Archive for September, 2008

Get a handle on what’s happening in the finance industry

Thursday, September 18th, 2008

Leave it to the guys at Freakonomics to find some experts to explain what’s going on in the markets.

Steven Levitt found a couple of finance experts to provide easy-to-understand answers to the most basic questions regarding what happened with Lehman, Frannie and Freddie, and A.I.G. It’s the best explanation I’ve  found so far.

By the way, if you haven’t read Freakonomics yet, you’re missing out on an opportunity to get a good handle on thinking the way an economist does. In addition, the Freakonomics blog is a great read for any armchair economist…wait, aren’t all economists armchair?

Diamond and Kashyap on the Recent Financial Upheavals.

Don’t panic, start a new business

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

Think of the recent volatility in the markets as an opportunity.

When the economy shrinks it’s really only resetting itself, getting rid of excess capacity. Because eventually the market will be up again. And while credit may be hard to get right now, there’s capital still sitting around wanting to be used: your labor is capital.

This is the perfect time to start a new business. You’ll have to be thrifty and thoughtful, but that makes good business sense even in a growth market. Scrape together some money with your friends and come up with a business plan to solve a problem. Trust me, when people are back to spending money again you’ll be well-positioned to make some real dough. Here in America, we may not have a physical frontier anymore where people can just pack up and get away from their past and start a new life, but being an entrepreneur is the next best thing: you can pack up and leave your past career and be in total control of your own destiny.

Hell, even buying a franchise is a good idea. Then you can buy a business model that’s already been worked out and get started now so that when people are no longer spooked by thoughts of a recession, you’ll be ready. I work for a franchising company that was started in the recession of 1990-91. The founders managed to build a successful, stable company – and people are still buying franchises.

Yet another option is going to work for a startup. New companies are starting all the time and they need good, cheap help. By going with a company at the beginning, you’ll be well positioned to get a payoff if you help make a successful company.

Keep in mind that recessions happen because people think there’s a recession. It’s all in your head.

Freedom

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008

The one time I ever really impressed a teacher was when my Junior year english teacher asked our class what freedom meant. My answer was the first thing that came to mind, “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.” It’s a line from Janis Joplin’s song “Me and Bobby McGee.” Turns out, that’s exactly what he was thinking too.

There are very few people in America who really know what freedom means. Is it what Joplin sang? Perhaps. If movies, literature, and song have said many times, is that the people who really have the power to do whatever they want are those who have either escaped responsibility or have had it taken away. And yet, with a good job, a decent education, and hard work, we can try to get every material thing we want or any comfort money can buy.

But ask yourself: “What would I do if I had no job, no home, no possessions, no obligations, nothing but the clothes I’m wearing?” If you were in that situation, it’d probably take some thought. One thing would be true, though: you could do anything you want. Couldn’t start a family because you didn’t have any time outside of work? Haven’t done much traveling because you had chores to do and other things to save up for? Well you’ve got a lot of time to do some real living, here’s your chance!

I won’t be the first to point out that The Declaration of Independence – the document that created the United States of America, says that we have a right to “the pursuit of happiness.” It’s a funny phrase, if you think about it: if happiness is what we all want anyway, shouldn’t it be that we have a right to happiness? Trouble is, happiness – that feeling of being able to walk down the street and spontaneously break out into a grin if for no reason than the feeling of being alive – happiness is not something we all get to have. It’s something that requires an effort. Being happy doesn’t just come from nowhere, we must work for it. We must pursue it.  And somewhere, somehow, in the middle of chasing that happiness, occasionally that feeling just appears. Chances are you won’t notice it – but sometimes there is a realization that everything is all right. You may notice a grin on your face, or a sudden urge to dance. That’s happiness, the elusive goal.

The pursuit of happiness, that is the real freedom. All of those things in your life that you could lose, it may hurt for a while, but they can all be lost. That already makes you free. That’s the kind of thought that makes me smile.

There is no such thing as a guilty pleasure

Tuesday, September 16th, 2008

I used to say that cheesy dance music was my guilty pleasure, as if it was something I wasn’t supposed to like. But that doesn’t make any sense: why should we have to present a different image of who we are to everyone else, one that is so different that we have to laugh off any incompatible interests and hobbies?

From now on I will tell people that I like cheesy dance music. I’m a sucker for a dance beat.

