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    Disruption – Liquor

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 14th April 2017 (All posts by )

    “Disruption” is a word usually reserved for hyped sectors of the economy like technology and “Uber” is the ubiquitous example that even a child would recognize. However, there are other components of the economy ripe for disruption, especially those that are heavily regulated, which generally causes significant distortions, monopolistic behavior, regulatory capture, high prices, and a lack of innovation.

    The liquor industry is a heavily regulated industry, with layers of distributors and obscure rules which enforce local monopolies, entrench incumbents (often with inferior products), and provide many opportunities for the government to extract tax income and solicit donations from favored groups. Typically liquor uses a “three tier” system, where there is a producer, a distributor, and a retail outlet (a store or a bar). This is a system ripe for disruption.

    Alongside this archaic regulated system (which works for the benefits of the government and the local monopolies), there was a multi-decade process of concentration within the liquor industry, as local beer manufacturers were bought up by massive multinationals, culminating in the InBev company which controls a huge chunk (28%) of world-wide beer sales. If it wasn’t for the craft beer counter-revolution (see below), the epic consolidation of the liquor industry would have gone on indefinitely, bringing out “innovations” like Bud Light Lime.

    Some of the components of the disruption of liquor in Oregon include:
    1) Craft breweries or brewpubs which brew their own beer (and cider) and can sell it onsite
    2) Distilleries able to make their own spirits and sell themselves out of their facility
    3) New technologies such as Growlers or Crowlers which enable customers to fill directly from a keg into a re-usable container and take the beer home to drink
    4) This is all in addition to the vast wineries (seemingly everywhere) that can sell directly and even ship to many states

    Craft Breweries:

    Portland and Oregon have been leaders in the craft beer movement, enabled by laws (passed against the political power of the beer distributors) which allowed for the brewpubs to sell their own alcohol.
    This article describes how the modern brewery was instituted in Oregon.The “beer culture” is everywhere, with 116 breweries within an hour of Portland, as evidenced by the cover of this recent magazine I picked up. Here is a link to the magazine online.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Oregonia | 11 Comments »

    Obama’s “Nuclear Renaissance” Hit Again By Bankruptcy

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 29th March 2017 (All posts by )

    Since it was first announced almost a decade ago I’ve followed the “nuclear renaissance” that Obama touted and noted that it would likely end in failure due to the poor economics of these projects given our current, failed regulatory climate. The Federal government provided loans to get some of these projects off the ground. Now, with the bankruptcy of Toshiba’s Westinghouse unit, the whole process is collapsing and leaving half-built reactors and rate payers (and investors) in many jurisdictions likely to hold the bag for huge investments that aren’t going to generate power any time soon.

    Toshiba Corp’s U.S. nuclear unit Westinghouse filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors on Wednesday, just three months after huge cost overruns were flagged, as the Japanese parent seeks to limit losses that threaten its future. Bankruptcy will allow Pittsburgh-based Westinghouse, once central to Toshiba’s diversification push, to renegotiate or even break its construction contracts, though the utilities that own the projects could seek damages. It could even pave the way for a sale of all or part of the business. For Toshiba, the aim is to fence off soaring liabilities and keep the group afloat.

    These partially built reactors in Georgia and South Carolina were commissioned because local laws and regulations allowed for the costs of these investments to be passed on to the rate payer (local folks paying electric bills). In other states with different sorts of regulatory models, these sorts of investments would have been uneconomic, which is the primary reason why everyone else in the USA balked at the nuclear renaissance, even when it was partially underwritten by the Federal government with loans.

    There are now two problems for rate-payers in Georgia and South Carolina:

    1) the companies now have to build these reactors without price guarantee from Toshiba, meaning that the (likely) giant costs of the overruns will be borne by local ratepayers or the companies themselves. If the unit is in bankruptcy and walled off from the funds of the parent corporation (which is the purpose of the bankruptcy, I am assuming), it seems unlikely that anyone else would step up and backstop such a guarantee.

    2) this bankruptcy is likely to cause significant delays in construction, meaning that the long, miserable process of getting certified to start up the reactor is going to be pushed out further into the future. This means that it will be that much longer until the unit starts generating power and “earns back” the investment, and all the costs of the reactors will accrue interest and financing charges for that much longer while construction proceeds (rate payers)

    Note that there is precedent for taking gigantic write downs and abandoning abandoned reactors. Here is a link to the abandoned reactors in Washington and the famous Shoreham debacle in New York.

    None of this seems to be impacting the stock prices of Southern Company (SO) and Scana (SGC) this morning so maybe the market knows something that I don’t. Scana is holding a press conference to describe their next steps in the process today and I didn’t seen anything yet scheduled on Southern Company’s web site.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Energy & Power Generation, Obama | 15 Comments »

    Mid-Life Crisis and Alternate Universes

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 25th March 2017 (All posts by )

    One of my favorite Onion jokes of all time is “Alternate-Universe James Hetfield Named Taco Bell Employee of the Month“. This genius post encapsulates the randomness of the world we live in, since the likelihood of James Hetfield being a guy who does odd jobs, plays guitar in a basement, and loves metal is so much infinitely higher than the odds are that he becomes a rich superstar as the singer of Metallica.

