Archive for June, 2010
As a normal American sports fan I find it tough to appreciate soccer outside of the amazing event that is the world cup. Following soccer can be pretty tough in the US when the normal outlets (espn, the newspapers) don’t cover it in depth and most of your friends don’t care that Arsenal and Chelsea are playing in the premiership (who?).
But every four years the world cup comes around and I find it wonderfully entertaining. Watching more of the matches at my house with announcing of the British Announcers on ESPN has introduced me to the colorful lingua franca of soccer:
- A team is called a side. This makes some sense, as we choose sides here in sports in the US
- A shot on goal is called a strike. I like strike better than a shot – it sounds much more menacing, which is what a goal is to the other team
- The soccer field is called a pitch. I have no idea why this is so; perhaps its similar to the British calling a car trunk a “boot”
- A player’s cleats are called boots. Boots are great working man’s shoes – I love it!
- The goalie is called a keeper. I guess this both of these worlds are just short for goal keeper, so this makes sense
Thanks to Woody Chin I have some more great football terms translated for us yanks:
- coach/manager is called a “gaffer”
- uniforms are called “kits” or “strips” (ed note: in the UK they seem to call any type of accessory/add-on “kit”, right?)
- scoring two goals (one player) is called “bagging a brace”
- socks are called “stockings”
- a players movements with a ball are called “off the ball” movements
I’m sure there are a ton of other words that sound foreign to me, but these are the ones I immediately pick up on. I also really enjoy the commentary, lines like “that was really a dreadfully played ball”, or “that run was really uninspiring, wasn’t it” are fantastic and we really need more of it in American sports!
I graduated from college in 1999, near the apex of the tech bubble. I moved back up to the bay area, which was experiencing a really unique historical period – jobs were aplenty and it seemed like everyone was getting rich off of internet stocks. Free drinks were everywhere throughout the city as tons of companies threw parties to try to find new employees to build web sites that would destroy the old brick and mortar businesses.
Fast forward a year and a half later and the bubble had burst. My company, Ask Jeeves, laid off over 25% of our workforce, and other companies were following suit or even folding. Americans, frightened by the crashing stock market (the tech heavy nasdaq lost over half it’s value – see chart below) decided to plow their money into housing.
And why not? For as long as I can recall my parents have always told me that “buying a home is the only/best way to build equity”. Many of my friends happen to be Asian, and for some reason Asian parents seem to believe that renting is “throwing your money away”. Better to rent as the home will always retain it’s value. This advice may have been true in my parent’s generation. But now, in the bay area, it’s complete bullshit.
The reason why is because housing prices, at least in the bay area, are completely out of wack with rents. When my parents bought the home I grew up in in Berkeley in 1977 they paid $40,000 (that’s $144,000 in 2010 dollars per the BLS inflation calculator – don’t make the mistake of thinking that $40k then is $40k today!) their mortgage was roughly equivalent to their rent. In 2010 this is just not the case.
I had lunch with a friend of mine today. He told me that he had planned to move out of his parent’s house recently and rent, but his parents told him that he was throwing his money away by renting, and that he should buy a house with them. Let’s take a look at whether this is a good idea. First off, he went ahead and bought a condo in the silicon valley area, and he ended up paying around $800,000 for the 2 bedroom unit.
Let’s take a look at how this transaction will work for him using the New York Times excellent rent vs. buy calculator. Any of these calculators have to have some assumptions built in. I’m going with these assumptions:
- I generally don’t think housing prices in the bay are are going to increase in the next 5 years, but I’m going to be generous and say that perhaps we’ll have 3% increases (I think this is high)
- that the opportunity costs of the down payment are 4.5% (ie that if he invested his down payment he could get a 4.5% return)
- that his home owners association fees are $300 (that’s pretty low in the bay area)
- that he puts 20% down (standard down payments these days)
- and that he could rent a comparable apartment for $3000 a month (I think he could, but I’m not 100% sure).
With these numbers the calculator tells us that buying a home is better than renting after 21 years!
Why is that? Because:
- The mortgage itself is over $37,000 a year (~3k per month alone)! Granted he can deduct this via his income at his marginal rate, but that still will put him at around $2,000 on the mortgage alone
- His property taxes, at the 1.25% California rate, are $9500 a year (or around 800 a month). Many people forget that property taxes are paid by the landlord in your rent
- 20% down on an $800,000 house is $160,000. You can invest that $160,000 a lot of ways and make money on it
- The home owners association fees on a condo aren’t deductible from your taxes, so this can be looked at similarly to rent
So on this condo it would take 21 years for buying to make sense! In addition to the pure financial argument against buying let’s also consider:
- He doesn’t need a 2 bedroom home now. He could rent a smaller unit now and upgrade to a larger one when his space needs change
- Moving is considerably easier when you aren’t encumbered by a mortgage. Many people argue that you can always rent the house if you need to. This is true, but you won’t be able to get back enough in rent to cover your mortgage, property taxes, and home owners association fees – so you’ll be losing money every month!
- If he meets someone and decides to move in with them his options are much more flexible
- If his income situation changes he can downsize to a smaller place (or move in with his folks!) or upgrade to a larger place without the threat of a financial disaster in the form of closing fees and selling into a down market hanging over him
There are many upsides to home ownership including a stable place to live and the ability to customize your residence, but you are definitely not throwing away your money by renting!
Last week I decided that some of the stuff I had sitting at home were taking up a bit too much room and so decided to get rid of it. Among the clutter at the house I decided I wanted to get rid of my last cell phone, a Verizon LG Dare, my old PS2 + games, and a unopened DVD box set of Lost Season 2 (which I had received as a gift but already had).
Among my options to rid myself of this old stuff I considered:
- Selling on ebay – I’d done this before with fairly good results, as far as I remembered
- Selling on craigslist – sell locally, which I’ve done before for things like tickets
- Giving to the goodwill – a solid option without monetary upside (except a tax deduction)
Knowing that ebay has a large marketplace I decided I to go with that route. I listed my three items on ebay, and I noted a couple of things have changed:
- ebay now has a nice system of matching an item to a stock description and category. This is great, and I assume a response to Amazon’s zshops catalog – it’s a great way to bring the structured catalog to the crazy bazaar that is ebay
- ebay limits your shipping prices for certain items based on it’s category and place in the catalog. This is probably great for buyers, as they know what they’ll pay, and possibly good for sellers as they will gouge less on shipping and possibly get higher prices for the items. On the other hand what this might do is just shift a higher price to the bid amount, leading to higher fees for ebay. I assume that’s what’s going on here. I got stung by this, read on to find out more
- ebay charges 15 cents per image listing that you host on their page. If you want to host your images elsewhere you can do that but you’ve got to edit HTML to do it. I did that, but I can see why others might not want to
- It took me a while to list my items: the steps which give the better user experience (finding categories to put the items in, selecting shipping details) take more time to list. I think I spent a little over an hour taking pictures and listing the items
I picked a 5 day auction, so on the day of the auction I madly refreshed my listings to see what would happen. True to my memory of before, the bids accelerated rapidly in the waning minutes of the auctions. The PS2 increased nearly $20 (about 40% of the ending price) in the last 5 minutes. After it was over I found:
- The PS2: sold for $58.50 (plus $15 shipping)
- Lost sold for $10.50 (plus $3 shipping)
- The LG Dare sold for $58.50
After the auction two of the buyers paid quickly: the PS2 buyer and Lost buyer. The LG Dare buyer emailed me to explain her 17 year-old brother was actually the one bidding, and he would pay me next week after he gets paid. She advised that if I could I might be better off re-listing the item – I’m not sure if that’s possible, so I emailed ebay to see what they advise, and I’ll update this when I hear back.
Because the PS2 came with so many things (18 games, the console, a headset, etc.) I wanted to charge around $20 for shipping. However, ebay caps the shipping amount to $15 so this was all I was able to list. When I went to the shipping place (a Postal Annex) I had originally packed it in a large box that I had laying around. Imagine my shock when the initial quote given was $46! I quickly inquired as to why, and having being told that the problem was the box size, downgraded to a smaller box, the smallest which would accomodate the PS2 and accessories. The end damage, however, totalled $32 after $24 for shipping, $4.09 for the box, and $3 for packing peanuts and “handling”. That’s $17 more than ebay would let me charge for shipping, and a significant percentage of my $58.50 selling price (29%). The PS2 sold for $73.55 with shipping, and after subtracting $31.87 for shipping and $2.43 for paypal’s fee I’m looking at $39.25 before paypal’s fees.
The Lost DVD was a similar issue – I purchased a USPS mailer envelope (with padding) and priority mail shipping to get a tracking number. This totalled over $7 when the maximum I was allowed to charge by ebay was $3. With the Lost DVD after paypal’s 69 cent fee for handing I’m only netting $5.80 for the unopened set, and that’s before ebay’s fees.
The shipping, of course, took nearly an hour out of my day. So I’m looking at nearly 2 hours of my time, a PS2, and a Lost DVD set for around $45. ebay’s policy of maxing the shipping costs below the sellers actual costs is going to help buyers, and possibly sellers who do lots of volume and have low shipping costs, but screws the small time seller.
Next time I’ll turn to craigslist or the goodwill.
I noticed over the weekend while driving up to Davis that my tires looked little under-inflated, so I after filling up on gas this morning I properly inflated my tires. After doing so I realized the following:
- California has a sweet law that says gas stations have to provide free air and water for your car if you purchase gas. Score!
- As President Obama said during the campaign, filling up your tires can improve your fuel economy. My tires were about 8 PSI (front) and 13 PSI (rear) under-inflated – I was losing 10% of my fuel economy! Dang – would I have been able to go another 35 miles before filling up if I had correctly inflated tires?
- I was surprised by the difference in ride quality after properly inflating my tires: over the weekend I noticed that I was dreading hitting potholes as it felt my teeth were going to take a beating (disclosure: I drive a BMW 3 series with sporty tires). After filling them today the ride was amazingly smooth!
So 3 wins today for filling the air in my tires, and it took me less than 5 minutes. Why don’t I do this more often?!
I wrote this in March 2010 in my old blog, so I’m porting over
I’ve recently come around to the idea that I may not need my “Comcastic” cable TV anymore. My Comcast bills are seemingly always a shock when I open them and see that I owe $130 a month for internet service and fairly basic TV service. What am I getting for my $130?
- Their basic “hi-speed” internet package – pretty quick, at least when compared to the DSL I had before
- The basic cable package with HD, or as I put it: “your cheapest HD package with ESPN”
- An HD DVR , because I can’t stand having to schedule my life around the show times.
More recently, however, I realized the following about my TV watching:
- I don’t watch many sporting events anymore because the bay area teams *SUCK*. Yes, you: warriors, A’s, Giants, and Niners.
- Most programs I watch are on network TV: Lost, the PBS News Hour, The Office, and every once in a while American Idol.
- I watch a few more shows like Friday Night Lights, Mad Men, and Dexter, but I watch them on disc or through Netflix Streaming.
Why Cable Sucks
The thing that’s so infuriating about cable is that you pay for tons of channels that you never watch – the list is so ridiculously long: HGTV, Bravo, MTV, Blah blah blah. I will not watch those shows unless I’m unbelievably bored and too hung over to read a book or something. Looking at the list above I realize that what I really need is netwok TV, which can ostensibly be pulled down via an old school antenna (rabbit ears style – who remembers those?), a DVR, and Netflix Streaming.
What I Really Need
Netflix Streaming I have with my PS3, so I’ve got that box checked.
Now where do I get a TV tuner and DVR from? Turns out that my TV – a panasonic plasma – doesn’t have a TV tuner, so I’ve got to get one of those. One option could be a Tivo – they just announced some new models, and they look pretty sweet. They do all of this:
On top of being able to record and navigate through cable, FiOS, or regular antenna TV, the TiVo Premiere connects to the internet to bring you streaming video from Netflix, Amazon, Blockbuster; streaming music from Rhapsody and Live 365; and it can transfer downloaded content to your laptop or mobile device.
