the financial world

So, I've been trying to deal with all the financial matters that come with holding a steady job in this country.
Investments, taxes, bank accounts-- all of that. My goal right now is not to do something egregiously stupid, like forgetting to apply for tax rebates, or borrowing money that I don't need to borrow.

It's very frustrating to me because I see so many ways that the financial systems in this country could be improved. For example, why are these organizations always asking me for my address and telephone number? Those numbers could change. What they should be asking for is my social security number-- a number that never changes. Then they can look me up in the database, and find my correct telephone number and address at any time.

But in reality, what seems to happen is that these organizations treat your social security number as a kind of password, and use your name as the key to their index. What a braindead system. Names aren't even unique-- how many people in the world are named "John Smith," anyway?

Financial security is also a joke. So many banks, credit card companies, and others ask me for my mother's maiden name like it's some kind of secret password. Hello! All of that information is in the phone book. So is my zip code, and my address. And if you answer a question wrong, you can always bullshit your way out of the situation. In fact, half of the time I do answer "what is your current address" wrong. I have had four different addresses as a student. I can never remember which address I gave out to which organization.

Privacy is also a joke with modern credit cards. While we debate endlessly over trifles, like whether burning the flag should be illegal or not, we have lost another fundamental right: the right to financial privacy. Financial information about Americans is openly bought from credit card vendors and others. The most intimate details of your life-- where you like to eat lunch, how much you spend on clothes, and so on-- are bought and sold by these companies. Of course, you can still avoid this by paying in cash. But who pays for large purchases in cash? And who pays for online purchases with cash? Almost nobody.

In fact, credit card companies monitor people's spending habits closely, watching for signs of "unusual consumption" that might indicate a stolen credit card. Many times when people go on vacation, and make some large purchases in another part of the country, the credit card company starts getting a little nervous. I wonder if their drones ever check up on my account. If they did, would they approve of my taste in restaurants? It's best not to wonder about things like this, I guess.

I resent it when companies ask me for reams and reams of personal information. For example, the Palm software I just installed today asked me for my home address, home phone number, cell phone number, email address, country of residence, and some other stuff. The software didn't need to know any of this, of course. They just want to get some information that they can sell. Naturally I didn't fill it out.
A lot of times, though, it is really impossible to avoid the growing demand for information. Whenever I order something online, I am forced to give out a shipping address to various sleazy companies. I'm sure that they turn around and resell this information, which of course contributes to my continual flow of junk mail.

Despite my growing disgust with the financial world, I still need to deal with it to keep things running smoothly around here at Forbes House. I bought a filing cabinet to deal with all the forms. It has been very helpful.

Well, I guess I can't complain too much. For all my privacy and convenience issues, fortune has been pretty good to me lately. I made some room in the budget for a donation to help the hurricane katrina victims. I figured the Red Cross was the best organization to contribute to. It's the least I could do, I guess. Hey, in some sense all of us are living in a potential disaster area.


Black hole projects @ microsoft

"Black hole projects" are projects that people invest massive time and effort into, which never become successful or useful.

This article lists some characteristics of black hole projects at Microsoft:
  • They must have absurdly grandiose goals. Something like "fundamentally reimagine the way that people work with computers." Nobody, including the people who originate the goals, has a clear idea what the goals actually mean.
  • They must involve throwing out some large existing codebase and rewriting everything from scratch, "the right way, this time."
  • They must have completely unrealistic deadlines. Usually this is because they believe that they can rewrite the original codebase in much, much less time than it took to write that codebase in the first place.
  • They must have completely unrealistic beliefs about compatibility. Usually this takes the form of believing you can rewrite a huge codebase and preserve all of the little quirks and such without a massive amount of extra effort.
  • They are always "six months" from from major deadline that never seems to arrive. Or, if it does arrive, another milestone is added on to the end of the project to compensate.
  • They must consume huge amounts of resources, sucking the lifeblood out of one or more established products that make significant amounts of money or have significant marketshare.
  • They must take over any group that does anything that relates to their absurdly broad goals, especially if that group is small, focused, has modest goals and actually has a hope of shipping in a reasonable timeframe.
  • They must be prominently featured as demos at several company meetings, to the point where people groan "Oh, god, not another demo of this thing. When is it ever going to ship?"
  • They usually are prominently talked up by BillG publicly years before shipping/dying a quiet death.
  • They usually involve "componetizing" some monolithic application or system. This means that not only are you rewriting a huge amount of code, you're also splitting it up across one or more teams that have to all seamlessly work together.
  • As a result of the previous point, they also usually involve absolutely massive integration problems as different teams try madly to get their components working with each other.
  • They usually involve rewriting the application or system on top of brand-new technology that has not been proven at a large scale yet. As such, they get to flush out all the scalability problems with the new technology.
  • They are usually led by one or more Captain Ahabs, madly pursuing the white whale with absolute conviction, while the deckhands stand around saying "Gee, that whale looks awfully big. I'm not sure we can really take him down."
  • Finally, 90% of the time, they must fail and die a flaming death, possibly taking down or damaging other products with it. If they do ship, they must have taken at least 4-5 years to ship and be at least 2 years overdue.
  • ...
All I have to say is, "ha ha."


This guy prevented world war III


I wonder how many people, knowing that their country was about to be destroyed, would give the order to launch a retaliatory strike. It's one thing to order the death of a man, but killing millions of people might be more than even a hardened military officer could stand. And it's not like retaliating is going to bring back the cities and countryside of your own country, which is going to be nuked in either case.

On the other hand, some group of people based in San Francisco donated $1000 to this guy for not pressing "the button." I guess not destroying the world has some benefits.


When Rocket Scientists Go Bad

1. Try to build a giant cannon to launch objects into space
2. Run out of money
3. Work for Saddam Hussein
4. Profit


China and the Game of Go

Here's an interesting monograph from a former U.S. diplomat examining China's attitude towards foreign policy. The author spends a long time talking about the differences between the game of Chess and the game of Go, using that as a sort of metaphor for the differences in political strategy between east and west.


I'm not sure I agree with everything he says here. For example, is soccer really that much more strategic than american football? They're both pretty boring to me...

Unfortunately, he is right about American foreign policy. We are still fighting every diplomatic and military skirmish as if it were World War II-- as if all we have to do is find out who the bad guys are and then deploy an overwhelming force. The Chinese leaders, on the other hand, are pragmatists and they are taking it slow.

Maybe religious differences are the real issue. Christianity, or at the least the mutations of it that we have today, encourages people to think that they are fighting a personal holy war against evil. The native religions of China emphasized passitivity in the face of fate, and contemplation. I know that a lot of people, east and west, are not religious, but that doesn't matter. Religion still shapes people's thinking.


How to make a top 10 record (no, really)

I found this guide to making a hit single. It almost reads like something written by a businessman rather than a musician-- it describes the golden rules that you should follow, to make a hit pop single, without having any real talent. Very cold and clinical.

For example:
"The Golden Rule for a classic Number One single is intro, verse one, chorus one, verse two, chorus two, breakdown section, double chorus, outro."

"Who knows what difference a sleeve for a single makes? Go into a record shop, look at what the Top Twenty has for sleeves - pretty much of a nothing when you see them all in their racks. People worry over graphics. They bleed over them. They devote their lives to them. The graphics that a band use go a long way into building up the "attitude" their would-be following can relate to.

You don't need any of that. Just make sure that it's bright and colourful and that the name of the song and the act jumps out of the front cover."

Is it really possible that pop music is this formulaic? Well... get this. These guys ACTUALLY DID ALL THIS. Their band, the Timelords, cut a single called "Doctorin' The Tardis" that made it to the top.

They "gamed the system," big time, and then wrote this howto as the ultimate gesture of contempt towards pop culture.

Just remember, once you've made your millions, be sure to remember the blog where you found the info!