Monthly Archives: April 2010

The Big Short

I’ve been a hobby stocks and finance guy since i was 11. I have a huge collection of books on the subject of markets, economics, and related math. so, when I struggled to understand the economic collapse of 2008 in much depth, i figured my knowledge was just dated. Turns out that wasn’t
The case. In fact, the situation was mostly fucked.

Reading Michael Lewis’s The Big Short filled in the last few details I needed to understand. the answers on a technocratic level seem to be pretty easy. You start by cleaning up the ratings agencies. That might have been enough, in theory. If that doesn’t work you can try limiting the dimensions of abstraction allowed in a derivative away from the actual asset.

In that way too you could limit the total risk to the system. But, you see, that’s treating those problems as the cause. Until income equality increases in America again, these kinds of games will continue to be played on an increasing level, and it’s doubtful that the good guys will be able to keep pace with the highly motivated malefactors.

It now seems clear to me that until the tax structure impedes the hoarding of great wealth in a highly concentrated group, the “markets” will keep finding new bubbles, new ways to cheat, and new ways to screw the other 99%.

I’m glad there appears to be some reform occurring in Washington, but as soon as the ink is try or the web pages’s electrons are observed, the new laws will be worked around.

I’m no saint, I just want in.

Direct Action

The cutesy blackout staged more as a PR stunt than as an effective protest of global warming obviously had no effect. But the peak of global warming awareness that corresponded to the success of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and Hurricane Katrina is abating. The economy is used as an excuse to do nothing.

A much more powerful statement would be a general strike by those in the science and technical fields whose work directly depends on climate science. If this could be spread out enough to cost the economy 2% of its output that day, it would correspond with the worst-case scenarios estimated for the current climate-change legislation.

But I wouldn’t link it with anyone’s legislation or anyone’s party.

If people are saying climate science is fake, then all of the work that depends on it as being real shouldn’t be necessary. Shouldn’t really hurt the economy, right?

What’s even better is that a general strike like this would be confined to elites who can afford to do a sick day a lot more than someone who needs to put food on the table and is an hourly worker.

I would also suggest that doctors in Texas—or anyone else upon whose work the science of evolution depends—do the same. If it’s so wrong, they don’t need you, right?

Of course that’s bullshit and people who know damn well that this science is good are just stirring up the yokels. It’s long past time to call their bluff.

Airline Idiocracy

The reason Spirit Airlines’ decision to charge for carry-on bags is creating a tempest in a teapot is because, like RyanAir charging for the toilet, we are tired of having new fees tacked on. But it wasn’t necessarily a bad idea in the first place. But, despite that, the other airlines now say they won’t do it.

If you’ve flown lately, you know it’s hell. You know it’s hell and you’re nickel and dimed at every turn. But one of the ways it is made hell is by people bringing too much carry-on luggage, slowing the boarding and deboarding process hugely. This started because it started taking longer and longer to collect checked baggage, and in many airports it became a lot easier to not go to the carousel. Also, it’s harder for them to lose. Then they started charging for bags. So, people started bringing everything on. This is annoying.

I can see why they should apply supply/demand price curve controls to this abuse. But they probably wouldn’t have to if they (a) didn’t charge for bags; and (b) didn’t charge for everything else.

I, for one, would be willing to pay just about double to use a convenient airport, not get nickel and dimed, not get jerked around when there’s a delay or a cancellation, have a tiny bit more room in coach (I don’t need a sleeper seat, but something not made for the lollypop twins would be nice too), etc.

The next time the airlines come hat in hand for a bailout, I hope we either don’t do it, or only do it on the condition that their management is rebuilt entirely from scratch.

(Of course, they should then need to be hired from a business that did not receive a communist bailout before, either. Therefore, no banks, defense contractors, auto manufacturers, large government construction contractors, the health care oligopoly, the oil cartel….)

The Outrage!

Clearly, one of the most important matters for our national security is that some teachers in New York City might be getting paid for little work.

Yes, yes, I know. It’s “taxpayers’ money”! I suppose. But isn’t it also “TAXPAYERS’ MONEY” when tax-cut funded companies who feed off the public teet for contracts and whose executives pay little or no tax using schemes almost no one can afford engage in self-parodying materialism?

The fact that this kind of thing is even in the news might signal that we have reached a kind of Lithium stupor of good times like the 1990s. In fact, it just signals that outrages, both imagined and exaggerated, are the stock and trade of today’s politics.

Really, folks. This is about #129,266 on our list of things to do.

More on space…

Apparently, I’ve been spun.

Obama announced today that the cancellation of the moon mission doesn’t mean that the progress towards a Mars mission is off. I’m not surprised by this. Lately, the conservative noise machine has been fomenting outrage about things that haven’t even happened yet on the theory that they could.

