Thursday, January 31, 2008

Overhyping the Recession?

With all that's been going on in the economy lately, it's hard not to start using the 'R' word that's being thrown around a lot recently. There has been the sub-prime mortgages scandal, the stock market plummeting, an extremely expensive war and an accompanying Congress that pushes the U.S. further and further into debt. As we see the dollar continue to plummet, its hard not to call a spade a spade: the economy is in recession.

However, before we start too much doom and gloom, its important to keep some perspective. To provide some, Zimbabwe has recently unveiled a $10 million bill. This is now the highest denomination of currency in the world and roughly equal to a whopping $4.00. Unfortunately it is not the consequence of a different base number system, but rather it is due to an extraordinary case of hyperinflation of over 50,000% per year! Residents who fail to spend money as fast as they can get it, must pay for daily goods such as the bar patron in this photo for his bottle of beer:

It's hard to even imagine what it's like to live in such a situation. Any sort of loan is a virtual impossibility as lenders will never be able get their money back in time to make such a venture worthwhile. Saving for retirement is clearly a fruitless endeavor, as is virtually any sort of saving for a future expense whether it be a vacation or saving in case of a medical emergency.

So while we hang our heads with the dollar tanking, exports dragging and job markets drying, let's not forget it could be a whole lot worse!

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Scrabulous Sued

Sad news for those of us who were avid users of the 3rd party Facebook application--Scrabulous has been demanded to remove its application by Hasbro and Mattel. While on the one hand I am saddened by this news, on the other hand I am perplexed as to why the makers of Scrabulous, brothers Rajat and Jayant Agarwalla, came up with business plan hinged completely upon copying a well-known game. While they might have gotten away previously with claiming the only make "a little bit of money" through advertising costs in order to run the server on now that they have built the Facebook add-on and it is being run through its servers, how can they justify what must be a good sum of advertising dollars (the application services 500,000+ users per day) on complete copyright infringement?

When I first saw the application on Facebook and its detail down to the coloring of the the double/triple letter/word scores, I was surprised not to see any advertising of the parent company (not that I knew who it was at the time), a trademark sign or the fact that it wasn't simply called "Scrabble". According to the Agarwalla brothers, they were even approached by investors. What exactly did they think was going to happen? That Hasbro and Mattel were going to offer them money for copying their game? Let's be honest, this piece of software was not exactly Photoshop CS3 (not that I could make it, but a multinational corporation would have zero trouble). Or did they think the corporations would simply ignore the lost revenue even as the application grew in popularity?

I can only imagine that the success of their application grew much faster than they could have imagined and before they knew it, lawyers were knocking at their door. Still I have to say they were a bit naive.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Rogue Trader on the Loose

Not to be confused with these Rogue Traders, a fascinating story to come out on Thursday was the case of 31-year-old Jerome Kerviel, a junior member of the trading staff at the Société Générale bank. At the time of writing, the bank's officials and police investigators continue to leave it extremely unclear just how Kerviel was able to trade $73 billion worth of trading positions without any oversight.

It is also very unclear is what his exact motivation was for doing this. At this point, any comments are only speculative. Perhaps he thought he had an insight into the market that he did not have? Or maybe he could have been going for glory? It is intriguing to wonder what would have happened if the $7.3 billion in losses he incurred had had been in the black instead of the red. I heard a story recently from a man who runs a stockbroking firm who had an employee simply enter one more zero than he meant to and in very little time had cost his firm $1 million. Perhaps Kerviel made a simple error as such and then began a Martingale strategy that spiraled out of control. The mysterious lack of transparency in what actually happened makes me wonder if this was the work of a nihilist going for notoriety and destruction a la Fight Club.

One thing is for sure: in a relative sense, it certainly makes one feel better about what we see as 'big' losses when compared to the work of Mr. Jerome Kerviel.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

DS & Disneyland Partnership

In what I think is a very clever move, Nintendo and Disney have worked together on a project to use Nintendo DS's as interactive tour guides while at Disneyland. Having been there recently, I remember thinking that although it was a great time, the time spent sitting and waiting in line there was easily the least fun part of the visit. Though I didn't have one at the time, I saw a couple of people there playing on their DS or Sony PSP while waiting in line. The DS in particular seems like a great idea with its ability to play with nearby DS's using the console's Wi-Fi connection and it's clamshell design would help protect it from the trauma while sitting in a rollercoaster rider's pocket.

With this latest development of GPS navigation, mapping, and possibly even more exciting features of informing you of the wait times at rides all around the park, this really seems like a great idea. From Nintendo's standpoint they get the advertising for those seeing kiosks and other visitors with DS's and their impressive functionality and perhaps additional sales from people planning to head to the park who hear about this news. Disney of course benefits from increasing features for its visitors and perhaps by encouraging them to bring something to occupy themselves while in line, reduces the greatest detraction from their amusement park. It will be very interesting to see the final product.

Monday, January 14, 2008

The $50,000 Bed

Amidst all the the various A/V gadgetry at this year's Consumer Electronics Show, was a product that garnered attention not so much for a breakthrough technology, clever design or other points of interest popular among CES attendees, but rather for its sheer superfluousness and gall: The Starry Night Sleep Technology Bed, AKA The $50,000 bed. Now while I've been thinking recently that perhaps we should have devoted a little more of our income to the furniture we spend a good third of our life on, I hadn't yet looked what this price range had to offer.

