Sunday, December 28, 2008

Economic crisis or just newspapers doing what they like most: create fear?

I was reading this article on BBC today: Chinese warned off lavish gifts. It talks about how the Chinese government said it's forbidding Chinese officials to buy expensive gifts for Chinese new year. They claim that this is because of the difficult state of the Chinese economy due to the world crisis.

If you stop reading the article at this point, like most people do, they will end up with the idea that the Chinese government is really worried about the state of the Chinese economy and is telling people not to spend too much money. Then, if you read further you find:

[...] Each year too the Communist Party exhorts its officials to avoid conspicuous consumption. [...]

Which might be the only actual note that the Chinese government sent. The same it sends every year. But then reporters took this as being a sign of impending doom. If Chinese officials are asked not to spend all their bribery money on their "friends", it means that something really bad is going on. With all the things that the economy is doing, that has to be the cause! And people should be warned of it. No more parties, no more happy Chinese. No more happy Chinese, worst quality at the Wal-Mart stores. Lower quality on Wal-Mart, lower quality on most US households (because people won't stop buying - it's so inexpensive). Lower quality of products in US households, higher chance of accidents. More accidents, more medical bills. More medical bills, more unhappy citizens. More unhappy citizens, more stories to put in the newspaper. So it must be true! Q.E.D.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Living in the new house, and tired

So my life has been centered on the big move lately. Nights were spent putting things in boxes, except for when my father was in town. Not that I could do much more, as we had a freak snow storm in Seattle that kept us stuck at home for days. But now everything is much better.

Anyway, back to the move: it was supposed to happen on Friday, but got postponed on Friday morning by the moving people because they couldn't get their trucks out because of the snow. But we had everything ready. The bed was in pieces, all clothes were packed. So we decided to just take the air mattress and move anyway. And I was working on Friday, which worked out ok, because once we got to the house we didn't have anything else to do. So I was able to get good work done in the evening and this morning.

The house is doing well. As I start to live in it I end up finding a lot of small things that could be improved, but it's how it goes. It feels kind of odd that I now can do things with the house and when I see blogs that point to gadgets for the house, I can actually pay attention to them. Very time-consuming and potentially harmful to the wallet. But I have been good so far in trying to organize things and prioritize.

Tomorrow is finally going to be the real moving date (I hope), so it's waking up early and going to the old house, making sure everything is ready to go, being bored waiting for them to pack their truck, come to this house and direct traffic to make sure I don't have to haul furniture around the house once the movers are gone.

After that it's putting everything in the right places and start to plan the new year's party that will happen here on Wednesday. Mostly I have to have the kitchen ready enough to cook and then start to think of what I'm going to cook this year. The theme is "something new", so it has to be something I haven't tried before.

Oh, there was one problem with the house because of the snow: it had an awning in the back that didn't survive the weight of the snow and collapsed. Fortunately it didn't damage anything too much on its way down. I just will probably need a new cover of some sorts in the back to protect my grill when it arrives tomorrow.

Alright, enough about this. Time to go to sleep as I probably will have a long day ahead. Moving is very painful.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The great things of 24h chat support

So I've had my problems with Quicken for some time. Tonight I was feeling "lucky" and decided to contact their 24 hour chat support and see if I could get it to work. The short story is that it's now working again! The longer story is that it took almost 30 minutes and I was the one that actually found the solution to the problem (as a variation to a step that the support person kept asking me to repeat in different contexts). The program even crashed once while we were going through the steps. But the important thing is that it's working now and I would never have been able to get it to work if it had one of the "classic" support systems that would only be open during business hours. I'm rarely in front of my home computer during business hours!

Now it's done and I can drop again and Microsoft Money.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Adding things

So I finally decided to try and understand Blogger's plugins and make my blog a little more of a destination for people to see what is going on with me. So I've added a feed view of FriendFeed. So now people can see every time I post on this blog by looking on the right side of the blog, instead of having to look at the main column. Brilliant, isn't it?

