Michael Gracie

Zero Sum Game

I was recently involved in a somewhat petty, but nonetheless interesting and evolving debate. While out with a friend for an afternoon of lunch and gadget browsing, we decided to run into BestBuy. An hour later, after perusing big screen plasmas and stereo systems the size of lunch boxes, my companion decided to buy a new alarm clock. You know, one of those GE models with the big buttons on the top, and the huge red LED dsplay.

Well first I asked why they needed that? The reply was that the old one just didn’t work quite right after the last storm. It seems not so recent electrical activity had knocked out the power, and that the clock had not awakened the owner as it should. I soon uncovered that despite these instruments being battery powered (in backup), the owner sometimes failed to change said batteries, so the outage reset the clock time. I then asked why not use your cell phone alarm to wake – it is kept by the bed at night, as the land line is in another room? A Nokia phone is my alarm clock of choice, on the road, and at home. Well, I would just forget to set it. But you have to set the alarm every night anyway, heh? Well, yea, but alarm clock is so much easier. I see.

The user forgets to replace a battery, and blames the device. Another device sits in the quiver, perfectly capable of performing the task, but that is simply not convenient enough. So, we buy an item to replace one which likely works perfectly well. Nevermind the fact that we now leave the old item for the landfill.

Too often, we look at a purchase as solving a problem, a need. We justify that purchase in our heads, back and forth, to buy or not to buy. Most often, we buy. A new “this” to solve “that” problem. I am as guilty as anyone. My latest idea is an Apple notebook to solve a big problem I have….not being able to type this entry while lying in the comfort of my bed. How ridiculous.

Now, many say “Well buying stimulates the economy!” Sure it does. “You sit there denoucing spending, so you must be a socialist, or worse, a communist.” Not so. In fact, I am as capitalist as they come. I invest in private ventures that create new jobs. My retirement account is full of growth stocks. I speculate in the equity, debt and commodities markets, which provides liquidity, albeit small, to those markets. But no, I do not give in to the hype.

What hype, you ask? The hype is that consumer spending accounts for 2/3rds of our economy, and that participation benefits us all, so we must participate. “We must buy products, because that creates jobs! Who cares where the jobs are, your spending helps a lot of people out!” Sounds a little socialist to me. I’d rather buy some distressed corporate bonds, put my faith in management to turn the situation around, and reap the benefits. “But I am not a financial genius”, you say. “I don’t have time to invest.” What you aren’t then, is a thinker, and what you don’t have time for, is thinking.

No, saving and investing is not clipping coupons. It is entirely more difficult to invest, even if just on gut instinct, than to buy a new television and decide that is you contribution to our economy. You certainly will reconsider, when that newfangled electronic gizmo is obsolete or on sale at half price a week later. And that brings me to my final point.

The wealthy in the US invest in financial assets – they provide capital. That capital provides the means for production, and the contribution appreciates in value. The wealthy become wealthier. Meanwhile, the tiers below continue to purchase assets that are not only unncecessary, but often useless. Those assets depreciate in value. In the case of that new TV or laptop computer, obsolete in a few years. Worse yet, that new car, worth 70% of its purchase price the moment it pulls out of the dealer. The rich often (more often than you might think) live modestly, and get richer. The rest of us live frivolously, and get poorer.

Sounds like a zero sum game to me.

Follow up on the Bit Torrent thing

So I am mulling this real time streaming data concept when I come across this article from Forbes: Data On The Fly. It talks about Michael Stonebraker of Ingres and Postgres fame, who started a new company called Streambase. This outfit has produced a derivative of SQL they call StreamSQL, and the claim is it can process data as it comes in the pipe, before it is written to disk. Great for big hedge funds and market makers.

Seems like this StreamSQL could prove a pretty interesting tool for a peer-to-peer database network. Finding out what data you really need to hold on to before you write would fit into the limited storage capacity scenario likely existing at each node in such a network.

BitTorrent and databases

Could BitTorrent be used to share information between disparate databases? For example, I have an SQL database full of information, and you have one too. Now I go searching for something in my database, it is not found, so instead of giving up, it would then look on your database. Any thoughts?

Sustainable Value

A colleague recently asked me what computer system I was favoring for the long haul. I immediately thought of Apple. He asked me why I thought Apple was a good choice, and I replied that OS X would be the main reason, and hardware “comfort” second. The open question for the evening was why didn’t Apple make cheaper products for the main stream? Their desktop units, in particular, were priced many hundreds of dollars above its PC competitors. Yes they are.

Why doesn’t Apple sell cheaper products?

I recollect a Harvard Business School case study from long ago that suggested competing on price was a losing proposition, in the long term. Sustainable value could not exist in an environment where competitors steered organizations based on price.

We see now in the PC business that the way to sustain markets is to build faster machines to maintain margins. The need for faster machines seems to be driven by the size, complexity and quantity of operating systems and other software. Unfortunately for PC manufacturers, people (with the exception of gamers, etc.) now realize they do not need all that software, hence all that speed. Both my colleague and I recently agreed we just have too much on our desktop, and it was time to cut back. Meanwhile, the mobile community is shifting value from Mhz to battery life, as wireless networking becomes ubiquitous. Down go laptop clock speeds. For the PC manufacturers and software developers, now what?

Well at least one person has an opinion. Bill Gates thinks hardware will someday be free. Bill is a guy who it is difficult not to listen to, but I still have to think about that one a little more. If you get the hardware for free, and don’t actually buy the software (you usually “license” it), it sounds as though the industry may starve on its own success. I doubt however, that you will ever be able to pick up Apple hardware for nothing.

Another industry has experienced a similar fate. The US auto industry failed to maintain consumer attention, due mainly to an inability to create a product of competitive quality while fighting each other for price superiority. Meanwhile, Toyota Motor refused to lower their prices to levels of their primary competition, and yet Toyota is now the number one car manufacturer on the planet in terms of volume. They still build vehicles for which quality is hard to beat anywhere, and at any price. Toyotas will likely never be free, but I suspect that at least one major US automaker will not make it another twenty years, at least not independently.

Apple may have had its trials and tribulations, but it still carries its own weight, and seems to be making great strides of late. Someone seems to have a clue that people are willing to spend a little more for a supposedly superior product. People keep doing this, so maybe there is just something to it.

PS: I drive a Toyota.

A decent Linux laptop (continued)

The machine is a Dell Latitude C840 with the following general specs:

– Intel Pentium-M 2.2 GHz
– 1 Gb Ram
– 60 Gb 5400 rpm IBM/Hitachi hard drive – primary bay
– 80 Gb 5400 rpm Toshiba hard drive – modular bay
– Nvidia GeForce 440 Go 64mb graphics
– Dell Truemobile 1300 b/g wireless card

Now the primary bay is slated for Windows XP Pro SP2, and the modular bay is for the Fedora Core 3 install. Each has its own master boot record, and I can select the drive to boot from at BIOS.

The Linux is kernel 2.6.10 (and change). It is running the following very convenient module/services:

– NTFS – the primary bay drive mounts on boot in read-only mode

– Wireless – the Dell Truemobile is a Broadcom chip, so Linuxant’s Driverloader was required to get that puppy going. It is also running with WPA, using the wpa-supplicant add-on

– Database server is MySQL 4.1, including the Admin and Query Browser add-ons

– Printer is an HP Deskjet 5150

Note also that I have not messed with installing the aggregious Nvidia graphics drivers – the X does a damn good job on its own.

How It Was Done

Not too difficult, with some time. First, I pulled the primary drive from its bay, and inserted the “soon to be modular” drive in its place. Ran install, and ran user select so I could put my own database install on later. Everything was fine on first try. I then swapped the drives again, and inserted the drive bay module.

Booted to FC3, and ran the NTFS rpm. Edited fstab to mount on boot, and used the umask=0222 tag so users other than root could use the drive. Then did the driverloader installation. Added the wpa-supplicant, then dropped the supplicant config file into the driverloader directory, and renamed it to dldr_wpa_supplicant. This gets the WPA to load along with the driverloader, so you have WPA at the start.

What Works, What Doesn’t

Well, I haven’t found much that doesn’t work. Wireless fine. All drives operate as required. My external NTFS firewire drive even mounts automatically when I turn it on. IR, ok, although I don’t have much use for it. Again, video is fine without the Nvidia updates, although I don’t play games, so I don’t know if 3D works. I am having some issues with getting PHP to access MySQL, but I suspect that is user error. Other than those points, it is a great production machine that draws me away from Windows roughly 50% of the time.

The fstab and config files follow. If you would like to know anything else, just let me know.

Looking for a VMWare trickster

VMWare creates a virtual drive on a machine to run other operating systems. Set up the drive, install the operating system of choice, launch, and run….easy. But can VMWare be used to run an operating system wholly contained on another fixed drive (meaning hard drive) installed on the same system?

If someone knows the answer to this, including how to do it, let me know. You can read about my dual operating system laptop under Open Source Love if you can’t understand why anyone would want to do this.

A decent Linux laptop

Want to give a bit of kudos to the Linux community, for making so many peoples lives a little better. I performed a nice clean install of FC3 (taken from on my Dell C840, and although I did a few unorthodox things with it (which I will explain in a moment), I am extremely happy with the way it stuck, and how it runs to this day. And this is despite having very high expectations for the platform from the start.

Nitty gritty after the jump.