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Archive for February, 2007

New Insights from the Launch of the Presidential $1 Dollar Coin

Today was the day. February 15, 2007. The official launch of the new Presidential $1 Dollar Coins, with the introduction of the first coin, the George Washington dollar.  My original review of this program is still one of my most popular posts of all time.

The New York Times had suprisingly good coverage today.

New York Times: A Push for Dollar Coins, Using Presidential Fervor

I have covered the program in detail in earlier posts, but there were a few tidbits here that I thought were worth calling out.

First, huge rolls of sheet metal from outside suppliers are unwound into a machine that stamps out blanks, called planchets. Each planchet is squeezed between rollers to give it a raised rim and then softened by heating. Then it is burnished and coated, to produce the highly polished look.

The planchets are then fed into a press that applies over 80 metric tons of pressure, firing like a car engine to turn out as many as 750 coins a minute. The freshly minted dollars are carted to another machine where the edge lettering is pressed into them (right side up or upside down, at random) before being weighed, counted and poured into large Kevlar bags ready for shipping.

Did you notice the part that said right side up or upside down, at random? Now, that’s an ingredient for some additional collectibility. The “Edge-Incused Lettering” is one of the new features of the coin, allowing more space on the coin for bigger images, and a unique look and edge feel. If the lettering is applied at random, then the following variants will exist:

  • Lettering facing the front of the coin (Presidential image)
  • Lettering facing the back of the coin (Liberty)

I checked the US Mint website, incredulous that I had missed this detail. Sure enough, I found this quote:

These coins will feature edge-incused inscriptions of the year of minting or issuance, “E Pluribus Unum,” “In God We Trust” and the mint mark. Due to the minting process used on the circulating coins, the edge-incused inscription positions will vary with each coin.

Reading this, it sounds like the lettering will not even start at the same place on every coin. Maybe some of the coins will have text starting at the top of the portrait, others might have text rotated 90 degrees. Will this important to collectors? I’m not sure, but I would think in my mind that a perfect coin would have lettering that started with the top of the portrait.

Maybe this is a sign that I’m a little too detail oriented with coins.

I also thought the New York Times had some good detail on the costs of coins vs. bills, with some new information I hadn’t seen before:

  • It costs $0.20 to make a coin, but only $0.04 to make a bill
  • A bill lasts 18-22 months, a coin lasts 30 years
  • It seems that the issuance of bills vs. coins has some difference in treatment with the issuance of securities to back the currency. As a result, the US collects interest on the float from bills, but not on coins (this didn’t make sense to me, but this part wasn’t written clearly).

Actually, I had a new idea on the whole bill vs. coin debate. Why don’t we have a special election on whether or not eliminate the bill in favor of the coin, with these rules:

  • People who want the bill, if they are in the majority, agree to a small tax increase to cover the $500 Million a year to support it. This tax increase will only be levied against the people who voted to keep the bill.
  • People who don’t want the bill, if they are in the majority, will receive a tax deduction matching the savings from eliminating the bill. Only people who vote against the bill will receive the deduction.
  • People who don’t vote won’t receive the tax or the deduction.

My guess is that people who want the bill aren’t actually willing to pay for it.

Personal Finance Education Series: (2) Recommended Books

I’ve read quite a few books on the topics of economics, finance & investing, but I thought it might be good to capture here my recommended books for someone who wants to get started learning more about personal finance & investing.

There are, of course, a lot of great books out there, but there is an endless supply of terrible ones. In general, you want to avoid the trendy, get-rich-quick, fashionable finance books, and instead focus on the ones that can give you the basic foundations to make your own judgements about personal finance & investing decisions. Once you have the basics down, then you can start absorbing the constant barrage of “flavor of the month” financial advice and investing books.

I’m going to run through these in roughly the order that I would recommend. I have a lot more on my shelf, but these are the books that in reflection really changed they way that I look at investing.

1. The Wall Street Journal Guide to Understanding Money & Investing
This book looks quite plain, and it’s only about 100 pages or so. But this book has a clear, visual and concise explanation of almost every important personal finance topic, everything from the basics of money and currency all the way to understanding stock options and derivatives. The great thing about this book is that it also can serve as a simple reference – a mini-encyclopedia of money & investing. The book is structured into easy to digest 2-page sections, and I highly recommend it as a basic entry into money & investing. Yes, I guarantee you that you already know some of the material covered in this book. But I also guarantee that you will learn something from it as well.


2. The Millionaire Next Door
Normally, this book would fall into my “trendy” disclaimer, but I do recommend that people read this book. True, it has chapters that are needlessly dry, reciting endless statistics about the habits and averages among the population of millionaires that were studied to make this book. But the most important thing is that this book emphasizes that a high income does not guarantee wealth, and that being wealthy is living below your means and the long term accumulation of assets. This book shatters a lot of myths that people have about the average millionaire in the United States, and it really highlights the basics of a healthy financial life.


