Friday, October 12, 2012

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

My Life is Shit, by Broadway the Fun Cat

The following piece is written by guest contributor Broadway the Fun Cat.

I've been shit on my entire life, but this past Friday it got literal. But let's start from the beginning.

When I was two weeks old, I somehow found myself in a crowded intersection in downtown Galveston. I wasn't supposed to be there, and to this day I can't recall how I ended up in such an obviously dangerous place, but in my defense, I was only two weeks old. I scurried left and right trying to get out of the road, but every time I got close a car would wiz past me and I'd have to dart in the other direction. When you're two weeks old, it doesn't take long for your life to flash before your eyes.

The next thing I remember, I'm in the back of Leslye's Explorer sitting in a cardboard box with a dirty dish towel in it. I would later learn that I had been struck by a car, scooped up by a man on a motorcycle, and given to Leslye to take home. My femur had ripped through several internal organs, and I ended up needing surgery and two blood transfusions the next morning. The vet said I was lucky to have lasted through the night, not to mention the high-risk procedure that I underwent at such a vulnerable stage in life. Leslye named me Broadway after the street that nearly took my life, which is disturbing on a whole new level. If Jesus' friends started calling him Crucifiction, he might not have appreciated having to recall the worst moments of his life and death every time someone called him on the phone. But I digress.

When Leslye tells the story of where I came from, she tells it as if she was the victim. She tells people how it broke her poor little heart and she just had to empty her bank account to save me. I've got three inches of bone ripping through my spleen, and suddenly it's her financial situation suffering real pain. Please.

Fast forward a couple years, and somehow I'm still alive and kicking. There's a half-dog half-cat named Chloe that lives with us. Actually, calling Chloe part cat is an insult to us felines. Chloe spends most of the day trying to pick fights with me, and her efforts are so meager that I barely have to swat a paw at her before she runs off scared. Some dog.

It should've come as no surprise when I tried to escape last Winter. It was bitter cold. Temperatures in the teens. Snow falling on this unprepared Texas metroplex. But when I saw Leslye leave the door open for a brief second, I made a break for it. For three weeks I was free. What I did during that time is my own business, but suffice to say the perils of the open road are not limited to Broadway in Galveston. When I returned, all I heard about was "do you have any idea how many times we had to drive to the pound to look for you" rather than "thank goodness you're alive...again." Same shit, different day.

But it hit the fan on Friday. Leslye and that boy she's always with (haven't bothered to learn his name) came home from dinner, both drunk as a couple of frat boys on shore leave. They immediately smell what I've been inhaling for the last four hours: Chloe has been spraying feces all over the house like it's some kind of reverse Febreeze. There's a spot on the floor, on their bed, all over a stack of clean clothes, and Leslye commences cleaning it. Once they think it's all clean, and their perfect little lives are restored, they go to sleep on the couch. They didn't bother checking to see if I was okay until the next morning. I wasn't. When Leslye found me, I was covered in that infernal dog's bowel juice. It was all over my back, but apparently it was more important to them that they have a clean floor than a clean cat. They hadn't even noticed. Then when they did, they laughed. They still laugh. They tell their friends.

But what am I going to do about it? Same thing I do every time the cosmos or Chloe takes a dump on me. I'm going to take it in stride. I'm going to smack Chloe a little harder than usual. I'm going to live. Because that's what I do--I'm a survivor. I'm Broadway the Fucking Fun Cat.

Friday, August 12, 2011

They did what the underpants gnomes never could...

Step 1: Kill Blockbuster.

Step 2: Jack up the prices.

Step 3: Profit.

Netflix owns me. I've been hooked on the service since I was getting three DVDs at a time for $12 a month. Years later, somehow I'm paying $28 a month for 3 Blu-rays at a time plus streaming. How did we get here, and is there a way out?

Like many people, I felt trapped when my Netflix subscription price skyrocketed only weeks after the Blockbuster down the street closed. This isn't a coincidence.
While Blockbuster stores were still common and convenient, it made sense for Netflix to stay cheap enough to attract enough subscribers to make the brick and mortar store irrelevant. Now that Netflix has a stranglehold on the video delivery market, there's no reason for them to keep prices reasonable.

The only viable competitors are on-demand services. Your cable box probably has a decent selection of movies available on demand, but it doesn't have everything. So if you want to watch El Topo or Big Money Rustlas, you're SOL. Amazon has a great selection of movies available to rent or buy on demand, but most people don't have the capability to watch that content on their TVs.

Many people would happily drop their Netflix subscriptions if either of those competitors overcame their shortcomings, and they will soon enough. So in the short term, Netflix needs to make sure that they don't continue to offend us by dragging us around by our collective bollocks.

Here's how they can do it without losing money: offer a free membership that allows you to pay per DVD you receive, and make the price $2. You get a free subscription to Netflix, and every time you order a DVD it charges your account $2. You can still keep it as long as you want, but you can't get another one until it's returned. There's nothing unlimited about it--it's just a video rental store that happens to be delivered through the mail. You can still get whatever movie you want, but you'll have to order it a few days in advance to ensure it will be at your house by the time you want to watch it. The upside is that you know what your per movie cost basis is. Right now, my per movie cost basis is probably about $15 because I watch 2 Netflix movies a month for my $30 fee. That ain't good.

Netflix seemed great at first because we could keep DVDs as long as we wanted, but now most people realize that their queue never turns because they have the same movies sitting at their houses for weeks on end. So the perceived value of the system turned out to be a big waste of money for us.

In just a few years, we won't "own" any media or media players. You won't own a DVD or Blu-Ray player because you won't own or rent the discs. As streaming capabilities get better, all you'll need to own is the "right" to watch a particular movie or listen to a song. For example, I could buy The Dark Knight for $12 through Amazon. No disc will ever show up at my house. But every time I want to watch it, I can just log in and watch it from any computer, phone, and eventually TV. This is pretty much today's technology; it just isn't widely accepted yet. The point is that the DVD delivery function of Netflix has a rapidly approaching expiration date. If it wants to keep members it will have to learn to adapt without alienating its customers. Right now I feel pretty alienated, and I'll jump as soon as a viable alternative comes along.

Dear Netflix, if you use my pricing plan, feel free to shoot me some free movies. I like all the ones mentioned here, but then again you pretty much know every movie I've watched in the last 5 years. I love you, too.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

They don't even have TV commercials

The following was originally the Yelp review I wrote about the Chick-Fil-A by my office:

Few things in this world are as satisfying to me as eating two original Chick-Fil-A sandwiches for lunch. I'm not proud of this fact as it relates to my physical well-being or my current station in life. That is to say that I work in an area surrounded by nothing but chain restaurants as far as the eye can see, and the only one that makes my day better is the Chick-Fil-A on 380. This is sad to many of you (many may be a strong word considering that no one should actually be reading a review of a fast food restaurant), but at my age (28) you find pleasure where you least expect. Actually, that's not true. I always expect to find pleasure in food, and Chick-Fil-A manages to impress every time. People sometimes ask why you only crave CFA on Sundays when they're closed. That premise is flawed. You crave CFA every day of every minute of your life, and you only notice on Sundays.

The glory of CFA is this. This is a chicken place, and they do chicken better than anyone else does their thing. You know this because they don't have to constantly find new ways to re-dress the chicken into exciting new products. The best thing they have always was and always will be the original chicken sandwich because it showcases their unparalleled chicken. The idea seems simple enough, but it's not universally true of fast food. McDonald's is presumably a hamburger place, but if it focused on good hamburger the way CFA focuses on good chicken, the best thing you could get would be the original cheeseburger. But it's not. They're always having to come up with BETTER kinds of meat (McAngus or whatever) to keep you coming in. If this is a hamburger place, what's wrong with your regular hamburgers? By serving higher quality beef in your new products, aren't you just admitting that you've been pushing lower quality McBeef into our gullets since we were McChildren? The same is true with Whataburger, Burger King, probably Wendy's and, I hate to say it... Taco Bell. Taco Bell isn't really about tacos any more. It's about taco derivatives. Taco Bell is peddling the subprime mortgage bonds of fast food: you're not exactly sure what's in it, it's descended from something you've tried in the past, and it's probably going to kill you. Not so with Chick-Fil-A. You're eating a piece of chicken on a bun with pickles and nothing. I defy you to find fast food that's this focused on doing one thing right.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain!

I'm about to pop off about something about which I have minimal knowledge. This is something I'm wont to do. But if one of you finance gurus can tell me why I'm wrong, I'd consider this post a victory. (If you're keeping score, each post thus far has been a blowout loss.) So here goes nothing...

The 2008 economic downfall was due to a single problem: banks and insurance companies were dealing in and insuring derivatives that they didn't even begin to understand. A buyer didn't know what was actually in the collateralized debt obligation, so he didn't know if he was taking on too much risk and therefore paying too high a price. An insurer didn't know the risk of the mortgages making up the CDO, so it didn't charge enough in premiums to cover the enormous risk of default by all of the mortgagees. Not by a long shot. So here we are, feeling like the washed up has-beens of global commerce. We're the Beastie Boys. (I love the new album but it's true.)

But someone was supposed to be telling us what these mortgage bonds and CDOs were worth. It was someone's job to evaluate those derivatives, assess risk, and give them a rating. Those are the rating agencies: S&P, Moody's, and the third one that no one ever pays attention to. When the sellers of these shitty CDOs (Goldman and their ilk) needed to sell them to poor saps that wouldn't know what they were buying, they needed a good rating from the agencies to get a ridiculously unfair price for them. That's where S&P comes in. But S&P doesn't have a model to rate these new derivatives, so the investment banks say "here, use the model we've been using." And what do you know? Every single one comes back AAA! This, despite the fact that 80% of the "securities" in these CDOs are subprime mortgages.

So S&P and Moody's got duped. When they did, so did the buyers and insurance companies who trusted the AAA stamp, and they dragged the entire American economy with them off the cliff.

Three years after the collapse, as we're working on digging our country out of a massive hole, all of the talk is on whether congress will raise the debt ceiling so that we don't default on our international debt. The fear was that if we did, our nation's credit rating might fall from the coveted AAA status. So we raised the debt ceiling to cover our obligations. Still, as expected, S&P dropped us to AA+. Now, I'm not complaining about AA+. It sounds pretty dang good, especially from someone with BB looks who drives a BBB- car.

But why aren't we considering the source of the rating? If you bought a new broom because it was the only one with the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval, and it turns out the broom caught on fire when exposed to dust particles, and the flaming broom burned down your house and murdered your pets, would you really go back to Good Housekeeping next time you needed advice about which floor polish made your hardwood shiniest? S&P burned the hell out of us three years ago by not knowing what those CDOs were. They may not have started the fire, but they sure threw homemade napalm on it. And here we are watching the Dow take a nosedive because S&P gave us a negative outlook. Shouldn't we care that the last big thing we heard from them was about how poorly they rated the CDOs in 2008? Please, someone tell me why I'm wrong about this.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Casey Anthony and the Diluted Pool Theory

Why is it that everyone in the country is convinced that Casey Anthony is guilty, but 12 jurors found her not guilty in a mere 10 hours? There are many variables that make the average spectator's viewpoint much different from the juror's: media attention, knowing your verdict could end Anthony's life, sympathy for Anthony, etc. But in my opinion, the single greatest difference between the jury's perspective and America's is what I call the Diluted Pool Theory of Evidence.

The Diluted Pool Theory says that it's not the total quantity of evidence that the prosecution brings that matters most to the jury--it's the percentage of the State's evidence that the jury finds credible. Assume the State has five items of evidence: A, B, C, D, and E, and only A through C are rock solid, and D and E are good evidence but subject to attack from the defense. The State should offer only A through C. The marginal benefit brought by D and E is far outweighed by the defense attack. But how can this be? D and E don't change the fact that A through C are still very good evidence, we just added a little icing on the cake, right?

The jury looks at the State's case like an empty pool. That's the presumption of innocence. It's up to the State to fill it with as much sand as possible. That's the good evidence, and the weaker evidence (which is still evidence of guilt) is water. To be clear, the water isn't evidence of innocence--it's evidence of guilt that is flawed in some way, like an eyewitness with a hazy memory or a field sobriety test that isn't widely used. But here's the rub: the State gets to say how big the pool is, and lets the jury know when it's filled with sand. But if the prosecutor fills the pool with half sand and half water, the defense can easily start bailing evidence out of the pool. Therefore it's best to make a small pool and pack it tightly with sand.

Consider this true (albeit slightly mundane) story. Defendant is charged with trespassing. The State's evidence includes pictures of the defendant on the property, a scarf she left behind, and two eyewitnesses who saw her drive onto the property. After the prosecutor offered the sand: the pictures, the defendant's scarf, and one of the eyewitnesses, the question was whether to call the second eyewitness. In speaking to the witnesses before trial, the prosecutor learned that they recalled the events differently (and the prosecutor cannot ethically "correct" the person's memory). So he takes a gamble and calls the second witness to the stand. Sure enough, he describes a slightly different version of the events, and the jury finds the defendant not guilty. But what about all that sand? They had pictures of her committing the crime! The problem is that the second witness diluted the pool.

The same thing happened with Casey Anthony, and it tells us why everyone in America except 12 people thinks that she got away with murder. As casual observers, we only knew a few things: Caylee was deliberately killed, Caylee's mouth was covered in duct tape, someone Googled the word "chloroform" on Casey's computer, and Casey lied to the police (31 days later) about what happened to Caylee. That's the sand. That's the stuff that convinces all of us beyond a reasonable doubt that she's guilty. But the jury heard a month's worth of testimony. The State went so far as to offer novel scientific evidence, a smell canister, to show that the trunk of Casey's car smelled like a decomposed body. Those weeks of testimony diluted the pool, leaving the defense with a bailing bucket and a hose of its own. Add that to the aforementioned additional factors, and it's devastating but not surprising, that the jury took so little time to find her not guilty.

Naturally, the Diluted Pool Theory is just that. The counter-argument is that the jurors know that there was a second witness at the scene, and they'll hold it against the State for not calling them as a witnesses. It's just too easy for a defense attorney to point to all of the evidence that the State chose not to bring. Some jurors respond to that argument, but in my opinion, not enough to make it worth it. Some jurors want you to fill the pool with everything you've got, and they can separate the water from the sand on their own. But the risk is just too high. Once the pool is filled with sand, put away the bucket and cross your fingers.

Saturday, April 2, 2011