Saturday, August 18, 2007
You can find my new blog at mediatrending.com. I'm mostly covering tech, media, digital consumerism, etc.
Friday, June 10, 2005
Going digital without discs
I don't know about the rest of you, but I've had it with CD's and DVD's. I love the quality and cost-effectiveness of digital technology, but the media is just not durable. Half my CD's skip and a lot of my DVD's do as well. Having your machine freeze up on you during a great song or movie is enough to ruin the whole experience.
When MP3 players came along I happily made the transition from plastic to magnetic. Most of the music I now listen to resides on a hard drive, be it on the computer or on the iPod. The CD's went into the closet and I hope they stay there.
Finally, my CD's will have some company in the closet, with the DVD collection soon joining them. A friend of mine helped me put together a "media center" by modifying an Xbox with a chip (which enables you to play games, movies, etc. off your hard drive without the need for a disc) and a hard drive for storing all of my movies and downloaded TV shows. The used Xbox was $99, a remote control kit was $20, a 160GB hard drive was $40 after rebate, and the chip was $30. The Xbox already comes with a DVD player and ethernet port, so -- voila -- now I can use games, movies, music, photos, and various Internet-enabled applications all in one place. I'm now converting all of my DVD's into Xvid format (similar quality as DVD but files are a fifth of the size).
The Xbox Media Center OS software that makes it all run is very slick and, because it's open source, is filled with features and is updated constantly. And it's free, legitimately. I've drooled over the XP Media Center PC's that are available, but you have to take out a 2nd mortgage just to buy one. This modded Xbox, on the other hand, cost me less than $200. Aside from the fact that it won't record live TV (like a Tivo) it seems every bit as good as a Media Center PC (which are 10x the price).... but even the TV limitation is overcome if you have a fast connection and know where to find your favorite shows on the net.
In my mind, this is the future of the living room... once it's cheap enough and consumer-friendly enough (which it is not... yet). People will get entertainment on their terms, and there will invevitably need to be an iTunes equivalent for movies and TV shows. If PS3's and Xbox 360's are marketed and developed as entertainment hubs -- not just game machines on steroids -- by allowing consumers more flexibility with how they use these devices, these devices will be the new killer app. I wonder if it wouldn't be a bad idea for Comcast, DirecTV or Dish to sign a distribution deal and market these things as set-top boxes (an optional upgrade for people that don't like their crappy PVR's). Then they could sell their video-on-demand wares and everyone would be happy. Ok, probably not gonna happen, but it sounds good.
In any case, the open source model for software and hardware, for all of its hippie ideals, is starting to look better and better to me... especially given the enormous value a cheap chip and a free operating system has just unlocked from a one-trick-pony game machine.
Wednesday, May 25, 2005
Well graduation is done and we've gone from Philly to Dallas. Our home is supposed to be finished in July and work starts in August. Despite having 3 months "off", I think most of that time will be filled with lots of research and decision making: where to get a mortgage, what car to get (buy or lease? used or new? fun or practical?), which furniture to buy, which walls to paint, where to put rugs, and which mattress to look under to find the money to do so. The only thing I know conclusively is that I want a decent TV after using a 15-year old hand-me-down for years. Even if I'm watching it on a bare floor, I've got my heart set on a Samsung 46" DLP.
Although my "dream of doing nothing" (Office Space reference) is not close in sight, I can already feel the effects of not having any school/work stress. It's very freeing. I am already looking forward to having this feeling again at age 65... I can see it now... a nice little planned community in Florida with shuffleboard and golf carts.... not to play golf, just to get around without having to walk too much. I wonder if I'll still have the Samsung? By then HDTV channels may eventually be available in Boca Raton.
Wednesday, May 04, 2005
Options and trading
When I was 15, I went to Charles Schwab's Menlo Park office to open my first brokerage account (back when "discount" brokers only charged $70 or so per trade). Over the next couple of years, going against the admonishment of my parents, I made a regular practice of putting my eggs in one basket (mostly trading on a company called RasterOps). It took only a few lucky trades to get hooked. Since then I have not been able to yield completely to the wisdom of a "passively" managed portfolio. Index funds are great for the long haul, but life can become so dull without a little change on the side for day-trading.
During my first few weeks at Wharton, I toyed with the idea of doing Investment Management. Why not get paid to do it? But it didn't feel right... kind of like deciding to room with your best friend in college -- sounds great at the outset, but what happens when you just end up arguing over bills and dirty dishes? Sometimes you just don't want to screw a good thing up. So, in short, part-time trading remains a hobby and nothing more.