    This philosophical view is somewhat similar to Taleb’s theories in “The Black Swan” and his other books where, if you did your life over and over, you would get vastly different results and individuals attribute too much of their luck and good fortune to their specific actions and experience. We are all dealing with the “Survivor’s paradox”, where those who did well get to tell their tale and those who didn’t fare so well are essentially erased from the common consciousness.

    I saw this car down in my garage in Portland and thought to myself “This is the alternate universe for Carl” which is to just keep my prior job and old way of life and buy a shiny new expensive car (this is a Bentley, I would have bought a new BWM 7 Series, but who’s counting) as a distraction. That would have been a fine life, a life I understood, and the car purchase would have been a modest but visible change and distraction from what was otherwise a quite predictable path.

    Instead, however, I changed everything, by moving jobs and careers and physically relocating away from my entire ecosystem of family and friends to the Pacific Northwest. This was a vast change, much larger than cosmetically purchasing a new conspicuous automobile. Starting a new job forced me to change everything, from the way I listened and studied, to the way I interacted with the environment around me. I went from walking to work to commuting by car (like 90% of the world) which is a primary negative, although at least I have been listening to podcasts which turn that driving time which was initially pure frustration into at least a positive learning experience.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Personal Narrative | 10 Comments »

    Windows 10

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 24th March 2017 (All posts by )

    Recently I updated to Windows 10 on my work computer. I have worked with windows products for decades now, starting with the early DOS based versions and remembering the “Big Bang” of Windows 95 with “Start Me Up” by the Rolling Stones in the background. What I really thought was cool back in the days of Windows 95 was seeing the Weezer video for “Buddy Holly” through the windows media player since it was installed with the operating system. It was a first glance at actually useful video integrated with the device (or downloaded) rather than played through a CD or ultimately DVD.

    I was dreading this Windows 10 upgrade because many of my co-workers were having various problems with it on their devices. These weren’t problems with Windows 10 per se, they were tied with the way applications run as we move to more of an online mode. For example, if you are saving data on BOX in the cloud or using Office 365 (run from the cloud), your machine performance is more variable, tied with all the hand offs and routing up and down and depending on your network connection at the time. Many co-workers use tablets and a variety of machine types so there wasn’t a lot of common threads in some of the issues. Also, Microsoft now includes the “Edge” browser as default as they try to get rid of Internet Explorer (the worst browser) and many folks seemed confused because the links and bookmarks didn’t automatically port over to Edge.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Tech | 12 Comments »

    Iron Maiden’s “The Number of the Beast” is 35 Years Old

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 21st March 2017 (All posts by )

    I was listening to “Boneyard” the XM Radio station whose one-time motto was “the station of road-trippin’ and binge drinking” and they said that “The Number of the Beast” by Iron Maiden was turning 35 years old. In that moment, I felt old, too.

    “The Number of the Beast” is the first album by Iron Maiden featuring singer Bruce Dickinson with his soaring vocals. The prior singer, Paul Di’Anno, had a much lower, punk sort of voice range that was a bit less commercially successful. This was also the album that made them giant in the United States, with their videos such as “Run to the Hills” being played incessantly on MTV.

    I took a snapshot of the album cover from Apple Music on my iPhone – I’m sure that somewhere there is a cassette, album, and CD of this disc somewhere that I’ve purchased and lost over the years. This is one of their best covers, with the mascot “Eddie” pulling the strings on the devil (who has his own little Eddie on a string).
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Music | 8 Comments »

    US Infrastructure Will Be Broken Forever

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 11th March 2017 (All posts by )

    Recently I visited Cathedral Park in Portland, which lies beneath the St. Johns Bridge.  The St. Johns Bridge is a magnificent structure, built in 1931, during the height of the depression.

    Portland is a city of bridges.  These bridges were mostly built long ago, when construction projects were feasible in terms of costs and delivery time frames were measured in years, not decades (when approvals, funding, environmental contingencies, etc… are factored in).

    Today the Portland metropolitan area, which includes large Washington communities north of the city, faces severe constraints on traffic and there is widespread local agreement that commute times are growing longer and in some instances intolerable.  I know individuals in Chicago, LA or NYC that would laugh at commute times that aren’t 2+ hours but that is little consolation to the locals who previously had been able to drive around the metro area with relative ease.

    Many of these bridges need to be replaced for multiple reasons – the Pacific Northwest is an earthquake zone and most of these bridges are not built to survive a quake, traffic on the bridges is soaring and causing delays throughout the system because they function as bottlenecks, and frankly bridges cannot last forever without collapsing.

    And yet… it will never happen.  I am confident that we won’t be able to raise the billions that it will take to build these bridges and lawsuits and environmentalists would create innumerable roadblocks (with accompanying cost increases and delays) so that even difficult projects will become impossible. There is an utter breakdown in funding, public will, solid execution, and all the fundamental components that make infrastructure possible.  While China has built giant, soaring cities, we can’t even replace bridges and roads built 100 years ago.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Oregonia, Transportation | 54 Comments »

    Apple Photos

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 3rd March 2017 (All posts by )

    I moved my life over to Apple products over the last few years. I used to use Picasa by Google and Shutterfly for photo books and canvas wraps but over time I’ve leveraged Apple photos to a greater degree and this post describes my experiences and some tips and tricks.

    Apple photos is complicated. For most people, Apple photos is your camera application on your iPhone. With recent iOS upgrades, however, there is a new photos application that is cross platform (I can see my photo stream on my Mac, my iPad, or my iPhone). However, there is a catch. You need to use iCloud and back up your photos to the cloud, rather than just leaving them on your phone.

    It took a while to synch up photos across all my Apple devices and I had to google technical support questions a few times and turn on and off iCloud. However, I eventually got them synched up and it has worked great ever since.

    There are some great features. One feature is facial recognition. You can select a person and then link them to your contacts and Apple automatically selects all the photos of that individual. For photos where Apple is not sure, they ask you “is this so-and-so” and you can say yes or no, and then it organizes all the photos by individual.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Photos, Tech | 4 Comments »

    Ethan Russell and Iconic Rock Photos

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 26th February 2017 (All posts by )

    Growing up I was a big fan of The Who. Since I didn’t always have a lot of money for records I tried to “stretch” my budget often times by buying “greatest hits” albums. Initially I thought that “Who’s Next” by The Who with the iconic photo of them pissing on some sort of concrete slab WAS a “best of” album simply because almost every track had been played to death on the radio with the exception of “My Wife” by Entwistle (which was a song I liked a lot) and “Love Ain’t for Keeping”.

    Recently I saw a presentation by the photographer Ethan Russell who took that classic cover photo along with an amazing amount of other images you’d recognize instantly, from the pictures of the Beatles on the “Let It Be” album to some great Rolling Stones’ photos from their classic late 1960’s – early 1970’s era. If he comes to your town I would highly recommend that you go out and hear him talk.

    I bought a signed print of that Who’s Next cover and sent it on to a friend of mine who also was a big fan of The Who growing up. I’m sure he’ll like it.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Music, Photos | 5 Comments »

    The End of Accounting Book Review – Part One

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 8th January 2017 (All posts by )

    Recently I read an excellent book called “The End of Accounting and the Path Forward for Investors and Managers” by Baruch Lev and Feng Gu. I highly recommend this book for investors, analysts, accountants, and those with a general interest in business. The book is very well written and researched in that it:

    1. Describes the current situation in depth
    2. Aligns the situation across an historical context and with relevant research
    3. Makes specific recommendations about how to improve the situation

    If you’d like to read more about this topic on your own (will help to frame out these posts), here is an excellent Wall Street Journal article titled “The End of Accounting” (if the link doesn’t work because you don’t have a subscription you can probably find it elsewhere on the internet). Here is a link from Accounting Today and an interview with the author from CFO magazine.

    The first post in this series is going to be my personal insights and journey in the area of accounting information, financial and investor relations analysts. This context is relevant because I, too, have seen the problems that the authors outline in the series and come up with my own “hacks” to attempt to gain better information and insights.

    I started out my career as an accountant, and I used to help create the footnotes that you see at the end of the financial reports. This wasn’t creative work per se – you would start with last year’s footnote as a template and insert new numbers, unless it was a new requirement, in which case it was a lot of work and we would turn to specialists. At that time (20+ years ago) there were only a few footnotes and the financial statements themselves weren’t that long; you would be able to read from the Chairman and CEO’s letter all the way through to the last footnote in a couple of hours.

    This was also before the internet; we would go into the company library and look at microfiche sometimes to do research or you’d pull up the hard (printed) copy from the files. At that point an annual report was also somewhat of a marketing document; companies put a lot of thought into the cover, for instance.

    At various points in the history of accounting there has been a focus on the balance sheet (assets and liabilities), the income statement (earnings per share and price / earnings ratio) and on cash flows (cash generated from the business). Each of these views are important and have their merits and their drawbacks. The statements were generally the “GAAP” view which focused on financial statement presentation and used taxes at official rates (many companies pay almost nothing in taxes in actuality by deferring them indefinitely) and held assets at historical costs. Both of these assumptions made the financial statements less useful for certain types of companies and industries.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Business, Capitalism, Economics & Finance | 3 Comments »

    A Great Concert – SRV at Champaign IL 1987

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 7th January 2017 (All posts by )

    Dan is much smarter than me and he holds on to all the ticket stubs for concerts and sporting events that he’s attended over the years.  He recently sent me a rug and a coffee mug that he created based on the ticket stub for a special concert we attended almost 30 years ago when we were at the University of Illinois.  The show was Stevie Ray Vaughan at Foellinger Auditorium.

    At the time I was in college and had almost no money.  I saw that Stevie Ray Vaughan was coming to campus and thought I would get up early and stand in line to purchase tickets before class (I rarely got up early in those days when I could avoid it).  Alas, the line was already long and I pretty much gave up right away.  There was a guy who was scalping tickets, however, so I went up to him and bought two tickets for what I remember was about $50.

    The tickets were up front in the first couple of rows as it turned out but way, way on the left side of the stage.  Dan and I got rip roaring drunk before the show (which was the custom, back in the day) and we headed to Foellinger.  Note that Foellinger was a lecture hall and I had many classes in that room – the room had bolted-down desks with the fold out panels that you could write on, so it was kind of odd that they had concerts at that same room (I also saw the punk band Husker Du in that same lecture hall, which seemed even odder).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Music | 4 Comments »

    Autos and Disruption

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 1st January 2017 (All posts by )

    Prior to moving to the West Coast, I had little need for a car because I walked and / or took public transport to work (or a cab if I was lazy, back in the days when you could hail a cab on the street).  Thus I typically invested the minimum amount I could in a reliable car that could fit 4 passengers with a full size trunk and also squeeze into a narrow parking garage.

    The cars that “fit the bill” for me were the older model Nissan Altima which I drove for a decade and then a Jetta which I picked up in 2011.  Each of these cars cost about $17,000 “out the door” and contained a reasonable level of equipment (the Altima was my first car with air bags, the Jetta was my first car with ABS and traction control) – they weren’t completely stripped down models with manual transmission, for instance.  These cars have both turned out to be highly reliable autos – and the old Nissan Altima is still driving today, almost 20 years later, as a starter car in my extended family.

    The average age of a car on the road today is 11.5 years (nowadays you don’t even have to “link” to sources – Google just brings in the data from Wikipedia as a search response when you ask a common question) and that seems long to me.  For every new car on the road, for instance, there is a late ’90s model still driving to offset it in order to get back to an average of 11.5 years.

    My theory today is that the total package of “functionality” or “value” that you could obtain from a new Jetta for $17,000 would be comparable to autos that cost far more for 99% of the scenarios in which you would plausibly use that auto.  These scenarios include 1) commuting to work 2) running errands around town 3) going on a trip and putting luggage in the trunk.

    That’s not to say that there aren’t scenarios where it doesn’t make sense to have a more powerful or capable auto.  In Oregon we went to visit a friend who lives up in the hills and I had 4 people in the car and gravel had been newly laid on an uphill slope (which, as it turns out, means that it is very slippery).  As a result our car couldn’t make it up the hill and we slid sideways into a ditch and had to have a friend hook up a rope and give us a pull from their big pickup truck to get us back on the road.  If I lived up there, for instance, then this car would be completely inappropriate.  But that isn’t a common “use case” for my auto.

    When you look at the “true cost” of owning an auto, there are a lot of factors to consider, and whole web sites to calculate it in various ways.  Instead, I am going to make the general statement that if you buy a new car at around the $17,000 price point and drive it for perhaps 7-8 years before selling it you are probably going to pay about $150 / month for that car (net of what you receive on resale).

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Economics & Finance, Personal Finance, Transportation | 23 Comments »

    Updating Apple Products Part II

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 30th December 2016 (All posts by )

    In a recent post I discussed the spate of updates that have occurred in my Apple products including a new iOS for my work and home phone, a new iOS for my iPad, a new iOS for my Apple Watch, and a new operating system for my Mac.

    Apple Watch

    Let’s start with the Apple Watch. The Apple Watch is an evolutionary product and the jury is out on whether or not it will be a giant part (“move the needle”) of the Apple portfolio. Personally, I find the Apple Watch to be very useful because I can get notifications when big events occur (for instance, I was the first to say “Prince is dead” in a big meeting) or just to be reminded when texts happen and I don’t have my phone on. It also is good for sports score notifications and tracking workouts. Finally, you can also always know if someone is calling you even if the ringer on your phone is off, and you can answer it “Dick Tracy Style” on your wrist (if you want to annoy everyone around you).  Here is my review of the Apple Watch from 2015 when I bought it.

    Apple Watch iOS 3.0 is OK. The watch seems a bit faster. They made it easier to utilize some popular apps like the workout app and incorporated some other improvements here and there. I can’t take advantage of all the iOS 3.0 features because my older Apple watch doesn’t have some of the features like the built in GPS that comes with the new watch.

    Mac OS Sierra

    There has been a lot of noise in the press about Apple not updating their core computers and even letting Microsoft steal their thunder with the new Surface tablet.  However, Apple deserves immense credit for making their OS upgrades work effectively even on older model machines – for instance the Macbook that I am writing this blog post on is from 2011 (my friend Brian installed an SSD and more memory which I documented here).

    The most important elements from my perspective are the continued integration of the Mac OS with the iPad and iPhone devices.  With this upgrade I now can easily share a single photo stream (which will get its own post since it is so complicated), use Apple music easily across devices, and use key apps like messenger, notes, ibooks, contacts and Facetime (mostly) seamlessly.  Siri also works on the Mac now which is fine for most people but I don’t use Siri much so it is irrelevant to me.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Tech | 9 Comments »

    Obama’s “Nuclear Renaissance” Receives Its Final Obituary with Toshiba’s Write Down

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 28th December 2016 (All posts by )

    Back in 2009 at the start of Obama’s first administration he proclaimed that a “nuclear renaissance” was coming. Although I am a fan of nuclear power, I knew right away that this effort was doomed to failure by a lack of structural incentives in the USA and the ability of NIMBYs and lawyers to drag out and kill any project by a thousand cuts. I wrote that it was doomed here and summarized the players here.

    Yet 2 companies plowed along with their nuclear projects – Southern Company (big in Georgia and the south) and SCANA (a South Carolina utility), mainly because their state rate environment was favorable and allowed them to include the cost of assets in their “rate base” rather than being forced to price energy at something close to market prices. Eventually those that pay for electricity in these jurisdictions are going to be soaked with the enormous costs of these plants and / or the finances of Southern Company and SCANA will be seriously impacted. Southern Company has a market cap of around $50B and SCANA has a market cap of around $10B. For context, the Southern Company nuclear project is currently 3 years behind schedule and $3B over budget and likely to cost up to $20B (although costs are borne by many parties, not just Southern Company) and the SCANA project is likely to cost up to $12B (although not all borne by SCANA).

    These nuclear projects, already non-competitive due to price declines in natural gas (caused by fracking), became even MORE non-competitive as their completion dates were extended and costs ballooned due to inevitable and completely predictable delays. The history of nuclear power projects is littered with failed efforts and those that were completed often had huge cost overruns, especially those completed near the “tail” of the initial nuclear building effort which petered out in the ’80s.

    Now Toshiba is being hit with part of the overrun costs. Their stock recently went down 20% (the most that it can fall in a single day trading session) with discussion of potentially billions of dollars in write downs tied to their work on nuclear power projects.

    What is sad about all of this is that the debacles that will hit rate payers in the south (predominantly Georgia and South Carolina) and / or shareholders were completely predictable, although the situation could get even worse if delays stretch on indefinitely and the plants are never even completed (which is always possible in the litigious USA). As the current administration leaves their utterly failed nuclear policy should be something that they accept responsibility for, as well as their ameteur-ish ignorance of history and the predictable consequences of these sorts of mega-projects (in our current legal and regulatory environment). However, I highly doubt that will occur.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Energy & Power Generation | 6 Comments »

    Evergreen Aviation Museum- Spruce Goose

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 16th December 2016 (All posts by )

    Near Portland there is a great aviation and military museum called the “Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum“. I highly recommend that you visit this campus, which includes an IMAX theater, if you ever visit Oregon.

    The highlight is the “Spruce Goose“, the immense wooden plane designed and built by Howard Hughes which resides inside the facility. It is fantastic that the museum was built at a large enough scale to keep this plane indoors else it would likely soon be lost to the elements.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Aviation, Oregonia | 5 Comments »

    Portland Winter Weather

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 15th December 2016 (All posts by )

    Recently I re-located to Portland, Oregon. While Portland has a reputation as a rainy, gloomy place, we had a great April through November, with lovely and mostly sunny weather. In December, however, things have taken a turn for the worse.

    I grew up in the Midwest where it snows all the time. The difference, however, is that we salt our roads and plow them with vigor. This wikipedia article shows the “salt belt” of states that use this method; Oregon is not one of them.

    While snowfalls are infrequent in Portland (some parts of Oregon see immense snowfalls… like this town and anywhere near Crater Lake) we have already had 2 “major” snowfalls that snarled traffic to an inordinate degree – the city ceases to function and everyone stays home when they heed the weather warnings (if they turn out to be accurate). On Wednesday, however, the snowfall and ice occurred during the evening rush hour and caused chaos with hundreds of abandoned cars litering the streets and highways. Commutes that would take 20 minutes could take 4 or more hours; many (including myself) went on foot.

    Streets were still icy and treacherous a day later, since the temperature remains below freezing. Cars that drive were generally either all-wheel drive, trucks, or used chains. I had to buy a pair of chains for my Jetta for $85 but I hope to never need to use them.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Oregonia | 15 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Experience

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 1st December 2016 (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, 1990s through today

    I just finished reading the book “Disrupted” by Dan Lyons about a journalist from Newsweek who takes a job at a start up which eventually goes public called Hubspot.  Mr. Lyons is out of place from day one as he describes how the company acts without much oversight, firing workers on a whim (they ‘graduate’) and rapidly turning over employees as the company attempts to get to the public markets before the money runs out.  To make this even stranger, the author also writes for the HBO sitcom “Silicon Valley” and Hubspot allegedly goes after him to stop this book from being published, and the board finds out about it and fires / sanctions some (but not all) of the managers that he portrayed in the book.

    All that aside, the purpose of this post is to talk about experience, and how it changes you over the decades, and its value and detriments.  Reading that book caused (not “inspired”) me to think about my own views and how they’ve evolved over the years.

    It is strange when you go from being the “new kid” to being the grey-ish haired “experienced” one.  Recently I was at 1871, the incubator in Chicago for new start-ups at the Merchandise Mart in River North where I used to live.  As I walked around I noted all the fresh faces, the beer on tap, and the grown men riding around on razor scooters to get from meeting to meeting.  Then I realized – hey I am just an old guy here.  I’m not one of them, although I could probably be a boss of some sort in one of these companies (depending on what they are looking for).


    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Book Notes | Comments Off on 25 Stories About Work – Experience

    25 Stories About Work – Getting a Review and Thinking Like Your Boss

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 22nd November 2016 (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, 1990s through today

    If you are ever looking for a great book to read, I would recommend High Output Management by Andy Grove, the late former founder of Intel. I picked up a hard copy on the internet for just a few dollars including shipping and although it was written in the mid 1980s (and updated in the early 1990s) much of the book is completely relevant for both new entrants to the work force and those that have been engaged for decades.

    Andy Grove had a passion for getting the most out of his employees, since he was focused on productivity and his staff represented a large cost (and opportunity) for his organization. He approached productivity in two main ways 1) by leveraging process and eliminating bureaucracy he could move faster at lower cost 2) by training and motivating his staff, he could achieve greater outputs. For the purpose of this post we will focus on #2, although it should be remembered that Andy Grove also essentially popularized key elements of the “open office” plan where executives sit amongst their staff which I will cover in a future post.

    For his employees, he defined motivation as getting the maximum that he could achieve. His motivation would broadly be considered “engagement” in the modern definition. “Engaged” employees go the extra mile and are passionate and drive for results, while “dis-engaged” employees are an active drag on the business and your company would frankly be better off if they just stayed home. Most employees are in the middle of the spectrum, neither actively engaged nor disengaged.

    Training and feedback are the key elements of this post. Andy pushed training in his business and held his executives to a standard that they needed to teach and be part of the process of investing in employees. I remember when I was starting out in my master’s program many case studies held up Motorola as ahead of their time with the “Motorola University” of classes to train and advance their employees. All of this was done before the internet with papers, books and physical classes and it represented a significant investment for the company. Today, these programs have mostly been minimized at large corporations, although many service firms (financial and technology) still invest heavily in training and grooming their own staff, and most large internet / technology firms have more extensive orientation and learning methodologies.

    For feedback, there is a template for an annual review in this book from the 1980s which contains all of the key elements of an employee review that you might receive today. The employee is supposed to do a self-review prior to the meeting, and the manager goes through the strengths, weaknesses, and areas of improvement and seeks out feedback from peers in order to develop a thorough analysis. Andy Grove mentioned how important employee development and feedback was to him and how he forced other top executives to be part of and even care about the process although many of them did it in a perfunctory manner (complying with the process but not the “spirit”).

    From my personal experience and from those of my work acquaintances across many industries, the formal personnel appraisal has been dying for many years and is usually done in a perfunctory manner if it happens at all. If you are in a services business (consulting, law, finance), your personnel review is essentially done for you in the course of your engagements, since “good” staff are selected for teams and “poor” staff are shuffled around and / or “ride the bench”. Leaders have an incentive to collect (and shield) the best staff because they make the most money for their groups by pleasing clients and billing lots of hours while the poorer performers are not selected and (mostly) find their way out of the organization (or into the back office bureaucracy where they don’t face clients). While the service firms’ HR departments would vehemently deny this statement, it is the “broad” truth.

    But if you are in a corporation or smaller business that is not service facing, you will be most impacted by a poor or minimalistic review process (as an employee), because you won’t get valuable and direct feedback that will help you grow and improve. In today’s corporate environment, re-organizations are frequent and managers rotate through departments (or are thrown into direct work), so supervision routinely moves to the back burner. There is little incentive to groom and work on staff (as a manager) if you aren’t going to be around for 2-3 years in the same job because it takes time to invest in staff and improving processes and behaviors and there is no purpose in putting in this sort of investment if you are just going to move on to the next job anyways.

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    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Book Notes, Management | 12 Comments »

    Portland “Riots”

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 12th November 2016 (All posts by )

    Recently I moved to Portland, Oregon. Portland is a very clean and safe city, albeit one with a lot of homeless people allowed to camp out on the street. Crime here is miniscule by the standards of Chicago – rather than seeing murders every day (with multiple murders and shootings compressed into one story since it isn’t “news”), you can actually see leading news stories about a guy who got his bike stolen, with a picture of the thief from a security camera.

    Now Portland is in the national news for a different reason. After the election, protestors have been taking to the streets. I was in a cab back from the airport Thursday night and my twenty minute ride became a 1 1/2 hour ride since the protestors were blocking bridges and highways. It was a bit unnerving because you were just sitting in traffic with no information and it could go on indefinitely.

    The protestors have been walking through neighborhoods and shopping areas and blocking bridges and the police have mostly left them alone. They did break business windows in an area less than a mile from where I live such as this Bank of America ATM bank branch. They set a couple of fires in dumpsters too. But generally they were pretty calm and the police followed them and didn’t bust their heads, Chicago-style.
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    Posted in Civil Society, Current Events, Oregonia, Politics | 27 Comments »

    Efficiency and Restaurants

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 30th October 2016 (All posts by )

    Since I eat out a lot and have frequented restaurants of every stripe over the last few decades I am always interested in restaurant efficiency. The restaurant industry is brutally competitive and it always disturbs me when I eat at a restaurant and enjoy it but then fear that the restaurant won’t survive because it lacks a critical mass to make enough money.

    There is an Italian restaurant called “Grassa” in Portland (you can see their logo, below). They are attached to another restaurant called “Lardo”.

    These restaurants serve high-end food (not luxury cuisine, but far from fast-food) and alcohol but have communal tables and always seem to be packed with a line out the door. They are different because their menu is a large signboard (dishes are frequently updated) when you enter the space and you order your food at a central register and they hand you a “flag” to bring with you to your table. Then when your food is ready, they bring it out to you and take away your flag and you eat your meal. Drinks are brought out first (and appetizers) and you can also flag down one of the servers to order more drinks (although most people tend to have one drink with their meal and then leave, based on a few times that I’ve sat at the restaurant). You can also order your food “to go” at Grassa, as well.

    This model drives peak efficiency at the restaurant. There are many fewer tables than you would need at a “standard” restaurant due to the communal standing tables and the food comes out as soon as it is available (the servers don’t have to take orders, they just serve the food as soon as it is up and return back to the kitchen area, unless they are bussing a table that just left). They don’t have to take reservations or mess with any of that complexity, either.

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    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance | 11 Comments »

    The Hive Mind

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 28th October 2016 (All posts by )

    As smartphones become more powerful and more connected there are subtle phenomenon that are very powerful that can go by unnoticed. For years I either walked to work or took public transit but now in the Pacific Northwest I commute by car. Since the surroundings are new I pay much more attention to what is going on than I used to in Chicago.

    In Chicago, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to optimize your travel if you are driving alongside major roads such as I290 or the Dan Ryan. Unless you really, really know what you are doing it is not recommended to get off the highway in many Chicago neighborhoods and just to follow your mobile navigation blindly. Thus in Chicago when I was in bad traffic it pretty much looked like this – a speed of zero and stuck crawling ahead.

    The first generation of car navigation tools told you how to get somewhere with the most efficient route, taking standard traffic into account. The new generation of navigation apps, however, have real-time information and continuously re-adjust the “recommended” route based on traffic, accidents and construction.
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    Posted in Chicagoania, Tech | 17 Comments »

    On Investing

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 18th September 2016 (All posts by )

    Investing has changed significantly during the 25 or so years that I have been following both the market and also the tools available for an investor to participate within the market.  The following trends are key:

    • The cost of trading and investing has declined significantly.  Trades used to cost more than $25 and now are essentially free in many cases.  Mutual funds used to have “loads” of 5% or more standard when you made an investment, meaning that $100 invested only went to work for you as $95.  These sorts of up-front costs have almost totally been eliminated
    • ETFs have (mostly) replaced mutual funds.  ETFs “trade like stocks”, meaning that you can buy and sell anytime (mutual funds traded once a day, after being priced with that day’s activity) and they don’t have income tax gains and losses unless you actually make a trade (mutual funds often had gains due to changes in the portfolio that you had to pay taxes on even if you were just holding the fund)
    • CDs and Government Debt are all electronic.  You used to have to go to a bank for various governmental bond products or to buy a CD.  Now you not only can buy all of this online, you can choose from myriad banks instantly rather than settle for whatever your main bank (Chase, Wells Fargo, etc…) offers up to you
    • Interest Rates are Near Zero.  One of the key concepts in investing is “compound interest”, where interest is re-invested and even small, continuous investments held for a long time can end up amounting to large sums (in nominal terms, because inflation often eats away at “real” returns).  However, with interest rates basically near zero, you need to earn dividend income or take on more risk (i.e. “junk bonds”) in order to receive any sort of interest income.  There is no “safe” way to earn income any more
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    Posted in Economics & Finance, Investment Journal, Personal Finance | 4 Comments »

    Updating Apple Products

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 18th September 2016 (All posts by )

    I started out as a Windows user and was actually a Windows programmer (using MS Access) for quite a long time. I resisted the siren call of Apple products and stuck with Windows for years and years, for work and for personal use.

    Finally, I gave in and bought a MacBook Pro in 2011 which turned out to be a great purchase (and got rid of my Windows Desktop PC). I always had an iPhone for my personal cell phone and when I turned in my work Blackberry (a sad day at the time) for an iPhone, that meant that I had two iPhones. For a while I also used a Mac at work, although I ended up switching back to a Windows laptop because password resets, system upgrades and a lack of compatibility for applications built for Windows made it too much of a pain in the rear. Mac laptops still struggle in the corporate world.

    Then over the years I of course bought an iPad and then upgraded that iPad, and an Apple Watch, which I really like (although the jury is mixed on that one). Here is an Apple Watch article and review that I wrote.

    Thus I now have five (5) Apple products – a MacBook Pro, an iPad, an Apple Watch, and two iPhones. And now it is time for all the updates… iOS 10 is out now which means I need to update my iPad and both iPhones. Apple Watch OS 3 is also out and I am downloading that right now (downloading the operating system into the watch, from the iPhone, seems to take a long time). My MacBook Pro will get updated to the new Sierra OS when it comes out on Tuesday, September 20th.

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    Posted in Tech | 3 Comments »

    Monitoring Air Quality – Speck Sensor

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 14th August 2016 (All posts by )

    Due to the fact that computing power continues to increase exponentially, devices that once were out of reach for the general population are now becoming mainstream. I wrote about Netatmo, a device that measures temperature, humidity and sound (indoor and outdoor) here. Due to the internet, these devices can also be connected together in order to see a real-time version of the country, without having to look at a weather forecast.

    Recently I saw an article in an MIT journal about indoor air quality which described how cooking eggs aggravated the authors’ asthma and they were able to take specific actions because they were able to pinpoint the source of the spike in unclear air. The name of the company that created the monitor is called Speck and it was sold for approximately $200 so I thought that was a decent price point for me to join the air quality monitoring revolution. I am specifically most interested in INDOOR air quality but I will explain the broader context and then come back to the specific items I am reviewing (basically you can get official measurements of air quality in the US from public sources).

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    Posted in Environment, Medicine, Tech | 3 Comments »

    Amtrak and Train Travel

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 30th June 2016 (All posts by )

    Over many years I’ve commuted on trains for work – the light rail Metra in Chicago in the suburbs and the “L” tracks in the CTA in Chicago. However, I’ve never taken the Amtrak trains so I was excited to take the opportunity to travel between Portland and Seattle and avoid the horrendous traffic that I’ve heard plagues Seattle. Plus, you can have a drink along the way, which is frowned upon nowadays while driving (good for a Friday evening).

    You can buy your train ticket online, but you don’t get seats for coach class. When you get to the train station, there is a line that forms before the train departs and you physically stand in the line to get your ticket. At that point they assign you a seat on the train, and if you buy two tickets in the same online purchase, they will plan to seat you together. This is the ticket that they manually wrote out for us coming back from Seattle to Portland on Sunday.

    Not very high tech, I’d say. But the experience on the train was fine. You get all kinds of folks on the train, from families with kids to people who look like they can’t afford a plane. The Amtrak personnel were all very friendly and seemed to know what they were doing.
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    Posted in Transportation | 13 Comments »

    Keeping Portland Weird

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 28th May 2016 (All posts by )

    I recently relocated to Portland and there’s a lot of interesting stuff to see and do here, along with annoyances.

    Pug AT AT

    Pug AT AT at Star Wars Pug Parade in Portland

    I went to a Star Wars themed Pug Parade at a local brewery and this pug dressed as an Imperial AT AT was my favorite. I love the dog’s shy look as it was lavished with attention.

    Didgeridoo Band

    Didgeridoo Band

    This guy plays an amplified Didgeridoo along with a drummer and while it is amusing for the first few minutes it gets old quite quickly as the low drone buzz reverberates through the neighborhood.

    Barlow Gin and Tonic

    Barlow Gin and Tonic Portland

    I ordered a gin and tonic at a local artisanal bar over happy hour and this is what I received, quite different from my expectations of clear liquid with a lime. But it was quite tasty!

    Posted in Photos | 5 Comments »