Actually my FriendFeed contains much more than this blog. It contains my Twitter, delicious, Google Reader (which I don't use any more), LibraryThing (which I also don't use - I use Shelfari and I've just added a widget to show what I'm reading), LinkedIn, Facebook and Netflix (which I also don't use any more). So you can see what I'm doing in many different angles, isn't it weird?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Today was getting poor day and after that I was working from home (not to have to take a bus downtown and waste an hour commuting, as I didn't have any meetings scheduled today). But it wasn't a very productive day. The whole day I was thinking about what happened and the plans for the next few days (my father is arriving tomorrow evening and staying until Saturday morning) and next few months in the new house. So... No in-depth shoe size analysis for me. Just a lot of random thoughts and observation about the most important concept of all statistical analyzes: if you don't have a model, you can't analyze anything meaningful. I can look at things and calculate averages, do general clustering and find patterns, but without a model I can't tell if what I'm looking at is meaningful.

It all goes back to my inability to assert things to people in a way that they will accept and act on it. I trust people too much and I don't trust myself enough. So, when multiple people ask for something, even when I know it shouldn't work, I decide to go ahead with it and get to the same conclusion the practical way.

So, that's where I am. The rest of the week is going to be mostly dead with my father's visit and some meetings (Wednesday and Thursday are my days full of meetings - it's great that they are concentrated this way, unless I hope to get anything accomplished those two days in particular, and Friday is my closing date and key collection). But we keep on moving forward. I have started working on a model (which is now on a paper that was invaded by information on the contractor that is fixing the roof at the new house) and that's what I'll have to make sure to settle on before I move back to analysis. Then I'll do the thing that I got at Amazon to do: analyze the Amazon catalog for patterns. In this case, figure out how to train my model and validate that it correctly represents shoe sizing.

Can't quite explain what my thoughts are, but I'll say that it's a very interesting problem. What makes it very complex is the fact that there are multiple ways of explaining to a user the size of a shoe. There are multiple size standards (including some that are very similar, like US Men's and US Women's, which are off by 1.5 or 2, depending on who you ask), with sometimes non-fully-deterministic translations between the sizes. There are also shoe width information, with multiple standards. And these "standards" are not exact. Some brands or product lines run smaller or larger than the actual number that they say, which is technically another size feature.

So, with all those features, how can you make sense of the size? That's the question that I'm trying to answer in the next couple of weeks.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Huh, Microsoft Money, what do you mean?

I've been using Quicken for about 4 years to organize my finances. I chose Quicken because I had no choice, as I had a Mac and all online options were kind of ugly. I was happy with it until last year when it decided to be unable to sync with my WaMu checking account (note that it was able to synchronize with my WaMu savings account that uses the same user name and password). I kept using it for some time until I decided to plan better my finances in preparation to buy a house. Then I got really annoyed by it and decided to try other options.

Oh, I have to note before I continue that I have since moved my Quicken to the Windows version because it had way more features, looked nicer and was the same price.

I haven't had that much time to try around, but I've tried the famous, which was pleasant, but certainly had less features and was slower to edit than Quicken. However, it was able to sync with my WaMu without a problem. I tried Quicken Online too, which had even less features than and also was able to sync with WaMu.

Then, this evening, I decided to just accept it and install a trial version of Microsoft Money. The installation was very quick and setting up the accounts (except for my Charles Schwab account, which requires calling their support service, apparently) was very easy. But then, when it takes me to the account home page I see that I have one huge expense type: transfers/credit card payments! Huh? If the credit card is listed on their system, isn't counting credit card payments causing all my expenses to be counted twice (one month apart from each other)?

If you go to the reports section, it's the same thing. And you have to turn on "advanced reports" to be able to hide this class of expenses, which is very puzzling. There is probably some sort of configuration that I have to enter to make this stop showing, but it's odd that this seems to be the default behavior for this popular financial management software. I'll dig a little more into it and find out if maybe I'm missing something quite obvious. Until then... Huh?