I still think that a more permanent presence on the moon makes more sense before a shot at Mars, but that’s nitpicking by comparison to a cancellation of manned missions.

They just lie about anything and everything to gin up a little friction against the President. I should have known.

Palestine

I know the Likudniks at Commentary magazine, The New Republic, et al. see themselves on one side of the chess board and the Palestinians on the other. They’re sitting on the Israeli side of the board, though, not necessarily the American side. Even the closest of allies have differing interests. To advance their strategy, they have made continuing efforts to sow distrust of Obama in the Jewish community as a Muslim. They apparently had no problem when Bush was palling around with the Saudis and their agent “Bandar Bush.”

And while they can bamboozle most Americans into thinking that they actually want a two-state solution, or peace at all. But that would be bullshit. Some experts think the problem is beyond solution. That may be the case, but these folks aren’t being honest about it. I personally think it is beyond naive to think that peace in Israel with the Palestinians will stop agitation in the Muslim world against Israel or the United States, it would certainly reduce it. I’m not exactly sure how many Muslim nations’ governments would fall if they recognized Israel even in such a condition, but it would be surprising if none did. As for the US, at least some will continue to plot against us.

But regardless of what it is that there is a disagreement about, no one should expect the political views of a minority government’s leader in Israel to trump those of the U.S. president in matters of U.S. policy. It’s quite plain to me that Obama is 100% behind Israel with respect to the Iranian nuclear program, but completely unclear to me why people think that working for a solution with the Palestinians means that Obama wants to coddle Iran.

The Space Program

Apparently, some of our old NASA heroes are upset at the President’s cancellation of Bush’s project to return Americans to the moon. The space program and its policy are areas that I just haven’t kept up on in a little over 10 years, so I may make some errors in the following.

First, let me note the apparent irony that the Bush administration wanted the government to send us to the moon and Obama wants more private industry involved. Its only an apparent irony, because Republicans are for all the big government you can handle when it relates to defense contractors, who are exactly the people that get the contracts for the space program. The Democrats not agreeing is only a relatively new phenomenon, and is far from universal.

Anyway, back at it. I understand that there are a lot of good arguments, especially from budget wonks, that the space program is a boondoggle, is wasteful, and that we can do a lot more with unmanned probes. Still, I think that Neil Armstrong is a name that will outlast all others of the 20th century. I think it’s that big of a deal. The earth may one day entirely erase human civilization from its surface, but the cold vacuum of the moon will house the remnants of the Apollo landings for millions, if not billions, of years yet.

Even if it’s not that significant, it is still the most significant non-military (or even just quasi-military) event in the 20th century. There is something hopeful, unifying, and futuristic about humans on the moon, something that serves as a counterpoint to the specter of nuclear destruction that clouded the last half of the 20th century and the climate disaster that shades the 21st. There were untold benefits of practical application that derived from the space program, benefits that accrued to the general weal. How many children got interested in science because of Apollo? Sure, some kids were stoked on the Space Shuttle or the unmanned probes, but is it the same?

The idea that as a society we should have a massive non-military project that can achieve results of historical proportions, that, in the mean time will inevitably excite a generation into the sciences and leave behind numerous new useful inventions in its wake, is something worthy of a boondoggle or two. I think there was a cultural zeitgeist in the 90s that surrounded the yearning and belief that with (apparently) our internecine conflicts behind us, we were ready to take the next step, out into the universe, and, possibly to confront intelligent life from other worlds. That has certainly fallen apart, but it could certainly be reinvigorated by finally pulling off a manned mission to Mars, or even a return to the moon.

Plus, one day we will really need to get together and get off this rock (especially if we continue to abuse it so), or the ancient debris of the Apollo project really be all that’s left of us.

Apple Should Buy Microsoft

Apple currently has a market cap of $218 billion. Microsoft is a bit larget ar $267b. So, it might be a bit early to suggest Apple could buy Microsoft. Of course, it would not be impossible. There are a number of scenarios involving leverage and spinning off divisions that could make it work. It’s also not unreasonable to believe that Apple will have a much larger market cap than Microsoft in a year or two.

But what Apple needs is the Microsoft Office property. It has no use for Windows, the X-Box, or the horrible Windows Phone properties, or the abortion that is the Zune. But control over Microsoft Office would completely change the entire tech sector. It would be an epic in the annals of business. It would allow Apple to bring us fully into the mobile computing era.

And for Microsoft shareholders it makes a lot of sense. The company is clearly in decline, and doesn’t even merit the scorn of Apple anymore. In Apple’s latest media event, Jobs took shots at Google, Adobe, Amazon, Sony, Nintendo, but not Microsoft. The company hasn’t had a big idea in over a decade. Its foray into hardware has been a disaster on all fronts, and the Windows platform continues to ossify and hasn’t seen any major new features in 10 years. In that time, almost all important software has become available on other operating systems. Yet Microsoft Office remains the de facto standard for e-mail, word processing, and spreadsheets.

There’s another reason this deal would be good for MSFT holders. Knowing Steve jobs, I can bet that he would be willing to overpay by a significant margin to finally take down his white whale.

Paying for carry on luggage

I’m not trying to be a contrarian here, but I’m not sure the hullabaloo about Spirit airlines charging for checked bags that don’t fit under the seat is justified. I hate when people bring their huge clunky bags on, take forever, and hog the overheads. If they charged for large carry ons and checked bags were free, I’d be quite happy.

The Anti-Fanboy Paradox

Business reporting shows a disturbing parallel with political reporting in its cults of personality and cults of entities, whether they might be corporations or parties.

One interesting case is Apple. Apple consciously manipulates the media as any corporation or politician does. Almost all of its success in the last 10 years have to do with intangibles added by its brand to what can probably often be reduced to a commodity product. Ironically, where this does not apply is to Apple’s actual Mac operating system which is objectively superior to its competitors on every level except the amount of software available to it. Mac OS is the bedrock of Apple’s brands, but it is relatively unpopular compared to the iPod and iPhone. Only approximately 5% of computers in use run Mac OS. (Despite that, Apple is one of the few profitable computer makers—on that level, Mac is a smashing succes.)

Apple’s success and the cult status of its CEO Steve Jobs have created a backlash in the tech press that is mostly driven by counter-propaganda from Apple’s competitors and their flacks. Yet it is this overtly biased coverage that makes Apple seem so powerful.

Today I read an article with an analyst claiming that the iPad’s launch was lukewarm. That analyst rewrote history saying that the iPhone’s initial introduction in 2007 was similarly seen as an initial failure. But compared to what? Compared to the astroturfing anti-fanboys, the iPhone would be an abortion. It was apparent that that was not the case in the first weekend of sales. Same with the iPad.

But the article’s tone is set by Apple “only” selling 300,000 iPads and “only” selling a million or so this quarter. Even by moving the goalposts this far, when Apple pulls it off or exceeds it, an Apple once again defies the skeptics, people will swoon even as Apple’s detractors will keep writing new attacks and putting their erroneous predictions of the past down the memory hole. All of this is largely because the moving goalposts are created by Apple’s competitors’ spin.

If they would shut up, or if the tech press would become less critical, Apple would not generate the buzz it does and they would probably get their wish as Apple goes through the corporate life cycle and becomes a staid massive iceberg that slowly bleeds to death, the way it started to before Steve Jobs’s return in 1996 and the way Microsoft is today.

One of the best current examples of this phenomenon is the meme that the iPhone doesn’t multitask. In reality, it does. Not only does it multitask in the technical sense of the term (the iPhone’s operating system is almost always running several processes), it multitasks in the debased sense of the term specifically invented to attack it: running multiple applications at once. You can talk on the phone and use any other application. You can use its iPod feature and use any other application. The reason the iPhone doesn’t “multitask” is that… it’s a phone. It does what it’s supposed to do and does a good enough job for millions of people. Allowing any program to run would create a potential for security problems, worse cellular issues that AT&T has already given it, and a battery drain. Just so that Apple can answer talking points generated by flacks and tech geeks who measure everything by who has the biggest…. stats.

The rumors are that the new iPhone OS will “multitask.” I doubt it. It may allow certain pre-approved third party apps to run in the background for a damn good reason. But I don’t think it will just anyone do that. This, complain the anti-fanboys, hinders developer creativity etc. and that’s why Google/Microsoft/Palm is better. Says you. People sure seem to like their iPhones.

This is a good example because it’s a lie and a distortion that the end user doesn’t give a shit about. It’s a geek thing. It’s meant to stir up developers who have already spent a lot of time learning how to program for other platforms and who want those other platforms to succeed. It’s also meant to justify the engineering decisions of other companies that only know how to make the biggest baddest fastest lastest spec machine even if the totality is shit. It’s why the Wii is so popular. It has shitty graphics. But it’s fun. It’s a game machine. It’s supposed to do more than look cool. It’s supposed to be fun.

Anyway, once the “multitasking” meme is rendered irrelevant, I imagine that we’ll see what’s next. They’d be smarter to just drop it and quit leaving people to wonder why Apple succeeds when all of the “in crowd” seems to think they should fail.

P.S. I have no intention of buying an iPad anytime soon.