Saturday, January 17, 2009

Food Poisoning: Bleh!

Friday I was taken out by what appears to be food poisoning. I know it's tricky to pinpoint the culprit, but why isn't there an easy and quick way to report suspected food poisoning and possible suspects? If we all dutifully reported where we may have gotten food poisoning it follows that it'd be pretty easy to sort out if there is a particular establishment with a real problem. 

Instead we're told to... 

1. Call the suspect(s)

But as you can see from the Chronicle story, restauranteurs aren't likely to believe you and you're accusing them of hurting your health which is guaranteed to put all but the most cool headed operator on the defensive.

2. Call the Dept of Health

Sounds like 4 or more people need to be affected for any investigation to occur. Seems unlikely that 4 people would take the time to call in unless a restaurant was making a large number of people sick. 


Set up a website that allows consumers to quickly report cases of poisoning and possible culprits. Make this page easy to find and prominent on the Health Department's site (I couldn't find anything about reporting food poisoning on the front page or via a quick search). If you lower the barriers to report, you'll get more information, and more information means you'll have a shot at identifying problems. 

Just a thought...

Book Report: Outliers

Meh. Ok sure it's the cocktail party chatter book of late 2008 so you'll probably end up reading it, but please allow me to spoil it for you...

You're not that great and you're not that talented, so get over yourself. 

It's true, we're all a product of our (random and sometimes privileged) circumstances. As Buffett likes to say he won the ovarian lottery, if he were born dirt poor in rural Africa could he possibly have achieved so much? Hardly.

Gladwell is a great story teller and the book is not without it's surprising and delightful anecdotes (the opening Canadian hockey tale and Manhattan law firm history were two of my favorites). However, if you take away the sizzle of these stories and focus on the book's main point, you're left with a big... well duh. Obviously extremely successful people are just people. Yes they are motivated and hardworking, but they've also benefited from unique opportunities and timing aka luck. 

No one ever said life was fair, and randomness plays a huge role in everyone's outcome starting with which womb and in which country you popped out. Malcolm seems somewhat uncomfortable with the fact that life does not provide a level playing field. While it's an admirable goal to smooth such disparity, random happenstance will always play a major role. 

If you're interested in reading more about outliers try Creativity by Csikszent Mihaly

Book Report: Bad Science

Pretty good. Found it on The Economist's list of Best Books of 2008

The main premise is that the media is absolutely terrible at informing the public on issues relating to science. Goldacre (himself an NHS physician in the UK) skewers the press for fear mongering, relying on frauds or shysters as "experts", supporting pseudoscience and a whole host of other information atrocities. His focus is entirely on the UK and the personalities and media sources he discusses will be unknown to US readers (like me), but that doesn't get in the way of his anecdotes or points.

A particularly amusing highlight from the text was this graph...

Which points to the dangers of incompetence; the least able are also the least likely to know it. If you don't have time to read the book you still might want to check out Ben's Bad Science blog.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Report: The Essays of Warren Buffett

Loved it.  Editor Lawrence Cunningham has gone through all of Berkshire's old annual reports and compiled a very readable "Buffett's Greatest Hits" with lessons organized by topic. If you want to hear directly from the Oracle, this is your best bet (unless you have time and inclination to read all the annual reports yourself). 

I can't help but be in awe of what Buffett has accomplished in business. He has been an unwavering voice of reason, bucking trends that make no sense, occasionally warning us of impending doom, and generally kicking ass and taking names. 

Some quotes I noted while reading (some paraphrased, mostly on valuation and investing)

The goal of each investor should be to create a portfolio (in effect, a "company") that will deliver him the highest possible look-through earnings a decade or so from now. 

The primary test of managerial economic performance is the achievement of a high earnings rate on equity capital employed (without undue leverage, accounting gimmickry, etc.) and not the achievement of consistent gains in earnings per share.

In analysis of operating results... what a business can be expected to earn on unleveraged net tangible assets, excluding any charges against earnings for amort. of Goodwill, is the best guide to the economic attractiveness of the operation. 

Owner Earnings: reported earnings plus depreciations, depletion, amort, and other non-cash charges less average annual capex for plan and equipment required to maintain its long term competitive position and unit volume. 

Intrinsic value can be defined simply: It is the discounted value of the cash that can be taken out of a business during its remaining life. 

The percentage change in book value in any given year is likely to be reasonably close to that year's change in intrinsic value. 

Book value is meaningless as an indicator of intrinsic value. 

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Question: Why don't airlines auction upgrades?

On my flight out to London I inquired (the day of) about upgrading on Virgin Atlantic to Premier Economy. I was quoted $300 so I put my name on the waiting list. The flight was completely booked so I flew next to 3 screaming babies. Awesome.

On my flight back from London I again inquired (the day of) about upgrading and was quoted £380 ($580). This time the flight was half full and both First Class and Premium Economy were absolute ghost towns. The $580 made no sense to me in the context of lower demand and it was higher than my willingness to pay, so again it was a no go.

So now my question: why on earth don't airlines allow interested customers to bid on available seat upgrades? 

  • More revenue from the same flight, those seats are going to go empty. 
  • Thrilled customers who get upgrades they weren't expecting for a price they're happy to pay.
  • Less exclusivity, prices on some seats may be sold cheaply. 
  • Variable costs servicing fancier seats may be higher than add'l revenue gained. 
  • Fewer people may book early relying on playing the upgrade game at the airport.
Proposed Mechanism: 
  • Arrive at airport to check in
  • Say you're interested in upgrades
  • Enter a willingness to pay
  • Find out at the gate whether you have an accepted bid
  • Get your upgrade
So am I missing something? Why hasn't anyone tried something beyond just flat (but obviously inconsistent) pricing for upgrades? 

Sunday, January 4, 2009

WSJ: Expert advice vs Expert's own actions

Got a chuckle from the WSJ's reporting on investment gurus who haven't strictly followed their own "sound" advice...

"John C. Bogle, founder of the Vanguard funds, believes investors should rebalance their portfolios on a regular schedule by selling a portion of whatever has gone up the most or buying some of whatever has gone down. 'I think rebalancing makes a substantial amount of sense,' Mr. Bogle recently said on the Jean Chatzky radio show. With his own money, however, 'I don't rebalance ... I leave it alone. I have not touched my asset allocation since March of 2000.'"

The full story: Investing Experts Urge 'Do as I Say, Not as I Do' (WSJ subscription required)