Thursday, July 31, 2008

Whither China?

It's becoming a bit of a tired refrain: things are good, likely to get better (China Law Blog) but the path probably isn't going to be linear (Cato) and political change will probably need to happen first.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Passive Aggressive Humor

I confess I've inadvertently done this before. I think I have a problem with depth perception - or at least that's my excuse. I suspect this works well particularly in Canada where some people go out of their way not to offend (Passive-Aggressive Notes - yet another blog I'm now following):

Quote of the Day

From CapMag The Ultimate Resource (probably titled after the book of the same name by Julian Simon, h/t Adam Smith Blog):

The greatest threat to mankind's prosperity is government. A recent example is Zimbabwe's increasing misery. Like our country, Zimbabwe had a flourishing agriculture sector, so much so it was called the breadbasket of southern Africa. Today, its people are on the brink of starvation as a result of its government. It's the same story in many countries -- government interference with mankind's natural tendency to engage in wealth-producing activities. Blaming poverty on overpopulation not only lets governments off the hook; it encourages the enactment of harmful policies.
On a related note, "The New Religion" also from Adam Smith Blog.

Monday, July 28, 2008

TED: Martin Seligman on Authentic Happiness

One of the best TED presentations I've seen to date - at least one that I think could potentially be most useful. Martin Seligman reframes and considers what happiness is. It's about 20 minutes long but it's 20 minutes well spent.

One of the interesting points he makes is that being able to be lost in the moment / losing track of time is indicative of finding what you love to do and being truly happy. A parallel, in that sense, would be to David Allen's Getting Things Done where Allen makes a convincing argument that if you can get all the other thoughts/worrying about other tasks you haven't done, you can more easily achieve this state. Seligman has a number of other tools at his website From a managerial perspective, I think it doesn't take a rocket scientist to also realize that happy employees, in the sense that they can see meaning from their work and life, can be more productive employees.

What makes Seligman's presentation unique is that he approaches happiness, generally an abstract idea, with a rigorous approach. Anyway, watch it, and I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Causation, Correlation and the Idiocy of (Some) Journalists

Journalists should know better. The latest scaremongering comes courtesy on a study that "men who eat soya-based foods may be harming their fertility" according to "doctors". Read into the study (Guardian) and you discover that they tested people and their sperm counts against the amount of soy products that they say they had eaten in the past 3 months.

Let's face it, men who eat soy based products are pansies anyway so is it any surprise they have low sperm counts? (just kidding - I eat some soy products but for anyone who actually cares, I'm sure it's not enough to affect my virility :)) Plus, have these researchers ever heard of China? Clearly soy consumption hasn't really hurt them and their population growth.

I wonder if these journalists realize that dwindling quality has a causal relationship on circulation? Me thinks at the rate they're circling the drain, they better figure it out fast.

The Chinese Government's Idea of PR

Imagethief calls it the "Who you going to believe? Us or your own eyes?" Approach which doesn't seem to be working out all too well as it relates to net censorship and pollution. Amusing read here.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

How to Destroy Value

Harvard Business School Publishing's Umair Harque has a useful list of how you too can destroy shareholder value. It's a good counterpoint to a post at Crooked Timber that somewhat absurdly claims just about anything can be justified as creating shareholder value. Where Crooked Timber goes horrifically wrong is their inability to distinguish between the concepts of short term profitability, sustainable advantage and shareholder value.

Useful Data Point: The Big Mac Index

The Economist has a new snapshot of their Big Mac Index out:

I'm actually a little surprised and perhaps a bit alarmed that China is still so low. On the other hand, when it comes to Europe... wow....

Blame Capitalism and Soak the Rich

It requires gobsmacking chutzpah for politicians and demagogues to blame their policy failures on the markets. The clock is about to be turned back on an era of deregulation started by Ronald Reagan (Financial Week). I've long stopped watching Lou Dobbs who has transformed over the years from a seemingly lucid reasonable financial reporter to a raving protectionist lunatic but here's his take on the Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bailout (Club for Growth):

