Sunday, November 30, 2008

Chicken Chasin’ & Cop Dodgin’...Winamac 2008

Give a listen to this little number while you read on.

Driving south to the happy hunting grounds of Winamac SFWA on IN SR 39 from US 30 Saturday morning my cruise control in the Ford Exploder was set at 70mph. The sun had just broken the horizon. The long, lonesome two lane was wide open. Out of nowhere a Starke County Mountie who was heading north out of Knox, Indiana passed me in the opposite direction.

I kept one eye on the mountie (who was driving a new brown and tan two-tone Dodge Charger) as he passed down the road in my rearview. The brake lights went on and he performed a Hollywood you-ee, a real Starsky & Hutch job. He didn’t come on me fast as I slowed down, but when the flashing lights went on I pulled over to a safe spot. Not many cars travel this stretch of road that time of day on a weekend at sunrise. He walked away from his squad and approached as I opened my wallet for the DL. He was textbook, never passing the imaginary line of my front door as he asked for my DL and BMV registration. He could tell I was hunter who was obviously armed and took no chances.

Since when are police able to detect a speed violator while moving in the opposite direction? They must have some new technology I am unaware of.

This was not a traditional speed trap where the squad was hidden on an inside turn or tucked under an overpass on the opposite side of a hill. He still got me. Guilty.

The mountie told me he clocked me at 70mph in a 55mph zone, then asked, “do you have a good reason for traveling at 70mph?” My simple response was, “all I can say is I just wasn’t paying attention.” He walked back to the squad and I waited as he processed my info through his onboard laptop. About five minutes later he came back, handed me my ID’s and said, “ since you have no points against you I can’t see writing you up, but please slow down on our local roads.” I thanked him and told him how he made my day. We shook hands. God Bless the good cops, there are plenty of them out there.

This was my Karma train making a round trip. It wiped out my $80. furnace fiasco on Friday. I figured that a speeding fine for going 70mph has to be at least $100. plus a potential court appearance. My calculations place me in the plus category. Good luck and The Lord were both on my side this week.

Saturday was the final date for Winamac’s week long pheasant hunt. We did good on the final day, got our 2 bird limit within 1 hour and 10 minutes. Eight rock solid classic birddog points by Speck, four misses by the shooters. Most shot opportunities came in a densely wooded area where the tree branches catch a lot of pellets so 4 for 8 is not bad at all.

We met a few new respectable birddogs, birddog lovers and wingshooters in the parking lot as usual this year. 12 hunters per day are allowed to use this 240 + acre reserved zone of managed wild habitat during the season. Winimac has nine other areas to do some serious chicken whackin’. Each day a total of 110 hunters enjoy the land we purchased and pay to maintain for our traditional American outdoor activities.

Today I am just hunkering down in the bunker recuperating with Speck in front of an all-day fire watching NFL football. Bears vs. Vikings kickoff is the national Sunday night game and it's gut-check time for both teams.

Measurable snow is falling moderately as I write. Green Bay is falling to Carolina as well. Lake effect snow, as always, is the wild card.

A Good Explanation

Like you (maybe except for Carl) I am bewildered as to what the heck is going on wrt the economy and why so many things have collapsed, as well as why these massive corporations are going to be operating on my buck. This guy does a pretty good job, even though I still had to watch it a couple of times to get the gist of it.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

The Other White Meat

Click any photo for larger.

The last few years I have contracted with people I know - not farmers, just people - who raise pigs as a hobby. Early in the spring I agree to buy one whole pig at market rate from them when the pigs are ready for slaughter in the fall. I don't know why this is an interesting hobby for them, but then again, I suppose they would not understand why I practice Muay Thai and get the hell beaten out of myself a few times a week. Anyway.

This years pig ended up being 180 pounds hanging weight. That is the weight of the pig after gutting (basically).

Here is what a whole pig looks like before you stuff it into the freezer. Mmmm, bacon, hams, shoulder roasts, ground pork, sausage, pork chops, awesome. This year I decided to keep the heart, tongue and some other stuff. I plan on simply sauteeing those in butter to see what they are all about.
Last year I picked up the processed pig at Hoesly's in New Glarus. They did a spectacular job on the bacon and hams in particular. Plus it is very close to my house, only a 20 minute drive. This year the person I got the pig from was located quite a bit further north so I had to take an hour drive to Wisconsin River Meats in Mauston. For whatever reason the raising of the pig took a little longer this year and I ended up picking it up during deer season. Somewhat of a mistake, but interesting. It was a little mistake because it was SUPER busy. Everybody was bringing their deer in for processing. I snapped this photo outside while waiting in line for service. You can see on the left a trailer with dead deer on it. On the right a guy is wheeling out a barrel of deer guts or something - looks to be ribs on top. I couldn't quite figure out what was up with that - I am guessing they have a pile of stuff they sell to dog food plants. Enlarge to see inside that barrel.
Inside Wisconsin River Meats it was literally insane. Look at all of those guys in the back processing deer. The carcasses were piled up very high - you can see some of them on the left. The guy with his back toward you had an industrial stainless steel saw of some sort - that thing was great. With a slight flick of the wrist I saw him take the whole hind leg off of a deer. That must be the sharpest blade ever.
Those guys were covered in blood and guts and the scene, for the uninitiated, might be somewhat horrifying. Hunters were milling about, and they were covered in blood from the work they did gutting their take, the hired help was covered in blood, and outside there was blood everywhere from the unloading and loading of dead deer. The guy who helped me load the pig into my vehicle looked like he had been there all day - and he had. They pull 12 hour shifts during deer season.
A very interesting trip. I milled around a bit after loading my pig just to see what was going on and learned a lot about how they cut the deer up. I would recommend it for your education if you aren't squeamish about that sort of thing.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanks, Tom


Yesterday this brave bird gave his life so those of us at the top of the food chain could give thanks. He was very juicy after brining overnight and roasting in the new Wolf oven with a built-in temperature probe. Perfect is the word. Thank you Mr. Tom.

Then this morning came a blood curdling scream, "it's cold n here and the furnace won't work". Dayum. I never touch the thermostat. It's one of those hour-by-hour seven day temperature thingies. I am not as sensitive to temperatures within three degrees but she is and if I screw with it I have to listen to incessant whining and bitching for hours on end so I never look at the thing. OK, so there's no heat. First I ask her, "is it turned on?" Of course, she says. So I bring in the kerosene heater from the garage to shut her shivering pie hole and fire up the kero heat. Then she calls the HVAC guy. $80. for a diagnostic and then an estimate for repairs they tell her on the phone. Fine. All I do is clean the electrostatic and metal filters twice a year. Other than that, she is in total climate control.

HVAC guys shows up and heads for the basement while I stay in my office. About fifteen minutes later I hear the basement door close. Then he says to her,"did you turn off the thermostat?". That's when I head downstairs. It seems that yesterday a guest may have turned off the heat and to do so one must lift the front panel and switch the heat to "off". A deliberate move. When I met up with the HVAC guy he told me there was no problem with the Lennox Pulse 21 furnace which is 16 years old.

$80. to have HVAC guy tell me the dayum thing was unplugged. Talk about feeling stoopid. How embarrassing. Never again will I surrender the climate control. I have a list of 22 guests and narrowed it down to one busybody culprit. I know it was her, she's an in-law who always screws with stuff without asking. She's done it elsewhere and has been caught.

Oh well.

Tomorrow, it's Winamac game bird-o-rama. One last time this year for me and Speck.

Grab your ankles midwesterners, here comes winter. Ice. Snow. Slop. Bring it on. At least I had a furnace inspection.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Gin Headache

Recently I took a brief vacation in the Appalachian area of Ohio. The town we stayed in was dry so we drove around looking for something for our cabin. In the town of Portsmouth we stopped at a nicely appointed Kroger and I grabbed a shopping cart and headed over to the liquor section, figuring I'd get a little bottle of Tanqueray or Bombay Sapphire and have a gin and tonic at night (they provided ice in the cabin which gave me the idea in the first place).

