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Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Google Acquires Motorola Mobility - What Now?

Google (GOOG) has recently announced that they will be acquiring Motorola Mobility (MMI) for a whopping $12.5 billion. The deal was under wraps even within Google, as only top management knew about the acquisition up until this week, when Google officially announced their largest acquisition.

The acquisition shakes things up in an already competitive mobile-phone market comprised of giants like Apple, Microsoft, and RIM. What makes this acquisition more interesting is the fact that Google is the developer of the widely popular Android mobile operating system, which already comprises approximately 48% of the market share of worldwide phones operating systems (Canalys, 2011).

The Android operating system is designed by Google and is one
of the most popular operating systems in the mobile phone world.
Image Source: android.com

However, this poses antitrust and regulatory issues for Google in court. Google is optimistic that the acquisition will be given a green light albeit it is possible there will be several conditions set forth by the court. Such conditions include a "chinese wall" between Google's Android division and Google's hardware/manufacturing divisions for handsets to avoid any preference for Motorola products before other manufacturers such as LG, Samsung, and HTC. For example, Google may effectively seize more market share with Motorola if they choose to release new versions of Android onto their Motorola products prior to releasing them for use on other phones. In addition, if the acquisition does go through, Google has agreed to pay $2.5 billion in cash to Motorola Mobility--a sign of the regulatory risks involved with this acquisition.

Google's acquisition of Motorola Mobility may put Google in a stronger position to
compete with the Apple iPhone's huge market share in the mobile phone market.
Image Source: eastersealstech.com

One of the primary benefits of this acquisition is that Google will now have the ability to manufacture and design their own phones with ease, something that rival Apple has had the power of doing for years with their iPhone. Additionally, Google gets an arsenal of patents (17,000 and counting to be exact, with 7,500 pending) to defend their designs with. Recently patents have been an essential part of defending and attacking other companies which attempt to replicate certain design features and software features; for example, Apple recently sued Samsung over their Galaxy Tablet 2, which resembles the Apple iPad 2.

With the ability to manufacture phones on a much larger scale than before, as well as the ability to defend intellectual designs with thousands of patents, Google may be making quite a good decision in acquiring Motorola Mobility. Only time will confirm whether or not it was a good decision in the long run.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Basics of Stock Orders - II: The Limit Order

In my last post I covered the advantages and disadvantages of the Market Order. In this post I would like to talk about another very popular stock order: The Limit Order.

A Limit Order is very different when compared to a Market Order. Unlike a Market Order, a Limit Order does not execute instantaneously nor does it choose the best available price on the market for the stock. What is the advantage of a Limit Order, then? The primary advantage of a Limit Order is that you are able to set the price at which you want to purchase the stock.

The primary advantage of a Limit Order is that you can "name your own price" for the stock that you want to purchase. This is particularly helpful for stocks that are very volatile during a trading day.
Image Source: psdgraphics.com

Assume that there is a stock, say Apple (AAPL), trading on an uptrend one day. If the stock is appreciating and you expect the stock to continue rising in price, you would want to purchase the stock at the lowest price possible so that your gains can also be greater. However, if the stock is behaving in a volatile manner (swinging up and down rather than appreciating in a smooth uptrend), it would be rather difficult to hone in on a low price as the price may change as soon as you execute the order. This would likely be the case when executing a Market Order, as the Market Order will execute immediately and take the best available price available.

So how can you safeguard your decision to purchase Apple stock while still avoiding the volatility of the stock price? The Limit Order can be the perfect stock order to help you in this situation. When setting a Limit Order, you are essentially "naming the price" at which you want to purchase the stock. For instance, if Apple was trading between $326 and $327 the moment at which you wanted to purchase the stock, and you wanted to purchase it at $325.50, you simply input the "$325.50" as the price on your Limit Order.

A Limit Order will only execute when the stock price has reached your target price. In this example, the pink line represents the target price and the blue line represents the stock price. Notice how the stock price intersects the target price, triggering the Limit Order to execute.
Image Source: selftrade.co.uk

Does this mean that you will end up purchasing Apple stock at $325? Not exactly. See, the advantage of the Limit Order is its precision in choosing price--the disadvantage on the other hand, is that that price may never be reached. So in this case, if Apple stock kept appreciating from $326 to $327 to $328 and onwards, your Limit Order will never execute because you set the price at $325.50! Thus, you would never get the stock in your hands.

However, if the price of Apple stock dipped slightly and hit $325.50, even for just a brief moment, your Limit Order will execute and you will purchase Apple stock at $325.50. From that point onwards, if Apple stock kept on going higher, you would gain more profits than you would have if you executed a Market Order and ended up purchasing Apple stock at $326 instead of $325.50.

If this is still unclear to you, think about it this way. A Limit Order is like a highlighter which highlights a specific price on an entire sheet of prices. You can only highlight one price. Suppose our sheet has every price from $325.00 to $327.00, including all of the decimals in-between. You highlighted only one price: $325.50. Now suppose that Apple stock is swinging between $326.30 and $326.20. Since the stock price hasn't gone down far enough to hit your highlighted $325.50, your stock order will not execute. However, if the stock price is very volatile and swings down and hits your $325.50, your Limit Order will execute and you will purchase Apple at exactly $325.50.

A drawback to the Limit Order is that the stock price may take some time before it reaches the target price. In fact, the stock price may never reach your target price. Thus, the Limit Order may never execute.
Image Source: mergersandinquisitions.com

The beauty of the Limit Order is that you can set up a Limit Order and leave your computer and do other activities, since you have the peace of mind knowing that the Limit Order will only purchase the stock at the price at which you specified (or better), or it will not execute at all.

Because of its precision, the Limit Order is a very popular stock order. Unlike the Market Order, a Limit Order has the ability to target a single price and purchase the stock at that price only. The disadvantage to this is that it may take a long time for the stock to hit that price--or it may never even hit that price! To avoid this, many investors use a realistic Limit Order within two decimal places. Suppose Apple is fluctuating between $325.50 and $325.75. It would be more realistic to set a Limit Order at $325.60 than it would be to set a Limit Order at $325.40, since the stock price is not moving at that low of a range yet.

Used in conjunction with the Market Order, a Limit Order can be one of the most important and essential stock orders for any investor!

Look forward to my upcoming post in this series!

Monday, June 6, 2011

Basics of Stock Orders - I: The Market Order

Well after my final exams, I think it's finally time to start posting regularly again!

Today I would like to supplement my previous series, The Basics of Stocks, with a new series: The Basics of Stock Orders.

When executing any stock trade, there are a variety of different orders from which you can choose. Many of these stock orders are confusing for new investors, so I would like to cover them all in separate posts. Today, we will be covering one of the most popular orders: the Market Order.

