Felix Salmon

Friday links get dusty

Felix Salmon
Jul 10, 2009 21:30 UTC

Voided $2 California IOU selling for $20.50 on eBay

Lithwick on Palin: “when the dust settles, the lesson may be that she was simply a woman who made no sense”

You can dust it, and you can wipe it with a damp cloth” – Thomas Kinkade, selling his art on ShopNBC.

Great graphic: How consumers spend their paychecks

Julian Sanchez demolishes new-economy speak from Umair Haque


Wow. All I can say about that graph (other than it’s sharp-looking) is what a great example it is of how looking at averages can present some really useless results. (“These people” spend less than $1000/mo for shelter? Wish I knew where they live!)

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TARP mission creep watch, SBA edition

Felix Salmon
Jul 10, 2009 21:23 UTC

I’m beginning to think that the TARP fund is really just an all-purpose slush fund, it has suffered from so much mission-creep at this point. Not only was it used to bail out the automakers, but now David Cho reports that

the Obama administration is developing an initiative to take money from the $700 billion program for the banking system and make it available to millions of small businesses.

This is pretty desperate stuff: a Stimulus II in all but name, using TARP funds because there’s no way the administration has any intention of trying to push an actual second stimulus bill through Congress.

The reaction to this proposal should be exactly the same as the reaction would be to a stimulus bill proposing the same thing — and while I think that SBA loans are often good things, I also think there are other, more effective ways to stimulate the economy and increase employment over the short term. And in the long term small businesses have a way of looking after themselves; government is most effective in building large-scale national infrastructure. So I’m not a fan of this idea.


So if your business works on a cash basis with little to not debt, or if you save money yourself to start your business, you get squat. Only if you have to borrow money will this be a help.

I’m like Felix. It’s mission creep and I’m not a fan. But if you’re going to spend the money, how about simply giving employers grants to not fire the current employees. That’s basically what the state governments are getting — payments so that they don’t have to shut down certain programs.

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Notes on blogging for journalists

Felix Salmon
Jul 10, 2009 20:05 UTC

I’m hosting a blogging seminar tomorrow for the South Asian Journalists Association’s annual convention. Here are some notes I’ve made for my opening presentation.

Why blog?

There are basically three reasons to blog; two of them are good and one is bad.

Lots of companies are hiring bloggers these days, ranging from huge media concerns like Reuters to small start-ups. Pay can be good, and there’s no real difference any more between what a full-time blogger gets paid and what a full-time journalist gets paid. The work can be hard, and the blog can end up eating your life, but at the same time there can be an enormous sense of freedom when you’re given a blog of your own. Last summer, for instance, I blogged the financial meltdown from Berlin — Portfolio didn’t really care where I was based, so long as I was putting out a good blog.

A blog is also a spectacularly good way to get noticed. If you do aspire to being hired as a full-time blogger, then having a blog of your own is pretty much a prerequisite these days — people want to hire bloggers, not hire journalists and then cross their fingers and hope that it turns out those journalists can blog. All to often, in such cases, they can’t.

A blog is also a media outlet in and of itself, and you can put Google ads on it, or try to sign up for some kind of ad network which will sell your ads for you. If you’re really ambitious, you can even try to sell ads yourself.

But this really isn’t a good idea. The overwhelming majority of personal blogs will never make more than pocket money in ad revenue, and if you start blogging with the idea that you’ll be able to make money at it directly, there’s a very good chance you’ll give up in disgust quite quickly.

Who should blog?

The short and easy answer, of course, is “everybody”. But blogging isn’t easy, and not everyone is good at it. If you find writing hard, if you don’t feel any particular need to share your opinions with strangers, if you value your privacy — then maybe blogging isn’t for you.

And there are some good reasons not to blog. It takes up a lot of time, which means that there are significant opportunity costs associated with blogging. If you read a lot of blogs and news outlets anyway, then the marginal extra time commitment can come down, but it’s still substantial. It also puts you out there; it’s not for the thin-skinned. People will be very rude about you, in public. If you don’t want that, don’t blog. And it can, in extremis, even get you fired — bloggers tend not to be Organization People, and they tend to say what they think quite forcefully, and they don’t have much in the way of job security. (Of course, having a good blog can get you hired, too: there are two sides to that coin, and right now the market in good bloggers is pretty hot, and the number of bloggers making six-figure incomes has never been higher.)

Where to blog?

This is the easy bit. Just sign up for Blogger or WordPress or Typepad or Tumblr or Posterous or any number of other free blogging services, and jump right in. You can set up a blog on Salon.com if that appeals, or any number of other places. If you’re already a regular commenter on a group blog, maybe they’ll accept you as a contributor. Alternatively, if you have a reasonably established brand already, get yourself signed up with HuffPo or True/Slant or, again, any number of websites which are designed to get journalists’ content up online in an unfiltered manner.

In the finance and economics space, it’s easy to sign up with Seeking Alpha, either in conjunction with your own personal blog or else as your own blog. Finding somewhere to post your stuff is the easy bit. The fact is that it’s your content which will drive whether people come to read you or not, it’s not where you blog.

When to blog?

As always, there’s a trade-off between quantity and quality. Should you write more, with lower quality, or less, with higher quality? Fortunately, the blogosphere has been around for long enough that we have a simple empirical answer to this question: given the choice, go for quantity over quality. You might not like it — I certainly don’t — but I defy you to name a really good blogger who doesn’t blog frequently.

Often bloggers are the worst judges of their own work; I can give you hundreds of personal examples of blog entries I thought were really good which disappeared all but unnoticed, and of blog entries I thought were tossed-off throwaways which got enormous traction and distribution. Mostly, blogging is a lottery on the individual-blog-entry level — and if you want to win the lottery, your best chance of doing so is to maximize the number of lottery tickets you buy.

Personally, I’m not very happy about this fact. But it is a fact. And although I might gravitate towards those blogs in my RSS reader which have only one or two unread entries, I know that empirically speaking success in the blogging world is pretty much directly proportional to frequency of output. I thought RSS would change things. It didn’t. Ah well. And don’t worry about time of day, either: people read blogs at the craziest times, so once it’s written just put it up.

What to blog?

Journalists can be quite precious and jealous about the stuff that they write. When I set up my first blog in 2000, I was careful not to put any financial stuff on there: the blog was the stuff I wrote for free, while financial journalism was the stuff I got paid for. Why would any newspaper or magazine want to publish my work if it was freely available on the internet?

In hindsight, this was completely the wrong way around. What I should have been doing was leveraging and advertising my competitive strengths: publishing as much as I could, as often as I could, on the stuff that I knew the most about. And of course blogging is a great way of learning about most any subject, too — blogging finance makes you a better financial journalist, blogging climate change makes you a better science journalist, and so on.

How to blog?

Blogs are a conversation. Remember that. They’re not a sermon, they’re not a news article, they’re much closer to a discussion in the pub, or sometimes a graduate seminar. They can be funny, or serious, or angry; they can be two words or 20,000 words long; they can be pretty much whatever you want them to be, including heavily reported. But they’re distinguished by having voice, which is one necessary part of a conversation.

Another necessary quality of any decent conversationalist is that he or she be a good listener. The same goes for blogging — to a very large extent, blogging isn’t writing, it’s reading. I have hundreds of blogs in my RSS reader, I use Google Alerts and other tools to let me know what other people are saying about me, I spend a lot of time reading my comments, and of course I read lots of other blogs avidly. Blogging, certainly the way I do it, is to a large degree about synthesizing information — connecting this news article here to that blog entry there, putting things into context, and making connections. And so although I produce a lot of content, I consume orders of magnitude more.

I like to say that the main difference between bloggers and professional journalists is that while journalists tend to think of a news article as the end of the journalistic process, bloggers tend to think of a blog entry as the beginning of a conversation. And that’s why it’s important to be generous: journalists hate to credit others, while bloggers love to. On Thursday there was an article in the FT about blogging which encapsulated the difference: its opening line talked about some unspecified “recent column in another newspaper”. Naturally, there was no link. With a blog, you have to link to the people you’re responding to, to the people you’re quoting, to the sources you’re citing. A journalist loves getting an exclusive interview; a blogger is exasperated by such things, because you can’t link to them. When PR people offer me interviews, my first response is always to simply say that the would-be interviewee should blog his or her thoughts, and then I can link to them. Better for both of us.

And another part of being generous: leave comments on your own blog, and on other people’s blogs. Doing so is in no way below you.

Then there’s the really tough one for journalists: be wrong. Here’s another slogan for you: if you’re never wrong, you’re never interesting. Journalists-turned-bloggers tend to be overcautious to a fault, which makes for dry, overhedged prose. If you make a mistake, your commenters and other bloggers will tell you soon enough, and you can correct that mistake very publicly, using strikethrough code or an update. You’re transparent about what you had said, and you’re transparent about what you should have said, and you get a lot of respect for that. With journalism, what you write is immediately part of the public record, and it’s very hard to go back and change it once it’s published. With blogging, you can and indeed you should. (But not in a non-transparent way.)

I should mention at this point another one of my slogans: “the object of quality in a blog is not the individual blog entry, it’s the blog itself”. Every so often some meta-media organization decides that it needs to get with the online world and make bloggers eligible for its prizes. There’s invariably an application form of some description, which asks you to present your best blog entries; those blog entries will then be read by the judges to determine which blog is the best.

This is of course ridiculous. There are great bloggers who do little more than link to other people: no one blog entry is worth much at all, but the aggregation and editing function is invaluable. What’s more, pointing to just one blog entry by its nature turns blogging into journalism: it strips out all the conversation. The best blogs are the ones which spark the best conversations — which means that to judge a blog you should read not only the blog itself (as opposed to blog entries picked out ex post) but also the comments on that blog, and other people’s blog entries that link to the blog in question. Which isn’t really humanly possible, I’ll admit. But it’s important to at least try.

What shouldn’t you do?

The first is something I see a lot when journalists first start blogging: they write beautiful self-contained journalistic pieces, with ledes and nut grafs and few if any links. Go have a look at your favorite blogs, and see if you can find any pieces like that. You can’t. Blogs are much less formal, much less polished, much more conversational. So ignore what they taught you at J-school, and be yourself.

Don’t worry about hitting the “publish” button. Not everything you write will be good; some of it will be downright bad. And you’ll get called out for that, and it won’t feel very nice. But publish anyway. If you were having a conversation in the pub, you’d say silly things sometimes. Just move on. More interestingly, you’ll find that a lot of what you thought was bad turned out, in retrospect, to be very good. And vice-versa.

After you’ve been doing this for a while, you’ll grow a nice thick skin, but at first you’ll probably get riled up by some of your commenters, both on your blog and on other blogs linking to you. Try to be zen. Alternatively, you might get riled up by the *absence* of commenters, or people linking to you, and ask yourself if you’re just shouting into a void. Again, be zen. And do try to avoid obsessing over pageviews. They’re not a very good metric of how widely your stuff is disseminated, and you’re not doing this for CPMs. So, again, be zen. Because otherwise you just start publishing listicles and other linkbait, and your blog becomes crap.

Don’t expect to be an overnight success. It takes a while to get momentum — more than a year, in most cases — and if you’re enjoying yourself that shouldn’t matter.

Don’t censor yourself. You’re doing this because you want people to read your work. So make that as easy for them as possible. If they want you to email it to them, email it to them. If they want to read it on Seeking Alpha or Huffington Post, then post it there. If they want to read it in their RSS reader, then make sure you publish a full RSS feed. And if someone else flatters you by copying your stuff, be happy, not angry. You’re not doing this for the pageviews, you’re doing this to be read.

Most importantly, just have fun. If you don’t enjoy writing the blog, no one’s going to enjoy reading it. So jump in and make merry!


Wonderful article!

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Pedestrians in bike lanes

Felix Salmon
Jul 10, 2009 17:08 UTC


Laura Conaway asks why pedestrians walk in bike lanes, and reprints the photo above, which might well have been taken on Broadway, just south of 42nd Street. I know that stretch well — I bike down it on my way from work — and in general I stick to the road-for-cars, rather than risking life and limb on the bike-path-for-bikes.

This is a badly designed bike path, because of the location of the pedestrian zone you can see on the left hand side of the photo. There’s the sidewalk, and then the green bike path, and then the brown pedestrian zone, and then the black car lanes. When Broadway is bustling with foot traffic, it’s only natural for pedestrians to move back and forth between their two zones, especially during times when bike traffic is light.

But more generally I think it’s just that pedestrians were taught the rules of walking on streets by recourse to fear: look both ways, lest you get run over by a car. The natural corollary to such thinking is that if there’s no danger of getting run over by a car, there’s no need to look out for traffic. (If and when pedestrians do see me biking down the lane, they’re generally good enough to stay out of my way; the much bigger problem is the oblivious pedestrians, often listening to their iPods, who have no idea I’m there, and never stop to look.)

There’s also the natural impatience and pushiness of New Yorkers, who have a natural tendency to use bike lanes as a staging point in their rush to cross the street. No one in New York waits patiently on the sidewalk for the lights to change; instead, they inch forward on the road as far as they can without walking straight into the path of cars. They don’t worry about getting into the path of bikes, though, and if they see a bike coming, they generally stay put, since they couldn’t possibly step backwards. And if they’re crossing mid-block, which they often do, they generally take one step out from between parked cars before looking for traffic, since they know any car driving down the road won’t drive that close to the parked cars. (Bikes, again, they just don’t think about.)

Bicyclists, I have to say, are just as bad, if not worse: at intersections they never stop where they’re meant to, and instead stop either (a) right in the middle of the pedestrian crosswalk, or (b) right in the middle of the cross-street’s bike lane. (And don’t even get me started on the “bike salmon” who ride the wrong way down the block and seem to think that all bike lanes are two-way streets.) Although bikers get very mad at motorists, the fact is that car drivers are much more law-abiding than either bicyclists or pedestrians, and tend not to feel that the rules don’t apply to them. I’ve even noticed an increasing number of car drivers who seem to know the difference between a bike lane and a left-turn lane.

In northern Europe, everybody tends to be much better behaved. I think that’s learned: as the number of cyclists in a city rises, two things happen. Firstly drivers and pedestrians become more conscious of the fact that a cyclist is likely to be on the road. And secondly there’s an increasing number of what you might call non-brave cyclists, who don’t consider biking to be some kind of urban warfare and who are more likely, at the margin, to simply follow the rules of the road which they know so well from driving cars. Eventually their good behavior rubs off onto the more reckless.

Ultimately I think it all comes down to a combination of visibility and civility. As bikes and bikers become more visible, everybody else will be more conscious of them. And as they feel more noticed and less victimized, they will start to behave more responsibly to other road users, on foot and in cars. Who will then start to reciprocate even more. The problem is this takes years; it doesn’t happen overnight. And in the meantime there will be nasty bike-pedestrian collisions, some of them unspeakably tragic. My friend Josh Phillips died in 2006 after hitting a pedestrian on his bike. The pedestrian wasn’t malicious, just oblivious. But that’s no solace to Josh’s family and friends.

Update: Walking back from lunch, I noticed this scene on 41st and Broadway. You can shout as loud as you like, this obstacle won’t get out of the way. And as a result you can see two bicyclists having to detour into the pedestrian zone.



Another useless blog and useless blogger, new media is crap.

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People aren’t even renting these days

Felix Salmon
Jul 10, 2009 15:26 UTC

After a decade of Manhattan apartment prices going up, it’s only reasonable to expect them to go down for a few more years at least. That’s one reason to rent rather than buy right now. Another is that renting is still substantially cheaper than buying. So the rental market should be quite hot, right? Not so much:

We just released our rental report for the second quarter and the results sounded vaguely familiar to the sales trends. Rental inventory is rising at a 28.8% clip. There was a 17.5% year over year decline in rental price per square foot and a 58.3% decline in the number of new rentals.

Part of the problem is that apartments which just can’t be sold are being rented out instead. (Think Tim Geithner.) As a result, rental inventory is rising fast, which is depressing rental prices.

But what explains the plunge in the number of rentals? It seems that in a down market, people are simply much less likely to move house than they are in an up market — and that goes for renters as well as buyers. Partly, I’m sure, the reason is the depressed job market: new jobs are a big reason for people to move. But can that explain a 60% decline in rentals even as there’s a sharp drop in sales as well?


Nicely written. From a perspective in a town that is not hurting like the rest of the country but is headed that direction, there needs to be a very stark reality check. Austin Tx we’ve been very lucky so far but all of the ingredients are now there for us to fall into the chasm with the rest of the world. Unfortunately the common theme around here is deny deny deny. Almost as if enough denial will simply stem the tide. A lot of people are already seeing the realities of property that is simply not worth half of what it cost them. And yet the name of the game continues to be “Denial”. And, as a few who got totally sidelined down here had previously mentioned, we are seeing an influx of workers coming from places up north on the gamble they can find work here. As the rest of the world watches the stock market increase and people claim an end to the recession the divide grows deeper and deeper. There are solutions. Plenty of them. But it’s very simply about to be too late. If my dollar is valuable to somebody, they will get it. If it is simply not buying enough especially for the value, nobody gets it. It’s a standoff and only a very few businesses have figured out how to respond. Renting property in Austin? There is still a substantial threshhold to overcome. People say it’s cheaper than the rest of the country but the fact is based on numbers that are heavily skewed. The numbers are dragged down heavily by the number of units being rented to undocumented families and workers as well as those that never left after Hurricane Katrina. Austin has such a high number that they are able to skew the average and make it look like a very affordable town. But if you live here and rent here the reality is such that the actual median income does not support the demand on renters. Factor in the number of people that are beginning to move here for the opportunity of work and we are on the verge of having a high demand on housing and not enough work to support it all. We are in trouble.

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Consider both backs scratched

Felix Salmon
Jul 10, 2009 14:55 UTC

Jimmy Lee on Rupert Murdoch, after the successful acquisition of Dow Jones:

James B. Lee of JPMorgan Chase & Company, who has represented clients in some of the biggest deals in history, said of Mr. Murdoch, “nobody else I have ever banked could have pulled it off.”

Rupert Murdoch on Jimmy Lee:

News Corp.’s Murdoch says he consults regularly with Lee, and gives him a great deal of credit for helping him buy Dow Jones in 2007 — a deal many believed was impossible, because the Bancroft family that had owned the company for 105 years was thought to be totally opposed to the idea.

“He knew it was something I’d given a thought but he actually made the contacts and got things together,” Murdoch told TheStreet.com. “Without him it wouldn’t have happened or would have happened much later.”

The X-shaped recovery

Felix Salmon
Jul 10, 2009 14:16 UTC

Robert Reich blogs the recovery, and says something very similar to what I said yesterday in San Diego:

My prediction? Not a V, not a U. But an X. This economy can’t get back on track because the track we were on for years — featuring flat or declining median wages, mounting consumer debt, and widening insecurity, not to mention increasing carbon in the atmosphere — simply cannot be sustained.

The X marks a brand new track — a new economy. What will it look like? Nobody knows. All we know is the current economy can’t “recover” because it can’t go back to where it was before the crash. So instead of asking when the recovery will start, we should be asking when and how the new economy will begin.

This is related to Mohamed El-Erian’s “new normal” idea — while previous recessions were part of economic cycles within a certain economy, what we’re going through right now is a painful disruption from that economy to something else. I fear that the flat or declining median wages, however, might well survive the transition — at least so long as unemployment continues to remain as high as it is now. Which is one reason not to worry overmuch about inflation: if consumer spending accounts for 70% of the economy, and consumers don’t have any money, it’s really hard for prices to rise very quickly.


Don the lib still thinks a slew of tax cuts is the answer. Yup, no one has to pay for anything ever. That got us into the mess to begin with!

No wonder we can’t get out of our own way.

Auction all TARP warrants

Felix Salmon
Jul 10, 2009 13:35 UTC

JP Morgan has taken an entirely sensible step with respect to the pricing and sale of its TARP warrants:

The bank has waived its right to buy the warrants and will allow the Treasury to auction them in the public market, which bank executives say will result in an actual market price.

This is a great idea: just auction the warrants off to the highest bidder. Banks want the warrants to be bought, because it reduces the amount of control that the government has over them. But they don’t necessarily have any particular need or desire to buy back those warrants themselves — the same end can be reached by means of selling them to some other bidder. And the less of their own capital they spend on warrant buy-backs, the more well-capitalized they are and the less prone they are to government interference.

Under the terms of the TARP recapitalizations, it seems that banks have to give their permission before the warrants can be auctioned. Banks should go ahead and give that permission with alacrity, especially if their chances of buying back the warrants on the cheap have now dwindled away. If someone else buys the warrants, banks get all the upside of removing themselves from the government yoke, with none of the downside of having to pay lots of money to do so.


jpm and bidders? first they have to fear the next subpoenas:
http://www.kccllc.net/documents/0812229/ 0812229090709000000000002.pdf

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Thursday links are more eclectic than usual

Felix Salmon
Jul 10, 2009 05:34 UTC

Fake Alpha

The market’s inflation expectations are hard to find. But possible! http://bit.ly/4lB2lS

I’m sure I’m way late to this, but I just found Rob’s Transformers 2 FAQ and boy is it genius

Bundanoon, Australia, may be first town in world to have banned bottled water

Fischer Black, prescient futurist

USA Today with the best story yet on the “overdraft protection” racket

If this happens, I’ll cancel my print subscription.  I need to be able to share the stuff I’m reading.

Kwak schools Carney on bankslaughter; Avent also piles on

The new edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage

Jesse Eisinger joins ProPublica

What on earth are the regulators doing objecting to the new consumer-protection agency?

City Walks Architecture: New York