How I Nearly Became a Microsoft Millionaire

Money by AMagill, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License  by  AMagill 

In the mid-90s I got interested in the stock market and had a bit of money to invest so I opened an account with Charles Schwab. Schwab had recently introduced a service called Telebroker, which enabled clients to trade stocks by telephone. One morning in 1995, I asked my wife to buy $2,500 worth of Microsoft stock via Telebroker. You know where this is going, right?

Later that morning, I received a panicky call from my wife, who was close to tears. Instead of buying 2,500 dollars, she’d inadvertently purchased 2,500 *shares* of Microsoft. At the time, Microsoft was selling at roughly $50 per share so we’d just bet $125,000 on one highly volatile tech stock. Even worse, we had nowhere near that amount of cash in our account but because this was a so-called “margin account” (which meant Schwab extended us an automatic credit line), we’d just borrowed $125,000 to make a wildly speculative purchase.

Of course, we did what any responsible investor would do – we immediately sold the stock. But because it dropped 1/8 of a point that day, and due to the normal spread between the buy and sell price, plus sales commissions, the mistake ended up costing us nearly $1,000. It was one of those painful life lessons you learn the hard way.

Since then, I’ve often wondered what would have happened if we’d been bold/crazy enough to “let it ride”. Adjusting for splits, in the five years from 1995 to 2000, Microsoft appreciated by roughly a factor of 10. So, if we’d held onto our investment until January 1, 2000, instead of costing us a thousand dollars, it would have earned us $1.25 million. Although, if we’d held onto it until today, that $1.25 million would have lost half its value. As Bobby Sherman once said, “easy come, easy go”.

Why Record Companies Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Internet

Something amazing happened over the past twenty five years: all media has gone digital. There are many implications of this revolution but one of the most impotant ones is an economic effect: the cost of copying digital media is, effectively, zero. In the analog era, when our music was stored as bumpy grooves on a vinyl disk, unless you owned a custom record press in your basement, copying a record was no mean feat. Same story with copying a book: turn page, reposition book, press copy button, repeat a few hundred times – no fun for anyone. Thus, in the analog age copyrights were self-enforcing.

Digitization has changed all that. You can now copy digital books, music and movies with the click of a button on your computer. Copyrights are no longer self-enforcing and media companies are spending large sums of money to protect and perpetuate their business models (Google Disgusted with Music Labels, Music Industry Will Force Licenses on Amazon Cloud Player – Or Else).

But here’s an interesting question: why, in the digital age, do I continue paying for my music? In the past ten years I’ve purchased more MP3 music via the internet than analog music in any previous decade of my life. I could have borrowed those CDs from a friend or from the library and copied them for free. Why do I bother paying at all?

Though I like to think it might have something to do with ethics, there’s a better explanation: a transaction that used to involve getting in my car, driving to a record store, and physically handing someone my hard-earned cash has turned into an impulse purchase. I hear something that interests me, I click on a button and, Presto!, I own it. The very same technology that makes it easy for me to steal music also makes it incredibly easy for me to buy music.

Tim O’Reilly is a media entrepreneur who understands the digital world about as well as anyone. In this excellent short interview with Forbes, he shares his insights on digital rights management. This excerpt is particularly noteworthy:

Jon Bruner: On all your titles you’ve dropped digital-rights management (DRM), which limits file sharing and copying. Aren’t you worried about piracy?

Tim O’Reilly: No. And so what? Let’s say my goal is to sell 10,000 copies of something. And let’s say that if by putting DRM in it I sell 10,000 copies and I make my money, and if by having no DRM 100,000 copies go into circulation and I still sell 10,000 copies. Which of those is the better outcome? I think having 100,000 in circulation and selling 10,000 is way better than having just the 10,000 that are paid for and nobody else benefits.

People who don’t pay you generally wouldn’t have paid you anyway. We’re delighted when people who can’t afford our books don’t pay us for them, if they go out and do something useful with that information.

I think having faith in that basic logic of the market is important. Besides, DRM interferes with the user experience. It makes it much harder to have people adopt your product.

Times have changed. The companies that succeed will be those, like O’Reilly’s, that adapt to the digital world and figure out how to get great products into peoples’ hands quickly, conveniently and at a competitive price. Right now the record companies seem to be spending a lot of their time and energy trying to figure out how to put the genie back into the bottle. Good luck with that.

