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Archive for July, 2009

 

Television Sucks

Monday, July 27th, 2009

So I canceled my cable television today. Huzzah! I thought I’d tell you of my quest to save $70/mo in cable bills, and about my new television setup in my house. Maybe you’ll be inspired by my story, maybe scared. I admit to being a little scared myself.

We decided to redo the kitchen in our house, and in so doing, I wanted to take our existing 37″ TV and mount it to the wall of the kitchen, get a Mac Mini and hook it up to that TV and use it as a giant kitchen computer. So far so good. I thought I’d also use it to, you know, watch TV from the kitchen from time to time, but that was ancillary at first. Regardless, I would need a cable box for the kitchen.

But the plans we had made involved no room for a pizza-box sized piece of electronics from the cable company. In fact, I would have needed to order (or have my carpenter build) a special piece of cabinetry to hold such a monstrosity. This pissed me off. It makes no sense to me to require viewers to use something the size of a pizza box to watch television when the TV is designed to hang on the wall unobtrusively. This situation exists solely because of the monopoly position that cable companies are in in their respective municipalities. Customers have no choice, so they put up.

Or they come up with cockamamie work-around solutions. One common solution is to put the pizza-box in a closet somewhere, and then route an infrared repeater from the TV to the pizza-box. This enables you to put the gargantuan piece of electronics out of the way. But this is a sub-optimal solution at best. I can’t say this enough: there is literally no reason for the cable box to be the size of a pizza box except for bad engineering, tolerated because the cable company is a monopoly. So if I had to re-engineer the cable box, I may as well think EVERYTHING through from scratch.

Step 1 was to analyze our television viewing habits. We’ve never been TV connoisseurs in our house, and I never subscribed to HBO or any of the pay channels. Basically, we just watch the main broadcast channels, and I watch the occasional documentary on Discovery or History or those kinds of channels. But increasingly, those shows have sucked wind, so I haven’t been watching them out of enthusiasm for them, but for the worst of all possible reasons, what I can the “Sir Edmund Hillary” reason: because they were there.

And don’t even get me started on the Food Network.

I considered going without television at all, downloading all my shows from iTunes or watching on Hulu instead. But live television does serve a purpose. News, sports and weather isn’t much good watched after the fact, and even serial type shows are best watched when they are intended to air, at least if they’re popular, so as to not accidentally encounter spoilers. And finally, HD versions of network shows are insanely expensive on iTunes, so that got ruled out quickly.

The answer, it turns out, lie in my attic. Because in my 80 yr old attic lie an antenna that some previous owner of my house had installed to watch over the air television with. A quick test revealed it captured over the air signals perfectly. And so began the project of re-wiring the house to route the antenna signal to the televisions around the house. The result was antenna coax to the televisions, and cable coax to my Internet router.

So far so good. But I still need time shifting, and I would also like to be able to watch video purchased over the Internet. The options as I saw it were to either get an appleTV with a separate PVR or get a Mac Mini with an eyeTV attachment. I chose the latter, mostly because I couldn’t fathom spending so close to the amount required to get the Mini and not just getting the damned thing. So that’s what I did.

I still had to do one last thing. Because I now had 2 Minis, each being used for video, I had to run gigabit Ethernet from each computer to the router, so as to be able to more effectively more video around the house.

So having had this setup for all of a day now, I want to tell you of the results.

So far, they’re pretty darned good. We managed to grab the signals fine, the eyeTV is pretty intuitive to use, though we’re still getting used to it. Hulu desktop app works pretty well on it, and we even rented and watched a movie on iTunes for about 1/2 the price of Comcast. As I said earlier, HUZZAH!

I also want to take a moment to emphasize just how much better the eyeTV PVR is than what Comcast offers (at least where I live). The Pizza box PVR has jagged graphics in the typeface, is slow to respond to remote control commands, which makes it near impossible to operate the PVR with any effectiveness, and the On-Demand store is slow as molasses to get up and running, not to mention near-impossible to navigate. The eyeTV, on the other hand, has slick graphics, a super-speedy PVR with quick responses, not to mention other features that the cable company will never give you, such as the ability to offload your recordings, edit them down and take out commercials, etc. It’s seriously hard to beat, particularly when combined with Hulu Desktop for additional time-shifted free TV and iTunes for renting/buying movies. Honestly, I’m pretty happy.

The economics of my move are honestly a touch questionable. I’ll save $70/month in cable TV fees (Cable TV is $88, but they raise my Internet price for ditching the bundle by $17 (BASTARDS!)). And trying to tally up all I spent is not easy. I was going to get the kitchen Mini anyway, so the incremental cost there is just the eyeTV. So I had to buy a Mini and eyeTV for the living room, wiring, and a new TV for the bedroom, since the old one didn’t have a digital tuner (yes, I could have gotten a converter box, but TVs are so cheap that it didn’t make sense). Total approximate cost (not including my labor for doing all of this): $1,400. This means I’ll have about a 20 month payback time, probably slightly more if you figure I’ll be buying more TV over iTunes than I would have been buying anyway (actually, maybe slightly less if you count the cost of renting a second pizza box for the kitchen, which I haven’t done).

So is that worth it? I think so. I have eliminated my endless frustration with my monopoly cable provider (at least so far as television is concerned). I have an appreciably nicer system than I previously had, one that enables me to experiment with new IP television technologies as they get developed. And I’ve gained a measure of independence over the media. And that’s a good thing. Besides, 20 months isn’t that long. I’ll surely be living there longer than that, and I probably won’t need a new computer in 20 months either. So I count it as a win.

Finally, I have a followup entry to write on attaching a Mac Mini to a HDTV. It’s not easy, and I still have some configuring to do on one of my TVs.

BTW, I have to offer special thanks to Josh Rowe for taking 2 Saturdays out to help me wire up the house.

 
 

50%

Friday, July 24th, 2009

From my predictions entry:

Q: How many days will Obama be in office before his approval ratings drop below 50%?
A: 250.

Today is the 205th day of the year. So I’m not that far off. No president stays above 50% for very long. Most people hold their noses when they vote. It’s something that Obama boosters have never quite grasped.

Read the poll results here.

 
 

On Henry Louis Gates Jr and Cambridge, MA

Thursday, July 23rd, 2009

Many people have said what has needed to be said about the incident, Margery Eagan does it best (also The Distributed Republic brings up a good point), but one thing has gone unsaid, which I think bears saying:

Apparently, Henry Louis Gates Jr doesn’t know his neighbors. Or put differently, his neighbors don’t know him.

Isn’t that incredible? His own neighbor, upon seeing him attempting to enter his house, didn’t offer to call him a locksmith or something, or offer his house as a place to hang out while he waited for family to come home and open the house. No, they called the police, because they didn’t recognize who it was that lived on their street.

Living in a town that borders Cambridge, I find this not at all surprising. In many ways, Cambridge is the epitome of modern, professional America. People don’t know each other one iota, are afraid to speak to each other directly, preferring to speak out loud past each other in a passive aggressive manner as if to drop hints. All the while everyone has covered their lawns and cars with Obama paraphernalia, voting to expand the government to help the community at every chance they get, a community that in reality they aren’t really a part of, one that arguably doesn’t even exist.

I feel sorry for Gates. Not because he got arrested or locked out of his house. But because he has no community.

UPDATE: Good roundup of the issues involved here (via balko).

 
 

De-Boning A Pig’s Head

Saturday, July 18th, 2009

Previously:

 
 

Goldie Mac

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

This got me:

Goldman will surely deny that its risk-taking is subsidized by the taxpayer — but then so did Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, right up to the bitter end. An implicit government guarantee is only free until it’s not, and when the bill comes due it tends to be huge. So for the moment, Goldman Sachs — or should we say Goldie Mac? — enjoys the best of both worlds: outsize profits for its traders and shareholders and a taxpayer backstop should anything go wrong.

We like profits as much as the next capitalist. But when those profits are supported by government guarantees or insured deposits, taxpayers have a special interest in how the companies conduct their business. Ideally we would shed those implicit guarantees altogether, along with the very notion of too big to fail. But that is all but impossible now and for the foreseeable future. Even if the Obama Administration and Fed were to declare with one voice that banks such as Goldman were on their own, no one would believe it.

Read the whole thing here.

And if you haven’t already read Rolling Stone’s article on Goldman, be sure to read that here.

 
 

ARRRRR!

Wednesday, July 15th, 2009

On the drive into work today, I saw a green Jeep with the Mass. license plate “ARRRRR”. I am in awe. To whomever owns said plate, I sing your praises.

 
 

Further Thoughts On Inflation and Asset Prices

Monday, July 13th, 2009

Ok, I’m going to attempt to condense my previous post down to a few sentences, so my question is clear enough:

Inflation is too much money chasing too few goods. This causes prices to rise, including that of money, which needs to now include the cost of inflation in the interest rates charged to borrow. In turn then, higher interest rates drive down the prices of the things which normally require financing to purchase, things such as houses and businesses.

Is this a correct analysis? Does this mean that inflation has an inverse effect on the price of land and businesses? Does it therefore make sense to hoard cash, and make a purchase in land or a business knowing that the debt will be refinancable when the inflationary time ends, and that the asset purchased should also rise in value with the decrease in interest rates? What is the proper way to time such an investment? Should one wait until interest rates exceed 10%?

I think I may post this as a question in the LinkedIn forums and see what kind of response I get.

 
 

Thoughts on Inflation, Interest Rates and Asset Values

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

I’ve been thinking about inflation, interest rates, and asset values lately, particularly with respect to how they effect business decisions that need to be made in the coming years. What follows is my attempt to work those out. Please leave your thoughts in the comments, as I make no claim to being right about what I’m about to post; it’s more like online note-taking.

Inflation is often described as “too much money chasing too few goods”. And this is technically correct. Inflation happens when the government introduces money into the system at a rate faster than new wealth is produced, leaving an oversupply of money, causing prices to be bid upwards.

I have long maintained that we are living in an inflationary period, that low interest rates were a major cause of the housing boom, and that the only reason why we didn’t see price appreciation in consumer goods and services was due to the influx of cheap goods from Asia and labor from India (via the Internet) and Mexico.

In fact, it was an incorrect definition of inflation that made the central bankers keep interest rates for so low for so long. Namely, that inflation is “price appreciation” and conversely, that deflation is “price depreciation”. This, of course, is nonsense. Price appreciation or depreciation is a symptom of inflation, but not a necessary indicator of it. In a normal economy, prices should gradually decrease for all manufactured products because technology improves over time. We see this most readily in the computer hardware industry, but it happens in slow motion across all industries. So when central bankers see small amounts of price depreciation (actually fueled by improved technology or new economies coming online) they often take measures to prevent deflation. But those measures involve increasing the money supply, which has to go somewhere, and often winds up creating speculative bubbles.

So far so good. arguably, then, when a bubble pops, you may have a brief period of actual deflation, in that people who had real wealth and invested it would have seen it lost, but on the other side, no small measure of people would have gained real wealth from riding the wave. On the other hand, some number of people would have increased their consumption, feeling that they were rich. Therefore, when the bubble pops, there would have been less wealth around relative to the amount of money representing it. On the other-other hand, in the aftermath of a bubble popping, many would-be investors will hold tight for fear of losing their money again, and this would represent some of the same symptoms as deflation, as it effectively is people hoarding their money.

Regardless, it’s hard to dismiss the combined orgy of government spending and borrowing, while the Fed maintains low interest rates and buys assets that they know to be worthless, all of which injects money into the economy, and not be worried about future inflation. The question is how will it play out and what to do about it?

Now here is where I get really confused. Traditionally, inflation should mean higher asset prices. Which is why holding precious metals or land would make for a good hedge. However, the price of assets, such as land, is inversely impacted by interest rates. And in inflationary times, interest rates will eventually rise to incorporate the rate of inflation. So if in normal times an asset (large enough to require financing) would drop in value when interest rates go up, and be bid up in value when interest rates go down, then how can land make for a good investment in rough economic times? Wouldn’t land actually decrease in price during real inflationary times because financing costs would drive prices down?

We are starting to see something like this in private equity as well, where EBITDA multiples for companies are dropping as the cost of capital rises. So is it that it makes sense to buy during inflationary times, only to refinance when times are better? If that’s the case, then the strategy makes sense to me.

So this would point to a strategy of not paying down existing debt (whether it be in a mortgage of whatnot) so long as the interest rates are reasonable, but investing heavily in hard assets (large enough to require financing to buy)? Then you refinance or even sell when interest rates lower again after the inflationary period comes to a close. But again, that assumes it ever does come to a close.

This would explain why people who bought their houses in the midst of double digit interest rates were able to cash out at multiples of what they paid, all the while they were able to refinance at a lower rate of interest when times were better, and perhaps use the savings to even buy a second house.

So am I missing anything here? This analysis would point toward not purchasing either a company or a house now while interest rates are relatively low, but instead waiting until rates go up, holding tight, and then selling or refinancing when normality returns some years down the road. Timing is everything in this environment. Does anyone have any sense of what one’s timing should be?

UPDATE: Upon rereading this, the prose is dense and confusing. I may try to rewrite the central question posed here in another blog post.

 
 

The U of C Sure Has Changed, Man…

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Charlie Barlow plans to room with one of his best friends next semester at the University of Chicago: Lauren “Lulu” Danzig.

The two are among 50 students who will take advantage of a new policy allowing male and female undergraduates to room together — something that was forbidden throughout the 117-year history of the Hyde Park school.

Man, when I went to the UNiversity of Chicago, there sure weren’t any slutty looking girls who went by the name “Lulu” rooming with gay looking guys.

More here.

 
 

Sarah Palin’s Political Career, RIP

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Palin may not have been the best hope for Republicans in 2012, but she was one. No more. Her scheme amounted to a cockamamie stunt, almost of a McCain variety: draw all sorts of attention to herself and then campaign full-time for 4 years.

The problems, of course, are numerous. First off, nobody will vote for a quitter. And if she was to be a real reformer, then she needed to prove her reforms had staying power by running for re-election and winning. Instead, she ran off. Now I can understand running off for personal reasons or because the stress to her and her family was too great, but that’s not my sense (certainly not when she appears to be doing publicity tours).

As soon as I read about her stunt I said I’m guessing that Bill Kristol whispered something incredibly stupid into her ear. And a cursory search around the Internet showed that he was (apparently) the only one to have anything positive to say about it. Why anybody would listen to or publish Kristol is a mystery to me, but there it is.

I should just hope for her sake that she is leaving to take a talk-show job or something. Because if she was really planning to vault into the presidency by quitting as governor early, she is dumber than her detractors claim, which is pretty bad.