Wednesday, August 24, 2011


If I can find a $100 Touchpad I'll get one, just to check out the form factor. I'm confident an open source OS will be ported to it in time, and in any case, $100 is almost throw away money.

As for the others:
  • iPad - Proprietary, locked down, no.
  • Honeycomb tablets - I'm not spending $400+ to be a beta tester.
  • Non-Honeycomb Android tablets - They all seem a little lacking, dontchathink? Plus they all run a version of Android really not suited to the environment.
  • PlayBook - Proprietary OS, no.
I keep being tempted to get something like the ViewSonic G-Tablet and stick the unofficial ports of Honeycomb to it. Then I come to my senses:
  • 1024x600 screen. Actually, in fairness, the rest of the hardware is very nice.
  • "Unofficial" port of Honeycomb is somewhat lacking, in large part because of the lack of source code to Honeycomb itself.
  • It probably sounds like I'm cheating and mentioning the first two points again, but Honeycomb 3.0 was designed for a 1280x800 screen. While 3.1+ relax that requirement, the UI hasn't changed that much, and it's still reasonable to think 1024x600 is too small.
We'll see. Supposedly Archos will be releasing a 10" Honeycomb tablet for $350 next month. That's a step in the right direction, but it's still a lot of money for something I don't want so much as professionally need to familiarize myself with. And yes, that's not me making excuses, because if I really wanted one, I'd have ordered something by now!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Deflation and Debt Slavery

Consider the following. You live in a world that is growing every day. With that growth, economies of scale and improvements in technology conspire to bring forward real, practical, improvements in the reward you receive for your labor.

In this world, as in any other, you need to be a part of a society to benefit from the growth, and so you need a roof over your head in a location that allows you to work, to obtain the resources necessary for your survival, and, well, to live.

One option provided to you is to obtain a loan to purchase a house. The terms of the loan are, apparently, quite simple: you pay a fixed amount every month, for thirty years, and at the end of the loan you own the house. Should you stop paying, then you lose the house, and probably a lot of money at the same time, but you can always pay the loan off early, and you should be able to do so simply by selling the house.

Put these together, and you make your decision based upon the reality that your life exists within the growing economy. Unless you make some colossal errors, your income will rise, and based upon this fact, you can reasonably assume that the loan payments will become less burdensome over time. Should you make the colossal errors, you still have Plan B, in that you can sell the house, and use the proceeds to pay off the loan.

Following me so far? Good.

Now, what if I were to tell you that a sizable part of the political establishment right now believes that the value of the loan should be tied to the size of the economy, or worse, should actually grow in weight faster than the economy does. That the burden of debt repayments should always get worse, not better. And that escape routes, such as selling your home, should become more difficult, because the price of your home should never rise, and could even fall.

That's what deflation is. When people are proposing deflation, or claiming it is somehow better than inflation, they're proposing that the value of a dollar should increase. This means that things priced in dollars, such as homes, will reduce in dollar value. It means that someone can take your salary and say "Well, in real terms your salary has increased by 5% over the year, because the dollar now pays for 5% more "stuff", but we only saw a 3% increase in productivity, so we're going to cut your salary by the difference."

So even though you may be more valuable, that you may be working harder than ever before, a loan you took in good faith will become more and more of a burden, and your ability to spend money on other essentials will steadily erode. And realistically, you end up defaulting on your obligations, and the debts pile up, and become more and more burdensome, until you're unable to see a date where you'll pay them off in your own lifetime.

Now the counter argument made by some is "What of it? We need a new economy where people work, save, and then receive the items they need." With respect, this is sheer idiocy.

To begin with, that's not the world now, and to switch to that system without nullifying every loan ever made is unspeakably cruel and unfair.

But moreover, when do you expect people to have the money to buy the things they need? Is it reasonable for someone to be unable to buy a place to live until they're 50? What would be the consequences of a system where people have to wait decades before they can do such a thing, given that new homes are built, unquestionably improving the housing stock, providing good jobs to a sizable portion of the population in the process, because people buy homes when they can afford loan payments?

And this is one example. From someone buying a television on credit, to a business starting up with a business loan, the simple reality is that loans make it possible for commerce to happen that simply wouldn't happen otherwise. And that means growth. And that means we live in 2011, in a society that's pretty close to free from want, from hunger and a lack of shelter, and one in which the vast majority live in unparalleled luxury.

Is inflation, rather then deflation, fair? It's a fair question, but it's also worth noting that inflation hardly has the same effects as deflation. Inflation encourages lending and borrowing, as both sides see it in the best interests to ensure money is "working", that it's in the hands of people who can turn it into more money. Yet, for some reason, ordinary, non-extreme, inflation is seen by many politicians as a terrible thing. Not because of stagflation, or any practical reason like that, but because it's seen as immoral and wrong, a way to steal from those who hoard large piles of green pieces of paper.

I think this is wrong, and I just felt like writing a journal entry to explain why.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

A thought about States Rights

My limited understanding of the States Rights argument is that proponents want to switch to a system where each US state has high sovereignty, with only some functions transferred to the Fed, notably the currency, military, etc, and some limited cases where it's useful for the Fed to promote cooperation between the states.

Ignore the military for a moment, let's focus on the economy.

Excluding Britain, isn't that pretty much a description of Europe? Is the economic side of this system working there? If not, why?

(BTW isn't it somewhat ironic that the people who are usually the loudest advocates of this system would be the most offended if they heard the concept described as "European"? Of course, they'd rightly argue Europe was inspired by the US, not the other way around, but I thought I'd throw that out there.)

Monday, August 15, 2011

Stock Market - 4

So, the current situation is:

Today my portfolio finally reached break even. That doesn't mean each investment finally did, CSX is a long way from doing that, but, perhaps surprisingly, my REIT investment did.

Oh but I cheated. When the market had appeared to bottom,  I doubled my investment in the latter. Hey, it pays a 15% dividend, it's worth it.

I have sold my General Mills stake, and also the gold ETF I bought. I may go back into the latter at a later date but I don't think the price is stable right now. I'm going to look for a different food company.

In the last couple of weeks I bought stock in a telco (Frontier) and an oil/gas company (Brietburn.) The latter has gone down in value, but the former I also bought when the market bottomed and has shot up as a result.

So... hopefully the portfolio will mostly grow from here on, and I can sit and wait for the dividends to roll in. :-)

Google and Motorola

Well, I think it's a good thing.

It'd have been nicer if Google didn't feel obliged to buy Motorola just for the patents, but, that's the world we live in. In the meantime, perhaps there's also a major DBMS vendor they could buy to stop a certain corporation whose most recent act of villainy was to, uh, swallow the Sun?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Stock Market - 3

So, continuing the thread...

As I said a month ago, I started investing in the stock market. Unfortunately (1) I chose exactly the moment the market started tanking, and (2) I'm stuck with a rule that says I can't sell an equity unless I've owned it for a month.

So... the good news is that I finally started to reduce my losses. Indeed, today, when the markets were down about 5%, I "only" lost 2%. The strategy I took was to complement some of the stocks with hedges, these being:
  • Gold. Which didn't help today, but it's helped the last couple of weeks
  • DOG, an ETF that negatively tracks the Dow. This is a safe way to "short" an index, you risk only the money you spent on the ETF. Indeed, for shits and giggles I set up a watch list where I pretended to sink an equal amount of money in an oil futures ETF, and an ETF that shorts it, and found that... I would have made money had I done it for real. Not a lot of money, but, well, money is money.
  • SPXU, an ETF that "ultrashorts" the S&P. An ultrashort ETF is similar to the above, but tries strategies that will double the effect. I bought very little of this, very late in the day (ie, the day before yesterday), and as a result it hasn't done a great deal yet.
Finally, it turned out that buying a bold ETF when I did (BIV) was a good idea. It's probably time to sell on Monday when the Treasury will be flooding the market with them, but for now it's done its job of making things less disastrous.

Still, I've lost about 5% total on my portfolio since I started, and I'm not happy about that. Main problems:
  • CSX - nothing about this stock should be negative, and yet I've lost about 15% on it since I bought it. I don't understand why. They've had nothing but good news.
  • CIM - I bought this because it was high dividend. I can understand why confidence in the associated industry might be low, although it's still paying very decent dividends (and the company itself has good fundamentals.) This was one of my more dubious decisions, and I knew that going in, so I'm not going to get upset about it. I've lost about 15% on that too, which is a shame because that pretty much matches the yearly dividend.
Other stocks like GIS have been relatively neutral, after looking bad. I got a dividend from GIS, which is nice.