Saturday Puzzle #22 – Chain Gang

This week’s puzzle is an original trivia quiz with a twist. The answer to each question is the name of a famous person, where the last name of one answer gives the first name of the next answer (give or take a letter or two). The resulting sequence of answers form a chain, like this one: Elton John, John Wayne, Wayne Brady, etc. See how many names you can find and post your answers in a comment below. If you get stuck, googling is allowed. Have a great weekend!

  1. William Hurt’s co-star in 1985 film Kiss of the Spider Woman
  2. A very pretty woman
  3. Perhaps the best to ever play the royal game
  4. Stage and screen actor who played George Minkowski on Lost
  5. American rocker currently standing in judgement
  6. Filmmaker who popularized a character named Madea
  7. Popular TV lawyer created by Earle Stanley Gardner
  8. Composer of a famous guitar piece, fortunately not named Vintage Flatulence
  9. 50s era movie star seen floating in Norma Desmond’s pool
  10. Protagonist of a famously reclusive novelist’s beloved book

Solution: Congrats to Katy Gustafson, Morag Livingston and Olaf Buehler for finding the chain of names. Here are the correct answers…

  1. Raul Julia
  2. Julia Roberts
  3. Robert (Bobby) Fischer
  4. Fisher Stevens
  5. Steven Tyler
  6. Tyler Perry
  7. Perry Mason
  8. Mason Williams
  9. William Holden
  10. Holden Caulfield

Song of the Day #197 – Juliana Richer Daily

Today’s song is dedicated to my friend and fellow music lover, Ayça Bağçeci, who told me about an amazingly talented and largely unknown singer named Juliana Richer Daily. Juliana is a graduate student at Cornell who writes, records and performs music as a hobby. Her videos have collectively garnered millions of views on youtube. The video below is a very different arrangement of a song I featured just a few days ago (Song of the Day #195): Coldplay’s Viva La Vida. You can watch many more of her wonderful videos (including some of her own original music) on Juliana’s youtube channel.

Bonus video: Here’s Juliana doing a lovely solo guitar and vocal arrangement of Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance

Intro to Programming in Python, Summer 2011

This summer I am again teaching my Introduction to Programming and Application Development course at the University of Washington PCE (Professional and Continuing Education). I’ve created a promotional presentation about this course using a neat tool called Prezi (this is the tool used to create those awesome TED talks with the flying slides). Click through the slides below to find out more about this course.

Python Programming for the Absolute Beginner, 3rd Edition, by Michael Dawson (ISBN 1-4354-5500-2)
Schedule: June 21 – August 23, 2011, Tuesday nights, 6-9pm
Location: Downtown, 1325 4th Ave (4th & Union)
Textbook:
More info: course website
Questions? send me mail

Saturday Puzzle #21 – Palindromically Speaking

Have you ever heard of a palindrome? It’s a word, phrase, sentence (or more) that’s spelled exactly the same way backward and forward. Here are a few well known palindromes:

  • race car
  • A man, a plan, a canal, Panama!
  • I prefer pi
  • Dammit, I’m mad!
  • Ma is as selfless as I am
  • Never odd or even

Today we’re going to talk about palindromic dates, which I’ll define for you right now. If we write any date using the format MMDDYYYY, we get a string of eight digits (for example, today’s date would be written “04082011″). A palindromic date is any date for which the eight digit string looks the same whether written backward or forward.

Today’s date is not a palindrome because “04082011″ is not the same as “11028040″. How about this one: January 2, 2010? Is that a palindrome? Let’s see…written forward that would be “01022010″ and written backward it would be “01022010″. Yup, that’s a palindrome. Got it? Ok, now you’re ready for today’s challenge: Tell me the most recent palindromic date before January 2, 2010. Extra credit if you can give me the two most recent palindromic dates before 01/02/2010. You know the drill – leave your answer in a comment below.

By the way, there’s also a concept of a word level palindrome, where if you reverse a sequence of words, you end up with the same sequence of words you started with. Here are a few cute examples (none of which are original):

  • King, are you glad you are king?
  • Says Mom, “What do you do?” – You do what Mom says.
  • You know, I did little for you, for little did I know you.
  • Please me by standing by me please.
  • Blessed are they that believe that they are blessed.
  • Escher, drawing hands, drew hands drawing Escher.

That last one blows my mind. Have a nice weekend. :)

Solution: Let’s work our way backward, in years, from 2010. 2009 doesn’t work because when written backwards it gives us an invalid month (90). Same story for 2008 through 2002 (month numbers 80, 70, …, 20). But 2001 gives us both a valid month (10) and day of month (02). That gives us the first answer: October 2, 2001 (10022001) is the most recent palindromic date before 01/02/2010.

