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Financial Skeptic Bulletin, February 2012

Jan Feb Mar Apr May June July Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec

This one year old selection of news. It's really funny to read forecasts that are just one year old.

Note: Despite doom and gloom stock market went from 1260 to 1460 in one year. This new stock and bonds bubble was supported by Fed.

NEWS CONTENTS

Old News ;-)

  • February

    [Feb 28, 2012] Buying gas like an investment

    December 29, 2011 | Jon Aquino's Mental Garden

    My brother does this interesting thing when he buys gas, similar to "dollar cost averaging" in investing (i.e., investing the same amount each month, regardless of whether the price is high or low).

    Basically he pays the same amount at the pump on each visit ($20), regardless of whether gas prices are high or low.

    I was trying to think if this has any real benefit, and actually I think it does. When gas prices are low, $20 will last a long time, which is good. When gas prices are high, $20 will last a short time, and you will be forced to retry again soon - so you will have more frequent opportunities to try again for a lower price. Kind of makes sense.

    Compare this to filling the tank to the top every time. You will be visiting the gas station at a constant time interval, without the automatic adaptation mechanism described above.

    Interesting!

    This rally may have legs :-)

    Unless you think that Fidelity is always wrong here is the call ;-)

    Putting it all together

    We have a stock market in a strong up-trend, but showing signs of technical fatigue against a backdrop of sentiment that has almost caught up to the rally. The fundamentals are strong, but perhaps they are now reflected in the price. The ECB has come to the rescue in a big game-changing way, but now the market seems to have gotten ahead of itself in anticipation of a successful second LTRO. Meanwhile, the trio of tail risks (Greece, China, and Iran) has not gone away and, in fact, there is some evidence that investors have become somewhat complacent. Perhaps it is “gloom fatigue.”

    So to answer the questions I posed in the beginning: How much risk is appropriate in a portfolio? Is it time to derisk, stay put, or add risk? When I put all the factors together, they tell me that things aren’t bad enough to go into full hunker-down mode, but they are also not good enough to be fully invested. The risk-reward is certainly not as good as it was five months ago, when stocks bottomed amid an extreme of sentiment. Perhaps it is time to take a few chips off the table.

    [Feb 28, 2012] The Shocking Statistic About Psychopaths On Wall Street

    About 1 percent of the general population can be categorized as psychopathic, but the prevalence rate in the financial services industry is 10 percent.

    A shocking statistic jumped out at us. From the article:

    Studies conducted by Canadian forensic psychologist Robert Hare indicate that about 1 percent of the general population can be categorized as psychopathic, but the prevalence rate in the financial services industry is 10 percent. And Christopher Bayer believes, based on his experience, that the rate is higher.

    Bayer is a well-known psychologist who provides therapy to Wall Street traders.

    [Feb 28, 2012] ECRI recession call

    [Feb 28, 2012] Real House Prices and Price-to-Rent fall to late '90s Levels

    This is not a recovery. What we’re witnessing is a fundamental change in thinking of Americans about their homes...
    2/28/2012

    GDD9000:

    More CR house bottom calling. Too bad the history is meaningless since the financing regime that created it is never coming back.

    I mean, imagine we had no historical data. Just current house prices. And we looked at the reality of supply and demand and the ability of current housedwellers to pay for their current living arrangments, and the ability of wannabees to generate income. What would you expect would happen to prices. Go up? Really? Mhm.

    mp:

    For those who are the least bit interested in these sorts of things, here is a graph of real personal consumption versus payroll employment, both year-over-year.

    As you can see, employment lags consumption and the amount of the lag depends on the phase of the cycle.

    When consumption peaks, employment peaks about 1 year later.

    When consumption begins to pick up after a bottom, employment starts to rise about 6 months later.

    If you examine the linked graph, it's for this reason that some of us think that employment has peaked for this cycle and will soon be turning down.

    As for the stock market, it is at best a coincident indicator; it will tell you nothing about the real economy until it has already happened.

    http://research.stlouisfed.org/fredgraph.png?g=5ln

    Lurking Lawyer:

    The meme has always been that the stock market is forward looking 12-months. See how that worked out in August 2007.

    GDD9000

    12th Percentile wrote:

    No argument from me there. But to say there are not conditions to induce people to borrow to buy housing seems a bit odd to me. Record low is record low. Plenty of people can qualify to buy with 3.5% down at a rate of around 4%. Imagine if we said that in the late 90's. It would sound absurd.

    Downpayment. What %? Where does it come from?

    Former Idealist

    My new business cycle model now includes the bailout cycle (throw caution to the wind) and the money printing (these things happen) cycle. Side effects unknown.

    Cinco-X:

    Former Idealist wrote:

    My new business cycle model now includes the bailout cycle and the money printing cycle. Side effects unknown.

    Can you combine them into just a "wealth extraction phase" of the cycle?

    mp:

    Lurking Lawyer wrote:

    The meme has always been that the stock market is forward looking 12-months. See how that worked out in August 2007.

    I learned many, many years ago that trading is a sucker's game. All it does is generate commissions.

    I encourage people to watch the economy because it's easier to read, then do your market analysis.

    In other words, "play" the big moves in the economy.

    Comrade Troyski:

    CalculatedRisk wrote:

    I doubt we will see the 10% to 20% "overshoot" that some people are predicting ...

    Reverse the Bush tax cuts and we'll see some movement on the downside.

    California's pension funds are $750B in the hole. Over 30 years that is $150 per household per month of deferred taxation coming due.

    Then there's the $20B state deficit itself. We can cut gov't or raise taxes, either way that's coming out of land values in the end.

    $10 gasoline isn't going to do the housing market any favors, either.

    Former Idealist:

    Can you combine them into just a "wealth extraction phase" of the cycle?

    I see your point. Hard to pinpoint that one. As food and energy costs soar, that is immediate extraction. But other than job loss, the massive tax increases to cover bailouts and flat out printing haven't started yet. And what is this wealth for which you speak?

    Comrade Troyski

    Jim A. wrote:

    But the oversupply of housing can put real downward pressure on rents

    not to mention the undersupply of disposable income. But you said that : )

    ac

    I think this graph helps illustrate the illusory FIRE GDP numbers that we report.

    memmel wrote on Tue, 2/28/2012 - 9:39 am I think the housing market going forward is going to be very different from the past. I'm calling it bifurcation. I think a large part of the market will remain rentals for a long time to come however I believe we are in a rent bubble right now. In the next few years we should see rents start to decline. This will eventually cause investor purchasing to slow leading to falling prices for houses suitable for rental.

    This coupled with deeply underwater home owners unwilling or unable to repair their homes will lead to what I call the great rot.

    On top of this I think we will be in and out of recession with short periods of growth for a long time. Exactly what happens will depend on oil prices. In addition the underlying retirement of baby boomers will become a huge drag on the economy and housing as they attempt to cash out.

    Now on the bright side if you will housing is in general affordable now for those that have jobs. People will pay what they can pay.

    In many cases this means simply they can buy a better house now than they could a few years ago for the same amount of money.

    I think this will also drive bifurcation with buyers holding out for the best properties and unwilling to touch anything that has problems.

    In general I don't expect significant price declines for excellent properties. Most will hold value however selling a house will be a multi year process. Weaker sellers will be forced into concessions.

    And that's pretty much it for decades. I think rising energy prices will make living in urban centers viable, younger people will move back into town and no longer want suburban living. Obviously they have no financial incentive to get involved with suburban houses.

    And thats pretty much it. The great suburban experiment fails and life goes on.

    Tommy Vu:

    Anecdotal CONsumer CONfidence report, (Actually aren't all surveys, con-confidence data anecdotal?).

    Talked to a friend of a friend last week. He told me how great things were, confidence high. Wife closed up business, filed BK that only costs him $800 a month in payments, underwater by at least 50% in his home, but that's only $1200 a month. Wished he wouldn't of bought new truck, $700 a month. He works with a friend and I know how much money he makes, wife works for county so I know her salary. They're one missed paycheck away from their house of cards tumblin' down, but the dude's stoked and full of confidence.

    Tommy Vu

    Optimists point to declining home inventories in relation to sales, but they’re looking at an illusion. Those supposed inventories don’t include about 5 million housing units with delinquent mortgages or those in foreclosure, which will soon be added to the pile. Nor do they include approximately 3 million housing units that stand vacant – foreclosed upon but not yet listed for sale, or vacant homes that owners have pulled off the market because they can’t get a decent price for them. Vacancies are up 1m from 2006.

    What we’re witnessing is a fundamental change in the consciousness of Americans about their homes...

    ROBERT REICH: Housing Is The Rotting Core Of The Recovery

    [Feb 14, 2012] Bill Gross’ More Tempered Active-ETF View

    Pimco Total Return ETF (TRXT), the exchange-traded version of the $251 billion Pimco Total Return Fund (PTTRX) that launches early next month.

    [Feb 09, 2012] Gross Raises Treasury Holdings to 2010 Level

    And he rode the wave well into 2013 ;-)
    Is Gross preparing for a storm ? See also his Jan 12 interview Pimco's Gross on Economy, Markets, Treasuries - Video - Bloomberg

    Gross boosted the proportion of U.S. government and Treasury debt in Pimco’s $250.5 billion Total Return Fund in January to 38 percent from 30 percent in December, according to a report placed on the company’s website. He raised mortgages to 50 percent, the highest since June 2009, from 48 percent in December. Newport Beach, California-based Pimco doesn’t comment directly on monthly changes in its portfolio holdings.

    Treasuries with maturities from five to seven years have been the focus of purchases with longer-term debt unattractive due to risk of a pick-up in inflation, Gross said in an interview Feb. 3 on “Bloomberg Surveillance” with Tom Keene and Ken Prewitt. The Fund (PTTRX) increased its allocation of Treasury Inflation Protected Securities, or TIPS, to 8 percent, Gross said that day.

    The fund last year gained 4.2 percent, lagging behind 70 percent of its peers, after Gross missed a rally in U.S. Treasuries and put money into riskier assets, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

    Gross’s fund recovered and has returned 7.35 percent in the past year, beating 49 percent of its peers, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. It gained 2.13 percent during the past month, beating 97 percent of peers.

    Emerging Markets

    Meanwhile, Treasuries have lost 0.37 percent in 2012 as of Feb. 8, versus a gain of 9.8 percent last year, according to Bank of America Merrill Lynch indexes.

    Pimco reduced holdings of emerging-market debt to nine percent, from 10 percent and cut the bonds of non-U.S. developed nations to 11 percent last month, the lowest since May, from 18 percent last month.

    [Feb 04, 2012] Is Facebook’s IPO an exit strategy?  By Ken Hess

    February 2, 2012

    Summary: There’s money to be made on Facebook’s IPO but is it a long-term investment? I don’t think so but there’s much to consider.

    It’s no secret that I’m not a huge Facebook fan. All you have to do is read some of my other posts on the topic. I think Facebook’s IPO comes at a time when Facebook is on its way out–out of our lives and out of our gadgetry–for good. I believe that a lot of people have discovered that it’s a waste of time and computing resources. It was cute for a while but now, they’re trying to rekindle interest in this juvenile phenomenon by issuing this IPO. It’s silly but it will make megamillionaires and billionaires out of people who aren’t qualified to deliver pizza. Crazy stuff, that.

    I think the IPO is a last ditch effort to breathe life into a failing concern. But, it won’t work. Not for long anyway. I think people will wake up and say to themselves, “OMG, I have invested in something that doesn’t really exist except in Cyberspace. I’ve…I’ve…invested in AIR!”

    They’ll wisely pull their money out and Facebook will fall to the wayside.

    Goodbye and good riddance.

    Although I hate Facebook and I think that the IPO is really just a money grab for those who own stock, let me add this: If I had stock in Facebook, I’d sell it as soon as possible and retire comfortably on my ridiculously gotten gain. Yes, I’d be on the phone to the broker and say, “Show me the money, baby, I am outta here.”

    I don’t trust the stock market. I’ve seen fortunes lost in it. It’s the same logic that keeps me out of the casinos. Sure, some people win, but the losers far outnumber the winners. I don’t like to lose so I don’t play and I never bet unless it’s a sure thing -– and it never is. But, if I were the guy who painted that mural at Facebook and today he might be worth $200 million dollars, I’d take the money and run.

    However, there will be people who ride it all the way to the bottom.

    I can’t wait to hear the “analysts” discuss Facebook’s meteoric rise and fall. Everyone will give their roundtable spins as to the whys and hows and no one will remember this humble prediction. Except for me, that is.

    Years ago Zuckerberg had an offer on the table for a couple billion dollars for Facebook. He didn’t sell it. I would have. He held on. People don’t know when to let go. Of course, he stands to make billions more now but my guess is that either he’ll ride it to the bottom and end up with almost nothing or he’ll wisely bail on it. The smart people involved will use this IPO bubble as an exit strategy out of a dying animal’s carcass.

    My advice is that if you have Facebook stock that you should cash it in because it will never be worth more than it is right now.

    Why? Because it’s a silly social network thing. It’s false, people. There’s no value in it. It’s a bunch of blips on a computer screen. It’s a false way to be “social.” It’s the latest MySpace.

    Be smart, don’t gamble your underfunded retirement on it. If you get the twinge to do it, think about Enron, WorldCom and so many others. Also, think about MySpace. MySpace was “all the rage” a few years ago. Now, you couldn’t sell it for the electricity it burns up. A few years ago, everyone had a MySpace page. You had to have one or you didn’t really exist. That’s Facebook.

    Facebook and the rest of “social” media is basically a scrolling wall onto which you “spray” your graffiti. It’s now an acceptable form of communication. By acceptable, I mean accepted but pointless.

    [Feb 2, 2012]  Bill Gross Explains Why We Are Witnessing The Death Of Abundance And Why Gold Is Becoming The Default Store Of Value Zero

     02/01/2012 | Tyler Durden

    While sounding just a tad preachy in his February newsletter, Bill Gross' latest summary piece on the economy, on the Fed's forray into infinite ZIRP, into maturity transformation, and the lack thereof, on the Fed's massive blunder in treating the liquidity trap, but most importantly on what the transition from a levering to delevering global economy means, is a must read. First: on the fatal flaw in the Fed's plan: "when rational or irrational fear persuades an investor to be more concerned about the return of her money than on her money then liquidity can be trapped in a mattress, a bank account or a five basis point Treasury bill. But that commonsensical observation is well known to Fed policymakers, economic historians and certainly citizens on Main Street." And secondly, here is why the party is over: "Where does credit go when it dies? It goes back to where it came from. It delevers, it slows and inhibits economic growth, and it turns economic theory upside down, ultimately challenging the wisdom of policymakers. We’ll all be making this up as we go along for what may seem like an eternity. A 30-50 year virtuous cycle of credit expansion which has produced outsize paranormal returns for financial assets – bonds, stocks, real estate and commodities alike – is now delevering because of excessive “risk” and the “price” of money at the zero-bound. We are witnessing the death of abundance and the borning of austerity, for what may be a long, long time." Yet most troubling is that even Gross, a long-time member of the status quo, now sees what has been obvious only to fringe blogs for years: "Recent central bank behavior, including that of the U.S. Fed, provides assurances that short and intermediate yields will not change, and therefore bond prices are not likely threatened on the downside. Still, zero-bound money may kill as opposed to create credit. Developed economies where these low yields reside may suffer accordingly. It may as well, induce inflationary distortions that give a rise to commodities and gold as store of value alternatives when there is little value left in paper." Let that sink in for a second, and let it further sink in what happens when $1.3 trillion Pimco decides to open a gold fund. Physical preferably...

    From PIMCO's Bill Gross:

    Life – and Death Proposition

    Where do we go when we die?
    We go back to where we came from
    And where was that?
    I don’t know, I can’t remember
                 Virginia Woolf, “The Hours”

    I don’t remember much of this life, and like Virginia Woolf, nothing of the herebefore. How then, could I expect to know of the hereafter? I know at least that we all exist at and of the moment and that we make up those moments as we go along. I became a grandfather for the first time a few months ago and proud son Jeff asked for some fatherly advice as to how to go about raising his baby daughter Caroline. “We all do it in our own way, Jeff, you’ll make it up as you go along,” I said. Parenting, and life itself, is one giant experiment. From those first infant steps, to adolescent peer testing, flying from and departing the parental nest, gene replication and family building of our own, maturity and acquiescence, aging, decay and inevitable death – we experiment as best we can and make it up as we go along.

    That death part though, oh where do we go after we have done all the making? There was another Jeff in our family, beloved brother-in-law Jeff Stubban who was as kind a man as there ever could be. Dying within three months of an initial diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, our family sobbed uncontrollably at his bedside as his breath, his spirit, his soul, departed almost on cue while a priest recited the rosary. Where had he gone, where is he now, what will become of him and all of us? Like many grieving families we look for signs of him and in turn for clues to our own destination. A lucky penny in the street, a random mention of his beloved New Orleans, an exterior resemblance of his shiny bald head in a mingling crowd. Where are you, Jeff? Tell us you are safe so that we might meet again.

    Having now matured to trust reason more than faith I offer not so much a resolution, but an alternative to the unanswerable question of Virginia Woolf and the departed souls of Jeff Stubban and billions of others. If we don’t meet again – up there – then perhaps we’ll meet once more – down here. After all, the one thing I know for sure is that we got here once – and because we did, we could do it again. Rest easy, dear Jeff, and welcome to this world, dear Caroline. We’ll all just have to make it up as we go along.

    The transition from a levering, asset-inflating secular economy to a post bubble delevering era may be as difficult for one to imagine as our departure into the hereafter. A multitude of liability structures dependent on a certain level of nominal GDP growth require just that – nominal GDP growth with a little bit of inflation, a little bit of growth which in combination justify embedded costs of debt or liability structures that minimize the haircutting of or defaulting on prior debt commitments. Global central bank monetary policy – whether explicitly communicated or not – is now geared to keeping nominal GDP close to historical levels as is fiscal deficit spending that substitutes for a delevering private sector.

    Yet the imagination and management of the transition ushers forth a plethora of disparate policy solutions. Most observers, however, would agree that monetary and fiscal excesses carry with them explicit costs. Letting your pet retriever roam the woods might do wonders for his “animal spirits,” for instance, but he could come back infested with fleas, ticks, leeches or worse. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, dog-lover or not, preannounced an awareness of the deleterious side effects of quantitative easing several years ago in a significant speech at Jackson Hole. Ever since, he has been open and honest about the drawbacks of a zero interest rate policy, but has plowed ahead and unleashed his “QE bowser” into the wild with the understanding that the negative consequences of not doing so would be far worse. At his November 2011 post-FOMC news briefing, for instance, he noted that “we are quite aware that very low interest rates, particularly for a protracted period, do have costs for a lot of people” – savers, pension funds, insurance companies and finance-based institutions among them. He countered though that “there is a greater good here, which is the health and recovery of the U.S. economy, and for that purpose we’ve been keeping monetary policy conditions accommodative.”

    My goal in this Investment Outlook is not to pick a “doggie bone” with the Chairman. He is makin’ it up as he goes along in order to softly delever a credit-based financial system which became egregiously overlevered and assumed far too much risk long before his watch began. My intent really is to alert you, the reader, to the significant costs that may be ahead for a global economy and financial marketplace still functioning under the assumption that cheap and abundant central bank credit is always a positive dynamic. When interest rates approach the zero bound they may transition from historically stimulative to potentially destimulative/regressive influences. Much like the laws of physics change from the world of Newtonian large objects to the world of quantum Einsteinian dynamics, so too might low interest rates at the zero-bound reorient previously held models that justified the stimulative effects of lower and lower yields on asset prices and the real economy.

    It is instructive to mention that this is not necessarily PIMCO’s view alone. Chairman Bernanke and Fed staff members have been sniffin’ this trail like the good hound dogs they are for some time now. In addition, Credit Suisse, in their “2012 Global Outlook,” devoted considerable pages to specifics of zero-based money with commonsensical historical comparisons to Japan over the past decade or so. The following pages of this Outlook will do the same. At the heart of the theory, however, is that zero-bound interest rates do not always and necessarily force investors to take more risk by purchasing stocks or real estate, to cite the classic central bank thesis. First of all, when rational or irrational fear persuades an investor to be more concerned about the return of her money than on her money then liquidity can be trapped in a mattress, a bank account or a five basis point Treasury bill. But that commonsensical observation is well known to Fed policymakers, economic historians and certainly citizens on Main Street.

    What perhaps is not so often recognized is that liquidity can be trapped by the “price” of credit, in addition to its “risk.” Capitalism depends on risk-taking in several forms. Developers, homeowners, entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes epitomize the riskiness of business building via equity and credit risk extension. But modern capitalism is dependent as well on maturity extension in credit markets. No venture, aside from one financed with 100% owners’ capital, could survive on credit or loans that matured or were callable overnight. Buildings, utilities and homes require 20- and 30-year loan commitments to smooth and justify their returns. Because this is so, lenders require a yield premium, expressed as a positively sloped yield curve, to make the extended loan. A flat yield curve, in contrast, is a disincentive for lenders to lend unless there is sufficient downside room for yields to fall and provide bond market capital gains. This nominal or even real interest rate “margin” is why prior cyclical periods of curve flatness or even inversion have been successfully followed by economic expansions. Intermediate and long rates – even though flat and equal to a short-term policy rate – have had room to fall, and credit therefore has not been trapped by “price.”

    When all yields approach the zero-bound, however, as in Japan for the past 10 years, and now in the U.S. and selected “clean dirty shirt” sovereigns, then the dynamics may change. Money can become less liquid and frozen by “price” in addition to the classic liquidity trap explained by “risk.”

    Even if nodding in agreement, an observer might immediately comment that today’s yield curve is anything but flat and that might be true. Most short to intermediate Treasury yields, however, are dangerously close to the zero-bound which imply little if any room to fall: no margin, no air underneath those bond yields and therefore limited, if any, price appreciation. What incentive does a bank have to buy two-year Treasuries at 20 basis points when they can park overnight reserves with the Fed at 25? What incentives do investment managers or even individual investors have to take price risk with a five-, 10- or 30-year Treasury when there are multiples of downside price risk compared to appreciation? At 75 basis points, a five-year Treasury can only rationally appreciate by two more points, but theoretically can go down by an unlimited amount. Duration risk and flatness at the zero-bound, to make the simple point, can freeze and trap liquidity by convincing investors to hold cash as opposed to extend credit.

    Where else can one go, however? We can’t put $100 trillion of credit in a system-wide mattress, can we? Of course not, but we can move in that direction by delevering and refusing to extend maturities and duration. Recent central bank behavior, including that of the U.S. Fed, provides assurances that short and intermediate yields will not change, and therefore bond prices are not likely threatened on the downside. Still, zero-bound money may kill as opposed to create credit. Developed economies where these low yields reside may suffer accordingly. It may as well, induce inflationary distortions that give a rise to commodities and gold as store of value alternatives when there is little value left in paper.

    Where does credit go when it dies? It goes back to where it came from. It delevers, it slows and inhibits economic growth, and it turns economic theory upside down, ultimately challenging the wisdom of policymakers. We’ll all be making this up as we go along for what may seem like an eternity. A 30-50 year virtuous cycle of credit expansion which has produced outsize paranormal returns for financial assets – bonds, stocks, real estate and commodities alike – is now delevering because of excessive “risk” and the “price” of money at the zero-bound. We are witnessing the death of abundance and the borning of austerity, for what may be a long, long time.



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    The Last but not Least


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    Last modified: February, 19, 2014