Unfortunately what it also comes with is a $300+ price tag and a $13 a month service charge. It’s just switching masters, albeit to a much cheaper one!
P.S. Where the hell is Hulu? My guess is Hulu’s content providers gave Tivo the big f-u just like Boxee got it.
Hmm, what’s this HTPC Thing?
After some Googling and bitching to friends I discovered there are a wealth of computer-based options that might be able to fill the tuner + DVR role. Turns out there are a lot of software options that do this type of thing, including MythTV and Windows Media Center. Whenever I tell people that Windows comes with a DVR I get a blank stare: what? How? But apparently Windows Media Center is actually a really awesome piece of software. You need a PC with a TV Tuner card, and suddenly your windows machine turns into a pretty sweet DVR.
So now I just need a PC to hook up to the TV, and a TV Tuner card. Looks like the newest crop of low-cost HTPC machines center around the Intel Atom Processor (a really cheap low cost processor) and the NVidia ION graphics processor. A few of the options I’ve seen are:
- Acer Aspire Revo – the 3610 includes the dual core Atom 330 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 160GB drive, the Ion graphics processor, and Windows 7 home premium.
- Asrock ION 330 – another dual core Atom 330 processor, 2GB of RAM, a 160GB drive, Ion, but no OS (you have to buy your own)
- Zotac MAG – similar specs to the Revo sans the OS – but much cheaper than the Asrock.
One potential issue with these units is that they use 2.5″ hard drives that spin at 5400RPM so that tends to slow them down, but indications are that these machines are fast enough to record and play HD Video from a TV tuner. Additionally the ION processor with Adobe Flash 10.1+ beta is supposed to have super smooth playback of 1080P video from Hulu, Youtube, and the like.
Taking the Plunge
Computing has come a long way with respect to video and I’m amazed that these sub-$400 computers can become my DVR, stream online video, and enable me to get rid of Comcast. I’m seriously considering taking the plunge.
Note: I wrote this on my old blog in August 2009 so I’m moving it over – obviously a lot has changed since then in the mobile space
With the Palm Pre‘s launch last June it finally looked like there would be finally be a worthy competitor to the Phone’s dominance in the smartphone field, at least from the technology journalism field. It seems to me that the tech press, with Techcrunch as lead, have branded the iPhone the winner of the SmartPhone, largely on the success of Apple’s remarkably successful App Store.
I have an iPod touch, the phone-less counterpart to the iPhone, which I’ve refused to buy because AT&T’s service is really horrendous in my home area. To me, at least at this point, there is not much point into having a phone you can’t talk on. Thus I remain hopelessly stuck on my Verizon dumbsmartphone, the LG Dare. My problems with the LG come down to some pretty basic ones:
- The touch-screen keyboard sucks. I can’t type very fast on it because when I do I mistype often. I’ve found, despite the fact the phone supports a landscape touch-screen keyboard I usually use the T9 version – as if I didn’t have a smartphone at all!
- The email application was really really bad. First off Verizon charges you $5 a month to use the application, which was horrendous. It takes an eternity to load, and the interface was clunky at best.
- Finding names in the contact list is challenging at best. LG helpfully puts an alphabet selector at the top (Select F to find users with the first name F…), but the problem is the area to tap is so tiny that it becomes very difficult to hit the right key and you end up scrolling helplessly trying to find the right name.
My contact is up in August, so I’m contemplating a new phone – specifically a Palm Pre, because I’ve heard Sprint’s service may actually work in my home. It seems to me a key criticism that their store is devoid of apps, at least when compared to Apple’s, and that Apple has an insurmountable lead. I find this ironic because I see the phone OS war as quite analogous to the battle that played out between Windows and the Mac 20 years ago.
At that point Windows was by far the market leader in terms of PC installation, and generally you bought a Mac because it was “easy to use” or you liked the design. However, the big knock was that “it doesn’t have the applications” that Windows did. You wanted a Spreadsheet? Wait till next year for Lotus 123 in Mac. You want an office suite – no Office for you, as it doesn’t exist on the Mac. I think open source killed that problem – open source apps provided tons of code that people built on to build high quality apps for the Mac, and even now there are strong competitors even on linux for almost any productivity software you need. Games remain the one category that the Mac (and linux) remain far behind on.
