[VIC – 77] Greedy when others are fearful. Signal v Noise. Maps. Google Authenticator.

Business & Money

Warren Buffet is famously quoted as saying that it’s important to be “fearful when others are greedy and greedy when other’s are fearful.” When people are greedy, demand is high and prices go up. Thus it’s easy to overpay for things. Inversely, when people are fearful, demand is low and prices fall. This can lead to good value buying opportunities.
Safe to say that people are greedy right now. The markets are frothy.
If you look at Berkshire’s financials, their market cap is north of $410 billion. Almost a quarter of that is held in cash and other short-term investments. This ratio of cash to value is really high. When the inevitable correction comes, they’ll willing and able to acquire good business on the cheap.

Human Progress

One of the side effects of technological improvement has been an ever increasing access to information. You can whip out your smartphone and get the answer to any question you might have.
While this is great for many reasons, it’s also terrible at the same time. Specifically, it makes is much harder to differentiate signal vs noise. I constantly have to remind myself of this when it comes to investing. The tendency is to want to check my portfolio on a daily basis hoping for a quick shot of dopamine whenever I see a green arrow pointing up. But, daily stock performance is guaranteed to be more noise and less signal.
No one puts the signal v noise discussion in better context than Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his great book Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. Here’s an excerpt:

Philosophy

A few weeks ago I needed to visit a jewelry store. I pulled out my phone, typed in “jewelry store” in Google Maps and viola, there were 5 stores within a ten block radius. I chose one and was on my way. As I neared my destination, the streets become increasingly packed with people. I probably should have picked a store that was NOT in the middle of a high traffic area of Manhattan during rush hour.
This got me thinking about maps in general, and how deficient they are. The map I looked at on my phone showed me a grid of NYC streets. It didn’t show may how many people might be in my target area during a specific time of day. Had I been a tourist, I may have jumped in a cab, only to find out that the subway would have been a more efficient means of transportation.
If you’re a city planner, maps of sewage systems and electrical lines would be equally, if not more important than ones showing street names. Or perhaps you want to consider a map of real estate values.
On an even larger scale, think about the map of the entire world. The first problem is that trying to represent a spherical object like a planet on a flat piece of paper will immediately cause problems. Shapes and sizes will inevitably be distorted. Africa, for example, would have to be 13-14x the size it usually appears on world maps.
Zoom out even further, a map of the solar system is actually a pretty ridiculous representation. It’s as if distance and size are of menial importance. It’s only real value is in gleaning the order of the planets from the sun.
All this is not to say that maps are useless tools in understanding the world, but any one map will always have serious limitations. You have to consider the subjective perspective of the creator, the mediums it’s presented on, when it was made, and many many other facets.

My Latest Discovery

I’ve recently switched to using Google Authenticator for all two-factor authentication (2FA). It’s much safer than receiving 2FA codes via SMS because Google Authenticator is not tied to your phone number. If a bad actor hacks a phone system, then can intercept 2FA codes coming in via SMS. One could even port your cell number without you knowing which would allow them to do the same. There has been a spate of recent attacks that have followed this formula so do yourself a favor and get Google Authenticator or something similar that doesn’t rely on your phone number.

[VIC – 76] Running 🏃🏃 for the exits. Early = wrong. Toasters as teachers 📝. Filter by unread. Do dreams 😴 mean anything?

Business & Money

Take a look at Best Buy and Home Depot over the last year:

At a time when most retailers seem to be hemorrhaging, these guys are both trading at all times highs. This fact reminds me of 2 key points in investing:
It’s not an abstract philosophical game. Regardless of what people are saying, you simply have to think deeply about the business and analyze the numbers. It’s purely rational.
Second, and more importantly, when everyone is running for the exits, it’s a great time to look for cheap opportunities to buy. When the housing market crashed, it was a great time to buy real estate. After the internet bubble burst, great engineers and companies could be acquired for next to nothing.
If investing was about consensus, everyone would be rich.

Human Progress

I want to talk about cryptocurrencies and the underlying technology today. But before we dive in, I realize I’ve written on this subject before without providing adequate context and background to why it’s really important.
First, let’s consider banks. Banks have essentially unfettered control over money. They can print it (causing the value to fall). They cash restrict your access to it (e.g. in the case of a run on the bank = close banks when too many people are attempting to withdraw cash). They prey on the poor with myriad fees and predatory loans. The list goes on and on. And the best part, when they screw up, there are basically no repercussions (hence the term “too big to fail”).
Long story short, the incentive structures are all messed up. And given that these centralized institutions control our financial system, we’re basically forced to simply sit on our hands and pray they do the right thing (don’t hold your breath).
It is here that we arrive at the central tenant of the blockchain (the technology behind cryptocurrencies): it’s decentralized nature. There is no central entity (person, company, government, etc) that controls the entire system. Instead you have a distributed system (think ledger or database) where each entry is verified by lots of independent and self-interested parties (“miners”). As a result, you have inherent trust baked into the system. All participants rely on all other participants for the safety and integrity of the system. Incentives are beautifully aligned. (The implications go far beyond money, but this core tenant provides enough context for now)
So why are we revisiting the subject this week? Because of the price action of course.

This past week, 9 different people hit me up asking where/how to buy cryptocurrency. And many were people completely outside of the crypto.. actually the technology industry altogether. This is a telltale sign that we’re in bubble territory. Speculators and uninformed consumers are artificially inflating the value of cryptocurrency right now. And moreover, we don’t have any mainstream consumer application that would equate to higher demand (and higher prices as a result). It reminds of the dot-com bubble of the early 2000s when regular people were sinking their life savings into internet stocks, only to have it all evaporate overnight.
But the dot-com bubble is a prudent analogy for another reason. While companies were going bust left and right, many were actually incredible ideas that would later become valuable in their own right. Remember WebVan? It was FreshDirect before FreshDirect. Or what about the spectacular failure of Pets.com? Just a few months ago PetSmart acquired Chewy.com for $3.35 billion. It’s too bad that being early is synonymous with being wrong.
Similarly, I am a blockchain bull all day every day. It seems obvious that this technology will be absolutely revolutionary. But how many real consumer applications are viable today? Maybe a few. But there are a ton of things that need to be figured out first. What’s happening right now is speculation, plain and simple. Don’t be a sucker! If you want to get involved, park 1-2% of your portfolio in a secure crypto wallet and let it sit there for the next 10 years. In the meantime, it’s a good time to start educating yourselves about what’s coming.

Philosophy

So I wanted to show you my toaster:

You’ll notice that the power is set to level 5. This is a recent change. Up until last week, it was set to level 3. I think it came that way when I bought it. And level 3 was a great setting. It cooks waffles perfectly. The only downside is that you to run it twice to achieve said perfection. So when the waffles pop up, I would simply push the button down again for one more cycle and viola. Perfect waffles.
One day last week my fiance noticed this pattern and asked, “why don’t you just increase the power setting so that you only have to run it once? Wouldn’t that be faster?”
“Blasphemy,” I thought to myself. I already had a fool proof system of cooking waffles.
For some reason, I kept thinking about the toaster at random moments throughout the day. Of course it would be better to find the optimal power setting, but that would force me to venture into uncharted territory (a.k.a. untested power settings).
The next morning I decided I was in a risk-taking mood. I switched the power setting to 6 and pushed the button down. It was a grueling 90 seconds of weighting. Then pop! They were too done! Not burnt per say, but more done than I preferred. I knew I should have stayed with my system!
The next morning I was at it again, but with level 5 this time. To my surprise, the waffles were perfect. That wasn’t so bad after all. One false start the day before, but now back on solid ground.
While this is a pretty trivial example, fear of change is a real thing. I spent almost 4 years avoiding the power setting on a toaster due to fear of change. If an obstacle this small can cause such cognitive dissonance, one can only imagine what happens when larger ones present themselves.
I appreciate my toaster for this much-needed reminder.

My Latest Discovery

I’m either an oblivious idiot, or you will thank me effusively. Did you know that this little icon filters your inbox by “unread.”

I’ve wondered so many times why there was no easy way to do this. All the while, it’s been right here in front of me.

Question Of The Week

Whenever I have a dream, I tend to journal about it the next day to parse it for meaning. I’ve always felt that dreams were a great way to listen in on your unconscious mind. What do you think? Do you place any value or meaning in your dreams?

[VIC – 72] This sucks 😩. Holographic mustaches. Just do something. The Internet History Podcast. Why are they trying to kill me? 🔫🔫

Business & Money

You know what sucks, deciding not to purchase a stock, then watching it go on a tear. 😩 😩 Check out Wix:

If you’re unfamiliar with this company, they create self-service web design software that allows anyone to setup and launch a site in minutes.
I was planning to make the purchase in early February when WIX was at $60, but decided the company was overvalued. Now things are above $80 five months later and I feel like an idiot.
That said, it makes me feel better to reiterate why I decided to pass:
First, the company was valued at about 10 times 2016 sales, that’s really high.
Second, if you read through the annual report, the company spent over 50% of revenues on sales and marketing last year. That’s also really high.
Related to this, Wix operates in a very competitive market. You know a market is really competitive when a free, open-source competitor (WordPress) own over 50% market share. Thus, sales and marketing spend will have to remain high to acquire new customers and there will likely be pricing pressure in the future which would have a negative impact on revenues.
In the end, this post may just serve to lessen the FOMO effect I’m feeling right now. But more importantly, when I think about my investment returns over time, it’s an exercise in reviewing the decisions that I did make, and the resulting outcomes, rather than focusing on the ones that I missed.
There will always be ones that get away – great white buffalo. (Leave a comment if you get the reference 😂😂)

Human Progress

Are you guys familiar with the show “Silicon Valley?” It’s a satirical series about a fictional technology startup (called “Pied Piper”) in San Francisco. The show’s lead character, Richard Hendricks, is a socially awkward computer programmer trying to strike it rich by developing a next-generation compression algorithm.
At one point in the show, Richard is fired from his CEO role and is forced to shop his talents at other startups in the valley. One company that aggressively tries to recruit him is developing a technology to overlay 3-dimensional mustaches on your face during video chat.

It’s pretty clear that this “mustache tech” is taking a shot at all of the lofty claims by tech companies to be building revolutionary software, much of which has no real market and/or value.
What’s interesting, though, is that SnapChat has built a real business based on similar technology. They leverage advanced computer vision technology that allows users to apply lenses and filters to their photos. Pokemon Go also applies computer vision to map your environment and place Pokemon into the real world.
I don’t use SnapChat much and I haven’t played Pokemon Go, so perhaps I am part of a small minority that didn’t recognize the reference to augmented reality (AR). But AR, sometimes referred to as mixed reality, will likely turn out to be one of the most revolutionary technologies of the 21st century.
I wonder what other technologies are now in the “gimmick” phase with seemingly no practical application, that will one day turn out to be game changers.

Philosophy

I was listening to a podcast recently wherein Sheryl Sandberg (COO of Facebook) was talking about losing her husband. While on vacation, he collapsed while exercising and was dead before he hit the floor. It turns out that he had a serious heart condition that had gone undiagnosed.
For obvious reasons, the sudden loss of her husband and the father of her children was incredibly difficult. What made it harder still was that many of the people closest to Sheryl had no idea how to be supportive. Some would say “Hey Sheryl, how’s it going?” as if nothing had happened. Others would completely avoid speaking to her in fear of saying the wrong thing.
Luckily one of Sheryl’s closest friends is the renowned psychologist and social scientist Adam Grant (you may know him from his New York Times Best Seller Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World).
One thing that Grant encourages people to do that are in a support role for someone going through a difficult time, is to do something. That is, don’t ask “is there anything I can do?” or “do you need anything?” Instead, stop asking questions and do something.
This is one of those pieces of advice that seems so obvious in hindsight. A person that’s struggling to keep it together probably doesn’t have a checklist of items that they need help with. They haven’t written down a list of how people can be most helpful. In fact, they are often struggling to get out of bed or eat a nutritious meal. Grant suggests preparing a healthy meal and dropping it off or showing up unannounced to clean up around the house.
So next time someone is in pain, don’t ask if there’s anything you can do. Just do something!

My Latest Discovery

I’m really enjoying the “Internet History Podcast.” It starts out with the creation of the first consumer web browser in the early 90s and goes all the way up through the dotcom era of the early 2000s. If you’re at all curious about how Google became so dominant, why Windows became to defacto operating system, or what social networks looked like before Facebook & Twitter, you should definitely check this one out!

Question Of The Week

Why is everything next to the checkout line terrible for you? Tobacco, Candy, magazines encouraging a consumerist culture… all the worst things in life are offered up while you’re at your most vulnerable.
How would Tobacco consumption change if cigarettes were in the back corner of the store? If candy was placed next to weight loss supplements?
It seems we could encourage our retail outlets to support healthy habits instead of trying to destroy us for profit.
Thoughts?

[VIC – 69] Early stage investing. Everything is digital. We can do better. National Poetry Month. Flattery or plagiarism?

Business & Money

When thinking about early stage investment opportunities, conventional wisdom says that these are generally reserved for silicon valley elites. There’s a small cabal of elite VCs that get access to all of the best deals and companies, while most are shut out. Thus the astronomical returns that accrue to these firms far out pace what the average person can expect to make while investing.
While mostly true, there are a few other ways to get a foot in the door for early stage opportunities. Here are a few:
1) You can always invest in startups yourself. Title III of the Jobs Act opens up the opportunity for regular retail investors to get their turn at startup investing. Regular people can create an account with any number of equity crowdfunding platforms (e.g. SeedInvest, MicroVentures) to participate in startup fundraising. While Title III is a good thing in general terms, it’s very unlikely that I’ll try my hand at picking individual companies. Chances are, all the best deals will be picked through by the VCs, angel syndicates, or individual angel investors. In other words, the equity crowdfunding platforms likely offer the bottom of the barrel in terms of investment opportunities. The platforms do take on some of the due diligence work to de-risk things a bit, but chances are you’ll still lose your money.
2) More realistically, you can try to take advantage of early stage opportunities by investing in public companies. For example, take artificial intelligence. We’re clearly in the hype cycle for AI and every company, both large and small, are trying to participate in the “AI gold rush”. To understand where the investment opportunities lie, we first need a bit ot context. Without getting into the weeds, deep learning is a subset of machine learning that uses computational systems loosely modeled on the human brain. Deep learning systems require a lot of processing power and thus require advanced GPUs (graphical processing units) which are far more powerful than their CPU (central processing unit) brethren. There are basically 2 companies that own the GPU market, Nvidia and Advanced Micro Devices, and both are publicly traded. NVDA is up 285% this year and AMD is up 481%. Not bad at all for a public market returns.
3) One slightly more esoteric way to get involved, and somewhat similar to above, involves investing in underlying technologies. Not investing in companies that produce the underlying technology, but the technology itself. I’ll give you two examples. First, think about the early days of the internet. Everyone and their mother were building internet based businesses and every one of those required a website. If you went on a buying spree in the 90s purchasing as many domain names as possible, you would be incredibly wealthy today. The average domain back then sold for around $0.50 – $5.00. Today, the average 5 letter word in the dictionary will cost you anywhere from $500,000 to $1,000,000 if you want to purchase the domain. That multiple is (you guessed it), 🍌🍌🍌🍌🍌! Secondly, I’m betting that cryptocurrencies will explode over the next 5 years. The value has already gone up over 100x since inception, and I’d say were in the first inning with no outs. I’ve been purchasing modest amounts of Bitcoin and Ethereum, the two leading cryptocurrencies, betting that they will be far more valuable in a few years. I’m less worried about these as digital currencies or stores of value, and more excited by the applications that will be built on the underlying technology. We’ll have to wait to see how this last one pans out.

Human Progress

If the 20th century was an industrial century, the 21st will be a digital one. Absolutely everything is going (or has gone) digital. Money, media, communication, commerce, conflict… everything. This transformation will, of course, bring great progress. But, it will also bring unprecedented risk. Cyber security risk that is. As the number of connected devices goes through the roof, so too do the number of vulnerabilities. I’m no cyber security expert, so I won’t try to delve into the details of the myriad vulnerabilities. Instead, I’d like to suggest 3 simple ways to greatly improve your digital security profile.
1 Turn on 2-factor authentication (2FA) for your email. For those unaware, 2FA is the process by which you use a second device to verify your identity. So when you log into your email account on your laptop, it will ask you for a password that you need to retrieve from your phone (SMS). As a result, you have a second layer of protection from someone trying to gain unauthorized access. And, while you can also enable 2FA on many other applications, email lies at the crux of everything. Anytime you need to reset a password, the reset link is sent via email. Thus, if someone gains access to your email, they likely have access to everything.
2 Use a VPN (virtual private network). VPNs offer a simple way to protect the data being transmitted over wireless networks by forcing all of your data through a server run by a VPN provider. These providers encrypt all of the data providing, again, another layer of protection. These require a simple, low-cost software download from any of a number of reputable providers. This is especially important if you regularly use public wifi networks (e.g. coffee shops, NYC parks & subways, etc). Anyone on these networks can access your data if it’s unprotected.
3 Use a secure browser (e.g. Opera). These run security checks in the background while you browse (checking for phishing, malware, etc) and many also include free built-in VPN software.
None of these will guarantee that you’re 100% safe, but you’re far better off with them than without.

Philosophy

You know that philosophical question, “if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” I’ve been thinking about my own version. “If a person apologizes for a certain wrongdoing that they’ve committed, but the victim is not around to hear it, did the apology actually happen?” I would answer “no” to both questions. In the first, the tree hitting the ground would clearly disturb the adjacent air creating sound waves. But “hearing,” that involves those same sounds waves interacting with an ear drum and the associated nerve endings that translate those vibrations into an intelligible signal. In my own version of the question, the same logic applies. Yes, the apology is spoken, but the act of apologizing, if it is to be at all meaningful, involves both the speaker’s message and the listener’s reception and interpretation thereof. So even if the apology is heard, but there is no eye contact or a lack of conviction in the voice of the apologizer, we’ve adulterated the content of the words.
I began thinking about this when someone posted on Facebook about what’s often referred to as the Apology to Native Peoples. I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never heard of it (I had not before coming across this post). In essence, this was a resolution signed by President Obama in 2009 as an acknowledgment of the depredations and mistreatment of Native Americans by the US government. A formal apology of sorts. I see two glaring problems right off the bat.
First, the delivery. The resolution was quietly passed, buried deep within the Defense Appropriations act of 2009 (not an obvious location for such a resolution). But no attention was drawn to it. It’s almost like the apology was whispered under the breath so that no one could hear it. Not an apology at all if you ask me. If no one can hear it, it’s safe to assume that the act itself is narcissistic or inward focused. It serves to remove some guilt or responsibility, without putting the speaker at any risk or empathizing with the listener.
Secondly, the language.
“Whereas the arrival of Europeans in North America opened a new chapter in the history of Native Peoples.”
A new chapter?!?! Are you kidding me?? Let’s drop the warm and poetic language and call a spade a spade.
“Whereas while establishment of permanent European settlements in North America did stir conflict with nearby Indian tribes, peaceful and mutually beneficial interactions also took place.”
Peaceful and mutually beneficial? 😂😂 What a joke!
“Whereas Native Peoples and non-Native settlers engaged in numerous armed conflicts in which unfortunately, both took innocent lives, including those of women and children.”
Innocent lives taken on both sides? More like genocide or extermination of one side and flourishing on the other.
There is so much power in language. What is said is often less important than how it is said.
All of this makes me think about my own progress in delivering apologies. I, for one, can say I have a long way to go. I’ve often delivered apologies while staring at the floor, using defensive language, voice raised, arms crossed, and no eye contact. If I can’t do any better, our nation and our federal government likely can’t either. 😩 Come one! We’re better than that!

My Latest Discovery

On the same topic of native peoples, Layli Long Soldier is both a US citizen and a citizen of the Oglala Lakota Nation (a Native American Tribe). She is also an incredible poet. And, I’ve discovered that April happens to be National Poetry Month. I thought I would share one of her exquisite yet painful compositions called “38.”

I would highly recommend you listen, but if you prefer to read, you can do so here.

Question Of The Week

When is it ok to copy?
I’m thinking about this in the wake of rampant copying by Facebook. After seeing the success of SnapChat, Zuckerberg has basically copy/pasted SnapChat’s best features, pixel for pixel, into all 4 Facebook properties (WhatsApp, Instagram, Messenger, And Facebook).
I’m specifically thinking about this in relation to other great innovations that have been copied and commoditized. In the digital realm, think about the like button or the news feed. Basically every social application now has both. Someone had to be first. In cars, what about sunroofs? Whoever came up with the sunroof is a genius. Now every car on the block has one. The inventor must be pissed!
When does copying stop being the sincerest form of flattery and become plagiarism? Should there be more IP protection for digital products? Would this impact innovation in a negative way? So many questions!