2010-05-28

Two Years Old on Two Packs a Day

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This is sad. Two years old, (two years!) and smoking forty cigarettes a day.

I'm dumbfounded.


2010-05-27

Book Giveaway: "Delivering Happiness" by Tony Hsieh

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From time to time having your own blog pays off in pretty cool (albeit mostly geeky) ways. One such occurrence took place about a month ago, when I was selected to receive an advanced copy of Tony Hsieh's (CEO of Zappo's) new book Delivering Happines: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose.

Now I'm probably like most of you guys in that I had only used Zappo's once before, and had honestly never heard of Tony Hsieh. In short, I didn't know what to expect from the book.

Well I read it over the weekend , and I have to say that it made a lifelong Zappo's customer out of me. In fact I almost bought a pair of shoes yesterday just because I liked the book so much. Andrea just laughed at me as I went on and on about this guy.

Anyways, I'm legally required to wait until June 7th for an actual review, so for now here's a couple reviews from famous people to further pique your interest:

Tim Ferriss, Author of The 4-Hour Workweek

Tony Hsieh has done a huge amount of thinking about how to bring happiness to himself, to employees, and to customers, and in this fascinating (and often hilarious) account, he explains how he turns his beliefs into actions that really do deliver happiness.

Anthony Robbins, Author of Unlimited Power and Awaken the Giant Within


Delivering Happiness is a glimpse into the mind of one of the most remarkable business leaders of our time.  Like its author, the book is authentic, oddly original, doesn’t take itself too seriously—yet delivers a potent message.  Weaving together history, personal philosophy, and insights from one of the most intriguing companies in world, Delivering Happiness works on the mind, the heart, and the soul.  This book needs to be read by anyone who takes the happiness of other people seriously.

How to Win a Free Copy (w/ free shipping)*

(contest is now closed)

1. Leave a comment stating why I should send you the book no later than midnight June 6th (as many as you want).

2. Be sure to include some way for me to contact you.

That's it! I'll pick a # at random and that person will be notified on June 7th of their winnings. This blog averages 1 comment per post so the odds of winning are EXTREMELY high. So to the four of you who actually  leave comments, I say good luck!
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2010-05-24

Death Creates An Economy That Makes Life Precious

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Came across an interview with Stanley Hauerwas, one of my brother-in-law's former professors at Duke Divinity School, on the subject of how his Christian faith had shaped his view of death.

The above quote might be one of the most beautiful phrases I've heard on this subject, and is the reason I posted it here. However equally as intriguing is his mention of the the phrase "save us from a sudden death" in the Book of Common Prayer, and how that differs from the modern desire to die in such a way that we avoid any knowledge of our death.

Hauerwas postulates a shift towards fearing death over fearing God, and ends the video with his view on what "a good death" looks like. Good stuff.



Reflections on Death from CPX on Vimeo.

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2010-05-20

Evening Links

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Consumer credit making a comeback?

Unemployment and the Battle of the Sexes (h/t wonkbook)

Edward Glaeser on the the climate bill and the case for a carbon tax.

Election season: In China?:

For the voters, electing the Party secretary is like "selecting products they favor in the supermarket", said Chen Jian, a township government official, who was sent by Yongning to take part in the election of Houchong. "We candidates stand on the stage for them to compare and choose."
So thaaaat's how it works.

Did He Just Drop the P-Bomb?

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I couldn't help it. This is gold. But also somewhat inappropriate, so be warned.

The reaction of the other two newscaster is classic, as is the perpetrator's complete unawareness of what he just said.




Am I wrong?

Federal Debt is Gross

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Very interesting chart that Barry Ritholtz posts on the Big Picture:



a few things to note:

1. TR once again outdoes his peers, as he does in almost all metrics of awesomeness.
2. The gross federal debt is high, and needs to be addressed, but it's not unprecedented.
3. Reagan...

I Was Wrong and I Apologize

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Back in November 2008 I made a very very bad prediction. On a whim, I posted my thoughts regarding the direction of a certain man's career and his ability to improve (or not) upon his predecessor. Thoughts that, as it turns out, could not have been further from the truth.

I am of course talking about Jimmy Fallon taking over Late Night from Conan O'Brien.

Now don't get me wrong, NBC completely screwed the pooch by giving The Tonight Show back to Jay Leno, but the one thing they did right was to give "Late Night" to Jimmy Fallon. Yes his monologue seems forced at times, but they make up for this by keeping it short and relying more on Jimmy's roots in sketch comedy (along with a healthy dose of The Roots) to carry the day.

A point which is perhaps best illustrated by the following sketch:




You can thank me later.

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Thailand is Fairing Better than you Think

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The truly wild thing about the uproar in Thailand is not the fact that protesters brought the city to a standstill in an attempt to force the government to resign (that's happened before), or that its capitol city and surrounding areas are under curfew after yesterday's rioting, or that several buildings were set on fire by the opposition in response to military force.

The really unbelievable thing is that through all of that the Thai economy is actually fairing pretty well. Seriously, one of those burning buildings in the papers this morning was the Stock Exchange of Thailand, which happens to still be up on the year and actually outperforming other emerging countries. How can that be? According to a report by Standard Chartered Bank, it's because the markets have already priced in the the disruption.

Talk about political risk analysis. Markets have already priced in the fact that thousands of protesters would besiege Bangkok for weeks, all but shutting down the city and crippling the tourism industry. I don't know if this speaks more to the overall soundness of the Thai economy or to the fact that political unrest is so common in Thailand that the markets have basically stopped noticing. In reality it is probably a bit of both.

To be fair, the Thai government has announced that it is reducing its economic growth forecast for the year because of the disruption (after having recently revised it upward!), but it seems as though the political volatility would have bled through in the form of greater market volatility. It's also true that Thailand has set itself on firm economic footing over the past ten years by building up a large stockpile of foreign exchange reserves and a strong current account surplus, among other economic cushions. All these things combined have analysts actually predicting a rise in the Thai stock market and an appreciation of the Thai baht against the U.S. dollar.

Surely no one would be making such sanguine predictions if this were happening in other emerging markets. If this was Beijing instead of Bangkok, global markets would be having even greater fits than they are now. Of course there is a size difference in the economies in terms of global presence. But it's still astonishing. Essentially what has happened is that Thailand has turned a sustained level of political instability into business as usual, and paradoxically reassured investors that there is no need to panic.

Life on Earth

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Astonishing announcement today from the scientific community:

Scientists have turned inanimate chemicals into a living organism in an experiment that raises profound questions about the essence of life.

Craig Venter, the US genomics pioneer, announced on Thursday that scientists at his laboratories in Maryland and California had succeeded in their 15-year project to make the world’s first “synthetic cells” – bacteria called Mycoplasma mycoides.

Synthetic life. The possibilities seem immense, as do the potential abuses. I'll admit I'm a mugwump on the on morality side of this development (and, yes, I'll also admit I just learned the word mugwump a few days ago and have been looking for an opportunity to use it -- sue me), but this seems like an interesting application:

They are particularly interested in designing algae that can capture carbon dioxide from the air and produce hydrocarbon fuels.

Last year Synthetic Genomics signed a $600m agreement with Exxon Mobil to make algal biofuels. “We have looked hard at natural algae and we can’t find one that can make the fuels we want on the scales we need,” Dr Venter said.



What's the Deal with Capital Requirements?

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The Senate is attempting to close the debate on financial regulation again today after yesterday's botched cloture vote due to a couple of Democratic defections and near-unanimous Republican descent. Word is the newest Republican maverick, Scott Brown, might change his mind and not vote to filibuster, but that still leaves the Dems one vote short, assuming Arlen Specter decides to bother coming back to Washington after his primary defeat on Tuesday.

Ok, great -- the Senate might pass it's version of the bill this week. But the story is still far from over on what the legislative sausage factory will produce, especially after the House and Senate bills go through reconciliation (it's not just for healthcare anymore!). That's one reason that some analysts are saying the Senate shouldn't be in such a hurry to close this debate.

One of the most contentious aspects of the bill as it now stands involves the issue of capital requirements for the banks -- how much money (or other various assets) they have to hold in order to ensure that they can pay back their lenders and cover their losses. An amendment proposed by Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) is at the center of this argument. Her change was unanimously passed last week, but only recently did it start to garner much attention, and it's many critics now include the Treasury, the Federal Reserve, and Wall Street:

"I don't believe that the senators understood the full implications of this amendment," said Edward Yingling, chief executive of the American Bankers Association trade group. "It would cause a severe capital crunch for many banks, resulting in the major decrease in lending capability."

U.S. and foreign bank regulators are working to complete new international capital requirements by the end of this year, and Treasury Department Secretary Timothy Geithner has made it one of his top goals. Sen. Collins's provision could affect those discussions by creating a new federal law mandating capital standards.

First, the banks' mantra that any and all financial regulation will "result in a major decrease in lending" is getting tiresome. It's true that right now the U.S. needs better, smoother credit flows, but once the economy is comfortably back on its feet, credit availability should be kept in check. That's the whole point of regulation -- remember excessively low interest rates and easy credit were a major factor in creating the financial mess in the first place. So claiming now that higher capital requirements will hurt banks' ability to lend is disingenuous. Although it might be an argument for phasing in higher capital requirements slowly.

This really seems to come down to a battle between the FDIC and the Treasury and the Fed about who will be in charge of setting and overseeing bank capital requirements. The latter institutions want more flexibility in determining these regulations both domestically and internationally. Recent events have shown that unilateral regulatory decisions can create havoc in the markets. Still, most observers have been saying for months that stricter capital requirements on the banks is one of the few no-brainers when it comes to financial reform. Demanding higher capital requirements now, but phasing them in once the economy is stronger might be the best solution because after the upswing takes hold, enacting solid and sensible reforms will only get harder. Plus, at least for now, if Wall Street is really pushing against it, you have to assume it's good.

2010-05-19

Speaking of Local Elections...

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One of the greatest political ads of this election season is for a position most of us have never heard of. It was released on Sunday and became an instant hit:



And the inevitable parody:


Not sure which one I like more, to be honest. Of course the original came with plenty of commentary.

The UK is out of Money

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I thought this headline was a joke or at least hyperbole. Nope. It's true, and telling.

What are Zee Germans Sinking?

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If the cliche "all politics is local" holds true, then its inverse has increasingly become "all policy is global." Angela Merkel, Germany's Chancellor, single-handedly sent European stock markets tumbling today with the announcement of a ban on naked short-selling and credit-default swaps, instruments which essentially let investors bet on or insure against further weaknesses in the Euro Area economy.

The reason she made this decision (along with her previous dithering in committing to a Greek bailout) is because she is facing domestic political pressure -- average Germans don't want their tax dollars going to bailout the Greek government. And they let her know about it by handing her party a loss in regional elections on May 9, causing her to resort to what looks like domestic political desperation.

Most of us probably don't care about regional German elections. Most of us don't even care about our own local or regional elections. But whether or not anyone takes note of these votes, local decisions increasingly have repercussions for on the global economy.

For starters, the German decision adds to overall uncertainty in global financial markets -- the Dow is off 0.75% so far today. That's right -- local German elections just gave a hit to your retirement fund. In contrast, the current Euro calamity could be a net positive for recovery in the U.S. because it is helping to lower energy prices.

The scary thing here is that as governments have become more economically active because of the financial crisis, the political risks to the global economy have proliferated in number, and likely grown in size, and these risks will likely shape the post-crisis economic landscape -- both in America and internationally. Next up on the reading list, Ian Bremmer's End of the Free Market.

2010-05-18

When Firefighters Become Architects

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WASHINGTON - JANUARY 6:    Lawrence Summers, D...Image by Getty Images via Daylife
 Great piece in the FT today about Obama's economic team and its potential path forward in envisioning a "new American economy." It also highlights some interesting points on how the president interacts with his economic counselors and his general stance toward economic policymaking.

I enjoy insights into the more human side of policy, especially when it comes to often humorless economists, and Rothkopf's description of Larry summers as "Obama’s economic [Henry] Kissinger" is probably right on. However, the article does seem to overestimate Summers' role as the sole "alpha brain" on the team.

“My question is not whether Larry Summers is a brilliant brain but whether there is anyone who has the ability to challenge his point of view,” says Mr Galston. “I know in my case that when I hear a fluent, and seemingly unimpeachable argument, what I want to hear next is an equally fluent rebuttal. Does President Obama have that? Brilliant brains also get it wrong.”


Contrast that take to last month's Atlantic profile on Geithner, and it is unclear who is the true alpha dog.
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2010-05-13

Don't Believe the Hippies

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A counter intuitive point about the current oil spill from The Economist (h/t The Daily Dish):

Disasters can be instructive. Both regulators and oil firms will learn useful lessons from the Deepwater Horizon fiasco, and safety will surely improve as a result. But it is easy to learn the wrong lessons, too. After the accident on Three Mile Island in 1979, Americans grew scared of nuclear power and stopped building new reactors, even though no one died in that accident. Had the nation not panicked, it would now have many more nuclear reactors, making the shift to a low-carbon economy significantly easier. Similarly today, panic is likely but unhelpful.

So long as Americans do not reduce their consumption of oil, refusing to drill at home means importing more of the stuff, often from places with looser environmental standards. The net effect is likely to be more pollution, not less. Nigeria, for example, has had a major oil spill every year since 1969, observes Lisa Margonelli of the New America Foundation, a think-tank. Putting a price on carbon would eventually spur the development of cleaner fuels, and persuade Americans to switch to them. But in the meantime, oil is both useful and precious. Extracting it domestically, with tougher safety rules, would bring a windfall to a Treasury that sorely needs one. When the current crisis is past, Mr Obama may remember this.

2010-05-11

Q&A with Mom

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For some reason I found this to be really moving. Enjoy!


Q&A from StoryCorps on Vimeo.


From Storycorps:

Joshua Littman, a 12-year-old boy with Asperger’s syndrome, interviews his mother, Sarah. Joshua’s unique questions and Sarah’s loving, unguarded answers reveal a beautiful relationship that reminds us of the best—and the most challenging—parts of being a parent.
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2010-05-07

The Greek Crisis in Context

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