Money Can’t Buy

Once a week, I visit the question-and-answer site Quora, usually prompted by an e-mail newsletter it sends me. And one of the featured questions in my inbox was “What are some things that money can’t buy?

Some pretty obvious answers there: time, true love, a clean conscience, &c. And then there’s this popular answer—which is either bracingly honest or a joke:

Read Quote of Anon User’s answer to Being Wealthy: What are some things that money can’t buy? on Quora

I love this answer. I’m inclined to think that our anonymous interlocutor is revealing a key truth about how the other half (closer to one percent, probably) lives in San Francisco. I’ve never had money enough to live high on a hill in the city, and hadn’t heard of this vexing problem. A quick search turns up one brief about the difficulties of life on the less posh, but still very desirable, Potrero Hill, as noted by the Potrero View in 2010:

For years Potrero Hill residents have complained about low water pressure; apparently they have reason to do so. According to Thomas Friel, who offers plumbing service from his Connecticut Street office, it takes one pound of pressure to raise water two feet uphill, and pressure gets used up as water is pumped higher. Friel said low water pressure is common on the top of the hill, and offered some solutions, including removing devices that restrict water flow, and conserve water, from faucets and shower heads. “You’re not wasting water by removing it,” said Friel, “you actually need more water flow [in] your shower head and faucets to enjoy the same amount of water that your neighbors in the high pressure areas enjoy.” If that doesn’t work, another option is to install a booster pump and pressure tank in the cold water supply to provide extra pressure. Though a more expensive fix, “that will give you a lot better shower,” said Friel.

money, technology

Whither Flickr?

Several months ago:

A friend then remarked that Flickr’s URLs were annoying (yes), and I added:

Well, Mat Honan at Gizmodo has made me feel a bit better about myself. Turns out, it’s probably not my fault. But I also now feel quite bad for Flickr and all of us who’ve been using it for so many years. As Mat portrays it, the post-acquisition Flickr history is a sad story of personality conflicts and crushing bureaucracy, one that turned a place on the internet that I loved going to into a ghost town—or a Potemkin village in which the activity of your Flickr friends, if they are active at all, are auto-postings done via Instagram or IFTTT. Who’s fault? It’s Yahoo! what done it.

Or not done it, as the story emphasizes—when opportunities to turn Flickr into something better, maybe bigger, came up, Yahoo just kind of stepped on the thing, placed its brand, it’s identity, it’s heavy bureaucratic Yahoo stamp on it.

Indeed, it was the first social network that I really engaged in. Yes, I did sign up for Friendster and added like eight pictures, and I might have a MySpace page that I never did anything with, so I’m actually not sure if I do have one. But Flickr was the one I invested in—and still invest in, paying for the Pro account so as not to lose the accumulated uploads and the comments and favorites and stats that have stuck to them like so many barnacles. Fortunately, there is the tiniest glimmer of hope at the end of the story that maybe Flickr will still be…something. I hope so, anyway.

Is the Flickr case a cautionary tale about what could happen to your startup when somebody bigger swallows it up, which seems to be the preferred exit for many tech entrepreneurs these days? Or just a cautionary tale about how screwed up things at Yahoo can be, even outside the boardroom? (The answers are “yes”, and “sure, why not,” respectively.) Either way, Mat’s story is worth a look:
How Yahoo Killed Flickr and Lost the Internet

history, money, technology

Tesla and Morgan

From the Echoes of History Dept:

Around the turn of the last century, Nikola Tesla went to JP Morgan, hat in hand. He needed money to fund this idea he had for wireless technology. Depending on the source you consult, he wanted to communicate wirelessly, or he wanted to actually transmit energy wirelessly. Morgan and some other investors gave him some cash. It was about $150,000 and wasn’t nearly enough. Tesla built a huge tower on Long Island that never really worked. Meanwhile, Marconi broadcast the first trans-Atlantic radio signal. After a few years, JP Morgan wouldn’t give Tesla any more money and the project fell apart. Tesla is supposed to have had a breakdown. Years later Tesla turned over the property to the owner of the Waldorf Astoria, where he had been living. The tower was destroyed and sold for scrap in 1917.

In 2011, an analyst at Morgan Stanley rated Tesla Motors stock as “overweight”, boosting its price about 20 percent. Later that year, Morgan Stanley changed its mind, and the analyst declared that these electric cars were “not ready for prime time.” Tesla stock plunged, erasing the year’s gains. (But, to be fair, only briefly; the stock has rebounded nicely.)

It’s almost purely coincidence, though I supposes there are only so many history-making robber baron bankers whose name can be on the letterhead, and so many crazy pioneers of electricity to inspire the name of your electric car company.

And the lesson, if one can be squeezed from this whisp of nominal historical parallelism, may be that just as Morgan giveth, Morgan taketh away.


Below: A 1917 issue of The Electrical Experimenter. On Page 7 is an article on the destruction of the tower, stating that the tower was removed due to worries that German spies were using the structure.



longshot contributor badgeA couple weeks back, I compiled a little infographic for Longshot Magazine. And they took it! Thus the badge embedded here.

I put together a chart of examples through history of the price tag we’ve put on human life. The chart isn’t online, but you can see it if you buy the magazine, formatted with that digital-looking font you see on receipts. The published version is shortened and formatted for the magazine, but if you’re curious about the rough version I turned in, you can see it below.

Not wanting to leave well enough alone, I also got in touch with David Friedman. Friedman is a professor at Santa Clara University’s law school and a self-described “anarchist-anachronist-economist.” He teaches this class that looks incredibly interesting called Legal Systems Very Different From Ours. A section of it is on ancient Iceland, and his 1978 paper on Iceland’s legal and political institutions during the saga era was the source for one of the weregild figures in the chart.

We’re constantly making decisions that value life, whether we realize it or not. That’s an inherent aspect of the risks we take on a daily basis, whether it’s jaywalking (value of time saved vs risk of getting hit by a bus) or digging into that second slice of pie. What’s more, we’re constantly applying values to the lives of others, such as in the cost-benefit analyses of safety and regulations.

“People are often uncomfortable with the idea of giving life a finite value,” says Friedman, “But if they really believed the value of their own live was infinite they would weigh less, drive more carefully, adjust their behavior in lots of ways that give up other values in order to reduce the risk of dying.”

And he argues that price isn’t, by definition, infinite: “If you imagine someone trying to buy all of your life now–your heart for transplant, say–it seems unlikely that you would sell. But the reason is not that your life is infinitely valuable but that the money you would be paid with is worthless to a corpse, which is what you will be after selling your life.”

You really can’t take it with you.

Not that others can’t use it after you’re gone. Friedman added an interesting point about how we calculate awards in death lawsuits: when somebody’s survivors are awarded money after a death, the figure fails to include the value of the life to the person who died.

How much would somebody have to pay you for your own life? It may not be infinite, but it would certainly be substantial, right?

“Modern law gets it strikingly wrong by ignoring the largest part of the value of most lives–their value to the person whose life it is,” he says. “Under traditional common law, that value could not be sued for because the claim died with the claimant. Modern survivor statutes allow other people, such as the victim’s family, to sue for the cost to them of his death, but still leave out the cost to him of his death. Well, that’s the figure that’s left out, the value that’s lost, in a settlement.”

journalism, money, San Francisco

A Note on the Bloomberg San Francisco Office

On Monday morning, I got to see a glimmer of Bloomberg’s San Francisco office. The office, on the second floor of a converted pier on the Embarcadero, was highlighted in August 2007 as the largest leasing deal to come along in San Francisco since the dot-com boom eight years earlier.

At the time, the media company rented 30,000 square feet at $100 per square foot (triple-net), while most office real estate at the time was about $50 per square foot. The deal nearly doubled Bloomberg’s footprint in the city as reporters and salespeople moved into a sleek waterfront place. Again, the Times:

The offices have floor-to-ceiling glass walls, natural lighting, operable windows, historic trusses and views of the bay, Treasure Island and the Bay Bridge. The development’s bayside history walk wraps around the building and boats will be able to pull up to the dock.

And, true, it’s all there–ferries docked below the desks, stunning bay views, and the lavatory is positively space-aged. One analyst suggested they got a great deal, saying:

“I feel anyone who has not locked up their space for the next couple of years should do so because rents are going higher,” she said. “In recent years, there has been a move to get away from fancy offices, particularly among the law firms. We seem to have passed that.”

