November 28, 2012

Case-Shiller Home Price Rise for 6th Month

Barry Ritholtz has the data. Artificially low mortgage rates have much to do with this, but a bottom is still a bottom. The housing market has finally stabilized.

Given that housing is the single most expensive consumer purchase, and that consumers make up about 70% of the US economy, I believe this is a rough indicator of where consumer sentiment is headed.

Final numbers on the post-Thanksgiving weekend's purchasing aren't out quite yet, but my expectation is a solid increase over last year. There's pent-up consumer demand in our economy just waiting for a trigger. Positive sentiment, indicated by holiday shopping and buoyed by a stabilized housing market might be that trigger.

November 27, 2012

Dreaming of Apple Television

The Verge has a collection of mocked-up Apple Television product images, created by one of their readers. I want one of those!

November 26, 2012

A Bond Devoid of Style, Charm and Wit

We took in the latest James Bond film, Skyfall, today, with great expectation. It starred Daniel Craig, my favorite of the franchise players (yep, he edges Sean Connery for me). It was set in London, Shanghai and Macau, and co-starred Javier Bardem as the villain. What could go wrong?

On the plus side, there was Craig, and he was terrific as usual. But at least the first third of the film was about Bond losing his touch. He was out of circulation for just six months of movie time, but he couldn’t shoot or do pull-ups, and he was gray at the beard.

We know Craig has two more Bond films ahead of him. Will the final installment feature him with a cane?

Javier Bardem’s Silva was a quiet, seething, yet meticulous maniac, and I like that in a villain. Somehow, though, his character was never as engaging as Mads Mikkelson’s Le Chiffre from Casino Royale. I got the feeling that Bardem’s Silva could easily have been his equal, but his part never reached that level.

There were exotic locations in the film replete with gleaming towers and bright city lights, but most of the footage shot in Macau and Shanghai must have been left on the cutting room floor. That’s a shame, because what we did see was visually stunning. The bar scene with the concubine was quite well-done, and Bérénice Marlohe was arresting as a tightly-wound, terrified kept woman. It’s another shame that we didn’t get to see more of her before she was dead.

The sole reference to “Bond style” was his remarked admiration as a female bartender mixed a “perfect” martini for him. Really. The here-to-fore slightly bemused British agent was seen only fleetingly this time, during a scene with Eve in the otherwise grim underground headquarters of an MI6 under siege.

That word, grim, best describes the overall tone of the film from the time Bond plunges from the train until he is seen standing atop MI6's headquarters building in triumph.

On the flip side, we got a world-changing reveal in the final scene, in fact, the final scenes were among the best of the 2-hour, 23-minute film. The revealed plot point was left satisfyingly enigmatic, letting you wonder if, in fact, you saw what you just saw. You’re left to connect the dots later. It’s such a chestnut that you probably haven’t read the details anywhere. Don't go looking for it … it's a gem best uncovered within the film context.

I left the movie house mildly confused. I had entered wanting to like this film as much as I had Casino Royale, or even Quantum of Solace. That didn’t happen for me. If every bit of matter has an opposite, this film was essentially an anti-Casino Royale. This Bond, this M, this MI6 and, indeed, this England were lions in winter, and I have no use for that. Bond always rose above the debris of an empire in ruin. He does again this time, but barely.

I’m sure I’ll see Skyfall again, and again. Maybe it’ll grow on me. In contrast, I left this summer’s Dark Knight Rises wanting to see it again, and right away.

I went looking for movie reviews after we got home. I wanted to know if anyone else felt as I did; I wondered what was wrong with me. Rotten Tomatoes had given Skyfall a 92% rating. All the opening week reviews I had read were glowing. Then I found the SFGate film review. It captured what I felt about this film:

“Part of the romance of James Bond, what has kept it thriving for 50 years, is that the Bond life has seemed enviable: sex and danger and thrills and beautiful women and exotic locations and great clothes … but not this time. ‘Skyfall’ is a different kind of Bond movie, one that works just fine on its own terms, but a steady diet of this might kill the franchise. One ‘Skyfall’ is enough.”

Well-put. The rest of the review is worth a read if you were left wondering about Skyfall.

Take my opinion with a grain of salt, though. I’m the same guy who really didn’t like this summer’s The Avengers at all. Most who saw it, though, loved it. My trouble is that I'm always looking for the home run, the film that will blow off my socks. I got very lucky with Chris Nolan's Batman trilogy. Alas, Skyfall was not among their kind.

