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    When It Took Guts To Live Your Music

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 21st November 2015 (All posts by )

    Some nights when I have time to kill I just put on a recorded music video show from MTV2 or Palladia and fast forward until I see something that looks interesting. I stopped briefly on a new band out of the UK that looked like half glam / half punk just long enough to get a screen shot… I don’t even care enough to spend ten seconds looking on the internet to figure out their name.

    What I really thought about was that once it took guts and rage to look different from everyone else and music / lifestyle / looks were one and the same, not just an act that you put on like makeup. If you want to read about that in action, try “Get in the Van” by Henry Rollins, the iconic lead singer of the seminal Southern California punk band “Black Flag”.

    Growing up we listened to Black Flag all the time, especially the iconic “Damaged” album. I was too young (and too chicken) to go see them in concert, but reading the “Get in the Van” book really brought home all the violence and flat-out deprivation that it took to live that lifestyle, with Rollins completing a set after being punched and kicked and often drenched in spit. We also forget that Rollins was one of the first individuals to get interesting tattoos in addition to his hairstyle and overall look, which constantly got him in fights everywhere he went. If you want to read about a real and dedicated artist, not some band that was prefabricated for TV and the internet, just read anything Rollins writes but start with “Get in the Van”.

    Reading the book prompted me to get back in the spirit and listen to my favorite Black Flag albums. However, they’ve been lost from vinyl to cassettes to CDs and I’m pretty much done with physical media anymore. So I just signed up for Apple Music and there they all are – the whole catalog. Kind of ironic to listen to music that was made and played with fire in such a bloodless manner as through my iPad and bluetooth speaker…

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Book Notes, Music | 10 Comments »


    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 17th October 2015 (All posts by )

    I remember when I first joined companies I assumed that the executives in charge knew what they were doing and wouldn’t do something ridiculously stupid. After a while I came to learn that this wasn’t the case.

    In Chicago recently an effort is underway to increase the use of bikes and create additional lanes for safety. At the same time they are attempting to create a bus corridor in the loop.

    The net result, sadly, is utter and complete gridlock. I have stopped taking the bus unless the weather is horrendous because many of the intersections between River North and the Loop are facing gridlock, where cars are in the intersection after the light changes and no one can move. This was already the case on Thursdays and Fridays after work as everyone moved to exit the city at one time.

    They are also building a lot of new high rises, particularly near the Merchandise Mart / Wolf Point. It is incredible that they are able to pack more high rises into that area because traffic is unbelievably bad at that location, already. There is a Brown Line stop nearby but that only is useful for those on that train line and most of the wealthy folks that live / work in that location will likely drive frequently.

    On the other hand, it is good for the “steps” that I track on my iPhone. Since taking a cab or even the bus is mostly pointless I am walking to work more often. When the weather gets terrible I will likely just sit on the bus and read my iPhone like everyone else while sitting motionless in traffic.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Big Government, Chicagoania | 18 Comments »

    Fun with License Plates

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 16th October 2015 (All posts by )

    Some folks want attention on their license plates.

    Here’s one of the few that remembers the predecessor to the Internet, known only by old techies and weirdos like me.

    And here’s a reference to one of my favorite authors, horror pioneer HP Lovecraft and his mythos.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Humor | 8 Comments »

    The Most Important Story No One Is Talking About – Puerto Rican Debt

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 15th October 2015 (All posts by )

    Dan and I go back and forth on the relatively arcane topic of municipal debt. As we all know, the state of Illinois is awash in debt. The situation is so bad that:

    1. The State of Illinois is operating without a budget

    2. The city of Chicago is proposing a massive property tax increase

    3. Cook County just raised our sales tax (one of the highest rates in the country, already) and is proposing additional fees

    4. Chicago Public Schools face a major deficit and without some sort of massive state tax relief is likely going to face significant layoffs and a likely teachers strike

    5. Note that we are one of the few states and cities to be in such dire straits that we issue TAXABLE debt instead of MUNICIPAL debt which is generally exempt from Federal taxes and some state taxes. This is due to the fact that you generally cannot issue muni bonds to pay off operating expenses (like payroll and legal settlements)

    The long term most indebted players have been Detroit, Puerto Rico, and the State of Illinois / City of Chicago. We saw how the Detroit bankruptcy occurred, with bondholders generally taking it on the chin and unsecured pension holders in fact emerging in a relatively better situation.

    Now Puerto Rico is up to bat. They have massive, unpayable debts of many varieties (some secured by full faith and credit, some secured with revenues, some bank loans, etc…) and their governor basically said so out loud. All of this is inevitable as their island’s best talent has fled to the mainland USA and the remaining population is more and more reliant on government aid to survive. They also have failed to modernize their power infrastructure and / or build new industries outside of tourism which erodes their ability to compete against the mainland USA that in turn has much higher productivity.

    The real issue – long term – is whether or not the Federal government will back up the states. This is essentially the “long game” of the State of Illinois and the city of Chicago – waiting to see whether or not the Federal government is really going to stand by and let us go bankrupt or not. If the government is ultimately going to pick up our debts, it is “business as usual”, and the corruption, back-scratching, and non-competitive behavior can just continue indefinitely, with taxpayers across the nation picking up the debris rather than forcing the citizens of Illinois to clean up our act.

    Today Puerto Rico and the treasury announced that they are working to backstop the Puerto Rican debt with some sort of Federal umbrella per this article.

    Puerto Rico and U.S. officials are discussing the issuance of a “superbond” administered by the U.S. Treasury Department that would help restructure the commonwealth’s $72 billion of debt, people familiar with the plan said.

    And what a great name! A “superbond” means that all the US citizens will pick up the “super” obligations of our corrupt, crony-laden, inefficient city and state. That’s super!

    This is the path out for Illinois and the city of Chicago. Play brinksmanship with Federal government and receive a backstop. Puerto Rico leads the way!

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Big Government, Chicagoania, Economics & Finance, Politics, Public Finance, Taxes | 15 Comments »

    Midwestern Drinking

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 12th September 2015 (All posts by )

    Dan and I and Gerry often joke about Midwest drinking and how people from other parts of the country simply have zero concept of what the midwesterner’s relationship with alcohol is like. We often go to sporting events together and watch massive drinking binges playing out to the left and to the right.

    Recently I was out in Wrigleyville which is just packed with new bars and drinkers as far as the eye can see. The plaque below was at a bar called “Stretch”. For best results, click on the photo and read the individual “merit badges” that have been earned.

    Here are some of the “highlights”

    8 shots of Bacardi 151 in 22 seconds

    Wow that much alcohol that fast is crazy. Dan and I were at a bar with some of the heaviest drinking I’ve ever seen and some crazy guy tried to buy us all shots of Jagermeister (there were 6 of us standing around) and no one would drink them so he just took all the shots and poured them into 2 regular drinking glasses and downed them in a couple gulps. That was so nuts I had to ask Dan the next day if we really saw it.

    15 shots and 6 beers in one hour

    This sounds about like “Mayor Daley” the merry idiot immortalized at Drunk Bear Fans. That guy was just probably trying to get loaded before going to a Cubs game. The best part about this is that I’d bet that guy drinks like that all the time and someone just had the foresight to document it for history’s sake. When you are on the clock you need to make the most of it, I guess.

    The biggest differences occur when someone from another city is just plunged into the madness that we take for granted here in the midwest. A “normal” citizen who walks into Wrigleyville or game day near Madison or any midwestern city on a Friday night in the summer really can’t believe what is happening and thinks it is something special – it can’t be like this every day, can it? Oh yes it can. We are old now but I saw with my own eyes an entire new drinking class at Wrigleyville last night and they cover most of River North at 2am and beyond.

    It is nothing to be proud of but it is reality here. You have to see it to believe it. Or just put up a plaque.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Chicagoania, Human Behavior, Humor, That's NOT Funny | 7 Comments »

    History and Unexpected Shock

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 7th September 2015 (All posts by )

    One of the fallacies of studying history and interpreting historical events is that:

    1) you look at the course of events that occurred and assume that they mostly would follow a similar narrative with different variables
    2) you ignore what might have happened that is significantly out-of-the-box or the “black swans” that could have resulted in  radically different outcomes.

    I discussed this here with equity markets by country; while we talk about the “long term” and staying with stocks since they generally rise, we ignore that for most countries there have been “liquidation events” that wiped out all the players who remained in the markets (of their stockholdings, at least).

    For instance, in the course of WW2, there has been much discussion of whether or not the Germans would have won had they attempted a sea-landing of England.  The much more important train of thought, however, is what might have happened had Churchill not been the Prime Minister of England during those critical hours.  Many, many lesser men would have capitulated in that time of crisis.

    On the Russian front, in 1941, Russia likely came within a hair’s breadth of moral and system-wide collapse after their frontier armies were annihilated and the Germans began driving across the steppe.  The fact that they were able to sacrifice armies for time and keep some semblance of discipline is taken as a given, but likely if the world ran that as a true Monte Carlo simulation over and over again that outcome is rare.

    A third WW2 example is “what would have happened had the US Navy lost at Midway” which was what the odds said would have occurred.  It is true that in the end US material advantages would vastly outstrip Japan, but another issue is “if we didn’t have victories, would the US political system have produced an isolationist president who would have sued for peace?”  FDR was an ill man and could have conceivably died anytime from 1940 onward.  Even today, looking back, I am amazed that so many US servicemen were preparing to invade Japan at the end of the war, a task that would have led to virtually certain death or injury (for the lucky ones) for tens of thousands without some sort of riots or desertion given the immense casualties and deaths the US faced at Okinawa and Iwo Jima.  Today we lack the social cohesion to attempt anything so disruptive and likely to result in mass casualties.

    It is important to remember that historians and prognosticators are notoriously bad at predicting events – even on topics that they are intimately close to.  For example, few saw the collapse of the USSR in 1989 and the entire “Arab Spring” that began with a vendor self-immolating in Tunisia swept the world with surprise.  It isn’t that in hindsight many showed the “rot” of these decaying systems, but that they couldn’t predict the “triggers” that would set off the maelstrom.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Deep Thoughts, History, Military Affairs | 6 Comments »

    Your Evolving Home Network

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 6th September 2015 (All posts by )

    Our building recently upgraded to 100 MB per unit internet using “microwave fixed wireless” rather than the traditional AT&T / Verizon / fiber solution. Here and here I wrote about this incredible technology and its potential to disrupt the cable and internet industries.

    After the upgrade we were receiving screaming fast performance from wired connections but slower ping and downloads on my wireless clients. Thus I asked my friend Brian for a wireless router recommendation and he mentioned the TP Link Archer A9. I picked it up on Amazon for $129 and recently hooked it up. With all the security threats that abound, it is important that you have a modern network router and are aware of weak security points on your network, particularly some of the new “Internet of Things” devices that are proliferating nowadays.

    Routers have changed significantly over the last few years in terms of power, capabilities, and ease of use. For instance the A9 has a simple console when you sign in and you can “hover over” and see your wired and wireless connections that are currently on your network. They have a cool error page and I am just starting to dig in to the various errors that I see on the panel and will be working with my ISP to resolve them – these aren’t typical “errors” in that the internet doesn’t work, but I do believe that frequent connections and re-connections and slower link times are caused by these events.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Privacy, Tech | 7 Comments »

    The Rise of “Conventional” Warfare

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 15th August 2015 (All posts by )

    After WW2 and Vietnam there was an era of relative peace as the two major superpowers stared at each other, laden with nuclear weapons, through proxy states and alliances. During this era, the major powers continually upped their weapons’ capabilities, but rarely tested them, and not against one another.

    Certainly there was war of various sorts throughout the world, but the sort of “conventional” warfare analogous to WW2 battles with armor, air power, and crushing violence rather than guerrilla tactics was far from the norm.

    The additional, tacit, assumption was that many of the modern democracies were far removed from the front lines and as such they let their military traditions die. In fact, many openly scoffed at the military as wasted dollars, or used their military spending substantially for the purpose of protecting local jobs and / or technologies along with export markets (see Airbus and most of Europe).

    The world was on a hair-trigger of nuclear annihilation for so long that the thought of a conventional war became archaic and not normally contemplated. Alongside that was the general feeling that the borders of the nation state were inviolate, and while occasional splits would occur (Czechs and Slovaks, etc…) the vast majority would occur without violence and the transition would mainly involve economic concerns.

    While the US, Russia and China would be loathe to directly face off head to head due to the very real sense of potential world destruction, everything else has become fair game. Russia takes Crimea, parts of Ukraine, and threatens the Baltic states. Is it conceivable that Putin would move in and take over one or more of the Baltic states? Absolutely. This sort of thinking would have been viewed as the raving of a lunatic ten years ago.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in History, Military Affairs | 28 Comments »

    Who Is Buying That Crap?

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 9th August 2015 (All posts by )

    Dan and I follow municipal bonds, which is a bit more exciting than it sounds. The State of Illinois, the City of Chicago, Cook County, and many other entities in which I am a semi-unwitting participant will likely soon be on the front pages of newspapers as it sinks in that we can never repay these debts.

    Back in late 2008, during the height of that financial crisis, the State of Illinois issued debt. In this post I basically asked the question “Who is buying this crap?” and the answer was JP Morgan, showing its solidarity (in a way) with the state of Illinois by buying the ENTIRE issue.

    Puerto Rico is the new problem child of debt failure, and as Dan calls it, a “gapers block” over the entire municipal debt market. There were a lot of good reasons to buy Puerto Rico municipal bonds for many years – it was tax exempt, it had high yields, some of it was insured and / or tied to revenue streams like power or water, and historically there had been few or no failures of large-scale municipal bond issuers. It was great to own this debt and collect the high interest rates, as long as you watched it and got out before it collapsed. In a way this is “momentum investing” of sorts – get in and enjoy the ride up, but make sure you clear the exit before everyone else runs out of the movie theater screaming “fire”.

    But the question in the back of my mind was always “Who is buying that crap”. Not sophisticated investors who knew how to ride the wave up and get out before it collapsed, but people who honestly believed that a set of statements by politicians and / or laws as they were currently constructed would magically allow a tiny and impoverished island to pay inordinate debts while their economy imploded around them.

    A recent NY Times article titled “Pain of Puerto Rico’s Debt Crisis Is Weighing on the Little Guy, Too” provided a timely answer to my question.

    To Lev Steinberg, it seemed like a good place to park his nest egg. Puerto Rico bonds offered high returns and tax-free income. And there was little chance, his broker assured him, that the government would default on its debt. So Mr. Steinberg went all in, investing more than 85 percent of his retirement savings in funds with large concentrations of Puerto Rico bonds.“They told me this was safe,” said Mr. Steinberg, a 64-year-old mathematics professor at the University of Puerto Rico, “that the legal protections to repay the bonds were strong.”

    The NY Times article describes how local brokers and banks created products that leveraged up these bonds with borrowed money and then they were sold to Puerto Rico citizens (they were illegal on the mainland). The article said that 20% of Puerto Rican debt is owed to local citizens, and they bought many of the most “toxic” issuances (those with the least protections, like pension obligation bonds).

    Thank you, NY Times, for helping to answer the timeless question “who is buying that crap”. The answer is gullible citizens, who believed in their government’s promises, and also thought that years and years of high returns could be manufactured endlessly out of thin air without corresponding risk.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Big Government, Business, Economics & Finance | 15 Comments »

    Our Disastrous Energy Policy, Continued

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 2nd August 2015 (All posts by )

    New Clean Air Act regulations have recently been proposed by the EPA.

    President Obama will unveil on Monday a set of environmental regulations devised to sharply cut planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions from the nation’s power plants and ultimately transform America’s electricity industry. The rules are the final, tougher versions of proposed regulations that the Environmental Protection Agency announced in 2012 and 2014. If they withstand the expected legal challenges, the regulations will set in motion sweeping policy changes that could shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants, freeze construction of new coal plants and create a boom in the production of wind and solar power and other renewable energy sources.

    What is interesting is that the EPA recently had their ever-expanding mandate struck down by the Supreme court just a few short weeks ago, when their attempt to kill off coal through regulation of mercury and other pollutants was invalidated for not sufficiently weighing the cost of the proposed initiative.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Big Government, Business, Current Events, Economics & Finance, Energy & Power Generation, Environment | 28 Comments »

    Oregon Road Trip Part I

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 20th July 2015 (All posts by )

    Recently I went to Oregon for the first time. In my past work as a consultant and during vacations I’d been to 48 states – but not Oregon or Hawaii. We started out in Portland and traveled around most of the state and it was a good time, with a lot of odd insights.

    The architecture in Portland was spectacular. I am a fan of the “Dwell” type house; a modern look with lots of glass. Portland had many older houses (Victorians) along with a lot of great new construction, especially in the downtown area.

    Oregon in general had many older cars, often in pristine condition. I saw a lot of older pickup trucks off the main roads, still working hard for their owners. Not sure why but generally it must be that they don’t salt their roads.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Personal Narrative | 8 Comments »

    The “Amazon-ification” of Retail

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 3rd July 2015 (All posts by )

    A while back I was talking to a friend of mine and he said

    A package from Amazon shows up at my doorstep every day of the week

    At the time I thought my friend was exaggerating, or perhaps a little bit crazy. But now it has moved to the point where I usually receive 1-2 packages each week from Amazon and now the yellow “minion” boxes abound in my condo.

    What happened? I started to realize that with free shipping and the fact that my iPhone is usually nearby, whenever I am “out” of something around the house or need something that is unavailable, I just pick up my phone, type in a description in the App, and buy it immediately. Then I typically forget about whatever it is that I bought until I open up one of the regularly arriving Amazon boxes and go

    Oh, that’s what I needed

    You can buy pretty much everything that isn’t immediately perishable on Amazon, except for a few things like liquor. Thankfully I live near an enormous liquor store (but unfortunately not a high end grocery store, River North lacks a Whole Foods or Mariano’s) so that’s covered.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance | 17 Comments »

    Service Sector Productivity

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 28th June 2015 (All posts by )

    Recently I went on a diet and began ordering specific drinks ordered a specific way – generally gin with a “splash” of tonic (because tonic has carbs and I want to minimize carbs, but need something to cut against the alcohol). This order, however, has become a running joke among my friends because no matter what I order I usually get the same drink every time – which is a “standard” gin and tonic (see below, the wrong order per usual).

    Unlike most people who would shrug it off or get angry, to me this is really an economics issue and not just a “bad order”. When you work with bars and restaurants and other similar industries, if you do anything “outside the norm” your odds of getting it “right” are often less than 50/50. Which leads us to the title of this post…

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Chicagoania, Economics & Finance, Management | 20 Comments »

    Margie’s Candies Is Highly Recommended

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 28th June 2015 (All posts by )

    Recently I was on the “606” Trail and visited one of my favorite spots in Chicago – “Margie’s Candies“. Margie’s makes incredible ice cream sundaes that must be seen to be believed – and they come with an actual silver pitcher of hot fudge that you can pour on the ice cream yourself. Usually I would start with a photo of the restaurant but I wanted to make sure that the “money shot” is above the fold.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Chicagoania, Diversions | 10 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – From College to Work

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 21st June 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    Chicago, early 1990s

    Today it seems like everyone goes into college after taking many Advanced Placement (AP) courses with a lot of college credits. When I did this in the late 1980s, however, it was much rarer. I was able to cut out an entire semester with credits from high school and with summer school and a heavy course load I was able to graduate with an undergraduate and graduate degree in accounting in four years.

    I remember finishing college at the end of May. Back then we didn’t have air conditioning in our house nor in the buildings on campus and I remember just sweating so much that my arms stuck to the coursework. In graduate school we had a number of group projects which were harder to schedule back in the day before email and cell phones; we had to pick a time and actually stick to it in order to collaborate. Exams were long and we had to turn in all of our projects and I was kind of exhausted.

    Immediately after completion of exams I took the CPA exam. Today the exam is much different and it is commonly taken “in pieces” but back then most people sat down and in two days tried to knock out all four sections at once; you needed a score of “75%” to pass each section and I passed all four the first time, although one of the sections was right on the edge with that “75”. The exam was in McCormick Place, South of the Loop, and on Friday around 6pm I decided to take side streets (Ashland) up from the South Loop to the North Side. That turned out to be a terrible decision; at that time Chicago was extremely dangerous and this was before gentrification of the South and West Loop; there were large groups of people milling about in the street and burning trashcans like that scene out of “Rocky”. I got through it but it was something I’d never recommend trying again.

    By the middle of June I was starting my first job. The accounting firm tried to get me to start in the fall, when the vast majority of new staff joined, and asked me why I didn’t want to just take the summer off.

    “Because I don’t have any money” was my answer.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 19 Comments »

    On the 606 Trail

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 12th June 2015 (All posts by )

    The “606” trail in Chicago opened recently. It follows an abandoned railroad track that starts in Bucktown / Wicker Park and heads west from there. I am very familiar with this track since I used to live in Bucktown a decade ago and stared at the crumbling bridges that split the neighborhood.

    The trail is named after “606” which is the first 3 digits of the zip code in these neighborhoods. I guess that is an OK name but it’s kind of an obscure reference. Does anyone even send mail anymore? The park is sometimes compared against the High Line trail in NYC but the High Line is way cooler since it moves through a heavily urban area. But the 606 is a massive upgrade from just a crumbling set of train tracks.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Architecture, Chicagoania, Diversions | 3 Comments »

    A Car for $89 / month

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 12th June 2015 (All posts by )

    For years I was proud to be the owner of a 1998 Altima which ran forever, never broke, and required no upkeep. I passed on the Altima (it is still going strong in our family) and eventually ended up with a 2011 Jetta that I purchased new.

    I knew I had made the right purchase decision when I saw this article in Bloomberg titled

    Jetta Leases as Cheap as Mobile Phones shows VW’s US Travails

    From the article:

    The $89 a month it takes to lease a Jetta at some U.S. dealerships is about as low as the price of using an iPhone on some mobile-phone plans. It’s also a sign of how Volkswagen AG is grasping to turn around its fortunes in the U.S.
    The bargain deal — available after a down payment of about $2,500 on the $17,325 Jetta — runs over a three-year term.

    I paid about $17,000 for my Jetta and it has been a great purchase. It is a roomy 4 door car with solid handling – one time I had to lock up the breaks at 65 mph when a lunatic decided to get off the highway from the left lane and exit – the car saved my bacon and stopped on a dime, straight and clear.

    When I drive people around in the car they are astonished at how nice it is for the money; in most instances a car is a terrible investment and minimizing your initial purchase not only saves you direct costs it also saves you on taxes, service costs, and insurance. Recently I had a tire issue (Chicago has terrible potholes) and I just went and bought all four tires and had them installed for $550 including taxes. I have friends where it costs almost $1000 for EACH tire… much less all four.

    There are many good reasons why you may have to invest a lot in a car; if you have to cart around a lot of kids, or need to transport a lot of equipment or materials in the bed of your truck. Most of the time, however, a car is a status symbol, and people pour money into their car because it seems cool or attracts attention. That logic is fiscally irresponsible and it is interesting to see how much cheaper this Jetta is against the competition when for almost all normal, functional commuting purposes, it functions identically to cars that cost 2-4x.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Human Behavior | 6 Comments »

    Use of Netatmo to Measure Wealth in Chicagoland

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 6th June 2015 (All posts by )

    Netatmo is a personal weather station that you can buy which is wifi connected and “joins” the netatmo network worldwide so that your information contributes to the grid of stations. I wrote about my experience in detail here.

    Here is what Netatmo looks like on your phone – you can see the temperature inside and outside your house (it is also connected with weather alerts) and if you turn your phone sideways you can also graph data along many time series. I find it to be very cool and check it a lot on my cell phone or ipad when I am bored and want to kill some time.

    I started looking at the Netatmo weather map on my phone and it also becomes a visual map of wealth and technology adoption in Chicago. While you can’t see all the individuals who might buy an iWatch on a map, the Netatmo weather station becomes a clear signal and it is tied to a clear physical location. Note that when you “drill in” to the map you will see many weather stations in an area such as River North – however if an area is devoid of stations entirely it comes up blank. And there’s Chicago! You can see the stations in the north side, a completely barren west side, and a mostly barren south side, except for the dot along the lake which represents Hyde Park.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Chicagoania, Society, Tech | 6 Comments »

    The End of the European Welfare State As a Comparison Point for the USA

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 31st May 2015 (All posts by )

    For years articles about everything from family leave to medical benefits started with the premise that

    The United States is the only modern Western economy that doesn’t do or provide “X” for their workers

    Thus the premise was the our economies were roughly equivalent and the USA was “mean” or “backwards” because we didn’t provide all those benefits and worker protections that the other countries were (apparently) able to absorb.

    In the Sunday Business of the NY Times we can see where this has finally led, however – in an article about retraining European workers titled “Fake Jobs with Real Benefits” this is the end statistic:

    But in a reflection of the shifting nature of the European workplace, most are low-paying and last for short stints, sometimes just three to six months. Today, more than half of all new jobs in the European Union are temporary contracts, according to Eurostat.

    These jobs don’t have the famous protections for working mothers and stay-at-home dads and for medical benefits and pensions and everything else; they just set you up for a few months at a time and can just not renew your contract for any reason, including if you are legitimately hurt or ill. These are the ruthless “McJobs” that have been decried for years in the USA.

    In parallel, Spain is now lurching into a political crisis similar to what is happening in Greece. Here are some statistics on Spain per this Foreign Policy article:

    The Eurozone as a whole is a disaster. Whereas the United States’ economy is nearly 10 percent larger than it was seven years ago, the Eurozone’s is 1.5% smaller. And Spain is faring even worse; it’s economy is still 5 percent smaller. Nearly one in four Spaniards, and one in two young people, are unemployed. In the European Union, only Greece’s unemployment rate is higher. Many people have dropped out of the labor force (or immigrated to countries where there are jobs to be found). A lost generation is in the making.

    And the governmental statistics are sobering:

    Spain still has the largest fiscal deficit, as a share of the economy; in the entire EU: 5.8% of GDP last year. Public debt as a share of GDP rose by more last year than anywhere else in the eurozone and is set to top 100 percent this year.

    The few remaining permanent full-time jobs are often in the governmental sector; this is closely linked to corruption. In Spain the corruption of the ruling parties contributed to their drubbing in local elections.

    The net of all this is that comparing the USA to Europe is now mostly a fools’ errand. Not only has growth and productivity stalled across most of the EU, the cherished benefits that are held up as the “gold standard” are accruing to fewer and fewer workers as the young frankly have no work at all and many of the adults that do work are on these short term contracts where those protections rarely apply.

    Whether or not the USA should enact various protections to our workers is a good question, with pros and cons on both sides of the ledger. However, the blanket statements that we are the last modern economy to not do “X” should be tossed in the dustbin of history, because it doesn’t apply anymore.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Big Government, Economics & Finance, Europe | 8 Comments »

    Trains are Indefensible

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 17th May 2015 (All posts by )

    I remember as a kid watching “Lawrence of Arabia” where he led Arab raiding parties against the Turkish train lines in WW1.  Per this PBS article about Lawrence:

    With the Ottoman army spread thinly across the empty vastness of the Arabian Peninsula, the Hejaz Arabs found it relatively easy to strike and sabotage Turkish lines of communication and supply. With the Red Sea firmly in British hands, the Turks had no option but to use the Hejaz railway to move their men, supplies and munitions.  

    Lawrence and the Arabs spent much of their two years on the road to Damascus destroying sections of the railway. Small units of men laid charges on the track. Then as the Turks defended the track, Lawrence’s men formed large moving columns capable of rapid hit-and-run operations. 

    In the recent train crash in the East Coast there are discussions of a “projectile” hitting the train and distracting the conductor.  While this hasn’t been confirmed, it is relevant to consider how difficult it would be to secure train lines from attack or sabotage.

    This discussion is much more relevant in the context of “high speed trains”.  There is a broad theme among many that the US is behind because we have not invested large sums of public money in high speed trains, that we are “falling behind”.  Per wikipedia the Japanese high speed trains (similar to the Chinese high speed trains) typically have more than 1000 passengers on each of their trains.

    The USA has far larger distances than the Japanese trains.  If you built a train from Chicago to New York, for example, it would be almost 800 miles long.  This is for a single rail line.  Obviously to connect the major cities of the USA you’d have thousands of miles of train lines.

    How would these train lines be defended?  It would be easy for a terrorist to just cut through the fence somewhere and park a cement truck on the tracks, for instance.  The ensuing carnage would easily accomplish what 5-10 hijackings could accomplish.

    If you think that the Homeland Security plans are over-reaching, just wait to see what it would take to defend hundreds or thousands of miles of track.  Instead of having a bottleneck at the airport, the entire line would be a potential point of attack.  Even if defenses were erected, they would only have to overwhelm them at a single weak link in order to assault the train.

    No one is incorporating this into their cost estimates for high speed trains; they likely have fences and barriers but are not contemplating stopping a determined, armed attack by terrorists.  They should, because after one such attack a giant post-haste effort would emerge kind of like our early days of the TSA.  They should contemplate and include a giant, armed, unionized Federal bureaucracy in their midst and add this into their cost estimates and see how it compares against highways and aircraft.  The numbers, already dubious, would then be far, far in the red.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Big Government, Business, Economics & Finance, Terrorism, Transportation | 25 Comments »

    Airline Competition Has Been Crushed

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 16th May 2015 (All posts by )

    If you’ve flown much in the last few years, you’ve probably seen what I’ve experienced, as well – completely full planes, high prices, and aggravating extra charges for baggage, wi-fi, etc… This is really a symptom of what has actually occurred, which is that airlines have finally moved past an era of competition into an era of oligopoly.

    The real indication of their new status isn’t the high prices and full planes – it is in the stock price.

    Here you can see the major carriers which have survived and consolidated the US market – Southwest, American Airlines, Delta, and United / Continental. For years and years the stock prices of major airlines have languished – per Warren Buffet

    He said that a durable competitive advantage in the airline industry “has proven elusive ever since the days of the Wright Brothers. Indeed, if a farsighted capitalist had been present at Kitty Hawk, he would have done his successors a huge favor by shooting Orville down,” he joked. “The airline industry’s demand for capital ever since that first flight has been insatiable. Investors have poured money into a bottomless pit.”

    Each of the major airlines has predominantly broken their strong unions and taken medicine from bankruptcy to mergers in order to restore their finances. Instead of a focus on expansion, they are operationally focused in terms of filling every seat on every plane at the highest price possible, in terms of ticket costs and extra fees. Today they charge you for every sort of upgrade; “economy plus” which is a seat that you can sit in and get work done, costs extra, as well as for checking bags.

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with a company doing all they can to maximize profits, especially after savaging investors for many years with poor stock prices and a lack of dividends (and the high risk of total financial collapse). The airlines have finally figured out technology as well – if you want to upgrade any element of your flight experience, from business to first class to economy plus to a daily club pass – it is all right there as long as you are willing to give them your credit card number.

    The airlines have also figured out that their frequent flyer programs provide benefits but also can be a millstone. Rather than rewarding miles, they are looking at the prices of the tickets paid by each traveler which rewards those that actually provide the greatest benefits to the airlines. If you’ve tried to actually use your benefits (except for Southwest), you’ll find that seats are very limited and you need to plan far in advance to receive benefits from these perks.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Chicagoania, Economics & Finance, Middle East | 12 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – It’s All About Cash Flow (Part II, Large Companies)

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 3rd May 2015 (All posts by )

    I was recently on a plane doodling and thought of some funny / interesting stories from 25+ years of working and traveling. So I decided to write them up as short, random chapters of a non-book with the title of this post. Hope you enjoy them and / or find them interesting. Certainly the value will be at least equal to the marginal cost of the book (zero)…

    The USA, early 1990s to mid 2010s

    When we have new staff I usually orientate them on the concept that

    You should assume that many outside vendors who bill us don’t care about getting paid

    Although this concept seems astonishing and against basic capitalist principles, it is often the case.  While each vendor is different, a share of the vendors bill us months and months after the fact and often the bills are incorrect and  incomplete.  Sometimes we have to initiate the process and call the companies to demand the invoices, so that we can match them to the purchase documents and receipts, as well as check the taxes, quantities and costing components.  If we don’t reach out to these laggard vendors and push for complete and accurate billing, we will have a crisis on our hands quarterly when we attempt to accrue for what we are owed and sort through months and months of late and incomplete bills and partial payments.

    The only time some of the vendors start to care about collections is when the bills are so delayed that the sales teams’ commissions are at risk.  At that point the company typically springs into action and is “Johnny on the spot” attempting to reach out to resolve any issues because the sales teams at the vendor have significant power in the organization and complain with vehemence whenever their compensation is at risk.

    While some vendors are laggards on collections, they all are focused on closing deals at the end of each quarter so that they can “book” these deals as revenue per accounting purposes.  There are criteria that must be met (the hardware must be shipped from their dock) but the firms will generally stay up all night or jump through whatever bureaucratic hoops are necessary to complete the deals for that quarter.

    These notes specifically apply to public companies that aren’t in major financial distress.  These companies are aligned to GAAP principles, which focus on earnings and not cash collections, so they often don’t stress timely and accurate invoicing and collection of their bills.

    On the other hand – private companies or those that have been taken over by hedge funds and other sorts of shrewder operators, are completely focused on cash flow.  If you are a private company, earnings matter (especially if you are “prettying” it up for sale) but CASH IS KING.  Private equity investors like to pay themselves cash dividends out of the companies they acquire, so they definitely sweat the timing of payments and keep a close handle on cash flow.  These same private companies also work strenuously to minimize taxes which stand in the way of dividend payments to the owner.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work | 5 Comments »

    Recent Stock Moves

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 3rd May 2015 (All posts by )

    Over at Trust Funds for Kids I commented on some recent stock moves and the rally in China…
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in China, Economics & Finance | 3 Comments »

    Chicago International Movies and Music Festival

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 18th April 2015 (All posts by )

    There is a festival here in Chicago focused on movies about music which also has a bunch of bands playing as well.  It is our attempt to have a little “South by Southwest” action in the city of Chicago.  At least they have some nice weather this year – this weekend seems to be the start of spring and everyone is out side and on balconies and has a lot of positive energy.  Here is a shot from one of the movies on the cover of the Reader.

    Unfortunately I can’t go to any of the events because I can’t stand in lines for too long and I can’t be jostled or have someone step on my foot and that’s what usually happens at a concert.  I will look for some of these movies out there on the internet though later or if they come to an art house movie theater or something.  Here is the site listing what is going on and an interview with the founder on Chicago Tonight (a great program) and below are some of the ones I’d go to see if I was able to do so.

    • Danny Says” which is a movie about the manager of the Stooges and the Ramones.  That guy must have seen a lot of crazy stuff
    • 808” a story of how a device never intended to be a beatbox helped launch hip hop and modern music
    • Morphine – Journey of Dreams” one of my favorite bands of the 1990’s was Morphine and I was very saddened when their lead singer / bassist dropped dead at a show overseas.  Also the remaining members played a show under “Vapors of Morphine” as well
    • Jaco” is about the fantastic bass player Jaco Pastorius who was a little crazy and unfortunately died young after being beaten by a club bouncer.  At the festival the bass player from Metallica (who is from Suicidal Tendencies if you go way back to “Institutionalized”) talks about Jaco, as well
    • Local H is playing too.  They are awesome and one of the few survivors of the 1990’s.  See them when they come to your town

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Chicagoania, Film, Music | 8 Comments »

    The Internet of Things… Connected Weather Station

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 14th April 2015 (All posts by )

    I have been laid up for a little while and like a good shut in I was shopping on Amazon for things to buy. One item that is always of interest to my parents and relatives is the weather. A while ago I bought them an Ambient Device weather forecaster which they still use today and they find very useful (sadly, that company went out of business).

    I recently spent about $150 to buy a Netatmo indoor and outdoor temperature / weather station. It is quite fascinating. Here is the indoor module that tracks temperature, sound (in decibels), CO2, humidity, and other elements. When you push the top button it will glow based on the CO2 levels (green is “good”). I plan to hide it behind a couch so you can’t see it. The indoor unit connected to my phone via bluetooth and then I was able to get it to sign on to my wireless network. It took about 5 minutes.

    Here is the outdoor component. This unit measures humidity and temperature and connects to the “base” station above. The outdoor unit is battery powered and all weather so once you put it outside (on our porch) you can ignore it and it will send readings to the base station.

    The really cool part is that you just download an app onto your phone and voila! you can have updates and graphs and charts and see your temperature in and out of your house anytime. They also have alerts so that you can be notified if there are temperature changes (such as below freezing weather outside or interior temperatures that drop enough to freeze your pipes) and also for CO2 alerts and other customizable features. It is all very easy to understand.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Tech | 11 Comments »