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  • Archive for the 'Business' Category

    Technology and Mass Transit

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 29th March 2015 (All posts by )

    I have not seen a formal study of the impact of technology on mass transit but I believe that it has made it profoundly more valuable and useful. And I accidentally participated in an experiment that partially proved this statement in the inverse.

    In Chicago they have a CTA “bus tracker” that tells you when a particular bus will arrive at your stop. Or you can program it so that you can see all the buses from various routes that are coming past your stop (this is useful because in Chicago you can often take many different routes that go to the same place over shorter distances). It works on your phone and many of the newer stops have the bus tracker programmed into the canopy so you don’t even need to look it up on your phone.

    Sadly enough most days rather than looking up the street for buses I check the bus tracker. I can usually get from my condo down the elevator and past the lobby in 2-3 minutes so 4 minutes is the cut off time. One morning I looked and I thought I had missed the bus entirely because the next one was ten minutes away on my phone. However, instead of just trudging off, I looked up, and a bus was right there!

    I got on the bus and it was completely empty! Not a soul was on the bus. While it was a nice day, usually this bus line was crowded during rush hour, often so crowded that I don’t even bother getting on because I have to stand right in the front past the yellow line where you aren’t supposed to stand and then get on and off with every stop (to let people on and off) until the crowd thins out.

    The driver was totally bewildered too. I sat with her up front and I guess they had changed the bus she was driving to this route (from another route) and they hadn’t updated bus tracker. I said that because she didn’t show up on my bus tracker. Thus no one was on the bus – because if it wasn’t on bus tracker, it didn’t exist.

    I am sure that the River North area is one of the most technologically sophisticated areas of the city and probably in other parts of town people just wait at the bus stop for the bus to show up. But in River North – everyone has been trained to use bus tracker and rely on it and they wouldn’t contemplate a bus existing that wasn’t on bus tracker.

    For me, the bus tracker has made the Chicago bus go from something marginally useful to a highly useful way to get around town. When I lived in Bucktown we used to wait for the #50 Damen bus and 3 of 4 times we’d give up and grab a cab after waiting 15-20 minutes and the 4th time 2-3 buses would show up in a big bunch full of angry riders. If you took the bus you weren’t happy about it; it was an unreliable and slow way to get around.

    However, bus tracker is very reliable and now you have visibility of what is coming and you can plan ahead so that you are whiling away your day standing outside in the rain or snow waiting in vain for a bus that seems like it will never come. I don’t have statistics but I would bet that bus tracker increases utilization of assets for the CTA and has become a known and reliable method of transportation for those that give it a chance.

    Cross posted at LITGM

    Posted in Business, Chicagoania, Customer Service, Tech, Transportation | 18 Comments »

    Book Review: God is an Englishman

    Posted by David Foster on 27th March 2015 (All posts by )

    The Swann family saga, by R F Delderfield:

    God Is an Englishman

    Theirs Was the Kingdom

    Give Us This Day

    In 1850, Adam Swann returned from India to his native England, having decided that a career in military service (especially in what he now viewed as basically a mercenary force, the East India Company’s army) was not for him.  He had in his possession a valuable cache of jewelry which he had acquired on a battlefield and (probably illegally) kept for himself.  While in India he had kept abreast of events in England by reading several-month-old newspapers, and was intrigued with the possibilities unleashed by industrial expansion. His original intention was to sell the jewelry and invest the proceeds in railway stock or in actually building a railroad branch line somewhere–but was dissuaded by a chance meeting with a railroad official, who advised him that railway building was in a bubble and that most of the lines now being constructed would prove uneconomic.  The official had, however, an alternative suggestion: put the money on the horses.  But not in the usual way.

    There’s more future in horse-transport than the Cleverdicks would have you believe.  The railroads can solve all the big problems but none of the small ones…If I were you, Mr Swann–and I wish to God I were and starting all over again–I would spend the next week studying the blank areas of that map there.  Then travel about and take a look at the goods yards of the most successful companies, and see merchandise piled in the rain on all their loading bays for want of a good dispersal system.

    Swann takes the man’s advice and sets off on a cross-country ride to evaluate the prospects for a new horse-drawn freight transportation business.  On the way, he meets Henrietta, who is fleeing a prospective marriage arranged by her father, a coarse and greedy mill owner.  It is Henrietta who proposes for the projected transport company the name Swann-on-Wheels and the wheeled-swan logo that will soon adorn the sides of hundreds of wagons rolling throughout Britain.