I added a bunch of positions at the beginning of the week, notably a small-cap oil/gas company that operates within the US, and a chocolate maker. Both have lost value but so has everyone so...

Advice? If you're stuck with stock like I am, hedge.

If you're not, don't buy right now.

My next big experiment will probably be with options. But I'm going to avoid pumping in more money until I know where the market is going.

Steam vs Diesel

I thought I'd get away from politics for a moment and write something else that happens to include two of my favorite subjects: trains, and Civilization (the game, that is.) Well, it's just a thought process that hit me this morning, while I was driving to work and I was trying to figure out the relative complexity of a stream engine, and an internal combustion engine.

The question morphed into "Why was the steam engine invented when it was, and not the entirely different internal combustion engine?" To which a bunch of answers suddenly come together that then expand into a big cloud of explanationness. Answers to questions like "What's with the big wheels?", "Where the gears at?", and "Coal? Srsly?"

How this fits into Civilization is this. Civ is based upon the fact that technologies cannot exist until other technologies they depend upon exist. I figured it was possible to do an analysis to determine why each were invented when they were invented.

So, let's begin, and I'm going to begin with some pictures demonstrating a locomotive type:

Here's a steam engine that uses this layout:

This is what's called a "Pacific", the term doesn't refer to any specific locomotive, but rather a class of steam locomotives that have a particular wheel layout. They're also classified as "4-6-2", which means "four non-driving wheels at the front, six driving wheels in the middle, and two at the end." (If you're thinking "Shouldn't it be 2-3-1?" - think "two rows of wheels, one on each side") The tender isn't included in this. I'm picking on the Pacific because, well, it's a good example of all of the elements that made up a classic stream locomotive just before everyone switched to electric and diesel. In some ways, it's a great big kludge, a collection of hacks designed to make the thing work with contemporary speed and power requirements - but that's not a nice thing to say, and most train enthusiasts would want to smack me for saying that, because the vast majority of Pacifics were beautiful machines.

Anyway, notice the following elements:
  • Big driving wheels, attached directly to the body of the locomotive.
  • More, smaller, wheels at the front and back
  • A transmission that involves big long metal rods pushing and pulling things. There are no gears. None whatsoever.
For comparison, here's a fairly typical diesel locomotive:

This is what's known as a Co-Co diesel locomotive. It has nothing to do with Conan. All that means is that it has two trucks (American terminology, and what I'll use from here on) or bogies (British terminology, also slang for dried mucus), each with six wheels (three per side), all of which are driven wheels (wheels connected to an engine.) Engines with four wheels per truck are also common, and are called Bo-Bos.

How a diesel driven vehicle transmits motion to the wheels differs from application to application. For road vehicles (ie cars, trucks), and for a type of train called a Diesel Multiple Unit (DMU), typically a mechanical transmission that uses gears is implemented. Locomotives are another matter, and the vast majority use an electrical transmission - the diesel engine itself drives a generator, that drives electric motors attached directly to each axle. Those that don't use electrical transmissions usually use some other, non-mechanical, system, such as a hydraulic system. 

Diesel engines were pretty much like this from the beginning, they were generally never incorporated any of the lessons learned from steam engine design.  They pack more power into a smaller space and are much lighter, in large part because of the differences in form factor. And while some efforts have been made to make steam engines that have that form factor, they haven't been very successful, in large part because they suffered virtually all of the disadvantages of a steam system and a diesel engine without retaining many positives of either design.

Internal combustion engines differ from steam engines in a large number of respects:
  • With the exception of diesel, virtually all IC engines require a timed spark generation system, which in practice needs to be electrical.
  • Each stroke of the engine starts with a high power, high intensity, explosion. To minimize stresses on the engine's cylinders, this needs to be converted to kinetic energy as quickly as possible. Diesel engines typically use a large number of cycles per second, using smaller cylinders than a steam engine, as a result of this.


