Greece and the metals

There has been more and more chatter about Greece and its debt. Greece now has to pay 25% interest on 2 year bonds. That means that investors think there is an excellent chance of Greece defaulting on the loan. Why this comes as a surprise baffles me. When Greece initially had issues, they were given a load of money, talk about perverse incintives…

 

So why care? If Greece defaults, it will shaft its creditors and give them nothing at all. That means all of the institutional investors that were stupid enough to invest in Greece will have essentially thrown that money away. It looks like Spain, and Portugal have significant exposure to Greek debt, and they were already on shaky ground. When Greece defaults, it is going to be very bad news for the Euro. In a worst case scenario, it could spell the end of the Eurozone, if not the EU in general.

Greece has become the poster child of a place where people think that wealth originates, and flows from the government. All of the protestors don’t seem to get that the money has to come from somewhere, and that somewhere is people’s labor. There isn’t enough to go around, at least there isn’t enough to cover the debt that has been wracked up on their behalf. Even if there is another bailout, it will only prolong the troubles. Greece is going to walk away from its debt, and there is every chance that Spain, Portugal, Italy, and Ireland will too once the Greek default overburdens their banks. That’s what might kill the Euro, at least in the short term.

Over the past I don’t know how many years, the US dollar and the Euro have been the go-to currencies for investors and savers. The US dollar is not worth a heck of a lot these days. The political climate in Washington only points to more devaluation to come. If the Euro devalues, what is left? The Yen is a mess and there aren’t a lot of Swiss Franks to go around. The Ruble? The Yuan? The Won? Are you kidding me? All that will be left is the Pound, and we’ll have to see how their economic changes play out to see if that will continue to be a good refuge. It looks like the fiat chickens are coming home to roost, it would be best not to have any currencies as your savings as this plays out.

I’ll say it again, the metals are worthwhile savings instrument at this point in time.  Both the Russian and the Chinese central banks are loading up on gold. All of my meager cash savings is in physical silver. Yes, silver recently took a tumble, but it is on the way back up again. It is still over twice as valuable as it was late last year. If you do a little reading, the various gold and silver ETFs are looking rather suspect. At least the ones that don’t claim to have physical gold. There is a lot of “paper” gold floating around, but it isn’t clear that those certificates could actually be redeemed. They may be making claims on deposits that others have made claims on too. If you buy metals, buy the physical item. Gold and silver do fluctuate in value, but at least that value isn’t at the whim of central banks and government largess. That means quite a bit to me.

 

 

TV on the computer update

TV still looks great on my iMac, but I’ve noticed something that is giving me second thoughts. It looks as though certain channels are not available through the firewire port. I had always watched sports on CSN, WGN, NHL network, or the MLB network with no problems. I tried watching ESPN the other night and had no luck. The same goes for BBC America (which isn’t available in HD for some reason on FIOS). I can get around the ESPN thing by watching the streaming content on ESPN3 online. The quality isn’t nearly as good, but it is there. The only way around the BBC America thing is to wait until the next day and watch the show after I download it from iTunes. The show is always much better without the commercials, but it’s a bummer having to wait the extra day. Still, I’m not going to buy a TV just for one and a half channels. I should be fine with what I’ve got.

I love my computer! And a worth computing cause

Wait, have I already said that? My latest test, I had Safari open with 4 tabs, itunes, squeezebox server, my blogging program, folding at home, I am encoding video using handbrake, and I put my live TV on full screen. No problem. Then I streamed a video to my iPad from my computer while all that was going on. Once again, no biggie, everything worked fine.

Handbreak and folding at home will use all available cores left to their own devices. What are they? Handbrake is a popular program for converting video files from one format to another. Video encoding is a special situation prosessor-wise, it is relatively easy to distribute the workload across all available cores and processors, so that’s what handbrake does. It takes all available clock cycles and puts them to work. Folding at Home is a really cool program. Stanford studies misfolded proteins and how they can cause things like mad cow disease, ALS, and even some cancers. Trouble is, the calculations involved are really really awful, and they have a seemingly never ending list of them to do. Getting time on computing clusters (modern day super computers) is expensive, so they farm out the calculations. Each person that signs up gets a part of a calculation to do. This type of program essentially gives Stanford free access to a rather large cluster of computers. The program churns away in the background on your computer, sends the results in when it’s done, and then fetches a new problem. It’s for a good cause, and I’ve got a shiny new computer with power to spare.

Don’t blame your washing machine (or your dishwasher)

Have you noticed over the past several years that it’s harder to get your laundry as clean as it used to be? I know I have. Recently, I had a problem with my towels. No matter how I washed them I couldn’t get rid of the moldy smell that is so common to basement dwellers. I stumbled across an article, on an economics blog of all places, that shed some light on why it is harder to clean stuff. I’ve noticed more and more laundry detergents are claiming to be phosphate free. I never thought about it much, but it turns out that’s why it’s tougher to get stuff clean.

It’s my understanding that phosphates act as the scrubbers in detergent. More and more places are passing laws against having them in detergents, so they must be really bad for the environment, right? Actually, it’s the opposite problem, phosphates are too good for the environment. They make excellent fertilizer, things grow like gangbusters with the stuff. The problem is that if you put too much of it into streams, ponds, etc, the algae can go berserk and end up killing the fish. So various states have started to pass laws banning them from household products. As is so often the case, it isn’t really clear that phosphates from detergents are to blame for the increased algae growth. Agricultural use is much more intensive, and there’s always the possibility of the phosphates occurring naturally. If you’re on a sewer system, phosphates should be filtered out in any case. The days of raw sewage being dumped into waterways is over. In the meantime, we have trouble getting things clean.

Even though it is difficult to buy detergent with phosphates in it, it is really easy to add it manually. I picked up a box of Trisodium Phosphate under the Savogran brand at Home Depot. It’s in the painting supplies department. Usually TSP is used as a heavy duty cleaner for paint prep. A dilute bleach/TSP combo is supposed to do wonders as a general cleaning solution. I bought the small box for 4 or 5 bucks, it should last quite a while. After looking around, it seems as though all you need is a half teaspoon per wash load. That’s all I used and my towels are actually clean! Yay for not having smelly towels!

If you’re still worried about the environmental impact, think about this.. TSP is also used as a food additive. It is far safer than anything else I found in the paint department, that’s for sure. It’s big impact is that it makes things grow too well. Personally, I’m not convinced that it’s any more dangerous than any other type of detergent. Even if you are worried, using it once in a while is certainly no worse than most other household chemicals. I say, let there be clean clothes and dishes!

Will computers ever be the same? Geeking out!

I saw something the other day that made my head spin. It could change the way computers are made and how we think about them. I’ve talked about the new Thunderbolt port before, it’s the super high sped connection that is currently on the new Apple computers. It uses the same protocol, and the same speed, as the devices inside the computer. This means that we could potentially add things to our computer on the outside and have the same effect as changing the inside.

Some of you are probably saying, “Who cares?” but with just a little imagination things can get crazy. First off, we’ve been able to add things to tower computers for a long time. Just open it up, add or replace a card and voila! new performance. Laptops are far and away more popular than desktops at this point, and they are not nearly as easy to upgrade, till now… Check out the Sonnet Echo Express , it’s a little ways down the page. What is it? It is an external enclosure for PCIe cards. Those are the same ones you put into a tower, but now you can attach one to a laptop using a Thunderbolt port. Imagine having a mild mannered, energy sipping laptop on the go, and a graphic powerhouse laptop when you were at home… Just attach a new video card at home and BOOM! Going forward, there will be little reason to stick to the same form factor. As long as the box you have it in has a thunderbolt port, it will work…

But it can get so much more weird/cool… Why do we need a laptop? Why not a tablet, or a phone? Do we just need a small box to put our CPUs in? Remember, Thunderbolt is capable of carrying all current protocols that are now used over varying cables. It could replace ethernet (for networking), USB, Firewire, ESATA, and the various video cables like DVI and HDMI. Because Thunderbolt devices can be daisy chained, you could potentially hook your tablet to a single cable and have it hooked to massive storage, input devices like trackpads and keyboards, a huge display, a camera, whatever. Right now, Thunderbolt is using a copper cable that is good for 10GBs in two directions, but it has a shortish maximum length. There are already plans for optical versions that could stretch for many hundreds of feet and vastly increased bandwidth/speed.

That adds a whole other dimension to the possibilities. All of the things that make up what we call a computer could be distributed around a house or business. Want to network a video processor? No problem. Want to change CPUs? No biggie, just unhook it from the cable and pop a new one on. The possibilities are endless. Modular, easily networkable computer systems with crazy fast performance are within our grasp. Add fiber optic internet and we are talking serious stuff.

 

Future tech? I don’t think so. The computer I’m supposed to get tomorrow has two Thunderbolt ports on it, that means I could use up to 12 Thunderbolt devices. The device from Sonnet is supposed to be here this summer, Intel already has fiber versions working in the lab, and I have fiber optic internet going right up to the house. Of course, that fiber is converted to copper to bet into the hose, but I can’t imagine it would be too difficult to eliminate that step. Like I said, things are moving quickly, let’s see what the next couple of years hold.

The real reason to have a lot of RAM

I had considered 12GB of RAM a silly luxury. I certainly never thought I’d use anywhere close to that. Imagine my surprise when I looked at my RAM usage and saw I was pretty much maxed out. I was using almost all of it! What is going on? Looking more closely, I see that I had less than 100MB of free memory, a Gig of “wired” memory, a little under 2GB of active memory, and a whopping 9GB of inactive memory.

 

What’s inactive memory? The computer loads up whatever program you are running into memory. It turns out that it keeps it in memory after you quit the program too. Why? It cuts down on the time it takes to launch the program if it’s already in memory. Programs are pretty much instantly available when I launch them again. Of course, if you launch something else, it will re-allocate that inactive memory to the new task.

 

The really cool thing about this is that I had wondered if I should get a solid state drive instead of, or in addition to, a regular hard drive. Solid state drives don’t move, and they are much faster than regular hard drives. They are much more expensive too. Since I am not a power user by any stretch of the imagination, the biggest bonus to having a SSD would be really fast launch times. So I ended up getting the effect I was looking for with an SSD for a lot less money by having a silly amount of RAM in my machine. That extra $100 I spent on RAM is looking better and better…

My new computer

Love it. I bought the 27″ iMac and i put an extra 8 gigs of RAM in there.  Oh, and I also put in a 2 TB hard drive. Isn’t that a lot? Well, right now I have 3/4 of a TB (approximately 750GB) and of course I keep adding more. There aren’t any 1.5TB drives available, so 2 it was. What about the RAM? I’m hardly a power user and my Macbook with 2 GB of RAM was still doing OK. Well, OK is a relative term… Right now, I am re-encoding some videos, watching live HD TV, have my chat windows open, the internet, and there isn’t a hiccup, it isn’t even flinching. I am also using about 8GB of RAM. I could do some of these things at the same time, but I would have to choose between the live TV and the encoding. Now, no problem.  Check it out.

Screenshot

 

The encoding program is behind my browser window. While it’s encoding, it isn’t much fun to watch. Watching the Yankees/Red Sox game instead. This is the total opposite of how I use my iPad. I tend to get absorbed in one thing at a time on my iPad, I’m doing 4 things at the same time on my iMac. Would I do the same thing on my iPad if it had the power? Probably not. My usage on the iMac is a function of both the power and the real estate. The iPad screen is just too small to inspire lots of multitasking.

This is an mazing TV.  I can play a full 1080 stream and have plenty of real estate left over. In addition, the video is sharp, there aren’t all those jaggies like I was seeing on my poor Macbook. Even when blown up to full size it looks pretty good. If I sit just a little ways from it I can’t tell the difference.

 

So while the computer is a hit, my current ergonomic situation is not. I need a bigger desk. The one I’m using now would be fine if I could sit at the middle of it. This one has several drawers on the right, so I have to sit to the left. I really need to be in the center of this guy. Plus, I need a real chair. This one is all sorts of bad.

 

Bottom line, it’s a fantastic upgrade. This, along with my iPad, has me set up both at home and on the go.We’ll see what kind of stuff I might start doing now that I have the horsepower.

Chrome OS

Google announced the first commercially available computers with their Chrome OS on them. Just to refresh your memory, the idea behind Chrome OS is that the computer would have little more than an internet browser on it. Everything would be done “in the cloud.” That means all of your information would be up on a server on the internet. Many people already do this for their email and pictures. Almost every blog is done that way. More and more are also doing it for their documents and collaborative work as well. Of course, up till now, the cloud was pretty much only used for storage, now you can actually use programs through the internet to do all your stuff.

And that’s the whole idea behind Chrome OS. The computer is just a terminal, all the programs you want to use and all the data is up in the cloud. That means that you don’t really need much of a computer, all of the heavy lifting will be done by the host computers. It also means that the security will be done by the host computers, the storage, and the backups as well. What this means is that with a rather inexpensive machine, you can do quite a bit. I think this could be huge for businesses and schools. Google has announced monthly plans for computers that include both software and hardware upgrades. It isn’t clear to me if this is a lease or just a rental, but in any case, it could revolutionize how people buy and use computers.

So what’s the downside? The biggie is that this OS will require a constant connection to the internet. On top of that, the performance of your machine will be determined by the quality of that connection. If real high speed wireless internet was widely available, this could work real well. As it is now, I wonder how many connectivity issues there will be.

The other possible issue is that right now you can’t really do much high power computing this way. That’s a bit of an unfair criticism since this isn’t aimed at the web design, video editing, application development crowd. On the other hand, it would be a shame for people to feel limited by their computer. It’s nice to have more power and capability than you think you need immediately. Who knows, maybe we will get to a point where there are really powerful programs available on the web, but right now there really isn’t.

I do think that these computers will fill the requirements of most people these days. You can check your email, get on facebook, create documents, surf the web, do your taxes, etc. If done well, and we need to see the reviews, this could be a great general purpose portable computer. It could even be something that I could recommend. Hell, if I decided I wanted another laptop this could be really tempting. There are two things that would make me hesitate though. I’ve already mentioned the connectivity issue, the other is the iPad. I think there’s going to be a lot of overlap between these two devices. True, the iPad does need a computer right now, but that could change. Things are changing quickly, it’s an exciting time to be into tech!

Magazines

I’ve enjoyed reading on my iPad so much that I’ve actually subscribed to a couple of magazines. Back in the day, I enjoyed getting various magazines. At one point or another I’ve had subscriptions to American Cinematographer, Camera and Darkroom, Darkroom Techniques, Tricycle, Road and Track, and even a mysterious subscription to Playboy. I say mysterious because I never signed up for it and it continued for years. Keep in mind, it only started to show up at my MOM’S HOUSE after I moved out. It actually took some doing to cancel it. To this day I have no idea how that happened or why.

Anyway, for most things, magazines can’t compete anymore. The internet is where I go to get all of my info. Free, up to the minute information and news is hard to compete against. Where some magazines do compete is in analysis. I have subscribed to both The Economist and Reason Magazine.

Reason Magazine is a libertarian news and analysis source. They love to skewer folks from both major parties and suggest alternatives that sound… well, very reasonable to me. They have really good contributors and are a pleasure to read. The mag i so cheap, a buck and change for each digital version, that it was a no brainer for me. Curiously, they don’t have their own magazine app, but instead use both Kindle and Barnes and Noble to handle their digital subscriptions. Amazon would let me buy it on the Kindle app for some reason, but the Nook app did. The layout is sparse, with minimal pictures. That’s fine by me, this is a magazine you really do get for the articles…

I’ve wanted to subscribe to the Economist forever. While I certainly don’t always agree with them, the writing is of high quality and is pretty in depth. On top of that, they cover parts of the world I don’t usually hear about like eastern Europe, south Asia, and Australia. The thing that put me off was the price. As a weekly magazine, it got expensive fast. Their app for the iPad is really nice, not super cluttered or busy like a lot of other magazine apps. The problem is that the digital subscription is the same price as the print edition. I understand that there is a cost to having a quality magazine made. Deep down, it just doesn’t seem right that you should pay the same for a virtual object that you do for an actual one. I’m the last person to question supply and demand, they should charge what they can, but their choice is what prevented me from being a subscriber. Well, one day I got an offer from Groupon for essentially half price on an Economist subscription and I jumped at it. Here’s the weird thing, print subscribers get free access to the digital version. So, I was able to spend half the money and get both the digital and print editions. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to simply offer me the digital only version at that price? It was still over 50 bucks for a year but that’s a far cry from over $100. So I’ve got a year, I’m hoping that they’ll come to their senses before the year is up and offer discounted digital subscriptions.

 

The New Yorker is now offering subscriptions on the iPad for less than the print edition. I’ve never read an issue of that, doubt I will, but I’m glad they’re doing it. Everyone has been waiting for the publishers to do this, it really does make a ton of sense from a consumer’s perspective. The only thing I can imagine causing publishers to have to charge more or the same for digital versions is high fixed costs involving their printing end of things. We’ll see how things shake out in the future. If there are printing costs driving magazine’s prices, I think we’ll see those come down over time as contracts are renegotiated or dropped altogether.

New iMac on the way!

I ordered my new computer the other day, I’ve been told it will be here on the 12th. I’m getting a 27″ iMac, the one with the 2.7Ghz quad core processor and a 2TB hard drive. I’m also upping my RAM up to 12GB. This machine is overkill in a lot of ways, but what the hell. I haven’t had a new computer in 5 years, it’s about time!

My 13″ macbook from 2006 has served me well, it’s still going. When my mother bought her 24″ iMac, I thought it was a bit much, until I started using it… I had been doing a big negative scanning job on my notebook and I thought everything was going fine, then I tried her machine… Wow. Yes, it was more powerful, but the display made a huge difference. Being able to see the image, the tool palettes, and even some chat windows all at once made a huge difference in my workflow. It was actually fun to do, it was a chore before.

This is going to be my TV too. I’m halfway thinking about getting rid of my cable and just going with iTunes, Netflix, and Amazon for my TV show fixes. In any case, I’ll be watching everything on my computer. It will be possible to have a 1080 stream and still have room for a chat window. A subscription to MLBTV isn’t all that much….

 

This will be the end of my computer buying binge, at least for a little while. I’m hoping all of my current things will last several years. What’s next on my bigger purchases list? I’ve got my eye on some new speakers (as always). If I do that, it won’t be till next year at the earliest. I’m going to try to save a little money the rest of this year, and of course buy some more small frivolous things…