Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Spotlight #4: Descent into Chaos

"Descent into Chaos" 
by: Ahmed Rashid

Quote Highlight: "Six weeks before 9/11, an old Afghan friend of mine came to spend the day with me at my home in Lahore... At issue was his future, his safety, and the fate of his country... My friend was Hamid Karzai..." - Ahmed Rashid

What a whirlwind. I finally put this book down after a month of on and off reading, but wow, this was well worth it. Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist has put together a treasure trove of information on the US struggles against terrorist groups in the Middle East since 9/11. This book provides an in-depth review of who the Taliban are, why the US has been largely  unsuccessful in curtailing the terrorist groups in the region, as well as giving great insight into the Pakistani's role in aiding and funding militant groups. Ever wonder what Bin-Laden was doing holed up in Pakistan, only just miles away from Pakistan's version of West Point? This book has answers, and shines a light on the country's double dealings and serious misgivings in the fight against terrorism since 9/11. It seems the fight against the Taliban and other extremist groups, can not be analyzed without taking into account Pakistan's fight for Kashmir and great fear of arch-rival India. 

Rashid is able to intricately wind the reader through the links between state actors and terrorist groups in the region. He is highly critical of the Bush Administration, specifically Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in his analysis; the neo-con masterminds of the previous decade. Although it's very easy to follow his logic and see the ways in which the administration fumbled certain aspects of the war in Afghanistan post 9/11, I'm almost certain there are rebuttals to some of his arguments. At some points, Rashid is entirely too black and white, when there are clear shades of gray involved in the Administration's decision making. However, it's important to understand that this book is written through a true Pakistani viewpoint, and taking that into account, it's easy to see how frustrated those in the region can be with the United States. That said, it's clear that through Rashid's eyes, the Bush Administration squandered some great opportunities to turn Afghanistan around right after 9/11. The US was able to win the War against the Taliban under Operation Anaconda with great success, utilizing limited troops and funding early on. Unfortunately, Rashid says, the US then got distracted with the upcoming War in Iraq, and refused to begin the subsequent nation building and security provisions to the Afghan populace that were necessary in the aftermath of the victory. This, coupled with Pakistan's reluctance to stamp out the Taliban, led to a resurgence just a few years later of the Taliban and an emergence of new groups as well.

This book opened my eyes up to a lot of views that are somewhat known, but not mentioned a lot in the mainstream. Specifically, Rashid sheds an enormous spotlight on the state of Pakistan. It's hard to come away from this book optimistic, as it's now 2015, and we see the reign of ISIS and other groups in the region. While specifically in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban have not been crushed either. Unfortunately, the state of Pakistan, through the ISI (Pakistan's intelligence service) and the army, has been funding and providing safe haven for Taliban militants pre-9/11 and continues to do so post 9/11. According to Rashid, the Bush Administration failed to adequately pressure the Musharaf regime to clamp down on the ISI's support of the Taliban. After 9/11, the Taliban were able to escape into the FATA (Federally Administered Tribal Areas) of Pakistan and not only regroup, but set up shop. This is all intricately linked to the struggle between Pakistan and India in their fight over Kashmir. The Bush Administration, and the West, seem to be inclined to not pressure Pakistan too much because they fear the fall of a stable regime within the country. A worse case scenario that would see a country with nuclear weapons fall into instability and create a significant likelihood that powerful weapons could fall into bad hands. Although that makes strategic sense, it severely hampers the fight against the Taliban and other militant groups because of the support these groups are able to receive from elements inside of the Pakistani army and Intelligence services. So, although this is a known phenomenon, it's rarely discussed in the mainstream and this book opened up the details to the relationship between Pakistan and the Taliban. If you're someone who is at all interested in an in-depth and eye opening analysis of the War in Afghanistan and the fight against the Taliban, this is certainly the book for you. My only disclaimer is to be aware of the US foreign policy bashing, and bear with the incessant amount of names you will be opened up to.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Case against Twitter

Twitter announced earnings this past week and the stock quickly rallied 15% after the report. However, monthly user growth on the platform, which seemed to be the most important metric heading into earnings came up below expectations. It's a number that's been a concern for investors for months now. In the lead-up to the release, all the talk seemed to be on whether user growth would continue its slow down or Twitter would surprise analyst expectations. So why did the stock head up 15%? Well, EPS were double what analysts had expected, at 12 cents per share and revenue was higher than expected at $479 million. So Twitter proved that it will be able to monetize it's existing user base. In addition, the company announced a partnership with Google that will allow tweets to be searchable instantly from Google. The market seemed to be pleased with the revenue growth and EPS, ignoring the paltry user growth and the stock bounced. However, I'm here to argue that the market should be more concerned about user growth and less about monetization right now. It's user growth that will keep the company alive. In today's world of frantic, fast paced social media game, it's all about the new thing. Twitter may be losing that appeal. In comparison, Facebook has been very focused on increasing it's user base.

Facebook has focused on new users since inception, now able to boast over a billion active monthly users. Furthermore, the company owns Instagram, which has MORE active monthly users than Twitter. Mark Zuckerburg, unlike CEO of Twitter Dick Costolo, understands that it's all about user growth. Once you have users, you can begin to monetize the service. Facebook is well known, and has been growing strong recently. Take a look at the chart below to see the user growth comparison between Facebook and Twitter. That's not even including Instagram. The last chart is two years old, but the trend has stayed the same. Facebook showing a much better increase in the number of users as compared to Twitter. After you have a look at the charts, let's look at a few other services as well.

Over a billion users
Paltry User Growth
Comparing Facebook User Growth to that of Twitter.

Take Snapchat for instance. The WSJ claims the service has over 100 million monthly active users, and that was in August of 2014. That's only 1/3 of Twitter but it's most likely growing at a much faster rate. With features such as Snapchat story, snapcash, and the new discover feature, the company is hungrily looking to expand. Snapchat is churning out new features, twitter just can't seem to innovate new products fast enough to keep up in this age. Twitter is so slow to come out wiht new features that investors cheered when group direct messaging arrived and when "while you were away" started. Paltry in comparison. On snapchat, users send snaps (timed self destructing pictures) to each other and use story to share pictures from their day. Heading to the Knicks game? Make sure to put a picture on your story. Each users story deletes within 24 hours, creating a blank slate for the next day. Rinse and repeat. Users are hooked and have a reason to be on and uploading every hour of every day. Additionally, Snapchat has a new LIVE feature, that allow users who go to a certain event, say the Superbowl, to send snaps in and get put on the official Superbowl live feed. Every single user of snapchat has viewing access to the live feed of the Superbowl, where they can see other users snaps first hand. This has been a huge innovation and I believe is transforming the way young people get the news. For the Grammy's, you could watch celebrities own snapchats straight from the red carpet or back stage instead of going through an intermediary. It turns everyone into a reporter of some kind, giving a number of different perspectives from one event all into one place. This would never happen on an official news site like ESPN or CNN. Snapchat is here to stay and seems to be the most used app for kids around college age besides Instagram.

Take another new app, Yik-Yak. The anonymous posting app has largely taken the place of what young people would normally be tweeting. Instead of tweeting, a user can anonymously post to Yik-Yak where users can vote the post up or down. After a few hours, the post deletes. It's a continuous flow of posts, essentially tweets, all anonymous. For the young, I see more and more people moving to Yik-Yak for random thoughts and tid bits that would normally have been posted to twitter. This social media app may not be here to stay, but it shows how easily random "tweets" can be replaced. There is nothing keeping young people around, no novelty to tweeting over any other service.

It's going to take more than getting rid of "trolls" on the platform, as CEO Dick Costolo seems focused on, for Twitter to warrant the valuation the market currently gives it. What gives the company value, is growth, future growth. In order to grow, you need new users. The company can monetize existing users all it wants, this doesn't  give it to the valuation it currently has. Twitter is here to stay, but it's not here to explode. It's a useful service that allows people to get news and other pieces of information in an instant. That's all there is to it.