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Monday, February 27, 2012

Want to avoid cancer? Take ibuprofen

I recently tweeted a prediction: In five years, people will surely take NSAIDs daily for cancer prophylaxis, as surely as people take aspirin now for heart-disease prophylaxis.

The evidence is increasingly clear that common over-the-counter NSAIDs like ibuprofen inhibit, and/or prevent, cancer growth. 

As K. Wakabayash says in Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2000;1(2):97-113, "There is abundant epidemiological and experimental evidence that NSAIDs can inhibit tumour development in a number of organs and such drugs have given positive results in human intervention studies."

The literature on NSAIDs and cancer is increasingly vast. I won't try to summarize it here. I do recommend you investigate it yourself, and do what I do: take some ibuprofen daily.

If you want to save lives, please RT and/or send this link to friends.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Staples: a company in dire need of a Bain Capital Moment

This week would be a good time to hedge any positions you have on SPLS.

The stock could break much higher, or much lower, after its earnings announcement on Weds. 29 Feb.

Short interest on the stock has been running around 26MM shares (three days+ worth of trading). Perfect for a short squeeze if the company reports an upside surprise.

But that would be a surprise indeed.

It will be interesting to follow the puts-vs.-calls volume on the stock for the next two days.

Longterm, I think you can only short this stock down to $8.

To say I'm not bullish on this stock is like saying I don't think toilets flush upwards. They only flush downwards. Unless you're in deep space.

Ironically, Staples owes its existence to the early efforts of Mitt Romney & friends, but is currently in dire need of a Bain Capital moment. The company will only survive if it finds a suitor or new management, IMHO. And I don't think it will be the former.

I'm anxious to hear the 29 Feb earnings call. In particular, I'm anxious to know management's explanation of why stores are eerily empty (quiet as a library, in my neighborhood) and what they will blame their poor results on. Will it be the weak dollar? The high cost of gasoline? The recession? Competition from Amazon? Competition from Office Max?

Oh, I could be way-wrong (short-term). Maybe Staples had a stellar Christmas season and a wonderful start-of-the-school-season. Maybe results won't be nearly as bad as I think they will be. Maybe same-store comps will be up (for the first time in recent memory). Maybe Staples has a wonderful secret that they've not yet shared with the rest of the world.

But you know what? The felt-marker writing, I think, is already on the wall. Staples is (and always has been) a small-business play (and recently, a soccer-mom play). Small business, though, has been decimated by franchise chains over the past 20+ years. Staples' original base of support is all but gone. And the new base of support (soccer moms buying school supplies for their kids) is too thin to support the existing infrastructure. Who wants to drive to Staples to buy inkjet cartridges that you can find cheaper on Amazon (and show up at your door via UPS)?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but: Staples is basically finished, if they still consider small business to be their core customer base.

We'll know the score on Wednesday.

In the meantime, I say: hedge your bets. This one will break big, one direction or the other. And I, for one, don't want to be on the wrong side of the trade.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Splash screens == sloth

The badge of shame: A big, fat, pompous splash screen, letting you know whose priorities really matter.

Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece. All opinions are my own and not those of my employer.

Maybe I'm getting old and cranky.

Maybe I've been in this business too long.

Actually, scratch that. I'm sane and normal. It's the industry that's screwed up.

Here's what pisses me off: I abhor monolithism, or the appearance of it. And I hate when it steals precious seconds (or minutes) out of my day. Day in and day out. Every day. Over and over again.

When I turn my computer on, it should just be on. Ready to go. Kind of like—well, like my phone, for example. Which is, after all, my real computer.

When I fire up Photoshop (or OpenOffice, or any other pathetically oversized mountain of bloatware), it should just violently start, before I've even raised my coffee cup to my mouth. Or appear to start, at least. Show me a screenshot that looks like Photoshop. Trick me into thinking it's running. Cache my UI gestures until the world has finished bootstrapping. Run my gestures against an image in the cloud. Make my gestures appear to do something interesting. Fool me into thinking the damn thing is running. Better yet, make it so.

I'm so f*cking tired of looking at splash screens (whether Adobe's, Microsoft's, or anybody else's). A splash screen basically tells me, in very clear-cut terms, that my time is worth nothing whatsoever. It's a fresh reminder that users' needs don't count as much as programmer convenience does. The customer can wait—we've got more important things to do . . . like show you this test-pattern with our programmers' names on it.

Thomas Knoll is the first name on the Photoshop splash screen, right? I know it by heart now (so do millions of others, I'm sure), not because I am intimately familiar with the history of Photoshop (and thus know that Thomas and his brother John were the originators of the program), but because I've seen that freakin' splash screen so many times in my life, it's burned permanently into my visual cortex.

You know what? As a consumer, I'm tired of that crap. It has to stop. The madness has to stop. Splash screens have to stop. Bloated slothware that takes 30 seconds (or even 10, or 5) to load has got to stop.

Let's be perfectly blunt. A splash screen communicates sloth. If I were Shantanu Narayen (CEO of Adobe) I would outlaw them immediately. Either that or commit seppuku in disgrace.

Please understand, I'm not here to pick on Adobe specifically. (After all, I work for them.) Microsoft, far more than Adobe or anybody else, deserves top billing on the sloth Wall of Shame. Imagine if your phone or iPad took as long to boot as a Windows laptop. Would you use it? Would it be usable?

Why then are we still using desktop PCs? (Well, as it turns out, we mostly aren't. But I guess that's the point.)

I'm sorry to have used the f-word ("f*cking'") a few paragraphs ago, I really am. Every bone in my body recoils at using that word in a blog (or anywhere else). But we've long since passed the point where I can remain reasonable on this subject (the subject of monolithism in software design). I remember when whole operating systems ran in less memory than Firefox leaks in 10 seconds, for crying out loud. (Yeah, so, I guess I am old. And cranky.)

But you know what? It's time somebody said something. Slothware is a non-starter. It no longer meets the criterion of "minimally usable" (as set by iPhone and similar devices). It doesn't deserve to live. Stab it in the heart with a wooden stake, I say. It's time to move on.

I can think of lots of ways to make bloatware look "lite" (e.g., show a UI right away and let an instance of the program in the cloud operate against my gestures, until the local copy boots fully and can re-sync with me). Put up a "lite" UI until the heavy one finishes loading. For heaven's sake, you can just give me a simple game to play while the program boots. Do something useful, something that makes me feel like a human being. Don't just force me to stare at a pompous billboard for whoever created the program. That's the height of arrogance and uselessness. It gives the middle finger to the customer.

I say it's time to kill bloatware (or at least convincingly fake its death) and put the user back in control. Make big programs feel lite. As a user, I want to feel empowered, not belittled. Trick me into thinking big programs are already running (because after all, they probably are, in the cloud somewhere).

We need to get this right, because today's user of desktop and laptop software (and enterprise software, I might add) will not stand for standards of software behavior that were, frankly, already pathetically inadequate in 1999. It's 2012 now. Users have smart phones and tablets that come on like a light-switch, apps a-blazin'. The bar is higher now.

Monolithism, or the appearance of it, simply has to go.

Let me put it in even starker terms. If we (in the PC software biz) keep treating customers like pathetic dolts whose time is worth nothing . . . we deserve the fate that's waiting for us.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

The Trouble with Amazon

Amazon: the new Montgomery Ward
Amazon (let's be honest) is a company in trouble. Oh, its financials are fine. It's profitable, even. It's growing. By all normal metrics, it's not in trouble at all. But common sense says the spit's about to hit the fan. Amazon is on a collision course with destiny—the destiny of all companies who ever tried to do too much (Kmart, Federated Dept. Stores, Montgomery Ward, Allied Stores, Southland Corp., Ames Department Stores, The Circle K Corp.. Carter Hawley Hale Stores—the list goes on). Let's be blunt: Amazon is just another department store, except they have no physical storefront. But lack of a physical storefront doesn't mean they won't suffer the fate of all the unwieldy, poorly managed department store chains that have gone before. History has a way of dealing with do-too-much retailers (and now, e-tailers).

Amazon's business model is a model of confusion. Their business is really three businesses: eRetailing (what Amazon calls EGM: Electronics and General Merchandise), publishing, and cloud services.

According to Amazon's 10K filing, EGM currently accounts for 60% of the business. And that's precisely where the big trouble lies.

Recent indications are that Amazon has reached a tipping point. For 2011, Amazon's net income was a paltry $631 million on net sales of $48 billion. Compare this to 2010's net income of $1.152 billion on $34.2 billion in net sales. Basic earnings-per-share has gone from $2.58 (2010) to $1.39 (2011).

Basically, Amazon has become a logistics company without wheels. To survive in its present form, it badly needs to acquire an Airborne Express (except that AE has already been acquired by DHL), or maybe a railroad and a package delivery company. Ideally, it also needs to acquire a payment-processing system (a PayPal). Why not just admit the obvious? Amazon needs to acquire eBay.

The alternative is to join the long list of department stores that tried to be all things to all customers (and ended up broke).

Amazon claims it will enjoy greater efficiencies (going forward) by opening more fulfillment centers and putting pressure on suppliers. But their story, frankly, is starting to sound old and is (how shall we say?) at this point painfully unconvincing. Inefficiencies are rising faster than efficiencies, at Amazon. That's what the numbers show. And that's the real point.

You don't have to be a numbers guru to see where Amazon is headed, though. Just look at what Amazon is trying to sell, and draw your own conclusions. The following list was taken directly from the pulldown menu on their U.S. website:

Amazon Instant Video Appliances Apps for Android Arts, Crafts & Sewing Automotive Baby Beauty Books Cell Phones & Accessories Clothing & Accessories Computers Electronics Gift Cards Grocery & Gourmet Food Health & Personal Care Home & Kitchen Industrial & Scientific Jewelry Kindle Store Magazine Subscriptions Movies & TV MP3 Downloads Music Musical Instruments Office Products Patio, Lawn & Garden Pet Supplies Shoes Software Sports & Outdoors Tools & Home Improvement Toys & Games Video Games Watches 

I've highlighted certain items that are emblematic of Amazon's ongoing megalomaniacal bid to be everything-to-everyone. Amazon is trying to out-Sears Sears. But we all know what's happening to Sears. And it ain't pretty.

Amazon's legacy: empty strip malls everywhere.
Amazon hasn't been completely ineffective. For every one of Amazon's 69 fulfillment centers, there are probably five to ten Staples stores out of business, ten or twenty Barnes & Nobles stores gone, a dozen hardware stores gone, several pet supply stores, and maybe a Toys R Us or two. To see the devastation wreaked by Amazon, you have only to cruise the half-empty strip malls in your local neighborhood. Amazon is sucking $50 billion a year out of local economies, worldwide.

Where Amazon excels, of course, is in book reselling, e-book publishing, and Kindle sales (although they are rumored to be taking a $15 hit on every Kindle Fire sold). This is where Amazon's monopoly power lies. This is where they have the power to dominate, not merely decimate.

Amazon also does well as a cloud-services provider. They can legitimately claim some high ground here.

But in patio, lawn, and garden equipment, sports equipment, kitchen and bath fixtures, and numerous other areas, they're never going to have monopoly power.

In short, the parts of Amazon that deal in electrons are doing well. The parts that deal in protons are not doing so well. That's the crux of the matter.

One day, Jeff Bezos is going to have a Bain Capital moment and recognize that he's in way over his big fat head. There'll be a sudden "huge restructuring" of the business. Big writeoffs will be taken. Apologies will be issued. The stock price will plummet. And Amazon will emerge a much smaller (but more profitable) company.

Either that, or (if Bezos continues to think like a megalomaniac) Amazon will simply hit the wall, hard. And the smoking shards will blanket the earth.

I wonder if they sell hard-hats?

Disclosure: The author has no stake (long or short) in Amazon stock.