Public Harassment

Rand Paul was escorted out of the security area at the Nashville Tennessee airport today for refusing a patdown by the TSA.  You can be sure that if he hadn’t been a senator their response would have been significantly more intrusive.

The Transportation Security Administration was created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  The idea was to tighten security at airports and other points of entry to ensure that people felt safe to travel and attempt to prevent further terrorist attacks.

Sadly, the TSA has grown into a bit of security theatre that does more to intrude on our rights than it does to protect us from harm.  I never thought to hear the words “papers please” here in the United States.

The agency has grown nearly 400% since inception and spent over $57 billion dollars but air travel is hardly more secure than it was previously.  Massive bureaucracy and a generally low level of competence have demonstrated the poor efficiency of a huge governmental organization like this.

The scary part is that they don’t seem to be content with just the airlines, which for most people is a somewhat voluntary mode of travel.  Recently they’re talking about expansion to other forms of mass transit like trains and bus lines.  Is this really the way we want to run things in the land of the free?

If this sort of activity bothers you consider supporting one of the groups that oppose excessive intrusions into personal liberty.  The Libertarian Party, The American Civil Liberties Union, The Electronic Frontier Foundation or The National Rifle Association.

New Beginnings

All across America millions of people struggle with their weight.  Weight loss fads come and go, and the fitness industry is a multi-billion dollar operation, yet for all the time, effort, and money expended things continue to get worse.  Here is a telling quote from the CDC (Center for Disease Control):

“Since the mid-seventies, the prevalence of overweight and obesity has increased sharply for both adults and children. Data from two NHANES surveys show that among adults aged 20–74 years the prevalence of obesity increased from 15.0% (in the 1976–1980 survey) to 32.9% (in the 2003–2004 survey).”

It can’t be just a matter of desire, it seems like at least half the people I know are on a diet of some kind and actively trying to lose weight.  On the surface it seems simple, just eat right and exercise, yet according to the NIH (National Institutes of Health)  the standard program of reduced calories and increased physical activity fails over the long term in more than 98% of all cases.  Some would say this just represents a lack of willpower, but for me, with an engineering background, it looks a bit different.  If one person is having a problem it’s probably their fault, when everyone is having trouble, something is wrong with the system.

So what’s wrong?  As usual, with something of this magnitude, there is more than one cause.  Here are some of the things conspiring against us:

1) Contamination of the food supply – No, I’m not talking about pesticides, hormones, or the process of feeding dead animals back to the live ones in a stock yard. (though that does happen)  I’m talking about sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup.  Sugar is cheap, and it’s an easy way to make a product taste better, often without the customer even noticing.  It’s not just in the chocolate covered donuts either, nowadays you’ll find it in a huge proportion of the products on display at the grocery store, from beef jerky to spaghetti sauce, and even garlic salt.  Everyone knows you shouldn’t eat a ton of sugar, but very few people realize how much they’re already consuming.

2) Automation – In the US at least, and in many other places as well, it’s possible to get a machine to do almost anything you might normally do by hand.  We have machines that wash our dishes, drive us around, open our cans, and let us change the channel without getting off the couch.  Ah, the joys of modern civilization.  Of course, the downside is that we now get very little physical activity at work or at home.  Sit in the office, sit in your car, sit in front of the TV, sit at the computer, it seems like almost everything is done sitting nowadays.  I even see some people sitting on those little go carts while doing their grocery shopping, and not because they’re war veterans with a missing leg either.

3) Food surplus – Thanks to technology, there is more food produced every year, in fact we produce more than enough for everyone.  Of course our social system doesn’t seem to be up to distributing it properly, so millions still starve to death in third world countries.  In the first world though, and most of the second,  if you’re gainfully employed starvation is not much of an issue, and even deprivation isn’t very likely, in fact superabundance probably more accurately describes the situation.

The human body is adapted for an environment of hard physical labor and nutritional shortages, it does an amazing job of keeping you from starving to death under the most adverse conditions imaginable.  Presented with continual food surplus, and very little in the way of required effort and it doesn’t cope quite so well.

So what do we do about it?  It’s all well and good to complain about the problems of the world, but I’ve always felt that if you’re going to complain, you better have a suggestion on how to make things better.  I believe that the main issue is that the problem is being approached from the wrong angle.  I’m an engineering kind of guy, I’m used to solving problems, it’s what I do.  There is an old saying “If all you have is a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail.”  Maybe so, but in this case I feel that approaching the problem from an engineering point of view really allows us to attack the problem more effectively.  In some upcoming articles I’m going to talk about how to do that, hopefully without making your eyes glaze over.  Stick around, and we’ll fill  your toolbox with everything you need to succeed.

Windows 2000 / XP Registry File

Here are a number of registry file entries that will help to make a Windows 2000 / XP system more stable.  Copy and paste the whole listing into a text file and save it with a .reg extension, then double click to run.  You will need to reboot after wards for the entries to take effect.

Windows Registry Editor Version 5.00

;Supress Dr. Watson crash dumps

;Disable automatic execution of the system debugger
[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\AEDebug]

;Protect against source-routing spoofing

;Protect against SYN flood attacks

;Prevent cached logons
[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Windows NT\CurrentVersion\Winlogon]

;Restrict remote logon to a null IPC$

;Reduce explorer window animation
[HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop\WindowMetrics]

;Alphabetize the start menu

;Autoshutdown hung programs
[HKEY_CURRENT_USER\Control Panel\Desktop]

;Remove LM hashes

;Enhance the command prompt with file name completion
[HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINE\Software\Microsoft\Command Processor]

Sweet Potato Fries Recipe

3 Sweet Potatoes
3 TBSP Olive oil
1 TBSP Malt Vinegar
2 TSP Garlic salt
2 TSP Pepper
1/2 TSP Chili Powder
1/2 TSP Cumin

Cut sweet potatoes in half, then wedges, then into individual fries.  Put all ingredients into a ziploc bag and mix vigorously.  Place on baking sheet and cook at 425 turning every 10 minutes until crisp.  MAKE SURE TO LEAVE PLENTY OF SPACE BETWEEN FRIES SO THAT THEY’LL DRY OUT.

Advertising Analysis

One of the most memorable ads I have ever seen was a beer commercial for Rainier Beer.  This TV ad started out with the camera looking down a straight back-country road with nothing in sight; then you gradually see a motorcycle pass by while shifting gears.  In the background you can hear Raaaaiiiii-niieeeerrrr Beeeeerrrrrr set to the same tone as the gear shift and you can see Rainier mountain in the distance.  I’m not a beer drinker and the company has long since been gobbled up by the larger breweries, but the simplicity and directness of the brand statement sticks with me to this day.  You can view the actual ad on YouTube

In my mind there are three key parts to a successful ad 1) Catch the attention of the target audience 2) Make sure that they know who is doing the advertising and 3) Inspire them to purchase the product.  Rainier’s motorcycle ad did a fantastic job of catching the audience’s attention by starting out quietly and increasing the volume as the commercial proceeded.  Given that the name of the company was mentioned for over 10 seconds in such a direct way, there was no doubt about which company was advertising.  I’m not a beer drinker so it’s a little more difficult to decide whether the target audience would be inspired to purchase the product, but the allusion to the freedom of the road and the crystal clear image of the mountain in the background leaves you with the feeling that by drinking their product you’d be partaking in that environment yourself and who wouldn’t want a bit of refreshment after a nice long ride in the country?

This ad is of course targeted at beer drinkers, particularly males in the 20-50 age group that would be drawn to riding motorcycles.  There is some broader appeal to those who like to get out in nature, or just away from the daily grind, and I’m sure it sold well in the after work crowd looking to relax after a long day.  Given the fairly narrow focus of the ad it seems unlikely drawn in customers who aren’t already in the market for an alcoholic beverage.

I wasn’t of legal drinking age when the ad first aired, and I’m not a beer drinker now so I can’t say that I’m particularly tempted to buy the product.  (which is still in production by Miller brewing company)  If I were in the market for a good beer though I’m sure I’d be attracted by the image they paint and the sheer fact that the ad is less annoying that many things aired on TV today.

I like the fact that this was a very cost effective ad.  With only one cheap actor, a rented motorcycle and several days of camera time they were able to produce a piece that was quite memorable.  I did not like the fact that the market segmentation was so narrow.  I think it would tend to alienate female drinkers, but of course that was more common in the 1970s as cultural values were somewhat different.

The Rainier Brewing Company ran a whole series of ads in the 1970s, including this one, written by Terry Heckler and several staff members including Ed Leimbacher.  The ads garnered quite a bit of attention for the company and led to their eventual purchase by a succession of larger breweries.  The beer’s iconic status locally caused it to be referred to as “Vitamin R.” and in 1987 Rainier was awarded a silver medal in the category of Best American Light Lager.  Although there are flashier, more expensive ads on television today, it’s rare that one catches the memory quite so effectively as this.

Is another crash coming?

The DOW plunged nearly a thousand points today in intra-day trading before recovering about 2/3 of the loss near the close.  The VIX surged back over 40 today though it closed at only 32.  Fear over the Greek debt crisis and tightening credit in the Eurozone is causing many investors to dump risk like it’s going out of style.

When the VIX ends the day over 35 things tend to go badly soon thereafter.  For example, on Aug 27 1998 it ended the day at 38.55 and the dow dropped 626 points on the next trading day. (Aug 31st)  Generally before a big move down volatility and volume both rise significantly, which they did today.  The DOW penetrated the lower bollinger band today and that’s usually a bad sign.  The MACD gap is widening and the P&F chart pattern is a long tail down with a price objective of 8600!  In fact, looking at the P&F chart you can see a pretty clear descending triangle that we just broke through today.

