Aug 22 2012

2012 Pool

Published by Steve under General

My annual NFL Survivor pool is located here!

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Aug 24 2010

Dining in a Vacation Town

Published by Steve under General

Did the family outing at the shore last week - Ocean City MD is a town that is defined almost completely by the summer tourist trade. Each year I am stunned by the poor quality and high prices that the dining establishments manage to get away with. A stop at a beach front pizza joint featured a $18 medium pizza. Thin as a piece of paper, dripping with grease, crust like hard cardboard. Positively the worst pizza I've had in 10 years.

I think I understand now why this situation exists. This beach town like many is packed during the summer months. It is just wall to wall people. And everyone is eating out. There is a lot of demand for restaurants. People have wads of cash in their pockets and they want to spend it - they are on vacation after all.

Lets imagine two hypothetical restaurants, Fish Tale's and Mackey's, right next to other. Imagine they both offer good quality food at a modest price. Naturally they are filled up each night, in fact each one operates at peak capacity each and every night all season long. There never is an empty table to be had. Lines form early in the day and continue until closing. The huge demand of vacationers drives this.

So one season the owner at Fish Tales decides to use some cheaper ingredients. Guess what happens? Nothing other than a bigger profit for Fish Tales. He still gets all the customers he can possibly serve anyway. For every customer who noticed that the quality dropped, and decided to go elsewhere, there is another customer who hasn't noticed and will take his place in line. There is simply too much demand.

The next season owner at Fish Tales decides to raise his prices also. Again, the only result is a bigger profit. Some are driven away by the higher price, if they noticed, but there still are no tables sitting empty. Again, too much demand.

The next season the owner at Mackey's has been taking notice. He has been busting his hump serving these huge crowds with great food and keeping his prices low, but where has it gotten him? The guy over at Fish Tale's is cutting corners and charging more, and he his serving just as many customers. So the owner of Mackey's does the obvious, he gets cheaper ingredients and cranks up his prices too. Driven by this reality of supply and demand, soon you have every restaurant serving absolute crap and charging tons of money for it. There simply is no economic reason for any restaurant to do otherwise.

Now there are so many different restaurants in town, a given vacationer could eat out at different one each night on his week of vacation, for years, still never try them all. So reputation is meaningless in this market. You can have every customer swearing to never return after their first and only visit, and you will still never have an empty table all season long. There are just too many other people who don't know any better, that are going to wait in your line, hoping beyond hope that you will serve something decent and not charge an arm and a leg for it.

But actually I've discovered there are solutions. The best solution of course is to cook your own food on vacation, but that's not always so fun. The other solution is to just drive about 10 minutes out the heart of town, and you'll find the restaurants the locals go to. You'll get a decent meal there. :)

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Jul 10 2010

The Fall

Published by Steve under Politics

Was paging through an old Time-Life book from the "Great Ages of Man" series, Imperial Rome. Copyright 1965. There is a chapter on the Fall of the Roman Empire, which of course has been analyzed Ad infinitum by many scholars, but this chapter is nice and short at only 5 pages. So I wondered how many parallels to our current condition in American I would spot in this brief summary. Quite surprised to find almost every paragraph containing something that could have come out of today's news headlines.

First we see the selling of political appointments, funny I seem to remember something like this happening recently:

....[The Emperor's bodyguards], in a rampant display of power, proceeded to auction off the imperial office to the highest bidder.

Taxes, inflation, and forcing segments of society to bear a higher percentage of the burden:

[The Emperor] made matters worse by devaluing the Roman currency 25 per cent and by selling imperial treasures to raise additional revenue. ...[the Emperor] devalued the money by another 25 per cent, and in addition raised existing taxes and devised new ones. One source of income came to be the wholesale confiscation of the property of [the Emperor's] enemies, or of those citizens who contributed too slowly to his campaigns.

This is a gem related to taxes and revenues; apparently it has always been such:

...Some members of the upper classes were driven to forfeit their rank and retire to lower social orders where the financial burdens were less. Thus, paradoxically, higher taxes led to a decline in revenues.

Socialized medicine makes it's appearance in the Fall of Rome, along with other forms of government largess:

To ease [the poor's] burden - and allay their unrest - [the Emperor] systematically distributed food, money, and medicine, putting additional strain on the imperial budget. The state, it seemed, could not meet all the demands that were placed upon it, yet could not endure without meeting them.

And of course let's not forget amnesty for aliens! Back then you didn't need the aliens for their votes, because there was no voting. But the taxes were tempting!

Soon [the Emperor] had to raise the taxes and again debase the currency. His decision, in 212, to grant citizenship to all free men throughout the empire was...not dictated by an instinct for democracy: he wanted to include aliens on Rome's tax rolls...to increase his revenues.

Government takeover of public companies? Been there, done that:

...The demands of Rome upon its people and provinces grew more rapacious than ever. ...after reducing most of the notable houses to poverty, and finding the income obtained thereby small and insufficient for his purpose, [the Emperor] began to lay hands on the public treasuries.

Inflation again - maybe I need to pay more attention to those invest-in-gold commercials:

The [Roman coins], chief silver coins of the realm, lost more than 90 per cent of their silver content: in effect, they were copper coins washed in silver. Soldiers and civil servants were increasingly paid in goods and commodities. Inflation gripped the money market, and the price of good soared. ...bankers refused to handle Roman money and tried to return to the [coins] used some 300 years earlier.

The only sector seeing employment growth is government, seems they had that problem too:

[The Emperor] reorganized the government of the provinces... Naturally this fragmentation called for an increase in officals and paper work; the result was a great expansion of the imperial bureaucracy. [One official observed that]...It is apparent from the accounts alone that many persons wishing to batten on the estates of the treasury have devised titles for themselves, such as administrators, secretaries, or superintendents, whereby they procure no advantage for the treasury but eat up the revenues.

Price fixing. Always a good idea. Interesting, even when the penalty was death, and back then they really meant death, this still didn't work.

As prices continued to soar unchecked, he issued an edict fixing maximum prices for goods and wages throughout the Empire, and prescribing the death penalty for violators. When it was posted...nothing appeared on the market because of fear, and prices soared much higher.

Governments prying a little too deep into the lives of those governed. Rome had that covered:

For some time the government had been collecting revenues partly in the form of commodities rather than entirely in cash. Now [the Emperor] increased the amount of taxes collected in this form. In order to determine these new assessments, [the Emperor] sent out a vast army of census-takers to collect data in every corner of the Empire. ...Eventually it imposed a new burden on the populace: people were required to remain on their land or stay at their jobs so that they would always be where the census-takers expected to find them (and also so they could continue to produce for the government). Finally this regulation fixed every Roman citizen in a rigid economic caste system. Sons inherited their fathers' obligations; all men within the Empire labored and produced for the benefit of the state.

Finally:

All the energies of the state were spent on supplying and maintaining its huge bureaucracies and defensive armies, and all the energies of the people were harnessed to the same cause.

This little peek into Time-Life's Imperial Rome has really bummed me out. But hey, maybe none of this applies to us, maybe Socialism and Big Government is really gonna work this time. Things don't seem that bad.

Romans who lived in those centuries did not know it was falling. To them, the business of empire appeared to go on as usual: petty tyrants paraded as emperors; rich men dressed up in senatorial togas; Roman soldiers went forth to battle barbarians...

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Feb 15 2010

Lincoln – If that declaration is not the truth…let us tear it out!

Published by Steve under Politics

From a speech by Abraham Lincoln in reply to Stephen A. Douglas, Chicago Illinois, July 10th 1858

Now, sirs, for the purpose of squaring things with this idea of "don't care if slavery is voted up or voted down", for sustaining the Dred Scott decision, for holding that the Declaration of Independence did not mean anything at all, we have Judge Douglas giving his exposition of what the Declaration of Independence means, and we have him saying that the people of America are equal to the people of England. According to his construction, you Germans are not connected with it. Now I ask you in all soberness, if all these things, if indulged in, if ratified, if confirmed and endorsed, if taught to our children, and repeated to them, do not tend to rub out the sentiment of liberty in the country, and to transform this Government into a government of some other form. Those arguments that are made, that the inferior race are to be treated with as much allowance as they are capable of enjoying; that as much is to be done for them as their condition will allow. What are these arguments? They are the arguments that kings have made for enslaving the people in all ages of the world. You will find that all the arguments in favor of king-craft were of this class; they always bestrode the necks of the people, not that they wanted to do it, but because the people were better off for being ridden. That is their argument, and this argument of the Judge [Douglas] is the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it. Turn in whatever way you will---whether it come from the mouth of a King, an excuse for enslaving the people of his country, or from the mouth of men of one race as a reason for enslaving the men of another race, it is all the same old serpent, and I hold if that course of argumentation that is made for the purpose of convincing the public mind that we should not care about this, should be granted, it does not stop with the negro. I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle and making exceptions to it where will it stop. If one man says it does not mean a negro, why not another say it does not mean some other man? If that declaration is not the truth, let us get the Statute book, in which we find it and tear it out! Who is so bold as to do it! If it is not true let us tear it out! Let us stick to it then, let us stand firmly by it then.

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Apr 14 2009

Hong Kong

Published by Steve under Family

The family just got back from 8 days in Hong Kong for spring break. A terrific experience! Hong Kong is where Sally was born and where her parents grew up. With 7 million people in just over 400 square miles, it is a little hectic! But public transport here is incredible, and the city is amazingly clean.

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Weather was a little damp the first day, but not bad. This is taken on the Kowloon side, facing the island.




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While things in Hong Kong are mostly pricey, the trusty Star Ferry is the best deal around. Takes you across the harbor for about 30 US cents for adults, 15 US cents for kids! (that's $2HK and $1HK).




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The locals are all in great shape - and here is one reason why. Hong Kong is very hilly, involving a lot of vertical walking. This was a set of stairs up from the Catholic cathedral up to our hotel, the Bishop Lei. This is only a short bit of the overall climb, it was about 5 stories. The street level (Robinson Road) is at the top. I would mention the Bishop Lei was another great deal, we paid only $110 US per night, which included a great breakfast each morning. That was it for the great deals, everything else was major $$$.




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Ancient temples are tucked in among the skyscrapers everywhere.




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This is the view from the 'peak', which can be reached by a short tram ride. Known as the most scenic spot in Hong Kong. You are at the same elevation as the tallest building in the background. For a professional photo from the same spot, see here.




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One of the amazing things is the use of bamboo in construction. Almost all the scaffolding you see is bamboo. It is everywhere.




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They tend to wrap up the buildings while they are under construction. I guess since everything is so tightly packed, you can't have construction debris falling out. Yes, that is bamboo on the outside all the way up.




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A popular tourist site is the 'Big Buddha' which is on Lantau island. It is reached by a 20 minute cable car ride, one of the longest in the world. This is one of the small statues facing up towards the Buddha.




A 25 minute boat ride takes you from the main island to Lamma island - where they specialize in fresh seafood lunch. You browse the aquariums for something you like, the owner pulls it out and cooks it in a style you choose, and then brings it out to your table. Having steamed shrimp that minutes before was swimming is a real eye opener - never had it so tasty!




A novel approach to mass transit in Hong Kong is the Central-Mid-Levels Escalators, which will take you for a 20 minute ride if you go the whole length. They run downhill in the morning, and uphill at night. A large number of great bars and restaurants flank the escalators - so you'll probably want to make some stops!




Speaking of cool places by the escalator - stop in for some sushi that comes by your table on a conveyor belt; the ultimate in fast food.




Here is that cable car ride, coming back from the Big Buddha. The high rises represent a little suburb near the airport and train station, this is far away from the center of Hong Kong itself. The new airport is built on land scooped off of the mountains and dropped into the sea.

I would close by saying the people of Hong Kong are extremely polite and friendly. Everyone seems to have great pride in whatever their occupation is. A great trip - wish it could have lasted longer!

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Feb 07 2009

The Stimulus Plan – Explained

Published by Steve under Politics

The following explanation of the Stimulus plan comes via the Anchoress. I feel pretty sure that the giant pork bill being crafted in Washington will result in lots and lots of money going into the wrong pockets, this simple little joke cuts to the heart of it quite effectively.

Three contractors are bidding to fix a broken fence at the White House. One is from Chicago, another is from Tennessee, and the third is from Minnesota.