With a Market Order, there is no haggling on the price since the Market Order will purchase the stock at the best possible price available on the market--thus
getting the stock into your account as quickly as possible.
Image Source: englishfromfriends.com

What is a Market Order? Essentially, it is a stock order where you prioritize time over price.

Consider the following scenario: suppose you are planning on purchasing Google stock one day. Suppose that it is 3:50 PM and the stock market is close to closing at 4:00 PM. During this time, there is a lot of volume on the NASDAQ, which consequently also means that the price will fluctuate a lot during this brief time period.

If you are really optimistic on Google stock and expect it to appreciate, then you will want to purchase the stock as cheap as possible. However, remember that during the last 10 minutes of the day the stock price is fluctuating quite a lot, and your trade may not get executed at the exact price which you want. Suppose Google had been trading at around $519-$526 a share during the day, and more around $521 during the end of the day (from 3:30 PM onwards). From 3:30 PM onwards, the stock may fluctuate rapidly between $521 ± $1, which may not seem drastic but is indeed a big difference when you are purchasing many shares at once.

If you expect Google stock to appreciate, you would want to own to own it as soon as possible at the best possible price; considering this situation coupled with the final minutes of trading, a Market Order may be a viable stock order.
Image Source: Yahoo! Finance

Additionally, keep in mind that you expect Google stock to appreciate, and thus you want to own shares today. Because of your optimism on the stock's performance, coupled with the time (3:50 PM, 10 minutes from the NASDAQ closing), there is very little space for you to get the price you want as well as your trade executing (remember, in a stock trade there must be a buyer and a seller).

It is during this time that a Market Order will be most beneficial. The Market Order, unlike a Limit Order (which I will cover in the post following this), prioritizes time over price. This means that the Market Order is indifferent on the price of Google stock on the market--it simply wants to get you the stock in your hands as soon as possible (as you want to own it today because you expect it to appreciate either tomorrow, or sometime soon, and purchasing it tomorrow would ruin any profits). Assuming you have sufficient money in your account, the Market Order will execute at the best possible price available on the market.

A Market Order prioritizes speed over price, making it a good order for investors looking for a fast executing order during final minutes of trading.
Image Source: aroundthetrac.com

The Market Order is an instantaneous order which does not require specifying a price. So if Google happened to be trading at $521.30 the moment right before you executed the Market Order, you may end up buying Google at $522.10, since that may be the best possible price available that instant in which the order was executed (keep in mind that there are thousands of other orders coming in simultaneously during the last 10 minutes of the market). The downside to this is of course, that you purchased the stock for a higher price than you could have gotten it if you had specified your price and waited for the stock to trade at that price. The upside to this however, is that your order was executed instantaneously and thus you own the stock albeit purchasing it for a higher price.

In summary, the Market Order is an instantaneous stock order which has an upside and a downside:

Upside: A Market Order is instantaneous and will purchase the stock at the best possible price available on the market, thus getting the stock in your hands faster than any other order.

Downside: The Market Order is price indifferent--meaning that you may end up purchasing the stock for a higher price rather than a lower price. This may cut in on your profits, but assuming that owning the stock was your priority, this downside is worth the risk.

The Market Order is a very popular order and is often used when an investor prioritizes owning a stock over the price paid for the stock. Paired with other stock orders, the market order can be a wise order given the right circumstances and conditions.

Look forward to my upcoming post on Limit Orders!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Final Exams

Hello all!

Unfortunately, final exams are around the corner. In fact, I have one tomorrow and three final exams next week.

You have probably noticed a lack of posts and this is because I am studying hard for my exams.

Hopefully you'll look forward to some very interesting posts when I get back!

Thank you!
Salman

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Solve Complex Problems With Unused Computing Power (using BOINC)

Imagine if everyone's computers were combined together to create one big network of computing strength more powerful than any supercomputer on earth. That's what BOINC (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing) does, and you can be a part of it today.

Many people are oblivious to the fact that there is quite a lot of computing power going unused each and every day. The fact of the matter is, nearly everyone has a desktop computer or a laptop computer these days. However, how often do we put our actual computing power to use? Most of the time we are not using our computer for very demanding work--sometimes we will render a video here and there, play a few games, or do some other work that actually uses our computing power.

Folding@home simulates protein folding using distributed computing. It currently operates at above 7 native petaFLOPS, with a large majority of the performance coming from GPU and PlayStation 3 clients. In comparison to this, the fastest standalone supercomputer (non-distributed computing) in the world (as of November 2010, Tianhe-I) peaks at approximately 2.56 petaFLOPS.
Image Source: news.cnet.com

Now with this being said, there is a large amount of computing power that we can still tap into. Imagine if everyone's computers were combined together and synchronized together to take on even the most challenging computational problems, such as protein folding or galaxy formation. That is what the BOINC project does (Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing).

How it works is simple. Say your computer is idle for an hour or two a day, or you're simply surfing the internet and not using your compute for much more. Well, in that amount of time you can leave BOINC running in the background and it would have completed several work units (WU's) which will be sent to the central server and then used in conjunction with thousands of other work units to observe the characteristics of protein folding (crucial in cancer research--folding@home), galaxy formation (MilkyWay@home), mathematical problems (abc conjecture in number theory--ABC@home), and much more.

This way, you are tapping into the unused computing power of your computer and contributing to the advancement of mankind at the same time. It's a wonderful way of utilizing unused resources in our world for advanced research.

MilkyWay@home renders complex N-body simulations which are used to generate 3D dynamic models of stellar streams near the Milky Way galaxy.
Image Source: Wikimedia.org

Many computer enthusiasts also use the BOINC platform to test their computer for speed and performance, since it uses up every bit of computing power available, it is a good stress test for overclocks and gamers. However, the beauty of BOINC is that it is simple to use and can be used by anyone--computer savvy or not.

Take for example folding@home (though not technically a BOINC project, it is distributed computing). It is a single download which you install and then simply run to compute work units. Many people also join teams and organizations to see who has the most points or work units. It turns into a competition for the benefit of all!


The unique feature of BOINC is that it can attach not only one project, but nearly an unlimited amount of distributed computing projects. It is the most popular platform under which many distributed computing projects thrive.
Image Source: boinc.berkeley.edu

If you are interested in participating in the BOINC project for distributed computing, you can start today. There are many projects available. In some instances you can even use your graphics card to do work that would normally take hours--in a few minutes (for those of you with powerful graphics cards out there).

Some popular distributed computing/BOINC projects are:

folding@home: designed to perform computationally intensive simulations of protein folding and other molecular dynamics (MD), and to improve on the methods available to do so (though not technically a BOINC project, it is distributed computing).

MilkyWay@home: attempts to generate highly accurate three-dimensional dynamic models of stellar streams in the immediate vicinity of our Milky Way galaxy.

SETI@home: to analyze radio signals, searching for signs of extra terrestrial intelligence, and is one of many activities undertaken as part of SETI.

