In search of a better replacement for Pseudophed

This weekend appears to have been the start of allergy season for me. As a consequence, I get to try the new over-the-counter decongestants. The old ones (Psuedophed etc) were apparently being purchased in large quantities to be crushed and used for producing methamphetamine, so now when you go to buy them you need to register at the pharmacy desk, show your drivers license, where they check with a state-wide database to make sure you haven’t exceeded two packages for the month.

This process takes a long time and is actually more difficult than getting a prescription filled (since you can’t call ahead). So I’m trying the new decongestants. The main drawbacks so far are that they don’t have the 12- and 24-hour extended release versions, and they also don’t seem to work very well. On the other hand, I can run in and out of the store to get them, rather than waiting for 10-15 minutes at the pharmacy desk while they check my drivers license against their database.

Perhaps it would be easier if I asked my doctor for a prescription decongestant. The “new formula” decongestants are a poor substitute so far.

Point spread function, before and after LASIK



I recently went for my two-year followup to see how my eyes are doing after wavefront LASIK. At the initial exam and each followup visit, they measure the point spread function of your eye. Here’s a before-and-after.

The scale of the two graphs are different, so the improvement is even better than it appears at first glance. The upper plot corresponds to roughly 20/80 vision. The lower plot, two years later, is at 20/15.

Moving up in the standings, but not for long


It’s hard to find high volatility stocks that are likely to move up in this market. I made a little progress on the CNBC stock contest, but this is going to be a lot lower tomorrow when they update the results (seeing how the markets had another abysmal day). It would be a lot more interesting if you could take short positions. Everyone would probably be in NEW and LEND.

As an aside, the rules for the trading contest apparently don’t prohibit multiple accounts owned by the same person. Consequently, someone named “Nancy Beaumont” has entered hundreds of portfolios. By the rules, they can only win once, but having multiple high-volatility portfolios in the running significantly improves your chance of ending up with one or two successful outliers, sort of like buying multiple lottery tickets, but with much better odds. At the moment they’re occupying 8 of the top 20 rankings.

How to win a million dollars


CNBC is running a stock trading contest starting today, with a prize of one million dollars for the best performance by May 25th. Signing up is free. Each participant gets a notional $1,000,000 to trade. There are a few non-obvious rules:

  • All trades are priced at end-of-day – no intraday trades, and no GTC limit orders.
  • No ETFs – this means no indexes, countries, sectors, or commodities, and no inverse trades
  • No mutual funds – again, no indexes, country, sector, commodity, or inverse vehicles
  • No options, futures, or other derivatives
  • Minimum market cap of $500 million as of the starting date – this is probably to keep people from winning by manipulating a thinly traded microcap stock.

In order to win this type of contest, you pretty much have to treat it like a free lottery ticket and make your selections accordingly. There is no risk-adjusted return to consider, and no downside to taking extreme losses. So on a short timeframe, and in a long-only US stock portfolio, you’re looking for something highly speculative that’s going to move a lot.

Before I read the rules, I was thinking that with a million real dollars at stake, someone would game the system by thrashing a microcap issue back and forth, but the $500MM market cap requirement makes it harder. Not out of the question, but probably not worthwhile for anyone in a position to control the stock price.

Since we can’t trade the easily manipulated microcap stocks, I’d look for low float, heavily shorted small cap stocks that have some positive opportunity for event or news driven movement. Some general areas to look:

  • Biotech development companies that have regulatory approval or conferences coming up
  • Despised companies that are potential buyout candidates
  • Disaster / event driven companies, such as avian flu, anti-terrorism, or whatever you can think of
  • Fad driven trades. Last year it was ethanol and energy drinks. It might be ethanol and alt-energy again this year

These are all exactly the opposite of good investment or trading approaches, but the contest has a binary outcome – either you win or you don’t. By taking on extreme levels of portfolio risk, you’re trying to increase the variance of portfolio returns during the contest period, in hope of coming up with the highest outlier by the end.

A contrarian approach might be to stay in cash or very conservative stocks, and hope that everyone else makes speculative bets that crash and burn.

Hmm. I just looked at the rules again, and they also have $10,000 prizes for each week’s best 1-week return. This actually increases the incentive for finding a more-or-less binary, news-driven trade each week (such as earnings, court ruling, regulatory approvals). If it works out, your portfolio goes up. If it goes down, it doesn’t affect your 1-week return for the following week.

I was going to run a scan for this over the weekend, but perhaps I should try to dig something up for this week in case something works out.

Needless to say, this isn’t how one should invest or trade with real money.

A day later, a little bounce


Got a relatively weak bounce today after yesterday’s excitement.


Here’s a look at today’s market heat map after the close. There’s a lot of green, but this was pretty unenthusiastic.


I wasn’t too impressed with John Thain on CNBC today explaining yesterday’s weirdness with the NYSE trading and reporting systems. The official story seems to be that the systems that compute the DJIA got backlogged with transactions, and separately an internal messaging system for floor traders also got backlogged, so they’re upgrading their servers. Today they had to delay closing a number of stocks to allow transaction queues to clear at the end of the day. Thain mentioned a volume of over 20,000 msgs/second. This is all plausible, but not reassuring. It sounds like something that would happen to a growing e-commerce site, not one of the world’s largest stock exchanges. I wonder how much reserve throughput they can actually deploy. If we get a “real” market crash, they’re going to have to handle a lot more than the 2.4 billion shares they traded yesterday.

Update Thursday 03-01-2007 0616 PST – Premarket looks pretty messy this morning so far.

Correlated risks


Today was a notable down day for most investors. This is a snapshot of the WSJ’s market heat map after today’s close, as monochromatic as I’ve ever seen it. (Update – see TraderMike’s recap of the intraday trading.)

It’s interesting to observe that diversification across asset classes and markets didn’t help you today. All 30 Dow stocks closed down. 99 of 100 Nasdaq-100 stocks closed down. Nearly all of the S&P 500 closed down. Oil, gold, and other commodities closed down. Emerging markets closed down. Basically, equities and commodities got sold, and the proceeds went to cash and bonds. (Update – here’s the summary from today’s Worden Report: “Zero Industry groups advanced while 239 declined. There was one winner in the Nasdaq-100, two in the SP-500 and zero in the Dow. HalfPoint+ Movers were seven against 2174. The Leadership Index was 34 versus 2228.”)

One nominal trigger for today’s selling was a 9% drop on the Shanghai exchange, but there have been any number of reasons to be concerned and raise a little cash for a while.

In general, diversifying an investment portfolio across asset classes and markets reduces overall risk for an equivalent level of returns. This works because the price behavior for different markets is supposed to be relatively uncorrelated over time. Lately, disparate markets have been more correlated than in the past, mostly going up. Today the risk was clearly to the down side, making it likely that your investment portfolio closed lower today, unless you were in cash or bonds. (I’m pleased to have reduced my trading positions in India and China over the past couple of weeks.)

Another unexpected systemic risk exposed today was in the odd behavior of the NYSE around 3pm. The new hybrid (electronic and open outcry) trading system was apparently getting backed up due to heavy order flow this afternoon. The DJIA appeared to gap down by 180 points when the backlog was cleared. Anyone trading intraday off a NYSE data feed probably had some problems. (Update – here’s TraderMike with more detail)

I think the price action today is overdone, but I’m also happy to have exited many of my positions in India, China, and other emerging markets over the past few weeks. This is a good time to think about where to invest after the dust settles, or focus on short term and day trading. (Some of you may be interested in using the Ultra and Ultrashort ETFs.)

The Bridge to Terabithia


My 10-year-old daughter and I went to see The Bridge to Terabithia yesterday. She read the book last year and wanted to see the movie, which has been advertised regularly over the past few months.

For movies that are based on a book, my general rule for my daughter is that you should try to read the book before you see the movie. In this case, I didn’t follow my own advice. Although this book is well known in children’s literature (winner of the 1978 Newberry Award), I never got around to reading it, and thus was utterly blindsided by the movie.

The movie advertisements make it look like mostly a fantasy and adventure story, kind of like Chronicles of Narnia or perhaps Neverending Story. It’s not. It’s mostly about friendship and pointless tragedy in middle school. I found it enormously disturbing. It pushed a lot of my emotional buttons, both as a parent today, and in recollection of being an odd kid out in a rural school system in the past.

I don’t think I was the only one who got caught off guard at the movie theater, either. I think this is actually a better-than-average family/kids story (for perhaps 4th-5th grade and up), it just isn’t what they marketed, and parents should be prepared for a conversation about death, which might not work for everyone.

When I was in high school, I used to enjoy (emotionally authentic, depressing) movies like this more. Now, I’d rather just see stylized fantasy or heroic death (Kill Bill, Lord of the Rings) or entertaining family cartoons (Cars, The Incredibles). There’s enough authentic tragedy in the world, I don’t need more of it from the movies, and I don’t find it enlightening or uplifting.

In reading the Wikipedia entry on the movie, I see that the issue with the marketing has come up before:

The filmmakers have disavowed the advertisement campaign for the movie saying that the advertising is deliberately misleading; making the movie seem like it was about or occurring in a fantasy world like that of Harry Potter or Chronicles of Narnia[3]. David L. Paterson in the SCI FI Wire article was surprised by the trailer but understood the marketing reasoning behind it saying:

“Although there is a generation that is very familiar with book, if you are over 40, then you probably haven’t, and we need to reach them. … Everyone who read the book and sees the trailer says, ‘What is this? This is nothing like the book. What are you doing, Dave?’ And I say, ‘You know what you’re seeing is 15 seconds of a 90-minute film. Give me a little leeway and respect. Go see it, and then tell me what you think.’”

I’m generally positive on the movie, but I wish I’d read the book first.

Hello stealthy readers

Hello, dear readers. I had lunch with some friends the other day and they mentioned that I hadn’t posted in a while. Sorry I haven’t been paying much attention to this site lately, other than knocking back comment and link spam. I recently saw that Google Reader is starting to report subscription statistics, which prompted me to take a look. It’s been a while since I looked over the server logs, and I was surprised at the number of RSS subscriptions that have accumulated (i.e. it’s more than I can account for by friends, family, and random acquaintances). I didn’t know you were out there, but now that you’re decloaked and I can see you, I wanted to say hello.

I ended up taking a break from posting for a few weeks (since the beginning of the year). Not by coincidence, I’ve also ramped up my running since the beginning of the year, prepping for this year’s Big Sur Marathon, while holding other obligations roughly constant.

Anyway, I think I’ll try some different approaches to posting here and see how it works out.

Year of the Pig

Happy Lunar New Year. It’s the Year of the Pig.

Some are predicting conflict and misfortune:

“The Year of the Pig will not be very peaceful,” said Hong Kong feng shui master Raymond Lo…Pig years can be turbulent because they are dominated by fire and water, conflicting elements that tend to cause havoc, Lo said.

“Fire sitting on water is a symbol of conflict and skirmish,” he said. “We’ll also see more fire disasters and bombings.”

He noted that the Russian AK-47 rifle, a weapon of choice among insurgents around the world, was invented during a pig year.

“So it will not be surprising to see more gunbattles, murder with guns and bombing attacks in 2007,” he said.

Others see a good year for finance:

“Because of the water element in the Year of the Pig, the economy will continue to grow, which also paves the way for another round of interest rate hikes,” said Peter So, a celebrity fortuneteller in Hong Kong.

Not everyone is pleased with pigs:

While the pig is beloved by the Chinese, the animal is offensive to Muslims, who consider it unclean. For that reason, Chinese New Year celebrations have to be handled with care in Malaysia and Indonesia, mainly Muslim countries with large ethnic Chinese minorities.

Happy New Year 2007

Palo Alto view from the Stanford Dish
Happy New Year 2007 from Palo Alto, California.

Superman, Hulk, or Green Lantern?

This quiz has been circulating during the holidays. I did this three separate times without trying to think over the responses, and got three different results. I’m apparently on the cusp of Superman, the Hulk, and the Green Lantern, depending on the time of day.

You are Superman

Superman
70%
Green Lantern
60%
Hulk
60%
Robin
60%
Spider-Man
55%
Supergirl
50%
Batman
40%
Iron Man
40%
The Flash
30%
Wonder Woman
20%
Catwoman
15%
You are mild-mannered, good,
strong and you love to help others.


Click here to take the Superhero Personality Test

You are Hulk

Hulk
70%
Green Lantern
70%
Robin
70%
Spider-Man
65%
Iron Man
60%
Superman
55%
Supergirl
50%
The Flash
40%
Batman
35%
Catwoman
25%
Wonder Woman
20%
You are a wanderer with
amazing strength.


Click here to take the Superhero Personality Test

You are Green Lantern

Green Lantern
70%
Superman
65%
Spider-Man
65%
Robin
55%
Hulk
55%
Supergirl
50%
Iron Man
50%
The Flash
45%
Batman
35%
Wonder Woman
20%
Catwoman
15%
Hot-headed. You have strong
will power and a good imagination.


Click here to take the Superhero Personality Test

Waiting

Waiting

No more fisheye? A better security camera lens


A team at Honam University in Korea has developed a low cost wide angle lens that provides the wide field of view associated with fisheye lenses, but with much lower distortion. The image above is from a wide angle camera mounted on the ceiling of a university book store. Notice the relatively straight lines of the book shelves, in contrast to the curving distortion associated with a fisheye lens.

There are already various software solutions for remapping lens distortion from captured images, but this is a much more elegant approach performing the mapping in analog space before the image is sampled. There is still a blind spot at the center of the image, where the camera blocks the conical miror.

Optics.org says the lens costs around $100, although I suspect that may be the cost of materials for the development team, and probably doesn’t include the cost of the camera. The lens assembly looks more fragile than a typical security camera, but I could also see this making a nice webcam, especially if they come up with a way to minimize/mask/move the blind spot.

Speaking to optics.org, Prof. Gyeong-il Kweon of Honam University said: “We have successfully designed a wide angle lens that can provide a FoV of over 150 degrees with less than 1% distortion, and are very excited about its potential in the security arena.”

Dubbed as a “catadioptric” wide-angle lens, it is made up of a mirror that reflects the light from a wide area (catoptric), and lenses that focus this light on the sensor of a small camera (dioptric).

The setup consists of cone-shaped mirror fixed inside a hemispherical glass dome. At the top of the dome are a series of lenses leading up to a slot for connecting a small camera. Light entering from the dome strikes the mirror and is directed toward the lens. Here, it is focused to form a sharp image at the exact location of the camera’s sensor.

Looking at some of the sample images one can’t help but notice a small black spot at the centre of every picture. This phenomenon, called central obscuration, is actually a reflection of the camera appearing on the mirror. Kweon and his research partner Milton Laikin are looking for ways to overcome this problem. Currently, they have designed a purely dioptric lens that doesn’t suffer from this problem and has a FoV of 120 °.

Link (requires free registration)

No toys for you! (On being a skeptical charity donor)

I hate being skeptical about charitable solicitors, but I am.

This evening there was a solicitor with a table display of children’s toys on the sidewalk in front of the Long’s Pharmacy on Middlefield Road, next to a barrel marked for donation to Toys for Tots. In general, I like to make planned donations, and usually only make unplanned donations to people and causes that I know or are reasonably likely to be who they say they are. (Girl Scout cookies come to mind…)

For some reason, this evening I actually took the time to stop at this woman’s display and hear her pitch. The basic idea was that you buy one of her “pre-approved” toys and put them in the donation barrel at the end of the booth. The suggested items were around $20, and at the moment I didn’t recall hearing of Toys for Tots before (it turns out they’re legitimate, and well rated at Charity Navigator), so I asked if she had any credentials or anything else to vouch for her. She had a letter in a plastic sheet protector describing Toys for Tots, but said she didn’t have any ID and no one there would know who she was.

I was starting to vaguely recall something about Toys for Tots (it’s the toy drive run by the Marine Corps), and it seemed they would be better organized than that. The woman offered to call her supervisor and proceeded to dial a number on her cell phone, but no one answered on the other end.

At this point in the conversation I’m thinking I’ve already spent too much time on this and want to leave, but I get out a pen to write down the contact info on the letter in the sheet protector anyway. The woman I’ve been talking with doesn’t offer her name, but volunteers that she’s working for a company called Fifth Dimension Promotions, so I write that down as well, and departed without making a toy or cash donation. I told her I wasn’t comfortable making a $20 donation to someone I didn’t know with no plausible credentials, and suggested that she have Toys for Tots or her company provide her with something for future outings.

Later, digging around on Google, no such company turns up as “Fifth Dimension Promotions”, but “5th Dimension Promotionz” is apparently a multi-level marketer based in San Jose. They don’t appear to have their own web site, but show many listings on various job sites. They describe themselves:

5th Dimension Promotionz is the nation’s leading provider of promotional marketing and event marketing solutions. We work in conjunction with industry leaders in the fields of hospitality, sports, and charities. 5th Dimension Promotionz provides unique cross promotional strategies and product launch promotions. We provide staff to represent our clients at trade shows and sporting events for sampling and product demonstrations, as well as providing sales and marketing efforts throughout our communities.

So, in the worst case, we have a freelance charity promoter, selling toys at what appears to be a relatively high markup in the name of charity, and perhaps even reclaiming the items from the donation barrel at the end of the day so little to nothing ends up going to charity.

In the best case, we have a freelance charity promoter, selling somewhat overpriced toys and using most of the profit margin to pay for the booth staffer and downline MLM, with some additional toys going to Toys for Tots. The donors would have achieved more by giving directly to Toys for Tots, although the promoter is arguably providing a marketing and convenience service. I probably would have donated if I were confident that some of the money would end up in right hands.

Having looked up Toys for Tots on Charity Navigator, it looks like it’s well run, with 98% of funds going to programs rather than overhead. I’m not sure that they even have an affiliation with 5th Dimension Productionz, other than having some extra toys turn up at the end of the season.

I have mixed feelings about all this. In principle, I think most people would like to help others who ask. In practice, I’m reflexively distrustful of anyone claiming to work for a charity or political cause. I was puzzled by the woman and her booth this evening, and was curious enough to spend a few minutes checking it out. I started out feeling kind of bad that I didn’t trust her, and ended up feeling kind of bad that I was probably right. I suspect that 5th Dimension Productionz isn’t doing anything wrong, exactly. The woman staffing the booth is just doing her job, trying to work up the MLM ladder. But at best they’re misrepresenting or conflating their objectives and the Toys for Tots. At worst they’re preying on the goodwill and lack of curiosity of passers-by to separate them from their money in the name of a good cause.

This is why I usually stick with planned charitable donations, other than to people and causes I know.

If you would like to make a donation and be sure that it’s going to Toys for Tots, you can use their online form here.

If anyone knows more about 5th Dimension Promotionz and Toys for Tots or their other charity clients, feel free to comment below.

What are Garmin options telling us?


I don’t usually track options closely, but the volume in Garmin (GRMN) calls caught my eye this afternoon. The December 35 and 40 and January 17.50 through 35 calls had volume 10x the prior open interest today.

The December 40′s did 25492 contracts at roughly 8.75, while the January 35′s did 17699 contracts at roughly 13.75. Yesterday there were only 2557 Dec 40 and 2523 Jan 35 contracts open. There’s comparatively little volume in the December/January put contracts.

This is around $46 million for these two strikes alone, and unusual new contracts volume in the other strikes today represent nearly $100 million, so it’s not likely to be a bunch of retail investors on OptionsExpress.

A few possible explanations:

1. Someone thinks GRMN is going up a lot between now and January (perhaps anticipating a good holiday season and/or announcements at CES in January?) and purchased a lot of calls.

2. Someone thinks GRMN is going down a lot between now and January and sold a lot of calls to effectively go short and also collect the time premium.

3. Someone holds a lot of GRMN shares and wants to lock in returns for the end of the year by selling covered calls. The shares are up around 45% for the year, someone’s bonus may depend on keeping the gains through December, and the past couple of days could easily raise some concern.

GRMN has been a favorite among short sellers and traders all year and goes on and off the Reg SHO (naked short) list regularly. It often trades erratically and often shows unusual affinity for strike prices at options expiration, which makes it worthwhile for Garmin investors to keep an eye on the options. Today’s volume in Dec 40 and Jan 35s alone correpond to 4.3M shares which the option counterparty will probably be wanting to hedge, compared with today’s relatively light volume of 1.6M shares.

Along these lines, there’s an interesting research paper on options volume versus future stock prices.

Nothing directly actionable here, but worth keeping an eye on.

Disclosure: currently long GRMN.

Update 11-29-2006 10:41PDT – Tuesday’s high volume in Dec 40s and Jan 35s is not showing up in the overnight update of open interest, so it looks like the trade was closed out yesterday.

On being thankful for clean water and food (and alpacas)

Around this time of year I usually review our charitable contributions. This year I’ve enlisted my 10-year-old daughter in part of the review process. We recently received a donation “catalog” from World Vision, which lists a range of targeted donations for livestock, medicine, education, water, and other basic needs. I’ve given her the responsibility to read through the catalog, learn about the various needs, and choose something that we will fund. (Along similar lines, last year some of the kids at her school had a project to buy a cow at Heifer International.)

It can be hard for kids (and grownups) living here to relate to the idea of scarce and/or unsafe water, subsistence farming, or a general absence of health, education, and basic physical and economic security. Spending time travelling in and around the developing world has given me a greater appreciation for the mundane efficiency of everyday life when I return home. (Drinkable tap water, stable electricity, Whole Foods, etc.)

I’m inclined toward systemic solutions and assistance rather than one-time fixes, so I’m biased toward providing aid that enables people to help themselves. This obviously doesn’t work for disaster relief, but I’m starting to think of that as a separate recurring category of its own.

Overall, here’s where we allocate most of our donations, from local to global:

  • Our local public elementary school (California state funding is lame)
  • Various community funds (helps agencies here in Palo Alto)
  • Our church (keeps it running, and funds external national and global programs)
  • My high school (boarding school, which I attended on financial aid)
  • My college (which I attended on financial aid)
  • Local United Way (designated to regional agencies)
  • Various global charities (different ones from year to year)

Emily is apparently leaning towards an alpaca, because they’re soft and furry. I’m trying to make a case for one of the water related items, although at this point I figure I’m happy simply having a framework for a discussion with her about life in the rest of the world.

Charity Navigator is a good resource for checking out charitable organizations. At the moment I like the Grameen Foundation and World Vision for global programs.

See also: Merry-go-round and see-saw powered water pumps, DIY UV Water Treatment System, Voltage Stabilizers and Hidden Costs of Rural ICT

Thanksgiving 2006

Thanksgiving Turkey 2006
This year’s Thanksgiving is remarkably similar to last year’s. It’s nice to have a day off to enjoy Thanksgiving day together at home. Emily helped cook this year, so she’s feeling quite accomplished.

Ms. Dewey – Stylish search, with whips, guns, and dating tips


It’s been a while since I’ve come across something I haven’t seen before online. Ms. Dewey fits the bill. It is a Flash-based application combining video clips of actress Janina Gavankar with Windows Live search.

As a search application, it’s fat, slow, and the query results aren’t great. However, as John Batelle observes, “clearly, search ain’t the point.” This is search with an flirty attitude, where the speed and quality of the results aren’t at the top of the priority list.

As short-attention-span theater goes, it’s quite entertaining.

If you can’t think of anything to search for, Ms. Dewey will fidget for a while and eventually reach out and tap on the screen. “Helloooo…type something here…”

It’s far more interesting to try some queries and check out the responses. I spent over half an hour typing in keywords to see what would come up, starting with some of the suggestions from Digg and Channel9. The application provides a semi-random set of video responses based on the search keywords, so you won’t always get the same reaction each time.

The whip and riding crop don’t always appear when you’d think, the lab coat seems to be keyed to science and math (try “partial differential equation”), and I’m not sure what brings on the automatic weapons.

“Ms. Dewey” also has a MySpace page with more video clips. The way the application is constructed, they can probably keep updating and adding responses as long as they want to.

I briefly tried using Ms. Dewey in place of Google, as a working search engine, but it takes too long to respond to a series of queries (have to wait for the video to play) and the search results aren’t great (Live is continuing to improve, though). At the moment this is a fun conceptual experiment.

I wonder if we’ll see a new category of search emphasizing style (entertainment, attitude, sex) over substance (relevance, speed, scope). Today’s version might already work for the occasional search user, but imagine Ms. Dewey with faster, non-blocking search results, a better search UI, and Google’s results. It all vaguely reminds me of a William Gibson novel.

Hey Comcast – I’d take the internet service if you could keep the video running

no-cable-tv
This week there was a guy from Comcast going door-to-door in our neighborhood, offering promotional rates on their triple play bundle (video, data, voice), and internet service in particular. In general, I’m enthusiastic about the future prospects for combined services from either the cable companies or the telcos, and the Comcast internet service is attractively priced at $19.99 for 6mbits down/384k up, so in theory we are a good prospect for this service.

Unfortunately, I’ve been on the verge of cancelling our Comcast service for months because of sporadic outages. I’m not totally thrilled with my relatively slow PacBell/SBC DSL service (1.5mbits down/384k up), but other than widespread outages due to flooding or power interruptions, it has been quite stable. In contrast, our cable TV service went out for a week last year, and I have observed outages lasting anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more every month or so since then. I can live without CNBC or Disney Channel, but things can rapidly grind to a halt here without internet service.

The Palo Alto fiber loop passes just a block from here. I should see if it’s gotten any easier and cheaper to set up a connection. The Palo Alto Fiber-to-the-home project seems to be perpetually stalled, but the bandwidth business has been coming back over the past few years. There are enough wireless LANs visible from here, I could probably set up a mini-ISP or bandwidth co-op for the whole neighborhood.

At the end of the day, the main thing I want from an internet service provider is fast, stable performance at a reasonable price. $19.95 is a pretty good price, but Comcast hasn’t shown that it can keep basic video service running yet. Maybe later.

Update 01-21-2007: Ended up installing Comcast internet, but we’re still keeping the DSL service in place to run the office network. Internet video is a lot faster on the cable network, but it’s already been offline once.

North Korea tests a nuclear bomb?

North Korea has been threatening to test a nuclear weapon recently, and may have done so a couple of hours ago.

The test is “unconfirmed” at the moment, but South Korea says it detected seismic activity measuring 3.5 on the Richter scale at 0136GMT, or 10:36AM Korea local time. The presumed test site is underground, in a coal mine in Gilju.

It’s surprising to me that, given the advance warning, there isn’t an official confirmation that there was a nuclear test or not. There’s probably no shortage of equipment set up to monitor the situation, and I would expect a different signature for a nuclear explosion than from setting off a huge pile of RDX at the bottom of a mine.

There’s no shortage of countries that could build nuclear weapons if they wanted. South Korea and Japan in particular come to mind at the moment. More problematic would be Kim Jong-Il making a deal with Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (or someone similar) to trade oil and hard currency for nuclear weapons technology.

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