Sunday, August 17, 2008

Ohio Payday Loans

It is no surprise that even national television shows like Bill Moyer's journal and others have featured segments on the State of Ohio's Payday Loan businesses recently. These overnight lending or short-term lending facilities have been charging rather absurd interest rates to anyone willing to subject themselves to what may best be termed "credit for the desperate", but is sold as a short-term "advance against future earnings".

These Ohio payday loan companies had been allowed to charge nearly unlimited interest rates, up until quite recently, where their annualized interest rates would reach nearly 400% (391% I believe). But after quite a drawn out fiasco, the Ohio legislature finally reached agreement earlier this year to pass a law limiting those exorbitant interest rates to a meager 28% (meager is sarcastic here folks!) It only took the discovery and public news of (the usual) rotten political lobbyist connections (to State officials) to embarrass the Ohio government into pushing through a law that was previously going nowhere fast.

Here's what I think about these "payday loans" in general: fact is, if someone that wants to borrow money is such a credit risk that a 28% interest rate won't cover the potential losses and give you a bit of profit in addition, you shouldn't lend money to them anyhow. But, of course, the real objective with these Ohio payday loan companies has not been to make sure they make good loans, smart loans, affordable loans, or reasonably priced loans that can be repaid with relative certainty... the objective instead has always been to get the must vulnerable people hooked into a short-term revolving loan system that is incredibly lucrative and never ends.

This is essentially just another chapter in the Ohio predatory lending pursuits, though of a different nature than the other well known and nationally publicized mess known as subprime lending that really showed itself early here in Ohio when compared to the rest of the Nation. Oh, and in case you didn't know, the Republican legislature in the early 2000's made sure they overturned a Cleveland, Ohio law against such predatory lending practices on the grounds of arguments like: who are we to say we can do a better job managing the loan business than the free market and private sector? Of course, we know where this lobbyist and special-interest driven legislative push at the State level ended up taking Ohio over the coming years! (by the way folks, there are video tapes of the various Republicans in the Ohio House and Senate earlier this decade making these speeches to protect their backers' interests - again, Bill Moyer's show broadcast these videos for all to see and remember recently, since it is unlikely the politicians will be showing you proof of what they said in the past).

Well, you'd think perhaps this time we learned. The warning bell was sounded in Ohio in the subprime mortgage meltdown mess WAY AHEAD of the National alarm. And, the State of Ohio government simply made sure they did their part to not allow something as troublesome as a City law (Cleveland's anti-predatory-lending one) get in the way of "progress" or "free markets" or "capitalism" or what have you. So, this time around, having looked really bad (or, perhaps simply corrupt) in the recent past (oh heck, and again now with the lobbying connections!), Ohio pushed through this new Ohio Payday Loan interest rate limits law.

But, trust me, that Law is nothing short of a well choreographed measure to make it LOOK like they are trying to do what is right. I say this because now, here in Ohio, we are bombarded with the TV Commercials from special interest groups that call themselves things like "Financial Freedom Ohio" or "Ohioans for Financial Freedom" or some other such sickly misleading label for nothing short of what should be called REINSTATE ULTRA-HIGH PAYDAY-LOAN INTEREST RATES AND CALL IT "FREEDOM" GROUPS. Here we go again...

Do not fall for this hype (aka, CRAP) people. Be very concerned whenever you see labels for such political action groups and lobbying groups use nebulous terms like "FREEDOM". The only freedom desired by the Payday Loan Businesses in Ohio is the freedom to charge whatever they want, and the freedom to do so with little to no fear of being reigned in until this turns into yet another massive national issue where the Federal Government has to get involved to "fix" (or bail out) someone or some business (well, a massive number of someones or businesses by then of course).

Please, everyone, remember the last bill of junk we were sold here in Ohio when the "free market economy" was allowed to play out via predatory sub-prime lending. Fact is, if you own a house in Ohio, you are probably paying the price for that in the way of reduced home values. Heck, it spread like a plague throughout the entire nation, so again: wake up and say NO to this push to create yet another wave of mass sub-prime lending that takes advantage of those who can least afford insanely high interest rates. Fact is, when the people that take out 400% loans get into dire straights, all bets are off and anything is a reasonable action for paying back the loan, including stripping the copper pipes out of a house, the aluminum siding off houses, removing catalytic converters from cars, or any other act of desperacy to "stay afloat".

Sure, some people can get themselves out from under these types of loans without resorting to anything illegal or immoral, and without begging, borrowing, or stealing, but the fact is that this business of short-term high-interest loans will provide zero-to-little benefit to anyone over the long-term. The payday loan firms in Ohio and everywhere else do not want customers that can borrow once, pay back a loan, and never return... they want life-long indentured customers that ensure them a steady cash stream forever via the bindings and chains of ultra-high interest rates.

If you really feel strongly about "financial freedom" and allowing loan businesses to charge rates otherwise illegal (you realize your credit-card firm can't charge nearly the rates desired by these payday loan organizations, right?), I have a few simple thoughts I want you to consider.

First, I sure hope YOU never require a loan so desparately that you would take on outlandish interest-rate terms that will cause you to forever be in their grasp.

Second, if you say "I will never need to", great! Now, how about considering the fact that someone else may, whether for reasons acceptable to you or not, find themselves in a position where they see a payday loan as their only option, after you have decided to lend your support to the current Ohio lobbying movement to reinstate and allow essentially unlimited interest rates to be charged of that borrower.

Sure, it is not YOU, so what do you care? Search yourself here, and ask: is it even slightly acceptable to allow someone to pay an interest rate for a small loan, that if continually renewed, levies a nearly 400% annual rate? Borrow $100, and owe $500 if you take a year to pay it back. Better yet, if you know someone in this situation, maybe you should consider the possibility that by risking $100 (and personally lending that person the money), you could perhaps save a person from a situation they can never dig themselvs out of. And, for what? The cost of a couple tankfuls of gasoline?

I can't help thinking how credit in America has changed over the decades - both in the ease of credit, and the attitude towards credit. When I was a child, I remember my parents and grandparents thinking that ANY credit was a last-resort measure, and that any credit to be obtained was only done so under the utmost of need and kept to the absolute minimum required. Additionally, credit was first looked upon as something that with luck, some inter-family borrowing could help with. And, because of the absolute conviction by which all credit repayment was to take precedence over other expense-priorities, everyone involved just knew that people were good for their word and would ultimately pay back any loan given. Wow, have things changed! If only people still treated their finances, loans, and the repayment of loans with such responsiblity, I doubt the concept of a Payday Loan would ever have come to exist in anywhere near its current magnitude. Certainly it would never have become an industry with the power to essentially buy the legal outcome they want.

So, let's not make things any worse than they already are. Fact is, Payday Loans and other cash advance loans are probably here to stay, as is the day of rather lax credit and an overwhelming "need" people have in general to spend beyond their means (exacerbated by inflation and wages not keeping up with inflation of course, but also as part of this modern "must have everything NOW" culture that is mixed in).

So, when someone has to obtain that cash-advance loan for whatever the reason, let's at least consider Ohio's latest law (the one being challenged by the special interest groups) reasonable when they cap such loans' interest rates at 28%. Next, if you have the chance to help someone avoid this payday-loan mess to begin with, do so. And, even if you can not offer someone direct financial assistance, offer them advice and help them understand finances and options for improving their situation... even that can be a help.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Microsoft SQL-Server 2008 Final Released

It is about time! I have been anxiously awaiting the much overdue and delayed release of Microsoft SQL-Server 2008. Microsoft just released SQL-Server 2008 to manufacturing, and if you are lucky enough to have a MSDN / Technet subscription, the SQL-Server 2008 download files are supposed to be available now.

For those that have to wait a bit longer to get their hands on a copy of SQL-Server 2008, you can spend the time waiting studying up on what is new in SQL-Server 2008 and be ready to plan your migration from SQL-Server 2005. Microsoft has put the new SQL-Server 2008 Books Online up for everyone to download, and I suggest doing so if you want to get a jump start reading up on the new features and upgrade / migration implications.

Oh, how can I forget? You can always download the 180-day TRIAL VERSION of SQL2008 until you get the real thing purchased and installed. Or, certainly performing an evaluation prior to purchase is an option, but call me a SQL-Server groupie... my past experience with SQL-Server 6, 6.5, 7, 2000, and 2005 has always been a positive one in that I absolutely was thrilled with the improved functionality and features with each subsequent release, and overall the database management system has been quite stable even prior to a "service pack 1" or such. SQL2005 annoyed me with how Microsoft made mega-changes to their query-scripting tools from SSMS that effectively removed functionality that SQL2000 offered, but that was probably my only major gripe.

I have been looking forward to some of the new features in SQL-Server 2008 for quite some time, like native data-compression for backup files, and native data encryption improvements (like indexable encrypted fields - about time!). But, as always, Microsoft annoys me with how certain enticing features (like the compressed-backups) are only enabled with certain "versions" of the product - like the Enterprise or Data Center version or what have you. So, before you get TOO excited about a new feature, make sure that whatever new SQL-2008 feature you want to use is actually included in the version of the product you buy or develop for and/or deploy databases too.

Either way, some features to keep an eye out for that are quite cool (at least in my opinion) and available in all or some versions of the product include:
  • native data-compression and/or compressed backups
  • indexable encrypted columns
  • LINQ integration
  • log-stream compression (nice for when you are using log-shipping for mirroring between various participants)
  • Star-Join query optimizations and other data-warehouse related optimizations
  • Office2007 Integration (if you care - I know I surely do not)... now you can export directly to Word. Perhaps I should open my mind to this a bit, since it would make giving ad-hoc query results to end-users and managers a bit easier in that they can be in a form those persons are more comfortable with than a CSV or text-file dump. heh.
  • A resource governor - not sure if I will use it, but hey, it is there.
  • FILESTREAM storage. In today's day of all sorts of binary data (like music files, be it MP3 or OGG or WAV or whatever, and video files like MPEG-4, etc.) there needs to be an easy way to make these accessible from database applications. Well, FileStream Storage is the answer, as it enables SQL Server applications to store unstructured data, such as documents and images, on the file system. I will most definitely be using this feature.
  • Sparse Columns and Column Sets : these are columns that are optimized for storing null values when you have at least 20-40% of the values in a column as NULL. I know for sure I can use this to my advantage.
  • Spatial Data handling. Basically this is geometry and geography type data handling related. I need to research more, but it may be of use if you are dealing with map data, etc.
  • "Wide Tables" - how about 30,000 columns in your table? That is now possible, along with up to 1000 indexes. That should take care of most any "need" imaginable. Part of me worries that people without a clue with "design" insanely poor SQL-Server database now by creating a one-giant-file (versus making it relational correct or normalized) just because they can easily do so. Let's hope I am wrong! Though, if this is the case, I guess I will have a lot of consulting work FIXING it all after the fact. lol.
  • Full-Text Search catalogs are integrated into the DB (meaning, you can move your database and have the catalogs automatically come along for the ride -- this sure beats the old SQL2005 implementation).
Transact-SQL (T-SQL) improvements / enhancements:
  • COMPOUND OPERATORS - WOOHOO! Being able to type @myIntVar += 5 sure beats the current need to type SET @myIntVar = @myIntVar + 5 just because the TIME SAVINGS TYPING LESS STUFF!
  • Finally, better Data AND Time datatypes support - not just "DateTime" any more.
  • Grouping-Sets : an extension to the GROUP BY clause which has interesting potential... I am already dreaming up ways to use it, since it allows multiple groupings in the same query.
  • the new MERGE SQL-statement. Call it a "smart" combo insert/update command of sorts. Should simplify some of my code :)
  • Row Constructors : SQL-Server 2008 now allows you to insert multiple values with a single INSERT statement. Again, it is about time, as this will save a LOT of typing for some programs.
  • Table Value Parameters -- I am looking forward to this feature, as it gives you the ability to pass an entire table to a stored procedure. But, unless by some miracle Microsoft took user feedback into consideration since late Beta versions, this was only *inbound* into a Stored Procedure (i.e., read-only by the SP) and did not allow you to output a table value parameter (i.e., you could't pass updated information back through the parm). To me, this rather crippled the whole "feature", but perhaps SQL-Server 2008 Service Pack 1 or SQL-Server 2008 Service Pack 2 will implement this? (wishful thinking?!)
Now, keep in mind that I tend to focus on Programmability Enhancements to the Database Engine, and other software development related aspects of the SQL-2008 upgrade, so you may want to look into the rest of the "What's New in SQL-Server 2008" information in detail in those SQL Books Online and / or in the MSDN Library on the web ( Have fun with SQL-Server 2008!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

DisplayPort Graphics Adapters and Monitors Status

I am always one to keep up on the "up and coming" and/or "cutting edge" in computer hardware and software developments, and one of the technologies I have been following is that of the DisplayPort interface standard - the presumed successor, or at least complement too, HDMI video interface technology.

DisplayPort is the most recent major display-interface / graphics-interface technology to emerge, having arrived on the scene in 2007. By comparison, HDMI (High-Definition Multimedia Interface) first came out in 2003 and DVI (Digital Visual Interface) first showed up in 1999. In addition to being the physical interface name, it is also the name of the protocol used to communicate with a DisplayPort display.

Because of my hatred for purchasing devices that are essentially obsolete at date of purchase, I am trying to put together a computer system that will have some "staying power" with regards to technology that is about as modern as it can be, without being so on-the-fringe that I am likely to just need to toss it out in a few years.

I have considered getting a graphics card and LCD Monitor / Display that uses HDMI for connections, but I figured that both of those are rather "old" by technology age-standards, and if possible, I'd really love to leap forward an entire generation to expand the window of obsolescence a bit. Another goal of mine is POWER SAVINGS in my ultimate computer and display configuration. And, I don't care too much about 3D performance either (most stuff I do every day is 2D), so although there are good 3D graphics accelerators with DisplayPort out there, 3D performance was not a huge consideration for me.

I THINK DisplayPort may be a solid enough platform now to meet my goals, though it seems critical-mass in the market is nowhere near attained yet. VESA (Video Electronics Standards Association) has the job of promoting DisplayPort via their own website. I do think that if they REALLY are trying to promote DisplayPort (DP), they need to start getting up-to-date on maintaining a list of products that include DP technology, since even though there are quite a few products with DisplayPort out on the market, they don't have much of an inventory or list there. As such, I guess we're on our own to locate all the latest and greatest DisplayPort LCDs, video cards, and the like.

Another place you can find some decent DisplayPort information is Wikipedia's DisplayPort discussion if nothing else. Actually, I think the WIKI is quite a bit more detailed informative than DisplayPort's own web site. DisplayPort offers some rather nice specifications:
  • 10.8Gbit/s throughput over small, slim cable with 3 meter+ reach (15 meters for 1080p output, 3 meters for full 2560x1600 resolution)
  • up to 16 bits per color channel
  • same connector for internal and external components (think: laptop display internal connector)
  • provides an auxiliary channel for data from USB, touchscreens, cameras, etc.
  • Supports both RGB and YCbCr color space, which I presume will be useful to graphics designers
  • a future revision (2.0?) is supposed to offer multiple video streams over single physical connection. Current rev is 1.1a by the way (from what I can tell).
So, while waiting (heh) for VESA to update their website to help people looking for DisplayPort devices, I will provide a few links to DisplayPort-enabled Adapter and Display products that I am pesonally considering now:
  • ATI's FireMV 2260 2D graphics accelerator with DUAL DisplayPorts. I love how the power consumption on this card is very low (JUST 20 WATTS!), and that is has a huge MTBF (Mean-Time-Between-Failure) rating and emits no noise since it does not need an onboard fan (i.e., passive cooling)! This card is PCI Express 2.0 x16 / x1 or PCI, and uses the RV620 GPU (Graphical Processing Unit) core from what I have been able to find out, which is a modern 55nm form factor chip, and couples that with 256MB DDR2 memory. It can pump out 2560x1600 resolution PER DISPLAY over DisplayPort -- nice! And, if you need it, they throw in Display Port to DVI-I Adapters (though, if you go DVI vs. DisplayPort with your implementation, you'll be limited to 1920x1200 resolution per display). I have seen the card on NewEgg for about $179.00 as I recall.
  • NEW 8/7/2008: ATI just announced their new FirePro 3D V5700 graphics card, which features 2 DisplayPorts (also has 1 DVI dual-link port) in a midrange 3D accelerated graphics card targeting the workstation market in a PCI 2.0 x16 implementation with OpenGL 2.1 and DirectX 10.1 support. The card has 512MB GDDR3 and can pump out 2560x1600 resolution. Supported Operating Systems include even the latest 64-bit Windows Vista and Linux-64 bit. I saw a press release stating that Dell would offer this card as an option on their Precision workstations.
  • ATI also has their FireGL V7700 that offers a single DisplayPort. The one thing I find difficult here is figuring out (with all these choices) which card is the "right one" for me... not to mention the NVidia options to consider :)
  • The Dell UltraSharp 2709W 27-inch Widescreen Flat Panel LCD Monitor. Yes, it is a bit more pricey than I would prefer, but it offers DisplayPort, plus it is VERY ENERGY EFFICIENT compared to previous generation LCD monitors -- at 57W typical, and 110W max! It has a native resolution of 1920x1200 (0.303 dot pitch - i.e., big enough to be more tolerable to read than the .25 pitch high-res smaller diagonal monitors) and boasts a 3000:1 contrast ratio and 6ms response time. In addition to DisplayPort interface, there is also HDMI, DVI, VGA, Composite, and Component video display interfaces (which should cover most anyone's needs). At 18.3 pounds it is reasonably heavy. The monitor currently lists for $999.
  • I am also looking forward to the upcoming NVidia product releases during their early September 2008 "Big Bang II" driver release which is supposed to bring with it the latest NVidia Forceware Release 180 (R180). R180 is supposed to offer all sorts of new technology support like DisplayPort, the long-overdue OpenGL 3.0 API, and SLI multi-monitor (something gamers will certainly love). New Nvidia Quadro cards are due out at the same time as R180, and I would expect these workstation-level cards will likely implement DisplayPort. DisplayPort has been in the GeForce chips since early 2008, and it is really just up to video-card manufacturers to wire up the adapter and make it available on a card.
So, that's where I am at with DisplayPort Adapters and Monitors / Displays. I have one option currently available that I am somewhat comfortable going with, though I may wait another month just to check out the Nvidia Quadro offerings (I am a fan of NVidia cards in general - though, I wish they'd be more "open" with their GPU internals to help open-source initiatives write better display drivers - especially an open-source DisplayPort driver for Linux that would offer optimal performance).

Market projections I have read about DisplayPort adoption predict that the number of DisplayPort enabled equipment units sold will rise from about 10 million in 2008, to 27 milion in 2009, and 88 million units 2010, and continued stellar growth thereafter. To me, 2008 is the first real year for DisplayPort to gain a foothold in the market, and I will likely be an early adopter.

UPDATE: What are the odds? I just emailed VESA this morning, and I would have sworn they updated the DisplayPort.Org website today, after I saw what appeared to be VERY old content. But, as someone from VESA responded to me and informed me, somehow I found an "old link" to old content via this URL:

Either way, it is looking much better now that I see the "real" content. Seems they need to implement some redirect mechanism for those "old" links, since I found that via some other site that linked to them.