Sunday, December 28, 2008

Book Report: The Snowball

Wow I finally finished slogging through 976 pages of Warren Buffett's life story, never thought this day would come. See kids if you put your mind to it... you can do anything!

My overall rating is: Meh

I did learn a lot about Mr. Buffett, but I felt like the book failed to commit. Was it about his life? Or was it about business? True his life and business are so tightly intertwined as to be inseparable, but I thought the book failed to delve deeply into either. 

For example while his personal life is both interesting and unorthodox this book gives only an arms length view. Even after 900+ pages I still can't say that I fully understand the real dynamics of the most important relationships in his life. Business adventures are covered, but not at the level of detail you'd need to get into the mind of the master, it's there as part of the narrative.

So if you're a diehard Buffett fan like me, get the book and enjoy. However if you're not hardcore, it's safe to pass.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

I'm guessing the architect was hired before October...

No idea which SOMA startup is responsible for this office space build out at 950 Brannan, but thanks to the handy blue slide it should be rather easy to move between floors.

Had they asked my opinion I would have suggested a fireman's poll to save on cost. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

A lonely Jew on Christmas

Yes South Park is probably the most offensive show on mainstream television, but it takes brass balls to push comedy to it's societal limits. While I think a lot of people dismiss it for being too extreme or base (both of which it can be), their cartoon commentary sometimes makes an excellent point. That said the following clip is neither satire nor art, but I'll admit it rings true for me on Christmas... Skip to the middle of the clip to get to the song.

Oh and while we're on the subject of South Park if you've never seen Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Team America: World Police, it's amusing... and if you didn't know about the 5 minute short that started it all you should see (not safe for work, foul languageThe Spirit of Christmas.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

As SF housing prices fall...

You may find this NYTimes rent vs buy calculator handy [via SocketSite].

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Economist: Best Books of 2008

The Economist recently came out with its list of best books of 2008. Some interesting suggestions on there and they focus almost entirely on non-fiction. Strangely I've found it hard to find well curated lists of non-fiction titles... I'm optimistic this list will lead me to some gems I wouldn't have considered.

I've already read a couple on their list and both were excellent... 

The Logic of Life - a fun read about the quirky nature of humans and the world we life in. Also in the words of Amazon... if you liked Predictably Irrational, you'll like The Logic of Life.

Nixonland - an very detailed, but fascinating history of Nixon and how his flavor of politics left an indelible impression on America. Want to understand the culture wars? Start here.

After I finish reading Snowball I'll read a few others and let you know.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Holiday Gift Idea: AeroGarden

One day I was sitting in my apartment wishing I had a vegetable garden, wondering to myself... why hasn't anyone created a self-contained unit that allows me to grow some of my own food indoors? Well my dream hasn't quite been realized, but we as a society are a little bit closer thanks to the AeroGarden a counter top, indoor garden.

After buying the AeroGarden all I had to do was install three pre-assembled seed pods, add water and nutrient tablets, then turn the thing on. Within a few days I had sprouting tomato plants and now after a month or so I have flowers (which means tomatoes are coming). Yes real veggies are being grown right on my kitchen counter top. No daily watering, no turning lights on and off, it's about as close to a maintenance free garden as you can get.

Downsides? Cost. I'm sorry but if you consider the cost of the unit, additional seed pods and grow light bulbs, it'll be a few hundred years before you break even. Actually you'll never break even, so give up if you're trying to save money.

Problems? Easy setup, but one seed pod didn't sprout. They have a guarantee, but I'm too lazy to worry about it. Two tomato plants is fine and I stuck a mint seed in the defective pod and now I have a little mint plant too. Also when I first planted my garden I had trouble setting the grow lights to go on and off at the right time. A quick call to their customer service hotline took care of it, they provided fantastic service, no waiting and the guy was very friendly and helpful.

So if you've got an organic junkie in the family, or know a New Yorker who hasn't seen green in a few years... the AeroGarden is worth a look.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Death of VC? Why Paul Graham is wrong... for now

A few days ago Paul Graham (whose essays I've long enjoyed) posited the following (now also being discussed on TC)...

"If founders decide VCs aren't worth the trouble, that could be bad for VCs. When the economy bounces back in a few years and they're ready to write checks again, they may find that founders have moved on." (full article)

Lower cost of starting up = Don't need VC?

While he is right that initial startup costs have dropped, typically the reason why you as an entrepreneur bother going through the pain and stress of starting something new is in the hope of creating something wildly successful. Should this happen you'll be growing far too fast to fund it out of your own nascent income (and if you're like most big hits in the Valley your income for the first year or two will be at or close to 0). 

Let's review the case of Youtube... Product became a hit, traffic shot up at an unbelievable pace, huge bandwidth bills, scary lawsuits. So while it's possible the technology costs may become largely irrelevant as he suggests (though I'm doubtful), the people piece (engineers, sales, management, lawyers) remains and their cost isn't rapidly decreasing.

So while he is probably right that Series A as we know it is slated for the scrap heap (since early costs used to be dominated by now much cheaper technology purchases), there is still Series B and C and with the IPO market decimated by Sarbox there is a much greater need for Series D's and perhaps beyond..

So Paul, I think it's a little early to start playing taps for the Sand (Hill Road) people... they will simply move up market, though that reminds me of one of my favorite books.

Monday, December 1, 2008

More on books

At work we got the idea of collaboratively building a list of great business-related books so we can all benefit from what we've each discovered. I'm a bit of a junky when it comes to this stuff so here are the books I added to our official list...

le Web

Linked - Explains how networks form, what they mean, emergent properties. See also 80/20 Principle.

80/20 Principle - Linked explains the why better, but this rule is simply everywhere you have a network. 80% of the wealth held by 20% of the population, etc.

Wisdom of Crowds - How groups of people can make better decisions than an individual and what are the cases where this breaks down?

Business Strategy

Innovators Dilemma - Probably the most important biz book of our time. Explains why/how startups consistently run over big entrenched players.


Built to Last, Good to Great - Both by same author and cover same topic: how might you build a long lasting great company?

Gut Feelings - Explains where they come from and how effective gut instincts are as a decision making tool.


Influence: Psychology of Persuation - A study in all the techniques ever used to try and sell you something. Backed up with references to experiments, etc.


The Origin of Financial Crises - See previous post.

Fooled by Randomness, The Black Swan: Impact of the Highly Improbable - Both tell the same story, first one is better written. Financial crises happen far more often than people think, our models are wrong.

Predictably Irrational - Fun stories about how humans aren't the "rational" actors economists assumed they were.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Book Report: The Origin of Financial Crises

I discovered The Origin of Financial Crises via the Economist and it took a few months to get it from Amazon (I'm guessing they didn't expect the demand, if you pardon the pun), but I'm really glad I jumped through all the hoops to get it. It is the most well written macro econ text I've ever read and puts forth a novel (to me) explanation of the root cause of financial crises in general, and suggests they've been increasing in magnitude, yikes!

Below are chapter notes I jotted down, I highly recommend that anyone interested in the current economic mess get this book.

Chapter 1

Economic policy is lopsided, laissez-faire in the good times when the markets are booming and socialist when things go bad.

Efficient Market Hypothesis: asset prices are always and everywhere at the correct price. Leaves no room for asset price bubbles or busts. Distributions do not fit the reality of the markets.

Better theory? Financial Instability Hypothesis developed by Minsky (influence from Keynes). Argues that financial markets are driven by waves of credit expansion resulting in asset inflation followed by contraction and asset deflation.

Chapter 2

Central banks have a confused role, has changed over time. Stated purpose between countries US vs UK isn't consistent.

Efficient market hypothesis would suggest central bank shouldn't exist. Minksy school suggests that central bank can play a role to stabalize.

Chapter 3

Fantastic simplified history of money and banking.

Central banks as lender of last resort, presence prevents run on a bank but encourages risky lending. Gold standard doesn't help.

Chapter 4

Awesome example of how a simple stock transaction can result in a huge significant increase in credit driving asset inflation and yet more credit. Self-reinforcing asset-debt cycles.

Central bank should help managed these cycles and dampen them.

Chapter 5

Credit creation also boosts profits further promoting asset inflation (and thus more credit creation). An excellent simplified example: Company A who makes consumer goods and Company B who supplies all the inputs to A. Consumer savings can depress revenues and therefore wages of both companies similarly borrowing can create a temporary windfall.

Continually low savings rate in the US due to reliance on dropping the interest rate whenever we have a slowdown.

Bubbles don't require irrational behavior. Need to look at if credit expansion is the underlying cause.

Chapter 6

Credit expansion and contraction causing increasing instability seems similar to the "governor" problem solved by Maxwell's. He worked out that to keep a shaft rotating at a nearly constant speed you needed to make very minor adjustments to reduce oscillations a bit at a time. Suggests a similar approach by the central bank.

Chapter 7

Quantitative risk controls are based on demonstrably flawed models, they give us false confidence.

Chapter 8

Suggests Fed should stop worrying about consumer price targeting (chasing the wrong variable).

Best solution to current crisis? Inflate our way out, hurts the prudent savers and helps risk taking borrowers.