Compounding My Interests

January 31, 2012 Leave a comment

Alata Zerka is no more.  I liked the name as a quirky, fun, personal title for a space that would house some of my web-based writings, yet no one else seemed to get it.  My new blogosphere home is Compounding My Interests, a site where I will continue some of the narratives that began even before AZ came into being, and a place where I promise to write with much greater frequency.  Hope to see you all there!

Compounding My Interests

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Categories: Personal

The Mystery of Edwin Jackson–Could he be a Met?

December 20, 2011 Leave a comment

Since 2005, Edwin Jackson has played for a total of six teams, only once completing consecutive season in the same uniform.  This comes at a time when every MLB team is desperate for pitching, even those loaded with arms.  Pitching is a scarce commodity in baseball and here is a relatively young pitcher, how is it possible that he’s been bounced around like a pinball and now remains an unsigned free agent well into the offseason?

Yesterday I saw Metsblog ask if “Edwin Jackson is an option for the Mets?”  I was intrigued, because I had seen the rumors about possible interest in Gio Gonzalez and was beside myself trying to figure out what we could offer that the A’s would want (answer: not much).  For several years, Jackson was a desirable late round pick/cheap dollar buy in fantasy baseball auctions, yet he was wildly inconsistent.  He exemplified your typical volatile young fantasy asset–the one where you start him against bad teams and he gets rocked, then sit him against great teams and he pitches shut outs.

This firmly shaped my opinion of the guy as a pitcher, but that’s from a fantasy perspective. The draw to him has consistently been the tremendous upside, but despite that, in real baseball he has been almost as undesirable as in the fantasy world. So, when I saw the Edwin Jackson rumors, I decided to do a little digging in Fangraphs to prove (or disprove) some of my hunches about Edwin Jackson, the pitcher.

Sure enough, Jackson is way better than I thought. Last year, his Wins Above Replacement (WAR) registered a 3.8.  Not quite All Star numbers, but comfortably above league average.  In fact, he was better than the following pitchers who all are perceived as “superior”: Tim Hudson, Jon Lester, Jaime Garcia, Gio Gonzalez and Mat Latos, among others.

Some might chalk this up to luck, but this is the second consecutive season of a WAR of 3.8 and third in a row of 3.6 or higher.  Not bad for a 28 year old, and actually fairly consistent for a pitcher known for his inconsistency.  For those who want to brush this aside as a fluke, let me strike back with the following: Jackson actually improved his peripherals last year, as evidenced by a career low BB/9 of 2.79 (well below his 3.66 career avg), but the improvement was masked by an above average BABIP of 3.30.  Point being: there is further room for improvement in WAR.

Perhaps the reason Jackson remains so undesirable is his agent–Scott Boras–but I have to believe that the lack of good pitching available on the market would more than compensate for the Boras factor. Plenty of teams with money need pitching. This tells me that teams just aren’t all that interested, therefore I think the Mets should fill the market gap and step up as buyers.

At this point in his career, there is a decent margin of safety with Jackson–three consecutive years as an above average MLB player means that he should cement the bottom line as a decent #3 in an MLB rotation.  Plus the guy has some serious upside if he can continue the progress on his control from last year and reverse some of the bad luck.  28 is that ripe age where some frustrating pitchers with “stuff” put it all together and step into their prime. Jackson is right in that sweet spot today.

Skiing off a Cliff

December 15, 2011 Leave a comment

It’s getting cold outside and that means something very important–ski season is almost here!  The advent of the high quality helmet-cam for skiers makes it nice and easy to live vicariously through some of the world’s bravest and best.  And when I say live vicariously, I more mean imagining myself doing something relatively tame while dropping my jaw in awe at the skill and willingness to embrace risk of others.  Check out this video of two Frenchmen carving their way through an aggressive chute before literally skiing off a massive cliff:

Hat tip to Paul Kedrosky for the find.

Categories: Sports Tags: , , ,

GoogleTV: My First Take at a Review of the Revue

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

One of my earliest posts on this blog asked if “Google can Prosper Where Apple Failed?” in bringing the web to TV.  At the time, I laid out my case for why GoogleTV would be a success, long before the full specs of the product were known.  In advance, I will admit that I was/am biased in that I want to see a successfully launched product that seamlessly integrates the web into the TV watching experience.  So far according to the buzz Google has failed to deliver (pardon the bad pun for you Google followers out there).  I wanted to see for myself.

It’s now been two months since I purchased the Logitech Revue with GoogleTV following the big price cut and I have had ample time to mess around with the product and to develop some of my opinions on its utility.  Plus, today I finally received the long-awaited update to Honeycomb, therefor I have a better feel for the fuller suite of services.

Before I go farther, I want to make one point very clear.  I am fully aware that GoogleTV is largely a Beta product and will be refined over time.  I am familiar with, and a big proponent of the customer development method which Google implements.  For those who don’t like it, or don’t know what I’m talking about, I recommend reading an interview I conducted with Steve Blank a little while back.  In short, customer development calls for getting your “minimally viable product” in the hands of early adopters and constructively using their feedback in order to enhance and build out a more robust final product.

I have approached GoogleTV (hereinafter called GTV) with a very open mind, knowing that it’s Google’s attempt to “use” (or take advantage of, depending on your perspective) early adopters in an effort to build a better 2.0 product.  Some of my opinion below will be shaped by the “incompleteness” of the product, but by and large, GTV is a fairly robust and quality platform–the best I’ve seen so far for web-to-TV.  Thus my main goal in this review is to treat it as a fairly finished product and to explore some of the ways that it can and cannot create value for the living room entertainment experience.

The scoop:

The user interface of GTV itself is much improved with the Honeycomb update, as the menus are simpler, clearer and easier to navigate, and the Android Market is a welcome addition.  So far, I have installed one app that I already know I will use on a regular basis, and that is Google Music, but overall, the quantity of available offerings remains relatively limited.

I’m not concerned with the lack of apps for GTV just yet, as one of the uses I have been most excited about is a really easy way to play my mp3 and streaming music through my sound system in digital quality–and Google Music accomplishes that goal. The AppleTV is unfortunately so annoying in how you can only manage content through iTunes, plus its’ really tedious to selectively sync some songs and not others to the point where I just had to stop using it. With Google Music, I now have everything easily accessible and organized without even using any of my own harddrive storage capacity.  That being said, where’s my Spotify app?  I’m still waiting!

The Netflix app is far superior to the one on the Play Station 3 in terms of the UI, and also doesn’t suffer from the streaming problem that is common on the PS3 where the lip movements of a speaker don’t match up with the words they are speaking (this is a problem w/ DVDs on the PS3 as well). Some people would say this is too nitpicky to buy yet one more device for the living room, but watching a lot of content where the lips and words don’t match gets really damn annoying after a while.

I stumbled on a pleasantly surprising use while I was taking an online course on high-level financial modeling, and needed to have Excel open on a computer, with the video opened as well.  One can conceivably do this well using either 2 monitors or a 2nd computer, and I did that for a while, but the learning experience is hands down better watching the video content on TV, while performing the interactive component on a separate computer.  The GTV is the easiest way to do this, and it allowed for much clearer and direct focus, and my pickup time in learning what I wanted to learn was far quicker.   Following this initial success, I started seeking out far more web-based educational video content.

Since getting the GTV I also learned how awesome Vimeo is. All HD content on cable is broadcast at a maximum of 1080i, however on Vimeo there is a whole bunch of 1080p content that you can stream. It is amazingly high quality and I didn’t even know that I’d be able to perceive the difference–I can. There are all sorts of nature videos and other cool documentaries (just watched this one in Di Fara’s Pizzeria in Brooklyn yesterday).  HBOGO is another useful app, as it affords the opportunity to watch all of HBOs content without having to wait for something to appear in the OnDemand list.

As for the Chrome browser, there have been several times with people over that internet on the TV provided for convenient entertainment.  Such uses range from opening visually intensive websites to plastering fantasy football scoreboards on the big screen to salt a loser’s wound.  Most HTML 5 websites look cool and can be comfortably browsed from the couch.

One of the things that is most impressive with GTV so far is how Emily–the better half–claims it makes managing our home entertainment setup much easier.  I’m not kidding, this is the single first time I have heard that from her ever!  Each addition I have made over time to the living room has added an increasing level of complexity to where and how we consume different content, and now in the GTV, much of that process is centralized and simplicity has taken a step forward.  While people have complained about the user interface, and I do recognize some inadequacies, the OS is incredibly easy to navigate around, and the Logitech keyboard is just like using any other keyboard.  Web-on-TV inherently requires a more complex remote control interface than a numbered-channel system, but Logitech and Google combined to deliver a fairly straightforward package.  Compared to a computer, it’s barely more difficult, while compared to something like the PS3, AppleTV or even the original WebTV, it’s a major step forward

Content is king, and the future of GTV:

GoogleTV thus far is a solid platform for exploiting web content, but it is not the only platform.  Further, the content that is most valuable with the GTV is not content exclusive to Google.  At the end of the day, content is king, and while the device is great, and you can do all sorts of cool things with it, the main problem is that there just isn’t enough content for most people to buy the GTV over any other platform, yet.

With the GTV app market in its infancy though, it’s safe to assume there will be more unique content for the web-to-TV platform, but it remains to be seen whether the platform will ever reach a critical mass/tipping point.  Google’s acquisition of Motorola is a natural segue to sneak GTV into the set-top-box industry.  Where Google can make major inroads is in furthering its relationship with TV-makers like Samsung and Sony, who will drive adoption, solving the crucial chicken-or-egg question of whether content will come once a critical mass of users has been reached, or whether a critical mass of users will drive the creation of content.

As an early-adopter, I have some clear ideas for uses I would like to see further developed.  Education is one of the areas that seems to make the most sense intuitively.  It is a seamless and interactive way through which someone eager to learn can liberate the content from a platform that is less conducive to visual learning (the computer) to one that is built specifically for that purpose (the TV).

Where I see this going eventually is as a major enabler of the cord-cutting movement, and clearly the traditional media corporations agree, as evidenced by the old network TV stations blocking any web-based content from the device.  Were they not threatened, why would they do such a thing?

Somewhere down the road, TV will have a web-like interface much like the Honeycomb update to GoogleTV.  Top-watched “channels” will appear as apps with a logo on a clean taskbar.  Plus, content available to play by streaming, from storage, or live will all be easily searchable.  Eventually there will be a way to watch everything we want to watch, without having to over-subscribe by paying for hundreds of channels we never have watched, nor will we watch in the future.

Where it stands:

All in all, the GTV is both fun and a value-add to the living room entertainment system.  Google remains far from answering my question as to whether they can succeed where Apple failed (nor has Apple “failed” if the rumors are true that they will attempt to launch an actual TV), but even still, I am pleased with my GTV experience thus far. Many reviews critique the lack of unique content, and while I recognize this impediment, the device must be viewed for what it is–a first stab at creating a constructive platform to incorporate the web experience into the television.  There are several other decent competing platforms out there, but Google has already built not only the best of the bunch, but also the most scalable.

Disclosure: Long GOOG and VZ

Marc Lasry Dips into his European Shopping List

December 9, 2011 Leave a comment

A few months back I had the privilege to attend a panel with Marc Lasry and several other big shots in the hedge fund business.  Lasry is one of my personal favorites.  It’s not just that he’s a lawyer by academic training (in fact that might be more a negative than positive sometimes), it’s that he tends to have the best research and one of the more objective, clearheaded and apolitical views on markets.

When I last heard Lasry speak, he made it clear that he was developing a shopping list in Europe; however, he had yet to take a big splash into markets.  In particular, Lasry was looking for signs of a recapitalization plan for European banks in order to create a “crisis firewall” that would prevent further contagion.  My understanding was that an aggressive bank recapitalization was more important than a sovereign debt backstop, because it would allow for a temporary escape from the panicked environment, thus affording time to develop a longer term solution to the structural problems plaguing the Euro.

Yesterday morning, Lasry made a guest appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box where he discussed the latest in the Eurozone mess.  Sure enough, despite the fact that many remain wary of Europe, Lasry disclosed that he was putting capital to work in the region, operating on a 2-4 year time-frame.  This is telling, because in the eyes of many, Europe continues to “kick the can down the road,” yet with someone like Lasry stepping in its a little clearer that a) the value is there from an investment perspective, and b) amongst those with good research and access to information there is an endgame clearly within reach.

Go ahead and give it a watch to learn more about Lasry’s perspective on Europe and a little further depth on precisely where he is making these investments (hint: the value is not in the PIIGS).

I’m having trouble getting the video to embed, so if it’s not working click on this link to check it out.

http://plus.cnbc.com/rssvideosearch/action/player/id/3000060922/code/cnbcplayershare

Save Bryce Canyon National Park from Coal Mining!

December 7, 2011 Leave a comment

Bryce Canyon is an amazing place!   The shapes, colors and striations are simply awe-inspiring.  Interestingly enough, Bryce isn’t an actual canyon, but the place is a national treasure all the same.  Bryce also happens to be one of the single best locations in the Continental U.S. for stargazing and anything astronomy-related.  This is due to the Park’s location far away from any major light pollution sources, and its impeccably clean and dry air quality.  Unfortunately, much of what is impressive about Bryce could be jeopardized by an unnecessary venture to allow a 3,500 acre coal mine within 10 miles of the park’s boundaries.  Sign this petition demanding that the Bureau of Land Management to stop this mine!  (and enjoy some pictures from a recent visit below)

My Reflections on Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson

November 28, 2011 4 comments

As soon as I heard there was an authorized biography of Steve Jobs in the works, I knew I would be reading it ASAP.  As a semi-“fanboy” of Apple products, I had a special affinity for Jobs’ ability to create beautiful, yet simple products that so clearly surpassed the competition.

Steve Jobs is inspirational to me as an innovator and businessman, and I always looked forward to his next Apple event.  Not many people could successfully earn the respect bestowed upon him by both the hippiest of the hippies and capitalist of the capitalists out there today like Jobs has.  The first iPod I got (a gift from my Mom for my college graduation) was a semi-spiritual event and shortly thereafter Apple was my first really good Tech investment in the dot.com bubble’s wake.

I say a semi-fanboy, because while I prefer Apple products, and recognize their superiority, the closed ecosystem and lack of hardware scalability consistently pisses me off.  No product exemplifies my feelings more than the iPad.  I knew the concept was in the pipeline for a while, and I “knew” that I would be buying one rather quickly.  I even bought a large external hard-drive/hub and built my own internal home network in anticipation of the iPad as my computer replacement.  My vision was clear–with my newly created home network and hard-drive, a tablet (I was expecting the name iSlate, not iPad), and a tablet dock, I could theoretically build my own cloud-computer at home.  The tablet would be my CPU and monitor (the brains and eyes), while my network would be the memory (the central nervous system), enabling the liberation of my computing experience into my personal cloud.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t meant to be.  The iPad, required adding an additional device to one’s computing infrastructure, rather than liberating the user to do something new altogether.  Sure the iPad was new, and incorporated some amazing and groundbreaking features, but there was a major disconnect between my expectations and the level of enthusiasm that ultimately greeted the device.  Here’s what I said at the time.

Needless to say, I felt let down.

After spending much of this past Thanksgiving weekend messing around on some family and friends iPads, I still want one despite my disappointment, and despite the fact that Apple never fully came around to the features I want.  Perhaps that’s just my impatience about the fact that neither the iPad 2 nor any of its clones have come close to offering what I am looking for.  But really, I think it comes down to how amazingly awesome the iPad is to use, and in the context of what I was looking for in a tablet, if I settle, I better settle for the best (the Ipad).

I start my “review” of Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson with this little anecdote, because it is in some ways the perfect metaphor for my feelings towards the book, as well as my feelings towards Steve Jobs.  Reviews of the book are a dime-a-dozen, and therefore, I would like to focus my review not on the book itself, but on elaborating on my personal feelings towards the subject–Steve Jobs.

Immediately upon the book’s release, all the juicy tidbits about Jobs personality and personal life were plastered all over the Internet. Before the book came to light, I was generally aware that Jobs had a prickly personality, and before reading much of the book, I learned a good chunk of the most shocking details from his childhood post-adoption to his intimate relationships to his business rivalries.  Much of the “drama” was conveniently extracted by a media blitz as one website after another attempted to beat their rivals at revealing the most shocking plot lines first.  And let me be clear from the start, the “juicy” stuff is interesting because it is what we already did not know; however, as I kept reading the book I became more annoyed (albeit not surprised) with how much of the focus in the press was on Jobs’ personality and his private life rather than his ethos and achievements.  With that in mind, I purposely will forego reciting and commenting on many of these facts better left for the tabloids.

The media blitz forge an initial bias on my part: there was more to Steve Jobs than meets the eye, and he is not exactly the saint he was idolized as in the public eye.  My bias was further confirmed as I began reading the book.  The early parts moving from Jobs’ childhood in Silicon Valley, through his college days and the founding of Apple don’t really paint too attractive a picture of the man.  Jobs’ genius clearly stands out from early on, but all of the striking parts in the beginning pertain primarily to demystifying Jobs role in the creation of Apple (Isaacson confirms the oft-stated critique that Wozniak was the brains behind Apple’s technology) and highlighting the nature and depth of Jobs thorny personality.

As I kept reading, I said to myself, “sure he’s done some great things and all, but what an asshole!”   Then something happened along the way.  It started even before the revelation of Jobs’ cancer, at which time he became more of a sympathetic figure.  Where I really felt my inner transition in emotion towards Jobs was the sequence in which Isaacson takes us through the early days of Pixar and its rise.  I can’t put my finger on what exactly it was, but in this context I really started understanding Jobs as a guiding visionary, who can almost will innovation to happen, rather than just someone who got lucky being around the most brilliant computer geek of his time.

Visionary probably isn’t even the right word, but I said it there intentionally.  It wasn’t as if Jobs set out to create something new altogether with Pixar.  Actually, he was navigating down a different path altogether when the CGI movie idea came to him, but it was he who recognized the promise and allowed the ship to steer itself towards its manifestation.  Where most other CEOs would never let the project get legs in the first place, Jobs encouraged the creatively inclined workers among him to embrace and indulge in their creativity, nurtured the project, and saw to it that at each step of the way success would be maximized.  Opening doors was not enough.  Nothing short of perfection was.

Maybe it’s just that Pixar itself sounds more fun, but as that episode of Jobs’ life played out, my personal Steve Jobs impression reflated rather quickly.  This accelerated as the story evolved into Jobs’ return to Apple and eventually his battle with cancer.  The return to Apple contains much of the folklore we already know, but also in the context of Isaacson’s narration, it turns Jobs from someone whose bubble had popped and builds him back up into the man we know today.  There are some clearly delineated self-improvement stories in there, but also we finally get the clear articulation of Jobs’ brilliance–his ability to take something amazingly complex and make it beautiful and simple.  This holds true on the macro and micro levels, as Jobs built the company and each of its products around this principle.  Don’t get me wrong, these elements were there from the beginning in Apple, but they are much more well-rounded and central to the plot at this point, probably because they are clearer in Jobs’ own personal vision by then.

As for the battle with cancer, many have taken this as a real critique of a brilliant man.  The question “why would someone so smart do something so dumb” was asked throughout the blogosphere, and I very much see why people want to ask this question.  Yet, I think that view can only come when that fact is encountered in isolation from the rest of the book. While many have derided Jobs for failing to adequately treat his own cancer, and to a large extent, I agree, he wouldn’t be Steve Jobs were it not for his ability to ignore hindrances while focusing steadfastly on his personal priorities–EVEN TO A FAULT!

Although the outcome sucks, it’s hard to blame the man for it.  In fact, it makes him into more of the tragic hero I think he has become, in that the source of his strength, his so-called essence itself, was also the source of his downfall.  Therein lies the real source of my once-again reflated opinion.  Steve Jobs is your prototypical tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense, and this is exactly what humanizes his brilliance in the end.

The real climax of the book, and what pulls it all together are Steve Jobs’ own words on what he thinks his legacy should be.  Whether one can truly ascribe each word to his life or not, the message in and of itself is one that all should take to heart.  To maximize one self, people need to be well rounded and have an understanding and connection to the humanities, but also knowledge of the technical.  People need to be hyper-honest, even to the point of being critical, while also being able to push aside their ego in order to accept criticism and use it constructively.  Lastly, people need to build things out of passion, aiming for the highest of quality, rather than for profits alone.

Be sure to read the book for yourself, it’s well worth it.   What is interesting in the book goes well beyond what’s juicy and leaves many lessons to learn for just about anyone.