From the mountain retreat

I spent a weekend up in the San Bernardino Mountains for a Nature Knowledge Workshop sponsored by the Natural Science Section of the Los Angeles Sierra Club. We stayed in cabins, all meals included, and spent a lot of time walking around the vicinity in the company of expert naturalists. They pointed out the names of various plants, birds, animals, insects, habitats, etc., but perhaps most valuable was their willingness to answer any and all questions. These nature walks were augmented with several shorter workshops offered in parallel; so many interesting topics that it was sometimes hard to choose which one to attend.

Here are some of the tidbits I picked up during my weekend:

  • “Sage” is applied to two different plant species. One is the white or purple sage (salvia) that is in the mint family, and this is the one you might use in cooking. However, in California we commonly find the Great Basin sage (artemisia) which is from the sunflower family, and you don’t want to use that one in cooking at all.
  • The most common birds we saw were the Steller’s Jay, the Dark-eyed Junco, the Western Tanager, and the American Robin, which apparently is not at all related to the robins in England. We also saw sapsuckers and woodpeckers, the Northern Flicker and the Wester Wood-Peewee, and several others.
  • Juvenile birds are often not much smaller than adult ones (once they’re able to fly), so size isn’t a good indicator of age. However, you can still pick out the juveniles because they have loose skin around their beaks (called a “gape” or, perhaps more technically, “gape flanges”) that is left over from sitting in the nest and begging for food from their parents.
  • The understory in a riparian environment is characterized as “mesic” (wet), as opposed to the chaparral environment, which is “xeric” (dry).
  • Firs have needles that occur singly; pines have needles that occur in bunches. I keep learning this one, and then somehow forgetting it. Hopefully it’ll stick this time. :)

I also attended two workshops. The first was on the geology of the San Bernardino Mountains, which actually ended up covering most of the geologic history of all of California, including the Cordillera I studied so intensely last fall. It was fun to recognize (and be reminded of) all of the crazy violent tectonic history of this state, as well as to learn some local specifics about the San Bernardinos, which I hadn’t previously visited or studied.

The second workshop was on herpetology (hurray!). The instructor brought in some lizards, some skinks, and a California Kingsnake. He offered to let us hold the snake, and I was the first to volunteer. :) Long, silky smooth, and rippling with muscle — snakes are pretty amazing creatures. However, I’m still more fond of lizards. I got some great photos of lizards on a solo hike I took.

I’m off to the mountains again this weekend!

Would you, could you, on a bus?

I’m on a shuttle bus from Portland to Corvallis, OR. No, really, I’m on a bus right now. When I got on the bus, I noticed a plaque that reads: “Free wireless internet is available on the bus.” On the bus? And free, no less? I know wireless access is being provided these days on planes, at least for those long international flights. But bus-access is a new one on me. (And the airlines definitely don’t offer access for free.)

I couldn’t resist doing a speed test on this link (courtesy, which was the first hit on google and has an awfully slick interface). The result was 785 kbps down, 83 kbps up — not too shabby!

CVS goodies

I use CVS (Concurrent Versioning System; CVS in wikipedia) regularly to track software, user’s guides, and technical papers that I write. The ability to track different versions, and roll back when absolutely necessary, is a wonderful safety net to have. When collaborating with others, the fact that we can all be working on our own copies at the same time is a productivity boon. I also like being able to review log messages covering a given file’s evolutionary history. (And no, I am not going to discuss the merits of CVS versus SVN (Subversion); there’s plenty of that all over the net for you to enjoy.)

Today, thanks to a co-worker’s presentation and some ensuing research, I learned some new CVS tricks that promise to make it an even more useful tool for me:

cvs admin -m rev:msg

Update the log message for revision “rev” to be “msg”. While some might wince at the potential for revisionist (*snerk*) activity, this will be oh-so-handy for fixing those typos you notice only after hitting enter on your cvs commit -m "My messge goes hre".

cvs checkout -D "1 hour ago"

(Or, ye gads, -D “1 week ago”, depending on the level of panic you’re experiencing with oh-my-god-it’s-BROKEN!) Check out the version of each file that was current as of the specified date. You can use absolute dates, too, but the relative thing is pretty darn cool!

cvs tag -D "6/5/07" tag last_known_good

Tag all files as of the specified date (relative dates good here, too!) with the “last_known_good” tag. Ultra-useful if you need to go back in time and tag a release that you meant to tag before you went and modified a bunch of files.

cvs annotate filename

Annotate each line of “filename” with the last revision in which it was modified. Also shows who was the modifier. Fun pipeline:
cvs annotate filename | cut -f2 -d'(' | cut -f1 -d' ' | sort | uniq -c
This will show a count next to each author indicating how many of the “most recent changes” they are responsible for.

cvs watch add filename

Receive email whenever “filename” is modified by someone. Note: cvs watch on filename is quite different; it turns on read-only checkouts of “filename”. Developers would then need to issue cvs edit filename to get a writeable version of “filename”, which alerts others to their actions. Also, they then are listed when cvs editors filename is issued.

What are your favorite CVS commands?

The first mobile phones

I read an article today that talked about the evolution of wireless access, starting from its humble beginnings with something called “Improved Mobile Telecommunications Service” (IMTS) in the late 70’s and early 80’s. Initially, mobile phone communications were conducted over 32 frequencies with no sharing — meaning that a single base station could service a maximum of 32 simultaneous calls (although most did not support all of those frequencies; supporting 11-13 was more common). The advance obtained by “cellular” phones was to break coverage areas into smaller “cells”, so that each base station serviced a smaller area (and presumably, fewer callers). Further advances were obtained with protocol improvements (like CDMA and TDMA) that permit multiple phones to share the same frequency.

But getting back to these first mobile phones, there were some other limitations. For example, calls were still dialed with a rotary dial. The phones themselves cost $2000-4000 (no mail-in rebates!), required a 12x12x6-inch transceiver box and a 19″ antenna, and drew so much power that they sometimes drained the car battery if used for prolonged times. And even for those willing to accept these terms, there was a 2-3 year waiting list (again due to the small number of simultaneous callers that could be supported).

My, how times have changed!

Non-fully amortized mortgages — watch out!

Like homeowners everywhere, I am regularly inundated with mail offers to refinance my mortgage. I have no desire to refinance the quite attractive interest rate I got when I bought my home, so most of these go straight to the shredder. But sometimes the mortgage companies disguise their offers in blank envelopes, so I open them before realizing what they are.

Today, I received an offer (from Union Fidelity Mortgage) so egregious that I had to share. Ignoring the complimentary “vacation for two” being offered as a teaser, here is an excerpt from the front page:

Loan Amount New Low Payment**
$300,000 $759
$400,000 $1,012
$500,000 $1,265

Examples shown based on APR 7.13%.
** See other side for important information.

Wait a minute… a $300,000 loan at 7.13% for only $759/month? That doesn’t look right. I whip out my calculator (actually, bc -l) and determine that the interest accrued on $300,000 at 7.13% in a single month is $1782. Therefore, after making your payment, you would still accrue $1023 each month… on top of the principal, which you wouldn’t have paid down at all. How can this be?

I turned the page over to read the “important information”, in all of its hideous glory:

Payment shown in the minimum payment for the first year and is available on a non-fully amortized loan of 40 years based on a 1% payment rate. If this payment is made it will result in interest being deferred to the balance of the loan. It is possible at the end of term to still owe principal. If this payment is made no principal is paid down. APR shown is variable rate with an annual cap of 2% and lifetime of 10.9%. Payment can increase by a maximum of 7.5% per year on payment minimizer.

I have bolded all of the gotchas. I’m actually not sure what they mean by a “1% payment rate”. But it’s clear that the low-low payment of $759 is only permitted for the first year. Who knows how high it will go next year? There’s a cap on its increase of 7.5%, but obviously you aren’t doing yourself any favors by keeping that payment low — you’re just accumulating more and more “deferred interest”. At the end of the first year, you will have paid $9108, and you’ll owe $312,276. You’re racking up debt to “Union Fidelity” at a rate of more than $1000/month for the privilege of… what? Living in the moment? Robbing your future self to pay the present? (There may be those who would intentionally choose such a loan, counting on an increase in equity to compensate for the mounting loan balance, but that’s way outside my comfort zone in terms of rational risk.)

And that’s not all. That assumes that the interest rate stays at 7.13%. But according to these terms, not only might the minimum payment go up, the interest rate itself is variable and can go up by 2% each year. Ouch.

But wait, there’s still more! Unlike traditional 30-year loans, or the more cost-effective 15-year loans, this one is a whopping 40-year loan. If fully amortized (that is, you pay interest as it accrues *and* pay down principal on a 40-year schedule, so as to not end up owing anything at the end), the monthly payment should be $1893. Anything less than that just helps you dig yourself a financial hole so deep you may never get out. And if you do make that fully amortized payment, then over the 40 years you will pay… wait for it… a total of $608,490 in interest. *Twice* the amount of your $300,000 principal! (A 30-year loan with the same rate, fully amortized, would have you paying $427,980 in interest.) And the reality, with this loan, would be so much more costly.

This stuff makes me sick to my stomach. In terms of “learning”, this was a yet another one of those sit-up-and-take-notice moments, and a chance to be surprised anew at how manipulative and opportunistic money lenders can be. Before today, I wasn’t even aware that “non-fully amortized” loans existed. Or maybe I’d just turned an instinctive blind eye.

To top it all off, the microprint for the terms concludes with:

This is a great loan for many different circumstances.

Do tell, Union Fidelity Mortgage. Just which circumstances make this a “great loan”?