The Deipnosophist

Where the science of investing becomes an art of living

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Location: Summerlin, Nevada, United States

A private investor for 20+ years, I manage private portfolios and write about investing. You can read my market musings on three different sites: 1) The Deipnosophist, dedicated to teaching the market's processes and mechanics; 2) Investment Poetry, a subscription site dedicated to real time investment recommendations; and 3) Seeking Alpha, a combination of the other two sites with a mix of reprints from this site and all-original content. See you here, there, or the other site!

25 June 2008

Apple's deep bench, and nary a bench-warmer among them

For those investors who fret about Apple/AAPL sans Steve Jobs, this article should go far to help ease your worries.

"... shares Jobs’ single-minded focus on the customer experience, and when he parts ways with Jobs — the Genius Bar, where customers get hands-on troubleshooting, was a Johnson idea that Jobs resisted — he is often right. Most retailers focus on how you find the right item, he says, how you select it and how you get it out of the store. “We said there’s a bigger idea. Let’s design it around the customer’s life, not the moment when they’re in the store.” Apple’s second-most charismatic public speaker, he is on several outsiders’ short list of possible successors."

We each, as humans, tend to focus monomaniacally on the presumed asymptote as the natural tying together of various threads into one tidy fabric, and conclusion. The truth, though, is that the many threads rarely tie together to form a whole anything. Not even in the asymptote.

-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist


24 June 2008

What a catch!

The video below is one of those seemingly incredulous items that must be seen in order to believe in them...

Whoa, that is a whole lot more than merely a fantastic catch!
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist


A lie serves only to deceive yourself

Successful investing requires a flexible mind; the investor always ready, willing, and able to admit his or her error, and in real time. Some view that truth as equivocation, or fence-sitting, but the reality is that it is necessary. What is not necessary is to lie, and pretend you do not say what, in fact, you did.

My friend, Allan Harris, is no fan of CNBC's inimitable Jim Cramer. In post after post, Allan has railed against Jim, whereas I have defended him. I know Jim is not the clown he portrays himself to be on TV; no, Jim is a quiet, reflective, sensitive, and intelligent man.

But that reality does not excuse his TV buffoonery, nor does it excuse the truth that his investment returns fail, year after year, to beat any market benchmark... which all (I believe) to be the cause of Allan's ire. Poor investment returns + buffoonery = TV show... And that somehow equals success...? What the hell kind of equation is that?

Okay, it is a difficult market environment (when is it not?), but never lie. Ever. Own up to your errors, and then move on. In the intriguing ~10 minute video below, one fellow captures Jim Cramer with his pants down...

Your comments welcome.
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist

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20 June 2008

Markets today

Today's market action qualifies easily as very ugly.

A resumption of the woes and concerns in the finance sectors of the equities markets have caused a bout of uninhibited sellling; seemingly no stock, group, or sector is a safe haven. With ~75 minutes to go before the close, the markets could plummet for an especially ugly daily decline.

Intra-day patterns show a slackening of the selling pressure, though, which means the possibility exists, however scant, for a late-day and week-ending price rally from the lows. For such a rally to occur, prices must hook up -- right here, right now.

We shall know soon enough what changes the final 75 minutes bring.
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist


18 June 2008

America's obesity epidemic strikes everyone...

... and everything!

Note, for example, the changes to Michelangelo's famous sculpture of David, which returns to Italy after a successful 12 week, 20 city tour of the USA...

Full Disclosure: Always hungry!
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist

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14 June 2008

Follow the leader

Before all you tech geeks decry that Apple really, truly is not the design and technology leader I, and others, believe it to be, please understand the difference between being the vanguard, the leading edge of the main force, and the cutting (or bleeding) edge.

But Apple's impact on the industry has been greater than its market share suggests. The iPhone has set new standards in design and ease of use. A telling statistic from Mr Jobs is...

The iPhone, with its elegant touch-screen interface, seems likely to be the gadget that sets the direction that others will follow in the era of mobility. To bring that about, Apple is now turning the iPhone into a hand-held computer...

In battle, that difference typically translates as your life; in technology, the difference typically is profits. Apple/AAPL, for the first time in its corporate history, strings together consecutive money-making and profitable years, not just a quarter or two. Its stock reflects these successes.

I really could not write more pithily re the technology revolution that Apple/AAPL leads than does the brief essay below from the Economist magazine. (Link embedded.) So why even try?

-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist


Follow the leader
Jun 12th 2008 SAN FRANCISCO

From The Economist

Apple ditches its unusual business model to boost handset sales

ALMOST a year after launching what he thinks is the phone to change all phones, Steve Jobs, the boss of Apple, took to the stage again this week to introduce its second version, the iPhone 3G. In the past year Mr Jobs, who had surgery for pancreatic cancer in 2004, has visibly aged. Looking emaciated, he farmed out large parts of his speech, which is usually a big marketing and media event, to other presenters. But he still held the crowd in thrall as ever.

The new iPhone mostly addresses the shortcomings of the old one. It has GPS satellite-positioning technology that will allow a new and exciting category of services, such as location tracking, that depend upon the phone knowing where it is. It works with fast third-generation (3G) mobile networks, not just slower 2G ones. And it panders to corporate customers with features such as better integration with their systems and “remote wiping” of data if a handset goes missing.

Perhaps above all, it is a lot cheaper, starting at $199, just below what the industry sees as the pain threshold for the mass market. What Mr Jobs did not say was that the reduction comes largely from a change in Apple's relations with mobile operators, such as AT&T in America. Operators will subsidise the new handsets to make this low price possible, but will also increase monthly usage fees—and will no longer pass a share of those fees to Apple.

This brings Apple in line with the business model used by other handset-makers, such as Nokia and Samsung. Getting operators to agree to Apple's novel revenue-sharing scheme seems to have hindered sales. Evidently Mr Jobs hopes to gain more from faster handset sales than he will lose by giving up his share of usage fees. By cutting the iPhone's price and increasing the number of countries where it is legally available from six to 70, Mr Jobs hopes to reach his goal of selling 10m iPhones by the end of the year. (So far, 6m have been sold.)

Competitors quickly tried to douse another conflagration of iPhone hype. “I see this as a catch-up release for Apple,” says Andrew Lees, head of mobile businesses at Microsoft, an arch-rival which provides software to many handset-makers. “We outsell them by two to one.” He points out, legitimately, that many phones using Microsoft Mobile software have long had both GPS and 3G, and have always tied into corporate computer systems.

Finland's Nokia sells the most “smartphones”, capturing 45% of the world market in the first three months of this year, and Canada's Research In Motion (RIM), the maker of the famous BlackBerry, is second, with 13%. Even in America, where Nokia is weak, RIM leads, with 42%, followed by Apple with 20%.

But Apple's impact on the industry has been greater than its market share suggests. The iPhone has set new standards in design and ease of use. A telling statistic from Mr Jobs is that 98% of users browse the web on their iPhones, 94% use it for e-mail, and 80% use ten or more features—including, of course, the built-in iPod music-player. As Mr Jobs joked, many users of other smartphones, with their clunky menus, cannot even find ten features.

This points to the ultimate role of the iPhone for Mr Jobs, Apple and the industry. There were personal computers before 1984, but it took the Macintosh, which Apple launched that year, to popularise the icon-based graphical interface that others copied, kicking off the PC era. There were digital music-players before 2001, but Apple's iPod made them both ubiquitous and user-friendly. In the same way, says Tim Bajarin of Creative Strategies, an analyst who has followed Apple throughout its history, the iPhone, with its elegant touch-screen interface, seems likely to be the gadget that sets the direction that others will follow in the era of mobility.

To bring that about, Apple is now turning the iPhone into a hand-held computer and allowing other firms to write software to run on it. Other handset-makers are doing the same, but the iPhone's operating system and programming tools, on display this week, are better than theirs. There is no doubt that Mr Jobs is trying to lead a third revolution in consumer technology in his lifetime.


Dear American Airlines

On this blog's sidebar (found under "Notable Books") is my mini- (and quasi-) review of recently published novel, Dear American Airlines (with link embedded).

Readers with interest will find more information re this excellent novel in the reviews gathered below.

Dear American Airlines
by Jonathan Miles
(Houghton Mifflin, $23)

The mere premise of this hilarious debut novel “should be enough to win it millions of readers,” said Benjamin Lytal in The New York Sun. Framed as a long letter of complaint from a stranded airline traveler, it “begins in attack mode, but curls”—as the protagonist’s wait stretches on and on—“into a deeply penetrating self-examination.” The book’s disgruntled Everyman has a lot at stake, said Porter Shreve in the Chicago Tribune. A failed poet and a boozy flop of a father, he’s desperate to get to California for his only daughter’s wedding and not at all proud of the life he’s lived. But he’s great company. “Turn to nearly any page” of his 180-page missive and you’ll be won over by a “funny, smart, touching, wonderfully caustic, or well-turned sentence or paragraph.” Underlying the entire story is a theme “that couldn’t be more timely,” said Richard Russo in The New York Times. At a time when the blame game has become a favorite American indulgence, this particular traveler has been given the chance to work out who’s really at fault for the mess he’s in. It’s even possible that “he actually owes American Airlines a debt of gratitude.”
Full Disclosure: Striving always to bring you the very best of everything -- books, investment opportunities, etc -- and ahead of the pack. (Which I deem crucial, particularly re investments.)
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist

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10 June 2008

More a reply than an answer

A reader writes...

First off, thank you very much for sharing your thoughts with us. Your blog is one of the few I follow. Second, any chance you have time to take a look at NNVC and share your thoughts with us? Thanks either way, and keep up the good words. P.S. focuses quite a bit on NNVC.
First, thank you for your kind comments. Second, your question re NNVC, as stated, is ambiguous. Do you want my "thoughts" re the company, its products, or its stock? And, if the stock, are you long or short? What is your investing time frame? Your answers to these questions, and others unasked, would help guide me in providing an answer specific to your interests.

That said, I know Allan Harris recommends Nanoviricides/NNVC, and I think he does a fine job of dissecting the company, its product, and the stock via frequent updates. (Even though he is very bullish on the company.) I wonder what more I could add that Allan does not already provide.

And, as it happens, Allan and I are friends, which adds yet another layer of appreciation to his many successes. Investing is only a part of it; do not forget his role in bringing the Stanley Cup to Detroit, which effort was only part time!
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist

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First Marriage

You know how you're going along, getting along, moving through life -- thinking all the while that you are captain of your ship, Destiny? And then, wham!, something comes along to disrupt your course, and the house of cards (to mix metaphors) that was your orderly, ordered life comes tumbling down? And you are left standing there, amid the rubble, wondering, "What happened...?"

The poem below, First Marriage, helps say precisely that; its truth, my truth, scores a bulls-eye in my gut, my head, my heart.
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist

First Marriage

I made it cross country
In a little under three days.
The engine blew out

About a hundred miles north
Of San Francisco, where I'd
Hoped to start living again

With a woman I'd abandoned
Only a few months before.
The reasons I'd left her were

Wincingly obvious
Soon as I got back
To her, and it didn't take long

Before I again left her.
In a few weeks I'd meet
The woman who became

My first wife, the one
With whom I spent
Almost the entirety

Of my twenties. It took
About twenty years
Getting over her, after

We divorced at thirty.
Broke then, I took
A bus cross-country

And was back in the East
By Christmas, thinking it
Would take three years maybe

To put this one behind me.
But getting over her
Happened as we were

Both in our third marriages,
Both then with children,
Heading for our fifties.

She came cross-country
To tend to me when I had
Cancer, with a 20% chance

Of recovery. The recovery
From all she had been to me,
Me abiding with her as long

As I did, took place finally
When we, her sitting on my bed
And me lying in it, held hands

And watched ourselves watching
TV, something we'd never quite
Been able to do comfortably

All those years ago. So many
Things turn this way over time,
So much tenderness and memory,

Problems not to be solved
But lived, and I resolved
Right then to start living

Only in this kind of time.
Cancer gave this to me: being
Able to sit, comfortably, to get

Over her finally, and to
Get on with the fight to live while
Staying ready to die daily.

-- Liam Rector

© The University of Chicago Press, 2006

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09 June 2008

A chuckle, or three

The truth about laughter is that it is best when shared, rarely if ever when alone. And while I do not know about you, I sure could use a good chuckle right about now.

Especially now.
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist

Click on each image to enlarge...

How to survive a day at the office

A man's life

An especially brief short story

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08 June 2008

Permission to view?

Thank you! to the handful of readers who wrote to alert me that this site was oddly inaccessible.

The Deipnosophist is back up for all readers; no permissions required.
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist


04 June 2008

What are the odds?

And so we come to the article below that is complementary to this article, only better; far better.
"The outline of our lives, like the flame of a candle, is continuously coaxed in new directions by a variety of random events that, along with our responses to them, determine our fate. Life, as a result, is both hard to predict and hard to interpret."
The quote above is only one reason why I mention repeatedly the parallels between successful investing and the successful life; the oddity is that the decisions consistently successful investing demands are black and white, cut and dried. (Buy/sell, long/short, in/out, etc.) The types of decisions, in truth, that have no place in life's grey hues. Make those decisions in your life -- and likely live alone.
"To humans, random events often look like non-random events. We must be careful, when interpreting human affairs, to never confuse the two."
This article haunts me. I am a visual and intuitive investor, guilty of identifying and then seeking patterns. But I recognize the markets, investing, and yes life itself can each confound, and thus lead me, and us all, astray. Which is one reason I abide by rules when investing, in life. Consistently successful investing demands black and white, cut and dried, immediate responses to stimulii; buy or sell upon the appropriate signal, and then live with the consequences.

Or do nothing, and live with the consequences of your indecisions. Never forget that non-decisions and indecisions are themselves decisions; bad decisions.

The article begins below the fold...
-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist


What are the odds?
Leonard Mlodinow

As newspaper columns go, Parade magazine’s “Ask Marilyn” has to be considered a smashing success. Distributed in 350 newspapers and boasting a combined circulation of nearly 36 million, the question-and-answer column originated in 1986 and is still going strong.

Who is this guru Marilyn? Well, Marilyn vos Savant is famous for being listed for years in the Guinness World Records Hall of Fame as the person with the world’s highest recorded IQ (228). She is also famous for being married to Robert Jarvik, inventor of the Jarvik artificial heart. But sometimes famous people, despite their other accomplishments, are remembered for something they wished had never happened. That may be the case for Marilyn, who is most famous for her response to the following question (slightly reworded below), which appeared in her column one Sunday in September 1990:

“Suppose the contestants on a game show are given the choice of three doors: Behind one door is a car; behind the others, goats. After a contestant picks a door, the host, who knows what’s behind all the doors, opens one of the unchosen doors, which reveals a goat. He then says to the contestant, ‘Do you want to switch to the other unopened door?’ Is it to the contestant’s advantage to make the switch?”

The question was inspired by the workings of the television game show Let’s Make a Deal, which ran from 1963 to 1976 and in several incarnations from 1980 to 1991. The show’s main draw was its amiable host, Monty Hall, and his beauty queen assistant, Carol Merrill.

It had come to the surprise of the show’s creators that after airing 4,500 episodes in nearly 27 years, it was this question of mathematical probability that would be their principal legacy. This issue has immortalized both Marilyn and Let’s Make a Deal because of the vehemence with which Marilyn vos Savant’s readers responded to the column. After all, it appears to be a pretty silly question. Two doors are available—open one and you win; open the other and you lose—so it seems self-evident that whether you change your choice or not, your chances of winning are 50/50. What could be simpler? The thing is, Marilyn said in her column that it is better to switch.

Despite the public’s much-heralded lethargy when it comes to mathematical issues, Marilyn’s readers reacted as if she’d advocated ceding California back to Mexico. Her denial of the obvious brought her an avalanche of mail, 10,000 letters by her estimate. If you ask the American people whether they agree that plants create the oxygen in the air, light travels faster than sound, or you cannot make radioactive milk by boiling it, you will get double-digit disagreement in each case (13 percent, 24 percent, and 35 percent, respectively). But on this issue, Americans were united: Ninety-two percent agreed Marilyn was wrong.

Almost 1,000 Ph.D.s wrote in, many of them math professors, who seemed especially irate. This came from Georgetown: “How many irate mathematicians are needed to change your mind?” Someone from the U.S. Army Research Institute remarked, “If all those Ph.D.s are wrong the country would be in serious trouble.”

The thing is, Marilyn was correct. When told of this, Paul Erdos, one of the leading mathematicians of the 20th century, said, “That’s impossible.” Then, when presented with a formal mathematical proof of the correct answer, he still didn’t believe it and grew angry. Only after a colleague arranged for a computer simulation in which Erdos watched hundreds of trials that came out 2-to-1 in favor of switching did Erdos concede that he was wrong.

How can something that seems so obvious be wrong? In the words of a Harvard professor who specializes in probability and statistics, “Our brains are just not wired to do probability problems very well.”

That’s a shame. As Roman statesman Cicero wrote, “Probability is the very guide of life.” The outline of our lives, like the flame of a candle, is continuously coaxed in new directions by a variety of random events that, along with our responses to them, determine our fate. Life, as a result, is both hard to predict and hard to interpret. Just as, looking at a Rorschach blot, you might see Madonna and I, a duck-billed platypus, the data we encounter in business, law, medicine, sports, the media, or your child’s third-grade report card can be read in many ways. Yet interpreting the role of chance in an event is not like interpreting a Rorschach blot; there are right ways and wrong ways to do it.

We often employ intuitive processes when we make assessments and choices in uncertain situations. But those intuitive processes come with drawbacks. They no doubt carried an evolutionary advantage when we had to decide whether a saber-toothed tiger was smiling because it was fat and happy or because it was famished and saw us as its next meal. But the modern world has a different balance.

The human response to uncertainty is so complex that different structures within the brain can come to separate conclusions. For example, if your face swells to five times its normal size three out of four times you eat shrimp, the “logical” left hemisphere of your brain will attempt to find a pattern. The “intuitive” right hemisphere, on the other hand, will simply say, “Avoid shrimp.” Sometimes the separate hemispheres apparently fight it out to determine which conclusion will dominate.

At least that’s what researchers found in less painful experimental setups. In a game called probability guessing, subjects are shown a series of cards or lights, which can have two colors, say green and red. Things are arranged so that the colors will appear with different probabilities but otherwise without a pattern. For example, red might appear twice as often as green. The task of the subject, after watching for a while, is to predict whether each new member of the sequence will be red or green.

The game has two basic strategies. One is to always guess the color that you notice occurs more frequently. That is the route favored by rats and other (nonhuman) animals. The other strategy is to “match” your proportion of green and red guesses to the proportion of green and red you observed in the past.

Humans usually adapt the second strategy, trying to deduce a pattern. In the process we allow ourselves to be outperformed by a rat. But there are people with certain types of post-surgical brain impairment—called a split brain—that precludes the right and left hemispheres from communicating with each other. When the experiment is performed on these people in such a way that the separate hemispheres of each subject are tested separately, the right hemisphere always chooses to guess the more frequent color and the left hemisphere always tries to guess the pattern.

To humans, random events often look like non-random events. We must be careful, when interpreting human affairs, to never confuse the two.

The Monty Hall problem can be solved without any specialized mathematical knowledge, but you do need a basic understanding of how probability truly works. The key is the law of the “sample space”—a framework for analyzing chance situations that was first put on paper in the 16th century by an Italian mathematician and gambler named Gerolamo Cardano.

In modern language, Cardano’s rule reads like this: “Suppose a random process has many equally likely outcomes, some favorable, some unfavorable. Then the probability of obtaining a favorable outcome is equal to the proportion of outcomes that are favorable.”

The potency of Cardano’s rule goes hand in hand with certain subtleties. One lies in the meaning of the term “outcomes.” As late as the 18th century, the famous French mathematician Jean Le Rond d’Alembert misused the concept when he analyzed the toss of two coins. The number of heads that turns up in those two tosses can be 0, 1, or 2. Since there are three outcomes, Alembert reasoned, the chances of each must be 1 in 3. But Alembert was mistaken.

The key is to realize that the possible outcomes of each of the two coin tosses must be considered. In other words, we have to think about the tosses in terms of possible sequences (heads, heads), (heads, tails), (tails, heads), and (tails, tails). These are the four possibilities that make up the “sample space.” There is thus a 75 percent chance that the two tosses will yield at least one heads but only a 25 percent chance that they will yield two.

In the Monty Hall problem, you are facing three doors, and the sample space is this list of three possible favorable outcomes: The car is behind door 1. The car is behind door 2. The car is behind door 3.

When you first chose door 1, each of these outcomes had a probability of 1 in 3. But according to the problem, the next thing that happens is that the host, who knows what’s behind all the doors, opens one you did not choose, revealing one of the goats. In opening this door, the host has used what he knows to avoid revealing the car, so this is not a completely random process.

There are two cases to consider. One is the case in which your initial choice was correct. Let’s call that the Lucky Guess scenario. The other is the case in which your initial choice was wrong. The chances your initial choice was correct are 1 out of 3, and the chances you guessed wrong are 2 out of 3, so the Wrong Guess scenario is twice as likely as the Lucky Guess scenario. In the Lucky Guess scenario, the host randomly opens one of the doors you did not choose and you will win if you stick with your door. In the Wrong Guess scenario, the host does not want to reveal the car, so he chooses to open the one door available to him that does not have a car behind it, and you will win if you switch doors.

Your decision thus comes down to a guess: In which scenario do you find yourself? If you feel that ESP or fate has guided your initial choice, maybe you shouldn’t switch. But unless you can bend silver spoons into pretzels with your brain waves, the odds are 2-to-1 that you are in the Wrong Guess Scenario.

And so, it is better to switch.

From The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. ©2008 by Leonard Mlodinow. Used by permission of Pantheon Books.

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02 June 2008

"It's the sitting, not the thinking..."

In their quest for the Holy Grail of Investing, many investors shun the important role psychology plays; specifically, their own. And, really, more than this indicator or that signal, if the investor cannot pull the trigger for whatever reason, then what good are those indicators?

"Humans, no matter how hard we try, act in ways that cause us to make the wrong investment decisions almost all the time."

That quote is from the article, How Thinking Costs You, which includes several interesting, although well-trod, investing insights. Such as...

"The more closely you pay attention, the more you do things. And the more you do things, the worse off you will be."

Hmm, ain't that the truth? It so happens that I watch every tick each trading day (Do you, as well?) awaiting the signals to act. In the effort, I strive to prohibit price volatility, whether intra-day or intra-trend, to confuse me -- and thus to confound my true objective and purpose.

Enter Jesse Livermore, stage right...
"It's the sitting, not the thinking..."

So I create rules to save me (my portfolio) from... me. This blog is one form of that effort; to memorialize those rules for me, and to share them with you.

-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist

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01 June 2008

Here, there, everywhere... and nowhere

I have mentioned frequently the notion of the cloud, although, I admit, mostly as it pertains to Google/GOOG. Several companies, Amazon included, make the attempt to move various services and applications to the Internet (the cloud) from their traditional home, your desktop computer. Only a handful of the companies that pursue this goal will reap the benefits of their own, and everyone else's, efforts.

This article, Google's Developer Strategy Rests On The Cloud, is a fascinating, albeit too brief, look at Google's new era of software development that includes Gears, Android, App Engine, Web Toolkit, and OpenSocial API. Arguably, it all (the future, natch) belongs to Google, as the article's author notes in his conclusion...
"In a landscape littered with potential Google rivals, it seems premature to declare victory. But as Google and the Web become ever more interdependent, it becomes harder and harder to bet on another horse."
Do not allow that closing paragraph to keep you from reading the entire article; it is well worth your time. And then, the next time someone captions Google as "the Internet search giant" (yawn), you will be prepared to fill them in with who Google becomes, not who the company once was.

The people who pigeon-hole Google are likely the same people who misuse the word, "titan" -- you know, as in business titan. They forget, if they even ever knew, just who were the Titans. And if they did know, or could recall, they would not misuse the term as they do, casually tossing it about. Unless its use were explicitly accurate.

Hmm, how did this post, too, become about language?

Full Disclosure: Long Google/GOOG

-- David M Gordon / The Deipnosophist


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