It’s not my favorite style of music. Far from it. I listen to a wide swath of styles and eras. If anything, my favorite would be either mid-60s pop music (see my three favorite songs) or 90s indie-alternative…or late-70s post-punk, it’s hard to pick a favorite. But if I’m feeling down or a little tired, all I need to do is put on XM radio’s BPM station or some dance songs from my library, and I usually feel much better.

Why must we call something we like our guilty pleasure?

Do we really need to impress others with only the aspects of our life that we think others will approve? Sometimes, it’s those quirky interests that define who we are: that I like dance music provides a clue as to who I am as a person. Rather, we should be as proud of these features as our more mainstream ones. It’s the odd bits that make someone interesting: think of all the people you admire in history, did they do crazy things without caring what others thought? Albert Einstein never dressed up regardless of the event, Nicola Tesla measured the cubic mass of his food before eating. And think of the quirky interests: Issac Newton was into alchemy; Charles Dickens was fascinated by morgues, cemeteries, and the dead; Quintin Tarantino loves bad action movies from the seventies. There’s better examples that I can’t think of, but you get the idea.

Instead of guilty pleasures we should embrace all of our interests. It’s okay to watch Saved by the Bell, collect war camp paper money, enjoy shopping at dollar stores, be a fan of some little-watched sport like diving, eat Haggis, or any of the millions of things people do that isn’t considered ‘normal’ by most people. We should not be afraid to let others listen to our music collection, or peruse our bookshelves, because these are the things that define us.

The serial comma

Monday, September 15th, 2008

Arguing about where the last comma in a sentence is kind of thing people debate then they don’t have any real fears or pressing decisions in their life.

The serial comma, or the Oxford comma, is when you put a comma before the last item in a list in a sentence, usually before an ‘and’ or ‘or.’ For example, “I like apples, pears, and bananas.” The other way to write a list is to not have a comma for the last item in the list: “I like apples, pears and bananas.” This is supported by the AP style book, and thus my boss – so it comes up a lot at work.

The argument over proper usage get so heated, I’ve seen yelling matches and one of those pathetic wrestling matches between two overly-hip twentysomethings with no muscle mass. The band Vampire Weekend wrote a song about it (“Oxford Comma”) – even the Wikipedia article is overly complicated, though not as insane as the article for Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

The fact that people fight over this is insane. And yet I can’t help getting involved: I support the serial comma fervently, and back my point up with the fact that most people do anyways (and occasionally friends who are better at debating). Essentially by having a comma separating every item in a list, there is less confusion about the last item.

How does one decide which is the best way? Simple: look at what everyone else is doing. If most people – especially the trend-setting writers – are using the serial comma, then let’s just agree that it’s the right way. Language is fluid after all; and the general idea is that proper usage has more to do with being understood than following old rules.

Good. Now we can stop fighting over this and just use the serial comma. And argue about more important things, like the best movie of 1998, the coolest character in The Sopranos, or whether it’s OK to text message a breakup.

A personal guide to getting the best news off the web

Monday, September 15th, 2008

I’m not so much a news junkie as an information junkie. I need data, and massive amounts of it. And with the major news events over the weekend: hurricane Ike*, Lehman Brothers’ colapse*, the suicide of David Foster Wallace*, and Tina Fey impersonating Sarah Pailin impersonating Tina Fey – I kept myself on the bleeding edge of every development.

While weblogs are great for keeping track of cultural developments, tech news, and news analysis; getting ahold of the actual events still needs traditional media outlets. And let’s face it: print news is dead; getting updates through the internet is the best method. Updates come fast and strong. So keeping on top of events as they happen is easy now as you can check anytime, instead of waiting for the morning or evening editions. Plus it’s easier to find stories that may not have been considered highly newsworthy, but important nonetheless.

This post is a guide to how I get my news. My sources are a little intense and may be overkill as the same stories will get repeated over and over at each news source, but they all provide a unique enough perspective to cover all the bases and give a possible edge in knowing the whole story. In fact, one could read only a few of these sources and still be better informed than 95% of the population.

Each group is numbered by importance, meaning how frequently they are checked. Group one is for top stories and Group 2 is for business news. Group 3, which is international sites, is really only for additional coverage to catch any news that fell through the cracks at the other sites, and to get a better view of the world situation. Group 4 is some extra tools which can come in handy, and are fun.

