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Google's Missing News

by @ 9:23 pm
Filed under: google

One of the things I like about the Google news site is the fact that it's mostly an orderly aggregation of news from other outlets. Add to that the legendary Google search technology and one can find just about any news release about any item in any period.

That is unless you search for a term and a range of dates when there were no news published. Of course it's hard to believe that there were no news items referring to Google in the nearly 3-week period shown below. In fact for that period there are no news on Microsoft, Iraq, or even Thanksgiving - nothing.


Google News

Well, if Google says there were no news, who am I to argue? Google can't possibly be wrong. There must have been no news whatsoever during that span of time πŸ™‚

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Google's Missing News

by @ 9:23 pm
Filed under: google

One of the things I like about the Google news site is the fact that it's mostly an orderly aggregation of news from other outlets. Add to that the legendary Google search technology and one can find just about any news release about any item in any period.

That is unless you search for a term and a range of dates when there were no news published. Of course it's hard to believe that there were no news items referring to Google in the nearly 3-week period shown below. In fact for that period there are no news on Microsoft, Iraq, or even Thanksgiving - nothing.


Google News

Well, if Google says there were no news, who am I to argue? Google can't possibly be wrong. There must have been no news whatsoever during that span of time πŸ™‚

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Oil at $200 a Barrel

by @ 8:28 pm
Filed under: financial

Oil PricesSeems like an insane prediction when oil is hovering around $34 a barrel, but it was only in July when crude reached $147 and we were paying $4.20 per gallon to fill up our cars. Back then plenty of pundits and analysts were predicting $200/barrel oil and $6/gallon gas and everyone seemed to accept that prediction as a foregone conclusion.

Here's one such prediction published in New York Times in May 2008 titled: An Oracle of Oil Predicts $200-a-Barrel Crude. An oracle of oil? This was a mere 7 months ago, not decades to give the "oracle" a little margin of error.

I'm really not picking on this particular analyst who made this bold prediction in May 2008. When crude was trading just over $100 per barrel and rising sharply, it wasn't perhaps so radical to make such a statement. But even those pundits who strongly disagreed with this prediction didn't get it right, as evident by this statement in the same article: "Some say prices will fall as low as $70 a barrel by year-end, according to Thomson Financial." As low as $70? Did they possibly dare fathom as low as $30?

Every time I hear a prediction from one of these guys, I know they are winging it. Sure, they have access to lots of data, charts, reports, and specialized programs to crunch numbers, but in the end all they can give you is a best guess. It's like predicting the color the ball will land on while it's spinning in a roulette wheel.

Sometimes they get the color right and they come back gloating looking for validation. Other times they take bigger risks and predict the number the ball will land on. It's a gamble, and if it comes to pass, they can reap fame and fortune, at least for a while. In the end their predictions are probably just as good as a moderately informed investor.

Oil didn't hit $200 per barrel. Instead it took a nose-dive amidst the worsening financial crisis and a severe slowdown of consumer spending. Who knows, in a year or two or three it may reverse course again and really reach $200 per barrel. Would that be a vindication for the oracle? Not at all. If he had correctly predicted the intervening price swings, I might have become a believer. But then again if he could do that, he wouldn't need a job forecasting oil prices. He'd be an instant billionaire tanning on a beach.

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Ponzi Schemes

by @ 11:19 pm
Filed under: financial

The bad news on Wall Street today was Madoff's Ponzi scheme. This old trick works by paying off previous investors with money from new investors, thereby garnering a false reputation of handsome profits as long as new money keeps arriving, as in the adage: robbing Peter to pay Paul. Of course the problem is that the scheme eventually runs out of steam and as it unravels it leaves the investors at the tail-end of the cycle holding the bag.

This particular one had an apparent run over decades with losses to the tune of $50 billion. Many investors were large institutions such as banks and municipalities with fiduciary responsibilities to average folks. Most likely this will become another bailout liability for the taxpayers.

Of course Ponzi schemes are not just the domain of the greedy individuals. The subprime mortgage was another example of a Ponzi scheme perpetrated with the approval, and even encouragement, of the government wishing to expand homeownership at any cost. But it even goes further than that. The Social Security and Medicare programs are also Ponzi schemes of sorts. These entitlement programs are funded with the potential earnings of future generations.

The U.S. government's irresponsible borrow-and-spend cycles are also garden variety Ponzi schemes with the investors generally consisting of foreign governments. One could argue that the borrowing cycles are not so nefarious as the investor countries are well aware of the risks and they are even in some form complicit in the scheme, since they are also beneficiaries of this vicious cycle. But what will happen when the interest payment liability on the IOU's finally outstrips the government's revenues and China stops buying up more debt to protect itself? Hint: financial calamity on a global scale that makes the current crisis but a pleasant memory.

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Showering Dilemma

by @ 11:12 pm
Filed under: running-hiking

What do you do when you come home at night, after a long day in the office and a 5-mile sweaty run and see your shower in this state? (It's being remodeled) You suck it up and go to bed sweaty and sticky.


Bathroom Remodeling

No sir, not me. It doesn't mater that it's almost winter time in the northeast and it's dark outside. Your tell the kids to be prepared to call 911 for a cardiac arrest case, then you go behind the house, strip naked and take a shower in record time holding the garden hose over yourself and hopelessly try to make soap suds in the frigid well water. And of course, you pray that the neighbors don't call the cops on you πŸ™‚

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YouTube Outage

by @ 11:07 pm
Filed under: web

At my place of work we have a number of shadow Web servers that sometimes double as staging servers when we want to roll out new projects. The thing is that for any change, no matter how large or small, the proper approach is to install and inspect on test servers, followed by the staging servers and finally, when everything is good and ready, a scheduled rollout on the production servers.

The downside is that following proper procedures take just too darn long, specially when you have the production Web servers ready and willing right on your desktop. I admit to shunting the proper procedure on occasion and going right into the production servers. The justification being that only in production one can truly gauge the results of a change and if there are problems, then we can just fix it in real time.

What we don't realize is that this kind of carelessness could turn off or at least irritate viewers who happen to be browsing the site at the exact moment that new changes and potential bugs are being rolled out. But I have the sneaky suspicion that many sites, even the popular ones, are guilty of this fault on many an occasion.

Take YouTube (owned by Google) as an example. This site is a classic example of frequent quick rollouts. On many occasions I have run across broken CSS, missing images, and sudden changes while viewing the site.

Last night while viewing a classic Twilight Zone episode (The Odyssey of Flight 33), the pages suddenly started to exhibit behavior indicative of malformed or missing style sheets. Then videos stopped playing and were replaced by an error message as shown in the below screen capture. Obviously YouTube was in the midst of a rollout and things weren't going quite as planned.


YouTube Outage

Based on the error message, I tried to update my browser's Flash plug-in, but the Adobe site (where Flash player can be downloaded from) was strangely out of reach. I suspect the error message had sent masses of people to the Adobe site causing an overload and an eventual outage of that site.

In the end, It turned out that there was nothing wrong with my Flash plug-in and YouTube was eventually restored and videos began to play normally again. The error message was likely triggered by an unrelated glitch arising from a rollout of some new feature.

Eventually I finished watching the episode and I also learned something else besides the fact that careless website rollouts lead to user irritation, the fact that the New York JFK airport was once known as the Idlewild airport.

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GE, FDIC, and TLGP

by @ 12:11 am
Filed under: financial

For years the standard FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation) protection for single accounts had been $100,000. This mostly covered bank accounts such as savings, checking, or CD (Certificate of Deposit) with FDIC member banks. With the recent global financial meltdown, the government sought to stanch the erosion of confidence in the banking system and raised that limit to $250,000 on Oct 2008 to continue through 2009.

The FDIC coverage however does not extend to other types of accounts such as money market or corporate debts. To alleviate the frozen credit market and jumpstart the flow of money in the economy, the government recently introduced the Temporary Liquidity Guarantee Program (TLGP) rule which provides unlimited coverage to certain types of unsecured notes. It possibly guarantees certain types of corporate deposit accounts which act much like savings accounts but have not generally benefited from FDIC coverage.

The problem is that the rules are apparently so complex and so fluid that even seasoned people running these firms aren't sure whether the deposits are covered or not, as evident below. The screen capture was taken today from the GE Interest Plus site which offers interest-bearing accounts to the public. These accounts are really investments in GE Capital notes, and for now the company's position is that the deposits may not be insured by FDIC. So, for the time being, the depositors' only assurance is the top ratings issued by the rating companies, S&P and Moody's and GE's own reputation.

Given the poor track record of the rating companies who were at least tangentially complicit in the recent meltdown, and GE's own financial woes with its stock price hovering near 16-year lows, that's hardly any assurance.


investment in GE Interest Plus Notes

Disclosure: I am a previous GE employee and hold GE shares in my 401(k) account.

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News Robot Incompetence

by @ 11:10 pm
Filed under: financial,web

I am a fan of Google Finance. There's a lot to like. Real-time stock quotes, nice charts and graphs and a clean design. But when it comes to breaking financial news, Google just doesn't cut it. Many sites use bots to collect and disseminate news, but in the rapidly changing financial world a news bot is all but useless.

Take a look at the snapshot below taken last Thursday from Google Finance's homepage. The image has been tightened up to show the interesting elements. The headline and subordinate stories shouted losses in the stock market, while the real-time numbers and chart showed considerable market gains.

Google Finance

This contradiction was brought to you courtesy of Google's news bots. By the time the headlines came online, the stories were no longer relevant. Of course, the stock market (specially in volatile times) is a rapidly moving target, making it difficult for an even experienced editor to keep up, let alone a soulless bot who can't care less about market timeliness, or which stories may matter more to the readers.

So for now, Google Finance is fine for stock quotes and charts, but for timely news its bots have a long way to go to catch up with the biological machines known as the editorial staff.

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ASP.NET Response.TransmitFile File Locking

by @ 11:31 pm
Filed under: computers,web

If you use the Response.TransmitFile method in your ASP.NET pages, there is a good chance that the file being transmitted is locked and unavailable for writing during that operation. TransmitFile was introduced with .NET V2.0 and it's supposed to be a more optimized version of WriteFile.

For months I had been dogged with exception alerts when a scheduled program was trying to update files used in TransmitFile. As the alerts were intermittent and the files would eventually get updated by the program, I would just ignore the messages. But today I decided to take a closer look and discovered that TransmitFile is to blame for the files being locked.

As I understand, TransmitFile in ASP.NET makes use of the Windows TransmitFile API function which directly streams a file to an open socket. It is more optimized than WriteFile which buffers the entire content of the file before emitting it. In that sense, WriteFile consumes precious memory and processing resources, switching between kernel and user modes, to accomplish its work.

While TransmitFile API function is optimized, care must be taken to avoid having the streamed data getting mixed with other data and my hunch is that some locking mechanism is used to assure an orderly and sequential transmission of data under ASP.NET. That's all fine until one needs to write to the file which could get shot down while the lock is still active. I was able to reproduce this behavior in a loop where a file is continuously updated and then streamed via TransmitFile. Here’s a simple example:

void Page_Load() {
Response.Buffer=false;
for(;;) {
System.IO.File.WriteAllText(MapPath("/test.txt"), DateTime.Now.ToString());
System.Threading.Thread.Sleep(100);
Response.TransmitFile(MapPath("/test.txt"));
Response.Write("<br>");
}
}

Running this ASP.NET page invariably lead to an exception being thrown. I then changed the code as shown below:

void Page_Load() {
Response.Buffer=false;
for(;;) {
System.IO.File.WriteAllText(MapPath("/test.txt"), DateTime.Now.ToString());
System.Threading.Thread.Sleep(100);
// CHANGED LINE BELOW
Response.Write(System.IO.File.ReadAllText(MapPath("/test.txt")));
Response.Write("<br>");
}
}

I ran the page a number of times and no exception was thrown. I'm sure that ReadAllText is nowhere as optimized as TransmitFile, but I would readily take the performance penalty over the unpredictable exceptions. Incidentally, WriteFile proved to be no better than TransmitFile in locking the file.

Based on the simple test I have concluded that TransmitFile or WriteFile should be used when the file is never or rarely updated. If the file is to be updated frequently, ReadAllText (or other System.IO file reading operations) is the way to go. But if someone can disprove my tenuous theory, by all means.

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MSNBC Prostitution Articles

by @ 12:23 am
Filed under: social,web

For the past few days a number of prostitution-related articles have made their way to the "Most Viewed" list on MSNBC, but clicking on those links results in a Page-Not-Found error. Is this a prank by vandals or just MSNBC's censors blocking the articles that were ostensibly published on the site?

Screenshots:


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