Saturday, April 18, 2015

Saturday Night Flyover Country

Chicago International Movies and Music Festival

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

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

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

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Google Rankings

There is no one who cares less about our Google rankings than Dan, Gerry and myself.  OK, maybe I care a tiny bit.  In any case we've got a lot of good stuff on this site and if people go search the ol' intertubes then they might as well come here.

Recently Google changed their method for rankings.  If your site isn't "mobile friendly" they ding you in the search results.  Since we are on blogger I went in and turned on the mobile friendly version which they said was cool and now we won't be on the "bad list".  Way back in the day I tried the mobile version and it sucked but it looks cool on my iPhone 6 right now.

If you have a site and want to see whether Google ranks it as mobile friendly check it out here.

Unusual Encounter

When deciding to enter the firearms business many veterans salesmen explained to me there would be occasions that would be unusually interesting. Some would be extremely unusual and some downright peculiar. One such firearm sale/transfer happened to me last weekend.

A man and woman approached the gun desk to look upon all the offerings in the cabinet and on the wall. I approached and asked if they would like to see something. This couple was in their sixties. He was a mountain of a man standing about 6'5" with a thick white handlebar mustache. She was slight by comparison and obviously his mate. He asked to take a look at the Mossberg 22LR rifle that looks like an AR15.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Twenty Nine Dollars

Much ado has now been made about this tweet from Gwyneth Paltrow (sorry I was having trouble embedding it so here it is in broken up form):
Gwyneth Paltrow @GwynethPaltrow  ·  Apr 9
This is what $29 gets you at the grocery store—what families on SNAP (i.e. food stamps) have to live on for a week.

There has been much laughter about this tweet from the "folks" as O' Reilly calls them - it is painfully obvious that Paltrow made critical errors in her shopping with the kale, cilantro, and especially the limes.

 Anyone who has had to seriously budget for food knows these things. She was wise with the rice (should have taken cheaper, refined rice), eggs, and beans though. And likely she (or her handler) shops at Whole Foods or some place like that where even the kale is free range. However, some assumptions need to be made.

It is highly unlikely that Paltrow runs her own Twitter account. Most celebrities don't. Perhaps she does, but who really knows. In the end, this $29 thing has become some sort of rallying cry to spur donations to the New York City food bank. It if helps them and Paltrow gets a few bruises on her pearly white flesh from hayseeds like me tossing stones, I would say that is a success. Never mind that she could likely just give them a million dollars and be done with the whole thing, but whatever.

Also, Paltrow's tweet gives the assumption that "poor people get $29 a week to feed a family", which is wrong on a ton of levels. The "S" in SNAP program stands for Supplemental, which I could go in into detail, but others have done that for me already.

 On top of all of that money available for aid, you can find food kitchens, churches and other charities that can "help a brother out".

There is more to this, but I want to get to the crux of this post and I am not writing this to bash on Paltrow or this line of thinking (although it would be well deserved).

 I decided to go to my local grocery store to see if I could get enough food to live on for one week for $29 - we are talking one person, not a family.

There are some parameters that I had to set up and some assumptions that needed to be made. The caloric content can't be for someone like Michael Phelps or a Tour de France rider. In fact, since I was assuming that I was poor, I took it for granted that there wouldn't be time for exercise since I would need to be out working or job hunting. I know.

Also, I am assuming that there are a collection of spices (at least pepper and salt) at my poor, ramshackle apartment. Most everyone has at least some dried spice of some sort - and I found bulk spices for .99 at the store, so at least you can flavor these ingredients up a bit. Also, I didn't coupon clip. A Sunday paper would cost someone $1.50 - however the coupons in that paper would FAR outweigh the cost of the paper and would certainly help out. In fact, I remembered that the convenience store always has a mountain of un-bought Sunday papers waiting for hauling away on Monday morning - it is likely that if I was determined enough that I could procure a Sunday paper for free, in one way or another - that would have saved a ton of cash.

So off to the store I went, $29 in hand with my 14 year old daughter in tow - her job was to make a running total and she was also there so she could learn a thing or two. Here is what I ended up with:
There were several things that were interesting.  When you are on a tight budget, you learn quickly to read the price tags on the shelves more carefully.  The most important thing was the cost per ounce - in the yogurt aisle, it was astounding how much cost that convenient packaging adds to the cost of the product.  Individual servings were double and sometimes triple the price of the bulk tub.

Vegetables, frozen, are a great deal.  Here also, there was a large spread in the price per ounce.  We cashed in on the spinach, broccoli and beans that were on sale for cheap.  The green beans were the best value at .89/lb. - only 5.6 cents per ounce.  The broccoli and spinach were a bit more expensive.

The chicken thighs were an easy choice for protein.  The frozen ones above were only .47 per pound so we got the six pack and it cost us $2.88.  Fresh thighs were much more expensive.

The mayo cost us $1.59 - but that will help stretch all of that tuna that only cost us .625 per can (there was a deal at 4 for $2.50).  I would plan on tuna fish sandwiches or that PB and J for lunches at my job, and would bring an apple or banana along.  The bread was only .89 for the loaf.  For breakfast I could imagine a fried egg atop toast with a little yogurt and/or fruit on the side.  The cans of chicken noodle soup were an astounding .49 each.  For dinners, I imagined rice (.99 for the bag - and that is a lot of rice), and chicken with vegetables.  As I mentioned before, almost everyone has some dried spices laying around to make it all work.

So the total for all of this food above was $23.99.  I found out (and I think I knew this before) that there is no tax on food here in Wisconsin. 

I am sure that by now you are chuckling about that rum.  Well, I figured in my new, crap life that on Friday or Saturday I wouldn't mind a drink or two to drown my sorrows.  This was probably the most interesting part of the trip as I haven't spent any time looking for value booze since college, when I would get the "Picadilly" brand of hard liquor.

The above flask of Shellback Spiced rum was $4.19 - but liquor is taxed so the grand total was $4.42, bringing my grand total up to $28.18.  That money for the booze would have gone a long way in a budget like this but I thought it would be a good thing to put it in the experiment.  This wasn't even the cheapest booze delivery system.  They had a giant tub of larger size flasks that were marked "two for $6" but that would have put me over budget and honestly I would at least want to mix this gasoline with diet coke and consume it rather than pouring it down the drain immediately. 

There is some fudging that you can do with this experiment - there is no way you can eat all of that rice in a week, so that would save you some on your budget and the mayo and other things can get stretched out, but I think I pretty conclusively proved that one person could easily eat for $29 for a week and still have money left over for bad habits like drinking.  And if you wanted to go full survival mode, you could invest in a bottle of multi vitamins and save money on the fruit and veggies and just eat cheap eggs and whatever else for your protein.

But, as usual, I am peering down the rabbit hole a bit here.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

LITGM Around the World

For some reason our site tends to get a lot of hits from around the world, especially Russia. Not sure how they are getting here or if it is just some sort of web crawler or something but for whatever reason, hello world. This was from a single hour a few days ago, but traditionally about 20% or more of our hits are out of Russia.

Funny Video

I usually don't post stuff like this but it is pretty funny.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Internet of Things... Connected Weather Station

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

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

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

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

This "weathermap" from Netatmo allows you to see all the stations that are set up in your neighborhood. The temperatures may be in celsius don't be fooled. It is fun to pick any area you are familiar with like your home town and see how many weather stations are already set up.

They also have a rain gauge and are coming out with a wind velocity measurement system, as well. I will think about buying both of them, although the wind velocity would be more useful because my balcony is partially blocked from the balcony above which might impact the ability to accurately measure rain.

This is a fun system and I'd imagine it will only get cheaper so I'd recommend it for anyone who is interested in weather. It could be a good gift for parents or an in-law. Also the alerts are very cool and it is nice to be able to check in on your house while you are away.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Sunday, April 12, 2015

25 Stories About Work - It's All About Cash Flow (Part I, Small Companies)

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

The USA, early 1990's to mid 2010's

Recently I saw this little blurb in the NY Times business section which perfectly encapsulates one of the most important lessons I've learned in all my years of working - it is all about cash flow.

The simplest measure of success for a business is bringing in more cash than you pay out and having a positive bank account balance at the end of the month.  When you are in charge of a business and attempting to make your payroll these sorts of concerns should always be "top of mind".

Cash Flows in a Smaller Firm

When we started our consulting firm you have to put up enough capital to pay salaries for a while (we took a small "draw" to keep us afloat, not our former total compensation) until we were able to bring in cash from customers.  However, this is a longer process than you might imagine if you weren't educated in the realities of all the crucial steps in the chain necessary to get paid.  Since we were accountants and finance people we went into this with "eyes wide open" but I can only imagine the types of trouble that creative types meet up with when facing this same conundrum.

Thus our sequence of cash flows at a high level when starting up a consulting firm looked like this:

- Additions - capital contributions from partners.  Based on the equity you wanted in the final firm, you needed to put in capital (that maybe you'd never receive back) to start up the firm
- Additions - loans.  We didn't take out loans but we could have.  Banks generally never loan you money unless you have collateral and we didn't so it would have been credit card debt at the time
- Reductions - office space and rent.  We needed to start somewhere.  Initially we just used a room in our boss' house which worked out fine and later we rented a space near a bowling alley.  Note that everyone you are renting from eyes startups with a rueful glance and you can't expect to get much in he way of credit because they don't want to end up holding the bag
- Reductions - insurance, legal fees, taxes, office staff, computers.  All the ephemera of an office needed to be purchased but we did it second hand. We also used our own skills rather than hiring third parties whenever possible (almost all of the time)
- Reductions - payments to core staff.  We used "draws" which were minimal amounts to cover life expenses and in a way were payments in advance of what you'd earn, not like a salary that you receive regardless of the end state of the enterprise and your personal contribution.  For office staff we picked up later we needed to pay them a normal salary

All of this happened before we even met a potential customer.  Then we needed to fly out and meet customers (we already had a lot of connections; much of our early success came from bringing on existing clients from former consulting firms), convince them to sign us up, agree on a price and contract terms, and then begin doing the work.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Saturday Night Flyover Country

It's Payback Time

Social Security is a subject that isn't given much thought most of the time unless you're in your late 50's or early 60's. Occasionally a politician will use SS to leverage attention in the media and it becomes news.

Discussion ensues and the SS debate rages. Is it solvent? Will it be changed? Does it need fixing? Will YOUR money be there when YOU are eligible? Will the entire concept eventually be scrapped? The dust settles, elections pass and all is forgotten again. The subject of SS soon fades away, kicking the can so to speak.

SS is NOT an entitlement like welfare or EBT Cards. We, as hard working Americans pay into a fund and at the age of 62 our wonderful benevolent government dribbles it back to us.

I must admit we were concerned when that pompous, ever bombastic blowhard Al Gore made it a campaign topic sixteen years ago. Being near the age of eligibility and considering all the money we put into it the thought of not having it back when we were promised caused us much concern. This was only one part of our retirement plan but essential to overall comfort late in life. Besides, it's OUR MONEY.

My eligibility confirmation came in the typical brown government envelope Friday.

I turn 62 in two months. We have read a lot of propaganda about how much more we would collect per month if we waited a few more years instead of claiming eligibility at 62 years old. Wait for 66? Not a chance. Our calculations conclude it would take up to six years beyond that before making up the difference. We wanted our money back and we wanted it ASAP, before someone or a group of someones change the rules.

Our wonderful benevolent government would like us to delay eligibility. This means they could hold onto my money longer or I could pass away before collecting. That would let them off the hook. No way.

It's no secret Social Security is a ponzi scheme, a gummint bamboozle. One generation pays for the next. When our parents and grand parents became eligible there were plenty of baby boomers to pay into the system. SS didn't begin that way but that is how it now works.

As baby boomers, Gen X'rs and the next younger generation will be providing us with our extra retirement income. Problem is there are far more of us than there are of them. WIll they contribute enough to keep SS afloat? Who will bail it out if it needs bailing out?  Maybe they can bring in some more hard working Mexicans to make up the difference. Until then at least we know we will be getting ours when originally promised. For the following generations? Not so sure.

She has already been collecting since she is older than I. When my deposits begin in two months I will be getting a considerable amount of cash and her deposits will double so this is no chump change. 

We have crossed the finish line. We will be getting ours.Thanks a Gen X'ers!

Friday, April 10, 2015

25 Stories About Work - New Technology and Productivity

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

The USA, early 1990's to mid 2010's

Oftentimes I can remember clearly the first time I was exposed to new technology.  Unfortunately these stories don't have "light bulbs" going off in my head like in a cartoon; it usually involves me being befuddled and trying to determine why this technology is innovative or even useful.

In the early to mid 1990's I was at a client in Reno, Nevada when the manager on our engagement showed me their "calendar" application.  This application let you set up meetings with other employees, or show if you were going to be out of office or unavailable.  The interface was very simple (like a mainframe "green screen") and I kind of stared at it for a while.  Why can't you just call around and set up a meeting at a particular time, I wondered aloud.  However, we were consultants, so while we worked all day (and into the night), the client's staff were forced to attend meetings during most waking hours.  It still seemed like overkill to me to have a giant system just to set up meetings, however.  Obviously history has proven me wrong and calendar applications are the "killer app" of the modern productivity suite.

At around that same time I was at a client in Cincinnati, Ohio when another consultant showed me a PDF document format.  He explained (very patiently, in hindsight) that if you created a PDF and then had a viewer application it would work on every kind of computer, whether or not they had the software that you created the document in.  I was confused.  Didn't everyone have Microsoft office?  Couldn't they just open it in word?  Once again I missed the big picture.

Email was around for a while but it didn't catch on fire in our profession (consulting).  A lot of this was due to the fact that we spent our days at the client site and the client (where we did most of our work) was on a different email system from our consulting company's email system.  Thus the most useful email wasn't your firm email, it was the clients' email, because this would let you know when meetings were occurring and get important data from the clients' directly (although we usually used shared drives).  I do remember my sense of accomplishments when I sent my first marketing email to a known client in the mid to late 1990's... I was waiting like that kid in "A Christmas Story" who wanted his secret decoder package from Ovaltine for a response to my meticulously crafted email... and of course it never came because I was late to the party and the potential customer had already gotten used to be inundated with marketing email (and ignored it).

One time we were volunteering in the 1990's for a CPA firm doing taxes for the poor, and there was an older guy next to me.  He did not seem technically savvy at all.  Somehow we were exchanging emails and his email was something like TOM@AOL.COM (it wasn't Tom, but a common name like that) and I looked at him, astonished - he must have been one of the first to join AOL to snag an email handle like that.  At around the same time another co-worker bought up a midwest state like ILLINOIS.COM (it wasn't Illinois) and the rumor was that he sold it for $1M.

While it sounds insane today we used to spend a lot of time hooking our vendor PC's right into the corporate networks.  We would just plug in to the jacks and work with their technology (network) guys and get access to what's on the network.  There weren't any controls that stopped you from doing this, and it was a great productivity tool (we could print, share files, use their internet connection, etc...).  Nowadays this is usually accomplished with a "guest" wifi network, although you still can't print or share files this way.

One of the other consultants used Compuserve to pay their bills, since we were on the road most of the year.  I watched him one time and it was quite a laborious process, but early technology adopters are often fierce and motivated to complete efforts like this that promise short term time costs but long term gains.  It is this desire to fix and transform that often motivates the best engineers and programmers.  Today almost every bill is paid online.

I remember the first time I used a computer to do a seat assignment on a Delta airline flight; we were in and out of Cincinnati which was a big Delta hub so I was one of their best customers.  They used to give you double miles if you booked a seat via their web application (through your PC, of course, this is long before mobile internet tools).  The fact that you could choose something dynamic like this was an amazing feat of technology at the time, and a big time savings from booking travel via phone.  Now you are penalized for NOT booking online.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Sunday, April 05, 2015

Easter Fun…With The Peeps!

Who Doesn't Like The Peeps?

Peeps are those cute gritty covered stale marshmallow edible critters that pop up during Easter week. As we all know Easter is about colored eggs and candy and bunnies and stuff. 

Hard to believe the booze marketing machine has yet to figure out how to turn Easter into a drinking party day like St. Paddy's Day, Halloween and just about every other holiday celebration. On Easter we're stuck with Peeps, and Cadbury Eggs and green cellophane grass in a straw basket. Corn water and vino get the day off.

Why didn't I think of this? A very inventive guy has decided to use Peeps as ballistics gel, a slick new way to measure bullet penetration. Coolshits. Here is his video test of Peeps vs. a .22LR bullet.


As if that wasn't enough how about using Peeps to video test the penetration of a 5.56x45 NATO bullet?

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Saturday Night Flyover Country

Greetings from Indiana where we love everybody. Yep we do. Seriously.

25 Stories About Work - When It All Goes Wrong

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

The USA, early 1990's to early 2000's

During the course of my career I have been involved in many cases of companies dying, bankruptcy, and other negative corporate events. At times I was there until the bitter end; often I left before the final events occurred but could see evidence of encroaching doom. When you are first starting off as an employee with little experience these signs are harder to understand; as a veteran I can now unfortunately pick them up right away.

One of my first memories as a public accountant was the day that they fired all the administrative assistants. Not the ones for the executives - the ones that helped the new staff get orientated. These women (they were all women it was the early 1990's) ran each of the floors and it was the first time I'd seen anyone get fired en masse. This was before email I think they left us all some sort of strange voice mail or something (voice mail was big back then). It seemed very sad at the time.

In the early 1990's there was a lot of tension in the public accounting firms between audit / tax vs. the consulting side. I was a staff person and was invited to one of the partner meetings (because I played bass guitar but that is a different story) and I could see the vitriol between the two groups. When the audit partners' asked "how could they help" the consultants the answer was to "get out of our way". This was not the happy story that I was being fed as a staff person, for certain.

Later that accounting firm went belly up but I was long gone by then. We started up a small consulting firm and it was fantastic for a while. However, it all started to fall apart as key founding members left after a dispute with the main owners over compensation and eventually I was one of those that departed. The departure was even more difficult since many of my friends and family members were also involved with that firm. Unlike most of the other companies in this piece, however, that firm thrives until this day. So we can conclude that I was not indispensable...

At various points during my career I had a "choice" between two firms. Often I chose the wrong one. At the time I didn't realize that right before you go public, you shave out all of your costs for a quarter or two and you accelerate all the revenue into the current period (to the extent that this is possible and legal, of course) in order to make your company look great for the IPO process. Living in a company that is doing this is very painful and I left but that was before the company became one of the first successful IPO's of the era (a completely unexpected and unprecedented outcome) and I missed out on an opportunity for those founder stock options.

As the era came to a close there was a giant shake-out in the Internet and Consulting sector. I worked with three companies in succession that eventually went bankrupt. The first of them had an IPO (in the era of voice mail plus a bit of email) and I noted that it was odd that most of the IPO funds raised went to pay out one of the primary investors (they took the cash, we retained the stock). In hindsight of course this was another ominous sign.