Monday, April 28, 2008

The "Credit Default Swap" scam

A quick follow-up to my previous comment about 'credit default swaps' being a scam. I recently came across these 2 excellent and very detailed explanations of the issue:

Longer, more detailed,

Shorter, sweeter,

Basically, these things are a kind of fake insurance but which the government accepts as real insurance. Because of a loophole in the accounting laws (e.g. GAAP) companies can decline to state their financial losses. "Because it's insured!" It's like buying PMI for your mortgage only your 'insurer' is your brother-in-law who never expects to have to cover your mortgage and doesn't have any capital reserves either (like a real insurer would).

Saturday, April 19, 2008

I saw Tift Merritt in concert!

Completely out of the blue, I chanced to look in the paper's Arts section and there it was -- an article about Tift Merritt in concert the next night. Well, of course, I ran around like my head was cut-off trying to arrange a babysitter, buy tickets, etc. Oh yeah, and keep it all a secret from my wife! But it all worked out and we found ourselves sitting down for a luxury dinner in a swank new downtown "Jazz Dinner Club" called Anthology. It was magnificent, and small enough that there wasn't a bad seat in the house. Of course we were seated about TEN FEET from the stage! ;-)

So how was it? After my lil' mini-review last week, it just seemed so ironic that I would now get the chance to see her perform. In general, it was a great concert ... but she didn't play my favorite song, "Late Night Pilgrim"?! So that tainted an otherwise wonderful experience, and for the rest of the evening I had the missing song in my head as if to make-up for it's absence.

One problem for me with attending live concerts -- and here comes the "technical" aspect -- is that I have over a decade of experience in live music and concert sound. I spent all five years of college, in fact, working as one of the 'lead' soundmen for the University's Associated Student Body. And so I have a hard time listening to live music without noticing myriad little details about the sound production. True to form, at last night's concert I kept wincing every time the organist swamped the mix, or Tift would get too close to her mike and overload it with false 'basso' (which is what happens when you hog a mike). I actually wondered if the venue was too small to have a proper mixing post, that the 'mains' were being handled remotely by the backstage mixing board. But at the very end of the concert, during the presentation of the band, Tift also thanked her soundman and pointed him out in the back of the club (behind me). So maybe part of the problem was the unfamiliar environment and PA. And, to be honest, the mix definitely improved as the night went on though the organ was problematic throughout.

Finally, I want to mention the guitarist. Before leaving for the concert I reviewed my initial post, where my closing comment was a criticism of "uninspired studio musicians" especially the guitar. Well the newspaper article said that she did, in fact, have a regular band -- sorry! But it did not mention a regular guitarist, so I think my criticism of the studio recording's guitarist probably still holds true, i.e., he/she was not someone with long acquaintance with Tift. I don't know if the guitarist I saw perform last night was the same person who recorded on the album. But he did let loose a bit, shred it up on a couple of opening tunes. So I was satisfied!

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Google indexed my post in under 2 hours

I've always wondered how long it took Google to update it's indexes. I'm sure they have pre-scheduled updates -- or even dedicated 'spiders' -- for more popular and active sites. I've setup small personal sites before but then never saw them appear in any search engines.

But today I posted a new question on and when I tried to Google for an answer about 2 hours later I got my own post as a hit. So I guess that solves that question!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Why Isn't Tift Merritt more popular?

My wife is the country music fan, not me. But I admit I am partial to country-rock, having grown-up with The Eagles, CCR, as well as John Denver. But it was only the past couple of years that I've listened to any current 'country' music. And that was a singer profiled on NPR (so she couldn't be THAT bad, right?) The singer is Tift Merritt and her music is divided between soft ballads and honky-tonk Nashville something-or-other. And I love it! Her melodies are classic and her lyrics are (mostly) poetry sung out loud.

But the only one of her songs ever played on Radio Paradise was blasted by other listeners as "I've heard this song played a million other times by a million other artists." They also said she sounded like 'someone else', e.g. Sheryl Crow or Patti Griffin. Fer crissakes people, most people sound *somewhat* like other persons! Maybe I'm not well-versed enough in modern country music to realize if she really is derivative or not. Personally, I think her music reminds me of Bonnie Raitt and her "Luck of the Draw" album.

On her previous album, the single was "Stray Paper" and while I liked it, it was never one of my favorites. This is the song that everyone on RP ripped. Instead, I really liked "Wait It Out", "Good Hearted Man", "I Am Your Tambourine" and especially "Late Night Pilgrim" (which is a classic song of late-night angst).

Apparently, her record company was disappointed with the sales of the album -- or maybe she was just resistant to immediately cranking out another -- and so she lost her contract. She spent a year slumming it in Paris and then got a new contract, with a new label, and released a new album. I immediately bought it through Amazon MP3 and listened to it every day for weeks. What am I, a teenager?