LHC@home: to help maintain and improve the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which became active in September 2008.

PrimeGrid: project for searching for prime numbers of world-record size.

Climateprediction.net: project to investigate and reduce uncertainties in climate modelling.

Astropulse: to search for primordial black holes, pulsars, and ETI.

Einstein@home: searches through data from the LIGO detectors for evidence of continuous gravitational-wave sources, which are expected for instance from rapidly spinning non-axisymmetric neutron stars.

--

Personally, I am currently active on MilkyWay@home and folding@home and plan to try out many other distributed computing projects soon!

Let me know which project you plan to join in a comment!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Which Headphones To Buy? - Part II: Sound Signature

Ever get confused by the language that wine connoisseurs use when describing high-priced wines? Terminology for niche products such as expensive wines, computers, and even headphones are indeed necessary to describe subtle but important differences; many users unaware of such attributes may overlook these nuances.

Headphones are one of these products. Every headphone has a different sound signature, almost like a wine has a unique taste regardless if it falls into larger categories such as Red Wines or White Wines.

There is a lot of jargon within the audiophile community involving sound signatures in headphones, but today I wish to clarify some of these terms in order to make it easier for you to purchase the headphone that is right for you.

Many headphone sound signatures can be compared through a Frequency Response Curve. However, this does not ultimately reveal what the sound signature of the headphone is--it is more of a glimpse into how the headphone may sound.
Source: headphone.com

Headphones fall into three large categories, after which other attributes follow a hierarchical structure or a branch structure. All of these main categories have strengths and weaknesses.

These three main categories are the following:

1) A "Colored" sound; this sound signature means that the headphone is taking in the audio signal and is manipulating what the audio input is telling the headphone. The end result is either a bassier sound, a "brighter" sound which emphasizes vocals more or instruments more, or simply a "clearer" sound. Colored headphones tend to "Wow" at first but may reveal flaws such as a muddy bass response or a lack of a realistic vocal range. However, colored headphones are usually the most popular headphones due to their initial "Wow" factor.

Some examples of colored headphones are: Bose QuietComfort, Dr. Dre Beats, Skullcandy headphones. Personally, I do not enjoy colored headphones at all.



2) An "Analytical" sound; this sound signature is usually associated with a large amount of clarity in the headphone. Even the tiniest details and nuances can be heard, such as pages being turned in a classical music symphony, or the sound of air rushing through the vocal chords of a singer before words come out. However, this analytical sound tends to be weak on a "musical" presence. Cohesiveness of the audio is sometimes a flaw in analytical sound signatures.

Some examples of analytical headphones are: Etymotic ER-4P, Shure SRH840. I enjoy analytical headphones from time to time.

3) A "Neutral" sound; this sound signature is what audiophiles usually lean towards. A neutral sound signature takes the audio signal and barely touches it. What the headphone strives towards is an accurate reproduction of what was recorded, not bass boost or a treble boost. Neutral headphones are usually harder to tune properly by the manufacturer due to the ear's natural tendency to hear different frequencies at different volumes. A decent neutral headphone will have a very clear sound and a "musical" enjoyment to it. However, neutral headphones are usually said to be "uninvolving" or not enjoyable due to there being no "fun factor" in listening to the headphone.

Some examples of neutral headphones are: AKG K702 , Sennheiser HD600 & HD800, Beyerdynamic DT-880. I am a big fan of neutral headphones and use them often.

The Etymotic ER-4P is famous for its analytical sound signature and extremely detailed sound quality.
Source: headphoneworld.com

Again, all of these sound signatures have strengths and benefits. However, after listening to many headphones it is easier to tell which sound signature suits your tastes. For example, I prefer neutral headphones with a touch of an analytical sound signature and a slightly warm midrange.

If you have the opportunity to visit a Head-fi meet where users bring many headphones and amplifiers, you will have an easier time understanding which sound signature is right for you. Head-fi.org usually has several headphone meets every year, and some may be very close to your location! (For me, there was one in New York City so it was right where I was located). If you can't go to a head-fi meet, then it is good to try out many headphones at a department store or an electronics store. Usually a big name manufacturer like Sennheiser has its own "house sound" which tends to remain the same across their different models, changing slightly. So by trying out many different brands, you will expose yourself to different "house sounds" and it will then be easier to make your final decision.

Certain genres also tend to have good synergy with specific sound signatures. For example, Pop music tends to pair well with Colored Sound Signatures or Analytical Sound Signatures. Jazz and Classical tend to pair well with Neutral and Analytical Sound Signatures. Hip-Hop tends to pair well with Colored Sound Signatures. However, a very good headphone will usually sound OK with any genre, regardless of the headphones' sound signature. It may not make that genre sound as good as it can be, but it will produce a sound that is certainly satisfactory.

The Sennheiser house sound is enjoyed by many. It is described as a "laid back" sound signature with a warm mid-range and a deep bass response that is not overpowering. The Sennheiser HD 650, pictured above, requires a good headphone amplifier to bring out its true potential.
Source: WikiMedia Commons

It is important to note that so far we have only covered the three major categories for headphone sound signatures. Each of these categories can be further broken down more precisely in terms of how they actually produce sounds in certain frequency ranges, but I will save that for a future post.

To summarize, every headphone has a unique sound signature that tends to fall into one of three main categories. These categories are: colored, analytical, and neutral. Depending on your tastes, some of these sound signatures will sound OK to you will others may not be satisfactory. However, a large portion of this depends on what genre of music you are listening to on the headphone, as well as your personal expectations of the sound.

Nevertheless, if you do plan on purchasing headphones, it is well worth your time to research and try out different headphones to find out which sound signature suits you--it will save you money, time, and the frustration involved in purchasing the right headphone for you.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Which Headphones To Buy? - Part I: Narrowing Down

In continuation of my audio series, I think it's time to cover an important topic for all audiophiles, and in general people seeking good quality gear: Which headphones are right for me and which should I buy?

Headphones and in-ear monitors (IEMs) have come a long way within the past 10 years. We've went from cheap $10 solutions to fully blown out custom in-ear monitors and reference headphones costing in excess of $1K. Selection has increased at least three-fold, with a wide selection of colors, styles (running, casual, full-size for mostly at home, etc.), and purposes. And to top it all off, we're left with endless marketing campaigns and gimmicky advertisements which lure us to a specific headphone or brand (Monster anybody?). But are we actually purchasing the item for its actual purpose, or for the brand recognition?

Impedance and electrical power is an important factor in deciding which headphone/in-ear monitor you will purchase. Many headphones/in-ear montiors require a headphone amplifier to sound their best. Sometimes high impedance headphones require amplifiers more expensive than the headphone itself to sound its best, like the Ray Samuels Audio Emmeline II headphone amplifier pictured above.
Source: raysamuelsaudio.com

Pushing my personal vendetta against certain corporations aside, I would like to establish some basic facts about purchasing a good set of headphones or in-ear monitors. First, we need to know what you will be using these headphones/in-ear monitors for, along with your expectations of the sound quality as well as the primary genre of music you will be listening to with the headphones/in-ear monitors.

Ask yourself the following questions to narrow down your list of possible headphone/in-ear monitor purchases:

1) Are you buying for sound quality, brand appeal, or appearance? Or perhaps one or two from the three? If you are going for pure sound quality, then it is easier to narrow down your selection (contrary to popular belief, the mainstream "audio" companies to do not manufacture audiophile-quality headphones/in-ear monitors--Bose and Skullcandy are good examples).

2) What genre(s) of music will you primarily listen to with the headphones? If you have a mixed collection of music, what genre of music comprises the majority of your library? For example, 40% Classical, 30% Jazz, 20% Pop and 10% Other. This way, you will be able to purchase a headphone better suited to your tastes.



3) Are you going to use these headphones/in-ear monitors only at home or outside as well? Or both?

4) Do you want to purchase noise isolating or noise cancelling headphones? See my post on the difference.

5) Do you have a proper DAP (digital audio player such as an MP3 Player) to support the amount of electricity that the headphone/in-ear monitor needs to work at its best sonic quality? Certain headphones that are full-size (such as the AKG K720) require a headphone amplifier in order to achieve best sound quality due to their high electrical impedence.

6) What is your budget? Keep in mind that you get what you pay for in this hobby, and it is better off to start from something mid-priced before jumping on a really expensive piece of gear that you might not be able to amplify or pair properly with a DAC/DAP.

Sometimes many headphones can be eliminated from simply asking yourself whether you will use your headphones at home, outside, or both. Headphones like the AKG K702 pictured above are open headphones, meaning they leak music out to the environment and do not isolate from external noise, since they are designed to be used at a home/studio.
Source: sgheadphones.net

After asking yourself these questions, I can guarantee that it will be easier to narrow down your possible headphone/in-ear monitor for purchase. For example, if you answered the following:

1) For sound quality, nothing else. --> Eliminates a bunch of brands that are not focused on sound quality.
2) Primarily Pop, R&B, and Jazz. --> Eliminates some headphones not suited for these genres.
3) At home as well as outside. --> Eliminates many full-size open headphones due to their leakage outside.
4) Noise isolating or noise cancelling, it does not matter. --> Opens up more headphones for consideration within the narrowed list.
5) No, I only have an iPod. --> Eliminates high-amplifying-requirement headphones like the AKG K702.
6) Under $200. --> Eliminates headphones above $200.


Avoid jumping the gun and buying expensive headphones from the start. You will not be able to fully appreciate the differences and may have difficulty amplifying the headphone to make it sound its best. The Sennheiser HD800, pictured above, sells for $1499 MSRP but requires a very good amplifier (for its 300Ω impedance as well as sound signature), DAC combination, lossless/near-lossless audio, and to make it sound its best, which can run well over twice that amount. Don't try running these headphones straight out of your iPod.
Source: sennheiser.com

By simply answering six questions, you have virtually narrowed your headphone/in-ear monitor possible purchase(s) to probably around 10-12 at this point.

To further narrow down to that single headphone/in-ear monitor, we must now focus on something much more crucial than all of these factors: sound signature.

Look forward to my post about sound signatures in headphones to finally determine how to narrow down to that single headphone! (Sorry for the cliffhanger ending!)

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Basics of Stocks - Part II: Investing In Stocks

There are many ways to make an investment and receive a profit in the world. Some common investments include: trading goods or services for money, purchasing a plot of land to let its value appreciate, and investing in bonds and stocks. But how exactly can stocks be used to produce a profit, and more importantly, what are the steps to go about trading stocks if you are a beginner?

Let's refresh ourselves on what a stock is once more. Quite simply, a share of stock is a partial stake of ownership in the company that you are purchasing stock from. This partial ownership of the company can be used for voting for changes in the company, as well as for making a profit from the company's value. So where can you, the investor, find the stock and how can you purchase it?

The New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) pictured above, is a major stock exchange. However, you don't need to physically be at the exchange in order to trade stocks. Online brokerages allow for trading right from your living room!
Image Source: nybeyondsite.org

First, let's find out where you can find stocks to trade. Stocks are traded on a stock exchange, such as the NASDAQ and NYSE. A stock is traded only on one exchange. For instance, Citigroup (C) is traded on the NYSE--this means that the stock is not traded on the NASDAQ. It can only be found at the NYSE for trading. However, you don't have to physically go to the exchange in order to trade stocks. Since most stocks are traded through an online brokerage firm, you don't even need to leave your living room in order to trade stocks. What is the online brokerage firm? In layman's terms, the brokerage firm acts as the "middleman" between you and the exchange--just as a broker acts as a middleman for any transaction between a buyer and a seller. In return for the brokerage's service, you pay a commission for the transaction (this is called a commission fee and is usually around ~$10 USD for a single stock transaction for most online brokerages). Some popular online brokerage firms are: E*TRADE, Scottrade, and TD Ameritrade to name a few.

Now that we know where to trade stocks, let's take a look at the stock's properties. A stock has many properties--and I mean many properties--that are studied and constantly interpreted to make analysis tools in order to predict the stock's behavior. However, since we are only covering the basics of stocks, we will ignore these more intricate attributes and cover them later.

A stock--any stock--has three basic properties.

A stock symbol (also known as a ticker), is a unique identifier for the company associated with the stock.
Image Source: mediabistro.com

Firstly, a stock has a symbol (also called a ticker), which is used to represent the company in the exchange. A stock symbol is usually between one and four characters, but can be longer for certain cases. Some commonly traded stock symbols include: Google (GOOG), Citigroup (C), Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), International Business Machines (IBM). As you can see, the stock symbol is useful in condensing the name of the company.

Secondly, all stocks have a price. This price is determined by many things, but to put it simply, it is the investors (buyers and sellers) that determine the price of the stock by simply investing. The price of a stock can range from pennies a share (commonly called penny stocks) to hundreds--even thousands--of dollars for a share. The price of the stock is what follows after the stock symbol in nearly all brokerage firms and financial websites. The price that is shown on a ticker however, is usually ten minutes delayed from the actual price of the stock. However, real-time stock prices can be streamed at most brokerage firms. It is safe to say that the price of a stock is the single most important attribute of the stock.

The price of a stock is the most important attribute of a stock. It is important to note that the price of a stock can change over time, and in some cases, very rapidly. The price can be a double-edged sword for investors due to the potential for profit and loss.
Image Source: Google Finance

And finally, all stocks change in their price daily. Even though many may not consider this a property of stocks, I believe it is the single most important property of a stock. Why does the price of a stock change? As I mentioned earlier, the price of a stock is determined by the investors themselves. As the stock is bought and sold amidst investors, the stock price fluctuates accordingly. For example, if there are 100 investors for a single stock (assuming they all own the same amount of shares), and in a single day 60/100 of these traders decide to sell the stock while 40/100 traders decide to buy the stock, the stock price will fall as a net effect of more traders selling the stock than buying it. Not to delve too precisely into this, we just need to understand that the price of the stock is constantly changing due to this reason.

Now that we have understood the basic properties of a stock, how can we make a profit by investing in a stock? There are several ways to do this. The most common stock transactions are Buy, Sell, Short Sell, and Cover Short. For simplicity, I will only cover the Buy/Sell transaction in this post. Suppose that the stock you are looking to make a profit on is a hypothetical technology company. Furthermore, this technology company just released a new device that you believe will be very profitable and popular--a successful product. You predict that this company's value will increase as a consequence of this successful product. For this reason, you decide to buy the stock of this company today in anticipation for the price of the stock to rise in the future. Let's say you purchased 20 shares of stock at $50 a share for a total of $1000 in stock.

Investors can profit from many different trading strategies. In a "going long" strategy, investors can profit from an increase in stock price linked to the success of the underlying company.
Image Source: theinvestortoday.com

Fast forward six months down the road--and just as you predicted, the value of this company skyrocketed due to their product launch. And consequently, the price of the stock also rose in value to $85 a share. Remember those 20 shares of stock you purchased months ago? Right now, they are worth $1700 in total (20 x $85 a share = $1700). Realizing that you purchased the stock for $50 a share for a total of $1000 (20 x $50 a share = $1000), you decide to sell your 20 shares of stock for a profit of $700, since you initially purchased the stock for $1000 and now sold it for $1700.

This type of trading strategy is called "going long" since you are predicting that the price of the stock will rise due to the company's success. It is the most popular trading strategy--however it has its drawbacks. Suppose that instead of the product launch going successfully, the product flops and the company's value decreases. Consequently, the price of the stock dips to $35 a share. In fear of the stock price decreasing further, you decide to sell the stock to prevent further losses. Since the stock is now worth $700 (20 x $35 = $700), you made a net loss of $300 ($1000 - $700 = $300).

As a note, there are ways to prevent this type of loss by having a different stock transaction and/or a different trading strategy as well as a hedge against this transaction.

In summary, a stock is traded on a stock exchange and can be purchased via a brokerage firm. This brokerage firm will take a commission fee for the transaction, and you will own the stock. The three basic properties of the stock are its symbol, its price, and its change in price. And finally, a profit can be made by investing in the stock. There are many investment strategies--for a strategy in which you expect the value of the company to appreciate, you are "going long" on the stock. In such a trading strategy, if the price of the stock increases, you can profit by selling the stock and taking the difference between your initial purchase and your proceeds from the sell.

~

More posts to come on this subject!

Monday, April 11, 2011

The Basics of Stocks - Part I: What Are Stocks And Why Do They Exist?

We've all heard of Stocks. When we hear the word "Stocks", most of us think about those guys in suits on the NYSE (New York Stock Exchange) floor yelling and bartering with other traders. But what exactly are stocks and how do you invest in them? In this part of my mini-series on Stocks, I will discuss why stocks exist and how they are useful to a company and an investor.

To put it simply, a stock is almost like a piece of a company. When you purchase stock, you're buying a portion of that company--so you in turn become a partial owner of the company. But why and how did the stock even get there? Let's step back for a bit and understand why a stock is even in existence.

The NYSE (New York Stock Exchange) is one of the world's major stock exchanges where stocks and other financial instruments are traded.
Source: ceoworld.biz


Let's look at a hypothetical example where you are the owner of a private company and would like to expand to meet your rising demand. To do this, you realize that you would have to purchase an entire plot of land, build a factory on that land, and then purchase equipment and hire employees to work in the new factory. Now all of this requires money, and lots of it. If you don't have the capital to start this new expansion, then what can you do? Presuming that the cost of the new land and building is a large sum, getting a loan would be too pricey and too risky. The next logical step for a private company in this situation would be to issue stock.

When the company issues stock, what it is doing in layman's terms is giving up its private ownership for public ownership. This means that instead of one person (or a few people) owning the private company, the company is now owned by the public in the form of stock shares. What does this mean for the company and its owner? Firstly, the owner no longer has the same power that he or she once had over the company. In fact, a Board of Directors is usually set up by the shareholders to keep the company's boss(es) in check. This means that if you founded the company and start doing sneaky and fraudulent business, and the shareholders find out, you can easily be fired from your position and replaced by a new CEO.

Once a company goes public, shares of stock are purchased by the public. Stock Certificates were once used to show ownership of these shares, but in modern times they are rarely requested for printing.
Source: networkworld.com

So what can possibly be the benefit of this public ownership? Remember the plot of land, factory, equipment, and employee costs? All of those can now be covered because of the large influx of money coming in from the shareholders! Since the company is now divided into millions of shares which are then bought by the public--they get partial ownership of your company (along with a potential profit which I will cover in my later post), and in turn your company gets their investment for purchasing this share of your company. So in a way, your company is saved from the daunting interest, payments, and risk of long-term debt and is simply made public to receive that extra cash. Who exactly makes the stock valuation (called an IPO or Initial Public Offering)? It is usually an Investment Banking Firm such as JPMorgan or Goldman Sachs which does the stock valuation and does all of the calculations for a successful stock offering in the market (more on this in future posts).

There are clearly sacrifices made for this switch from a private company to a public one. Since your company is no longer private, you must now answer to the shareholders. This means that if the shareholders aren't satisfied with your company--chances are they will sell your stock and the value of your company will take a dive. This is why we often hear "XYZ Company must answer to the shareholders" when we flip on the news. The company's main priorities change, and they must satisfy their shareholders with progress and innovation, a good earnings report, and dividends (again, more on this in later posts).

Stocks can appreciate over time, increasing the value of the company--and profits to the investors. Above, Google's stock during 2009.
Source: Google Finance

The good news is that your company now gets a tremendous amount of capital to use for investing in future growth (such as the plot of land and equipment), research and development (we see a lot of R&D costs in technology companies), and for simply keeping a good cushion for your company in the case of natural disasters and other problems which may halt progress. There are also changes to the structure of the company as well as the transparency code which the company undertakes which can be a double-edged sword depending on your actions (BP anyone?).

So in short, stocks in layman's terms are used to transform a private company into a public one--the company is then available for purchase via stock shares; the company acquires a large amount of capital through this process, while sacrificing its private ownership for public ownership.

~

So now that midterms are over and my head has cleared a little bit, I thought "It's time to get back to posting!"

I wanted to write something about finance today (after having gone through two grueling Finance midterm exams last week, why not remind myself more about it?), and so here is your finance article!

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Midterms and More Midterms

I have a bunch of midterms for this coming week, so I apologize for the lack of posts!

Hopefully after this week I will be back to my normal posting routine!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Balanced Armature vs. Dynamic Driver

How often have you stopped to wonder how those earphones that came with your MP3 Player actually produce the music that you hear?

If you've ever been to an Electronics store, you've probably stumbled across the Home Audio section. There you'll see a wide array of speakers, all with different sound signatures and purposes. However, the technology behind these speakers are mostly the same--it's how the speaker transducer is designed and tuned that makes the drastic difference.


There are two dominating speaker transducer designs on the market. The most popular speaker transducer is the Dynamic Driver (also less popularly known as the moving-coil driver). Pictured below, a Dynamic Driver uses a permanent magnet which is attached behind the diaphragm, along with a voice coil (usually made out of copper), to push air rapidly at different frequencies.


A Dynamic Driver Transducer, pictured above, is the most common transducer design used in speakers today.
Source: WikiMedia Commons

Not to get into the nitty gritty, the Dynamic Driver has been a very popular design because of its ability to produce the entire musical frequency range (~20 Hz - 18,000 KHz+) with relatively good success.

Have you ever seen a speaker design different from a Dynamic Driver? Well, I would like to introduce you to the Balanced Armature transducer (often abbreviated as a "BA driver") , pictured below.

A Balanced Armature Transducer, pictured above, does not require external air to produce sound. This makes a BA Transducer much easier to tune to specifications.
Source: WikiMedia Commons

A Balanced Armature is very small--and I mean tiny. These transducers are often used in hearing aids for people with difficulty hearing. More recently however, they have gained popularity in premium in-ear monitors for consumers and musicians alike. The Balanced Armature transducer uses the same concept of a permanent magnet and a voice coil as a dynamic driver, but the one major difference with the Balanced Armature transducer is that it does not require external air to operate. A Dynamic Driver, on the other hand, requires an air vent in order to sound marginally good.



The benefit of this design on the Balanced Armature is that it can be tuned very precisely since external air does not factor into the equation. This means that midrange and treble can be much more accurate and detailed than that of Dynamic Drivers. However, the Balanced Armature design also has a large drawback: since it does not require external air to work its best, it lacks a convincing low-end response (bass response). This is often alleviated by combining several Balanced Armatures together, and putting them on a single crossover.

The JH16 custom in-ear monitor (a 16 Balanced Armature transducer) pictured above next to the Sennheiser HD800 (a dynamic driver headphone). The JH16 in-ear monitor uses a passive triple crossover to redirect portions of the audio input to their respective Balanced Armatures.
Source: Headfonia.com

What the crossover does is it splits the audio input into two or three (rarely more) frequency bands. This alleviates the problem significantly, as each Balanced Armature is now only responsible for handling a certain portion of the audio. A triple Balanced Armature in-ear monitor such as the EarSonics SM3 uses a single Bass Balanced Armature, single Midrange Balanced Armature, and single Treble Balanced Armature. This changes the response of the in-ear monitor significantly, and the bass response becomes much more realistic and natural.

After having heard Dynamic Drivers for many years, I tried a Balanced Armature in-ear monitor (the Shure SCL4), four years ago. The midrange was impressive, but the in-ear monitor lacked bass and a realistic treble. I then upgraded back to a Dynamic Driver (the Sennheiser IE8), which made me miss the detail retrieval of the Shure SCL4.


It was then that I knew that something about the Balanced Armature transducer made music sound all the more better. So I upgraded again to a Triple Balanced Armature in-ear monitor, the EarSonics SM3. This in-ear monitor made me a true Balanced Armature fan, as it eliminated nearly all of the problems that I had heard with the Shure SCL4 (due to three Balanced Armatures instead of one).

After a year with the in-ear monitor, I wanted even more quality. So I decided to purchase a custom in-ear monitor (required an ear impression from an audiologist): the JH Audio JH16. With 8 Balanced Armatures in each earpiece (4 for lows, 2 for mids, and 2 for highs--for a total of 16 speakers with two earpieces), I have never heard such quality produced from an audio device in my life.

Don't ask me how much it cost me though! (You don't need to spend much to enjoy the sound of a Balanced Armature!)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Noise Isolation vs. Noise Cancelling

I've decided to start a "mini-series" of posts for my blog regarding audio and headphones/earphones and other audio gear (amplifiers, speakers, etc.). I think these posts will be beneficial to anyone looking to get the best sound quality out of their music! Personally, I have been upgrading quite a lot over the past few years, and reading a lot of audiophile information on forums like head-fi.org. I will try my best to help others with the information I've obtained over the years.

I'm sure many of us have heard of Noise Cancelling headphones by now. But do you truly know the difference between Noise Cancelling headphones and Noise Isolating headphones/earphones?

Noise Cancelling headphones work by "fighting sound with sound" by emitting opposing frequencies that cancel out external noise. Above, Sony MDR-NC60 headphones.
Source: sony.jp
Noise Cancelling headphones, quite simply, fight sound with sound. Since there is usually ambient noise external to the headphones that leaks into the music, Noise Cancelling headphones actively "remove" this unwanted sound by emitting frequencies that cancel out the opposing sound. The end result is that you hear your music without all that external noise from outside leaking in.



Noise Isolating headphones/earphones work a little bit differently. Noise Isolating headphones/earphones (more properly, IEMs or in-ear monitors) passively remove external noise without producing opposing frequencies. How they do this is quite simple: they create a seal in your ear or outer ear. For example, many "canal phones" that you insert deeper into your ear than you would iPod earbuds, are creating a seal in your ear that reduces external noise from anywhere between -20 dB and -47 dB. This prevents external noise from coming into your ears at all, thus eliminating the need to "fight sound with sound" as Noise Cancellation does.

Noise Isolating in-ear monitors (IEMs) work by passively reducing external noise by creating a seal in the ear canal. This eliminates the need to "fight sound with sound". Above, Shure SE535 in-ear monitors.
Source: fittechnica.com

So which form of technology is better? Frankly, Noise Isolating would get the vote from me. One of the main reasons is that Noise Isolating headphones/earphones do not introduce artifacts into the music as Noise Cancelling headphones/earphones do. Since Noise Cancelling headphones/earphones fight external sounds with opposing frequencies, they have a tendency to introduce artifacts into the music that were not originally there. Noise Isolating headphones/earphones do not fight sound with sound, so they never introduce any artifacts into the music.

Secondly, Noise Isolating headphones/earphones do not require any external electricity or power to work. Many Noise Cancelling headphones/earphones require a battery of some sort in order to run the Noise Cancelling feature. This requires charging or replacing batteries, something that Noise Isolating headphones/earphones do not require.

And finally, Noise Isolating headphones simply work better in my opinion. Since sound is never introduced to the ear in the first place (because of the seal), you don't have to fight sound with sound. It's akin to solving a problem before it happens. With Noise Cancelling headphones/earphones, the external noise already gets into your ear and music while it is simultaneously alleviated with opposing frequencies. There's no saying that one technology is better or worse than the other--it's just that Noise Isolating gets the vote from me in preserving good audio quality.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Markets Across the World Tumble

Japan's devastating Earthquake, Tsunami, and now their growing nuclear crisis has caused a domino effect across major stock markets around the world. Additionally, with the crisis in Libya still continuing as Oil maintains high price levels, any growth that was expected this quarter might be permanently hindered by the combination of both events.

The Nikkei 225 fell more than 14% in mere days.
Source: finance.yahoo.com

The Nikkei 225 Index dropped more than 14% within a mere few days--a landslide in terms of market performance. Tokyo Electric Power dropped more than 24% just today. The numbers are indeed devastating for the Japanese economy, which is already set back by their enormous debt which is the highest for any industrialized, developed nation.

The Dow fell 1.71% during intraday trading (approximately at 1:30PM), while the Nasdaq and S&P 500 fell 1.72% and 1.68%, respectively. The FTSE 100 dropped 1.38% during trading. Oil fell 2.61% to settle at $98.55 per barrel--which is still considered a high price.

The Dow fell 1.78% during intraday trading (approximately 1:30PM).
Source: finance.yahoo.com

What does this mean for the global financial markets? For one, it certainly means that projections and forecasts will change for any corporation. Since many products rely on a long production chain that involves multiple countries cooperating, the disaster in Japan combined with high Oil prices will cause changes in these projections. Secondly, the bull market that the U.S. stock market experienced since Q4 last year to now may finally taper off and begin stabilizing.

However, there is some good news in all this. Many analysts believe that the crisis in Japan will finally lead to Japan's recovery from its decades long stagnant economy. Since money will be poured in to help the relief effort, one can expect construction, energy, and food supply & demands to also coincide with the relief effort. This may just be the catalyst for the beginning of a much better economy for Japan, which has experienced a slow, crawling economy for many years.

Friday, March 11, 2011

8.9 Magnitude Earthquake and Tsunami Hits Japan

An 8.9 magnitude earthquake hit off the coast of northeastern Japan earlier today. The earthquake consequently created a 10 meter (approximately 32 feet) tsunami which swept into land, pulling ships onto shore and carrying cars further inland.

The earthquake was originally estimated to be around 7.9 magnitude (Mw scale), but later was confirmed to be an 8.9 magnitude earthquake (Mw scale).

Cars riddled in water brought inland by the tsunami.
Source: Agence France-Presse/Getty Images


The tsunami caused unrest throughout the country, including Tokyo where subway service was suspended and power was cut off for approximately 4.1 million houses. Looking ahead, it looks like any damages caused by the earthquake should not be as significant as the tsunami itself, since many of Japan's modern buildings are built to resist large-magnitude earthquakes. Tsunami's on the other hand are much harder to defend against.

Major airports temporarily in Japan halted flights. Financials were affected as both the Yen and the Tokyo Stock Exchange experienced losses.

The epicenter of the earthquake in northeast Japan.
Source: The Wall Street Journal

With Japan already experiencing an economic slump and internal political problems, this only adds more tension to the land of the rising sun.

As a student minoring in the Japanese language, this is hard for me to witness. I appreciate Japan as a country and its rich culture and people.

Let's hope that people get the help they need quickly and efficiently.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Western Digital to Buy Hitachi's Hard Drive Sector

No pun intended on the title (hard drive, bad sectors--bad joke? I know).

Yesterday, Western Digital announced that it would be purchasing Hitachi's hard disk drive (HDD) business for approximately $4.3 billion (in a mixed purchase of both cash and stock). Hitachi would own around 10% of Western Digital's stock after the transaction. This would make Western Digital, already the biggest manufacturer of hard drives in the world--an even bigger hard drive manufacturing giant.

A hard disk drive read/write head and platter.
Source: academic.ru

Currently, Western Digital has a market share of around 31.0%, right above Seagate's market share of 29.7%. After the purchase, Western Digital's market share of the hard drive market will shoot up to a staggering 50% or higher, according to forecasts. However, this brings in the question of whether or not Western Digital will be potentially monopolizing the hard drive industry. Antitrust issues may prevail unless the deal is approved by authorities and not found to damage competition in the market.

However, both Western Digital and Hitachi have stated that they expected the deal to go smoothly and to finish by the third quarter this year. Upon breaking of the news, Western Digital's stock rose by a sharp 16% to $34.68. For a stock that has been down more than 11% for the past year, such a rise is more than welcome by stockholders.

The top 5 main hard disk drive manufacturers, which will be reduced to 4 after the transaction between Western Digital and Hitachi.
Source: IHS iSuppli and The Wall Street Journal


Now that the 5 main competitors (Western Digital, Seagate, Hitachi, Toshiba-Fujitsu, and Samsung) have been reduced to 4, what does this mean for the market as a whole? For one, the competition is probably going to heat up rather than getting reduced. With hard drive prices tumbling over the past decade and the advent of portable tablet computers which rely on static memory (see my SSD drive post), R&D may be the only way to lead a market already saturated with products offering nearly the same performance across the board.

It is clear that with this purchase, the future of hard disk drive costs, performance, and value will be altered significantly. Additionally, with a worldwide cap of neodymium by China (which controls harbors roughly 90% of the world's neodymium--a rare earth magnetic metal which is used in everything from hybrid vehicles to hard drives), new technology will almost become necessary in order to keep prices at bay.

Let's just hope that quality control remains the same across the board with all hard disk manufacturers as demand increases with more tablets, PCs, and laptops being manufactured and shipped around the world.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

February Unemployment Falls to 8.9%

The Labor Department released crucial unemployment data this Friday, stating that the unemployment rate fell to 8.9% in February. This has been the lowest level for the unemployment rate since April 2009. However, there is a dent to this number, as the labor force participation rate fell to 64.2%.

The labor force participation rate measures how many individuals either have a job or are seeking a job. If someone is not actively seeking a job, then they are removed from the statistic, which can give a pseudo-statistical number for the unemployment level.

A three year look on the unemployment rate vs. the labor force participation rate.
Source: Labor Department and The Wall Street Journal.

More simply, people who are not actively seeking a job are not included in the unemployment rate, which may be a problem due to the fact that it is not an accurate measure of the amount of people who are simply discouraged from searching due to the economy.

For example, if the labor force participation today stood at the same level as before the recession, then the jobless rate would be a disheartening 11.5% this last February, as opposed to the 8.9% released by the labor department. This goes to show that clearly many Americans are simply discouraged from seeking employment--until more of these individuals are added back into the labor force participation equation, we would not be on our way to a full recovery.

Another important statistic is added payrolls per month. 192,000 payrolls were added this February, which may seem like a lot, but is actually far from what the U.S. requires in order to have a strong recovery. Nigel Gault, a chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight is quoted in the Wall Street Journal stating: "To get a strong recovery, you'd want to be adding 300,000 payrolls a month. We're clearly a long, long way from that."

However, with all this being said, it is still a good indicator that we are on our way to a full recovery--albeit in a slow and sluggish manner.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

What is RAM and Why Do You Need It?

Did you ever use scrap paper in an exam? If so, you just might relate to your computer!

When searching for a new computer to purchase, you are likely to prioritize specifications. Processor speed, hard disk space, video card performance, blu-ray drives, screen resolution, and other specifications all factor into most computer purchases today.

A RAM Module being installed. Next to the RAM module you can see the heatsink and fan on top of the CPU (central processing unit). The CPU communicates often with the RAM, which is why they are near one another.
Source: data.sg

One of the most important specifications that is often sought after but not understood is RAM Memory (not technically called RAM Memory, since the acronym itself has the word memory in it). RAM, which stands for Random Access Memory, is a type of physical memory that is commonly found in modules inside desktop computers, laptops, smartphones, and all kinds of electronic devices (even your DVR and DVD/Blu-Ray Player).



We all know that hard disk space is used to store data. Documents, pictures, music, videos, and any other data gets stored as bytes onto our hard drive. When we shut down our computer, our data stays there, ready to be retrieved on a restart.

However, RAM acts quite differently from a hard drive's memory. The primary difference between RAM and hard drive memory is that RAM is temporary. Information that gets written and retrieved from RAM is wiped out when you shut down your computer, in contrast to a hard drive's memory which stores the information in-between boots.

So what exactly do we need RAM for? Think about an exam you took. Did you use scrap paper in this exam? If you did, do you remember why you found the scrap paper so helpful? It probably was useful because you stored temporary calculations in it (in two, three, four step problems and beyond). To calculate your final answer, you probably looked more at your scrap paper than the actual exam sheet.

After the exam is over, you probably ended up with a messy sheet of scrap paper, but landed a score of 100 on your exam. Well, RAM works the same way as your sheet of scrap paper!

A brief diagram showing how RAM fits into the entire computer system.
Source: technet.microsoft.com

See, when you start a program on your computer, your computer (specifically, your CPU or central processing unit as shown in the image above) gathers the files and information necessary to run that program. Some of this data is stored temporarily in the RAM module(s). When you work within the program (suppose you are using Microsoft Word), anything you are typing is actually being written onto your RAM--not your hard drive. It is actually when you save your document that the information is transferred from the RAM into the hard drive.

Why does the computer do this? The same reason why you used scrap paper in that exam. The computer needs a faster, more temporary solution for its own "calculations" before it can store the file or data that you need it to--this faster solution is RAM. Since RAM does not have any moving parts as compared to a hard disk drive, it is a much faster form of memory compared to a hard drive. And for a computer, it is this speed and temporary memory that is essential for giving the end-user a seamless experience when using a program.

And when you exit the program, the computer deletes the information from the RAM to free up space for other programs that may be executed--just like when you completed your exam and threw out your scrap paper, the computer does the same.

So the next time you're using a program (or 10 simultaneously in this day and age), remember, your computer is working hard to communicate, write, and retrieve data from RAM in order to give you a smoother experience (or maybe it just needs the sheet of scrap paper for that long-answer question we all hate, who knows!).

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Why Pluto Was Removed As a Planet

Ever wondered why Pluto was declassified as a planet in 2006?

The largest known trans-neptunian objects.
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto was classified as the ninth planet in our Solar System. This would be taught in classrooms for nearly a century, until science began having a better understanding of what shape our Solar System really has and how it works.

In 2006, Pluto was declassified as a Planet because of new definitions set forth by the IAU (International Astronomical Union), which listed three mandatory rules in order for a solar object to be classified as a "planet" in our Solar System. In order to be classified as a planet, the object should:

1) Be in orbit around the Sun,
2) Has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a round shape), and
3) Have "cleared the neighbourhood" around its orbit.



Pluto failed to meet the standards of rule three, which essentially means that the solar object must have sufficiently much larger mass than its neighboring bodies. For example, Earth's mass is much larger than the moon and other neighboring bodies that are around a radius close enough to Earth.

The reason why Pluto failed to meet the third rule is essentially because of the Kuiper Belt. The Kuiper Belt is a large "ring" of asteroids and other foreign objects that orbit our Sun, but are outside of the general Solar System's vicinity. The green marks below identify objects that are in the Kuiper Belt:

The Solar System and the Kuiper Belt.
Source:
Wikimedia Commons


Contrary to what astronomers originally thought, Pluto was not orbiting the Sun on its own. It was among thousands of other objects, some near the mass of Pluto, all orbiting the Sun in the Kuiper Belt. By studying the trajectory of these objects in the Kuiper Belt, astronomers were able to understand that Pluto was simply a larger mass that stood out among the other Kuiper Belt objects.

A large reason why the search for a 9th planet was started was due to the fact that Neptune's orbit is not currently completely explained. This is because Neptune's orbit is more skewed than it should be due to Uranus--meaning that something with a large mass--further out of Neptune's orbit is acting on Neptune, changing its trajectory. This search for this "Planet X" continues to this day. Scientists have identified a few new "plutoids" such as Eris and Sedna. However, they do not have the mass necessary to cause the skew in Neptune's orbit.

Pluto was simply a misidentification by scientists in the search for Planet X which is responsible for the skew in Neptune's orbit.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Oil Breaks $100 a Barrel

Yesterday, U.S. oil prices settled at $98.10 a barrel. This is an increase of 2.8% from the day before. A more important numerical barrier was reached, as U.S. Oil broke $100 a barrel during trading.

Source: Bobandscott.com

The increase in price can be attributed to the large amount of unrest in Libya, Bahrain, and other countries wherein protests are continuing with no end in sight. It is estimated that Libya has cut off around one-third of its daily oil output--a major revenue generator for the country.

Historically, Oil remained between $70 and $85 between September 2009 and November 2010, according to Wall Street Journal Market Data. However, with the recent crisis in Egypt, followed by a trickling effect in nearby countries, Oil is expected to spike in the near future.

Many can remember the high Oil prices in October 2008, when U.S. prices were so high, some people avoided driving altogether. In fact, this Tuesday was the first time that U.S. prices touched $100 a barrel since October 2008.

Some nations are attempting to help with their own Oil output in response to Libya's sharp decline in Oil exports. However, Libya's crude Oil is of a higher quality--so demand is still there for crude Oil, however supply is limited.

Commodity prices have been skyrocketing recently, with Cotton (great article on it here), Soybeans, and Cocoa all trading much higher than initially predicted. Now it appears that Oil can be added to that same list.

Let's just hope that these trading prices are only temporary and not long-term.