I’m not sure I’d be confident enough to go fully short at this point, but if you have any downside risk now would be a good time to get more conservative or do some hedging.  While there could be a big bounce tomorrow if there is good news out of Europe that seems unlikely.  At the very least I expect a lot of people to be reducing exposure, and at worst further bad news could trigger a big sell off.  If the VIX ends the day over 35 or 40 any time soon get ready for a wild ride.

Evaluating Multi-Unit Properties

In order to decide if you wish to purchase a particular multi-unit property the most important number will be the estimated cash flow.  Having a negative cash flow can eat you alive if you’re not expecting it so normally the goal is to only purchase properties that are at least breaking even.

Estimated Cash Flow = Net Operating Income – Debt Service

Debt service is the interest and principle payment you make on the mortgage.  That will depend heavily on the interest rate and your downpayment, but there are plenty of calculators on the internet to help you figure out what payment is going to be.

Net Operating Income = Gross Rents – Operating Expenses

Gross rents is the amount you expect to collect from all of the units when they are fully rented.  There are a number of tools online to help you determine rental prices in your area, so this also should be fairly easy to estimate.  Be careful to triple check any numbers the seller provides you as they are often…shall we say…optimistic.  Unless they’re going to provide you with a copy of their Schedule E, you can take their numbers with a heavy dose of skepticism.

Operating Expenses = Vacancy + Taxes + Insurance + Water & Sewer + Garbage + Repairs + Property Management + Landscaping + Miscellaneous

A handy rule of thumb for Operating Expenses is that they usually run in the neighborhood of 40% of Gross Rents.  You’ll want to drill down into each of the numbers when getting ready to make an offer on a specific property but the rule works pretty well when you’re screening lots of potential deals.

So there you have it, plug all that into a spreadsheet, run the numbers and viola! you can see how much you’d make on each property.  If the number is negative you’ll want to stay away unless you think that a) you can talk the seller into a lower price b) you can raise the rents significantly c) you have a way to lower the operating expenses enough to make the difference, such as managing the property yourself d) you can afford to make a larger down payment or e) you’re willing to use negative gearing and eat the losses until rents go up.

My absolute rule is that I won’t buy a property unless the gross rents will cover all of the guaranteed costs, but I’m willing to eat some of the variable costs like vacancies, repairs, and miscellaneous on a temporary basis.  This results in a tax loss and tends to offset some of the pain until rents catch up to expenses.  I take good care of my units and can often charge above market rates in the long run.

Robust Bread Recipe

This is a bread with a very full flavor and a bit of sweetness, it almost reminds me of cornbread.

1 1/2 Cup 1% Milk
2 TBSP Butter, Melted
1 TBSP Flax Oil
1 Egg, beaten
1 TBSP Molasses
1/4 Cup Honey

1 Cup Whole Wheat Flour
1 Cup Barley Flour

1/4 Cup Milled Flax
1/4 Cup Oat Bran
2 Scoops Vanilla Protein Powder
1 Cup Rolled Oats
1 TSP Salt
1/2 TSP Baking Powder

2 TSP Active Dry Yeast

Add Liquids, then Flour, then Dry, then Yeast.  Cook in bread machine on wheat cycle medium crust.

Hearty Irish Stew

I’ve been working on recipes that take advantage of cheap healthy carbs lately, Barley in this case.  Here is a tasty stew that’s great for cold nights:

1 Pack Stew Meat (cut into small cubes)
2 TBSP Butter
2 TBSP Whole Wheat Flour
1 TSP Garlic Salt
1 TSP Pepper
1 TSP Italian Seasoning
1 Can Beef Broth

Coat meat in dry ingredients then brown in butter.  Once brown add the broth and any remaining dry ingredients and cook till it thickens.

2 Stalks celery
2 Red potatoes
2 Carrots
1 Onion
1/2 Head chopped cabbage
1 Tomato (chopped)
1 Cup Barley

Cover with water and bring to a boil, then add thickener to pot and cook until it’s thick.  Best served with garlic toast.

Analyst Ratings Scraper

Yahoo posts analysts ratings of each stock on their site.  Normally looking it up by hand or using their built in screener is sufficient, but sometimes you want a bit more control.  Here is a perl script that will pull the data directly off their site and output it to a text file:


use LWP::Simple;

open INPUT_FILE, “<list_output.txt” or die $!;
open OUTPUT_FILE, “>analyst_output.txt” or die $!;

while (<INPUT_FILE>) {
sleep 1;
$stock = $_;
$page = get(“$stock”);
$page =~ m/Mean\sRecommendation.+yfnc_tabledata1″>(\d\.\d+)<\/td>.+PEG/;
my $output = “$1\n”;
print OUTPUT_FILE $output;

close INPUT_FILE or die $!;
close OUTPUT_FILE or die $!;