Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Hackeysack Is Gone, But The Music Remains

I was going to comment on Carl's last few posts about music but the comments got too long and morphed into a post.

Carl talked about the sorry state of the recording industry as a whole and the incredible impact iPods with huge memory are having on the personal choices folks are making with regards to the music they are listening to on a daily basis.

I used to think that my iPod shuffle was the bomb. Now it only sees the light of day during my workouts. On the way to work I listen to XM radio. At work, if I want to listen to some music I log onto the XM radio site and stream music to my desktop. As I sit and type this I am streaming XM radio on my laptop via my wireless modem here on my couch. The current song is Touch, Peel and Stand by Days of the New, if you are interested. Most excellent. And it goes well with Merlot.

I would be interested to know if you can stream into a Blackberry or some sort of other type of handheld device. It is probably only a matter of time - many cities, including Madison are getting ready to provide "free" citywide broadband access.

I guess what I am trying to say is that I will be hard pressed to ever buy a CD or any other form of recording ever again. Satellite radio has dedicated stations for whatever music you want to listen to for only $13 a month. Millions of songs anywhere I go, any sports game I want to listen to, and all I need is my car or any computer with a speaker. AND as an added benefit I have been introduced to new artists, new types of music, and had some great flashbacks when I heard some moldy oldies. By moldy I mean late eighties metal.

If there are many more people like me the recording industry is in big trouble, indeed.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Do you have $450,000 lying around?

Down the street from me there is an Infiniti dealership that sells a lot of used, high end cars, as well.

Here is a Mercedes McLaren that apparently sells for around $450,000 (although I didn't get an exact quote... maybe they'd spring for floor mats at that rate).

You could buy a pretty nice condo in River North at that price that would probably depreciate a lot slower, although I guess a car like this might actually appreciate in value if there were few enough of them made. If you want the specs go to the ever-present wikipedia entry for the scoop, or stop by and talk with the salesman. Tell him Carl from Chicago sent you... Posted by Picasa

It's always 1996-7

Two trends have converged to change the way people listen to music.

1) the "shuffle" feature that automatically selects music for you, without having to think
2) the large capacity of new iPods that can hold essentially your entire music collection

As such, I have a 30 gig iPod and about 4000 songs on it, pretty much everything I own. Back when I started burning MP3's of my CD's space was at a premium (my first iPod-like device only held 64MB) so I used to use a low bit-rate AND I would only put a few songs from the CD that I liked on my computer, not just "rip" the entire CD, because it seemed like a waste of space on my hard drive, to boot. I also used to have to put the names of the songs (by hand) on each MP3 track because the online lookup services either were unreliable or my internet connection was lousy; of course nowadays any CD you throw in the drive in instantly found by the music services so this is a dead issue.

Since my whole collection is on there AND now I burn the whole CD and not just a few selected songs, my collection on shuffle is pretty odd. Not too long ago I picked up a Tupac double CD with tons of songs and also pretty much the whole Biggie collection. By contrast, when I first started out I'd pick only 1-2 songs off a CD so I might have only 2 songs off Magical Mystery Tour by the Beatles (Strawberry Fields Forever and I am the Walrus) but I have an excess of various songs by Tupac and Biggie talking about crack dealing, 'hos and how they are going to kill each other.

Thus on my way to work each day I get to relive 1996-7 when these two were at the height of the rap wars, before Tupac went on to his fruitful post-death career as a rapper (more prolific than life) and Biggie was pretty much silenced.

I saw a documentary on Tupac where he said that "the media" was creating this beef, and blowing it out of proportion. Anyone dumb enough to believe this has never heard the track "Hit 'em Up" where he claims to have f**ked Biggie's wife and goes on and on with various extreme insults. Hell, I'd pop a cap into Tupac if that was directed at me (as an aside, if you want to laugh your rear end off, watch this video featuring Barney the dinosaur singing this song).

I guess if I picked up some new rap I'd be less discouraged at the waste of talent that came from this pointless shooting war over a few diss tracks. As it is I need to re-live it over and over again.

It's always 1996-7.

Sunset, Lake Michigan

Not too bad for the Midwest...the larger version is more impressive - just click. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Monday, August 28, 2006

Paper Tiger, Part 2

The best part about this blog is that we typically write about things we know something about. Or we take an issue and apply it to our lives...real time, on the ground type stuff. Many blogs guess, pontificate, or lie - for what? Many blogs take news stories and make it "breaking" news on their blog. Worthless.

I find it humorous how little the "news" affects my daily life. About the only news that truly affects my day to day operations in my life are announcements of new restaurants, and a smattering of the local issues, such as if the Madison city council is making some new kooky decree designed to affect my behavior.

An example of this is the new decree in Chicago that banned fois gras. Damn! Now THAT affects me. I LOVE the stuff and now I can't get it in Chicago any more.

Conversely, many blogs do quite the opposite of what we do here. They make wild guesses with NO background in anything, have no clue what is really going on in the world and basically sit on their asses and make shit up or sponge off of others original work.

I wish a turd like Paul Krugman could follow me around for just one day to see what it is like to actually go to work for a living, making decisions all day that affect myself and others around me. Instead, Paul gets to MAKE SHIT UP like most journalists, with his feet planted firmly in the air. And then bloggers tear apart his MADE UP columns and the dreary cycle repeats day after day, week after week.

With that said, I would like to take a few minutes of your time. Please go with me for a walk through my warehouse. A few days ago I wrote a book review of Minxin Pei's book about China and their present conundrum. I would like to take a look at the categories of things that I sell and see if the Chinese have penetrated the HVAC industry. For those not in the know, I own a business that sells Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning parts and equipment on the wholesale level. In other words, if your furnace or air conditioner breaks, hopefully I would be the one to sell the repairman a new part or piece of equipment. We do no retail business.

I will break it down by category.

Test Instruments
My main line of meters in made in Taiwan. The quality is very high and their US agent really does a grerat job of standing behind the product if there are any problems. My low end lines are all made in Korea. the more complex instruments, such as combustion analyzers and carbon monoxide detectors are all made either in Germany or the USA. There simply isn't any Chinese representation to speak of in these categories on my shelves. The products are certainly out there, they just have not been able to penetrate this market.

Hand Tools
My high end line, Knipex, is made in Germany. My main line, Klein, is made in the USA. I also sell a lot of Crescent branded tools, which are a mixed bag. Some are made in Taiwan, some in the USA. The quality is good on the Taiwanese tools. All of my soldering/brazing equipment is made in the USA. There is no Chinese representation in any of the tool lines I sell. In the trades there is most certainly a stigma associated with Chinese products. They are simply rejected by the professionals, in my field anyway. I have seen some Chinese tools creep in slowly to my industry. But these examples are few and far between and I don't have enough of them in the field to make a call on their quality.

Electric Motors
This one in interesting. I sell fractional horsepower (less than one horsepower) motors of all shapes and sizes. Until about five years ago, all of the fractionals were made in Mexico, with the exception of one vendor. Now, a lot of that production has been moved over to China. Not all of it, but a good amount. The results are intresting. The sizes from one quarter horse to one horse have performed pretty well out in the field. I notice no larger failure rate on these than the Mexican made ones. But on the smaller motors, such as unit bearing or "watt" motors the results have been disastrous. For some reason the Chinese made versions of these are real stinkers. GE was the big player in this game and moved the production on these motors from Fort Wayne, Indiana to China several years ago. I assume the increased returns are more than made up for by cost savings.

Copper
In my industry we sell a lot of copper tube, fittings and wire. All of these products are made in the USA. It must be a logistics issue. Lately we have had some Asian companies (I can't remember if they are Chinese or not) try to make inroads on the fitting market with little success. All of my soldering and brazing alloys are also made in the USA.

Equipment
Several years ago the Chinese made a stab at the residential HVAC equipment market with disastrous results. The equipment, it turned out, didn't meet minimum efficiency requirements at the time and had to be all sent back and re-made. Lead times were inexcusable. It is hard to sell air conditioners "on the water" if you know what I mean. No attempt has been made since by the Chinese. Many equipment manufacturers here in the US do use many Chinese components such as motors, contactors and capacitors in their units.

Components and Controls
Strolling down my aisles, it is apparent where the Chinese shine in my industry - cheap, high volume components. Things like capacitors, transformers, pulleys and the like are all made in China. Most of my contactors are still made in Mexico. Most of the thermostat production is in Mexico, but there is some coming from China now. My malleable and brass fittings all come from China.

Chemicals
All of the solvents and other caustic chemicals in my warehouse are made in the US. The refrigerants are made all over the world, mostly in Europe. Only one chemcial was found to be made in China, a refrigerant that has pretty low volume.

Filters
Clean air and filtration is a large part of my business. I can hardly get domestic companies to get me product in a timely fashion, much less a Chinese (or any other foreign company) firm. One company from China did try to get me to purchase the raw materials from them and have me assemble the filters but that is a no-go for many reasons.

Ventilation Equipment
All made in the USA. Again, must be logistics. Although I wouldn't doubt for a second that many of the components in the equipment come from China.

Compressors
The compressor is the heart of any air conditioning or refrigeration system. Think of it as the tube to your TV. All of the hermetic compressors for residential and light commercial units are made in the USA. The only foreign production is for smaller fractional horsepower compressors for refrigeration (NOT air conditioning) and that production has gone to Brazil.

From this very unscientific activity is is apparent that the Chinese have not penetrated the HVAC wholesale distribution market to any extent. I assume lead times are key. We don't need air conditioners in the North in December, nor furnaces in July. I don't know if the Chinese have penetrated other wholesale industries such as electrical and plumbing but I can only assume they have had a little more success in those fields.

This isn't to say that the Chinese won't or can't penetrate my field. Personally I like selling American made products and my customer base prefers to buy them. Generally they are of decent quality where with some of the imports it tends to be a crap shoot at times. But you never know what can happen. I sure hope it doesn't - I don't want my store to look like Menard's or Home Depot someday where EVERYTHING is made in China.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Paper Tiger?

I have just completed a very interesting book and one that confirms some of my suspicions.

China's Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy makes some excellent points. It isn't exactly leisure reading. A background in economics (just econ 101 is fine) helps and a little history would be good as well.

Over and over I am presented with fellow Americans who are worried about the Chinese menace. So much of our manufacturing has been shipped over there. We consume billions of dollars a year in cheap Chinese made merchandise. Many people have said that they are scared of the Chinese taking over the world, financially. Or that they will nuke Taiwan or do something else equally crazy. So much to worry about.

In this book Minxin Pei does a masterful job explaining the limits of the Chinese economy under the current conditions. It really is an eye opener.

The main point is that there is only so much the Chinese economy can accomplish with their current policies. One of the most interesting items that is discussed is the fact that as the Chinese liberalize their economy, it actually benefits the local officials and members of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) rather than the populace as a whole. As the economy progresses, the officials and local cadres get enriched, most of the time illegally and as a result the peasants and other members of the populace not connected with the CCP lose out.

I have forever wondered why so many people are deathly afraid of China and this well researched and well written book has done a lot to confirm my suspicions.

Corruption is rife in China. The extent is unimaginable. So is the level of environmental destruction. I always chuckle a bit when I hear environmentalists here in the US complain about two 55 gallon drums of toxic waste getting dumped in to a river when in China we have things going on like this horrifying paragraph from page 175:

With 80 percent of wastewater discharged untreated, three quarters of the lakes and about half of the rivers (measured in length) have been polluted. The head of China's State Environmental Protection Administration admitted in early 2003 that checks conducted in 740 sections of the country's major rivers found water to be drinkable quality in only 29 percent of them. Sixty percent of the water in the Yangtze, China's most important river, was found to be polluted to varying degrees in 2003. Each year, 20 billion tons of polluted water, or 40 percent of China's total, are discharged into the Yangtze. In addition, two-thirds of the underground water in the 118 major cities is ratedas "severely polluted". Water pollution alone costs China 1.46-2.84 percent of GDP each year.

Corruption is so rife in China that in some of the more remote western provinces, organized crime runs the cities. The members of the CCP have joined with organized crime to create small fiefdoms in these remote areas. Punished the worst are the peasants, many of which are starting to show signs of walking off of their farms, persecuting party officials, or in some cases, rioting.

According to Pei, the populus isn't quite at the point as of yet of total riot, but who knows what can happen in the future.

Pei's main thesis is in the conclusion and I think he makes a very good case. He says that the world powers are preparing and spending a lot of time and money to get ready for an aggressive Chinese menace in the future. Pei thinks that we should spend more time thinking about how to deal with a stagnant Chinese economy. He lays out his case very well.

Industries that Need to Change

The Recording Industry

In the Sunday 8/27/06 Chicago Tribune they wrote an article titled “Getting Paid Can Be a Royal Pain for Artists”.  This article walked through how music artists get paid for their work and featured an interview with Jon Langford of the punk band The Mekon’s.  Basically there are 2 streams – royalties from record sales and the second from actually performing the songs.

In all the internet hoopla and Napster discussions there was a constant stream of wailing that sharing of files was going to stifle creativity and hurt the artists.  In reality, the artists receive a pathetically small portion of the CD sale, probably less than 10% of the retail price, and they only get paid after all the label’s recording costs are reimbursed, which means that basically no one except gigantic artists like Madonna get paid anything at all (from record sales, that is).

The whole business is extremely shady except for a couple of labels that actually try to make the process work, which means “Touch and Go” and “Bloodshot” records, who have handshake deals and agree to split the profits 50/50.  Bizarrely, these labels actually support the internet, because it brings a wider audience to their music, and they make money on small pressings and the back catalog of their artists (go to their web sites and support them, I do).  They don’t need to sell 500,000 copies of a CD to break even; they can make money on 10,000 CD’s, and since their catalog is online and has a “long tail”, they can make this back over a period of years.

You can pretty much sum it up that no artists make anything from record sales unless 1) they are on one of these handshake labels that “get it” 2) they are monstrous such as the big hip hop stars or Madonnna.

The record labels employ thousands of people and concoct elaborate marketing campaigns; but it really isn’t doing anything for the artists, just keeping the labels and their lawyers and lots of stores alive (barely).

Like the major airlines wondering what to do next and ignoring the shining example of Southwest Airlines sitting right beside them, they could look at these indie labels and learn how to run a real business, for their own benefit and the benefit of the artists.  Of course, these indie labels don’t have elaborate headquarters buildings and huge funds for parties and lawyers and everything else, so it would be a much more low-key lifestyle, and you’d actually have to bring something valuable to the table (i.e. a love of music or actual skills) so 95% of them would be redundant.

Don’t look for anything to change anytime soon but the recording industry (major labels) are in big trouble and the future is grim.  Soon there will be a whole population of kids who never bought the music in the first place and don’t have a history of paying, and labels like the independent ones above will be in a position to make a claim on them through shared values while no one will have any problems stealing the majors’ blind.

The Construction Industry

The lead story in the Chicago Tribune business section is titled “Builders Draw Up New Budget” which discusses how raw materials prices (steel, copper, concrete, rebar, concrete) have increased by 20% - 100% recently.  These prices are causing some buildings to be un-economic, and causing developers to put more equity into their buildings.

The story used an example of the construction of 30 N LaSalle, which is right down the street from me.  The builder was using some “innovative” tactics, which included pre-assembly and also trying to get tenants in sooner to start recovering costs faster (i.e. get them in to parts of the building that are finished while work continues).

DUH.

I always wondered about the time value of money, and the fact that all that money was just accumulating interest expense while they waited for the revenue stream to come on line.  Anyone who has ever negotiated with a commercial builder is also aware of the bewildering complexity of the industry, and the work that needs to be done after the deal is signed.

It is good to see that some of the builders are starting to recognize the ancient formula that time is money, and idle money accumulating interest expense is bad for business while there is no revenue stream to support it.  Too bad the people who have been working for TWO YEARS on a sandwich shop in my building without opening the doors haven’t figured that out yet… I’d love to see their business plan.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Back to the Bears


Dan and I are co-owners of 4 Bears season tickets. Dan drives all the way here to Chicago from Madison so he doesn't make the journey for pre-season games, which is understandable, and sends the tickets to me.

I broke down and purchased parking this year with the help of my friend Brian who found the parking pass and negotiated it to $700, which I thought was a good price (he is a much better negotiator than I am). This was my first game with the new parking rules.
You can see on the top picture that they block off the parking with the "gold" or whatever parkers getting the front of the lot and all of us old-school south lot parkers on the other side. These spots were vacant but when I came back to leave they were all full so I guess people who came late to the game and bought the spots parked there.

My brother came and bought a grill that we ended up leaving behind... it was very complicated considering all it was - just a plain 'ol grill. But it did the job for burgers and hot dogs. Dan has a much more powerful gas grill he just bought.

The weather was very hot - it is August in Chicago - and the Bears offense was TERRIBLE. Lots of people, myself included, were booing by about the end of the second half and calling for them to pull out Rex and put in Griese. The nadir of our pathetic performance came near the end of the first half when, on 4th down near the end zone, we brought out the kicking team, but then the Cardinals called a time out (??), and then we took out our kicking team and brought in our regular offense, and then they tried to run the ball and got stuffed near the goal line (it was a tough race but our running game was just as pathetic as our passing game). The final insult was that the Cardinals went the other way with about 1 minute left and scored a field goal.

The evening sunset is beautiful as you can see from high above Soldier Field, from our non-PSL seats...
 Posted by Picasa

Dune Ride

Fun on the dunes, this video taken just outside of Saugutuck, Michigan. Sound is poor, but it was very windy. Tends to happen that way when you are traveling at high speeds in an open vehicle.

Friday, August 25, 2006

More Double Dipping

The most odd piece of correspondence I ever received from the Chicago Bears was the one where they asked me to just give the Bears six thousand dollars in exchange for...nothing.

Today I received another interesting piece of correspondence, this time from the Wisconsin Badgers. Before we go into the email I received, a little background.

Even though I am an Illini fan, I am a season ticket holder for UW football. I live in Madison and the atmosphere around Camp Randall is hard to beat and Big Ten football, of course, rocks.

A few years ago the Badgers, since their football program is so successful, added several thousand seats to their stadium. A large chunk of these seats were in the north end zone and there was a random raffle to determine who was to receive them. I honestly don't remember if I paid to be in the raffle or not. Anyways, I got two seats. I go to one or two games a year, always Big Ten conference games. I typically sell the rest of the tickets, either locally or through eBay.

Today I received this email. Not as bad as the Bears, but similar. The Badgers are asking me for some of my hard earned dough in exchange for....nothing.

The Wisconsin Football Ticket marketplace is a sham, of course. The Athletic Department is playing on the loyalty and dedication of their fans to enrich themselves. Here is how it works.

Season ticket holders, to be eligible to use the marketplace, must donate at least $50 annually to the Wisconsin Athletic Department. Then any unused tickets can be sold through the marketplace to other people. The Badgers keep 15% of the resale value. Not a bad deal you say? Not so fast.

The resale value is set at the face value of the tickets.

What a sham.

The very worst tickets for the Wisconsin/Penn State game (upon a quick look at eBay) are selling for close to one hundred dollars each.

That is a big difference between the face value (approximately $45 each) and the current true market value. And if Wisconsin and Penn State have good seasons that value will only go up.

I guess what I am scratching my head about is why the Badgers won't just open their private ticket exchange to free market prices, rather than fixing the sell price at face value. It is silly and insane for anyone to participate in it except for the buyers. The Badgers pocket a little money, but it hardly seems like it is worth the time to mess around. In other words, they are leaving a LOT of money on the table.

True, they could be doing this to avoid bad publicity like the Cubs constantly get for opening the agency that scalps their own tickets.

What is the deal with these football programs, the Bears and Badgers, sending me propaganda asking me for free money? If they don't think they are making enough on my admission, rather than acting like BONEHEADS they should just jack the ticket prices. Or better yet, auction them. But that is most certainly grist for another post.

At least there is a brisk market for Wisconsin and Bear tickets, unlike the current situation at U of I. Although I think even the Badgers will have problems with demand for some of their stinker games this year, especially that late season game with Buffalo Community College.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Making Sure My Vote Doesn't Count

The right to vote is a cornerstone of our democracy.  Our founding fathers put a lot of thought into the branches of government, and although we changed the senate process so that senators are directly elected, the other elements of the house and the electoral college exist as designed.

I am certain that my current situation was not intended by the founding fathers.

My house district has been explicitly designed to ensure that my vote doesn’t count.

Let me repeat that – someone took great care to ensure that my vote has no bearing whatsoever on the person that is elected for my district.

My representative is Danny Davis in the 7th district of Chicago and surrounding suburbs.  The district is very oddly shaped in order to pick up minority populations (specifically African American) in the city and surrounding suburbs.  “Gerrymandering” is a term for creating districts for a political purpose, and even a cursory look at the 7th district map reveals its strange design.

Danny Davis does attempt to represent HIS constituents.  From his August 2006 newsletter (sent at taxpayer expense), a meeting was scheduled to discuss

“information about jobs, childcare, healthcare, housing, health screening, nutrition and business development.”  Other important items to Mr. Davis include raising the minimum wage, postal issues (?) and the voting rights act.

It is odd that when you represent a district with Fortune 500 headquarters and a huge population of legal, financial and other business executives, your goals as the representative of this district have nothing to do with…

  • Improving the business climate in Illinois

  • Foreign trade

  • Taxation

  • Corruption of elected officials

  • Reducing our sky-high murder rate that is a blight on our city

The one thing I will give Mr. Davis credit for is that he is consistent.  He isn’t like some kind of Kerry / Clinton Democrat that says he is all things to all people.  Since Davis is always a lock to get re-elected, he always spouts the same message, and to the same null effect (our schools are still about the worst in the nation and our murder rate is a disgrace, and both negatively impact his voters).  He is consistent and you know exactly what you are getting when he is re-elected every year, which he has been since 1996 and probably will be until he chooses to run no longer (or is visibly incapacitated like Stroger).  

Only in America is this guy the representative for a vibrant downtown district that has a massive building boom for both residential and business purposes.  It goes without saying that the same people who are specifically disenfranchised in this district are the ones paying the lions’ share of property taxes.  We probably ought to start throwing green beer into the Chicago River to protest…

Chicago Air and Water Show


I watched the Chicago Air and Water show from my balcony. Last year I couldn't see much from my balcony so I didn't have much in the way of expectations but it turns out that the reason for this is due to the fact that they had an incident where they cut short the Blue Angels show short... and this year they went off without a hitch.

The show was fantastic. The planes wove through the buildings and soared over the John Hancock. I am sure it was great by the lake, too, but I can't see the waterline from my building.

I tried to snap as many pictures as I could and got some great shots. I can't tell you how many I had to delete, especially when I was trying to catch the planes, in formation, passing between the buildings. With my digital camera there is a delay on the shot (even though I was in "sport" mode) so I had to guess where the planes were going to appear AND the inherent delay. This patience paid off in the 2nd picture on the left with the planes scooting between the 2 buildings.

The last picture was from earlier in the day when an assortment of different planes flew in formation over the city... they weren't the Blue Angels but very cool nonetheless.

If you haven't been to the Air and Water Show in Chicago I highly recommend it. It is very busy down by the water but if you can get up high somewhere out of the crowds it is much less stressful.

 Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Craptacular Pool Analysis

* Soon to be gone Chief Illiniwek, this photo from the early forties.

For those of you who don't know, I am in a football pool with a few of the inmates over at the Astronomicon. So it is my job, unfortunately, to breakdown each Illini game weekly and blog about how badly we have been creamed that week.

If you are interested in the details of the pool you can read my post of a few weeks ago here. Lets just say that the winner (loser?) gets to drown his sorrows with booze-a-plenty.

If you aren't intersted in clicking, briefly, the pool rewards the person whose chosen team (all must be shitty) does extremely poorly or really well. Minor losses penalize the team. Getting blownout and the occasional victory reward the team.

Some of the impressive stats from my beloved Flailing Illini last year during the Big Ten season:

  • Record: 0-8
  • Average loss by 32 points
  • Outscored 351-95
  • Yielded an astonishing 469.3 yards per game
  • 107th nationally in scoring
  • Big Ten worst 196.5 yards per game passing
  • 160 yards per game on the ground (respectable for us)

Well, better luck next year. And I mean next year. Coach Zook inherited a basketcase program and, unlike my esteemed blogmate PS, I feel that he should be given a few years to do his recruiting, implement his system, and give it a go. I have heard that Zook is hyper competitive so I don't think drive is any issue, more than anything it is time to get the crap talent out and get some new talent in. Hey if Northwestern and Wisconsin can do it, goddammit so can we. But until then, we suffer. Sweet holy Jesus do we suffer.

I have in front of me a copy of the schedule for the Illini this year and I am sorry to say that there is a distinct possibility that we may lose every single game, unless something remarkable has happenned. I am not counting on it.

Sure blowouts:

  • Iowa
  • Michigan State
  • Penn State
  • Wisconsin
  • Ohio State
  • Purdue
  • Northwestern

Sure losses:

  • Syracuse
  • Rutgers

Up in the air:

  • Eastern Illinois
  • Indiana
  • Ohio

You will note that we have sure blowouts our last five games (Penn Statte, Wisco, Ohio State, Purdue and Northwestern) of the season. There won't really be too much reason for me to watch the Illini after the October 14 game with Ohio. But since I live here in Madison and have Badger season tickets, Carl and I will attend the Wisconsin massacre and booze it up.

So prediction time it is. I say we go 2 and 10 this year, the wins over Eastern Illinois and Ohio. Another season without a Big Ten victory.

But I will win some booze from the boys over at the Astronomicon unless Astro himself slips in. He has Tulane, whose mascot appears to be an angry pelican or something.

Oh well, better than a "medium size deciduous tree". But I digress, ever so slightly.

They are ranked BELOW the Illini in the preseason polls, if you can believe it. They have some hefty blowouts schudled this year, against Auburn, LSU and a few others. It will be close.

The other guys in the pool have Washington (Husky is a pretty cool mascot)

which is surprising - they usually are a fairly respectable team, even though they have sucked the big one as of late.

And the last competitor has the Air Force Flying Falcons, also pretty cool for a mascot.

I really don't know much about the Big West or the Pac 10 or Tulane and CUSA so I will have to let those guys make their predictions.

Lets tee it up, bitches! Oskee-wow-wow!!!

Monday, August 21, 2006

Lake Michigan Tragedy Averted

Here at Life in the Great Midwest we are determined to bring you breaking news as it happens. I spotted this unusual beaching of a whale on my vacation last week around Douglas, Michigan. With determined effort we were able to right the mighty beast and save it. Posted by Picasa

Saturday, August 19, 2006

They're not "EXPERTS" they are fools

I have been interested in astronomy for a long time so it is with some interest that I have been noting the debate on whether or not to "add" planets to the solar system chart or to "delete" Pluto. It seems that the decision is to have twelve planets, after some dissent.

I hadn't thought about it because I give astrologers about as much credit as I give psychics (i.e. zero) but apparently this may impact their star signs because they rely on the planets for their mumbo-jumbo. That is pretty funny, actually.

But the part that set me off is this article I saw in Yahoo titled "Astrologers Unfazed by New Planet Plans"

PARIS (AFP) - Star signs and astrology charts -- relied on by millions as a key to divining the future -- would not be much affected if three new planets are added to the solar system, experts said.

And who the hell are these "experts"? How can you be an expert in something that is so transparently bulls**t? I think "practitioner" or "con artist" would be more appropriate, but certainly not "expert".

It is a French article so maybe they are using the same "logic" that brought us deconstruction...

Thursday, August 17, 2006

We're Rooting For Laundry

A long time ago I remember a Sienfeld episode when Jerry was talking about baseball and he said "we were just rooting for laundry". There is a lot of truth to that.

In 1999 the Cubs made the playoffs after a 1 game elimination. Then in 2003 the Cubs made the playoffs again. In 4 years exactly how many players were hold overs between the two teams on a 25 man roster... TWO! Kerry Wood and Sammy Sosa.

Today, how many people are on the Cubs from the 2003 playoff team? Just a few. I can barely count Wood and Prior since they spend 100% of their time on the disabled list. Pretty much we are down to Zambrano & Ramirez. That is sad.

The White Sox also turned over almost their entire roster between the 2000 playoff team and the 2005 playoff team that won the World Series. I can't count Frank Thomas, since he was done for the year by the time they got to the playoffs. You have Buehrle, Konerko, and maybe someone else although no one is jumping out at me. That is probably about it.

I guess you can figure that your whole roster, except for a couple of guys, turns over every 2-3 years. That is how it is today in MLB. And they wonder why the game is struggling to attract fans... we are really rooting for laundry!

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Colbert Report - LIVE



I recently went to New York City to see a taping of the Comedy Central TV Show "The Colbert Report". For those who don't know the history of Stephen Colbert, he used to be a reporter for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, carrying out fake interviews and skits with a disturbing gravitas.

He now has his own show and it is extremely funny. The show tapes in New York City and I went to his web site for tickets to the show and they sent me an email confirm. On the day of the taping I got there around 4:30pm and waited outside until they brought us in to the studio around 6pm in the waiting room. Luckily they had an awning for shade because it was extremely hot or I would have melted out on the sidewalk.

The show started around 7pm. There were about 100 people in the studio, and the show moved very quickly. The only part they taped twice was the very beginning where he tells 3 jokes while looking at 3 different cameras in turn.

I had a great time and would highly recommend it if you are a fan of the show. He treated the audience well and everyone was very enthusiastic.

I leave this post with a picture of a Cave Bear skeleton (extinct in the US, happily) from the New York Museum of Natural History. Colbert always has a healthy fear of bears which he calls inhuman killing machines so I figured it would be an appropriate note. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Energy Industry Further Down the Rabbit-Hole

I used to tell a story to people about the energy industry. If you think about your energy bill, there are many components. There is energy supply, which is what you pay for the power plant. Then there is energy transmission, or what you pay for the lines that connect the power plant (far away) to your local grid. Then there is the local distribution company, or the wires that connect to your house. Finally, there is customer service, which consists of the people that answer phones, perform billing, and also dispatch trucks.

The story was that a company like Exelon with its Chicago subsidiary ComEd would gladly PAY someone else to take poor areas of the city of Chicago off its hands. Why? Because they constantly have to dispatch trucks to turn on / turn off electric meters and staff the customer service center with people to answer the phones mainly because poorer customers don't pay their bills on time and need to continually negotiate billing options to keep the lights on. If they could dump off their poor customers they would need far less in the way of billing / dispatch staff and they wouldn't need to send crews every year to turn off people who don't pay their bills.

Insanely enough, this scenario is coming true. From the latest Wall Street Journal, on Entergy, the utility that serves New Orleans:

NEW ORLEANS -- The perplexing issue of how to pay for expensive repairs to this city's damaged electric system is forcing city leaders and officials at utility Entergy Corp. into strange new roles. At issue: Entergy wants to hand over its assets in New Orleans to the city.

Entergy wants to give the assets back to the city because they don't make much money on distribution and it is expensive to build out a massive infrastructure for a bunch of customers that (historically) weren't great on paying their bills. Utilities make money on serving EXISTING customers; they certainly don't make money on low-income customers and ESPECIALLY not from building out infrastructure for low income customers.

I don't know where this is going to lead but it is a concrete manifestation of my theory that eventually the State of Illinois will seize back the generating assets of Exelon when Exelon starts punishing ComEd (their local distribution subsidiary) with high rates for power generation. I realize that these 2 events don't seem directly related but they are indicative of how desperate things have become in the industry.

And the sad part is that Wayne Leondard, the CEO of Entergy, is one of the brightest lights in the industry. If he can't fix this, we are doomed.

Las Palmas Cannot Be Patronized

Las Palmas is a restaurant chain (a few locations) in Chicago. I used to go to the one up on Waukegan road in the North suburbs, the one in Evanston, and (frequently) the one in Wicker Park on North Avenue. They have good, authentic Mexican food there.

However, I have no F**KING idea what they are trying to do with this ad that recently appeared in Time Out Chicago. It is one thing to talk about Fidel or use his image in some sort of "kitsch" like setting, but they really seem to be serious about Fidel and his "legacy".

For one thing, history will be EXTREMELY unkind to Fidel. He will be remembered as a dictator who kept his country in chains, poor and downtrodden, keeping apart families and stopping his people from benefitting with the huge Cuban population right in Florida.

I really don't know what they are trying to accomplish with this ad. Are they going for the pro-Fidel population? Who is that? Certainly not any Cubans I know of. I guess, in a sick way, they are going after the local hipsters in Bucktown who like to pose as if they are part of a greater struggle against capitalism or whatnot. Sad, really.

This is one place I won't be able to patronize again, that is for certain. Posted by Picasa

Monday, August 14, 2006

Fashion Conscious Yet Confused

A while back I was in Europe on an Al Italia flight and this advertisement caught my eye. In general, everyone in Italy seemed very well dressed, much more so than in the United States.

This advertisement is for a luggage manufacturer called Fergi, with that little frog in the corner. It looks like they make some interesting stuff, and they had a cute shop that we saw in Naples (didn't buy anything).

The part that really made me laugh is the hand-made sign... OBVIOUSLY the European art director who put this advertisement had never been to El Paso Texas or else it is some kind of really sick inside joke.

El Paso Texas is a dusty, nondescript city on the border of Mexico. I worked in El Paso on and off for a couple of years, staying in local hotels. I guarantee you one thing, this model would be completely out of place down there. This would be the last place in the US to carry around orange designer luggage while strutting down the catwalk... Posted by Picasa

Sunday, August 13, 2006

I want one of these

I was walking down the street in Chicago and I caught a glimpse of one of my favorite non-custom manufactured cars... the PROWLER. The car certainly has its flaws (lack of power, not very practical) but it turns heads like crazy where ever you go. I couldn't believe they didn't have the top down since it is a nice day.

They came out worth about 40k and the consensus wasn't there whether they'd be a classic meaning that their value would stay or even increase or if they'd decrease down to nothing like most cars.

I saw this listing for a Prowler on ebay and this car (black) seems to be going for about $19,000. It is a 1999 which is the third year for the car (came out in 1997) as you can see in the Wikipedia listing for this car.

The web is pretty amazing. In the old days, if you wanted information about a car like the Prowler, you'd have to do a lot of digging and leg work. However, nowadays it just takes someone with a bit of web knowledge and voila! you have a very detailed web site that tells you anything you'd need to know about the car (if you can trust the source, of course). Here is the ProwlerOnline web site, a free site put up by some dedicated owners with lots of information about the history of the car as well as message boards to ask questions and learn.

I know it is impractical but at some point it is in my range of impractical purchases for consideration. If only I wouldn't have received my property tax bill... Posted by Picasa

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Advanced Beer Technology!


I have been attending sporting events in Chicago and around the country for many years. Whether it is the Bears in Soldier Field, the Cubs in Wrigley Field, or the White Sox in US Cellular Field, one thing is constant - beer vendors come around with 16 oz. cans of beer that they pour awkwardly into a cup and charge you approximately $6.50 / each to save you missing 1/2 the game in line at the concession stand.
But today at the Sox / Tigers game something new and amazing happened - beer came in a 16 oz plastic bottle! No more empty cans and cups - now just mounds of empty plastic beer bottles!

I don't know if I like this change or not. It does seem more efficient, since it is easy to pass 4 bottles down the row relative to 4 cups, and certainly it is quicker to distribute the beer since you don't have to pour it. In the old days the vendor kept the cans which he threw away en masse and then you chucked the plastic cups under your seat but now the vendor doesn't carry anything back and there are no cups under your seat, just a big pile of empty plastic bottles.

I don't know if they have public hearings or anything before they make a change this important, but maybe they should. Is this good or bad? I don't know. Any kind of change seems odd in baseball, which definitely has a timeless quality. I think that they tried this in NFL football but abandoned it after fans threw the bottles on the field - they carry much further (I'd assume) than plastic cups - here is an article related to this topic.

Oh well, we will see how this turns out, and see if they rain down on the field when an exceptionally stupid call is made by the umpires. Posted by Picasa

I'll Bet You Can't Guess What This Is

On a weekend recently I saw a lot of tents sprouting up in River North. This usually means that some sort of fair or street festival is coming to town.

At the BP station on LaSalle street I saw a pickup truck filled with what appeared to be metal debris in the truck bed. But I knew what it was...

It was ART! I saw this artist down at a festival in Atlanta and they take scrap metal and other parts and create lawn art that you can leave outside and let it corrode. At one point I bought a snail from these guys.

Here is an example of a dog flower pot that is pretty amusing. They do get a lot of personality out of some bent metal and leftover whatnot. Finally, you can see a venus flytrap that I bought at home out on our deck. He is perpetually eying a buzzing fly. He has a pretty sturdy base so that he doesn't blow over in high winds, and he'll rust a bit over time but that won't hurt him much. It is funny that they stack all of these in the back of the truck, though. Here is a link to someone that sells them online if you are interested yourself, they have a whole bunch in stock.

 Posted by Picasa

Friday, August 11, 2006

How to be 95% more efficient

Efficiency is something that everyone is focusing on in business and in their personal life. Businesses are constantly scouring their supply chain, looking to shave a few percentage points off the cost of doing business in order to make a profit. People are constantly looking to be more efficient in their personal life - just watch them try to juggle phone calls, email and drinking coffee while driving a car, because of course pulling over is inefficient. Financial markets are constantly on the lookout for even the slightest inefficiency; in fact "arbitrage" is the concept of buying and selling identical items in different markets without risk in order to take advantage of price discrepancies.

While our entire lives (personal and business) are focused on efficiency, we are ignoring a massive opportunity for efficiency that is right before our eyes. Remember, people are turning over rocks for even a few percentage points - and I have an idea for 95% efficiency! That is like taking a department that currently has 100 employees and running it with only 5 employees, with the same output (note - this kind of happened with the privatization of British Steel - I can't find the original source but here is a note about their productivity increasing by a factor of 6).

And what would this massive efficiency be...

Searching people of Arabic origin at airports.

How can this be more efficient? Go to any airport and see how many people of Arabic descent are at the airport. It probably isn't more than 5%, overall. Thus, if the screening was focused on those 5% of the people, it would be massively more efficient. This means that they can be the focus of much effort while everyone else who is trying to bring their hair gel on the plane will be the focus of much less (useless attention).

Look at the people they arrested in the latest bombing incident. They were all Arabic. So why do we dissipate our resources chasing useless leads while the most likely suspects are concentrated in a certain grouping? Rarely are we given such a clear-cut lead on any type of crime.

This doesn't mean we hate people of Arab descent. Far from it. The people that turned in the loonies in England were from their communities. There are many, many decent people who came to countries like the US and the UK to get a better life for their families and the last thing they want is to be dragged down into strife from their old countries. This is for searching for terror crimes, and those with nothing to fear have nothing to fear. In fact, if there are many more crimes like this, it doesn't take a genius to determine that more oppressive measures will be taken later, since public opinion will revolt against preventable, extended bloodshed. It is better for everyone if we PREVENT these crimes up front, since it is hard to put the genie back in the bottle after the blood has been shed.

As for the whole "profiling" debate, it is what it is. If Nazis in America had been blowing up US installations or civilians in WW2, the whole German community would be under suspicion, and rightly so. Prevention doesn't equal guilt. It is too bad that it has to be this way but letting them slide through because we are focused on hair gel from people who completely don't fit the profile of the likely terrorist is a complete waste of time, while we let the most likely suspects go right between our fingers.

I will take 95% more efficiency in our fight to save innocent civilians any day.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Are Museums Just Super-Efficient Zoos?

Posted by Picasa In New York City I went to the museum of Natural History. The museum was very interesting, and the attached planetarium is highly recommended.

Museums have evolved over the years. Originally they were filled with trophies such as lions, rhino and other large game that were taken for scientific purposes and mounted up for display. Another, parallel purpose was the analysis of the fossil and geological record to understand how animals evolved over time and the linkages between what is alive today to what was alive in the past.

From the perspective of viewing animals, I had the odd sensatition that the museum was a super-efficient zoo. The animals don't require large enclosures, you don't have to feed them, and you don't need an army of veternarians on staff.

I don' t know if you could fill a museum today with the types of large game that were present in the New York museum. I guess you could find specimens that died from natural causes and bring them back but the outcry would be immense to kill game just for viewing back in the USA. The world has changed too much that anyone could contemplate intentionally going out and culling animals and bringing them back for people to view.

Perhaps in the future you will have virtual museums tied to zoos, or museums linked to video and online presentations with 3D effects. The one thing that you need to do is to either go to a museum or a zoo to get a feeling for the scale of these large animals, particularly the large whales, dinosaurs and even elephants (as far as live animals go that could conceivably be kept in a zoo). I guess I am just old school, and would prefer either a zoo or a museum. But I know which ones are more efficient...

More Lousy Chicago Marketing

This season there was an episode of CSI where a "street crew" that worked for a rapper were murdered as they went out at night with flyers and staple guns while they were posting up something that made fun of a rival rapper. I thought of those guys when I saw this pillar of flyers for "Rick Ross". Here is the "positive" press from his web site for his debut album:

“Rick Ross' debut album, ‘Port of Miami’ (Def Jam), is a summer blockbuster - complete with gunfights, car chases, drug dealing, Mile High Club sex, a rags-to-riches anti-hero, a grand hip-hop soundtrack and its own catch phrase: ‘Roussssss’…

Well what more could you want in a summer album? So then, why did some slow-on-the-uptake street crew decide that the target audience for gunfights, car chases, drug dealing etc... was River North in Chicago, where the tiniest condo starts at $300k and there isn't much gang banging in sight? Doesn't seem like their "peeps", but what do I know...

And in another instance of apparently confused marketing is an ad for Bud Light prominently displayed on a building along interstate 290, the major east - west artery in Chicago that cuts through the blighted (but up and coming) west side of Chicago.

In all my years living around Chicago I have never heard anyone from Chicago use the term "Chi-Town" to describe Chicago. Maybe it is in some old song somewhere or a tourist book but it isn't going to give you any "street cred" in this city to use a term that no one else uses (at least not Rick Ross street cred, above).

Maybe it isn't a coincidence that Chicago is the one major city where Miller products beat Bud overall. I for one am a Miller man and many people I know grew up on Miller and don't drink Bud unless there are no other options (i.e. it is free or all you have left). Posted by Picasa

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

What A Difference A Year Makes

Baseball is a funny game. It is very strange how one year a cast of characters can play in a certain manner, and the next year, with mostly the same crew, they play very differently.

Last night I went to the White Sox game vs. the Yankees. The White Sox are now about 10 games out of first place behind the out-of-nowhere Detroit Tigers that have the best record in baseball (yeah, they were .500 last year and getting better, but no one predicted this). The White Sox still have a good record and are in the thick of the AL wild card race along with either the Yankees / Red Sox and Minnesota.

The White Sox of 2005, the year they won the championship, were characterized by strong defense, smart baserunning, and excellent starting pitching. Their relief corps was suspect early in the year (until they got rid of Shingo and brought up Jenks from the minors) but became a strong point later in the year, with middle relief being a standout.

Now it is 2006. Some additions / subtractions have occurred, but now the White Sox:

- played horrible "small ball". They were picked off 3 times attempting to steal bases (this is a real rally-killer) and one time got out when the lead off man tried to stretch a pretty obvious double into a triple
- they couldn't get the bunt down when it mattered; AJ didn't bunt into a double play but he didn't advance the runner, either
- their center fielder made an obvious mis-play (the ball bounced out of his glove) and another time the outfield failed to throw home when a good throw probably would have gotten the runner
- their starting pitching wasn't that good, nor was their middle relief

However, here were the GOOD things about the White Sox:

- their lineup is frickin' awesome. The combination of Thome, Konerko, Dye, AJ and Crede - all hit over .300 or around there and have 20+ home runs each except for AJ, who has a smoking bat for a catcher (usually a hole in your lineup)
- they are walking a lot more - with all those stars batting they see a lot of good pitches and generally show decent patience - Thome for certain seems to be on base every day and hitting behind Thome has made Konerko a much better hitter
- their closer is now a rock of the team - Jenks may give up a run or blow a save here or there but he has the swagger and the fireball to close 'em down with the best of them

And then you are watching them against the Yankees, who traditionally follow the "big hitter" and aging starting pitchers and rely on Riviera the closer mode, but the Yankees played MUCH better defense and small ball, stealing bases and manufacturing runs where the White Sox relied on the big hit to make it.

Baseball is really a game of chemistry, teamwork, and collaboration. The White Sox are now playing to their new strengths, hitting, and that is trying to make up for fall backs in pitching, defense, and timely hitting "small ball". And all this with just a couple of major additions / subtractions, with Rowland out (to Philly) for Thome and Uribe playing less in favor of Cintron and others. Their pitchers are all still there (unlike the free-falling Cubs) but Buerlhe is looking like he is throwing batting practice most days and they rely on Garland (who would have thunk?) and also Vazquez, along with Contreras.

It is interesting to see what minor changes do to the whole package...

So What Do People Who Bet With Real Money Think?

I am fortunate in that over the last several years I have been limiting myself in listening to talking heads on TV. The whole bunch of them seem to have about as much knowledge about the world as the average sixth grader. I will admit to watching the TV news some as relates to the new crisis on Israel's northern border.

Everybody has an opinion on the subject. Everybody is an armchair quarterback. Everybody takes a little quote that somebody else thought up and uses it all day long when conversing with others or calling in to talk shows. "Disproportionate response". Who the heck made that one up? Just because some guy rushes me with a knife doesn't mean I toss my sidearm aside and dig around for my pocket knife! I just shoot him!

But I really, really don't want to get into politics, especially global politics. I don't live there, and I can't see what is happening except for some tiny six second video clips.

Here is one thing that I do know. Many people every day of their lives make bets on markets and invest in markets. Different companies, funds, whatever. And investors, typically, when it comes to the business of making money aren't red staters or blue staters - the only color they represent politically is green.

Back when the tsunami hit our stock market didn't budge one tiny bit. I blogged about this at the time and back then I said that people with real interest in global events saw this unbelievable tragedy of epic proportions and.....shrugged their shoulders. It didn't matter to them.

Take a look at this graph which represents the performance of the Tel Aviv stock market for the last three months:

You can see the major dip on the right when the conflict escalated after Hez kidnapped the soldiers and Israel started their major land and air campaigns. But look at the recovery. Three weeks later this market is HIGHER than it was before the war started. I think this represents panic selling and then professionals coming in and buying a lot of good stocks at a major discount.

Think of it this way - if you owned stock of a good company and there was an event that will basically not affect the way it does business - and then if it was for sale the next day at a 10% discount why would you not buy more? That is exactly what the professionals did. Their politics are not blue or red, only green. They saw deals and swooped in and picked up on them. Their analysis will more than likely prove correct.

How about an example of a larger market - do you remember what happened in the fall of 2001? Well look at what is going on now with the Dow:

I understand this simple blog post doesn't mean squat in the big picture, nor does it completely do justice as an indicator of economic health. But professionals - those that compete daily for their slice of the pie doing this for a living know who the long term winners are.

I have learned to start looking and listening to those who put their money where their mouth is for insights into how things are going in the world. Money talks...bullshit walks.

So after we see all of the reporters with their flack jackets on yelling and all of the footage of bastards lobbing missiles into civilian areas and all of the posturing, screaming and invasions and bombings - those who bet on things like this give it a great big shoulder shrug.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Not the Latte/Biscotti Crowd

LTC Randolph C. White Jr. Delivers Infantry Graduation Speech

I saw this speech on another blog that I regularly read and if you have an extra 12 minutes and 10 seconds today it is well worth listening to.

A great point he makes are that most of the people you see on TV are full of crap. They know nothing.

Another great point is the fact that most of those who are protesting and blaming America first are some of the weakest in our society. And that these young men have nothing to be ashamed of, nor need to kowtow to others in college who are protesting all day and sipping latte in a coffeeshop. How true.

Lastly, he mentions that we, as Americans have EARNED our place atop the heap in the world. People are banging down our door to get here. To work, to live freely. He says that he will never be ashamed to admit to anyone that he is an American. I second that 100%.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Instant Conversation Starters

For many years I worked in the state of Iowa, at various exciting cities including Des Moines and Sioux City. The people of Iowa are nice and police conversationalists.

Often, it makes life easier to have a little small talk. So I listened in on what they were saying and I guarantee you that if you are talking to anyone in Iowa over the age of thirty here is an instant conversation starter:

“Do you think Ronnie Harmon threw the Rose Bowl in 1986?”

Some background – in Iowa, college football is a BIG deal, because they don’t have any pro sports. The University of Iowa is the main football powerhouse, and they had an opportunity to win the Rose Bowl in 1986, after a 10-1 season. Ronnie Harmon, their star running back, only had 1 fumble for the WHOLE YEAR prior to this game. In this game, however, he fumbled the ball FOUR times and dropped a likely touchdown pass, to boot. Here is a link to a posting on whether or not he threw the game, which was apparently featured in an HBO series. Make no doubt about it, this is a lively topic for people from Iowa, if you don’t believe me try it out (but make sure they were alive and watching the game in 1986… that was a while ago).

Similarly, and the real topic of this post, if you want to get someone from Cuba talking who lives in the United States, ask them the following question:

“Did your family own land in Cuba before Castro? Do you have any plans if he dies?”

My sample size of Cuban acquaintances immediately jumps at this question just like the people of Iowa did for Mr. Harmon. Inevitably, the following points are returned:

  1. Our family had a big estate that was unjustly seized by the communists (usually with some loss of blood or people thrown in jail for years)

  2. We know exactly where it is and may or may not have visited it over the years when we returned to Cuba

  3. We plan on getting it back when the communists fall, since it is rightly ours

In my head the entire country of Cuba is like a big real estate market, except that the signs aren’t officially “up” yet. As soon as Castro falls and there is any sort of property market (or other way of getting that land back), millions of Cubans will do their best to recover that land that they feel was unjustly seized from their family.

While I sympathize 100% with their cause and I am sure that many of them were treated unjustly by Castro, it is interesting when I ask them what to do with the people that are living on their property today, some of whom have lived there for fifty years? The Cuban Americans I have talked to aren’t that concerned about these people, since they view them as squatters living on their land, and I am sure that they will be even less sensitive if they have to buy back their land that they owned in the first place.

I can’t think of a situation where so much land is desired by so many people with the money to buy it. When East Germany fell there were some land claims by West Germans but most of this appears to have been settled in an orderly fashion. I don’t think it will happen that way with Cuba, especially since many of the Cubans on Cuba have been impoverished by Fidel’s brutal and insane economic policies while the Cubans in America have generally done very well and amassed assets in the freest major economy in the world. In addition, the few Cubans ON Cuba who have money are the least deserving since they were cronies of Fidel or they wouldn’t have had the lucrative concessions that allowed them to earn their fortune… it is likely that these people will be treated with particular disdain by the returnees…

In any case, it is going to be interesting to watch, and it is a sure conversation-starter if you run out of something to say to a Cuban American.

Saturday, August 05, 2006

An Alternate World

Posted by Picasa When I was in New York we toured the Museum of Modern Art. There were a lot of famous and interesting pictures there, including some classical architectural drawings.

To the mass of people touring the museum, especially the "arty" types dressed in black, they are viewing the art through the prism of their experience. For example, see my (odd) post on deconstruction here, discussing art and their intentionally obscure and self-reductive vocabulary. Nearby there was a drawing listing that basically looked like scribbles - I am sure there is some deep meaning there... not.

For those reading this blog, who are far more educated when it comes to history, the title of this "art" is a Miles Van Der Rohe monument to BISMARCK. Here is a link to another related item in the MOMA gallery, which is this monument from another angle.

What was this monument? This monument was going to be built by Imperal Germany, which is the 1914-1918 Germany under the Kaiser, to the founder of Germany, Bismarck. Note the powerful architecture and design of this building.

The real issue here is that Bismarck is not an object of art. He was an imperialist bent on dominating the world, at odds with liberal democracy and at heart desiring a serious battle with the Western powers including France and England. This really represents the "alternate world", a world where the liberal democracies (as they are traditionally defined) were swept away and replaced by dictatorships.

People forget how CLOSE we came to this precipice, both in WW1 and WW2. In the end the forces of democracy (and communism, sadly) won in WW1 and WW2, but for a few minor changes (i.e. if Churchill hadn't been prime minister) the end could have been quite different on the European landmass. I am not saying that the US would have been conquered, but the posibility of a brokered peace with the Germans controlling most of Europe's landmass could have occurred.

Also people forget how technically and "artistically" advanced the Germans were. It was not a stretch to compare cultures and they were leaders in many areas of economics, design and art. Today our enemies are basically barbarians by comparison; we won't be admiring a monument to Bin Laden at the museum of modern art any time soon.

The final angle on this is that all of the arty types presumably had a "liberal arts" education. Not the "classical" liberal arts education, but the modern, crappy kind, full of pseudo-science, gender based history, and deconstructionism nonsense. It is a given that they know squat about military history except that the USA is "bad" and the third world people are oppressed...

I know what I saw and thought when I saw that picture... but to them, it was just another abstract item on the wall devoid of meaning except for their own artistic interpretation. It truly does represent an alternate world, one much worse than the one we inhabit today.

"Orgy of Booze"


This is most excellent.

The Astronomicon has posted the rules to the craptacular football pool and the winner gets to drink all of his sorrows away at the end of the year.

A few months back I commented over there a few times asking if they would accept a total stranger into their pool and they did!

Those suckas gonna pay.

I, of course, have the Illini in the pool. My opponents represent Tulane, Washington and the Air Force Academy. Four crappy teams, four booze swilling guys, one great pool.

The rules:
Your team: loses by 30 pts = 20 bet points
Your team: loses by 20 pts = 10 bet points
Your team: loses by 10 pts = 5 bet points
Your team: loses by less than 10 pts = 15 bet points
Your team: wins = 20 bet points
Your team: wins by 10 pts = 30 bet points

As you can see, you are rewarded for the blowouts and victories, but penalized if they just get mildly beaten.

I think they have seriously underestimated the low, low level of football that the U of I plays.

As you can see from Astro's post we need to choose booze indicative of our team or location to send to the winner. I am not sure what I will put up yet. I could ship a case of premium beer, an obvious choice living in Wisconsin as I do. This brewery is only a few minutes from my house, and so is this one and both make top notch beers. But I would be afraid UPS or the USPO would break the bottles. I will have to go to the liquor store and try to find a better solution. Ideas appreciated for booze that would represent either Illinois, where I went to school or Wisconsin, where I now live.

It really isn't too big of a deal, though, as this thing is a LOCK.

White Stripes

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Terms, Models and Economic Decisions

John Jay of Chicago Boys put up a great post titled Terms and Models the other day that really put my cranium into overdrive. I have been thinking about it ever since. One of the commenters to that post said that Jay just cleared one of his mental ducts - I will second that. There is some advanced math involved so if that isn't your sort of thing you may want to just stop reading this now.

The thrust of Jay's essay is that some people hold very simple mental models in their head that help them make sense of the world. One variable = one cause or x = y. Others use more complex models; variable a (+) or (-) variable b = y. Perhaps x*(q*) = z. Many others use partial differential equations to summarize ways they think or feel about certain things.

Jay asserts that the most simple ways of thinking lend themselves to the radical left or right. Abortion = murder. War = oil. Here's one I thought of: Hummer H3 owner = conservative right winger. As you get further away from the ends of the bell curve and more toward the middle, you have more complex equations. These people may throw in a variable or two into the abortion argument (maybe rape victims exempt or health of the mother).

Jay also asserts (correctly) that people who tend to think the same way will relate better. For example, if you put me in a room with a person who is stuck on the war = oil theme, we probably aren't going to get anywhere in a rational discussion.

Example:
Random person: War = oil
Dan from Madison: War = (revenge for WTC)* + (military presence in the Middle East) - (death of troops)* + (test ground for weapons) - (civilian deaths), etc. etc. etc.

So in this example I have a pretty complex view of the "war" as a whole. And I assign different values to the different components of the equation making it even more complex. Note that I have exponents on revenge and death of our troops, but not civilian casualties, military presence and test ground.

I would like to extend Jay's thoughts over to the economic realm. And I have a perfect test laboratory to do it in - my shop.

Day after day, year after year I learn more and more about my industry - and I remember everything. Not one day has gone by here in Madison where I have not been challenged on something that I have learned. Yesterday provides a great example.

I had a customer that needed a motor for an air conditioner and we had one, but it was doomed to failure because the amp draw was far too high. I informed the customer that if you have a motor with too great an amp draw, this can spell death to a motor (creates excessive heat, stressing bearings and windings) just as well as a motor that has too low of an amp draw can. This has been stated to me over and over by every major motor manufacturer in the industry. Horsepower is an arbitrary rating in an electric motor - amp draw really tells the tale.

My customer said "I bet you $10,000 that amp draw doesn't mean shit". At this point there was no reason to carry on the conversation. I sold him the motor. Hey, I will get warranty, he is the one that will have to keep eating the labor charge after he has to go out and replace it over and over and over.

So his mental equation in this case was: motor = fixed air conditioner.
Mine was this: (wrong)motor = (customer short term satisfaction) + (profit on immediate sale) - (long term customer dissatisfaction)* - (warranty work). And this after my customer said to my face (on the phone actually) that I was full of shit.

I have come to the conclusion that the people that I sell to use very simple equations to make their purchasing decisions when it comes to their work. But at times I sit here and scratch my head. Some of the most hard assed, penny pinching customers are the ones that sell the most expensive brands of equipment. That is a tough one to figure out. That mental equation is most certainly a type of derivative, where the brand of expensive equipment they sell gives the customer prestige or satisfaction, no matter the cost. Not having a preferred brand of equipment with prestige, I cannot wrap my head around that type of equation, and this, of course costs me.

Another thing I have never understood is the equation for harassment. Two days ago a customer came in and thanked us for showing him a new tool that came on the market, then he said that he purchased it at a competitor for a small amount less, and that the place he purchased it from didn't know anything about the tool, and that the counter person was a real imbecile. Try to put that equation on paper.

Jay's article really hit home to me as an aid to making my business better. I need to refrain from doing things from my viewpoint (non-linear equations) and start doing more from my customers' points of view. In other words, try to limit the variables.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Raul Addresses the World

I usually try not to comment on political items that are beat to death in the blog-o-sphere. For instance, I didn't mention the incapacity of Fidel Castro and the transfer of power to his brother, Raul, although it goes without saying that every author on this blog wishes Fidel a rapid and painful demise.

However, this headline caught my eye and got me to thinking... it says

"Raul Castro Expected to Stay the Course..."

Regardless of where the article went, in my head I could hear Raul's acceptance speech, kind of like a Miss America pagent with tears running down his cheeks and a little tiara (in this case Fidel's stupid military outfit and ever-present cigar):

"Dear Cuba -

I am going to stay the course of my idiotic brother, Fidel. We will continue to allow no freedoms to our people. We will continue to follow a bankrupt ideology of communism even though their are only 5 other members of this dwindling sect, including such bright lights as North Korea and Laos. We will continue to earn hard currency any way we can, including bringing over aged Europeans for sex tourism.

Although we totally lack any type of plan for the future for our people we will continue to blame America for all of our ills and our lack of power, food and infrastructure on saboteurs.

My brother would talk for 4 hours at a time and so I will repeat the variants of the above items, over and over, 100 more times. It is almost as exciting as singing "100 bottles of beer on the wall" in your school bus.

I promise no progress, no infrastructure, and no freedoms in your future. 50 more years!!

Raul

World Trade Center, Part One


I recently went to New York City. I hadn't had a chance to tour NYC since prior to 9/11 (I was there on business but didn't have time to sleep, much less look around).

I went to the World Trade Center site. The WTC site housed the subway station for that area and I used to cross through it frequently on business. I remember being lost in the vastness of the WTC indoor mall more than once. I also especially remember one day I was in NYC with a co-worker and we looked back at the WTC twin towers and from our angle it looked like there was only one building because we were at a direct diagonal. I told her that it was the twin towers and she refused to believe me! I tried to convince her but reason was to no avail. I was going to walk until you could see the second building from beyond the first but it was going to take me too far out of the way so I just gave up. She wasn't too bright, obviously.


The site was mostly home to tourists and visitors. The mood was very somber. There was an optimistic plaque about the "future" of the WTC site. The plaque didn't mention the controversy of the new design and the fact that ground breaking appears to be receeding into the distance. A particularly sad pundit said somewhere that "Al Queda can't defeat our red tape!" and it seems to be true...

In the lower left you can see the view from through the chain link fence across the site. It is very eerie. The vacant site is gigantic and in my head I remember it being so busy and full of people that it is hard to reconcile with its dusty current situation.Posted by Picasa