3. A Random Walk Down Wall Street
Our first entry into the world of investing. This book is the absolute must-read to understand the predominant financial theory of the past thirty years: the stock market is efficient, and that efforts to beat the market, either through fundamental or technical analysis are futile. Personally, I believe that markets are not completely efficient due to the lack of rationality of either individuals or crowds. However, understanding efficient market theory is the cornerstone to understanding modern markets, so this book is basically a must-read. If it doesn’t convince you, at minimum, it will leave you with a strong bias against any “easy” way to make money off the stock market.


4. The Essays of Warren Buffett
Now that you’ve internalized efficient market theory, it’s time to listen to the words of probably the single greatest investor of the past fifty years, Warren Buffett. This book is a collection of his annual letters to shareholders. (In fact, you can now get all of his letters from 1977+ online!) Warren Buffett epitomizes why value investing works – his deep understanding of the finances of operating businesses allows him to selectively invest when he sees people selling dollar bills for fifty cents, to borrow a phrase. As a businessman myself, I also deeply appreciate the clarity of Buffett’s insights into what a financially outstanding business looks like, from a capital perspective, and his perspective on what makes a great manager and allocator of capital. I’ve read this collection at least three times.


5. Common Stocks & Uncommon Profits
Warren Buffett comes from the school of value investing, but his methodology and thinking has changed over the years to incorporate more flexible concepts of value than just book value or dividends. In this book, Philip Fisher explains the real fundamental basis for “growth stock” investing – recognizing that in some cases, the dominant factor for successful investing can be finding companies with outstanding growth potential. This may seem obvious to those of you out there who follow the technology industry, but I found this book crucial for my internal rationalization of the logic of both value and growth investing.


6. The Intelligent Investor
Warren Buffett stands on the shoulders of giants, and Ben Graham is the historical giant of value investing. This is the book that Buffett recommends to every investor, and it is fascinating from both a historical as well as financial perspective. When you read this book, you are stepping back in time, to a world before the Great Depression, when common stocks were still relatively new, and people bought them purely based on popularity, growth, or immediate payout. Graham was the one who first evangelized the idea that by looking at the core financials of a company – the assets and the dividends, you can make an informed judgement of the company’s value and the value of the stock.


7. Devil Take the Hindmost
This is not a personal finance book – it’s a history book. This book walks through almost all of the great financial bubbles since the 17th century. Fantastic for perspective on how markets get carried away. For me, the insight from this book was that there is a repeated theme in the history of bubbles. The combination of a new technology with a new innovation in finance leads to a combination of new capital and optimism that leads to an incredible rush and explosion of investment. This book will change your mind about how rational markets really are when crowds get a bit too excited.


8. When Genius Failed
Another history book, and a modern one at that. This is the story of the blow-up of Long Term Capital Management, the single most lauded hedge fund of the late 1990s. For those who have gotten deeply into the math and statistics behind the market, this book should be a wake up call. Any investment strategy can be broken, and any model based on the past will not predict the future once people in the market adapt to that new knowledge. There is a huge insight in this book that may seem esoteric, but it’s likely the biggest new insight into markets of the last decade: When you are a big enough investor, your own investment in the market creates a new correlation between investments that didn’t previously exist – the fact that you own all of them. Similar to quantum mechanics, the investor affects the markets they invest in. This simple truth explains why LTCM fell, and why there is a limit to strategies based on historical analysis of assets.


9. Against The Gods
This is one of my favorite books, bar none. It’s a stretch to say it’s about personal finance, but for me, it was a game changer. This is a history book, specifically about the history of the mathematics of statistics. It’s very interesting to note that just a few hundred years ago, no one understand the math of probability, and yet this is the branch of mathematics that dominates all modern science. Statistics is extremely counter-intuitive. Our brains are hard-wired to get it wrong. By walking through the history of how this branch of mathematics developed, I found I developed a new understanding of statistics, and a better sense of intuition around it.

American Idol, Season 6, Top 24 Spoilers

Don’t read if you don’t want to know…

Wakkaballs has it all on his blog, in this post.

In plain text:

TOP 24
1. Alaina Alexander
2. Antonella Barba
3. Antonio Javier “A.J.” Tabaldo
4. Blake Lewis
5. Brandon Rogers
6. Christopher “Chris” Richardson
7. Chris Sligh
8. Gina “Gigi” Glocksen
9. Haley Scarnato
10. Jared “J.L.” Cotter
11. Jason “Sundance” Head
12. Jordin Sparks
13. Lakeesha Jones
14. Leslie Hunt
15. Melinda Doolittle
16. Nicholas “Nick” Pedro
17. Paul “P.K.” Kim
18. Philip Joel “Phil” Stacey
19. Rudolpho “Rudy” Cardenas
20. Sabrina Sloan
21. Sanjaya Malakar
22. Stephanie Edwards
23. Amy (female)
24. Nicole (female)

Enjoy. 

How Rational Are We? The Dollar Coin vs. Dollar Bill Debate

A lot of big news coming out now about thew new Presidential $1 Dollar Coins, set to launch Thursday with the first coin in the series, George Washington. I’ve written this post about the program here. It’s one of the top posts for the entire blog.

I saw this article today on Yahoo News, and I thought it fit right in with the topic of this blog – namely how people can be predictably irrational.

Yahoo News/AP: No Plans to Replace Bill with Dollar Coin

The failure of previous iterations of the dollar coin are common knowledge. Every time it’s the same. Big fanfare, big launch, and then the US Mint produces a huge number of coins that sit in vaults forever because there is no demand for the coins.

An AP-Ipsos poll found that three-fourths of people surveyed oppose replacing the dollar bill, featuring George Washington, with a dollar coin. People are split evenly on the idea of having both a dollar bill and a dollar coin.

Fantastic. This would be a really interesting data point… if the costs of the dollar bill and the dollar coin were the same. It’s nice to know that if everything were equal, people prefer the bill to the coin. This isn’t surprising – I personally also prefer the bill to the coin, assuming both are freely accessible.

Here’s the problem, though.  Dollar bills wear out in 18 months.  Coins last approximately 30 years.  If you do the math on $1 units in circulation, you realize that we spend hundreds of millions of dollars, per year, extra, just to support the dollar bill.

Now granted, in a US budget of over $2 Trillion dollars, maybe the idea of worrying about a few hundred million is quaint.  But I guarantee you, the question would have come out differently if you had asked:

“Do you support a federal tax increase of several hundred million dollars to have a dollar bill instead of a dollar coin?”

Rephrase it how you’d like.  I know the “tax increase” word is dirty (it’s certainly a way to lose my vote).  Try, “how much would you pay extra to have a dollar bill instead of a dollar coin?”

That’s the real issue – we all know people prefer the bill.  That is obvious given the failures to launch a coin historically.  The question really is, how much is that preference worth?   In a world where both “cost the same” to the user, that preference will dominate.  But would people really pay extra for the convenience of the dollar, if that cost were visible?

I used to be a big dollar bill fan, but I’ve flipped around now that I’ve seen how successful the coin has been in Europe and Canada.  The path is easy:

  • Retire the $1 Bill
  • Create a $1 Coin
  • Create a $2 Coin

The third step is key, since it helps solve the issue of having too many coins as change for a $5 bill.

My only question now is whether or not we’ll ever really complete the conversion to a coin.  Right now, the race is between the coin and electronic payment.  At some point, cash just won’t matter enough to care.

eBay Blogs Wiki is Now Live…

There are quite a few eBay employees and former employees out there with blogs.

Shri Mahesh has started a Wiki to keep track of them all.

The wiki is here.

If you fit the description, add yourself to the list…

HD DVD & Blu-Ray Appear to Have Been Completely Cracked. So Much for DRM.

Wow. That is some sort of world-record for turning an entire new generation of DRM worthless.

Engadget: Hackers Discover Blu-Ray and HD-DVD Processing Key

Engadget is reporting that the “processing key” for HD-DVD and Blu-Ray have now been cracked. This is a big deal, because unlike previous exploits that were able to copy individual movies, this crack, if true, means that every HD-DVD and Blu-Ray DVD will be able to be ripped.

I have to say, I’m not surprised. The industry has basically an impossible problem when it comes to DRM:

  1. I want to ensure that no one can copy the digital content off my discs.
  2. I want to ensure that my discs can play in any one of millions of players made by hundred of different manufacturers by anyone in any location.
  3. I want to be able to mass produce identical discs
  4. I want to be able to mass product identical players
  5. I want to ensure that my discs can play on PCs, in order to take advantage of scale economics for PCs.

All of the above produce too many openings for hackers to figure out how to “pretend” to be just another player, and thus get the decrypted content.  The economic incentive for hackers is just too high, and that combined with a good dose of anger towards the “greedy studios”, and you have a guarantee that eventually, these new standards will be cracked.

I wonder if the movie studios will take Steve Jobs’ & Bill Gates‘ advice and give up on DRM? Unlikely to be sure.

Instead, they will focus their efforts on limiting the rights of legitimate, paying customers while crackers will get access to all of their content for free. Of course, I’m sure there will be the requisite push on law enforcement for “trophy arrests” of some 15-year old somewhere with an archive of 300 Blu-Ray movies (20GB each!) on a server.

Unfortunately, this ruins my theory of who would win the format wars – I thought that the first format to be cracked would win the market, since the increased options for buyers of a cracked format are so much higher than a secure one.

Alas, they seem to both be cracked at the same time, so it’s a dead heat again.

What TV Are You Watching? My Top Shows for Winter 2007

Every Sunday when I check my Tivo lately, I’m reminded that I’ve been watching a lot of television.

It’s not a bad thing, per se.  It feels like just about a year or two ago I was lamenting the cancellation of several of my favorites, and feeling like I was doomed to watch random reality shows and American Idol wannabe shows.

But suddenly, in January 2007, I had more shows to watch than time to watch them.

Here’s what I’ve been watching lately (at least, according to my Tivo):

Sunday

  • Battlestar Galactica (SCIFI)
  • Rome (HBO)
  • Desperate Housewives (ABC)

Monday

  • 24 (FOX)
  • Heroes (NBC)
  • Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (NBC)

Tuesday

  • American Idol (FOX)
  • Dirt (FX)

Wednesday

  • American Idol (FOX)

Thursday

  • Smallville (CW)
  • My Name is Earl (NBC)
  • The Office (NBC)
  • Scrubs (NBC)
  • 30 Rock (NBC)
  • ER (NBC)

Of course, I can’t possibly watch all that during the week, so I catch up on the weekends.  Some of the shows are really getting tired, so they are the last to get watched (ER).  Some are embarrassing enough that I’m susprised I put them down online for all to see (Desperate Housewives, Smallville).   Some are new shows that, if they failed, I wouldn’t shed any tears (30 Rock, Studio 60).

I’d gladly swap some of the above for more HBO shows – they are always my favorite (except for BSG).  The Wire, Entourage, Deadwood, and even the aging Sopranos would be welcome.

Rome is probably my biggest suprise of the season – I was lukewarm on season one, and was not sure I’d keep up with season 2, but so far, it has been much faster paced this year.

Feel free to comment here about any of the above shows, or any of the shows you’ve been watching… please, though, don’t tell me I should be watching Lost or Grey’s Anatomy.  Sorry.  I got tired of Lost in Season 2, and I’ve never had the time to pick up Grey’s.  Maybe someday, on iTunes, when there is a dry spell again.

Personal Finance Education Series: (1) Recommended Magazines

The first question I often get about personal finance and investing is usually about what sources I would recommend for people who are looking to learn more.

It may be surprising, but despite the incredible variety and depth of information available online, some of the best sources for ongoing learning are still regular, printed magazines.

I began reading personal finance magazines around 1994, and over the years I’ve sampled most of the commonly available ones. The following represent my favorites, some of which I have subscribed to for over a decade.

Personal Finance & Investing

  1. Money. Money magazine is published by Time Warner, and continues to be my favorite personal finance magazine. I think the reason I like it so much is that it takes a much more human approach to personal finance – the magazine always features the personal finance stories of one or more families, and you learn a lot month-to-month about how real people approach very real financial questions. I find it much more interesting to understand how a family who hasn’t saved much for college might approach the problem now that junior is entering high school, than about whether or not I should have a commodity ETF in my portfolio. If you are looking for stock picks, this isn’t the place, but as an overall well-rounded magazine, if you were only going to read one issue a month – this would be the magazine to read.
  2. Smart Money. Smart Money magazine is one of my all-time favorites. Published by the Wall Street Journal, this magazine blends insight into current investing trends, fund managers, and personal finance tips. More investment focused than others, almost every issue features at least one or more “stock pick” lists. I have gotten a few good stock ideas from the magazine, but that really shouldn’t be the focus of the reader. Instead, as you read about the “case” for each stock, it helps hone your own thinking about how to approach investments.

Despite the fact that I have subscribed to the above magazines for over twelve years, I still look forward to each issue every month. Over time, I feel like one of the things you learn is to differentiate the trendy, popularity driven material from the real insights. The biggest danger reading investment magazines is that they always feel compelled to explain and promote the latest trends, and in investing any trend is usually a sign of over-investment. Over-investment typically means high costs with low returns.

Business

  1. Forbes. Most people think of Forbes as some sort of conservative Republican vehicle for Steve Forbes. But if you skip the first few pages of editorial, what you have is a magazine that repeatedly finds unique and interesting angles to entrepreneurship, business, economics & investment. Some of my best investment insights and ideas have come from the columnists in Forbes, and among all of the business magazines I read, Forbes has the highest number of unique stories.
  2. Business Week. Business Week is, in fact, a weekly, and as a result, it turns out to be almost like an aggregated business newspaper with slightly deeper reporting. Very timely, they tend to cover a wide breadth of business & investment issues. It’s light stuff, however, so the signal to noise ratio is not great. Still, several of the blog posts I’ve made here have been inspired by little 1-page articles in Business Week.
  3. Fortune. Ah, Fortune. Glossiest of the Business magazines. This is like the People magazine of business. Several times over the past decade I have discontinued my subscription, only to find out, months later, that I missed some interesting article on a company, industry, or CEO that I really would have liked to have read. Take it for what it is, but I read it regularly.

There are a wide variety of other magazines out there that I have subscribed to from time to time. Kiplingers. Worth. Red Herring. Business 2.0. Entrepreneur. But none of them held my interest for more than a year, and in the end, I find myself coming back to the five I list above.

The Economist is probably the one great, relevant journal that I don’t read regularly. It has a far more global viewpoint, and less actionable investment insight. It’s dense, and I never seem to have time to finish it regularly.

Newspapers

I know this article is called Magazines, but the truth is that some of my favorite periodicals are daily newspapers. I’m going to call out the big three here.

  • Wall Street Journal. I haven’t had time to read this daily in years, but I have never been sorry that I picked up a Wall Street Journal. This is the one paper to read if you want to really be in the flow of finance & investing.
  • New York Times. Excellent Business section every day, capped off with the famous “Sunday Business” section every week. If you could only read the paper once per week, you should read the New York Times “Week in Review” and “Sunday Business” every Sunday. This is also my recommended cure in case you accidentally read a San Francisco Chronicle or Los Angeles Times one day, and you need to flush your brain out with something intelligent.
  • San Jose Mercury News. This is not the largest or most comprehensive paper in the world, but if you follow high tech, this is the best business section in the nation. It has deep coverage of Silicon Valley companies, and its columnists are just one level deeper into high tech than others. It is roughly 1000x better than the other local paper, the San Francisco Chronicle.

Whew. That took longer than I thought. I’m going to follow this article with a post on the top 10 investment books that I recommend, and then I’ll get into specific topics. More to follow…

Celebrating 10 Years of the Mac BU at Microsoft… in Stickies!

Sorry, one last post for the night.   This was too cool to pass up.

The Macintosh BU at Microsoft, which was formed after the 1997 Apple/Microsoft alliance, just celebrated their 10th anniversary.  Apparently, what greeted them in the morning was gorgeous pixel art:

Of course, it turned out to not be pixel art per-se, but actually 1336 carefully pasted sticky notes on the windows.

I have to hand it to Microsoft, that’s 100% pure engineering culture right there.  Glorious.  I tip my hat to the team.

The full article about how they designed the sticky note art in Excel and then finished their work is here, on the Mac Mojo blog.

New XShares ETF for Carbon Emission Credits, and new Index from UBS

The magic of the modern capital markets. You can invest in anything.

First, you need to turn something into a tradeable security. With derivatives, you can do this with almost anything. London has done it with the weather. The Kyoto Protocol has done it with Carbon Dioxide emissions. Kyoto introduced a “cap and trade” approach to regulating carbon dioxide, similar to the program put in place by the United States in the 1990s to control sulfer dioxide and acid rain. In a cap and trade system, countries limit the total amount of carbon dioxide emissions on a per country basis, and then issue those rights to their companies. Companies can then trade those rights with each other, and even potentially earn “new rights” by putting in place technology and programs to cut existing carbon dioxide emissions.

The Kyoto Protocol currently covers 160 countries, representing approximately 55% of all carbon dioxide emissions globally. The United States, China & India are the most notable signatories missing from the current pact.

Emissions trading has become a big market, and with global warming a hot topic again (sorry, I couldn’t resist), a lot of people have been looking at the carbon dioxide credits as more than just environmental regulation, but as an investment opportunity.

After all, it stands to reason that the right to release a ton of carbon dioxide into the air is not going to get cheaper going forward. And of course, if you buy that right, then some other company can’t, which means you potentially have taken that right off the market… until you sell it.

Now, what most people don’t know is that there is also a voluntary carbon dioxide emissions market here in the US, the Chicago Climate Exchange. There is also now a firm, called XShares, that is investigating creating an ETF based on the exchange.

In other news, UBS has created a new Emissions Index, based on the two European exchanges, which trade about 46% of all the global emissions rights today. There is no ETF for this index, yet, but where there is an index, there is usually an ETF to follow.

I’m going to file this away in my “watch” folder for the time being. Carbon emissions might be a very interesting commodity, since there will be strong secular pressure to limit the rights to emit greenhouse gasses in the future. Also, it stands to reason that lower emission caps in the future will mean increased costs for corporations, which means it might be an interesting diversification play versus the corporate stock & bond markets.

Personal Finance Education Series: Introduction

As this blog continues to grow, I try to be very open to advice and suggestions from people who have become regular readers. Today, I got some advice from a friend who, while she hasn’t come clean with me on where her blog is located on the web, has been reading mine regularly.

She told me today that she liked the new aggregated page I made of all my Personal Finance posts to date, now featured in the header of the blog. However, she had a fundamental question about where I get all my information about personal finance, how I learned about these different ideas, and how a person with limited time could learn more.

She suggested I put together a series of posts for people who are interested in personal finance and investing, but aren’t sure where to start.

So, this post is going to be an introduction to a multi-part series on personal finance and investing, based on my own history on the topic. I’ll try to produce posts in the series that cover recommendations on magazines, websites, and books, as well as on basic topics like saving, investing, asset allocation, investment clubs, brokerages, retirement accounts, real estate, derivatives, commodities, and funds. Not necessarily in that order, of course.

I don’t pretend to be an expert in all of these areas, but if through a series of posts I can help people get started on their own personal finance education, I’ll feel like I’ve done a truly good thing with this blog.

As a personal note, I was not one of those people that had an early exposure to personal finance and investing. Although I’d like to think that I learned good personal finance values from my parents and grandparents, when it comes to investing, I didn’t know much about anything other than bank certificates of deposit until college.

Since then, I’ve been mostly self-taught, although now I have had the benefit of coursework at institutions like Stanford and Harvard, direct experience in the venture capital industry, and about fifteen years now of growth and learning.

We’ll see how it goes, and of course, I’m willing to take requests if there are topics people would like to see added to this series. I will try to do at least a few posts a week in the series, and in the end, I’ll group them together on the Personal Finance page for easy reference, as well as link them back here for navigation.

So, a special thank you to Rebecca Nathenson for the great suggestion.

Articles (complete index here):

Steve Jobs Drops a DRM Bomb on the Music Industry: Thoughts on Music

Who would have guessed that on a random Tuesday in February, Steve Jobs would decide to drop a bomb on the music industry. But that’s what he did today, on the Apple.com website:

Thoughts on Music: Apple.com

There are a lot of good summaries on the web already. Here is the one from Don Dodge, for example. If you are not into reading long missives, I can summarize the article, Powerpoint-style:

  • Digital Rights Management (DRM) for music doesn’t work. 97% of all music on iPods is ripped from DRM-free CDs sold every year.
  • Critics who want Apple to open up FairPlay don’t understand that if they license it, it’s likely to be cracked constantly. The only thing holding it together is that Apple controls the hardware, the software, and the music protection.
  • The only rational solution is for the music industry to stop requiring DRM on their music, and go with an open format like MP3 or AAC. Every iPod ever made supports it.

For those of you not familiar with Digital Rights Management, DRM is the software that is built to prevent people from illegally copying files, like Music. For the iTunes Store, Apple uses a DRM called FairPlay which limits the number of machines you can play the music on. Right now, there is a lot of legal controversy in Europe over the fact that this DRM also “locks” people into the Apple iPod, because once they buy music on iTunes, they can’t play it on other devices.

This missive from Steve Jobs was unexpected, largely for some pretty significant reasons:

  • Everyone expects Apple to support “closed-systems”. It’s part of the baggage from the whole Windows vs. Mac debate from the 1980s.
  • Apple has sold over 2 Billion songs on iTunes. Apple doesn’t seem to need a DRM-free world.
  • The lock-in from iTunes & the iPod seems like strategic genius, and the basis of a new monopoly. On the surface, this feels like a magnanimous gift. Selfless, even.

There have been a lot of calls in the industry to give up DRM lately, but a lot of them have to do with the fact that people don’t want to accept a world where Apple controls the entire music industry (which is where it is heading right now). Bill Gates, for example, proclaimed a while ago that he supports a DRM-free approach to music.

Personally, I thought the DRM-free approach was the only way the rest of the industry would be able to crack Apple’s stranglehold on digital music. I see DRM-free music as the natural response to a monopoly, similar to the response of Linux to Windows.

However, now that I read Steve Jobs’ note, it make sense on so many levels for Apple to issue this statement now. In fact, I don’t know why I didn’t see it sooner. By issuing this statement, either:

  • Steve knows the Music industry will not go DRM-free, so his lock-in is secure. However, by going on the record this way, he lines up a plausible defense to the legal challenges in Europe, and avoids the perception of Apple as the gluttonous monopolist. More importantly, he paints a bullseye on the real monopolists – the four big music publishing houses.
  • Steve believes that the iPod brand and product are so dominant now, that even without lock-in, they win majority marketshare in the music player market, like the Walkman before it. In fact, the lock-in is likely over-rated, since such a small percentage of music is actually locked anyway, and the margins in the music are terrible.
  • Steve is not liking the tone and progress of licensing discussions with the TV and Movie industry, and he thinks that if a precedent can be set with Music that DRM is bad, then that will open up a world of video content to Apple & iTunes.

It’s hard to imagine the music industry embracing a DRM-free world. Fundamentally, they still believe that as copyright-holders, they have the right to control distribution at a fine-grained level to maximize profits. And of course, they are correct, they do have that right.

What they didn’t predict, however, was that attempts to enforce that right would lead to a consolidation of their distribution channels, which would shift market power from them to Apple. And now, they have too choose between a rock (Apple market power) and a hard place (DRM-free music).

I’ll end here with my favorite passage from Steve Jobs’ letter:

The third alternative is to abolish DRMs entirely. Imagine a world where every online store sells DRM-free music encoded in open licensable formats. In such a world, any player can play music purchased from any store, and any store can sell music which is playable on all players. This is clearly the best alternative for consumers, and Apple would embrace it in a heartbeat. If the big four music companies would license Apple their music without the requirement that it be protected with a DRM, we would switch to selling only DRM-free music on our iTunes store. Every iPod ever made will play this DRM-free music.

Why would the big four music companies agree to let Apple and others distribute their music without using DRM systems to protect it? The simplest answer is because DRMs haven’t worked, and may never work, to halt music piracy. Though the big four music companies require that all their music sold online be protected with DRMs, these same music companies continue to sell billions of CDs a year which contain completely unprotected music. That’s right! No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Skype Releases Version 2.5 for Mac OS X: Now with 640×480 Video Chat

Skype continues to release incredibly great software at a record pace. They have just officially released the new Skype client for Mac OS X, version 2.5.

The new release features:

  • Conference Calls with up to 10 people simultaneously
  • Send SMS messages to buddies with cell phones

You can download Skype 2.5 for Mac OS X here.

Jason O. Grady has also found a cool new hack for the new Mac OS X client – 640×480 Video Chat.

You can find the instructions here, in the Skype Garage. Basically, you just edit the config.xml file.

High-quality video calls

Save and close config.xml, restart Skype and do a video call. The remote party should now see your picture in 640×480 resolution, instead of the standard quality 320×240.

To enable high-quality video calls with Skype for Mac, first download the latest version of Skype for Mac. You need version 2.5.0.85 or newer.

Then, quit Skype, navigate to “~/Library/Application Support/Skype/yourskypename/”, i.e go to your home folder, and then the Library folder in it, and then Application Support in Library etc. Find the file called config.xml.

Open the file and find the <video> block that is itself inside the <lib> block. The <video> block probably looks as follows.</video></lib></video>

<video>
<device>Built-in iSight</device>
</video>

Now, edit this <video> block, adding capture height and width settings. The block should now look like this.</video>

<video>
<capturewidth>640</capturewidth>
<captureheight>480</captureheight>
<device>Built-in iSight</device>
</video>

Note that both parties need a fairly high-end computer (Mac or PC) to get good quality and framerate, plus a good Internet connection.

I’ve got to hand it to Skype. Not every company can produce high quality desktop software for multiple operating systems and still maintain the level of innovation, quality, and speed that Skype does. As a former developer, that tells me that Skype has an outstanding development organization, the right spirit, and the right people to continue to outperform.

I also love the open communication about experimental features like this, through a page like Skype Garage. People think innovating and moving quickly is unique to web development, but the right engineers and the right engineering philosophy can and will leverage the strength of their community to produce great client software as well.

Kudos to the Skype team on another great release.

A Currency ETF for the Long/Short Trade: The PowerShares DB G10 Currency Harvest Fund (Ticker: DBV)

I caught a very interesting article in this week’s Business Week on a new Currency ETF that launched in September. The original article is here:

Trade Currencies Like a Hedge Fund | Business Week

It doesn’t look like they’ve released the article to the free portion of the site yet, so let me summarize a bit here.

The new PowerShares DB G10 Currency Harvest Fund (Ticker: DBV) has grown to about $180 Million already, allowing individual investors, for the first time, the ability to easily invest in the “long-short trade”. The long-short trade is when you buy the currencies of countries with high interest rates, and you sell short the currencies of countries with low interest rates. Normally, countries with higher rates see their currencies appreciate relative to those with low rates, and this strategy lets you capture the difference. You can think of it as borrowing cheap money (the short against the countries with low rates) to buy investments that pay higher rates (the countries with higher rates).

For example, right now New Zealand is paying interest rates of 7.6%, and Japan is paying just 0.5%.

This trade is a common one, but it’s not without its problems. There have been many times, historically, when large hedge funds used leverage to play this game, only to have the market move against them. Usually, however, the implosion involved big bets in emerging markets.

This fund only invests in the currencies of developed nations with high credit ratings, and employs only 2:1 leverage, so it’s relatively safe.

Here are the current holdings of the fund:

Long Positions:

  • Australian Dollar
  • New Zealand Dollar
  • US Dollar

Short Positions:

  • Japanese Yen
  • Swedish Krona
  • Swiss Franc

The fund is based on the new Deutsche Bank G10 Currency Future Harvest Index, which has been backtested to produce a 11.4% annualized return over the last 10 years. That being said, it’s a new index, and how it will behave in real life may vary.

What is interesting about the index, however, is that it has returned 3.2% more than the S&P 500 over the same time period, but with only half the volatility. Not only that, the carry trade has very little correlation with stocks, so it’s a natural for diversification.

Previous Currency ETFs, launched by Rydex, have allowed investors to buy into individual currencies:

  • Euro (Ticker: FXE)
  • Mexican Peso (Ticker: FXM)
  • Swedish Krona (Ticker: FXS)
  • Australian Dollar (Ticker: FXA)
  • British Pound (Ticker: FXB)
  • Canadian Dollar (Ticker: FXC)
  • Swiss Franc (Ticker: FXF)

Unfortunately, the structure of these ETFs has built in high fees and spreads, making them poor ways to try and “own” that currency.

If you are interested in the new new PowerShares DB G10 Currency Harvest Fund, be aware that the strategy does have some limitations. As covered in TheStreet.com:

I’m convinced that the strategy has merit, but as with all strategies, there are flaws that should be understood before purchasing.

Higher yields do tend to make a currency more attractive, but that overlooks an important point: Currencies whose interest rates are moving up tend to be strong. A currency starting from a low base interest rate that is headed higher is likely to be a strong currency, but it could be overlooked by the ETF’s strategy.

However, if you are looking for a currency component to your asset allocation, this fund is definitely worth considering. There are some tax considerations as well, because the fund uses futures to do its trading. As a result, it might be best to hold this in a tax-advantaged account, like an IRA.

Bill Gates Loses His Cool

As someone who has been following the Apple/Microsoft relationship for almost twenty years, this week offered a real first for me – Bill Gates losing his cool in the face of relentless questions about Microsoft Vista vs. Apple Mac OS X.

It starts with this Newsweek interview with Bill Gates about the launch of Vista.

There is no doubt that Bill comes off suprisingly snippy and defensive, and a few blogs have picked up on this. For example, the Open Sources blog at Infoworld had a few things to say about it.

Here is an example of Bill being overly riled up about some fairly run-of-the-mill questioning:

In many of the Vista reviews, even the positive ones, people note that some Vista features are already in the Mac operating system.

You can go through and look at who showed any of these things first, if you care about the facts. If you just want to say, “Steve Jobs invented the world, and then the rest of us came along,” that’s fine. If you’re interested, [Vista development chief] Jim Allchin will be glad to educate you feature by feature what the truth is. I mean, it�s fascinating, maybe we shouldn’t have showed so publicly the stuff we were doing, because we knew how long the new security base was going to take us to get done. Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine. So, yes, it took us longer, and they had what we were doing, user interface-wise. Let’s be realistic, who came up with [the] file, edit, view, help [menu bar]? Do you want to go back to the original Mac and think about where those interface concepts came from?

Hiss.  Down Kitty. I have never seen Bill Gates lose his cool like this, certainly not in print. Maybe it’s because Microsoft has been kicked around too long about Vista, and he’s taking it personally. Maybe it’s because, after a while, you’re tired of the guy with 5% market share getting all the adulation when you’re the guy who really won the fight.

Usually, the rule of thumb for PR is to not even acknowledge the second place player. If you do, you almost want to be overly welcoming, showing that you are not threatened at all by the challenger. It’s almost like you want to treat them like a kid brother trying to challenge you to a race. You should be empathetic, just shy of condescending, as if you understand their desire to win, and you want them to be happy, but you know there is no chance of them winning.

Arnold Schwarzenegger did this exactly right during the 2006 California Gubernatorial race to Phil Angelides during the debates.

Bill is normally far more statesmanlike with the press, and measured in his responses. He normally handles Apple questions with aplomb and diplomacy.

Maybe he’s feeling the end of his life in software coming up fast (2008) as he moves to a purely philanthropic role, and he doesn’t like the tenor of the market as he exits. Maybe he genuinely wanted to go out on top, with the Xbox 360, Zune, Vista and Live growing to dominate new markets. Instead, he’s faced with the Nintendo Wii, Apple iPod, Mac OS X, and Google getting all the limelight.

Maybe he’s taking the new Apple commercials just a little too seriously?  (I personally like the new ones up on Apple’s Website.  The imposter one is just too funny.)  Maybe he’s upset because iTunes is still not Vista compatible, and people actually care?

I don’t know, but somehow it makes me feel sad.  Despite my affinity for Apple products, I have a lot of respect for Bill Gates, and somehow this type of weakness on public display is just a downer.

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