Archive for May 2013

Boot Out the Thief Executive Officer

There was some to-do recently about whether JP Morgan Chase should split the CEO and Chairman roles. Chief Crybaby Jamie Dimon said that he would quit if the roles were split. Unfortunately, they were not. (See articles here and here.)

His blackmail was used by many as a reason to not split the roles. Many people said that the Thief Executive Officer was indispensible. JPM would be damaged if he left.

I say: Let him leave. Any business that cannot survive with someone else at the top is not a good business. JPM has more than 250,000 employees. Is there really nobody else at the company who can run things?

Look at AIG. Hank Greenberg ran it for 40 years, and everybody thought he was a genius. He gets booted out, and within 3 years it implodes. It almost took the whole world with it. Maybe he wasn’t so smart after all.

I think that Chief Tantrum Officer is not as smart as he thinks he is. Look at the London Whale. From what I have read, Dimon knew more about than he originally admitted. They first said losses were $2 billion. Then later they were $6 billion. Granted, $6B is not a lot for a company that size. But if your losses turn out to be triple what you thought, maybe you don’t know what you are doing.

A lot of people thought he was smart for getting Bear Sterns for so cheap. I say he kind of pressed his advantage. The federal government was very eager to prevent financial collapse. Maybe I would have done the same thing, but I wouldn’t be using that as proof that I am a genius.

These Wall Street guys are not as smart as they think they are. Like I wrote before: If you are willing to lie, cheat or steal, it’s like having a few IQ points.

I am seriously looking into moving my accounts.

Some Useful Technology

In some of my “Technology Is Useless” posts, I have mentioned Groupon quite a few times. A big part of this is that until recently I lived in Chicago. I knew quite a few of the people who were at Groupon, and joined from a firm called Obtiva.

Obtiva was a consulting firm that Groupon bought. They pretty much built Groupon. By the time Groupon bought them, Groupon was about half of Obtiva’s business. Most of them joined Groupon. That was about two years ago or so. I know of at least one person who decided to go off on his own rather than go to Groupon. He makes iPhone apps, which may be a subject of a later post.

From what I have been able to infer, a lot of them are now leaving Groupon. The rats are leaving the ship.

Since I keep kicking all these guys around, I should be fair and point out that at least one guy is making technology that is causing the patented Technology Uselessness Meter go a little in the positive direction, and actually play a role in a lot of the issues that I think technology should be used for.

One of them joind a firm called TempoDB. It is a time series database. I thought you could just analyze time series data with a regular database, but I guess there are cases where you need something customized for the task. So I learned at least one new thing this week.

There is nothing to stop this stuff from being used by the useless startups that I have been yacking about. But (as I am writing this) the first two customers on their list deal with energy: Wattvision and sMeasure.

I have to concede I have never heard of a time series database. It looks like it might be a new category of NoSQL, in addition to the document, graph, key-value and object databases. According to their Jobs page they use HBase and Hadoop under the hood. I think Hadoop is kind of in its own category in NoSQL.

If all that NoSQL stuff is meaningless to you, don’t worry about it. I just felt that instead of only pointing out all the bad and dumb stuff I see, I should also point out something that I think is good.

Thoughts On Groupon and Unemployment

Recently, ex-Groupon CEO Andrew Mason announced his next move: He is moving to The Bubble of Self-Absorption (aka Silicon Valley).

I never met Andrew Mason, but I never really liked him. I never really saw the point of Groupon. They are one of the inspirations for this site’s “Technology Is Useless” theme. I talked to a few employees who also thought what Groupon did was stupid.

I kept hearing people in the media go on about how smart he was. We were supposed to believe he was “quirky”, or “charming”, or something. In every picture I saw of him he looked like he was not all there. He never seemed to take his job seriously. Maybe he really was a smart, serious guy. But if that is the case, then he was intentionally presenting a goofball image. I have no qualms criticizing someone for something they do intentionally. Since he got fired from the company he founded, I guess that “happy-go-lucky” routine did not do him much good.

In the post about his plans, he said something that really bugged me: he said he was reading, travelling, and “embarking on other cliched pursuits of the unemployed”. I guess in a narrow technical sense, he is unemployed. The way Mitt Romney was unemployed. Most unemployed people don’t engage in accounting fraud, cash out, and walk away with millions.

I was unemployed for a while. A couple of times, actually. For me, it was the same as it was for most unemployed people: Applying for jobs, applying for benefits, trying to stretch them out, try to keep my skills sharp, etc, etc.

Maybe I just don’t get that quirky sense of humor he has. But let me go over a few real unemployment cliches:

Keeping your skills up to date takes a lot of time.

You also have to research companies that you are applying to.

Preparing for interviews, going through the interviews, thanking who you talked to and keeping track of all that is a huge task.

You might get a call from Company B, and the job sounds good, but you would REALLY like to work at Company A, so you stall B because A is taking its time, and in the end they both say no.

You go to meetups at friends’ places, and hope nobody comments too loudly that you are eating a little bit more free food than everybody else.

You wonder if you will ever work in your field again.

You wish you could go back in time and pick a different major in college.

You might wonder if you will ever get married (unemployed 40-somethings are not exactly a prime commodity on the dating market). Dying alone looks like a possibility. Dying alone after a few decades of poverty looks like a serious possibility.

You wonder if that mole you just saw is just a mole, or cancer. So you make an appointment to see a doctor, after taking a few days to check if the crappy insurance that you can barely afford (because COBRA expired) will cover the visit. Then after a couple hours of Googling, you realize that if it is not a mole, you have three options. The first is chemo (if it’s covered). The other two are amputation or suicide. So you go to sleep every night for the next seven nights trying to figure out whether you would choose amputation or suicide if you cannot get chemo.

And if the general practitioner refers you to a dermatologist, you go through the “Door Number Two or Door Number Three?” cycle for another seven or so days.

If you can keep up your job search with that going through your head, your powers of concentration are better than mine.

The typical unemployed person does not start a company that some of its own employees think is kind of dumb, submit SEC filings with bogus accounting metrics and cash out with millions and act like a lobotomized stoner the entire time.

Now, you might be asking how is it that someone as dumb as Andrew Mason still manages to cash out with millions while I struggle.

I have come to realize that if you are willing to lie, cheat and steal, then it’s like having several IQ points tacked on.

Maybe Mason was used by Lefkovsky (see this article and this article).  I don’t think that lets Mason off the hook. Like the proverb says: If you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.

If Mr Mason thinks unemployment is fun or something to be joked about, then he really is an ass.

The Death Of Peak Oil and Coincidence

One of the websites I try to keep up with is The Oil Drum, particularly the category called “The Drumbeat”  which every few days has links to energy news.

My job takes priority, so I got behind, and took a few weekends to catch up.

I noticed that in late April, there seemed to be a lot of articles declaring the “Peak Oil is dead” or “The End of Peak Oil”. The basic idea is that the world is nowhere near to running out of oil (or at least easily recoverable oil; does that distinction really matter?). Thanks to new technology, we are now able to access hydrocarbons that were unreachable a few years ago: tight oil and shale gas thanks to horizontal drilling and fracking, the tar sands in Canada (fracking and steam), and oil way way  farther out in the deep ocean than drillers have gone (3-D seismic imaging and faster computers).

But I think their arguments are really arguments confirming peak oil, and arguments for finding other sources of energy. A lot of this new oil is of lower quality; it has more sulpher and is harder to refine. The Canadian oil sands are not really even oil. It is more like sludge. As for the oil in the deep ocean, the new technology simply finds the oil. I do not think there is any way to actually drill it. That oil is not only farther from shore, but also under more layers of rock than oil close to shore.

Some of this technology is not very new. It is simply feasible now that oil is more than $65/barrel.

And there is higher production in the US. But global production is flat. Granted, there is some decrease in demand. But it is interesting that neither the higher prices nor the technology have been able to produce higher output.

So let’s restate the anti-peak oil thesis: Peak Oil theory is false because we are spending more money to get the same amount of oil.

That sounds like Peak Oil to me.

As I stated, all these articles seemed to pop up in mid to late April. Matthew Yglesias also noticed the trend. Is this a PR campaign by the fossil fuel industry or some fracking consortium?

One of the podcasts I have been listening to recently is The Atomic Show with Rod Adams. I downloaded all the episodes from the very beginning. I think they started in 2006. I think I am up to 2010 now. (I think everyone should read The Oil Drum and everyone should listen to The Atomic Show.)

He says there is a lot of disinformation about nuclear power. He thinks that there has been a concerted effort by the fossil fuel industry to spread lies about nuclear power, especially amongst environmentalists. In 2009 or so, he said that he knows he probably sounds like a conspiracy nutcase saying that, but he believed it.

After all the dark money in the 2012 election, he does not sound like a nut.

Part of me wonders if this sudden wave of “Don’t worry, be happy, we will always have oil” articles is some sort of stealth PR offensive by the fossil fuel industry. I do not know how the media industry works. Perhaps all these writers know each other, and talk amongst each other, and all decided to talk about this at roughly the same time. That is possible.

But I was not able to detect some catalyst to this wave. There was no new record high in the benchmark price. There was no new discovery. The oil companies released their annual energy outlooks a few months ago. There was just a bunch of “nothing to see here” articles all at the same time. It is a bit strange.

Thoughts On Menus, Startups and Social Media

(My job has kept me pretty busy, so here are some more random thoughts on the “technology is useless” theme that have been kicking around in my head.)

So I found a post by a VC who wants to change menus in restaurants (see this article and the original post). His name is Dave McClure; I have never heard of him. I could not find what VC firm he is with. He says that it is a huge opportunity. Okay.

But then he says that menus have “problems”. He goes on and on about “problems”. I guess this is a “first world problem”.

Doesn’t agriculture have a lot of problems? What about the distribution of water? What about crop yields? I would call those problems.

I know that ultimately VCs are out to make money and not save the world. Fine. But don’t say you are solving “problems” when you ignore things that are real problems.

My main beef is that the VCs/entreprenuers/startup crowd all like to think that they are smarter than everybody else. That they are “makers” and “doers”. And they think that we are all to take them so seriously. And not point out that they are spinning their wheels while natural resources are getting more expensive. Some of them wind up creating jobs. But some of those jobs are doing really dumb things. Like social media.

I honestly think that we might reach a point where we cannot assume that when we flip the switch that the lights will come on. In many countries, that is already the case. I do not see a whole lot of companies at these incubators solving these problems. I don’t expect two guys with nothing more that a table, two chairs and a couple of laptops to find a new way to drill for oil or desalinate water. I just don’t understand why so many people think just because they are in a startup they worth paying attention to.

There are a lot of smart people in these companies. But there are different types of intelligence. I sometimes wonder whether they really think about what the technology is doing. A lot of it is just marketing. The funny thing is that a lot of people go into technology and software because they don’t want to be some damn salesman.

I (kinda-sorta) know a guy who runs a firm that does analytics on social media to help companies with marketing. We were acquaintences in college about 15 years ago. I was at a hack night at his company, and he introduced himself to me. We did not recognize each other at the time, but later I realized we had met long long ago. I admit, I do not know what he did during the intervening years. Maybe he did something scientific and what I would consider useful.

He has a CS degree from one of the best engineering schools in the world. This guy probably could help design a desalination plant or a nuclear reactor. Instead he is figuring out how to get people to buy more junk. Granted, they deal with a lot of data. Very high throughput.  But is that really the best contribution he could make to society? I have not been in Texas long, but I have heard that in the summer there are serious water issues. This state does catch fire. I think there might be brownouts in the summer time. Is the usual social/local/mobile app business really the best use of all that brainpower?

VCs will say they are out to make money. Energy and climate change are not their responsibility. If that is your response, then fine. I say you have better make a LOT of money. Because if the real problems are not addressed, you will need a lot more than you think.

2013-04 Dividend Income Report

It is time for the April, 2013 dividend income report.

The total income for April, 2013 was $179.23. The income for 2013 through the end of April was $898.59.

The income for April, 2012 was $218.56, and the income for 2012 through the end of April was $1010.82.

I sold a few stocks that I thought were not growing their dividend quickly enough, or had gone up in price a lot. (Granted, in the past few months a lot of stocks have gone up in price.) So I have fewer stocks, but the income from the stocks I have kept has increased.

There was an interesting milestone: I got $43.01 from Kimberly-Clark. That is the most I have gotten for a regular dividend.

Here are the stocks:

  • Automatic Data Processing: $24.18
  • Coca-Cola Co: $29.22
  • MDU Resources Group Inc: $9.25
  • Chubb Corp: $9.36
  • Kimberly-Clark: $43.01
  • Illinois Tool Works: $19.73
  • Piedmont Natural Gas Inc: $17.50
  • Sysco Corp: $14.89
  • RPM International Inc: $12.09

Image from Wikimedia