Sunday 25 July 2010

Is Dotster the worst discount domain name registrar in the universe?

I originally started this blog using blogger, then decided to register the domain name using Dotster and setting up Blogger to utilise the 'custom domain' After a bit of fiddling with settings in my Blogger dashboard and paying extra for DNS settings management with Dotster, I got the URL to work OK (ie. displaying my blogger content), but the 'www' version (ie. never worked. I used the Dotster 'help' form to send details of my problem last week, and got the following response back via email:

"Dear Valued Dotster Customer

Dotster is committed to supporting our customers in a professional and timely manner. This is to notify you that your email has not been received. To submit your request, please use the web submission form below to contact Customer Service..."

WTF? If they didn't receive my first email (which was generated by filling in the web submission form) how were they able to respond to the email address I had provided in my help request? This seems extremely odd - either the web form didn't send through the information I had provided about my issue, or else this is their customer service way of shifting my help request into the 'too hard' basket and hope it just goes away.

Any way you look at it, this is a pretty poor way to handle a customer's request for help.

Just another reason to think about going through the hassle of transferring my domain name registration to another discount provider such as GoDaddy - my experience with them has been much better, and they charge less as well!

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The frugal joy of 'lagging edge' computer software and hardware

It's a well known fact that keeping up with the techno-Joneses by buying the latest cool techo-toys can be a wee bit expensive (do you want an iPad with your iPhone?), not to mention the 'joys' of living on the "bleeding edge" of technology and being one of the first to uncover that exciting new 'undocumented feature' (no, no, you're just holding your iPhone 4 the wrong way you klutz - there's nothing wrong with it!).

So it's a lot cheaper to take a few steps back from those money black-holes and cultivating a mind-set of 'discovering' that latest and best games and hardware a few years after everyone else. I do this by a) hanging on to my old games (Kings Quest 4 anyone?) and old hardware as long a possible, and then b) only looking on the discount table of EB Games to find out 'what's the 'latest', cool new game). Provided I don't go near the current gaming mags or try impressing anyone else, I'm perfectly happy with living on the 'lagging edge'. I still get to buy shiny new toys, but don't pay much more than I would for a used copy of the latest releases.

Hence, last week I bought a copy of Microsoft Combat Flight Simulator 3 for $14, and proceeded to replace my old serial port joystick with a brand-new Logitech Attack 3 USB joystick for $25 (on clearance sale, used to be around $35). I'm amazed by how great the graphics look when playing on my Dell Inspiron Laptop, and although the software first came out in 2002 it runs perfectly well under Vista.

Another benefit of buying games well after they were first released is that any bugs have probably been fixed - from what I read on the 'net, when CFS3 first came out you had to manually hack the config file to get the Logitech joystick to work under Vista. I had no problems at all, so it seems that Microsoft eventually got around to fixing that bug.

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Wednesday 14 July 2010

Library costs for distance education students

It's a lot easier to be a 'distance education' uni student today compared to the situation back in the 80s. In those days when I was enrolled at Charles Sturt University there was an endless stream of paperwork being sent to and fro by snail-mail - application forms, enrollment forms, course notes and assignments. In contrast my current studies at James Cook University have involved minimal paperwork - after sending in some certified copies of my previous academic results along with my application form, everything has been done online via email, online discussion forums, course materials provided electronically, and assignments sent in via email.

One thing that hasn't changed much for the better is library access to books. Back in the 80s I could search for a book in the library catalogue using a dial-up modem connection, and as a distance education student books I requested were mailed out to me. If I didn't want to pay return postage I could check out the library of one of the local university campuses, and you could get a library card for free access under reciprocal borrowing rights. These days, it's "user pays" - to borrow the same book I just requested from JCU from the local UTS library (one of my 'almae matres') I'd have to pay $77 for one year library membership with borrowing privileges. Given the transportation costs to make two trips to the UTS library (to borrow and return a book) would exceed the cost of paying return postage to mail a book back to JCU library, it isn't worth the time and effort to visit a university library in person. One benefit of being a Masters student is that loans are for the entire semester rather than just a few weeks.

However, although borrowing books by mail is reasonably convenient, I still feel that the university could afford to provide pre-paid return postage. After all, distance students don't utilise the on-campus facilities at all, so while the university charges distance students the same fees as other students, they save on the depreciation costs that would be incurred if they had to build the additional lecture rooms etc. that would be required if all the distance students were attending campus. In a truly 'user pays' system distance education students would have to pay postage in both directions (plus the cost of the librarian picking and packing the requested volumes), but we would pay reduced course fees commensurate with on-campus facilities not being utilised.

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Friday 9 July 2010

Should I upgrade from Vista to Windows 7

As a part-time student I can buy the academic versions of Microsoft Office 2010 Professional and Windows 7 Professional at a substantial discount to the RRP. Today I bought the Office 2010 download for AUD$99 (and an extra $14 to be sent the DVD in case I need to reinstall in the future). I haven't downloaded the installation file yet as it is around half a GB, which would use up 50% of my monthly 'peak period' broadband allowance - I'll start the download after midnight so it only consumes 25% of my 'off-peak' 2GB allowance.

I'm still deciding whether or not to upgrade from Vista Home Premium to Windows 7 Academic. I haven't had any problems with Vista (SP2 seems pretty stable), so the main advantage I can see from the upgrade to Windows 7 academic would be the automated backup tool which would simplify data file backups over the network (Vista Home Premium backup only allows file backups of music and video - proper automated data file backups require the Business version). However, at the moment I get bye OK with saving all my data files onto an external 0.5 TB USB HDD 'drive F' and copying all the files onto an identical 'drive G'. I have to run a manual copy of all the files from F to G every couple of weeks to ensure I haven't forgotten to write any files to both drives. Aside from being a manual process, it means that if drive F was corrupted, I might lose a few files. The Windows 7 Academic backup tool would make things easier and more fool-proof.

However, upgrading from Vista Home Premium to Academic version of Windows 7 requires a 'clean install' - so after doing the Windows upgrade I'd then have to reinstall all the existing apps. The process should be simple, but will waste a couple of hours (although I can do it during the TV ad breaks). A more serious concern is that some of the less mainstream apps (such as Robolab, CLEA virtual observatory, and the Meade DSI image processing apps) may not run properly under Windows 7 in 'XP mode'. On a more positive note, the new telescope control software I'm thinking of buying is available in Windows 7 version and should run better under the new OS.

I think I'll make a list of all my installed apps (on both my laptop and Desktop PCs) and google each one to check if it works OK under Windows 7 before I make a decision to buy the upgrade.

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Investing for 70 year olds - 7.25% term deposit

My parents sometimes ask me about the choices available for investing their retirement funds, and I've previously told them about investing in index funds as an alternative to cash or bond funds. However, they have never been very comfortable with the ups and downs of the stock market, and since they are now both in their 70s, investing in the stock market for potentially higher returns compared to a term deposit doeesn't seem particularly suitable. After all, they can get 7.25% pa for a five year term deposit (min $25,000) invested with Citibank with relatively low risk (the main risk being a period of high inflation and higher rates becomming available - but at the moment it appears that rates may be close to a peak), and since they will be consuming all their investment over the coming decade or two, there isn't really enough time for compounding of any extra return obtained from investing in the stock market to significantly increase the total amount available to spend.

Aside from the peace-of-mind provided by the predictable interest payments and return of capital provided by fixed term investments, it also makes budgeting a lot simpler - although my parents are loath to prepare a budget and tend to just put everything on their credit card and get a rude shock every month when the bill arrives.

I told my dad about the Citibank TD but he has already invested their liquid funds (around $400,000) in a 7 month TD with their credit union at 7.00%. I have suggested that he 'ladders' his TD investments so he has some investment maturing every month, rather the investing the entire lump sum at one time (especially if he invests in a five year TD). It will be interesting to see what rates are available in 4-5 months when he needs to rollover his current investment. When I first drafted this post a couple of weeks ago Citibank was offering a 12-month TD for $10,000 minimum at 7.15%. That offer appears to have been replaced by the five year TD, and with a 6-month TD only offering 6.35% pa.

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Tuesday 6 July 2010

MAstron update: A dollar short and a day late - close but no cigar

The results for last semester's MAstron subject 'Modern Astrophysics' came out yesterday - I got a Distinction but missed out on the High Distinction I was aiming for. My raw scores for tutorial and prac assignments were sufficient for an HD grade, and the lecturer has confirmed that I got around 80%-85% in the final exam, so apparently I ended up missing out on an HD because so many of the students doing the course performed at a very high standard that the raw marks had to be scaled down to conform with the JCU policy regarding grade distribution (ie. only ~10% of students are awarded a High Distinction, another 15% get a Distinction, etc.).

I now regret emailing my final exam in at 5am and going to bed, rather than staying up until the exam deadline at 10am to double check my calculations as much as possible. Even though I wasn't alert enough at 5am to solve the final question, I could have slowly checked through the working of the first nine questions to look for 'silly mistakes' (for example, in one of the tutorials I'd lost several easy marks by using the area of a circle formula instead of the volume of a sphere when calculating a density). A couple of extra marks in the final exam might have been enough to get an HD. Although I probably also needed to pick up some extra marks in the weekly tutorial assignments, and the prac report that only scored 7/10.

To qualify for a university medal at the end of the MAstron course I'll have to get at least half HD and half D grades (in order to acheive the minimum required GPA of 6.5) - so there's a big difference between getting a D or HD. This first course was apparently quite easy compared to the rest of the courses - which could be a good or a bad thing. On the one hand I may struggle to get top marks in the harder courses, but on the positive side the other students may get lower grades and remove the need for adjusting raw marks to 'the curve'. In the final (third) year it may also be harder to get an HD in the literature review and project subjects, as the grades for those subjects will depend more on the talent and originality shown in the reports, than just putting in enough hours of effort.

The subject next semester, 'Astronomy Instrumentation', is a bit more mathematical, so I'd better spend some time brushing up on my differential calculus and intergration (I have three weeks left before next semester commences). It's been thirty years since I last studied calculus, and I haven't used it much since then, so I need to spend some time working through the revision material available from

I also want to have a first read through the textbook 'Astrophysical Techniques' during the "holiday break".

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Monday 5 July 2010

Net Worth Update: June 2010

Stock portfolio value continued to decline during June, which also meant our SMSF account value dropped despite the addition of some employer contributions during the month (our superannuation is largely invested in the stock market via the Vanguard High Growth Index Fund). However, our real estate investments saw a significant rise in valuations as the Sydney market had been rising during the first half of 2010, and updated property sales data wasn't available last month, so this month's figures show two month of gain. I expect property price growth to be much lower for the rest of 2010, possible dropping slightly (5%-10%) if the RBA raising interest rates as inflation remains stuck above its 2%-3% band during 2010.

Our mortgage balance continued to decrease v-e-r-y slowly, as 2/3 of our mortgage is currently on a fixed-rate, interest only contract (another 2-4 years before resetting to standard variable rate, interest only), and the remaining 1/3 is standard (for Australia) variable rate, but also set for interest-only repayments while DW continues to work part-time. We had hoped DS2 would start Kindergarten in 2011, but the local primary school head-mistress decided against allowing 'early entry' (DS2 was born in September, missing the annual "cut-off" date by a couple of months). So, DW will stick with working 2 days a week during 2011. She's decided against returning to work full-time anyhow - preferring to work 3 days a week once both our kids are attending school. It makes sense from her point of view, as when she was working full-time she used to put some of her wage towards our living expenses budget and most of the rest went towards paying off our mortgages as fast as possible. If she went back to working full-time she wouldn't end up having much extra 'pcoket money' to spend, as she would resume contributing towards to family budget, and would also start paying back the money she "borrowed" from me for our trip to overseas to visit her relatives five years ago. From my point of view it means I have to continue paying all our living expenses and that the mortgages won't get paid off -- oh well, the GFC had ruled out my tentative 'early retirement' plans anyhow. It now looks like I'll be working until 70 - unless I get laid off earlier...

The balance of my stock portfolio margin loans remained constant as I am paying interest only on these balances. As interest rates are continuing to rise, I took the opportunity to fix the interest rate (@8.50%) on most of the balance of my Leveraged Equities Margin Loan for next financial year, although it is doubtful whether my stock portfolio will appreciate by more than 8.50% during that time. Due to the margin loan interest being deductible against my PAYG income (at a marginal tax rate of 30% or 38% depending on my other taxable income/deductible expenses) while any capital gains (held >12 months) are taxed at half my marginal tax rate, my leveraged stock portfolio only has to achieve a total return (capital gains + dividends) of around 7% for me to "break even".

I bought some shares in Elders (~$5,000 worth @ $0.41) during the month, betting that although they are currently losing money, they won't go broke (or be taken over at a bargain price) and the cost-cutting measures will return them to profitability. A turn around could see the share price above $2 again in a couple of years.

Late in June I reduced our SMSF investment in IQ (ASX200) CFDs by half - if the stock market continues to decline I'll close out that position before we make a loss on the CFD investment. I had intended to buy-and-hold the CFDs for the next 15+ years, but this may be an opportunity to reestablish our CFD investment at a lower entry price. It will then be hard to decide when to reinvest, as any bounce could be temporary. By the time it becomes obvious that the market has bottomed out, prices may have rebounded above the price we sold out. I may start to dollar-cost average back one CFD per month if the market drops 10% below the price we sold at. I tend to suck at market-timing.

Assets___________$ Amount______$ Diff_____% Diff
Stocks____________ $6,324____-$10,305___-61.97 %
Retirement_______$324,635_____-$2,030____-0.62 %
Properties_______$922,625_____$40,921_____4.64 %

Debts____________$ Amount_____$ Diff_____% Diff
Home Mortgage(s)_$364,106_________-$8____-0.00 %
Net Worth________$889,478_____$28,594_____3.32 %

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