was upwards of 200 lbs. and wasn't too happy with that (by comparison, that was about 60 pounds up from college.)

Since I hated cardio -- and, indeed, I still do, the boredom is very difficult for me to fight -- I started lifting weights. And it was here that I discovered that I was, in fact, spectacularly, unusually weak. I couldn't squat an unloaded bar. I couldn't do basic physical movements like mantling myself up onto a countertop (I recall when I tried skiing at one point, a difficulty I had was that if I fell down, without both feet planted firmly beneath me -- not always possible on skis -- I was not strong enough to stand back up unassisted.) It took me years of regular weight training to hit the "untrained" level on most lifts -- i.e. what a man of my height and weight should be able to lift without ever having lifted weights at all. I hit plateaus lasting months squatting 65 pounds, then again at 95, and again at 135. Admittedly, I think the strength standards assume your weight is mostly lean body mass -- fat doesn't help you lift, after all -- but even if I pretended I weighed 130 pounds instead of 207 at the time, it took me 4-6 months to reach "untrained" status.

Still, I kept at it most of the time. I'd say that since then, nearly 10 years ago, I've been lifting regularly (defined as 3 times a week following an actual progression program) at least 6 months out of every 12. I am, at this point, "Novice" to "Intermediate" on all my lifts -- that is, years of work has gotten me to where an average man should be able to reach after only 6-12 months.

One major benefit I've noticed, though. Back in 2007, I would actually gain weight eating 1750 calories per day. Losing weight required eating ridiculously low numbers of calories (online calculators would tell me I should lose weight eating an amount that would literally make me gain 1-2 pounds a week.) I think that I just had vanishingly low muscle mass -- that calculators assumed that my body fat was much lower than it actually was. At this point, were I to disregard calories and eat whatever I wanted, I'd end up in the 160-170 range -- which is a far cry better than the 207 and rising I had back then. So clearly, while I'm not "strong" by objective standards, all this has made a positive impact on my life. I still have to count calories, as almost anybody who was previously overweight has to for life, but I can now maintain my weight with a more normal 1750-2000, and lose weight on 1250-1500, which is much more practical. I can eat like a normal human.

What's interesting is that I don't know if my weirdly low starting point was due to simple inactivity from childhood (i.e. I just never built the muscle that most 15-year-old boys do), or if it was an actual medical issue. My testosterone level since my 20s usually tests at around 280 ng/dL, which is the very bottom of the "normal" range -- but the "normal" range was set by testing men from 40-70, so for a 25-year-old (or even my current 37 years old) that's actually weirdly low. Given the various issues [personal profile] anjelabug and I had conceiving a child, many of which were on my side, it's quite possible I was just biologically destined for the intellectual life. :)

On the other hand, I don't let this deter me from continuing to run and weightlift regularly. After all, I still occasionally see women at the gym lifting more than I can, and if they can do that on 60-80 ng/dL of testosterone, with enough dedication, I can do it too.
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Due to the lack of one yesterday, today had two prompts:

Talk to me about dresses.

Well, as a guy, I don't tend to wear them. :) I do like them on women, though. I don't have a particular preference as to type; mostly it's just a matter of distinctiveness. There's nothing wrong with women going about in jeans and T-shirts, of course, but its very ubiquity makes it kind of invisible -- it makes no statement, just as a guy going around in jeans and a T-shirt doesn't either. The fact that you don't really see women wearing dresses around unless you're at a fancy restaurant, a formal event, or Las Vegas makes it more notable, and I find that attractive in and of itself. I am interested in unusual people; while wearing a dress doesn't necessarily indicate anything, anything that makes someone stand out from the crowd makes me think a person is more likely to be interesting. Likewise for people with a "personal style," almost irrespective of what that style is.

Talk to me about accents.

I moved to the Pacific Northwest from Indiana. Honestly, in neither place do I really hear a pronounced accent -- both are pretty close to the "average Midwestern" that makes up American newscasters, etc. This said, I do have bits of the Hoosier accent left, just enough to notice its existence -- things like "measure" being pronounced "may-zure", and "dog" being at least part of the way toward "dawg."

