Friday, February 29, 2008

The End to the Writer's Strike

Well the writer's strike is over at last. It was always slightly confusing what exactly the entire dispute was about. And I'm not sure whether that was due to nondisclosure agreements regarding the negotiations or whether the news organizations I most listen to simply didn't want to bore us with the intricacies of the business and financial disagreements.

Some of the most interesting openings into the world of the strike was through the late night talk show hosts such as Leno, Letterman, Conan, Stewart, Colbert, and Bill Maher. Not to say that they weren't particularly biased since most if not all of the hosts are former writers. This is of course in addition to the left-leaning tendencies of hollywood in general and most of these hosts included. Because of all this, while the strike was going on these hosts would regularly rip into the producers' stance. Of course I realize that these likely were often straw man versions of the arguments. What was mos interesting was afterward when the dispute was finally settled, there seemed a general feeling of 'was it worth it?'

Many of their new new media internet rights they negotiated for in the deal don't come into effect for 2 weeks after initial release--to me that seems a pretty damaging blow. I understand that sometimes you have to use the stick when in negotiations, but given that all these people had to go without work for such a long time, the impression seems to be that on balance the strike was a poor choice. As a further point, the fact that there was hardly any doubt that the negotiation would be approved when it went to vote to the union members, seemed to clearly indicate that teh writer's were desperate for work. It was especially unfortunate for those writers on shows like late night talk shows who really gain nothing from rights to internet content, yet were out of work and pay all the same. And now, just when we thought we'd seen the end, there are rumblings in the distance of an actors' strike looming in the in the future!

So while I'm dying for some more Lost, and Pushing Daisies, it looks like I might need to keep this Netflix subscription I picked up during the strike still going.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Young Millionaires

In an article that is simultaneously inspiring and disheartening, Forbes had a recent article on young millionaires. I say that because while it is inspirational what many of these veritable 'kids' were able to do with only a modest amount of capital or education, it is also rather slightly disheartening to compare it to what you had done by age 20, or even your current age.

It is difficult to exactly find a common thread in all of them besides of course an 'entrepreneurial spirit'. One of the most interesting of the case stories was Cameron Johnson who clearly has more than the average amount of that spirit. In fact some might argue that perhaps he has a bit too much of it after he bought toys from his sister that clearly were worth a great deal more than he paid her in order to sell it on eBay.

One interesting lesson is that it is a misconception that how 'new' of a product or service you must provide and how much you need to dominate competitors. Often when we read about successful entrepreneurs, for obvious reasons we primarily read about the most successful entrepreneurs who go on to completely dominate their market. And yet, many of the unquestionably successful entrepreneurs only find a very slight niche such as Catherine Cook who created a social networking site that caters to high school students. To me, if I heard the pitch for such a website my initial reaction would be "How will you compete against Facebook, Myspace, Orkut et al. when they already have thousands upon thousands of high school students on their sites". Yet it appears that assessment would simply be wrong since she has found success with the venture.

In other words, perhaps the lesson is that it's okay for an entrepreneur to take a chance on just shooting for the moon rather than the stars.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Where is the line? Is there one?

I heard an ad recently on the radio for the Ashley Madison Agency. Now as someone who has been a pretty avid user of the internet for many years now, I have been unfortunately privy to some shocking sites, but I never thought what would really make my jaw drop would be a dating website!

The basic premise of the site is online dating exclusively for married couples to find affairs. Perhaps what made it particularly shocking was it being brazenly advertised on the radio giving it an air of mainstream acceptance. I ended up hearing an interview with the creator of the site and found it an impressive example of the degrees of rationalization humans can get into. At the end of the day, this guy is trying to turn a profit by enabling cheating.

Certainly I don't think such a site should be illegal or anything of the sort, but I do feel like the site crosses a line too far. While some might say "well people would cheat any way", economics would tell you that when you make an activity more attainable, i.e reducing the cost, you will increase the demand. Clearly the end of result of the site will be more people cheating on their spouses than otherwise would. As such it amazes me that the site's creator, a married man, has been able to rationalize this to himself. It seems like moral relativism to an extreme.

In the interview the creator came across as extremely proud of his business idea that filled a niche in the market--and given the 100,000+ users of the site, clearly there is a niche. In a sense, it is a testament to the entrepreneurial drive to start a successful niche-filling business that one could actually be proud of such an endeavor.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Smart Keyword Searches

There is a really great feature in Firefox (and a similar one in Opera) that doesn't seem to be very popular, but I think its just that most people don't know about it. The feature is called 'Smart Keywords'. It used to be the case that whenever I wanted to use a particular type of search engine such as YouTube or a online deal search like at Slickdeals I would either have to bookmark that site or find the firefox extension at the Mycroft project to stick on my upper-right search box and have it appended to the drop down menu. Fortunately I discovered this Smart Keywords feature that not only makes searching much faster, but simply much less of a pain.

To start with, find a search engine that you want to make this 'shortcut' to. My favorites are probably YouTube, eBay, Amazon, Craigslist and Wikipedia (though there's a great trick for Wikipedia that I'll go into later). So go to the search field, right-click in the field and select "Add a keyword for this search". There is then a small dialog box asking you for a name (this doesn't really matter) and a keyword. I like to put in a short abbreviation like 'yt' for YouTube, 'cl' for Craigslist, etc. This will create a bookmark (if you end up using this feature, you should probably make a separate folder to store these in to keep them out of the way of your real bookmarks). Now whenever you want use the search, go to the address bar with ctrl+L and type in the keyword followed by the search term e.g. "yt tom cruise couch". It seems slightly complicated at first and maybe slightly hard to remember the individual keyword for the searches, but once you get into the swing of it, you use it all the time for for countless sites.

Now the slightly more advanced section. Often it is simply better to search for a site using Google's domain search function both due to their server's speed and the quality of the result. Wikipedia which I mentioned earlier is an especially good example of this. What you can do in these situations is type in a search as you normally would such as " example". Once you're on the search results page, bookmark the search, right-click on the bookmark, go to properties, add a keyword, and then the key trick is to find whatever search term you used (in this case, "example") buried in the long URL and replace it with "%s" (no quotes). After that it function just like the other Smart Keyword searches.

Now I never use the second search box and only use the Google toolbar very occasionally for its suggested search feature. Enjoy!

Monday, February 18, 2008

Greenspan's Age of Turbulence

Lately I’ve been listening to Alan Greenspan’s Age of Turbulence and I have to say it is a fantastic book. Though I never studied Economics in the academic level past Macroeconomics 101, I’ve long held an interest in it, particularly at the macro level. Greenspan gives a fascinating insight into what goes on behind closed doors with some colorful anecdotes that give a human touch to the seemingly disparate nature of the Federal Reserve. One of my favorite moments was when he first began chairing the meetings and was introduced to the arcane and complex language that had become virtually required of all members and he would joke to his assistant ‘whatever happened to the English language around here?’

The first part of the book is dedicated to following his path from growing up in a single parent household to becoming the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Normally I think of these top government positions that are appointed as being plagued with a lot of cronyism and who knows who. That's why it was refreshing to see how hard he worked starting with academics through the business world and only finally receiving his well-deserved position. Makes me want to start on those business school applications soon.

Although he is definitely republican, harking back to his days as a colleague of Ayn Rand, he gave some interesting analysis of the Presidents he worked with throughout the years starting beginning with the Nixon administration through the current George W. Bush administration. Of all the presidents, he seemed to have the most respect for the unelected President Ford and felt pity for him as he followed a prudent economic policy but had the misfortune of the election coinciding with a downturn of the economic business cycle.

Very interesting as well was his respect for Bill Clinton who although stood on the opposite side of the political fence with a party not normally associated with fiscal conservatism, was steadfastly dedicated to doing what he could to ensure long-term growth, most importantly cutting the budget and deficit in the face of extreme opposition. This was a stark contrast to his analysis of the second Bush’s economic conduct which has allowed for rampant deficit spending and the instability of the dollar.

The next part centers around the different economic ideologies. There won’t be much surprise which ideology he ends up favoring, but given the rest of the book, I’m looking forward to reading a pretty objective and well thought out argument.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Irrational Economics

There was a very interesting article last month in the LA Times by Dr. Michael Shermer on humans' innate irrationality in money matters. A lot of the findings seem to fly a bit in the face of the classical Adam Smith's assumptions of self-interested rationality and maximization in the market.

The first study mentioned is a thought experiment supposing that if the cost of all goods and services remained the same, would you rather earn $50,000 per year while everyone else earns $25,000 or $100,000 per year while everyone else earns $250,000. Given the premise, cold logic makes this seem an easy answer--Option B. However, emotion perhaps plays a greater part of economic decisions than we give it credit for as the most common answer is Option A.

However, I would argue that this thought exercise is not very telling about our microeconomic decisions but perhaps rather our motivations behind doing so. To begin, the premise of supposing that all goods and services remained the same while the average income multiplies ten fold, is a bit of a stretch from a basic inflationary standpoint. Many economic choices are goods and services which provide the same basic outcome but are based on sliding scale of relativity that separates what the rich can pay versus the poor. First class on Virgin Airlines versus the red-eye flight on United Airlines, downtown apartment near the metro versus an apartment in the suburbs with no nearby public transportations or entertainment centers. It seems no surprise to me that when the average person envisages what life choices would be available to someone who earns less than half the average income, it is hardly desirable.

Furthermore, while this study highlights an interesting bit of the human psyche--that we are motivated more by social standing than actual economic worth, in the real world these are going to result in the same outcome. Both motivations would result in the self-interested, hard-working, risk-taking and innovation central to capitalist theory.

McDonald's and Starbucks at War

I never really saw this battle coming, but after eying the enormous revenue fellow multi-national chain, Starbucks is making, McDonald's has decided to enter the market of fancy coffee. Having recently received some surprisingly positive reviews regarding their drip coffee, McDonald's will move it up a notch and install espresso machines and baristas to create lattes, cappuccinos, machiattos, and the rest.

My first impression is that it seems like a very strange mix. Perhaps I'm not a coffee aficionado, but when I head to Starbucks or other comparable cafe, I'm usually going there for the preferable atmosphere. That is, preferable to my own apartment and most certainly preferable to the plastic and vinyl chairs under acres of fluorescent lighting found in my nearby McDonald's. I was never really under the impression that I was going to Starbucks for top of the line coffee--at the end of the day, its just a massive franchise chain.

I suppose I can see it from McDonald's perspective. From their vantage point, Starbucks has supplanted them as the king of the franchises, with seemingly limitless growth and showing up in the farthest reaches of the capitalist world. Meanwhile they are doing this not on the McDonald's method of offering impressive value for money, but on the contrary having rather shocking markups on combining brewed cofffee with various incarnations of cream and sugar.

Still, to me this new strategy reeks of desperation from a franchise on the descent. There is a reason Starbucks' strategy has been successful without focusing heavily on value for money and that is that this is not our grandparent's economy. Disposable income continues to rise and fewer people are staring at the decimal places when paying for small indulgences. As much as McDonald's would like to think they are only a small price war away from barreling into the coffee industry, it is a different world they are attempting to forge into. I believe it is very indicative of their differences that while the tasks might not be all that different, you would never expect to leave a tip for a McDonald's employee whereas people are constantly leaving their change and then some in the Starbucks barista's jar.