    The series is the story of Swann-on-Wheels, of Adam and Henrietta’s marriage and family, and of British society in the time period 1850-1914.  Unlike most historical novels covering this period, the aristocracy plays a very minor part, to the point of being almost completely irrelevant to the story, other than as a source of status markers:

    In the England into which he had been born, blood and breeding were still paramount and continued to call the national tune. Ancient wealth was still the legislator and determiner of the national destiny.  But all this had changed when he was still a lad.  By then the man of brass and the man of iron had come into their own, elbowing their way forward and demanding, at the top of their voices to be heard and heeded…Adam, who sometimes conjured with these abstracts, saw the process as a second Reformation, a phase of history repeating itself, with inventors, engineers, and their sponsors matching the hard-faced adventurers of Tudor times…For his part, he welcomed the transformation.  To him it was a cleansing tide, notwithstanding the mountains of muck and rubble it left behind…(but) it seemed to him that the wives and daughters of the men of brass took no pride in their menfolk’s astounding victory.  All they wanted, it appeared, was to replace their former masters without deviation by so much as a single inch from their ways of life, or discarding a single one of their prejudices.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Book Notes, Britain, Business, History, Management, Tech | 6 Comments »

    Tacos? May I Present …

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 23rd March 2015 (All posts by )

    For your dining pleasure, the three-star winner (South Texas Division) of the Chicagoboyz World Heritage Taqueria Guide – Erick’s Tacos, on Nacogdoches road.

    Behold the simple splendor of their open-air dining facility!
    Ericks - simple splendor
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Diversions, Entrepreneurship, Photos, USA | 7 Comments »

    “Drugs, Inc.” – the Most Important Show on Television

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

    “Drugs, Inc.” is a television show on the National Geographic Channel that focuses on the business of drugs, from producers to traffickers to users to police. I can’t recommend this show enough and I watch every episode that comes up on my DVR.

    Welcome to the $300 billion industry of Drugs, Inc., where traffickers pocket huge profits, addicts become chained in a vicious cycle and law enforces wage war across diverse battlefields – farmers’ fields, shady labs, urban street corners and suburban schools. How does this business work? Can it be stopped or should it be regulated? What impact does it have on those it touches?

    Drugs Inc somehow gets interviews with drug dealers and drug traffickers. They are always wearing a mask of some sort and often their voices are garbled electronically. It isn’t clear to me why they agree to be on TV or why the authorities don’t follow up on the leads from the program or subpoena their records. I can’t comment on the authenticity but it certainly seems real, especially the interviews with the users or “fiends” as they are described by the dealers on the series.

    The first thing that the show will do for you is change how you look at homeless people. All of the users on the show are either 1) drug dealers themselves likely far down the chain in order to support their habit 2) panhandlers or some sort of schemer / prostitute. There occasionally are recreational users or those with jobs but since they typically interview hard-core drug users many of those individuals can’t do a regular 9 to 5 job.

    The panhandlers are a relentless lot. They wake up in various places, sometimes in their cars, sometimes in a tent, sometimes in an abandoned building, or elsewhere. When they get up, it is time to make some money in order to buy some drugs. They always know exactly what they are doing and have a target amount of money to “earn” in order to score what they need to stave off dope sickness.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Chicagoania, Economics & Finance, Film, The Press | 19 Comments »

    History Friday – The 19th Century Internet

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 6th March 2015 (All posts by )

    Work continues – at a rather slow pace, admittedly – on the two books I have currently under construction, while I do research reading for them (in a small way) and work on projects to do with the Tiny Publishing Bidness. Which has just had two old corporate clients appear out of the woodwork; I don’t know how much we can do for the second, as the electronic files for their project are nonexistent, as their corporate history was produced and printed in about 1990. Thus technology marches on. I am wracking my memory, to see if I can come up with my own estimation as to when electronically-composed documents became the norm. I would guess around that time. I used to go back and generate training documents and various reports on a computer which also ran the automated music channel at EBS-Zaragoza in the late 1980s. This usually involved two large floppy disks (one for the operating system, one for my document archive) and a tiny screen of brilliant green letters on a black background. This writing process usually had me seeing white objects in shades of pink for at least an hour afterwards.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Americas, Business, History, Tech | 17 Comments »

    Good Business

    Posted by Jonathan on 22nd February 2015 (All posts by )

    Knaus Berry Farm

    I visited this place with a friend over the weekend. They sell baked goods, fresh fruits and vegetables, preserves and milk shakes. The parking lot was jammed and we had to wait in line to buy cinnamon buns. We also bought tomatoes, strawberries and some other vegetables.

    It is a simple business, selling simple products. It is located in a semi-rural agricultural area that is probably a bit out of the way for most customers. The prices are not cheap and they take cash only. They are closed on Sundays. Yet on Saturdays there is always a wait to buy sticky buns, and they seem to sell plenty of fruit, vegetables and milk shakes.

    What distinguishes this place is the quality of its products. The buns are excellent. The strawberries we bought were perfectly ripe and sweet, and the grape tomatoes were the best I’ve had in as long as I can remember; I ate them like candy.

    I have no idea about their bottom line, but they have been in business for a long time so I guess they do OK. It seems from this example that the only thing you need to do to prosper in business is offer first-rate products. But, of course, that is also one of the hardest things.