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Driving to the gym

I always thought it was funny to drive to the gym. You are "lazy" to go exercise. But now I see how it would make more sense:

Gym Car Concept Sounds Both Healthy and Extremely Dangerous

Now they just need to add a shower inside the car and it would make it perfect! :-)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Great spam

I received a great spam message today:

from: Yahoo/Msn Lottery Incoporation
to: undisclosed-recipients
date: Fri, Dec 12, 2008 at 9:19 AM
subject: Windows Live Lottery Have Chosen You Has A Winner

And it came to my gmail account, which makes the mix even more interesting. And, yes, gmail did recognize it a Spam. Gmail is generally pretty good at identifying spam. It's just too aggressive sometimes. About one "non-spam" email a week ends up in my spam folder. It's been a long time I haven't seen any spam in my inbox.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Friends, old games and gmail

This is a post done by request from my best friend, who went through a great ordeal to send me one of the games we used to play a lot a long time ago: X-COM UFO Defense. Great turn-based strategy game! So it's time to take a step back in time and remember the games that "defined my computer gamer experience". The list below is not in any particular order. And it could be much longer than this, but I decided to keep it simple, so that I might still be able to get some sleep tonight:
  • X-COM series
  • Maniac Mansion
  • Indiana Jones The Last Crusade & Fate of Atlantis
  • Monkey Island series
  • Leisure Suit Larry series (well, I think I've only started playing pretty late in the series, something like 5 or 6)
  • Loom
  • Myst
  • Test Drive series
  • Planetfall (I really disliked that game because I was never able to get very far on it, but it was probably one of the first games that I've played on my 8086)
  • SimCity
  • SimEarth
  • SimAnt
  • Flight Simulator
  • Lakers versus Celtics
  • Battle Chess
  • Lemmings series
  • Prince of Persia (they just come out with a new of this series, amazing!)
  • Sam and Max
  • Space Quest (also didn't play too many of the series)
  • The Adventures of Willy Beamish
  • Elvira & Elvira 2
  • Budokan
  • Indy 500
  • Vette!
  • Stunts
  • Syndicate
  • Out of this world
  • Wolfenstein 3D
  • Doom
  • Dune
Writing this list made me realize how much free time I used to have... And there are tons of games that I remember playing them, but couldn't figure out the name any more. And these are all computer games. I could try to list old game boy, NES, SNES, SEGA Master System... Oh, so much time... I'm so old!

And what about gmail? Well, it's the second day in a row that I receive a message from somebody saying that they tried to send me something on my gmail and it bounced. So the ended up sending it to my yahoo account and it all worked. Go figure how evil Google wants to be.

Ok! enough about forcing my memory and time to go to sleep. It's been a very busy week so far and it's just the beginning. I'm looking forward to the weekend when it's supposed to be below freezing and snowing. The joys of winter.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

A day of crazy news

I really should be going to bed, so I'll keep it quick.

Today, I mean, yesterday, was a day with lots of odd news happening at once. None of them completely surprising, but all of them quite big in different ways. The two highlights are:
  1. The house purchase is decided. It's still not complete - things close on the 19th - but I really can't back out out it without paying for the consequences (on the order of US$11K, which is not an amount of money that I should be throwing away).
  2. I received a letter saying that I should be receiving my green card in about 3 weeks. Interesting that I won't be in this house in 3 weeks. I hope it gets forwarded correctly. The full process took only 1.5 years! It's amazing how time flies with those things.
So that's it. Now it's time to really go to bed. This morning I have to wake up early to see if I can decide on the color of the roof for the house. So exciting!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Why are news readers so buggy?

Well, I know that the answer is: because they try to use too much JavaScript and AJAX and all the minor differences between how to do stuff and reference objects in the browsers make them very prone to being buggy. Also, sometimes it's not only how buggy it is, but what you have to do to get around some flawed design decisions, which makes the experience even worse. But let's get to some examples, shall we?

Google Reader

I was very happy with Google Reader until one day that I think Google was having some problems with their servers and opening any links was very painful. That's when I realized that it was painful because all links are actually links to their tracking page that redirect you to the site you want to get (and, by the way, Gmail does the same thing, but let's not talk about Google's evil ways today) and their tracking service was apparently having a slow day. I don't really mind people tracking what I'm doing, because I know that in the end it actually will help other people find things. What I mind is that it was interrupting my reading experience. So I stopped using Google Reader.

