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Book Review: The Yankee Years

Posted by silentarchimedes on April 29, 2009

The Yankee Years

Authors: Joe Torre and Tom Verducci

yankeeyearThere was a lot of pre-release chatter for this book. The snippets that were released led people to believe that Joe Torre, the Yankees manager during their 1996-2007 dynasty, was bitter about being let go by the Yankees and the book was his way of getting back at the team. There was also chatter of Torre breaking the unwritten code of leaving what happens in the locker room behind the scenes instead of revealing them to the public. The release of the book seemed untimely considering that Torre is still managing and most of the players he discussed in the book are still playing. Torre, in his defense, said he isn’t the only author of the book, and the book is actually written in third person. He also mentions that there’s really nothing new mentioned in the book that’s not already out there, especially about Alex Rodriguez.

As a big time Yankees fan, all the above reasons, in addition to wanting some insider analysis of the dynasty years, were enough to check this book out of the local library and give it a read.

THE REVIEW

This book is loooong. Considering that Torre says it doesn’t reveal anything new, at 477 pages, there is a lot of regurgitation of obvious in-game details. Maybe it’s because I came in wanting to read about things fans don’t get to read about in the papers, especially about what happens in the locker room and what does not. I was not interested in reading, “Chuck Knoblauch hit the first pitch of the game for a home run. Jeter doubled. O’Neill doubled. After a brief pause on a strikeout by Williams, Martinez singled. Darryl Strawberry hit a home run. After Tim Raines grounded out, Jorge Posada hit a home run.” (pp.46-7). I watched the game, I read about it in the newspapers and internet when it happened. I sure don’t need to read it again in a book. This type of detail was plentiful throughout the book. After awhile I started scanning those sections.

So what else is in the book, besides in game details? Let’s just say, the book makes Torre look like the most righteous guy in the world. His encounters with players always resulted in his favor. And there are plenty of little stories that demonstrated how adept Torre was at handling The Boss Steinbrenner. Now it’s very possible that all those stories are true, but it’s hard to fathom that there weren’t other stories that resulted in Torre being wrong. None were talked about in the book. Most bothersome was that all the stories do support the notion that Torre does have an inner circle of players he has an affinity to and everyone not really in this inner circle has issues. He definitely throws people under the bus. He talks about players (by name) crying. (I’m sure Roger Clemens was happy that this book revealed how he “cried uncontrollably” aftter the Mike Piazza bat throwing incident in the playoffs in 2000.) And this is where I think is over the line and breaking the unwritten rules. He analyzes players’ personalities as if he is an expert. It’s fine to talk about Kevin Brown punching a wall after a rough outing because it did happen and it’s a fact. But to really talk about how he was weak as a person, to me was unnecessary. He talks about how this player had these issues, or how this player is mentally weak. There are definitely some pretty mean things he says in there about players that couldn’t hack it in New York. And it always seemed like it was their fault and not Torre’s. Then he talks ever so glowingly about the dynasty years. The players that were in his inner circle. Of course, Derek Jeter. And Paul O’Neill and Bernie Williams and David Cone. Finally, I’m surprised how often Torre curses, especially the F-bomb, in the book.

The problem with reading a book that has two contrasting authors is that it is hard to separate what parts of the book are Verducci’s and what parts are Torre’s. Since most of the book features Torre as the prominent character, it’s hard not to associate all comments and analysis to Torre. That might be unfair but there’s no other way.

Joe Torre

Joe Torre

After Torre talks about the 2000 World Series, the book becomes a slow explanation of the demise of the Yankees dynasty, from the management, the scouting, the players and the rise of the Red Sox and other statistics conscious money-managing teams. It’s not that fun to read as a Yankees fan, but it is worth reading once to really realize that the Yankees have become a very misdirected team for the past eight seasons or so. Once you get past the game details, the already public ribbing (especially about A-Rod, Clemens and Knoblauch) and the throwing of some players and people to the wolves, there are some interesting new information about this book. There are details about Clemens and Randy Johnson that the fans didn’t really know about. It was also nice to see the players and people that contributed quotes and information to the book. David Cone is frequently quoted in the chapters surrounding the dynasty years. Even Theo Epstein offers insight of the rivalry and the rise of the Sox.

Overall, I was a bit disappointed about the book. I wished that Torre was not an author of book because there seems to be a lot of self-serving stories in there. The writing of the book is also not as smooth as I’d expect from Verducci. A lot of quotes seem blunt, too direct and fake. I’m not sure if they are really a word for word quote of what happened. And Torre is right, there really aren’t that many new interesting mind-blowing things in there that aren’t already known. The whole chapter on steroids really seems like a collection of information from the Mitchell Report, Clemens-McNamee Congression hearing and other media stories.

However, as disappointing as the book is, it’s hard to argue that Torre was not a great manager. His personality and ability to handle Steinbrenner and troubled players were perfect for a baseball dynasty. That plus the combination of completely team-oriented win at all cost players like O’Neill, Jeter, Bernie, Brosius, Tino, Rivera, Cone, Pettitte, Posada and other bit players resulted in a 6 year span of baseball success that would be hard to duplicate in the coming years.

