Wednesday, December 17, 2008

FoldIt News

I'm enjoy playing this game called FoldIt, which I've written about on the blog before. It's a puzzle game which contributes real results to research into the folding of proteins in nature; a very tough problem in biology.

The first results of our collective efforts have come through, and not only did the concept of "human-directed folding" succeed, but my team (Another Hour Another Point) was a big part of it!

http://fold.it/portal/blog

We won one of the puzzles and scored in the top 3 of several others, and the developers have concluded that a pack of untrained game-players match the perform of folding experts, so they can be freed of this work and do something else instead while the Geek Hordes do most of the folding work! This is very exciting :)

Saturday, November 15, 2008

The last scheduled Space Shuttle night launch was yesterday, so being a fan of space exploration in general, I thought I'd better put my foot down and finally make it to a shuttle launch. What kind of space fan lives in Florida and doesn't see a launch at least once?

I'd had a particularly bad day at work - my Great Dane Patch had his first "accident" at work due to a very bad tummy upset, so I spent my last hour apologizing and scrubbing the carpet. I'm going to pay closer attention to this in future, and leave him home if he's had any problems in that department, since I know how lucky I am to be able to bring him to work every day.

Anyway, after that awful mess I decided to treat myself and try to make it to Titusville for the 7.55 pm launch. The weather was good and they said there was a 70% chance of a successful launch, so I zipped home, grabbed the camera and hit the highway.

Traffic was heavy at first, due to a closed lane, but it soon opened up and I reached the Titusville exit at about 7.30 pm. Driving into town I knew there was little chance of reaching Spaceview Park, and it was curious how natural it seemed to just turn off the road into a strip mall parking lot when the car in front of me did so, and the car behind me did the same thing. Obviously we were all there for the same thing.

I turned the radio to a local station that was covering the launch and lowered the windows so I, and the neighbouring cars, could hear some commentary. I put the camera into spot metering mode, attached the 80-200mm zoom and pushed the ISO rating to 800, forcing the camera to use the fastest shutter speed it could. I'm glad I did that, otherwise it'd be streaky-time, and you don't get second shots at this kind of event.



The buzz in the crowd went up at the 30 second mark and when the final 10 second countdown began everyone stood up. When the moment of liftoff came, the whole sky in front of us lit up like dawn, then an amazingly bright spot appeared and climbed to the skies. It was a clear night, so we were able to watch it all the way up, until it was just a bright spot. We could even see the SRBs seperate and begin their tumble back into the ocean. The sound of the launch didn't hit us till about 45 seconds after it had begun, and it was a big bass rumble that seemed to come from the whole sky at once.

There are a lot of things not to like about the Shuttle program, but it's an impressive sight when it launches!
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Saturday, November 01, 2008

A Few Days More

In a few days, Barack Obama will be elected the next President of the United States. This is good. I don't think the Republican party will have the capacity to handle this loss in a rational way, though. I think they'll declare that they lost because McCain wasn't hardcore enough, wasn't conservative enough. They'll retreat into a neo-con fantasy world and complain about Every Single Thing that Obama and the Democractic Congress do, and conspiracy theories about ACORN and dead people voting will flourish.

Still, I've seen a couple of blog postings worth passing enough, that stood out from the pack. Here's one by a certain "Lady De Rothschild", one of the few prominent Hillary Clinton supports who switched over to McCain's side. Her ideas are very sad, but check out the comments section!! That's where the action is :)

And here's a scorcher from Helen Philpott of "Margaret and Helen". Andrew Sullivan linked to them a few days ago. I agree with Helen when she says in a more recent posting that she's surprised the election is close at all. I'll leave to the more learned to write about why McCain has *any* support outside of those who still support George Bush (low 20% range, last I looked). I'm pretty open minded but I just can't see how anyone could pick McCain over Obama. I'm sure they'd say the same in the other direction, I suppose :)

My regular reading, in case you'd like to see where I get these ideas from, covers: Andrew Sullivan, Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo, Think Progress, Glenn Greenwald and Huffington Post. On TV there's the Daily Show and Colbert, Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Hurricane Ike

I just took a look at Weather Underground and see that Ike's 5-day path puts it barrelling down my driveway. *Gulp*. Hopefully the path will change in the next few days, but if it doesn't then please rest assured this is a new house built with the most recent hurricane resistance standards and it should pull through just fine. I bought flood insurance too, so I'm covered if anything at all should happen :)

Sept 6th Update: It looks like this one is going to miss us. Ike is going to pass over Cuba instead and my part of South Florida is almost out of the cone of uncertainty.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Tablature for Brandi Carlile "Follow"

I first heard this song in a torrent released by the SXSW festival in 2006. What a great voice she has, and this song has such a good melody that I kept meaning to work out the chords and the picky bit at the start. So, here it finally is :) Looking at the videos on YouTube I notice she uses a capo, so adjust accordingly if you want to. Her wiki page loads much faster than her official site.

Tablature
The opening part is just a series of nice arpeggios picked on the highest three strings. You start in the shape of a D chord on the 11th fret.

"Follow...."

bar 1 bar 2 bar 3 bar 4 bar 5 bar 6 bar 7
10 10 10 7 7 10 7
11 10 9 9 8 11 8
10 10 10 9 9 10 9

"Hold out...."

B D#m B7 E Em B Em
F# A#m F#7 B Bm F# Bm


Lyrics
Follow your heart and see where it might take you
Don't let the world outside there break you
They know not who you are inside
They have never felt your hell
Don't ever let them crack...

B D#m
Hold out I know you feel it getting cold out
B7
Without the blanket for your soul now
E
Before you know it you'll be frozen
Em B
You have to see this through
Em
There's no one here but you

CHORUS
F# A#m
I feel the rain coming down
F#7 B
It reminds me of who I used to be
Bm F#
But now that's nothing more
Bm
Then a memory

Don't go, to sleep and cry because tomorrow
If you let it it will swallow
You up and none of this will matter
Will matter anymore

CHORUS
I feel the rain coming down
It reminds me of who I used to be
But now that's nothing more
Than a memory

CHORUS
I feel the rain coming down
It reminds me of who I used to be
But now that's nothing more
Than a memory

Follow your heart and see where it might take you
Don't let the world outside there break you
They know not who you are inside
They have never felt your hell
Don't ever let them crack...
Your shell...

Friday, August 22, 2008

Sold My Wii

I'm now Wii-less. I bought a Nintendo Wii just after it came out (use www.wiitracker.com if you still think the only way to get one is to drive to stores and ask. Sheesh.) I bought Excite Truck to go with it and played the heck out of that game and reached #5 on an online high-score tracking site (it's not built into the game). I liked Wii Sports a lot too, of course, especially bowling, but after Mum and Dad's visit a while ago, it just sat there. I'd bought the recent Zelda game too, but didn't enjoy it much. I think Nintendo took too long to get online games working -- they didn't even put online high scores into games, let alone internet play, until quite recently. In fact, it was the huge competitive boost I got by putting my Excite Truck scores into Cyberscore.net that pushed me towards buying an Xbox, who's games are more online than the Wii's.

I realized that the second hand market is still red-hot for the Wii and if I was going to sell it, sooner would be better than later. If I really want to get a Wii again I'm sure Nintendo will start building them in enough quantity that the used price will drop in a year or two.

So it's just the Xbox now, which is used mostly for playing videos off my PC. I have a big increase in my Space Giraffe highscore just around the corner, which I've been meaning to get back to for about a month. Oh, and I moved a record player into the living room too; make of that what you will :)
No More Prosper For Me

I've decided to stop investing at Prosper.com. Maybe its the credit crunch and the general near-recession in the economy, but my borrowers are dropping like flies. If all my current lates don't start making payments soon, I'll be almost in negative returns. I'm still showing a 19% return, but that's only because most of my borrowers are still current and also Prosper.com doesn't sell the loans off as quickly as they used to. I think that's because they'd have a hard time selling them, so they just hang on and hope their collections agency will eventually convince the lates to start paying again. Not much hope of that...so far my 7 hard-core lates have made half a payment between them. Yes, one of them made half a payment. Many of those 7 made either 1 payment or NONE before dropping out. One guy declared bankruptcy after just 2 payments.

Don't lend at prosper.com; it's too hard to pick the winners.

I'm still *fairly* confident that I'll be able to start investing there again under two new conditions: the economy has to turn around and I should pick slightly less risky loans (yes, I went hell-for-leather on risk, I know). Also, avoid ANYONE involved in real estate.
Got a G'zOne Cellphone

I've had an old cellphone from work for about three years, a Samsung a650, and thought it might be my turn to upgrade to a shinier model. Luckily it was and I got a G'zOne.

I'm not sure why we need to get something dust and water resistant, but hey-ho, it's all good. What confused me a little though was how you pronounce it's name, and why is the "O" capitalized. "Gee zone", "guh-zone"...could it be a Narn from Babylon 5? "Gee Zone" seemed right, so I left it at that.

As I was reading the manual though (ooh, voice command, spiffy!) I realized there's a British pronunciation that would not be obvious, or even comprehensible to most Americans: "G'zOne" = "Giz One". As in "Give us one", as in "Give me one". It's common in English slang to use the word "us" to mean "me", especially if the speaker is a young, cocky lad.

I had to admire the layers of interpretation put into this name by the manufacturers: I wonder if it was intentional?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Protein Folding with FoldIt

I have a new obsession :) Those who know me well have seen me do this many, many times. A new shiny thing comes along and I'm absolutely bonkers about it for a few weeks before moving on to the next thing. My new favourite is called FoldIt and it's a protein folding simulation.

Wow. Protein folding....mmmm...cancel the trip to Disney kids, lets fold protein instead! Whatthehell?

It's a game built around a real scientific problem, that of predicting what physical shape a teeny-tiny protein will fold into in nature. This is important because their shape determines their function, and by knowing the exact shape of a protein, you'll be able to tell what it will do inside a living being. It might cure you or kill you, or do nothing. Or cure cancer. The fly in the ointment is that it is astoundingly difficult to know what shape a protein will take. As you play the game, it calculates your score based on how much energy it takes for the protein to hold that shape (lower is better), and your score is immediately shared online against every else's best score, so there's a real feel of friendly competition.

By learning to play the game, you're also taking part in an experiment to see if human intuition about the way shapes fold together is better than the current automated 'brute-force' approach used by computers, which basically try every position they can think of and see which one is best. This takes a very long time and gets ridiculously slow on large proteins.

You can see videos of the game in action here and when I got a chance to ask one of the developers if the game had worked; if we'd come up with good protein designs quickly enough, he said they'd been blown away by how well we'd done. He didn't have time to elaborate, but I'd say that's good news. We'll soon be put into the CASP challenge, a biannual competition to see who's software can compute protein shapes the most accurately. It'll be very interesting to see if a swarm of barely trained people playing with shapes can beat the automatons, won't it?

It's really got into my brain and I've played it a lot this week: there were two nights I skipped dinner! I've got the current high score on a few of the current puzzles and top ten scores on several others, so I guess I've figured out some tricks that work pretty well. Eventually the developers want to figure out how to capture those "tricks" and put them into their software (which you can run on PC at home without even knowing its there - do it!)
Problems with giveio.sys on a reboot

There was a brief power interruption early this morning and afterwards my PC wouldn't start again (ARGH!) I went through the usual steps and the safe-mode startup gave me what I thought was a clue. The last message it gave before freezing up again was that it was loading a driver called giveio.sys, which was installed by a fan speed controlling program.

A quick google search revealed a bunch of people reporting the same thing. I followed the suggested fixes but nothing worked. I realized, though, that this was a red herring! I'm typing this on my resuscitated and fully working PC because I noticed something else was ACTUALLY wrong.

Loading giveio.sys was the last successful thing the boot process managed to do. It could be that it was trying to do something else that it didn't tell you it was trying to do and that's what froze up!

If you have this problem too, try the following:

1) Insert your Windows XP CD-ROM into the CD drive
2) Start the PC and let it boot from the CD.
3) Choose the "Repair" option - you'll be taken to the "Recovery Console"
4) type "c:" and press enter, then type "dir" and press enter.
5) Do the same with your other hard disks (d:, e: etc)
6) One of them (it was my windows drive) might not report its directory contents - instead you'll get "an error occurred during directory enumeration", meaning the disk is discombobulated.

Type "chkdsk" when you're "in" this drive and let it do its thing. Mine took a few minutes and when it was done I could do a "dir" command successfully. Type "exit" to leave the console and reboot, and you're back in action.

There's an interesting lesson to be learned here about reading log files; one I've seen confuse users in my own working life. If your software is about to try something that might fail, you should show that's what you're doing. Otherwise users will naturally assume that the last thing on the log file (giveio.sys in this case) is actually at fault, especially if you don't include a message that says you successfully completed that LAST task.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Thomas Barnett presents a talk at TED entitled The Pentagon's new map for war and peace. It's the first thing I've seen that makes me think the U.S military might one day stop making things up as they go along.

Many of the other presentations at TED.com are brilliant, so pick an area of interest and get into it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Do you want a colossal amount of free music? These are torrents containing a track from each band at the annual SXSW film, which is held in Austin, Texas every year.

http://hewgill.com/sxsw/

If you don't yet have torrent software, I recommend utorrent. Yes, it's legal to do this, don't worry! I do this every year and pick out my favourite tracks, make a CD and enjoy it for a good long while.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

My Experience With Prosper.com

Fantastic!! Prosper.com is one of a handful of companies that allow people to lend and borrow money directly from other people. Unsecured loans of between $1000 and $25000 dollars can be set up through Prosper.com, and lenders can distribute as little as $50 at a time. By lending equal amounts to a lot of people, lenders can spread their risk out and make it less likely that they will make a loss.

Lenders can pick through thousands of listings using a powerful search engine and no, you're not just reading a "story" from each borrower: you see a summary of their real credit profile, showing you how many delinquencies, how much money they have borrowed, their debt-to-income ratio, and a lot of other real financial data that you can use to help determine how risky it would be to loan this person money. The person's explanation for why they are seeking a loan is also shown, and they are strongly encouraged to post a basic monthly budget.

I began in September 2006 by investing a few hundred dollars in five or six different people. Over the next eighteen months I built this up to around $1500 across 24 people and only one defaulted on their payments. Looking back on that loan description now I saw all the warning signs that I now recognize pegging the person as a bad risk :) The rest have been very steady in their repayments aside from the occasional hiccup, but everyone is up to date with their payments and returning (according to a calculation at lendingstats.com) a very healthy 22.8% (it goes up slightly each day too!).

It came as a surprise, though, that out of all the lenders who are well-diversified (more than 20 loans) and have been in the system for a while (6 months), I'm actually the most successful!! Out of 9100 lenders who's average loan age is 6 months I'm #1! :) This may not last forever, of course; there are two lenders in the 3-month bracket who may overtake me soon, but still, I'm very pleasantly surprised at how well I've picked the loans I made so far.

I have recently decided to put more money into my Prosper.com lending and now have around $2000 and 30 loans, with more in the pipeline. Just to keep things from going overboard, I'm only putting in money I've made from my eBay and Amazon sales, and have developed a new lending strategy or two that I'm testing out. If they are successful, I'll increase that lending again.

Prosper.com has become a safer lending environment since I began. They added more real financial data about potential borrowers, thus making it easy to spot potential problems before they happen. They also beefed up their security and collections processes. They even added warnings to naive bidders who might be about to bid on a loan at too low an interest rate - it gets a bit technical at this point, but it all adds up to more confidence on my part that I'm making a good investment.

It's still a risky one though - the loan is unsecured and should, for the moment, be considered a "non-core" investment in your savings plans. If you've ever read about keeping 5% of your portfolio for "play money", to invest in the latest fad on Wall Street, or penny stocks, or an emu farm, consider Prosper.com as an interesting place to invest some of your money. I'm very glad I did!

If you'd like to join Prosper.com, please click here, or use the graphic at the top of this blog. We'll each get a $25 bonus and I'll be happy to get you started with information on how I choose loans to lend to.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Shopping - The Hard Way

I went to the post office this morning to send out a book someone bought from me. When I got there I saw a woman, perhaps in her early forties, with an 18 month old child in her arm waiting for help. I asked if she was in line or not, and she said no, she was waiting for someone to give her a cart. She sounded rather put out that none of the post office staff would help her carry her parcels in, nor get her a cart.

As I thought about offering to help her carry her stuff in (I like helping people!), a dolly was brought out...."Don't you have a rolling cart? I can't use this with her..."

"I'll help you out," says me, and we go out to her white Hummer and pull out four or five boxes, one is quite large, the rest medium sized. One set of "stuff" is a bunch of toys in a plastic wash basin wrapped in plastic food wrap. It's about 3 feet long, 2 feet wide....She's hoping to get a box from the post office for this item, but I told her they probably won't have any of that size.

So we're in line talking about the stuff and how she's going to have to ship it priority for it to reach her son in New York by the weekend. Her son is having a baby and she's sending this array of toys. I warn her that priority mail can be expensive, especially on such big boxes. She didn't seem too concerned, but did say "Oh my...it'll probably cost me as much to mail it as it did to buy it all!"

I'd assumed that the toys were all hand-me-downs, but no, she'd been out and bought it all new, packed it, brought it to the post office and was about to pay through the nose for shipping. Do you see what's wrong here?!

"Why didn't you buy it online and just have it shipped to him?" I asked, ever the practical one. "I mean, Amazon has free shipping if you buy more than $25 of stuff, and you'd been click-click done in ten minutes. "Oh, that wouldn't be as much fun!" she laughed, pointing out with light sarcasm how enjoyable the crowds, lining up, getting price checks etc. can be. Two other ladies in line nodded and agreed...

I got the feeling they all thought I was right, but didn't want to give up their allegiance to shopping the old-fashioned way. I don't know why they'd do this (assuming I'm reading them correctly), but this lady seemed to have gone through the whole process in the hardest, and most expensive, way possible. I can only assume the current financial crisis hasn't reached up to her yet, but many people's lives have been hit hard, and attitudes to money are starting to change.

If you didn't know this already, its an interesting statistic: 70% of the American economy is made up of people shopping. Not companies buying aircraft or equipment, just you 'n' me wearing out shoes and passing time at the mall ("Recreational Shopping"?!). Americans have shown a remarkable willingness to spend more and more of their income on "stuff", and then to go further...they took out loans against the rapidly rising value of their houses, and spent that too, confident that living in debt was not a problem....until it was.

To me, this is a situation that can't go on much longer, and it seems to be coming to an end. This New York Times article says people are starting to live within their means, not buying anything on credit, not incurring more debt...just using good old cash, and saving for the things they want. This is much more sensible and is also a sustainable way of life - surely its better to have an economy built on something that CAN continue, rather than something which can't, isn't it?