Government Regulation Achieves Opposite of Desired Goal
One of the few nice things about the economy collapsing is that it is a great time to refinance debt.  As it stands right now, I have a mortgage on my house.  Neither is substantial, but market rates are nearly 2% lower than when I originally purchased.  As such, it makes a lot of sense to look at refinancing.

I'll cover in greater details some of the choices that I made in this regard later (once the paperwork is signed).  However, as it stands, I decided on a 22-year home installment loan (recorded as, but not financed like, a mortgage).  Given my credit and a few other options, it would be at fixed rate of 4.99% with approximately $200-$300 in closing costs.  This beats my %6.875 interest mortgage substantially.  Excellent.

As a part of the Truth In Lending Act my prospective lender is required to send me a Good Faith Estimate as to what the costs are going to be.  This includes things like the APR for the loan, the closing costs and a few other details.  The goal of the Estimate was to give consumers a single sheet to compare between lenders (actually 3 pages of crap).  This way consumers can shop around and find the best rates/terms for them.  Not a bad idea.  However, this sheet led to me being very ... stern with the finance person I was dealing with.

The Good Faith Estimate that I received in the mail included the following things:
An interest rate of 7.840%
Adjustable Rate
$99 Settlement Fee.
Fees for:
A flood report (cheep)
A credit report (cheep)
Tax Mkt Appraisal ($30.75)
Eval Appraisal ($90.00)
Driveby Appraisal ($500.00)
Full Appraisal ($1,600.00)
Property Search ($144.00)
Plus a $245.00 fee for Homeowner's insurance and $1,400.00 for flood insurance.  This bringing the total estimated settlement charges to $4236.29).

Wow!  A lot more than $300.

What makes this even more outstanding is that this included the cost of 4 different appraisals, and flood insurance.  Unless something strange comes up or they can't do it for some strange reason, there is no reason that I need 4 different property appraisals.  I also don't need flood insurance - I'm not on a 125 year flood plain, and I'm actually at the top of a ridge - if my house substantially floods, something Really Bad has happened and I need an Ark.

Needless to say, I spent about 5 minutes chewing into the guy working at the bank.  After he recovered and managed to get in a word or two, I found out what's going on.  By law, they cannot charge higher fees than the Good Faith Estimate shows (I think they get 10% wiggle room, or $100, whichever is greater).  This means that they have to list every fee which they might be required to charge as a part of the loan process, because they can't add on if something is discovered.  For example, if they decide to go off of the tax appraisal evaluation, but that nowhere near reflects the value of the home, then they might need a different appraisal.  Likewise for the flood insurance - if they don't list it, they can't ask for it later.  Same with the interest rate.  They hadn't done a credit check at that time, so they quoted me their worst rate.  The result is that I have a piece of paper which is worse than worthless.  I was *less* informed after I read it.  If a different lender had decided to do a credit check and quick property evaluation first, they could have shaved at least a percentage and $2000 off of the GFE.

Now, my bank deserves some of the blame here for not doing better research before sending me the GFE, but at the same time, the fact that the government prohibits them from making any changes after-the-fact makes this completely useless.

I'm usually in favor of standard forms, disclosure and transparency.  However, in this case, that is exactly the opposite of what we got.

Richest Americans
I ran into something last night which surprised substantially - Forbes' list of the richest Americans. Not that there was a list - this is the kind of obscure voyeurism that I expect from the American people and media.  No, what surprised me was the number of people there which were labeled as being 'self-made'.

The top three were no real surprise - Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Larry Ellison (the head of the #2 software company in the world, and, yes, he's bitter about being #2).

The entries for #4 - #7 were labeled as inherited wealth - the Walton family which owns Wal-Mart, no big surprise there.  But these are an aberration.  Going down the list you find people reasonably well known in the areas of finance and computer technology, some fo the key founders of Microsoft, Google, and Dell.  #18-#21 were one of the inheritors of Fidelity (who will likely take over running the company), and the Mars family - yes, Mars as in the candy bar.  The heiress of the Cox communications fortune is in at #28.  More are sprinkled in here and there.

But what surprised me is that so many of the these people were self-made.  Donald Bren #16 is listed as having "Attended U. of Washington on skiing scholarship; dropped Olympics bid after injury 1956. Joined Marines, then built first house on $10,000 loan 1958."   George Kaiser at #24 had an interesting history:  "Family fled Nazi Germany 1938, settled in Oklahoma. Parents developed oil and gas operation; took over in 1969."  From there he took a small-time operation to being one of the largest energy companies.  2 generations from nothing to something ... something BIG.  Philip Knight, who apparently owns a huge chunk of Las Vegas was a cab-driver's son.  Dan Duncan at #30 "Cofounded Enterprise Products 1968; met customers' delivery needs with 2 trucks."  That's starting from scratch and working your way up.

