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Traveling as Education

No Jobs Yet

I just spent a few days in Newport, Rhode Island, to see the wedding for my friends Ryan and Erin. For July 4th weekend, I found out I’ll be staying at the Four Seasons HULAGHULAG for the International Achievement Summit. And I just bought tickets to go to see my ladyfriend in Barcelona. If I can’t get a job, I guess I’ll just travel! And just soak up and report back on everything I see!

I applied to Richard Clarke’s consultancy, Good Harbor, which handles advising for critical infrastructure, homeland security, etc. and I came in to interview and to do an Arabic test. The highlight was that I got to chat with Richard Clarke, former counter-terrorism director. He’s a great guy! I didn’t get the job though. Their people in the UAE said my Arabic fluency wasn’t good enough.

I also applied to another security-related project that handles open source collection of information related to disease control, societal disruption, and more. I interviewed well but again I didn’t get that job.

I’m still waiting to hear from another firm that does energy policy and news analysis for its clients. Since I haven’t heard yet, I’m willing to bet I’m not their first choice and they’re waiting for that person to respond.

So here I am, just chilling out. I am working on Galapag.us, and having given more information to friends and family, am enjoying more discussion about it and am receiving related news and data from others who want to help. I’m also reading a lot. I’ll write about the diverse books I’m reading at some later point.

Recon

I used TripIt for the first time. I just had to e-mail all my official itineraries to TripIt and it automatically scans the itinerary and loads it into its database, so you can consolidate all your trips into one location, and even share it with your other buddies on TripIt. TripIt also has a mobile app for the iPhone.

Speaking of which, the huge iPhone software update will be coming in July… The new iPhone with GPS and 3G looks worth it, too! I just really enjoy the iPhone, and most of the web apps I use (Facebook, Flickr, Twitter, etc.) are designed especially for the iPhone too!

I used Kayak to buy my Barcelona tickets. It has a nice AJAXy web2.0 feel and lets you filter out that pesky 6AM flight from your results, and lets you search multiple sites at once. Very nice! You have to be pretty savvy to get the cheapest flights with the best schedules, and I suck at it. I also hate how prices change online while you’re looking at them.

Anyway…

I love to observe when I travel.

What struck me most today was going to Logan in Boston and eating at Currito, which in my opinion will quickly make Chipotle obsolete. It has only a few locations right now, but offers different flavors of burrito besides just a Mexican saladish burrito. They have Asian flavors, for example. And not only that, they make smoothies! It’s like they made a fast-food joint JUST for me. Seriously. Currito will be everywhere soon. Chipotle struck me the same way! They have good-looking branding and cups and web site. So they will do well.

I took jetBlue on the way back to Dulles. I love the jetBlue font and colors and branding. The kiosks at the airport have an user interface (UI) that is very intuitive and easy to use. I just read a wonderful article about the Wells Fargo ATM UI re-design. It shows how much goes into designing a proper UI, and it shows how useless ATM UIs in the past have been. With large buttons, easy-to-read content, more functionality, a touch-screen (as opposed to those side buttons that never lined up with the screen), and more, these ATMs are a joy. My ladyfriend told me that in Barcelona, people can add phone minutes to their cellphones using ATMs, which I think is great but wonder why you can’t just do it over your phone (or can you?).

jetBlue has a well-integrated IT infrastructure. It also has satellite TV on its planes so I watched part of Euro Cup 2008 (Czech Republic vs. Turkey).

I also noticed the signage for companies inside Dulles. They’re very well-designed and make you want to buy things from the stores. The notable exception is Simply Books, which has the worst logo ever. I mean, it mixes fonts and just looks trashy.

It’s also nice to see the flat-screen high-resolution arrival/departure screens at the airports. They’re very readable although they’re not like the nostalgic clackety-clacking spinning-letter timetables at the European rail stations.

I’m very happy about seeing technology make our lives easy. Especially when companies like Delta and American and organizations like the TSA have managed to make flying miserable for Americans.

My ladyfriend is also raving about her trip cross-country on Virgin America and her trip to Barca on Air France.

So maybe there’s hope for air travel again.

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Spring 2008 Grades

I ended up getting an A in political economy of communications policy. My professor really loved my final paper. She said not many people are able to pull off an analysis of cultural, technological, and business influences on a product (in my case, high-speed wireless technology).

I got an A- in both analytical & statistical skills and in international social entrepreneurship. My two group partners got an A in the stats class, so that sucks for me.

And then I got a flat B in my development orthodoxies class, which I was bummed about. The professor is an extremely hard grader and emphasizes having a clear thought process, which is precisely my worst skill. I still thought he was overly tough on my final grade since I contributed in many non-graded ways to the class, including sending outside links to the development concentrators, presenting extra dissent papers, and in general providing unconventional ways of thinking. Plus I talked to the professor separately and endorsed the program (he is the head of our concentration) to prospective students. I’m not saying it makes up for me not delivering what he wanted on papers, but still. I sort of feel alienated from him, but still willing to pursue all those things…just on my own, not for him.

I’m pretty unsure what I’m going to be taking next semester still.

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Undervalued

I have a theory. I remember wrestling with the idea in the 2000 election that maybe it IS actually better for a Republican to be in office for the stock market. Since I was daytrading, I was partially interested in tax cuts on capital gains, a rising tide for all boats, and any sort of way to make more money. People say Republicans are good for that.

But here we are with $126 oil, a struggling dollar, and a massive budget deficit with two wars. Government spending is at its highest levels, housing prices are dropping, people are defaulting. Remember when the US was booming with optimism during the Clinton era, fit with a big surplus?

I’m not going to say that the Democrats are good for the economy, because they have fucked up policies towards food subsidies and protecting American labor, but I think that the Republicans right now are just so destructive economically that they are dragging the stock market down.

Is it possible that the market’s recent rallying (which is allowing it to challenge its 200-day averages) is because the macro financial instability is over and now the market sees itself as undervalued?

Is it possible that once Bush is trounced from office, that the market will explode upwards? Bush has made the US’s balance sheet fiscally unsound and he has strangled investment, not encouraged it. He has reduced international desire to invest in America. He has stopped government institutions from working properly. His tax ideology is ridiculous.

I think that the market looks so resilient now because it should have been growing a lot faster than it has been. I think it might be undervalued. The market already knows about high oil prices and has priced that in. Businesses are doing okay, despite all of this. Tech stocks have rallied hard because the Fed has cut rates so much — despite larger macro concerns, low rates benefit tech companies ultimately.

That’s how the market feels to me right now. It feels like it’s being pulled up. That’s just my intuition. This fits my long-term view that a more globalized world will benefit from increased efficiency and productivity, ensuring long-term growth and massive growth for medium-developed nations. A week and a half ago, I went 50% into international funds in my govt. retirement fund. I’m not ballsy enough to commit 100% right now but I trust my gut more these days.

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Understanding Neo-Cons

Maybe I’m just a little slow. I gained some perspective on the neo-conservatives after having read Paul Krugman’s book, “The Great Unraveling”, which is a little disappointing because it’s just a bunch of his NYTimes columns from 1998-2004 or so. If I had known that, I might have gotten another book instead. But his overviews are insightful.

He explained that it’s useless to argue with neo-conservatives in order to convince them that their ideas are wrong. They do not care. They have a radical agenda and will say whatever helps them further their cause politically. If this means reversing previous statements or supporting someone a week after bashing him, then they’ll do so. Convincing them does not work.

At the same time, everything must be seen in its neo-conservative context. If the administration says something positive towards climate change, then you have to look into the details to see how they’re using that to further their cause.

What is their cause? Minimization of government. Not in the sense of making it so small and efficient that more money is available to the free market, but cutting its budget, strangling it so it can’t operate, then claiming that it’s not very good at operating, and then slashing its budget even more. The first way is not politically feasible, because it invokes too much ideology. But the second way is a sort of results-based attack on government.

Another cause is basically crony capitalism. Bush went to Saudi recently and came back with nothing benefiting the American people. He does not serve our interests. All the daytraders are talking about right now is oil and how it will hurt the US. Personally I am even-keeled on the matter. I would prefer higher oil prices because then it forces businesses to make themselves leaner, and it hopefully will push through a technological breakthrough in energy, which the US govt. has idled in helping to innovate.

But I also believe oil prices are directly related to the Bush Axis of Evil doctrine, the invasion of Iraq, and a nepotistic business-government relationship right now in which the administration has planted its people in most all locations where it needs them in order to get deals passed.

Krugman’s insights helped me synthesize what I’ve long inferred. Frankly, it is not worth listening to anything released by most of our government’s departments right now. They are co-opted. The Government Accountability Office still has a strong leader who is capable of releasing good data. But who else? The Bureau of Labor Statistics…co-opted. Defense: not as co-opted as before, but Gates is not perfect. Energy? State? State almost had a revolt when Rice wanted to force diplomats to go to Iraq.

There is an agenda and facts no longer matter. Long-term American health is not important. Making money for a handful of insiders is what’s important. It’s cronyism at its finest. There’s a reason these guys seem mad. Not because they’re mad, but because their interests are not America’s.

That explains the SUVs for contractors in Iraq. The ignoring of Afghanistan. The dearth of infrastructure investment in the US. The expansive base of consulting and contracting in DC. The inertia in Iraq militarily. The dropping of any and all investigations into Bush-related activities. I am a firm believer in Bush deserving impeachment and it saddens me that it could never even be talked about seriously in DC.

Krugman talks about two points that I’d not really known about, at least not actively: Thomas White, the secretary of the Army while I was in, was an Enron executive appointed by Bush. What experience did he have being secretary of the Army? The other was that Bush’s failed oil company was bought out using Enron-like mark-to-market accounting by another oil company which had Bush on its board.

The only way out of this mess is to elect Obama, or even Hillary (dare I say it). They will take out all the political appointees and let the rest wither on the vine. The neo-conservatives need to be kicked out. McCain will turn into another Bush — you’ve seen how he’s already been co-opted during his campaign. He used to be more decent, but now he’ll just become another tool for the radicals if he’s elected.

The web site for the Project for the New American Century, the center for neo-conservatism, was just “suspended”, which means it was probably abandoned. A good sign, although it apparently had been running on a skeleton crew for a while now. Is their era over?

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Joining the Army

I just wanted to say something about the frequent canard stating that students who don’t do well in school end up going to Iraq.

Stephen King had some quick line about it recently:

“I don’t want to sound like an ad, a public service ad on TV, but the fact is if you can read, you can walk into a job later on. If you don’t, then you’ve got, the Army, Iraq, I don’t know, something like that. It’s, it’s not as bright. So, that’s my little commercial for that.”

This is quite similar to John Kerry’s brilliant line, “You know, education, if you make the most of it, if you study hard and do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, uh, you can do well. If you don’t, you get stuck in Iraq.”

I think I know what Kerry and King are trying to say (and I’m sympathetic to it especially after the chickenhawks attacked them for their comments), but I think the connection between education and military recruitment is weak. People don’t just join the military because they’re too dumb to get a job, as King and Kerry infer. I think it’s more as though they join the military because there’s not a lot of opportunities where they are.

I met a lot of well-educated people in the military, a lot of middling people, and a lot of dumb people. What seemed universal was that people wanted to have opportunities in their lives. They wanted to do something important, something greater than the path they were on beforehand. The military gets them out of their small town; otherwise, they’d be doing the same job with the same small group of people for the rest of their lives.

The military is the most ethnically diverse community in the country. It also provides a lot of training, and free health care, housing, and food. It is a socialist organization operating within a dominantly capitalist United States. This is our country’s dirty little capitalist secret.

I found that a lot of infantry-types tended to be white country-farm boys who were ready to kill some terrorists. A disproportionate amount seemed to come from small towns. Idealism is a prime motivation — I should know because it was part of the reason I enlisted after 9/11.

But there’s a lot of Latinos and black people in the military also. Look at the great deal they’re getting. Instead of living in some urban wasteland, they get to join an egalitarian organization that rewards you based on hard-fast standards. They get to travel. They get money for school. They get health care — complete coverage for their new families.

I saw a study that showed that fewer blacks are entering combat MOSs now than they used to. This makes sense. I don’t think the black community is very eager to fight for Bush’s adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. They aren’t looking to fight a war, period. They are entering for the opportunities, not for the idealist pro-American bullshit that I think a lot of the young redneck infantry kids join for. Special forces, for example, was almost exclusively filled with white hicks. The support positions and logistics were full of minorities. This wasn’t just a coincidence.

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, neo-liberals might say.

Well. Even if you study hard and do well, you might grow up in a community that is disconnected from the luxuries of college. In fact, there are non-government organizations that have tried to fill the gap: they are providing workshops and reinforcement for students to help them write better statements of purpose and to sell themselves better for getting into universities. It is not that colleges don’t want these students (they fall all over themselves trying to admit hardship cases to promote diversity with); it’s that the students submit weak packets.

So, sadly the statements by King and Kerry convey an ignorant, but relatively harmless impression of the uneducated and the military. The truth is far darker.

The truth is that America has been deteriorating. The truth is that the military’s becoming one of the last options for people who have the bravery and the support of their communities to leave everything they had and go sign up with Uncle Sam. Families don’t send off their children saying, “Well that’s a relief. He never would’ve gotten another job.” It’s more that they say, “He’s going to go off into the world and then make us proud.” Many families are happy to see their children make a better life for themselves in the military. It’s the only way out for some people.

As the neo-liberals dismantle the country’s infrastructure by making almost every government institution functionally useless, the military has thrived with a blank-check budget. Ridding our country of that foolish, short-term pseudo-economic bullshit is what we need to focus on. Not on scaring kids into studying so they won’t end up with big, bad Uncle Sam.

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Giving Presentations

I finally turned myself on to watching videos from TED, or the Technology, Entertainment, and Design conference held every year in Monterey, CA (where I used to live for Arabic classes). The conference is known for pulling together a bunch of great minds who give great PowerPoint presentations on great ideas. Ironically, the first video I watched was by this programmer who engineered the Nintendo Wii remote sensors into an incredibly cheap touch screen using a computer, a Wiimote, and a projector.

But I then watched a lot of presentations about international development and how people were tackling issues of poverty. And then I watched some other ones about the future of the web and the expansion of collaborative knowledge networks.

One part that appealed to me was that these people had come up with a theme or story, and then used it to make their presentations seem free-flowing and energetic. Just think about how effective Al Gore’s been with his slides on climate change.

As I’ve had to come up with a video pitch and presentation myself this semester, I appreciated their skill at giving their (albeit obviously rehearsed) excellent slideshows. I even passed one of the development scatterplot slideshows to the people in my class and it ended up getting distributed among our stats class as well (although without accrediting me with it). I had to watch my first video pitch in front of my classmates and it was excruciating hearing every little filler word, every extraneous phrase, all the meandering and bad body posture and lack of smiling. Creating a convincing pitch (and being on film in general) is pretty difficult.

From there I watched some videos from the recent Web2.0 conference in San Francisco, which looked like it was amazing. A guy from Microsoft gave the big companies’ take on things, envisioning something called “the mesh” that lets you keep all of your different (Microsoft-only) devices sync’d by connecting to a common folder on the Internet; the extension of which lets you add friends to your mesh and instantly have your photos that you upload show up in their mesh — it creates this sort of patched-together, growing network of knowledge.

Another presenter talked about an interesting little metric that I noticed some other people talk about. Clay Shirky was waxing about the “cognitive surplus”, the idea that for the first time, the younger generations are “looking for the mouse”, or in other words they no longer settle for a passive entertainment experience, and seek ways to share and contribute. So there’s millions of people joining the Internet out there and they’re all contributing little bits of knowledge to sharing projects like Wikipedia. That Wikipedia provides articles far more in-depth than epistemic encyclopedias can is just an amazing development.

But now people are talking about what a Wikipedia unit means. I am not sure of the calculation, but it’s an approximation of the thinking-hours spent to create Wikipedia. If we can only capture a small sliver of the cognitive surplus of all those minds out there, Shirky says, then we’ll be unlocking large amounts of processing power. An Israeli economist gave a talk on how we’ll create projects that are many times the size of a Wikipedia unit, reversing centralized power structures. Others talk about broadband speeds increasing so fast that we’ll be able to transfer multiple Wikipedias per second. It’s become a unit of measure, both in size and in time.

Shirky’s talk also helped to convince me that my personal business idea is more of a Wikipedia than a Facebook. That has helped me organize my thoughts much better — and I’m just so fucking excited about where the Internet is going.

Other good talks I listened to: Marc Andreessen, who helped invent Mosaic and Netscape, the first mainstream browsers, talking about his new business Ning, which is a platform for creating communities. I’m not too hot on the idea but it was interesting to hear him talk. Also Tim O’Reilly, whose business sponsored the Web2.0 conference, talking about all the big ideas about the future of the web. Great talk!

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Market Sentiment

About a month ago, I got caught in a BIDU short. BIDU had been paying off for me, including a short I entered as soon as I landed in Albuquerque and covered for +20 points by the time we got to the rental car office. But this time, BIDU gapped up and kept running all morning. Luckily I had the sense to cover instead of trying to gut it out. It became obvious that this wasn’t just a short pop.

Well, since then, BIDU’s run about another 120 points. GOOG also had a huge day later after its earnings — I think it went up like 77 that day? AAPL has run from a base of about 130 to near 180. Some stocks like Research in Motion and First Solar were barely dented by the credit uncertainty.

So what’s going on? Well, I agree with Warren Buffett’s assessment, that the Fed staved off a further crisis by bailing out Bear Stearns. That was enough for the market to find confidence again. As bearish as I was, when I saw the tech stocks change their sentiment (the opposite of the feeling I had in October when I sold everything I had), I suspected that the market had priced in a bottom.

So far the market’s been doing quite well as it recovers from the crisis and begins to realize that a low interest rate environment is pretty damn good for growth. The food and energy inflation concerns have never really hurt the market, in my opinion, although they’ve probably hurt the more traditional and logistics companies more. The thing is, FedEx and UPS and WalMart spend a good deal of their time hedging against energy costs, and they’ve streamlined to cope. If you look at their charts, FDX and UPS have maintained, while WMT has soared lately.

Buffett said that the market will be fine, but that individuals will suffer. That about sums it up. Bush and Congress have done absolutely nothing to help the poor people affected most directly by the subprime crisis. The people in debt are going to be worse off, as inflation directly affects their well-being. The useless neo-liberals (I can only hope that some adversary can put together a cohesive platform to discredit them as being robber barons) will claim that the jobs issue is just healthy capitalism at work — meanwhile people from all sorts of different sectors are getting laid off because of profiteering managers who end up with fat bonuses.

Stocks look pretty healthy. The market indices are still below their 200-day moving averages, so technically one would say we’re still bearish. But I think for now, the worst is over. The big picture looking forward is that the entire world is opening up to globalization and business is becoming even more dynamic, productive, and efficient. The US is already losing its edge, thanks to Bush’s yokel steering, but in general there’s a lot of international growth to be had and I think this will be reflected in stocks. I am a believer in the theory that there will be some risk as this “stimulus check” wears off and the US economy has to fend for itself for a bit.

All that said, I am still cash in my retirement funds… I am waiting for a pullback. I do own Nintendo, although it’s been a little stuck below where I sold it back in October. I would’ve been better buying AAPL or GOOG.

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