January 26, 2011

Nasdaq value more than double '09 market low

Red=Nasdaq, Blue-Dow, Yellow=S&P 500
A lot of headlines today focused on the Dow Jones Industrial Average moving above 12,000. But the other major indexes also reached major milestones.

The S&P 500 is tantalizingly close to 1,300, but even at its close of 1,297, it has reached a level not seen since August 2008.

And the Nasdaq Composite, bless its techy heart, closed at 2,740, reaching a point it hasn’t seen since December 2007.

Alas, they are all still off their record highs:

Dow: 14,163 Oct. 9, 2007
S&P 500: 1,565 Oct. 9, 2007
Nasdaq: 5,048  Mar. 10, 2000

OK, this last one may not be fair, since that was the height of the tech bubble.

The recession started in December 2007. Compared with Dec. 3, 2007, The Dow is down 10 percent and the S&P 500 is down 12 percent, but the Nasdaq is up almost 4 percent.

From Dec. 3, 2007 to March 9, 2009 (when the indexes hit their lowest point of the recession), the Dow lost 50.8 percent, the S&P 500 51.1 percent and the Nasdaq 51.8 percent.

From March 9, 2009, to today, the Dow is up 83 percent, the S&P 500 80 percent, and the Nasdaq is up 116 percent. That deserves a headline, I think.

January 24, 2011

Brick House waitresses let it all hang out

One interesting thing about living in Orlando is that you're likely to have at least a second-degree connection to someone in the hospitality business, and sooner or later, that results in an invitation to a restaurant's pre-opening, when the staff are being trained. Because the staff are practicing, the food is free. You pay only for drinks.

Interesting, but not always beneficial. Because the staff are practicing, pre-openings sometimes have poor service and improperly filled orders. But one forgives, because they are practicing, and it is free.

But the very newness of the restaurant means you don't always know what you are getting into. For example, through a friend-of-a-friend, we got invited to the pre-opening of Brick House Tavern on International Drive. We had no information going in except the name and address.

The restaurant's theme turned out to be "man cave."

Brick walls. Couches instead of booths. Industrial-style exposed ductwork. TVs everywhere. Astonishingly loud music.

And the waitresses -- no waiters here -- are trying to outdo Hooters for scantily-cladness. Tight, low-cut black tops and low-riding pants are the uniform, along with, it seems, big belts and navel piercings.

The waitresses are far too chatty for my introverted taste, but I suspect they are told to be so. One told us she preferred working for Brick House over other restaurants, where wait staff are expected to be more formal. She said, "here, we can just let it all hang out." Yes, she actually said that. Maybe it's part of the training, along with the instruction to sit on the arms of couches next to male patrons, regardless of whether the gentlemen are accompanied by ladies.

Fish and chips, hold the chips. Photo by Rachel Pereira
The food was delicious, although when I ordered a side salad with my fish and chips, I expected to get the fish and chips plus a side salad. Instead I got fish and salad. This was some of the best fried fish I've ever had. the mac and cheese was yummy, too. Great food, but my doctor will probably put me on statins now.

But even though the food was excellent, I will never go there again. The loudness of the music would be enough to keep me away. The prurient overtones just seal the deal.

January 18, 2011

Otronicon: The coolness continues

Jeff Stanford, the Orlando Science Center’s vice president of communications, admitted that performance anxiety is a real threat to the staff when they’re planning Otronicon. There’s a need to each year top what was done before.

So far, they’ve managed to do it.

This year, one of the founding sponsors, Full Sail University, ended its five-year run so its staff could focus on other objectives. That could have been a real setback. But it opened the door for the University of Central Florida and its Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy to come in with new workshops and ideas. And the arrival of EA Sports, Stanford told me, made Otronicon “like a new show.”

Even so, Otronicon has continued to focus on career opportunities. Many exhibits, especially the medical and flight simulators, clearly highlight career paths. Posters throughout the center are designed to help kids match their interests and skills to jobs in the gaming and simulation businesses.

It’s this ability to connect the fun to the fundamental that makes OSC an important part of the community. And when I say “community,” I don’t mean just Orlando. OSC’s reputation drew school groups from as far away as Rhode Island.

"Psst…let the bounty hunter win."
Orlando Science Center photo

At this point, there’s no telling what the OSC team will come up with for the 2012 show. But at Otronicon, OSC announced it will host the Star Wars: Where Science Meets Imagination exhibit starting in the fall of 2012. It will run through the subsequent Otronicon, so for 2013, at least, the crew will get some anxiety relief.

January 17, 2011

Embracing the old games while showcasing the new

I asked the Otronicon volunteer coordinator please not to put me in the Rock Band theater because it’s just too darned loud. So she put me downstairs in the Classic Arcade Lounge. That’s more my speed. Or, as one fellow remarked when he walked in and saw the vintage Donkey Kong cabinet, “that’s what I’m talkin’ about.”

Another guest said he felt like Marty McFly when he went to the future and found his favorite arcade game at “The 80s Cafe.”

All the old favorites are there: Ms. Pac Man, Galaga, Asteroids. Alas, I am not the asteroid blaster I used to be.

Orlando Science Center photo
It’s not just my age cohort that enjoys these games. Even those who postdate these games by decades enjoy the challenge of figuring them out.

For example, one of my contemporaries called SiniStar “one of the best games ever.” He played it for a few minutes. Later, my son played long enough to enter the four top scores of the day.

Louis, a member of OSC’s education team, entertained us with tales from the history of video games. There’s enough information in his head to teach a graduate course on the subject. But he was the first to admit he got it from the Play Value video podcast.

One of those stories was about how Dance Dance Revolution revived the arcade business. Once home game consoles became common, there was little incentive for people to go out and plug quarters in machines. But DDR is a social activity, and fun to watch, so many arcades put it near the entrance to draw people in.

The c.1999 DDR looked a bit out of place in the back corner of the Classic Arcade. Back at Otronicon v.1, DDR was a featured element, alongside Guitar Hero. Now they've yielded that position, as Rock Band takes center stage in the Darden Theatre.

Orlando Science Center photo
Rock Band is more popular not only because it’s a multiplayer game and has music from great bands like The Beatles. At OSC, Rock Band is a centerpiece due to Buzz Dawson’s* drums. He replaced the drum controller pads that come with the game by wiring a real drum kit into the software. It rocks.

If DDR was a fun-to-watch social activity a decade ago, Rock Band is even more so now. Some people go to the Darden Theatre just to watch the players and listen to the music. If, unlike me, you enjoy loud music, that's gotta be way more fun than watching people play Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

* Mom brag: If you go to Buzz’s page, near the bottom, as of this writing, he shows a snapshot of an Orlando Sentinel article about the robotics class he taught at OSC a few years ago. My son, one of the students, is in the lower right-hand corner of that image.

January 16, 2011

Simulators are designed for failure

A more steady-handed person than me, practicing brain surgery
Orlando Science Center photo
As I said last year, I have a long history of crashing flight simulators. Which, if you think about it, is what simulators are for.

The simulation industry is big in Central Florida, and the two simulation halls -- Military Tech and Medical Sim City -- take up more floor space than any other part of Otronicon.

I got to try out a simulated brain tumor operation. Using a tool rather like a Wii controller with a knitting needle on the end, I went through the patient’s nose while a computer monitor showed three views of the inside of the head based on the patient’s MRI. I had to find a brain tumor by coordinating the three images simultaneously. Good thing it was a simulator. I am not steady-handed in the best circumstances. The way I stabbed and wiggled, I would have turned a real brain into cervelle de veau.

In the Military Tech hall, I did a better job. An indulgent Lockheed Martin tech gave me some extra time in the multiform simulator, a three-screened, force-feedback behemoth that can be configured to train pilots for many different aircraft. On this occasion, it was an Osprey, that weird hybrid of plane and helicopter.

It was hard to fly, but after a while I got the hang of it. I only crashed three or four times.

Note: if you ever find yourselves at the controls of an Osprey, do not look away for more than a second, no matter how interesting the information is that your trainer is telling you. The Osprey can get away from you quickly, especially if the engines are at an angle.

I had better luck at the ol’ Cessna. Ron, with whom I worked last year, said he wanted a nice, smooth landing.

I did land the Cessna. In the dirt. It wasn’t smooth, but at least it wasn’t a crash.

January 15, 2011

Rolled by the Virtusphere

The virtusphere proved to be quite the challenge, and the trickiest part of the operation was getting in and out of the thing.

The hatch is about three feet across. To get in, you stick your head in, and the sphere operator rolls the sphere around until the hatch is around your middle. Then you step up – a big, knee-high step – and in.
Mayor Buddy Dyer in the Virtusphere
Orlando Science Center photo
You stand in a bowl that shifts with your every move. It’s disorienting to have the ground move with your foot, instead of being firm. And no matter which way you move, the ground is always sloping upward away from you.

I think my tai chi classes helped me a little; I remembered soft knees and feel the ground with your feet. But I could not see much, as I had to take off my specs to put on the virtual reality goggles. The landscape was a high-tech fortress that had been invaded by aliens. Blurry aliens.

I managed to keep my feet, kill some aliens, and not die.

Several who tried the sphere before me got disoriented and fell. I did not, until I got cocky at the end of the ride and took a giant step toward the hatch. I think I’m the only one who fell after taking the goggles off.

To get out, you step down, turn around, and back out as the operator rotates the hatch upward.

This sphere has a diameter of 10 feet – almost double my height – and it was hard for me. It requires small steps. I think a taller person would have a much harder time. For this to be practical for military simulation, it’ll have to be much larger.

That’ll be cool.

January 13, 2011

Virtual reality on display at science center

EA Sports/ESPN
Although Orlando Science Center has put on the Otronicon video game and simulation show for six years, this year is the first time the region’s largest video game producer, EA Sports, has joined the team as a sponsor. EA will give the first public demonstration of its Virtual Playbook software, which is used by ESPN sports analysts.

Otronicon’s EA Sports Arena will feature EA Sports video games. EA also contributed video game concept art for a gallery show titled “The Emotion of Sport.” Although this is the first time EA has participated as a sponsor, another local division of the company, EA Tiburon, contributed artwork to Otronicon in 2007.

What I'm most looking forward to is the Virtusphere, a 10-foot hollow sphere on a platform that allows it to rotate freely in any direction as the user moves. With wireless virtual reality goggles, the user can walk or run through a virtual environment.

Virtusphere Inc. developed this “locomotion simulation” for military and emergency responder training. But it obviously has gaming and fitness applications also.

It's a human-size hamster ball! How cool is that?

Guests at Otronicon can try out the Virtusphere this weekend, as it's one of the public exhibits during Otronicon, Jan. 14-17, at the Orlando Science Center.
 See the Virtusphere video on the Otronicon website. I'll be trying it out once my volunteer shift is over.

January 7, 2011

Stock picking requires analysis -- and really good timing

Is this a good investment?
Or is it not?
Delivering the "OBJ Market Wrap" stock report on WLOQ-FM every afternoon is my favorite part of my job. I love researching the stock market. I'm just geeky that way.

One day, a co-worker noticed it was almost time for me to call the report in to the radio station, and she said something like, "The markets spiralled downward today after some guy said some stupid thing..." I gather that's how she sees the market.

It's true that I often say things like "activity spiked after the Fed announced…" because honestly, sometimes after a Bernanke announcement the stock charts look like those of a patient in V-fib. James Paulsen, chief investment strategist for Wells Capital Management, gave the best description of the market when he told an Associated Press reporter, “There’s nothing down there to move it except rumor and innuendo.”

Over at The Wall Street Journal, Brett Arends offers an analysis of just how wrong stock pickers can be, and he also wrote a clever and contrarian view of "market timing" -- pointing out that "even though Wall Street overall ended the decade pretty much level (when you include dividends), average investors lost a bundle."

We do seem to have lost a decade. A broad index like the S&P 500 shows gains made in 2002-2007 have been wiped out. The S&P 500 is down 4.7 percent from January 2001. But for that same period, just to give one example, Lockheed Martin Corp. (NYSE: LMT)* is up 105.9 percent. And remember to include those dividends. LockMart shareholders have been paid consistently all that time, despite the recession. In fact, LockMart recently raised its quarterly dividend for the eighth year in a row.

Still, analyst evaluations of LockMart are mixed right now. Ned Davis Research has it at "buy," while MarketEdge says "hold," and Credit Suisse is "neutral." LockMart made SmarTrend's list of "Top 5 Companies in the Aerospace & Defense Industry With the Best Relative Performance," second only to Orbital Sciences, yet the group is still "bearish" on LockMart. A more recent item from Zacks notes concern about defense budget cuts.

I do understand where the criticism comes from. If you look at performance since the start of the recession, The S&P 500 is down 14.3 percent and LMT down 36.7 percent. But when you look at LMT's long-term performance -- including those dividends -- it seems like a convincing case for buying and holding. But the difference between those who "lost a bundle" on LMT and those who made a bundle is the difference between those who bought three years ago and those who bought ten years ago. The hardest part of investing -- other than picking what to buy -- is picking when to buy.

* I picked LMT because I follow it for the OBJ Market Wrap. LMT has a large facility here in Orlando, and is also a major player in the space program.