Fri, 25 Mar 2005

Zopa, Consumer Lending

The latest newsletter from Springwise, which lists new businesses from around the world, mentions Zopa, which they describe as "eBay for money". The concept is fairly simple.

Zopa is a place where creditworthy people who want to borrow money can get together with people who are happy to lend it to them. And because there's no middleman - the borrower just pays a 1% exchange fee to Zopa up front - both get a great deal.

They pool loans together so each lender's loans are distributed among 50 or so borrowers. Lenders can decide what type of debtors they want to lend to based on the debtors' credit.

Zopa is only open to UK residents. I wonder how such a system would work in the states with each state having different lending laws. It's an interesting idea, and easier than standing outside the check cashing store looking for customers.

business » ideas | Comments | Permanent Link

Mon, 21 Mar 2005

How You Like Them Apples?

Five Apples

  1. I can't believe that once I've counted four apples, there are no more apples.

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Sat, 19 Mar 2005

Bums Can't Work, Silly

Neville has a couple ideas for how to make a little money without spending much money.

1.) Sell Water. That's right. Buy a 24-pack of bottled water, ice it, then sell on a hot day. Your $3.00 investment has turned a $21 profit in a small amount of time. This may seem like something only a bum would do, but trust me, you will learn more from this experience than in any marketing class. Water can be substituted with soft drinks, hot coco etc.

This sounds like a good idea. Just go buy some water and sell it. You'll be in business in 15 minutes. On the way to the park, just stop off to get a Business License, Seller's Permit, and Sidewalk Vending Permit. Here's a list of the other licenses and permits you might need to be in the Bottled Water or Sidewalk and Street Vending industries. Of course, if you don't live in California, it might not be so easy to get your business started because, as Governor Schwarzenegger says, California wants your business.

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Fri, 18 Mar 2005

The No-MBA Book Club

Seth Godin says that, in many cases, an MBA is a waste of time and money.

The fact is, though, that unless you want to be a consultant or an i-banker (where a top MBA is nothing but a screen for admission) it's hard for me to understand why this is a better use of time and money than actual experience combined with a dedicated reading of 30 or 40 books.

Not having been to business school, unlike Seth, it's hard for me to judge. I'm a big fan of book learning, but not school. I read two or three books per month. Recently, I've been reading more investment related books than business books. [Currently, I'm reading When Genius Failed and Conquer the Crash.]

Seth didn't list the 30 or 40 books to read, so Josh Kaufman picked up the thread. I'm surprised at how many books are on there that I haven't read. He has Guy Kawasaki's Art of the Start in there. The only Kawasaki book I've read is Rules For Revolutionaries which was hard to take seriously considering he added footnotes containing URLs for every company mentioned in the book. The one valuable lesson that I took away from the book was "Judge your results and other people's intentions" rather than vice versa.

There are a couple of books conspicuously absent from Josh's list.

I'd probably also include Differentiate or Die and The Discipline of Market Leaders. I haven't found an "A Ha!" marketing book yet, but these two books both have good ideas. The premise of the former is that there must be something that differentiates your company from competitors. The author gives a few examples of ways to differentiate. The first is having your company's product or service associated with a specific attribute the way Volvo is (was?) associated with safety. The goal is to have your customers think of your company when they think of the attribute. Other attributes might be reliability, speed, spiciness, or indestructibility. Other ways to differentiate suggested is specialization and having a "secret ingredient". Interestingly, customers don't need to understand what the secret ingredient is or does. The author used the example of Sony's Trinitron. Customers want it, but what the hell is it?

The Discipline of Market Leaders breaks successful companies into three groups.

  1. Operationally Efficient - companies that develop very organized systems to run with the utmost efficiency, e.g. Walmart and McDonald's
  2. Product Innovators - companies that that constantly invent new things, e.g. Sony and 3M
  3. Customer Intimate - companies that go out of their way to do whatever it takes to make their customers happy, e.g. Ritz Carlton and Nordstrom's

Our goal at Postica is to be operationally efficient.

Update: There should really be an accounting book included. Accounting the Easy Way is fantastic. I wish I would have read it years ago. Before reading any books on investing (fundamental analysis), you should learn at least as much accounting as is covered in this book. I convinced a women at Border's who was wanting to learn bookkeeping to buy this book.

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Acrobat Reader 7 for Linux

Adam Langley noticed that Adobe Reader 7 is now available for Linux. The update from version 5 has been long overdue. The new version uses GDK rather than Motif. It has some new features such as Save As Text, and will hopefully eliminate those annoying warnings about a PDF requiring a newer version of Acrobat Reader (though they always seem to be perfectly readable). Multiple PDFs are now opened within a single application window.

Here are some Debian packages I built based on Christian Marillat's packages. I'm sure he'll do a better job soon.

Update: Christian Marillat has added acroread packages to his testing and unstable repositories. You probably want to use those.

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Mon, 14 Mar 2005

Fixing Web Sites with Javascript

Hat tip1 to John Battelle for pointing out Greasemonkey, a Firefox plugin that allows you to run Javascript scripts on arbitrary sites to improve their appearance or usability.

The one script I find most immediately useful is one that fixes some deficiencies of Allmusic. Allmusic is a fantastically useful site, but since it's redesign, it has the annoying trait that every biography is truncated and ends with a Read More link. The script replaces those links with Javascript links that pull in the full biography using XMLHttpRequest. It is remarkably fast considering how sluggish the site often is in general.

1. John must get a lot of hat tips considering he has the number two result on google for hat tip on a page for which the term only appears in links to it.

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Finished 1120S

I finally finished the federal corporate taxes for Postica, the 1120S and related forms and schedules. It took a long time, but less than the 184 hours that the IRS estimates. Seriously, the IRS estimates it will take more than one man-month to file just the 1120S and K-1.

I filled out the return by hand first, and then copied the information into Taxsoftware.com's forms. Their software is very minimalist, especially compared to TaxAct which I've been using for years to do my taxes, first their Windows version, now the online version. The Taxsoftware software is a bunch of Java applet forms which, once completed, are used to generate a PDF form of the tax forms. Unfortunately, I couldn't figure out how to fix the background color of selected fields so I had to fill out each field blind, then remove focus to verify that I had entered the correct value. I tried changing a bunch of X resources to get the color to change, but was unsuccessful.

I'm almost done with the California return, 100S, too. Luckily, it's mostly copying data from the federal return. I do have to keep a separate depreciation schedule though since California doesn't allow the 50% bonus depreciation.

business » taxes | Comments | Permanent Link

Renting Cheaper Than Buying

NPR picked up The Economist's story about it now being cheaper to rent than buy in many markets.

(Via patrick.net)

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Sun, 13 Mar 2005

New Mattress is Alright

After a couple weeks on the new mattress, I decided that I like it. I no longer feel like I'm sinking into the mattress, and while I sleep on my side and stomach, it is very comfortable when lying on my back too. So, the Novafoam mattress gets a thumbs up.

misc | Comments | Permanent Link

Opt Out of Social Security

Join a church. Separate from state.

While doing my taxes this year, I discovered IRS Form 4029 which allows an individual to opt out of social security and medicare. To do so, you must be conscientiously opposed to accepting benefits of any private or public insurance that makes payments in the event of death, disability, old age, or retirement; or makes payments for the cost of medical care; or provides services for medical care. While I am conscientiously opposed to public insurance, I have no objections to private insurance. Of course, there are a couple other stipulations. You must also join a collectivist organization with a belief in the supernatural which has been in existance since at least 1950.

Individuals who wish to be self-sufficient or participate in private insurance programs rather than be part of the state's welfare system are unable to do so. I find this to be egregious. I have contact my elected representatives in Congress to let them know how I feel, but I'm not expecting much considering that both Senators Boxer and Feinstein have petitions on their home pages to preserve social security as is.

Here's the short note I sent to Congressman Sherman and the Senators, and the non-responsive form letter response from Ms. Boxer.

Congressman Sherman, As President Bush and Congress are currently working on the reform of Social Security, I would like to propose that one of the reforms include the ability of citizens to opt out of participation in the Social Security and Medicare insurance programs. Being a responsible individual, I plan to save enough money during my productive years to fund my retirement until death. I am conscientiously opposed to accepting welfare from the state and would be happy to waive all rights to Social Security benefits in return for not being required to contribute to the program. Such an option is available to members of certain religious organizations, and I would appreciate your support in ending such unconstitutional discrimination. Thank you for you time and I would be delighted to hear your thoughts on the issue. Sincerely, Christian Warden
Date: Fri, 4 Mar 2005 09:21:31 -0500 From: senator@boxer.senate.gov To: cwarden@xerus.org Subject: Responding to your message March 4, 2005 Mr. Christian Warden 18531 Prairie Street, Apartment 214 Northridge, California 91324-3156 Dear Mr. Warden: Thank you for writing to express your concerns about President Bush's plan to partially privatize Social Security. I appreciate hearing from you. Social Security is a crucial insurance program and an indispensable safety net for our people. It has been enormously successful. Before Social Security, over half of all seniors were poor. Today, 10 percent live in poverty. That is still too many, and we want to take care of that. What we do not want to do is go back to the days when 50 percent of our seniors were living in poverty. Under the President's plan, Social Security benefits would be cut by 45 percent. The average yearly payment would be only $5,700, which is 35 percent below the poverty line. That would be a tragic reversal of fortune for our people. Certainly we know that Social Security needs periodic adjustments. However, President Bush is misleading the American people by calling this a "crisis." According to the Social Security Trustees, there is enough money to pay full benefits until 2042. And according to the Congressional Budget Office, there is enough money to pay full benefits until 2052. Now more than ever -- as we are faced with an aging population, the imminent retirement of the baby boom generation, the costs of the war on terrorism, 40 million Americans without healthcare, and a ballooning budget deficit of well over $400 billion -- we cannot afford to divert needed funds away from an already stressed Social Security system. ^L This is too much of a risk to take with funds that so many workers are counting on for their retirement. Privatization would also impact people with disabilities, survivors of deceased workers, and 3 million children who depend on Social Security benefits. I feel strongly that we should not weaken Social Security or compromise its financial condition. Rest assured, I am committed to preserving the integrity of Social Security for generations to come. And it is not difficult to solve this challenge, just as we did in 1983. Again, thank you for taking the time to voice your concerns. Please continue to keep me informed about the issues that matter to you. Sincerely, Barbara Boxer United States Senator

Disclaimer: As a child, my mother received welfare. And while it allowed her to spend time raising me, given the choice, I would not want to be a burden on my neighbors.

business » taxes | Comments | Permanent Link

Getting a Toll-Free Number

We're getting business cards printed for Postica so we decided to get a toll-free number to put on them. It will be good to have on the web site too, since we currently just have our support email address.

A search on Google for 800 number or toll-free number brings up a ton of ads. We went with GotVMail because the price is good and we were able to sign up online in about 10 minutes. We didn't have to talk to a salesperson or fax any forms like other companies require. We're paying $9.95/month plus 7.4 cents/minute. If we start getting a lot of calls, we can start buying blocks of minutes for about 5 cents/minute.

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Thu, 03 Mar 2005

iPodder on Debian

I still don't quite understand what all the hoopla around podcasting is about, but since KCRW started offering feeds of their programs, I thought I'd check it out. I don't have an mp3 player, so I was thinking I might listen to some programs while working or listen to them through my Tivo.

I downloaded an RPM of iPodder, converted it to a Debian package using alien and installed it. It looks like it requires wxPython 2.5 so I installed the libwxgtk2.5.3-python package. Since I also have wxPython 2.4 installed, I had to update /opt/iPodder/iPodderGui.py to use the right version. Here's the diff:

--- iPodderGui.py.orig  2005-03-03 11:28:58.000000000 -0800
+++ iPodderGui.py       2005-03-03 11:29:06.000000000 -0800
@@ -1,3 +1,5 @@
+import wxversion
+wxversion.select('2.5')
 import wx
 import wx.xrc as xrc
 import  wx.lib.filebrowsebutton as filebrowse

I still don't see what's so great about this. I'd be happy if straw supported enclosures so I could just download the mp3s from there.

Update: Mostly as an exercise, I've created a Debian package for iPodder.

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Tue, 01 Mar 2005

First Night on a New Novafoam Mattress

We bought one of those memory foam mattresses, a Novafoam one from Costco in particular. Buying a mattress sucks. We went to bunch of different stores and looked at pretty much all of the different types of mattresses out there.

We live in a small apartment with only room for a full-sized bed so we didn't want to spend a lot of money on a mattress because we'll probably buy a queen or king in a couple years. We've been using a futon mattress that's about 4 years old. It was great when I bought it, but now, the middle of it has been compressed to about 25% of its original thickness making it not very comfortable.

First, we went to Robinson's May and Sear's in the Northridge mall. The mattresses at Sear's were filthy so I couldn't get Denisa to try many out. Plus the sales guy yelled at potential customers, "Don't do that! Never do that!", as they were touching the mattresses. "Never just touch the mattress. You have to lie down on it."

Robinson's May was much nicer, but after lying on a couple mattresses, I was ready to call it a day. I thought it was just the clothing, but everything in the mall sucks the life out of you. I don't know how I spent all those days after school during my junior-high years wandering around the Del Amo mall. We stopped by the Select Comfort store before leaving. They are the ones that make those "sleep number" air mattresses. The beds were pretty comfortable, but the sales guy was too pushy, telling us how important it is to get a good night's sleep. Duh, that's why we're shopping for a bed. Plus, the fact that they charge $200 to add the digital remote control that shows the sleep number instead of the remote without an LCD display pissed me off. Not that I'd need it, but I just think that's ridiculous. But I guess the marketing ploy works for them. The sales guy did tell us that we should try the Tempur-Pedic mattresses.

