Monthly Archives: March 2008

Cut to the Chase – Walking Tall

Walking TallLet’s cut to the chase. In this movie, the Rock is a former soldier that returns to his home town find that these guys that run a casino are selling drugs. So he beats them up with a plank of plywood. When he is arrested and tried for assault, he tells the jury that if they return a verdict of “not guilty,” he’ll run for sheriff and clean up the town. Once he’s sheriff, he fires the corrupt police. When the corrupt police attack him with fully automatic weapons, he kills them. And then he kills the casino people.

Overall: great action film! My only gripe: the Rock really didn’t have to run for sheriff. It seemed superfluous considering the number of laws he broke as sheriff. I mean, if you’re going to break the law as sheriff, you might as well forget about the sheriff office and break the same laws as a civilian. He could’ve just said to the jury, “hey, let me go, and I’ll go kill these guys, and then you can let me go again…” ehh… just a thought.

Our World Today – Tomorrow (40 years from now)

worldsfair40 years ago, it would’ve been near impossible to predict what life 40 years from then (now) would be like. Some guessed that people would be driving in “space-pods,” commuting to neighboring “city-pods,” listening to their portable “i-Pods.” How wrong they were!

Though the future is hard to predict, it’s easy to say that our world 40 years from now will be a very different place. 40 years from 40 years from now, future-humans will look back 40 years and think, “wow, that was a time of serious innovation… you know… despite the apocalypse of 2047.”

That’s right. The people of 40 years from the future will have plenty to brag about. They will erect monolithic structures with amazing precision to superstitiously house their dead leaders just as the ancient Egyptians had done, using an almost unending supply of slave labor, just as the ancient Egyptians had done. They will erect many of these grandiose mausoleums as the average life expectancy of their leaders will be only marginally better than the average life expectancy of the common man of 40 years from now – a nice ripe, old age of 25. These structures will protect the dead from the hazards of the afterworld, which will be predicted to be similar to the hazards of the present-world of 40 years from now (excessive ambient radiation), which will ironically have been more useful for the dead when they were still alive.

40 years from 40 years from now, still standing tall and prominently visible from space will be the Great Wall of 40 Years From Now, built in a futile effort to keep the mutant-dolphin-pigeon-rats (dominant on land, air, and sea, and now hungrier than ever) from hunting and eating all who have survived (the apocalypse of 2047). The people of 40 years from now will be great warriors that will fight to the very last pig-man and pig-woman warrior (oh how evolution will change us over the course of 40 years!). And 40 years from 40 years from now, the then generations will remember the great battles of the pig-men, pig-women, and the mutant-dolphin-pigeon-rats — battles waged over land and sea (pig-men and pig-women will not be able to fly to engage in air-combat).

And that is a brief portrait of what the future will be like. Stay tuned for the next episode in this saga as I will describe one of the humankind’s greatest feats 40 years in the future — running water!

Unfunnied – XKCD 396

xkcdThanks for reading the first article in my new category that I have titled “Unfunnied.” In this series, I will take things that I perceive to be funny and then analyze them to the point where they’re not funny anymore. At the end of each article, I’ll facetiously state, “ehh, you kinda had to be there” as though I just realized at the conclusion of writing my article that my description made the topic unfunny. To switch things up, I may later say, “and then I found twenty dollars,” which is a phrase I commonly use at the end of boring stories to make them sound interesting as people are always interested when one serendipitously finds money.

Today’s subject is http://www.xkcd.com/396/.

This cartoon is great. It’s all about the movie The Ring, which is an American remake of the Japanese movie Ringu. In both versions, there exists a video tape that kills its viewers unless they pass it on within a period p where p = 1 week.

The prankster in the cartoon that watches the video posts the video on the Internet for the entire world to see because they “rickrolled” him. For those of you unfamiliar with “rickrolling,” it is a sadistic form of entertainment in which a person sends a victim a misleading link that sends the user to the music video of Rick Astley’s 80’s hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.” For example, one day, I was looking for videos of hits from the 80s, and my friend sent me a link called, “Funny music video from the 80s.” When I clicked on it, I was completely shocked to find that it was the music video of Rick Astley’s 80’s hit “Never Gonna Give You Up.” I was rickrolled.

In the final frame, we realize that 363,104 people have seen the video (and presumably more), but the protagonist feels plenty justified.

In this cartoon, the creator does the following things:

  1. Makes a pop-geek-culture reference. XKCD is heavily targeted towards the “geek” demographic which will be able to identify with “Rickrolling.” Many will this cartoon funny for this reason alone.
  2. Makes light of death. In the Ring movies, the video is a terrible thing that results in people’s deaths. The character in XKCD uses it humorously as a means for his revenge upon at least 363,104 people.
  3. Makes you think. Is the protagonist anti-superstition and using this video to prove a point? Or is he just crazy? And if we are back in the context of The Ring, how are 363,104 people possibly going to perpetuate this video? Will they all just die?