And yes, there were the inevitable (for me) reasons to never return to a theater. The older, somewhat hard-of-hearing couple who, of all the seats in the theater left after we other three movie-goers were seated, had to sit in our row and LOUDLY discuss each trailer as it was showing. And the couple who brought AN INFANT to the theater with fifteen minutes left in the film. I mean, WTF?

Skyfall: three stars out of five.

November 24, 2012

Black Friday Online Sales Up 23 Percent

Leena Rao, writing for TechCrunch:

“As of 11 am PST, PayPal is already seeing almost a 3-fold increase (190%) in global mobile payment volume on Black Friday 2012 compared to the same time period on Black Friday 2011.“

Lots of detail in this article. These numbers are very early, but are trending in the right direction. Note these are online sales, and the numbers likely include a shift from brick-and-mortar purchases as well as outright year-over-year gains.

I had a sneaking suspicion we’d see outsized increases in Black Friday sales this year after our own annual shop-hop a couple of weeks ago showed a 100%-gain over last year. There’s a LOT of pent-up demand in consumerland.

My take: when people decry the poor state of the US economy, don’t believe it. Economies don’t stay down forever, and ours has been in recovery for 13 quarters. It’s about time we see positive effect.

Netflix Is Bluffing And It Will Be Their Downfall

Armando Kirwin, writing for TechCrunch:

“I mean, come on! How could Netflix ever compete with the largest ecommerce company, the largest retailer, the largest advertising company (yeah I went there; sorry Google, just being honest), and the largest movie studios in Hollywood, all at the same time?”

Kirwin comes to an unsurprising conclusion. Read through to the last paragraph for his idea of what comes next, and no cheating!  It’s a short read, and worth it for the reasoned conclusion.

November 23, 2012

The Origin of "Black Friday"

Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones, pens a piece on the origins of the term "black Friday:"

“According to the retail industry, ‘Black Friday’ is the day when retail profits for the year go from red to black. Are you skeptical that this is really the origin of the term? You should be. “

I didn't have reason to question the common explanation until Kelly and I got into a business of our own. Suffice to say that if it took until late November to turn an annual profit, running a business would hardly be worth the struggle.

In fact, most businesses are in the black most quarters. What matters to a business's health is less bottom-line profit, which is fairly easy to attain, and more positive cash flow, which is more difficult after re-stocking, credits and owner's draws are factored in.

Worth a read.

November 20, 2012

Krugman: The New Republicans

Paul Krugman tells us how he really feels:

”today’s Republican party is an alliance between the plutocrats and the preachers, plus some opportunists along for the ride — full stop.”

The heyday for old-school Republicans died when Ronald Reagan took the presidential oath of office. His "three-legged stool" brought social conservatives (largely Christian fundamentalists) into the big tent, and thus began the era of Federal intervention into our bedrooms.

Kruggo doesn't believe there's any true soul-searching going on within the party. I'd say there's a re-strategizing going on, one that recognizes that the old formulas no longer hold true. No political party willingly goes extinct.

The GOP's next chapter: Bobby Jindal, Friend of Immigrants, Women and Gays Everywhere™.

A GOP that remains aligned with the preachers and plutocrats (read: the Koch brothers, et al) will fail to greater degrees as the coming years progress. I'm counting on wiser heads prevailing, and not letting that happen. US politics best serve Americans when all parties are rational, fact-backed and well-grounded in issues that resonate with more than the fringe.

Who knows, maybe David Frum has a future with tomorrow's Republican party. I don't agree with all of his politics, but he's a smart guy and an honest broker, and that goes a long way with me.

November 13, 2012

Gruber: Best Dell Ad Ever

John Gruber, writing for Daring Fireball:

“The device in question doesn’t actually look much at all like a MacBook Air or an iPad. It looks like a broken chair.”

Dell is out with a new device, a laptop that converts into a tablet.

I’ve seen images of it since it was teased a while back (maybe last CES?), and the word that first came to mind was “rickety.”

The display frame is a disaster waiting to happen. Or a service call. Given that every Dell laptop I’ve ever used needed at least one set of hinges replaced, that’s par for the course.

Click through for a photo.

November 12, 2012

November 11, 2012

On Veterans Day

Dfr

A simple thank-you to every man and woman who served, struggled or laid down their life for our freedom and the enjoyment of these United States.

We are ignorant occasionally and fools often, but we can pause and agree on the debt we owe to our veterans, including this guy. Thanks, Dad.

And So It Begins

Sahil Kapur, writing for TPM:

“‘Senator Graham and I have talked, and we are resuming the talks that were broken off two years ago,’ Schumer said on NBC’s ‘Meet The Press.’ ‘We had put together a comprehensive detailed blueprint on immigration reform. It had the real potential for bipartisan support.’

‘Graham and I are talking to our colleagues about this right now,’ he said, ‘and I think we have a darn good chance using this blueprint to get something done this year.’”

President George W. Bush put forward legislation for immigration reform and was rebuffed by his own party. Here we are, eight years later, and bipartisanship finally joins the cause.

See what you can do after you have your ass handed to you?

November 9, 2012

Divining the Future

David R. Kotok of Cumberland Advisors has an enlightening piece on investing for the rest of this decade. It’s a plainly written discussion backed by knowledgeable research and, importantly, explanation of known fact. Wondering how the Federal Reserve will handle interest rate policy through President Obama’s second term? Kotok has the goods.

I may be guilty of confirmation bias in this, but Kotok’s ideas echo my own and his optimism is mine. The sparks to ignite our next secular bull market and a thriving economy are already lit. (Most obviously: the crash of natural gas prices after the successful introduction of new extraction techniques. The US is a leader in newly-proven natgas reserves. If cheap energy and cheap money don’t spark economic recovery, nothing will.)

At the same time, markets are throwing a fit over the fiscal cliff and Euro debt. I don’t believe the rhetoric about imminent demise, however. I never have. The US has survived far - worse - times, recovered and prospered. It shall again.

(via The Big Picture.)

November 8, 2012

Frum: Four Things Republicans Can Do To Better Obamacare

David Frum proposed four ideas for reforming the now all-but-permanent Affordabe Care Act, aka Obamacare. Two out of four ain't bad. Click through for his full reasoning.

We need to start thinking now about how to get rid of these new taxes on work, saving and investment -- if necessary by finding other sources of revenue, including carbon taxes.

Carbon taxes have a salutary effect: providing incentive to reduce the use of fossil fuels and the emissions they produce. Cap carbon emissions, allow for trading of carbon allowances and tax those who exceed the limit, passing the revenue on to reformed medical entitlement programs such as Medicare and block grants to state Medicaid. Periodically reduce carbon limits, just as we periodically increase auto fuel efficiency requirements. Repeat. Create a market and police it.

We should quit defending employment-based health care.

Benefits like health care policies are good bargaining chips for luring new employees, but our aging system of tying health insurance to employment should be jettisoned. Obamacare is the first step.

We should call for reducing regulation of the policies sold inside the health care exchanges. The Democrats' plans require every policy sold within the exchanges to meet certain strict conditions.

Hmm. One of those conditions is preventing insurers from rejecting claims on pre-existing conditions, and another is letting dependent children remain on their parent's policy until age 26. These are good requirements. There's always room for argument, but this idea is likely a non-starter for a few years. Obamacare is, after all, nothing but regulation, as there is no government single-payer option. (That's the reason Obamacare isn't socialism, but Medicare kinda-sorta is.)

The Democratic plan requires businesses with payrolls more than $500,000 to buy health insurance for their workers or face fines of $2,000 per worker.

The teeth in the law. It's on the shoulders of those who don't approve of it to come up with another solution, an incentive program, maybe, to make the law enforceable. I'm sure some market-oriented legislator will come up with something. Until then the teeth must stay.

November 7, 2012

Barack Obama And The Death Of Normal

David Simon, creator of Homicide: Life on the Street, The Wire and Treme, wrote a short essay in the wake of last night's election results. It's an interesting, thoughtful piece on the meaning of those results. It explains a lot of the right-of-center angst, their anger, frustration and pain, and rings true to my ear.

It's not about taxes, debt, Obamacare or any of the other issues that were kicked around this past year. The anger and frustration have been with us for a while, and have at their core a recognition that the America they so treasure and wish to conserve no longer exists.

Mitt and the GOP lost more than a handful of races, they lost mindshare. They ran a race for Reagan's America, a place we haven't lived in for a quarter century now.

The essay is worth a read.

(Via DF.)

(I hear that David Frum, a reliable mainstream conservative, will be out with a new, short ebook this Friday titled Why Romney Lost. He's been writing it for about six weeks. It can be pre-ordered on Amazon. Clues to a viable future for the Republican party can probably be found within.)

(BTW, Frum has articles appearing here and there nearly nonstop, and links to them from his Twitter stream. Tonight he had a link to a short piece covering four useful ideas for conservative reforms to Obamacare. He's a smart, moderate thinker with good ideas. Go follow him now.)

November 5, 2012

Achieving Fusion: Ars Tears Open Apple’s Fusion Drive

Ars Technica has the most in-depth dig into Apple's Fusion Drive technology to date. Part SSD, part HDD, the Fusion Drive is the answer for speed plus capacity.

I'm patiently waiting for Apple to drop an updated Disk Utility onto OS X Mountain Lion, giving everyone the opportunity to fashion a Fusion Drive of their own.

Apple Paying Less Than 2% Tax on Overseas Profits

Chris Oldroyd, writing for iMore:

“Apple is paying less than 2% tax on its profits from overseas sales which are thought to be in the region of 37 billion dollars. The details were revealed in Apple’s 10K filing which was presented to the US Securities and Exchange Commission. The news comes for UK newspaper The Guardian

… and those profits cannot be re-patriated to the US without incurring our 35% corporate tax rate. Translation: income that cannot be re-invested in new product development or employment.

Apple isn't alone in this. The US corporate tax rate is the highest among developed nations. Any company with multi-national sales faces the same choice: book the income here and pay through the nose or keep the money overseas and pay less. What would you do?

Both presidential candidates propose cutting the corporate tax rate to 25%-28%, depending upon industry. Let's see if either of those plans make it into next year's tax and budget agreement.

November 4, 2012

Teardown Shows Apple iPad Mini Costs at Least $188 to Build

Arik Hesseldahl, writing for AllThingsD:

“Previously known as iSuppli, and widely known for its so-called ‘teardown’ analysis reports, IHS has just completed its teardown report on the Apple’s newest iteration of the tablet. The verdict: The base model, a Wi-Fi-only 16 gigabyte iPad mini, which sells for a starting retail price of $329, costs about $188 to build.”

That's about a 43% profit margin, about par for Apple computing products.

The company was criticized for pricing the new iPad mini at over $100 above competing 7-inch tablets, which misses the point. Apple doesn't compete in the usual race-to-the-bottom. They sell to people willing to pay for a finer product. It appears to be working.

USS Enterprise Completes Final Cruise

End of an era for the second-oldest US Navy ship.

iPhone 5 Misses North American Time Change

If your iPhone 5 was showing the wrong time when you awoke this morning, you’re not alone. We here in the eastern time zone found our phones indicating daylight savings time despite the overnight change.

A quick Twitter search shows others having the same trouble.

Upon closer examination it appears my time zone setting, set for “automatic,” picked up the wrong zone from Verizon. I suspect AT&T iPhone 5 owners experienced the same problem.

Examining the rest of my mobile Apple inventory, my wife’s iPad 2 with iOS 6 and Verizon service had the right time. My original iPad, with iOS 5 and AT&T service, had the right time. An iPhone 3GS with iOS 6 and  AT&T service had the right time. So I’m calling this an iPhone 5 problem.

Here’s how to get your phone back on track if this happened to you. Tap the Settings app, then select General, then Date & Time. Note the time zone setting, which is likely wrong despite the default automatic setting. Turn “Set Automatically” off. Then turn it back on. You should see a different time zone setting now, and your clock should be correct.

November 1, 2012

Frum: Why I'll Vote for Romney

David Frum has written a cogent, thought-provoking essay on why he’ll vote for Mitt Romney in the upcoming election. He’s essentially hoping to elect Massachusetts Mitt, not the Tea Party toady we’ve heard from over the past year.

Yet here, in Frum’s own words, is the reason I and many like me could never share his support for Romney, no matter how thoughtful, intelligent and consensus-building was his past governance:

“Would Mitt Romney be an improvement over President Obama? I’d like to believe the David Brooks theory of the Romney presidency: that Romney will pivot away from Tea Party Republicanism as soon as he is elected. I don’t see much evidence in support of that theory, alas. George Romney, I’m told, liked to say, ‘As you campaign, so shall you govern.’ Mitt Romney’s campaign has been one long appeasement of the most selfish and stupid elements of the Republican coalition, and the instinct for appeasement will not terminate with the counting of the votes next Tuesday.”

I’d like to find a national candidate like David Frum, or one not afraid to run with his politics. His conservatism suits some of my sensibilities, though not all. Sadly, there is no such candidate today. Mitt Romney could be that candidate, but he’s apparently waiting for someone to give him permission. And the only voices he hears from his party were paid for by the Koch brothers.

The GOP will have to suffer repeated, near-catastrophic defeats every couple of years for the next cycle or two before their supporters throw off the “selfish and stupid elements” in their party. Just as the Democrats finally wised up to Americans’ distaste for never-ending welfare and abridgment of gun owner’s rights, the GOP needs a better political plan that obstruction, obfuscation and FUD.

And if this is just a choice between the lesser of two evils (it’s not), I’ll take the one neither selfish nor stupid.