Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog
Saturday 31 March 2012

Via Sullivan, the Royal Canadian Mint has stopped producing pennies and will withdraw them from circulation this year, saving $11m outright and eliminating a $150m drag on the Canadian economy:

It costs the government 1.6 cents to produce one penny, which has been made of copper-plated zinc and copper-plated steel since 1997.

The penny, with two maple leafs on one side and Queen Elizabeth II on the other, can continue to be used in payments. As they are gradually withdrawn from circulation, price rounding on cash transactions will be required, the government said.

The calculation of the federal goods and services tax and provincial sales taxes will continue to be calculated to the penny and added to the price, with rounding only taking place on the total payment.

Non-cash payments on checks and credit cards will continue to be rounded to the nearest cent.

Here's hoping we can eliminate ours as well, as they cost the U.S. 2.6¢ each. Of course, the Canadian program I really want to see would save our economy tens of billions of dollars a year...but apparently we're ready yet.

Saturday 31 March 2012 09:33:19 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US | World#
Friday 30 March 2012

The Mega Millions lottery, held in 42 states including Illinois, now has an estimated jackpot over $540m. (The amount will probably be higher as more people buy tickets.) But how much do you really get if you win?

First, you have to choose whether to get 26 annual payments or take the award as a lump sum. The lottery uses a discounted cash flow analysis so that the amount you get as a cash lump is worth the same as 26 equal payments of the whole thing. In other words, if you get a lump sum, you actaully only get the amount that the total award would be worth if you took it in the future.

Take that $540m prize. If you take it as an annuity over 26 years, you get 26 payments of just under $21m each. But a promise of $21m in 2038 is worth a lot less than $21m right now. Think about it: if you have that $21m today, instead of 26 years from now, you can make investments, give it away, buy a lot of stuff that gives you happiness, etc. So how much is $21m in 2038 worth right now? Only $10.7m. Or, put another way, if you take $10.7m in 2038 or $21m today, it's worth about the same—according to the lottery.

We can figure this out by looking at the lump-sum value you would get if you opted for it. If you won today's lottery, Mega Millions will give you $540m only if you take it in 26 payments. Or they'll give you a steaming pile of $389m in cash right now. Because to them, it's the same value.

Why? If you win, you have to make a bet on whether they've estimated something called the discount rate correctly. The discount rate is a guess about how much money will be worth in the future because of things like inflation and the risk that investments change in value. For example, if I bet on a discount rate of 4% (which is historically about middling in the U.S.), I'm betting money gets less valuable by about 4% per year on average. In that case, if I give you the option of taking $100 today or $104 a year from now, and you think the discount rate is 4%, it's an even bet. But if you think the discount rate is 3%, you would take the $104 in a year—because by your estimate, $100 invested today is only going to be worth $103 in a year.

Using a quick Excel function, I figured out that Mega Millions uses a discount rate of 2.6%, well below historical averages but close to what we've seen in the last five years. Here's the calculation:

Yeah, but watch this. If you increase the discount rate to 4%, the estimate of the present value of that $540m drops to $332m, a difference of $57m. In other words, because the lottery uses such a low rate, if you bet that the rate is 1.4% higher, you're betting that you'll come out ahead $57m by taking the money right now instead of over 26 years.

So, great, you're getting $389m in one big pile. Excellent.

Later today I'll talk about your Federal (36%) and Illinois (5%) taxes...and what they might do to the calculation.

Friday 30 March 2012 08:48:10 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Kitchen Sink | US#
Thursday 29 March 2012

Via reader MG, a beautiful visualization of the wind on a map. A static example, from Tuesday:

Thursday 29 March 2012 14:48:14 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Geography | Weather#

Illinois State Climatologist Jim Angel has crunched the numbers, and thinks (contra my own fears) that we might not get melted into little puddles of goo this summer after all:

Historically, a warm March has been followed by a colder-than-normal April on average (first map). That’s true not just in Illinois but across the U.S. On the other hand, precipitation for those same April periods was a mixed bag in Illinois (second map). Most of the state was near-normal while west-central Illinois was slightly wetter-than-normal.

I considered the entire May-August period in one set of maps. One popular question I get is “Does this warm weather now mean that we will get a hot summer?” At least historically, the growing season following a warm March does not show a pattern of above-normal temperatures. On average, they have been remarkably mild in temperature.

I still worry that the really warm lake temperatures and the lack of snow cover during the winter, followed by an unprecedented 8 days of 27°C weather this month (not to mention the hottest March in recorded history), can't help but yield a brutal summer.

Angel has the data, though. I tend to trust data. I should be reassured...but I'm also from Chicago.

Thursday 29 March 2012 10:23:05 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Wednesday 28 March 2012

The Atlantic has noticed a trend among millenials: they aren't buying as many cars as we did.

The Times notes that less than half of potential drivers age 19 or younger had a license in 2008, down from nearly two-thirds in 1998. The fraction of 20-to-24-year-olds with a license has also dropped. And according to CNW research, adults between the ages of 21 and 34 buy just 27 percent of all new vehicles sold in America, a far cry from the peak of 38 percent in 1985.

The billion-dollar question for automakers is whether this shift is truly permanent, the result of a baked-in attitude shift among Millennials that will last well into adulthood, or the product of an economy that's been particularly brutal on the young.

[But] Millennials are more likely than past generations to live in an urban community, and this may be part of what terrifies car markers. About 32 percent reside in cities, somewhat higher than the proportion of Generation X'ers or Baby Boomers who did when they were the same age, according to a 2009 Pew Research Center report. But as the Wall Street Journal reports, surveys have found that 88 percent want to live in an urban environment. When they're forced to settle down in a suburb, they prefer communities like Bethesda, Maryland, or Arlington, Virginia, which feature plenty of walking distance restaurants, retail, and public transportation to nearby Washington, DC.

Absent Parker, I don't know if I would own a car. With two ZipCar locations within 400 m of me, I'd hardly need one. My takeaway, however, is that we're becoming more urban, and that means less car-dependent. This is one American trend I particularly like.

Wednesday 28 March 2012 17:20:22 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Geography | US | Travel#

Josh Marshall explains what the right has really been up to with judicial appointments:

he real issue has always been the regulatory state. In any case, it is the height of judicial activism for the Court to consider striking down legislation on grounds that was barely considered — certainly not in the mainstream of jurisprudence — only two years before when the legislation was being considered. But what struck me more was how the the critical questions from the conservative bloc on the Court grappled so little with the actual economic role of health care provisions in society and the systemic market failure. These would seem to be precisely the issues the Commerce Clause is meant to address. Simply because the problem is serious doesn’t mean every possible solution is constitutional. But again, no real grappling with the practical issues the law was meant to address but rather a hyper-focus on academic and ideological points.

The right wants to get and stay rich. That's it. And chipping away at regulations while reducing enforcement of existing regulations does exactly that.

If you want to see what it's like when the government stays out of business, just look at Russia. That's the society Grover Norquist wants us to have.

Wednesday 28 March 2012 13:09:42 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Tuesday 27 March 2012

And now Chicago is back on track for a record March. We woke up this morning to the gray 5°C weather we had all day yesterday, but right now O'Hare is up to 23°C—a normal temperature for Memorial Day.

Warmest March ever. Warmest January to March ever. Let's see if we get the warmest spring ever...

Tuesday 27 March 2012 17:49:58 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Weather#
Monday 26 March 2012

The Washington Monthly makes a case for it being a disaster for the medium markets:

St. Louis, for example, has seen “available seat miles”— an industry measure of capacity—fall to a third of their 2000 level, following the American Airlines takeover of TWA and Lambert International Airport’s subsequent downgrading as a mid-continental hub. Two of Lambert’s five concourses are now virtually empty, and another, which housed the TWA hub, is only partially used. A third runway—the building of which required demolishing hundreds of homes and cost local taxpayers a billion dollars to finish in 2006—is now redundant. “This scenario,” notes Alex Marshall, a senior fellow at the Regional Plan Association, “can be likened to states building highways and then having General Motors, Ford, and other auto companies suddenly telling their drivers to use different roads.”

St. Louis’s loss of service comes despite the fact that the population of the St. Louis metropolitan area, the eighteenth largest in the U.S., grew by more than 4 percent between 2000 and 2010. The city is also the home of eight Fortune 500 companies and is a major center for such international players as Anheuser-Busch InBev, Monsanto, Boeing, Emerson Electric, Express Scripts, and Nestlé Purina. The GDP of the metro area, which is also propelled by such large research institutions as Washington University and a fast-growing medical sciences sector, rivals that of oil-rich Qatar. Yet like most other midsize American cities, St. Louis’s economic development is now hostage to the shifting, closed-door deals and mergers of a mere handful of airline executives and their financiers. The prevailing mood was captured by a St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorial that quoted “The Serenity Prayer” in advocating philosophical acceptance of the distant forces shaping the region.

The article mentions other similarly-sized markets, like Cincinnati and Pittsburgh, facing the same problems. We take cheap air travel for granted here in Chicago, but as a traveling consultant for much of my career, I've seen the decline of other cities.

On the same theme of private control over what should be public resources, Paul Krugman today warns about the rise of private prisons and the closed-door deals that encourage them:

What is [the American Legislative Exchange Council]? Despite claims that it’s nonpartisan, it’s very much a movement-conservative organization, funded by the usual suspects: the Kochs, Exxon Mobil, and so on. Unlike other such groups, however, it doesn’t just influence laws, it literally writes them, supplying fully drafted bills to state legislators. In Virginia, for example, more than 50 ALEC-written bills have been introduced, many almost word for word. And these bills often become law.

[Y]ou have to think about the interests of the penal-industrial complex — prison operators, bail-bond companies and more. (The American Bail Coalition has publicly described ALEC as its “life preserver.”) This complex has a financial stake in anything that sends more people into the courts and the prisons, whether it’s exaggerated fear of racial minorities or Arizona’s draconian immigration law, a law that followed an ALEC template almost verbatim.

Think about that: we seem to be turning into a country where crony capitalism doesn’t just waste taxpayer money but warps criminal justice, in which growing incarceration reflects not the need to protect law-abiding citizens but the profits corporations can reap from a larger prison population.

We've been turning into a corporate-run country for so long we don't even notice it anymore. What baffles me, and saddens me, is how most people continue to support this trend indirectly, by voting for cynical politicians (I'm looking at you, Mr. Romney) who sound like social conservatives but really want to acquire wealth through political means. But that's a longer conversation.

Monday 26 March 2012 10:57:00 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Aviation | US#
Sunday 25 March 2012

I mentioned getting a list of recommendations for things to see in Marylebone. La Fromagerie was one of them:

Also, I did stop and notice other artwork in the Louvre; here's one of them, by Botticelli:

I really need to go back to both.

Sunday 25 March 2012 15:46:00 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Travel#

Oh, my, where to begin?

Former vice president and war criminal Dick Cheney now has a heart. Here's video from the hospital:

Of course, we have to consider the donor:

And the long-term implications:

Sunday 25 March 2012 09:43:12 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | US#
Saturday 24 March 2012

Via reader DB, a report of a coyote captured in downtown Boston:

At about 3 p.m., the 40-pound animal was finally located by Animal Rescue League workers. It was found cowering next to a downtown building near the corner of Lincoln and Summer streets, surrounded by a crowd of curious onlookers and police. Using teamwork, a large net, and a catchpole, the rescue workers were able to catch it.

[A Boston Animal Rescue League spokesman] suspected that the animal most likely was able to enter the city by following train tracks, but couldn’t find its way back. He said this happens a few times a year and that coyotes are much easier to catch than deer.

We've had coyotes in Chicago news a few times in the past couple of years. I've seen them as well, the last time right by the Whole Foods in Lincoln Park. I love how they've learned to adapt to us—and what they're doing to the rabbit and Canada goose populations. (Sorry, Bugs, you're just a long-eared rat.)

Saturday 24 March 2012 09:01:42 CDT (UTC-05:00)  |  | Chicago | Kitchen Sink#
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Dick Cheney's heart
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David Braverman and Parker
David Braverman is a software developer in Chicago, and the creator of Weather Now. Parker is the most adorable dog on the planet, 80% of the time.
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