April 13, 2014

Converting computer gold to real money

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Some months ago I posted about mining cryptocurrencies, concluding that it probably wasn’t worth it. Since then Bitcoin has boomed and then bust, with theft, bankruptices and possible regulation galore. Despite the volatility and bad press, Bitcoin has doubled in value since the original post (although at one point it was up over 500%). Other, minor, cryptocurrencies have oscillated in value roughly in line with Bitcoin.

In the original post I estimated that if my desktop PC mined Feathercoin for 100 days the result would be 224 FTC worth US$15.68 (7 cents per FTC). I left the mining program running after the “experiment” ended as it didn’t seem to noticably slow the computer. So now 150 days later the result is 180 FTC currently worth around US$21 (11.5 cents per FTC). The lower mining rate is due to not being a particularly conscientious miner and the ever increasing difficulty of the calculations required to mine successfully.

So what can be done with $20 worth of Feathercoin? Initially it seemed, very little. There is a Feathercoin Market of seemingly random items – none of which interested me. Next I hoped to convert the coins to US$. I found Crypto-Trade, an exchange based in Hong Kong that allowed FTC/USD trades and didn’t charge excessive fees. Unfortunately, it also doesn’t have any useful cash withdrawal options. While it is easy and cheap to withdraw various cryptocurrencies, cash can not transferred to a bank account or even Paypal. It has to be taken in the form of various east european e-payment systems. Not even the online poker sites I use would accept them. I looked into methods of conversion and found various sites charging 5-10% to exchange them for Paypal, but every single one has pages of “this is a scam” links on Google. I then considered converting the Feathercoins for Bitcoins (or Litecoin) and then using other larger exchanges to get US$ transferred Paypal. However, the fees for this route would turn my $20 into less than $10! Lower than the minimum allowed. Next I looked into converting the coins to Bitcoin and then purchasing Amazon vouchers with them. Many sites exist to facilitate such transfers. Unfortunately, only US$ vouchers are available and Amazon has strict policies against non-US people (like me) using them. Urgh.

At this point the situation was dire, much time had been spent on a futile investigation of Feathercoin’s utility. The whole system seems a little “wild west”, with high percentage fees, scams and frauds common. It is definitely much easier to get money into Bitcoin than the opposite. I certainly doubt the value of the system as a currency. Although it has prompted an explosion of witty aphorisms. Dunning Krugerrand and this tweet are my favourites.

Just as I was about to write the whole thing off as a folly, I found Crypto-de-Change, as site that converts cryptocurrencies for UK Amazon vouchers. I exchanged 161 FTC for a £10 voucher (about 10.5 cents per FTC). At least there is some result, but now I am more skeptical than ever. I used the voucher to buy a book by Charlie Stross – it seemed appropriate.

April 8, 2014

Funding Circle Again

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As it now seems to be an annual tradition, here is my end-of-financial year report on Funding Circle. The peer-to-peer website has certainly flourished over the past 12 months. Many positive stories about the site and its competitors have appeared in the popular press. The volume of loans available has greatly increased. Right now 66 loans are available for funding, and that is lower than a normal day. The increase in loans does not seem to be matched by an increase in lenders (despite the government joining). Thus interest rates have been increasing over the last few months. Has this translated into better returns, or has financial stress created more bad debts?

After last year’s disappointing ~2% return, no extra money was deposited, so the maths for this year’s return is easy to calculate. Here is the summary.

Gross: 8.4%
After Fees: 7.4%
After Bad Debt & Recoveries: 4.1%

Much better than last year.

Interestingly the gross and after-fees returns are roughly the same as last year. Any increase in rates has come too late to make much of an impact on the full year results. The improved return is largely due to net bad debt. The rate at which loans goes bad has only decreased a little – just under 5% this year by value, compared to just over 5% last year. However, this year debt recovery has added 1.6% to the return, compared to 0 last year. The recovery process is slow and these extra returns are mainly from last years losses.

Funding Circle now claims I have a return of 4.3%. Much closer to my figures than last year. Although, they have added a note to the figure stating it is the annualised return since joining the site. This seems about right, so I’m no longer concerned by the discrepancy. The site also claims I should be earning 5.8%, so again my bad debt rate is higher than “normal”. I made a conscious decision to have a slightly higher than average risk profile on my loans (by lending to firms with a slightly worse than average credit rating). Even taking this into account, according to Funding Circle’s own numbers, I have bad luck. This is surprisingly considering how steady bad debt has been over the last two years. Will it even out next year, or is 5% about the right rate of deliquency?

What next? For various reasons not related to performance, no extra money will be deposited. Nor will any money be withdrawn – I’m more comfortable how the system is working, and it is still better than a bank. So until next year the status quo will continue.

March 24, 2014

The Ancient World

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Available from iTunes and on the blog, The Ancient World

This history podcast originally aimed to cover all history from the earliest civilizations until the start of the classical age (around 500BC). The presenter, Scott Chesworth, just thought such a history was required and couldn’t find one – so did it himself. The series covers a great deal of material over its 36 audio-only episodes (each around half an hour in length and of good production quality). An ambitious undertaking.

The podcast starts with the invention of irrigation and the formation of the first cities in Sumer, Elam and Egypt. The next couple of episodes carry on with the beginnings of civilization in Harappa, China and Crete. There is also mention of the Norte Chico in Peru, the oldest known American civilisation, and new to me. However, after that the series focuses almost exclusively on the well documented history of the ancient Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean. This is largely due to much of the history of these areas surviving through to the present day on stone monuments and clay tablets. Scott admits as much in the final episode, stating he couldn’t find enough details on individuals or events in other areas to make it entertaining and fit it with the style of the show. This means that iron age Canaan (as covered extensively in the Bible and researched by Bible-historians) is described in far more detail than China and India combined. Similarly when discussing the Persians most information is on their dealings with other civilisations, while their interactions with Central Asian societies is largely unknown.

The podcasts run in roughly chronological order. A particular region at a particular time will be presented. Followed by another region overlapping in both time and geography. It can become a bit of a tick-tock of events and people. This perhaps to be expected given the breadth of material to be covered, and that most of it comes from kings extolling their personal exploits. There is not much indication of how things worked or how life was lived at the time. Occasionally some details come through, like the discussion of the diplomatic letters traded between kings just before the bronze age collapse showing the ancient world to be very well connected. Scott livens up the flow of facts when he can with little asides or appeals to modern sensitivities. Thus the Minoans are “awesome” partly for having no discernable military; a particularly cruel act is “positively Assyrian”; and the faux-credulous manner when retelling the story of Darius I’s accession to the Persian throne. It was also interesting to hear how large the Persian Empire became under Darius (perhaps 45% of the world’s population) and how it was run in a tolerant manner with the local customs and sometimes even the leadership of a province (known as a satrapy) remaining unchanged.

While it might not achieve its lofty goal (as explained below), this series does provide a great deal of information on an underrepresented period of history (online at least). Not many other podcasts will describe ancient Sumer, Akkad or Mittani. It is definitely worth a listen, and thanks Scott for filling the gap.

March 16, 2014

Compound Living

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On first arrival in Kuala Lumpur we stayed in the housing within the British High Commission compound. This was intended as a short-term measure while a permanent home was found. However, for various reasons we stayed there for just over a year. The final trigger to leave was the sale of the compound itself (otherwise we might still be there). Soon the compound site will be redeveloped.

Satellite view of the compound

There is a slideshow of some photos taken just before leaving here. Or, read on for some more details.

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March 5, 2014

Short Trips

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Since my last travel post, we have been on a few more short holidays.

First a couple of friends from London came to visit for a couple of days. Certainly long enough to experience Kuala Lumpur, but not enough to properly leave the city. We still managed a couple of trips to greenery inside the city itself – including a hike in Bukit Gasing, a Batu Caves visit and walk around the Bird Park.

We then made a weekend trip to Singapore for a friend’s pre-wedding lunch (the actual ceremony was in London, but many friends/family lived in Singapore). The city is far larger, greener and more open than I expected.

Christmas was spent near Cherating. We arrived just after the east coast floods subsided. Our hotel informed us we were the first booking they hadn’t had to cancel after the property was inundated! As a result the whole area was deserted. We also drove up the coast to Terengganu and had excellent stuffed crab at Tong Juan in Kemaman.

Lastly, I spent a few more days in Hong Kong. My opinions of the city have not changed.

I have combined some of the best photos into a short slideshow, available here.