Down the Docks

January 27, 2008

Life Quickly Imitates Art, Even Sci-Fi

Filed under: Books, Current Affairs, Technology — ealing @ 1:12 pm

Charles Stross is now one of my two favourite currently publishing SF authors (the other is Iain M. Banks). I got a copy of his latest, Halting State, from Amazon a couple of days ago. I haven’t finished it yet, but so far it’s about economic sabotage in an MMORPG, set in 2016.

Like another modern Aristotle of SF, Neal Stephenson, Charles Stross seems to understand everything, including economics. More importantly, he understands why it’s important (something I only started to grasp a couple of years ago) and can explain it without killing the story. So Halting State spends some of its time discussing money supply and inflation within virtual worlds. So far ahead of the curve, so Charles Stross, I think.

Last night I picked up this week’s Economist, to find mention in the business headlines of Second Life‘s financial crisis. Halting State‘s characters refer to Second Life as a metaverse, not a MMORPG, but I still find this amazing. Theoretical GDPs and game-currency-to-hard-currency exchange rates have been published for a while now, but maybe the crossover from amusing sideline to area of serious interest is closer than even Charles Stross thinks.

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Sex, Lies, and Money

Filed under: Technology — ealing @ 1:47 am

I’ve never tried placing an advert on Facebook, but I’ve been told that FB offers excellent targetting. Apparently it’s possible to require that your ad only be shown to people who fit very narrow definitions, such as people who went to Imperial College and are under 25, or married women living in Cambridge.

Obviously, no amount of matching values from profiles will tell an advertiser exactly who will buy their stuff, but they will want to play the odds. It’s generally a waste of money to advertise a UK service to someone living in France, or to advertise books to someone who hasn’t filled in the “Favourite Books” field. On the other hand, travel, financial products and cosmetic surgery can be usefully adertised to both sexes, so you wouldn’t want to filter out some of that potential audience.

Now, if advertisers know their desired audience, and have tracked their previous successes and failures, they will have a good idea of which fields in my personal information are important and which are not. They probably have hard evidence to back this up.

The second and subsequent lines of my Facebook profile are:

Sex:

Male

Interested In:

Women

Relationship Status:

Single

These three bits of info are the truth and the whole (relevant) truth. Facebook advertisers seem to be very interested in them, judging by the ads that are normally shown to me – I guess about a third are dating-related.

So I was a little surprised, initially, to see an ad earlier for http://www.urbanconnections.co.uk, a gay dating/event site. Didn’t they see that I am “Interested In” women, and not men? A couple of seconds later I clicked that they probably don’t care what I put in “Interested In” – they presumably figure that there are enough men out there in the closet that it’s worth advertising to the apparently straight men as well as the openly gay. And they quite possibly have the statistics to back this up.

I wonder what else you could find out about society by examining Facebook advertising patterns, maybe using multiple fake accounts. Other people have been datamining it recently as well, although not using any advertising-related data. My hope with advertisers’ choices is that at least some of them would be gathering real evidence of what worked, rather than just guessing.

January 23, 2008

Today’s Pointless Work Discussion

Filed under: Uncategorized — ealing @ 2:05 am

Do we store excess fat around our waists first because it doesn’t upset our movement and balance as much as storing it elsewhere would? Someone else suggested that it was for insulation and physical protection of the internal organs below the rib cage. I buy the first, but not the second. Any ideas?

Budgeting and Money

Filed under: Resolutions — ealing @ 2:03 am

The last of the resolutions. To cut a long story short, I want to keep lifestyle inflation from undoing the good work I’ve done in my career and finances over the last couple of years. I’m not a student anymore and I don’t intend to live like one, but the rate at which money slips through my fingers sometimes is too high.

As a warm-up I tried a spending fast (spend no cash, in my case for a week). The point is that the spending prohibition makes you conscious of where you would normally spend. I’m sure I can save money, eat better and eat healthier by making my own lunch sometimes. What will make more diference for me though, is the big ticket items. I need to resist new computers and gadgets I don’t need, new clothes I won’t wear, and books I won’t ever read, and can barely even store. I really need to work on the books!

January 20, 2008

Espanol

Filed under: Resolutions — ealing @ 12:50 am

The penultimate of my resolutions was to keep learning Spanish. It’s the fourth most commonly-spoken language on the planet, with around 500 million native and non-native speakers.

I’ve never had the discipline to learn a language by self-study, so I have a few rarely opened Spanish books on the shelves. Podcasts have been a bit of a boon (although I’m now suffering from the fact that iTunes doesn’t run under XP x64), as I’ll happily listen to them again and again while travelling. The big problem for me though is that the ability to listen and understand a language doesn’t translate into the ability to speak it. Looking at my one-year-old nephew responding with comprehension when spoken to, but unable to speak, I guess this is a common function of the way he learn languages.

Late last year I signed up for a course at 44 Portland Place, and I got quite a lot out of it. Being taught in a small group seems to allow me to learn faster, probably because it’s not so passive. Of course, the big benefit is that I get to practice speaking throughout each lesson.

44 Portland Place is very cheap compared to other language classes, so I’ve no objection to signing up for their classes as long as there’s an appropriate one. The real challenge for me, and the point of the resolution, is to make sure that I put more into it than just turning up to every class. Homework, including some writing and some rote learning, is invaluable. On top of that, I need to take time to read Spanish (plenty of which is now available online – no more going to the library or buying foreign newspapers) and speak it when the opportunity arises.

January 19, 2008

Half-On the Wagon

Filed under: Resolutions — ealing @ 1:40 am

I said this year I would try to avoid drinking more than six units of alcohol in a day. I’ve been teetotal for months at a time before, and it’s never been a problem. Alcohol is like Pringles or chocolate raisins – the real challenge isn’t refusing the first one, it’s refusing the third or fourth one.

Half of the reason I want to drink less is to lower and keep track of the calories I consume. The other half of the reason is that I want to avoid that day after feeling: even after the hangover’s gone, I still feel washed-out, and I can’t summon the willpower to do anything more than lounge around. But who doesn’t like a good glass of red, or a decent beer? Truth be told, I like most kinds of alcohol, I enjoy the taste and the relaxing effect of the first couple of drinks. It’s even good for the heart.

So I don’t want to cut it out completely, but I don’t want to drink so much that I spend half of the next day with a headache, or wondering if I should leave the flat. The time I’m least able to resist a drink is after I’ve already had two. I’m not sure exactly how I’ll solve this problem, but I’ll probably start by interspersing non-alcoholic drinks in between the booze. Of all the things I resolved to do this year, I think this one will probably be hardest to stick with.

January 18, 2008

Debt Free

Filed under: Uncategorized — ealing @ 12:22 am

A few days ago I did the maths, and saw that there were no instant-access savings accounts that would pay me more after tax than my student loan cost. Today I picked up the phone to the Student Loans Company, and paid off the last £1,200 of my debt.

That’s the last of the debt I accumulated over seven years, from 1995 to 2002. Much of the money went on two degrees, and some of it went on living expenses. For two of those seven years I was working in London, seriously underpaid, for Sweet & Maxwell, and the amount I owed rose slightly over that period. When I finally left university for a second time, I owed about £21,000 in total, to two banks, the Student Loan Company, two credit card issuers, an MCR and my parents.

So that’s £90 a month more I’ll have to do with as I please. Of course, all I do these days is obsess over when I should buy a house and get into much, much more debt.

January 17, 2008

On the Plus Side

Filed under: Uncategorized — ealing @ 1:27 am

I went to see The Nutcracker at the ROH this evening. I had the last seat available, closest to the stage in the righthand slips. This is above the level of the curtain, which although raised still obscures about half the stage.

Missing much of the dancing could be annoying, but then I realised that hearing a famous orchestra play a two-hour long favourite was worth the £5 admission by itself.

January 16, 2008

Early to Rise

Filed under: Resolutions — ealing @ 12:16 am

Continuing the trek through my resolutions, the third was “Get up at 6.30 am during the week.” To those that know me this must seem well out of character. In fact, it’s already becoming an easy-to-keep habit.

I never liked the fact that I would get up, get ready for work, go to work, and not have any time of my own until the evening. This way, I get an hour or so in the morning before work. It’s quiet, and since there’s definite time limit, I don’t spend it staring into space. I’ve been using it to read, blog, tidy, correspond, play piano and organise. I typically get much more done in that hour than I would in an hour in the evening. In fact, I’m even thinking of getting up at six!

January 14, 2008

Write More

Filed under: Resolutions — ealing @ 1:20 pm

The second resolution I made for this year was, “Blog or otherwise write for one hour a week, no matter the subject.”

My earlier experiences with more ambitious blog posts were frustrating, as I find my breadth-first thinking patterns do not easily translate into good writing. But I read a lot of material, both online and in dead tree form, and plenty of people write well, if not amazingly. My guess is that practice is important, as is allowing myself to make mistakes. So I’ll be writing often, and hoping to learn how by doing.

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