Saturday, April 21, 2018

Seismic Upgrade, Moral Hazard and Gentrification

While there has not been a recent major earthquake in the Pacific Northwest, research has proven that the area is seismically active. Building codes were established to withstand earthquake damage and new buildings have been held to this higher standard. However, there is a substantial portion of the commercial and residential buildings which have not been retrofitted to date. This cool interactive map shows earthquake risk in Portland based on the age of construction... and the pervasive color "red" is bad.

While wood frame houses may fare reasonably well in an earthquake, the highest risk buildings are large structures made of brick. The term for these sorts of buildings in Portland is "unreinforced masonry" or URM for short. They are the buildings that give Portland all of its "character" like classic old apartment buildings and multi-use commercial and residential structures. Many schools, churches and community centers also fit in this classification. This article estimates that it would cost $4.6B to retrofit the remaining URM buildings in Portland. They also note that at the current rate of upgrades, it would take 100 years to complete the effort.

I read a different local article and an engineer put it most pithily
The value of an URM building is zero
I do see some building owners "biting the bullet" and doing a seismic upgrade. When I look out the window of my building I can see many of the older buildings that have been upgraded in this manner, and many that have not. Here is a construction notification for a nearby 5 story masonry building that is being retrofitted.

There are two threads here that are most interesting to me:
1. How do owners of apartment buildings, where residents will most certainly be at higher risk of death during an earthquake, sleep at night? They talk about the costs of retrofitting as if it is an abstract event; but not doing so creates an economic externality of human misery that apparently they value very little if at all
2. Any mandate the city or region employs on URM will almost certainly drive gentrification because owners will have to invest in higher cost apartments and in turn raise rents; ironically, the city's mandates on re-use and burden of oversight rules will make the future rent increases even more burdensome

The likeliest solution is some sort of "muddling along" in the near term. For valuable commercial and high rise residential locations, the inevitable commercial upgrades will drive the URM upgrades. For apartment buildings, the future is much dimmer, because if you are a landlord owning an URM building, you can't raise and invest the money if your local competitors are just going to "accept" the URM risk (on behalf of their residents, ironically). In fact, it makes no sense at all to invest anything more than the cosmetic minimum in these URM buildings, which will move them down the road of being slums at some point in the future.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Friday, April 20, 2018

Disruption - The Weed Market in Oregon

Oregon allows recreational marijuana. Originally, there were laws limiting growers to local Oregon companies (when it was a medical marijuana industry) which were effectively eliminated when the transition was made to recreational usage (allowing out of state funding). There was also a relatively small local market for growing cannabis.

Dispensaries cropped up everywhere, even in seemingly small, out of the way tourist towns with only a few hundred souls. It seems that you can't go far without seeing the "green cross" that symbolizes a marijuana dispensary. Unlike other states, Oregon allowed anyone meeting basic criteria to open a "weed store".

While it surprised many of the locals who curated their wares and made custom strains of local cannabis, the free market reared its head and drove down prices on effectively undifferentiated product and storefronts. From the local WWeek newspaper:
A gram of weed was selling for less than the price of a glass of wine... we have standard grams on the shelf at $4... before we didn't see a gram below $8... Wholesale sun-grown weed fell from $1500 a pound last summer to as low as $700 by mid-October.
As a result of this, there is significant consolidation in the market as smaller growers either bow out or are bought up and dispensaries are being purchased by large groups (often vertically integrated with growers) at fire-sale prices.
(the) Oregon cannabis industry is a bleak scene: small businesses laying off employees and shrinking operations. Farms shuttering.
One farm profiled in the article went into growing weed with the expectation of selling at $1500 a pound; when they finally had to liquidate most of their crop at a weed auction, they only received $100 a pound.

The entire Oregon recreational cannabis industry has played out exactly as you would expect in a market with few barriers to entry and a relatively undifferentiated commodity:
1. Suppliers rush in to take advantage of high prices for crops, turning what was originally a weed shortage (and resulting scarce supply) into a huge spike in supply which in turn drove down wholesale prices to almost nothing on the margin
2. Retailers who have little or no differentiation are being driven out of business by low profits or being forced to run at a loss

For me the interesting part of this is not the plain execution of basic market economics (in an industry with low barriers to entry, prices will drive down to near marginal cost of the most efficient operator), but in what that means to "adjacent" industries. For example, if a gram of (high quality) weed is the price of a single glass of wine (actually a lot less at $4... that is probably 1/3 of the price of a glass of decent wine at a standard restaurant), will customers switch from beer or wine to cannabis? From an economic perspective (cost / buzz) this would be a relatively clear-cut choice. Over time economists should chart the impact of low cannabis prices on both prices and consumption in adjacent alcohol industries.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Monday, April 16, 2018

Craps and The Casino in Neverland

Dan and I play craps and hit the sports book annually for the Super Bowl. Craps is a great game to play because:

1. The odds are almost 50/50 if you play it right (or close enough)
2. Everyone on the table can have a lot of fun when the dice get hot
3. You can drink for free (usually) as long as you are playing, so if you are breaking even, you are essentially making money

A couple of years ago I moved out to Portland and they opened an Indian casino recently called Ilani about 25 minutes north of the city (when there isn't traffic). It is a large casino with many restaurants, lots of slots machines, and many table games. So I headed out there to try it out, and signed up for a "rewards card" which lets you earn comps as you play (you hand it to the dealer when you buy in your chips). Along with my rewards card I gave them my address and email so now I am on their mailing list for a regular stream of deals.

I laughed very hard when I received this mailed offer of what is a craps table apparently in neverland. There are so many things wrong with this picture that I can only start to point them out.

1. There are fit and good looking folks at the craps table. Ha ha if you have one normal looking person you are doing fine... to have 3 pretty girls and 2 normal looking guys is unheard of
2. The women appear to be drinking wine, martinis and champaign. I may have seen wine out of a tumbler glass but even that's rare... never seen the other ones especially not in formal glasses
- the first guy on the left has one $5 chip on the pass line and about ten $5 chips as "odds" behind it. I know for a fact that maximum odds at that casino are 5x odds (they are 3-4-5 for the degenerates out there)
- the woman right of the guy about to roll the dice is playing the "pass line" and the "don't pass line" AT THE SAME TIME. THIS HAS LIKELY NEVER HAPPENED IN THE HISTORY OF CRAPS
- someone is betting the "don't come" line. Never seen that bet, but at least it is possible
- It is hard to count the cips and possible that there are some "big" denominations under the stacks but the pass line vs odds make no sense at all

We'll go back to that casino and I can point this out to management and I'm sure they'll be like GTFO but it will at least get a laugh on my part.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Tax Reform Impact - Capital Gains and Investment Income

Recently I was at Powell's bookstore when I came across this book which attempts to be an introduction to the complexities of taxation. I thought that this was in the spirit of what I was going to try to do as I start to review the 2017 Tax Reform act and its' myriad impacts on the economy and individual incentives.

As an individual investor, I started with looking at capital gains and investment income. Some thoughts:
1. The same general split applies; long term gains are taxed at favorable (lower) rates, and short term gains are taxed as ordinary income. The ordinary income tax brackets are always higher than the capital gains brackets
2. The tax rates for capital gains are 0, 15% and 20%. These are the same as under the previous tax laws. Here is a brief article from the Motley Fool
3. The rates on ordinary income have gone down a bit, so the average person would pay less on gains, all else being equal (but this gets into your state and the standard deduction, a different topic). Thus there is no significant impact on investments here, it should be slightly favorable
4. Although there was talk of changing the way stock sales are accounted for to limit "tax loss harvesting", these changes did not occur. I believe that you can still deduct up to $3000 in losses against ordinary income, but I haven't been able to find that yet to confirm either
5. The 3.8% surtax on gains if your income is above $250,000 remains the same; this does not seem to be impacted by the law
6. While there were changes throughout the code that impacted REITS (real estate limited trusts) and MLP's (Master Limited Partnerships), these changes didn't fundamentally impact their value to classes of high income investors (they still have favorable tax characteristics)
7. There was some discussion of eliminating the Federal tax free nature of municipal bonds, but that deduction remained intact
8. There also was some discussion of changing the 401(k) deductions; this too, remained intact
Thus for investors, the basics of investing for individual investors (not the super wealthy) and the impact of taxation did not see significant changes under the new tax law. The types of tactics you would use under the prior tax law mostly moved into the new environment intact.

Cross Posted at Chicago Boyz

Saturday, January 20, 2018


Last night I attended the Illinois basketball game against the Badgers here in Madison.  The final score showed Illinois getting shellacked by 25 points but that really doesn't tell the tale.  The Illini were dominated from the opening tip.  They never led, and played absolutely awful from the get-go.

I am not sure why the new coach even took the job.

These are "bottom of the bucket" days for the Illinois athletic department, as far as the two big money sports go (men's hoops and football).  We were "defeated" in Big Ten play in football this year and are "defeated" so far in basketball.  I was thinking that this could be some sort of record if we go one entire year not winning one conference game in football AND basketball.

So I donned my research hat and took a look at the last time this happened.  Of course, the internet is awesome and I found this article.

Interesting that BC did just this very feat a couple of years ago.  After that you need to go back to TCU some 45 years ago.  Then you go all the way back to the world war two era for that Georgia mark, which isn't really fair since the season was stopped by the war.  From there you have all of the Sewanee marks, which are also dumb since they were obviously in a conference that outclassed them.  Then you go back to Northwestern in 1925.

So hey - the Illini could make history this year.  In futility.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Disruption - MoviePass

MoviePass is a service that has gained a lot of new users lately - it allows you to see unlimited movies (only one a day) each month for $9.95, which is essentially the price of a single ticket. How it works is that they give you a Mastercard that is connected to your mobile phone - when you get to the theater, you connect with them at that time and they authorize the card specifically for the amount needed to pay for the movie and then you pay and go inside. The process is set up so that theaters can't deny MoviePass at the box office because it is basically just another Mastercard and the only way to disable it would be to disable accept MasterCard, which is impractical or likely impossible for a host of reasons. The movie theaters receive the full price of the ticket through MoviePass, even if it is more than the $9.95 subscription fee (movies can cost almost $20 in Manhattan, for instance). In the short term, this is a "boon" for movie theaters because Wall Street investors are subsidizing their full price tickets.

Here is a NYT article on the growth of MoviePass. Per the article, they are adding 1 million subscribers a month. The ostensible play (what they say) is that they plan to "break even" on the cost of the service (if you see roughly one movie / month) but then they will make their money on using data from customers in an aggregated fashion to sell to the movie studios for marketing and targeting. They believe that this data and targeting consumers can add 5-7% to the box office gross. Note that the guy who helped found MoviePass was an executive at Netflix and RedBox named Mitch Lowe and he is very sophisticated financially and connected so he is a serious rival to the movie industry in general.

In today's economy, companies like MoviePass are (apparently) able to raise funding for business models like this that run accounting losses and burn cash now, under the promise that they are going to make money later. For years Facebook ran cash and operating losses and now is one of the most profitable companies in the world (and they haven't even monetized key parts like Messenger yet). Uber today still burns prodigious amounts of cash but has obviously captured critical mass in terms of usage and position in the marketplace (likely just needs to change the model to become profitable).

What is the real play for MoviePass? In the short term theaters will receive a burst of revenue (and concessions) from full ticket priced payments basically subsidized by the capital markets through MoviePass. Regardless of what MoviePass "says" about using this data for marketing, the true existential risk(s) that theaters see is that:

1. Theaters offer an "undifferentiated service". While a ratty old theater can drive folks away, most modern theaters allow you to select your own seat, have a nice comfy chair, and have upgraded concessions. That is the "price of entry" nowadays
2. Theaters don't control content. Other than the occasional art theater, theaters just show movies from the major studios and are a pass through of whatever content they deliver
3. Theaters have a problem with capacity optimization. Theaters are mostly empty during the day and leave seats available at night, and since customers don't have a relationship with the theater (because they are undifferentiated), the chains don't connect enough to do real-time pricing or other tactics to "fix" this and even out their business
4. Theaters face a challenge in that the "home experience" is rapidly approaching the quality of going to the theater, and in some cases may be better (you don't have to watch commercials at home, for instance)
5. Theaters rely heavily on concessions to survive, which isn't a problem per se but it drives strange behavior from both customers (you can't bring in your own food) and the theater (weird pricing where you can't really buy a small they drive you to a giant tub of popcorn)
6. It is a big ask for younger people to turn off their phone for 2 hours. Maybe in the future theaters will just give up and expect people to be on their mobile devices, I don't know. Or if you have a tool like MoviePass where you aren't as connected to the particular cost (because you pay by subscription) the fact that you can just "walk out" and it costs you nothing might make millenials more inclined to go

In summary, theaters are in a weak position like all undifferentiated retail. They have high fixed costs and no direct relationship with their customers that is substantial. If a company like MoviePass can galvanize the theater's customers and work with the customers directly, theater owners rightly fear that MoviePass in turn could demand huge discounts for their customer base, and in turn extract the value out of the business and the theater chains would be left with the capacity and operating costs and not the key customer relationships which drive revenues.

If this occurred, it would probably lead to a rationalization of the movie industry in a variety of ways. The chains would need to live on a very small margin which would shake out the business and reduce capacity. In turn, a company like MoviePass could aggregate demand and offer differentiated pricing to encourage customers to attend during off times, or just shut down the offtimes which could allow the theater to reduce staff accordingly. They could also offer advanced technology to make purchases of concessions to be seamless and pre-ordered and even tailored to the impending customers.

This is all speculation. Maybe MoviePass just runs out of cash or investors balk. But the movie theater chains are in a difficult position with high fixed costs and little control of their movies and an indifferent relationship with their customers. MoviePass won't be the last attacker in this space, just like how Napster may have died but ultimately they provided the impetus to change the music industry forever.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Friday, December 29, 2017

Disruption - Amazon Essentials

"Amazon Basics" is a line of low cost products created especially by Amazon. "Amazon Essentials" is an apparel line created by Amazon. This picture has a "basics" speaker and a low cost "essentials" product (the notebook):

- a portable wireless bluetooth speaker for $19.99
- Essentials dot matrix notebook for bullet journal for $9.92

I was impressed by both of these items. When you go to Amazon and either the basics or essentials section there is a wide array of products to choose from at amazingly low prices.

Amazon is choosing which markets and products that they want to compete in directly and they offer what appears to be reasonable quality products at low price points. If you cycle through the product list you can see a lot of everyday products or items that don't normally have a strong branding component.

When this is combined with Amazon Prime for free delivery it would seem that these items would be very competitive in the marketplace. Amazon doesn't pay for marketing or branding since you are already in their web site when you are searching for items. It could also favor its own products in searches, partially because it is their own brand but also because they seem to offer prime and a low price as well which also factor into the search algorithm.

As a consumer I recommend checking out some of these products for essentials and ease of delivery but as someone interested in business, economics and technology I would view these lines of business as potentially very disruptive to other sectors of the economy where branding is not essential.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Disruption - Delivery

Traditionally the big companies that handle "last mile" package delivery are Fed Ex (ticker: FDX), UPS (ticker: UPS), and of course the US postal service. These companies have hundreds of thousands of employees (often unionized) and billions of dollars of planes and trucks and other transportation assets.

Amazon (ticker: AMZN) recently began expanding their transportation capabilities, both in the form of their own airplanes and leveraging an "Uber-like" workforce of contractors leveraging an app to deliver packages in their own cars with a program called "Amazon Flex".

This article on Geek Wire describes someone's experience with being an Amazon Flex driver for 2 days. It is very interesting how he just downloaded the app, passed a background check, and showed up at the facility and picked up his packages. Customers were surprised just to see a regular guy doing the delivery and he rang the doorbell often and talked to them as he did his rounds at night.

From the article:
Amazon Flex, like other gig economy services such as Uber or Postmates, provides people with an easy way to make some cash. Signing up is simple; the work isn’t too demanding; and you get paid within a few days. Amazon says you can make up to $18-to-$25 per hour. After subtracting costs of gas; parking/tolls; smartphone data usage; and wear and tear of your car, the pay seems to be a little more than minimum wage

From a recent "Gizmodo" article on Amazon Flex called "Amazon's Last Mile":
UPS spokesman Dan McMackin told Gizmodo that Amazon is not a threat to UPS—whose drivers are both full employees and the single largest contingent of long-lived Teamsters labor union—because “ecommerce is bigger than one customer.” In his opinion, good courier work requires a skilled, consistent workforce, and retaining that pool of labor means providing solidly middle-class wages and benefits.

This service by Amazon seems like it will be a significant challenger to UPS and Fed Ex. By paying near minimum wage with no benefits AND having no fleet or fuel costs Amazon seems to have a service that would be able to significantly undercut these other transport companies. In addition, the Amazon service can "scale up" to meet demand and then scale back during slow periods at no cost, while their competitors have to build capacity in terms of staff and equipment that is essentially idle during slack conditions.

Seeing what Uber did to the cab industry, the smartest action by the (mostly unionized) competitors would be to try to block this service in court and burden it in red tape and other regulations by using their legislative connections in congress at the local, state and Federal level. Clearly, delivering packages isn't a complicated business with the advent of modern technology and a company the scale of Amazon and once this sort of service becomes ubiquitous and benefits consumers (in terms of lower costs) it will be very difficult to put this genie back in the bottle.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Chromecast, Roku and Cutting the Cord (Potentially)

It's Christmas time and we don't have a fireplace in our high rise apartment. So what's the next best thing? A video showing the Yule Log (there also is a Nick Offerman 45 minute one where he watches you and drinks whiskey and someone looped it for 10 hours, look it up on You Tube). This is playing through my Chromecast ($20) via Youtube and could be done through my Mac, iPad, or iPhone. And it looks great.

We finally gave up on our old Samsung TV and bought a new 55 inch "smart" TV from TCL with Roku included. The sound quality is great I got rid of my front speaker and subwoofer when I took my old TV to Goodwill and don't plan to buy a new one (maybe I will with Xmas gift cards). Once we connected it to our router I was surprised at how high quality the TV picture was and how fast it booted up. You can quickly go into either Roku or something like the Chromecast (below) or just turn on the cable box directly (we have xfinity). Right here at the intersection of huge amounts of online content, high bandwidth, and seamless performance you can see how cable dies (although cable provides our Internet service, but this is a parallel question).

ChromeCast is made by Google and it plus into an HDMI port on your television and connects wirelessly to your internet. While you can use Chromecast to access all kinds of TV and music content, for me the goal was to "cast" whatever I had on my laptop or iPad onto the screen. Originally I thought I could just project anything on my screen onto the TV but it turns out that the "app" or "program" specifically has to have chromecast built in and enabled. Thus for my iPad it works for the You Tube app and also for the Vice app (which I use to watch their programs). However, it doesn't work with the chrome browser app in IOS for the iPhone or iPad, probably because Google and Apple often don't play well together (Apple wants me to buy Apple TV, but that's a lot more than $20). On my MacBook, however, the chrome browser does "cast" onto the TV which enables me to show whatever I can bring up in a browser.

Unfortunately our apartment does not face the antenna for the local TV stations so it will be impossible for me to get an HD antenna and completely cut the cord unless I just want to buy something like Hulu or some other source of major network TV. But I certainly can see the possibilities once you start to control the TV from your phone, tablet or PC / Mac. It moves so much faster through content when compared with the clunky cable interface, although I really do like the ability to talk into your remote for xfinity (say "Chicago Bears" and it brings the game up).

For someone brand new on the scene I can understand how cable would just seem like an anachronism. It is a slower, lousier way to get to content that already exists digitally or streaming. Buy a new TV and connect it with more modern equipment (connectivity) and see it through their eyes.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Apple MacBook, Planned Obsolescence and AirPods

Apple has been in the midst of a long term inter-operability / consolidation of its IOS and MacOS environments. When I first started using my MacBook and converting over from a PC in 2012-2013 there was almost no ability to communicate / transfer between my phone or iPad and my MacBook. I remember being bewildered that there wasn't even an app on MacOS to read Kindle books that I had on my iPad (and even today the MacOS app is a bit wonky).

Today there is some ability to use my MacBook from 2011 alongside my iPad and my iPhone. The key elements of inter operability include:

- Apple Messages works well between the devices. This is probably the biggest single unlock for my MacBook by far
- Apple Photos now work pretty seamlessly between all the devices. After Apple Messenger this is the next biggest "win"
- if you use iCloud you can share across all devices
- Facetime and answering calls works across all devices, depending on whether or not you want to turn it on (can be annoying when your computer "rings" when your iPhone rings)
- Notes works well across all devices and has been getting more powerful with each release (for items like to-do lists, etc...)

The apps on the MacOS still lag far behind those available for the iPhone. I don't know what the long term plan is for this. I know that apps function differently on each environment; common apps like "Bitmoji" work great on my iPhone, kind of OK on my iPad (I have an attached keyboard so it is strange and locks in portrait mode), and not at all on my MacOS (or I haven't really even tried it.

Back in the old days there was a term called "planned obsolescence" which meant that products weren't supposed to have a long life, they were built in a manner that demanded replacement in just a few years to continue the buying cycle. I must say that Apple has been very loyal to my 2011 MacBook in that it still works well and is a proud member of their ecosystem, running the newest programs and kept up to date in their OS cycle. 6+ years is a long, long time for a technology product. At any point they could have accelerated their features so that they weren't backwards compatible and basically made me dump my MacBook for a newer machine, but they didn't. For all the grief Apple gets there is a reason they are among the worlds' most valuable companies.

I recently took the plunge and bought AirPods. I usually am too cheap to invest a lot in accessories but I was frustrated about the blue tooth drops on my existing cheap headphones and noticed people walking around town without headphone wires around their necks.

I heartily recommend buying AirPods. They keep their charge for a long time (you charge the little case they come in which looks like a dental floss packet) and they sound great. The AirPods pair automatically with your Apple device in a seamless manner that (seems to) work every time. I didn't have any problem keeping them in my ear, either. If you pull out one ear bud they automatically pause the music (or podcast) which is great if you are at the checkout line or something like that and they even work well with phone calls - I tried it out while walking in the street outside in a busy area with lots of background noise. You can program the "tap" which allows you to fast forward the music or stop / restart. The AirPods can also be paired with your Apple Watch which can store music - this way you can go outside without your phone at all (although I haven't tried this yet).

The AirPods are around $150 which is steep and they come in a small case. Friends of mine have said that they are afraid of losing them and that is a real worry. But I think that they are worth that risk.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Friday, October 27, 2017

Wisconsin Badgers Weak Football Schedule

The Wisconsin football team is as of this writing 7-0 and ranked fifth in the nation.  Odds are that they will be 8-0 in another 24 hours or so as they visit my haplesss beloved Illini and are a heavy 26.5 point favorite (take Wisconsin to clear if you are a betting person).

But what have they done this year?  Not much.  Here is the list of teams that the Badgers have beaten this year:

Utah State
Florida Atlantic

Not exactly murderers row.  Of course, this type of schedule is the exact thing that gets mocked by fans of the SEC - Wisconsin has not played one top 25 team so far this year and there is a very good chance that they may not play one ALL YEAR as their remaining schedule looks like this:


None of those teams are currently in the top 25.

The combined record as of now for all teams on Wisconsin's schedule is 40-46, or an atrocious .465 winning percentage. But to make matters worse, lets take a look at something else.  Here are the 40 teams that Wisconsin's current scheduled teams have beaten this year so far:

Oregon State
Iowa State
North Texas (twice)
Air Force
Minnesota (twice)
Georgia Southern
Charleston Southern
Ball State
Western Kentucky
Idaho State
San Jose State
Brigham Young
Bethune Cookman
Middle Tennessee State (twice)
Old Dominion
Portland State
Bowling Green
Arkansas State
Illinois (three times)
Ohio (NOT Ohio State)

Of all of these teams, only Iowa State is in the top 25, ranked 25 this week (and they will probably drop out eventually).  Many of these teams aren't even in Division One.  The combined record of these teams is an abysmal 113-176 - a .391 winning percentage.  This will get worse as the Big Ten teams keep cannibalizing themselves.  The only top 25 victory for this list of teams was Iowa State's upset of Oklahoma earlier this year.  And I would bet that if those two teams played again today that Oklahoma would beat the Cyclones like a red headed step child.

So not only are the teams that Wisconsin has played terrible, so are the few teams that THOSE teams managed to beat.  It is pretty amazing if you think about it.

The odds are that the Badgers will likely not play a top 25 team this year until the Big Ten Championship game and if they manage to win it, they will be undefeated and will go to the playoff.  So I guess the old strategy of lining up the patsies in your pre-conference schedule continues to be rewarded.  The Badgers can't really do a lot about their Big Ten schedule, but it is clear that after so many years of awful play in the Big Ten West, there needs to be a re-alignment some time soon.  I am obviously not the first person to mention this as the fans of the teams in the Big Ten East have been screaming about the scheduling issues for some time.

Look, I am not saying the Badgers are bad.  In fact they are very good.  But if they manage to make it to the playoff when a team from the SEC (Georgia or Alabama) might not make it with one loss, there will be screaming.  And in my opinion, rightly - if they have played a tough schedule.  Unlike Wisconsin.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Localization Technology - Beer

In the spring I wrote about disruption in the liquor industry here in Oregon. One of the items listed is called a "crowler" which is a 32 oz can of beer that is created while you wait at the bar from a keg on tap of your favorite beer, carbonized, and sealed.

Recently they took it to the "next level" by even offering a professional label on the can - from the time I requested it, to filling it, sealing it, and applying the label was about 1 minute. The beer comes out ice cold from the tap so you can take it out of the bar and drink it right away (say if you are a guest at a dinner party) or take it upstairs and put it in your refrigerator and drinking it later.

The beer is a bit foamy if you drink it right away - as if you got it out of a keg - which isn't that much of a problem just something to remember if you open it up in the middle of a friends' living room, for instance. You don't want to find out about that the hard way.

It is interesting to think of how much the savings would be in terms of shipping costs, avoided waste / slippage along the way, and also in over-purchasing beer in large quantities (6, 12 or 24 packs) when you could just buy 1-2 32 oz cans for a mild evening. You could also buy just what you felt like drinking right then rather than guessing in advance.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Apple Pay for Better Security

Over the last year I've had several opportunities to drive to remote parts of Oregon. Often we stop by a local grocery / convenience store to pick up groceries or a snack. These stores are small and often with a single check out lane and a very quaint atmosphere of old-time store goods.

A bit of fun for me is to walk up to the credit card reader which usually has the icon for near field connectivity (NFC) and I surreptitiously use my Apple Watch with Apple Pay enabled to quickly pay for groceries without taking out my credit card. The cashier gets flummoxed and wonders what happened, and I show them my Apple Watch with my card image and they laugh.

What is sad is that Apple Pay works "out of the box" at most of these remote grocery stores but it doesn't work at many of the large retailers in the city. Instead of encouraging Apple Pay or similar google technologies, the retailers want to control the experience and the data and so they turn off this feature. You have the unfortunate alternative of putting your credit card in the chip reader and waiting for 5-10 seconds which slows the line for the whole process. Worse than the inconvenience is the fact that Apple Pay is much more secure than any card reader - Apple Pay doesn't provide your "real" credit card to the store, instead it uses a "token" for the transaction.

From a WSJ article titled "Is Apple Pay Riskier or Safer than a Credit Card",
Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Android Pay are far more secure than traditional credit cards because they rely on virtual account numbers and create unique security codes, or tokens, for each transaction, payment experts say. Those encrypted tokens are verified by card issuers such as Visa or Mastercard before a transaction is approved.
Add to that the fact that Apple and Samsung Pay require fingerprint verification, and you have a system that is “very secure, and much more secure than the cards we’ve been carrying around in our pockets,” said James Wester, a research director at IDC Financial Insights.
It is very frustrating that a technology that works "out of the box" at a remote grocery store is not utilized by a major retailer who has suffered a highly public consumer security breach like Target. I hope that more people try to use this sort of payment technology, whether it is via Apple or Android, and complain to retailers when they put up barriers to implementation.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Apple Photos Integration

I've gone all in on Apple through a series of semi-random decisions.  I bought a MacBook Pro back in 2011 and, thanks to my friend Brian who upgraded the memory and hard drive to an SSD, that machine still works great in late 2017 and I was able to upgrade to the latest Mac OS High Sierra without a challenge.  I have had several iPhones over the years and am on an iPhone 7 now.  My current iPad is an iPad Air 2 which also seems to have several years of life left in it.  Finally, I bought an Apple Watch and recently upgraded it to Watch OS 4.

I've also been moving everything to the cloud slowly.  I looked at my MacBook and it said I hadn't done a backup in over 1000 days.  I don't really care because I put the (relatively few) documents that I care about in iCloud (and can access them across any Apple device), my contacts are in the Apple Cloud, while my photos (the core of most of this post) are already in the Apple cloud and I gave up on physical music and moved almost solely over to Apple Music.  My email is in the cloud with various providers, as well.  So what's on the device that I really care about, anyways?  Cloud storage is also pretty cheap... I think I spend about a dollar a month on it for Apple (plus $9.99 for Apple music).  The only high space items I have (in terms of MB or GB) are photos, since I've given up on music.

It is a hard decision to put all your photos in the Apple cloud.  You need to make the move to put your photos up in the cloud and have that be the primary location, not the ones on your hard drive or your phone  While someone with more technical expertise might tell you that is not an irrevocable decision, from my perspective it seems like it would be exceedingly difficult to "go back". 

I came to this decision because I love the features that Apple Photos provides.  Specifically:

  • Once you tag faces to names, any new photos that you take are automatically linked to those same individuals.  The accuracy of this service has been increasing over time, both in terms of 1) matching different angles to people and also in 2) picking faces out of the crowd in the first place so that you can link them to people
  • Apple photos now synchs across devices so that if you link photos to faces on your iPhone it carries those same links over to the photos on your MacBook and on your iPad.  Incredibly, until the latest OS upgrade (on the iPhone / iPad as well as Mac OS) you had to do these independently (3 times).  I am also starting to play with synching to my Apple Watch with Watch OS 4 but this is in progress (and would be partial in any case)
  • Apple photos now has built in photo features that were present on typical photo editing software years ago, like auto-feature touch up (magic wand) and more tweaks.  I'm sure to a photo expert these features are minimalistic but to the vast, vast majority of photo users they are likely enough.  These features just came through with the latest upgrades
  • Apple photos makes it easier to synch faces to contacts and also appears to act more reliably across devices.  For instance, if I take a photo on my iPhone it won't appear on my iPad or Mac until I connect that phone up to wifi somewhere and put it in a charger.  But then they all appear right away (in a reduced quality image, when you tap on one it "fills in" the remaining elements to a high quality image.  This used to be spotty, at best, and unreliable (I would have to start and restart my devices sometimes for it to work)
  • Now that synchronizing works reliably across devices, I can use my Mac for more heavy duty tasks like editing and changing the date on old photos (for example I take iPhone pictures of old photos from my physical photo albums and then I edit them and change their date on the Mac so that they are in the proper sequence and don't show up at the top of your photo queue by date)
  • If you load older photos into iCloud it takes a while (probably faster now) because it attempts to add in all the AI (faces, locations, etc...) so be a bit patient.  I was an early adopter of this and somehow I had lots of duplicates that I am in the process of deleting but it probably is easier now
  • I tried making a physical photo book from Apple (to give to parents and in laws) and it worked great.  Now it is much easier to bring photos into the physical book or however you want to print them, and you have a huge variety of photos (edited, even) to choose from
What are the big benefits of going "all in" on Apple photos?  Some of the coolest advantages are "memories" that Apple makes for you of various trips that you've taken or by individual across the years.  Those are very cool and it is easy to just click and send them by iMessage or as an email to others.  

You also can see all of your photos in one place and start to go through them systematically.  It really allows you to kind of go through your life, including the older photos that you upload into the iCloud which you can tag by individual which go far earlier than those that you might have in your current phone.

Apple AI also gets stronger every day... you can do things like look for 'mountains' or 'lakes' or 'bridges' and it finds them across all of your photos.  Behind the scenes Apple is scouring your photos for various elements and then automatically creating categories that you can search.  If you just type a letter like R you can see all the search options that open up, for instance (like rucksack, river, and so many other ones).

Here is some advice for anyone considering going down this path:
  • Ruthlessly pare down your photos immediately after taking them.  Typically I take 2-3 photos of each scene and every so often at home I just pick the best one and delete the others.  If you don't do this your photo stream is just cluttered with photos and you can't really see the forest for the trees.
  • Go back through historical photos that you've taken and delete the duplicates that you have.  I've uploaded photos to the cloud and for various reasons there are duplicates and every so often I sit down for an hour or so and delete them.  Apple is smart and doesn't immediately delete them permanently (they sit in a queue for like 30 days) so if you over delete you always can go back and find them
  • Spend some time tagging faces and cleaning them up and linking to contacts.  The software will start to provide cool memories and the like and you also can link the photos to contacts.  Amazingly, until OS 11 / Mac OS / etc... the contact faces didn't synch up.  Now I am putting a "best" photo in contacts and in faces and it is starting to align across my devices
  • Use the right Apple device for the right job.  I usually delete duplicates off my iPhone, I like to organize and view meta items on my iPad, and for more heavy duty tasks like changing dates on photos and editing the best ones, I do that on my Mac
  • Look up how to do things online (don't sit there and struggle).  There is no manual for any of this and it constantly changes.  For instance, I could not figure out how to fix the "main" picture on faces.  I looked it up and there is a non-intuitive way to do this but now I know how it is done.  Make sure you are looking up a recent query (not something from 2015) because Apple has changed almost everything it seems over the last couple updates
Here are some likely "cons" that I will hear... as always, make your own decisions, and assess the "pros" and "cons" yourself.
  • You are a slave to the Apple ecosystem.  Yes, that is true.  Apple is the company with the world's largest market capitalization and is not going away anytime soon.  So at least I am going in with a giant
  • Don't you worry about being hacked?  Yes I do.  You need to keep your password updated.  But Apple is continuously updating all their OS on every device and you just stay up with patches.  It is what it is and has to be relatively compared to the risks of other devices and services.  This is much bigger than this post.  
  • There aren't enough features for professionals.  This is probably true.  But I'm not a professional and Apple seems to be putting some effort behind this area
Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Sunday, July 02, 2017

Rolling Stone Reviews the Top 100 Metal Albums

I love lists and taking apart the ideas and concepts behind each list, particularly with music. Here I looked at the Top 100 Guitarists, the Top 100 guitar songs, and the Top 100 Indie Rock albums. When Rolling Stone reviewed the Top 100 Metal Albums, I was excited to take it all apart and give my 2 cents to the Internet.

Key BandAlbums
Black Sabbath6
Iron Maiden3
Judas Priest3
Ozzy Osbourne2

I started by looking at the list and seeing the "key bands" that they were framing the list around.  They chose Black Sabbath / Ozzy, Dio / Rainbow, Slayer, Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Megadeth, Metallica, Pantera and Slayer.   Not only did they make up 29 of the 100 spots, they represented 16 of the top 20 album slots and almost all of the top ones.  Plus... they cheated by putting a "compilation album" for Motorhead "No Remorse" near the top rather than 2-3 Motorhead albums so probably they are a "key band" with an asterix.

This seems like a pretty reasonable list.  One of the key assumptions in this list is the question
What is heavy metal... and is Band "X" heavy metal or not?
Immediately there are a few bands that I would think of as "heavy metal" (or the equivalent of the "Turing Test" for heavy metal - would your parents at the time view it as heavy metal)  that aren't on the list.  Here are the key ones:

  1. AC/DC - AC/DC is certainly Rock N' Roll but "Back in Black" is possibly one of the most metal albums ever and certainly impacted music immeasurably in this genre.  If you like Bon Scott era metal, then you could pick "Highway to Hell".   Either way, I think AC/DC should have made then list but then you probably need to put 2-3 albums in there and then either "thin out" a few of the key bands or drop a lot of the "one off" bands
  2. Rush - Rush is progressive rock but when you think of "2112" that is a giant metal album with shrieking guitars and screaming and monstrous riffs.  You also have the "Working Man" era Rush as well.  Like AC/DC, the problem with adding Rush is that likely you'd have a few albums in there and it would bump the list a lot
  3. Guns N' Roses - "Appetite for Destruction" is absolutely metal.  It has screaming, heavy guitars, and lots of drugs and sex.  Plus, it would be easy to include because you'd just add one album and forget the rest, unlike AC/DC and Rush which would set off a lot of "how can you just take one" questions.  This one is just a plain-and-simple miss
  4. Bon Jovi - I hate to even bring them up (Bon Jovi opened for the Scorpions in the first metal show I ever saw) but if you have Motley Crue and Def Leppard and Van Halen on here... then you need to throw in Bon Jovi.  Their albums were simply everywhere and swamped the airwaves.  I don't want them either, but your list is inconsistent and that bothers me...
  5. Nine Inch Nails - NIN can be classified a few ways but absolutely dominated the radio for a whole era and are a personal favorite of mine.  "The Downward Spiral" and "With Teeth" are absolutely metal and I am not even getting to the classic "Head Like a Hole".  If I write the list then NIN are there with three albums don't care what you say (Pretty Hate Machine, The Downward Spiral, and With Teeth).  We can figure out the rest later
  6. Led Zeppelin - yeah I can hear you groan but someone once said "Led Zeppelin Four invented modern metal" and went through all the genres that came out of single songs from the metal ballad to doom metal to everything.  And I haven't even thrown Immigrant Song and Kashmir in there.  I know that this totally screws up the list and maybe you need 110 albums now but really more or less Plant / Page dominated this genre in a meta sense

Once you decide what is "metal" or "not metal" (and above I note my challenges with their categorization), then you fill in the rest of the list.  There are 70 other bands on there with an album (and Motley Crue has two, but I just can't bring myself to categorize them as essential.  Sorry).

If you go to a web site like "Loudwire" they have lists and they categorize all the albums by a particular artist.  They take these rankings VERY seriously.  When they need to make choices like "which of Dio's albums are the best" they start to say "hey, these are all great albums, but we need to rank them for a list" and almost pre-apologize for their rankings.  It seems like mostly Rolling Stone would pick the "consensus #1 album" from sites like this.  For example - Korn - they picked their debut album while I would have picked "Follow the Leader" but hey, that's the same one on Loudwire.  So it is probably more me than them.

While I expected Rolling Stone to be "all about the 70's", in fact they did include some more recent albums on the list which let them add bands like Mastodon, Baroness, and Deafhaven.  I think they missed some (Clutch, Pallbearer and possibly Royal Blood) but any list has fuzzy boundaries.

Here is the entire list...