Group 1: General News

BBC – The best source for general international news. The BBC is much less country-biased than any of the U.S. media sites and places emphasis on news that’s more important worldwide. Which made it very surprising to see my hometown mentioned as a top story when it was under water last June. If you can only check one site, make it the BBC. Here’s BBC’s mobile site.

CNN – You could switch CNN for MSNBC and get the same effect, but I prefer CNN’s video setup, so this is on the list. CNN is for national news; international news gets little play. Sure, they may put as a top story the goings-on of Britney Spears or some other crap, but you need a source for American news by Americans. Here’s CNN’s mobile site.

Yahoo! News – Yahoo News is arguably the best topical news site around. And with Yahoo’s troubles lately, I’m surprised they aren’t leveraging it more: this site is almost as good as BBC’s site, has great AP pictures, and blows the pants off of Google News.

The New York Times – All of the NY Times’ national and international news is repeated elsewhere, but what you get here is the depth of the story, and about everything. It’s hard to explain but it’s often more enjoyable to read articles from the Times, because they often cover stories in special ways. There’s a reason why the best bloggers link to Times articles.

Local news – Everyone needs to know what’s going on locally. Not only will it affect you faster than national or international events, you have a bigger role and can become more involved with local issues. I suggest finding a good TV station and the best local newspaper. Here in Boston, I check WBZ TV and The Boston Globe. In addition, I also check news from my hometown.

Group 2: Business News

The Wall Street Journal – Here are some reasons why you should keep up with business news: you have a job and work for a living, you are investing in financial tools for retirement or supplemental income, you like money. In other words, business news is important. And The Wall Street Journal is the source for finance, economic, and personal finance articles. They also provide good political coverage. One downside to the WSJ is that to get the best use out of it, you’ll need a subscription to access most of the articles. But it’s worth it if you want to really know what’s going on in the world of business and finance. WSJ also has great blogs with additional coverage.

Bloomberg - Think of Bloomberg as a supplement to The Wall Street Journal, with an emphasis on markets (and a stylish site design). Also, they tend to have the fastest updates on market news. I was getting updates on Lehman’s demise at Bloomberg’s site first.

The EconomistThe Economist is the best-written news magazine. The analysis and opinion offered by The Economist is top-notch and well-informed. It may be off-putting to someone who doesn’t believe in open market capitalism, but that may require a deeper study of economics. It costs to access The Economist, but it’s absolutely worth it. Most people however may not get any use out of it, not to mention get bored by the articles; but it provides the best coverage of international business, finance, and politics anywhere.

Group 3: International News

Al Jazeera - Here in America, the name Al Jazeera conjures up images of Osama Bin Laden videotapes, grainy videos of executions, and anti-American bias. But in reality, Al Jazeera is an excellent news source. Their coverage places importance on events that hardly ever get covered in the U.S.

The Christian Science Monitor - Don’t be put off by the name, these guys are a great news source. In fact, since the Monitor is run by a non-profit, they can afford more international reporters than most other major news outlets.

Der Spiegel – Much like Al Jazeera, Der Spiegel has a different international slant on their news than what you normally get in the U.S.

Reuters – A quick scan of Reuters’ homepage will give you a good idea of what’s going on in the world at the moment.

The Guardian – A fiercely independent British newspaper.

The International Herald Tribune – Essentially international edition of The New York Times. So it’s good to see what’s more newsworthy elsewhere.

Group 4: Suppmlemental Sources
These are a few sites and tools I recommend in addition to the other sites.

The Big Picture blog – It started out as a side project by a web developer at the Boston Globe, and is now one of the most visited blogs. That’s because the large-size, stunning pictures are presented in a way not seen anywhere else.

Mobile News/Bloomberg iPhone apps – This is how you get news on your iPhone. Mobile News is from AP and Bloomberg is…well, Bloomberg.

The New York Times Twitter feed – The Times seems to have the only Twitter feed that gets regularly updated with important news i.e. stuff that’s worth getting quick updates.

Newser – I found this site only a few days ago, but it’s already a favorite. Newser is a news aggregator, but is so polished it’s the first one to actually be useful. First, articles are displayed with a large graphic, and as you scroll through the list of articles it gets longer so you don’t have to go to another page (like when going back through old blog posts). Next the linked articles are summarized so you can get the gist of the story without having to leave the site. So far, every summary is a great executive summary, to save time in case it’s not worth reading the actual article. If you’re content with having someone else picking the news for you, Newser may replace going to all the other sites (it won’t for me).

You may have noticed I haven’t mentioned anything about sports. Thats because I couldn’t care less about sports news, with the exception of the Olympics – and that’s over already. You’re on your own for that.

* These articles are from yesterday, so they may already be out of date.

Attack of the self-thinking computer

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

On Monday, United Airlines’ stock plummeted from around $12 to $3. At first glance it was perplexing because it just dropped and United’s holding company, UAL hadn’t announced anything big enough to cause a 75% drop in price. Well…they announced something that would have, in 2002.

Silicon Valley Insider has a great analysis of exactly what happened, so go read that and come back here.

Something about this story feels like a piece of luddite science fiction. Just because the Chicago Tribune didn’t put a dateline on a story in 2002 that a corporation with enough problems of its own gets its stock hammered because some software was doing exactly what it was designed: dishing up popular stories to people who want to read such things. Suddenly United’s stock is very cheap for no logical reason. So much for rational investing, no? Actually, it shows that markets move according to the best possible information. But when that information is dished out by inflexible software programs, how efficient is it really?

There is so much information available to any one person, and so much potentially useful information, that we need tools to help us sort through that information. We can no longer rely on individuals at newspapers to decide what’s newsworthy, because even they can’t sort through all the information. Instead, we must use tools that can remove the signal from the noise. To give us the information that we need, that’s important, that we need to know.

But every website, every company, every entity online has their own systems for managing this information. And even in a single organization there can be several to hundreds of different ways of sorting information: by topic, popularity, etc. These tools don’t exist in a vacuum – the internet has no dark matter. So when Google crawls a website at an ungodly hour when all two visitors happen to be reading the same old story, the page gets cached and changes Google’s search results. Later in the morning, when a reporter at Bloomberg sees the page pop up on their Google Alerts, the wrong story goes out on the wire all because of the randomness of human action interfered with logical code.

This kind of thing is an informational flaw, a data mutation. Kinda like a biological mutation. Only cooler, because it’s easier for us to toy with information than with living organisms. This could cause all kinds of mutations, from viral videos to bands becoming suddenly popular to a spontaneous political movement to leaps in technological advancement. All because of the interaction of automated systems.

Motivation

Thursday, September 4th, 2008

I feel that I am qualified to write about motivation because most of the time, I don’t have any.

A reasonable thing to do would be to sell, donate, or just get rid of an old TV 15 months after the new one arrived; but my unused TV is sitting in a room filled with random possessions of two other people. It would also be reasonable, knowing plenty about economics and how credit cards work, to not screw oneself over by not paying credit card bills for a while, but that’s exactly what I did (they’re paid off now, thank you). I still haven’t called the gas and electric companies to switch the bills over to my name, don’t actively look for a date, didn’t renew my driver’s license for nine months until the day before I was supposed to fly home, don’t recycle pop bottles*, and probably won’t vote in the upcoming election because I’ve figured out that the cost to cast that vote isn’t worth it for me. That makes me one lazy man, and qualified to talk about the energy behind doing things.

If I’m so lazy, how do I get anything done? Because I figure out ways to do more in less time. Not to get more work done, but to have more time to slack off. The unfortunate side effect is that to most people, I don’t appear to do anything. Trust me, I’m powering up and winning the game. Just look at this blog.

Budaeli, what you’re reading, has been dormant for most of its existence. Currently, this is the longest stretch of continuous writing, beginning on July 31st. There are several very key reasons for this, all being motivation for me to keep writing, but none of them will be obvious. If I’m so goddamn lazy, what keeps me writing? My laziness knows no rational bounds. It can’t be for anything obvious, like money or vanity right?

Always remember that necessity is not the mother of invention; laziness is the mother of invention.


*I leave them on top of my garbage bags so the scavengers get them and make some money on my behalf.

Head fake

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2008

Randy Pausch‘s deep and human lecture, his last, introduced me to the concept of the head fake. If you haven’t seen his speech, go watch it now.

A head fake is where an action looks different from the act itself. Pausch’s lecture was about achieving childhood dreams, but it was really about something else, and turned out to be for someone else altogether. That head fake is probably the most tear-inducing one in existence.

In sports, a head fake can be a play that tricks the opposing team into following someone who they think has the ball so that they miss the person with the real ball who doesn’t normally have that job.

In film, a head fake can be a plot where the audience completely misses the real protagonist or what’s really going on, often resulting in a crappy movie.

In blogging, you could be reading a post about one topic when it’s really about something else altogether. Or the entire blog is about a something else. Like Budaeli. :)

A review of Twitter (and Daring Fireball, by accident)

Monday, September 1st, 2008

The impetus for me to use Twitter in earnest was the Twitterrific app for the iPhone. By making it easy to update my status and to check on others, regular posts just started coming out. I twittered about the olympics, Obama’s speech at the DNC, and other random bits. I watched as others responded to various events; for example, today there are lots of snarky comments about Sarah Palin’s daughter and what it means to McCain’s chances of winning the presidency.

Yet despite my active participation, I don’t see the point of Twitter. Is it deliberatly-short posts of a blog combined with a newsreader for other user’s blog? Is it a status program, to keep others updated on what you’re doing? Because Twitter is both, it is nothing more than a collective mental wank. Let me explain.

Twitter as a microblogging platform.

This makes slightly more sense to me than a status feed. But why would anyone want have a blog severe restrictions on post length? Because not every thought wanting to be written down and shared needs to be meaty and loaded like what’s being attempted here at Budaeli.

And while anyone can set something like this up on any sort of blogging platform, the secret sauce is combining it with a newsreader so that your comments mingle with everyone else’s that you’re following.

If we look at two examples from the blogger John Gruber, his Twitter feed and his link feed from his great website, Daring Fireball, you can see the difference in how the content is presented. I’ve seen twitter posts coincide with link posts in the same vein, and he reveals more of how he’s really thinking through twitter, especially when readers can respond immediately. In fact, his posts about Sarah Palin’s daughter where full of personality, while his one post to his linked list showed only a direct response with only the slightest hint of what he really thinks about the situation. And yet they go hand-in-hand.

Does Gruber need both? Well, that’s the interesting part: Gruber is one of the few professional bloggers. He has carefully crafted a brand around his Daring Fireball that I think includes his Twitter feed. There are regularly-sized posts, short links with concise opinion and description, and a feed where he reels off whatever is on his mind with less of a filter than the other two. Taken together and combined with his valuable insights, you have a great resource for analysis of technology (specifically Apple- and web-related), with a few prescient coverage of other topics.

Twitter as a status feed.

There is absolutely no reason for anyone to actively update the a feed telling others what they’re doing. It’s nothing more than how people nowadays will be at a party, but calling their friends to see if there are any better, while degrading the quality of the party that’s already happening around them. Only now you can spray your whereabouts to everyone, including strangers and people who have no right/don’t care what you’re doing.

This doesn’t just go for twitter, but every other service that has the same functionality. How hard is it to just exist in the place we are, without having to suck everyone else in? Even the case for automated status updates is silly, because it’s just that much more information to lose any justification. It’s OK to keep track of news from specific areas, but to keep tabs on the exact goings-on of all your acquaintances is bordering on absurd. This is partly why I have so far succeeded in joining the major social sites, the major exception being Last.fm. If any of my friends, family, coworkers, or anyone else wants to check up on what I’m doing, they can easily call me, email me, semaphore me, leave a comment on Budaeli, whatever. There is lack of a good argument to make it so easy for others to know what you’re doing, and to get regular updates. It’s more complex than that, and I can see the benefits of having a page for people to catch up with you while being 1,000 miles away, but in general it’s a wee bit silly. I mean, whatever happened to the American dream of disappearing from others for awhile?

Will Twitter succeed? Will it ever get past the early-adopter phase?

I don’t know. With any of these micro-blogging systems, a lot depends on reaching a critical mass of users, much like instant messaging platforms. Twitter has a head start at the moment, but they’ve had enough technical issues to allow space for other systems, like Pownce. Also, slightly different systems like Tumblr also exist that provide a slightly different experience and potential for content.

For now, I’ll remain perplexed as to the real power of Twitter. Until I figure it out you can check out my own twitter feed.