Monday, December 24, 2012

Steve Jobs

I just finished reading Walter Isaacson's 2011 biography of Steve Jobs.  This book is basically a lengthy (630 pages with index and notes in hardcover) narrative account of Jobs's life.  Since Jobs led an eventful life (an adopted child and Reed College drop out who co-founded Apple Computer but left after losing a power struggle with John Sculley and then went on to found Next and finance Pixar before returning to lead Apple to great success until his death at 56) this makes for a fairly interesting read.  But the book is weaker when it comes to the bigger picture.  For example it is natural to ask why Jobs was so successful.  Was it mostly luck or did he have some rare and valuable talents (and if so what were they)?  This book isn't too helpful in answering this question although it provides plenty of material for speculation. 

Even considered just as narrative the book has weaknesses.  It isn't an authorised biography in the sense that Jobs had veto power over the text but Jobs did initiate the project by suggesting Isaacson write his biography and Jobs (and people close to him) cooperated by giving interviews in his final years.  This has obvious advantages for a biographer but also risks in that you can get too close to your subject (and their family and friends) and it can become hard to stay objective.  While the book includes plenty of negative material about Jobs it seems on occasion to incline towards not dwelling on it.  The discussion of Jobs's improperly backdated stock options is pretty cursory and I would have liked more about why his habits of driving around in a car without a license plate and parking in handicapped spaces apparently didn't cause him any problems.     

Another problem is the book appeared soon after Jobs died.  While there were no doubt good commercial reasons for this it also means the book lacks the added perspective (and material) which will be available in a few years.  I thought the last part of the book was not as good perhaps because it was rushed (or maybe this is just a sign the book was too long).  And for whatever reason the book says nothing about Jobs's will or the disposition of his sizable estate which seems a rather considerable omission. 

As to why Jobs was successful, certainly a large part of it was luck.  It is easy to imagine worlds in which Jobs dies an embittered failure, where he doesn't catch the breaks that led to the quick success which gave him credibility and made people more willing to tolerate his abrasive and obnoxious side.  But I don't think it was all luck.  I think the following traits contributed to his success.  He was willing to aim high and take chances. He was persistent.  He was generally decisive.  He recognized that good styling, appearance and image were important and worth considerable trouble and expense to get right.  He had good instincts about what would make a new product appealing.  He was an inspirational leader.  And he was willing to push his people hard and replace them if he came to believe they weren't the best available.  This last trait was somewhat double-edged of course as he could be a notoriously abusive boss but I think it is difficult to achieve what he did without being at least a bit of a jerk.   

In summary this is a reasonably entertaining (albeit lengthy) account of the life and career of Steve Jobs.  But it didn't seem particularly insightful to me and lacks the perspective that time will give.  And it concentrates on Jobs so is not a good choice if you want a broader view of events.  So unless you are particularly interested in Jobs and Apple perhaps you should skip this book.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Princeston, NY 08540

Well this is rather annoying.  When I moved from New York to New Jersey at the beginning of the year I made numerous change of address notifications.  One of them was to my former employer, IBM, which is paying me (through direct deposit) a monthly pension.  IBM somehow recorded the last line of my new address as being "Princeston, NY 08540" instead of the correct "Princeton, NJ 08540".  This was rather dumb of them as the zip code and the state are incompatible and a simple check would detect this.  However the post office managed to deliver the confirmation to my new address and I didn't notice the error until I received a year end summary showing all the state withholding had gone to New York instead of New Jersey.  So now I will have to file a New York return just to get these payments back.

I guess the lesson here is that just because the post office manages to deliver something doesn't mean the address was correct.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Cornell 2012

I attended the Cornell graduation over Memorial Day weekend.  There were 2 main events.  The Senior Class Convocation was on Saturday followed by the actual Commencement on Sunday.  Both were in an outdoor stadium.  The photo shows the stadium on Sunday morning before the graduating students file in and fill most of the chairs.

The main speaker on Saturday was Michael R. Bloomberg, currently serving his third term as Mayor of New York.  I thought his speech was reasonably good (as might be expected from a successful politician).  The main speaker on Sunday was the University President, David J. Skorton.  I was less impressed with his speech but perhaps he has other virtues.  In any case the main focus on Sunday was the graduation ritual itself.  First the thousands of students filing in and being seated and then the mass awarding of their degrees.

I stayed in a student dorm.  The accommodations were a little spartan (apparently indestructibility is still an important criteria) but tolerable.  There was a problem with the parking which was inadequate with no arrangements for overflow (at least that the staff on duty was aware of).  The campus and city of Ithaca looked interesting but unfortunately I didn't have much time to explore although I did catch some views of the famous gorges.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Motor Voter

When I changed my driver's license and car registration from New York to New Jersey a few months ago one of the forms had a box to check if you also wanted to register to vote in New Jersey.  I checked the box and was impressed with how simple this was.  Too simple as it turned out as subsequent checks showed I was not in fact registered to vote.  My best guess is a clerk was suppose to notice the box was checked and give me a registration form.  Not a big deal as I found a form on the internet which I filled out and mailed in and I recently received a post card confirming that I am now registered.  However this kind of defeats the purpose of motor voter laws.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

TurboTax Pitfall

A word of warning, if you use TurboTax and have long term capital gains make sure it is handling them correctly.

I have been using TurboTax to do my taxes again this year. A couple of weeks ago it looked like I was going owe the government a substantial amount. This was unexpected and irritating but it didn't occur to me that the program might be wrong. My income was quite a bit higher (mostly due to some long term capital gains) and I hadn't been real careful in figuring my estimated tax so I figured I hadn't gotten it quite right. But today I made some small changes and my tax owed dropped significantly. This prompted me to investigate further and I found that TurboTax had apparently been failing to treat one of my capital gains as long term. Since long term gains are taxed at a favorable 15% rate this meant it was overstating the tax I owed. I believe this was due to a program bug because when I tried to fix the entry it started reporting a gain of zero which was obviously wrong. I had to delete the entry entirely and reenter the information to fix the problem.

This is rather disturbing. It is nice to have TurboTax handle the computations but not if they are going to be done wrong especially since it is sometimes hard to tell exactly what TurboTax is doing.

Another irritation is the Deluxe version doesn't handle ESPP sales easily because they want you to pay more to upgrade to the Premier version. All in all my opinion of the program has taken big hit but I really don't want to go back to doing my taxes by hand either. I guess I will just have to review the results a lot more carefully.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Green Shoot?

I noticed a help wanted sign posted as I was leaving the restaurant I ate at last night. I don't remember seeing one for quite a while so perhaps the economy is recovering a bit. Ironically the restaurant had seemed emptier than usual.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

John G. Fletcher RIP

I sadly note the recent death of my stepfather, John G. Fletcher. Like my father he had a doctorate in physics and had a long career at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Unlike my father he quickly moved away from physics to work in the lab's computation department. Here is a 1983 video in which he talks about the lab's computer systems. And here are transcripts of interviews with him in 1993 and 1995 looking back at his career at the lab. Finally here is the wikipedia article on Fletcher's checksum which he invented.

He shared my interest in mathematical games and puzzles and continued to work on them after he retired in 1993. He submitted many solutions to IBM's monthly Ponder This puzzle from November 2001 through June 2011, before, during and after the period I was puzzlemaster.

I took the photo in 1991 at Big Sand Lake, near Park Rapids Minnesota, where his parents lived. I have fond memories of vacationing there in the early 1990s.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Moving on

As any long term readers of this blog know I was laid off from my job at IBM's Watson Research Lab in Westchester New York about 3 years ago. I was out of work for a while but then got a job in central New Jersey which is about 90 miles away from my Ossining townhouse. This is too far to conveniently commute but I was reluctant to move as the job was originally temporary and I liked my townhouse. So I stayed in a motel during the week and returned to Ossining on weekends. But this wasn't ideal and since my position was made permanent early last year it seemed best to relocate. After a somewhat prolonged search I bought a townhouse near Princeton late last year and after some more delays I had my stuff moved last week.

This took three men two days. About 10 hours the first day to pack it up and load the truck, about 5 hours the second day to unload the truck (leaving the unpacking to me). I found the process a bit tiring. Not in a physical sense as I wasn't doing any of the work but somewhat emotionally draining as it marked a rather definite end to a big portion of my life. At least I didn't have to worry about the cost as my employer paid. Apparently quite a bit, hopefully a reasonable amount trickled down to the men doing the work.

Despite my doubts about moving I am settling in fine in the new place.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Kodak bankrupt

Long ago I inherited small amounts of a few stocks from my great uncle. Over the years their fortunes have varied. The one that did worst was Eastman Kodak which last week filed for bankruptcy after years of decline. My investment wasn't actually a total loss (although I expect the shareholders will receive nothing in any reorganization) as Kodak had paid a dividend for many years and also spun off Eastman Chemical which while not doing so terrific itself isn't bankrupt. Still not one of my better investments.

While it is of course difficult when your main product dies it is a bit hard to believe that better management couldn't have salvaged something. It is a little hard for me to understand why the current CEO still his job.

Kodak should have had plenty of warning, while the early digital cameras were expensive and not very good their problems were clearly fixable while film was a mature technology without much upside potential. Which brings me to the subject of the Kindle Touch e-reader which I received for Christmas. I like it a lot despite an annoying user interface. The problems seem fixable and I expect over time that e-books will dominate the market.

Monday, January 16, 2012

One up on Wall Street

I recently read "One up on Wall Street" by Peter Lynch (with John Rothchild, 1989). Peter Lynch was a very successful manager for Fidelity's Magellan mutual fund which he directed from 1977 to 1990. According to wikipedia he achieved an average annual return of 29% which is of course terrific. One might expect he could write a worthwhile book on personal investing but in my view this book is not it.

The main problem with this book is its premise (see pages 240-241 in the paperback edition) that with moderate effort following his advice the average person can expect to beat the market averages by 2-5% a year (so if the market averages 10% average annual return you can expect to achieve 12-15%). In my opinion this is totally unrealistic and potentially dangerous advice for the average investor. More realistically an individual investor should expect returns (before expenses) which roughly track the market. Of course if you aren't widely diversified you won't match the market exactly and might in fact achieve excess returns of 2-5% annually for some time. But these will probably just reflect good luck and be no more likely than lagging the market by an equivalent amount.

So if you don't enjoy researching and picking stocks but want to be invested in the market the practical thing to is to invest in an index fund. This takes minimal effort and you should achieve the market return. Index funds are also relatively tax efficient. If you do enjoy picking stocks and have a bit of a taste for gambling then picking out and holding a portfolio of 20 or so stocks is fairly harmless as long as you don't trade too much and spread your picks around. Your expected return won't suffer, you can root for your stocks and you may get lucky and beat the market by a bit. And by managing your own portfolio you can adjust for your personal tax situation. Active mutual fund managers often only think about pretax returns and give up some after tax return by being too willing to take gains. Lynch in fact totally ignores taxes in this book.

A large part of Lynch's book consists of war stories, stock picks of his that did well or poorly. He has explanations and advice based on these examples but to me they just seem to illustrate the adage that it is easier to predict the past than the future. They don't appear to add up to a reliable method for beating the market going forward.

The book also come across as rather dated. References are made to looking up company information in local libraries which subscribe to the Value Line service but I believe this type of information is now widely available on the internet. And 1990 time frame stock picks are mostly of historical interest at this point.

So in summary I would skip this book.

Saturday, January 7, 2012


When I joined IBM I opened an account at a bank with a branch in Millwood. It was convenient as I could stop by on my way to work. When I got laid off I went on banking there out of habit although it was now considerably less convenient. About a month ago it rather belatedly occurred to me that my bank has many branches. I have since been using one in Croton and it is rather startling how much easier this is. It makes me wonder how much other suboptimal behavior I engage in out of inertia.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A Song of Ice and Fire

I recently read the five existing books of George R. R. Martin's fantasy series, "A Song of Ice and Fire". It is perhaps better known by the name of the first book, "A Game of Thrones" (1996, 704 pages in hardcover). The following four books were "A Clash of Kings" (1998, 784 pages), "A Storm of Swords" (2000, 992 pages), "A Feast for Crows" (2005, 784 pages) and "A Dance with Dragons" (2011, 959 pages). As can be seen this is a very long series, over 4000 pages so far, and reading it represents quite an investment in time. Martin certainly has story telling talent and there are good things about the books. But overall I found the series seriously flawed and I can't really recommend it.

My first objection is to the overly ambitious scope of the story. It appears to me that someplace in the second book the author lost control and began multiplying characters and subplots beyond reason. I like a book or series to tie things together at the end and at this point this seems unlikely to happen.

A related issue is the way the series is written. There are numerous narrative threads and viewpoint characters and the books jump around among them. This is of course a common technique and is ok up to a point. But in my view this series has gone well beyond that point. Many of the narrative threads are largely independent and chopping them up and intermixing them just seems confusing and irritating to me. The problem is aggravated by the author's propensity for abandoning threads in cliffhanger situations rather than at natural stopping points which makes it harder for the reader to pick up the new thread.

My final objection is to the general tone and content of the series which is quite dark. The books assume a medieval level of technology (swords and crossbows) with some magical elements added. Considering what this period of human history was actually like it would have been unrealistic for the series not to have dark aspects. But the series emphasizes them in a way that I found off putting. It is not so much any one description of the strong mistreating the weak (often with sadistic cruelty) or of betrayal and treachery but the cumulative effect of many such descriptions over 4000 pages. When reading for enjoyment and entertainment I would prefer a bit less realism.

In my opinion the first book was the best. According to wikipedia the series was originally envisioned as a trilogy. I think Martin would have done better to stick with this plan. Authors sometimes have trouble coming up with satisfying endings to their stories. Greatly expanding the scope of the story postpones dealing with this problem but does not make it any easier.

So in summary, Martin is a talented writer and I certainly found parts of the books entertaining even compelling but ultimately I found the series disappointing. I am the sort of person with a compulsion to find out what happens next so I will probably read any additional books as they appear but if you aren't already invested in the series you might think twice about embarking on it.