Lately I've had a bit more time to follow stocks and try a hand at options (calls only so far... no puts yet, although Qwest might be a good candidate for that). For the uninitiated, options can be a very highly leveraged way to invest. If you only have $1000 to play with, you can double it quite easily in a couple of weeks, which is tough to do with regular stocks. The problem is you can also lose it all in a couple of weeks, which is also quite tough to do with regular stocks.
So far options have not been that kind to me. I bought some Google calls back in March, but analyst Jordan Rohan single-handedly wiped me out with a completely unjustified downgrade. The market believed him just long enough for my options to expire. Then Rohan upgraded the stock again less than a month later. Whoops. But, as you can see from the articles, BusinessWeek and the rest of the business press gave Rohan a free ride. If I wrote for BusinessWeek, I would have at least thrown a barb in that last story calling into question the guy's credibility.
But, lame analysts aside, that's what you get when you buy options. The fact is, random stuff happens (right or wrong), and your options expire. It doesn't matter how right you are about a company, you have to be right about what the stock will do in the short term. You don't have the luxury of riding out a bad quarter, like you do with regular investing.
As a postscript, I had better luck with UnitedHealth calls last week and was able to make back some of that lost Google money, but I've learned my lesson -- options are not for the faint of heart. I think I'll leave the calls and puts to the hedge fund guys (and their cardiologists) to worry about.
Wednesday, April 27, 2005
Stick a fork in meI'm done! Just turned in my last project. At some point I'm sure I will look back and miss all of this, but after all of these projects it feels like such a relief to be done (incidentally, if anyone has any questions about the evolution of Nextel's strategy or how to value a Texas-based furniture import business, just holler).
Tonight is our final Wharton Journal dinner, then we do a little travelling before graduation hits on May 15th. Our graduation speaker is Alan Greenspan which, on one hand, is a big name, but on the other hand, may not prove to be the most heart-stirring of speeches. I suspect a few people in the audience will be on the horn with their bond brokers during the proceedings... just in case Mr. Greenspan's facial expressions or manner of dress reveal something about the outcome of the next Fed meeting.
While most of my classmates are travelling to exotic places this summer, we will be confining ourselves to the states of Texas, Utah, and California. We've thrown in the towel on exotic adventures for the next little while. Now that we're in "house" mode, a dining room table and some rugs trump a week in Europe. Childless folks and urban dwellers may not relate, but that's okay, they will some day. The time inevitably comes when everyone must face the music and embrace suburbia. You can run but you cannot hide.
Wednesday, April 20, 2005
TiVo meeting with Google and Yahoo
Rumor has it that TiVo met with both Google and Yahoo about a partnership or acquisition. This is exactly what TiVo wants. The question is whether it will substantially help Yahoo or Google "get into the living room". From a cable provider's perspective, the problem with search engines is that they give a lot of power to consumers, which is not what Comcast wants. Comcast wants to be the exclusive distribution channel. TiVo is safer for Comcast because it doesn't open up the door to competing content, it merely makes the existing Comcast service more attractive. To the extent that Google and Yahoo see the power going to cable companies in the end, a TiVo partnership or acquisition might make sense.
On the other hand, if there is a great deal of competition between Bells (who are now readying TV offerings) and cable companies, Google or Yahoo will have more opportunities to get into the living room. The Bells will at some point be very aggressive in challenging cable, and offering an Internet-like portal of outside entertainment content may be a differentiator against cable's controlled environment. In that particular case, Google and Yahoo will not need TiVo.
Saturday, April 16, 2005
Given I have a week left of school -- most likely the last formal education I'll get in my life -- I've been thinking a lot about my favorite teachers over the years. I have a few observations about what they have shared in common:
- Sense of humor - this may just be personal preference, but teachers have to have a sense of humor, especially for their own subject matter. A teacher with a keen sense knows when the entire class is bored or disengaged and is able to crack a joke about it to re-connect with the students. Moreover, learning can be draining, and humor keeps the batteries charged.
- Openness to feedback - I currently have a professor that takes surveys throughout the semester where students rate each lecture and reading on a scale of 1 to 5. More importantly, the teacher shows us the results... and he has the humility to say "People didn't care much for class X. And so-and-so's article was clearly dull, dull, dull."
- Willingness to push back - One common denominator across my favorite teachers is that I have initially feared them, and ultimately respected them. I didn't want to disappoint them. Some teachers, on the other hand, are too easily pleased, and thus fail to challenge students' frames of reference. But it's really amazing how good student participation and preparation gets when we're consistently forced to defend our assertions.
- A vision of the interconnectedness of truth - Okay, that sounds way over the top and new agey. Maybe a simpler way to put this attribute is "is good with analogies." This is particularly true with dry subjects like statistics or finance. A good teacher is able to demonstrate how the principles underlying his/her discipline are connected with other, more familiar principles. For example, we can understand the drivers of success or failure in post-merger implementations by comparing them to marriages or personal relationships. (there are probably more parallels than anyone cares to admit)
- Demonstration of passion - Enthusiasm is contagious, especially in a learning environment. So much of learning is about motivation, and we can all use a little extra dose.
I once read that the word "education" comes from the Latin "educo" which means "to draw out." In the end, educating is just as much about connecting with students as it is about imparting knowledge. I think these principles are true for teaching any subject. Except maybe Accounting. Not really a whole lot to work with there.
Thursday, April 14, 2005
Best song out right now
LCD Soundsystem's "Movement" may not move you, but it will definitely get you moving. The genre might be described as "electro punkfunk." I wish you could invest money in musical trends because I would bet on this one. Somehow, mixing booty-shaking music with vocals that reek of swagger and indifference delivers surprising appeal.
Sunday, April 10, 2005
Housing bubble indicators
There has been a lot of talk about the "housing bubble" lately, given the sharp and unsustainable appreciation in homes in some major cities. BusinessWeek offers an interactive table so that you can look at how your city stacks up on different metrics. I sorted the table by cost to rent divided by cost to own (the lower that number, the argument goes, the more expensive it is to own a house in that market). That measure can be loosely interpreted as a reciprocal P/E ratio of sorts for the market ("rent" being the earnings potential for an owned property). If you believe this is a good valuation measure, then the following cities are the best for value-oriented home buyers: Dallas, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Houston, Tampa, and Orlando. The worst are: San Diego, The SF Bay Area, Seattle, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, D.C., and Denver.
Saturday, April 09, 2005
Google Maps and Craigslist
This is very cool. Someone has fed Craigslist rental and home listings into Google Maps. You can even view thumbnail photos of the property (if available) without navigating away from the map. Pick your favorite city and be sure to zoom in.
(incidentally, the guy who did this is Technical Lead of Animation Tools at Dreamworks, so I'm guessing this took him all of about 15 min. to cook up)
Monday, April 04, 2005
Unnecessary polarization of science and religion
Ok this is a random commentary having nothing to do with what I normally write about. But hey, my blog, so what the heck. It's related to the "evolution vs. creationism" debate (this article is what got me going).
Despite my own personal religious beliefs, I've never understood the "science vs. religion" polarization. The two are not mutually exclusive! Personally, I believe in a God who has created a world of order and I see science as the route that man takes to try and understand that order (from a physical perspective). Religious faith serves a different purpose. It exists to help one uncover spiritual truths. As such, I cannot imagine a single scientific finding about the physical world or universe that would jeopardize my faith in things spiritual. The Bible, like most other religious texts and efforts, is not designed to satisfy our curiosity about the construct of the physical world. Likewise, scientific pursuit will likely not, independent of any belief system, unlock the door to spiritual fulfillment (another perspective: Einstein went so far as to say that science and religion were inseparable).
However, there are a few vocal people (on both sides of the debate) who insist on widening that divide based on their own interpretation of scientific theories or the book of Genesis. Everyone is entitled to their beliefs, but trying to ostrasize the other side does a disservice to either cause. Scientists then get stereotyped as aetheists and, perhaps more commonly, those who have religious convictions are cast as closed-minded. Generally speaking, I don't think either is very accurate. But the vocal minorities generally get more attention from the media.
Sunday, April 03, 2005
Giving lawyers a taste of their own medicine
Here is a hillarious and true account of a college student who single-handedly fended off an army of Microsoft intellectual property lawyers, beating them at their own game. Microsoft sued him over a couple of programs that he bought and then re-sold (unopened) on eBay after deciding not to use them. The story is somewhat lengthy, but here is the best stuff:
Zamos spent his Christmas vacation assembling a 21-page counterclaim, which he filed January 3. Microsoft responded by ridiculing Zamos's counterclaim as "premature," noting that he had requested a summary judgment without enough time for discovery. Zamos went back to the drawing board and made two more motions, accusing Microsoft of perjury, causing him emotional distress, defamation, unconscionable consumer practices, abuse of process, fraud, and more. The suit spiraled into a dizzying 37 filings. Every time Microsoft filed a motion to dismiss his claims, Zamos would file more the very next day. Not only did he force Microsoft to defend its accusations against him, but the company was now forced to defend its own practices as well. After two months of back-and-forth filings, the judge ordered both sides to stop submitting any more paperwork. Finally, Zamos gave Microsoft the migraine it hadn't expected. He requested a trial by jury, knowing that the company wouldn't want to spend tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills just to snuff one kid in Ohio. He was right. The lawyers said they'd drop their suit -- if Zamos dropped his countersuit.
Sounds like a Grisham novel.
Wednesday, March 30, 2005
The home front
Well, we've been busy the last couple of weeks searching for a home in Dallas. The real estate market is very reasonable, undervalued in the eyes of some (by 11% according to one source), but since our time frame is unknown and we're nowhere near a coast, we're not tied to expectations of hyperfast appreciation. Dallas has been fairly steady.
A couple of days ago we found (and have since negotiated on) a house that was in the process of being built and it happened to fit our needs/wants very nicely. Location-wise, it's perfect: 10 minutes from the DFW airport, 15 minutes from work, and 20 minutes from my wife's family. We love the house, but all in all, we're just excited at the prospect of having a place to call our own. Not sure how much time I'll actually spend there once work starts, but it's nice to know it'll be there.
Tuesday, March 15, 2005
TiVo, Comcast, Apple
As a long-time fan of TiVo, I was happy to read the good news that the company will be making a customized DVR for Comcast. it's good to see TiVo get a little respect (i.e., distribution). I think this was a great move on the part of Comcast too: user experience will be a huge driver of video-on-demand consumption, probably second only to content availability. Based on my statistically invalid study of several family members who have knockoff DVR's (i.e., the Dish system), I think TiVo users have a much better experience. And if video on demand is going to be a home run, I think the relationship experience is crucial... sticking a hard drive into a cable box and providing an inventory of content isn't enough.
In weeks past, there was some speculation that TiVo might get acquired by Apple. I think there is still an argument for that deal, although Apple doesn't like to share the spotlight when it comes to product design. Still, Apple needs a few long-shot, shoot-for-the-stars strategic scenarios and the living room could be one. From a purely financial perspective it's very doable. Even after TiVo shares shot up 75% today, TiVo's market cap is $560M and Apple has over $6.5B in cash... to say nothing of the high currency that Apple's stock is running at right now.
Thursday, March 03, 2005
Google the one-trick pony?
BusinessWeek has a provocative article on Google today. The basic point of the article is that nearly all of Google's revenue comes from paid search, and therefore it's much more risky (especially at a $50B valuation) than, say, Yahoo which only derives 45% of its revenue from search. All true statements. But it's very typical for the media to write a story like this after two analysts have downgraded the stock in the last couple of weeks. Ironically, despite all the hooplah created by Jordan Rohan's downgrade, the action wasn't a very bold or severe one. He relegated the stock to a $200 target which would give it a $55B valuation, roughly speaking. Hardly an expression of doubt as to Google's future.
The other exception I took to the article was its comment about Gmail, which totally misses the point:
Take Google's ballyhooed foray into e-mail, dubbed G-mail. Instead of charging users $10 or $20 per month for jumbo-size accounts, Google is delivering text ads alongside e-mail messages, targeted toward the content in the e-mail. A message about an upcoming Boston Celtics game, for instance, might trigger ads from online ticket brokers. So even if targeted e-mail ads take off -- a questionable proposition, since most industry observers believe e-mailers are far less likely to click on links than searchers -- the money will come from the same budgets that buy the rest of Google's ads.
So I sent an email to the article's author with the following response (abridged):
I enjoyed your businessweek article about Google being a one-trick pony. I agreed with many of your points, but I think one point was neglected with respect to Gmail. I think the value of Gmail for Google is a strategic one. Personally, I was surprised at how long it took Google to come up with an email service. The revenue from email means very little in comparison with the loyalty it drives to the network. In short, email increases switching costs for customers. That has always been Google's achilles heel, in my opinion. Even if search revenue continues to grow, how hard is it for people to switch if Google somehow fails to keep pace with innovation? Brand name and reputation mean a lot, but in the long run they don't create a sustainable competitive advantage.
Just my 2c.