Though I imagine a good-sized majority of the public wouldn't want many of the features the bed comes with, I have to admit, I do find the feature list tantalizing. As someone who will take their laptop into bed from time to time, the wireless connectivity is a plus. Then there is the iPod connection to listen to something as I fall asleep and even an attached projector to watch something on the opposite wall!

I could definitely appreciate the dual controls of firmness as I enjoy a soft, cool bed while my better half prefers the complete opposite. Finally, said better half would also occasionally much enjoy the feature that jostles a back-sleeping snorer to roll back onto their side.

Even still, $50,000 for a bed seems almost laughable. It seems like you could buy the various components with the exception of the snore-preventer (who knows how well that actually works) and build it for under 10,000 I'd imagine. I guess the reality is that this bed is made for the Donald Trump demographic who only wants the best and gives price tags barely a passing glance.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

HD-DVD vs. Blu-Ray the Final Chapter?

Due to living without a TV for quite a while and having laptops no bigger than 15.4", I've barely had a passing interest in the whole HD-DVD versus Blu-ray format war. However, with my recent purchase of a projector, I starting to take a much closer look at how to jump into the HD revolution since there is definitely a noticeable difference between standard and high definition when you blow up an image that big.

As I've mentioned before, I'm a pretty price conscious guy, so I was pretty heavily leaning towards the cheaper HD-DVD alternative. Most of the news I had read in the last few months seemed to lean towards HD-DVD winning the format war. It seemed that HD-DVD was selling more players, particularly when you excluded Playstation 3's from Blu-Ray's count since those were really bought to play games, not movies. Furthermore, the tech-junkies were saying that the features of the two discs were nearly identical and when you factored in the lower cost of HD-DVD, Sony's Blu-Ray format was starting to look in dire shape.

However, fast-forward to January 2008 and in a surprise move, two of the biggest movie producers, Universal and Warner, have suddenly jumped shipped and dropped their former HD-DVD exclusivity. This swing leaves HD-DVD reeling as Blu-Ray now has a much larger share of the DVD market available to them as they retain their Blu-Ray exclusive deals.

Many predicted Sony would lose this format war as they did the PSP UMD, the Minidisc and of course the notorious Betamax. However this time it appears their high-risk tactics with PS3 such as delaying the release, raising the price well above its competitors and taking a loss on each unit sold, all in order to squeeze in the Blu-Ray functionality, paid off in the end. I believe that while some felt PS3s didn't 'count' when statistics were gathered regarding Blu-Ray players sold, at the same time, surely all those who had bought PS3s were much less likely to go out and buy an HD-DVD player and then HD-DVDs than to simply buy and rent Blu-Ray discs. From the studios' standpoints, as the PS3's sales picked up steam, the impetus was clear.

So now while those HD-DVD players look mighty tempting at their now-low price, the prudent option is to look exclusively for a Blu-Ray player. Specifically, the informed choice is actually to purchase a PS3 due to Sony's recent announcement that there will be a Blu-Ray 2.0 format that has extra features which will only be available to future Blu-Ray players....and their Playstation III. However, while they continue to hover around the $400 mark, I'm going to wait this out a bit longer.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Craigslist Secret Forums

Thanks to some generous family members (who are also understanding of the annoying specificity of my wishlists), I received some Christmas money to spend on my favorite genre of goods: electronic gadgets. Another annoying trait of mine when it comes to buying things is trying to get the best possible price / most bang for my buck when I have a set amount of cash to spend. This trait is probably a significant reason why I love to do shopping on Craigslist. The unfortunate shortcoming of Craigslist of course is that you have to deal with Craigslisters.

The flagging system that Craigslist has is a pretty good idea. It attempts to be purposefully a bit ambiguous and open in its guidelines for what should be flagged, though it acknowledges on its own website that the Unofficial Flagging FAQ is the best resource for the guidelines. Unfortunately, the flagging system's usefulness is of course highly dependent on the users of that area. If you're in an area where Craigslist is very popular with relatively savvy users--the supreme example being San Francisco--posts that break the rules are fairly quickly flagged and removed. Washington D.C. on the other hand, while having a decently sized community, is somewhat lacking in the flagging department.

While searching for a popular item like the Wii, the listings were inundated with scalpers. Although this is stated as being against the rules in the FAQ (some communities are apparently very vigilant about flagging these), I acknowledged the inevitability of this situation. Where I began to get annoyed is fake posts and spammers. Both would use the ploy of advertising at a very good price and get tons of replies. I believe the fake posters were mainly middle and high school kids playing pranks on each other (they would say to please call them instead of email) while spammers had a ploy of emailing you and writing something along the lines of "Sorry, someone else is already coming to see it, but just letting you know I got this for free at !"

Unfortunately, neither of these ploys were getting flagged very quickly and the Craigslist Flagging forum specifically asks you not to request people to 'team flag' a post. Fortunately I eventually found a way to get these flagged (you can see this effort either as diligence to improve the community or revenge for wasting my time). Apparently there are 'secret' forums on Craiglist that while hosted by Craiglist, the official site does advertise the URLs. Fortunately there is a site that does. Of most use to me was the Flagging section which listed a forum simply called "Flagging Bad Ads Down". Within minutes of me listing the spammers' deceptive posts, they were gone and I felt vindication (okay I admit I was probably doing it for the revenge reason).