All three go with a White House official to examine the fence. The Minnesota contractor takes out a tape measure and does some measuring, then works some figures with a pencil. “Well,” he says, “I figure the job will run about $900: $400 for materials, $400 for my crew and $100 profit for me.”

The Tennessee contractor also does some measuring and figuring, then says, “I can do this job for $700: $300 for materials, $300 for my crew and $100 profit for me.”

The Chicago contractor doesn’t measure or figure, but leans over to the White House official and whispers, “$2,700.”

The official, incredulous, says, “You didn’t even measure like the other guys! How did you come up with such a high figure?”

The Chicago contractor whispers back, “$1000 for me, $1000 for you, and we hire the guy from Tennessee to fix the fence.”

“Done!” replies the government official.

And that, my friends, is how the new stimulus plan will work.

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Jan 31 2009

Finding the Source

Published by Steve under Politics

Adventurers spent years searching for the source of the Nile. But finding the source of the current economic meltdown is considerably easier. It was published in the Business section of the New York Times in 1999.

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source_of_economic_meltdown

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Oct 21 2008

The State of Journalism – 2008

Published by Steve under Politics

Orson Scott Card provides an indictment of the journalist profession for their refusal to dig even a little into the causes of the current economic crisis:

This housing crisis didn't come out of nowhere. It was not a vague emanation of the evil Bush administration.

It was a direct result of the political decision, back in the late 1990s, to loosen the rules of lending so that home loans would be more accessible to poor people. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were authorized to approve risky loans.

What is a risky loan? It's a loan that the recipient is likely not to be able to repay.

The goal of this rule change was to help the poor — which especially would help members of minority groups. But how does it help these people to give them a loan that they can't repay? They get into a house, yes, but when they can't make the payments, they lose the house — along with their credit rating.

They end up worse off than before.

...

Isn't there a story here? Doesn't journalism require that you who produce our daily paper tell the truth about who brought us to a position where the only way to keep confidence in our economy was a $700 billion bailout? Aren't you supposed to follow the money and see which politicians were benefiting personally from the deregulation of mortgage lending?

Read the rest. http://www.ldsmag.com/ideas/081017light.html

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Apr 24 2008

VB.Net: Word Search Generator

Published by Steve under Programming

Previously I wrote a long post explaining how I created an algorithm to generate Word Search puzzles. I used the wonderful perl scripting language, which is typically my language of choice for utility programs.

Since that time I undertook the task of recreating the same logic in VB.Net. Here is my finished product. Reading through the previous post will describe the logic, which I attempted to reuse as closely as possible. I'm not going to walk through any of the code here, but you can view it in the source files provided in the zip file. Whereas I find perl more fun and cleaner to program in, the resulting user experience from the VB.Net environment is sooooo much nicer. You'll need to have .Net 2 installed to run this.

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Apr 10 2008

In praise of … Beyond Compare

Published by Steve under Technology

Everyone has their favorite utility programs, those trusty apps that we just can't live without. For me perhaps at the top of the list is the outstanding file comparison program, Beyond Compare from Scooter Software.

There are certain tools which are so well designed and implemented that using them becomes like second nature. Beyond Compare is one of those tools for me. Beyond Compare allows you to compare directories of files and highlights for you the differences. You can define what constitutes a file difference (i.e. text comparison, binary comparison, timestamp comparison), you can choose to ignore certain files which you don't care about (i.e. maybe extraneous thumbnail files), and you can tailor what is shown to you (like all files, just mismatched files, just orphan files, etc...). Once file differences are located, you can sync up the files, or you can open a file comparison window that shows exactly what the differences are. From there you can pick and choose parts of the differences that you want to move from one file to the other.

Another great feature is that you can script your actions, allowing you to automatically sync file systems. Just create a scheduled task in Windows that invokes a given session of Beyond Compare, and it will completely sync two file trees in the background, using all the logic that you defined for that session. Also, the file systems you are dealing with don't have to be just on your network; you can compare/sync to an FTP site as well.

I've used Beyond Compare daily for years to handle code promotion in a 3-tier development environment. It's always worked quickly and flawlessly for me. Beyond Compare is not a free tool - but it is so affordable that buying it is really a no-brainer. Thanks Scooter Software for creating such an outstanding tool!

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