Anyways, my favorite songs on the new album are "Broken" (the single), "Another Country" (the title track and a sweet love song; I even whispered it spontaneously to my wife one night, wow!). She returns to late-night angst in "Morning is my destination" and even throws in an anti-war song "My Heart Is Free."

Actually, I have a theory about her relative lack of success. She's an excellent singer and songwriter but she doesn't have... A Band! On the new album, in particular, the guitar solos are all competent but they positively smack of studio musician. They're not inspired, at all. Maybe that undercuts all her big production numbers?

UPDATE: A month after writing this, I read an interview with her where she talks about 'her band'. So apparently the anemic guitar solo and (relatively) 'flat' chorus in "My Heart Is Free" are her producer's fault. There, I've done it. I've pissed-off all the people in her inner circle :-)

Explaining the Housing Bubble?

I think it begs the question: Why am I talking about housing on my 'technical' blog? Because it's my own damn blog, that's why! Ha, just kidding. Actually, I spend a lot of time studying the housing market (and the economy) because I really really want to buy a house but don't want to get burned. And, in many ways, the financial world is technical and so -- being human -- I'm naturally inclined to try to find patterns in the noise.

The conundrum here is about these mysterious "credit default swaps" that all the big financial players seem to be buried in. The news says the market for them is TWICE the size of the actual economy, $50T versus $22T. How can this be??? The widely used description of them is 'insurance' offered inst/amongst the various institution so as to spread risk. But then why did the Federal Reserve need to throw down potentially $30B to prevent the bankruptcy of Bear Sterns?

Near as I can figure it, when the bankers talk about spreading 'risk' they're really talking about spreading LOSSES. So I wouldn't be surprised if we eventually hear about illegal collusion, and maybe an anti-trust investigation of these huge Wall St banks. Just my $.02

Software RAID really is faster

I have run my personal computer on a RAID mirror for years now. I learned the primary reason for RAID on the day, more than 10 years ago, when I started my current job and discovered that my new employer's file server had been running in recovery mode -- for months -- on their RAID-5 array. I had never actually seen a RAID array much less had to recover one. Ah, yes, those were exciting days: "Must.. Fix.. Server, or.. Lose.. New.. Job!"

I've also gone through dozens of hard drives, most of which were malfunctioning by the time I trashed them (and yes, I now securely wipe them beforehand). So it makes great sense to use duplicate drives to avoid a catastrophic failure of one.

One of the other reasons is supposed to be that it's faster. More drives should equal more potential throughput. But in practice it's rarely the case. Most tests I've seen of RAID-5, for instance, show it to be much slower than the simpler forms of RAID, e.g. RAID-4 which uses more drives but avoids the need for any CRC calculations (or whatever RAID-5 is spending so much time doing).

Now, finally, I feel confident that my RAID really is faster. I did a very simple test on my test machine which is setup almost identically to my 'production' machine. The computer is a P4 with 1GB running Ubuntu 7.04 on a pair of identical IDE drives configured as a software mirror. I disabled the login prompt (in System > Administration > Login Window > Security, Enable Automatic Login) and then also set the 'Startup' to immediately load about a dozen apps (in System > Preferences > Sessions, New).

Running normally (with both drives) the test config took about 1:30 to boot and finish loading everything.

I then unplugged one of the drives, let the system figure-out that the array needed to run 'degraded', and retested. It now took over 2:00 to do the same process.

So the mirrored drives appeared to be 25% faster! Of course, a better test would be to reinstall without any RAID partitions, i.e., to eliminate the possibility that the degraded array was the culprit. But then I'd also have to try and recreate the exact same set of installed apps etc, and I'm not that interested in disproving my newfound satisfaction!

Monday, April 7, 2008

Is Ubuntu/Linux really this good?

The thought that occurred to me today -- and inspired setting-up this blog -- was the realization that my current Ubuntu workstation is working so well now that it's become boring. I'm not used to this! The overwhelming majority of the time I've got a long list of tweaks I'm trying to accomplish on my home computers. Maybe I've simply forgotten the things I've given-up upon?

Currently I'm running Ubuntu 7.04 with two mirrored SATA drives. I've updated the drive configs so that I can still boot even if one fails (by default this is not the case?!). I've switched most of my daily applications to Linux equivalents, and the handful of Windows holdovers all work either 'directly' in WINE or in a Virtualbox virtual machine running Windows 2000.

So, is it really time for me to stop obsessively checking for updates and just take my computer for granted??

Introducing myself

I have often had friends refer to me as "Technical Tony" (because my name is Tony). Since I solve technical problems for a living, I always have an opinion -- sometimes even advice -- for my friends and family. Since most of what I accomplish is of no interest to most of the people around me I've decided to try blogging about it. And hopefully somebody Googling for a future topic herein will find my blog and post encouraging feedback.

Honestly, I realize I should probably have just named this blog, "Things to amuse my wife, i.e., the only person reading this!"

P.S. If I say something 'dry' and seemingly self-evident, that's what passes for humor around my grove.