    We may need to go back there and do more research.

    Posted in Business | 11 Comments »

    History Weekend – Tales of a 19th Century Road Warrior, Continued

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 14th February 2015 (All posts by )

    (Part one is here.)
    All righty – everyone still interested? This is the rest of the story, of Fred Harvey and his hospitality empire, which not only is given popular credit for ‘civilizing’ the Wild West, but also for supplying that stretch of the Southwest between the Mississippi-Missouri and the Sacramento with excellent food and drink, splendid service, and a constant stream of wives – for many of the women recruited as waitresses in the track-side station restaurants married right and left; to railroad men, co-workers in the Harvey establishments, and to customers they met in the course of their duties. A comparison between Harvey Girls and stewardesses in the glamorous days of commercial flight has been made now and again; both groups were composed of relatively young, independent and adventurous women, carefully selected and trained, and working in a setting where their attractive qualities were shown at an advantage.
    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, Diversions, Entrepreneurship, History | 6 Comments »

    Fishing Only in the Heavily-Fished Pools

    Posted by David Foster on 8th February 2015 (All posts by )

    …probably won’t lead to great results.

    Virginia Postrel  notes that “elite investment banks, law firms and management consulting firms often hire almost exclusively from a handful of schools,” citing  research by sociologist Lauren Rivera:  “So-called ‘public Ivies’ such as University of Michigan and Berkeley were not considered elite or even prestigious.”

    Virginia argues that “If everyone you interview comes from the same few schools, the same social networks, the same previous employers or the same geographic regions, you aren’t really fighting for talent.”

    What she is saying here is similar to my point in the recent post  “Top-tier university graduates only.”

    Of course, for the industries Virginia mentions–law, investment banking, management consulting–people are being hired not only for their ability to do the job, but also for the advertising value of their credentials in attracting potential business.

    Posted in Academia, Business, Management, Society | 2 Comments »

    Could This Company Have Been Saved?

    Posted by David Foster on 7th February 2015 (All posts by )

    If you had been elected as CEO of Radio Shack, let’s say 5 years ago, what would you have done?  Was there a viable strategy for a long-term future for this company, or would it have been best to wind it up in an orderly manner?

    Posted in Business, Management, Tech | 35 Comments »

    “Top-Tier University Graduates Only”

    Posted by David Foster on 28th January 2015 (All posts by )

    Here’s a LinkedIn post from a young woman who doesn’t like the way certain companies are specifying “degree from a top-tier university required” in certain of their job postings. I think she makes some good points.

    From the standpoint of the individual company or other organization, absolutely requiring a degree from a “top-tier university” (whatever the individual’s other experience and capabilities) reduces the size of the talent pool and quite likely increases costs without commensurate benefit. From the standpoint of the overall society, this practice wastes human resources and creates damaging inhibitors to social mobility. (And in most cases, “top-tier university” is defined based only on the perception of that university’s “brand”…very few HR organizations or hiring managers conduct serious research on the actual quality of different universities from an educational perspective…and the perceived quality may be years or even decades out of date.)

    I think we as a society have delegated far too much influence to the admissions officers of various Ivy League universities, and also to whoever constructs the metrics for the US News & World Report college ratings. When discussing “inequality” and declining social mobility..and less-than-stellar economic growth…the role of credentialism in all these things needs to be seriously considered.

    Related: the five-pound butterfly revisited

    Posted in Academia, Business, Education, Human Behavior, Management | 30 Comments »

    History Weekend: Tales of a 19th Century Road Warrior

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on 25th January 2015 (All posts by )

    He was the entrepeneur who came up with the bright idea to bring fine cooking and peerless customer service to the rowdy far West, and do so on a grand scale … and as a sidebar to that feat, also supplied thousands of wives to settlers in an otherwise female-deficient part of the country. He was a Scots-English immigrant from Liverpool named Fred Harvey. He arrived in New York at the age of 17, early in the 1850s. He took up employment washing pots and dishes at a popular restaurant of the day, and within a short time had worked up the kitchen ranks to waiter and then line cook. He only remained there for a year and a half – but in those months he had learned the restaurant business very, very well. He gravitated west, but only as far as St. Louis, where he managed a retail store, married and survived a bout of yellow fever. The restaurant business called to him, though. On the eve of the Civil War, he and a business partner opened a café. Which was successful, right up until the minute that his business partner, whose sympathies were with the Confederacy, took all the profits from the café and went South. Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Anglosphere, Business, Diversions, Entrepreneurship, History | 9 Comments »

    Is American Entrepreneurship in Decline?

    Posted by David Foster on 19th January 2015 (All posts by )

    Jim Clifton, who is Chairman & CEO of Gallup, presents data showing that creation of new businesses has fallen considerably over a long-term trend running from 1977 to the present, and that for the last several years, the number of firms created has actually fallen below the number of firms closing.

    LINK

    And furthermore:

    The U.S. now ranks not first, not second, not third, but 12th among developed nations in terms of business startup activity. Countries such as Hungary, Denmark, Finland, New Zealand, Sweden, Israel and Italy all have higher startup rates than America does.

    Read the whole thing.

    These numbers and trends seem somewhat counterintuitive to me. I see a lot of startups looking for angel funding, and quite a few of them getting it. There is a lot of public interest in entrepreneurship, as evidenced by the success of TV programs such as “Shark Tank”, and even universities are attempting to capitalize on the interest in entrepreneurship by offering courses and programs on the topic.

    I suspect that much of the decline in business creation is among people who don’t have a lot of formal education–many of them immigrants–and who in former years would have started businesses but are now inhibited by inability to navigate the dense thicket of regulations and pay the substantial costs involved in doing so. OTOH, I also suspect that quite a few of these people have actually created businesses, in fields such as home maintenance or home day-care, and are doing so off-the-books in ways that don’t get counted in the formal statistics.

    Among those who do have college degrees–and especially among those who have spent six, eight, or more years in college classrooms–student loan debt, much of it incurred on behalf of degrees having little or no economic or serious intellectual value, surely also acts as an inhibitor to business creation.

    Posted in Academia, Business, Economics & Finance, Education, Entrepreneurship, USA | 5 Comments »

    Book Reviews – 2014 Summary

    Posted by David Foster on 12th January 2015 (All posts by )

    Last year I reviewed quite a few books, including several that IMO are extremely important and well-written.  Here’s the list:

    The Caine Mutiny.  The movie, which just about everyone has seen, is very good.  The book is even better.  I cited the 1952 Commentary review, which has interesting thoughts on intellectuals and the responsibilities of power.

    To the Last Salute.  Captain von Trapp, best known as the father in “The Sound of Music,” wrote this memoir of his service as an Austrian submarine commander in the First World War–Austria of course being one of the Central Powers and hence an enemy to Britain, France, and the United States.  An interesting and pretty well-written book, and a useful reminder that there are enemies, and then there are enemies.

    That Hideous Strength.  An important and intriguing novel by C S Lewis. As I said in the review, there is something in this book to offend almost everybody.  So, by the standards now becoming current in most American universities, the book–and even my review of it–should by read by no one at all.

    The Cruel Coast.  A German submarine, damaged after an encounter with a British destroyer, puts in at a remote Irish island for repairs.  Most of the islanders, with inherited anti-British attitudes, tend toward sympathy with the German:  one woman, though, has a clearer understanding of the real issues in the war.

    Nice Work.  At Chicago Boyz, we’ve often discussed the shortage of novels that deal realistically with work.  This is such a novel: an expert in 19th-century British industrial novels–who is a professor, a feminist, and a deconstructionist–finds herself in an actual factory.  Very well done.

    Menace in Europe.  Now more than ever, Claire Berlinski’s analysis of the problems in today’s Europe needs to be widely read.

    A Time of Gifts.  In late 1933, Patrick Fermor–then 18 years old–undertook to travel from the Holland to Istanbul, on foot. The story of his journey is told in three books, of which this is the first.  This is not just travel writing, it is the record of what was still to a considerable extent the Old Europe–with horsedrawn wagons, woodcutters, barons and castles, Gypsies and Jews in considerable numbers–shortly before it was to largely disappear.

    The Year of the French.  The writer, commentator, and former soldier Ralph Peters calls this book “the finest historical novel written in English, at least in the twentieth century.”

    Posted in Academia, Biography, Book Notes, Britain, Business, Christianity, Deep Thoughts, Europe, Germany, Ireland, Islam, Management, Morality and Philosphy, Philosophy, Terrorism | 7 Comments »

    Some Key Technologies for 2015 and Beyond

    Posted by David Foster on 5th January 2015 (All posts by )

    …as viewed by General Electric

    Posted in Business, Tech | 7 Comments »

    The Failure of State Sponsored Capitalism

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 31st December 2014 (All posts by )

    It is my assertion that over the last few decades since the fall of communism a lack of understanding of how markets actually work has become commonplace around the world. When it was capitalism vs. communism (or socialism, or even fascism), you generally knew where you stood. To wit:

    • Capitalism said that the free market would provide the best outcome for society, while communism / socialism felt that capitalism had to be tempered and / or that key assets should be owned by the state 
    • Capitalism said that government should be small, and stick to a few areas of logical focus such as security and foreign affairs, while socialism / communism celebrated government and government jobs as a way to employ the citizenry and achieve social goals

    Subtly, the growing attraction of jobs that were primarily in the government sector (environmental jobs, education jobs, health care jobs, and outright government work) and the basic thought that you could build a nice, steady career there with assured benefits and pensions while “doing right for the world” became commonplace. These jobs were often seen as “nicer” and “better” than the ruthless corporate jobs that are continually vilified or parodied on television (such as “The Office” or virtually any thriller set in business).

    On a parallel scale, the idea that “State Owned Enterprises” (SOE) could be a significant part of the world economy, and compete effectively with private sector companies, became widespread. Let’s leave aside the companies that fell into the US governments’ hands during 2008-9 like the banks and car companies; I am focusing on the world wide companies, often country “champions”, that are in our midst and whose performance has now been hit with the usual causes of failure of these sorts of entities, including:

    1. Politically motivated investment
    2. Forced government subsidies or protectionist behavior
    3. Corruption
    The “poster child” for this negative outcome is Petrobras, the Brazilian oil company, which is 64% owned by the state.  Petrobras was briefly the 4th most valuable company in the world after their 2010 IPO; now it is barely in the top 100.  Petrobras hits all these typical failure points with a vengeance.  The government forced them to purchase goods and services from inefficient Brazilian suppliers, subsidized their citizens with Petrobras funds, pushed them to invest in deep offshore finds which were risky relative to the company’s capabilities, and finally just engaged in simple corruption to fund their political party candidates.  All of these actions weakened the company and now a downturn in oil prices and a heavy debt load put the company in a seriously bad state.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in Business, China, Crony Capitalism, Economics & Finance, Education | 20 Comments »

    Interview with Jeff Bezos — The Obstacles to Technological Breakthroughs (to America 3.0) are more Regulatory and Legal than Technological

    Posted by Lexington Green on 19th December 2014 (All posts by )

    Delivery Drone

    In a recent interview with Jeff Bezos, he notes that drone delivery will be more delayed by regulation than by technological capability.

    HB: Drones. You had this amazing “commercial” on “60 Minutes” last year, about this fantastic future when drones are going to fly out and bring me my package, and it’s going to be right there. Immediately, everybody in the country, and probably around the world, was saying, “Great — when?”
     
    JB: That’s a difficult question to answer. Technology is not going to be the long pole. The long pole is going to be regulatory. I just went and met with the primary team and saw the 10th- or 11th-generation drone flying around in the cage. It’s truly remarkable. It’s not just the physical airframe and electric motors and so on. The most interesting part of this is the autopilot and the guidance and control and the machine vision systems that make it all work. As for when, though, that is very difficult to predict. I’d bet you the ratio of lawyers to engineers on the primary team is probably the highest at Amazon.
     
    HB: Is this a situation where everyone else in the world except Americans is going to get drone deliveries?
     
    JB: I think it is sad but possible that the US could be late. It’s highly likely that other countries will do it first. I may be too skeptical. I hope I’m wrong.

    It is too bad that the USA is likely to be slow moving in making this — and many other types of new technology — available to the public.

    The same will certainly be true about driverless cars, or molecular medicine.

    We are going to need entrepreneur and activists and, yes, even lawyers, who are committed to making new technology available to the American people, with the inevitable disruption of existing relationships and expectations.

    Getting to a better America is possible, but nothing is inevitable.

    There will be many struggles along the way to America 3.0.

    Posted in America 3.0, Business, USA | 17 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – the Henpecked Guy

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 10th December 2014 (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, Illinois, early 1990s

    One of the clients that I had was a (rare) financial services firm in downtown Chicago. This was a great client because I didn’t have to travel or do anything strange like audit a maximum security prison.

    The job was also interesting because the firm we were auditing took in investor funds and turned around and invested in myriad hedge funds. As a result, during audit time (year end) we had a lot of work to do because in order to complete OUR audit, we had to receive reports from all the individual hedge funds that the firm’s clients invested in. Back then we were barely computerized and used lots of paper, and all the audited financials came in at the last minute, so we worked non-stop to attempt to meet customer deadlines.

    At lunch we went out as a group and they brought the auditors along. Most of the time it was just me since I was fairly competent by that time so my manager usually left me on site to do all the work and just checked in on the results periodically. I was a workhorse, charging in hours from early morning to late night every day and on weekends during busy season. Since this firm made a lot of money, they didn’t care much how many hours we billed, they just wanted to complete the audit on time so that their clients felt confident in investing with them.

    The manager from the client was interested in hiring me. This is typically how you got a job as an auditor – you impressed the client with your intelligence and work ethic, and then they hired you to join their internal audit staff. Since most of my clients were in government or distant utilities in undesirable (at the time) cities, this was an unusual circumstance for me.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business | 9 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 9th December 2014 (All posts by )

    Amazing treehouses from around the world

    Failure Porn.  Is there now too much celebration of failure?

    Why do journalists love twitter and hate blogging?  (from 2011)  Also:  the message of the medium:  why the Left loves twitter

    Leftists don’t like being reminded of the socialist roots of Naziism.  Also:  Hitler and the socialist dream.

    Best programming languages for beginners to learn.

    Some signs of recovery in the rustbelt

    A 3d printed kinematic dress

    Lightpaper!

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Human Behavior, Leftism, Media, Photos, Tech | 10 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Working in a Maximum Security Prison (Part II)

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 7th December 2014 (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)…

    Joliet Illinois, 1992, at a Maximum Security Prison. Here is Part I of the story. This prison is where the Blues Brothers movie was filmed along with “Prison Break”.

    After I got acclimated to the prison, it was time to select the assets that I would audit during the summer. Typically you “randomly select” assets from the asset listing, take a statistically significant sample (perhaps 20-50 items), and draw conclusions about the whole pool of assets based on whether you were able to find the selected assets in the location where they were said to reside. I did this at first and the results came up with many assets titled “XXX-780″ and I asked the accountants working for the facility what they were. The accountants said that these were individual prisoner beds and that was the cell number and the way to audit those assets would be to go in and unlock the cells and I could flip up the bed and check the number. I thought about this for a few minutes and then said “f&ck this” and decided that I would use “judgement” to select my assets instead of the random method and I selected 30 assets myself for my project.

    The quest to find the assets took me throughout the facility. If it was a gun that I selected, I would go past the guard into the armory, through the tunnels under the building, and up the ladder into the tower to manually check the serial number of the rifle or other weapon that was picked to be audited against the building records.

    I selected what turned out to be a sniper rifle. These guns were kept in storage at the armory, and they brought out the sniper to show me the weapon himself because they didn’t let other people touch it after he had calibrated the scope. The sniper asked me a question:

    Do you know why they pick snipers out of the staff in the prison?

    No, I said.

    Because in Attica there was an uprising and the prisoners took over the yard and then the prison brought in outside marksmen to ensure they could not escape. During the melee the marksmen shot many prisoners but it turns out that the prisoners had changed clothes with the civilian hostages, so some of the individuals gunned down were actual guards or workers. Thus the snipers were prison guards from that facility because they could pick out the inmates from the guards and workers.

    I said that if he ever saw me in his scope wearing an orange outfit, please don’t shoot. It wasn’t a joke.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 5 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Working In a Maximum Security Prison (Part I)

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 4th December 2014 (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)…

    Joliet Illinois, 1992, at a Maximum Security Prison

    When I was an auditor I worked with utilities and governmental entities. These were the least popular clients because they often required a lot of travel and if you left the public accounting firm you generally worked for a client (or a different firm in the same industry) and this would pigeonhole you into working in regulated industries.

    When I thought I’d seen the least appealing clients possible, a new low occurred – I was assigned to a maximum security prison. The Joliet Correctional Center in Joliet, Illinois. The prison hired an accounting firm to do an audit of their property records and my job was to inventory the physical assets deployed throughout the facility.

    The only guards with weapons were in the towers or overlooking the prison walls. Once you were inside the facility the guards had nightsticks but no guns. This was to prevent the prisoners from overpowering the guards and taking their weapons. The prisoners could seize control of the facility at any time and hold the guards hostage but they could not exit the facility because the guards in the towers had rifles and would be able to fire back and would be difficult for the prisoners to overcome.

    You entered the facility and went into the armory. From the armory you could take tunnels under the facility and then you could go up into the tower via a ladder. Only within the armory and up the tunnels were the guards armed. This facility was built in the 1860s and it was disgusting in the tunnels underneath with standing water and rats. I would go through the tunnel and yell up and then they would let me into the tower via a ladder and I would climb up a couple stories in my suit with my briefcase. I remember distinctly that the guards seemed somnolent and they had a picture of the warden with a hand drawn mustache and graffiti on it; probably because there was no way he could sneak up there for a “sneak” audit. The guards in the tower always knew that you were coming.

    I took an initial tour of the prison with an assistant warden. She was an African-American woman perhaps in her 50s and the predominantly African-American prisoners treated her with great respect. They spoke to her politely and stayed out of our way rather than glaring and intimidating you to move out of their path, which would happen to me later when I walked alone throughout the facility.

    The first thing you noticed in the prison was how LOUD it was; everyone was screaming the word “motherf&cker” in about 250 variants. It was a cacophony of yelling and noise and very disconcerting. The prison cells were very small with 2 inmates each; one stood menacingly at the bars and one was usually on a bunk bed (there wasn’t really enough room for both of them to stand). If you walked too closely to the cell they might spit on you; if you walked below the high tiers they might throw urine down on you.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 7 Comments »

    “The FAA, Drones, and Caltrops”

    Posted by Jonathan on 2nd December 2014 (All posts by )

    Some thoughts about drones and govt regulation, from the always interesting John Robb:

    Here’s one of the reasons that the FAA has seized control of all drones (including toys) and is slowing the development of automated aviation to a crawl. It’s a dumb move, since it won’t work, but they are doing it anyway.
     
    The reason is that drones make disruption easy.
     
    [. . .]
     
    The big question: Will the FAA effort to control drones protect against this type of disruption? No. It won’t.
     
    It actually makes the situation worse. It prevents the development of the safeguards an economically viable drone delivery network would produce.

    Read the whole (brief) post to get Robb’s full argument, which is a plausible one.

    Perhaps the FAA is motivated more by inertia and typical bureaucratic risk-aversion than by any sophisticated consideration of the likely downstream societal effects of drone development.

    The FAA’s proposed regulations would mainly affect commercial drone users who would probably be constrained by liability in any case. The pilot-license requirement makes little sense except to restrict entry into the market and as a means of tracking users. These regulations are not going to be easily enforceable. Maybe the FAA is being driven in part by lobbying from airlines and police agencies. Overregulation will incentivize the development of quiet drones, camouflaged drones, miniature drones, RF-shielded drones, autonomous drones that can fly programmed courses without radio control, etc.

    Big companies that can game the political system will get drones. Governments will get drones. Hackers, criminals and terrorists will get drones. Small and mid-sized businesses will pay up for approved outsourced drone services or will go without. The availability of liability insurance to cover drone-caused damage may be a significant issue.

    Someone wrote that operating a drone should be like owning a dog: minimal formal regulation, ad hoc restrictions based on local conditions, and liability for damages. That seems about right.

    We shall see what happens. At this point I’m more concerned about the FAA than about caltrops.

    Posted in Aviation, Big Government, Business, Predictions, Tech | 12 Comments »

    Theme: Productivity and Economic Growth

    Posted by David Foster on 1st December 2014 (All posts by )

    As Jonathan pointed out here, one problem with the blog format is that worthwhile posts tend to fade into the background over time, even when they might be of continuing value.  One approach I’d like to try is Theme roundups, in which I’ll select a number of previous posts on a common topic or set of related topics, and link them with brief introductory sentences or paragraphs.  At least initially, I’ll focus on my own posts.

    The posts in this second “theme” roundup focus on issues affecting productivity and economic growth.

    Energy, Productivity, and the Middle Class.  The primary driver of middle class affluence has been the availability of plentiful and low-cost energy…especially in the form of electricity…coupled with a whole array of productivity-increasing tools and methods, ranging from the horse-drawn harvester to the assembly line to the automated check sorting machine.

    Demographics and productivity growth.  Slowing population growth is of concern in just about every developed county because of the effects on worker/non-worker population mix.  Economist Michael Mandel presents a country-by-country analysis of the productivity growth rates required, in light of these demographics, to achieve a doubling of individual income by 2050.  (from 2005)

    The Innovator’s Solution.  My review of the now-classic book by Clayton Christensen and Michael Raynor.  Far more valuable than most books on business strategy.

    Closing time?  Citigroup (this is from 2010) listed  “ten themes that spell the end of Western dominance,” while Joel Kotkin challenged what he called “declinism.”

    Entrepreneurship in decline?   Michael Malone, who has been writing about technology and Silicon Valley for a couple of decades, worries (in 2009) that the basic mechanism by which new technologies are commercialized–the formation and growth of new enterprises–is badly broken. (Malone’s original article has disappeared, but I excerpted part of it.)

    Decline is not inevitable.  Many Americans have come to believe that our best years are behind us.  I assert that American decline is by no means inevitable…and if we do wind up in long-term decline, it will be driven not by any sort of automatic economic process, but rather by our own choices–especially our own political choices.

     The suppression of entrepreneurship.  Home Depot co-founder Ken Langone has some words for Obama.  (2010)

    The politics of economic destruction.  What Democratic Senator Christopher Dodd tried to do to angel and venture capital funding of new enterprises.

    The idea that bigness automatically wins in business still seems to have a remarkable number of adherents, despite all evidence to the contrary.

    Startups and jobs…some data.  (the original post was just a link)

    Bigotry against businessspeople.  Media and political hostility toward businesspeople, and its consequences.

    Leaving trillions on the table.  The transistor as a case study in central planning versus entrepreneurial diversity.

    Misvaluing manufacturing. The once-common assertion that “services” are inherently of higher value than manufacturing was not very well thought out.  (2003)

    “Protocols” and wealth creation.  With  help from Andrew Carnegie, I challenge some assertions in a David Brooks column.

    Musings on Tyler’s technological thoughts. Comments on Tyler Cowen’s book Average is Over.  While it’s worth reading and occasionally thought-provoking, I think much of what he has to say is wrong-headed.

    Posted in Business, Economics & Finance, Entrepreneurship, Politics, Tech, USA | 4 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Small Unit Cohesion

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 28th November 2014 (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, 2010, at a Shooting training center

    In 2010 my dad and I went to an all-day class to learn how to shoot properly. The first four hours were in a classroom and the last four hours were outside when it was a brisk fall day and we learned various techniques of how to shoot and spent over 800 rounds.

    In the beginning of the class, the instructor asked everyone about their background. My dad and I said we were complete amateurs. When the others talked about their experience I didn’t fully understand what they were saying until later but many were ex military who were now contractors in Iraq or elsewhere with very extensive experience. They were attending for what must be some sort of required periodic classroom time.

    The reason that this is interesting is because the instructor went through firearm basics that was all news to me but must have been the most banal and simplistic discussion that these guys have ever heard. It would be like sending me back to school for mandatory training and showing me a balance sheet or explaining the very basics of systems technology. In five minutes of this I would be agitated and distracted and frankly a bit insulted that someone wasn’t properly valuing my corporate and career experience. Because that is how a corporate or business person would view the process, but not a military person. Each of the military guys sat in their seats for four hours and if anything they constructively helped the instructor, who was ex-military himself. In hindsight no one was joking around or making a mockery of anything.

    When we were shooting the guys all helped each other and the team immediately without asking. We had a lot to cover so they leaped up and changed the targets and moved and anticipated and everyone was part of a larger mission. After a while it was completely obvious to everyone that me and my dad (who was in his late 70s at this point) were behind the game so they subtly starting helping and coaching us in addition to what the instructor was doing. Sometimes you had to shoot multiple targets to clear a level and I think a few times guys helped me by shooting my targets too.

    Only in hindsight did I recognize the “cohesion” concepts that SLA Marshall talked about in his famous book. He talked about the value of leadership and training in motivating and getting the best out of the men under your command. While these sound like commonplace lessons, and ones the military has likely long since learned in its recent brutal wars overseas, these lessons are usually nowhere to be found in corporate America and most private businesses.

    I watched “The Last Patrol” (highly recommended) last night on HBO and they had a similar observation. The protagonists are walking across America (even in Baltimore, I was scared for them) and asking people what is great about America. These ex-military guys and ex-combat photographers (with 20+ years in the middle of all of it) were trying to wind down and find their bearings without the adrenaline rush of combat and surviving possible death. They met a woman in an American flag bikini and she said she worked in an old folks home for veterans and she said that they all helped and looked out for each other. However, she said, it wasn’t like that once you left the facility – it’s not like that outside in America today.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Military Affairs, Personal Narrative | 7 Comments »

    Worthwhile Reading & Viewing

    Posted by David Foster on 25th November 2014 (All posts by )

    A special Russia-focused issue of National Geographic, in 1914

    Does automation make people dumb?

    Strategies for dealing with randomness in business

    Labor market fluidity in the US seems to be declining

    There are very different reactions to the waving of an Isis flag and the waving of an Israeli flag at Berkeley

    Strategies for dealing with toxic people

    Czars as political officers

    Two princes:  Machievelli’s Il Principe and Antoine de St-Exupery’s Le Petit Prince

    “Speaking Truth to Power.”  A great post by Sarah Hoyt on the way this expression is being used:

    One of the most fascinating conceits of our ruling powerful elites — be they in entertainment, politics, governance, jurisprudence or news reporting — is the often repeated assertion of being some kind of underdog “speaking truth to power.” This comes with the concomitant illusion that anyone opposing them is paid by powerful interests.

     

    Posted in Arts & Letters, Book Notes, Business, History, Human Behavior, Management, Politics, Russia, Tech | 13 Comments »

    25 Stories About Work – Building a Web Site, Then and Now

    Posted by Carl from Chicago on 17th November 2014 (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, around the year 2000, before the dot-com bust

    Back around 2000 I worked in an “incubator” that was a digital design agency. At that time everyone was moving onto the web, and it was a giant land rush.

    This was the first time I worked in an office with any type of serious amenities. They had free coffee, lounge areas, and the occasional foosball table. Previously I had been a buttoned down consultant, auditor, programmer and project manager – and all of the sudden the world changed and we engaged with a whole host of “creatives” and designers on joint projects.

    Back then we all wore suits. I remember one day very clearly; one of the designers sat immediately in front of me. I was looking up and I saw “Victoria’s Secret” – she was showing off the new style where women were wearing their pants so low that their underwear was showing. To a consultant that charges hundreds of dollars an hour (not like we collected it, but that’s a different story) this sort of behavior and style just screamed WTF.

    When we bid on a client our clashing styles were immediately evident. I started out the template to respond to the RFP (request for proposal), and was tasked with estimating the cost to reply to this opportunity. The creatives didn’t seem to understand any of my questions, which seemed pretty simple to me:

    What are we delivering, and how many hours will it take to build it?

    They couldn’t be pinned down. Were we making a logo, or a web site? Would it allow them to run transactions? At the time that was just a tremendous amount of work and seemingly an insurmountable task.

    We ended up bidding hundreds of thousands of dollars for what, I still am not sure. The company who was “buying” our services was VC funded and was just about bled dry, without having even launched anything substantial. The era of the dot.com companies had petered out and we were entering a recession.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Posted in 25 Stories About Work, Business, Personal Narrative | 4 Comments »