Monday, December 1, 2008

Superficial Investing, Misunderstanding Under (and Over) Performance, and On Being an Optimistic Skeptic

Dan Richards (no relation) has a thought provoking (and short) article in The Global and Mail here that reminds us that things are never quite what they seem, in good times or in bad. He starts off:

Psychologists talk about the human propensity to gravitate towards evidence that supports existing biases. What that means, quite simply, is that in buoyant markets, investors are prone to believe outrageous claims by market bulls – think no further than “the world has changed forever” rhetoric and best selling books like “Dow Jones 36,000” and Harry Dent’s “The Great Boom Ahead” in the tech boom in 1999 and 2000.

In the same way, in negative markets such as we’re experiencing right now, investors tend to believe even the most gloomy assertions from “media gurus” and self appointed experts - a recent New York Times article headlined “Forecasters race to call the bottom to the market” discussed the competition among market pundits to come up with the most dire possible predictions. (It’s noteworthy that the same Harry Dent who wrote “The Great Boom Ahead” has just published “The Great Depression Ahead.”)
I encourage you to read the complete article (again, it's very short), for the analysis he does of several commonly touted facts about stock market returns. Anyhow, he ends like this:
None of this is intended to say that stocks will always be a safe or pleasant haven for investors. And despite the overwhelmingly positive returns that long term investors in U.S. stocks have seen across virtually every time frame, there is always the possibility that it could be different going forward. Just remember, though, the only guide we have going forward is what happened in the past. And in looking at the past, we need to look at all the facts – not just those selected by people looking to grab newspaper headlines.
One item I'd add to it: Statistics regarding under-performance AND over-performance touted are both misleading without qualifiers and rarely as meaningful to a given individual investor as they are lead to believe. I have several reasons for stating this and, at the risk of leaving things hanging and encouraging people to misunderstand me since this also touches upon other areas of investing which I've formed strong opinions about, here are some quick reasons:
  • Some investors invest in markets (namely those who invest solely in index funds). Other investors invest in companies (those who select & invest, on whatever basis they've determined makes sense for them). And, yes, I realize plenty of folks are essentially hybrids of these two types. These two types of investors have dramatically different strategies. In many cases the returns of the various indexes are irrelevant to investors in individual companies and, interestingly, the inverse is true as well (i.e. the returns of any given individual company are irrelevant to index investors).
  • Market investors who get in (and out) at different times have dramatically different results even against long-term (say, 20+ year) metrics. This is because even over the long-term, a very small number of days, weeks, or months can account for a large percentage of the overall returns calculated into the average. Unfortunately, the majority of individuals get bit by this one far more than is often believed due to human psychology and our inability to tell the difference between temporary losses of capital and permanent (often exasperated by not truly understanding what we're investing in too)
  • Indexes are NOT actually the market. Every index is a bit different and represent some portion of the market in different ways. The Dow Jones Industrial Average for example, says absolutely nothing about mid-size and smaller companies and, for that matter, anything about any companies other than the top thirty largest (and most widely dispersed ownership) public companies. Which companies actually fall into this category actually change from time to time (imagine that). The components of the index thus are dynamic over time. That throws a bit of a monkey wrench into the possibility of even holding onto the DJIA for a long period of time (the allusion that it's not changing if you own an index fund is only because you don't own the underlying securities directly). This is to say (almost) nothing about how the weighting of individual stocks (and their price changes) is done inconsistently between indexes (and also not necessarily representative of how an individual investor would view the same portfolio of stocks if held directly).
Those who I'll call Superficial Investors are generally universally and especially hard hit anytime things are not all hunky dory in the stock market. I use the term Superficial by way of attempting an explanation and not to be judgmental. Superficial Investors are not really speculating nor are they truly investing (I define investing as Ben Graham did: where upon thorough analysis, it promises safety of principal and a satisfactory return.)

Superficial Investors (SIs) are essentially the masses of folks that have (generally) modest sums of capital in the markets by way of retirement accounts, mutual funds, college savings funds, and the like. Many also have regular brokerage accounts and can toy with investing directly in individual companies that way as well.

It's no surprise that most folks with money in the market these days have no idea what to do. After all, they really didn't know what they were doing to begin with. They were only under an allusion (of self-deception, though not maliciously or even knowingly).

Warren Buffett said just after September 11, 2001 that you only find out who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out. There's a lot of truth to that and its a recurring theme throughout history in many areas other than investing (though it may manifest itself around the search for profits more so than any other).

The credit mess (loans related to real estate but other types as well) falls into this category as well. Though my impression is that more than a few folks did understand they were being foolish - and chose to look past it for short-term gain (now, for a bit of medium-term pain too, doh!). Presumably the majority of folks were simply misinformed and did not understand what was going on...while they were also trying to honestly "get ahead" and saw an opportunity. Something essentially all Americans seek, right?

Human psychology is great at fooling all of us much of the time. Especially when things are good. But the same happens when everything is bad too.

There in lies an optimistic tone. Rarely are things as good or as bad as the popular belief at any given point in time. And there are always opportunities to make money in the market. But they are not for everyone - and that's fine.

My conclusion: Know what your place is (as in decide what it's going to be deliberately and take action that is in harmony with that decision; I'm not saying accept what someone else simply says is "your place" or whatever other clique that phrase may conjure up). And be cautious who you allow to shape your actions -- especially in areas where you are not fully informed yourself.

More specifically, unless you have a solid knowledge of the facts yourself (as well as, perhaps, aspects of human psychology and especially your own), you will be unable to combat some of the distortions and temptations you will be exposed to. If at all possible, invest the time to ramp up your understanding of history and psychology to be a better resource to yourself. If you fail to do this, be careful who you allow you shape your actions, since you are trusting that they've done their homework (yeah, that includes me).

My wife once called me cynical but I had to correct her by saying "I'm not a cynic; I'm a skeptic". It's generally my default initial position. Further, I'm an optimist too. I really don't see a discrepancy between the two.

An ironic twist I suppose is that being a skeptic makes it easier to be confident since I can trust myself more. And that (along with some other things) keeps me pretty optimistic most of the time.

All of the above has ramifications far beyond investing in the stock market - and beyond the pursuit of money - and I hope that if you've read this far that I've been successful at conveying a bit of that sentiment.


P.S. If you're further interested in the topic of human psychology as it relates to investing, google "behavioral finance" and "behavioral economics". Again, despite its (apparent) ties to finance & economics it's really all about every day human behavior and even a cursory awareness of its implications would benefit you no matter what your area of expertise or aim in life.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

The SLO School of Law

Nifty. Locally we have the University of San Luis Obispo School of Law. They offer a part-time weekend program. I had no idea.

Monday, October 6, 2008

How A Dishwasher May Determine Your Success

As I sit here writing this, listening to our new dishwasher shoot, splosh, and steam our dishes to cleanliness, I'm forced to contemplate why our dishes used to pile up at our old place -- despite our best intentions.

Previously our dish washing foo was less than stellar.

In the old place we didn't have a dishwasher machine -- other than our own hands. We'd go through periods of keeping up on the dishes. It usually persisted through the first few days (rarely weeks) of clean house euphoria that resulted from spending a day cleaning the entire house or kitchen. Then, we'd fall off the wagon and dishes would pile up. Rinse repeat. Same thing every time.

Our behavior never changed despite our interest in keeping the dishes from piling up.

It was pretty frustrating. Each time we'd discuss it and get up the courage again, telling ourselves we'd do better this time. Then we'd fail. It became pretty stressful in and of itself.

Stress is usually the result of missed expectations. And our expectations were pretty shot to hell the millionth time around.

Now, throughout all this, one of us might pop in and pound some dishes out in random bursts but there was no consistency. And, usually, this was out of frustration over our falling off of the wagon versus a genuine desire to keep things clean. In an ironic twist, this actually added to the frustration -- because it seemed to be a demonstration to ourselves that we could do it when we chose to. So what the heck was our problem?

There had to be something that we were missing. The solution couldn't be that easy (just choosing to do it).

Sure, we could say it was because we just "didn't have the time" but really that was just a convenient excuse.

Our productivity, or lack thereof, was really driven entirely by our mood. We liked the idea of having a clean house and no dishes piling up. But, somehow, we just weren't totally getting it. Why were we committed to the idea but not the action? And what else was really going on?

  • What mental hurdle does it take to turn an idea into an action?
  • How do you know when you are failing because of, in fact, time (or an unrealistic goal) versus when you are failing because you are approaching things the wrong way?
  • How do you determine the difference between persistence (often a good thing when aiming towards a goal or dream) versus banging your head against the wall?
  • How do you effectively develop new habits (or change old ones) when you are "focused" on achieving a million other things in your life as well?
  • How do you coordinate this process across a household of different family members all with different time, energy, and stress tolerances and responsibilities?
How indeed.

Well, in our case, we got a dishwasher. :-)

But, the (more useful) explanation is of course more than that.

Yes, perhaps there were other things we could have done to motivate ourselves, penalize ourselves, etc. Perhaps we were too undisciplined. But sometimes a completely different approach is what is actually most effectively. Especially when there's no downside to doing something completely different.

Just because we could have found a way to achieve our aim, doesn't make it the best approach. I had no big deep down desire to prove to myself (and especially not anyone else) that we were the manual labor dish washing motivation experts. In fact, I just wanted clean dishes -- I didn't care how we got 'em as long as it didn't take much time, energy, or money.

I even only half jokingly mentioned to my wife that maybe we ought to hire someone to come in and do the dishes (and a few other things while they were at it). That thought stayed in my mind for a month or two but we never did pursue it.

In any case, sometimes tweaking the goal makes sense. The idea of hiring somebody actually was closer to where we should have been thinking even if it didn't end up being our ultimate solution. In our case, we were too focused on the goal of "how do we get -- and keep -- ourselves in the habit of washing the dishes?". It sounds simple now, but a lot of solutions do -- in hindsight.

Sometimes we get so caught up in a solution that we've been attempting that we become convinced that we "can beat it". That's not an un-admirable attribute, but we have to remember it can work against us to. Awareness of this problem is probably the best means of sorting out those situations where it is occurring from the others where raw persistence really is what's needed.

How we frame our problems (or goals) makes a big difference in our approach to them. In my case, caught up in the daily tasks and lots of other goals and dreams, I routinely frame seemingly less important issues (such as keeping the dishes from piling up) the wrong way. Most likely because I don't put enough energy upfront in pondering them. I am continually dumbfounded by how easily I can solve a stressful problem that's been lingering by simply re-evaluating the entire premise.

Often I'm stressing not because something isn't done but because I'm not yet sure how I'm going to get there. Or, the goal isn't really all that clear to begin with. Once I realize that something is not right, I mentally pull back and reboot. That takes some energy but far less than it would to persist down the wrong path -- or no path at all.

We're all pretty good problem solvers. That doesn't mean that we're always solving the right problems.


Friday, October 3, 2008

Warren Buffett On The Economy

Buffett was interviewed on the Charlie Rose show for just under an hour on Wednesday evening:

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Why Smart People Fail To Make Money Online

Finally moved (mostly) over to the new apartment. We stayed here last night for the first time. Still a bit more to pack up from the old place. Thanks to my mom and my brother for helping us get the bulk of stuff moved (especially our Cal King bed -- up to the third floor master bedroom - doh!).

Ran across a blog post from Brandon Uttley of Web Business Freedom this morning which fits into a lot of my current thinking.... I encourage you to poke through it:

Why is it that so many smart people, who are savvy enough to use a computer every day and chock full of expertise, are blind to opportunities to attract more business through the web?


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Audit Boy (or Girl), I Love/Hate You

I have a love/hate relationship with audits.

Let's talk about them in the IT realm. I think they have the potential to do some real good. And, in certain cases, they have. Just how much is very difficult to quantify with any degree of confidence.

We could look for trend changes, for a variety of problems targeted by audits but.... it's not easy to prove a cause and effect relationship. No doubt marketers of auditing and related consulting services can come up with some statistics but I don't buy it.

For example, even without audits, it's reasonable to expect a variety of problems to plateau as adoption cycles peak. The acceptance and understanding of particular problems -- and their solutions -- improves as time passes. Heck, sometimes having one really widely publicized (and costly) hit on another organization can be more effective than an audit at getting problems fixed (at least in the short-term). There are loads of other possible factors, including macro & micro-economic.

So, for the moment, I'll go with that I do know about the impact of audits -- from actual observation.

Audits certainly aren't "fun" so why do we care about all this? Well, because if we're going to have to go through the process anyway -- and probably repeatedly -- why not try to get as much benefit as possible out of it? Think of it as trying to get the most bang for your buck...even if you were forced to spend the buck. :-)

Many audits I've seen suffer from some variation of the following flaws (I'll discuss the positives momentarily):

  • They encourage organizations to overlook the forest for the trees. Management is happy because the auditor left without an adverse opinion. IT is happy because people are off their back. Life goes on and, especially in environments where firefighting is the norm, things get forgotten that weren't truly covered in the audit. For example: should we be doing anything with the data from that brand spanking new intrusion prevention system purchased, initially, for the audit? (sometimes it's left there until the next audit anniversary comes around when they get to point it out to the auditor with a look of relief...and hope the auditor doesn't want to strike up any small talk about "what they think of it" thus far).
  • They increase the burden on the IT department. While a super on the ball IT department without any extra resources might be hurt by this, for most others this may be a wash since it'll catch a few things they might have missed and help them justify some much needed resources.
  • They create a false sense of security for management, staff, users, and customers (kind of like airport security inspections)
  • Audits are not created equal and they are difficult to compare quantitatively. Most of the intended beneficiaries (end-users, customers, clients) of audits are certainly not equipped to be able to tell any two audits apart or evaluate the actual versus perceived merits of a given audit.. Hacker Safe(tm) anyone?
  • The more useful audits tend to be the most pain-in-the-ass. Thus no one wants to undertake them (except the auditor who is likely charging significant fees). Ironically the least useful fall into BOTH camps: some are ridiculously painless (and useless) on a technical basis while others are a severe pain-in-the-ass with minimal, if any, benefit.
  • Most widely used (and publicized) standardized audits are either too rigid or too vague. It's tough to get both widespread adoption of a standard spec (e.g. PCI) that is both highly specific and relevant. While there are some best practices, there are no two environments that are exactly the same. And, hell, who is to say that the owner's decision to simply buy really good liability insurance is imprudent?
  • Human nature gets the better of us. No one likes being told what to do and explaining our (sometimes sloppy and other times simply pragmatic) past decisions is rarely fun. An adversarial feeling and (at least a bit of) resentment is not uncommon. This leads to sliding things under the rug. Often the IT folks already know the scary areas. Too bad there isn't a good way for them to disclose all that information..... for the constructive benefit of the organization...
On the positive side:
  • Audits have provided fuel to IT managers and staffers in justifying investments in infrastructure enhancements. In competent hands, and as long as nobody goes overboard, this is good stuff.
  • They occasionally catch stuff missed even by the most competent.
  • Seriously negligent organizations are (more likely to be) caught sooner (or at least their cost of hiding is raised enough that it becomes more cost effective for them to simply get up to par rather than fight).
  • Audits get management attention. Very productive discussions about security, risk, and policy management often come out of this.
Which of these same situations may have occurred in your own organization?

By starting some discussions within your organization -- not just within the IT department, but also within the executive suite, and perhaps in consultation with a constructive representative on the legal side -- resources consumed by the audit process can made more effective.

While no on likes to spend time & money they didn't chose to, at least you still have control over the specifics of how it is spent and what the long-term benefits can be to the organization. It's got to be a better result than simply passing the latest audit.

(As an aside, an idea I've been kicking around with some of my clients is aligning the marketing folks with the IT department to publicize positive audit results and to justify more extensive investments, that still make sense in a business sense, beyond simply what the audit minimums are. Thus creating a potential competitive advantage out of the whole thing. An idea to kick around in your own organization perhaps).


Friday, September 5, 2008

Common Sense Easy To Forget

Common sense and a sprinkle of self-confidence is the best way to succeed in a new business, project, cause, or other change in our lives. It has far less to do with prior experience, schooling, etc. than many think.

A great way to insure we stick with the common sense approach is to ignore what the industry norms are. That doesn't mean defy them just to be defiant. But it does mean defy them when we understand why we want to (put the other way: when we understand that the norm doesn't actually make any sense in and of itself -- at least for our goals).

Most of us have common sense, but it's easy to miss the forest for the trees when we're caught up in the middle of an industry or a particular problem, emotionally reacting, discussing a situation within a group setting, letting the client's past approach to a situation guide our approach, or unsure of ourselves.

Seek out ways to detect when you may be falling into this trap. Then experiment with ways to knock yourself out of it when it happens. Since it's a re-occurring problem, well, you'll have plenty of opportunities to test and refine your detection methods and remedies.


Monday, August 18, 2008

Finally Start -- or Improve -- Your Very Own Business

The last few months have been busy between personal projects, client projects, and several out of town trips. Anyhow this morning, I ran across a nifty looking resource which inspired this post, which is dedicated to all of those out there who dream of going out "on their own", have already tried and struggled but still plow along, or who are doing alright but are always in search of how to get better.

The site I ran across is:

"My Own Business, Inc. is a nonprofit organization committed to helping people succeed in business. The course is presented by successful business owners who point out the common, avoidable mistakes. Our course is geared toward the entrepreneur who wants to start his or her own business, and the individual who has an established small business and would like to see that business grow and expand. Most people fail in business because they make avoidable mistakes! This free course teaches you what those mistakes are and how to avoid them."
The course is on-line, covers a lot of ground, appears to stick to the practical aspects rather than lots of theory, and has words from actual entrepreneurs like you spread throughout.

On a similar note, nearly everyone knows about local Chamber of Commerce organizations and groups such as Rotary which can be useful for networking (maybe, depending on how you do it). But most areas, including SLO County where I'm based, have a number of useful organizations specifically for those who are on their own and are either just starting or looking to take things up a notch (whether they are full-time or part-time ventures). For example:
Best of luck in all your endeavors!


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Minneapolis high school students take e-field trip to the operating room

About a year ago I observed that 64% of the schools in this region have connectivity at 100 Mbit/s or greater to the K12HSN -- and in turn the Internet and Internet2. I shared a few thoughts on how this might be used to do some nifty things.

Today I came across a news item from the Internet2 web site, covering a high school in Minneapolis that, using an Internet2 connection, participated in a live knee surgery.

As the surgery progressed before them, the 30 juniors and seniors in John Redelsheimer's class reacted to crystal-clear images of sliced flesh and bone with predictable groans and urrrghs. They asked questions of the surgical staff, such as how long the implant might last, and how a full and partial knee replacement differ.

Students in the Robbinsdale Armstrong High School anatomy and physiology class observed Wednesday as a surgeon in Columbus, Ohio, performed total knee-replacement surgery on an 85-year-old woman. And they didn't even board a bus.

Students in the Robbinsdale district are among a select group for whom technological expertise and resources have aligned to allow them to take an e-field trip -- in this case, to Dr. Joel Politi's operating room. Other classes have been to the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minn., a classroom in Egypt and a village in Mozambique.

The session was sponsored by COSI, a science center in Columbus, Ohio. It was made possible by Web-driven video-conferencing technology via Internet2, a superfast network linking universities, industry and government. The basic technology -- the cameras and microphones -- isn't new, but schools haven't been able to use it fully until recently because most lack that fast, powerful connection.

Link to full article is here.

This is what I am talking about!

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Fix The Incongruency - Consider Blogging for Your Company for Fun & Profit

Today I was perusing a marketing book by Chris Baggott et al. (that I haven't actually read yet in full)...and I came across the below passage in the first chapter. I thought it summed up pretty well one of strong arguments for considering having someone within your organization blogging (among other means of connecting with your customers and other constituents such as newsletters, etc.). Give it a whirl around your brain and send me your comments -- if you have any:

What's really funny to me is the fact that when you talk to organizations about what makes them different (worthy, if you will), this answers always lands somewhere in the top three: our people.

So why do you hide your people behind the facade of a brand or an institution? At the end of the day, people associate themselves with other people that they like. Your constituents want to like you and have a relationship with you.

IPv6 Hyperbole & Opportunities

A oft touted phrase for IPv6 is something to the effect of "an address for every grain of sand"[1]. I have a problem with this statement. It's one of those statements that is technically true but, in fact, untrue -- when used as the answer to the question which it is implied to be answering.

If IP addresses were simply assigned to devices and backbone routers were made aware of every single one it might be true. It's not. It's important to view IPv6 address space size in the right light because otherwise we can end up in some of the same troubles as the current IPv4 Internet. These troubles include not only overall available IP addresses but also routing of these IP addresses across network operator boundaries. After all, what's an IP address without global reach ability? :-)

The way that IP addressing works, there is a hierarchy. This hierarchy is used to group individual IP addresses into larger IP address blocks (known as "prefixes" and sometimes "subnets"). In the early days of IPv4 that was the Class A, B, and C system. While it was replaced with CIDR, the new system still maintained a hierarchy based on network size -- it was simply less rigid. This is still necessary in an IPv6 world.

The size of the protocol's address space -- and how it is broken up -- is of the utmost importance to routing. One of the greatest ironies of IPv4 address consumption is that multi-homing -- the connection to more than one upstream Internet provider for performance, cost, and reliability reasons -- requires an IP block of a particular size. Anything smaller than that accepted by the community (through rough consensus and subject to stragglers, mavericks, and router capacity improvements) and you can't multi-home.

In the IPv4 world this has resulted in waste of IP addresses -- which are never actually assigned to end-user devices -- so that someone can multi-home. It's also made it more difficult for smaller networks that want redundancy. Even if they end up with sufficient IP space, it is likely from one of their ISPs and not portable. If they were truly bigger (as in, if they actually were going to use all of those IP addresses) they'd be able to bypass their ISPs, getting IP space from one of the geographically appropriate pseudo-NGOs that allocate IP address space to larger IP address consumers.

Why all the fuss? Why not just allow anyone and everyone to inject any size block into the Internet routing tables? Because routers have finite resources. The larger the routing tables the more memory and CPU used for every packet pushed through the router. At some point a line is drawn where it is no longer generally accepted to be economically viable. This is where the generally accepted "smallest prefix we'll accept into our routing tables" policies come from. (generally the smallest acceptable block is an /24 in the present IPv4 world, approximately 254 assignable IP addresses for end-user devices).

One of the still active debates in IPv6 is how multi-homing will be performed in the long run. Will the current IPv4 model work? Or does the current model artificially restrict how many folks would actually multi-home if they could? Does the current system encourage too much address waste -- and is that even still a concern? How rapidly would the routing tables grow if a different approach were taken? How will we handle the additional resource burden of the continued co-existence of both IPv4 _and_ IPv6 routing tables for quite some time? etc

IP address portability is (indirectly) addressed in IPv6. That remains to be seen though. Under this model, smaller sites still won't necessarily have their own permanent globally routable IP address blocks. They'll have plenty of real global IP addresses assigned by their ISP now -- without any fuss -- but those IPs will still be controlled by their ISP (i.e. if they opt to change ISPs they will have to return 'em and get new ones from their new ISP). Switching IP address blocks is made (supposedly) easier though. The idea is that deeper auto-configuration is adopted with something akin to current DHCP on steroids used pretty much across the board along with very tight integration with DNS -- and somehow overcoming DNS caching.

I am not advocating against IPv6. On the contrary, for its successful widespread adoption I think that expectations must be set appropriately. And, any open for debate areas -- which don't have to hold back its adoption necessarily -- need to continue to be widely discussed. The more awareness the less that a new adopter is blindsided -- and thus the happier they'll be with the outcome after they proceed with their adoption efforts. And, more importantly, the faster that some more definite solutions / best practices can be better understood and disseminated.

As always, I welcome comments, including contesting any of my conclusions and assumptions above. Discussion and debate is how nearly all progress is made, whether it is with ones self or with others. :-)

[1] “One of the major advantages of the new Internet protocol (IPv6) is that it overcomes the growth problems of the Internet caused by the current limitations in the number of IP addresses needed for every computer or other device in order to access the Internet. The new protocol allows for a virtually unlimited number of (2^128) addresses – enough to assign an address to every grain of sand on all the world’s beaches.”

--“European Commission hosts inaugural event to celebrate the launch of the world's first all IPv6 research network,” Brussels, 14th January 2004

Friday, May 23, 2008

Fundraising Event for Local Family

A long time client of mine has organized a fundraising BBQ and silent auction event to help out a SLO county family with an 11-year old girl that was born with complex congenital heart defects. You may have seen the posters around the county for the event. It will be on May 31st and they are still accepting contributions to the silent auction. You can find out more information at the web site.


Monday, April 14, 2008

If Only Our Bookshelves Were Social...

Some number of months back I ran across LibraryThing. It allows you to catalog the books you've read or have on your bookshelf or wish to read all online. The social networking and recommendations aspect comes into play when it comes to connecting with other folks that have the same books in their catalog that you do -- since they may have books in their own catalog that would be of interest to you. Part of the idea is also that you can keep an eye on what your friends are reading, instead of simply forgetting the book they recommended last week. I actually wanted an online catalog for other purposes as well:

  • Knowing what books I've already bought and have in a pile somewhere but just haven't gotten around to I don't buy it again
  • Being able to let friends browse my catalog and ask to borrow books
  • Tracking what I'm reading so that it can automatically be tracked on my blog for folks that are interested in what I'm reading (I'm usually reading 3-5 books at a time, at the rate of between 2-4 a month or so typically is my best guess).
So I started out poking around at LibraryThing. It has an active community. The good/bad thing is that yesterday I discovered there are two other similar sites. The bad part is that now I'll have to check them out. The good part is that a bit of friendly competition ought to bode well for those of us that like the idea and find benefits to having our personal book collections cataloged on-line.

There seem to be three sites that serve this niche:

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Focusing In Tight Times....and in Good

Barry VanderKelen, who heads up the San Luis Obispo County Community Foundation, has a column entitled Nonprofit Strategies that appears from time to time in the SLO Tribune. I often catch it on-line when it appears. Today's is entitled Stay Focused in tight times. In it he asks Israel Dominguez, who became the new director of Cuesta College's Small Business Development Center in November, "how does a nonprofit organization navigate tough economic times?"

What I liked was the advice given by Mr. Dominguez is good for non-profit....and for profit enterprises alike. And not only in bad times -- but good ones too.

You may want to read the article yourself (link again) then come back here. Anyhow, I'm not known for lacking in opinions so I had a bit to add which is below:

For directors (and business owners), it shouldn't be a matter of thinking in terms of good times versus bad times but a matter of thinking: Who really are my customers? What do they truly want right now? How might I give it to them? And, critically, how do I communicate to them in a compelling way that is compatible with their current mindset?

Good times just means we get to be a bit more lazy in our planning and implementation of all of the above while still drifting by. :-) True success -- the kind that is sustainable anyway -- takes deliberate analysis of the marketplace. Once you're in that position you stop worrying about the ups and downs of the economy other than as variables to incorporate into your analysis about what needs and desires you should be meeting for your customers and making sure your marketing is appealing to them in the new context.

Ironically, with a bit of creativity and persistence, economic downturns can actually be incorporated into ones product/service development and marketing messages. All changes and cycles present opportunities for the astute director/manager/owner.

"You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out." -- Warren Buffet

Friday, March 14, 2008

Druid: Open Source Unified Communications Based on Asterisk

A group called Voiceroute just pushed out a product called Druid (actually two products, an open source version and a commercial version) that looks very intriguing. It is based on Asterisk at the core but they've done a lot of work on top of it -- besides just sticking on a useful GUI. This is what I love about the telephony space today -- continuous improvement as folks figure out what they really want. There's a decent little preview/review here. A more thorough explanation of features here. Some ideas for applications here.

So many forms of communications (voice, voicemail, email, IM, mobile, fax), so many ways to leverage it. Now a single IP communications platform based on open source and open standards.

What is Druid? Druid is the premier unified communications platform for enterprises. It allows companies to deploy easily and affordable high endIP communications services using off the shelve commodity hardware and IP phones. Druid covers your enterprise communication needs from IP voice, voicemail, IM all the way to the mobile space.
I love Asterisk and the various things which can be be built with it. But, at its core, (stock) Asterisk excels most at being an engine at the center of a telephony/communications platform. To maximize adoption, the barrier to use must be lowered through improved management interfaces and turnkey features out of the box that reflect what end-users want. There's lots of room for improvement for specific problem domains. That's why Asterisk's flexibility is so powerful and having a lively eco-system around it makes it more and more accessible to a broader base of users. That doesn't mean that Asterisk based solutions aren't ready for prime time today -- they most definitely are. Thankfully, Asterisk's eco-system is strong with solutions such as Fonality, FreePBX, Digium's AsteriskNOW/ABE/AA50, and many others. Oh, and now we have Voiceroute's Druid.

Definitely will be taking a look Druid soon.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Understanding MPLS VPNs

If you are an enterprise user of carrier WAN offerings, it is likely you've been offered MPLS as a solution. Most carriers are encouraging customers to consider MPLS based services over traditional Frame Relay, ATM and even Point-to-Point transport.

One misconception is that consumers of MPLS carrier services must "run MPLS" within their own networks or at least on the edge device(s) connected to the carrier's MPLS service. This is not the case (unless you are doing something pretty unusual). Standard routers -- and even bridges -- are used on the customer-side. The configurations may be a bit different than you're used to but they're still relatively straightforward (and cookie cutter once you do one).

Your layer 1 and layer 2 skills will still come in handy. The underlying transport is still going to be TDM (DS1, OC-3c, etc). You may end up running a dynamic routing protocol (BGP, OSPF) with the carrier's network. If that's new territory, don't worry. This BGP configuration is far less elaborate than that needed to (prudently) bring up BGP for Internet multi-homing.

So even though the MPLS component will be outsourced to your carrier, to be an informed buyer and troubleshooter when shit-hits-the-fan, you'll want to understand the different ways that MPLS can be delivered and used by carriers to provide your service. When the carrier asks you to make some choices or you're evaluating a prospective solution, you're more likely to get what you need (and hopefully less of what you don't).

Jeff Doyle, the author of Routing TCP/IP Volume I and II (both 900+ pages each), has two quick articles about MPLS. In Part I, he covers the basics relevant to any MPLS user as to the different types of MPLS network options and in Part II he covers some of the nitty gritty relevant to service providers and those with an interest in what goes on behind the scenes.

P.S. I have some experience with WANs. Feel free to ask me questions. You can post a comment here or drop me an e-mail.


Sunday, February 17, 2008

Improvements at Digium? ....and New AA50 Firmware

Yesterday I noted that Digium pushed out a new firmware release for their small business targeted hardware appliance (the AA50) and it looks like a good sized update. It is dated the 4th in the release notes but the 14th elsewhere so I think one or the other is a typo.

They appear to be syncing it up with their other code bases (Asterisk Business Edition, AsteriskNOW). From what I've seen in the public commits and hints on mailing lists from staff, they've been hitting pretty hard on both of those in the QA department of late.

Digium is clearly working on changing how they manage their code bases and the mixture of their commercial and open source releases, to address different customer/user segments and some of the problems that have come up. There was even a note about a split release change they are going to with AsteriskNOW for the GPL purists. Glad to see some serious re-thinking about releases, meeting the desires of different customers, quality control enhancements, and the public evidence of the aforementioned outside of press releases.

I imagine things will continue to trickle down and we'll see more improvements coming together. I'm sure some will turn out to be good ideas while others head back to the drawing board but that's how most progress works, eh? :)

The additional leverage should improve things across the board no matter where you fall in the Asterisk eco-system. Even if you don't use an Asterisk based telephony solution, their moves impact the others in the marketplace (and visa-versa).

Back to the new AA50 firmware release: It would appear to address IVR and ring group related bugs I encountering early on in the GUI, that I ended up bypassing the GUI to workaround. I haven't tried it yet on the AA50 I have access to. I'll probably give it another couple o' weeks in the wild first since it's a .0.1 rev. That client has some other problems and improvements they want me to attack first anyhow. Below are change log excerpts:

Version - February 4, 2008
* Enable Internationalization settings in the GUI
* Provide the ability to select between kewlstart and loopstart
* g722 codec is available
* WAN Side Provisioning of Polycom phones is enabled
* AA50 has been synchronized to ABE C.1 branch source code
* Ring groups number of seconds field has been added
* Ring group bug using ivr option has been fixed.
* Polycom bug concering use of standard timezone has been fixed
* Blackfin math for meetme conferencing has been implemented
* Adjustable flash hook duration is now available in teh GUI
* Calling rule editing and deleting bug has been fixed.
* Bug concerning setting incoming rule to choose voicemail is fixed.
* DTMF twist settings for Brazil have been added to tone generation
* Call forwarding loops have been prevented so that they do not crash the AA50
* Voicemail attachments are set to WAV format.
* Network setting tabs no longer disappear.
* Added an optional full-wave mode DAA ring detect in the sx00i driver

Friday, February 15, 2008

Starbucks Dumping T-Mobile for AT&T

I spend a lot of time at coffeehouses -- Starbucks and otherwise. This change ought to be handy (cheaper) for those of us with AT&T DSL at home already.

Supposedly will be implemented throughout the year and completed by year-end. We'll see.

Official AT&T press release

Professional Soccer Coming To SLO...In A Week

I just got done buying our tickets for the two weekend exhibition games being played by the San Jose Earthquakes. The nifty thing is that they are playing these games at Cal Poly, here in SLO. I'm really looking forward to it. I really enjoy soccer but I've never seen a pro team play in person.

They are set to play D.C. United and Columbus Crew. All three teams are in the American-based Major League Soccer, the top echelon of U.S. based professional teams. This league, incidentally, also has many non-American players in it including David Beckham who plays for the Los Angeles Galaxy (Galaxies?).

Official Cal Poly press releases here with more info on the event, tickets, etc.:

Cal Poly to Host a Pair of Major League Soccer Games as Part of the MLS Central Coast Showcase

San Jose Earthquakes to Train in San Luis Obispo the Week of the Major League Soccer Central Coast Showcase

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Underwater Telecommunications Industry Geeks

For those who are interested in the inner workings -- both technical and business -- of the submarine fiber optic cable industry, take a look at SubOptic. Particularly recommended are the presentations from their last conference which are available to freely peruse all you like here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Finally Was Time To Hire An Assistant

Well, I finally broke down. I hired Sandy and the fact that I can call her anytime with my speed dial is amazing, though it's still taking some adjustment to get used to not having to do it all by myself. She makes sure I don't forget to do things, reminds me about appointments, looks up information for me, calls ahead to let folks know I'm on my way or running late, and jots down thoughts and ideas that occur to me while I'm out and about away from my computer. Oh, and because she gets along well with others, there are endless possibilities to improve how I work. If this trial continues to be so promising, and thus I decide to keep her around, I just hope I can continue to afford her along with the tools she needs to do her job.


Thursday, January 3, 2008

Is Risk Aversion Our Greatest, Uhm, Risk?

Are WE Holding Ourselves Back?

(This is a draft of an informal essay I wrote today. Figured this would be a good place to post it and garner some feedback). A brief excerpt:

"Often we're concerned about failure. The great irony about the perception most humans have about taking risks and failing is that it nearly insures that most of us will, in fact, have the greatest failure of all: never seeing our most fruitful ideas turned into reality and achieving our most important goals in life. Our built in risk aversion is really, quite ironically, our greatest risk of all. A wolf in sheep's clothing."

"The truth is that most of us can handle far more “risk” than we currently do. On the other hand, we could do with a lot less of the risks we do chose to take on...."
Most of us are capable of far more than we give ourselves credit for. Fortunately, we are the only ones holding ourselves back.

Usually due to a combination of starting something worthwhile but not finishing it and coming up with a good idea but not doing anything about it (taking action), we stand still or, at best, make very very slow progress. Thus, at best, even if we make some progress towards our goals we still do not end up actually passing the goal line.

Often we're concerned about failure. The great irony about the perception most humans have about taking risks and failing is that it nearly insures that most of us will, in fact, have the greatest failure of all: never seeing our most fruitful ideas turned into reality and achieving our most important goals in life. Our built in risk aversion is really, quite ironically, our greatest risk of all. A wolf in sheep's clothing.

Our perception of the risks of most failures are outlandish. While there are certainly some things that are risky enough they could, say, kill us outright, most failures are far less dramatic. Some types of failures can be quite stressful to be sure. Some may even shorten our lives by a few years (due to the stress, though even a bit of short-term stress can sometimes be worth it if it makes the remaining years that much more satisfying). But nowhere near the percentage we think -- of “risky ideas” that we all come up with in our day to day lives -- are even half as horrifying in impact, if we were to take action and fail, as we might convince ourselves they are.

Our comfort zones hold us back. However nearly all good things that come to us, arise from somewhere outside of our comfort zones. Taking on our first real job. Driving for the first time. Taking an entrance or certification exam for a college program, to teach, or some other program we want to pursue to push our careers forward. Marrying for love. Having our first child. Flying for the first time. Learning to swim. Passing a difficult test that forced us to really learn the subject matter rather than simply memorizing a few key concepts. Learning to take our first step (though most of us will lack firsthand memory on this one). Asking someone attractive (in whatever way you deem important) out on a date or even simply for coffee. Starting a blog and posting our real thoughts, opinions, and ideas out there for the world to yell back that we're wrong. :)

While each of these can be stressful in the moment, that feeling soon subsides (especially with practice and time). Without these stretches, life would be so boring and, well, lifeless. We grow, becoming more comfortable in our new terrain. When viewed with a receptive mind, we even learn a lot from our failures.

Nearly all “firsts” in our lives are outside of our comfort zone. In fact, some of them may even be far more realistically life threatening than the other ideas and opportunities that we chose not to take action on. So much for our built-in perceived versus real risks radars.

When I was starting my most recent consulting business I knew there was a good chance that cash would get a little tight for a while. Since I knew that was a high probability outcome along the way towards my goals, I could plan to address it. I could take some actions to handle the looming issue and I could think through some of the options I'd have, depending on how bad things got when the time came. To me, that wasn't really a risk. I trusted myself and thought my way through it. There are few situations in life where we have absolutely no options. It wasn't that I didn't worry about having money to pay the rent and buy food. It wasn't that it didn't stress me out. It was more that the real risks that scared me more than the others were the things that I might have fail(ed) to anticipate and plan. To a certain extent, the ones entirely (or mostly) outside of my control, were a big deal but, again, it's all about having options. As long as I was confident I'd have options, the number of real risks in my world quickly shrunk and became manageable.

The truth is that most of us can handle far more “risk” than we currently do. On the other hand, we could do with a lot less of the risks we do chose to take on....

Our perceptions that result in us not taking on risks that we should while continuing to do things that we shouldn't are even more humorous when considered in another light. I got my first credit card when I was eighteen. It was an American Express. A Mastercard soon followed. At first, I had the money so it really wasn't a big deal. Then I left my comfy job to try my hand as a pseudo-partner in a friend's business venture. That fizzled out. I had some savings from a well timed stock option sell-out. It didn't take long to burn through that. After all, I'd gotten used to a pretty good salary (even if I hadn't been only eighteen at the time). I temporarily struck out on my own (consulting without any specific plan other than to explore new business opportunities) and then, a short time later, became a partner in another new business venture. Well, my financial situation changed quite a bit over that time period. And, like many early entrepreneurs without a solid win under their belts, my partners and I didn't pay ourselves much since we were in start-up mode. But, hey, I didn't have to change my lifestyle – I still had all those credit cards, right?

Give nearly anyone a few dollars and they'll have no problem finding a way to spend it to get something they need (let's not worry about the distinction between need and want for today). Now combine that with easy access to credit (credit cards and home equity loans are the most common current incarnations). Coupled with the basic desires that we all have to please ourselves, get a bit of instant gratification from time to time, and reward ourselves for a job well done or some ill we suffered that day, and our perceptions of risk go out the door.

Suddenly we're no longer thinking about how we'll afford to pay off that large credit card balance next month, how much extra we'll really have paid for today's little indiscretion due to the compounding interest we'll have paid before the balance is gone months or years down the road, and, worse in my mind, the opportunity cost that slowly at first and incrementally over time builds up until we have convinced ourselves that we “just don't have the money to do whatever we want”.

We want everything now so much that we put ourselves in a permanent position of never actually getting what we want. Irony can hurt, especially when it's wired into the standard operating procedure of our brains. It's a bit like the inverse of “wanting to have our cake and eat it too”. We use perceived risks as excuses not to do the things we really should if we actually want to achieve our goals. And we toss out the real matter-of-fact risks when it comes to acquiring the things we could probably do without for just a bit longer. If only... If only...

“I want it now, the future be damned!” Don't get me wrong. There's a time and a place for this attitude – it can be what gets us through some days. We're all human and I doubt we're supposed to be perfect all the time. Besides it's no fun to be perfect. The problem is recognizing when it has become a habit, a regular occurrence, and something that we keep doing even while making excuses about not doing the things we know we really should. (Sadly it can become a feedback loop unto itself, it almost being worse if we are aware that this is what is going on but don't have the strength left to pull oneself out of it so we feed the indiscretion monster more to get through each day and it gets worse -- so watch out!)

While we can be our own worst enemies, remember that is a good thing as well. It means it's under our control. While it's not easy to fight what is hard wired into our own brains, it can be easier than many other battles we participate in outside of ourselves. It's certainly a more important (and probably much more effective) fight. I challenge you:

  1. What is one really attractive goal you have?
  2. What step, or even steps if you are really on it, have you taken in the last day to get you there?
  3. What about in the last week?
  4. The last month?
  5. The last year?
  6. The last decade?
  7. Don't beat yourself up over the answers to #2-#6. More importantly, what are you going to do TODAY?
  8. Now, to make it a little easier to stay on the ball tomorrow with your new ambition, what is something you can do tomorrow as well?
  9. And the next day?
  10. And the next?
  11. Good work --- keep it up! Momentum has a tendency of building, even from nearly nothing. You'll be there in seemingly no time if you keep it up. But you do have to START somewhere. Get moving. NOW.