May 6, 2016

Dark Matter

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I’m constantly on the lookout for good sci-fi TV shows. I grew up regularly watching Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and Dr Who. I love the imaginative and/or expansive stories sci-fi allows, so I’m always willing to give a new show a try.

Recently I started watching Dark Matter, a new show on the US Syfy channel that has been garnering a few good reviews. I didn’t like it and only watched 3 episodes before stopping. This is very unusual for me, normally I will go through an entire season. However, in this case it seemed very unlikely the show could recover – plus there is so much other great TV to watch. The acting ranged from acceptable (most of the leads) to poor (most of the guests), but the characters were cliched (quiet Asian martial arts expert prefers swords to guns – tired) as was the dialogue and plots. I found myself calling out what would be said next – and was correct way too often. It also seemed to be produced at a very small scale. The main spaceship was dark and empty, as were planets and stations. In my opinion the show is not very good, or is it?

After considering it for a while, I decided that if this TV show aired 15 years ago during the Star Trek: Next Generation, Bablyon 5 and Stargate: SG1 era, I would have considered it as quite good. I certainly would have given it much longer to prove itself. Both Babylon 5 & Stargate had the same just acceptable level of acting, plots and production at the start. Star Trek TNG was actually bad for its first season. However, they all grew into great shows. I have particularly fond memories of the episodes Chain of Command from Star Trek and Severed Dreams from Babylon 5. Dark Matter would stand up well against the early seasons of those shows. What has changed?

Well TV, including sci-fi TV has gotten much better, and shows have to be good from the start now to even have a hope of success. Battlestar Galactica started with the incredibly good episode “33” (although I still pretend the last season and a half never happened). Game of Thrones and The Expanse similarly started with well-polished episodes and a strong story. There is no time to get writers up to speed and let actors grow into their characters. Showmakers’ need to know where the story is going from the start. Production quality has also greatly increased. Presumably with a corresponding increase in cost, although perhaps not with current CGI techniques.

All this is a long way of saying, I am still regularly amazed at the quality of modern TV. The competition is so good a show like Dark Matter feels very dated and behind the times. A show I might have loved not long ago is now a fast reject.


April 24, 2016

Funding Circle Results

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Time for the annual report on the performance of my peer-to-peer lending investment. Funding Circle is doing very well: they have doubled the total amount loaned out; opened a US website; and, now can be included as part of a tax-free ISA in the UK. Some of that extra money loaned is mine. After last year’s good returns (much better than other UK investments), I decided to add some extra money to my account. So in retrospect, was that the right decision? Have the investors done as well as the company?

Here are the returns for the last UK tax year:

Gross: 10.0%
After Fees: 8.8%
After Bad Debt & Recoveries: 10.4%

Wow, my best year, and by a long way. 10.4% is an extremely respectable return, especially in a year where the FTSE-100 share indexed has declined. According to Funding Circle my lifetime (5 years) return is currently 6.4%, also very good.

Gross returns have risen around 2%, with fees roughly matching the rise. However, the biggest gain has been net bad debt/recoveries. In the last year I have only had a single loan go bad – much better than previous years. Recoveries have been huge! Larger than the loss and even larger than the fees paid this year. Thus a total return higher than the gross return! Kudos to Funding Circle team as they have now recovered about half the bad debt from previous years.

So with that kind of return I should be adding more money to the account, right? Unfortunately not. I manually choose all the loan offers joined, as opposed to using the autobid tool. As my criteria has tightened (small, guaranteed, short term loans to profitable, tax paying companies with good credit rating and acceptable working capital), my bad debt rate has dropped below the site average, despite making over a hundred loans per year.

Since a rule change in the way Funding Circle works at the end of last year (fixed returns rather than an auction), it has become increasingly difficult to find loans to fund. This is not due to a lack of loans available, or even a decrease in their quality. Instead it is because the loans are filled in a matter of hours rather than days. Now most of the best loans are already filled and closed before I even get a chance to see them. Most frustrating.

As a result I have built up a surplus of non-invested money on Funding Circle. Money that is not earning any interest (for me anyway). Enough to fund several weeks worth of loans under the old system, but currently, and for several months, there have not been enough opportunities. My options are to relax my lending criteria, or start using their autobid tool (effectively lowering my standards anyway). Alternatively, I can accept my time on the site is over and start to slowly empty my account (it will take a long time to close out some of the loans, even with their secondary market). I have yet to decide what to do.

Tune in next year to see what happens!


April 12, 2016

Malaysia East Coast Roadtrip

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Over the past two weeks we have driven up the east coast of Malaysia for a holiday. From the south-eastern tip of Johor (with a detour to see Legoland) through Pahang, including several days on Pulau Tioman. From there we stayed some time in (probably our favourite) Terengganu. The finish in Kelantan, had us driving up a broken and bumpy road to the river marking the Thai border. We drove back through the centre of the peninsula and ubiquitous Palm plantations.

My best photos from the trip are in a short slideshow available here. I tried to keep away from posting too many of the endless empty beach photos inevitably accumulated from such a journey.


March 26, 2016

Wartile

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As an experiment, I recently recorded my first Let’s Play on YouTube. The chosen game is the pre-alpha demo of Wartile – a tabletop inspired tactical combat game with a Viking theme. The video’s concept is to look at the game from the point-of-view of a another game developer and talk about the design of the game as well as the gameplay. I might do more similar videos in future.

The TL;DWatch version is that Wartile is is a fun playable demo and the game is already very pretty. It is a good base on which to build a great gaming experience with a bit of extra polish. For me, one issue is that the core game mechanic feels a little confused. Some parts of the game suggest a turn-based game, but it plays as a real-time game.

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March 24, 2016

Bank Silliness

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After telling the below story to a couple of people, they thought it should be shared more widely.

Scene: I call my UK business bank over an issue I’m having with a bank transfer. After waiting on hold for several minutes, I reach a Customer Service Representative and verify my identity. They ask why I’m calling.

Me: Hi, I can’t transfer money to an account at another bank.

Customer Service Rep (CSR): Sorry to hear that, let me check your account… Hmmm, yes, there appears to be a block on your account. It seems we had some returned mail so as a fraud precaution a transaction and mail block was placed on your account in December. Someone tried to call at the time, but was unable to contact you. I can remove the block.

Me: Hang on, December? I have received mail since then, I have a letter from from you in my hand right now.

CSR: When is it dated?

Me: February, it is the February account statement.

CSR: Oh, that’s strange, let me check… Ah, yes. The fraud prevention block is on the credit card card account. Your current account does not have a block.

Me: So to because some mail was returned you stopped my credit card mail, but my current account mail was still sent and all arrived fine. That doesn’t seem right.

CSR: They are on different systems. The block only applies to one.

Me: So one system thought there was a fraud issue, while the other thought it was all fine and kept sending mail?

CSR: Yes.

Me: Ok… I don’t really need the mail anyway, can you send less?

CSR: Yes, we can put you on our paperless plan, then you will only received credit card statements and any current account statement that includes a fee we have charged.

Me: But you charge me a fee every month.

CSR: Um, yes, that’s right.

Me: So you will send exactly the same amount of mail on the paperless system as you do now.

CSR: Yes.

Me: Ok, don’t bother then, just please remove the block. My mail arrives fine.

CSR: That is done, anything else I can help you with.

Me: No, bye.

I may have been a little abrupt there at the end. My apologies to the customer service rep who was stuck in a bad situation. However, this is just silliness from one of my banks and sadly not recently out of character. I am becoming increasingly irritated by their strange requirements, poor customer service, and outright refusal to do many tasks other banks perform without issue. They also advertise themselves as an international bank, but this appears to manifest itself largely in their marketing copy. I certainly have trouble discerning much international service. Four years ago I recommended this bank to another person. This year I suggested another person completely avoid them. I hope to soon take my own advice.

Also, I screen my calls, so that person may have called in December but definitely did not leave a message – I check them all.

Rant over.