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Archive for January, 2009

Predicting the demise of newspapers in 1981

January 29th, 2009

Well, it’s actually a tongue-in-cheek prediction because in 1981 it took 2 hours at $5/hr to download the entire paper (minus the pictures, ads and comics). Another interesting tidbit: they estimate that between 2,000-3,000 people in Bay Area have computers in 1981.

via Nat via techcrunch. Enjoy!

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Over-rated, Overdone & Totally Missable: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

January 27th, 2009

I am trying to watch all the major Oscar nominees, and so of course, I had to watch this year’s most-nominated film, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The premise is weird: Benjamin is born an old man in 1918 and grows younger throughout the film. What might make a passable short story, however, is an interminable 2 hr 43 min movie. The plot is completely disjointed and the point, if there is one, is captured in Brad Pitt’s obvious, trite statement: “I was just thinking about how nothing lasts…and what a shame that is….”

Unlike Benjamin Button, you and I grow older if we waste our time watching pointless movies. So, skip this movie when there are so many other good ones currently out in theaters for your viewing pleasure.

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The “hope” trade

January 27th, 2009

I heard a disturbing bit of market intelligence from an investment banker friend. Apparently, several large hedge funds (e.g., $8bn+ under management) put on the “hope” trade in December. In the hope trade, these large hedge funds that were down a lot in the first 11 months of 2008 decided to go “all in” in December and try to bid up equity prices before the end of the calendar year. By boosting prices–which were up about 20% for the month of December–they were able to report higher returns for the entire year in the hopes of staving off distributions. A large asset manager who used to manage almost all my money seemed to be engaged in something similar, so this story seems highly plausible to me. (I have managed to extract myself from my manager after sustaining major but not critical injuries to my personal account.)

So far, the strategy has been OK. But has added even more risk to the US economy. If prices go down (as they have so far in 2009) and the limited partners decide to withdraw their money in March, it could put a lot of additional downward pressure on the stock market. Especially with the baby boomers at or near retirement age, stock declines and net capital outflows could become a vicious cycle. Translation: a run on the stock market!

This scenario isn’t set in stone. If you think that economic conditions will materially improve by March, then perhaps the ‘hope’ trade will pay off. Does that seem likely to you? Soon, the day of reckoning may be upon us!

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Anatomy of A Facebook Chain Letter

January 27th, 2009

There is an interesting chain letter circulating around Facebook asking people to post a note with 25 random things about themselves. I’ve seen 3 or 4 of them among my friends. Here are the “rules”:

Rules: Once you’ve been tagged, you are supposed to write a note with 25 random things, facts, habits, or goals about you. At the end, choose 25 people to be tagged. You have to tag the person who tagged you.

The tagging part is key. Normally, tagging is supposed to be used when you write something ABOUT someone else. But functionally, tagging ensures that the note appears in the persons newsfeed.

This tactic is extremely viral. When someone reveals 25 random things, and asks you to reciprocate, it can be quite persuasive. And so the chain continues!

If you want to see an example, a blogger that I stumbled on through the SocialFeet network has posted her own 25 random things on her web site. She’s got some funny things on her list, mostly either boastful (e.g., “7. I once got an A+ in a statistics class at NYU that I only went to twice. Once for midterm review, and once for the final review“) or revealing (e..g, “23. I have a huge collection of stuffed animals, and as much as I know I should get rid of some of them, I can’t decide which to give away. Every stuffed animal contains a memory.“)

It’s one thing to spread a note like this among your friends, but it’s quite another to post it publicly on your blog. It is quite clear that Stephanie is a confident extrovert!

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And the winner is…

January 21st, 2009

In the past week, I have watched three great movies: Milk, Gran Torino and Slumdog Millionaire.

From Milk, I learned a lot about San Francisco history and the gay movement. Sean Penn was fantastic as Harvey Milk. I also realized that as much as I support gay rights, I have an uncontrollable aversion to watching men kissing other men. That insight has made me more interested in seeing whether such unconscious acts of discrimination translate into more meaningful decisions, like at the ballot box or for hiring decisions.

From Gran Torino, I learned an interesting lesson about violence, life and death. Clint Eastwood is fantastic. The movie moves along slowly, which is obviously intentional but almost had me giving up before the end. But that would have been a mistake, because the ending is terrific.

But my hands down pick is Slumdog Millionaire. It’s the best movie I have seen in years. Gripping story. Incredibly cinematography. Tremendous climax. (Here’s an interesting post about the ending for people who have already seen the movie.) As I saw on someone’s Facebook status update, “Slumdog Millionaire lives up to the hype. Great movie.” And my clear favorite for Best Picture of the Year.

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Obama not the first African American POTUS?

January 20th, 2009

Apparently, Condi Rice was President of the United States for about 1 minute today, beating Obama to the punch as the first black President. And we were probably under Biden’s rule for a minute or so as well, if this blog post by a constitutional law professor is to be believed:

No, the oath is *not* legally meaningless, even if it is a ritual. Art. II Sec 1. Cl. 8 of the US Const. clearly states that “Before he enter on the Execution of his Office, he shall take the following oath. . . ” Therefore, from 12:00 noon until about 12:01 pm today, the President of the USA was Condoleeza Rice. From 12:01 until about 12:03 pm the President of the USA was Joe Biden. Interestingly, this means that, technically, Obama was *not* the first African-American President! (And yes, I actually am a constitutional law professor!).

What good are lawyers anyway? This must be nonsense!

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Seven things you might not know about Madoff

January 19th, 2009

I am fascinated by the Madoff scandal. I want to understand the lessons to avoid these mistakes myself, and also to see what public policy recommendations might be in order. Bill Burnham has a nice list of 7 things about Madoff that I did not know, and that you might not know either. Two quick things: first, investors probably knew that Madoff was conducting business illegally (though not a ponzi scheme), and in fact that was part of the allure; second, Madoff championed reforms that ironically ruined his own original trading strategy.

It’s a very good list, and I recommend reading the entire post.

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The Bank Bailout, by Krugman

January 19th, 2009

Having trouble understanding how these trillion dollar bank bailouts work? Krugman does a great job in describing the problem is simple yet precise terms in his column today. The conclusion: buying the toxic assets–the policy proposal being pushed right now–almost certainly won’t solve the problem.

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The Bush Presidency, Onion-style

January 19th, 2009

This article in the Onion was an instant classic from the minute it was printed 8 years ago. A rare article that is funny well beyond just a great title: “Bush: ‘Our Long National Nightmare Of Peace And Prosperity Is Finally Over’“.

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Undermining financial trust

January 16th, 2009

I suppose the rise of these swindlers is inevitable, but I find it still find it disheartening to hear about. I think that honest restructuring of consumer debt is a central aspect of getting out of the financial mess we’re in, and the existence of these misleading or potentially fraudulent folks talking about restructuring will undermine the trust necessary to make restructuring work.

The government should take aggressive action to ensure that restructuring is done properly, or else it is going to be even harder to fix our financial system.

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Merrill Lynch & Bank America: Henny penny?

January 16th, 2009

Today, the NYT is reporting that Merrill Lynch’s problems are causing Bank of America to need more bailout money and there is talk about nationalizing the banks. Here’s an email that I sent out to some of the smartest Wall St guys I know on Sept 18, 2008, where my concerns were roundly dismissed. Here’s what I wrote then (emphasis added now):

When Nick and I were playing golf at Stanford yesterday, Nick said that something that puzzled me. He said that bank of america won’t go under with countrywide and merrill lynch because they have all these deposits. There was something to that effect in the NYT too, and John Mack is using it as a justification for merging with wachovia. But here’s the puzzle: deposits are a *liability* for a bank.

So, the answer to the puzzle is that banks have reserve requirements that protect banks (and hence the deposits). And many of the deposits are FDIC insured. I also was thinking about Glass-Steagall act. By covering risky bets with reserve capital, what’s really happening here is that investment bankers are undermining the purpose of reserve requirements.

In other words, as McCain and Obama decry the bailout of AIG, everyone is missing the fact that Thaine and Mack are planting the seeds of a potential crisis of even greater proportion. If/when the government has to bailout large commercial banks to cover deposits, we will be in deep, deep doo doo. And I wonder if anyone is watching as this happens.

Am I just being henny penny here?

So, I do not think that we’ve reached the bottom of the financial crisis yet.

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Twitter

January 16th, 2009

My mom forwarded me this column by Dave Carr about Twitter. It captures the essence of twitter: a confusing, time sink that can occasionally be invaluable. I created an account on twitter, savedemocracy, but don’t expect much activity from me right now.

I do, however, regularly update my status on Facebook and so far, I’ve gotten much of the value that twitter might offer from that.

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SocialFeet gets some love

January 15th, 2009

InsideFacebook has written this nice piece about our new service, SocialFeet. They have had an interest in our kind of service–one that spans multiple sites–and it is nice to be acknowledged as a leader in this nascent space. And as they note, there is some controversy but I am hopeful, as we say in the article, that “we can and will remain in the good graces” of Facebook.

1. technology

Let’s go metric!

January 15th, 2009

I think the spirit of the economic stimulus package is: let’s spend money on all the tasks that we need anyway. In that spirit, my mother-in-law proposed that we convert to the metric system. I think it is a wonderful proposal! It will create jobs and economic growth in the short-term, while certainly being a wise investment in enhancing future productivity.

Goodbye, pounds and inches; hello, grams and meters!

2. politics

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