And I love the idea that all these free traders, free marketeers now got to have the government to, to bail them out. If I hear one of these ignorant, hypocritical, sanctimonious free traders ever talk about free markets again, they should be pilloried. I mean they are absolutely - this is an administration of jerks and cowards and fools. I mean it's unbelievable.
Newsflash: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are GSE's. I can't help but think that Dobbs actually does know that the "G" in GSE stands for Government and the "S" stands for Sponsored - but that he assumes is viewers don't. It took McCain a while to come around to the view that this was a bad deal particularly for US taxpayers but at least he did - as noted in the WSJ:
"Americans should be outraged at the latest sweetheart deal in Washington," the Republican presidential hopeful wrote in the St. Petersburg Times, stating the clear but all-too-often unspoken reality about this greatest of boondoggles. Yesterday 80 Senators voted to end debate on the bill. Only 13 voted against. That makes it all but inevitable that the bailout will pass today and go to the President early next week. Senator Jim DeMint has slowed the bill by requesting a commitment from his colleagues that sometime in the future, they would hold a vote on barring Fannie and Freddie from lobbying.
Just a few days earlier, Paul Gigot from the WSJ lambasted both McCain and Obama for not bothering to pay attention to the issue and the unwieldy mess that is set to get worse:
The abiding lesson here is what happens when you combine private profit with government power. You create political monsters that are protected both by journalists on the left and pseudo-capitalists on Wall Street, by liberal Democrats and country-club Republicans. Even now, after all of their dishonesty and failure, Fannie and Freddie could emerge from this taxpayer rescue more powerful than ever. Campaigning to spare taxpayers from that result would represent genuine "change," not that either presidential candidate seems interested.
It's a strange strange world, when even the New York Times points out US hypocrisy in pushing China to deregulate its financial sector and for governments to stop protecting banks while the US is about to do quite the opposite leading Steven Malanga from the Manhattan Institute to remind us of the selective application of capitalism that lead to this mess in the first place and will likely result in a even bigger mess / slower economic growth to come. Malanga also points to the tax system which has become a "a vehicle for achieving social goals instead of principally a method of raising revenue."

And what an odd vehicle that is. After all, ask a politician who should pay for this debacle? Well tax the rich of course (as Obama now advocates). As the rhetoric goes, the rich should "pay their fair share". But what does that mean? Here's the situation now:

Both the Tax Prof Blog and Power Line link to the recent editorial in the WSJ titled "Their Fair Share". Note that this is in an era of lower taxes for the rich! So let's get this straight - higher taxes may lead to a more "egalitarian" society but that's if you're willing to accept that everyone is generally poorer and the rich end up paying less. How can this be? Notes the WSJ: "Because they either worked less, earned less, or they found ways to shelter income from taxes so it was never reported to the IRS as income." A good synopsis of this effect here from Fund Mastery Blog. Don't let any of these facts get in the way of a politician collecting votes from those who envy the rich and detracting from the reality that government deficits aren't the result of a revenue problem but a spending problem.

Other helpful reminders from Freakonomics and Will Wilkinson that the problems the US now faces really aren't the result of capitalism no matter how much politicians may wish to paint them as such. Of course, with the political mood in the US swinging towards politicians who promise voters stability by spending their money, I don't have enough faith that the efforts or exhortations from those like Wilkinson or Freakonomics will matter except to say I told you so later.

Is Batman a Libertarian?

This pressing question is passionately debated here (Stephen Bainbridge, via Instapundit). An equally useful comparison between Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Wayne can be found at Conde Nast's Portfolio (via PE Hub). Their respective serindipitous wealth almost makes you feel sorry for Peter Parker who was born on the other side of the tracks. Incidentally if you haven't seen The Dark Knight and/or Iron Man, you're missing out on the top 1 and 2, respectively, best movies of the year.

Being an Entrepreneur Ain't Just for Young'uns

A pretty good retrospective on entrepreneurship in general - not just as it relates to youth from Michael Malone (h/t Instapundit):

At age 54, I’ve just started two companies.

And what I’ve already learned from the experience is that not only am I more suited for the task now than I was at 27 or 38, but that the world of entrepreneurial start-ups is now much more suited for me. And for you.
Read the whole thing.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Remarkably Good News in Zimbabwe

South Africa's Mbeki has finally decided to assume a leadership role in what has been a massive humanitarian disaster in Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe has been an example to the world that poverty isn't the result of a lack of resources but rather, bad governments. That Russia and China have backed the current ruthless government probably does not bode well for their interests in the future as these things aren't easily forgotten. I'm still skeptical that this is a done deal but the negotiations for a power sharing agreement appear to have had real progress (Times UK):

The Sunday Times has learnt that Mugabe, who has vowed that Tsvangirai will never be in government and that “only God can remove me from power”, faces humiliation over the terms of the deal that he will be forced to sign next month.

He will remain as president in name only and all real power will be held by a 20-member cabinet under Tsvangirai as prime minister. The opposition MDC will have 11 cabinet posts to nine for Mugabe’s Zanu-PF.

All Mugabe’s senior officials in the army, police and intelligence services, who have unleashed a campaign of terror since the MDC won a disputed victory in the elections held in March, will be dismissed.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Getting the Governments We Deserve

From Freakonomics:

Politicians reap higher electoral benefits from doling out disaster relief money than they do from spending money beforehand on disaster prevention. According to a new paper by Andrew Healy, an economist at Loyola Marymount University, that creates an incentive for governments to underprepare for natural disasters.

Miscellaneous Link Dumping

Haven't been feeling as inspired to post as much lately (combined with a crushing amount of work to get done) but here are a few things that I found interesting recently:

  • [Productivity] 'Don't multitask', from an appropriately named article "The Myth of Multitasking" (The New Atlantis): "multitasking adversely affects how you learn. Even if you learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and more specialized, so you cannot retrieve the information as easily." It's something that I'm trying to get away from but I just have to figure out how to better control the interruptions.
  • [Commodities] Optisolar, a rival to to Nanosolar raises $77.8 M with plans to build a 550 MW plant in San Luis Obispo County, California. Read more about it here and here. Like many things, it bugs me that some people think that the government should be spearheading some big plan - as if they have the expertise or competence to figure out which technologies are most viable.
  • [Trivia] The reason that pub/bar music is loud is because people drink more - at least according to the Guardian.
  • [Managing] Inside the LEGO Factory. Pretty cool, from Gizmodo.
  • [Technology] An site/blog dedicated to Arab technology startups. Given their governments and stifling social conditions, I have my doubts that this will be vibrant site but I guess it's a start.
  • [Politics, Economics] According to the Economist, you get what you pay for especially when it comes to survival rates from a few forms of cancer. Interestingly despite significantly greater amounts of spending in the US, the survival rates are only marginally better than Canada - though I'm sure that for that margin, it's worth it.

Customer Service Horror Story from FedEx

Having recently had my own little run in where FedEx "misplaced" a large critical package with various customer service people telling me any variety of half truths/outright lies, I sympathize with Aaron Greenspan. A few good customer service lessons to behold, however. It doesn't surprise me anymore how absurdly incompetent some companies appear to their customers (and to a certain degree this gives me comfort that business isn't nearly as difficult as some make it out to be):

FedEx is a large company, and we've all grown accustomed to dealing with large companies. When there are so many people involved in a system that it is no longer possible for one individual to actually understand the entire system, it's understandable that some errors might creep in. So what can you do?

As it turns out, there's a lot you can do. You can design better database systems. You can hire educated people to provide support who can think for themselves, instead of parroting party lines. You can grant those employees more authority because you trust them, because education is a good proxy for knowing the difference between right and wrong. You can listen to your customers instead of shouting over them. You can throw out automated phone systems that cost more money than they save because of the time they waste. You can enforce quality assurance policies that route computer-related problems to people who actually know something about computers. You can perform random billing audits to catch mistakes before customers do.

Useful Career Advice

Even for entrepreneurs who seek some big payoff so that they can retire early (I've never quite understood that). Punchline (37Signals):

Bottom line is that you really should try to find something to work on that at least for substantial amounts of time constitutes that “nothing I’d rather do” feeling. I think it’s hard to be truly happy if the only reason you work is to win a paycheck. Whether it’s as an employee or a business owner.

Thinking about "Innovation"

Scott Burkun at Harvard Business Publishing when notes innovation has become a vapid PR catch phrase that isn't often used by the people who are actually doing it:

Inventors, creators, and leaders, the people who earned fame for the work other people call innovative rarely used that word themselves. Instead their vocabularies leaned heavily on words like problem, experiment, solve, exploration, change, risk and prototype. Powerful words. Words that are either verbs, or imply a set of actions. And more to the point, they care less about being innovative than they do about making things. Making good things. Forget creating a breakthrough: it's hard enough to make a really good thing that people will love to use.


Instead of asking "How can we be innovative?", a toothless and vague question with mostly useless answers, we should be asking "How can we make great things?"
On a somewhat related note, Sathnam Sanghera from the Times UK appropriately notes that design is useless if it isn't functional. He uses the creative naming/symbols to designate washrooms at restaurants/bars that try to be trendy. I had an interesting experience in Singapore. And to that end, some life experience garnered: jalapeno tequila shots are not recommended on an empty stomach. At the time I was fortunate enough that there was a washroom available as the women standing outside the washrooms were confused unable to figure out which was for whom.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Are you Financially Illiterate?

Take quiz (and find answers) here, courtesy of Freakonomics:

1. Suppose you had $100 in a savings account and the interest rate was 2 percent per year. After 5 years, how much do you think you would have in the account if you left the money to grow?

a. More than $102
b. Exactly $102
c. Less than $102
d. Do not know

2. Imagine that the interest rate on your savings account was 1 percent per year and inflation was 2 percent per year. After 1 year, would you be able to buy more than, exactly the same as, or less than today with the money in this account?

a. More than today
b. Exactly the same as today
c. Less than today
d. Do not know

3. Do you think that the following statement is true or false? “Buying a single company stock usually provides a safer return than a stock mutual fund.”

a. True
b. False
c. Do not know

A few sad stats and also a good argument of why a few basic lessons in economics and financial literacy should be as mandatory as, say, history in school.

The Truth about Agricultural Subsidies

A pretty comprehensive overview here (Freakonomics). The worst part is that subsidies often accrue to the wealthiest farmers while making the poor in developing countries poorer.

Could Doughnuts optimize your lifespan and make you sexually potent?

To paraphrase, maybe (Popular Science, h/t Instapundit). That's good enough for me. (We'll ignore for the moment that the research so far only applies to crickets.)

Monday, July 21, 2008

"It Really is an Amazing Time to be Alive"

I'll second that (Tom's Tech Blog). 'Tom' points to an interesting post from YCombinator's Paul Graham who talks a bit about the types of projects he hopes to fund - some ideas are obvious, some are less so.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Absolute vs Relative Poverty

And those who try to sell the two issues as being the same thing (FT, h/t Adam Smith Blog)... Of course given the large and generally unaccountable industry around poverty, it's easy to see why there are some who want to continue measuring poverty on a relative basis. Unless basic rules of math change, it will always be impossible for everyone to be "above average". This isn't to say of course that there are numerable deserving charities, but to give unquestionably strikes me as an act more about self than it is about benevolence.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Selling Fear

No it's not the nature of markets, it's about the 'environmental movement' (Edward Glaeser in the NY Sun, h/t Greg Mankiw):

The environmental movement has been very successful at making America afraid. Forty-five years ago, Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" convinced the public that DDT was a great threat to our ecosystem; more recently, Vice President Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" created widespread alarm about global warming. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich's "The Population Bomb" terrified millions with its claim that humans had overtaxed the environment and that "in the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now."
Fortunately as the article points out, Ehrlich is persistently and consistently wrong. Some people think that worrying about the environment and the Earth is like believing in God (the Angry Economist). Personally, I'd rather just believe in God.

Of course it's sort of comforting that the people who make it out to be a crisis (WSJ), don't actually act as if it is (American Prosperity).

Friday Humor

From (via PE Hub):

"Appropriate Technology" and Development

For those in the development field - pretty cool and a good fit with microfinance initiatives - fixing the world on $2/day (Popular Mechanics, h/t Instapundit):

Smith is trying to turn the cobs into charcoal. For an award-winning engineer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this would seem to be a humble goal. Wood charcoal has been in use for thousands of years. However, for many of the world's poor, it can be a life-saving technology. Compone's farmers are among the 800 million people worldwide who use raw biomass—agricultural waste, dung, straw—for fuel. Globally, smoke from indoor fires makes respiratory infections the leading cause of death for children under the age of 5, claiming more than a million young lives a year. Charcoal burns much more cleanly. "I don't know how quickly we can change cooking habits here," Smith says, "but I'd like to see people breathing less smoke inside their homes."

A well-liked instructor at MIT and member of the Popular Mechanics editorial advisory board, Smith is a rising star in a field known as appropriate technology, which focuses on practical, usually small-scale designs to solve problems in the developing world. She has brought four undergrads to Compone, along with Jesse Austin-Breneman, an MIT graduate who works for a community organization in Peru, and one of her engineering collaborators, 53-year-old Gwyndaf Jones. To get here, the team has lugged bags of tools and low-tech gadgets, water-testing equipment and a heavy wooden crate bearing a pedal-powered grain mill more than 3500 miles in taxis, airplanes and buses.

Not sure if I posted this before, but a pretty good inspirational presentation at TED by Amy Smith here:

The best form of "Creative Capitalism" is... Capitalism

As a recap, "creative capitalism" is Bill Gates' term for "social capitalism". With the meltdown and bailout of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, here's a response from Lawrence Summers:

What went wrong? The illusion that the companies were doing virtuous work made it impossible to build a political case for serious regulation. When there were social failures the companies always blamed their need to perform for the shareholders. When there were business failures it was always the result of their social obligations. Government budget discipline was not appropriate because it was always emphasized that they were "private companies.” But market discipline was nearly nonexistent given the general perception -- now validated -- that their debt was government backed. Little wonder with gains privatized and losses socialized that the enterprises have gambled their way into financial catastrophe.

I wonder how general the lesson here might be. My fear is fairly general. Inherent in the multiple objectives urged for creative capitalists is a loss of accountability with respect to performance. The sense that the mission is virtuous is always a great club for beating down skeptics. When institutions have special responsibilities it is necessary that they be supported in competition to the detriment of market efficiency.

It is hard in this world to do well. It is hard to do good. When I hear a claim that an institution is going to do both, I reach for my wallet. You should too.

Read the whole thing.

Competition and the Family Unit

Amusing (from Greg Mankiw):

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Ugh, so Why Would Anyone Want to do That?

Proof that love makes you crazy. And to top it all off, "romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on earth." I suppose the legal defense of 'not guilty, by reason of romantic love' is just around the corner:

Idiots on Parade

Megan McArdle, a former writer with The Economist, does a wonderful smackdown of supposed intellectuals in their fight against the Milton Friedman Institute:

Their assessment of the effects of the "neoliberal global order" is forehead slapping, head shaking, did-they-really-say that? stupid. I haven't heard such transparently wishful claptrap since my fifteen-year-old boyfriend tried to convince me that sex provided unparalleled aerobic exercise. If you put all 100 in a room with unlimited access to Lexis-Nexis and a mountain-sized peyote stash to bring their quasi-communist fantasy life into 3D technicolor, they still couldn't name a country where neoliberalism has undermined a vibrant democracy. Nor where Demon Capital has made things worse. The worst you can say for the neoliberal order is that it doesn't make things better the way we hoped it would. Any place you can name that has been deeply screwed up since global capital arrived was at least as corrupt and otherwise awful before the capital swooped in to plant garment factories in the edenic swamps of rural poverty.
She also does an excellent job of correcting some historical inaccuracies on Milton Friedman and his role in Chile (with a noteworthy comparison to China) here:
Apparently I missed the section in history class where we covered the vibrant democracy that existed in China prior to pro-market reforms. Because in the history I learned, the openness and transparency required to support the market reforms have enabled what little movement towards liberalization China has had.

Energy Policy in the US

For the Democrats, neatly summarized here by Michael Ramirez (from Investor's Business Daily), via Power Line Blog:

Of course I'm not entirely convinced the Republicans (with the support of many Democrats as well) are much better with their bizarre support of corn based ethanol and fight against Brazilian ethanol; not to mention McCain's gas tax holiday.

Clearing the Tabs, Link Dumping

A few cool links. I haven't done this in a while and now my tabs are bogging down my memory, so here goes:

  • [Humor] I love a good rant and it doesn't get much better than this - as pulled from the original post by Instapundit - "It takes a special kind of person to get pissed off watching the Home and Garden channel, and I am just that special person:" Mamas, don’t let your sons watch HGTV. They’ll never get married. (Rachel Lucas). Additional relationship advice here: "Why you should never be a startup girlfriend" (Stephanie Finch)
  • [Productivity] Apparently Silicon Valley is hopped up on Provigil. I confess that its benefits seem appealing (TechCrunch): "the main effect of Provigil is to keep you awake and able to concentrate, a lot of people who get their hands on it use it to be able to work longer hours, even though it has not been deemed safe for that kind of use [...] there are few side effects to Provigil compared to stimulants and it is supposedly not habit forming."
  • [Productivity] Given how much I love food, I am having problems wrapping my head around this but apparently hunger can make you happy (Live Science).
  • [Productivity] "Sleeping on it" does, in fact, work (Guardian).
  • [Economics] Apparently economics can teach you about love according to Ben Stein in the New York Times. Does that mean that there's hope for me yet?
  • [Development/Economics] Globally the middle class has been "exploding" in a report from Goldman Sachs no less! Of course this has lots of implications for entrepreneurs and businesses. via Adam Smith Institute Blog

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

As Much Fun as Heatstroke

I did hot yoga this evening in a 90 minute session and it was not a pleasant experience. I would have had more fun driving to (and from) Toronto during rush hour (particularly since I skipped a dinner with friends because of this). I told my personal trainer, who happens to be the wife to a business partner, afterward, when asked how I "enjoyed" it, that I could at least say I've tried it once.

She responded that I should try it at least 3 times clearly attempting to move the original bar. I'm afraid of her but I'm trying to decide at this point how afraid. On the other hand, she will be joining my business partner and I, and their kids, for a "massive concoction" (my terms) at DQ as we just won two deals for our new venture.

Anyway, just thought I would just say that I found hot yoga about as fun as heat stroke if not more so not to mention that it consumed 90 minutes of time I will never get back. There is one (stress on one) positive note - and that's there are so many hot women there (dressed quite scantily) to a ratio of only a couple of guys.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Downside of Getting the Upgrade

I always figured it was binary - ie pretty much everyone survives a plane crash or they don't. Apparently not (Popular Mechanics, h/t Altgate):

The rear cabin (seats located behind the trailing edge of the wing) had the highest average survival rate at 69 percent. The overwing section had a 56 percent survival rate, as did the coach section ahead of the wing. First/business-class sections (or in all-coach planes, the front 15 percent) had an average survival rate of just 49 percent.

Given the choice though and the odds, I'd still take the upgrade :).

More on Mutant Bugs Pooping Energy

A roundup here (Brian Wang, h/t Instapundit).

Saturday, July 12, 2008

A Reminder that Black Markets / Anarchy are different than Free Markets...

And that free markets are better than black markets (The Debatable Land).

Want to Live to a Ripe Old Age?

You're headed for fun times if you do (New York Times):

Who would choose cancer as the way to go? Just a few. Chronic heart failure, or emphysema? A few more.

“So all the rest of you are up for frailty and dementia?” Dr. Lynn asked.

As Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac go down in flames...

Greg Mankiw & Stephen Bainbridge say I told you so. The politicians shoo people away telling them there's nothing to see here (WSJ). It may be a useful reminder that governments don't generally abandon market interference willingly but do so reluctantly and by default.

A Simple Case for the Flat Tax

Courtesy of The Club for Growth (originally from the Tax Foundation):

In 2005, the estimated time and money cost of complying with the federal Internal Revenue Code was 6 billion man-hours worth $265 billion.

Are Ideas Worthless?

There was a bit of a smackdown from the 37signals blog:

So somebody else built a successful business on that idea you had three years ago. What does that mean? That if you would just have pursued that idea, you would now automatically be enjoying their spoils? Sorry to burst your bubble, but I really don’t think so.

Ideas on their own are just not that important. It’s incredibly rare that someone comes up with an idea so unique, so protectable that the success story writes itself. Most ideas are nothing without execution.

I'd agree on that last point and it's one that's echoed by Paul Graham of YCombinator fame. Coulda, shoulda, woulda gets to be a tired refrain made especially easy for the obvious reason that the best ideas are the simplest ones. With the emerging fight to reform how patents and intellectual property gets awarded, the approach to ideas becomes a more serious one.

Ideas are useful only so much as they innovate and get implemented. It's an ingenious albeit artificial system created by governments. It forces ideas to be published in the public sphere in return for time limited monopolies rather than a dependence on secrecy, or worse abandoning ideas that take time and money to develop and have useful societal and commercial value but aren't easy to hide. The way patents in the US are granted is not the same as elsewhere in the world. Whereas in the US there is a first to invent threshold, in many other parts of the world it's a first to file - which would seem that it can put some firms in the awkward position of ultimately paying royalties to others for inventions that they've created.

Personally, I think good ideas should be patented, trademarked and/or copyrighted (and it's one of the reasons I consider myself to be more of a pragmatic libertarian for limited government interference in markets rather than none at all). While the system is prone to abuse, patents can also be increasingly important in an age where it's easier to outsource further skewing the advantage towards those who have money rather than those who are able to generate great ideas.

China's Toulou Houses in Fujian

As a fan of architecture and good design, I thought these "mini-castles" in were pretty cool. Another place to add to the travel list (Core77):

Rekindling the Fire

As I've noted in the past, my experience as an entrepreneur is more analogous to a marathon rather than a sprint. Sometimes it's easy to lose focus and get too comfortable though I generally think of myself as fairly impatient. There's nothing quite like meeting someone even more competitive and ambitious than you are to reignite the passion, reframe and refocus.

It's rare to find individuals who see the world without bounds and have the arrogance or ignorance to set audacious goals. It's even rarer that I meet people who I think I can do it, and in someone who is 25, female and a highly attractive one at that. I think it's high time that I worked on that networking group of young(er) entrepreneurs. Lots to do, so little time...

Monday, July 07, 2008

Travel Tip: "Secret" Seats on Planes

I'm not sure that they're "secret" so much as seats that happen to have great features but useful tip despite the link bait (and also a great reason of why you should be using SeatGuru as you book air tickets):

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Quote for the Day

via Adam Smith Institute Blog:

Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive.
C.S. Lewis

Friday, July 04, 2008

VW's car that gets 235 mpg

The cardinal rule of economics: people respond to incentives. VW is moving up production of its 2 passenger 235 mpg car given current energy prices and drops in costs of carbon fiber. Article here (Wired):

Be Cool, Don't Pigou

The libertarian argument of why you shouldn't join the Pigou Club (ie. using taxes to correct negative externalities) from Brian Caplan (h/t Adam Smith Institute Blog):

My view is that people have a right to create all sorts of negative externalities, and other people basically just have to live with them. Unhappy campers have a right to complain about the externalities, refuse to associate with those who create them, or buy a large bloc of land and require visitors to abide by their rules. But they have no right to pass laws to do anything about most externalities. For example, even though I think education has important negative externalities, I don't want to do anything more than eliminate government subsidies for education.

This does not mean, of course, that all negative externalities should be legal. Murder creates externalities, and I'm firmly against its legalization. But the right place to draw the line, in my view, is at physical trespass.

"Don't Quit Your Day Job"

I haven't done a post on entrepreneurship in a while. I thought this was a handy tip from Forbes: you don't need to quit your day job in order to start a business (anymore). Some of the technology out there is fantastic and getting considerably cheaper allowing small businesses to become more responsive through telephony services than ever before. Which reminds me, one of these days I've got to go through and sort out a list of cool web (and non-web) services out there for small businesses.

Crack Security Forces in China - Beyond Parody

Hilarious post here (Imagethief):

More pictures here (Xinhua). Notes a Dave from Chicago: "Surrender and drop your weapon or I will be forced to lean forwards!"

The Price of Everything, the Value of Nothing

Money quote for those who shudder at the idea of economists making decisions on matters pertaining to the environment, says Tim Haab, an environmental economist (the Economist Blog):

Whenever someone asks me, how can you place a price on something as invaluable as the environment, I ask them: How can you not put a price on something as invaluable as the environment when most people act as if it is free?
It's a decent blog post as well. Read the whole thing. Come to think of it, it's a decent quote that applies to a whole slew of social issues - especially when some people come our proclaiming "XXX is too important to be left in the hands of the market". A more appropriate response would be "XXX is therefore too important to be left in the hands of the government."

Update: More on regulations, markets and the environment from Megan McArdle: "There's also this dodgy belief, fervently embraced by many liberals advocating regulations--"Look, even a big business head who would be regulated believes it's a good idea! It must be!" Au contraire, mon frere. The heads of big businesses often love big new regulatory bodies, because they have the resources to best negotiate a complex regime. The end result of this kind of radical regulation is usually that the big companies capture the regulator and use it to shut out competition." (h/t Instapundit)

The Future of Warehousing?

When I was in highschool (now a fairly long time ago), one of the many geeky clubs I joined was Canada FIRST - a robotics competition where high school teams competed against each other to accomplish some sort of goal and making a robot from scratch. I wasn't even remotely technically inclined so I got stuffed with someone else doing something charitably called "PR" for the club.

So when I stumbled onto Kiva Systems, if I were at all technically inclined I think it'd be like a dream job. Kiva Systems may end up being the future of warehousing (IEEE Spectrum). Instead of having a large conveyor belt operation where people move to grab items off a shelf, the shelves come to the people courtesy of these orange robots. Apparently it's already also cost effective.

A few of the cool factoids about Kiva is that the idea was borne out of Mick Mountz trying to figure out how to make fulfillment more cost effective after the demise of Webvan. Further, another one of the key members of the management group is Raffaello D'Andrea, a professor who had led the Cornell team to 4 Robocup world championships.

Eat Less, Live Longer

Or, take the drug (Wired):

Scientists have provided the strongest evidence yet that the anti-aging benefits of calorically restricted diets can be duplicated -- minus the near-starvation -- by a pill.

Travelling by Train in China

A somewhat amusing but unfortunately highly accurate description of train travel in China (WSJ) that starts asking the question:

How smart could I be to drag my folks, aged 70 and 72, on two 12-hour rides on Chinese trains?
Answer: Not very but highly memorable.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Apparently we aren't just a bunch of Grumps

It's remarkable how difficult it is these days to make the argument that we're living healthier, wealthier and even happier lives without being challenged as being some pollyanna-ish freak. So for you doubters out there, here's some more proof - Americans apparently are also a pretty happy bunch (Science Daily, h/t Instapundit):

Denmark tops the list of surveyed nations, along with Puerto Rico and Colombia. A dozen other countries, including Ireland, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Canada and Sweden also rank above the United States, which maintains about the same relative position as it did in WVS's 2000 survey.

"Though by no means the happiest country in the world, from a global perspective the U.S. looks pretty good," says Ronald Inglehart, a political scientist at the university, who directs the study. "The country is not only prosperous; it ranks relatively high in gender equality, tolerance of ethnic and social diversity and has high levels of political freedom."


"Ultimately, the most important determinant of happiness is the extent to which people have free choice in how to live their lives."

Even so, researchers note that wealth is important for happiness. Not surprisingly, three of the world's poorer countries with long histories of repressive government--Moldova, Armenia and Zimbabwe--are at the bottom of the happiness list. Virtually all of the lowest ranking nations struggle with legacies of authoritarian rule and widespread poverty.
Hmmm... I wonder if the authors of the article ever considered the possibility that free choice and wealth are correlated. In any event, just in case you were curious, the US ranks #23 and France #62 out of 178 countries - but that probably isn't news to you.

Personal Finance Advice from Freakonomics: Save Less

Practical reasoning here. Not sure I entirely agree. I mean it makes sense that you make less at the beginning of your career, but if you can get your savings to grow faster than your income over time, I would imagine it makes more sense to save for retirement. Of course, the advice came from Milton Friedman who indirectly gave the advice to Steven Levitt - who I imagine are all working at places that provide pensions...

Mugabe's Useful Idiots

Yes, yes, I know, Lenin may not have actually said it, but the general idea applies here. When it came to Mugabe, we should have been a lot more aggressive a lot earlier. Someone else explores why we didn't (Telegraph).

I hesitate to advocate for a direct armed intervention but clearly, the diplomatic approach hasn't work. That said, I think internally, the opposition to Mugabe must take further initiative. For Zimbabwe's neighbours however, who seem to believe that it's an "internal matter", I would suggest that it's an internal matter like poverty and economic relief are internal matters and it's high time that the west's financial spigots to despots are turned off.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Problem with Social Investing

Money quote (via Paul Kedrosky):

A lot of socially responsible funds have this idea that they’ll provide a social return, but you’ll have to accept a below-average financial return. I disagree. Once you give a business an opportunity to make a below-average return, you make it more likely it will.
Update: Have a read of the entire article. Too often, social investing is an excuse for mediocre returns but given the right approach, I tend to believe that social investing is just plain simple business sense. Then again, I've always believed that Compartamos is social investing (WSJ).


Hilarious (The Agitator, h/t The Adam Smith Institute Blog):

AFA apparently has implemented a policy of substituting "homosexual" whenever the word "gay" appears in wire stories that appear on its website. That resulted in a fantastic write-up of this weekend’s Olympic track and field trials, which were dominated by sprinter Tyson Gay. AFA has since corrected the article, but before they did, it read like juicy, possibly libelous gay sports porn.
For a good laugh, read the whole thing. Yet another good reason not to use autoreplace.

The Girl Effect

I think it makes sense, I'm not sure it's fair to the boys here either, but I'd grant that in developing countries, encouraging girls/women to be more assertive definitely wouldn't be a bad thing. Either way, it's an inspirational presentation that has been done very well:

Hookworms as Cure for Allergies?

Personally I think I'll wait for the drug. Aside from the great cocktail party mileage you can get out of this, being the killjoy I am, it could be a useful reminder that not every human ailment is a result of pollution or some environmental calamity - maybe it's because we live in environments that are too clean.

That said, if allergies are really driving you mad, there's apparently a truly delightful solution (NYT, h/t Instapundit):

In 2004, David Pritchard applied a dressing to his arm that was crawling with pin-size hookworm larvae, like maggots on the surface of meat. He left the wrap on for several days to make sure that the squirming freeloaders would infiltrate his system.

“The itch when they cross through your skin is indescribable,” he said.
Lovely. (Note that this could also be considered a somewhat extreme productivity tip for allergy sufferers).

Happy Canada Day!

For any Canadians out there reading this, Happy Canada Day! Having squandered most of my weekend procrastinating, I've been left hacking away at a mountain of work :). Well the good news (at least for me) is that I've finally found the time (while procrastinating) to get back to the gym since I got back from China.

Incidentally, today was also the day the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was established (say that 10 times fast). Ironically, or perhaps appropriately, most of the people I knew celebrated by going to work!