What a long, strange trip it’s been. Eighteen months later, San Francisco, while not lacking for lawyers, might have fewer than expected after the collapse of Heller Ehrman and Thelen; and a casual glance at rental rates shows even for Class A office space as low as $25, suggesting that now might be the time to lock up space for the next couple of years.


I wish I had a photo of the Bloomberg office to show you. Scores of twinned screen Bloomberg terminals in long rows, all facing Treasure Island; a glass-walled conference room, full of more twin-screened terminals facing a pair of large screens embedded into the wall; a full, free cafe with coffee, juice, and cappuccino machines, fresh fruit, and rotating silver snack stands full of Kettle Chips and Swedish fish. This is the life, no? Still, during the hours I was there, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in a supervillain’s lair, the control room from which a plot for global domination is hatched and executed. All that was missing was the classic Mercator projection map of the planet, outsized letters spelling SPECTRE, and, of course, Ernst Stavro Blofeld in one of his various guises, along with his fluffy cat.


Note on Advertising on It Is, In Fact

Am seriously thinking of putting advertising on this blog, as well as another whose development I’m playing around with and possibly unveiling one day. Any thoughts? Please let me know.

Otherwise, I look forward to raking in about seven dollars a year on this site, if my analytics are any indication.

Update: I was inspired to write this because I’d noticed a popular blogger/Twitter user/magazine editor started to include Amazon Associates links in his posts. Several other journalists whom I’ve been following have long incorporated Google AdSense, Amazon Associates, and other advertising services. I kind of like how Jason Kottke’s begun doing weekly sponsor shout-outs the way that television personalities in the ’50s used to turn away from the scene and launch into a commercial without missing a beat. I guess all members of the media are searching for that golden model of economic sustainability these days. Now we can include the cover of the New York Times in that effort. Although, to be fair, the Times’s own City Room blog found evidence that front-page ads at the Times are nothing new. Like this one, featured prominently in its post:
sample ad from 1903: "Burnett's Cocaine soothes the irritated scalp, removes dandruff, gives a rich luster to the hair."

And while I’m at it, pssst, hey kids, try Cheerios and Dentyne to help you get “good red blood.”

money, technology

Business As Usual, Three Months On

When the economy started its downward spiral in mid-September, the Chronicle asked some Bay Area businesspeople and economists for their perspectives on what was happening. Most struck a note of caution, the wait-and-see stance typical of that moment, since nobody really had any idea of what was happening.

A couple of sources seemed less worried. One, in particular, stood out by virtue of his prominence.

Eric Schmidt CEO, Google Inc., Mountain View

“If as a result of this debacle there is some huge change in the economic situation, that could affect us. My guess is the drama is in (Wall Street) and not here. It’s business as usual at Google.”

Fair enough. The drama was, to a great extent, on Wall Street. The ramifications, though, appear to be global.

Whatever business at usual may be at Google, with the benefit of hindsight, I’d say the economy’s recent state isn’t helping. Here is a chart of Google’s stock value, from June 30 to December 26, 2008:
google stock value from june to december 2008

Alaska, corruption, crime, influence, money, politics

Alaska, Re-factored

12.30 in the afternoon, North Pole, Alaska, Dec 2004
When Ted Stevens was found guilty of all seven charges of failing to report gifts last week, the conventional wisdom, at least in the Lower 48, was that the Republicans had lost another Senate seat.

I’m inclined to agree. But with reservations. Because if there’s any place that will surprise you politically (other than Minnesota, maybe), it would be Alaska.

Alaska politics seems to have a special knack for getting muddy, if not outright weird. Take the ongoing saga of Stevens’s trial, where the weirdness seems to have spread: a juror took a break from deliberations because her father died, except that he didn’t actually die, and she was not answering her phone because she had, in fact, left D.C. for a horse race in California. As the AP notes:

She apologized for lying, and then started a long rambling story about horses, which included references to horse breeding, the Breeders’ Cup, drugs, President Ford’s son Steven and her condo in Florida being bugged.

Fair enough, I suppose. This after Stevens himself gave some head-scratching testimony, such as calling a massage chair from a supporter that sat in his Washington residence for the last seven years a “loan.” (In a kind of contrapuntal twist, Stevens was questioned by a Justice Department prosecutor; fifty years ago, he was himself a U.S. attorney for the Justice Department.) As the Anchorage Daily News reported:

In fact, Stevens said, he planned to ship the chair back to Persons in Alaska with other furniture from Washington to use in [Stevens’s] Girdwood house, but there wasn’t any room in the “chalet” – the place was filled with Allen’s stuff, he said.

Where was his original furniture?

“Bill Allen stole our furniture and put his in our chalet,” Stevens said.

“Why didn’t you call the police?” Morris asked.

“It never crossed my mind to call the police at that time,” Stevens said. “I might now.”

I kind of wish Jay Hammond were around to paddle up in his canoe and tell us what he thought about all this.

Today, the state personnel board cleared Governor Palin of any wrongdoing in Troopergate, meaning both sides get a report stating what they want to hear, and neither will ever be satisfied. But whether Palin becomes vice president or not, Alaska will soon be pried from its cozy niche in the American political system. And that is why I’m writing about Stevens. 

Because Stevens’s era, and possibly Don Young’s, is over, or almost. (And it seems to me that Palin can’t go back to her governorship and expect to accomplish much meaningful, having burned so many bridges in this campaign.) That Alaskans would take a gamble and reinstall a convicted felon as senator in the hopes that he will continue to bring home the bacon would not be a shock. But the gamble comes in what the Senate does with Stevens if he gets another term. Alaska is a state normally ignored when it comes to national politics, which helped during earmark time. This year, it’s at the center of the storm with the problems that Stevens, Young, and Palin are having. It’s a make-or-break year for Alaska, in terms of the Washington influence it has quietly built up over decades. They’ve got to go all in.

The Times recently wrote:

Some state Republican Party leaders have countered this concern [over Stevens’s convictions] by urging people to vote for Mr. Stevens as a tactical move. They say re-electing him will allow for a special election to replace him should he later resign or be expelled. Otherwise, Republicans would be ceding the race to Mr. Begich [the Democrat].

A tactical move. Politicians like Young and Stevens seem to have stayed in power because of a go-along-to-get-along mentality. There is no great orator or charmer between those two. But with so much seniority, and with Republicans previously in the majority–or at least not marginalized–during their careers, these politicians were not so much inspirations as investments when it came time to cast a vote.

This was an argument I often heard for voting for the incumbents; they have influence built up (meaning: they can keep the federal funds flowing north). Alaska’s political power in Washington has long rested in its Congressional delegation; Palin is an outlier. But now? If Young and Stevens were to win, they’d be shunted to the sidelines in a Democratic Congress. Young has become an object of national ridicule and derision from all sides–this because of Palin and McCain and his Bridges to Nowhere. Stevens will be roundly considered a disgrace for his convictions. And if Palin should become VP, she shouldn’t expect any favors from the new Congress if she tries to send a few more federal dollars to Alaska. Attempting to do so would run counter to one of her ticket’s primary messages, anyway.

But all may not be lost. FiveThirtyEight lists Stevens’s seat as “safely Dem;” RealClearPolitics notes that Young’s House seat “leans Dem.” Maybe Alaskans will come to believe that “investing” votes in a Democrat or two could bring many rewards to the state as a Democratic White House or Congress or both shower the new guys, and thus Alaska, with influential committee spots and other goodies that will help in 2010 and 2014. Tactical moves all over the place from everybody.

And even if they’re Democrats, they’ll still push to open ANWR.


Stevens is reportedly airing a two-minute commercial explaining his vision for Alaska (or, I suppose, after 40 years, reiterating that vision), among other things, during the six o’clock news across the state. It’s not online yet, and I’m not sure through which of the internet tubes it will hurtle. I’m sure it will be on the YouTube. But it’s not there yet. In the meantime, here’s thirty-one-second commercial, “Sticking with Stevens.”

New Order fans will recognize the opening strains of “Ceremony” playing in the background. Not sure that Senator Stevens is a fan of the post-punk, New Wave genre. But I love it. New Order also has songs called “Temptation,” “Regret,” and “Times Change.”

India, money

The Sweets Seller

We stopped at a little shop fronted by a display case full of sweets to pick up some snacks before dinner. This was on Chandni Chowk, across from the Red Fort, in Delhi. We settled on 20 rupees for the confections. As he handed them over and we gave him some cash, he said, “Thirty,” and gave us change accordingly. Then he sat back in his fluorescent-lit shop and stared at us hoping we’d go away without any fuss. Fine.

money, movies

Oscar’s Alimony

In The Odd Couple, Oscar Madison admits to his ex-wife in California that he’s weeks late paying his alimony. He gets off the phone, sits down with his poker buddies, and announces: “I’m $800 behind in alimony. Let’s raise the stakes.”

Eight-hundred dollars. We wonder how much that would be today.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics hosts an inflation calculator that we can turn to in situations like this. If we calculate using the value of a dollar in 1968, when the movie came out (the play debuted in 1965), translated to 2008 dollars, we get:

$800 (1968) –> $5029.49 (2008)

Oscar’s five thousand dollars behind.

That’s some inflation. It’s hard to imagine a sports writer, or any kind of print journalist, being able to pay five grand a month for just about anything these days. But life was different forty years ago, and so was the dollar. Gas was cheap, food was cheap, rent was cheap. Or so it seems in hindsight; presumably some of these things were proportional in cost to today while others simply were cheaper in real dollars.

Speaking of rent, Oscar Madison lives in an eight-room apartment—in Manhattan, by himself, as a reporter.

Those were the days. Adjusting for inflation, I wonder how many rooms Oscar’s apartment would have today.

[Thanks to Alisa for the question, who uses a different inflation calculator.]

art, money

Following up on the Bad Case of the Mondays; or, the Golden Spike.

On Tuesday, I wrote about the financial mess on Wall Street, and pointed out that the gold-medal-winning US women’s soccer team rang the closing bell on Monday. “There’s no investment like gold,” I wrote.

Gold! I should have put my money where my blog is. Wednesday, the price of gold rose more in value that day than it had on any other, ever, according to the AP.

To give you a sense of the increase, here’s a chart of gold futures from the Financial Times.

gold prices spiked on Wednesday

Not bad. So we’ve got more winners this week, in addition to the soccer team and Damien Hirst: people who owned gold before Wednesday. Good for them.

And as for Hirst, whom I also mentioned in that Tuesday post, the total for his two-day auction came to $199 million. And maybe his work is as reliable an investment as gold (remember the Golden Calf). Don’t know what might bring the value of his work down, other than a massive realignment of perspective. That Hirst doesn’t even make some of his own pieces apparently hasn’t hurt the prices. According to the Economist, Hirst has a set of workshops that sound like a cross between Willy Wonka’s factory and Dafen, China. This probably just helps add to the mystique:

In London Mr Hirst presides over two large industrial units producing the butterfly-wing pictures and his photo-realist paintings. In the Gloucestershire countryside he leases two wartime aircraft hangers for the manufacture of the spot paintings, the spin works and the formaldehyde tanks. He also has a large workshop and an exhibition studio. More than 180 people work for him, creating Damien Hirsts. Two specialists oversee the formaldehyde unit, which on a visit in July contained four dead ponies, a wild boar, an upended cow and, in good “Godfather” style, a horse’s head in a plastic bag.

In the workshop three women were talking about the “Hedgehog”, a device attached to a Hoover. It is a small plastic tube with 20 holes cut into it in which are inserted cut-down cigarettes, some ringed with lipstick. Switch on the Hoover and, hey presto, instant cigarette butts for lot 134 (top estimate, £300,000). In another workshop, three fabricators were painting precisely measured round circles at regular intervals on a white background. These are the famed spot paintings that Mr Hirst says were inspired by playing snooker. The fabricators choose which colour each spot is to be, and use ordinary household paint to apply the shades. The butterfly pictures are made by fabricators who are given the dimensions needed, but are otherwise left to themselves to choose the colours and designs they want. Having given his final approval—sometimes, one fabricator says, only by looking at a photograph—Mr Hirst signs and dates the back of the work.

Just sign here, and we’ll take care of the rest.