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.

Dan on March 20th, 2015

For the last few months, I have been tinkering with AngularJS, Google’s javascript framework for web applications.  Perhaps the best chart I have seen to sum up my feelings about Angular was a chart Ben Nadel posted on his blog:

 

feelings_about_angularjs_over_time

 

I am probably somewhere in the bottom left of that chart – but overall its pretty cool.  AngularJS is the first client site web library that I have used that feels like a framework – JQuery feels like just a bunch of utilities to be used (or misused) at your leisure.  AngularJS requires you to think like Angular, and thus conform to the framework.

I am primarily a server side web developer – with a long disdain for javascript development.  But I have to admit it doesn’t make sense to have the webserver always bind html templates with data and send it pre-rendered to the web browser.  Perhaps the client server vision from the 1980’s (when the argument was to offload processing from the mainframe) never died in me,  and that servers should just send data to the client and let a fat client assemble the webpage.

So I have forgone refining my knowedge of Razor, and at this point plan to focus on assembling more templates on the client.  That’s what led me to AngularJS.

As the chart above shows, there are times where Angular has you ripping your hair out.  And there are several posts out there (see this and this) discussing valid points about problems with Angular.   But I plan to approach this in moderation.   Most of the issues I see out there is using Angular to build Single Page Applications – going whole hog into a client-centric app.  For me its way to early to go there, but using AngularJS as the basis for generating data lists and basic input forms – I think that’s ready for primetime.

Angular makes it very easy to bind on the client data pulled from the server, and building forms using Angular is the way to go once you kind of get past some of the hurdles.  I am treating AngularJS kind of like Microsoft Access – as long as you follow the rules you can build really quick apps – but if you try to get fancy that’s when the hair pulling begins.  I recall in the 90’s many of the Microsoft Access tips involved calling Windows API’s to do certain thing – and to me that was a sign that your solution was probably wrong or you should switch applications.  That’s how I feel about Angular – as soon as I have to start writing fancy or nested directives – its back to the server and the warm fuzziness of Razor.

Rumor has it lots of changes are coming in AngularJS 2.0, another reason not to get to fancy with it.  But if you are building simple web CRUD applications, start tinkering with AngularJS.

Dan on March 13th, 2015

I stumbled across this chart on Business Insider, and it caused me to wonder about what this means:

 

diningcompare

 

 

For the first time, more money is being spent on dining out than on grocery purchases.  I guess it makes sense that as the economy improves, more people dine out.  But this gap has been closing for years – what demographically is going on?

One would think that with the rise of popularity in designer kitchens and Whole Foods, the trend might go the other way as people host more dinners rather than going out.  Contrarily, perhaps the rising young urban population is driving this change.  However, this has been gradually increasing since the early 1990’s – so that doesn’t compute.

Perhaps its tied to the increasing efficiency of restaurants.  The rise in fast casual restaurants (i.e. Chipotle) that can pretty efficiently provide meals for near the cost of buying the ingredients yourself may be driving this trend.  I have always wondered, shouldn’t a restaurant be able to someday provide meals cheaper that you can make yourself – given that they buy in bulk?  Perhaps as restaurants use more automation and smaller footprints this will happen.

Perhaps this trend is being driven by the ‘rise of the 1%’.  The ultra rich have been the biggest benefactors of the recovery since 2008, and maybe their spending at fancy restaurants finally tilted the balance.  This could be either proved or disproved if we had data going back to say 1960 – to see if this trend was happening even when the middle class was stronger.

So my conclusion is – no conclusion without more data.  At this point it is just statistically interesting.

 

Dan on March 7th, 2015

Comcast has recently been trying to get all their customers to upgrade their internet modems to ensure we all get faster speeds.  Unless you believe Comcast is truly interested in your internet speed,  here is the real reason for their interest in upgrading your modem.  Their new modems come with a public Wi-Fi accessible  to all Comcast customers that is hosted by each modem owner.

Actually, this feature is a pretty handy technology if you are a Comcast customer. You have access to Wi-Fi just about anywhere you go, thanks to mostly unwitting customers.  I guess that’s the problem I have with it – it was rolled out with no explanation to its customers and it was an opt-in by default program.

So this was enough to finally get me to install my own modem, and save the $10 a month modem rental Comcast has been charging me for being lazy.  I had bought a Motorola Surfboard SB6121 several months ago, but couldn’t get it to recognize my home network. I figured at that point it was a problem with my wireless router, so I set it aside for a few months.  Recently I replaced my old router, so I no longer had an excuse.

If you plan to do this yourself I have a couple tips.  Dwight Silverman has a pretty good article that sums up the steps to go through, but I have a couple of points to add.

Before starting, I opened up a Comcast chat window and contacted their support through that.  I told them via chat that  I wanted to install my own modem and the person (or the robot – kind of hard to tell) on the chat said I had to give them the mac address and serial number.  This is better than sending this over the phone because you can’t review what you told them easily, and its more likely the person on the other end might typo a number.  After waiting 5-10 minutes (and getting a stream of information  about their exciting special upgrade offers), I was told to try swapping out the modem.

After swapping the modem, I lost my ability to browse the internet – so I was thinking it wasn’t working.  However, my chat was still active with Comcast, so I  realized that Comcast was just blocking HTTP traffic until the modem was activated.  After waiting another few minutes, the Comcast Rep told me I had to call a number to get my modem activated.  Now my land line phone was not working because it runs through the network, so I had to use my cell phone.  After going through all the security questions again, my new Comcast rep tried a couple things, and suddenly my internet was working.

All told this process took about 45 minutes.  If you plan to do this yourself, I recommend doing this via chat to ensure your modem is working prior to activation, and have your cell phone handy if use have a VoIP land line.

If you don’t plan to do this – I thank you and  I look forward to using the public Wi-Fi you are providing when I am in your neighborhood.

Dan on February 19th, 2015

One of the most interesting things about the recent study released on climate change was the different headlines the different media sites put on the article.  Here are just a sample:

Scientists Recommend More Research on Geoengineering

Anti-‘Geoengineering’ National Academy Report Opposes ‘Climate-Altering Deployment’

US scientists say ‘climate intervention’ strategies are unlikely to work

Man-made climate change may need man-made remedies, science panel says

Here is the link to the actual study:

http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=02102015

To my eyes – this article didn’t break much new ground  – as you might expect the message was somewhere in-between what the headlines read into it.

However, after reading the paper, there were a couple points of contention I have with it:

1.  Ethical, political and social issues are not limited to climate intervention.

This quote caught my eye:

If society ultimately decides to intervene in Earth’s climate, any actions should be informed by a far more substantive body of scientific research, including ethical and social dimensions, than is presently available, the committee said.

Umm.. – even if society ultimately decides to implement worldwide carbon reduction or deforestation mitigation – there are ethical and social dimensions to be considered (Should carbon reduction be based per capita consumption, or size of economy?  Can the world intervene on sovereign country (i.e. Brazil) land practices?  Also, doing nothing will also result in ethical and social dimensions – who bears the responsibility for the loss of land in low lying countries such as Bangladesh and Pacific Islands?

So I agree that there are ethical and social dimensions to the solutions, but are they more serious than the alternatives?

2.  Are they resigned to the fact that albedo-modification techniques (AKA GeoEngineering)  are the only viable political solution (other than doing nothing)?

(The Committee) opposed deployment of albedo-modification techniques, but recommended further research, particularly “multiple-benefit” research that simultaneously advances basic understanding of the climate system and quantifies the technologies’ potential costs, intended and unintended consequences, and risks.

They oppose albedo-modification techniques, but want to move forward with further research.  That kind sends a mixed message, which perhaps is how the media headlines were able to slant it so many ways.

We have hacked the planet before

 It surprises me that nobody mentions we have used (unwittingly)  albedo-modification techniques before. One of my first posts back in 2011 (Our First Nuclear Winter) discusses a Japanese paper showing the correlation between the nuclear testing in the 1950’s and reduction in global temperatures.  So this isn’t totally new ground.  Perhaps the fear is that if this is widely known, there will be a greater push to use this to solve the problem.

I encourage everybody to read the paper and make their own conclusions.  While I am not pro-geo engineering, given the dollar cost will make it easy for one country to unilaterally deploy, I think we should prepare for it.  I have said this before – ‘The moment waters start lapping the door of the New York Stock Exchange, America will lead the charge for geo-engineering’.

 

Dan on February 13th, 2015

When I saw the news that Radio Shack is closing over a thousand stores,  I assumed our neighborhood Radio Shack was on the list.  Sure enough, when I saw it on the list, I was not surprised, but felt a bit of nostalgic sadness.

Not that I am an avid Radio Shack customer, But Radio Shack has held a peculiar place in American retail.  Our local radio shack opened when I was in Jr. High, and I thought it was a cool store with all sorts of oddball applicances, toys and cables.  I even was a card carrying member of the battery-of-the-month club.  But as I got older, the Radio Shack appeal faded – and Radio Shack was known for having low quality stereo equipment and components.

Over the last 30 years, Radio Shack has been kind of my store of last resort.  If I can’t find a cable or electronic component anywhere else, I will try Radio Shack.  Even then, its usually not a pleasant shopping experience – not so much to blame Radio Shack – but to find unique electronic components amongst the array of stuff is nearly impossible without the help of a salesperson.  Also, I don’t know if they still do this, but they used to always ask you for your name and address whenever you bought something – and I think that creeped a lot of people out.

To be honest I am surprised Radio Shack has lasted this long – I think my brand impression is shared by most.  I think Radio Shack finally fell victim to online shopping – its much easier to plug a part number into a browser and buy it online.  Perhaps its ironic that Amazon is rumored to be in talks to buy Radio Shack stores.

So I don’t know if I will miss Radio Shack, but like Blockbuster and the local record store, it appears to be another American icon falling victim to the 21st century.

Dan on February 8th, 2015

At first I thought this news about a theme-park hotel staffed with robots was just a gimic:

http://indianexpress.com/article/world/asia/worlds-first-robot-staffed-hotel-to-open-in-japan/

But if you think about it, if you were a company wanting to start automating basic hotel functions, this would be a great place to start  (on the other hand, I take it nobody in this company ever saw Westworld).  Assumedly this first version will be rough – I doubt the robots will be much more than show pieces – but it provides a good training ground for seeing how robots could be integrated into human customer service industries.

Sure, I don’t think I want to be one of the first people to stay at this hotel – I think I would wait til the bugs get worked out.  However, I was interested to see this:

Room rates will vary depending on demand. Instead of being presented with a fixed price, guests will bid for rooms during peak season. The highest bidders will secure rooms, though there will be a price cap on bidding.

The hotel says room fees at opening will be from 7,000 Yen (USD 60) for a single room to 18,000 Yen (USD 153), the highest possible price after bidding, for a triple room.

An interesting booking model, and pretty low prices.   Of course I’ll bet the prices at Westworld were pretty cheap too..

Dan on February 1st, 2015

What caught my eye on this story about Scotland renewable energy is that they had success with wind more than solar power.

http://ecowatch.com/2014/11/27/renewable-energy-powers-scotland/

I guess it shouldn’t surprise me too much, since no doubt that Scotland has more wind than sun,  but it was interesting to see that they have had success with wind on such a large scale.  I understand the argument in the article about people who oppose windmills, which is why I think the growth in wind power will slow, and switch to other renewables.   Tidal power is the choice that I am surprised hasn’t moved forward faster for Scotland, but  Scotland is moving with tidal power projects.  There is big money behind tidal power also, German conglomerate Siemens has a company specializing in marine turbines, Marine Current Turbines.

Regardless of which renewable technology wins out it seems clear that improving technology will enable at least one renewable to eventually displace oil as the primary energy of choice, and this will continue to put downward pressure on oil.

Dan on January 20th, 2015

Over the past weeks as I read the predictions for 2015, I have been mulling different points of view about where interest rates are headed in 2015.  I think I have made up my mind that interest rates will be heading lower in 2015.

This chart as highlighted in this Business Insider article is rather telling:

10 Year Interest Rate Comparisons

 

Looking at this chart, the yield on the 10 year US Bond (the white line) appears out of line with the other primary developed countries. If you believe the US economy will stay the course in 2015, in comparison to its foreign peers, you would expect the US yield to be closer to the others.  Interestingly, given Japan’s debt problems, the Japanese debt also appears to be mispriced;  .03% seems awfully low for a country with the highest debt load of any country – investors in Japanese bonds seem confident that they will get all of their money back in 10 years. I would not be that confident.

So how low will interest rates go?  After all, they are almost at 0% now.  Well, we are in historic economic times – and negative interest rates are spreading.  Look at this price chart of German Bund interest rates:

 

The Swiss Bond Index is also negative, so its not inconceivable that US Bond yields could go negative this year.  So conventional wisdom was rates have nowhere to go up – but this shows how we are in very unconventional times and it may be time for unconventional thinking.

Dan on January 14th, 2015

I ran across this post regarding the increasing risk of deflation, and this chart caught my eye:

deflation

 

It is interesting to me how this shows clearly that as Quantitative Easing has winded down in 2014, the inflation that the Fed was manufacturing immediately died down.  So that got me thinking, is deflation such a bad thing?  Why has the government used such a historically drastic strategy  to try to spark inflation and avoid deflation?  On the surface, it would seem to me that deflation is a good thing for savers and workers ( wages typically do not keep up with inflation).  If you have huge debts (like the government)  deflation would be a bad thing as it makes your debt more expensive.

So I did some searching and found a couple good arguments on whether deflation is good or bad.   First up, Paul Krugman had a good article on why he thinks deflation is bad.  He gives three reasons why deflation is bad – I would encourage the reader to read the article and decide if the arguments make sense.

I also found this article covering how there is good deflation and bad deflation.  The article makes some of the same points as the Krugman article, but covers some different scenarios.

In reading these articles, I guess I haven’t made up my mind if deflation is good or bad. Arguably in late 2008 and 2009 we were on the brink of bad deflation due to the high household debt and drop-off in economic activity.  However now, it appears that the dropping oil prices and productivity improvements hint at ‘good deflation’.

I am going to keep mulling this whole issue over in my mind for awhile.  Because looking at the above chart – good or bad – it looks like we are about to be hit with a dose of deflation.