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Tom’s Best Music of 2016

Provisional post while hopping between airports, but here it is on the eve of a new year. A new year that we await with some trepidation as the world seems to slide into uncertainty and insanity. You may need something groovy to listen to as the world burns up or slides into a long nuclear winter, whichever may come first. In which case, I have you covered.

Although a tragic year for the passing of many from old generation of music, for new music, 2016 was surprisingly bountiful. Here is a great list. enjoy in sequence or on shuffle.

Just a spotify list for now, will try and get some other formats together in a later update.

photo: midday sunset in Lapland

Punk-ass Ska Indie Yidcore etc Christmas Mix 2016 Update

Murray Christmas!
It feels like just yesterday (7 years ago) that I was putting the finishing touches on the last version of this Christmas mix. And although still packed full of timeless classics, it did feel like high time for an update. Here you have it, now an amazing 39 tracks to soundtrack your next holiday party or long drive. And now 50% more inclusive of too! with the addition of some classic hardcore punk Hanukkah favorites.

Download my 2016 mix as one big zip file of songs.

Track listing (in img format to keep the bots out):

Steering the future of wearables, before our wearables are wearing us


At my table, is a sheet with a simple question. What is the long future of ‘wearables’? the probable, the possible, the negative or the positive.

    A) Clearly the capabilities, powers and individual agency of our things trends ever upwards. What happens if we keep extrapolating? Our physical, personal artifacts become increasingly largely self sufficient and autonomous. Do the tings we wear become more more powerful, more socially relevant and more ‘important’ than the wearer?

    How long before we become mere accessories for our accessories?

And if our technology begins to surpass us humans in more ways, is this good or bad? who’s betterment our tools and toys placing first ours, their own or their manufacturers’?

    B) Worse case, but more likely – Forget ’Selfish genes’ – ‘Selfish Clouds’ and their intrinsic AIs are now the semi-benevolent hand that mediates all our behavior everywhere. Useful AI like you see in self driving cars or Alexa becomes such a massive capital investment and with barriers to entry from ongoing learning so there will only be a few big stacks, the ‘uber-clouds’ of amazon, the google, the facebook, the apple, the ms cloud AI, and our wearables will be just extensions of one these big stacks that mediate an ever increasing number of our online and mobile (today) and soon almost all physical (wearables and vehicles) interactions with the world.

    But, as with the current state of facebook or gmail, we users are not really the users of these systems, we are the ‘product’ and the ‘fodder’. And they are cleverly designed to addict us and shape our behavior to the needs of the cloud system. And like genes, the clouds are competitive with each other, to constantly reproduce, evolve and fighting to out-expand into any opportunistic niche they profitably can.

    Interestingly, at this event there’s been mention of concepts of ‘AI Containment’. It might be too late

    First with the ubiquity of smart phones, and now wearables, the clouds stacks have ‘jumping the air gap’ into the physical world. Carry this forward, will semi-wittingly, opt in to become their zombie army tasked with carrying around their complex sensor packages, eyes ears, radios, microphones and other input output sensors in the physical world.

    We humans become packmules for our wearables, 6 billion meat-chassis allowing big dueling corporate uber-clouds to now freely roam the earth.

C) But there are less dystopic possibilities – Sensible regulations and basic consumer protection are an obvious approach, to hopefully balance innovation with any risks of exploitation or safety. In the US, very recent and pretty smart regulatory frameworks for the AIs behind self-driving cars are already doing well in this regard.

Or, like the internet and it’s services in the old days like it’s original decentralized apps like mail, bbs’, http, apache, linux extended to the domains of higher level cloud based services for communications, connectivity, storage, trusted AI. Imaging civic instead of private infrastructure for self driving cars or personal AI agents that any wearable can connect to. Would you be in favor or have confidence in government raising taxes to fund or public sector or open source organizations to build an alternative, a great public work of socially, economically humanistically ‘benevolent’ technology stack alternatives? Just having these alternatives would help to keep the big stacks honest. paging @mozilla?

Tom’s Best of 2014 Music Mix!

It’s back! After a wee hiatus of 24 months, I just couldn’t resist posting another year end music mix. Soooo much good music this year. I’ve had this mix on repeat for last week straight.