I find this fascinating because people now make a similar argument about the iPhone and the app store – how can anyone possibly catch up? My answer: give it a bit of time. If the phone (or more precisely, the OS) sell, people will develop for the phone. And as more open source apps find their way out developers will be able to create more applications with lower effort, and soon there will be a substantial catalog of Palm WebOS apps. Will there be the 50,000 apps? Perhaps not, but I suspect you’ll be able to find everything you want on the Palm App store soon.
I had a bit of an issue getting Sphinx Search running with MediaWiki in OSX as I found creating a plist to be a harder problem than I anticipated. I followed the standard Mediawiki installation instructions until I got to the point of setting up the daemon.
In OS X it turns out the way to get a daemon to run is to run using launchd. The process to get one of these to run is to create an XML file in
/Library/LaunchDaemons (there OS X has it’s own plist files in
/Library/LaunchDaemons) and run
launchctl to start the daemon.
I created my own daemon file for Sphinx, sphinx, in /Library/LaunchDaemons:
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?> <!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple Computer//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "http://www.apple.com/DTDs/PropertyList-1.0.dtd"> <plist version="1.0"> <dict> <key>Label</key> <string>org.search.sphinx</string> <key>UserName</key> <string>simon</string> <key>ProgramArguments</key> <array> <string>/usr/local/bin/searchd</string> <string>--config</string> <string>/Users/simon/source/mediawiki/wikinutrition/private/sphinx.conf</string> </array> <key>StandardOutPath</key> <string>/var/log/sphinx/sphinx-startup.log</string> <key>KeepAlive</key> <true/> <key>debug</key> <true/> <key>RunAtLoad</key> <true/> </dict> </plist>
You can see I am running the daemon as myself using the UserName key.
Unfortunately when I went to start this using
launchctl load -w /Library/LaunchDaemons/sphinx nothing appeared to happen. No error message, no nothing. When I turned the debug setting on (by adding <key>debug</key><true/>), however, I noticed in
/var/log/system.log a number of these messages:
Jun 15 17:13:26 simon-mosk-aoyamas-computer-6 com.apple.launchd (org.search.sphinx): Throttling respawn: Will start in 10 seconds
Googling this led to this discovery from Apple:
Jobs run from launchd should not duplicate launchd functionality; for instance, they should not use chroot(2). Furthermore, they should not do the things normally required of daemon processes, such as detaching from the terminal they are initially attached to. The only things that are strictly prohibited, however, are fork()/exit() combinations (including indirect methods, such as the daemon(3) library call). A server which attempts to run itself as a daemon in this way will seem to have finished running, potentially leading to launchd respawning it, or disabling the service. As launchd does not get stalled waiting for a child that hasn’t yet exited, it’s not necessary to try to prevent it.
Bingo – here is the problem – Sphinx’s searchd starts and forks as it’s a traditional daemon. Thankfully it has a
--console option which does not fork, so adding
--console to the plist file (inside the <ProgramArguments> array) had me up and running!
The final file:
<?xml version="1.0" encoding="UTF-8"?> <!DOCTYPE plist PUBLIC "-//Apple Computer//DTD PLIST 1.0//EN" "http://www.apple.com/DTDs/PropertyList-1.0.dtd"> <plist version="1.0"> <dict> <key>Label</key> <string>org.search.sphinx</string> <key>UserName</key> <string>simon</string> <key>ProgramArguments</key> <array> <string>/usr/local/bin/searchd</string> <string>--config</string> <string>/Users/simon/source/mediawiki/wikinutrition/private/sphinx.conf</string> <string>--console</string> </array> <key>StandardOutPath</key> <string>/var/log/sphinx/sphinx-startup.log</string> <key>KeepAlive</key> <true/> <key>debug</key> <true/> <key>RunAtLoad</key> <true/> </dict> </plist>