The Yanke Years: 6 stars

The Yankee Years: 6 stars

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Book Review: The Walmart Effect

Posted by silentarchimedes on March 20, 2009

The Walmart Effect

How the World’s Most Powerful Company Really Works – and How It’s Transforming the American Economy

Author: Charles Fishman

walmart-effectWHY I READ THIS BOOK

I do not like Walmart, yet I shop there. It is messy and dreary, yet I plan a trip to Walmart every few weeks. It is expansive, yet crowded and claustrophobic. I feel like I’ve spent just as much time there looking for either a product or an employee to assist me as I have actually shopping. I try to minimize my time there but the trip always ends up over an hour and I’m beat by the time I leave. Why do I keep going back there? To make things worse, all these stories about Walmart’s secrecy and unethical business practices keep popping up. Yet that has not stopped me from shopping there. The fact that Walmart has become ubiquitous with middle-class (and poorer) shopping has led most people to subconsciously accept it. So what is going on with Walmart?

THE AUTHOR: CHARLES FISHMAN

It must take someone with guts to take on the Walmart behemoth; especially after you read the book and realize that for most of its  history, Walmart has considered any type of publicity and media a threat to its business model. But Fishman has been known as an investigative reporter that attempts to bring to light the workings of institutions or groups that have been relatively unknown. According to the book’s website, Fishman has spent the past 20 years investigating organizations such as NASA and Walmart. He was also the first reporter to be allowed inside a Tupperware factory, and first in 30 years inside the nation’s only bomb factory.

SHORT SUMMARY

walmart_lowpricesIn an attempt to understand the inner workings of Walmart Inc. and its effects on job creation, global economy, work environments, suppliers, competitors, communities and other issues, Fishman talks with everyone that might be affected by Walmart but Walmart itself. Due to the secrecy of Walmart and the lack of transparency in its statistics, Fishman is forced to rely specifically on his investigative acumen. What he finds out is that Walmart is the ultimate definition of a dichotomy, a contradiction that baffles all levels of society; from the individual to the community to the country to the global economy. On one hand, Walmart is unpretentious, is no frills, provides hundreds of thousands of jobs, provides the cheapest prices for consumers and has always stuck to its core values. However, on the other hand, it has a dictatorial grip on its suppliers and competitors, kills almost as many jobs as it creates, indirectly destroys local natural ecosystems, promotes cheap labor and unfair labor practices, has no transparency or guilt and chips away at the core values of the free market system. It pushes the limits of good and bad capitalism and is the poster child of globalization.

REVIEW

This book really does a good job of trying to understand the Walmart effect. However, although Fishman tries to stay neutral on the positives and negatives of the issue, it is more common that his investigations lead to a negative perception of the company. It’s hard not to have a more negative view after reading the book. There is only one major positive about Walmart, it provides the lowest prices for many of the things families need. However, this is a huge positive and is shown even more during this recession. Walmart’s growth in same store sales have been increasing for the past 22 months while Target’s have fallen the past eight months (Source: Walmart vs. Target: No Contest in the Recession, Time Online). It’s not even a contest and shows that this positive is all that consumers need to turn a blind eye on all the other issues. And for sure, there are a lot of other issues, which Fishman does a great job of detailing and bringing out.

The book flows really well, from the beginning to the end… although the last chapter is the required “so after all this investigative work, what should we do or care about Walmart to make this world a better place?” The first chapter is pretty much a summary of Walmart’s influence on society. The rest of the book goes into detail about each issue by discussing academic studies on the company dating back to the mid-1980s, successful and failed interviews with former supplier executives from big and small companies, the impact of Walmart on things we take for granted now (like deodorants that sell without the useless boxes they used to come in) and talking to opponents of Walmart, from environmental groups to factory workers of their suppliers.

The most damaging against Walmart has to be that a lot of the investigation leads to the same conclusion, Walmart is a big cheapskate. Which was fine when it was a small company, but now that it is the biggest in the world, this sense of being cheap at all costs seems somewhat unfair. Unfair to other companies and unfair to the ecosystems and poor countries’ lax labor laws it depends on to produce such massive quantities of products. Fishman tries hard to not take a position, but the writing is in the book. There are no positives about Walmart that can be concluded from the Chilean Atlantic salmon farms, or the countless companies mentioned in the book that went belly-up after becoming a supplier of Walmart. There’s just too many examples to list. And it’s quite obvious that even the large companies that work with Walmart are under the control of Walmart.

There are some interesting stories in the book. The one I like best is about the company that decided supplying to Walmart was detrimental to its future existence, so it decided to end the relationship. However, Fishman argues that companies that don’t supply to Walmart are highly affected by them anyways because of the devastatingly low prices. Another interesting tidbit was that Fishman believes Walmart may hit a ceiling at some point and there could be, what he calls, Walmart saturation and exhaustion.

VERDICT

This is a very insightful book. Although there are only a few unbiased and encompassing studies on the Walmart effect, Fishman does a good job of investigating and doing his own research. This book sums up my initial motivation for reading  about the world’s largets non-oil company. Walmart is such a dichotomy it’s really difficult to come to a conclusion on whether it is good for society or bad. It has changed so much of everything that it is beyond anyone’s control. Many of the numerous statistics in the book are downright unbelievable. The book is a quick read, very interesting to read and will make you think twice about globalization and also your personal moral responsibilities to it.

The book was written in 2006 and only talks about the perceptions and actions of Walmart in the context of 2005. The major views of Walmart has not changed since then. However, the signs of Walmart exhaustion have gone out the window now that we are in a recession and most people have turned even more to Walmart for cheap prices. Walmart also has done more to improve the negative perception against it. Just a few days ago Walmart announced that they would be awarding $2 billion dollars to their employees. If Walmart decides to also target the higher end products, like Target, this might create a whole slew of new problems.