But today I went back to see the changes that they made and started just clearing all the lists marking everything as read when I saw an interesting bug: when I read all posts on one feed that was inside a folder the count in the feed went to zero but the folder was still showing that I had unread posts. I wished I took a screenshot of it, but after some time there seems to be some "refresh" task that cleaned it up.

Bloglines Beta

I decided on using the Bloglines Beta because I was too used to the Google Reader model in which things are marked as read only when you scroll to them. The classic Bloglines marks everything as read automatically as you select the feeds to read.

More than just bugs, Bloglines Beta had a very simple annoyance: it wouldn't refresh the feed you are reading. You had to navigate out and back into the feed. That took a lot of time, considering that I read my feeds once a day or once every two days and I usually have on the order of 500 entries to read. When I get to part of them, there are new waiting.

A very well known bug of Bloglines though, and what made me move away from it, was the fact that it just didn't refresh some of my feeds. The blog itself had new messages, Google Reader would show them, but Bloglines wouldn't. It's something that has been observed by other people, but it was time to move on...


My latest trial is NewsGator. It's a pretty simple system that does not try all the fancy AJAX things that the previous two had: it does not try to see what you are reading to auto mark them as read. You have to go to the end of a page and click on "mark all posts on this page as read". It took me some time to get used to it, but in the end it made it ok to set waypoints on reading entries instead of one at a time. It was way lighter-weight, so it made me happy.

But not everything is great in this world here. NewsGator seems to have a very odd bug on the counts of unread emails on the summary on the left. Sometimes I mark things as read, but it does not get in sync with the list on the left. At least in this case there is a button "Refresh Feed List" that fixes it. The only problem with it is that it takes you to a "feed discovery" page, instead of keeping you in the context of where you were. Quite annoying.

The conclusion is that there seems to be no online RSS reader that doesn't annoy me in one way or another. I'll keep using NewsGator for a little longer, but let's see what happens.

Oh, all tests above were done on my Mac using Firefox 3. I haven't really tried other browsers.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

And music

Lots of very stressful things are going on right now. But that's not what I want to write about today. I'm about to do what psychologists say you shouldn't do: write about what is good and not what is bad. Writing what is bad makes you understand it better and find ways out of it. Writing what is good just helps banalizing it and then it's not as good any more. But, well, even after all this understanding, I'll still do it. I don't want to make any of my readers decide to remove my blog from their trial list.

So I've joined a choir again. It's a Jewish choir, so no more large amounts of church songs to sing. Not that I'm against singing good choral music. What I'm against is people deliberately choosing Christian church music because that's what they are more comfortable with and never really branching out to anything else equally interesting, and less sung.

Back to the current choir: it's been an interesting ride. In many ways it reminds me of one Jewish choir I was part of in Brazil. It started out with something like 50 people. Now, a little over a month after the first rehearsal, it's already down to something like 35 people. Out of these, maybe 15 actually know how to sing, while the rest are in a varying grade of followers. I think the choir experience should be fun, so, as long as the conductor doesn't feel like we don't really need to learn things to perform, we are still good.

Our first concert is tonight, actually. At Bellevue Square Mall. Yes, a shopping mall! That is doing a special "holidays" celebration and decided to invite us even though we haven't been around for very long. It will likely still work out, but it won't be exciting enough for me to advertise it out for my friends for them to check it out. We'll be singing something like 7 pieces for about 15 minutes total. So, it's not that worth people's time yet. Parking at a mall at this time of the year is torture. Listening to a choir that hasn't been rehearsing for very long is not much of a relief.

But I'm enjoying it. It's doing something that I was not expecting: It's making me appreciate music again. I've been going through a phase where my mind can't abstract itself any more to appreciate music the same way I did before. I stopped being able to compose (although I was not never very good at it anyway - so it might have been a good thing) and even just sit in my corner in my office and listen to things like Beethoven's late string quartets. But it's all coming back to me now! I find myself spending time just playing intervals, short melodies and quick harmony exercises on my keyboard almost every day now. Odd that it's not a place to leave stuff on any more.

I guess that's it. If you didn't come here to read about me rambling about my life, I'll leave you with something funny: