Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Mongoliad Saga Continues

Neal Stephenson doing a book signing at the Na...
Neal Stephenson doing a book signing at the National Book Festival (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When I wrote a review of Mongoliad Book I, I noted that I was going to keep that book handy because there were so many characters and so many plot threads that I would need a refresher.  Of course, the authors (Neal Stephenson, Greg Bear, Mark Teppo, Nicole Galland, Erick Bear, Joseph Brassey, and Cooper Moo) anticipated that, and the front pages list the characters by the area of the world they are located in. This was particularly useful, since the opening of book II picked up with a thread that I didn’t immediately recall, and some of the characters that I remembered the most clearly didn’t reappear until later in the volume. 
Of course the core plot remains unchanged.  A group of knights, the Shield Brethren, similar to the Knights Templar as an order under the direction of the Pope, have concluded that the only way to save all of Europe from being conquered by the Mongols, lead by a descendant of Genghis Khan, is to slay the Khan.  A small band of Shield Brethren along with Cnan, a “Binder”, a remarkably skilled scout, are making their way to Asia on a mission to assassinate said Khan.  Other plot lines concern the comings and goings of the court of the Khagan  - e.g. Khan of Khans and target of the Shield Brethren, the politics of electing a new Pope, and the machinations of the Shield Brethren who’ve remained at their base in an area conquered and controlled by the Mongols.
All of these involve various forms of conflict from intrigue and murder at the Vatican to sword play and violence, as each group works towards what Neal Anderson readers know will be some kind of grand resolution where the subplots eventually join.  Each tale is sufficiently consuming to create another Anderson (or in this case Anderson-team) page turner.
If you are a dedicated Neal Anderson reader (as admittedly I am) this isn’t shaping up as Cryptonomicon, or Anathem.  But, I’ll continue to say that Mr. Anderson’s lesser works are better than most authors’ best stuff.   I devoured the book.  I have no idea how many volumes will eventually comprise the complete Mongoliad, but I’m certain I’ll read them all.

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Monday, October 29, 2012

Solid Advice For Tech Start-ups

Guy Kawasaki in Sunnyvale, California at the P...
Guy Kawasaki in Sunnyvale, California at the Plug & Play Center signing his book Reality Check (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Cover of "Reality Check: The Irreverent G...
Cover via Amazon
As part of my continuing education in the world of venture capital, I’m reading Guy Kawasaki’s various works.  His Art of the Start is still widely referenced as a must-read for anyone in a start-up, and in particular anyone considering raising venture capital.  I’ve previously reviewed it here.  There is clearly some overlap in the content between Reality Check and Art of the Start..  Reality Check is larger and more fulsome, covering more aspects of starting and growing a business, while continuing to develop and update the topic of meeting, “beguiling” and working with venture capitalists and associated professionals.   Some of the content was previously included in his blog.  If you were a loyal follower of his blog, you might have already seen some of this material.
Kawasaki writes with a great sense of humor, much of which is self-deprecating.   Like his previous book, he frequently uses humor with light touches of sarcasm (“the Top 16 Lies Lawyers Tell”) to make his points.
Each chapter is much like a blog post:  it is likely to be a brief, a quick read, direct and to the point.   
Despite some overlap with his previous works, the new content makes this book clearly worth the price.  I would argue that the chapter on presentations alone is worth much more than the price of the book.  Like a stock that is valued less than the per share value of cash held by the company, this makes the rest of the book free –and there is plenty of valuable content in the rest.
His broad coverage of tech-space start-ups includes chapters on recruiting, interviewing, laying- off, firing, building positive PR (including how to suck-up to bloggers), and how and when to “partner”.  (if you are considering opening, say, a jewelry store or a dry cleaners, there probably isn’t too much here for you – it really is aimed at tech businesses).
There is also some content for the recent grad about getting a job, and a little philosophy of life for all  us.
Since Mr. Kawasaki is a sought-after speaker, his point-of-view on public speaking, PowerPoint and story- telling has more credibility than most.  In addition to his informed view, he also strives to be a good guy, and encourages the readers to be good guys too.   He believes that nice guys do win.
Highly recommended if you are considering starting a tech business.

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Thursday, October 25, 2012

Access to Birth Control

In every election at any level nowadays, there are attempts to create an issue from whole cloth.  Generally these fail.  One recent attempt at issue creation concerns "access to birth control". This seems to have made an impact despite being spurious.
There may be candidates running for office who really would restrict access to birth control.  Clearly no one who is running for President plans to reduce access.
One could have a legitimate discussion of who pays for birth control, but not access.  My very rough guess is that there are six or seven thousand Walgreens, and a similar number of CVS stores.  Probably 1,500 Rite-Aids.  That alone would mean condoms are available in over 15,000 locations.  The real number is certainly much higher; I saw one report stating there are over 80,000 pharmacies in the U.S.
Once upon a time, long ago, there was health care insurance.  Individuals or employers paid a premium, and insurance companies shouldered the risks. It was similar to one's car insurance, or home insurance.  In those cases, one really hopes not to collect on the premiums they've paid, that is, few of us want our house to burn or to have our car stolen and just to recoup our paid premium dollars.  Health insurance was the same. It insured people from bad things, like cancer or a heart attack, or being struck by a drunk driver while crossing the street, that could bankrupt an individual.
But for most of us, it really isn't insurance anymore, either contractually or in practice.  Employers pay most of the cost, employees the rest, it is pooled and claims paid out.  We spread our costs out over our coworkers.  Fifty years ago, pregnancy wasn't a risk per se; we have a pretty good idea of what causes pregnancy.  And while we frequently confess that young Sally or Billy was an "accident" it certainly isn't an accident from an insurance underwriting perspective.  A tornado striking your house is a risk.
And various states have weighed-in about what costs have to be reimbursed as "health care" like wigs and Viagra for old guys in some states, and breast implants in others.  This isn't insurance like it was classically known, where the risk for an unlikely event is transferred to an insurance company in return for a payment, rather,  this is just all the rest of us divvying up the expense of someone buying a wig.  This is where the "access to birth control" argument actually lies: should all the members of a group be required to chip in to buy Jane's birth control pills, or should she have to pay for them herself?  It isn't access at all; it's a money question.

Sunday, October 21, 2012



Musings on the 25th Anniversary of the Great Stock Crash

Twenty-five years ago – the stock crash of Oct 19, 1987, the senior team of troubled consumer electronics firm Curtis Mathes was in the main conference room of its headquarters office.  Getting a major chewing out by our bankers, Jack Koslow and Gretchen Ford Smith of Texas American Bank, known locally as “TAB”.  Curtis Mathes was in serious financial difficulty and in violation of several loan covenants.  This was greatly exacerbated by TAB’s problems.  TAB was the long-standing premier bank based in Ft. Worth. 

Banks and Savings & Loans in TX were failing.  At one point TX was home to many of the U.S. largest banks.  But the sudden collapse in the price of oil had bankrupted numerous oil and gas companies, with their defaults erasing decades accumulated equity in the big Houston banks.  Dallas banks experienced a fair amount of that, but would likely have survived but for two other businesses.  The defense industry was suffering from government spending cutbacks – with defense a big Dallas and Ft. Worth industry, but the fatal injuries stemmed from a long, relentless drop in real estate values – both commercial and residential.  While residential hurt the S&L’s worse, traditional banks had their share, and a big portion more.  One –time giant banks Republic, Texas Commerce, Mercantile and First National, all eventually succumbed and were taken over by other national banks.

TAB avoided most of the oil and gas problems, but was waist deep in residential real estate as the principle lender to multiple large real estate developers.  As TAB booked loan losses, its capital shrunk.  There are regulatory limits to how much exposure a bank can have to any one lender.  We at Curtis Mathes came to understand – although I don’t know that it was ever confirmed – that TAB’s exposure to Curtis Mathes exceeded their regulatory limit.

Jack and Gretchen were, to put it mildly, most emphatic about the need for us to pay down or off their loan.  They didn’t care how it happened, whether by raising new capital, selling the company or whatever, just  so that it happened and happened quickly.

As a reminder, this was before cell phones.  There were car phones:  costing over $1,000 and requiring a base receiver to be installed in the trunk of one’s vehicle about the size of a small suitcase, and a phone unit that took over the center console.

As the meeting progressed, our secretaries were increasingly interrupting the meeting with messages for Jack and Gretchen, who occasionally stopped haranguing us to call their office.  Finally they announced that they had to return to Ft. Worth – the market was off 300 points and TAB’s CEO had called an emergency meeting.  That was the first that anyone of us knew about the market drop.   We all scurried around to call our brokers and find out what we could.

As the day progressed, I called several Wall St buddies, most of whom were in shock.  One of my friends was seriously depressed; her networth was in the market, and in a margin account, and her entire position had been sold at a giant loss to cover margin.  That happened in innumerable investors. 

This past Friday, on the anniversary, as the market experienced a noticeable drop, I did exactly what I did 25 years ago: nothing.  And Monday I’ll do exactly what I did 25 years ago: look for bargains.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Warning Signs of a Brain Attack aka Stroke

Periodically I publicize the warning signs of a Brain Attack – AKA a stroke.  I would like to give credit to the physician that stated that strokes should really be called Brain Attacks like heart attacks because they are equally serious.  If you read this and can attribute it, please let me know.
But I want you to remember how serious these attacks are.  If you, or a co-worker, or roommate, or anyone you are around exhibits any of these symptoms (e.g. warning signs), do NOT f*&! around  - every second really does count.
1.       Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.

2.       Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding.

3.       Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.

4.       Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.

5.       Sudden, severe headache with no known cause.

I have witnessed the devastating effects of a stroke first hand.  Fast treatment in a properly equipped ER can make a remarkable difference.
I can’t over emphasize this: see those symptoms:  call 911, let them know that you suspect a stroke – the ambulance crew will be better prepared.  Make a note of the time you first noticed the symptoms.  Don’t wait to see if it gets better – because if it gets worse – it gets a lot worse.
Warning signs courtesy of the American Heart Association.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

Reveiw of Knocking on Heaven's Door, by Lisa Randall

English: black and white picture of lisa randa...
English: black and white picture of lisa randal at interview at cern 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
MUNICH, GERMANY - JANUARY 22:  Lisa Randall of...
MUNICH, GERMANY - JANUARY 22: Lisa Randall of Harvard University speaks during the Digital Life Design conference (DLD) at HVB Forum on January 22, 2012 in Munich, Germany. DLD (Digital - Life - Design) is a global conference network on innovation, digital, science and culture which connects business, creative and social leaders, opinion-formers and investors for crossover conversation and inspiration. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)

As I recall, I purchased Knocking on Heaven’s Door by Lisa Randall after reading a review in Barron’s.  Subtitled How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World, it is an exploration of both cosmology and particle physics, and a spirited defense of scientific analysis, hypothesis and testing.  I refer to the prior review because I expected (perhaps unfairly) reporting on the state of knowledge on the specific physics topics.  While that was indeed there, there was far more of an exposition on the scientific method, the importance of experiments, and how scientific theories develop, are refuted or refined.
Before going further, for the benefit of someone choosing to read this review, let me say that I consider myself a reasonably smart guy who is reasonably educated and well-read.  I say that not to brag, but to follow it with the comment that I found some of the material very difficult.  Simply put, even though I think Dr. Randall tried to make this accessible to the lay reader, topics such as quantum gravity are difficult.  For the reader who is more literate on these topics and, frankly, more intelligent than I am, you’ll likely find this quite interesting and informative.  If you avoided high school physics like an STD, you might want to steer clear.

Not surprisingly, the book builds logically – although I was confused at the start.  Early chapters develop the concept of scale, i.e. incredibly tiny to incomprehensively large.  Dr. Randall spends a great deal of time on that, to the extent that I started glancing ahead to other chapters.  However, the good Dr. was up to something, and the discussion of scale and why scale matters to scientific thinking became more apparent as the book began to explore behavior (that is, forces) at the subatomic scale versus behavior at the galaxy scale.
After that introduction, the book covers in very great detail the Large Hadron Collider (CERN) and its scientific promise.  (If one is researching particle colliders, put this on your background materials list).  To be blunt, I learned more about the collider than I cared to, but I am very interested in its results.  In turn she covers the state of understanding at the subatomic scale as well as the topics researchers either don’t understand at all, or have a testable hypothesis for that they are seeking more data to prove, disprove or modify.  She also explores, although somewhat less, the bounds of knowledge of cosmology.  This isn’t a shortcoming of the book; the author after all is a particle physicist, so it makes sense that she would concentrate there.
Early in the book is quite a commentary on religion and the interplay of s and science.  My conclusion is that Dr. Randall is not a believer.  I would also speculate that she has found the Creation movement and its adherents as opponents to science and funding of research.  I am a believer in a Supreme Being, but I part company with those who take a completely literal view of the Bible, in particular Genesis.  I would ask them to read Isaiah 55:8-9 very carefully.
Having said that, I’m not completely comfortable with the current evolution theory either.  I’m familiar with all the primordial soup stuff, presence of carbon and water, etc.  But at the end of the day, something that wasn’t alive became alive.  That’s not a little jump, that’s an interplanetary leap.  I found the authors view on religion harsh, as quoted here:
But any religious scientist has to face daily scientific challenge to his belief.  The religious part of your brain cannot act at the same time as the scientific one.  They are simply incompatible.
Sorry Professor, I don’t accept that.  And, if you are very religious, consider yourself warned that she has written this in part to challenge you.
I have one other quibble with the book.  There are a number of illustrations including pictures of the Large Hadron Collider.  Some of them were quite difficult to see.  While I understand that it would have added considerable cost to the book, this is a place where better quality photos and paper, possibly including color photography, would have been a real improvement. 
Nonetheless, I enjoyed the book, and if Ms. Randall publishes a sequel with results from the collider, I’ll be sure to buy it.

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