I had assumed that most of the richest people in America inherited their wealth.  I was wrong.  It appears that most people who are rich got that way because they managed to provide an important good or service where it was needed.  Yes, for a lot of them, luck and timing is what made sure that they were billionaires and not merely millionaires.  This should not and can not discount the hard work, vision and determination that went into making the businesses which they now run.

Interesting Notes from Gettysburg
Most important lesson in strategy:  Keep your army together, unless you have a good reason not to.
Most important lesson in tractics: Don't charge an emplaced emey who has 10,000 more men and twice as much firepower than you have.
Most important lesson in terrain:  It matters.  I ridge just 6 feet high can hide a lot of people behind it.  A short wall makes great cover.
Most important lesson in agronomics:  Grass and wheat will grow to a nice even height, even if the ground underneath isn't.
Most important lesson in communications:  Specify the importance of what you say.  The clause "if practicable" can mean "don't bother if it would interrupt getting a portrait painted, or it can mean "if you do this wi'll win the f**king war".  Learn which before deciding that going another 1000 feet is too hard.
Most important lesson in politics:  Don't assume that the other guy agrees with you and is just being obstinate, and therefore will decide to agree with you if you just make their life a little inconvenient for a few weeks.
Most important lesson in economics:  A slave was worth the approximate value of a car nowadays.  Telling the south to get rid of their slaves was the economic equivalent of simply taking a person's house and throwing them out on the street with the clothes on their backs.  No wonder people were a wee bit upset.
Most interesting place to eat:  Dobin's Tavern.  Excellent atmosphere and bread that was better to eat than most cake I find.
Most strange anachronism:  A civil war cap done in a digital camo pattern.

Kick-Ass The Movie
Okay - I just got done seeing the move Kick-Ass.  It is both as bad as lame as you fear, and as awesome as you might hope.  In a strange sort of twist on superhero movies, it's *almost* plausible in real-life.  Almost.  The movie was two-parts true-to-life-awkwardness, one part wish fulfillment, and three parts just plain awesome.  And, for some fun, they actually went to *some* effort to try and get the fight scenes right.  Sort of.  The rest of this is some basic commentary on what I saw

Warning:  Spoiler alert.  I'm goin got talk about what I saw in the film.  Mostly what was jarringly wrong, because stuff that pulls me out of suspension-of-disbelief land is what I remember.  Some stuff that they got right (surprisingly) is also commented upon.

First of all.  Gun safety.  You don't shoot people.  Even if they are wearing body armor (unless they are hostile).  Shooting your kids might be good "training", but it a DUMB STUPID IDEA.  On the other hand, it gets across the idea that the father is seriously wacko.

The main weapon carried by the title character of Kick Ass are two sticks, or batons, similar to those used in escrima.  Unlike most superhero movies, the character using them has really lousy technique.  At one point you see him practicing in his bedroom in a mirror and trying to figure out how to use them (while posing simultaneously).  The form is horrible.  There is no wrist movement at all.  In short, it's what you'd expect from someone who just picked up a bunch of sticks and didn't know what they were doing.  I think that this is really, really great.

Next up.  The appartment fight seen, where kick-ass first meets Hit Girl at Lizewski's apartment.  This is quite possibly the worst scene of the whole movie.  I say that because it's clear that they sped the film up to make Hit-Girl's movements faster, and the physics are all wrong.  A first weighing maybe 90 lbs is going to have a real hard time kicking someone across a room.  I'll buy a lot of the athleticism, but the ability to strike with a lot of force is unrealistic.  Likewise for the sword usage.  You don't just sever a person's leg that easily.  Trying to sever something as small as a chicken leg which isn't moving is hard.  Joints are easy to damage, but a lot harder to sever, especially cleanly in one single stroke.  Just stop it.  Swords aren't magical.  The knife work was pretty decent, however, and I enjoyed it greatly.  Good note pointing out that the taser would leave serial-number confetti lying around.  Good detail used as a plot point.  I wish more writers would get the details like that right.

The incineration scene.  You go to all that work to get body armor and other neat toys and you don't make your spandex fire-resistant?  Seriously?  Seriously?  You fail.  In the movie.  And outside of the movie.  If children's pajamas can be made fire-retardant, than so can your costume.

The final fight.  That whole time, I kept expecting hit-girl to grab the HUGE GRENADE ATTACHED TO HER CHEST, yank it, thumb the pin and lob it at the bad guys.  Come on.  A hallway with 15 bad guys in it with no escape location?  That's what grenades are made for!  Chuck one or two down the hallway and call it good.  On the opposite note, the kitchen cabinets are probably plywood or particle board.  Sure, it might stop .22 rounds, but not 9mm or what I later on assume was either 5.56 or 7.62 NATO rounds.  That stuff goes through a good selection of body armor - plywood doesn't cut it.  Concealment is not the same as cover.

Finally - firing a minigun, especially one which uses either 7.62 NATO or .30-06 rounds is going to make flight with a rocket pack unsteady.  Each round fired is going to deliver a net impulse similar to a good solid punch.  One or two will shake you up a bit.  Automatic fire is going to toss you around like a rag doll, and that assumes that you are planted on the ground and not hovering with a jet pack.

Overall, it looks like they actually did their research and tried to get things right.  It shows.  Yes, they made some obvious errors, but many of them were cinematographic, not in the writing.  The people doing the writing knew their stuff (year, the AR-15 was based off the earlier AR-10 - my gun geek was thrilled that they put that in the movie).  It showed.  I think that they should be rewarded for this.  Now if only the whole production team could have been as well.

Online Video and Advertising
People who have seen where I live know I don't have either a TV or cable.  However, I occasionally will watch video entertainment (should it really be called TV anymore?) on my computer.  Hulu has done a pretty good job of this, but some companies have decided to roll their own.  This has led to a number of results.  To people airing advertising, please be advised that online video is technically much different from broadcast video.  Broadcast video is interlaced.  Most online video is progressive, or non-interlaced.  When you convert interlaced video to non-interlaced video it looks like crap.  Instead, start with progressive video and go from there.  It only costs more if you are just trying to re-use and old spot for which you've lost the original masters.  When all else fails, remember this:  new format, new ads.  Also, you shouldn't require more bandwidth for the advertising than the programming.  My entertainment experience was seamless, the ads stutter frequently.

CBS, producers of the CSI franchise, have their own video system, similar to Hulu, but have managed to screw up a bunch of the Ad experience.  One of the videos which was in heavy rotation was an add for Hellman's mayonnaise.  They had what was a ~20 second spot which was supposed to be the highlights of a fake cooking show where they were making what looked like a pretty decent potato salad using their mayonnaise as the base of the dressing.  Okay - decent advertising idea.  Implemented very badly in at least 2 ways.  First, the content.  They had their "chef" showing a "blogger" how to make a particular potato salad recipe in a sort-of infomercial experience.  However, they left an open question:  "are you going to make this at home?"  "this tastes really good".  Okay - the reply doesn't answer the question asked.  Seriously - you need better editing.  Next up, the format issue.

This mayonnaise ad was set up like a cooking show.  They basically had to shoot the required video for this.  So, if I like what I'm seeing, why not take me to a 5-minute cooking show-like segment where you can show me how to make the stuff you're telling me I should make.  You've sold me on potato salad.  You've sold me on Hellman's mayonnaise.  Now show me what I'm supposed to do with them.  You have a willing and eager audience.  If I click on the ad, tell me you'll give me a list of ingredients at the end, show me how to prepare what you've sold me on making, and then give me a list of ingredients at the closing.  Ta-da.  You've just given me something to buy next time I'm at the grocery store.  Instead, I have an annoying commercial which is too fast-paced and with unanswered questions.

Yes, I'm asking for the option (but the option only) of more advertising and paid promotional spots, and you won't give them to me.  Bad, bad marketing people.  Online video is a new format which is easily confused for the old format.  With any luck, the advertising people take advantage of the available options and give everybody a better experience.

Pell Construction
Well, the weather is great, the sun is out and I'm at home all at the same for the first time in 6 months.  This means I finally managed to get done a project I've been meaning to work on since November.  I'm making a pell!

For those of you who don't know, a pell is a stationary target used to practice sword and other similar weapon techniques on.  This was harder than I expected, given that it's hard to stir concrete with only one hand (wrist injured in sword practice 3 weeks ago).  Still.  180 pounds of concrete mix later, I'm just about done.  I've put the post into the leftover tire (which conveniently came with the house) and added the concrete.

All that's left is to tack on the carpet and cut the hight of the post down to something a little less overwhelming (currently 8 ft. tall).  Then I will be able to practice two-sword patterns at home.  Yay!

Interviewing Interns
I want to shove a fork in my brain.  There is nothing which makes me weep for the future of humanity more than interviewing intern candidates.  Or interviews in general, really, but this is especially bad.

Why is this?  In part, the people coming in have little experience in interviews.  Intern candidates tend to be nervous, have little concept of limitations, and are trying to impress interviewers.  On a small scale, this can be good.  Too much and you make my eyes bleed.  As for nervous, well, it's entirely possible that working with my company for a summer will net them more money than they've ever had at one time in their entire lives.  It's not a lot, but it's enough. 

The company where I work ideally wants someone with systems programming experience and filesystems development experience.  Toss in some networking and multithreading development for an outside straight.  Now, meeting these criteria is something that we expect a senior engineer to be able to do - not an intern candidate.  However, that doesn't mean that you should be able to walk in without any knowledge.  At least, please, consider the following:
  • Know the name of the company and roughly they do.  At least read the 'about' section of the corporate web site.  If you don't care enough about us to at least look that up - why should we care about you?
  • Have a resume which reflects your skill set.
  • Know your projects that you put on your resume cold.  If you don't know it, don't put it on.
In recent interview sessions, I've had people put things like "Java Scripts" on their resume, without being able to tell me how that was different from Java or Javascript.  That just looks bad.  If something like that happens, at least give me a 'mea culpa - typo' problem.  I'm not worried about the occasional typo.  In this case, however, the candidate was unwilling to either acknowledge that there was a typo, or tell me the difference between that and Java or javascript.

Software development jobs are frequently done in multiple languages.  If what you claim to know is central to what we are doing (say, C and C++), be prepared to be asked detailed questions.  The shotgun approach where you claim knowledge of every language you've ever seen before is quite simply annoying and misleading.  You waste both our time.  My best experience in the regard was with a candidate who wrote on one line "Most experienced with: " and a list of languages, followed by a separate line which listed "Have also coded with".  The result is that I know that I should be able to ask detailed questions in one of the preferred languages, but could get useful work done with other others.  Very nice for the interviewer, and sets the candidate above the rest.

If you have done any project in school or for another company on your resume, you need to know it cold.  What do I mean by that?  If you do something strange, be able to explain why that was done, the costs and trade-offs.  Otherwise you look like a lump.

Know your basic data structures.  Anybody applying for a development job similar to this should at least know the difference between an array, linked list and tree.  You should be able to sort an array.  Questions about deleting and element from a list or traversing a binary tree should be easily answerable.  This is 1st or second year computer science stuff.  Of course, questions like this readily stump senior developers (who we then don't hire, either).  We don't expect perfection, but we do expect at least an attempt.

Along the same line, don't try to be clever.  If I ask you to write code to sort an array and you have 10 minutes to do so, the person who finishes in 3 minutes having written the technically inelegant bubble sort will beat out the person who half-finished an implementation of the quick sort algorithm.  This has happened.  Don't let it happen to you.  We mock you.

Don't get discouraged by questions you can't answer.  If we ask you a question you don't know completely, try to provide a partial answer.  Don't try to spam us with everything you know without answering the question, though.  It makes it look like you not only don't know the answer, but don't understand the question.  That may work in school.  It just makes you look like you have a mental disorder in the professional world.  A lot of times we are asking questions to understand the scope of your knowledge.  Asking easy questions just lets us know that you were awake in class.  What we really are trying to find out is what we can expect to get out of you.

At the same time, be aware that not all questions are answerable.  I don't ask many trick questions, but one of my current favorites is to ask what are virtual destructors, and when would you use them (a fairly straight-forward question if you think about it, but it requires a certain level of knowledge), which I then follow up with by asking when would you use virtual constructors.  The answer is never: they don't exist in C++ and the idea itself doesn't make any sense.  This filters out people who are good at BS.  Also, it lets us know who is willing to stand up and tell us that our question is wrong.  We like a certain level of snark and assertiveness.

Chains of thought
I was sitting around (procrastinating), trying to avoid working on the 3rd floor of my house, which is currently being "worked" on. The joys of drywall. Anyways, as is wont to happen, a song started running through my head: Get Ready for This by 2 Unlimited. Now, I have somewhat fond memories of this song, though it's not really all that good. The music video is actually kind of funny in a sad sort of way. Need a music video? Can't dance? Can't sing? Can't play a musical instrument? Don't have a budget? Then just give the camera to a chronic drunk and let their 2-year old play with the zoom function. We'll fix it up in editing. That's about what the video is like.

So I look at the Wikipedia page for the group, wondering if they'd done anything else that I might recognize from my somewhat sheltered youth. Nothing I recognize by name, but I figure I'd at least pull up their next most popular hit. It's entitled Twilight Zone. The lyrics and vocals remind me so much of why I didn't care for music from the 90s. Still, at least this video had a camera guy who hadn't fallen off the wagon the previous night, and a bit of a budget. What really interested me, though, is how much that piece reminded me of a piece of music which I am certain that readers will be familiar with.

Released a year later was the Theme from Mortal Kombat. It sounds an *awful* lot like Twilight Zone, except, of course, that it's actually pretty good (especially when you consider that it was a theme to a movie based on a video game). Of course, I thought that perhaps the same people were responsible. It turns out that they weren't. This was done by a group called The Immortals, who were Belgian. 2 Unlimited's members were Dutch, though their producers were Belgian. I don't know which influences were important and which ones weren't.

Not a lot of point to this, other than to say I'm a fair bit amused by the whole thing.

It's not anything I didn't grow up with, but man, there's a reason that I moved away.


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