THIS was their entire gin selection. OUCH just looking at it gave me a headache. We wouldn't even drink stuff like this in college or put it in a punchbowl.

The interesting thing is that they had a decent beer selection and an OK wine selection; apparently hard liquor only comes in the cheap and harsh version in these parts.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving

Sorry for the light posting as of late, but busy, busy, busy. Anyways, Happy Thanksgiving to all of you readers and commenters out there, you know who you are.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Get Some!

All seasons are open right here right now. Got a gun? Use it.

Wild meat fest-o-rama ’08 began for me today as I headed out with Speck this morning to meet up the bro at Winamac SFWA. We were greeted by three fresh, fluffy inches of lake effect gorebal warming. Heck, after 15 years of hunting the Winamac opener we never encountered measurable snow. At least the wood ticks would be down.

Speck made three solid points on three separate birds in the first thirty minutes. We took these three birds with three shots too. Was the Pick Three lotto number 333 or what?

She pointed the last bird about 200 yards from the truck. Or was it 300 yards?

All considered, this was one fine late fall walk through a classic Midwestern prairie.

No outdoor experience is complete without a decent tailgate. Unlike a football game our hunting and fishing tailgates are always after the event, never before. Bro brought along some gourmet tastiness and breakfast beer worthy of a classic European style hunt.

I arrived home by noon, two birds in the bag. After brushing the burrs out of Speck’s fur I headed to the shower. Then the phone rang. Good friend and neighbor bagged a nice buck this morning. He told me it was no ordinary buck, this one was a non-typical. We guessed that it would go over 150lbs dressed.

Looks like a nice eight pointer. But the eighth point was protruding from it’s eyebrow. That makes him extremely non-typical. How cool is that?

All of the other reindeer used to laugh and call him names. Now he’s freezer meat.

That Mother Nature, she can be a real b!tch.

Historic Photos of Madison

A few weeks back I received an email from a publisher that asked me if I would review a book they were putting out that had photos of Madison in it. I said sure, but that I would be honest and not give the book a rave review just because it was free. So the book did indeed arrive.

The publisher has a whole slew of "Historic Photos" books that they market. If you live in a relatively large city you can probably find it in the series.
Being a history junkie, I love these types of coffee table books.

First, some minor nits. This book was a little short on text for my personal taste, but not everyone cares that much about the story behind the story. The book is of good quality, although I would have liked for them to use a little better paper for the photos. I felt as though I had to look a little too hard at the photos to get the details, and think that a better quality paper might have helped that. I would have liked a little more detail on the photo itself (who took it, what type of camera, etc.) but this book I think is more for a general overview of the topic, not a deep dive into photographic history.

Now the plusses - the content of the photos was very interesting indeed. It really is neat to see a place where you may have been the day before, and what it looked like one hundred years ago.

I am tempted to go to some of these places and take an identical photo and side by side them, sort of like handshaking with someone from one hundred years past.

Having already been pretty well read about Madison I didn't learn too much, but I certainly did like looking at a few photos I had never seen before. It is hard to imagine that where streets used to be, it was dirt - and that horses and carts were used on it.

All in all, I would give this book a 7 out of 10. I would recommend it to anyone interested in Madison, or your town if you can find it. A good Christmas present indeed, and a nice, easy read. I finished it in about three hours - but I like to look at old photos slowly and try to coax out the details.

One of the very best books on photography I have ever found is Double Take. This book is GIANT, and has a lot of text. It takes a very deep dive into the history of photography, and techniques used in the early 20th century. The author gets 70 photos taken by a photographer from Madison around the time of the 20's through the 50's, and retakes them all these years later from the same exact spot with the same exact framing. This book is simply incredible, and takes a very long time to look at. Some places are exactly the same, some places are gone, some places have an existing older building with new businesses in it. For the money, I would spend the $65 on Double Take before $39 on Historic Photos, but not everyone may get the same enjoyment out of Double Take. It is a very technical book, and there are some that just want to look at pictures and have a small caption explaining what they are, which Historic Photos does wonderfully.

Cross posted at ChicagoBoyz.

Thanks, Stoners

I don't get sick too often, but when I do, I go bigtime. All last week I had runny nose, sore throat, coughing, the whole nine yards. My sinuses swelled too, making it tough to breathe at night.

My medicine of choice has always been Dristan. Plain old Dristan. It has been around forever, and it works on me. Not only does it dry me up and reduce the swelling in my sinuses, it knocks me out. Fast. Two tablets and I am on the train to snoresville in about 20 minutes and there is no stopping it.

Last week I ran out, and went to my local Walgreens to get some and couldn't find it. Damn! I asked the pharmacist where it was and there was a bit of confusion - they couldn't decide if they didn't carry it anymore or if it wasn't made anymore. No matter, the bottom line was that they didn't have any. I said to just give me whatever is closest.

I had to give them my ID, and they entered me into some stupid database, then I had to sign a document saying I was going to use the product for what it's intended purpose was, and THEN actually buy the stuff and be on my way. I had an easier time buying booze underage when I was in college! It was crazy.

Well, I guess Dristan has some of the ingredients that are used in the manufacture of synthetic drugs like meth, and it had to be put behind the pharmacy counter like all of the Sudafed type pills. Damned stoners, thanks for helping waste 20 minutes of my life.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Catching Hell

I sort of liked Gerry's last post that gave you reading music to go along with the words so in the time honored tradition of the internet I think I will rip off his idea and do the same. This song sort of fits the post like his did.

James puts up a lot of posts that have to do with self defense. He just put up another good one that I tried to put up a comment on, but it got swallowed. It was too long anyways and like happens a lot of times with me, that comment has morphed into this post.

This goes back a little, so some background might be in order before I go too far.

In a previous post, James talks about an email he received from a man whose daughter was in college. Please read this post before continuing further, or you might get lost a bit. This man wanted a magic pill of sorts for his daughter wrt a martial art that would help in a self defense situation. James wisely told the gentleman that there really isn't a magic pill.

This ties into the post that James put up the other day. A woman told him about a self defense course - three hours. That's it. While I don't think it will hurt anything, I agree with James that this is sort of a joke. I would suggest that a woman would be better off using that three hours to research which collapsible baton fits best in their purse.

I have two takes on martial arts for self defense if you want to be effective when placed in a dire situation that makes hand to hand combat inevitable.

1. You have to train constantly, and consistently.
2. You have to be in shape.

Point one. I have seen in the gym time after time new people come in who want to join the advanced class right away. "I have been doing Muay Thai for X years." "Three years ago I was my gyms best at Muay Thai". I have heard all the quotes. The head instructor always says the same thing - my advanced class will kick your ass all over this gym. Prove yourself in the beginner class and we will talk about it later. Every single time the people who were placed in the beginner class come up eventually and thank the instructor for placing them in with the beginners.

On Saturdays I am usually the only advanced person there, along with an assistant instructor. About a month ago, we had a new guy there and he wanted to spar, to show himself that he deserved to wear the advanced shirt (advanced wears blue, beginner white). I said OK, and for him to take it easy on me (not everyone knows how to spar). I asked the assistant instructor if this was OK, and he said sure, with a smile on his face. So we started in. As usual, I let this guy gas himself out and after about thirty seconds he had nothing in the tank, and then I took him apart. The last thirty seconds of the round I put him in the clench (no way was he getting out of that) and started counting knees - he took about twenty of them, all lightly tapped on his kidneys, solar plexus and thighs. After the round ended I told him nice job, and started my deep breathing exercises to get my heart rate down. I was ready for the next round, but he wasn't. He had enough. The assistant instructor laughed.

I am not telling this story to brag, but to demonstrate a point. This guy was rusty. His angles were all wrong, he wasn't faking, his punches were slow (I have mentioned before that when I spar beginners it is like they are in slow motion), and on and on. There simply is no substitute for time in the gym practicing, sparring, and working on your martial art. Muscle memory is so important. If Tiger Woods took three years off of golf, he would suck out loud at a PGA event and not even make the cut. The same exact thing applies with your martial art, or anything else you do. If you don't practice, you will not have it when you need it.

Point two. Frankly, I am not amazed nor intimidated by anyone who tells me that they are a "x" degree blackblelt in anything if they have a huge shed hanging down over their tool. The shed tells me that they will not be agile, they will be slow, their muscle tone in general is low and that I would easily be able to outlast them. And really, all I need is to be able to get in a few destructive blows, separate and run like hell, which is my real plan. Good luck chasing me fat boy, I can run five miles, each mile under 7.5 minutes (this is my normal Sunday morning treadmill workout). And that isn't even a big deal for me anymore.

I disagree with James on one thing - he suggested a western style boxing gym for the daughter of the man who emailed him. I would humbly suggest Muay Thai as an easy martial art to start with. ;)

But Muay Thai is not the end all of martial arts when it comes to self defense. In fact, I would place it in the middle of all of them. I would say (and this is purely my own opinion) that Karate and TKD would be the most useless, MT would be somewhere in the middle along with western style boxing, and that at the top the best ones BY FAR are Jeet Kune Do and Krav Maga. JKD and KM are made for the street. They practice things like head butts, small joint manipulation, nerve bundle destruction, trapping, eye gouges, groin strikes, and other survival techniques. I have even seen the JKD guys in my gym practice scenarios where they are outnumbered, or have the use of only one arm, etc. Sounds crazy? Not if you are serious about self defense.

But the point that James makes and that I hope that I am making is that you have to practice, practice, practice. You have to get beat up and beat others up. You have to understand what pain feels like, how to overcome it and remain sharp through it.

My body is beat to hell right now since the gym is amping up for our tests for our next level sashes. I am really looking forward to the Christmas break where we all get two weeks off to let our bodies heal a bit. But then we are back at it, getting bruised, cut, hit, kneed and kicked. You have to stay with it if you want your art to be effective when you need it.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Wait…What If I Like SPAM?

So how bad is it? You might enjoy this youtube music while reading my latest rant.

SPAM is a can of processed chopped Shoulder of Pork and hAM. Not much else is in that tin besides some preservatives.

The SPAM brand name has been hijacked to define unsolicited email. Borrowing the word SPAM as a metaphor for unwanted junk is a crime against a company that has produced a fine product for decades. Oh well.

This article caught my eye a few days ago.

In the first line it says, “The economy is in tatters and, for millions of people the future is uncertain.” This New York Times (who else) article goes on to claim that the current economic condition is so bad, so very very bad that many families are turning to (gasp) SPAM to supplement a shrinking food budget. They come to this conclusion due to a sharp increase in SPAM sales while the American economy is going down. Is that so? And so what if people choose to eat SPAM at home instead of going out to a trendy restaurant and paying way too much to swallow raw shellfish that has the consistency of a wad of after-flu snot. I prefer SPAM to sushi any day, especially the stuffed rice rolls surrounding raw eel wrapped in seaweed and dipped in liquid salt and hot green horseradish. But that’s just me.

I am old enough to have lived through two serious recessions. In the late 70’s gasoline was in such short supply some filling stations were randomly closed when the big tanks ran dry and no trucks were on the way to fill them up again. The price of a gallon of gasoline tripled within a year. My fixed mortgage loan interest rate was 13% in 1980 after putting down 20% in cash (my life savings at that time. Back then it was widely reported that dog food sales were up sharply. The implication was the same as it is now, that the elderly and minorities could not afford their Big Macs so they turned to low cost food items like a of a can of Strongheart or a sack of Kibbles ’n Bits. I didn’t buy into it then and don’t buy into it now and I’ll tell you why later.

This article threw a switch on a taste craving in me so bad that I went out and bought a fresh can of SPAM because, well, because I like SPAM. Fried in a pan or grilled on a Weber SPAM makes a tasty sandwich with cheese on a bun and pickles & chips on the side. Hawaiians just love SPAM and include it in ethnic regional cuisine offered in Hawaiian restaurants. Seems they got hooked on it after WWll when shiploads of it were left behind.

How affordable is SPAM? It cost $2.85 for a 12oz can of SPAM the other day. That comes to about $3.80 lb. for canned and processed chopped pork. Is that any way to save money in hard economic times? One pound of fresh ground beef costs less so why make their case based on the sales of SPAM? Aren’t there any other more unsavory examples out there to convince aristocratic, clueless urbanites just how awful it is out here in flyover country?

Let’s see, there’s Hamburger Helper (without the hamburger like cousin Eddie makes in the Vacation movie), ramen noodle soup, Kraft Mac & Cheese and that stew-bum hobo delicacy known as canned Potted Meat to name a few. Have any of these products seen the same sharp sales increase due to the current hard economic times that SPAM is enjoying? Armour Potted Meat sold for 75¢ for a 5 oz. can in the store that day. It comes to about $2.40 per pound, not much of a deal there either considering the ingredients.

Did you know Libby Potted Meat contains Mechanically Separated Chicken, Partially Defatted Cooked Pork Fatty Tissue, Beef Tripe, Partially Defatted Cook Beef Fatty Tissue, Vinegar, Salt, Spices, Sugar, Flavorings, Sodium Erythorbate And Sodium Nitrate?

Partially Defatted Cooked Pork Fatty Tissue? Compared to Potted Meat, SPAM may as well be a USDA prime ribeye steak. Could the SPAM sales increase have anything to do with the holiday season? People often buy non-perishable canned food products to donate to public food pantries. Who knows why? Poor cash flow is not a good reason to buy SPAM considering all the choices out here.

To me this is another example of media over-hype and lust for any bad news involving the economy. I believe the reason SPAM is currently being used as propaganda is because it is a widely known brand for better or worse. Not too many are as aware of Libby Potted Meat and I seriously doubt that their sales are up. Most Americans are well aware of Hormel SPAM. They turn up their nose at the idea of SPAM as if it were a can of boiled jowls and chitlins’. To me, SPAM is a victim of snobbery. Unless you were in the military and forced to eat it you may have never even tried it. Because it is meat that comes out of a can some just go eeeewwww. The brand image of SPAM is about the same as dog food to most Americans because of peer pressure, poor public relations or just plain ignorance.

Call me frugal but it doesn’t take a down market for me to eat on the cheap. Even during good times spending a lot of money on fine dining is a treat. In recent times way too many Americans grew fat and happy and threw caution to the wind when it came to luxuries such as McMansions loaded with monster screen flat panel televisions, pricy vehicles and dining out more than three times a week. It explains the endless suburban boulevard miles of casual dining restaurants like Chili’s, Applebee’s and Red Lobster. In urban Chicago you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting someone walking into a trendy dining establishment where an average meal with wine costs at least $50 a plate.

Yes I am and always have been frugal. For instance, last summer I bought a whole boneless pork loin for $1.99 a pound. That’s $1.99 for a pound for pure tender meat with little fat and no bone. We cut the loin into thick pork chops (it’s where chops come from), vacu-sealed them and tossed them into the freezer. For weeks we thawed them, brined them, grilled them and basted them with BBQ sauce for better than average summertime weekend feasts.

$1.99 a pound for pure meat. At a price like that even I can turn my nose up at a can of SPAM for $3.80 a pound.