Through these methods, it’s really easy to understand why this comic is comical…

eh… you kinda had to be there.

Understanding – Fake conflict diamonds

brownishpink.jpgStocks are so pedestrian these days. Every publicly traded company seems to offer them. And they’re so impersonal too. When was the last time you saw a person you saw a man drop to one knee to propose to a woman, offering a stock certificate?

These days, all the rage is in conflict diamonds. What women really want are shiny objects that tell the world, “my significant other loves me so much that he or she bought me a symbol of how we as a modern society cripple the third world.” The only problem: they’re expensive!

For those looking for alternatives to conflict diamonds, here are two:

  1. Kimberly Process Certified Diamonds. These are diamonds that have been tracked from their mining up until the point they reach your fiancee’s finger. What’s great about them? They are identical to conflict diamonds in appearance. Even your nosy neighbor’s diamond expert “friend” won’t be able to tell that they were not mined by starving children. However, they will also be roughly the same price as conflict diamonds.
  2. “Cultured” or “synthetic” diamonds. These diamonds are grown in a lab with a process similar to the way Cheez-Its are produced. A giant ball of carbon starts rolling from the top of a large hill until it reaches “terminal velocity.” At this point, the carbon collides with a cracker. The carbon’s own momentum compresses it until it is shiny like a diamond. The end result is a diamond almost indistinguishable from a conflict diamond (to the untrained eye). If a trained jeweler with a loupe does examine the diamond, you can always say, “oh, I didn’t want to be responsible for child labor and conflict in Africa” (though in secret, yes you do!)

Another note on diamonds — just because they weren’t mined with child labor and used to fund war between warlords doesn’t mean that you can’t still support this. Force your nephew to mine diamonds in the back yard. Use anything he finds to contribute to Republican campaigns. Ask for a certificate to keep track of what conflict your child labor has just supported when you buy the diamond back. After all, a synthetic-conflict diamond is still a synthetic conflict-diamond!

Understanding Finance – Investing in the lottery

the lotteryThe lottery is statistically a bad investment. The expected value of your return is always lower than the amount you’ll pay for tickets. Worst of all, much of the money you put in goes into school systems.

But what if this weren’t the case? What if you could ensure that you could make millions on each dollar you invest? Well, there is a way to do this, and it’s actually quite simple. The answer: used lottery tickets.

Buying used lottery tickets is the sure-fire way to control the rate of return on your investment. When you go into a 7/11 and buy a lottery ticket, you’re placing a big bet where the odds are against you. When you buy a used lottery ticket, you can do research ahead of time to determine whether the ticket is a winner. Here’s what to do:

  1. Look for tickets. You can do a simple search on sites such as eBay, craigslist, or FindUsedLottoTickets.com.
  2. Look up the lotto number and date. This is the important part. As your browsing listings on the web site, be sure to do your research and find out whether the ticket is a winner. If the ticket did not win for the date it was issued, you should likely not buy it.
  3. Calculate the value of the ticket. When deciding how much you’re willing to pay for the ticket, you’ll want to know how much you’ll net from the ticket. Offer to pay any amount less than your net revenue after taxes.
  4. Execute. Once you’ve agreed on a price that would give you a return that you’re satisfied with, execute on the deal. Figure out payment and delivery details. To gain favor for future used lottery ticket transactions, be sure to provide the seller with good ratings on the web site.

When calculating the value of the used lottery ticket, be sure to factor in the opportunity cost of calculating the value of the used lottery ticket. You may find this to be difficult as it is infinitely recursive (or is it???). Just do your best. In the end, it’ll make for a great investment.

Thanks for reading.

Understanding Finance – The tale of the Walletin Spectre

Norse giantsAdam Smith was a big proponent of free market economics. Some may say that he “invented” capitalism. But who invented Adam Smith? Clearly, saying that Smith invented capitalism would be a naive statement, and nobody invented Adam Smith, but it was the old tale of the Walletin spectre that scared him straight into supporting self interest and competition.

The Celtic tale of the Walletin spectre dates back centuries before Smith’s time to the 12th century when the Vikings raided Scotland like it was a set of 5 inexpensive hard disks. According to Norse mythology, the Valhallamr was a galley on which a communal group of giants lived. At night, they would disembark at various locations, plundering coastal villages and sharing the profits.

Centuries pass, and a number of the Norse settle in Scotland. One group of Norse emigrants established the town of Walletin, a rough Celtic translation of Valhallamr. These former Vikings vowed to stay true to the ways of Valhallamr galley and tried to establish a communal village. Unfortunately, the village of Walletin failed to survive its first winter as the settlers lacked any agrarian skills (skills vital for sustaining a commune), so they resorted to plundering other villages.

But the pickins were slim for the Walletins. No longer having the advantage of mobility offered by their galleys, the Walletins were unable to plunder. Neighboring villagers were generally smart enough to move away. Slowly, the plundering settlers died in the blistery Scottish winter.

By the 18th century, the story of the Walletin evolved into a folk story used by Scottish parents to scare their children. The Walletin became a starving spectre, or ghost, that would plunder at night with the intention of sharing profits with fellow Walletins. It was this story, the story of the Walletin Spectre, that convinced Smith that it was the idea of self-interest and competition, and not the profit sharing model of the Walletin, that would lead to economic prosperity. And now you know of the tale of the Walletin Spectre and the birth of modern economics. Do share your new wealth of knowledge with all that you know (much like the Walletins would after plundering it).

Is it gross? The thousand-year egg edition

pi-danOnce again, we ask the question, “is it gross?” We’ve brought back our contestant Ed. Here’s today’s “thing”:

Take a duck egg. Soak it in a brine of salt and industrial strength cleaning product for 10 days. Then, wrap it in plastic and age it for several weeks. Expedite the process by adding a lead oxide. Later, crack the egg open and serve with soy sauce.

Ed’s response:

what, gross!

Yes folks, it is indeed gross. But interestingly enough, what pushed today’s “thing” over Ed’s gross-threshold was the fact that it was served with soy sauce and not the industrial strength cleaning product in which it was prepared.

Today’s “thing” is in fact what the Chinese call pi-dan (pee-done). In English, it is often called “preserved eggs,” “century eggs,” or “thousand year eggs.” Back in the day (about a week ago), the Chinese compensated for their lack of a reliable food source with an abundance of preservatives.

Traditionally, pi-dan has been all about preserving eggs. The procedure for making pi-dan was packing duck eggs in a mixture of water and clay with a high pH level. The clay would turn the yolk translucent blackish-brown and the yolk blackish-gray. Pi-dan would then be served with xi-fan or rice porridge. In my (gross) case, just cut it up and serve it with soy sauce.

Now, pi-dan is all about making a whacky tasting egg. Serving with soy sauce is definitely the preferred method for grossing out your non-Chinese friends. Once tasted, the palate cannot cannot be cleansed. Other foods consumed within hours of preserved egg will just taste bizarre. Only time will get the taste out of one’s mouth.

Modern methods have reduced the fermentation period to mere weeks (yay modern methods!), making them easy to mass produce and distribute. But, when buying preserved eggs, be sure to find the ones without lead. Heavy metal poisoning messes you up good.

Understanding Finance – Why Google is worth like, a bajillion dollars

Many people new to the stock market and unfamiliar with the tech industry find themselves asking a common question: What’s the deal with Google? Should I invest in it? While, many argue that it’s overvalued, others will argue that it’s undervalued. I’m here to put an end to that question: Yes. Invest in it. Here’s why:

  1. They have good leadership.
  2. They’re not evil.
  3. They’re investing in different markets.
  4. They have a strong brand name.
  5. Web 2.0
  6. Walmart was once a small business, and now they’re HUGE.

Now, I don’t have a billion spreadsheets like Goldman Sachs or anything, so I can’t tell you specifically how these 6 bullet points translate into the stock price. In fact, I have not met a single person that can. However, I can tell you that investing in the stock market is all about evaluating your risk tolerances. Perhaps your risk tolerance doesn’t allow you to invest in a company whose stock price you cannot really justify. For those that I know that argue the six points above, ehhh, it never really came up. After all, they’ve got good leadership, they’re not evil, they’re investing in different markets, they have a strong brand name, Web 2.0, and you know this company Walmart — they were once a small business, and now they’re huge!

So put your faith in Google, and let the magic of compounded interest take you the rest of the way.

Understanding Finance – Starting your first e-business

Do you have your own e-business? No? Why the hell not? What is wrong with you? In this new Web 2.0 era, running e-businesses is surely the only way to guarantee enough money for retirement. To date, I’ve started 9 e-businesses, but most of my friends have started well over 20 each. Here’s what you’ll need to get start an e-business:

  1. Capital. This is money that you will use to fund your investment. Luckily, this is next to nothing for e-businesses since the Internet does not actually exist. I started my Treadmill-powered-segway e-business with nothing but two roasted chickens from Safeway that I used for bargaining.
  2. A value proposition. This is the explanation of why customers should choose your e-business over your competition. It should be unique to your business and convey value to the customer. For example, the value proposition for my “book shirts” e-business is that it’s the only place where you can have your autobiography published onto an item of clothing with multiple pages – the way it was meant to be read.
  3. A computer. Computers put the ‘e’ in “e-business.” You’ll need a computer to run your e-business. When you’re not using your computer for starting your e-business, you can also use it for other things. I have friends that use it to play Minesweeper. I personally use it for Internet dating. To each his own.
  4. Persistence. I was told a thousand times that no one would ever want Porcupine Slippers. And you know what? The critics were wrong. When I went out to do my own research, I found that porcupine slippers ranked second highest in popularity in the “defensive and comfortable” category of clothing (beaten in a narrow margin by the “echidna pajamas”). Point being: don’t get discouraged when people call your idea stupid. Tell them that their faces are stupid. But don’t give up.

To start your first e-business, you will need all 4 of these. An initiative with lots of capital and computers but not enough value proposition will result in an unsuccessful e-business. Once you start your first e-business, make it a goal to start one every few weeks. Use holidays to boost your sales. My one-way chimney valve, for example, sells great around Christmas. And in ten years, when you have a thousand e-businesses and you’re sitting in a Winnebago in Tahiti, you’ll think, “damn, I am sure glad I took the time out to understanding finance.

’til next time, folks. Thanks for taking the time to get closer to understanding finance.

Examining Stupid – Is the Ivy League worth it?

the ivy league!!As you may know, I received my undergraduate degree from an Ivy League institution. Was it worth it? Well, I don’t know what that question means, but judging by the fact that you’re asking, the answer is probably “no,” as the only thing I really learned during my four years was how to spot bad writing.

For example, the article Is the Ivy League worth it? is a really bad article written by Donald Asher who is apparently “one of the nation’s foremost authorities on the graduate admissions process.” Let’s skip past the first few paragraphs of introductory drivel and skip straight to the thesis.

Asher states, “[the Ivy League schools] are undeniably good schools, but there are also by my count at least one hundred other good schools that do as good or better a job at educating undergraduates.” Besides the implication that all of the ivy league schools are undeniably good schools (sorry Brown and Dartmouth), I can agree with this. You don’t need to go to an Ivy League school to get a really good education, and in many cases, you can get a better education elsewhere. Asher continues his article with reasons why other schools will give you as good or better educations.

  1. Many Ivy League schools are primarily graduate schools. I think here, Asher’s making the point that other schools may be just as good as Ivy League schools because, despite the reputation, Ivy League schools actually devote most of their resources to their graduate or professional schools. The resource allocation is hard to refute. Graduate business, medical, and law schools just provide the significantly better return on investment than undergraduate schools. However, the thing about being Harvard is that you can devote most of your resources to graduate schools but still provide an education that is better than most other schools. This is similar to many other members of the Ivy League.
  2. Rankings of specific departments often don’t favor the Ivy League. This is one of those stupid arguments that have the implication that students applying to schools within the Ivy League have not looked up departmental rankings. But fine, this does support the argument that you could find a hundred schools that can provide better educations than schools within the Ivy League… until Asher goes on to point out that NYU is in fact ranked top in math (source?). OK. So, if you’re really good at math and know you want to pursue math for the rest of your life, NYU’s a great choice (by the way, for the rest of your life, you’ll be explaining to people that NYU did indeed have the highest score in math… yes even better than MIT… yes even better than Stanford… yes even better than Princeton… no you’re not kidding), but is it possible that in your sophomore year, you’ll decide you prefer engineering? Good thing you’re at the #1 math school.
  3. Grad schools don’t seem to favor Ivy League grads over others. First whammy — this by no means supports Asher’s thesis that other schools provide a better education. Second whammy – Asher lists schools that produce the most Ph.Ds per capita. Not only is this cryptic, but it also doesn’t mean anything as he fails to establish causality with the correlation.
  4. The Ivy League scares some kids to death. This is another stupid argument. Asher argues that some highly talented students would fare better at schools with less stress and competition. Right. Great idea. Because really, stress and competition surface infrequently in the real world. Unfortunately for Asher, his thesis was that there are hundreds of schools that provide better educations than Ivy League schools, not that your student will do better at a school with worse students.
  5. Cutting-edge tech employers may not be as enamored of the Ivy League brand. This is a great argument as to why you do not need to attend an Ivy League school to succeed but once again fails to support the thesis.

So to recap, I’d just like to clarify that I do agree with the spirit of Asher’s arguments: one does not need to go to the Ivy League to succeed in life. My complaint is that the article is just a bunch of unfocused generalizations that won’t actually help real students or families.

My advice: When you’re looking at schools, really think about your goals (professional schools? PhD? industry?) and your expectations of college (PCU? A Beautiful Mind?). Then, consider reputation, departmental rankings, quality of life, testimonials, abundance of attractive coeds (eye-candy), abundance of unattractive coeds (reality), location, faculty, research opportunities, and atmosphere.

And when you’re rejected from an Ivy league school, then read Donald Asher’s article on how the Ivy League isn’t necessarily worth it.