Sat, 30 Apr 2005

American Housing Statistics

Mother Jones has collected some interesting housing statistics.

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Thu, 28 Apr 2005

Eats, Shoots & Leaves

I read Eats, Shoots & Leaves last weekend. I suspect that it's one of the few books on the reference/humour shelf at the bookstore. It's a book about punctuation. Remarkably, it was a best seller in Britain and has received a number of good reviews. The author, Lynne Truss, rants about poor use of punctuation by shopkeepers (and, based on the number of times she complains about greengrocers, she must live in the vegetable capital of the UK), gives some history about how various punctuation marks came into being, and gives some tips on how to use them correctly.

I found some comfort in learning that nobody agrees on the proper use of commas, and, so, I will use them aggressively, as I see fit. I will also try to incorporate more colons and semicolons into my writing; a key that was, up until now, largely reserved for writing code will be set free. I was also happy to learn that British authors, like any programmer, know that it's proper for trailing punctuation to appear without quotation marks.

One bit of punctuation that I would like to bring back is two spaces after a period (full stop). I learned it in typing class in high school, and didn't realize that it doesn't exist in books until Ms. Truss pointed it out.

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Tue, 26 Apr 2005

Email Security Silliness

It's amazing the number of times I've received email saying something like, "Here's the first eight digits of my credit card number. I'll send the second eight in another email (for security)."

This is not security. I wonder how people come up with these ideas. Do they think criminals accidentally intercept random emails sometimes? Or that they are able to intercept some messages, but there's no way they would be able to get two in a row?

If you're concerned about security, ask someone who is knowledgeable about the subject. In the case of email security, use PGP/GPG or S/MIME.

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Tue, 19 Apr 2005

My iPod Shuffle Doesn't

I got my free iPod Shuffle yesterday. I spent way too many hours trying to get it working. On my laptop, with a 2.6.9 kernel, hotplug loaded the ub module instead of usb-storage. I upgraded makedev and created the /dev/ub* devices, but I couldn't access the /dev/uba device. Finally, I tried it on my desktop with a 2.6.10 kernel, and after plugging it in a second time, I was able to access the Shuffle's vfat filesystem as a scsi device.

I installed gtkpod, and was able to create the appropriate directory structure and copy over some mp3's to the Shuffle. I plugged in the headphones, turned it on, and it played. It sounds decent with the headphones Apple supplies, but better with my Sony ones. Apple really should have integrated the headphones into the lanyard it comes with. Or there should be a spring-loaded device to coil up the wires.

One thing my Shuffle doesn't do is shuffle. It works in normal, linear mode, but in shuffle mode, it won't play anything. Perhaps gnupod didn't create the directory structure correctly or something. I'm an album listener rather than a single listener so it's not a big deal, but I don't like knowing that my new gizmo isn't functioning properly. One other problem is that when it's plugged into my usb port, the light always blinks orange. It's supposed to be green when fully charged, but I left it plugged in all night, and it greeted me with flashing orange in the morning.

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Sat, 16 Apr 2005

Irrational Real Estate Exuberance

Robert Shiller, the author of Irrational Exuberance, was on NPR's Talk of the Nation last week to discuss the housing bubble and to tout the second edition of his book. You can listen to it online.

One caller was a real estate agent who claims there's not enough land in Las Vegas and that it will become a land of high-rise living. Another said that Cleveland was becoming too expensive. As an aside, I spent a couple hours in Cleveland in 2000, and left with a favorable impression. Downtown seemed to be undergoing a lot of development.

From the book:

Irrational exuberance is the psychological basis of a speculative bubble. I define a speculative bubble as a situation in which news of price increases spurs investor enthusiasm, which spreads by psychological contagion from person to person, in the process amplifying stories that might justify the price increases and bringing in a larger and larger class of investors, who, despite doubts about the real value of an investment, are drawn to it partly through envy of others' successes and partly through a gambler's excitement.

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iPod Shuffle On Its Way

My free iPod Shuffle from ex24 is on it's way. Like Jonathan, I bought one share of Costco. At its current valuation, the iPod cost me between $2 and $3.

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Fri, 15 Apr 2005

Copying a Crapload of Files is Hard

I was recently faced with what turned out to be an unexpectedly difficult task. I had to copy about 700GB of data from one filesystem to another. The data was comprised of the backups of about 40 servers as stored by BackupPC. BackupPC is a great piece of software for backing up a network of servers. It can backup machines using SMB, rsync, and tar over rsh/ssh. It compresses the backed up files and pools them so multiple copies of the same files are stored as hardlinks to the compressed files in the pool.

In order to increase the storage capacity of the backup server, I was tasked with adding a second RAID array. I set up an LVM volume on the new array, and then needed to copy all of the files from the old array to the new one.

First, I started up rsync and let it go. For a long time, the rsync process just kept growing and growing. Before it starts copying any files, it goes through all of the files to figure out what it's going to copy. A known limitation of rsync is that it uses a lot of memory when there are a lot of files involved. I didn't know how many files we had, but with 4GB of RAM in the machine, I was pretty confident that we would be ok. After more than 24 hours, before it had started actually copying any files, rsync died as it hit the 3GB per-process memory limit.

For my next attempt, I used cp -a. cp started out alright. Throughput from source volume was pretty abysmal, but after about 5 days, the entire pool of compressed files had been copied. As it was copying the individual servers' backup directories (which contain the hardlinks to the pool), cp also hit the 3GB limit and died.

I briefly thought about using sgp_dd to do a lower level copy of the data, but we really wanted to use XFS for the new filesystem; the original filesystem was EXT3. I didn't confirm whether it would work with LVM volumes either.

I ended up just starting with an empty BackupPC directory. We'll keep the old backups for a while until we have sufficient history. Then, we'll add the old array to the new volume for additional disk space.

An interesting project might be to add an optional argument to rsync to allow it to use a dbm file to maintain state rather than keeping everything in memory. I guess nobody anticipated terabyte-sized disk volumes being used with 32-bit processors.

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Self-Employment Tax Thoughts

I filed my taxes Tuesday night. It wasn't quite the relief it usually is though. This was the first year in which my income was mostly 1099 income. That means that self-employment tax reared its big ugly head. I knew it was coming, but when it looks you in the eyes, it's still frightening. After writing off my business expenses, my total taxes were actually about $3,000 less than the rough estimate I made last year when filling out my 1040-ES. Nonetheless, I still owed the feds over $10,000 of the almost $19,000 total tax liability.

What makes the number so shocking is when you compare it to a return for which all of the income is W-2. With W-2 income, the section of the 1040 labeled Other Taxes is generally blank. As an employee, you pay 7.65% of your wages for Social Security and Medicare insurance, but this amount doesn't show up on your tax return. When your self-employed, the 15.3% tax on your net business profit shows up under Other Taxes, increasing the bottom line (line 62, that is) substantially.

One nice thing about being self-employed is being able to write off business expenses that employees typically can't. This year, I expensed gas and other automotive expenses, internet access, office supplies, part of my rent and utilities, and depreciated computer equipment and part of my car. Working from home, I don't have too many expenses so I was only able to reduce my gross income by about 6% in calculating my net profit. I was also able to write off my health insurance premiums, but that only reduces my adjusted gross income rather than business income, and thus doesn't reduce the SE tax. So I was left with a large amount of self-employment tax to pay.

In 2005, I'm going to set up and contribute to a SEP-IRA and a Health Saving Account which will reduce my income tax, but not my SE tax unfortunately. To reduce my SE tax, I may form an S Corporation. Paying myself half the corporate income in salary, which is subject to SE tax, and rest as a distribution, which is not, would probably be fair and would reduce my SE tax by quite a bit.

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Taxes Kill Productivity

Cantillon's Paradise points to an AP story which says that Americans spend 6.6 billion hours on their taxes. It's rather ridiculous the lengths a citizen must go to in order to comply with the law. Luckily, our civil servants are working to resolve this issue.

Sensitive to the demands that tax laws put on weary taxpayers, the IRS has seven people working full time to reduce the anguish for filers. The IRS Office of Taxpayer Burden Reduction looks for requirements that can be streamlined, reduced or eliminated under the law.

Of course, there's only so much they can do considering the amount of tax law that are in charge of enforcing. Congress is responsible for the mess.

I've probably spent at least 60 hours on taxes so far this year, mostly reading IRS publications, including best sellers Business Expenses, Business Use of Your Home, and the much referenced tome, How to Depreciate Property.

My wife recently decided to change her major to accounting. I think I have the perfect internship for her.

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Wed, 06 Apr 2005

Old Versions of Real Player

Real Player 10 has a nicer interface than version 8, but the video quality sucks. It's very choppy. So I recommend sticking with RealPlayer 8 for now. Real doesn't make it very easy to find old versions of their software, but there they do make them available in their Legacy Software Archive. For some reason, the link to RealPlayer 8 for Linux isn't the latest version. The Debian realplayer installer package expects rp8_linux20_libc6_i386_cs2_rpm. Also available is a tarball of the RealVideo 9 Codecs for use with RealPlayer 8. These are needed to play some videos.

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Sun, 03 Apr 2005

Free iPod Shuffle from ex24

Thanks to MyMoneyBlog, I will soon be the owner of an iPod Shuffle courtesy of ex24. ex24 operates order books for a handful of securities that allow it's customers to trade odd lots (less than 100 shares) amongst themselves. Basically, they are both an ECN, like Island (now INET) or Archipelago, and a broker/dealer. The description of how quoting works on their order books makes for somewhat interesting reading.

At times when the CQS is not operating, ex24 raises its offer quote by one cent each time members collectively buy from ex24 for a net 99 shares in that after-hours session and lower its bid quote each time members collectively sell to ex24 for a net 99 shares in the after-hours session. If ex24 raises (lowers) its offer (bid) quote due to after-hours purchases (sales), it increases (lowers) its bid (offer) quote by the same amount to maintain the same spread width. After ex24 has raised (lowered) its offer (bid) quote by five cents it either keeps its quote at that price or deletes its offer (bid) quote, depending on market conditions.

The decision whether to freeze the quote or delete it is effected pursuant to an algorithm that operates automatically. This trading parameter is intended to provide ex24 a degree of protection from the risk associated with posting quotes during times when CQS is not operating. Additionally, ex24 reserves the right to withdraw its quotes at any time during the after-hours session, which it might do in response to significant news affecting the price of a security traded on ex24 at times when CQS is not operating.

Finally, ex24 may program its algorithm to refrain from posting its offer (bid) quote if customer orders to sell (buy) at or near the CQS offer quote reside on the ATS. ex24 is in the process of determining the amount of customer orders that might cause it to refrain from posting a quote. Regardless of the metric chosen by ex24, the algorithm which determines whether or not to disseminate a quote operates automatically.

If you open an account, fund it with $500, and make at least one trade, they'll send you a free iPod Shuffle. Apparently, it's possible to use the Shuffle with Linux so I'm a happy camper.

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3ware 9500 Notes

I recently upgraded a Pogo Linux StorageWare server. The server came with a 3ware 8506-8 SATA controller and 7 250 GB drives which we have configured in a RAID 10 array with one spare (the OS is on a separate 80GB drive). The server has 16 drive bays in total, so we decided to buy a second controller and 7 more drives to be configured in another RAID 10 array with one spare.

I had a couple problems getting the new card working. First, I had to upgrade the kernel to get the 3w-9xxx module. The Debian package for 2.6.10 worked. The next problem was using the 3ware management utilities. 3ware provides two utilies, a command-line one called tw-cli, and a web-based interface called 3dm2. According to their web site, the "in Engineering Phase" software should be used with a 2.6 kernel. When I tried using the software though, both tw_cli and 3dm2 reported "Application too old for controller firmware". I contacted the always helpful Pogo support folks who advised me to use version of the 3ware software, which is a released version. The software was able to detect the 9500, but not the 8506, so I tried version 9.2 which was able to access both. So it seems that "in Engineering Phase" means outdated as it's older than the released version.

Having gotten the 3ware software working, I was able to create and delete arrays from within Linux rather than having to use the BIOS utility. Then I could benchmark various RAID configurations. I tested RAID 10, RAID 50, and RAID 5 with 6 drives and with 7 drives. (RAID 10 is striping across mirrored sets of disks and RAID 50 is striping across RAID 5 arrays) In any configuration, the 9500 blows the 8506 out of the water. I ran my benchmarks using bonnie++. With RAID 10, I was able to get about 170 MB/s write speeds and 185 MB/s reads. Setting a large read-ahead value of 16384 (blockdev --setra 16384 /dev/sdc1) significantly improves read performance so I will have to tune it for the best performance once we put the new drives into production. Striping across 2 3ware RAID 5 or 3 RAID 1 arrays using LVM gave almost as good performance as RAID 50 and RAID 10 3ware arrays, respectively.
With RAID 5, using 7 drives in the array rather than 6 gives better read performance, but poorer write performance. The additional drive also seems to adversely impact file creation and deletion speeds.

XFS seems to give the best overall performance. Ext3 gives good read performance, but mediocre write speeds. Reiserfs is very fast at creating and deleting files, but doesn't give as good throughput.

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Scary Housing Numbers

(Via Housing Bubble) LA Times has a story about the increasing popularity of interest-only mortgages. An astonishing 47.8% of homes sold last year in California were purchased with interest-only, adjustable rate mortgages. In 2001, it was 1.4%, and I'd bet that almost all of those were purchased by investors who wouldn't be holding the property very long.

Many of these people are buying with no money down so when interest rates rise and they can no longer afford their mortgage payments, there's no disincentive to simply walk away from the property. You don't need to have very good credit to buy a house these days; what's a little bankruptcy blemish on one's credit report.

"I have $40,000 in student loans from my master's degree," Herron said. "I have high credit card debt. I'm a typical American. And yet they wanted to give me more debt to buy a house."

She wonders sometimes if she'll end up in foreclosure, if the bank will take her beloved home away from her when she can no longer pay her bills. Maybe it was a mistake to give her this money, maybe it was a mistake for her to take it. But she wasn't about to protest.

"If you're like me, you're so incredulous that anyone would give you any money whatsoever, you just close your eyes and sign the papers," Herron said. "I would have signed anything."

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