Mary Meeker, Entitlements, Wikipedia Drift, and Why It Takes Me Three Hours to Write a Blog Post

Mary Meeker

Mary Meeker, the early Internet visionary who endured derisive criticism when she (correctly) predicted that Ebay’s stock would soar to more than $400*…

No, that doesn’t sound right.  Off to Wikipedia to refresh my memory.

I’m a huge Wikipedia fan, btw, and I have no patience for whining complaints to the effect that “Wikipedia isn’t authoritative because anybody can change it.”  In anticipation of such whining I rarely cite Wikipedia as an authority, but Jimmy Wales’s* brainchild is a global treasure nonetheless. It’s easy to get distracted following one link after another, but Wikipedia is a far better starting point for most research than Google is. It’s no accident that Wikipedia shows up on the front page of most many** simple Google searches.

Where was I?  Oh yes, Meeker — I’m writing a post about her recent epic analysis of America’s financial statements, the blandly titled* “USA Inc.: A Basic Summary of America’s Financial Statements“.  And wow, Wikipedia just saved me from TWO mistakes in a single scene-setting introductory clause.  The stock in question wasn’t eBay*(capitalization corrected), it was Amazon… and it wasn’t Mary Meeker making that prediction, it was Henry Blodget.

(Here’s an example of why Wikipedia should be the starting point, not the ending point, for any serious research.  Although I had the wrong company and the wrong person, I clearly remember the hubbub around Blodget’s 1998* prediction that a prominent Internet stock — already considered vastly overpriced by Internet skeptics — would soon soar to $400.  Blodget’s Wikipedia entry, however,  says* this: “In October 1998, he predicted that Amazon.com’s stock price would hit $40 (which it did a month later, gaining 128%).”

Now, I know the number was 400, not 40, so I figure there must have been stock splits totaling 10-for-1 (not 10-“to”-1) since then.

Hm, I wonder how Blodget’s prediction has held up over the years on a split-adjusted basis?*

Let’s start by fact-checking my 10-for-1 split theory. Whoa… Amazon’s investor relations site* says the stock has split three times in the company’s history: 2-for 1, 3-for-1 and 2-for-1.  Repeated stock splits have a multiplicative effect — hey, I learned a few things in 15 years as a Wall Street corpcomm gumby — and there is no combination of those three stock splits that multiplies to 10.  Turns out the first stock split was before Blodget’s prediction and the other two were afterward.***

So that implies a total of 6-for-1, and the $40 price isn’t split-adjusted, it’s just wrong. I’m a Wikipedian — I should go correct it! Except you’re not supposed to do original research for a Wikipedia article.

And I’m not confident about the 6-for-1 factoid.  Nothing affects a stock’s cost as dramatically as a split, but other events can tweak the cost-basis calculation — buybacks, special dividends, etc.  I don’t know how to do the calculations**, but I know how to find someone who does.  On May 23, 2007*, the New York Times’s respected**** “DealBook” column stated:

Henry Blodget, the former Internet analyst, is taking some pride from a little-noticed milestone … shares of Amazon have risen back above $400.

More precisely, they broke $400 after being adjusted for stock splits: the online retailer’s shares were trading at $71.61 at midday Wednesday. That’s the price target that Mr. Blodget set for the company back in 1998, in what may be the most famous stock call in history.

OK, so assuming** there have been no other cost-basis-affecting events since 2007, we’ll use $71.61 as our new cost basis. (Note that $400 is pretty close to 6 times $71.61!!)  Since touching that level in mid May 2007, the stock rose to near $100 before collapsing (along with everything else) in 2009 to below $40*.  The stock has more than recovered since then, closing at about $189 earlier this month*.

So let’s see… $189/$71.61 equals about 2.6*, so apply that multiplier to Blodget’s original $400 price target, and we see that with a long enough time horizon, Blodget could have justified a price target of more than $1,000.***

(Hm… digging up that factoid took well over an hour, and it’s tangential at best to my topic.)

Onward! Meeker’s early claim to fame was as lead author of a groundbreaking 1995* primer that was blandly titled  “The Internet Report.”

Wikipedia’s fairly brief entry on Meeker yields the following nugget*, which seems pertinent to this post:

Meeker was characterized by Andy Serwer in Fortune magazine in 2006 as “absolutely first rate when it comes to spotting big-picture trends before they come into focus. She gathers massive amounts of data and assembles it into voluminous reports that, while sometimes rambling and overambitious, are stuffed with a million jumping-off points.”

“Massive amounts of data” and “voluminous reports”: Check, and check.  “The Internet Report” was 322 pages*, and the spark of an idea for this blog post was when I noticed that a key chart in her latest masterpiece is part of a slide deck totaling a bizarre 447* slides.

Meeker has applied her background as a securities analyst to examine the federal budget and balance sheets as though the U.S. were a company.  Here’s slide # 49:

Note the red line around the three huge pie pieces to the right.  They represent spending on entitlements — Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, unemployment insurance.  Entitlements collectively are nearly three times the size of defense spending, and entitlement spending is only going to accelerate as Baby Boomers move into retirement.  In fact, Meeker writes* (Slide 14): “Within 15 years (by 2025), entitlements plus net interest expenses will absorb all — yes, all – of USA Inc.’s annual revenue, per CBO.  That would require USA Inc. to borrow funds for defense, education, infrastructure and R&D spending.”

I came across the chart on FaceBook via the blogger TigerHawk — I am FaceBook friends with his not-so-secret identity.  He linked to an article about the analysis by Henry Blodget — hey, maybe that’s how I got confused!

Unlike me, TigerHawk “gets” blogging.  Here is the full text* of his post about the chart:

I propose a new rule: Any federal politician of either party who claims to care about our fiscal condition who is not also proposing steep reductions in entitlements is transportingly disingenuous and ought to be voted out of office.
More here. The link explains why “the U.S. is screwed,” but we are only screwed if we lack the courage to tame this monster. Until this problem is solved, no federal politician should ever again leave a meeting with constituents without having to answer the question “what is your proposal for reducing entitlements?”

Ah yes, brevity.  Maybe next time.

* Indicates a place where I interrupted  the flow of writing to do more research — often just confirming a fact or spell-checking.  After more than 400* substantive blog posts over two and a half years, I’ve realized that I just don’t “get” blogging.  The whole point is to make quick observations, right?  Some famous blogger (Andrew Sullivan?) once said that an average blog post should not try to make more than one point.  Check my headline: Fail!

**Indicates a place where I talked myself out of doing additional fact-checking.

*** Indicates a place where I feel entitled to more asterisks because I actually did quite a bit of research.

**** Meaning, I respect it today because it’s helping me make a point.

I propose a new rule: Any federal politician of either party who claims to care about our fiscal condition who is not also proposing steep reductions in entitlements is transportingly disingenuous and ought to be voted out of office.

More here. The link explains why “the U.S. is screwed,” but we are only screwed if we lack the courage to tame this monster. Until this problem is solved, no federal politician should ever again leave a meeting with constituents without having to answer the question “what is your proposal for reducing entitlements?”

Never Forget

This annual post was first published two years ago.  It is dedicated to the men and women of the United States armed forces, and to every firefighter who has ever run into a burning building — 343 of them in particular.

The name of this blog comes from something that English statesman Edmund Burke apparently did not actually say, so I’ve felt free to modernize the language:

“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Regardless of who said it first, that sentence is the purest possible distillation of my worldview, and today is a powerful annual reminder of why I regard it as an enduring truth.

The events of 9/11 were the legacy of more than two decades of doing nothing, or next to nothing, in response to attacks from fascists in Islamic guise.

Militant Islamists declared war on America in November 1979 by taking hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. This was followed by 1983 attacks on the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut; the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie in 1988; the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996; the simultaneous 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000; along with smaller atrocities too numerous to list.

Only after 9/11 did America, led by a President who despite his substantial flaws was resolute enough to call evil by its name, finally mount a sustained response and take the battle to the enemy. And no, Saddam was not behind the 9/11 attacks — but liberating Iraq and planting a (still-fragile) democracy in the heart of the Islamic Middle East is an essential part of the broader war.

All of this is why, despite profound disagreements with the Republican Party on social issues, despite voting for Bill Clinton three times (including 2000), I can no longer vote for Democrats for President. Not until the party has a standard-bearer who understands the cost of meekness in the face of fascism, and who is prepared to stay on the offensive against people for whom “death to America” is not a metaphor.

Darwinian Selection in the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM

Big cyber-news today in Maplewood, NJ, the place one blogger once called “the center of the blogging universe.” The New York Times abruptly shuttered The Local, its New Jersey experiment in hyperlocal blogging.  I’ve chronicled the Maplewood BlogolopolisTM here, here, here and here.

Instead of just shutting down, the NYT is passing its baton to Baristanet, a venerable (since 2004) hyperlocal news site for other parts of Essex County.  Baristanet has launched new homepages for Maplewood, South Orange and Millburn, the three towns covered by The Local.

Timestamps on their respective articles indicate that Mary Mann at Maplewood Patch broke the story a full 13 minutes before the NYT posted its own announcement on The Local.  Congrats, Mary!  (Of course, I could make my timestamp read whatever I want it to read, but Mary wouldn’t do that.)  The first cryptic comment on Maplewood Online was even earlier.  And the Maplewoodian weighed in a bit later in the afternoon.

After the Web Goddess alerted me to the news via IM, I promptly lurched into action.  Stealing a few minutes away from my day job (forgive me, Mother Lauren), I promptly posted a self-serving comment on The Local’s announcement, thereby creating a small flurry of traffic to my previous coverage.  Then I worked the rest of the afternoon.  Then I came home and watered the lawn and borrowed my neighbor’s spreader to put down some Scotts® Turf Builder® With PLUS 2® Weed Control (no, this is not a paid plug… but Scotts, have your people call my people).

Eventually I connected with Mary Mann, hoping I could get some snarky, back-biting comments, but it was not to be.  “I’m very sorry to see The Local go,” she said.  (At least I think that’s what she said — we had terrible reception, despite trying four connections on different cell and land-line combinations.  I blame the Rooskie spies in Montclair for sabotaging the phones.)

So how about these Barista newcomers?  “Jolie Solomon is wonderful — very talented,” Mary said.  (Solomon is the former Patch contributor who will be anchoring Baristanet’s Maplewood coverage.)  “I’ve always thought there was enough room for everyone” in the Maplewood hyperlocal scene.

Such a nice lady.  (Disclosure: she sometimes publishes my stuff.)

What Distinguishes Valid Self-Promotion from Spam?

Active bloggers get used to seeing comments along the following lines:

I wanted to thank you for this excellent read!! I definitely enjoyed every little bit of it. I have you bookmarked your site to check out the new stuff you post.

Or:

This post is beyond awesome. I am always wondering what to do and what not to do so I will follow some of these tips.

Or:

Well said. I never thought I would agree with this opinion, but I’m starting to view things differently. I have to research more on this as it appears quite interesting. One thing I don’t get though is how everything is related together.

This is known as comment spam, and the examples above are not hypothetical — they are all actual comments intended for this blog, but trapped in a spam queue by the indispensable Akismet plug-in for WordPress. (And no, I have not been and will not be compensated for saying something nice about Akismet, or about any other product or service.)

The formula the spammers use is pretty transparent:  Say something flattering and brief, and vague enough that it could apply to any blog post.  Then format the comment so that the user name links back to whatever Adsense-gaming, drivel-infested website the spammer is flogging, fire up a comment bot, and post the comment to a few thousand or a few million blogs — some of which will not have any protection against comment spam.

I have no objection to Adsense itself — I use Adsense to serve up ads on this blog.  What I object to is the phenomenon of setting up multiple blogs with extremely low signal-to-noise ratios for the sole purpose of generating clicks and page views.

It’s hard to believe the spam-bloggers are making much money.  Under Adsense’s terms and conditions, I’m not supposed to say very much about my relationship with them, but I’m permitted to disclose truthfully how much money I’ve made.  Since I began hosting ads about 10 months ago, my total earnings have been $45.82, or about 15 cents per day.  If and when the total earnings reach $100, they’ll send me a check.  Ca-CHING! (Update: Woo hoo!  Got that check!)

In contrast to the spam comments, here is the text of an unsolicited email I received yesterday, referring to my previous blog post:

Hi Kirk,

I read your commentary on Left v Right echo chambers and I gotta say that win seems solidly in the ‘Right’ column. As you point out in your post the right leaning Fox is destroying CNN. I think you will like this video on the same topic. It analyzes news coverage from different sources to examine why audiences are migrating away from CNN. It also explores various theories about the future of new media and journalism. I hope you will consider embedding the video in your post.

Thanks,


Rosa Sow
Community Manager
[redacted]@newsy.com

Now to some degree, Rosa’s intention is the same as the spam commenters': to drive traffic.  But what a difference in execution.  Her email is specific enough to prove that she actually read my blog post.  It has a flattering tone, without being over the top about it — and without giving away any hint of her own political views.  It forthrightly acknowledges that she has her own agenda — she wants me to embed her video on my site.  And it offers me something in return – a promise of news and information about a topic in which I have a demonstrated interest.

And since she asked so nicely, here’s the video:

I had not heard of Newsy.com until I got her email, but I’m glad to have learned of it.  I watched the video above a couple of times, and then sampled a few other videos on the site.  Their boilerplate self-description is on target:

A news analyzer, not a news aggregator, Newsy.com is the only multi-source video news service producing daily videos that analyze the key differences in how a story is being reported by various news organizations. Newsy.com offers context with convenience — in 2 to 3 minutes, users understand the nuances in coverage.

They’re based in Columbus, Missouri, which explains the frequent appearance of Kansas City Star columnists among their sources.  If I look at enough of their work, I may be able to diagnose a tendency to lean toward the right or the left, but they don’t seem to have any obvious partisan ax to grind.   Whatever their politics, they treat differing points of view with respect, which is exactly what I aspire to on this blog, although I don’t pretend to be neutral.

So Rosa, I hope you don’t mind that I’ve quoted your email message.  I sent you an email asking if it would be OK to publish it, but then I went ahead without waiting for an answer.  I figured that because it was an unsolicited email for commercial purposes to a recipient who does not know you, you had no reasonable expectation of privacy.  I’ll take your name off the post if you wish.

Anyway, thanks for the email, and congratulations on scoring a link.  I hope my vast traffic doesn’t overwhelm your servers, and I promise you that I’ve actually bookmarked your site.

My International Consulting Practice

Man oh man, I loves me some Internets.

Start with the fact that I met the Web Goddess on the web, through an online divorce support group.  Add to that the fact that off and on, the Internet has played a key role in my livelihood for well over a decade.  And the web continually brings new opportunities and information into my life.

Consider the example of my largest Serbian client — a key partner in my international consulting practice.  Actually, technically speaking, she’s my only Serbian client.  And if you insist on being picky, she’s my entire international consulting practice.

A few months ago I got an email from Melisa Antic that started like this:

Dear Mr. Petersen,
I have come across your website in what is seeming to be an impossible
task of finding a web content writer and consultant in one person.
I am starting up a small business in Belgrade, Serbia, a mix of a
relocation and concierge agency services for expats in Belgrade, and would
greatly appreciate professional help when it comes to website content
writing and consultancy.

The website Melisa found was lovingly hand-crafted for me by the Web Goddess when I started my home-based writing and consulting business in 2007.  It was intended to serve as an online resume and brochure, and to help establish an image of stability and professionalism. It has done all those things very well, although my career has recently taken some different turns.

I never made much effort to drive traffic to the site, but I also thought that just by being out there on the web, the site might bring in an occasional new client.  And in fact it did.

One.

From Serbia.

I was skeptical at first.  At least it wasn’t from Nigeria, I thought.  (Can you imagine trying to run a legitimate business from Nigeria?)  I set up a phone call with her (on her dime), and subsequently reviewed some materials she sent me.

Melisa is building a business based on helping English-speaking expats relocate and settle in to living in Belgrade.  She named her company Belgrade Assistance, and she already had a logo and a local web designer. Her potential clients primarily work for large multi-national corporations, so she knew she needed sophisticated marketing materials.  Melisa speaks fluent English, but it’s not her first language, and she wanted the text to be flawless.

As it happens, I’ve worked with expats quite a bit, and at one point I tried very hard to get myself transferred overseas.   I told her I thought I could help her, and asked her for a deposit to begin work.  I provided the bank information she requested — after a quick call to Citibank to make sure the information would enable deposits but not withdrawals.

A few days later the deposit landed in my account, and the last wisps of doubt disappeared.  I was doing business with a client in Serbia.

We’ve had an excellent collaboration, via phone, email and Facebook.  She had a strong sense of the kind of business she wanted to build, but she was receptive to suggestions — not just about text, but about connecting with her market.  I suggested that she “give away” some useful specific information about Belgrade on the website, both to establish her expertise and to set up a situation where any client she connects with will feel that the transaction has already begun.

I knew that adapting to a new culture can be a source of high anxiety for expats, especially those who relocate with a spouse and children.  She knew that she would be competing with global relocation services that used a cookie-cutter approach in every market where they do business.  She loved the slogan I suggested for the business: “Making Belgrade Feel Like Home.”

The site is launched, and it’s visually stunning.  The writing is pretty good, too.  Melisa has an attractive site to back her up as she does the methodical work of connecting with corporate HR departments and local institutions, building a business, and serving her clients.  I have a new city on the list of places I hope to visit someday.  If I ever make it there, I know a terrific local resource for advice on what to see and do.

Did I mention that I love the Internet?

.

“Hide the Decline”: Birth of a Blog Post, and Credit Where Credit is Due

Iain Murray

Iain Murray

Short version: My BFF Iain Murray wrote the best analysis I’ve seen about exactly why last week’s revelation of suspicious global warming documents is so incriminating to the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia in the UK.

Iain (I call him Iain because last year he linked to me — twice!) relentlessly uses the scientists’ own words to incriminate them, with each passage carefully linked to a specific damning document in the treasure trove.

If you think global warming is probably “settled science,” but you’re willing to read one article to give skeptics a chance to change your mind,  read this remarkable indictment, published all the way last Tuesday, while the pixels of the original leak were still quivering.

Long version (back-story): Yesterday, before I posted “Hide the Decline”: Global Warmists Got Some ‘Splainin’ to Do, I spent a great deal of time trying to find the seminal articles that first piqued my interest in the topic that is becoming known as Climategate — incriminating emails and programmers’ notes revealing the apparent falsification of global warming data.

This happens to me a lot, I need to find a better system for doing research.  I see something that interests me slightly, then I move on and forget about it — I don’t think I know enough about the subject to even consider blogging about it.  Then I stumble upon links showing that the blogosphere is ramping up to focus on the topic, and I start to get more interested.  Then I do more research, and start to think maybe I do have something to say on the matter.  This plays out over a period of a few days, while I go on about my complicated life.

By the time I’m interested enough to blog, I can’t find the documents that first got me interested.  Then I find something, but I’m not sure it’s the right post.  This time, however, I found something that clarified the matter for me.

I must have skimmed Iain’s article without noticing his byline, because his name would have jumped out at me.  Near the bottom of his second page is this passage:

So what does this all mean? It does not mean that there is no warming trend or that mankind has not been responsible for at least some of the warming. To claim that as result of these documents is clearly a step too far.

The boldface is the clinching factor.  I used that Briticism in my previous post without knowing why I chose the words.  Iain Murray, unlike your humble scribe, is actually a Brit by birth.

Never Forget

This post was first published a year ago today.  It is dedicated to the men and women of the United States armed forces, and to every firefighter who has ever run into a burning building — 343 of them in particular.

wtc8The name of this blog comes from something that English statesman Edmund Burke apparently did not actually say, so I’ve felt free to modernize the language:

“All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Regardless of who said it first, that sentence is the purest possible distillation of my worldview, and today is a powerful annual reminder of why I regard it as an enduring truth.

The events of 9/11 were the legacy of more than two decades of doing nothing, or next to nothing, in response to attacks from fascists in Islamic guise.

Militant Islamists declared war on America in November 1979 by taking hostages at the U.S. embassy in Tehran. This was followed by 1983 attacks on the U.S. embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut; the Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie in 1988; the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993; the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996; the simultaneous 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania; and the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 2000; along with smaller atrocities too numerous to list.

Only after 9/11 did America, led by a President who despite his substantial flaws was resolute enough to call evil by its name, finally mount a sustained response and take the battle to the enemy. And no, Saddam was not behind the 9/11 attacks — but liberating Iraq and planting a (still-fragile) democracy in the heart of the Islamic Middle East is an essential part of the broader war.

All of this is why, despite profound disagreements with the Republican Party on social issues, despite voting for Bill Clinton three times (including 2000), I can no longer vote for Democrats for President. Not until the party has a standard-bearer who understands the cost of meekness in the face of fascism, and who is prepared to stay on the offensive against people for whom “death to America” is not a metaphor.

Recovering from a Hacker

You can’t currently use certain internal links on my blog successfully, because of a hacker.  Any blog using a non-current version of WordPress software is vulnerable to this hacker.  See http://wordpress.org/support/topic/307660?replies=1 for more info.

There should be a special place in hell reserved for computer hackers…

Update: This now appears to be fixed — a mere 8 hours later!  (I did take a couple of fairly long breaks.)

How “Blue” is New Jersey — and for How Long?

I market my blog as the musings of “a red-state voter in a deep blue state.”  It’s a catchy line, and it lends itself to a jazzy 125×125 logo — created by the Web Goddess, naturally. But sometimes I’ve wondered if New Jersey really is as “deep blue” as, say, Massachusetts or Vermont.  (I’m sure as heck in a deep blue town.)

KP-EntreCard 129Then today I saw this from fellow New Jersey blogger TigerHawk:  “Forty-nine states have elected a Republican to state-wide office since New Jersey last did.”  So by that metric, at least, it’s the bluest state in the nation.

The irony of my self-identification is that in the current governor’s race, I’m almost certainly going to vote for the Democrat — who probably is going to lose.  Which would make me a red-state voter turning blue in a blue state turning red.

I went looking for more info on New Jersey’s red/blue divide and found this from PolitickerNJ:

The last time a Republican statewide candidate won New Jersey was in 1997 [Christie Whitman’s re-election].  Since then, 49 other states have elected a Republican to a statewide office. But also consider this: the last time New Jersey re-elected a Democratic governor was 32 years ago [Brendan Byrne’s re-election].

One of those two streaks will end this year. As of this week, Republican Chris Christie leads Democrat Jon Corzine by a wide margin, 53-41 percent.

My slogan and party affiliation incline me toward Christie, and I’m impressed by his law enforcement record as the state’s U.S. Attorney.  Earlier this year, a friend who follows my blog suggested I get involved in the Christie campaign, and I looked into that. The deal-breaker was his strong stands against abortion rights and against marriage equality for same-sex couples.  (I was on the other side of those issues from McCain as well, but in a presidential election, national security trumps all else in my mind.)

On marriage equality especially, the choice in New Jersey is stark.  Corzine supports “full marriage equality and is committed to signing marriage equality legislation in 2009.”  Christie says on his website:

If a bill legalizing same sex marriage came to my desk as Governor, I would veto it. If the law were changed by judicial fiat, I would be in favor of a constitutional amendment on the ballot so that voters, not judges, would decide this important social question.

Sorry, no sale.  Maplewood, my home for 10 years, has a high concentration of gay residents.  My gay friends, neighbors and fellow parishioners deserve the same marriage rights that the Web Goddess and I enjoy.

Christie hammers Corzine for raising taxes, and says he’ll cut them.  Fair enough… but I don’t see Corzine as a spendthrift.  From Corzine’s website:

Governor Corzine reshaped and resized state government. He eliminated and consolidated departments, sold state cars, tore up gas cards and closed office buildings. He reduced the state workforce by 7,000 employees and achieved additional savings by increasing the retirement age from 55 to 62, capping pensions, and asking state workers to contribute for the first time toward the cost of their health care. This year, he even negotiated a 7.5 percent wage cut for public employees.

Because Jon Corzine made the right choices, he is the only New Jersey governor in over six decades to reduce the size of state government. The budget that he signed into law on June 29th is $1.8 billion smaller than the first budget he signed in 2006.

Sounds good to me.  Besides, I kinda like the guy.  Maybe it’s the beard.