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Rating: 9 out of 10 Walmart smileys


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Book Review: 50 Secrets of the World’s Longest Living People

Posted by silentarchimedes on January 3, 2009

50 Secrets of the World’s Longest Living People

Author: Sally Beare

By Sally Beare

By Sally Beare (2006)

WHY I READ THIS BOOK

Catchy title. Bargain book at the local Barnes & Noble. This book was an easy choice to pick up. Who wouldn’t want a list of tips from the lifestyles of the world’s longest living people? I”m at the point in my life where youthfulness doesn’t protect me anymore from the stupid lifestyle decisions I make every now and then. The occasional chocolate cream puff or the yummy CPK garlic chicken pizza are not one-night stays in a hotel but treat my body like a three-month summer home. The staying up until 4am late nights affect more of the next day than back in college. And for all the years of fighting for independence from the parents, well, planning healthy daily diets and exercise now has become chores rather than reflex. A nice book to motivate and light a fire under an young adult passing 30 was necessary. So how did this book do?

THE AUTHOR: SALLY BEARE

I could not find an official webpage of Sally Beare’s or any Wikipedia or other page devoted to her. The short biography on B&N shows that her background is not in nutrition but in English, Psychology and Russian literature. After taking on several diverse jobs, she became a nutritionist only after she noticed dramatic improvements in her health after changing her diet. She has since written three books on the matter (GoodReads). She was born in England and now resides in Islamabad, Pakistan with her family.

SYNOPSIS

In glancing at the title, you might quickly think that the book is simply a list of 50 secrets that were gleamed from people who lived a really long time. Although the list is obviously part of the book, it is actually only half the book. Beare has done her homework and talks in great detail about the five long-living communities that she researched for this book. Part One of the book describes the lifestyles of the Okinawans, Symians and three others, and offers insights into their similarities and reasons for long life. Part two is a listing of the 50 secrets, but each secret is accompanied by how the communities put the secret to action. The final section puts it all together and suggests recipes that would help in living these secrets.

THE REVIEW

To many people that pick up this book, the 50 secrets sticks out more than reading about the world’s longest living people. There is this assumption that people that live a long time live simple, stress-free lives. Although we know this, we don’t adhere to it because we don’t really think that is possible in America, the age of work, work, work and money, money, money. However, taking the time to read a book like this would help nonetheless because it would put your crazy busy life in perspective. The fact that the high quality of life in America does not lead to longer lives (as compared to simpler communities around the world) has to be disconcerting.

The majority of the 50 life secrets in the book are very insightful. I have heard many of them before, but to read about them with strong evidence that a certain long-living community adheres to them sinks in more. We are inundated with contradicting health suggestions on the news and Internet  that we become confused with what to follow and tune them out. We also become jaded by the confusion surrounding health advice that used to be taken as a given. For example, the efficacy of multi-vitamins has been thrown into question lately. This book does not seem like it has ulterior motives. It is simply a relay of observations by an author that did her research. I like the book for that.

I really enjoyed the first part of the book, where Beare talks about each community in detail. Most people have heard of long-living people from Okinawa, Japan, but how many have heard of the Symians in Greece, or the Hunzakuts in Pakistan? The third part of the book was also nice. Putting everything together, offering suggestions on how to put the advice to use in busy livelihoods and giving good healthy recipes.

So, how was the major part of the book? The 50 secrets? Unsurprisingly, 37 of them are diet-related. The other thirteen are lifestyle-related, such as the importance of exercise and  living a more simple and emotionally-balanced life. Most of the secrets are useful and can be done with only a little bit of consciousness when going grocery shopping. The problem I have with this section is its length. It takes 174 pages for the 50 secrets in my edition. That’s roughly 3.5 pages per secret. Now that may not seem like much, but do you really need to spend six pages on Finding Good Fats in Fish (secret 11) or seven pages on how to Choose Buckwheat, Brown Rice, and Other Whole Grains (secret 3)? The problem is actually not in the secret description, its the stories that come from the longest-living people about that particular secret. At first, this was fun reading and actually helped the validity of the list, but then it started becoming repetitive and it seemed like the author was straining to fill pages on certain secrets. For example, many secrets are closely tied to each other and stories from the communities are obviously going to be similar regarding the secrets. For example, the whole grains secret mentioned above and Have a Handful of Nuts and Seeds Daily are pretty self-explanatory. In the end, most of the diet stories have the same examples, the people use them in their meals. No need to go on and on about each one. Most of these stories should just have been left in Part One and leave Part Two solely on the secrets and the scientific evidence  behind them.

THE VERDICT

This is a good book. Although the length could have been much shorter, I respect the author for doing thorough research. Of the 37 diet secrets, I would say two-thirds of them are definitely doable right away. Some like Use Hemp and Sprout Your Own Superfoods, are unrealistic, especially for a young adult male like myself. The 13 non-diet secrets are very good because it really puts our busy lives into perspective. We realize how we have neglected the value of sleep, exercise, laughing and breathing all for what? Money? Instant gratification?

The value of the secrets and Part One of the book makes this book worthy of  8 stars.

8 out of 10 stars

Rating: 8 out of 10 stars

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When is poker gambling? Analogies to investing in stocks.

Posted by silentarchimedes on December 24, 2008

Screenshot of Texas Hold'em Poker 3D

Screenshot of Texas Hold'em Poker 3D

To those people that play poker for its competitive atmosphere or its mathematical excitement, it is not gambling. However, to the outsider or the concerned family member or friend, poker is gambling and any attempts to justify it are simply excuses. I am more in the former camp, but I also know that there are varying degrees of how one plays poker that determines how much poker is a game of skill versus luck. Playing poker is very similar to investing in stocks or mutual funds. A person can play it such that luck is the overriding factor in whether he or she wins (like playing the lottery) or the person can become informed and knowledgeable in all the aspects of the game (like the game of life). Educated poker is about rules, probabilities, psychology, and strategy. Educated investing is about laws, microeconomics, macroeconomics, markets, company details, management details, buying strategy, and selling strategy.

Poker and investing is gambling when…

1a. You pick random hands to play even when the odds are against you.
1b. You pick a random company to invest in.

2a. Even when you know you have a losing hand you keep raising and hope to bluff or scare your opponent into leaving the hand. In other words, you risk going down with the ship. You don’t know when to cut your losses.
2b. The company you invested in keeps missing its target numbers. Instead of cutting your losses, you hope for a turnaround that seems further and further out of reach. You don’t know when to cut your losses.

3a. You don’t even know the probabilities well enough and what the odds are of the next community card being in your favor. You are playing blind, so to speak.
3b. You know what the company basically does, but you don’t read its quarterly reports or anything about P/E ratios, operational cash flow, debt levels, etc. You will be blind to micro-economic problems that can drop the stock like a rock.

4a. You misjudge your opponents’ hands. Being too optimistic in your chances, you turn blind to the fact that your opponent might be holding a pair of Kings because you are hoping that two diamonds come down on the turn and river.
4b. You become attached to the company you invested in and are blind to emerging companies with better technologies or other competitors whose pipeline is looking better than your company.

5a. You keep losing hands. Your track record of winning in poker is below 50%. However, you have a hard time stopping and your losses eat inside you even when it’s over.
5b. You keep losing money in your investments. Your track record of picking sound investments is below 50%. However, you have a hard time letting go and you keep pouring in money into the same losing investments.

6a. You have no long-term poker-playing strategy or your strategy is not working. However, you ignore this or you have blind faith that it will eventually turn in your favor. Gambling is about false hope, blind attachment and ignorance of your true abilities.
6b. You have no long-term investment strategy or your strategy is not working. You know when to buy but have a hard time determining when to sell.

7a. You are too emotional. You take losing hands very hard. They eat inside you hours or days afterwards.
7b. You are too emotional. You take losing investments very hard. They eat inside you for days and even months afterwards.

8a. You are too risky. You regret bets that don’t pan out. You wish you didn’t plop down $20 on a hand that you knew you’d probably lose anyways.
8b. You are too risky. You regret investments that don’t pan out. You wish you didn’t plop all that money on a technology that had only a tiny chance of succeeding.

.

I like the saying that poker is short-term luck and long-term skill. The goal for the player is to decrease the length of that short-term luck to as short as possible. By maximizing skill, you minimize luck, and the game becomes less about gambling and put you more in control of the outcomes. The problem with playing the lottery or slot machines is that no matter how much you learn or the type of intricate strategy you use, the big chunk of luck can never be reduced. However, poker and investing can be done such that the luck or gambling aspects of the game is greatly reduced.

Why do you think the same poker players are at the final table in poker tournaments all the time? Doyle Brunson? Why do you think investors like Warren Buffet are consistent winners in their investments? The homework those guys do can be loosely equated to Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods’ attention to detail.

Good luck! Well, good skill!

Related link:

The Mirage of the Martingale

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Movie Review: 27 Dresses

Posted by silentarchimedes on December 23, 2008

Cast: Katherine Heigl, James Marsden
Director: Anne Fletcher

27 Dresses with Katherine Heigl

27 Dresses with Katherine Heigl

One of the worst mainstream romantic comedies I have ever seen. And I’m not ripping on it because I’m a guy or anything. I actually enjoy rocoms a lot. When Harry Met Sally, You’ve Got Mail, Pretty Woman, Devil Wears Prada and While You Were Sleeping are all very enjoyable movies. However, most of the main romantic leads from the late 1980s and 1990s have retired their hearts and given way to a new generation of actresses vying for the coveted “Awwwww” award. Actresses such as Katherine Heigl, Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway, and Drew Barrymore to name a few.

Well, 27 Dresses (2007) was the latest attempt that I saw. It is directed by Anne Fletcher, whose only other movie directed is Step Up. That’s already a bad sign. Now before I begin, the movie has a 3.7 rating in Netflix, but only a 2.7 for raters like me (IMDB: 6.2, RT:41%). I must say, Netflix is good. I hated this movie. The chemistry was horrible. The dialogue was pathetic. Heigl, with the exception of a few “awww” moments, doesn’t feel like a good romantic lead. The main male lead was weak and almost bordered on creepy, versus the rocoms in which male leads play a more prominent and endearing role (especially the first three I mentioned above). The ending was lame and unrealistic. Let’s move on, shall we…?

Warning: Lots of spoilers in review!

CHEMISTRY

The romantic chemistry between Jane (Katherine Heigl) and Kevin (James Marsden) was non-existent. for almost the entire movie. Jane was in complete disgust with Kevin. And I don’t mean just dislike or lack of any passion, but a complete hatred of everything that he stood for, especially against weddings and his stalkish actions. She must have angrily told him to get away from her at least five times in the movie. He even betrayed her trust when she was finally warming to him when his article about her appeared in the papers. The article lambasted her as a career bridesmaid with no hopes of marriage and rips on the weddings she has attended. I don’t care how she eventually realized he was right or that she had followed his column for years, but you don’t just forgive someone after being so blah and even angry at him for so long. And you don’t just fall in love with someone because of that and because you fight all the time (which is the reason she gave him when she pronounces she loves him). It’s stupid.

JANE (Katherine Heigl)

So it’s obvious from the title that the 27 dresses was the gimmick in this movie. That’s fine, except that there was nothing else in addition to it. They at least tried giving the Jane character some depth by developing the crush she had on her boss or her relationship with her sister but that was about it. Heigl seemed like an awkward big woman who had a hard time deciding whether she wanted the audience to take pity on her or to fall for her rare moments of cuteness or appreciate her emotional outbursts and sarcasm.  Her multiple anger sessions at Kevin seemed too over the top, “Can you please find somebody else to be creepy with?”, “You write the most beautiful things. Do you actually believe in love and marriage and just pretend to be a cynic or are you actually a cynic who knows how to spin romantic crap for girls like me?“, and yet she has drunken sessions with him. Heigl doesn’t have the romantic comedy aura that a Meg Ryan and Julia Roberts has. She’s too sarcastic, not cute, not sexy and not playful. Which leads to a bad romantic lead.

KEVIN (James Marsden)

He is such a loser. When a girl is so obviously disgusted at you, at some point, you have some pride and move on. The only reason he didn’t is because he wanted to write an article about her, and he took pity on the fact that she was a bridesmaid for 27 weddings and couldn’t land a freaking man. And what kind of guy writes a column on weddings? There was not one moment in the movie where you felt any sense of manliness and strength in him. The dialogue was pathetic. Lines like “You’d rather focus on other people’s Kodak moments than make memories of your own!“, “Love is patient, love is kind, love is slowly going out of your mind” or “I cried like a baby at the Keller wedding.” are so numbingly stupid. Add everything together, and the fact that Marsden looks so much smaller than Heigl, and the Kevin character becomes one of the weakest male romantic leads ever.

GEORGE (Edward Burns)

Speak up! What’s with the soft voice and sensitivity? And what was up with that kiss to Jane at the end? You’re telling me you couldn’t tell for all those years that your assistant liked you? And that kiss you planted was plain horrible. That’s why she didn’t feel anything. Jeesh. And who kisses his fiance’s sister the day after the sister spoiled  your engagement party. Absurd.

TESS (Malin Ackerman)

Shut up. You are a liar. You are a fraud. No matter what you lied. No chemistry between her and Jane either. Ackerman will be in Fletcher’s next rocom, The Proposal, which is due in 2009 and stars Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds.

TRENT (Maulik Pancholy)

Huh, a token Indian sidekick at a magazine workplace? Sorry, it didn’t work. Reaked of attempts to remind the audience of Harold and Kumar.

Overall, I give 27 Dresses 3 out of 10 stars

3 stars

Rating: 3 stars

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2008 Year in Review – Top 10 in Finance

Posted by silentarchimedes on December 22, 2008

Let’s get right to it.

10. Yahoo rejects Microsoft’s $45 billion takeover offer – February 11, 2008. This one has to rank as one of the most stupid business decisions ever. Since Yahoo practically started the internet search business back in the 1990s, they have quickly given up their dominant position to Google in the past ten years without a major fight. By the middle of 2007, Google had a 53.6% market share of the search engine business, versus Yahoo’s rapidly shrinking 19.9%. Microsoft’s $44.6 billion in cash and stock offer was literally a lifeboat and gave Yahoo the best chance for long-term survival. Yahoo rejected the offer and a later offer in May valued each Yahoo share price at $33. Yahoo’s share price had been languishing around $19 in recent years. Yahoo’s CEO and founder Jerry Yang demanded $37/shr! Eventually Microsoft got tired of Yahoo’s demands and pulled all negotiations off the table. What is Yahoo today, end of 2008? The share price is $13.03 and Yang was ousted in November. Although Microsoft still has lukewarm interest in Yahoo’s search business, the main opportunity for Yahoo has passed.

9. Housing prices continue to go down town – It’s amazing how so many analysts and normal people knew that the meteoric rise of housing prices was due to risky ARMs and other loans that were impractical and ticking time bombs. It’s amazing the federal government did not see this coming or chose to not do anything about it. Because of the dot com bust from a few years ago and the recession soon after, the Feds turned a blind eye and let free credit run rampant. The bomb went off in 2006, and median housing prices have gone on a free-fall from an inflation-adjusted high of $275,000 in 2005 to near $200,000 at the end of 2008. It will take a good while to sort this thing out. Housing prices are still historically high and with high unemployment rates, increasing foreclosures will continue to flood an already over-supplied realty market.

8. Unemployment rate – The United States has been pretty lucky in terms of unemployment rates for the past two decades or so. Ever since the recovery from the high inflation, 9.0+% unemployment rates of the early 1980s, the rate has stayed well below 8.0%. Since 1995, the rate has performed even better, only touching above 6.0% once during the short recession recovery in 2003. In January 2008, the rate was around 5.0% but had already been steadily rising throughout 2007. Since this January, the rate has put on the rocket boosters and is now at 6.7% nationally, with no signs of slowing down. Several states, such as Michigan (9.6%) and Rhode Island (9.3%) already have unemployments rates above 9.0%! Another five states have rates above 8.0%! Stats were from Nov 2008 and look to be higher when December stats come out.

7. What happened to the commodities bull market? – Oil, gold, silver, platinum and copper. All were at multi-decade highs in 2007 and even in 2008. Since then? Crude oil prices have dropped from $150+/bl to $37/bl! Most commodities lost more than half their values. Exchange-traded funds such as SLV, GSG, and XLE all dropped more than 50%. The one exception so far has been gold. Although gold prices have dropped from a high over $1000/oz, they have not dropped below $700/oz, and have recovered into the $800s since then. Gold is an unique commodity and it appears that it mostly trades as a safe-haven currency than a physical commodity. In looking at the chart of GLD (below), gold prices have solidly bottomed out at $70/shr and is looking like it will have a strong 2009.

SPDR Gold Shares (GLD) Performance since Jan 2007.

SPDR Gold Shares (GLD) performance since Jan 2007

6. Remember the $168 billion original stimulus package? – That amount seems so little nowadays especially when Obama is bandying around an $800B to $1 trillion stimulus package. Add to that the $750B bailout package given to financial companies and automobile companies. This is a year of bailouts and stimuluses and so far they have not helped the economy. Instead, the state of the economy is at its worst at the end of 2008. The expected package by Obama will be an early focus of the Obama administration. I think most people could use an extra few hundred dollars in their pockets.

Pixar's Mater - Help me!!!
Pixar’s Mater – Help me!!!

5. The survival of American automobile companiesGeneral Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler became the poster child of the current economic crisis hitting main street. On display was the millions of jobs, especially blue-collar jobs, in America at risk of disappearing due to the recent decades of mismanagement, overhead and foreign competition of the US auto industry. With the finance industry easily getting a $750B bailout, it seemed absurd that an industry that for decades represented hard working Americans and unions had to literally beg for a few billion dollars to survive. It was obvious where the attention of politicians were. Although Bush recently said that $18B of the $750B bailout would be immediately used to prop up GM and Chrysler, the long fought battle was wasted time and energy by the attention garnering and bureaucratic Congress.

4. Bernard Madoff arrested on $50B Ponzi fraud scheme – When the $50 billion Ponzi fraud scheme by Bernard Madoff was revealed in early December, it was the main headline of major news websites for a mere few hours. Since then, as more details trickle out, the fraud continues to take a back seat to the macro-economic recession covering the globe. In any other year, the news of a legendary and consummate businessman (and a former NASDAQ chairman) being arrested for a fraud-scheme covering possibly the largest dollar amount in Wall Street history would ripple for weeks, if not months. However, with white collar crimes dominating the post-dot-com era (Enron, Worldcom, Martha Stewart, Tyco and the 2008 unraveling of the hedge fund industry), the public is now immune to financial fraud. Quite unfortunate. (See here for What is a Ponzi scheme)

Corporate bankruptcies on the rise in 2008.

Corporate bankruptcies on the rise in 2008.

3. Bankruptcies and those near it – It has been a sad year for many corporations as they head towards bankruptcy. Many of them well-known with years of solid profits. The list continues to grow and the impact of the recession on the consumer and his/her buying habits is only beginning. Circuit City, Linens ‘N Things, KB Toys, Frontier Airlines, Mrs. Field Cookies, Steve & Barry’s, Whitehall Jewelers, Mervyns, Sharper Image and Waffle House are some of the big name bankruptcies. And this list doesn’t even mention financial companies, which I discuss in #2. See this list for a more comprehensive list of corporate bankruptcies in 2008.

2. The demise of the hedge fund and mortgage finance industry – The derivatives market has become a multi-billion (if not, trillion) dollar investment industry that is complicated and largely misunderstood, even by the most astute financial advisors. Derivatives, as its name suggests, are investment products that are created off of actual traditional investment products. That means their intrinsic value is conjured up and their existence puts them closer to full-blown gambling. The current financial laws and oversight are not suited for such trading. Over the years hedge funds and derivatives took on more and more of the investment strategy of major financial corporations. Derivatives that were based on risky mortgages and insurance eventually collapsed as housing prices plummeted with lendees’ inability to pay the mortgages. The result has been a credit lockup unforeseen in decades. Major financial companies toppled and its effects are still not fully known. Major companies that totally collapsed include Bear Sterns, Lehman Brothers, Washington Mutual, ANB Financial, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and AIG.  See this list for a more comprehensive list of financial collapses in 2008.

KBW Philadelphia Bank Index - Collapse since 2007

KBW Philadelphia Bank Index - performance since 2004

US Recessions since WWII (Courtesy of CNN)

U.S. Recessions since WWII (Courtesy of CNN)

1. Recession or Depression – Which leads to the number one financial news in 2008. Are we in a deep and difficult recession or a depression? In early December, it became official that the U.S. went into a recession in December 2007. To some analysts, this is good news because it means we are closer to coming out of it.  As you look at the chart on the right, most recessions last around one year. Based on the official Dec 2007 start date, historically we would already be on the tail end of the recession. However, to other analysts, this is bad news because the worst is yet to come, and we are already twelve months into it. With no light  seemingly at the end of the tunnel, these analysts portend a long recession. Bad news from around the world keep coming in and the bottom of the current economic crisis still has not occurred. Oil prices continue to drop, gold prices have since rebounded (bad for economy), and the dollar index has begun dropping again. Signs of major inflation on the horizon are evident, especially with the massive bailouts and the Feds lowering the overnight interest rate to its lowest level ever, 0%-0.25%.

The entire 2008 Top 10 in Finance is all bad news. Most of them have to do with the current economic crisis. The key hope is that the Bush administration is finally over and 2009 brings a more adept and intellectual administration that will do just about anything to get America out of the economic dump. An administration that seems focused on the middle class and job creation. However, with it comes more and more national debt and the mortgaging of the future. There seems to be no alternative. This will most likely lead to long-term inflation when countries such as China, India, Russia and other Asian countries continue their rise to redefine the existing  economic world order. This is not to say that the United States is doomed to be a second-bit player, as we know that is unlikely. However, the country needs to refocus on what made it a superpower in the first place, investments in technology, jobs, science, and innovation.

Posted in Economics, List, Opinion, Other, Poll, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

Movie Review: Stop-Loss

Posted by silentarchimedes on November 2, 2008

Cast: Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Abbie Cornish
Director: Kimberly Peirce

Stop-Loss

Stop-Loss

A quick review on the Iraq War movie, Stop-Loss. Although the movie only grossed $11 million on a $25 million dollar budget, it’s pretty apparent that the low numbers were impacted by the country’s disdain for the war and the setting in of war fatigue. America is still not ready to confront the many negative effects of the war because the reason for the war is unpopular. In a way, it’s unfortunate because the deaths and injuries of the many young soldiers still have not received the honor and attention they deserve. Instead the country has focused on the politics of the war, the economic effects of the war, and the negative treatment of enemy combatants. Stop-Loss is an attempt to address the controversial rule that allows the government to extend a soldier’s tour of duty without his consent. What the movie calls a back-door draft. The reason is to maintain combat strength and readiness in the war zone due to inadequacies in soldier numbers or experience. According to the movie, over 80,000 soldiers have been stop-lossed during the first five years of the Iraq War.

SYNOPSIS

The movie follows Staff Sargeant Brandon King’s return from the Iraq War and then shockingly stop-lossed right when he is ready to begin civilian life again. In leading up to the stop-loss, King realizes that the war has dramatically changed his soldiers and himself. Many of them are having difficulty adjusting to civilian life and patching up previous relationships. These observations contribute to his increasingly disdain for the war and the stop-loss was the ultimate last straw. He escapes from the barracks and becomes a fugitive. The rest of the movie follows his journey in seeking justice and also how he copes with his soldiers, the ethics surrounding the stop-loss, and his love for the country.

COMMENTS

Phillippe and Tatum

Ryan Phillippe and Channing Tatum

This movie wasn’t as bad as I thought it was going to be, considering all the negative reviews about it. However, it is a very simplistic movie where the story line hinges on King’s belief the stop-loss is unjust. In trying to bring attention to the stop-loss process through the actions of King, the movie fails to develop any supporting characters. King’s best friend, Sargeant Steve Shriver’s actions are stereotypical and somewhat inconsistent at times. Michelle, Steve’s fiance, who joins King on his journey has no personality at all. It’s difficult to understand where her loyalties stand. The movie also fails in expressing the urgency of King’s fugitive status. King and Michelle drive her blue car throughout the entire process without any thought of trying to ditch the car. Any sign of the chase by police is glossed over several times by simply showing a random police car slowly driving around.

The movie is listed as 1 hour, 51 minutes, but it could have been roughly 20 to 30 minutes shorter. Phillippe actually does a decent job portraying King, and what he was given, a character with little actual development and stereotypical Texan life of cowboy hats, rifles, beer, country dancing, etc. Tatum also does a decent job with what he was given with, but Tatum has not fully proven himself as a lead dramatic role.

5 stars

Rating: 6 stars

Overall, I give Stop-Loss a 6 out of 10 stars.

Posted in Ethics, Movies, Opinion, Politics, Reviews | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Ativa DQ83Mn Paper Shredder – Green light won’t turn on

Posted by silentarchimedes on October 20, 2008

Ativa DQ83Mn Shredder

Ativa DQ83Mn Shredder

I bought an Ativa DQ83Mn Shredder from OfficeDepot back in February of 2008.  I believe Ativa is OfficeDepot’s own tech brand. It worked perfectly for atleast four months. Then one day it just wouldn’t turn on. Normally all I do is push the button to Auto mode and the green light goes on. Now nothing happens in any mode. In disgust, I left the shredder to die for a few months before I finally looked for the receipt today. I went online to check the warranty info on the product and see what was the best path to go, deal with the hassle of getting it fixed or replaced or just buy a new one. After all I had bought it on sale for $29.99, and it seemed more of a hassle to go through warranty.

Luckily for me, I found a problem post on this shredder online:

Fixya – Shredder won’t turn on

A poster carlosquinto said he had the same problem, and after talking to tech support, it was determined that the electrical contact between the shredder and basket was not touching each other! Huh? There needs to be electrical contact between a mesh basket and shredder? Interesting… I guess it makes sense. Sort of a safety feature that won’t allow the shredder to go on unless it is safely over the basket. I decided to look at my shredder one last time. It seemed to be placed perfectly over the basket… But then I lifted the shredder about 1 mm above the cord cutout on the basket. I heard a click and the green light went on! I let the shredder drop back into it’s normal position and the green light went off! Hmmm, it is due to the electrical contact! After a little maneuvering, the green light now stays on for good.

Yayeee! A fixed technical product issue. So few of those…

Posted in Products, Reviews, Technology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments »

Five can’t miss PBS programs – Frontline, NOVA, Nature, POV and Independent Lens

Posted by silentarchimedes on October 9, 2008

Even with all the hundreds of cable channels pushed upon us…not to mention Netflix and YouTube, some of the best programs are still on your local public broadcasting service (PBS). Here I list my top five favorite ongoing shows on PBS. What makes it great is that PBS also makes them accessible online if you missed them.

1. Frontline
Frontline

Frontline

is a public affairs television program of varying length produced at WGBH in Boston, Massachusetts. Marking its 25th anniversary season, FRONTLINE has built a reputation for powerful reporting that tackles the tough, controversial, and complex stories that shape our times. From Martin Smith’s probe into the decisions leading to the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, to Michael Kirk’s investigation of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib; from Ofra Bikel’s examination of America’s racial divide over the O.J. Simpson verdict, to special reports like The Age of AIDS and provocative journeys like Hedrick Smith’s search for the answer to the question, Is Wal-Mart Good for America? FRONTLINE gives its award-winning journalists and filmmakers the time needed to thoroughly research a story and the time on-air to tell the story in a compelling way.

2. NOVA
NOVA

NOVA

is a popular science television series from the U.S. produced by WGBH Boston. It can be seen on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States, and in more than 100 other countries. It has also won a variety of major television awards, most of them many times over. Nova often includes interviews with scientists directly involved in the subject, and occasionally footage from the actual moment of a particular discovery. Some episodes have focused on historical aspects of science. Examples of topics include Colditz Castle, Drake equation, elementary particles, 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, Fermat’s last theorem, global warming, moissanite, Project Jennifer, storm chasing, Unterseeboot 869, Vinland, and the Tarim mummies.

3. Nature
Nature

Nature

is a long-running wildlife television program produced by Thirteen/WNET New York. It has been distributed to United States public television stations by the PBS television service since its debut on October 10, 1982. Nature is one of the most watched documentary series in the world. It is a weekly one-hour program that consists of documentaries about various animals and ecosystems. The series has won more than 400 honors from the television industry, the international wildlife film community, parent groups, and environmental organizations – including 10 Emmy Awards, two Peabody Awards, and the first honor ever given to a program by the Sierra Club.

4. P.O.V.
P.O.V.

P.O.V.

is a PBS television series which features independent nonfiction films. P.O.V.’s films have a strong first-person, social-issue focus. Since 1988, P.O.V. has presented over 225 films to public television audiences across the country. P.O.V. films are known for their intimacy, their unforgettable storytelling and their timeliness, putting a human face on contemporary social issues. The series has garnered both critical and industry acclaim over its 20-plus years on television. P.O.V. programs have also won major industry awards including three Oscars, 19 Emmys, 36 Cine Golden Eagles and 11 Peabody Awards.

5. Independent Lens
Independent Lens

Independent Lens

introduces new drama and documentary films made by independent filmmakers. Each episode introduces new documentaries and dramas made by independent thinkers: filmmakers who are taking creative risks, calling their own shots and finding untold stories in unexpected places. From a Texas drug sting, to a plane crash in the Andes, to a research lab where beleaguered physicists search for the “God particle,” Independent Lens takes viewers behind the scenes to discover untold stories. Step inside a boisterous courtroom with 1960s revolutionaries Abbie Hoffman and Bobby Seale, or sit down to an intimate dinner with Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf—let this season’s line-up take you across the span of history and around the globe. Learn more about the U.S. deficit, and dive into hot-button issues like gays in the military, Islamic extremism and gang strife in South Central L.A. Meet a trained kamikaze pilot and an inspirational Kenyan activist who is protecting human rights through the simple act of planting trees.

Watch them…

Posted in List, Opinion, Poll, Reviews, Science and Math, Shows, Technology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Denzel Washington plays the same character over and over again

Posted by silentarchimedes on September 29, 2008

I haven’t seen a Denzel Washington movie in a long time. The last one was probably Training Day. I am realizing why. It seems that in all his movies he plays the same character and I’m getting mixed up in which movie was what. Is it just me or does Denzel Washington play the same character over and over again? I mean just look at his mainstream movies since Devil in a Blue Dress!

For an actor who is known to have such range and be in so many critically and publicly acclaimed movies, you would think he would play a wider variety of roles. Of his 22 lead movies since 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress, Washington has played a character that has some sort of police, federal or armed forces authority influence 15 times! That is close to 70% of the time! When you factor in his other authority roles as a drug lord in American Gangster, football coach in Remember the Titans, and police drama in John Q, Washington plays some sort of authority role 82% of the time (18 of 22 films)! Not to mention that Inside Man 2 has been announced.

The final question becomes, is Denzel Washington typecasted or does he prefer to play such roles? Why change? All his movies are highly rated and he’s still considered a great actor, for the most part. Crimson Tide continues to be one of my favorite movies.

22. 2009. The Taking of Pelham 123 Lieutenant

21. 2007. American Gangster – drug lord

20. 2007. Great Debaters – poet

19. 2006. Inside Manpolice detective

18. 2006. Deja VuATF agent

17. 2004. Man on Fireformer federal agent

16. 2004. Manchurian CandidateArmed Forces Captain

15. 2003. Out of Timepolice chief

14. 2002. Antwone FisherNavy psychiatrist

13. 2001. Training Daypolice detective

12. 2001. John Q – blue collar worker

11. 2000. Remember the Titans – football coach

10. 1999. The Bone Collectorpolice detective

9. 1999. The Hurricane – boxer

8. 1998. Fallen police detective

7. 1998. He Got Game – convict/father

6. 1998. The SiegeFBI Agent

5. 1996. Courage Under FireArmed Forces Lt. Colonel

4. 1996. The Preacher’s Wife – angel

3. 1995. Virtuosityex-cop

2. 1995. Crimson Tidenavy officer

1. 1995. Devil in a Blue Dresswar veteran

It seems like the really great actors are the ones that excel at a wide variety of roles. Ed Norton is a great example of this.

Posted in List, Movies, Observations, Poll | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »