Sunday, September 30, 2007

Key Lime Pie, Part Two

Part two of a series. You can find part one here. Click any photo for larger.

The traditional topping for key lime pie to me is a meringue. I am not that big of a fan of meringue, so I whip my own cream. Again, so easy just about anybody can do this. Take 8oz heavy cream, put it into a bowl with 3 tablespoons of sugar and one teaspoon of vanilla extract.
Whip it, and whip it good.
When the cream starts to firm up you have a choice. I like my whipped cream pretty damned thick so let it go as long as you want to, according to your preference.
Spread it on top of the pie and put it in the fridge for 12 hours. NO BAKING. Sure there is a slight salmonella risk from the raw eggs, but I think the acid from the lime juice knocks it down. The first time I made it I ate it first as a test, then gave it to my family for consumption. There were no issues. Here is the finished product.
All that is left is to eat it. That is the really fun part.

A few comments on the pie. I tried this recipe first with standard persian limes you can get anywhere. It was extremely good, better than any restaurant key lime pie I have ever had. I was super lazy that day so just put Cool Whip on top instead of the whipped cream. The Cool Whip was a huge step down from the freshly whipped cream so I wouldn't recommend that.

I have never seen key limes in a store up here in Wisconsin and that is why I tried the persian limes first. I had a 5 pound box of key limes shipped in from here to try the recipe with those and I have to admit it is better - not by orders of magnitude, but definitely better. I probably shouldn't have done that because now when I make it again with persian limes I know that I am shortchanging myself. But persian limes are everywhere and very cheap, and the key limes I must have shipped in. I got mine from here. That cost put the pie at over $30 to make, and using the persians the pie costs about $10 to make. Maybe some of my local mercados will have the key limes in stock and I can save some money. I will have to check that out.

DO NOT buy lime juice or any substitute. Squeeze the limes yourself for the freshest taste. I bought some of the store packaged lime juice to taste and it was garbage. I think it would ruin the pie. I have a hunch that a lot of the restaurant "key lime pies" that are served are made from that stuff.

Thanks again to Steve H. for publishing the original recipe.


Cross posted at Chicago Boyz.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Drop Dead Pat Forde, Part Two

Does everybody remember what Pat Forde said about the Illinois Syracuse game a few weeks ago? Let me refresh your memory.

Syracuse-Illinois (14): The two worst coaching hires of 2004 square off. Greg Robinson (5-20 at Syracuse) and Ron Zook (5-20 at Illinois) compete for the right to give their fans false hope that they're turning things around.

Hey Pat we are now 4-1, 2-0 in the Big Ten and well on our way to a bowl game. Above is a photo of the celebration in the stands after the Penn State win.
Drop dead Pat Forde you jerk.

Key Lime Pie Part One

The first of a two part series. Click any photo for larger version.

Before I begin this two part series about Key Lime Pie, I must first and foremost give a tip of the hat to the inspiration for this recipe, Steve H. His original blog post and recipe can be found here and I basically followed it to the number. There are a couple of minor variations and I took some photos of the process. So lets begin.

Have you ever ordered key lime pie in a restaurant? It is a complete crapshoot. Sometimes I have been impressed, other times I have eaten two bites and pushed the plate away in disgust. It is probably my favorite dessert. The only problem is that I won't be ordering it out anymore, as I know I can make better myself. This recipe is so easy just about anyone with basic motor skills can do it.

First, what exactly is a "key lime"? From the wiki:

The Key lime (Citrus aurantifolia (often abbreviated to: C. aurantifolia), or Citrus x aurantifolia (Christm.) Swingle), also known as the Mexican lime, West Indian lime or Bartender's lime, has a globose fruit, 2.5-5 cm in diameter (1-2 in), that is yellow when ripe but usually picked green commercially. It is smaller, seedier, has a higher acidity, a stronger aroma, and a thinner rind than that of the more common Persian lime. It is valued for its unique flavor compared to other limes, with the key lime usually having a more tart and bitter flavor. Named after the Florida Keys, it is best known there as the flavoring ingredient in Key lime pie.

They are rather smallish compared to a regular (or Persian) lime as you can see in the photo below.

Below we have a photo of the ingredients you will need. We will go clockwise starting at the pie crust. You will need one of those, along with the key limes, 6 eggs, 8oz heavy cream, two cans of sweetened condensed milk and most importantly that key lime squeezer. Again, hats off to Steve, who recommended it. You can buy it here, for $6.95. Do yourself a favor and buy the standard sized squeezer as well. You can land both at your house for under $20. The first time I made this pie I used standard persian limes (I will comment on this later) you can get anywhere and I squeezed them by hand - never again.
OK, you will need 1.25 cups of key lime juice so get to work with that squeezer. Here is what it looks like, and it took exactly 32 key limes to get this amount of juice. It goes extremely quickly with the squeezer.
Strain the juice to remove any seeds or other garbage that fell in there and set aside. Now, put the two cans of condensed milk into a bowl and mix in six egg yolks. After they are mixed in, add the key lime juice and mix that in. It won't want to go into the milk at first, but it will after about a minute or so.
Then, dump that into the crust. Steve H. will probably give me the berries for not making my own graham cracker crust. The homemade ones are better, I must admit, but time only allowed me the store bought one. Here is what you have now.
Pretty easy, eh? Almost done - part two will deal with whipped cream and show the final product.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Chicago Sales Tax Hike Proposed

It is sad when two of my more depressing prophecy-type posts intersect...

Cook County is the vast county within which the city of Chicago resides, along with a large number of affluent suburbs. Cook County has a population of over 5 million and is the 2nd largest county in terms of population in the United States.

In this post from March of 2007 I discussed how a succession movement could be in the future of Cook County. Specifically, I noted how the huge expenses of maintaining hospitals was burdening the county and killing their ability to live within a balanced budget.

In this post from December 2006 I went through sales taxes, which are among the most regressive taxes in the arsenal of tax tools and the fact that Cook County and the City of Chicago have one of the highest and most unfavorable sales tax regimes in the country.

Now, in a single article in the Chicago Tribune titled "County Urged To Boost Sales Tax - City Total Would be 11% Under Plan" dated September 25, 2007 shows the likely intersection of these negative trends. Todd Stroger, the epitome of political nepotism, who campaigned on a plan to streamline the bloated Cook County work force, has done nothing of the sort and is now looking about for a revenue boost to cover the inevitable annual increases in expense growth.

The line from Mayor Daley says it all - "A sales tax is a hard pill, but how do we fund three hospitals?"

Chicago will have the highest sales tax rate in the nation (it is among the highest in the nation today, at 9%, before the 2% proposed boost). Sales taxes hit the poor particularly hard because they are applied to essential goods across the board (Illinois has few exceptions). The one (minor) benefit of sales taxes is that they do not distort most business activities, but there will be some opportunities for cross border shopping and some electronic commerce (where sales tax is not applied) will grow.

Cook County shares layers of duplication with the City of Chicago and is famous for its hidebound work force. To its credit Cook County does run the hospitals that the indigent in Chicago rely upon (along with the ER's of all other hospitals). However, the County does not make wise choices with its funding, generally favoring administrative positions over "line" positions, as the nurses in my Cook County post point out so clearly.

The line not pursued by Daley in cleaning up the County (which is its own arm of government, but he was the one defending its proposed tax increase) would have been:

1) reduce layers of administration
2) close non-essential or overlapping services with the City of Chicago
3) reduce the cost of benefits and pensions by reducing retirement benefits for workers to sustainable levels
4) demand excellence from County institutions; Todd's father the elder Stroger didn't even go to the county hospital that was named after him for care after his stroke
5) work to collect market based fees from those that patronize county hospitals where possible (generally they don't even try to bill for services)

The easy way, however, for a politician, especially one in as "blue" a city as Chicago, is to just propose raising taxes.

And that's sad.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Grossed Out...

Ladies and gentlemen, from the home office in Valparaiso Indiana here are the Top Ten Rex excuses…here goes…

#10. It’s hard to find an open receiver when old guys are holding those big orange sticks on the sideline during a game

# 9. Those long crowded home game bus trips from Lake Forest on the Kennedy Expressway give me the heebie-jeebies

# 8. I was only looking for an easy way to schedule a weepy, tell-all appearance on Oprah to promote my upcoming book

# 7. Being on that ABC7 News segment with sports bloopers really cracks me up

# 6. According to Coach Smith, a high quarterback rating didn’t mean diddly…until now

# 5. Those weekly phone threats from Pete Rose just kept getting scarrier and scarrier

# 4. Another wet, sloppy, victory tongue kiss from Lovie and I'm gonna' go jump in the lake

# 3. Only trying to prove that Jay Mariotti from the Chicago Sun-Times is a sports genius

# 2. Those late 4th quarter Gatorade dunks make my skin break out

...and the #1 Rex excuse is...

Look, can I help it if Kreutz keeps farting right before the snap???

Train Rex

Well, it finally happened. Lovie Smith, the head coach of the Chicago Bears, finally has had enough and sat Rex on the bench.

This in and of itself isn't too much of a surprise.

On a related note, this post about Bears Quarterbacks (and what a trail of tears it is) is one of the most highly viewed this blog has ever created in its almost three years of existence. It is a list of all of the Bears quarterbacks since Brett Favre started his ironman streak in 1992. Hardly a day goes by where that post doesn't get at least ten or more hits. Lately it has gotten quite a few more. Why? This is why - look at response number three.

I have decided to update the old post and keep it going.

ADDED: Snap! I missed one! Jeff Blake played a few games for us several years ago. I will update the original post.

Wisconsin Is Number One...Again

No, not in football (yet), in binge drinking. But lets take a look at what the survey calls "binge drinking" for a second.

In Wisconsin, 33 percent of young adults ages 18 to 24 reported binge drinking, consuming five or more alcoholic beverages in a single occasion, in the last month. Twenty-eight percent of 25- to 41-year-old adults and 31 percent of high school students admitted binging, said Paul Moberg, deputy director of the institute and the report's project director.

So they are calling more than five beers or drinks at one time a "binge"? Heh, put me in as a binge drinker then. Five beers isn't much at all if you are watching football for a whole day.

Additional figures based on taxation data show Wisconsin vendors sold enough alcohol in 2005 for the average person age 14 and older to consume 2.81 gallons of pure alcohol annually. This translates to about 600 standard drinks per year. The national average for the same time period was 2.2 gallons, according to Moberg.

600 drinks per year? No problem there for me either. That is only 1.64 drinks per day! When you enjoy a bottle of wine with your mate (and I do a couple of times per week) you drink more than that.

So I think they should up the ante on the definition of binge a bit. I won't argue that there may be an alcohol problem in the state, but they need to define it much better.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

What Is Not Seen

A few months ago the Senate Democrats here in the State of Wisconsin floated a plan to provide universal health care for all residents of the state. The first question most will ask is “who is going to pay?” The answer is that the plan ($15bb worth) will be funded through a payroll tax.

The plan is dead in the water as the Republicans who control our State Assembly are having nothing of it, but in the next election there is the distinct possibility that the Democrats will win back the Assembly, and will then control the Governor’s chair, the Senate and the Assembly.

This is the type of thing that causes business owners like myself nightmares. I already provide top notch insurance coverage to my employees and their families. If I am forced to pay a huge payroll tax to provide insurance, it is a mere formality that the very good coverage that my employees currently enjoy will go away. In other words, I will be damned if I am going to pay twice.

Add to this that my business crosses state lines, with part of the employees residing in Illinois. It is completely unfair that they receive the good coverage, while the employees in Wisconsin will have to deal with the inevitable bloated bureaucratic mess that the state health plan will become.

But life isn’t fair, and the employees will have to understand that. The good news for me is that I won’t have to worry about them scurrying off to other employers - everybody will have the same coverage. The bad news is that these are my friends and some are long time employees that I care about and I just know that they are going to get shafted by the State of Wisconsin someday for something. I guarantee my tiny business isn’t the only one that will have to struggle to make things fair and/or equitable for employees.

On a personal level, I have already started to look into alternatives to the state health plan. First and foremost I am making good personal decisions (less alcohol, more exercise, watching my weight). If I am not sick, I don’t have to go to the doctor, and won’t have to deal with the nightmare to come. Secondly, I have begun to look into private insurance, or perhaps becoming a resident of another state while living here in Madison. Frankly I am hoping that I won’t have to cross this bridge any time soon.

Episodes like this always make me think of Bastiat and this essay. Even though it was written 159 years ago it is always timely. The thrust of it is that “the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come…”. The first paragraph:
In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we forsee them. (bold mine)
I don’t have any answers to the health care problems we all have, and would love some realistic solutions from somewhere. That cost on my business that happened courtesy of WW2 is one of my largest. I do know one thing - if the solution is done courtesy of the State of Wisconsin there will be calamity.

I sincerely hope that if the Democrats gain control in ‘08 that this plan will not pass in its present form. But if it does, the unseen future effects on the economy of this state will be severe.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Monday, September 24, 2007

Bears vs. Cowboys

Being born and raised in Chicago, I am used to failure in sports. I remember when the Bears first beat the Redskins in the playoffs in the early 80's prior to the Super Bowl championship, and then everyone KNEW that they'd get knocked out in the next round. It is too easy to point out the Cubs and White Sox failures in the playoffs.

Thus it was with trepidation that I was sitting in a restaurant / bar in Chicago on Saturday for lunch and simultaneously watching the Cubs, Sox and Illini football. Each of them were kicking the crap out of the competition; this rarely happens. I knew that there was a piano somewhere waiting to fall on my head.

And fall it did... as the tunnel highlights above will be the apex for the season, with the Bears playing like crap, not executing on opportunities in the first half and then getting killed in the second half. I couldn't bear to read the injury report to boot, Harris, Briggs, and more. It was brutal.

For fun check out the drunk Bear fans blog on the sidebar... lots of new and funny stuff up there.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Risk and Return

A recent article in Barron's magazine was titled 'Weathering the Storm in Style' and it discussed what retirees could do if the market tanked in the years while they were living off their retirement savings. The article mentions people who planned to retire just prior to the 2002 market meltdown but whose portfolios went down significantly (25% - 40%) and they had to change their plans and keep working as a result.

Later the article mentions how many "good years" you need in the years following the meltdown in order to make up for the bad times. For example, if the market drops 25% in one year, you will need to gain 46.67% in the following year to recoup the gain plus make 10% more (i.e. if you have a base expectation that the market will make you 10% in a year, you don't just need to recover the drop, you need to make up for the 'lost year'.

I covered a similar conceptual issue in a post titled "Percentage Returns... and other Lies" about how the portfolio managers could have a series of good looking years after a debacle like 2002 and yet investors still hadn't recovered their initial investment (let alone make 10% / year to boot). I used a bit of my own portfolio for color commentary in that post, to "humanize" it, like a good journalist should.

Retirees in particular are susceptible to big one-time crashes in stock because 1) they have to live off their assets, not their salary or working income 2) they have less time to make up for the losses because their time horizons are shorter. The basic theory is that you put a higher percentage of your investments in bonds and fixed income investments when you are older because you don't have the time to make up for losses in the higher performing but riskier stock sectors.

Not mentioned in the article but conceptually linked is the fact that people often behave irrationally in a down turn. If the market goes down, people generally "bail out" at a low point rather than holding until the assets turn around. Even worse, people generally "chase" high cost options on the way up (like today's real estate market) and then sell at the worst possible time, which compounds their woes.

But none of these related, and important, concepts is really what this post is all about. The REAL issue is the assumed rate of return.

I see articles everywhere that list a long term return assumption of 8-10%. By this I mean that people have an expectation that, including all downturns (and the fact that you have to "make up" for those lost years, not just recover to get back to where you were) that there is a net expectation that you are going to earn this return annually over time.

I don't think that an assumed long term return of 8-10% is viable for most people. It is true that the stock market has a relatively high long term return for US equities looking back at historical data, but this assumes that people were rational, reinvested dividends, invested steadily and didn't "freak out" and sell during a crisis, and didn't chase high-performing stocks (which typically subsequently plummet). Most investors have a much lower return than the average return of all investors because they fell prey to these and many other linked pathologies on investing.

If you have anything in debt you need a much lower rate. Interest rates on debt instruments have fallen over the last few decades, since the "stagflation" era in the late 70's and early 80's. It is true that there are higher yielding debt instruments out there, but these instruments carry higher risk that (theoretically) negates their higher return. Generally a long term treasury bond gives about 4-5% BEFORE TAXES. This equates to about a 3% return AFTER TAXES. 3% is a long way from 8%, and this has to make up a big chunk of your total portfolio over the course of your life.

For your TOTAL return assumption to be near 8-10%, then you have to make a lot on the stock portion of your portfolio, given that it is assumed to represent 30% - 70% of your total portfolio depending on age (with the rest being bonds). It is unlikely that the average person is going to earn anywhere near this return over their life horizon unless they are a disciplined investor and don't have to liquidate during a market debacle.

A more realistic return assumption would be something closer to 6%-7%. This return assumption would be closer to what a typical investor might receive, across their entire portfolio of debt and equity investments, if they stayed rational during times of exuberance and market downturns.

What does the difference between 6-7% and 8-10% matter? Quite a lot, actually. It means a lot more years of work before retirement and a much higher percentage set aside for retirement and not immediate consumption along the way.

This is a second "nail in the coffin" of the retirement myth out there - I hit the other side of retirement in this post called "You'll Never Retire" which says that the concept of a middle-class retirement is new and probably doomed anyways - the rich never stop working (although their concept of working is more akin to what we think of in terms of investing) and the poor never do, either.

I really think that retirement advisers are selling a bill of goods with these high rates of returns on peoples' investments. It isn't practical advice and it can lead to incorrect conclusions that can't be fixed later (if you are close to retirement you'll never be able to make up the lost years).

If you really want a nice retirement go work for the government. They are the only institution that doesn't have any market discipline. After all, they can make up for their current mistakes by taxing the heck out of all of us a few decades from now.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Health Care and Fixed Costs

There are many health care plans being proposed to "fix" the growth in medical costs in the United States. Each of these plans has different elements but I haven't really seen the particular linked issue addressed that I am going to speak of in this blog post.

I make a point of reviewing my medical bills. When you have surgery, for example, you receive an itemized bill. In that bill you can see services from each provider and also the cost for the room, medicine, etc... Frequently the costs seem far out of line from reality (outside the walls of medicine); a room could cost hundreds or thousands of dollars a night; an aspirin or readily available over-the-counter medicine could cost many dollars per pill.

The real issue is that the medical industry is primarily a "fixed cost" business, with very low "marginal costs". For example, if you look at the Northwestern Hospital facility downtown, a vast series of interconnected buildings, and asked yourself this question:

"How would costs vary on a given day if the facility was full of patients vs. having NO patients?"

The answer is that the costs for that day would be virtually identical whether or not the hospital had patients. You still need to pay for the facility, the doctors, the electricity, and all the support workers and nurses. Virtually the only "variable" costs that would be avoided are the cost of medicines and food, but the medicines are inventoried and they need to hold stocks in advance and the food must be purchased based on planned demand and the spare food would just be thrown away (the costs would be pretty much the same).

Over some longer period of time if patient loads went WAY down the hospital could make some minor changes. The hospital could lay off some administrative staff (supporting paperwork) and buy less food and hold lower stock levels of medicines. The hospital really couldn't do much on the level of doctors and nurses unless they wanted to essentially abandon certain types of services (cardiology, ER) because the level of staffing is to a great degree not dependent on the volume of patients but IS dependent on the level of services that need to be provided (hours of coverage, specialists available, etc...).

Fixed cost businesses do not receive price and volume signals the same way a "variable cost" business does, and in fact their internal processes often are not directed towards maximizing profits, because profits by customer aren't really known. Cost accounting systems often send strange or misleading systems to fixed cost businesses.

Let's compare the hospital to say, a car repair shop. The car repair shop has some fixed costs, such as the building and a base level of employees and administrative staff. When customers bring in their cars to be repaired, the body shop does an estimate and then purchases the parts from a supplier for the car (adding a markup) and then does the work on an hourly basis (with a markup) and bills the customer. In the very short term only the cost of parts is variable; but in the moderately short term the cost of labor becomes variable because you can easily scale up or down your level of staff, and you can even shorten your hours to limit your support staff costs. In the longer term, if you don't have enough business to cover your fixed costs you shut down; but along the way you can pretty clearly see that the volume of business and the type of business (you probably make more per hour for your labor then you make on your parts write up) generally shows you the way to make decent decisions. In addition, the billing process is pretty clear for car repair - everyone receives a bill, and people pay by credit card, cash or check. Write offs are relatively rare (and can be avoided by requiring payment to receive the car back).

At a hospital, for example, the real costs are the revenue that you forgo when the facility isn't full. When you build a facility, you need to UTILIZE the facility and provide the services that you are offering. The cost to provide each of the specialties are hard to determine; you have doctors and nurses and support staff; but then you need to allocate the facilities and beds back to that specialty and apportion some of the other vast overhead to that particular service. Different types of services also have different write-offs for billings; the ER might be packed with people but if they are uninsured then this is a profit-less business and your costs being allocated or assigned to that business are matched with non-revenues. On the other hand, you can't have a full service hospital without offering these services, so even if they are loss-making (according to the internal costing models) you can't shut them down without impairing the facility as a whole.

Overall, the best way to run a fixed cost business is to fill it up with people and run it as full as possible. This represents the "utilization factor" such as how airlines (another sad example of profitless enterprises) manage their business. Hospitals, however, also have the problem that many / most of the people aren't paying full rate, or aren't paying at all. This is a very difficult problem to manage.

The bill that you receive from the hospital reflects this complexity. That asprin is $10 not because it cost them $10 (you could buy that aspirin for maybe 5 cents as an example on the street, and it would cost the hospital a lot less) but because it is a UNIT upon which they load fixed costs that has nothing to do with the fact that you received this aspirin. The difference between the 1 cent that the aspirin cost the hospital (these are hypothetical examples, I don't know the real cost of aspirin or the typical markup used) and the $10 you are charged represents the total of all the other costs that the hospital bears that are not itemized on your bill... the support staff, the electricity, the cost of all the uninsured patients in the ER, the cost of lawyers to fight the other lawyers suing the hospital, the cost of other departments that are half empty, etc... People think that if they didn't get that aspirin their costs would be less; well maybe in the ultra-short term but then the hospital would just tack this cost onto something else like the cost of the room for the night which is why it is cheaper to stay in a five star hotel than in a lousy decrepit room in your local medical complex (with bad food, to boot).

The complexity of costing services in a hospital when a huge percentage of the costs are fixed in the short and medium term and a whole gamut of services must be offered when some are very likely losing money (the ER) because you need to offer a complete package is immense. Add to this a super-complex revenue methodology where there are uninsured patients, government-insured patients, privately insured patients and self-pay patients and the "revenue mix" of these patients varies by service, and it gets even crazier. For practical purposes you could say that there is a huge disconnect between the marginal costs of providing these services and the billings (which will be negotiated) to each user for these services.

This process in a way is kind of like the energy business when it was vertically integrated and regulated. The residents, businesses and government paid for power on a cost basis that is far above the marginal cost of producing power (for hydro power, as an example, the marginal cost of the power is zero) and they each receive different discounts (governments pay the least and businesses sometimes subsidize residents, although not always). This system can work overall if the revenue comes in above costs, but when there are problems it is very difficult to pinpoint who is not paying their fair share due to the complexity and sheer arbitrariness of the cost allocation decisions.

The medical industry can work like the power industry USED to work as long as it is a "closed" system and people can't escape. As long as the full freight insurers are in the market and the system has enough money to pay bills and salaries, they can prop up the entire system and we don't need to really take it apart and prune out the money losers and face the consequence of those actions (i.e. poor people not receiving the same services as rich people).

In the longer term, however, there are escape routes. For example, many other countries offer "medical tourism" where you can go abroad and get a hip replacement or cosmetic surgery. The quality of these services can be as high as the general quality of service in the United States; after all, if there was some problem with doctors from the sub-continent we'd have a problem overall because they make up a huge proportion of the doctors here, as well. Medical knowledge is generally known and the equipment is standard (if expensive) - you can and investors do build high quality medical systems overseas that can be operated at a high profit, while being much less expensive on a per surgery level than the US.

How can they be cheaper? Easy. First thing you do is build a giant fence around it to keep out the locals, who are often impoverished and don't even receive minimal medical care. They don't have an ER to serve the locals, they just offer the services that paying customers want (the overseas or rich locals). When you go to these facilities, you pay up front or in some defined manner; they aren't jerking around with an insurance company paying 20 cents / dollar in some semi-random and complex manner. In addition, they know that there is competition for these services, so THEY TRY TO DO A GOOD JOB. You can be an inner city hospital in the US and run like crap for years; as long as the government keeps subsidizing you (and your unionized employees) you will be in business. But these for-profit facilities have to care about their reputation because no one will travel to them unless they have a solid reputation.

On a larger scale, it goes beyond hospitals and includes local doctors and outpatient services. You could see a place like Baja California in Mexico being an area where you could build a local medical infrastructure just to serve the retiree community, at a large profit, while still being substantially cheaper than the US. The key is to be able to wall it off from the local community (or build it where there aren't many locals, like the resorts do) and make it a tourist or retiree based community at world standards.

The problem with US medical costs is that they are difficult to prepare for. If you lose your job and you aren't retiree age or impoverished, you will be up the creek in the US. Only the richest people could afford to take on something like cancer without insurance; and insurance is typically tied to your job and the quality of your firms' health care. If your company goes bankrupt and you are between carriers private insurers won't touch you if you are already sick, so you are in trouble.

The cost of being sick on a recurring basis is so expensive in the US because of the way costs are allocated. If you keep running into the health system, and you have insurance, you are going to be "allocated" a high share of those fixed costs. If you don't have insurance then you will get some level of care but the health systems unofficial ways of discouraging you such as long lines will ultimately put you in an unhappy place. What you are actually costing on a "marginal" basis is out of sync with the overall system costs that are being allocated to you.

If you were in a closed system that was funded at market based rates you could "buy" security in advance; someone would fund it as long as they understood the overall system and it was capped to keep out poor or impoverished customers. At this point it is "true" insurance, and there is always someone around to offer insurance if the model is profitable for them.

The purpose of this post is not to recommend reforms to the US system; that is beyond my knowledge. The point of this post is to point out the following facts:

1) any fixed cost model sends poor price signals to customers and providers
2) there are market based equivalents emerging that can win on price and quality for selected services
3) the wider availability of #2 type functions will make #1 less viable over the long term, as quality patients "opt out" of the system and leave the poorer patients inside. There are significant costs to opting out (moving, leaving family) but ultimately this could prove compelling for lots of people

The integrated, fixed costs systems are overall falling apart as the rich become more mobile and can insulate them from the poor with parallel, high-quality offerings. This is true in energy and housing and is starting to prove more and more true in the health care system. And one factor that is driving a lot of this thrash is the poor price and cost signals inherent in a fixed cost, integrated service model.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Monday, September 17, 2007


The last time I was at Soldier Field to attend a Chicago Bears game was eight years ago. It has now been only 24 hours since my last visit.

Today I suffered from a chronic case of tailgate poisoning. I had to work too. And it was a Monday. But like any weekend warrior I suffered through eight hours of agony. I never missed one day of work due to self-inflicted wounds and never will.

Hey, that new Soldier Field was incredibly nice. Better than I expected. Many times I sat in the northwest corner of the old stadium. Yesterday I sat in a seat I had been in before but I was at least fifty feet higher in the new stands. What a difference. Seeing sailboats out on the big blue lake with the sun shining was a real chamber of commerce photo but I left my camera in the lot.

In the old days I can only remember tailgating at Soldier Field maybe three times. On most game days I would take the train that stops across Lake Shore Drive, have a few in the bar at the Essex House on south Michigan Ave. with friends and then walk over to the game. It was an easy trip home too. I have tailgated at Notre Dame, Purdue and IU many times but what I saw yesterday was the mother of all NFL tailgates for me.

-Crowded parking lot. Little room to move without colliding with a hot girl...I mean grill. Most likely because they had the autos packed so tightly together. When they constructed the new stadium they eliminated surface spots for underground parking. Tailgate grilling beats a cold sub sandwich any day.
-Many more fans wearing Bears jerseys than plain shirts. Mostly of the Urlacher variety. I bet Hester starts moving more officially licensed fabric this year (not many Grossman jerseys on-site, heh!).
-Grown men playing a beanbag game. In Chicago? Metrosexual Bears fans? WTF?
-Male to female ratio was about 50-50.
-Elaborate grilling operations, one guy parked two spots away had a built in kitchen that slid out of the back of his suburban.
-Busses painted in team colors (everyone needs a hobby, I guess).
-No fights (I remember a few fights in the stands years ago).
-No Jazz, they used to play brassy jazz music in the stadium during timeouts etc.
-No reefer in the air. At least I did not smell any through all the charcoal smoke.
-Here’s a fan on a custom Bears chopper (he told me he built it), one, sweet ride it is.

The game was…interesting. How can a long-suffering Bear fan look at a win and not be pleased? I like defense better than offense. It’s a Chicago tradition. The defense did ok but the offense is just not offensive enough for a post-season run or even a post-season spot. Grossman is definitely not the future. They have given this kid every opportunity to prove he belongs in the NFL and he has blown it. The running game was acceptable and the special team is more than special. It’s going to be a long season. I hope Mr. Lovie gets the guts to try something or someone different on offense or next year will be for rebuilding. The o-line is getting o-l-d and how many playoff quality QB's are out there?

Tailgating with Dan and Carl was a blast. I wish to publicly thank them for their generosity and companionship. Real class those two. It makes me proud to be a contributor on their blog.

New! Drunk Bear Fans

I thought about something yesterday as I was sitting in the stands getting showered with beer three times (a new single game record, btw) by the woman in Carl's previous post. Why not start a blog dedicated to the sights and sounds of the South Lot and Bear games? There is NEVER a shortage of material.

So I did. You can check out Drunk Bear Fans here. The site will have very little text, only if something needs explaining.

Carl will be contributing as soon as I can get him set up as well. To get things started, I uploaded some classics that were posted here at LITGM, as well as the Turtle from today. I have a lot more to add from our old LITGM posts as well.

I will also put up a link on the sidebar.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Turtle n' the Bears

Dan, Gerry and Gerry's brother went to the Bear's opener vs. the Chiefs on Sunday. It was a beautiful day and Gerry made an amazing spread of food including homemade tortilla chips, great salsa, ceviche, and pheasant. His brother brought some great smoked salmon and then it was all capped off with Gerry's famous chicken wings. I am 100% certain that the food at our tailgate was the best spread in the entire south lot, and that is saying something considering that there are thousands of cars parked there and tailgating.

One thing that is unfortunate about night games (or any games starting later than noon) is that the crowd gets drunker and drunker. We had a bunch of especially smashed women behind us from Bloomington Illinois; the one standing up spilled her beer on Dan no less than 3 times. Her nickname that her own friends gave her was "Turtle" because that is what she'd shout when she needed to visit the facilities. She spilled the entire contents of her purse and they were spread about the nearby rows.

Whenever the music played she got up and started taking clothes off; I have seen a lot of drunken things at Bears games (including a lap dance at a tailgate) but this was definitely new. This became a significant component of total entertainment because all the guys nearby kept shouting and encouraging her on; trust me she didn't need much encouragement. In the top photo she is barely conscious and smoking a cigarette; whomever let her scalp their season tickets got lucky because Soldier Field is taking those smoking violations pretty seriously; the first time you get a warning and the second time they take your season tickets away from you. In the bottom photo she is about ready to start showing some skin because the music is playing; I was just hoping that she wouldn't throw up right on my back.

Oh and by the way there was a football game; Hester was just amazing with his return for a TD and another one that led to a FG; without Hester we might have lost the game. It is sad that we barely beat the Chiefs; we will need to pick it up a lot to win the division, especially against the newly resurgent Packers.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

An "Easy Mark" for Marketers

Recently I stopped by Binny's (site of the car crash and many other posts on this blog, just search "Binny's" and you can see them all) and there was a woman there selling a reasonably high end tequila and giving out samples. I love samples, so I tried one and it was all right. She said that the big drink in Mexico now is Tequila and Squirt, that ancient drink pre-7 Up in the bright yellow can. I guess the mix is 3-4 /1 Squirt to Tequila. Luckily this tequila isn't that high end because Squirt has quite a powerful taste.

I bought the diet Squirt because I can't drink sugary sodas and gave it a try and... it isn't 1/2 bad. You can see the whole setup there with my "Carl" confederate flag shot glass that I received as a gag gift (much appreciated) to boot. I am an "easy mark" for marketers, just like it says in the title.

Maybe we need a category for "Binny's"...

Dead Blog Camera

On the blog masthead it says that we accept no advertising and shill for nobody... but that doesn't mean that we can't use the blog to go after vendors and others that suck. This photo shows my dead Sony DSC-T9 camera that recently went belly-up. The camera still works and takes photos if you don't mind a series of black bars that stripe the right 1/3 of your shot. What a piece of junk. In general, I subscribe to the theory that I buy cheap technology and throw it away when it breaks. Sony, on the other hand, is the maker of expensive electronics that are supposed to last for a while. This camera died quickly, after being my blog camera for a little over a year. Next time I'll buy a cheap one (it is already on order) and won't be so sad / angry when it keels over on me.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Binny's Crash

Many nights we leave our windows open and you can hear the sounds of the city. We are more than 15 stories up so you can hear the voices of people walking by, the ever present motorcycles, and occasionally the stomach churning sound of someone screeching on the brakes and the immediate "thud" of two cars striking each other. We see at least one wreck a week in the summer time when more people are out cruising; in the winter generally people are just passing through.

Usually I don't take a picture because it is kind of voyeuristic but this time I had to make an exception. Binny's, the gargantuan and fantastic liquor store right near my building, has an incredibly packed parking lot. The lot reminds me of one of those tile games where you have only one empty square and you need to move the squares around until you finally win. People pull in and out, across each other, and then try to turn across busy Grand avenue, which is already a zoo because it is two way up to the corner of Wells and then one way on the other side. Wells is one way going south so inevitably everyone who isn't here is confused about something. Plus, you don't want to stand in the way of someone 1) who is seeking liquor 2) who just bought their liquor and wants to go home and imbibe.

Well, the thud was an accident right outside my door and who could it be but 1) someone who just bought liquor 2) the ever present annoying cab drivers. A match made in heaven, apparently.

A Great Journalist / Writer - Michael Lewis

Recently on my travels to and from San Diego I had a few hours of uninterrupted time and I chose to read some interesting paperbacks. I usually pick something like a business book or a military history book but this time I decided to liven it up a bit and pick two books by Michael Lewis, one titled "Moneyball" about baseball and "The Blind Side" about football.

I remembered Michael Lewis from reading "Liar's Poker" in the 90's about Salomon Brothers, the famous trading firm. The name of the book was from a game that traders would play involving betting on the digits on US currencies, a game that could be played for big stakes.

Liar's Poker is a fascinating book about a period of time when Salomon was essentially the "king of the world" to borrow a phrase from the highest grossing movie ever. If you are interested in what is happening in the sub-prime market with collateralized debt obligations (CDO's) or the "securitization" of debt this is a great place to start since Salomon basically invented and popularized the practice for home mortgages.

One interesting element of the book is that Michael Lewis actually was a bond salesman in real life, and this enabled his book to be far more "real" than it would be if written in an interview type format. This was his first book; I think at the time he started out planning to get into finance and then decided to write a book; in retrospect you could also see him going into this business as a writing opportunity. To contrast this with other journalists that we take swipes at from time to time, Lewis clearly understood his material as only a true "insider" could.

For "Moneyball" he followed Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A's, as he fielded a team with little money (by major league baseball standards) and yet was able to compete successfully against much better funded rivals. Beane used the research based on Bill James and others that showed that traditional baseball measures led to poor decisions and were not based on sound, empirical logic and statistics. For example, the use of batting average was critical while the on-base average was ignored for many years, although bases on balls are incredibly valuable, and hitters that never walk can be a major liability (see Uribe on the White Sox). The other teams, by contrast, used scouts which looked for physical ability and frequently drafted high school players on potential, while Beane drafted college players and traded for those in the minors that actually showed a history of success. These methods were also followed by the Boston Red Sox when they hired a GM using similar methods to lead them to their recent world series championship.

While Lewis never played baseball (unlike "Liar's Poker" when he was a bond salesman) his choice of Billy Beane as a subject accomplishes two things: 1) it humanizes the book by tying an analysis to an actual person 2) Billy Beane himself was someone who was loaded with potential and lauded by scouts yet was a "bust" in the MLB as a player. Thus the fact that Billy Beane the GM ignores what the scouts say about potential also validates the fact that although he supposedly had the "tools" to be a great major league baseball player, he never proved it along the way in the minors and was promoted to the "big show" and was a failure as a player. Non fiction authors and journalists often pick people to illustrate a concept but the choice of Beane was pure genius since he illuminated the central thesis on two levels.

In "The Blind Side" he talks about the evolution of the left tackle position from a relatively unimportant position on the field, with poor compensation (relative to "skill" players like QB's, RB's, and receivers) to a very highly paid position. He walks through a very interesting history of the game showing how players like Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants tore the game wide open by terrorizing QB's from their "blind side", or the side they couldn't see the defender coming from. The epitome of this was Taylor's breaking of Joe Theismann's leg on National TV which showed the crushing power of an unblocked defensive tackler.

In parallel, he follows the history of Michael Oher, a super-promising left tackle candidate from Memphis that was completely ignored by organized sports due to the fact that he comes from a totally impoverished side of town and an amazingly dysfunctional family. Mr. Oher basically raised himself as a child and was functionally mute. A local (white) and wealthy Memphis family adopted him, got him a dedicated tutor, and proved that he was able to learn and do decently well in school. In the end of the book we read that Lewis was a childhood friend with Sean Tuohy, the father in the family that adopted him, which probably explains how he was able to get so close to the story.

Often times I think that I can be as good a journalists as most of the "professional" journalists working today; sadly, this can be a low bar. Someone like Michael Lewis, however, who really gets inside a story, knows his facts cold, and integrates relevant and true-to-life people in with his non-fictional work sets the bar immensely high. I really recommend that you find time to read the three books listed - "Liar's Poker", "Moneyball", and "The Blind Side" - you will be entertained and learn something, to boot.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Movin' on Up

I got great news last night from my Muay Thai instructor. On the evening of October 4 I will be testing for my Thai Shorts. My goal of earning them by Thanksgiving will be exceeded. I will pass the test, there is no doubt of that in my mind.

That will make it five months it took me to earn them. This has come through lots of sweat, bruises and hard work. Next up is an eighteen month curriculum. This will earn me my yellow, green and blue sashes. It is a rotating curriculum so I may earn a blue sash before someone else, but I have to come back to earn the yellow and green sashes, just as a person who earns the yellow sash first will have to then earn the others.

This really is a huge deal for me. I have worked my butt off like never before to whip my body into shape for this day and it is extremely rewarding. I am now under 180 pounds for the first time I can remember, and I can see lots of muscle tone developing from all the push ups, ab work, running, and everything else.

There is more good news. The gym is moving - because it has to. Last night there were almost thirty people in the class and that is just too many to keep it safe. We were notified that by the end of the year we will have a brand new gym, and it will be much larger. They will be able to run beginner and advanced classes at the same time and will be having weight equipment, more heavy bags, a full sized ring and other things (and they will have "open gym" where you can use the equipment as long as you are enrolled in the classes). They don't have a firm location yet, but from what I have heard it may be just a few minutes from my house, which is AWESOME.

I wrote a while ago that I didn't think that MT was the end all as far as physical fitness goes, that each person needs to find something that they like and run with it. I am starting to reconsider. For me, MT is starting to be the end all.
Being involved in MT has caused me to change the way I think about a lot of things - my diet, alcohol intake, and other things. It is still OK for me to reward myself by pigging out once in a while, but those instances are happening less and less. I just don't want to lower my MT performance in any way, and I want to progress in the rankings. Whenever I get a craving I always think of MT, how far I have come and how hard I have worked to get there - usually that is the end of the craving.

I am surprised at what all around fitness I have gained from all of this. I never expected the workouts at the gym during classes to be so strenuous and have a new found respect for anyone who steps into the ring. Clenchwork is exhausting. Punching and kicking and defending are exhausting. All of the things that you need to do in the ring are exhausting.

In MT class we run, do push ups, ab work, spar, kick, punch, fake, and do everything else that is required. I am very impressed that my gym puts everyone through this and nobody has gotten hurt that I have seen. Yet. Bruises sure, but no real serious injuries.

After I pass my test on Oct. 4 I enter a new phase, with people who have much higher skill levels than me. I will be the beginner again. I can't wait.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Bears In San Diego

This weekend I went to San Diego to see the Bears play. One thing to say about San Diego is that the weather was awesome... it was kind of cool and overcast in the morning but nice and sunny and not too hot for game day.

Sorry about the poor quality of this shot. My blog camera died after about 1 year of hard work and all I had was my camera phone. A poor substitute, indeed.

We scalped tickets and were literally at the top of the upper deck in the south end zone. I really wish I had a decent camera because the jets came literally over our head, four in formation, as they did the national anthem. One of the best fly overs that I have ever seen.

There were an AMAZING number of Bears fans in San Diego. Our section was full of Bears fans and I would guess that 20% of the fans overall were Bears fans. Remember, this was the season opener... there will be about 6 fans from the other team when the Bears do their opener this weekend.

The tailgating was also an eye opener. San Diego had the foresight to literally set aside acres and acres of parking... it seemed like you could tailgate around the whole stadium. Quite a contrast from packing everyone cheek to jowl south of the stadium. Anyone who wanted to park at the game seemed able to do so, and a surprisingly large number of Bears fans were like us, tailgating in an RV with a pretty good setup, to boot.

They had no beer vendors at the game walking the stands. I really don't think that they anticipated the Bears fans and we disrupted their carefully crafted alcohol equation. Every Bears fan had 2 or 4 beers (don't know where they got the four, my semi-retarded vendor would only sell 2) and were vocal while waiting in line, where they literally carded everyone. I have no idea why it took so long to get a beer because they didn't even bother to put it in a cup; they just unscrewed a bottle and handed it to you. I missed a bunch of our poor offensive showing at the end of the first half while waiting in line for about 15 minutes.

After the game we tried to take public transport. They have some sort of train that drops you off right at the stadium, but it goes around in a useless circle and makes you get off like 3 times. It spooked me because the tracks weren't electrified so people just walked across them; do that on the "L" and you are dead.

As far as the game, well, our offense died. They killed us. Two big injuries on defense, too. A few people had "Cut Grossman" T Shirts and I had to admit I wished I wanted one by the end of the game, too. But it didn't help that our running backs were fumbling, as well.

Glad I went to San Diego and it is a beautiful city, highly recommended. They even put their airport right by downtown, which is great, so that you don't have to drive 700 miles through traffic (unlike Denver...). I should have rented that 350Z convertible that I saw in the Hertz parking lot, however...

Drop Dead Pat Forde

So sayeth Pat Forde in this article on

Syracuse-Illinois (14): The two worst coaching hires of 2004 square off. Greg Robinson (5-20 at Syracuse) and Ron Zook (5-20 at Illinois) compete for the right to give their fans false hope that they're turning things around.

Two worst coaching hires? Interesting. I don't know anything about Greg Robinson and Syracuse, but here is something I do know.

Ron Zook took over a program that was in an absolute shambles. He came in and inherited Ron Turner's god awful program and we got our crap handed to us in 2005. Last year we were competitive in almost every game, and nearly picked off Wisconsin at Camp Randall and Ohio State at home. This year so far we lost our starting QB and still almost beat the team that most are picking to win their division, and our defense tossed a shutout last week while our running game continues to impress.

Ron Zook in his only two years running the program has stunned the college football world by having unanimous top twenty recruiting classes his first couple of years. He has worked, sweat, scratched and clawed to recruit top notch players and he has done it. He has done it so well that fatboy over there in South Bend is bitching to high heaven and so are some others.

If we stay healthy, Illinois will be going to a bowl game this year for the first time since 2001.

It is my mantra to give college football coaches three, and maybe four years to prove their worth. It isn't fair to criticize them for not being able to instantly perform! They have to totally dismantle the old system, and rebuild it from the ground up. It isn't fair to give Bret Bielema all the credit for the success of the UW football program is it?

Anyway, this crap statement is just another example of the la la land most of these sports writers live in - all Forde did is look at the record under Zook and say that Zook sucks. Of course, in the meantime Urban Meyer won a national championship at Florida - with whose recruits?

So Pat Forde can drop dead, and keep criticizing people of whom he knows nothing about - but it doesn't really matter - these sports writers are pretty much never held accountable for anything. I would like to see where Pat Forde had Michigan ranked in the pre season.

Every Blade of Grass

Not much time for me to do any real quality blogging, but you should really read this, that I stumbled upon courtesy of James.

Admiral Yamamoto famously said "You cannot invade the mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind each blade of grass."

Monday, September 10, 2007

Da Bearsss...

I have been a Chicago Bear fan my whole life. In the early 60’s when I was about ten years old my dad and I would watch Bear games on our unheated back porch on a small black and white television. My mom would be watching something like figure skating on the big set in the comfort of the warm house. Home games were not televised back then. In an attempt to sell tickets, parking spaces and concessions (which were the major source of revenue for the NFL owners at that time) it was thought that fans would not go to the games if they could watch at home for free.

We were stuck with one NFL game per Sunday and it was an away performance if we were to see the Bears. Ray Scott in his calm baritone voice saying, ”Bart Starr…......Boyd Dowler….....touchdown.” was a familiar sound. If the Bears played at home we got Green Bay vs. Whoever because they were the best. At that time I was a Bear fan first and a Packer fan second. Together we watched the ice bowl of ’67. Today I cannot imagine ever liking the Packers. Youth is wasted on the young. Oh, the error of my ways. I do remember the Bears winning the NFL Championship Game in ’63. After that it was all down hill.

In the 70’s I was a young man working at a small ad agency in Chicago. Vendors all had Bears tickets and they were so easy to get. The Bears just sucked but I did not care. I got to see Joe Namath, Terry Bradshaw, Fran Tarkinton, Bob Griese, John Riggins, Larry Csonka along with Dick Butkus, Doug Buffone and the late great Walter Payton live along with the best teams in the NFL at that time in old Soldier Field. We smuggled in B&B, daringly smoked big fat doobers and had a grand old time. Once we had seats on the 45 on the west side and sat one row up and six seats over from Mayor Jayne Byrne and her husband. We still got stoned. I know she smelled it.

During my greatest Bears season (1985) I snagged tickets to the home opener. Bears vs. Tampa Bay. Tampa still had the “dreamsickle” colored uni’s with the gay pirate logo on the helmet. Tampa Bay led at halftime. The temperature was in the upper 90’s. That Ditka-led Bears team not only won the opener but they went on to win the Super Bowl that year. Cripes!

The day Walter broke the single game rushing record against the Vikings we had second-row folding chair seats on the south goal line in the west end. We were actually on the field. He ran two touchdowns so close to us I could reach out and touch him. Goosebumps, or was it the reefer? I say both. 275 yards and I knew in the early fourth quarter he was on to something really big. If play was on the north side of the twenty we could not see a thing, so we did shots and passed the joint.

When Walter broke the all-time rushing record I was out on Lake Michigan in a charter boat with friends fishing for big king salmon. We caught some while listening to the game on the radio and could see the Soldier Field lights on the horizon through the fog. Ten foot swells (oofff), big king salmon and Walter breaking a big time record. What’s not to like? Just thinking of Walter always brings a tear to my eye. Walter was an avid outdoorsman and to me, still the greatest football player I ever watched. That man gave his all and did it all.

Yesterday’s game was somewhat painful to watch. Especially since the Bears had an outstanding season last year. This 2007 team is going nowhere without a running game and a (backup at best) quarterback who cannot hold on to the rock. But I still love ‘em enough to watch each and every Sunday I can.

Next Sunday will be a very special day for me. Dan and Carl invited me to go to the Bears home opening game with them and I appreciate their offer more than they know. I have not yet set foot inside the new Soldier Field. In fact I have not seen a Bear game live in about eight years, and it was a pre-season stinker. I hear the new place is fabulous inside, even if it looks like a mistake from the outside.

I have seen the Bears when they were at their worst. I have seen the Bears at their best. Lately I have been asked if I am a Colts fan since I am back home in Indiana. My answer is absolutely not. The Colts belong in Baltimore. And I belong in Soldier Field. With friends. No doobers though, those days are long gone.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

The Valparaiso Popcorn Fest 2007

Most large towns can claim home to famous celebrities. With small towns the chances of “home-growing" a celebrity are not so good. In nearby Gary IN they can claim home to Michael Jackson. In Valparaiso we claim home to Orville Redenbacher. Quite a character that Orville. Gary can have Michael and his…umm..baggage, we’ll take Orville and his popcorn any day.

Surprisingly, Indiana has spawned many famous people who have contributed to a better America. Larry Bird, 
John Wooden, David Letterman, Kurt Vonnegut, James Dean, John Dillinger, John Mellencamp, Cole Porter, 
Axl Rose, David Lee Roth and Beulah Bondy (she was born in Valpo and played the mother in “It’s a Wonderful Life”) among others. OOPS…I left out Red Skelton and Alex Karas. Oh well.

Wikipedia tells this story about Orville (and it holds true to what the locals say):

Orville spent most of his life in the agriculture industry, serving as a Vigo County Farm Bureau Extension agent in Terre Haute, Indiana, and at Princeton Farms in Princeton, Indiana. He earned a small fortune in fertilizer, but in his spare time, he indulged in an obsession he had had since he was a child in 4-H with developing the perfect popcorn. He bought the George F. Chester and Son dent seed corn plant with partner Charlie Bowman, later named Chester Hybrids, in 1951 near Valparaiso, Indiana, and tried tens of thousands of hybrid strands of popcorn before achieving success. He and Mr. Bowman initially named the hybrid RedBow but were advised by an advertising agency to use the name Orville Redenbacher to market the corn. It was good advice which they adopted, and Orville was suddenly everywhere. For example, Redenbacher can be first seen on national television around 1972…

After the initial sale to Hunt-Wesson, the City of Valparaiso started their first Popcorn Festival in 1979. Celebrating Redenbacher's development of his popcorn in Valparaiso, the Festival featured Orville and his nephew Gary appearing several times as Grand Marshal of the signature event, the Popcorn Parade.

On September 19, 1995 at 6:00AM ET, Orville was found dead in the jacuzzi of his condominium in Coronado, California. He had suffered a heart attack and drowned. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea. He was 88 years old.

So yesterday again I attended the annual Valparaiso Popcorn Fest. Rode my sickle into town because they close off the streets and bus people in from remote parking lots. On the sickle I can cut through alleys and yards for a quick in-and-out. So I strolled the streets and watched the parade. I’ve been doing this since we moved in fourteen years ago. A lot has changed and not for the better.

I have many fond memories of the Valparaiso Popcorn Fest. Seeing Orville in person was like seeing a cartoon character come to life. He was very approachable and friendly. He was available for hand shaking and photo ops. I would eat a lot of popcorn and drink a lot of beer but the most fun for me was to watch the parade.

While he was alive, Orville was in the lead vehicle of the parade, usually riding in a convertible antique car. A real sight it was. Orville was followed in the parade by the obligatory high school band, local and county law enforcement, fire trucks, emergency vehicles, politicians and plenty of motorized “Shriners”. More about the Shriners later. Here is yesterday's lone Shriner entry.

Popcorn Fest is just not the same as it was in previous years. For one, the floats did not have much popcorn on them as was the case years ago. Just as the Tournament of Roses has floats made of roses, the popcorn floats are supposed to be made of popcorn. Adding insult I saw only two popcorn vendors. There used to be many and they were creative with their popcorn recipes and offerings too. Maybe it’s because Orville passed away and a few years back Hunt-Wesson pulled out of town and took their sponsorship money with them. Most of the vendors yesterday sold cutsey crap that overweight, middle aged women can’t resist wasting their money on. This is nothing more than Holly Hobby run amok. This garbage usually ends up in garage sales or the trash. You know, crap like this.

The crowd was thinner than I remember too and I believe it is because they banned adult beverages. A few years ago there were some rowdy drunks who acted like fools so they ruined it for the rest of us drunk fools who don’t act rowdy.


Well, I’ll be breaded and dipped in deep fried trans fat! Dr. Vegetable seems to be everywhere!!!

Did you know that the Doctor only uses 100% canola oil to deep fry his crumb coated veggies? Yup, it’s true! I even asked the sweet young gal at the counter and that is what she told me. I have to believe her.

UMMM..healthy! Nothing like greasy deep fried fiber!

Now for my Top Ten List.

Ladies and gentlemen, from the home office in Valparaiso Indiana, here are the Top Ten ideas that the Valparaiso Popcorn Fest organizers can do to increase attendence and make it fun again:

#10. Hooter's Girls on floats

#9. Serve vegetables deep fried in trans fat oil

#8. Cook some actual popcorn and sell it

#7. Invite biker gangs and their old ladies

#6. Get the new creepy virtual Orville guy to ride with the Hooter's Girls on the float

#5. Move the fest to Chicago

#4. Bring back the Shiners

#3. Offer a prize for the world's largest popcorn ball

#2. Have a 5k popcorn panic race (oops they already do that)

And the number one idea to increase Popcorn Fest attendance and make it fun again is

Popcorn Martini's!

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Air Zoo Part Four - Guns

Part one is here, part two is here and part three is here. Click any photo for larger.

The Air Zoo, besides having a boatload of WW2 aircraft, had a very nice display of firearms from that period, some of which I have always dreamed of owning. I took some shots of my personal favorites.

In the photo below, you can see the US M3 "grease gun". It was a .45 caliber automatic mg carried all over the world. Below and right of it is the German MP 40, a mg that I always thought was one of the nicest looking.
Below you see a collection of sidearms from WW2. Upper left, a German Luger P08, and next to that the Walther P38 in 9mm. Second row is a Belgian made Browning model 1910, and next to that is a Sauer model 38h. I WANT one of those Lugers.
Here is a photo of probably one of the ugliest WW2 guns made, the British Sten.
And here we come to what is probably my favorite gun of all time, the Russian PPsH 41, with the drum magazine. They were also used with a stick magazine quite often, but most of the photos I have seen have them with the drum magazine (held 71 rounds). This gun was produced cheaply by the millions in the USSR and was very easy to teach anyone to shoot. Here is a pretty good wiki on the PPsH 41 if you are interested.
On the bottom of the following photo you can see a German MG42 heavy MG and right above that an old Lewis gun. That Lewis is a bit out of place in this display, but what the heck.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Celebrate Diversity!

Cross posted at ChicagoBoyz.

Air Zoo, Part Three

Part one is here, part two is here. Click any photo for larger.

I don't have much to gripe about with the Air Zoo, but one thing I didn't like was the lack of identification on some items. Clearly this is a naval gun, probably a four incher, that was sitting in a corner of the Air Zoo. But what model? Stuff like that makes me angry - it would probably take just a few minutes to put together a small card or stand to put next to the gun.
Next to that gun, we have a P-39 Airacobra. This plane had an innovative (for the time) middle placed engine. Unfortunately it was a bit underpowered and was used primarily for ground work. Note the large cannon in the nose - it was 37mm if memory serves, which was a pretty good sized cannon for the day. The Soviets used many of these in WW2.
Next to that is the Jug, or P-47 Thunderbolt. It had a massive engine for its time and was suited for air or ground work.
Ever wonder why they called it the jug? Wonder no more.
A role that is played down, because it isn't as action packed as the fighters and bombers is the transports. This Piper C-4 was used for transport of light equipment and a person or two. Tens of thousands of transport missions were flown during the war, moving men and equipment all over the globe.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Meat Me In September

Most folks probably had the opportunity to grill outdoors this summer or at least attended a party where grilled food was served. Chances are at least once you bit into a chicken or chop tasted like an old gym shoe dipped in Open Pit BBQ sauce. Can we have a show-of-hands? Mmm…k? Thank you.

Steak, burgers, hot dogs and brats are simple to master. Just pay attention to the hot grill, turn the meat at the proper intervals and chances are you will have a decent meal. Not so with pork chops and chicken. Even if you time it, use a temp probe, watch and turn you may end up with dry, tough and tasteless crap, sauce or no sauce.

The secret to tender, moist chicken and pork chops is brining. Do not confuse brining with marinating. Marinating may infuse some flavor into the meat but does nothing to tenderize it. Brining will moisturize and tenderize. You can also creatively add herbs and spices to infuse flavor to the meat through brining. It works great on turkeys too, I will document my Thanksgiving feast where we cook three turkeys, one slow-smoked, one fried and one oven-roast brined big bird. One day, three turkey choices. Did I mention I am pro-choice?

From “The chemistry behind brining is actually pretty simple. Meat already contains salt water. By immersing meats into a liquid with a higher concentration of salt, the brine is absorbed into the meat. Any flavoring added to the brine will be carried into the meat with the saltwater mixture. Because the meat is now loaded with extra moisture it will stay that way while it cooks”.

I can tell you from experience that brining will in no way make the meat “salty”. Trust me. For years I avoided grilling pork chops because of the many failures I had. Dry and tasteless except for the sauce, salt and pepper.

This weekend I grilled thick pork chops and BBQ’d a chicken with outstanding results due to brining. I brined the chicken for 24 hours not by choice but because something came up that I needed to attend to. It turns out that 24 hours worked just fine.

Here is a brine solution that came from one of my favorite books, “How To Grill” by Steven Reichlen. He suggested brining pork chops but after trying it out on chicken it works just as well. You will be amazed with the results.

The Brine Method:
3-4 thick cut pork chops or 1 whole chicken sliced in half
1 onion thinly sliced
2-3 bay leaves
1 cinnamon stick
10 black peppercorns
5 allspice berries
3 whole cloves
3 T brown sugar
3 T coarse ground salt
1 C hot water
2 C cold water
3 T bourbon (any whiskey is fine, I have used brandy too)
2 T vegetable oil

First gather the dry ingredients in a cup or small bowl. In a 4 cup pyrex measuring cup add 1 C water. Microwave on high 6-7 minutes or until it boils. Then throw in the dry ingredients and whisk until salt and sugar dissolve.

Add 2 C cold water to the measuring cup and toss in the vegetable oil and bourbon.

In a large plastic zip bag add the meat and cover both sides with the onions. Add the liquid and spices. Try to get all the air out of the bag and zip it up. Place in a large dish and refrigerate for at least 6 hours, longer will not hurt.

Before grilling wash off the meat and toss the leftover brine.

The pork chops will be grilled over direct heat while the chicken will be BBQ’d using the indirect method. I throw in two chunks of hickory for a flavor boost, any more overpowers the meat to me.

For chicken I place the halves in the center over a drip pan skin side down and breast side toward the heat. Close the top vent ½ way. Cook for 1 hour and do not open the lid. As a side note I like to place potatoes on top of the coals, it will absorb a lot of heat and taste great too. Open the grill after an hour and turn both the chicken and the potatoes. Now you can baste the chicken with your favorite BBQ sauce. Cook for another ½ to ¾ hour. Baste the chicken with sauce again before serving.

For the pork chops I pile the coals in the center to sear the meat and give it those cute grill mark thingies. Sear on each side for 3-5 minutes with the lid off. Next move the chops away from the center with the bone facing the heat. Cover for ten minutes. After ten minutes you may baste chops with sauce and turn. After another ten minutes baste the chops and turn again for five minutes. Before serving baste with sauce again

Coming soon…Cocktails, Homebrewed Beer and Sangria. If you’re not happy with the food at least you can get a good buzz on!