Friday, January 23, 2009

Enough talk of the recession already

Everyone knows that most of the world's major economies are in recession now, or if they're not, their economic growth has slowed significantly. Given the exposure of our banks to bad debt (brought on by a mixture of idiotically bad lending by the banks, and idiotically imprudent spending by their debtors - i.e. the rest of us!), this is hardly surprising.

However, there is one more factor that is really important in how we look at our economy, and that stock prices, and so much of the stock price of a company is based not on their balance sheet, their order book (in those rare companies in the UK that actually make something these days!), or their actual assets (fixed, personnel, or intellectual), but upon the confidence investors have in the company. Take a look at Apple over the last two years (compared to the Nasdaq and Dow Jones indexes). There's a massive dip in Apple shares in Feb 2008. Why? They'd just released the 32GB iPod, they were leading the market for legal music downloads with the iTunes store, and the video store was doing well too; the future looks seriously rosy. So why did their shares drop from $199 (Dec 28, 2007) to $119 (Feb 25 2008) - a 40% drop in 2 months!

I can't find any logical reason in the news archives, and the Nasdaq and Dow Jones (also shown on the above graph) show only a gentle slide at that time. (Dow dropped 1000 points (7%) and NDQ 321 points (12%) over the same period). This is confidence at work. It often has no discernable connection with reality outside of the trading floors of London or New York.

More recently, many many investors have lost confidence in the shares of the banks, with some reason, it appears. But something that is really, really not helping matters is the continual talk of economic doom and gloom by every news organisation I come across. Do these people (Robert Peston, I'm looking at you!) not realise the harm they're doing? Surely it's time to start either doing something to help, or at least coming up with real solutions. Fundamentally, the global economy is still producing plenty of goods. Global warming provides all sorts of opportunities for innovative thinking about ways to invest in our future. The world won't stop spinning on it's axis just because a few bankers mis-incentivised their traders and lenders so that it was in the traders' and lenders' interests to make extra-risky decisions.

Stop being part of the problem, and start finding the solutions. Look for the good news in the economy, and help me look forward to listening to BBC Radio 4's Today Programme tomorrow morning instead of dreading what new depressing statistic is being published to make me fear for my job in the finance sector.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

President Barack Obama

From here:
W. E. B. DuBois started to teach so that Rosa Parks could take a seat.
Rosa Parks took a seat so that we could all take a stand. 
We all took a stand so that Martin Luther King, Jr. could march. 
Martin Luther King, Jr. marched so that Jesse Jackson could run. 
Jesse Jackson ran so that Barack Obama could win!

Cleo Fields at the State of the Black Union February. 23, 2008
This says so much to me about how the way the political geography of the US has changed in just two generations (Rosa Parks sat in the 'wrong' seat on a segregated bus in 1955). Not everyone around me appreciates just how significant this is for the United States, but it gives me great hope for the future if such seemingly impossible odds can be overturned.

Who among you, even in 2007, really could have said with any kind of confidence that 2008 would see the Democratic race for the nomination for president would be between a woman and an African-American man, let alone that the resulting candidate would win?

p.s. if you can watch BBC programs on iPlayer, I recommend this recent program on Barack Obama, it's available until 7:59pm Tuesday 27th January 2009.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Tips and Tricks

I don't often feel the need to write about anything particularly technical here, but today I feel the need to publicize this excellent tutorials site. As an example of how useful I've found it, I had a peek at their Eclipse tutorials.

I've been using Eclipse for Java web application development for about 6 years now, and it's an excellent platform. However, there is a minor issue with upgrading eclipse versions. Each time you upgrade, you really need a clean install in the eclipse directory. So far, so good. The downside of this is that you lose all your plugins - one of the greatest strengths of the eclipse platforms - so that I usually have to write off a days work to do an upgrade (consequently, I'm still on the Europa release, as opposed to the more recent Ganymede release).

Now, this inertia isn't a huge problem; in fact, I'd say it's only an annoyance that hits once or twice a year, but it would be nice to have a solution.

Introducing 'externalised eclipse plugins'. It's surprising what you can learn when your not expecting to see anything remarkable on a site.

Now, you may say that any eclipse user worth their developer chops will have already have solved this problem three years ago, but so what. I'm still learning new vi tricks after more than 20 years daily use. But I'll take new learning any way I can get it.

So, if you're a developer in the Web arena, take a look at avaJava's Web Tutorials, you never know what might strike you.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Steve Jobs' Health Issues and Apple

I know a lot of people have spent a lot of electrons talking about this one, but I have to have my go, that's just how it is.

Steve Jobs is only the CEO of Apple, he is NOT the god of product design, nor the only reason that Apple has grown so much since his return. Jobs returned from NeXT and Pixar at a point where Apple was quiet, but was lucky enough to have some very talented people hidden in the R&D departments. In contrast to Apple of the 80s, instead of spewing money all over the place in the hope of getting some ok products, Jobs made some canny decisions to cut effort in areas that were never going to make serious money - WebObjects I'm looking at you - it's just a framework for websites, not a money-maker. On the other hand, he and his collegues in management seem to have been very smart in recognising the strength of the iPod and it's simplicity. Of course, the alternative interpretation of the success of the iPod is a mixture of Apple-fanboyism plus just happening to hit the sweet spot in growth in the market for MP3 players.

Now that Apple is successful, and still growing, the fact that Steve Jobs is taking a break (that might turn out to be permanent) really shouldn't be causing everyone to suddenly pull their investment out of the shares. Afterall, Steve Jobs did not design the iPod (nor any of it's variants), nor the current crop of Apple laptops, nor the iPhone.... and someone else will be able to do the same for future Apple products, providing Apple continue to employ excellent designers and product creators.

Now let's let the guy take the time he needs to to get well. He's only human at the end of it all.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

New Year's Resolutions?

I know, I know. Every year it's the same. People bemoaning their inability to keep their New Year's Resolutions, but this one (go to the end of the column) made me laugh out loud:

The two-faced god [Janus, the Roman god of the New Year] would have coughed hard at my official New Year resolutions, which were — life being shorter than a wren's blink, and all — to be both nicer and more honest. Have you tried it lately? It's like trying to sit up by lying down.

The only scenario in which it works is on country walks, where a rigid etiquette governs all encounters.

You can say 'lovely weather', 'gorgeous dog!' and 'Happy New Year'. You cannot say 'those are some comedy dentures' or 'I bet that's not your husband!'

The minute I hit the roads, it all went awry. I gave way meekly to a thundering 4 x 4 Death Star, even though I had right of way, and the beast swept past without acknowledging my gesture.

I wanted to follow them and beat them to a foaming pulp.

This was three days into January. But what is life without challenges?

Monday, January 05, 2009

Sir Jackie Stewart vs. the World

You've got to give Sir Jackie Stewart credit for sheer balls and a willingness to pull no punches. As reported via, he's been talking to the Times again. I agree with what he says, but the real kicker is in the last line of the report:

"Stewart's comments will not go down well with those on the receiving end."

Ya think?

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Matt Smith?

Who the heck is Matt Smith? The BBC have named this nobody as the replacement for David Tennant as the eleventh Doctor Who. Watch the little movie at the start of that article, and it's clear he's not even been properly briefed on how to talk about the role. 'Iconic' is about the only thing he can say. And what's with those bonkers hands? Is that the 'Doctor-ness' Piers Wenger is talking about in the same article?

This kid grew up in the hiatus between the old Doctor (killed off with Sylvester McCoy's incarnation, that was cursed with the worst ever assistant Mel, played by Bonnie Langford <>), and the 1996 TV movie with Paul McGann that made the modern seasons possible. Matt Smith wanted to be a footballer... sounds like a Doctor Who geek from his childhood ... NOT!

Sounds more like the BBC wanted to hire a real cheap nobody to save a few pounds, instead of the real actors named as possible choices before last night:
  • James Nesbitt, serious actor with loads of credits,
  • Patterson Joseph, another serious actor with loads of credits - he's even been in a couple of episodes of Doctor Who,
  • John Simm, the talented actor who played The Master in 2007. Also has a lot of credits, an unlikely choice because that would confuse people.
  • David Morrissey, another good actor who'll never now play the Doctor because he played such a key role in the 2008 Christmas Special, appearing to be a future incarnation of the Doctor.
See, all far too experienced, far too expensive. Let's have a cute nobody with an asymmetric haircut that'll appeal to the teenage girl demographic because he looks like an emo rockstar.

Creative Zen X-Fi

For the last few years, I've been using my mobile phone as a multi-purpose device: phone, SMS, diary, sudoku generator and MP3 player. This Christmas, I asked for a real media player for music and video, and rather than follow the stampede towards Apple, I've gone for a Creative Zen X-Fi (the 16GB model with WiFi). It's small, light, plays lots of formats and, importantly, comes with a decent pair of in-ear headphones.

Most importantly of all (apart from the obvious 'does it play music & videos' functionality), it doesn't require me to use that dreadfully clunky and unresponsive piece of software called iTunes. I'm running Vista 64-bit, on a decent PC - plenty of RAM, and a fast dual AMD CPU, so there really is no excuse for iTunes to run slowly when nothing else does.

It's taken me a little time to find the sweet spot in video format to minimize audio glitching - but it was just the realisation that you have to run the supplied video converter software at the highest quality (& slowest conversion speed, of course) to get the best results.

I've not returned to work after the holidays yet, so I've yet to see how the device functions in that part of my life, so expect more on this another time.

One odd thing though, and it's really a criticism of Google, or the 'net as a whole. When I google for information about the X-Fi, I get the best part of 10 pages of people either selling it, or 'professional' reviews. On those pages where there are comments from real people, there's so much Apple/anti-Apple fan-boi noise that sensible, vaguely objective experiences are hard to find. Where have all the bloggers and sane people gone?

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Happy New Year 2009!

I'm curious to see what 2009 brings.... could be good, might be not so good.