Continuing backwards, 2000 gives us an invalid month (00) so that year is out. All of the 1900s are out because they imply an invalid day of month (91). Ditto the 1800s, 1700, 1600s, 1500s and 1400s. Finally, we come to the 1300s, which implies a valid day of month (31). 1399 through 1391 again give invalid months but 1390 gives us a a valid month (09) and a valid day of month (31). Alas, although September 31, 1390 (09311390) is palindromic, September has only 30 days! Back to the drawing board…1389 through 1381 yield invalid month numbers but 1380 gives us a valid month (08) and a valid day of month (31). Let’s see – that would be August 31, 1380 (08311380). Yup, that’s a palindrome and a valid date. That’s our second answer.

So the most recent palindromic date before January 2, 2010 occurred less than ten years ago. Amazingly, the next most recent palindromic date occurred over 600 years ago. Congrats to Ricardo Agudo, Katy Gustafson, Al Pessot, Lalo Hidalgo and John Holland for correct answers!

Song of the Day #196 – Chris Bathgate

I learned about Michigan folksinger Chris Bathgate from a wonderful Canadian web site called Slowcoustic. I love this site’s self-description:

But if you must know, Slowcoustic is a blog about the unhurried side of Americana/Alt-Country/Folk/Indie/Down-Tempo music. You may have to listen to a bit of rambling alongside this soundtrack, but its worth it, trust me.

If you are here by mistake, maybe you are supposed to be here, stop – read a few posts, listen to a few songs – relax already. It’s about time people were a bit more Slowcoustic.

I couldn’t agree more. Here’s the official promotional video for Chris’ song Serpentine.

And here’s Chris and a friend playing a lovely live acoustic version of Coda.

Song of the Day #195 – The PS22 Chorus

Today’s video is so powerful that it manages to do something no other video in this series has done: it actually brings tears to my eyes. Watch these beautiful sixth graders from PS22 in New York City sing their hearts out to Coldplay’s Viva La Vida and see if it doesn’t make your heart swell. This may be the best advertisement I’ve ever seen for the value of music education.

Song of the Day #194 – J Mascis

I was born in 1960 and, thus, was too young to fully appreciate that magical decade while it was happening. I was a toddler when JFK was assassinated. I was only superficially aware of the historic fight for civil rights and the protests over the war in Vietnam. I had a pretty good excuse for missing Woodstock. Even as a kid though, you could feel the currents of change. I still remember my teacher wheeling a (color!) TV into my classroom so that we could all watch Neil Armstrong step down on the moon.

Today’s song, Not Enough, by J Mascis has a wonderful vibe that takes me back to those days when anything seemed possible. Though I was only dimly aware of the profound cultural impact of the sixties, one thing was clear to me then, even as an eight year old: Richard Nixon was not to be trusted. Some things are obvious, even to a little kid.

P.S. Seattle friends: J Mascis plays the Tractor Tavern on April 29!

Song of the Day #193 – Wye Oak

You know what’s weird? There seems to be very little relationship between a person’s speaking voice and singing voice. A few weeks ago I featured a video by Adele (Song of the Day #164), which I thought really highlighted that contrast. Today’s video, another fine one from NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, gave me the same sort of surprise. It starts with Jenn Wasner of Baltimore based Wye Oak introducing the song Civilian in her normal, not particularly noteworthy speaking voice. Then she starts to sing and her voice immediately takes on a very distinctive and evocative quality. I wish I could do that trick.

This song is so good, it deserves two listens. Check out this retro-looking black and white German video of a solo performance of the same song.

Song of the Day #192 – The Shins

Today’s offering is more than a video – it’s a very entertaining mini-concert film from La Blogotheque’s brilliant Take Away Show series (check out La Blogotheque’s youtube channel for more great videos from this series). This one features one of my favorite bands, The Shins, in a spontaneous musical romp around Paris. The show starts on a busy street corner with an impromptu, traffic-stopping performance of Turn A Square. From there, the band regroups in a quiet courtyard for a lovely performance of The Past And Pending, followed by a raucous performance of Australia out of a sixth floor balcony, to the delight of an appreciative crowd inside and below. If you like the Shins, also check out Songs of the Day #32 and #131.

Saturday Puzzle #20 – Ace Ventura, Card Detective

You and two of your friends (not facebook friends, real world friends, remember those?) are playing a game. The dealer holds three cards, which may contain any number of aces (0, 1, 2 or 3). Each player is dealt a card face down, and asked to hold their card up against their forehead so the value side is facing out.

At this point, no player knows which card he/she holds but all three players can see the other two players’ cards. The dealer asks you to raise your hand if you see one or more Aces (of any suit). You look around and see both of the other players are showing an Ace, so you raise your hand. The other two players also raise their hands. So, almost immediately, all three players have their hands in the air.

Next, the dealer says: “If you know whether your own card is an Ace or not, lower your hand”. A few long minutes go by, as all three players ponder this question. All three hands remain in the air. Here’s the challenge: given everything I’ve told you, can you determine whether you have an Ace or not?

As always, leave your guess in a comment. I now support Facebook comments, so feel free to use that option if you like.

Solution: The way to solve this puzzle is to put yourself in the other guy’s shoes, so to speak. Let’s call the three players A (you), B and C. Player B’s hand is in the air because he sees at least one ace – player C’s card. Now let’s imagine that you hold some card other an ace. Player B will reason as follows:

Player C’s hand is in the air so she sees an ace but it can’t be A’s card because I (player B) can see that player A’s card is not an ace. Therefore, player C must be looking at my ace.

Player C can make a symmetric argument (if A doesn’t have an ace, then B must be looking at my ace). Thus, if you don’t hold an ace, with a moment of thought it will be obvious to both B and C that they hold aces and their hands will go down in short order. The fact that they don’t reach that conclusion suggests that you must be holding an ace.

The solution to this puzzle involves indirect thinking in the sense that it requires you to reach a conclusion based on other people’s inability to reach a conclusion. To be fair, I probably should have stated something like this: the other players in the game are known to be perfectly logical people. Even without that clarification, some smart readers figured out the solution – congrats to Katy, Gareth and Muzaffer!

Song of the Day #191 – Strand of Oaks

Check out this absolutely stellar black and white video of Strand of Oaks performing Bonfire, from the excellent 2010 release Pope Killdragon. It’s a beautiful, melodic and dark acoustic song, which is right up my alley. This is courtesy of hearya.com, who do a phenomenal job with their live music videos and audio recordings.

Thanks to Lauren Bricker for capturing these intriguing lyrics:

My wife sits with me
scorched earth drying sheets
little bit of land. not much heat
the sun’s been down for weeks

keep me warm, keep me clean.
keep me warm, keep me clean.
’cause it’s just you and me
it’s just you and me
it’s just you and me

Bonfires burn,
in the hills they glow with light
and children won’t care
if their mother’s sleep tonight.
we’re all alone here.
we’re all that’s left here.
so let’s stay here, and be calm
we’re all alone here.
we’re all that’s left here.
so let’s stay here and be be calm

And put down the phone
it hasn’t worked for years.
and I’ll get the water
and we’ll plant a garden
we’re all alone here
we’re all that’s left here
so let’s stay here, and be calm
we’re all alone here.
we’re all that’s left here.
so let’s stay here and be be calm

’cause it’s just you and me
it’s just you and me
it’s just you and me

Tweet of the Day #21

Love this sequence of tweets from the always hilarious @killorn, partly because that’s exactly the kind of thing I would do to my sister.

Today I learned you're never too old to have your brother lock you in a display shed in the middle of Costco and run away giggling.
@killorn
killorn
Seriously guys, I'm trapped in this shed.
@killorn
killorn

Open Letter to Amazon Re: New Cloud Music Service

Dear Amazon.com,

I like your cloud music concept so much that I wrote a veritable love letter about it two nights ago. Since then I’ve spent a little quality time with your new service (I uploaded all of my 20GB digital music collection) and I’m still infatuated, but I now have some specific feedback for you.

  • Bulk upload is easy to use, easy to customize and works like a charm. Kudos on that. It’s also very slow (it took nearly a full day to upload my 20GB of music) but I’m guessing that’s by design – by not hogging my processor or network adapter, it quietly chugs along off to the side doing its thing, while I get real work done. That’s fine, I only have to bulk upload once so I can live with it being slow.
  • The web player is clean, intutive and surprisingly responsive for a web app – it seems to be in that category of well designed Ajax apps (like gmail) that feels almost like a desktop app.
  • Device support – not so good. You have to figure out a way to support iThings – this can’t be about Android vs. Apple. Trust me, I’m on your side, I want this service to succeed but I’m not dropping my iPhone or iPad just to access your cloud player. I understand that out of the box you don’t yet support iOS but you need to at least make some sort of statement so we know where you stand.
  • Love that you give a free 5GB for the casual user and, on album purchase, a free upgrade to 20GB for one year for the more serious collector. Even after the promo, a dollar a GB for backed up storage with ubiquitous access seems like a pretty reasonable price to me.
  • Not that you need my help on the marketing end but here’s a suggestion: in addition to the free 5GB, offer three free MP3 albums. Free cloud storage space is sexy only to nerds like me. Free music has much broader mass appeal.
  • When I buy music from your MP3 store, you force me to store it in one of two places: directly on my cloud drive or downloaded to my computer. Guess what? I want the “both” option. I’d like it dropped immediately into my cloud drive and I want a copy for safekeeping on my computer. Why? Because I don’t want my music locked into your service. If someone offers a better service, I’d like to be able to move my music to another cloud (it’s my music, after all). With the current setup, I need to download purchases and then upload them to my cloud drive, which is a hassle.
  • UPDATE: The cloud player supports automatic download (details here, see the “Setting Cloud Player to auto-download new purchases” section). Here’s the setting you want to look for:
    It would be nice if that choice could be made more explicit at MP3 purchase time.

In summary, nice work on a truly groundbreaking service. I’m a fan, but to keep me you’ve got to finish the job. Make it easy for me to play my music on my iPhone and iPad.

Your friend,

Marc

p.s. As far as I’m concerned, you needn’t worry about iPods. I’m betting some enterprising Andoid developer is already working on a wireless portable cloud player. I’m much more willing to ditch my iPod than my iPhone or iPad. BTW, a cloud player based on Whispernet (ubiquitous connectivity with no service contract) would be awesome!

Song of the Day #190 – Kelli Schaefer

I’m a recent convert to the charms of Portland, OR based singer/songwriter Kelli Schaefer and so taken with her that today I’m featuring three of her songs. There’s something about the way Kelli performs that pulls you right to the edge of your seat. All three of today’s songs are on Kelli’s record, Ghost of the Beast, which I highly recommend. The first video is a mesmerizing live performance of Gone In Love at the Columbia City Theater in Seattle. The haunting melody, the delicate backing guitar, the vocals and harmonies, and the dark, shadowy lighting all conspire to make this one of my favorite videos in this series.

Here’s Kelli performing Ghost of the Beast in a lovely outdoor setting on Doe Bay in 2010.

Finally, here’s a powerful performance of Better Idea from an intimate show in Vancouver, WA in 2010.

This Is How It’s Supposed to Be

Today Amazon.com announced something that is, to borrow a famous Steve Jobs-ism, insanely great. For a while now, Amazon has been the industry leader in so-called cloud computing (providing storage and computing resources via the web) with their Amazon Web Services (AWS). I could go on about how innovative and powerful AWS is but that’s a topic for another day. Today I want to talk about the new announcement: Amazon has come up with a creative way to merge their music download store with their cloud computing services.

Why is that a big deal? Think about how you normally work with music. You’ve probably downloaded a bunch of songs from iTunes. First of all, you’d better make sure you back up those songs because you’re only one disk crash away from losing your entire digital music collection. Secondly, you need to worry about moving copies of that file around. Want to play it on your iPhone? You need to synch it. Want to share it with your kid’s MP3 player? You need to do another synch. The point is that you didn’t just download a song, you took custody of a bunch of bits which you are now responsible for managing. I don’t know about you, but I’ve got enough things to manage in my life.

So how does this new service help? When you buy music from Amazon, instead of downloading it to your computer, it gets stored in what is essentially your personal music storage locker in Amazon’s cloud. Guess what? No more worrying about backups – it’s taken care of for you. Want to play that song on a smart phone or tablet? It’s immediately available to be played remotely from any device that supports Amazon’s music player – no more need to synch anything. You buy it – you play it, anywhere, from any device.

It’s important to note that in this initial release, the Amazon Cloud Player is limited to access via the web and a native Android app. Amazon doesn’t yet have a native app for iOS (i.e. a version for Apple products), but this is the very first version – Apple support is bound to be high on the list of early features.

In the past, I’ve written about why I never buy music from iTunes. My normal mode of operation for the past few years has been to buy all my music from Amazon in pure MP3 format but then store the tracks in my iTunes library so that I can synch it with my family’s various iDevices. As soon as Amazon comes out with iPad/iPhone/iPod support (or, in the case of iPod, a suitable replacement), then I’ll just store all my music in the cloud. Hopefully there’ll be a way to upload my existing songs en masse. Then my entire digital music collection will be backed up for me, automatically, and I’ll be able to access it anywhere I like, from any device I like. In the words of Jack Johnson, this is how it’s supposed to be.

Random thoughts about technology, politics and the arts.