In terms of favorite accents, I suppose I find most European accents from women attractive, though I don't have a particular favorite. This is, of course, pretty common, and I think it's mostly a matter of the fact that we don't hear them all that often. Though I guess it has to be more than just familiarity, and probably has to do with how similar or different those accents are phonetically -- it seems that Americans almost always like Australian and English accents, vary in their opinions of other European accents, and are usually indifferent to Asian accents. I don't really have any idea why this is the case. Comprehensibility might be part of it, since looking back at that list I can't help but notice that Australian & English are the only ones where they're accents of English rather than the application of some other language's phonemes to English.
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Today's prompt was Tell me about something freaky that happened to you.

The first one that comes to mind was a couple years ago. I had awakened in the night a few minutes before, and when I looked over to the side of the bed, I saw a little girl with black hair and a red cardigan standing next to the bed, eyes shining a bright blue-white color. She looked straight at me, then quickly faded away, starting from the extremities, with the glowing eyes fading last.

What fascinates me about this incident is that my very first thought was, "Oh, wow, hypnopompic imagery! I bet this is where belief in ghosts came from!" The idea of an actual supernatural phenomenon didn't even occur to me, but it was really obvious that to someone hundreds of years ago, this sort of post-sleep hallucination would have been taken as proof of it.

As someone who takes a long time to fall asleep, I witness hypnagogic imagery (visual hallucinations just before falling asleep, as parts of your brain enter "dreaming" mode while you're still conscious) not infrequently, but even then it's only when my eyes are closed, and the images -- while as clear and vivid as anything seen in reality -- last only a second or so. Seeing something persistent in the room with my eyes open right after awakening has only happened twice in my life.


Jul. 1st, 2014 09:34 am
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And a back-prompt from June: What is your favorite kind of weather? Why?

As I mentioned in the color post, I'm always cold. I've been this way for a long time, since my early 20s at least, and losing weight in my early 30s only made it worse. So my favorite weather is warm. I also like being outside, so sunshine is great, too.

I realize that liking warm, sunny days is hardly unusual. However, it's hard for it to be too warm for me -- I go to a convention in Las Vegas every August, and after a day spent in the (super-air-conditioned) convention center the first thing I do is run outside and bask in the 115 degree desert blast. I'll overheat like anyone if I'm stuck wearing jeans or a suit or something, but as long as I can dress for the heat, I'm perfectly happy to be out in it.

Unfortunately for my weather preferences, I live in Seattle. Rather than the four seasons of the Midwest, we have two seasons here: dry and wet. Dry is very nice, starting somewhere between May (if we're lucky) and July (if we're not), and lasting until the end of September. It's clear, sunny, and most days are a comfortable spot in the 70s, with the occasional spike into the 80s. Wet is less nice, as it mists or drizzles almost every day, is cloudy the days it's not dripping, and temperatures range from 40 to 60 -- i.e. too cold for me to be comfortable. I have been very happy with the heavy wool peacoat I bought before our trip to New York City in December -- while it would be too warm for most people in this climate, it's great winter wear for me.

I actually enjoy warm rain, and especially the atmosphere outside just after a warm rain. Rainy days in, say, Hawaii are actually pretty pleasant. But below about 75 degrees, rain is cold, and it's wet, and it sucks.


Jul. 1st, 2014 09:28 am
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Today's prompt: Talk to me about color. I don't really have a specific favorite color.

When it comes to my living environment, I like warm colors and earth tones. I think the fact that I'm cold almost all the time influences this -- it's bad enough being cold, it's worse being cold in an ice-blue room. Luckily, my wife and I are compatible in this regard (the colors, not the temperature -- she runs much warmer than I) and so our house's interior is all various shades of brown, yellow, and orange. Mostly very light shades, though [personal profile] anjelabug picked out some pretty bold oranges for two rooms, and I like them just fine.

For cars, my general color preferences have always been "not red or white," but pretty indifferent to the specific color otherwise. However, I've found that BMW has a really nice shade of white (I can't really say what is nice about it, it's slightly opalescent and just really pleasant to look at), and having owned a black car for 5 years, I wouldn't do that again (too hard to keep clean, and shows every little scratch.)

I also have a fondness for dark purple. There's just not a lot of call for it in today's world; I have some ties in that shade, and I tend to use it extensively when selecting graphics (e.g. designing a banner or costume for a character in a video game), but that's about it. I suppose if I ever became an evil overlord I would decorate my throne room in it, but that's not a pressing issue for me most of the time.
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Since I never post anything, I thought I'd trying doing [ profile] evelynne's prompts for a bit. Today's is food and drink.

I was a picky eater as a kid, and this has simply decreased, uniformly, over time, to the point that today there are almost no foods I don't like. (It took me until college to eat Chinese food, later in college to like beans, and years afterward to enjoy any vegetables... the very last food to come off the "ick" list was actually lettuce, which everyone always said had no taste but which to me always tasted quite strongly, and badly.) I suppose I'm still not super-fond of curries, but even then I find them okay, just not really my thing.

Conveniently, this has gone hand-in-hand with developing cooking as a hobby. I started doing it a couple of years ago -- cooking as a challenge & hobby instead of "I need something to eat, what's in the fridge?" -- and found that as long as I stuck to yellow recipes and above, I enjoyed it. [Yellow recipes? Yes, I think of cooking in World of Warcraft terms, wherein recipes show up in colors based on their difficulty compared to your current skill. Grey recipes are easy enough you learn nothing, green ones you'll learn from occasionally, yellow ones are at your skill level, orange is difficult at your skill level (almost guaranteed to skill up, but may fail to make it), and red is impossible at your skill level.] I still don't really like making super-easy things, like food out of a package, as I just find it boring and time-consuming.

The net result of this is that over the last few years, [personal profile] anjelabug and I have pretty much stopped eating packaged food. I cook more often than she does, and I pretty much shop for things with one ingredient whenever possible. Since we both love French and Mexican foods, I end up doing a lot from those cuisines. I really should do more seafood and Asian foods, I just don't have much experience with them -- I did make some very nice grilled fish earlier this week, though.

I end up cooking a lot of variety, but I don't need variety necessarily. For lunch on the weekdays, when I'm at work, I end up having tacos probably 4 days out of 5. I vary what exactly I have in the genre of "Mexican food," but it's almost always some variant of tacos, burritos, quesadillas, etc. I like the fact that at a fast-casual Mexican place (like Chipotle or a local chain called Ooba's) I can get a meal made entirely of food without any processed ingredients.

The one drawback of food: not being overweight is a challenge when one loves food. I've spent pretty much my entire life (starting at age 8) overweight, save for a period of about a year a couple years back. I do a lot of exercise, and have been counting calories for many years now, in order to at least keep my weight constant. One thing that makes this easier is that I don't really care about dessert and junk food -- sweets don't generally tempt me unless they're actually sitting right in front of me. What makes it harder, on the other hand, is wine.

[personal profile] anjelabug and I got into wine as a hobby in about 2008. It turns out that Washington is a great place for it, and the center of Washington wineries and wine tourism is... Woodinville, where we live. As a result, a lot of our selections of what food to eat is determined by what will go with our favorite wines -- I think this is why I don't cook much fish. On the other hand, since we now have a reason for [personal profile] anjelabug to avoid wine for several months, it's an opportunity to try cooking different, less-wine-compatible things, so we're taking advantage of that.


Feb. 8th, 2012 07:58 pm
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Tonight we learned that our cat, Olaf, while very cute, is not the finest mouser in the world. Having spotted a mouse, he walked up to it and gently poked it with his paw a couple of times to see if it would play. At that point it ran off. Olaf was disappointed.

Unfortunately, grabbing something to catch said mouse in involved letting it out of my sight, so no telling where it's gotten to. Living out in the woods as we do, it was pretty much inevitable we'd see one sooner or later.

At least this finally answers the question why all week long Olaf has been staking out the laundry room at all hours of the day and night despite no apparent reason for it.
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The top 25 investment banks have a notional derivatives exposure of $700 trillion, more than ten times the GDP of the Earth. While I'm almost invariably optimistic, this cannot end well, and it's likely to end very badly in 2012 -- and in my opinion probably worse than 2008.

How did this happen? I mean, by now we all pretty much know how the housing bust of 2008 happened. Banks sold high-risk loans, and then collected them into securities called Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs), which they sold to investors. Due to the number of mortgages gathered, there was no way they could fail to pay out unless the entire housing market collapsed at once, so they were rated AAA. Since they were rated AAA, banks and investors could own them as "risk-free" investments, increasing their leverage. Everything was going swimmingly until the "black swan" event happened -- the entire housing market declined at once, causing CDOs to fall below par value. As soon as they fell below par value, it triggered credit default swaps, AIG went bankrupt, and banks started failing. Chaos ensues.

Amazingly, the banks have contrived to make it all happen again, only bigger this time.

A digression for a moment: what is a Credit-Default Swap (CDS)? A credit-default swap, at its core, is a hedge -- a type of insurance. Say I own $1M of French bonds, but I'm worried that maybe France might not pay its debts -- that is, by owning a bond (or, in the housing bust case, a CDO), I have a default risk -- the risk I may not get paid back. So I can go to an investment bank or insurance company (like AIG), and ask them to write me a credit-default swap on $1M of French bonds. They will quote me a price, say $18,725 for five years. If my French bonds fail to pay out their full value of $1M within 5 years, the insurance company will pay me the difference. Thus, I no longer bear default risk -- I have sold my default risk to someone else by paying $18,725. (Incidentally, this really is the price of a $1M French CDS as I write this post.)

The first interesting part here is that the bank or insurance company that writes the CDS does not have to set aside $1M. It's like regular insurance -- they don't have to be able to pay every single policy holder the maximum amount of their policy at the same exact moment, as this would be absurd and no insurance would exist. However, in this case, French bonds (the asset I'm insuring) are AAA-rated (yes, by the same ratings agencies that rated subprime housing CDOs AAA), and thus considered "risk-free." The bank or insurance company thus can set aside almost nothing to cover this CDS; they can write CDSs for vastly more money than they have.

Modern banks are hackers. They no longer make money the way they did in the 90's and before, off of fees -- taking a small, fixed percentage of many large transactions. Instead, they've found a different tactic: exploiting. Not in the "they're exploiting the workers!" sense, but in the computer-hacking sense: they look at a system, see where the system's internal interactions make bad assumptions, and then push against those to create the result they want. Goldman Sachs gave us a fantastic example of an exploit back in 2008: they gathered the worst mortgages they could find -- the ones most likely to fail -- into a CDO, then marketed and sold it to their own retail brokerage customers. And then for ultimate chutzpah, they borrowed those same securities back (with the loan denominated in shares, not dollars), sold them to their customers again, and then repaid the loan after the housing bust in now-worthless shares. That's not an investment, that's an exploit -- they sold bad debt they knew was bad twice to the same people, without taking any of the cost themselves. (No one went to jail for this scam.)

Here's the new exploit: naked credit-default swaps. A naked credit default swap is simply purchasing a credit-default swap on an asset that you do not actually own. At first this doesn't seem too crazy -- it's like buying a life insurance policy on somebody else. But consider the consequences: if I buy a credit-default swap on $1M of French debt without actually owning any French debt, I've paid $18,725 for somebody to owe me up to $1M if France defaults.

This is not a hedge. This is not an investment. This is a bet. It's no different than going to a bookie and saying "will you give me 53-to-1 odds on France to lose?" It's flat-out gambling -- the Wall Street Casino has genuinely become a casino -- only since it's disguised as a derivative, it's legal. And just like that bookie, the banks or insurance companies they're buying from don't actually have enough money to pay everybody at once -- they're relying on the fact that they'll win some and lose some.

I've used French bonds as my example here, and there's a reason for that. After the collapse of the housing market, banks needed something else to invest in and speculate on -- residential CDOs weren't selling anymore. So they settled on something stable, something safe, something no one could complain about -- sovereign debt. A lot of it is European sovereign debt -- that same debt we've been hearing about in all these "European debt crisis" news stories. You can buy a CDS on French debt for 187.25 basis points ($18,725 for a million dollars in debt.) Greek CDSs are going to run you 9949.1699 basis points -- i.e. insuring a million dollars in Greek bonds will cost $994,917, because the people writing CDOs consider them more or less certain to default.

But only a couple years ago, Greek sovereign debt was "safe" -- highly rated, risk free. People writing these CDSs now considered more or less certain to default didn't have to set aside much capital to cover them at all. Of course, it's not like every European country is really going to default at once -- though I wouldn't rule out Greece, Italy, and Spain all doing so in rapid succession. But it turns out that they don't have to.

Leverage ratios (the ratio of potential debt to total equity) on the top 25 banks are incredibly high -- and when you're leveraged 25-to-1 a loss of 4% on your capital wipes out all equity, which means you're bankrupt. They don't have to lose everything to lose everything -- even (relatively) small losses can result in bankruptcy.

Who sold these guys all these CDSs anyway? AIG went bankrupt and had to be bailed out in the housing crisis, so who's the bigger fool? There are two answers, and both are shocking. The first is that AIG itself is once again one of the largest writers of credit-default swaps, so if Europe implodes U.S. taxpayers will get to bail them out again. The second is that the big banks write CDSs to each other. Consider the amazing result: banks have combined gambling with counterfeiting. Goldman Sachs goes to Citigroup and pays $20k to buy a $1M liability. Citigroup goes to Bank of America and uses that $20k to buy two more $1M liabilities. Bank of America goes to another bank, and the cycle repeats. Each bank owes all the others more money than it has. This is how banks with $15 billion in assets get a notional derivatives exposure (i.e. the maximum they could theoretically owe if every investment went bad at once) of $700 trillion. Of course they won't have to pay all of that at once -- but they only have to be hit with a tiny fraction of it to go bankrupt. The fact that everyone else will owe them at the same time will do almost no good -- a bank that can't pay now is bankrupt, no matter what its receivables (from other equally-bankrupt entities) may be.

This is a secular deleveraging cycle, which we haven't seen since the Great Depression. The only way out is through, and it won't be pretty for a while.


Oct. 26th, 2011 07:32 pm
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Over the past six months, I have somehow picked up cooking as a hobby. It's kind of strange, as I never liked to cook before and kind of regarded it as a chore, but as I get better at it I find it more interesting. (Of course, this also means I mostly like to cook things I find interesting, which means lots of trying new, complicated things but not much just making routine dinners; from what I understand this fits very well into the stereotype of men who cook. Oh, well, I get good food out of it.)

Tonight we had pan-seared steaks with a green peppercorn sauce recipe from my favorite food blog, with the addition of some demi-glace, because it makes sauces more delicious. It turned out very nicely.

It's been an interesting experience moving from carefully following recipes to increased improvisation. The fact that I can throw together, say, veal Marsala, or chicken Parmigiana, or wild mushroom risotto without a recipe still kind of surprises me every time I do it. (Indeed, I find I often get out a cookbook and look up a recipe anyway, and then proceed to ignore or modify it -- I feel like I need to have the recipe even if I pay little attention to it.

Other things I have learned: Somehow the French have discovered how to make food that is better than everybody else's food. I just picked up one French cookbook and seem to have filled my Amazon wish list with others. We've also been trying all the local French restaurants; the food at casual, bistro-style French restaurants amazes me and makes me wish we had them everywhere (as they, presumably, do in France.) Alas, we live in the woods, and going out for French food of any sort requires a 45-minute journey into Seattle. Still, I feel lucky to be living 45 minutes from a major metro area; back in Indiana I wouldn't have been able to get it at all. At this point we plan on taking a food-and-wine vacation to France next year; we'd planned on doing it this fall, but this year we kind of spent all our discretionary income on home improvement instead.

Also, [ profile] kitiara pointed me to Penzey's Fox Point Seasoning. The stuff is amazing; we dump it on every vegetable we see these days, not to mention chicken (and, to be honest, we at least try it on most everything else.) It's just salt, shallot, chive, and scallion, but it's so good. We also joined a local CSA and get a big box of fruits and vegetables delivered every other week, which has given us the opportunity to try all sorts of things we never would have thought to buy otherwise -- it turns out that beets and turnips are delicious. (I love Brussels sprouts, too, but my wife thinks they taste like armpits so I don't eat them much.) The CSA is frankly very expensive; it's like buying all our vegetables at Whole Foods and I could get them a lot cheaper at the local grocery, but the advantage of it is that it sends me stuff I'd never buy at the local grocery -- I wouldn't have ever thought to pick up chard, kale, beets, arugula, turnips, pluots, nectarines, etc. because I'd never really eaten them before. In the long run we may just start going to the farmers' market instead, but for now it's been a fantastic way to try new fruits and vegetables.
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Yesterday was my 11th anniversary. It was a low-key anniversary this year -- neither of us really wanted anything in particular gift-wise, and Anjela had both a cold and a migraine, so we didn't do a great deal to celebrate.

Nevertheless, I'm delighted to have spent 15 years with her (we dated a good long while before we were married) and we're as happy as ever. We've changed in innumerable ways, but always together, so we fit each other now as well as we ever have. It kind of amazes me how compatible we are at this point -- I mean, we played a computer game with each other for seven years, and we even have pretty much the same sense of aesthetics now (which is really showing now that we own a house.) While we both have a lot of activities of our own (my tabletop RPGs, programming/security projects, and computer games; her writing, cowriting, knitting, and Internet fandoms), we still share these with each other and can delight in how much the other enjoys them.

Back in high school and early college, I was never sure I'd even get married -- it just wasn't that important a concept to me. Now I'm one of the most married people I know (and the others are all on LJ, too. :) ) and am very happy that way.

Oh, speaking of aesthetics and things that happened yesterday, we finally got our table delivered from Geek Chic. It looks beautiful, and we inaugurated it with a game of Arkham Horror with two expansions last night (for the uninitiated, it's a board game with enough pieces it wouldn't have even fit on our previous table, and also happens to be our favorite board game.) I really need to get my tabletop game (Spelljammer ported to D&D4E) started now.

From Public
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I spent last week in Las Vegas, for BlackHat USA 2011 and DefCon 19 -- my annual security conference pilgrimage. Overall impression: the quality of the actual presentations was below-average this year, but it was still an educational experience, a good professional networking event, and probably the most fun I've had at DefCon so far.

Rather than recount everything here, I'll link to my full trip report on my security blog:
BlackHat 2011, Day 1
BlackHat 2011, Day 2
DefCon 19, Day 1
DefCon 19, Day 2
DefCon 19, Day 3
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I got up today having managed about 6 hours of sleep between 11 and 8. Unfortunately, I'm still quite sick.

Germany does not seem to have drug stores in the sense we do in the United States. Instead, there are "apothekes", which have pharmacists and sometimes even doctors on staff. Nothing is over-the-counter, though most things are prescribed by pharmacists on the spot, and groceries and discount stores don't appear to carry pharmaceuticals of any sort. You have to ask a pharmacist for so much as a Tylenol. The ones I tried, however, seemed unfamiliar with the very idea of cough medicine, and only offered me things that were either paracetamol and caffeine or the same with an added antihistamine. While that reduces the fever and might help me sleep, it does absolutely nothing for the constant coughing which will make giving presentations tomorrow rather challenging. At this point I wish I could find so much as a cough drop.

So, taking some Excedrin I brought from home, I went down to Nürnberg's old town for a couple of hours, where I saw a variety of medieval architecture. It's still kind of amazing as an American to see how old all the buildings are, even those just housing typical shops these days. The Nürnberger Burg towers over the city and is absolutely enormous -- I can't imagine attacking it with only medieval foot soldiers and cavalry. I was able to walk around in its inner court and gardens, though the castle interior is accessible only via German-language guided tour.

I tried to visit the German National Museum, but alas, it's closed Mondays, so due to my luggage misadventures yesterday I'll be missing it this trip.

I stopped at several food stands for Nürnberg bratwurst and various German snacks I didn't fully recognize until I ate them, and also picked up some chocolate and lebkuchen for [personal profile] anjelabug and I to eat when I get home. I am now back at my hotel to rest a bit and change into suit and tie and head over to the conference that is my ostensible reason for being here.

Also, you would think a hotel that caters to business travelers would not make it impossible to press a shirt. There's no iron, and the front desk doesn't have one -- there's a laundry service that promises a 48-hour turnaround if you give them clothing by 8am, which is too long to be of any use even had I noticed it the moment I checked in. No problem, there are alternatives for getting wrinkles out of shirts: except the hangers are all the unremovable anti-theft kind, the bathroom exhaust fan runs all the time and cannot be turned off, the hair dryer is built into the bathroom wall, and there are no flat surfaces in the bathroom more than 3" wide other than the toilet seat (out of reach of said hair dryer.)
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As is probably obvious by now, I have moved my journal over to Dreamwidth, because LJ barely works anymore. (Also DW has a lot of nice features to it now and is still actively developing things that don't require Cyrillic mode to use.) I'll retain my LJ account for following/commenting, and will crosspost all public entries, so you're not likely to miss much on LJ, but at this point the LJ version will be only a copy of the DW one. If any of my LJ friends are also on DW, let me know so I can friend you there.
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I made it to München (Munich) last night, relatively late. Once I arrived, the Deutsche Bahn people directed me to the Hauptbanhof Lost and Found office... which, as I had suspected, closed at six. The DB staff said they couldn't do anything about this despite that they were the ones who had told me to come down.

However, while I was standing forlornly outside the Lost & Found, a random stranger named Gabrielle introduced herself and asked what the problem was. I explained my situation, and she marched over to the DB info desk, had a long conversation in German of which I could not understand a word, and someone unlocked the Lost & Found and got me my suitcase. I thanked Gabrielle profusely, she told me to do something nice for someone, and I was on my way.

It was now around 7:00pm, and not only was I exhausted (having now been awake for 27 hours plus standing for 5 at the Nürnberg Hauptbanhof), I was also starting to feel sick, which continued through the evening. I now have a pretty nasty deep chest cough, as well as the usual nasal symptoms of a cold. Not really wanting to go through another 3 hours of trains in this condition (ending with a 10-block walk at 11pm in Erlangen), I stopped into a Courtyard hotel to try to get a room. No luck there, but they referred me to the Best Western Hotel Mediocrity, where I was able to procure a room that had the bare essentials (bed, shower, Internet.) The hotel lobby had some pretty spectacular 80's-ness, and now I wish I had gotten a picture, because it looked like the entrance to a disco.

I dropped into a nearby restaurant (I don't even remember what it was called; it was an open-air bar named something that started with M) for some mushroom, truffle, & arugula pizza and a pint of Weissbier. Now, I don't like beer, but it turns out that Weissbier, the national brew of Bavaria, is actually very good. At least, it is when it's on draft, and in Bavaria -- I'm not sure if this would hold true everywhere.

The hotel room had enormous windows that open all the way and have no guardrail or screen or anything -- in America they would need to have warning labels not to throw babies out of them. This was quite pleasant as the one thing for which I've had absolutely no cause for complaint this trip is the weather, which has been mid-60's, radiantly sunny, with a light breeze the entire time.

I got a rather miserable night's sleep as my cold had gotten worse, to the point where I have a fever with alternating chills and sweating. Managing temperature was challenging since the bed contained no covers save for a 3-inch-thick down comforter (and I mean no other covers, not even so much as a sheet.) I did finally manage to get 8 hours of sleep over the course of the 11pm-9am period, though, which felt better.

Once I managed to get up and showered, I felt good enough to get out of the room a bit, figuring I didn't come 5100 miles to sleep in a hotel room and did not intend to let a common cold change that. (I would take something for the cold, but so far as I can tell, stores in München do not open on Sundays. Like, any stores -- not only did I pass six different pharmacies that were closed Sundays, even the tourist trap stores full of souvenir kitsch were closed. Hopefully tomorrow I can get something.) Given where my hotel was, I had an easy time walking around downtown München, which is a beautiful city of old Baroque architecture and huge breweries. After going from Karlsplatz to Marienplatz, I noticed a tour bus company offering loop tours of München that stopped at Schloss Nymphenburg, so I paid the fare and hopped onto the open-topped double-decker bus.

At first I stayed up top, which gave a beautiful view and exposed me to the spring breezes that would have been very pleasant if I weren't having chills, so I went down inside the bus. Schloss Nymphenburg is a spectacularly enormous Baroque/Rococo palace built by the Electors of Bavaria as a summer home (each of them making it bigger), surrounded by a "garden" which is so huge it basically serves as München's version of Central Park. I toured the palace, which was interesting albeit very typical of the period, which isn't one of my favorite architectural styles (huge paintings of people covering every surface, etc.) It is exceptional more for its sheer size than uniqueness. The park was lovely and had several outbuildings, some of which could have been considered palaces themselves from their size and ornateness.

The most impressive by far, though, was Magdeleneklasse, a chapel/meditiative retreat for the Electors. The building was deliberately designed in the style of a late-Roman ruin on the outside, with the chapel in the style of an undersea grotto done in concrete and seashells. I've never seen anything like it -- it looked like something out of a fantasy story and not a real place at all. I took tons of pictures; seeing that alone was worth the trip to Schloss Nymphenburg.

Having been walking two hours while sick and feverish, I was pretty near collapse at that point, so I got back on the tour bus and rode it back to downtown München (passing BMW Welt along the way; had I been feeling better I would have checked out the museum.) From there I retrieved my luggage from the hotel (having had to check out at 10am), walked to the Hauptbahnhof (which I gather means "main train station"), and grabbed some quiche to eat. There are actually a lot more places serving either Italian food or various German fusion stuff ("currywurst" was everywhere) than straightforward German food.

So now I am on a train back up to Nürnberg, where I will transfer to a train to Erlangen and finally check in where I was supposed to be last night. Since I'll have my suitcase I can't really tour Nürnberg today, not that I really feel up to it anyway, but trains between Nürnberg and Erlangen are more or less continuous (several times per hour), so I'll get a chance tomorrow. The Bavarian countryside out the train windows is quite pretty, with little villages of white-walled, red-tile-roofed houses and churches surrounded by rolling farmland and pasture; it's still a little early in the season for all the vegetation to be present, but it's still nice. I wish I had an additional day to do a tour of Schloss Neuschwanstein, as I'd love to see the Bavarian Alps and it looks amazing, but I guess that will have to wait until my next trip to Germany (whenever that is.)
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So, I did in fact miss my train, though I'm not stuck in Frankfurt. Actually, I never had it at all, as my ticket was from the wrong Frankfurt station (I wanted Frankfurt Flugh. instead of Frankfurt Hbf.) However, for about 30 Euro I got that worked out and got on a train that went where I needed it to. There have been some very nice views from the train windows.

Unlike the Frankfurt airport, the rail system has all signage, tickets, documents, etc. in German only, so it is proving considerably more difficult to navigate. I'm sure I'll manage, though. Also, like the airplane, the WiFi on the train doesn't work very well -- I got on long enough to make my previous post, and was unable to connect again for the next hour. It's a T-Mobile Hotspot, so it's not free anyway.

Once we got out of Frankfurt (a pretty standard-looking heavily industrial city), Germany looks... about like I expected it to look, really. Rolling hills, lots of small to medium-sized towns with many tile roofs, surrounded by pasture and farmland. We also passed a vineyard a moment ago. I like it, though it would be prettier a month from now when the foliage has all grown in; right now the trees are still pretty sparse.

I spent about an hour talking to a German musician on the train about our lives, differences and similarities between our countries, etc. His English was sufficient to hold a conversation with occasional playing of charades (and in any case vastly better than my German, which pretty much ends with "Guten tag" and "Danke.") It's kind of isolating to be in a country where you can't necessarily communicate with the people around you, and I'm finding it an interesting experience.


However, here's where things go sharply downhill. Read more... )
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