Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Are You Mad Yet?

Yesterday video came out aired on Al-Jazeera (where else) of hostage Jill Carroll weeping and making a plea of some sort from her captors. She was kidnapped a few weeks ago while doing reportage for the Christian Science Monitor. I have no idea what her views on the world are, her politics, where she is from or anything else. Look at that picture. Look at how she is afraid for her life. Look how her captors have humiliated her and oppressed her with that veil or whatever it is on her head. Does this make you angry? This is what you would get the world over if we let islamofasists win this war. When they do things like pick on women, it gets very personal for me. And it should be personal for you too. Because if they win, this photo will be your wife or daughter.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Terrorist Repellent

For the first time this spring, I have bought a pig (Duroc is the breed for those interested):

He is a little tyke right now, but by this fall, when it is time for slaughtering he will be about 250 pounds or so. NO, the pig isn't on my pristine suburban property, he is on a farm. When the time comes, I will pay market price for him and the slaughterhouse will provide me a "menu" of cuts I can get. I then will put all of the meat in my freezer in the basement, assured no muslim terrorist will attack me as they don't eat the pig - I guess it is unclean to them or something. As an interesting aside, it says almost the same thing in the Bible:

Deuteronomy 14:8 (King James Version):
And the swine, because it divideth the hoof, yet cheweth not the cud, it is
unclean unto you: ye shall not eat of their flesh, nor touch their dead carcase.
I have always said that I have a hard time believing that any supreme being has the energy to worry about what I eat. Anyway.

Kidding aside, I did a bit of research yesterday into where the different cuts come from. This is a great site - "Ask the Meatman". I didn't know this, but there are only 5 "primal cuts" that go to your local meat cutters. Shoulder butt, Picnic Shoulder, Loin, Ham and Side. From these five cuts come all of the variety that you see in the store. If you go to the site, you can click on any of the five primal cuts to see all that comes from them. My wife and I are already having arguments as to what we are going to get. From that same site, Ask the Meatman, here is a handy breakdown of what you get after the pig is slaughtered:

A Hog Is Not All Chops
Even though pork is a value when compared to other food rich in protein and vitamins, it seems appropriate to discuss the difference in cost between a live hog and various pork cuts for the benefit of producers and consumers. It should be recognized that a hog is not all chops. This statement is verified by the following illustrations:
Typical live weight 250 lbs.
Carcass weight 180 lbs. (72% of live weight)
Saleable retail cuts 145 lbs. (58% of live weight)
Fat, bones and skin 35 lbs.
Saleable retail cuts would be approximately:
Ham 44 lbs
Loin chops 36 lbs.
Cured or fresh picnic roasts 12 lbs.
Boston butt roasts or slices 13 lbs.
Bacon 28 lbs.
Spareribs 7 lbs.
Feet, tail and neckbones 11 lbs.
Sausage 12 lbs.
So, there are only about 36 pounds of pork chops for every 250 pounds of live weight or 180 pounds carcass weight and 127 pounds of other pork cuts to be sold. That is why a meat retailer needs to price pork so that all cuts sell. Since pork chops are in great demand and are relatively easy to prepare, especially in small portions, it is necessary to sell chops at a higher price per pound. To stay in business, the retailer must charge enough for each individual package of pork to cover the price paid to the producer, the cost of processing, transportation, refrigeration, labor, business overhead and other merchandising costs. It is necessary to include these costs in the retail price of pork

I guess I have always been fascinated by the world of ag and livestock in particular. Now that I am directly involved, I am even more interested.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Wrigley bleachers under construction

Recently I headed up on the "L" (through the dumpy Grand avenue stop in the previous post) and headed up North from downtown.

Getting off at the Wrigley field "L" stop (Addison), you can see the construction of the bleachers at Wrigley. They are expanding the back of the bleachers to add a thousand or so more "seats" which will no doubt be populated instantly by fans.

These photos were taken in January and the season starts in April so it really seems like there is a lot of work left to do in order to complete the construction prior to Opening Day.

The workers were even working on the weekend which seems amazing here in Chicago so that means that the Cubs are serious about this.

One minor note - this "collage" was done with Picasa, the free new photo editing / blogging / publishing tool from Google. They are always adding new features to this product and I am trying them out as I go. I am always amazed at how much free stuff Google puts out and how fast that it evolves. They definitely put Microsoft to shame. Posted by Picasa

The Dumpiest "L" Stop in Chicago

Posted by Picasa The "Red Line" is one of the most popular train lines in the CTA in Chicago. The Red Line runs north south, with the most commonly known stops being Wrigley Field on the North Side and US Cellular Field on the South Side.

The Red Line runs above ground mostly everywhere except for downtown, where they have underground stations.

Some of the stations have been upgraded and they are quite nice. New tile has been installed (mosaic), lighting has been improved, and they generally are a safer and more pleasant area in which to wait for the train.

A notable exception is the Grand Avenue Red Line stop. I don't know how long this stop has gone without an upgrade but it is a dump.

The ceiling is covered with black goop that oozes through the cracks, kind of like stalactites in a cave (or is it stalagmites... I can never remember which ones hang from the top or rise up from the bottom). In any case, it is disgusting and doesn't exactly fill anyone with faith in the structural stability of the tunnel.

I realize that the CTA doesn't have unlimited funding but they have done a nice job with nearby stations such as Chicago on the Red Line so I was hoping that some day they could spruce this one up, too.

And I guess it probably is too much to ask to upgrade the tracks so that the train doesn't have to go 2 mph once it goes above ground in Lincoln Park on the way to Wrigley... sometimes it feels like the trip from Fullerton through Belmont on to Wrigley is interminable...

Saturday, January 28, 2006


Carnival of Cordite number 45 is up and on it are all things .45! If you are interested, click on over - my post of a few days ago is featured along with a bunch that are much better. If you are interested in firearms, explore all of the other carnivals of cordite - you can access them here.

Just a quick word about "carnivals". A year or two ago as blogs became more popular, individuals created carnivals. These are compilations of posts by many different bloggers, usually updated into one large post once a week. I find them endlessly fascinating. You can click here for a huge listing of carnivals on all kinds of subjects.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Paul Bremer in Chicago

Paul Bremer, the former US Ambassador to Iraq after the war concluded and the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) appeared at the Hilton Hotel in Chicago on Tuesday, January 24th for the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations.

Paul Bremer was supporting his recent book "My Year In Iraq". Mr. Bremer read excerpts from his book and spoke for about an hour or so and then answered questions from the audience.

Mr. Bremer has a long history of service to the US government and diplomatic corps. The emcee went through some of his history and the fact that Mr. Bremer won a Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the nation's highest honor for civilians.

Unlike the litany of news on Iraq, Mr. Bremer was very upbeat about the people, the country, and the future of Iraq. He did not shy away from the challenges that they face, however.

He broke his talk into three parts:

1) about the people of Iraq at the time the invasion was completed
2) about the Iraqi economy
3) about the security situation

As for the people of Iraq, Saddam left a country shattered by years of blatant misrule. Saddam cut spending on health car by 90% and life expectancy had plummeted. Although the estimates vary, conservative (low) estimates say that he killed 300,000 of his countrymen and high estimates are in the many millions. Mr. Bremer toured mass graves. He referred to a part of his book where he visited a mass grave and the local elder handed him photos of the dead and told Mr. Bremer to hand them to Mr. Chirac, since the French had propped up Saddam for so long. Mr. Bremer suggested that the village elder invite Mr. Chirac to visit the city himself, an offer of course that was never taken up on the French side.

The entire country went from a police state, with torture commonplace and "rape rooms" in every police precinct, to pretty much anarchy in three weeks. Saddam emptied the jails prior to the US invasion, so criminals roamed the streets. At the time the government collapsed the CPA faced a daunting job in trying to establish the basis of civil society in the state of Iraq.

Mr. Bremer concentrated on women, since their rights are so routinely violated in Arab countries, mandating that over 25% of the legislature be made up of women (in fact 31% were elected in the most recent elections). He established women's centers in every province and fought for women's rights, although they are starting to move backwards in the Shia controlled south.

After talking about the sorry state of the people, he moved on to the economy. The economy was flat on its back and inflation was rampant. The local currency was out of control and the economy contracted by 41%. Mr. Bremer worked on the economy, opened border controls to bring in goods from outside (that were previously forbidden, like satellite TV and cell phones), and worked to get the oil industry back to its pre-war capacity. The capacity of Iraq is about 3 million barrels, and they were able to get it back to about 2 million, although insurgent attacks drop that total on some months. The oil industry suffered from years of neglect under Saddam and is in dire need of reinvestment, although high prices have made up for cuts in output.

He continued to talk about the security situation. One urban myth is that they made a choice to disband Saddam's army. He said that, in fact, the Sunni conscripts abandoned their units and walked home, and no units formally surrendered to the US army. He would have had to "call back" the army, which would have been disastrous since they were the prime instruments of Saddam's control and had blood on their hands in the eyes of the Shia and the Kurds. His "de-Baathification" program only limited 1% of the ex-party members from taking jobs in the public sector, and they were free to get jobs elsewhere.

He said that the 2 main groups fighting were the external Al Queda fighters and then Saddam's left over Sunni army wings. Neither group offers any kind of vision for Iraq - Al Queda openly calls for a civil war on Sunni / Shia / Kurd battle lines and the Sunni dead-enders just want to re-establish a Saddam-like dictatorship that would take the country back in time.

Mr. Bremer took questions from the audience. Most were pretty respectful, which surprised me. There weren't any WMD questions, which makes sense since he didn't get there until after the war was over.

One question that some liberal asked was "I was in Iraq and saw first hand the effect of sanctions on children. Given that, what is your position of sanctions on Iran, since they were ineffective in Iraq?" At that point a few liberals in the audience clapped and whooped it up a bit.

Mr. Bremer said that the President needed all the options available for dealing with Iran. He agreed that sanctions can be a blunt instrument and that it is difficult to directly impact and hurt the leaders of a dictatorship without hurting their citizens even more.

Personally, I agreed with the hecklers. Sanctions are NOT effective. A regime like Iran only understands force. They don't care if their children starve and their economy goes into the dumpster due to sanctions, as long as they stay in power.

Mr. Bremer was asked about Iran. He said that Iran and Syria were being very unhelpful neighbors. He said that Iran was supporting the militias in the south with money and weapons. He also said that Iran didn't like the fact that there were free elections in Iraq when their own elections are now merely shams.

All in all I thought it was a very useful and interesting discussion. I am in the process of reading his book right now and will post about it after I am done.

More Bremer

After the lecture was done there was a book signing. Here is a photo of Carl and Mr. Bremer.

I wanted to have him sign the inside "I support the Carl doctrine" but thought that was too crass (an inside joke with Dan).

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Carnival of Cordite, .45 Edition!

On the sidebar you can see my link to the Carnival of Cordite. This week is the 45th edition of that particular carnival and to celebrate they are featuring all things .45! These pieces on the .45 should be up Friday or Saturday. In celebration of that and to make a contribution, I thought I would put up a post about my .45, the Heckler Koch USP .45 compact with stainless steel slide. I purchased it about two years ago and absolutely love it. I tried out several .45's, but the HK just fit me the best. One jam so far, and I have put about 1,000 rounds through the girl.
Here it is:

It came with the case and two magazines.

Here it is disassembled for cleaning. It takes literally about 30 seconds and no tools to bring it down to this stage.

Here is a shot down the barrel so you can see the rifling.

This holster was a great purchase. It is a Blackhawk CQC Holster and fits the firearm perfectly.
In the final two photos, you can see that my trigger finger rests perfectly on the release and upon pulling the firearm out I am in a perfect safety/firing position alongside the trigger guard.

I guess I can't say enough about this firearm. It is much more accurate than I am but as they say, practice makes perfect! This .45 is a bit pricey, but I feel worth it.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Consumer Reports and the Furnace World

An article in the February 2005 issue of Consumer Reports has been circulating in my world. That world is the world of heating and air conditioning products. For a living, I distribute these products to heating and air conditioning technicians, who then install these products into homes or businesses to make their living. Before we get to the article, a little background on Consumer Reports.

Over the years I have found Consumer Reports to be a basically useless rag, poorly written by people who don't know much about what they are talking about. You would have thought that they would be forced to fold after the now infamous episode where they rigged GM pickups to explode upon a side impact from another vehicle. A poor job at that - all GM had to do was slow down the footage a bit to see that Consumer Reports had actually ignited the gas tanks before the impact of the vehicle. Anyway.

The reason the article from February 2005 surfaces now is that a competitor of mine that sells a competing brand of furnaces is making (false) claims that their furnaces are the "best" as far as reliability goes. And this is a crock of shit.

I have been selling furnaces for 16 years now and I can tell you from first hand experience, the day to day grind, that the single most important feature you can purchase in a furnace isn't a brand name or a better heat exchanger or more expensive controls. As a matter of fact the most important thing about a furnace doesn't have anything to do with the furnace itself. It is about the installing and servicing dealer.

Furnaces aren't put together by olde worlde craftsmen toiling away in some dimly lit workshoppe in the back of some moss covered log cabin. These machines are assembled en masse in huge factories and many of the processes are now automated. Every furnace manufacturer uses printed circuit boards in their product and most have advanced features like these:

*Motors that convert your household 115 volt AC to a DC voltage to save energy and allow "ramping" up and down of the motor according to demand
*High quality materials like aluminized or stainless steel for the heat exchanger
*No fewer than four safeties to provide the homeowner with practically no chance of carbon monoxide poisoning
*Multi stage gas valves to provide energy savings on moderately cold days so your furnace isn't running "full blast" when it is 45 degrees outside
*Most warranties are at least 5 years on all parts and many have labor warranties

Stack that list of features up against almost any other product you buy and you will see that my industry is one of the best bargains for the money around. If...

That is a big if at the end of that last paragraph. Notice I haven't mentioned a brand name of furnace yet. That is because it doesn't really matter. ALL brands have all of the features listed above. The only real variable (the big IF) is the installing dealer. Do your homework on THEM and worry about the product secondary. If any major brand of furnace is installed correctly and maintained at least once a year it should provide years of service. Of course there are exceptions, recalls, what have you. But, in general, this is the rule. Again, note I haven't yet mentioned a name brand. Now I will.

In the article, you can see a graph with the average number of repairs for major brands of gas furnaces. I find it ridiculous for a number of reasons, most importantly it places the brand I sell in last place.

The fast version: Goodman furnaces are no better or worse than any other major brand of furnace if installed and maintained properly. How's that for succinct?

In the graph they note that:

*Trane has a higher failure rate than American Standard
*Ruud has a higher failure rate than Rheem
*Carrier has a higher failure rate than Bryant
*Tempstar has a (much) higher failure rate than Heil
*Goodman has a (much) higher failure rate than Amana

Interesting. With a few very minor variations, drum roll please.....
Trane and American Standard are exactly the same unit.
Ruud and Rheem are exactly the same unit.
Carrier and Bryant are exactly the same unit.
Tempstar and Heil are exactly the same unit.
Goodman and Amana are exactly the same unit.

Which leaves me to believe that the people at Consumer Reports, as usual, know exactly nothing about the furnace market and that these repair reports are great for wrapping fish, as they say.

Which leaves one real variable...the installing dealer.

Wisconsin Dells

Monday, January 23, 2006

Bakery Blogging

Drawing inspiration from Rick Lee's always fascinating produce blogging, I decided to do a little bakery blogging. Hope you like it...I didn't have time to dink with any of the photos so if they are a little dark, don't bust my chops too bad. And hey - it's my first shot at this. I am sure if I keep at it, the photos will come out better.

In the last one, you can see a reflection of my camera in the bottom left. Taking photos through a case is challenging to say the least.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Epic Scale of Corruption in Chicago and Illinois

The Chicago Tribune released an excellent summary of Illinois corruption on their editorial page called “Corruption on Parade”.  Some of the highlights:

  • The continuing “Hired Truck Program” scandal which is reaching up the ladder in City Hall in Chicago, and now has snared the City Clerk, James Laski.  The undercover investigators had him telephone the code words “Go Cubs” to the agents’ phone right when the Sox were in the middle of the playoffs and most of City Hall is rampantly pro-Sox due to their south side boss… that one will be funny to explain in a court of law

  • The Duff family, who allegedly posed as a minority company in order to win city hall business, to the tune of a $22M penalty

  • The continuing “Operation Safe Road” probe which led to charges against former Republican (sigh) governor George Ryan

The most important part of all this is that the vast majority of these probes and trials were led by the FBI, Federal Authorities.  According to Wikipedia:

“It is the largest police department in the Midwest and the second largest in the nation (with 13,619 sworn officers and 2,625 other employees covering 234 square miles as of 2003), and one of the oldest organized police forces in the world. By comparison, Los Angeles, the nation's second largest city, has just over 9,000 sworn officers covering 469 square miles.”

Why is it that NONE of the significant probes resulting in investigations of high ranking individuals like the City Clerk or the Governor were conducted by this huge department?  Pretty much the only group that crooked politicians have to fear are the Feds, not the local departments.  Also notable are the fact that the “internal controls” in all of these departments in the State, County and City departments aren’t the ones rooting out fraud and corruption.

I used to watch “The Sopranos” and I thought it was unrealistic that the mobsters committed brazen crimes everywhere but only feared the FBI.  Also in the movie “Goodfellas” it was the Feds that cracked down on the criminals, not the local authorities.  You’d figure that the local authorities far outnumbered the Feds and just due to basic mathematics they’d be the ones to accomplish most of the crime fighting, but that never was the case (on TV and in the movies).

Recently in Chicago the Feds also nabbed “Joey the Clown” Lombardo and Frank “The German” Schweihs.  These killers were at large in the Chicago metropolitan area for a long time but for some reason eluded all of the local authorities until they were caught by the Feds.  Per this article (I can’t seem to find the original document but the Christian Science Monitor is pretty reputable):

Since 1919, according to the Chicago Crime Commission, only 14 of 1,111 mob-related murders have been solved.

So let’s try to tie these pieces together… mobsters openly ply their trade, without fear of arrest from local authorities… City, County and Government officials (allegedly, until proven in a court of law) are rife with corruption… and the only group that they fear are the Federal authorities?

Does this add up?  Why isn’t there a more general outcry at the corruption within our Illinois institutions, from all levels of government, both parties, and our law enforcement authorities?  Without the Federal Government, we’d get nothing solved, no one convicted, and no one would be shining a light on any of this.  The Chicago Tribune deserves kudos for bringing this issue forward and proceeding to dig into it, even though it also sullies the reputation of the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois.

One more thing… Patrick Fitzgerald, an excellent crusading Federal prosecutor for the State of Illinois, who relentlessly pursues corruption and mobsters, probably won’t be re-appointed and the only thing Democrats and Republicans of all levels can agree on is that this guy, who is above reproach and aggressively pursuing the “bad guys”, must be gotten rid of so that they can go back to business as usual.  These politicians will gang up in the future and make sure that whomever is appointed next will be a crony that won’t investigate their chronic sleazy goings-on.  Without Patrick Fitzgerald, the average Illinois resident would know the corruption is there but wouldn’t know the gory details, or have any satisfaction of seeing them on trial and their reputation in shambles.  It will be a sad day in the future when (if) he leaves and is (likely) replaced with a far more mallable insider who will leave the scandals buried, right where the politicians want it.

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Reno 911 Here in Chicago

On Saturday, January 21 this article “Arrested Woman Takes Squad Car, Cops Say” was written in the Chicago Tribune.  From the article

“A West Side woman was arrested Friday morning after allegedly driving off in the squad car of the officer who had just arrested her for driving under the influence, police said.”

This is just the kind of article I was looking for to segue into a blog about one of my favorite shows, “Reno 911” which is on the Comedy Central network.   The show is on its third season right now.

Reno 911 is about the sheriff’s department in Reno, Nevada, a city that I worked in for several years.  The cops are stupendously inept and a bunch of characters.  They are led by Lt. Dangle, who wears short shorts that occasionally cause a bit of dangling.  The show is modeled on a “Cops” type of theme with a cameraman following them around as they go about their business.

Reno 911 features them going to various calls and interacting with deranged local citizens.  A common theme is that these encounters go wrong and 1) a cop car gets stolen by the perpetrator 2) “he’s got the stick” is shouted as one of the perpetrator steals their nightstick and goes after them with it 3) frequent beatings of local citizenry who taunt the police aggressively, including a famous guy who is dressed in a foam drink outfit complete with straw 4) Lt. Dangle gets his bike stolen.

Reno 911 is like “Curb Your Enthusiasm” in that the characters improvise most of the show based on an overall theme.  To me, that makes it even funnier.

Once you watch Reno 911 for a bit you can see that there are only a few locations that they return to for the whole season.  For example, in season 2, they were at:

  • A hotel room of girls at a bachelor-ette party that kept calling the cops

  • The jail cell where Trudy kept meeting her serial killer boyfriend for conjugal visits

  • Always on the desert highway outside Reno at a roadblock or stopping locals

  • Their “briefing room” at the Sheriff’s department

I think that they just record a whole bunch of takes at the same location and then intersperse them around during the season.

What do they think of Reno 911 in the city of Reno?  Here is a link to an article where they ask this question.  The funniest line is the last line where they ask if there really is a “Tacos Tacos Tacos Tacos” in Reno…  that is the place where Terry, the always giddy male prostitute, plies his trade while constantly denying the facts that are right in his face.

I watched the DVD with commentary “on” and that was pretty funny, too.  I guess they have the “coming attractions” at the end of every episode in a little burst but actually that stuff never gets shown in an episode.

Finally, I love their stupendously un-productive staff meetings.  All the comments are way off topic, if not actually counterproductive, and nothing is accomplished.  Sometimes when I am in a meeting that is run exceedingly poorly I think to myself if I really am in a “Reno 911” episode…

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Soldier Field Death Trap

On the back of every ticket for the Chicago Bears is the following (excerpted):

Ticket holder assumes all risks incident to the game or related events, including the risk of lost, stolen or damaged property or personal injury. The ticket holder will not transmit or aid in transmitting any picture, account or description (whether text, data or visual) in any media now or hereafter existing of all or any part of the football game or related events.

Well then. So if Aunt Betsy receives the good samaritan award at halftime you are absolutely not allowed to discuss it in any way or pass out photos of her accepting the award. Bah, humbug.

I also find the part about personal injury interesting. I mentioned a few weeks ago how I would probably be dead meat if something major ever happened at Soldier Field - I would like now to show you in photos just how ugly it may get someday if there is a mad rush to the exits.

I always chuckle a bit before every game when they show the "evacuation" instructions for the stadium. Lets begin. Here is a view from my seat on the aisle of row 18 in the upper deck at Soldier Field. First the view down:

As you can see, it is just wide enough for one person to descend the stairs on either side of that metal railing. When a beer guy comes up, like the one in the yellow jacket pictured above, that part of the aisle is effectively plugged.

Here is how many people are above me - I would estimate about 15 rows:

And here is a panoramic view of most of the upper deck:

As you can see, that is a LOT of people that would need to get out if there were a problem. As if that isn't bad enough, at the bottom of the stairs is another 12 steps, narrower than before:

So now, I would have to fight all of those thousands of people down the main stairs, make it down this flight and then through this tunnel:

And out onto the relative safety of the concourse, from where I could make some sort of getaway:

As anyone can figure, this is pie in the sky. What would really happen is that all of those people, in a panic situation, would pile down on top of me and I would be smushed, just like everyone in all of the rows below me. My best chance is to make a break for the middle of the row as most will try their luck on the aisles. Still, I don't think I would have much of a chance.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Men's Bathroom Situation at Soldier Field

Dan said that there was a problem with the men's bathroom situation at Soldier Field and I beg to disagree... wait, that's a sink! Posted by Picasa

Monday, January 16, 2006

A "real" academic debate topic

When I was in college there were a number of topics for analysis involving controversy and research. I am speaking of formal, relatively rigorous research, not fly-by-night "X Files" and "JFK" type paranormal crap.

For example, there was significant debate about William Shakespeare, who was he, and did a single man really write all of that great literature? Here is a site, one of many, devoted to the topic.

Another topic of interesting debate was the classification of the various hominids into different time lines, such as the "homo habilis" controversy and also how Neanderthals became extinct and whether or not there was any cross-breeding with modern man.

I won't even get into the "deconstructionist" theory of literature and similar semi-looney topics - I did laugh about the student who constructed a wholly fake paper of "research" on a topic and actually had it published by one of the serious academic magazines.

One topic, however, that I think is of absolutely essential interest to individuals who are knowledgeable about history, is rarely if ever studied, especially not in a university setting. The topic is:

"Was Stalin massing his forces for an attack on Hitler in 1941, at the time Hitler attacked Stalin?"

Some background:
- The Soviets and Nazis signed the secret non-aggression pact in 1939 when they both invaded Poland, with Hitler occupying the Eastern portion of the country and Stalin the Western portion of the country
- Stalin also was able to take the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, and part of Romania (Bessarabia)
- Germany under Hitler had long written that they must defeat Communism and that the Ukraine was going to provide fodder and space for German colonization

Germany invaded Russia in June, 1941. The build up at the border was very noticeable, and Stalin had excellent spies posted around the world that provided him a constant stream of information. The Soviets did not respond to numerous German prevarcations, which included fly-overs by planes and their forces also failed to make even rudimentary defensive preparations.

The common wisdom is that Germany's attack caught the Soviet Union by surprise and this is the reason for its startling initial success. Soviet troops were caught unprepared; their planes were destroyed on the ground, and communications seemed to be cut in key areas.

The German attack, and the Russian response to this attack, which ultimately culminated in the surrender at Berlin and the "Iron Curtain" across eastern Europe, gave the Soviet Union a purpose and mission that was central to its identity. The Communists were the primary destroyers of fascism (this is true), and they were hit with a dastardly sneak attack, regrouped, and then came back to destroy Hitler and his regime. Stalin and his secret police were not popular among ordinary Russians, but his response to the hated Nazis brought the people together. In many ways the Soviet response to the German attack in June 1941 can be seen in parallel to our response to Japan's surprise attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941 - it galvanized the nation and lent a moral clarity to the proceedings that followed.

Thus this thesis that I raise above, which is far from proven, is of high interest to me. If Stalin WAS planning to attack Hitler, and he was "beaten to the punch", then the entire history of WW2 in the East can be seen in a different light. The common wisdom is that Hitler was proud and had a dersory view of the Soviet's capabilities, especially in light of successes against France and the low countries in 1940 ("Blitzkrieg") and the Soviet Union's relatively poor performance against Finland in the "Winter War" (discounted is the Soviet Union's excellent victory over Japan in the far east at this time under Zhukov). Hitler is viewed as a terrible military commander for taking on the Soviets and over-stretching their military capabilities with a fight on 2 fronts (the East and the West).

However, if Stalin was going to attack Hitler anyways, then Hitler probably played his "best hand" in striking first, when the balance of forces were as in-his-favor as they ever were going to be. His forces smashed the Soviets on the border and wrecked their air power, encircling whole armies and making it to the gates of Moscow before being pushed back by the defenders and the ferociously cold weather.

In addition to the military victories, which can be quantified, there is an "unquantifiable" factor, as well. Other countries subjected to military reverses on the scale of Russia in 1941 have revolted and fallen apart, especially one as brutal as Stalin who made enemies out of huge slices of his populace. When the US attacked Iraq in 1991 you can count tanks vs. tanks and men vs. men; but in addition to the qualitative disparity the US had a huge advantage in the cohesion of their forces. This also allowed Israel to survive the Wars of 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973, when they were outnumbered and faced enemies on multiple fronts. France in 1940 had substantial military forces but had poor internal morale and as a result they put up less of a fight than they could have. Note that the Soviets were not cohesive like the French - they had internal ethnic rivalries that also could have exploded in Stalin's face in 1941 (the Ukrainians were angry over the forced collectivizations in the 1930's and resulting famine, and their resistance wasn't totally suppressed until the 1950's). Like France in 1940, the Soviet Union could have fallen apart under the onslaught in June, 1941.

After Communism fell the Russians opened their archives. Many historians performed research, including Constantine Pleshakov, who wrote the book "Stalin's Folly - the tragic first 10 days of WW2 on the Eastern front". Here is a review of the book in the prestigious magazine "Foreign Affairs". All accounts show that the Russians had poorly positioned their troops; they weren't set up for defense and weren't on alert. In fact, from a military perspective, their positioning if Stalin was preparing for defense, make no sense at all. However, if Stalin was preparing for attack, they make a lot more sense.

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I am not saying that the book is perfect or that I necessarily believe that Stalin was planning to attack Hitler. There are a few things in the book that even I know aren't right - for example:

on page 150, Constantine notes the success of the initial German attack and talks about a possible Soviet counter-strike on Hitler's headquarters (the Wolf's Lair) "Nobody in the Northwestern Front Headquarters knew that Hitler himself was only 125 miles west of them, in his new command center in Eastern Prussia. In one of the war's many ironies, a well-planned raid by Soviet bombers could have blown him to pieces and brought the war to an end"

However, this is a crazy thought. The Germans had total air superiority, and the Soviets had little strategic air capabilities. They had ground attack aircraft and fighters but nothing like the bomber fleet of Germany in 1941, much less the vastly more powerful forces that the US and Britain were building later in the war.

The purpose of this post isn't to say whether or not I believe that Stalin was about to attack Hitler in 1941, or to comment negatively on Pleshakov's book, of which I thought very highly of overall. The purpose of this post is that I feel that this is a very important topic, one that could change our understanding of the entire flow of events in 1941, and one that probably deserves more research than it receives today.

The universities spend almost no time on historical topics such as this one, and endless time on "research" of topics of little or no actual impact on the world. Whether or not you believe that Stalin was planning on attacking Hitler or not in 1941, if this did turn out to be the case, the consequence of this item is much more impactful to our understanding of the last century than the vast majority of byzantine and irrelevant topics that are researched in the social sciences today.


Sunday, January 15, 2006

The Ticket Market

I have written extensively about ticket scalping. I find it an interesting "grey market" that, in my opinion, extracts the exact current market value for a ticket to an event. Outside the Bear game this Sunday (the first playoff game in Chicago in 5 years) there will be a brisk market in scalped tickets. I will try to get a dollar figure to add to this article Monday morning.

For my writings I have concentrated on sporting events, since these are the ones that I know the most about.

Now there is a new twist to buying tickets to a sporting event. But before I get to that, a short bit about the perceived illegality of scalping tickets. Of course, I think it is a crock. If you buy a piece of property, say, a chair for a price "X" and then resell it at "X + Y" are you inclined to believe that the person that you originally bought the chair for deserves "Y"? Of course not. Maybe you refinished it, maybe you reupholstered it, maybe you simply know more about the market and were able to find a buyer that wanted to pay more. Of course if the person you originally bought the chair from came to you and said "excuse me, but you made money off of the chair I originally owned - would you please refund the "Y" to me?" you would tell them that they were on crack.

This is exactly what is happening when you resell a ticket for above the printed value on the ticket and possibly get arrested for ticket scalping. Somehow, someway, the powers that be have enacted laws that prohibit you from selling your private property (game ticket, in this case) for personal gain. Why is this? If the venue is so confident that they have maximized their revenue by selling a slug of tickets for "X", why is is a bad thing that private parties want to make some money?

And don't give me any of this bunk in the comments that "the working people won't be able to go to the game". True blue collars haven't been able to afford to go to the game for a long time so lets not pretend that team owners actually care about them, or it would only be $20 to go to a football game and there would be no personal seat licenses, etc.

That out of the way, several months ago I mentioned that the Cubs are actually scalping their own tickets (OK for me, but not for thee). I also proposed that if the Cubs are serious about maximizing revenue they should keep the season ticket holders and auction off all remaining tickets. I was partially right.

Today I stumbled upon a very interesting new site, you can view it here. It sells options to buy tickets in the future. And it operates like any other futures option board, allowing bids, asks and buying and selling of the contracts. So if I wanted, for instance to purchase an option for Illinois to go to the Final Four, I could buy it. Then, if Illinois makes it, I get to purchase the tickets for FACE VALUE. So I would still incur the charge of the contract on top of the face value, a much better bargain than buying the tickets outright from a scalper. If Illinois doesn't make it to the Final Four, I would simply be out whatever the future contract was. But in the meantime, I may have been able to sell my contract to make money or lose less money. It is a very interesting take on a market that until now has not been served. My lingering question is - where are they getting the tickets from?

It seems to me that there are some serious problems with the site as it stands now. Today, for instance, you could buy two futures (one per ticket) for Bears Super Bowl tickets for $410 each. Remember, tickets for the Super Bowl are about $500 each face so you are paying, if the Bears make it, almost $1000 each for a "seat" somewhere (so much for the working man attending a game). You don't even get to see a section or row. All it says is "upper deck". Could be the last row up top in the end zone behind a pillar - you won't know until you get there.

I think the site is "gamed" in another way, too. To buy an option for Illinois tickets to the Final Four, the last sale says $240 ea. But the current offer is $200 and the best bid on the screen is $80. This doesn't quite add up to me. But no matter. If you want it, there it is, $200 each. Take it or leave it. There doesn't seem to be a lot of activity on the board in general. During the Redskins-Seahawks game I kept an eye on it, refreshing my browser often and the futures didn't behave quite as you would expect. As the Seahawks pulled ahead, the Redskins futures should have tanked immediately, but it took a very long time. This may be because not many people are using the site or could be because that most who are using the site are in the long, hoping for their team to win, rather than be trading the options for money.

In hindsight, the Cubs, to maximize revenue and allow the fans to actually have a little fun, should keep the season ticket holders, auction off all of the remaining tickets and then let them buy and sell them on a futures style market, like in the site above. That way the Cubs have maximized their markets, no more issues with scalpers, and persons who actually don't want to go to the game can make some extra cash on the side.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Home for sale in my neighborhood for $4,700,000

I live in the River North area of Chicago. This area has undergone a huge transformation in recent years. It was originally an area with nondescript office buildings, including the home of Montgomery Wards, and a few scattered art galleries and restaurants. Recently the area has seen an explosion of activity, with the buildings being converted into residential lofts, and then the addition of high rise towers for condominiums.

The most recent addition is the building of incredibly fancy single-family homes. Many of these houses are built "on spec", meaning that a developer is buying the land, designing the house, and building them before a buyer has been found. The developer has to market the house and pay carrying costs (interest, expenses) until it is sold, which can be risky.

To the left is one of the houses being built in River North not too far from where I live, at 450 West Huron. It is a nice looking stone house with a garden on the side (and street parking out front, which never fails to amuse me, note the meter).

Since you can't read the sign in the picture, I blew it up so that you can see the "minimum needs" of a typical upscale family in the area (I guess). Highlights:

- 7200 square feet (that's BIG!)
- 6 bedrooms, 6 + bathrooms
- 3 car garage

This house is being marketed by Coldwell Banker and here is a link to the posting. It sells for a mere $4.7M, although it does have a lot next door, so maybe the house alone would be $1M less.

The amazing thing is that the typical family moving in here might have 1-2 kids, most likely it is 2 adults. What the heck are they going to do in all of that space... besides fill it with stuff!

The other interesting thing is what this house DOESN'T come with. No one who would spend $4.7M would EVER send their kids to Chicago Public Schools, so there is at least $20k out the door every year for high end private school until they go off to the Ivy League and then the real bills kick in. I don't know how much property taxes would be on this house, but I would guess maybe $50,000 / year.

Oh, and something else you don't get for $4.7M in most other places - you are within 1/2 miles of some housing projects! Check out this link specific for this address or generally the amazing site http://www.chicagocrime.org that some good samaratin built linking Google Maps with the Chicago crime records that are publicly available. At the time of this post you had a sex crime at 9:45am in the morning and plenty of other violent and non-violent offenses. They are to the north just past Chicago avenue west of the river where they are clustered.

The final, most jaw dropping part of this story is that if you check back in a few years the first buyer will probably have sold this property off for even more money... clearly someone who spends this kind of money is probably a sophisticated investor and intends to make money on this, too.

The Sea of Desolation

I sailed the sea of desolation
Dropped my anchor there
Plumbed the depths of isolation
Walked its length and was not scared
Went from end to end to end
And from there I went again
The road that only this one knows
Off to nowhere
Here I go
From "Illumination" by the Henry Rollins Band

Can you imagine an activity in the United States or any other civilized country that killed or maimed several hundred people each year it happened? Can you even process that kind of thought in your head? That an activity that yearly killed many hundreds of innocent people would be allowed to continue? Well, the stoning ritual during the Hajj in Saudi Arabia is exactly that. I wrote about this last week and mentioned it in a segment of my last podcast and, sadly, my predictions have come true. As usual, the Hajj has proven itself to be the true "Sea of Desolation". The Saudi government says 345 people died this year and over 1,000 were injured. I would guess that the real total is probably more like 500 dead and 2,000 injured, but we will never know.

In the article I wrote last time I don't think that I described exactly what must take place during the stoning ritual, so I thought I would try to shed a little light to those who may not understand why everyone keeps getting smushed there year after year after year.

The complex that holds the pillars that the pilgrims have to stone is a double decked bridge. You are allowed to do the stoning on either level. I believe the Saudis are going to make this bridge into several more levels in the near future. There are choke points at the entrance to the bridge, the exits and around the actual area where the stoning takes place. The best photo of the area I could find is here. It is the second one down in the list. You need quicktime to view it - it is a panorama of the entire area. You can see what issues may arise from the design of this area. And here is a great diagram of the entire area of the bridge complex - from the BBC of all places! They actually replaced the pillars with walls to try to improve human traffic flow over the bridge.

Imagine you have 2.5 million people who have to enter and exit an area in the time frame of about 6-8 hours. That's right, the stoning has to be done in the afternoon and be done by the time the sun goes down. Hence the crowds. I think they have two days to choose from, but no matter. I simply cannot believe that the mullahs can't sit down and look across the table at each other and just decide that the hajj needs to have the time period extended! Again, imagine if something like this were to happen in a civlized country just once. Imagine if there were a stampede at a football game and several hundred people died. After the dust settled from the lawsuits, the newly created "stadium advisory committe" would require every stadium in the USA to come up with their action plan and crowd evacuation procedures.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

My Dream Job

I like Pilsner Urquell. I know, I know, it is really a beer made by one of the mega-brewers (SAB) attempting to "hop on" the bandwagon from Stella Artois, which is seen as a premium beer in the States (when I was in Belgium Stella was pretty much viewed as the bottom of the barrel, but "when in Rome").

I see this billboard in front of my favorite Chinese restaurant every time I walk by. And I wonder... what is this guy's job in the Pilsner Urquell factory? Does he review every beer for clarity, color, or something like that? Seems like a good job to me. You have to taste it, just to make sure...

I also like the way when you go to a decent tavern they have special Pilsner Urquell glasses. The glasses are long and thin and they have a red line at the top which is the "pour to" line. Very helpful to your neighborhood bartender! I should get some of these glasses for my house, and try it at home.Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

New Digital Camera

Blogger actually cropped this closeup of my cat, Henry on the left side. Anyway, I plan on having more photos for the blog in the near future. I got one of these. Why did I get this one? Because this guy said that is what he uses. A quick look at his blog will tell the story.

You can click on the cat for a full size version - the detail is stunning.

Badly Designed Technology Costs me Hours of Frustration!

This device seen on the left is very benign-looking. It is a USB 4 port hub. On my Shuttle PC there are 2 USB hubs on the front of the computer, but I have lots of devices to plug into the computer, including 1) iPod 2) camera 3) keyboard 4) microphone 5) USB wi-fi card etc...

Thus I bought a 4 port hub, which would (obviously) turn my 2 ports on the front of my PC to a 5 port behemoth which is needed for me to run the above devices.

You'd think that a 4 port hub would actually SUPPORT 4 devices, or why else would someone create such a piece of technology. I clearly fell for it, after all.

What REALLY happened is that I could plug in all of the devices to the hub, but then they would all exhibit erratic behavior. For instance, my iPod would "fall out" of my iTunes lineup in the middle of uploading songs, then it would periodically re-appear. Also, if my iPod was plugged in to the front of the PC while it was booting up, it would "hang" during the boot process when the BIOS messages are up prior to the operating system getting loaded, which was particularly terrifying (did I back everything up?) My camera would sometimes be seen as a hard drive to move over photos, but most of the time it didn't work. All of these symptoms were completely random and maddening and were really getting me frustrated...

I went to a local computer store Micro Center on Elston avenue (near the worst intersection in Chicago) where they have everything. That store is highly recommended - when I used to live in Bucktown I would tell "techies" how to navigate to my house by starting at the Micro Center locations as the beginning point for directions, since I assumed that they all knew how to get to that location. I thought that maybe the USB hub was the problem, so I asked a guy working there, and he told me to buy a powered USB hub, since the unpowered hubs don't work reliably and cause all sorts of problems with your computer, including crashing. AARRGGHH!

My question is - why would you even SELL an unpowered 4 port USB hub when it is going to cause these sorts of problems? They should only sell powered ports, since the unpowered 4 port hubs clearly don't work.

I am a relatively sophisticated technical person so I can only imagine how frustrating this type of situation would be for someone who tried to call technical support and waited on hold for hours to try to get help for the symptoms caused by this product. Each of the vendors would likely point fingers at the other vendors and it would be maddening to resolve the issue. I only was able to resolve it because I happened to ask someone what the difference was between the "powered" and "unpowered" USB hub options (the clerks response - "the unpowered ones don't work and crash your system").

Now I have my new hub (for $19) and now all of my (expensive) peripheral devices work GREAT. It only took me a few months of building frustration.... Posted by Picasa