It's bad you know.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Log Me In

I suppose I am WAY behind the curve here, but just today I have discovered a product that will make my life much simpler.

As of late I have taken on some additional responsibilities wrt my career, and the extra load requires that I need to work at home on occasion. I didn't really have a way to access my work computer, where pretty much everything I need is located. Well, I could have paid some people to set up secure layers and such to enter the private network, but this solution is cumbersome.

A tech services guy said to just do it the easy way, and use Log Me In. This is a program that you download into your PC. After you do that, you can access that PC from anywhere you have an internet connection, as long as the PC is powered up and has an internet connection. You are literally controlling and working with the PC from wherever you are, real time. My only stumbling block was that I didn't remember my Windows username and password - I just changed them and everything worked out great.

Like I said, I am probably WAY behind the curve here, but this is like angels singing for the use I am going to get out of it. And the price can't be beat - zero.

I am not much into pushing products, but this one is a winner if you need access to a remote computer that may have a document on it that you need.

As a birthday/Xmas present I plan on getting a Blackberry or other device like that - I hope Log Me In works as well with that as it does on my home laptop. But I bet the small Blackberry screen will be some sort of challenge. We will see.

Cross posted at ChicagoBoyz.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

As If It Never Left

A classic lake effect snow was predicted for counties east of here last night. Porter County could see three inches. Here’s what I woke up to.

Officially ten inches of frozen global warming fell on the country bunker. These things are unpredictable since it all depends on the precise direction of the wind. Lake effect snow storms are not part of any organized weather system, they can only happen when conditions are just so. A huge open lake to the north with cold air blowing to the south and temps below 32 mean Valpo is ground zero. Winds from the northwest means South Bend gets whacked. Rarely when the wind is northeast Chicago can get some. Here’s a radar image screen grab I saved at 7:30am this moring.

Another one is predicted for Thursday night but tomorrow being in the forties means most of this should be gone. Good thing I had the two-stage Airens ready to go.

I remember when fifteen inches dumped on us one night a few years back. The next day after the snow removal routine I needed to travel both to the east and west. Within ten miles in each direction the ground and roads were clear and the sun was shining.

Weather phenomenon. It’s a b!tch.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Gentrification... and the Lie of History

In the NY Times this weekend they had an article about a one man show by Danny Hoch. The topic of his show was gentrification, and how it impacted natives of New York City. In the article they reviewed him and he had the following quote:

"I did a lot of community arts work through the 90's, really believing that we were making a difference socially.... Within the last 10 or 15 years, those communities have virtually been erased."

On a seemingly unrelated line, there is a history of the neighborhood that I live in, the River North neighborhood in Chicago. Here is a link to a document summarizing River North history, notably its time as a manufacturing area called "Smokey Hollow". This article summarizes the demographic changes in the Near North neighborhood of Chicago by decade.

These types of documents talk about the history of a neighborhood as if it was continuous, with links between each era. However, the reality of urban areas like River North (and the New York of Mr. Hoch) is really quite different. Aside from some projects just north of Chicago Avenue near Cabrini Green, the neighborhood has turned over to a degree that most US residents would find astounding. There are literally no individuals living in River North that were even here ten to fifteen years ago.

The area was not heavily populated, with many industrial buildings. Over time, the industrial buildings were converted into galleries, offices, or high priced lofts. Any apartments that catered to the non-well to do have been leveled over time and either converted into high rise condominiums or free standing houses costing in the millions (nearby residents include Michael J*rdan's wife and Mancow, the shock DJ).

If you were here, and working with a community group, and you returned, all of your residents are gone. The relentless rise in rents and the fact that this land, within walking distance of the loop and filled with restaurants and other attractions, is too valuable to have even modestly price residences.

On a holiday, such as Thanksgiving, when you drive your car through the garage and out onto the street the garage, which is usually packed, is empty. Why is this? Because no one is FROM here. Everyone empties out of the neighborhood on holidays and goes to see their family. You can practically see tumbleweeds rolling through the streets (except for tourists).

The sad fact is that poor communities can't exist long term in an area of high property values. The forces of rising rents and higher quality housing (which is sold for more than locals can afford) is relentless. Unless there is the heavy hand of the state (rent control in NYC or Europe) the gentrification sweeps across the neighborhood like a brush, taking away the old and replacing it with the new. Many neighborhoods in Chicago represent the EXTREME of that circumstance, where virtually every previous resident has been displaced (all the more so since the stock of housing was relatively limited).

Reading a history of River North is interesting if you are looking for a vanished civilization, or seeking to understand the remaining architectural landmarks.

If you are looking for people, like Mr. Hoch, they are all gone. Erased.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Leverage and the Housing Bubble

The housing bust has been well chronicled elsewhere and I won't add much to it by summarizing it; let's assume that readers of this blog know the outlines (and details) of the story. But while everyone has learned the (often bitter) lesson that housing doesn't always go up, it also comes down, they haven't fully digested other elements of the financial picture. High LEVERAGE on a flat or declining investment makes the "buy" vs. "rent" even more skewed away from "buying".


The case for housing as an investment (positive returns) is generally based on the following elements:

- LAND has value; most of the value in any sale is driven by LOCATION
- The premises atop the land can add some value and entice buyers, especially since buyers often want to move in and don't want to do a lot of work. Generally enhancements to a property don't pay off specifically, with rare exceptions
- if you have tenants or renters, you can bring in income for use of your property. If you have renters, improvements to the property are likely to bring in more rental income or increase the likelihood of your property being rented at all
- if you live there yourself, you avoid the "cost" of renting an equivalent property

Tax Benefits

- the government provides tax deductions on interest for real estate loans, and property taxes, within some guidelines
- the government allows individuals selling real estate used for their primary residence (in general) to exclude a significant portion (or all) of the gains from income tax purposes upon sale

The COST of real estate has the following elements:

- property taxes on the land and the improvements made to structures on the land
- transaction fees paid to governments and realtors when you buy and sell the property
- ongoing maintenance of the land and buildings atop the land (or assessments for condominiums)
- the cost to purchase the land and buildings atop the land
- legal, accounting, and other fees paid tied to your property, or the value of your time in running and managing the property

If you don't pay cash outright on your property:

- the interest rate on the cash borrowed to pay for the property
- fees to take out the loan or modify the loans' terms


What people generally fail to think about in depth is how LEVERAGED the typical home purchase is. Many buyers are putting down 0-5% on a loan; the FHA and Federal institutions (with the death of many mortgage players the Federal government is often the only game in town) are trying to move up the down payment but housing activists (and builders) are trying to keep it in the 3% range. Note also that many of these buyers have their initial down payments "gifted" to them by the seller; for example if you are a builder, you are indifferent to whether the cost of your house is reduced from $100,000 to $97,000; but you could keep the sales price at $100,000 and "give" the buyer $3,000 for their down payment; this can help them to "qualify" for a loan. In the "old" days 20% down was considered typical; if 20% down was the norm today our housing market would go from ice-cold to a deep freeze.

The problem with any investment with 95% leverage is that you pay a tremendous amount of interest. Your "equity" portion (in this case, your down payment plus the part of your mortgage payment that goes towards principal) is very low; in any sort of down turn your equity value will almost instantly turn negative (meaning that you have to bring money to the closing, and should probably just walk away from your home if you can stomach the horrendous damage this will do to your credit rating).

Leverage MAGNIFIES your returns, upwards and downwards. If you put in $5000 on a $100,000 house and it goes up to $150,000, your $5000 investment has returned $50,000, or a 10x return (awesome!). On the other hand, if your house goes from $100,000 to $90,000, you owe $5000 IN ADDITION to those monthly mortgage payments you need to make for the next 30 years (should you be lucky enough to have a 30 year mortgage, fixed) should you sell it.

I am simplifying here, but if housing is going to stay flat for the next five years or so (a reasonable assumption, although no one knows) then if you are heavily leveraging your house, you probably would be better off walking away and renting. While you can make a case for home ownership based on the value of the tax deductions and the "implied rent" value of not having to pay rent, it probably dies with the high transaction costs, zero value of the "tax free" gain on sale, and the fact that property taxes are going UP for the foreseeable future as cities grope for more revenue (don't worry - even if the VALUE of your house goes down - the city will increase the RATE that they imply to your value to more than compensate - in fact the highest rates are in the poorest and most down-trodden neighborhoods).

Let's use a parallel analogy - does it make sense to use borrowed money to invest in the stock market right now? No - you are spending a lot of interest to put down money that seems just as likely to stand still as it is to go down or up. People would look at you like you were CRAZY if you told them you were going to borrow money and "go long" (invest) in the stock market now (I am not talking shorting the market because that analogy does not hold true - by buying a house you are effectively going LONG the market).

When the Federal government pushes banks and their own brethren Fannie and Freddie to do loan modifications (reducing payments) to allow people to "stay" in their homes, it seems like they are doing these families a favor, but more likely they are helping the banks. Virtually all of these buyers are heavily leveraged; their payments are almost all interest. Many of these individuals would be better off walking away, if the home values were to decline modestly or even to stay flat for the next 5 years or so. Paying interest for an asset that is flat or declining is like a double hit in the face; you still suffer the loss, but you pay interest on the "old" value prior to the loss.

Another element that falls apart in these models is the "implied rent" model. People who buy houses generally purchase nicer houses than the average renter; the delta between what people would do if they were renting vs. what they purchase when they buy a house is probably due to the fact that people think housing is a "good" investment so that buying more now just leads to bigger gains later. Don't forget that rent rates will decline along with the overall economy; many landlords are vying for decent tenants and they are willing to discount rental rates or minimize raises to keep up with expense growth in order to keep "good" paying tenants.

A final, sadder blow to these models is that if you don't have income coming in the door, the tax advantages are minimized. Even if you had savings and could continue your house payments (mostly interest) while out of work, your reduced income would reduce your tax benefits at a corresponding rate. Without the "value" of the sales gain (the tax exclusion) and the interest deduction, and the value of the sale itself, purchasing a house (with leverage) looks even more like a suckers' game.


Many models that value real estate have come unglued with the changes to market behavior. Take them all with a grain of salt. Don't be sold that the positives of real estate outweigh the negatives, and glib realtor talk is often misguided.

In particular, piling leverage atop a zero growth asset class is not a solid financial strategy, even if the government lets you deduct a portion of this on your taxes.

Letting people stay in homes when they have no equity, so they are essentially paying almost 100% interest (no principal reduction) in the forseeable future, isn't in their best interest, although it seems like you are doing them a favor, because they aren't "losing" their homes (homes that they have almost no equity in, so they don't "own" at all). These programs really benefit the bank, because they avoid having to recognize (in accounting terms) a loss on the property, pay transaction costs on the sale, and the legal / maintenance costs of kicking out the "owner" (who really owns nothing). Time is the banks friend; as long as you are paying some interest on this declining asset, maybe the value will turn around and the bank can avoid the loss entirely.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Review of IPod touch 8G (2nd Generation)

Over the years I have owned a number of MP3 music players. I started WAY back with the Rio, a device that attracted a lot of attention from record labels and related lawsuits, and which ultimately died. After a while I broke down and joined the Apple bandwagon, when I realized that you didn't need to just purchase songs encoded in their format and you could upload your own songs in MP3 format. I currently own an iPod shuffle that I use when I work out (a great buy at $49) and an older 60GB that can hold my entire music collection. Note how SMALL it is in your hand, and it is very thin (thinner than an IPhone).

I was recently browsing at Radio Shack near where I work looking for headphones when an enthusiastic sales person asked me if I had seen the new IPod touch and what type of IPod I owned. I said I didn't know anything about it and he basically said that it was awesome, replaced his old IPod, and let him surf the web and send emails for free at any Starbucks location, as well as watch movies downloaded from iTunes. "It is like an iPhone with no monthly fees" he said or something like that. At $229 I couldn't resist a new gadget and bought it.

Surfing the Web - the IPod Touch uses the Safari browser and works like the IPhone browser. It allows you to "drill in" to web pages by pushing your fingers together and "pinching". This expands the portion of the web page you actually want to read on the screen. You can also turn the device sideways to read, such as I did on the "most important video" seen above. The browser works well - you can use bookmarks to save pages, and search easily. On a wi-fi network, it loads very quickly and is able to play embedded video in most categories (such as Apple Quick time format), but not all.

Playing Music and Videos - I bought an 8GB version... this is too small to fit my whole music collection and now that I see how cool this is I likely need to upgrade to a version with larger memory - but it plays music very well and let's you go through your catalog in the cool way with your fingers like you see on the IPhone TV commercials. It also plays movies and videos in a crystal clear screen that jumps out at you.

Email - one reason that I bought the device is that it lets you download, read, and write email on the device. I was able to instantly set up my gmail and yahoo accounts. It took a little more work to set up my personal email but was able to do it after reading through instructions particular to my online POP3 account.

No Keyboard - there is no keyboard. When you need a keyboard one pops up on the screen. I am still getting used to it - I wouldn't necessarily want to type an epic on it, but it works. If you are having trouble with a particular key you can just slide along your finger until the key looks "larger" and then select it... sometimes I have to do this with my fat thumb on the corner letters like the "M". Having no keyboard is a bit of a trade off, but it lets the movies and browser be far larger when compared with what you get on a blackberry, for instance. If you are heavily typing all the time (like a corporate email system) I would not get this type of device, but it is great for personal email and the like.

Wireless Access (FREE) - when you are at home once you set up your wireless access point and password the device automatically finds it and utilizes it. If you set up other points (I set up a friends' house) it also finds that, too, without having to reset the password or connection. This is the way to really use the device - it is fantastic that you just click on it and you can see weather or something like that IMMEDIATELY rather than waiting 60 seconds for your PC to boot up (longer if you have Vista) and then waiting for the security software to kick in before your browser starts.

Starbucks Wireless - If you have a prepaid card with Starbucks and use it at least once a month then you can have wireless access for free at any Starbucks location with AT&T wireless access for up to 2 hours a day. I bought a Starbucks gold card for 15 bucks (because that gives me 10% off the basic coffee I drink, Pike's Place Roast) and put some money on it and registered through their site, which passed me off to the AT&T site, where I registered again. After that, I went into Starbucks and was able to log in and get my email there and surf for free. Note that many Starbucks sites have T Mobile as well as AT&T but T Mobile is a (paid) service while the AT&T is free. I will probably do a separate post on how to set this up because it is a little bit technical but I am telling you, once you get through a few steps, it is free from then on at any Starbucks offering AT&T connectivity. You don't need to pay for the Starbucks gold card like I do - just any old Starbucks prepaid card will work (I am told).

Larger Version and Accessories - The 36GB version is $376 on Amazon and if you buy it online it is tax free (that saves you $38 here in Chicago). I also need to buy a cover for it so it doesn't get the screen scratched and likely a power charging station so I don't have to have my PC on to recharge the device (it comes with a USB charger out of the box). After I buy some accessories I will review them, as well.

GPS - The ITouch does NOT have GPS built in. However, it approximates the same thing based on the physical location of your wireless that it is connected to. If you have this device, get on wi fi anywhere (a friend's house, a Starbucks) and then hit "location" (it is like a target icon) and then your ITouch knows where you are and will map out nearby restaurants, bars, gas stations, or anything else. This service is AMAZING and so are the Google maps... you can drill down right into your location and map anything that you can find to get directions.

Weather / Stocks - there are a couple of applications built in that let you track weather or stocks with one click - you just need to set your preferences or city. There are a whole bunch of custom applications you can download, too, but these are built in to the device. In the morning you can turn it on and have it up and see weather in about 20 seconds while doing something else like getting dressed and it works flawlessly (and makes your PC or laptop seem aggravating).

Downloading Applications - there are a TON of free applications that you can download that let you play games, read newspapers offine, and many other things. I will start to download them and post on the ones I like and the ones I don't. The applications are categorized as "free" or "paid" and you can just pay for them via your iTunes account (don't need a credit card, it is very low hassle). If you don't like them, just uninstall the applications.

Battery - the battery does seem to die pretty quickly in my unit. I am looking for a charger on the wall and I will just plug it in overnight rather than on my PC (although I will need to synch it to get my music). I will try to monitor this and get a better feel for how it works and what is draining it.

No Monthly Fee - once you buy this device, there are NO monthly fees. It is expensive to get a device for email and then pay every month. This is a free way to get at least the email, GPS-like features, and web browsing. I highly recommend buying it for that reason alone.

More to Come... I will be posting more as I work with this device because I view it as truly revolutionary. Set up an "IPod Touch" category for this blog as a result, if you are interested.

Subdivision Wildlife

My posts about cougars here and at ChicagoBoyz drew a lot of traffic. It seems as though it is a subject of interest to a lot of people (a new cougar link dump soon to come). Gerry's post here about coyotes also drew some links and clicks. The common thread is the encroachment of wildlife in typical non wildlife domains. I am not talking about "urban sprawl", or people moving into areas where there is already wildlife established. I am referring to animals encroaching back into populated areas. This photo below was taken on the way to work this morning. Before bashing my photography skills, some background. Just outside of my house is this four lane highway. A deer was running down the median in the center, right next to my car. I changed lanes to the right lane and slowed down, all the while getting my camera out. When the deer randomly decided to cross the road I was ready and was able to slow down and snap this admittedly crappy photo with the one free hand I had (the other on the wheel). You can see the deer in the left lane here. It was a very large doe. She crossed the street, looked back at me and went into someone else's yard. Click photo to enlarge.
Car deer accidents cost insurance companies (and, in the end, us) millions upon millions of dollars. This is a very good pdf put out by the Wisconsin DOT that gives a lot of good information about car deer crashes.

What is funny (or not funny) about this is that outside of extending the hunting seasons I don't see any way that this problem will go down or go away - and I think it is getting worse. I see deer alongside the road (dead and alive) almost every day that I drive to work. When I was a kid it was a BIG deal to see a deer in the wild.

The deer has very few natural predators around here any more. The only ones I can think of are wolves (only in Northern Wisconsin), and coyotes if they hunt in a pack. We also have the random cougar that comes by on occasion. One other predator of deer is winter. I hate to do this to myself, but I am wishing for a bitterly cold winter to kill off a bunch of the deer. I would rather suffer through a few months of bone chilling cold than risk my safety or the safety of my family due to a car-deer crash.

Cross posted at ChicagoBoyz.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Another one bites the dust

Just last week drummer Jimmy Carl Black, from The Mothers Of Invention passed away.

Since then Mitch Mitchell suddenly assumed room temperature. Mitchell beat the skins for the Jimi Hendrix Experience. We all know what happened to Jimi. Bassist Noel Redding passed away in 2003 so none remain from that innovative trio.

So we lose two drummers within two weeks. Who’s next, Buddy Rich? Keith Moon? What’s that? Oh. Never mind. Hang in there, Ringo, even if you won’t answer my fan mail anymore.

Mitchell can best be defined by his performance in Manic Depression where old Jimi gave him a real workout.

Purple Haze topped the charts in ’68 when I was a freshman in high school. The sound from this outfit sucked me in immediately and I still listen to old Hendrix regularly. When I do it makes me hate Disco even more. I saw a lot of big acts live back then but one regret is that I never saw Hendrix live. Dang druggie never gave me the chance.

R.I.P. Mitch. You weren't the Indian of the group but WTF?

Could You Explain That To Me, In English?

I am looking forward to reading some books about the collapse of Wall Street. I am praying that Michael Lewis writes one. I was very happy to find this article written by him. If you are interested in the subject, I would make it required reading for this weekend. It is somewhat lengthy, but very entertaining. You will understand the title of this post if you read the article.

Michael Lewis is one of my favorite authors. His book "Liar's Poker" is an easy read if you want to start to understand some of the nonsense that went on in financial circles in the 80's and 90's.

Cross posted at ChicagoBoyz.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Something New

Every Monday and Wednesday before my Muay Thai class I arrive early to do a conditioning course. It is a self run system. We have sixteen rounds of two minutes each, with 45 seconds of rest in between each round. In the rounds are things like bosu ball pushups, ab work, jump rope, bagwork, and other exercises. It is relatively challenging. I am very happy with my progress. It took me six months of really pushing myself, but I can see my sixpack now, and am actually able to flex my obliques, something I though I would NEVER be able to do. This conditioning has also helped my clench work, and I am now a beast in the clench; the other people in my class (especially women) avoid getting into the clench with me at all costs. My cardio was already good and has remained at a very high level with the summer biking and the running I still do on my treadmill.

As the Monty Python saying goes, "and now for something completely different".

Monday we were informed that the gym at 5pm will now be doing a sort of boot camp. There are a lot of weights involved, as well as some of the other exercises that we were doing before. So I was a guinea pig, along with one other woman on Monday, and it was me alone last night. I haven't lifted any serious weight in a long time, and I am SORE. But the workout was intense and I like that.

My normal weight fluctuates between 175 and 180 now, but I think I will have to let that slide up to 180-185 if my muscles start developing like I think they will. There is no doubt that I will be creating mass if I keep this up. I also need to adjust my diet a bit. I think two scoops of whey protein during the day instead of the one I use right now will help. I don't think this will slow my punches and kicks down, but time will tell.

Oh yeah, I was informed that I will be running the class too. Surprise! Not sure if I will be paid yet, but no matter. I am there anyway, and I want to help people get healthier, so it is a nice fit for me. We are even going to take photos and weigh people before and after the course. I am already an assistant coach for the fighters anyway so I know how to motivate pretty well.

The first boot camp starts with the new year - it will be interesting to see how many people sign up - and how many finish. There are still a lot of kinks to work out with this boot camp, as the trial runs didn't go perfectly - we still have six weeks to get it right. The issue is getting the proper mix of strength and cardio. The strength was fine for me, as I know how to push myself and how far I can go. But the cardio was a joke. We got done and the instructor asked me what I thought and I said "thats it?". He got the drift. If conditioned athletes take the boot camp course they will be challenged with the strength portion, but not with the cardio.

Time will tell on this. But it is interesting and I am looking forward to seeing the results of a little more strength training. If this has an adverse affect on my Muay Thai, I will probably drop it. But I don't think it will. Speaking of, one more month until my test for the next sash. I am going to destroy that test - of this there is no doubt. But the sashes don't really mean as much as they used to. Sure, they denote progression, but as long as I am getting better, that is all that counts in my head.

I need some more ibuprofen.


I don't remember where or when we met on the intertubes, but Annie has been one of our favorite commenters here for a long time. And she has a good blog to boot, you can find it on the sidebar. As a reward, she receives the coveted LITGM t-shirt, and I even taped a .22LR round on the tag for her. Hope it hits the bullseye!

Hopefully she makes "Gunstock, Reloaded" (Great title suggested by Annie) in 2009 and we can meet face to face- and be humbled by her marksmanship. Markswomanship?

Also, Annie is living proof that you can be a vegan and cool at the same time. We will be sure to brng a couple of veggie kabobs to the next Gunstock if she attends.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

No Regrets Coyote

We just come from such different sets of circumstance.

