Dan on June 26th, 2015

An interesting overview by Paul Ford into the world of software development in  general – spoken from someone in the trenches – and much of what he rights rings true with me.  A very long read, but if you skim or jump around, you are likely to glean some interesting thoughts and ideas out of it:

http://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2015-paul-ford-what-is-code/

His open about what a new Chief Technology Officer (CTO) says when joining a company is a paraphrase of what I have heard all new CTO’s say when they come to an organization:

All of the computer code that keeps the website running must be replaced. At one time, it was very valuable and was keeping the company running, but the new CTO thinks it’s garbage. She tells you the old code is spaghetti and your systems are straining as a result.

And in most cases the statement has some truth to it.  Every company has legacy code issues – since business rules change and technologies change.  The term “technical debt” refers to a way to estimate the size of your legacy code issues, which is a great analogy, because who is to say when you have too much debt – or how much effort do you want to take to ‘pay down’ your debt.  It’s ultimately a decision that business has to make.

In addition, the issues of legacy / outdated code is getting worse – primarily because of technological advances.  With all the advances of broadband, new devices and internet infrastructure, new languages and frameworks rise and fall in what seems like 2-3 year cycles.  The rise of new javascript frameworks like AngularJS and React in the last couple years, most traditional websites and web applications could be considered ‘garbage’ by a new CTO.   Even if you started writing your enterprise application in AngularJS (1.x)  today – it will likely be out of date by the time you complete it – because AngularJS 2.0 is soon to be out – which is a huge rewrite of the language.   Right now there is a huge explosion of new languages and frameworks, and many people will write applications using a language or framework that will not survive.  Once a language dies, programmers no longer ‘speak’ the language, and the application eventually has to be re-written.   I have applications that I wrote in the 90’s that I have rewritten at least 4 times as languages progress and the internet has evolved.

One last thought on this article – midway thru the article is a piece titled ‘The Time You Attended the E-mail Address Validation Meeting’.  If you have ever wondered about what goes in on meetings amongst software developers, this gives great insight into how a typical technical discussion goes.   I have been in many meetings (even email validation meetings..) where the development process goes something like that.

After reading this article, perhaps you will have a better appreciation for the world of coding, the issues of today, and why so much legacy code exists.  The software development process and explosion of languages has gotten pretty crazy over the last several years.  But software development is still an entertaining and mentally stimulating process for us developers; and every time I rewrite one of my applications… I still learn something and find myself enjoying the challenge.

Dan on June 13th, 2015

I recently moved one of my email accounts that did not have spam filtering, and immediately had my inbox flooded with spam.  I averaged about 40 – 60 spam emails a day – with  the usual topics repeated over and over.   Interestingly, the amount of spam I got on the weekends was a lot lower than during the week – which I take is some sort of logic in the spammers algorithm to make them seem to be legitimate businesses?

Anyway, that got me thinking about the response rate that these emails generate – there must be a rational business case to sending these emails over and over.

The most recent study I could find was from 2008 – the study itself is a complex read,  but this article provides a good summary.  According to this study in 2008, about 1 in 1.25 million emails resulted in a sale.  Since this spammer infected other machines and got those machines to send the emails, the actual cost to the spammers was likely low enough to make this a viable business model.  It would be interesting to see an updated study – since 2008 more (likely inexperienced web users) are on the internet, however spam filters have gotten better.  But given the prevalence of spam, the business model must still work.

In fact, we can now look forward better, smarter robo-callers.  This report of a new technology is an example of what is coming as computers are getting better  at holding automated conversations.  This technology is probably more expensive to disperse than spam, but the response rates are likely higher.

And finally, one bit of spam trivia- here is a great explanation as to why the Nigerian prince emails that most people have received over the years are not polished and have misspellings.  It is likely intentional, as a way to screen people who would not fall for the scam. As a spammer, you would only need to engage those people who can’t read well (and are likely economically disadvantaged), or desperate enough to overlook the suspiciously bad spelling and grammar.  Seems logical to me.

As with any marketing technology, it will be interesting to see if the tools to block advertising can continue to stay ahead of advertising innovations.  Regardless, my guess is advertising in all the media we consume will continue to find new ways to annoy us.

 

Dan on May 30th, 2015

Bill Gross has long been considered a Bond King, until recently the fund manager at Pimco Total Return which is the largest Bond Fund in the world.  He has been a media celebrity since the mid 1980’s, and had a well publicized falling out with Pimco which tarnished his legacy.

I  have always found his opinions on markets worth listening too – and his latest published outlook on where we are headed strikes an interesting tone.  Gross is now at Janus Funds, where he appears to have editorial license to say what he wants. Perhaps because he is turning 70 years old he is overly gloomy, but he obviously doesn’t like what he sees down the road.

A few excepts from his letter:

 

On the current world view that Quantitative Easing will cure the world debt crisis:

(At a recent conference) I equated such a notion with a similar real life example of pouring lighter fluid onto a barbecue of warm but not red hot charcoal briquettes in order to cook the spareribs a little bit faster. Disaster in the form of burnt ribs was my historical experience. It will likely be the same for monetary policy, with its QE’s and now negative interest rates that bubble all asset markets.

On the end of the financial bull Market:

When does our credit based financial system sputter / break down? When investable assets pose too much risk for too little return. Not immediately, but at the margin, credit and stocks begin to be exchanged for figurative and sometimes literal money in a mattress.  We are approaching that point now as bond yields, credit spreads and stock prices have brought financial wealth forward to the point of exhaustion.

He makes an interesting point about fees charged by investment professionals:

Active asset managers as well, conveniently forget that their (my) industry has failed to reduce fees as a percentage of assets which have multiplied by at least a factor of 20 since 1981. They believe therefore, that they and their industry deserve to be 20 times richer because of their skill or better yet, their introduction of confusing and sometimes destructive quantitative technologies and derivatives that led to Lehman and the Great Recession.

To read the whole article, click here.

Dan on May 20th, 2015

At the end of last year,  I wrote an article on Seeking Alpha wondering if 2015 would be the year that eMagin turns around.  eMagin is a company I have followed for years, and the company has always shown great potential, but never achieved.

Recently their earnings came out, and on May 15th the stock popped up to 33% on good earnings – the appearance is that they are starting to ramp up on production, and breaking into the potentially lucrative market for virtual reality headsets.

eman

 

So is this the turnaround that I have been long awaiting?  I would recommend anybody invested in eMagin read the earnings call transcripts on Seeking Alpha.  As per usual, the call is upbeat, and the description of market opportunities leads one into wanting to back the truck up and load up on shares.   However, I have been too jaded by previous upbeat results, and while results were encouraging, the top line revenue numbers still don’t get me too excited.

The big highlight on the earnings call (other than having a profitible quarter after 7 negative quarters) was the progress on the virtural reality headset.  From the earnings release highlights:

  • We finished the development of the Company’s new advanced Head Mounted Display (“HMD”) headset. The HMD has been demonstrated to potential partners and customers in April and May. This HMD is immersive and incorporates eMagin’s latest high-resolution OLED microdisplays and patented optics and is a paradigm shift in the look, performance, weight, and size of Virtual Reality (“VR”) HMDs. The OLED microdisplay and the optics are the fundamental reasons that eMagin’s HMD is half the weight and size of its VR HMD counter parts. The field of view (“FOV”) exceeds 100 degrees on the diagonal with a resolution of 4 megapixels per eye.

Management is talking a big game about breaking into the virtual reality headset market, and mass producing their product to meet huge demand.   It appears they are working on a very high end display – which may well be best in class – however cost when producing consumer goods (especially consumer goods in a new category) will be a huge factor to the product’s success.  If they can provide a premium display and a cost similar to the competitors – then I may start to get excited.  They have some big competitors in the space, and there is a lot of attention on the virtual reality market opportunities in the near future.

So I for one will wait another few quarters before getting too excited  watching and waiting for those revenue numbers to start moving up.  I am encouraged by the long awaited profitable quarter, but I am still not sold that this is turnaround moment all investors have been long waiting for.

Dan on May 19th, 2015

I will admit I hadn’t tied the whole Russell Wilson contract negotiations and this baseball sideline thing until I read this article about baseball not being a ‘ploy’.

This is setting up to be an interesting face-off between the Seattle Seahawks and Wilson.  Wilson goes into the 2015 season in the last year of his rookie contract – set to be paid a paltry 1.5 million  in 2015.  He is in renegotiation talks to redo his contract this year, at upwards of 20 million plus per year for several years.

All things being equal, it would make perfect sense for the Seahawks to not renegotiate his contract, make him play at 1.5 million, then franchise him next year for 20+ million,  then redo his contract.  This would effectively be paying him 10 million a year over two years, at a time where the Seahawks are hot and could spend that money elsewhere to continue their championship run.

Russell Wilson must be able to see this scenario – hence the renewed interest in baseball.  If Russell Wilson had a reasonable chance to get called up to play for the Texas Rangers in September, and gets paid say $500,000 – why wouldn’t he do that, and tell the Seahawks he plans to sit out the last year of his contract?  The notoriety he would gain from this in endorsements would more than offset any financial loss he would incur.  The Rangers would also be  incented to bring him to the league, as that would be a great marketing tool to bring fans to the ballpark in September.

So I think this is going to be an interesting story that will unfold in the next few months.   Rumor has it that the contract negotiations are at an impasse – I think Russell Wilson is smart to try force the Seahawks to ‘show him the money’ – and I think it will work.  This baseball ‘ploy’  may be worth millions for Wilson to play baseball in 2015, and give him the leverage he needs to get his contract rewritten.

Note:  I occasionally cant help myself and venture into sports topics – but for more sports blog commentary be sure and visit http://badboys.vfsystems.net/
Dan on May 11th, 2015

The short term interest rates around the world have been interesting to watch of late – more and more short term government bonds are going into negative interest rate territory.  As of this writing, the German and the Swiss 2 year bond is yielding a negative market rate.  Even the Bank Of Japan 2 year bond market rate is negative, which given the Japanese government huge debt issues, has me confounded.

I have yet to wrap my head around why someone would buy a security in which the promised rate of return is less than what you put into it, unless you are looking at money as a commodity, in which case you are OK paying a storage fee.   Perhaps the next great invention will be using stacks of money as home insulation, or maybe governments should just start minting $1000 coins making it easy to stash a fortune in the backyard.

While I have yet to see any American debt instruments go negative, we finally hit a 0% rate.  The Government Inflation adjusted savings bond rate came out on May 1st, and here is the interest rate for the next 6 months:ibondrate

 

Purchasers of I-Bonds must keep the bond for a minimum of 1 year, and pay an interest penalty for withdrawals before year 5.  So why would someone put money in an I-Bond, instead of just putting it in a bank or credit union and getting a whopping .10% interest rate?  Since I-Bond rates reset every 6 months, purchasers today are guaranteed a rate of 0% until November 1st.

Perhaps this is a forecast that that negative short term rates are coming to the United States.  Perhaps we soon will see banks and credit unions unable to pay interest on deposit accounts, and institute account fees higher that effective interest rates.  If that will be the case,  I-Bonds do make a reasonable alternative – because if deflation heats up, I-Bond holders never see the rate go below 0%.

Who would of thought 7 years after the financial meltdown the financial markets are still in turmoil and rates are still at Keynesian stimulus levels.  Perhaps paying interest on deposits is becoming an antiquated notion, a victim of the financial crisis.  Or this has to be some sort of distortion, or bubble, in the currency markets – that will have to work its way out.

Dan on April 28th, 2015

Lots of changes coming in the next version of Microsoft’s ASP.NET – it’s exciting to see big changes coming to the framework.

Stephen Walther provides a good overview in this post of the top changes coming in ASP.NET.  Cross platform development has some real interesting potential (though I wonder how much that will cost Microsoft in the sale of Windows Servers).  Interestingly – some big deletions – Visual Basic is being kicked to the curb, and Web Forms is also out the door.

As mentioned in a previous post, I have feared for the future of Visual Basic for awhile now.  It turns out that Microsoft has put another nail in the coffin of Visual Basic, as it has been semi-announced that the next version of ASP.NET will not support Visual Basic.

As a long time VB and Web Forms developer, this doesn’t surprise me, and I must admit it doesn’t bother me that much.  I was dragged kicking and screaming to C# by the market, and do agree with most developers that it has some more robust constructs (though I don’t think that’s a limitation of the language – I would guess the VB Team just has fewer resources).  So this was inevitable I guess.

Web Forms, on the other hand, I will not miss too much.  Microsoft will continue to support Web Forms in branch of ASP.Net – for legacy purposes.    Web Forms to me has always felt like a flawed implementation.  All the hacks to get around the one form tag per page, and viewstate issues – ugghh –  long term the bad side effects overcome the nice binding features.  Once you start doing a few MVC projects and get the hang of it, it seems like a much cleaner model – especially in MVC 4+ with the handy router improvements.  I am not looking forward to refactoring (eventually) all my Web Forms Code, but when I do it will probably include a client-side framework such as AngularJS.

So with Windows 10 and ASP.Net going cross platform, I think Linux may be in my future.  So it may be time to say goodbye to my old Visual Basic and Web Forms world, and hello to the new ‘cross platform world order’.

To see a official Microsoft ASP.NET site – go to http://www.asp.net/vnext.

 

 

Dan on April 15th, 2015

An interesting chart here published as part of an article posted on Ars Technica regarding expected Energy grid changes in 2015:

 

What surprised me was that wind led the pack.   According to the article, there are a bunch of utilities bringing wind farms online at the end of the year.  One important note from the article:

The growth in renewables is notably an underestimate, as it (this chart) only includes utility-scale projects and none of the small-scale and residential installations.

So maybe the ultimate renewable energy mix will be utility level Wind, supplemented by residential solar. So during the day, the grid gets most its power from solar, at night it pulls the utility generated wind power.  If this is the model of the future – then if you wanted invest in solar power, something like Solar City would be the solar stock to own, not Utility Scale builders such as First Solar.

The other interesting data points on this chart show how much natural gas is increasing – largely at the expense of coal.  One important note is that a lot of the incentives for renewables expire at the end of 2015, so it will be interesting to see if natural gas does even better in the near future, until the cost of renewables comes down even more.

One thing appears certain – the future of coal and oil in the energy grid looks pretty dim.  Natural gas and renewables are picking up market share.

Dan on April 5th, 2015

It looks like 2015 will finally be the year Virtual Reality (VR) and augmented reality will approach mass appeal. While Oculus Rift has garnered the most early press in this area, there are many new competitors – Including Samsung and Intel – making it more likely someone will stumble across the winning formula.

The VR headset that is getting the best earliest reviews are the HTC Vive.  Every review I have seen has been very positive.  Here is a review from TechRadar  and Toms Hardware that gives a good overview of the experience.  One other positive about the Vive – because it is built in partnership with Valve – you would think that they are farther along in integrating this with games or other software applications – Valve has a vested interest.

If virtual reality isn’t your thing – how about augmented reality.  The early demise of Google Glass has done nothing to slow progress in that area.  Microsoft’s Hololense also got great reviews when announced a while back, and they are targeting a late 2015 release.  Check out this review from ArsTechnical.  And Google is working on Magic Leap – another augmented reality headset – check out this cool demo here.   However, just because there is cool new technology doesn’t mean it will translate to great gaming apps – Microsoft proved that with the Kinect.  However Googles demo does give glimpses of a whole new world of first person shooters (for better or worse, depending on your thoughts of the societal impact of first person shooters).

And finally, care to fly?  These emerging technologies are combining to give us amazing possibilities.  Here is an example of combining a virtual reality headset with cameras on a drone to give a first person view from the drone.  Why bother with lugging your whole body into the air, when all you really need is your eyes?  As soon as you can control a drone with the movement of your headset on the ground, that should be enough to virtually teleport yourself into the air.  The technology here is still at the hobbyist level, but one would have to believe someone will come out with a consumer ready product soon – perhaps later this year as the VR headsets hit the market.

So 2015 looks like the year I have been waiting for.  Alot of promises, hopefully at least some of these will be a ‘game-changing’ technology that I have been waiting for.

Dan on March 31st, 2015

I finally got around to putting together a page providing an overview of our recent installation of solar panels for our Seattle area home.  You can check out the details at http://dano.vfsystems.net/the-pacific-northwest-solar-experiment/.  The big question is, does solar power make financial sense in the cloudy and rainy Pacific Northwest?  I think so.  But I plan to track my investment to see how the investment works out.  I was provided an estimated six year payback after including all the incentives, which seemed pretty attractive in a time where the 5 year T-Bill is at 1.37%.

After the panels were installed, I spent a fair bit of the time automating the collection of data.  I have my system configured to pull solar statistics daily and load them by hour into the database.  This process allowed for easy retrieval and display using Google Charts, and should provide the ability to show a nice variety of charts once I collect more data.  I plan to keep my solar page updated as the results come in, to see if the promised six year payback can be achieved.   So keep watching this blog as I will provide updates as performance and financial milestones as the year progresses.