1   3:16   Archie, Marry Me   Alvvays  
2   4:16   Name on a Matchbook   Springtime Carnivore  
3   4:03   Carry on Phenomenon   Kishi Bashi  
4   2:59   Summer Dress   July Talk  
5   3:46   Trainwreck 1979   Death From Above 1979  
6   3:06   Big Shot   The Pack a.d.  
7   2:56   Brill Bruisers   The New Pornographers  
8   3:56   Can’t Do Without You   Caribou  
9   4:31   Rescue, Mister   TR/ST  
10   4:12   Habitat   Austra – Habitat  
11   3:03   Happy Idiot   TV On The Radio  
12   3:18   Artifice   SOHN  
13   4:43   Awake   Tycho  
14   4:29   Coffee   Sylvan Esso  
15   5:00   Look Away   Lo-Fang  
16   3:36   Every Other Freckle   alt-J  
17   3:51   Collectors   Springtime Carnivore  

So this year, I don’t have a big-ass mp3 download for you. You know, that felt like a lot of work to track down all the itsy bitsy individual tracks and, lets be honest, does anyone even remember how to mp3 anymore? If not vinyl, streaming is the only way to go these days.


Rdio Whole Playlist Link
Spotify Whole playlist link
(Partially available, 15 of 17) YouTube Playlist

I’m not normally a music video guy but, featured above, the ridiculously adorable July Talk video (track 4 on the list). Love it.

oh, also embed Spotify playlist right here:

Amazon Workspaces, the future of computing, and why we all need fibre


I used to manually download all my movies, shows, music. Stored it all on big terabyte hardrives. Used to have to buy hard drives all the time. Now? probably weeks since the last time my computer had to actually wake from sleep and spin that drive up. These days, Rdio is a thing. Netflix, appleTV, hulu these are all things now. The whole idea of using windows/mac file manager to fiddle with media at the file-level, across all my computers, laptops, tablets, phones that’s crazy batshit talk. Who would do that anymore? There’s dozen great platforms that virtualize all that for me. Thanks to airplay, even virtualizing which device is playing the media and which is displaying it.

Enough to make you wonder, how the hell is Tivo still in business? How are DVRs still a thing? Millions of people paying millions of dollars for local hardware to make millions of recordings of media that could perfectly well be served by one copy stored on the cloud? WTF is up with that?

Someday there will be a real netflix even for PC and console games. Built from the ground up to be virtualized.

Just to play games people buy expensive graphics cards, power-hungy PCs, console boxes that only get upgraded every 5 years. five! Millions of these get distributed, but the duty cycle is really low. Most of the day they just collect dust, take up space, consume idle power. What a waste. Why can’t I rent or subscribe to some awesome gpu and compute cluster at edge of the cloud to pump-out awesome, immersive experiences to any screen, regardless of it’s local silicon limitations? Huge opportunity for disruption here. Of course, we’d all need to have fibre or much better internet speeds that we get today.

AMD gets this. NVDIA gets this, they’ve recently introduced products designed to be run in racks for remote rendering of games. Valve/Steam, understands the vision as they continue to experiment with ideas of streaming gaming across remote or local networks. However we’ve yet to see a real compelling platform player put all these pieces together. MSFT and Sony missed this boat with their latest generation, they still try to support physical media of all things. Why didn’t they just but a cassette deck in there.

Webmail, salesforce, facebook, the web in general have been proving for decades that there are huge classes of apps that work a lot better when they are architected to be entirely native to the web.

But it’s all piecemeal. I can run almost all my daily apps on the cloud, but i can’t run my whole desktop from the cloud. I have to install apps for all those apps on all of my screens. I can’t seamlessly move from screen-to-screen and keep all my state and harware resources available. Although, in cases when I can, it does feel magical: like searching for a maps location on my pc and seeing the driving instructions pop us as an alert in android, like pausing netflix on my bigscreen and pressing play on my tablet. Why can’t my whole computing experience be seamless from screen to screen by default?

We need to redefine what we mean of a ‘computer’ or an ‘operating system’ from a machine-centric perspective to a cloud-centric perspective. It’s almost like “the network is the computer”.

today amazon announce this:

“Amazon WorkSpaces allows customers to easily provision cloud-based desktops that allow end-users to access the documents, applications and resources they need with the device of their choice, including laptops, iPad, Kindle Fire, or Android tablets. With a few clicks in the AWS Management Console, customers can provision a high-quality desktop experience for any number of users at a cost that is highly competitive with traditional desktops”

Maybe the enterprise will go first. Amazon is talking about supporting legacy desktop apps and IT management. However, as innovation in business tools is increasingly driven by cloudware as opposed to desktop apps, it makes more and more sense to just offload the whole stack to the cloud. Particularly with the benefit of portability across pc, mobile and tablet devices.

However. This great virtualized cloud future comes with several major barriers. These barriers to further innovation have names:

  1. The telcos: Bandwidth and latency are the key to enabling smooth remote and visualized computing experiences. Until fibre is much more ubiquitous, until consumer (and business) network speeds and bandwidth caps continuously increase by orders of magnitude, nothing will happen. Why does it seem like desktop PC innovation has entirely stagnated over the last 10 years? In part it’s because (unlike with mobile devices) network bandwidth available has barely improved since broadband became ubiquitous. (in fact, some consumers have even seen their usage caps come down in recent years).
  2. Open spectrum: Freeing up more licenseable spectrum for 3G/4G is good too, but unlicensed spectrum is even better and even more sorely needed. no spectrum gets better utilization than the tiny slivers (at 2.4 and 5.6GHz) that are reserved around the world for open usage like wifi (and a thousand other things). The aggregate economic benefit could be vastly greater if governments would set aside just a bit more, instead of always auctioning all new spectrum for brief one-time revenue gain.
  3. Microsoft: This company still has waning, but enormous control over our basic computing environments, especially in the enterprise. After all these years, they’ve really only come up with two really killer apps (Windows and Office) that just happen to owe their entire revenue model to per-machine licensing. As a result, Microsoft has always had a very conflicted strategy with regards to the cloud.
  4. The cablecos: Protectionist and anti-competitive strategies by cablecos and telcos to protect revenues on last century’s media distribution models is probably the single biggest barrier to ongoing innovation in computing. See also #1
  5. The powers that be: Trust in governments is not at an all-time high. And recent revelations haven’t been helping. Until we can somehow mutually resolve issues of due-process and security from domestic and foreign governments, a lot of people are going to be reluctant to allow all their base onto the internet. Maybe we just have to come to grips with the fact that spies are always going to try to do spy shit and move on.

The State Valley Money in 2013 – Liveblogging from START SF


Unless you are feeling particularly exceptional, now’s not a great time to be raising money for your consumer internet startup. But there is money still out there.

Had the great opportunity to be invited to attend the private START in San Fran today put on by the folks behing f.ounders. One of the first panels on Micro VC I took a few notes. And I thought few of my friends would be interested in some inside scoop on the current valley funding environment circa mid-2013. If our rotating door on Ashbury st (aka The Unofficial Visiting B&B for Canadian Tech Nerds) is any indicator, there’s still lots of opportunity down here.

Here’s my speed notes on the session, errors or crazy-talk is probably my fault in typing.

Panel: Micro-VC – 4 Small Funds Focused on seed through series A software VC
Mike Maples (Floodgate), Aileen Lee (Cowboy Ventures/KPCB),
Jeff Clavier (SoftTech), Alex Mittal (Funders Club)
Moderator: Tomio Geron (Forbes)

For some reason, the panel started backwards – talking about big liquidity events and working backwards to seed funding.

Snapchat’s crazy round and founder liquidity

  • Snapchat exit at 800M really big news item this week at huge valuation. Seems like it was highly competitive funding deal to get such a deal. What do you guys think of the the 20M(!) payout to the founders? Huge founder liquidity after only 2 years is risky, because founders have made their money for life and might not be incentive to stick around
  • As an entrepreneur you need to think that you will overcome any obstacle and there is no plan B. taking money of the table with liquidity gives them a plan b. some folks who get rich just get more hungry, but not everyone. (Early cash-out is like the opposite of burning-the-boats motivational strategy)
  • better is founder liquidity after 3-5 years to keep them rewarded and engaged in the company
  • – w/o healthy IPO market, high valuation also creates problems finding a future acquirer at a valuation over a billion dollars

Current Funding Environment

  • Enterprise is strong, but Consumer VC is currently “brutal” vs 2 years ago
  • lots of companies were invested a few years ago and haven’t paid out yet, or at all, or went in too high, and investors do
  • Series A expectations: 1 Million users for a consumer service 2yrs ago, now you need 5 or 10 M users
  • Before you needed 4M revenue run rate for a service business to series A, now 10 M
  • This raising of the bar on series A, has also raised the bar on seed investment
  • Contrary point: the exceptional founders and companies (really about 5-15/year any year) are truly exceptional. They will always manage to get funded. What happens is that, cyclically, less exceptional also founders get funded.
  • Really, there’s always money. But often too much money flocking to certain hot segments or geographies, and not enough going to all opportunities which makes the industry cyclical.
  • Last point: (Panel may be biased but claim) Party rounds (lots of investors at 25-50k each) not great for seed rounds without an achor, institutional or specialized Micro-stage VC investor firm that will really work with you to get you to the next round

Confessions of a tablet overly early adopter

tablet stem

A friend at lunch the other day showing off his iPad 3G brought back this wave of tender nostalgia.

For three years I too carried a tablet around. It was the tablet that time forgot (no not the newton), the original Microsoft full slate tablet PC. That’s me chewing on a tablet pc stylus in my longtime blog/twitter avatar.

The tablet was the ideal restaurant, couch or streetcar or meeting pc. Meetings or lectures with the tablet were a special case. Having a screen on your knee or flat on a table is a much less obtrusive way to have a screen open when someone is talking. Tablets reduce the social and physical investment required to use a computer, leading you to use a computer in more contexts, more of the time.

tablet-super-cool-3Despite hardware in some ways more advanced, there are some ways the old tablet didn’t come close to measuring up to the new iPad, the size and weight (3lbs, just a bit too heavy for comfort), the screen (same resolution but terrible contrast and viewing angles) and price. At the insane cost of ~$3000 it’s no wonder they didn’t sell like hotcakes. And, well, the app ecosystem.

You would have thought being able to run any windows app ever written would have been a good start. But the problem with MS Tablets was that they tried too hard to be seamless with desktop Windows without letting the tablet just try to it’s own, new thing. And that’s where the iPad really seems to shine in ways that Windows Tablet PC Edition never could be back in 2003. The iPad is a single purpose device. The iPad only tries to be what it is, a connected screen, a window on the cloud and a constellation of apps purpose-built for the form factor.

That’s not to say the MSTablet didn’t have some killer apps. Mostly thanks to it’s stylus (multitouch nearly 5 more years away). Photoshop and paint tools were unexpectedly a disaster. The poor screen quality made colors hard to judge while the slight parallax error of the stylus made sketching worse than it should have been. What did work amazingly well were mouse-intensive apps like powerpoint and excel. Without having to constantly switch from mouse to keyboard, laying out decks and whipping out excel models was a dream on a tablet. Try that on an iPad.

Microsoft Word, worked okay on a tablet but only in combination with voice recognition (the pen also making quick point and click corrections easy). For me this was important as I was getting over a nasty bout of RSI at the time. But as my arms improved, I found myself needing a “real” computer to get any real writing done.

The main risk I see of the iPad is the same problem I have with an iPhone vs a Blackberry. The screen-only-not-so-good-for-typing form factor risks turning us all in to predominantly consumers rather than creators of media. It’s no coincidence that soon after I started this blog, and a new business, that I inevitably ended my long experiment with tablets.

Inevitably, Michele and I will have to pick up an iPad. The question is whether we can hold out for the inevitably much improved v2 version next year. We’ll see how that goes.

You know, I do still have that old tablet pc kicking around someplace. It even sort of still boots up. Anyone out there wanna trade?

Eye-control headphones clearly the best invention of Mobile World Congress

Docomo's crazy eye control headphones

Leave it to the Japanese. I’ve speculated before about what kind of creative sensors you could load in to a mobile device. How about headphones that pick up the tiny electrical impulses emitted by your facial muscles when you move your eyes?

Here is a live demo of a Docomo volunteer controlling a cell phone music player with “eye gestures”. Look right twice to fast forward, roll your eyes clockwise to increase volume. Perhaps inadvertently totally shuffle your music collection if two unusually pretty girls/boys happen to walk by in opposite directions…

Above this man’s left shoulder you can see a line showing the live eye-tracking direction as well as a few of the gestures.

So perhaps you yourself will not want to ever look [literally] this ridiculous in public. Nonetheless it appears that creativity is well alive in new mobile interaction possibilities.

Why and how to ditch your slow-ass hard drive for an SSD

The setup:

SSD upgrade

Putting it to the test:

The Results:

boot time

SSD are the single best upgrade you can give your computer. This one a Runcore device is even compatible with older 1.8″ PATA drive systems found in common ultra portables like my Dell D430 or the Macbook Air. Remember when Apple was trying to sell SSD upgrades for $900? This particular 64GB model is faster than Apple’s fist-gen Samsung SSDs and cost only $250 on ebay at time of writing. Took about 20min to physically install (the SSD even came with a USB adapter, external case and software to mirror your existing drive, easy!).

Boot times are 54% faster and everything about the computer is much much snappier. Waking up and hibernating the computer just takes seconds. Plus there’s now no fragile spinning disks to break down and steal all my data.

SSDs are the future. Recommended.

Forget the SuperBowl, the America’s Cup is on

bmo new 540

Tonight, right now is the eve of the 33rd America’s Cup. Now two years late, this race is a culmination of 2 years of legal battles between Larry Ellison and Ernesto Bertarelli over the rules, venue, boats and every other aspect you can imagine. What it’s resulted in however is something spectacular for sailing and engineering nerds. What should have been a long contest between 20 countries match racing by elimination in 20 boats, is instead only a two boat race, 3 races only with the only rules becoming a sailing boat, 90 feet long, no limit on budget.

And what we have are two monsters BMW Oracle‘s solid wing sail trimaran, and Alighi‘s giant wave piercing catamaran. These boats were built at a cost of 500 million dollars to race for one week.

No one’s ever match raced boats this huge and fast before. These boats may go 40 knots downwind. No one knows what’s going to happen, all the ordinary match racing tactics go out the window. The boats are different enough that it could be a blow-out or a blow-up, gear failure is not unlikely.

There is no television coverage of the Americas Cup in North America, but there are plenty of places to watch the coverage online.

Throughout the week, also have an eye on the epic sailing blog Sailing Anarchy

Either way, first gun is at 10am Valencia time or 4am EST (ouch) on Monday, race two is on Wednesday, race three on Friday. We’re going to be brewing strong coffee and putting up the race on the big screen right at 4am, you know if you’re in the neighbourhood.

UPDATES: Speakerlist and New Venue for Lift Presentations @ Toronto 2009

NEW VENUE: The Canadian Corps Association Hall
201 Niagara Street, Toronto, ON [pics]

Got a couple of big update announcements for you regarding Lift@Home Toronto happening on Nov 17th. The first being that we have finalized our speakers list. We have an awesome roster future-minded designers who have bravely stepped up to impress you with Demos from the year 2019. On top of which we’re super excited to announce our special guest for the evening Scott Smith Futurist, Technology Forecaster and fellow Lifter.

The other important news is that we’ve had a venue change. We are no longer at the Drake. Sticking true to the theme of “epic time-warp”, we have shifted the venue to the Canadian Corps Association, that’s on Niagara street just south of King and a couple blocks west of Bathurst. This venue has a certain special flavor of character which you may remember from recent Spacing parties and/or for their almost-inordinately generous beer prices. Prepare to be transported to a retro-Swiss-conference-disco-chalet from the future.

Presenters for Lift Presentations @ Toronto

Special Guest: Scott Smith @changeist
Founder of the excellent Changist the design research and human foresight consultancy based in North Carolina.

2019 Demo Presenters:
Matthew Milan @mmilan Partner & Design Director at Normative
Leila Boujnane @leilaboujnane Founder & CEO Idée
Ann Poochareon @miserychick Maker of interactive stuff, Director Aesthetec
Jonathan Laba @J_LabIntern, Brightspark
Anatoliy Kats in/anatoliykats Grad Student, UofT
Sabaa Quao @xsabaa VP Strategy, The Hive
Matthew Lincez & Ricky Thomas WEREPIDEAS

Click here for the complete twitter list of Lift@Home Toronto presenters

More Announcements!

Special Guest Retro-DJ from the Future: Duarte Da Silva @modernmod =)
Food: Presentations will be followed Music, “networking”, delicious Swiss-themed nourishment, and bar service. Though you may also want to grab a quick bite on your way.
Volunteers: We need some! to help with setup and the door and sundry. 5 volunteer tickets have been added to the guestlist app. These tickets of course come with free admission – thanks for your help!

Wireless Sponsor for Lift@home:

What would the sport of racecar racing be like if the race cars were robots?


I was wondering today what it would be like for motorsports if you took the drives out of racecars. And made them remotely piloted or autonomous. We are on the cusp of this idea being technically possible. I bet those cars could go around the track even quicker if they didn’t have to haul around -and try to keep alive- a human driver while hurtling around a track. They could go really fast.

Engineering challenges aside from making a driverless or fully autonomous racecar, would it still be fun to watch? Can you get emotionally invested in a contest of robots?

If at the next airshow they had predator drone racing, would you go see?

Of course without the risk to human pilots, you could take it a step further. Those racecars could really battle each other. Or my personal vote, machine gun-mounted robot biplane dogfights. Now that would be a sport.

Partly related: Darpa Grand Challenge

Where is the “app store” for the greater internet?

A few recent observations:

1. Boy the iphone has a really slick/easy interface for buying little chunks of apps and content that are not only super easy to find yourself buying, and also don’t even cost that much. (Blackberry just announced one too)

2. On the web, ad revenues are out of whack with the value of content. I get a ton of value out of a lot of web apps like gmail or web content through my feeds and so forth. If there was an easy enough, low-friction enough way, I’d be happy to pay some amount for a lot of this stuff. At least more than the nano-cents worth of ads I’ve ever never clicked on.

3. The long tail is getting killed by ads. You need a sick amount of traffic to make sense as an ad-supported business model. Um, whatever happened to the long tail, or at least the whole middle of that tail?

3b. Optimizing for ad revenue makes for for crappier content (celebrities, gimmicky top-ten lists, link-jacking and other attention mongering cheap tricks) and crappier user experience (superfluous page views, popusp, sites plastered like nascars).

4. There’s a recession coming. This fits in somewhere.

5. Only the valley is crazy enough to still be funding the get-the-eyeballs-first-we’ll-figure-out-the-business-model later

6. If you’re not in the valley and you want to monetize digital content, what’s your plan exactly?

7. Where is our app store for the greater interenet? who will make it happen?

Link: Woe to Web 2.0 Start-Ups: Too Few Ads to Go Around

Epilogue/Spoiler alert: You know that worlds are converging right? Cloud/web computing has far-reaching implications that may make this question the answer to it’s own question. We are moving to a world where regular folks will may many screens large and small and one seamless web environment. But that’s a subject for another post.

Of puppies and particles

Wonderful slides

“The time has come,” the Walrus said,
“To talk of many things:
Of shoes–and ships–and sealing-wax–
Of cabbages–and kings–
And why the sea is boiling hot–
And whether pigs have wings.”

And you could have thought I was the only tech/design blogger somehow also talking up both puppies and hadron colliders. Well I am but a rank amateur. Matt Webb weaves together both, in the most moving post on sub-atomic physics you are likely ever to read. Meant to post this link a while back.

Suddenly he would leap to his feet and trot, tail wagging, a few paces before hurling himself at the carpet, twisting as he did so to roll and throw himself around and generally have a good old time right there in the hall. What was it Indigo, hey? What did you see, did you see a ghost who said -Come play? Why that moment, hey boy? Just as quickly he would stand and shake himself down, and come back to his spot near the kitchen where I could see him and he could see me, and I’d be laughing. Where did it come from, that abrupt desire for play? How come that exact second for decanting some of the internal flywheel into rolling about with his belly in the air and legs waving? It reassured me that I couldn’t see any cause, that it was something inside. It meant Indigo had his own internal life, and so I could love him more.

I was 10 years, 9 months, 3 weeks and 3 days old the day they activated the Large Hadron Collider. I was at college in a lecture the day I found out they’d found the Higgs boson, which gives particles mass. Mass gives momentum, and momentum is what keeps you moving. The Higgs is where it comes from:

the universe is a house, and you’re a particle – let’s say a proton – and the house is packed full of ghosts, from wall to wall like a carpet…”

I last met Matt (one half of Schulze and Webb) at Reboot9 (pictured).

To bring the story full circle with the most recent news: Silver is turning out a wonderfully precocious pup, only 12 weeks old now already fetching her first Frisbees, and though among the youngest, miles ahead of her puppy school class. Brains, energy and it looks like we’ll have our hands full with this frisky dingo. The LHC, unfortunately, had a problem and is down for maintenance for several months. We hope to see it up and chasing subatomic frisbees again soon.

Dividend theory at work, MSFT shareholders want their money back

On a down day on the market, Microsoft is up today, demonstrating a neat piece of market finance theory. Microsoft is up because they announced they’ll be giving back to shareholders a whole whack of money, 40Billion in share buybacks and an increased dividend rate. Theoretically speaking, share buybacks are functionally equivalent ways to return money to shareholders.

And so the stock is up. But here’s the kicker, MSFT is only paying shareholders their own money. Notionally, the market cap of the firm should stay the same or go down proportionate to the same value of money shifted from one pocket to the other.

Implicitly the market is saying that it believes the same 40B is worth more (Worth 6.75B more to be exact) outside of the hands of Microsoft management than in it. This effect is not actually not uncommon. The market has a tendency to discount the value of large cash balances do to the uncertainty and agency cost/risk of what management might do with it. Empirically studies have shown that firms with higher dividend payout ratios outperform those with lower dividends even if it means they have to go back to the market more often to raise funds for projects (increasing the transparency and accountability of management to market or so the theory goes).

Microsoft could have spent that cash buying up a thousand great startups. They could invest it inventing the next wildly successful ipod, xbox, web OS or they could blow it on the next Vista, Zune or Windows Bob. You just don’t know. That’s the theory anyway.

If Google or Apple gave back 40B to shareholders do you think their stock’s would go up or down?

In the 90’s MSFT minted many millionaires, but this century has got to have been a frustrating ride for employees and shareholders. The stock is still where it was in 1998. In some ways, it’s just hard being a big company. Every year they make piles more money, but only just enough to keep up with the market’s ever-diminishing level of growth expectations (as expressed by an ever diminishing PE multiple). If MSFT was trading at the same multiple as google, today the stock would be over 50.

Microsoft graciously invited me to a big event next month in LA, possibly including sneak peak at Windows 7 and a reinvented Microsoft. I’m sorry I’ll have to miss it, one can hope for great things. It’s funny but I can still remember the days (anyone remember the win95 launch?) when Microsoft was cool. With a new OS, a new browser and many other things on the way, it can only be up from here right?

LHC and the end of the universe

So they fired up the Large Hadron Collider today, the gigantic particle accelerator 150m deep beneath a not-small chunk of Switzerland and France. Despite some people’s expectations, and as no-doubt a great disappointment to the media, the world and the planet did not explode out of existence. Last I checked anyhoo.

There, was however the possibility of it. At least in theory, sort of. The possibility that a particle collision could trigger a chain reaction inadvertently hitting the “delete” key on all matter in the planet/universe. Like a black hole version of ice9.

Being, to a fault, precise people by nature, the best the good physicists at Cern would admit is that such a reaction was “very unlikely”. Much to their consternation, a lot of lay-people didn’t seem to find comfort in what a proper physicist would wryly explain as “very unlikely”.

If you are wondering, here’s how our guide explained it to us. The sun every second produces a gidgiazoolian (I forget the exact unit) times more high energy particles than CERN ever will in it’s lifetime. Every second these solar particles are slamming into, for example, objects the size of the moon. And in the 4.5 billion years the sun has been doing that, no catastrophic universe-destroying reaction has occurred. Empirically, this evidence suggests that the existence of the universe is reasonably pretty and reasonably resistant to accidental self destruction. The logic then follows that most probability one more particle beam won’t tip the probability scales over the edge. Hence what a physicist means by “very unlikely”.

Why is the LHC so cool? It’s basically a giant race track for tiny subatomic particles that scientists can use to study and drill into the very heart of matter. Particle experiments have been going on for a long time at CERN, the LHC is just the latest and largest accelerator to be built there.

As a researcher you can go to CERN and rent “beam time” small or large portions of the accelerator to do all kinds of experiments. For example there is some cool work being done there to study how solar radiation on cloud formation affects cloud formation climate change on earth.

And then there are the big questions, to find out the universe is really made of and to enhance our fundamental understanding of physics.

Sez the super awesome Brian Cox, for one thing if the theories are right, and Higgs Boson is really the particle that gives mass to all matter in the universe, then the LHC will find it.

Thanks btw to Laurent and Lift over the years for the chance to learn about and visit the LHC. Truly inspiring!