A friend of mine is fully retired and gets to hunt every day. He has prime property to hunt that’s only ten minutes away. He has arrowed three does so far this year. He stuck one on Sunday and called me to help him drag it out of the bush making me miss the Bears pregame show. My pleasure. Tuesday he called about noon and asked if I would take some photos of a coyote he stuck that morning. No problem. A few more and he will have a fine coat.

Since he has arthritis and is 70 years old he qualifies for a crossbow permit. No ordinary crossbow, his is equipped with a scope. He rarely misses.

I’ve encountered these critters a few times. On a hunting trip one of the dogs went on point. One such nasty critter bolted out of the cover when we got close enough. When you approach what you think is a bird in the cover a surprise experience like that can load your pants. Other times I have seen them running along or across the road while driving in the middle of the day. At first they look like a stray dog, someone’s mutt. I believe many folks have seen them and never gave it a second thought.

Coyotes are rampant in most suburbs, exurbs and last year one even entered a Quiznos sub shop on Wells St. in the west loop area of Chicago. They brought in the dog catcher while the police scanner reports drew the local news crew. They got it all on film, details at ten.

A few coyotes have been spotted in my neighborhood. One retired neighbor had two of them timed as regular intruders violating the property daily at 7am. I know my dog gets freaky every now and then when she smells them. Speck’s a bird dog and not much spooks her while on a hunt but walking doen the street on a leash is another thing. A household pet such as a furry poodle or bejan lap dog unleashed would be easy prey for a hungry predator like this.

The reason coyotes are so prolific is due to the plentiful prey available. Rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and when working in a pack they prey on the abundance of whitetail deer. Poultry farmers and cattlemen also have cause for concern. At one local hunt club I remember the owner proudly displayed a coyote pelt in the clubhouse. That one was shot by a bird hunter after two coyotes had cornered his dog. Lucky for him and his dog he and a buddy were nearby and armed.

Local authorities and the state DNR have no plan for coyote eradication. If some landowner calls to report a terrier disappearance they come by and set a live trap or two, otherwise no action is taken. It’s up to hunters to thin the coyote herd since nobody else gives a dang. They prey on natural habitat, your cats and dogs and even a small child if the opportunity presents itself.

Coyotes have no natural predators besides the wolf and where wolves are absent coyotes thrive.

Coyotes fill a natural void.

So do hunters.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Thank You

From all of us at LITGM to all of you Veterans, Happy Veterans Day and Thank You for your service!

Above is a photo of Tarawa, or what was left of it after that horrible battle. Click for larger.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Re-visiting the Car

While I dream about owning a Nissan GTR that I saw at the Chicago auto show, in reality I drive an old Nissan Altima about 10 years old. That damn car will run forever since I take decent care of it and my frugal nature won't let me replace it without a valid reason.

As I drive around in my older car, however, I can't help noticing all of the expensive cars out on the street. Right now it is Saturday night here in Chicago in River North, and lots of people are "cruising" up and down the major streets, seeing and being seen, in their tricked out cars.

The situation is the same even when I visit a poorer neighborhood. A relative of mine moved to Beverly, in the south side of the city, and no matter how you drive to get there, you need to go through some pretty rough neighborhoods. New and expensive cars are ubiquitous, even there.

Let's think a bit about car economics. If you use $25,000 / loan at 48 months as a starting price point, and the average rate of 6.5%, you are paying about $600 / month.

However, that "minimum payment" model has gone belly up. Here's why.

Car manufacturers have gotten out of the 1) car loan business 2) car leasing business. In order for them to finance the loan, they need to guess what the resale value of the car will be at the end of the lease, as well as the likelihood of the owner defaulting (they can repossess the car but this is an added expense and it comes with the risk of the car being trashed along the way). They also need to have the cash available to make the loan, and pay interest on this entire amount of the cash, until it is paid back. The asset backed securitization model that let them push the risk onto outside investors has essentially seized up in the credit crunch, so they can't unload these items off their balance sheet.

The car dealers and their financing arm look like lousy credit risks, so it is getting difficult for them to raise money, that they would in turn use to loan out to customers. Chrysler stopped leasing cars in August 2008. GM (through their financing arm GMAC) stopped financing (for sale or lease) customers with a credit score below 700. This article also mentions the fact that Ford is getting out of truck leases, and has an example of someone who leased a 2006 car costing $35,000 for under $200 / month (see how BUYING a $25,000 car costs $600 / month up above).

When it comes down to it, over 50% of Americans have a negative net worth, meaning that loaning them any money for anything is likely to be a losing proposition long term. The car companies have to put a lot of money into a $25,000 car and then they turn that into a string of payments to someone who doesn't have much equity in their home or savings and they are pretty much just betting that person will continue to make payments AND that the car's resale value won't fall off a cliff.

What would you say if someone who had little in the way of savings and tangible assets, and who was burdened with heavy home debts, asked you for thousands of dollars to finance a car loan? You need to raise that money, and pay interest on the money, as well as take the risk on the car repossession and resale values years out, to someone who can't even come up with much of a minimum payment.

The model is dead. Leasing is gone, and car loans to dodgy buyers are going the way of the dodo.

If you want a car, and you don't have a lot of money, then you will need to put a big down payment of your own money on a used car more in line with your financial limits - which means a $2000 - $5000 car. When you go into those neighborhoods, or even nicer suburban neighborhoods, you will see many less shiny new cars out and about, because people can't come up with the sales price and financing is fading away.

Even Mercedes and BMW will eventually feel it... while there are a lot of wealthy people, if they actually have to come up with the cash to purchase those $50,000 / or more cars, sales will plummet. With leasing deals limited, the customer will need to pony up a lot of cash to drive one of those cars off the lot.

I looked at the Chicago Tribune ads this weekend:
- GM, Chrysler and Ford all talked about the "total" car price, less incentives
- Toyota and Nissan still talked in terms of monthly payments, along with Audi and BMW

Part of the reason that Toyota, Honda & Nissan can still discuss monthly payments is the fact that their cars depreciate much slower than the US models. For instance, a Caddy will lose about 50% of its value in just 2-3 years, while the equivalent decline in value for a Honda, for example, will be far less.

With the easy financing gone, let's all just re-evaluate our love affair with new and flashy cars. Beyond basic transportation and safety features, cars are viewed as a sign of economic virility or personal expression. But we can't afford this anymore, and there is no one to finance this type of turnover (buying / leasing a new car every few years).

Paying interest on something that is rapidly depreciating is madness; in homes we are seeing a giant version of the same sucking sound (paying interest on an asset declining in value) with a corresponding wrenching impact on the economy; but the same thing happens each time you drive a car off the lot, especially when it is full of features beyond the basics.

In a way, we are back to square zero. Growing up, my family always bought used cars, as did most everyone I knew. Only a few of our wealthier acquaintances would buy new cars, and even fewer would do so every few years. Leasing, low interest rates and asset securitization allowed many Americans the (foolish) option of buying new cars, but now this option is receding into the distance.

This month the major US automakers posted huge declines against prior year sales, up to 40%. This shock was partially due to the fact that the economy went off a cliff, but another major element was the absence of low cost financing. Among all the other problems for car makers, add this to the list, and it is likely to be the bullet that finally takes them down, unless they are substantially rescued by the US government.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

Cold, Kryptonite, and Ice Cube

Over the last few years I have whipped myself into pretty decent shape for an almost forty something. From my heaviest point, I have lost somewhere between twenty and twenty five percent of my body weight, and in the meantime transformed what is left into solid muscle. Out of curiosity I should book an appointment with a trainer for an hour and on top of getting some more tips, I should get measured for a body fat percentage. But enough of that.

Where I am going with the description of my physical condition is that cold weather is absolutely my kryptonite now. I also shaved my head in the meantime, so any temps below, say, 50 F require coat, skullcap and gloves. Before, when I was heavier and had hair, 50 F was no issue in a t-shirt for me.

As I type this in my office, I have a small portable heater running under my desk. The winters here in the upper Midwest are very tough on me. Our winter is just beginning, and I am already suffering - the real cold stuff is yet to come. But so it goes.

On occasion, some interesting individuals come into my store from the UW. Well, I get people in the store from the UW all the time, but these individuals from a certain department are different. They work on the Ice Cube project. From their website, here is what the project is involved in:

The IceCube Neutrino Detector is a neutrino telescope currently under construction at the South Pole. Like its predecessor, the Antarctic Muon And Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA), IceCube is being constructed in deep Antarctic ice by deploying thousands of spherical optical sensors (photomultiplier tubes, or PMTs) at depths between 1,450 and 2,450 meters. The sensors are deployed on "strings" of sixty modules each, into holes in the ice melted using a hot water drill.

The main goal of the experiment is to detect neutrinos in the high energy range, spanning from 1011eV to about 1021 eV. The neutrinos are not detected themselves. Instead, the rare instance of a collision between a neutrino and an atom within the ice is used to deduce the kinematical parameters of the incoming neutrino. Current estimates predict the detection of about one thousand such events per day in the fully constructed IceCube detector. Due to the high density of the ice, almost all detected products of the initial collision will be muons. Therefore the experiment is most sensitive to the flux of muon neutrinos through its volume. Most of these neutrinos will come from "cascades" in Earth's atmosphere caused by cosmic rays, but some unknown fraction may come from astronomical sources. To distinguish these two sources statistically, the direction and angle of the incoming neutrino is estimated from its collision by-products. One can generally say, that a neutrino coming from above "down" into the detector is most likely stemming from an atmospheric shower, and a neutrino traveling "up" from below is more likely from a different source.

The sources of those neutrinos coming "up" from below could be black holes, gamma ray bursters, or supernova remnants. The data that IceCube will collect will also contribute to our understanding of cosmic rays, supersymmetry, weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPS), and other aspects of nuclear and particle physics.

Uh, yea. Maybe some of my readers with a more scientific background can decipher what they are after. I sure can't make heads or tails of it.

You should hear the questions the Ice Cube guys ask us about simple parts. We usually stand there and stare at them like they have an arm growing out of their head.

This is a pump for a fuel oil furnace. There are millions of them all across the United States. There are several of these in the Antarctic right now that are in use that were purchased from me, having been modified by the Ice Cube team. They have to pretty much buy all standard items for use down there and modify them since there really isn't any industry that creates items for use in that environment.

Speaking of that environment, I would last about three minutes down there. Seven degrees F is the recorded HIGH for the South Pole. This article appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal yesterday and literally sent shivers down my spine. I didn't know the conditions that these scientists put themselves through. Their lips and fingers crack, they get nosebleeds, snow blindness, etc. In the article, it is stated that the participants in the program have to go through a rigorous physical and seminars explaining to them what will happen to their bodies as they dry out in the worlds largest desert - the Antarctic.

They repair their cracked skin with superglue. Superglue!

It might be cold down there, but it would be hell for me.

Cross posted at ChicagoBoyz.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

We're Only In It For The Money

It took only ten minutes for me to go through the Sunday edition of the Chicago Tribune this morning. It was all B.H.O. all the time from cover to cover. I could not bring myself to read the hype. This paper will be used to start a few fireplace infernos, for sure. That was bad enough. Then I saw this:

Jimmy Carl Black was an original member of Frank Zappa's Mothers of Invention. Black looked a lot like Zappa and I often confused the two on album jackets. In the obituary it mentions Black’s memorable line between two songs on one album “Hi boys and girls I’m Jimmy Carl Black and I’m the Indian of the group”. Black was Cheyenne. My close friend and Zappa fan Chris (living the good life in Colorado) and I still keep in touch and we have shared Black info recently. Turns out that J.C.B. was still active musically and had a website too.

This news brought back instant memories of my youth. I was a huge fan of everything Frank Zappa did. His music was unusual and innovative. He could give any pro guitarist a run. He did rock and roll. He was very improvisational and borrowed from classical and jazz. He was far from the mainstream and his acidic satire took a bite out of everything from doo-wop to disco, L.A. hippies to politicians and everything in between. Most often he made fun of top 20 music and pop culture of the 60’s and 70’s. He took pride in composing music that would not get airtime on commercial radio.

In a closet near the stereo I still have old Zappa vinyl. Can’t count how many 8-tracks and cassettes that I lost on the way but I have been buying digital Zappa online to replenish what I lost.

A graphic designer named Cal Schenkel was responsible for most Zappa album covers. They were as classic as any album designs by Roger Dean, Frank Frazetta or Stanley Mouse. All these guys were my inspiration and motivation to become a professional graphic designer. Yep, we're all in it for the money.

There are so many great Zappa classics. His music is not appreciated by the masses. Here is my favorite Zappa tune of all time. Peaches en Regalia from the album Hot Rats. It may need time to load but it's worth it.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Encyclopaedia Britannica is the venerable institution that prints all of those bound volumes that you had at your house (or your grandparent's house) when you were a kid. Interestingly enough, their headquarters is right here in River North Chicago, and I walk by the building often on my way to work (it is on LaSalle Street, just north of the Chicago River.

When I mention Brittanica, the first thing that most people say is "Are they still in business?" This was Dan's exact question when I mentioned that they are headquartered here in Chicago.

Early on, when the web was first starting up, many companies had the idea that capturing information would be a big money maker. For example, Microsoft has an encyclopedia called "Encarta" that was big news back in the 90's, when it was battling Brittanica for leadership. About this time Microsoft also started up their online movie database "Cinemania" which was also popular for a while as an attempt to create valuable content.

People did pay for content back in the early days, when the web was somewhat of a novelty. I remember a good friend who bought Cinemania and loved it, since he was a giant movie buff, and he got a big kick out of being able to search through all the data and reviews and see some clips, as well. I think at the time if you mentioned that this all would be on the web, it seemed pretty far fetched, especially since home high-bandwidth broadband was a long ways away and we were stuck with dial up (remember all those AOL CD's in the mail?).

Cinemania was one of the first to give up. Cinemania was supplanted by the all-encompassing IMDB, or Internet Movie Data Base. IMDB contains content generated by employees and also opens up content to individuals who make additions. It seems like IMDB is now unstoppable... with a mix of free content and paid content.

Encarta still lives, as does Britannica, in both print and online form. However, the unstoppable competition for both is of course... wikipedia.

In an irony-laden move, I learned the most about Britannica from their wikipedia entry. From the entry:

"I would view Encyclopædia Britannica as a competitor, except that I think they will be crushed out of existence within 5 years.
Jimmy Wales, July 28, 2004"

For those that don't follow this type of internet trivia, Jimmy Wales is the founder of wikipedia. While derided initially and compared unfavorably to Britannica, the critics missed a few essential points about what makes wikipedia great:

1) people have a great desire to contribute and show off their knowledge, even if they are not being compensated for it, as long as they are recognized even with the community

2) things that people can continually improve upon (like open source software, and wikipedia entries) inevitably beat closed systems because they continually get better until they overwhelm the "closed" model. No company is rich enough to support a closed model that can beat the army of motivated (if unpaid) individuals

If you remember back in the start up days of the internet, everyone was building their own content in-house, and if you said that an unpaid army of volunteers would build gargantuan mounds of content (and in ever-increasing quality as well as quantity) you'd be laughed out of the room.d

Here in Chicago we walk by the last of the old, clinging to the statis paid "expert" model, while the unpaid "masses" model streaks by, never looking back, out in cyberspace.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz