Thursday, July 29, 2010

Retrospective on ShortTask vs. Predictify. Only the strong survive!

Internet business bears some resemblance to the law of the jungle, or perhaps Lord of the Flies -- the strong survive and eat the tattered remains of the weak (OK, so maybe I only read the beginning and the end). As a case study, let's compare ShortTask, which is still in business, with Predictify, a website that has closed its doors. Along the way, there are some lessons for other online entrepreneurs on how to avoid pitfalls of the past.

Both ShortTask and Predictify harnessed the power of the web for commercial purposes. A brief background:

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

If Bernie Madoff had a hobby... an exploration of D.O.D. accounting practices

In the news: Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction says that 96% of the money from the Development Fund for Iraq cannot be accounted for. This is very different, and probably worse, than saying those funds were ineffective. Based on press releases, the Department of Defense just hasn't a clue where the money went. To further illustrate the situation, see the attached pie chart.

No one has ever accused the military of being efficient, but even with the infamous $640 toilet seat we at least knew where the money went. If there's one thing a giant bureaucracy like the D.O.D. should be good at, it's keeping paperwork. Those times seem to have changed since the Bush presidency and Iraq invasion.  

So where did those 8.7 billion dollars go? As a personal guess, we'll probably find Jimmy Hoffa before those funds are fully accounted for. However, based on the record so far, it's likely that money was eaten up by the fraud, bribery and theft which has plagued reconstruction efforts from the start. How did this problem begin?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

"Mayhem is Coming" -- the new Allstate ads are hilarious

While I was getting my reality TV fix last night, I was exposed to the most hilarious insurance ad I've ever seen. A preface: when I started this blog all those weeks ago, I made a solemn oath to keep it about serious subjects, not whatever random crud I stumbled across on YouTube. Well, these were so funny I had to break that promise.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Krugman on "Greed and Cowardice" in the climate debate

Was Paul Krugman famous for his work in economics, or was it environmental studies? Right now, I'm not sure. From an op-ed article yesterday:
It has always been funny, in a gallows humor sort of way, to watch conservatives who laud the limitless power and flexibility of markets turn around and insist that the economy would collapse if we were to put a price on carbon.
Source. An intelligent person like Mr. Krugman can spot a bad argument, especially when it applies to his home discipline of economics. The passage above contains logical flaws which should have stood out to a Nobel Laureate.

- "Putting a price on carbon" is a bit more complicated than grabbing the sticker gun and tagging away like a manic grocery store employee.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Kitchen Nightmares -- restaurant makeover or yelling contest? Let the numbers decide.

Gordon Ramsay's show, Kitchen Nightmares, has brought hope to the greasy spoons and dirty dive restaurants across America (but mostly New York) for two seasons now. Ramsay made his name first as a soccer player, then gourmet restaurant owner, and now as a TV host to a variety of competitive cooking shows, most notably Hell's Kitchen. He's been named the #1 most successful restauranteur in the world thanks to his kitchen acumen, high standards and vitriolic temper.

For Fox's show Kitchen Nightmares, Gordon Ramsay visits restaurants which are financially floundering and attempts to turn them around. This may mean producing an entire new menu, renovating the d├ęcor, or installing state-of-the-art kitchen appliances. In spite of these efforts, many still go belly-up after Ramsay leaves.

Before the show starts, most Kitchen Nightmare restaurants are under a mountain of debt. The stubborn owner of Sabatiello's was over a million in the hole before Gordon Ramsay showed up. Facing such a dismal business scenario, even expert advice can only go so far. Are heavily indebted restaurants doomed to bankruptcy, or is Gordon Ramsay not the miracle worker he's sold as?

With some simple econometrics, we can take a stab at answering that question. Data were collected on the amount of debt, proportion of male owners, and whether each restaurant was still open. After watching the twenty-one episodes from Season 1 (so I like reality TV, sue me) and running it through a regression program, here are the results:

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Big money selling free computer games

Video game producers have been accused of many things, from greediness to promoting Satanism, so it was a surprise yesterday when software development company Valve released a new, professionally-made game free of charge. That's right, Alien Swarm (a top-down, cooperative shooting game) is available to play for the click of a button. To really shock and amaze, Valve also released the full source code for others to emulate or modify.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Blast From the Past -- Moonshine

In the 1920s and 1930s we had economic stagnation following a record boom, flappers, widespread appreciation of Jazz music, growing popularity of the automobile, and illegally produced liquor. Now in 2010, we've still got the first and last items from that list. There's been a spate of recent news articles discussing the moonshine phenomenon in the United States. According to the BBC, up to a million Americans have participated in the illegal production of alcohol. Statistically, you might be one of them.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

You Only Live 22 Times -- Death of the James Bond Legacy

As a male American born in the last 50 years, I can say with confidence that the mythical figure of James Bond has influenced my upbringing and views on action movies. The Bond series has grossed $1.6 billion in the box office, making it the #3 most successful movie series of all time. The early movies turned Sean Connery into a legend, and built up the "action-movie cred" for the following Bonds. Through the Cold War and beyond, James Bond resonated with a culture that glorified adventure and perceived itself in a global struggle against evil. However, the times seem to be turning against iconic 007.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Are minimum wage hikes the answer to recession?

The current economic downturn has caused belt tightening by businesses globally, and much of the hardship has been felt by low-paid workers. In response, many have called for a higher mandated minimum wage. From California and Minnesota to Azerbaijan and Nigeria (just in recent news) the issue has been a political hot-button.

In the economics literature, a consensus has not emerged on whether minimum wages cause unemployment. According to basic economic theory, any binding price floor (e.g. minimum wage laws) will cause a surplus of the good in question. In the labor market, that means unemployment. While politicians and pundits tout the benefits of "a living wage" or the difficulty of living off $8.25 an hour they conveniently ignore those unable to find work as a result. Until relatively recently, this trade-off was at least acknowledged. However, a study conducted by Card and Krueger, which found no impact on the fast food industry in Pennsylvania and New Jersey from a minimum wage increase, fueled a new round of optimism regarding higher price floors on wages. Is economic theory put on hold when discussing the labor market, or is this just too good to be true?

You can read my paper on minimum wages and unemployment here. By comparing state unemployment levels to their unemployment rates in 2008 while controlling for other job-related factors, a positive relationship between minimum wages and unemployment rates was found (it's a riveting read, I promise). It was presented at the SIRC on April 24, 2010.

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