Throwback Thursday – “…And We Drive” by Side Walk Slam

...And We Drive by Side Walk SlamTh

This is the inaugural post of my own version of Throwback Thursday, or #throwbackthursday, as the kids sometimes call it.  Instead of posting embarrassing photos of myself as a child, I will be revisiting albums that are classic to me.  Anything from my lifetime is fair game, and these posts are as much personal reflection as they are commentary on the music.  So, without further ado, Side Walk Slam’s …And We Drive.

I discovered this album my senior year of high school.  As with many of my finds in that era, I first heard a single on RadioU.  The catchy hooks and fast pace grabbed my ear, as it was a different shade of punk rock compared to some of my other favorites, MxPx and Relient K. I was eager to get my hands on the compact disc, which I did for my 18th birthday.

Side Walk Slam was, by all accounts, one of the most talented and underrated pop-punk bands of the time.  To this day the powerful drumming stands out to me, even if the overall originality of the songs doesn’t.  I’ve since realized there is only so much room for creativity within the genre, but Side Walk Slam executed as well as just about anyone. Looking back, I also realize that the production quality is great for such a small-time band.

As with most music, it was the lyrics which connected with me as much as the actual composition.  Manyof the songs speak of relationships, something the blossoming emo-kid in me loved.  One is about an all-night road trip with friends.  The lead single, “Time Will Pass You By,” spoke to me most of all, however.

My life has seen changes through the years
Times changing, memories fade, it’s all clear

Time will pass you by
Learn to live your life

Old places, these faces, same routine
It’s time to take chances, make history

Time will pass you by
Learn to live your life

(Yes, those are the lyrics to the entire song.  It is pop-punk, after all.)  I loved blaring the youthful anthem as I flew through the spring air in my car, preparing to graduate from high school and jump into a completely different chapter of life.  I even worked it into a “my life” slideshow I made for a digital media class that semester. The way the band and music dropped into my life seemed somewhat divine.

This 12-song, 26-minute album takes me back to the halls of my alma mater, a simpler time when my whole life lay before me and optimism was inescapable.  You can check out the quick, catchy pop-punk tunes on Amazon or Spotify.

Follow or check back next week for the next installment of #throwbackthursday.

Thoughts on “I.O.U.” by John Lanchester

I.O.U. by John Lanchester

This audio book, available on the Nashville library’s site, taught me that I had very little knowledge about our complex financial system.  Unfortunately, it also failed my litmus test for being a great informative book when the author spent the final twenty percent editorializing.

I marvel from time to time about how the vast majority of the money in the world isn’t “real,” in the sense that there isn’t enough physical currency to represent it all.  This book opened my eyes to exactly how absurd and scary the Western financial system can be.  After spending a good amount of time explaining terms and describing complex financial instruments, the author turns his attention toward analyzing the current financial crisis which came to a head in 2008.  Prior to reading, I was fairly familiar with stocks and bonds, the consumer-facing side of the markets.  What I didn’t know were the kind of debt-soaked tools and misdirection investment banks had created in the name of making profits.

If I could sum up what I learned from the first half of the book, it would be this:  much of the “wealth” in our current system is based on nothing but debt.  I’m still a free-market capitalist through and through, but it seems a stretch to think that much of what investment banks do provides true value to our economy.  Their essential function seems to be to encourage individuals, businesses, and even governments to go into debt, and then make casino-like bets on whether they can repay, calculating risk in order to reap profits.  One bank will bet a consumer will pay back his mortgage, another will essentially make a counter-bet by purchasing insurance against a default while selling the debt to a third party.  It really is all smoke and mirrors based on my limited understanding of it.  Banks want to leverage themselves as much as possible, having financial obligations on the books, but wagering that they won’t have to pay them.  This, to me, is the epitome of foolishness and irresponsibility, regardless of the prevailing economic system.

With regards to the crash of 2008 and the subsequent “credit crunch,” the author does to a good job of explaining how the perfect storm came to be.  By his estimation, the problem actually stemmed back to the fall of Soviet communism over twenty years ago.  With such a large counter-force gone, free-market capitalism flourished in the developed world and enjoyed ever-loosened government restriction.  With economic growth, it became easier for individuals to borrow money, including home mortgages.  Because demand for housing increased, property prices skyrocketed, especially in the author’s native Great Britain.  Everyone wanted to get into the game.  This led to banks making riskier loans at sub-prime (read: higher-than-market-rate) interest rates.  It was no bother to the banks, however.  They were able to insure against consumer default, package risky debts, and sell them in financial markets.  Investors, of course, did not realize the true risk of what they had purchased, focusing only on the tantalizing profit potential.

This is a crude overview, of course, but those were the core issues.  As home prices peaked and then fell, unemployment rose, and mortgages went into default.  The house of cards began to collapse.  This is where the author’s personal viewpoints begin to creep into the writing.  He spends quite a while talking about “laissez-faire” capitalism as promoted by Alan Greenspan.  While it is a valid technical term, his usage of it sometimes comes across as sarcastic and condescending.  His solution seems to always be more government regulation, even while acknowledging that part of the problem was lack of enforcement of existing regulations.  While I do think it absurd that a bank must only retain enough liquid capital to cover eight percent of its obligations, it also seems apparent that the government is the worst manager in any arena it enters.  Further, the author portrays the consumers of sub-prime mortgages purely as victims.  To be sure, some were targeted with predatory lending practices, but at the end of the day, is it not my personal responsibility if I over-leverage myself, taking out a loan I will likely not be able to repay?  Personal responsibility, both at the consumer and bank level, would have gone a long way toward preventing such a collapse.  The author doesn’t seem to entertain this idea, instead insisting on more control by national governments which, by all accounts, can’t balance their own budgets.

The final section of the book came across as a bit of a diatribe against laissez-faire capitalism in general, which is where I began to lose interest.  I can understand why the author feels the way he does based on his worldview, but I was reading primarily for knowledge, not opinion.  He is certainly a smart man who did a good job of explaining complex topics, though I wish he could have left it at that.  I don’t know the answers to such complicated problems as were presented short of self-restraint and common sense, but we all know those can’t be legislated.

Overall, I’m glad to have read the book and garnered a better understanding of exactly what lies in the bowels of financial markets.  In some ways it was enlightening, in other ways it was a bit scary, but it is almost always better to have knowledge than to be blissfully unaware.  I would recommend this book to anyone wanting a better understanding of the forces behind the 2008 financial meltdown or the world of finance in general.

Social etiquette – “I don’t know yet”

Child on phone

I most certainly don’t claim to be an expert on most things social, but the following is something I’ve noticed.  The situation usually goes something like this:

Ty:  “Hey, friend.  Do you have plans Thursday night?”

Friend:  “Hmm… you know, I don’t know yet.  I’ll let you know later.”

On its surface, it seems like a pretty average exchange between peers trying to set up a social outing.  I believe a closer look may reveal unintended messages and patterns.

We all occasionally forget commitments we have, but unless one is truly bad at maintaining a personal calendar, he usually knows if a particular night of the week is booked or not.  Since it’s not common to forget standing obligations or special plans, what could a friend mean when he says, “I don’t know”?  If one is unaware of an existing commitment, is his schedule not open at the time queried?

This is where I could be wrong, but if I don’t have anything planned, I consider my schedule open.  From this perspective, someone saying he doesn’t know if he has plans can seem like a bit of a sleight.  The message received can be, “No, I don’t have any plans, but nor do I want to commit to plans with you; I may find something better to do.  If I don’t, you can be my backup.”  A simple rejection may almost be better, in my opinion.

It’s possible the friend may even just be looking forward to a restful evening, not wanting to plan anything social.  As an introvert, I completely respect that, and I would be glad to have a friend tell me that rather than putting me off.  He may also have tentative plans which he doesn’t want to discuss, lest he feel pressure to invite along the one inquiring.  Perhaps there is some other situation which may require attention that night.  There are many possibilities, but clear and honest communication could almost always eliminate sending the wrong message, unless that message is “you are my backup plan.”

I understand my particular social perspective is limited, which is one reason I write.  Am I off base in how I interpret this situation?  Is it mostly a problem of communication between differing personalities?  Or is my generation’s culture of social commitment broken?

Thoughts on “One-Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com”

One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of Amazon.com

Most Americans who use the web have probably purchased something from Amazon.com.  It’s such a staple of e-commerce now that we don’t often stop to think about the days before it existed.  Listening to this audio book gave me some interesting insights into the business, and also into the “dot com” boom which, truthfully, happened while I was still in middle school.

The author spends a good deal of time talking about Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos himself, particularly his incredible intellect and competitive personality.  I can’t say I find it surprising that such a man is behind such a successful company.  Nor was it surprising that the website started out small and grew exponentially.  But there were some facts that caught me almost completely off guard.

One interesting tidbit is that the choice to start out as an online book retailer was somewhat arbitrary.  I don’t mean “arbitrary” in the sense that it was random, but that Bezos didn’t have a particular passion for books compared to other goods he could have sold.  Instead, he used methods learned in business school to determine the best item to sell.  It just so happened that books were easy to ship, easy to procure through distributors, and lacked a frontrunner when it came to online retail.  By all accounts, his methods of determination were right on.  Over time the site has grown to offer many categories of products, but it all began in a garage with a proprietary database of information about books.

This next part may show my lack of business prowess, but another surprising fact to me is that the company did not turn a quarterly profit until 2002.  Since the company was founded in 1994, that means it endured eight years of operations funded solely by investments.  It is mind-boggling to me that a company could keep its doors open while losing vast sums of money for nearly a decade, even if revenues were growing exponentially.  The book goes into great detail about how many millions of dollars the company accrued in losses over the years before eventually making it into the black.  The most interesting part is that this was the plan all along.  Bezos decided to become the biggest, the only, name in online retailing, no matter the cost.  At that point, and at behest of the markets, he essentially flipped a switch and turned the company profitable.  It wasn’t that simple, of course, but revenues were so high and expenditures so wild that it was somewhat easy to find enough cuts to cause a net profit.

The sections detailing the culture of the company described a strange environment, in my opinion.  Yes, it was very much a gritty, start-up feel from the beginning.  The emphasis was always on making things as easy as possible for the customer, almost to the point of obsession.  With the rise of the dot-com bubble, employee perks matched the lavish level of the rest of Silicon Valley, though austerity crept in as investors began demanding results.  Some of these qualities persist even to the company’s colossal status today, though I can’t help but feel that Amazon may have lost some of its soul in its transition to multinational corporation.  It’s still greatly innovative today, though perhaps a bit out of touch compared to the early days recounted in the book.

In the end, it was a very enjoyable and informative read, much of which documented happenings I was unaware of due to my age.  But I am glad to have learned more about one of the largest successes of the dot-com boom since that era most certainly affects my life today as a technology professional.  I would recommend the book to anyone interested in technology trends, business, or entrepreneurship.  It is available via audio book on the Nashville Public Library site, and (of course) at Amazon.com.