The first "railways" date back millennia. Initially little more than gooved tracks for wagon wheels, these evolved into plateways and finally modern railways as we know them today. Plateways involved horse drawn lines of carts, with flanged wheels on wooden or cast iron rails.

When the first steam locomotives appeared, largely in the early nineteenth century, that was the infrastructure, and the first locomotives wouldn't run on them. New railways were built, initially with cast iron rails, and then with wrought-iron when it became frighteningly obvious that cast iron was completely unsuitable. (When low cost methods to manufacture steel in bulk came along, rails were switched to steel for obvious reasons.)

Here you already see evidence of why certain decisions were made in the early evolution of steam. Cast iron was replaced with wrought iron. In the 1700s, cast iron was a cheap, easily obtained, metal for which mass production processes had already been developed. Cast iron is a carbon-rich iron alloy famous for its compressive strength and endurance but also infamous for how brittle it is. And wrought iron - well, wrought iron is as close as anyone could make to pure iron prior to the last hundred years or so, but was always extremely labor intensive to produce. Softer than cast iron, it was at least malleable. But it wasn't as strong as steel.

What about steel? Established methods for making steel in the 1700s and early 1800s were both energy and labor intensive. Melted wrought iron would be fused with carbon over a period of days of constant heat. It simply wasn't an option for early railway builders because steel was much, much, more expensive than either cast or wrought iron.

What about power? Portable power sources were plentiful in the early 19th Century, with solid fuels like wood and coal being by far the most common. Gases were rare, and oils existed but there was no serious industry to extract them - be that from the ground, or from plants - in massive quantities. Refining processes for oils extracted from the ground were very much in their infancy. Kerosene, the fuel that started the oil industry, didn't really start to be produced in high quantities until the mid 1800s. Fuels we know and "love" today like Gasoline and Diesel didn't come until much later.

And it's worth mentioning that electricity was more of a theoretical quantity than a practical technology in the early 1800s. The first practical battery, as we'd know it today, wasn't invented until 1836, and it wasn't portable.

Requirements of each engine

Steam engines consist of:
  • A strong, high pressure, boiler, to make the steam
  • A heat source for the boiler
  • A valve/piston system to convert the pressure of the steam into movement
  • A timing method to inject steam into the valve/piston system, and to allow it to be released
  • A transmission method to convert the movement into rotational action upon the wheels
 For IC engines, we need:
  • A fuel that can easily be inserted into the system as needed right to where it will be combusted
  • A system to insert that fuel, with air, into the system when needed.
  • A system to combust the fuel and air.
  • Strong, high pressure, valves/pistons to contain the explosions, and convert each into movement
  • A transmission method to convert the movement into rotational action
  • A system of gears, or some other transmission method, to reduce the rotational action to a useful speed.

In practice, these systems require the following technologies:

Steam engines:
  • Steam boilers require materials strong enough to contain a large amount of steam. In the 1700s/early 1800s, this in practice meant iron and cast iron. The systems weren't perfect, but they worked.
  • Any heat source will do for heating the boiler, and so simply building a hot fire as needed would be all that was necessary. Coal quickly became the fuel of choice, as it was cheap and easy for a fireman to manage. In the 20th Century some very late steam locomotive designs used oil, largely because it made the process of managing the fire easier, but it wasn't necessary.
  • The valve/piston system again needed to contain high pressures, and convert high amounts of energy into torque. In practice, we were talking about a largely solid box containing a piston, with valves operated by a system of control rods. Again, iron/cast iron were perfectly adequate for the job.
  • A system of connected, pivoted, rods called a "valve gear", was attached to the near-edge of a driving wheel. As the wheel turned, it pushed the rods to and from the valves, ensuring they'd be opened and closed at the right times.
  • The transmission for an engine of this kind needed to be simple, and extremely strong. In fact, with the design settled upon by locomotive designers, it needed high tensile and compression strength. A heavy, strong, rod was attached to the piston, which in turn was connected to a point on the near edge of a driving wheel. The other driving wheels were connected to one another with a horizontal bar that, likewise, was heavy and strong. As the piston rod moved in and out, it turned the attached driving wheel, which in turn drove the other wheels. Again, the iron technologies of the 1700s were more than up to the task of implementing this.
For diesel, things aren't quite as positive:
  • Realistically, an automated process needs to inject fuel into the cylinders due to the large number of combustions per minute. This, in turn, makes it extremely difficult to use solid fuels. Liquid and gaseous fuels certainly existed in the 18th and early 19th Century, but they weren't cheap. They wouldn't have been on anyone's list of potential ways to drive something that required the enormous amounts of power a locomotive requires.
  • Certainly had gas or oil been more cost effective in the time period, it wouldn't have been hard to create a method to inject fuel into the engine. No high pressures are required, just a pump and some method to time the injections, which could be connected to the output.
  • However, actually exploding the fuel when needed might have been a problem. For most fuels, some form of reliable spark generator, one that doesn't exhaust itself after several hundred thousand cycles, would have been needed. The immature state of electrical technology pretty much rules out anything requiring a spark generator. For diesel, no spark is required, just compression, but diesel was not available until long after the oil boom.
  • Steam got away with using regular and cast iron in the early days because while both suffer from fatigue, the number of stress cycles is relatively low for a steam engine. For an internal combustion engine, it's hard to imagine that this would be the case. Now, don't get me wrong - cast iron has been a component of engine blocks for many decades, but we're talking about considerably higher power requirements than that used by the average car engine. It seems improbable that the state of iron technology in the period would have produced a reliable, high MTBF, cylinder system.
  • The transmission method for an IC engine tends to be similar, in some ways, to a steam engine's, except that there's more than one piston, and so each drives a rod (crankshaft) connected to a bar with kinks on it, that's made to rotate by having each rod connected to the kinks. Again though, this is something that would be rotating much more quickly than a steam engine's driving wheel, and so would be suffering greater stresses, again raising the question of whether the period's iron technologies were up to the task.
  • Because of the speed of an IC engine's crankshaft, this can't be used to drive wheels directly. The available options are:
    • Gears. But... again, huge stresses are involved. Remember I was saying earlier that almost all diesel locomotives use electrical transmissions, and those that don't use other weird systems like hydraulics? Well, that's because even today's materials don't lend themselves to making gears that require this kind of strength.
    • Electrical transmissions - not available in the period in question.
    • Hydraulics - it'd be interesting to know if anyone could have thought of this at the time, but you'd have had problems producing flexible materials capable of withstanding the high pressures involved.

A system of hacks

Earlier I described a 4-6-2 as being, in some ways, a kludge. What do I mean?

The 4-6-2 was usually built as an express locomotive, used for fast, non-stop, trains.
Let's start with the "6". The big driving wheels are a product of the fact that a steam engine generally drives the wheels directly. The speed of the engine is finitely linked to the speed you can inject steam, and expel it, from the valves. The power of the engine is going to be linked to the size of the valves, which will have a negative effect on this speed. And finally, just to add insult to injury, if you start adding more than two valves (one per side of the locomotive) as a way around these limitations, you'll start having serious problems with timings. (Lest anyone think this is theoretical, actual four-cylinder locomotives, using two sets of wheels per side, were made in the early 20th Century, and these engines suffered from severe wheel slip issues, amongst other things.)

So, given this, how do you increase the speed of the engine? Well, the obvious solution is simply to increase the size of the wheels, which is exactly what a steam engine does - it has great big wheels, so each piston movement translates into a larger amount of movement.

The problem you get at this point is that big wheels have two problems. The first is that they're more prone to slip, and second their size makes them somewhat more difficult to turn curves, to the point that they're very likely to derail.

For the first, you have six wheels, rather than two. The issue with the locomotive following curves however required a little more work.

So our next hack involves the "4-" - the truck at the front. This has small wheels, that hug the track, pulling the locomotive in the right direction. The driving wheels thus need to make contact with the track, but they can have much more liberal flanges, allowing them to slide left and right without there being any risk of them leaving the track altogether.

Finally, the 4-6-2 needed a fairly large boiler to provide enough power to drive the engine at speed. With vertical space at a premium (and likewise width - think tunnels) the one solution to this is to make the engine longer. However, a long, heavy, boiler needs to be supported, and the two wheels at the back are for that.


So that's it. You probably knew all that anyway, I just enjoyed writing it down and figuring out the thought process.