Sunday, March 29, 2015

Technology and Mass Transit

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 becuase 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 Chicago Boyz

A Brave Author

I remember reading an article a long time ago about advice that an experienced journalist gave a new writer in the newsroom. He said to "never write anything bad about cats" because the paper would be bombarded with letters from irate cat owners in response.

I thought of this as I read a NYT article titled "Pregnant, Obese and in Danger" by Claire Putnam (a doctor at a Kaiser Permanente hospital). From the article:
One recent night on my delivery shift, 8 out of 10 of my laboring patients were too heavy, with 2 weighing over 300 pounds... obese pregnant patients are more likely to have elevated blood pressure, gestational diabetes and babies with birth complications. The are more likely to need cesareans. And the are more likely to have serious complications from the surgery, such as infections, hernias, or life-threatening bleeding.
An extended family member of mine was a medical EMT and he mentioned how many of his co-workers were hurt while moving and assisting the obese and morbidly obese. This doctor agrees.
In the last year alone, three of the doctors I work with have been significantly injured while treating severely obese women. One even dislocated his shoulder while performing a cesarean on a 400-pound patient.
This author is incredibly brave because I can only imagine the vitriol that this sort of analysis will generate in the comments and on social media. They will say that you are making fun of women for whom their weight is out of their control! You are contributing to negative body image in the media!

The story of the negative impact on health care workers of the obese and the extra costs on society should be factually driven and discussed openly. In the same way that the addicts in Drugs, Inc pose huge challenges on the system through their lifestyle choices (which are universally panned, unlike the obese), these sorts of behaviors should be questioned as well.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Great New Band

We don't put the band's real names in here because we don't want random traffic but it is called "Royal Blo&d" and they are great. They have one guitarist and one drummer and sound a lot like early Muse. As an accountant I am always partial to bands with fewer members because it is efficient - that many less members to split the loot with. I can't imagine how they figured out who got what with those Santana and Doobie Brothers bands from the 70's which seemed to have about 30 members and bongo drummers. They are coming to Wisconsin and Chicago and I will try to hit em' with Dan even if it is a school night.

Here they are live - amazing how many cool concerts are up in YouTube in high definition with great sound. Put this on the highest def for the best results.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

"Drugs, Inc." - the Most Important Show on Television

"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.

Sunset Looking West

Recently I visited my friend to see their new baby and they had fantastic views of the city looking west and north. Not a bad photo from my iPhone 6... my iPhone 5 and 4 cameras were terrible.
Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Continuing Education

One promise my company made to me when I took this current job was to pay for education or training as it applied to my work as the firearm manager. All I needed to qualify was have one year of service and be recognized as a committed and reliable employee. It's a simple program. Pass a course and I am reimbursed. One course per year. It didn't take much thought to choose from among the offerings.

My first choice was training to become a Glock Certified Armorer. On Tuesday I passed my armorer course (aced the test) and now possess a three year certification. Our store can now hang the "Armorer On Duty" shingle if they wish. For our customers my services are now marketable.

For friends my services will be free, just pay for springs and parts and stuff. And for Carl I can now fix that failure to feed problem he had with his 9mm G19 at last year's Gunstock Blogmeet.

The course was held in the meeting room of a police station in a west suburban Chicago community. These courses are not open to the public. Most of the attendees were LEO's. I was only one of two dealers out of the forty. The eight hour session began with donuts (it's a cop thing) and coffee. The instructor was a veteran LEO with SWAT credentials who is now employed full time by Glock to travel the country and spread the love.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The 12 and 5

As I was working out the other day, I (sadly) had on ESPN and they were doing their bracketology thing.  The subject was how to fill out your brackets, and who might be the bracket busters this year.

The talking heads spoke of the many 12 seed vs. 5 seed upsets that we have had in years past and started diving into insane statistics, advanced mathematical models, and a whole bunch of other bullsh1t to try to explain not only the 12 and 5 upsets, but others as well.

As this was going on, I simply laughed at them as I knew full well why we have had 12 vs. 5 upsets in the past, and will likely see more 12 vs. 5 upsets in the future (assuming our current conference setup - bear with me and you will see why).

Seeds 1 through 47 comprise large conference champion winners and a bunch of "at large" bids.  The teams that fall below seed 47 are all conference champions of tiny conferences that nobody for the most part has heard of.  However, some of these conferences are "mid majors".  Do you get it yet?

Seeds 1-11 in the brackets are all teams from large schools.  Some of these schools have crap teams (this year see UCLA and Indiana) but have large alumni bases that bring fans and money - hence they make the tournament. Most teams that fall below the 11 seed have all won their conference tournaments and are "hot" and in some cases damned good teams to begin with.  I am not saying that they can beat the Kentuckys of the world, but put against a team that could be mis-seeded, they definitely have a chance.

4 regional bracket x 12 teams = 48.  The 5 vs. 12 seed is pitting the very best of these smaller teams that are hot against perhaps a middling school that could or could not be mis-seeded.  This is the best chance that any small school has to pull an early round upset.

It isn't wizardry or luck, it is just math, plain and simple.  And the talking heads dive deeper into the rabbit hole wondering why this happens.  Over and over and over.

St. Patrick's Day and Journalism

I'm going to combine two posts here that don't sound like they'd go well together - "Day Drinking" and lazy journalism. There was an article by Stanley Bing (the pseudonym of an executive who writes for Fortune magazine) who happens to 1) be an actual business executive 2) writes effectively (and hilariously). While I can't find the exact post I am paraphrasing below:
Whenever I see anything written about my company in the popular press, it is generally incorrect. Thus I must conclude that most of what I see written about other companies in the press isn't right, either.
Business Insider is a great resource that I read on my iPhone most days when I have a few minutes to kill. They have some original content and re-post from other sources. Recently I read about the "five biggest" St. Patricks' day celebrations (parties) which was a typical "puff piece" article for them - you can see it here.

The only problem with this article is... that it is lazy and wrong. Our own correspondent Dan happened to be on the ground in Las Vegas for St. Patrick's day last year and he said it was "Chicago on an inter-galactic scale" which I believe since Dan has been at a ton of drinking events through being a sports fan forever. I am having trouble verifying this on the ol' intertubes but it is the kind of event where "hey, the Chicago River is green, we can trot this story out every year, there we are done" but the massive scale of Las Vegas means that if you have a drinking event they can just pour out of the hotels and onto the streets (that they shut down) and go crazy and drink outdoors. Probably the only way to officially verify this is to send Art Mann out to Las Vegas as the ultimate decider...

Onto Chicago for St. Patrick's day... we had a beautiful day and so everyone was out in force. People were lining up per usual in the wee hours (many bars open at 6am) for a long day of drinking here in River North.

I loved this outfit... a drunk gumby up at Paris Club!

And the refuse lining the town everywhere the next morning...

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Game "Doom" and Its Historical Importance

The game "Doom" came out for PC's in the early 1990's. Playing that game was a formative experience for me and its contribution to computers and gaming is very under-rated.

I recently picked up a copy of the game on my iPad. I immediately was re-immersed in the game, remembering the maps, the monsters, the tactics, and sweating and jerking in my chair as I tried to get through the levels alive.

Doom was created by Id Software, and it was one of the most successful "first person" shooters. To some extent they invented the genre; their first game was Castle Wolfenstein which was a remake (far superior) of a top-down view game that I used to play on my old Apple II. That (ancient) game was famous for having the characters' talk - I remember that they would yell "Schweindhund" when you shot the German guards.

Doom was innovative because it was the first major successful computer game that allowed for real-time multiplayers. A few of use were in a utility in Wisconsin and after all the employees cleared out at night three or four of us would log in at the same time we could play simultaneously. At the time this was completely revolutionary - you could see the other players and collaborate with them or "frag" them which of course caused a lot of yelling. We used this to test out network connectivity and performance, as well.

After playing I remember walking through the darkened halls and I was disorientated from staring at the screen and reacting to the various demons and monsters. You kind of jumped when you saw the maintenance man or anyone else that crossed your path. This sort of immersive experience at the time was also revolutionary - you didn't get that from non-first person shooters.

The game also had an "open" format. At the time open source software was mostly unknown to the general public; you bought (or stole) software that someone or a company had created, took it off a disk (first a 5 1/4 floppy, then a 3 1/2 floppy, then a CD, and of course now it's just the ol' intertubes). It was called a "WAD" file and you loaded it and you could also load up maps created by third parties or hack it yourself. Other software was typically secured or encrypted (although this was usually easily bypassed) but the fact that it wasn't secured and they welcomed changes seemed out of the world at the time.

The game play was remarkably sophisticated; the monsters and demons reacted to your movements and the sound of your weapons; you could even cause the monsters to fight each other if you aligned their fire correctly and this was a great way to cull them down without expending any ammo or risking your own (virtual) life. This is all from a 20+ year old software application which is amazing in retrospect.

However, even today my Doom experience usually ends up with a bloody death as you can see in the photo above. I really don't have the time to dedicate to a game like this and I don't find it relaxing at all; after playing it I am jittery and exhausted like I've drunk a big cup of Starbucks coffee. And while I am trying to wind down and sleep I can see the corridors in my mind and the colors in my dreams and it's unpleasant. Time to delete it off my old iPad... but it brought up a lot of great memories while it lasted.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Saturday Night Flyover Country

Friday, March 13, 2015

Wild Friday Night

Hayman's Old Tom gin.  One of those cool "ball" ice cubes in a glass from the gone and lamented Trader Vic's.  Iron Maiden on Sirius XM and the Jambox speaker.  Blogging on the Mac.  

Monday, March 09, 2015

Hey Beavis…Watch This

Apple has a watch to sell. You buyin' it?

It has been documented that traditional, conventional wrist watches have fallen out of favor for telling time with the time-poor young moderns. With so many relying on their personal devices to tell the time sales of watches have declined. Since the news about the MUCH ANTICIPATED Apple Watch what did I do? Went out and bought this new traditional analog watch for about $60.

I may be wrong but the Apple Watch is no game changer in the near term. Then again even as an Apple fan I am not the intended target buyer so I wouldn't be surprised by anything Apple offers these days. From the beginning there has not been one Apple device that hasn't captured my attention, one that made me pause and go…umm…WTF is that…no thanks. Apple has always produced items that excited me. The Apple Watch? Hear me yawn. Has the Apple magic finally worn off?

Saturday, March 07, 2015

Saturday Night Flyover Country

We're Getting Closer

In this post I described how Illinois could "fix itself" financially... however my more realistic post here discusses how Illinois is tilted precariously on the edge of a crisis and I believe that one major issue impacting a large entity could kick off the entire process of "going Detroit" and "paging Kevin Orr".

Recently the City of Chicago, facing ratings downgrades, almost triggered off some swaps payments that would come due if the credit rating was to fall down to a certain low level.  Per the article:
Chicago drew closer to a fiscal free fall on Friday with a rating downgrade from Moody's Investors Service that could trigger the immediate termination of four interest-rate swap agreements, costing the city about $58 million and raising the prospect of more broken swaps contracts.
The city was able to re-negotiate one of the swap agreements and was in talks with Wells Fargo about the other swaps agreement per this article.   Apparently the date of reckoning has been pushed out a little further.

The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) debt is now just one grade above "junk" status per this article.

In making the downgrade, Moody’s cited the school district’s reliance on reserve funds for “operating expenditures, particularly pension contributions, which will steadily increase in the coming years.”Moody’s also maintained its “negative outlook” on the district’s debt, again citing the rising pension costs. From 2013 to 2016, annual retirement costs will increase to $688 million from $197 million, Moody’s stated in its rating explanation.
Note that the budget that Rauner proposed for the state of Illinois had additional cuts for state and local government, at a time when each of them are crying to the state for relief.  These cuts are also due to Rauner's choice to let the state income tax surcharge expire rather than renewing it (as Quinn certainly would have done).  Per this article
Governor Rauner's office released a statement Wednesday afternoon, saying: "Governor Rauner had to make some hard decisions to balance a $6 billion budget shortfall caused by years of fiscal neglect and bad practices. The amount of money transferred to local governments has ballooned by more than 40 percent in the last decade and the reduction to local governments proposed in the budget puts Illinois in line with neighboring states. In Governor Rauner's budget proposal, Chicago's overall revenues are reduced by less than 2.5 percent. Through the local government task force, Governor Rauner is committed to working with local communities to reduce costs and give them increased flexibility. Additionally, as part of his Turnaround Agenda, the governor proposed empowering local residents with tools to control costs at the local level and get more value for their tax dollars."
It will be very interesting to see how this all plays out.  Today the various governmental units and branches of our legislature and the governor are circling and eyeing each other to see who blinks first.

Some day hopefully we can move beyond the "funding" discussion into a real discussion of how we can get our state in fiscal order; by encouraging our government to be more productive, by scaling back our obligations to unions, and by unshackling entrepreneurs in the state to create jobs and companies.  No one is talking about that yet... except Rauner.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz