Archive for November, 2013

Wednesday Morning Zen

Posted on November 27th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

Flying low over New York state south of Albany

Flying low over New York state south of Albany

Tech Bubble? Bet on It.

Posted on November 25th, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

The Times has two pieces today that are interesting in and of themselves but more interesting when considered together.

The first is about how irritating rich techies have become in San Francisco, and how they’re making the city unlivable.

Resentment simmers, at the fleets of Google buses that ferry workers to the company’s headquarters in Mountain View and back; the code jockeys who crowd elite coffeehouses, heads buried in their laptops; and the sleek black Uber cars that whisk hipsters from bar to bar. Late last month, two tech millionaires opened the Battery, an invitation-only, $2,400-a-year club in an old factory in the financial district, cars lining up for valet parking.

My anecdotal supporting evidence: I was in Austin, Texas, last weekend, and met a young guy who had tried his hand at San Francisco. The people there just weren’t nice, he said. Everyone had an attitude. So he moved to Austin, and loves it.

The second interesting Times piece is Nick Bilton writing on the possibility of a tech bubble.

Money-losing technology companies are going public at you’ve-got-to-be-joking prices. The founders of Snapchat are getting multibillion-dollar offers — and turning them down. And the Nasdaq composite index, a visible symbol of the ’90s dot-com boom and bust, is a sneeze away from 4,000, a level it last reached just before, well, you know.

(Blogger: Nasdaq passed 4k about 9:30 this morning.)
The Snapchat thing is particularly interesting. Last week Business Insider’s Henry Blodget had a piece arguing that the Snapchat founders were right to turn down the $3 billion offer from Facebook, that they were going to make more on…advertising…and…selling virtual goods.

(Can you hear the skepticism in my ellipses?)

Blodget argues:

The average active Snapchat user, of which there are likely already 10s of millions, receives ~150 an estimated 20-50 “snaps” per day*. Snapchat has already experimented with mixing in one video or photo advertisement in every 20-30 snaps. Advertisers are jazzed about this, because Snapchat allows them to reach a coveted demographic (teenagers) that they have trouble reaching anywhere else

Note all the suppositions (and one corrected mistake) in that one paragraph: there are “likely” tens of millions of Snapchat users, they won’t mind getting ads every 20 or so messages, the ads will be influential, teenagers won’t get as bored with Snapchat as they do with every other social media platform…

This LinkedIn post by a guy named Shane Snow devastatingly rebuts Blodget.

Snow points out that, unlike Facebook, Snapchat is easy to abandon; it doesn’t store any user data (friends, e.g.) that users want to preserve. Also, Snapchat’s technology is easy to replicate. But perhaps most important, advertising is no panacea. (I often wonder: Will we ever reach a point of advertising saturation? At the moment, advertising is expected to fund virtually everything.)

Face it: kids don’t like ads. As soon as Snapchat users start getting Snaps from Ford Focus and Citibank, they’re going to start thinking Snapchat’s about as cool as junk mail. The word they’re going to use is Spam.

Sure, some advertisers will come up with really funny ads that won’t bother users; they’ll try to fit the medium. But it’s going to ruin the user experience, and the users don’t have a good reason to deal with bad UX.

I’d argue there’s a bubble because of all the pitches that I get for new tech companies—dozens every week. And none of them seem to be offering a service that I actually need. I might try them, even use them for a while, but if they disappeared tomorrow, I wouldn’t miss them for a minute.

And here’s a key difference about this tech bubble versus the last one: I think there are a lot of people, myself included, who’d actually be kind of happy if this bubble popped. Tech people are having a disproportionate influence on our culture now, and for a lot of reasons (Google glass!) it’s not a healthy one. (Longer post, if I can find the time.) I mean, is Mark Zuckerberg really the guy you want to be one of the world’s most powerful people? Has he ever read a book that wasn’t intended to help get him into Harvard?

Plus, on a more tangible note, the riches generated by this tech bubble haven’t really translated to average stock market investors; they’re limited to founders, employees and investors. So if this bubble burst, the extent of financial damage would be limited, and frankly, some of the people who are now getting rich off tech would be improved by having to endure a little financial pain.

So I say, yes, it’s a bubble. Bring it on.

The Social Media Trap

Posted on November 19th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

A YouTube “prankster” named Jack Vale—seems like a nice guy—decided to approach strangers on the street and confront them with information they had disclosed on social media. The results are fascinating, and really drive home how much information can be gathered on people by someone who’s not even trying that hard.

My favorite response? The guy who gets pissed off and, with a total lack of self-awareness, says, “Thanks for invading my privacy.” You can not give up your privacy and then accuse someone else of invading it…

You know what else is interesting, though? To imagine what people’s reactions might have been if an African-American man had pulled this stunt.

A Few Words on Jerry Garcia

Posted on November 18th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

I have of late embarked on an ambitious project: To upload my entire CD collection onto my computer, thus relieving my household of the need to see my 1500 or so compact discs stacked upon bookshelves. My wife has drawn a line; she thinks it looks “collegiate.” So into the ether they go.

By far the greatest single percentage of the collection is Grateful Dead music; in addition to their studio albums, I collect their live albums, and I suppose I probably have about 200 Grateful Dead CDs. Someday, when I have abundant free time, I’ll count them. They have been in heavy rotation lately as I put them onto my hard drive, and they make me realize again what an incredible talent Jerry Garcia was. I don’t want to wax rhapsodic; if you like him, you know what I’m talking about, and if you don’t, you won’t care.

Except I will say that one of the things about Garcia that, in my opinion, is not widely enough appreciated was his status as a musical historian. He loved American music—bluegrass, blues, country, folk, cajun—and he loved to explore it, and he helped to preserve a lot of it. It’s something that the Dead’s cult status sort of overwhelms, but it’s one of Garcia’s really enduring contributions.

I was thinking about that while listening to “Whiskey In the Jar,” a song the Dead never played in public which was put out on their collection “So Many Roads.” It’s a traditional Irish folk song, meaning no one has any idea who wrote it, and in this version, recorded in 1993, the Dead are sort of screwing around in the studio and they just start playing it.

It goes like this:

As I was goin’ over the Kill Dara Mountains,
I met Colonel Pepper and his money he was counting.
I drew forth my pistols and I rattled my saber,
Sayin': “Stand and deliver, for I am a bold deceiver!”.
Musha rin um du rum da, Whack for the daddy-o,
Whack for the daddy-o, There’s whiskey in the jar-o

After a couple verses, the band stumbles to a pause as some of the band members clearly don’t know the material, and you can hear someone—Phil Lesh, maybe?—say in puzzlement, “What is the name of that?”

“Whiskey in the Jar,” Garcia says, in his endearingly geeky speaking voice.

“I haven’t heard that in 30 years,” Bob Weir says.

“Right, I haven’t either, I just remembered it,” Garcia says.

And you can envision Weir smiling as he says, “The whole song, words and all…”

“It’s got great lyrics,” Garcia continues. “It’s a cool song. It’s a cool song.”

I love that passion in his voice, that level of enthusiasm for a song that many of us would find the opposite of cool, because it’s not edgy or dark (well, it’s sort of dark) or cutting-edge. But what Garcia loves about it are things worth appreciating: its storytelling, its language, its mythology. He’s right: It is cool.

“I guess that’s Irish?” Weir says.

“I hope so,” Garcia responds.

And then comes I think one of the most beautiful and powerful moments in the Dead’s huge recorded repertoire, as Jerry, without anyone else playing, slowly begins to sing the next verse, and you realize what a wonderful singing voice he had, aged yet timeless and so full of experience—not unlike, it occurs to me, a good whiskey—and then, one by one, the rest of the band kicks in, following Jerry’s lead, figuring it out as they go along.

Jerry Garcia’s been dead for almost 20 years. I wish he’d had more time, but my gosh, he gave a lot during his life.

You can hear the above below.

Two Harvard Presidents, Speaking Clearly

Posted on November 18th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 2 Comments »

In the Washington Post yesterday, Drew Faust published what strikes me as the first truly political/powerful/public argument she’s made since becoming president of Harvard. Is she finally starting to feel comfortable using her bully pulpit?

Faust’s op-ed, intended to mark the 150th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, talks about how things could have been different when the South seceded from the Union; a president other than Lincoln might have lacked the vision and the oratory to articulate a case for the Civil War, and the enormous (and mostly voluntary) sacrifice of human life on which the war was won might never happened. She traces how his explanation of the war’s justification evolved from a preservation of the union to the creation of a better, more perfect nation that would spy on inspire the world.

But, she says, have we fulfilled Lincoln’s dream, or disappointed it?

After beginning a new fiscal year by shutting down the government, we are far from modeling to the world why our — or any — democracy should be viewed as the “best hope” for humankind. The world sees in the United States the rapid growth of inequality; the erosion of educational opportunity and social mobility that “afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life”; the weakening of voting rights hard-won over a century of post-Reconstruction struggle.

Meanwhile, at the IMF Research Conference, Larry Summers gave a speech about our economic situation that is being widely praisedeven by one of his fiercer critics, Paul Krugman.

The speech discusses the fact that, even with interest rates at zero and huge sums of money being pumped into the economy by the Fed, economic growth has been slow and inflation virtually non-existent. In other words, the Fed is using the most powerful tools at its disposal and they’re barely working. What if this is a chronic state of affairs? And what tools does that leave the Fed if another economic crisis hits?

I think that [what the] world has under-internalized is that it is not over until it is over, and that is surely not right now and cannot be judged relative to the extent of financial panic, and that we may well need in the years ahead to think about how we manage an economy in which the zero nominal interest rate is a chronic and systemic inhibitor of economic activities, holding our economies back below their potential.

Summers is so much more interesting, and to my mind, important, when he is freed from the restrictions of an office and can speak his mind. Yes, he’s wrong sometimes. But he’s never boring, and is sometimes important. A Larry Summers who made up his mind that he doesn’t really give a damn whether he ever becomes Fed chair or not would be a very interesting person to watch.

Admittedly I Am Sometimes Contrarian

Posted on November 14th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments »

But I always wonder why we cheer marathoners and not other ordinary people participating in other sports. Why don’t we cheer the people playing tennis on public courts? Or the people riding their bikes up a hill? Or people playing pick-up basketball—those guys work up a sweat!

My attitude about the runners is, hey, if that’s what you’re into, good on you for it. But I’m not quite sure why I should gather along the streets to applaud you and not, you know, basically anyone exercising in public.

So I kind of love this story in the Wall Street Journal about how deeply self-congratulatory runners frequently seem to be.

Here is one kind of bumper sticker I see almost daily here in my small Midwestern town: a small oval printed with “26.2” or “13.1.” In case you’re lucky enough not to know what these numbers represent, let me explain: They indicate that the driver or someone in the car has run a marathon (26.2 miles) or a half-marathon (13.1 miles).

There is only one reason running aficionados display the stickers. They want the rest of us to know about their long-distance feats. So let me be the first to offer my hearty congratulations. I’d even offer to give them a pat on the back—once they’re done doing it themselves

Are Weekends Over?

Posted on November 12th, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

An interesting WashPo piece on how Amazon and the USPS’s new move to deliver on Sundays further erodes the distinction between the work week and the weekend...

The tradition of a seventh day set aside for family and rest has been crumbling for years as states relaxed laws prohibiting gambling, shopping and even hunting on Sundays. The popularity of smartphones and the creation of an always-online culture has spurred greater demand — and ability — to have it all, right now, anytime.

Amazon’s move may not by itself be the most meaningful contributor to that phenomenon, but it is a contributor, and will probably lead to more such weekday-like activity…

Rand Paul’s Plagiarism Problem

Posted on November 6th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

So Rand Paul, the Kentucky senator and presidential hopeful, has been found to have plagiarized repeatedly in his op-eds and a newspaper column with his byline that, thankfully, no paper I read actually prints.

Paul issued a statement today intended to address the issue:

“Adherence to a new approval process implemented by Sen. Paul will ensure proper citation and accountability in all collaborative works going forward,” the statement said.

Adherence to a new approval process implemented by Senator Paul?

I have a better suggestion for how Rand Paul could avoid plagiarism: Any piece of writing that has his name on it…he should probably actually write. Ghostwriters will never care as much as you do.

More TWTR Skepticism

Posted on November 6th, 2013 in Uncategorized | 1 Comment »

In its filing with the SEC, Twitter reports that it has about 250 million active users.

But about 40 percent of those users never actually tweet; they just read other people’s tweets.

And perhaps the most telling number: people who signed up for Twitter and have since abandoned their accounts.

That number is about 650 million.

In other words, about three out of four people who sign up for Twitter eventually stop using it. And as time passes, that percentage may grow, because for some people the period before abandonment may be longer than it is for those 650 million.

And according to Business Insider, those number may be optimistic for Twitter…

Thus Making Him Perhaps the Most Effective Man in the World

Posted on November 5th, 2013 in Uncategorized | No Comments »

“If I’ve irritated you, I’ve served my purpose.”

Larry Summers, speaking at the 2013 Finance Conference at HBS on Sunday.

He also called for “a reduction in hubris” among members of the financial community.

No word on whether he spoke about self-awareness.