Tempur-Pedic's gimmick is that their memory foam was developed at NASA. We tried it out at a mattress warehouse store and it was very comfortable. At around $1,300, we passed. The mattress warehouse place actually had the type of mattresses that I had been looking for all along. Denisa's mattress from childhood is about 20 years old, made from foam, and is still in great shape. It's nice and firm and hasn't lost its form at all. If communists were making such mattresses 20 years ago in Czechoslovakia, surely they must be available in the U.S. Well, this store did have some foam mattresses, latex and polyurethane, but they cost as much as an inner spring mattress. Our search continued.

We went to Costco to see what they had. They have good old-fashioned Sealy Posturpedic mattresses, but they didn't have the firm ones in the store, just a softer one. And they only had queen and twin. We could have ordered the firm full-size one, but we couldn't test it out first. We would have to make a decision by touching a dirty one-foot square sample.

So we decided to buy the Costco version of the memory foam mattress online. It's made by a company called Sleep Innovations. I figured it would feel similar to the Tempur-Pedic one, and if it weren't comfortable, Costco will take anything back.

It arrived yesterday. It weighs about 80 pounds and comes in a box. Within the box, the mattress is folded up in a vacuum sealed bag. The instructions say to let the mattress decompress for 24 to 72 hours, but by the time we were ready for bed last night, about six hours after I removed it from the bag, it looked like it was ready. It's 12 inches thick, putting us at least 8 inches higher off ground than we were before.

Unfortunately, I didn't sleep very well last night. I woke up at around 4am and had a hard time getting back to sleep. It felt like my pelvis was sinking too deep into the bed. Denisa loves the new mattress, mostly because it's much warmer than the futon. I'll have to give it some time. Hopefully, I'll get used to it.

Update: After a couple weeks, I've decided I like the mattress. For some reason, my old feather pillow seems inadequate though. I'm tempted to get some of these fancy Novafoam pillows to go with the mattress, but $100 each seems pretty steep.

Update (11/12/2008): Three years later, we're still happy with the mattress.

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Housing Crash Links

I've created an rss feed of Patrick's Housing Crash links. Many of the links don't make it to his blog.
Subscribe here

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MySQL with SSL on Debian

Due to licensing issues, the Debian packages for MySQL are not built with OpenSSL support. In order to enable SSL, the packages must be recompiled.

server:/usr/src# apt-get build-dep mysql-server
server:/usr/src# apt-get install libssl-dev
server:/usr/src# apt-get source mysql-server
server:/usr/src# cd mysql-dfsg-4.0.23 (or whatever version you're building)
server:/usr/src/mysql-dfsg-4.0.23# vi debian/rules

Change --without-ssl to --with-ssl.

server:/usr/src/mysql-dfsg-4.0.23# vi debian/changelog

Add an entry to the top of the changelog.

mysql-dfsg (4.0.23-4-zerolag-1) unstable; urgency=low

  * Compile with OpenSSL support

 -- Christian Warden   Fri, 25 Feb 2005 12:32:05 -0800

Then build and install the packages.

server:/usr/src/mysql-dfsg-4.0.23# ./debian/rules binary
server:/usr/src/mysql-dfsg-4.0.23# dpkg -i ../*mysql*.deb

If you already an SSL certificate that you're using with mod_ssl, you can use that. Otherwise, generate a new key and certificate. See /usr/share/doc/mysql-server/SSL-MINI-HOWTO.txt.gz for information on how to generate a self-signed certificate. Add the key and certificate to /etc/mysql/my.cnf.

[mysqld]
...
ssl-key=/etc/mysql/server.key
ssl-cert=/etc/mysql/cert.key

Create a user in MySQL that requires SSL encryption.

mysql> GRANT ALL on db.* to user@10.0.0.10 IDENTIFIED BY 'password' REQUIRE SSL;

Now, you should be able to connect over SSL. Remember that the client must have been compiled with SSL support too. In order to use SSL, the client must use the --ssl-ca option, either on the command-line or in ~/.my.cnf (or [mysql] section of /etc/mysql/my.cnf).

client:~$ mysql --ssl-ca=/dev/null -h server -u user -p 

As far as I can tell, there's no way to actually force the client to validate the servers certificate so it doesn't matter what value you set for ssl-ca. It doesn't even have to exist. This, of course, means that while the connection is encrypted, it's vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks.

See /usr/share/doc/mysql-server/SSL-MINI-HOWTO.txt.gz if you want to use client certificates to authenticate clients rather than, or in addition to, passwords.

Update: I originally forgot to note that you should update the changelog before building the packages.

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The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else. - Frederic Bastiat