26 September 2008


I have concluded that the local Chipotle (corner of M and 19th) is staffed not by mere mortals, but in fact by robots. They made a burrito in less than thirty seconds, which included everything from placing my order to paying for it, and involved no less than five people. These guys have fast-food lunch down to a science, which is more than I can say about, well, pretty much any other restaurant I've ever eaten at.

24 September 2008


So I decided to check out this Twitter thing... My account is available here to anyone who wants to read the badly typo'd tweets coming from my smart phone. Apparently it's a pretty big deal (tm) and I'm totally square for not getting in on it the instant it went live. Oh well. I'm sure that my brothers feel the same way about me and facebook.

Twitter is an interesting concept to me, largely because I'm not sure how much detail to give about my day-to-day life. Some people appear to use it to chat, some just to write about what they're doing (as the site suggests you should write). Others, however, are much more ambitious. One of my favorite web comics -- Girl Genius (it's awesome -- big machines, steam power, the works) -- has a spin off novella that is being written via twitter. Even the Mars Phoenix has a twitter application, although the lag (up to a half hour) may interfere with its ability to keep us truly in the loop. Anyways, it looks like a pretty neat thing.

22 September 2008

Samsung i760

So, last week, my boss offered to purchase me a new phone on the company plan. I believe this is merely a trick to get me to use my cell phone for work, but, being a sucker for fancy gadgets, I decided to go ahead. We went to Verizon and picked up a fancy new Samsung i760, a Windows Mobile smart phone which the Wikipedia article proves is more amazingly awesome than I had first suspected.

I'm not too crazy about the Windows part of that, but I wanted a phone that could be extended pretty easily. With a Windows Mobile phone, there's a plethora of simple apps out there that I can install for free. If I'm willing to spend money, I can get even more. In fact, if I'm ever feeling particularly adventurous, I can even get a version of Qt for Windows CE, which would allow me to even write my *own* applications, such as the interest calculator I just demonstrated.

For the moment, however, I'm just enjoying having an internet device the size of my hand. It doesn't quite replace a computer, but it's getting there. Unfortunately, it appears that (as usual) Verizon is behind on the times.

Interest for the Masses

My recent encounter with the seedy underside of consumer financing has led me to conclude that I should have a better understanding of compound interest. Of course, everyone learns the basics in school -- i.e., that if your APR is x percent, and your principal is k, and the interest is compounded, say, monthly, then your principal will accumulate (x / 1200) * k in interest over one month. Roll this out into compounding, and after z months, you end up with (1 + x / 1200) ^ z * k.

Things get a little murkier if you make payments, however. Ever wonder where your credit card's minimum payment comes from? How about your auto loan payment? Most financial companies have a simple financial calculator where they input the relevant parameters of the loan, e.g. interest rate, principal balance, number of payments, and (often implicitly) the future value, then compute the minimum payment required to achieve the value. This is some pretty basic math, based largely on Geometric Series, but it's often helpful to have a specialized calculator to experiment with different payment schemes.

Tons of financial calculators exist on the web. Hell, I'm sure there are even some free ones. However, the one I'm most familiar with (a component of the GnuCash financial package) gives incorrect results; when I put our auto-loan into the program, it concluded that I would pay an entire extra payment's worth of interest -- a difference of over $250. One very bored and cramped train ride later, I cooked up the basics of a financial calculator, following the GnuCash calculator model. I didn't even try to simplify the math, rather using binary search and enumeration to compute everything. I was able to use it to figure out roughly how much interest we will be paying off for various monthly repayment schemes for our car, which is pretty cool. Give me some time and I'll throw together a web page for the thing, and maybe write some more about it.

Fun Fact: I found that if you have two million dollars and you can invest it at a 7% APR (compounded monthly) -- which is probably possible, at this scale -- you can receive a fat paycheck of $11k per month. Which leaves me wondering how lotto winners ever go broke.

15 September 2008

News Roundup - Economic Crisis Edition

So it appears that the US economy has finally decided that it was, indeed, prone to collapse. This is quite sad after showing signs of recovery for the last several months. However, one thing has me puzzled. I understand that the collapse of Lehman Brothers is a Big Deal (tm) for investment banking. What does it have to do with the larger economy? This may be my naivette speaking here, but what does this have to do with the balance in my checking account? As I understand things, the FDIC ensures that I will continue to have access to my money, unless my income increases significantly over the next several months. What about the merger news on Wall Street? A part of me is worried about all this financial news, but another part of me is just worried that this is all FUD that doesn't really effect me other than the Fed interest rate reducing the amount I receive in interest on my savings account.

In other news, it appears that my new dual quad-core machine at work is already obsolete. That's kind of sad. I wish I had 12 cores rather than 8.

14 September 2008

New Car

While I was down in Durham yesterday, Urmi and I decided to go out car shopping. Her old car was falling apart, having been broken into once (with minor damage) and it was going through coolant quite quickly. So we went down to a dealership with the intent of looking at Toyota Corollas, then coming home to think about it. Naturally, dealers don't give you many chances to think about buying the car, just keeping you busy and redirecting your attention to maximize their profit.

Fortunately, I think we ended up with a decent deal of a car -- a 2009 Corolla LE that had been driven for a few thousand miles by one of the employees. Photos available (from Toyota) here. This knocked $2k off the price tag, which was quite hefty even for a Corolla. After Urmi's internship and with my new job, we had enough saved up to put down a decent chunk of change -- over half the price -- which gave us a better interest rate.

What I want to talk about the most is the shady practices by the financial department. Once we had decided on the car, we were pulled back to meet with the financiers to talk about paying for it. He mentioned this extended warranty, gave us about a 30 second spiel on it, then moved on to other matters. He never gave us a chance to decline the extended warranty coverage, which amounted to over $2700. Moreover, looking back at the exchange, he was very careful to distract us with personal anecdotes every time we signed papers related to the warranty. This sort of deceitful behavior on the part of financiers is why most of America is so heavily in debt. We went in preparing for about $9000 of debt, but we walked over over $11700 in debt. This is absolutely ridiculous and, in an enormous number of other professions, would be termed deceitful, if not illegal. Urmi went in this morning to see what we can do about it, but my hunch is that the answer is nothing -- after all, we signed the forms agreeing to it.

I'm just glad we caught the fast one he tried to pull with the loans. They offered two terms of financing -- either 6.99% APR for 60 months or less, or 7.99% for 72 months. He was most insistent that we take the 72 month loan, even telling us that the 1% difference in APR amounts to "nothing" in the end. This is totally bogus. The difference was almost $1000 in interest payments, even for our paltry loan. I can only imagine the difference for those poor people who end up with the tank-like SUVs.

The Corolla is quite nice, though. This is the first car we've ever owned with cruise control, power windows, and all sorts of crazy luxuries which we probably don't need. The car is bright red (which Urmi found somewhat irritating, but I think will grow on her), with a light brown interior. I think it's a great car, I just wish we didn't feel like we had been cheated.

Update: It appears we can remove this warranty from our car, although the financier tried to, again, convince us that we had agreed to it. I realize that consumer economics often works this way, but this sort of deceitful practice really seems suboptimal.

08 September 2008

Retro Review: The Year of Our War by Steph Swainston

After reviewing several recent books, I decided that I would try to do something a little different and review The Year of our War by Steph Swainston. I read Year quite a while ago, but it has stuck with me ever sense. Moreover, it's a rather obscure book that I doubt many people have encountered.

Year is set in a world which has continuously been at war for centuries. In this world, there are four races, all of which are (more or less) united in war against a race of Insects. The war is lead by a circle of immortals, each of whom personifies some specific aspect of war and/or life. The main character of the book is one of these immortals, Jant Comet, who, due to a quirk in his heritage, happens to be the only being in the entire world capable of flying. As such, he is the official messenger of the Circle, and is the only one with a really good idea of everything that's going on. The book covers a particularly disastrous turn of events which nearly leads to the insect victory.

The book's portrayal of Jant is nothing less than brilliant. Jant's history, slowly revealed during the course of the book, shows that he is a deeply scarred individual who stumbled into his immortality. He's addicted to a powerful narcotic pain killer (called Cat) which allows him, and him alone, to transport hims mind to a parallel universe. As the book goes on, this parallel world becomes more and more prominent in the storyline, and we get to see poor Jant descend into the absolute depths of addiction trying to unravel an increasing complicated plot. Jant is also incredibly insecure in his immortality and constantly feels that he has failed everyone around him. The depth of this character is incredible, and the book is worth reading for this alone. Fortunately, however, there is more.

Year is also a very, for lack of a better world, richly detailed novel. It assails all five senses, with excellent descriptions of scents, tastes, sounds (or lack thereof) associated with the battles against the insects. You will feel Jant shivering as he flies through a snowstorm. You will hear the silent shuffling of the insect battalions as they tear apart Jant's companions. You will even shudder with horror as Jant encounters a Vermiform guard, and I can still see my mental image of the guard dissolving into a puddle of worms. The image still sends a chill down my spine, in fact.

The book is not perfect. It spends entirely too long on a tangential story that doesn't add anything to the core story. The story also doesn't spend very much time describing some characters who probably deserve a better description. Jant's wife, in particular, and the emperor San are sadly lacking any form of depth. Fortunately, the other characters make up for this deficiency with brilliant dialogue and characterization.

In short, The Year of our War is an excellent debut novel, and I hope that the sequels are a tenth the book this one is. I eagerly await the day that this book, and its sequels, are available in ebook form.

Back in town: Hanna edition

Back in Arlington now. I went down to Durham to see Urmi just before Tropical Storm Hanna went through. Not much of a storm, honestly. Durham got about 6 inches of rain in about as many hours, but the only other effects from the storm in Durham were a few downed tree branches. I think we may have briefly lost power, but that's based entirely on my grumpy alarm clock. Otherwise, everything is a-ok and I'm just going to hold tight and hope that Ike doesn't do a 180.

02 September 2008

Sarah Palin

I just want to mention that McCain's choice of VP is tremendously flawed. I mean, I may have liberal leanings (understatement of the year?), but Palin seems almost like an anti-McCain. There is evidence that she is even pro pork barreling, having setup nearly as much in federal funds for her home town of Wasila, AK was allocated to the entirety of Boise, ID. Not only that, she has less experience in the political theater that we call the national stage than, well, damn near anyone else McCain could've picked. And, of course, there's the greatly over publicized fact that her 17 year-old daughter is pregnant, but it's okay because she's going to marry the father (yay conservatism). All of this information is available in her Wikipedia Article.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest, just as many other people have done, that McCain chose her to get the Clinton voters. If so, he's assuming, at best, that Clinton supporters cannot tell the difference between completely distinct female politicians. At worst, he's assuming that the only relevant factor is the number of X chromosomes that his ticket has.

The most exciting part of the whole thing? You can find some really bizarre photos of Palin if you google image search for her. One I found had her holding a rifle while wearing an american-flag swimsuit. If that doesn't scream professionalism, I don't know what does.

My To-Read list

... grows by the day... Here are the books that I'm planning on reading really soon now. This is basically the list of contents from my Kindle.
  • Neptune Crossing by Jeffrey Carver (available free here)
  • Blood Rites: Book Six of the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher (these things are seriously like crack)
  • Declare by Tim Powers
  • The Man who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
  • The Wallet of Kai Lung by Ernest Bramah
  • The Barsoom Collection by Edgar Rice Burroughs
  • The Professor Challenger Collection by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

In the meantime, I still owe reviews on Old Twentieth by Joe Haldeman (fantastic, btw) and, potentially, a double review on books five and six in the Dresden Files series. I'm also cooking up a review on a book a read quite a while back.

01 September 2008

Back in DC

Hi everyone. Obviously, back in DC now. It turns out that driving four hours with nothing but a radio kind of sucks. In fact, it really sucks when one of those hours is through a no-man's-land in southern Virginia... In Virginia, it appears that one station out of four is a Christian talk channel. Not being a Christian, I tend to regard these channels as something like a zoo -- I listen for a few minutes, find it exotic and somewhat offensive, then switch to something new.

One station I found was discussing Buddhist monks in Burma. This could have actually been quite interesting, but instead the conversation snippet I heard went something like this.

"... The monks were sitting down, chanting and counting beads. Yes, you heard me, they were counting beads. It turns out that, like the Roman catholic rosary, Buddhists use beads to keep count of their chants. ..." [It's around here that I decided this was a Christian channel]

"... I asked the monks why they were doing what they were doing. After all, chanting to get closer to god is not holy but satanism. " The hell????? ".. If you believe me to be wrong, tell me where, exactly, it says otherwise in the scripture."

And today is the day that I learned that repetition is, apparently, evil. Go figure.

This is the thing that frustrates me so much about very devout religious figures. These monks were presumably minding their own business, meditating and chanting mantra. What gives this radio personality the right to comment on the correctness of their religious practices? The whole passage disgusted me enough that pop songs and advertisements didn't seem so bad afterwards.

Review: Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

(Source: Doctorow's website)

A few years ago, Cory Doctorow decided to try out a bold new experiment. He released his first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, as a free ebook under the terms of a creative commons license. The book text was originally licensed under a fairly restrictive CC license, but it has since been rereleased under a CC-Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license, which would even allow me to release a remix of the novel, so long as I give Doctorow attribution and, I believe, pass along a copy of the original. This is a fairly bold move for a new author, but not one that is unexpected of an internet persona such as Doctorow. It has also definitely boosted his reputation and, I presume, his career.

Anyways, Magic Kingdom is a good book that concerns itself primarily with the aftereffects -- social and economic -- of the sudden cessation of the economics of scarcity. Modern economics are based on the principle that the things that people want -- money, energy, gold, etc -- are scarce and hard to obtain. Magic Kingdom critically analyzes an economic situation where people can effectively live forever and energy -- the major bottleneck for most everything in the above -- is free. Other books have considered such societies as well (Charles Stross's Accelerando comes to mind), but Doctorow adds to the story by considering a war taking place in, of all places, Disneyworld.

The story follows a character who works for an ad-hoc collective which is operating all the old rides at Walt Disneyworld, and the war concerns a new technology (called, IIRC, "flashbaking") which he believes will make his beloved old rides obsolete. Unfortunately, during the course of his war with technology, he comes off nearly as whiny as book five Harry Potter. I hated the protagonist and kept wishing he would just try to get his life back on track. In about chapter three, the protagonist is murdered and for the remainder of the book he keeps insisting that his arch-nemesis was behind it. Naturally, the truth is somewhat more complicated that it seems, but I don't want to spoil the book.

While the book is great by itself (except for the mopey protagonist), the vision of the future that it presents is absolutely fantastic, particularly Doctorow's "Whuffie", which is a unit of prestige. At some point I'd like to return to some of the concepts in this book (and others) and write up a few essays about post-scarcity economics. Post-scarcity economics is a common trend in science fiction, and no one really seems to be sure what will happen if/when energy becomes free. More on this later...

Until then, check out Magic Kingdom, which is available under a CC license from Doctorow's Magic Kingdom website. Enjoy.