Dan on September 6th, 2014

Recently I stumbled upon an artcle discussing the most popular programming languages  based on a ranking at http://www.sitepoint.com/best-programming-language-learn-2014/

Below is the best chart from this article

(Click on image to open in separate window)

It’s interesting to see the fragmentation of programming languages.   Granted a number of these languages listed are niche languages, but I wonder if this portends a more rapid turnover of languages.  My guess is in the 80′s COBOL would of been near the top of the list, and now it doesn’t even appear (which I think is an aberration due to the methodology of this chart.  My guess is COBOL developers don’t use  the internet to ask questions much, and don’t post projects on GitHub).  In the 90′s I would of guessed Visual Basic would of spiked, and its already on the downward slide.

A few other observations:

  1.  SmallTalk, which was the darling object oriented ‘niche language’ of the 90′s, is now overshadowed by others.
  2.  Why is XML included as a language, whereas HTML, XAML and JSON are missing?  Arguably they are all on the edge of a programming language vs a formatting language.
  3. Arduino shows up in the top half of language representing the robotics programmers.  My guess is a big player like Google or Microsoft will have a standardized robotics language  that will win out for robotics and the Internet of Things.
  4. If I had the time and energy, a few of the languages I would be curious to dabble in would be Go, Erlang, and Typescript, as these languages have some interesting approaches to doing things.  I have also heard interesting things about Ruby.   The problem is, the older I get the harder it is to bend my mind around the new ways of thinking some of these languages require.
  5. If I was young and thinking of a programming career (which there are surprisingly few people doing) – I would start dabbling in Python and JavaScript.   These would be good gateway languages to the enterprise languages such as C# and Java.  Short term there is a lot of money to be made writing phone apps in objective C, but personally I think a different language will be the language of choice in the future for mobile devices.

The old adage in programming is you can’t learn everything, so you have to pick your areas of expertise and hope your right.  As  this chart shows, in the 21st century these choices get harder and harder.

 

Dan on August 30th, 2014

Robert Shiller, who has a pretty accurate gauge of stock market valuation (The CAPE model), came out recently reiterating how the market appears overvalued.

In this New York Times article, he details how the market is at its highest level, matching levels not seen since 1929, 2000 and 2007.

The problem is, predicting the stock high is trying to determine how high is up.  Yes the market may be overvalued, but until it turns you never know how close  the top is.  So it could run alot higher.  Notice from the CAPE chart below that we appear to be way below the irrational exuberant highs of 2000:

cape

The current CAPE is around 25 – it was at this level in 1996 and 2005,  so indeed we could have a few more years before valuation reverts to the norm.  But this is like a game of musical chairs, whereas when the music stops and people rush to get out, you wont want to be left standing alone.   And given the Fed is still making asset purchases as part of the economic recover from the last big market correction in 2008, if the fall happens anytime soon, it could be a bad one.

Dan on August 20th, 2014

While poking around the internet trying to make sense of what is going on in Ukraine and why Russia is so interested in it, I now have something that at least makes sense.  An interesting place to start is this South Stream pipeline that Russia is building in partnership with several western European countries (and apparently no US companies).

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Stream

Reading thru this article,  I came across this graphic:

(Click to enlarge)

The terminus where the pipeline leaves Russia is at Beregovaya, but upstream from that the only access is via eastern Ukraine.  If an unfriendly Ukraine shut down that portion of the pipeline, there is no backup route.  So that seems like a decent motive for Russia to maintain a presence in eastern Ukraine.

Of late the pro-Russian separatists have reportedly been losing ground, though the pipeline area still seems to be in the area of pro-Russian control.  The pipeline isnt set to be operational til 2015,  so maybe this battle for control will be going on for awhile.

Dan on August 15th, 2014

A friend asked me the other day my opinion on the Amazon vs Hachette controversy, and I responded that  I hadn’t given it much thought.  However, that spurred me to do a little thinking on the topic, and it let me to a conclusion that I think both sides are wrong.

Apparently the argument between Amazon and Hachette is that Amazon wants to fix the price of e-books at $9.99, and Hachette is resisting.  I think Amazon is wrong in getting involved in any pricing of vendor products –  but its interesting to think about their motivation.  Hachette is clearly worried about e-books being significantly cheaper than print books – because one has to wonder – is there a purpose for a middleman publisher in the e-book space?  What value does Hachette bring to the author for an e-book?  It seems to me Hachette needs to keep print books a significant market share in order to attract authors to use print publishers.  Therefor, they have incentive to sacrifice e-book sales by keeping the price higher to push people to print books.

So is Amazon seeing thru this by saying – OK fine – you can’t sell any books through our channel – making it harder to sell print books and thus making authors less interested in partnering with a publisher.

Even if Amazon loses this and relents, I think the publishers will lose in the long run.  Lets say the de-facto standard for a Hachette e-book is $16.99,  Amazon takes their 30% cut, and Hachette takes their 30%(?)  cut, that leaves the author with $7 a sale.  Wouldn’t an established author just not renew his contract with Hachette, and sell the e-book for $16.99, and pocket $11 a sale.  And then for people that want printed copies of the book the author can use Print on Demand.   (Amazon has already set up a company to do this – https://www.createspace.com/).

So to sum it up – I think this argument is flawed on two sides – Amazon thinking that Hachette raising the price of e-books will slow the growth of e-books, and Hachette thinking demanding a premium for e-books will keep established authors in their camp.

Dan on August 13th, 2014

Every once in a while luck turns out to be better than wisdom in investing.  My most recent example of dumb luck in investing was Canadian Pacific Railway, an stock position  It took back in June 2011.   My decision to buy the stock primarily based on the thesis that oil prices would be ramping up as the Chinese and other emerging markets started demanding more oil.   The assumption was that as energy prices go up, more goods would be shipped by train than by truck.

My thesis turned out to be wrong, there was no oil shock, and the discovery of additional oil fields and fracking let to an increase in domestic oil production.   As luck would have it, the domestic oil production increase was in North Dakota – in Canadian Pacific’s backyard, leading to a large increase in oil by rail for Canadian Pacific.  The other piece of luck was an activist investor group tried to grab control of the company, leading to a big proxy fight and led to a runup in the stock (Interestingly, that also led to the only time I have ever been called at home asking for my vote in a proxy vote for a stock – I don’t even know how they got my phone number).

To be fair to myself, the other reason I bought Canadian Pacific was the yield was over 2% at the time, and the dividend appeared safe, so it was a conservative bet.

Last month I sold out of my position because I didn’t really know why I still owned it, except for the reason was it keeps going up.  The valuation wasn’t great, and the dividend yield is now down under 1%.    So I decided it was time to get out.  I could be wrong, but I can’t depend only on luck when investing in the stock market.

 

Dan on August 6th, 2014

This chart from the St. Louis fed caught my eye showing a shift away from single family housing since 2010

Single Family vs multi family

Back at the dawn of the internet age, I recall speculating with co-workers on whether or not the internet would spur population spread to the suburbs or rural areas, since so much more could be done without a physical presence(i.e working remotely, shopping online).  But looking at this chart, it would seem the population is aggregating in urban (or at least concentrated) areas.  Another thought is perhaps this could be related to the aging baby boomers downsizing, thus flooding the market with single family homes.

I don’t know if four years can be considered a firm trend,  but it does appear the demand for housing is shifting to more people owning condos or renting apartments. If you believe this is a trend that will continue,  how should you invest to take advantage of this trend?  Maybe concentrate on REIT‘s that invest in urban properties, or focus on businesses that service the urban consumer.  At any rate, it is a trend worth keeping an eye on and could impact the economy in unique ways.

Dan on July 29th, 2014

I have been banging the drum about economic stimulus, both domestic and in Japan for awhile now. A great article summing up the current state of affairs in Japan appeared here:

http://www.businessinsider.com/japan-inflation-abenomics-update-2014-7

I downloaded the bloomberg.com PDF which is referenced in the article and skimming it found some interesting tidbits. Here are a couple of the most interesting charts:

wagegrowthjapandebt Unemployment is falling, but real wages are also falling.  Public debt is huge – way off the scale for a developed country.

In the Bloomberg PDF I found this response to what the endgame is for economic stimulus, i.e. how to get out of inflating the economy and wind down the huge public debt (highlighting is mine).

bojendgame

 

Sounds like its going to be a minefield to try to stop quantitative easing without driving up interest rates.  If interest rates rise, then the huge debt accumulated becomes much more expensive, perhaps impossible, for the government to service.  It will require the goverment to walk ‘a very narrow path’ to try to get it done.  Based on the success of the governments managing the tech bubble of the early 2000′s, and the housing bubble of 2007, I am not too confident they can orchestrate a soft landing.

I also ran across a comment from Janet Yellen, the Fed chair, regarding the economic stimulus in the US.  From a fed speech on July 2, 2014 (again , highlighting mine):

In my remarks, I will argue that monetary policy faces significant limitations as a tool to promote financial stability: Its effects on financial vulnerabilities, such as excessive leverage and maturity transformation, are not well understood and are less direct than a regulatory or supervisory approach; in addition, efforts to promote financial stability through adjustments in interest rates would increase the volatility of inflation and employment. As a result, I believe a macroprudential approach to supervision and regulation needs to play the primary role. Such an approach should focus on “through the cycle” standards that increase the resilience of the financial system to adverse shocks and on efforts to ensure that the regulatory umbrella will cover previously uncovered systemically important institutions and activities. These efforts should be complemented by the use of countercyclical macroprudential tools, a few of which I will describe. But experience with such tools remains limited, and we have much to learn to use these measures effectively.

Yikes!  I am not wild about seeing ‘not well understood’ and ‘we have much to learn’ in the same paragraph.  Hopefully the US can learn from Japan as they are farther down the road than the US.  But Japan has no such luck, so they could be in for a rough road ahead.

 

Dan on July 22nd, 2014

Nice to see the ACLU take on the governments ‘Suspicious Activity Reporting’ program.  Check out this article to see these individual stories of harrassment in the name of homeland protection:

https://www.aclu.org/national-security/gill-v-doj-challenge-governments-suspicious-activity-reporting-program

If you are not offended by the assault on civil liberties this program raises, at least be offended by how much money is spent monitoring american citizens for no reason.  Thirteen years after 9/11 and the government is still in overdrive to try to arrest people based on ethnic profiling and illegal electronic surveillance.

The switch from the Bush Administration to the Obama Administration has done nothing to slow the increase in government monitoring of its citizens.  All we can do is continue to publicize these examples to try to get the American public to pay attention to whats going on.

Dan on July 19th, 2014

A friend called me the other day and said he was was trying to get to one of my sites, and he was on  my ‘brochure’ site, www.vfsystems.net.  Much like the cobblers children that have no shoes, the old vfsystems site was a site I had ignored for years and it was very dated and somewhat embarrassing.

So I decided to embark on rebuilding the site.  I decided to use WordPress as the foundation, as it is pretty much a content site and WordPress is my favorite way to manage content.  Also, the number of wordpress plugins available to easily customize the site came in handy.  I found this nice plugin for my contact us page, and a nice rss feed plugin to pull my technology posts into the site as a way to keep the content fresh.  I donated to the developers that built the plugins I used, as I am trying to get better about rewarding the developers of open software (there is an amazing amount of good stuff freely available out there).

The other cool thing about this site is its responsive.   I found a responsive theme I liked created by Pep Themes.   Rather than try to delve into CSS and build a responsive design, it was great to use a pre-built theme done by someone who had an eye for design and CSS.  Responsive is the term for the site formatting the site differently depending on the screen size.

vfsystemssiteOne of the better examples of a response site is bloomberg.com - go to that site and shrink your browser window, and see how the site reformats itself and swaps in different menus.  Now go to www.vfsystems.net and shrink the browser window to simulate how it would appear on an iPad sized device or a phone. Back in the old days of the web (circa mid 2000′s), in addition to building a full website, we often had to create a mini site suitable for viewing on phones.  Responsive designs have solved this problem, using one site for all devices.

So one more thing off my todo list.  In addition to a new site that i don’t feel embarrassed about, I became  familiar with more plugins and got some other great ideas about future enhancements.

 

Dan on July 6th, 2014

I heard a really good discussion on a podcast regarding the recent supreme court decision known as the ‘Hobby Lobby’ decision.  I admit  I didn’t know much of the details since the media has just been focusing on the womens rights impact.  But it actually raises a bunch of interesting issues.

If you are up for some not-so-light reading, you can read the full opinion here:

http://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/13pdf/13-354_olp1.pdf

If you don’t want to read the full opinion – here is my summary (and anybody is free to correct me if I missed something:

The decision was based on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA) which says that non profits can be exempt from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) contraceptive mandate, on religious grounds.  This was put in the act presumably for churches and religious charities.  The supreme court majority decided that if religious exemptions can apply to religious non-profits, it can also apply to closely held companies where the owners have demonstrated strong religious convictions.

The opinion also makes the point entities opting out of the contraceptive mandate has minimal impact on the recipients of health care.  This is because anybody who is covered under the ACA by a company exempt from the contraceptive mandate can get the coverage directly from the insurer at no additional cost.  The burden of religious exemption is a key piece in the RFRA allowance for religious exemptions.

Justice Ginsburg’s dissent (which starts on page 60 of the ruling) brings up some good points.  Ginsburg argues the court did not consider whether the contraception mandate is a  ‘substantial burden’ in their exercise of religion.  Also, for profit corporations have a different mission than non-profits – a for-profit corporation presumably is created to make money.

What I find disappointing about the media coverage of the decision is the focus on reproductive rights, the bigger issue here is spreading religious rights to corporations.  The problem that I see is with the corporatization of church organizations made it possible for the court to rule their is little difference between the two.

So the big question is, can a corporation have a religion?  I would argue no – the owners of corporations do, but corporations are agnostic.  The owners of corporations should create a separate non-profit and funnel their business profits into that organization.  I would even argue sole-proprietorships should not have the right to claim religious affiliations in the running of the business.

This religious corporation issue is the issue America and the media should be debating, but it seems to be just a side note to the birth control issue.  I think the religious corporation is much more dangerous.