Jan

24

Burgers, by Big Al

January 24, 2011 | Leave a Comment

Best burgers I've ever grilled came about because i was walking through the local grocery store and noticed that they had the Steakhouse Elite ground beef from these people:

http://www.kobe-beef.com/

On sale for $5.69/lb. It's normally ~$10/lb, but I guess they weren't selling much so they marked it down to move it. I bought a package and brought it home and made the best gal-dang burgers I've ever tasted. So I went back and bought the rest and put it in the freezer. Not sure if i'll be willing to pay $10/lb once I run out, but who knows.

Aug

3

fearSex, Drugs, and Body Counts,

July 30, 2010  

Numbers we encounter in the media are often, to say the least, untrustworthy. Some, like casualty figures in Darfur, may be deflated, some, like the street value of drugs, may be inflated, and still others are simply pulled by institutions out of thin air. Brown University professor Peter Andreas, co-editor of Sex, Drugs and Body Counts: The Politics of Numbers in Global Crime and Conflict, says that numbers are even chosen because
of how they’ll sound on the news.

Numbers justify fear. 50,000 abducted children, for example, or 50,000 predators prowling for kids online. That last figure was once touted by the NBC show "Dateline." But where did it come from? As this piece from 2006 points out, 50,000 is something of a Goldilocks number in the media-– not too big and not too small, but, for scaring the public, just right.

KEN LANNING: I was somewhat curious about the fact [CHUCKLES] that it was 50,000. That number had popped in the past, because I had been an FBI agent for over 30 years.

In the early 1980s, this was the number that was most often used to estimate how many children were kidnapped or abducted by strangers every year. But the research that was done in the early 1990s found that somewhere in the neighborhood of 2 to 300 children every year were abducted in this manner.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: It seems bad things don't come in threes – they come in 50,000.

KEN LANNING: The other one that I specifically [LAUGHS] remembered kind of came in the late '80s, where there were a lot of people who were talking about satanic cults that were supposedly running around the country engaging in human sacrifices. And when you'd try to say, well, how much of this is going on, once again, [LAUGHS] the same number popped up, 50,000 a year.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sacrificed?

KEN LANNING: Yes. That's what they were alleging. [LAUGHS] This one here was a little bit more obviously problematic to me, because we do have good data on homicide. And at that time, there was somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 to 23,000 murders every year, so this meant that the satanists all by themselves were killing twice as many [LAUGHING] people as all the other murderers combined.

Jun

25

Its good to classify cons into big and small cons, the degree of complicity of the victim, the use of confederates, and ruses versus bait-and-switches. The market would rate at the top in all of these as is readily seen, especially the use of confederates, and baits-and-switches. I am particularly gullible and an easy mark for cons. Recently, with Aubrey I had the pleasure of being victimized by a nice con at a fair. It was the medium sized con of a basketball game with the player having to shoot into a basket about 20 feet away and 10 feet high, with the basket a little smaller than normal. The only way to get it in is apparently to shoot at so high a vertical angle that the ceiling on the game precludes. The prizes include huge 4 by 5 feet whales and dolphins which I thought would be just the thing for Aubrey. Okay I asked the operator how much it would be to win one of the whales. He demurred. It would be so expensive I am ashamed to say. " How about a hundred i said ? " well, I'll have to ask my boss. " The operator said.

He had a conference with several confederates. And then came back to me with a positive shred. "Bring the kid over and we'll make him a happy camper". I pay my money and then I go to bring Aubrey over. The game is still there, but the big prizes have all disappeared. Only a stuffed Finding Nemo is there.  Worth about 1/3 of the prizes I had in mind. "Which one do you want, kid?" Aubrey chooses the Nemo and the man tells him "kid you tried so hard and so well that I am going to give you a prize". As Aubrey walks away holding the Nemo bigger than him many bystanders ask him what he did to get such a prize. " i tried so hard they gave it to me as a reward ". The stages in this con, starting with a rigged game, relying on my desire to get a special deal, bringing in a confederate, then switching the reward are all too familiar. And it is very helpful in thinking about the market to go over these steps I think.

Pitt T. Maner III comments:

I found a nice overview with table of scam types. Elderly are often the main targets.

The success of many attacks on computer systems can be traced back to the security engineers not understanding the psychology of the system users they meant to protect. We examine a variety of scams and “short cons” that were investigated, documented and recreated for the BBC TV programme The Real Hustle and we extract from them some general principles about the recurring behavioral patterns of victims that hustlers have learnt to exploit.

We argue that an understanding of these inherent “human factors” vulnerabilities, and the necessity to take them into account during design rather than naively shifting the blame onto the “gullible users”, is a fundamental paradigm shift for the security engineer which, if adopted, will lead to stronger and more resilient systems security.

From Understanding Scam Victims: Seven Principles for Systems Security , University of Cambridge.
 

Victor Niederhoffer expands on his remarks:

Part of every big con is the final touch where you make the victim frightful to ever demand restitution,or better yet, ready to put in more money to really get the full advantage. It was a nice touch for the operator to praise Aubrey so highly and let him hold the Nemo with such pleasure that for many many times the amount I paid, I would never have demanded a return to the bigger prize.

Rocky Humbert writes:

The cup is half full: If the objective of The Chair's exercise was to bring joy and happiness to his son, then perhaps this was not a "con" — as Captain Nemo was both larger than Aubrey, yet not so large that his father had to drag around an eight-foot-tall stuffed bear for the rest of the day. After all, the eight-foot-tall stuffed bear had unknown risks including the inability to see oncoming traffic when crossing the street perhaps resulting in the demise of both Bear and Chair.

Jeff Watson comments:

Back in my [adventurous] youth, I ran across a husband wife team that were travelers. Their con was simple and was a beautiful work of art in it's simplicity. The lady(dressed to appear rich and very well coiffed) would drive a brand new Caddie Convertible into a gas station, get a fill up, then would start looking around frantically for the 3 ct. diamond ring she "Lost." while going to the bathroom. She'd enlist the help of the pump jockey and would spend a good 15 minutes looking for the ring. She left very distraught with a note with an address and phone number to the jockey that if the ring were found, there would be a $3000 reward, but please don't tell her husband and only call at a certain time. An hour or so later a ragged man would show up walking through the lot. He'd buy a soda then would show the pump jockey the nice ring he just found. After a little wheeling and dealing, the ragged looking man would walk out with the contents of the register, the pump jockey had the ring and thought he was going to make a big profit. The ring was paste, the address and phone number were all fakes, but the money they made was real serious cash, especially for the 70's when they would regularly pull the con twice a day and average $500 total.

Victor Niederhoffer comments:

What is the market application of Jeff's Cadillac story ? The market applications of the Nemo are that the market has many big up days to lure you in, then you try to buy it on the cheap the next day. At first it doesn't hit your limit so you raise it a little. It doesn't go there so you end up paying near the high ofthe day, or like yesterday, it finally goes down a few points to hit your limit. While this is going on, a tip to a TV or news is given that the market looks great or that his former employee really lost money on that deal et al, and that makes you even more enthused.

You put the position on and then your broker calls you when it goes down. You don't have enough margin in your account. But if you sell within next 10 minutes, he's arranged with his manager not to have the computer extricate you at 1040 the way they did on the flash crash day. Finally, you don't have to come up with more money because you just lost all your margin so you don't have to tell the other half about the tragedy, and the manager gave you an extra special deal by not having the robot take you out ruinously because of your special friendship.

Thomas Miller comments:

Regarding Chair's last paragraph:

Forcing a quick decision under threats and intimidation then showing they are really trying to "help" you is an old scam similar to the "jury scam" I didnt know brokers learned this so well.

http://www.fbi.gov/page2/june06/jury_scams060206.htm 

Big Al comments:

On a trip to Europe with a friend, after high school graduation, I started talking to a German merchant marine guy who was traveling with his CentAm wife and kids back to Germany. This was back in the Iceland Air/Air Bahama days, when the cheap flights went through either Rekyavik or Nassau. So we talked for an hour or two during the Nassau layover and then on the plane. When we got to Luxembourg, he hit me with the story about not having money for the bus trip with his family, blah blah blah, and we "loaned" him $20 apiece (I insisted my friend participate - more embarrassment). Then he gave us his address (yeah, right) so we could let him know where we ended up and he could then send us the forty bucks. I still remember the street address: 1 Jahnstrasse. Ha ha.

Watching the bus pull away, I knew we'd been had. He used the technique of familiarity and friendliness, and my obvious yokelhood, to get the money. At first I was really angry and embarrassed, but after a while I almost felt grateful, because the guy taught me an incredibly valuable lesson about myself and about the con and he charged me only $20 for the experience. Cheapest, most effective education I've ever had in my entire life.

And on street cons, I've been targeted enough times to know the pattern: First, the con uses a simple question to make contact with the mark and **get the mark to do something**. It can be just, "May I ask you a question?" Or, sitting in a car with the window rolled down, "Could you come closer? I can't hear you." Then, after the mark has offered compliance, the con hits him with an intense, rapid-fire story - "My husband kicked me out of the house and took my credit cards and I need a room for the night but it's eighty dollars…" - and tries to maintain contact and control and also confuse the mark, until the mark may hand over the money just to break off the engagement.

One way to have fun is start giving it back to them: "Oh that's so terrible. That happened to my sister once, but she was better off without him anyway. The police can help - just let me get your license number so they'll know who to talk to when they get here." It's funny but very consistent how angry they get when you start lying back to them.

Ken Drees recounts:

I just asked my daughter if she remembered the mouse I won for her [at a fair].

"Oh yes, 'mousy', where is he?"

Oh I threw it out years ago when you got tired of him.

"Why did you do that, he was my favorite all time stuffed animal ever, he had a red coat and black whiskers…."

I just turned and slowly closed the door. 

R.P. Herrold responds to Ken's story:

From time to time, we 'clean house' and we find the black trash bags, presently carefully tied closed, up in the attic; from time to time, I am instructed to 'get rid of that clutter' as the now grown kids 'will never use those again'.

The Brio trains, the metal Erector set, the cast lead soldiers and molds, the Duplo blocks, the stuffed animals, Lincoln logs, the McGuffey readers, the arrow and ax heads collected in the fields, have all fallen to head of the queue for disposition over time

Stuffed animals were in the dock this past weekend. At that point, I usually carefully re-tie the sack, set it to one side for a moment, and then find a new hiding place for the bag in question after her attention turns to other matters. But a grandchild's mother and the child were delighted with the animal figures from my preservation efforts, even if my spouse was not pleased to see 'those old things' again

A few weeks ago, the Brio train set moved in with a gransdon infatuated with rolling stock and were 'new' again; The Erector set, the melting pot and molds, all gone (not to return with current day safety rules — choking hazard of the nuts and bolts, heavy metal fumes). I am on the lookout for a replacement McGuffey (that friend of books that taught me to read upstrairs in a quiet room as the adults 'talked' downstairs), so I can 'seed' a room for young visitorsThe flints and shaped stones? I was not atuned to their disposition occurring; a 'sharpie' sweet-talked a sale for a pittance from a elderly family memberwhen 'cleaning up' prior to closing down a house before sale. That lot of childhood treasures also carried out the door the minnie balls I dug from the earth at GettysburgEntropy won a round that time; I know we'll battle again.

Jason Ruspini comments:

Forgot who said that cons work because people want something for nothing. Clear implications for naive technical analysis here. See, it's easy, you can get rich by extending straight lines.. just keep one eye on your laptop while at the driving range.

To the young person who had a query about what to do with his trading system, at least he tested something, but perhaps there is some laziness there. Unhealthy to think of one system as your "ticket" even if it looks good. Better to find a good place to work where you might actually learn something new.

Stefan Jovanovich comments:

In the good old days of the 1970s the favorite panhandle con in downtown SF was to be a crazed Viet-Nam veteran. Since I spent half my life in those days lurking outside office buildings waiting to ruin some suits' day by handing him a summons, I got to hear every pitch going. The only way to escape was to do the "crazed killer wanting to go back" routine. "Hey, man, can you help me out; I was in the Nam." "Yeah, me, too, and Brother, am I glad to meet you because we got to go back there NOW!!!!! and finish the job."

Like Big Al's artful sympathy, it worked every time; but the reaction was more fear than anger. The con artists did not want to spend any time near someone who was so obviously crazy - for real.

Gregory van Kipnis writes:

The con that almost got me the first time I encountered it. It repeated itself 4 times over the intervening years.

I have deduced that the mark has to be a distracted businessman, walking alone midtown near the major hotels, hopefully someone in NY on a business trip.

In NYC, about 15 years ago, walking cross town early one evening, lost in thought, I was nudged by someone coming from the opposite direction. That was followed by "Jeez, you knocked the food out of my hand. Don't you look where you are walking". There on the sidewalk was a spilled plastic container of takeout food from the all too familiar corner Korean greengrocers.

I thought for a moment to review the memory playback of the contact and responded, "But you bumped into me."

He turned angry exclaiming he was on a short break from work and I ruined his dinner and I bumped into him and I should pay for the loss.

I started to reach for my wallet, then hesitated sensing a con, and said "No, you bumped into me."

He got belligerent, put his face close to mine and with intensity and a shaking body said he was angry and he ought to take me out. I stepped aside, hand on wallet again and started walking saying "there is a greengrocer around the corner. Let's go in and I will buy you a meal."

After a barrage of invective he leaned down to scoop up the spilled food. I continued on my way with a shaken feeling followed by euphoria when I realized I foiled a con.

I few years later the same thing happened. It was a different person different neighborhood near the St. Regis. This time two people. As soon as he spoke I said "bull shit, you did the same thing to me last month". He tried again to intimidate, but I just repeated the response. The engagement ended. They scooped up the food.

The third time, same guys same neighborhood near the Penninula, they just pulled the same stunt on a couple. He was reaching for his wallet. I yelled from across the street that it was a scam and he should walk away. Lots of hesitation followed on both sides. To my amazement the mark paid anyway.

The fourth time, same guys, I swerved just in the nick of time and yelled "you are still at it huh?" No response.

Whenever I see a food stain on the sidewalk with a few strands of noodles scattered about, I smile — the tell tail sign of the aftermath of the con. You would be surprised at how many there are.


Rocky Humbert comments:

An important distinction between this con and some of the other cons is that this one preys on the mark's sense of duty/charity versus the cons that prey on the mark's sense of greed.

One ponders whether being victimized in the pursuit of selflessness is any worse than being victimized in the pursuit of selfishness ? For example, was Madoff's theft from charities more heinous than his theft from plain old rich people ?

 

Feb

19

Penny BlackFeb 10 was the first "snow day" in New York in three years where kids don't have to go to school and when I was a boy, we greeted the snow days with alacrity as it meant we could hop on the subway and visit the stamp dealers on Nassau Street and spend a quarter on some rarities. Apparently there are few if any stamp collectors left among kids today because other activities crowded them out. I base this on direct testimony from Stanley Gibbons and the fact that there are no stamps offered for sale in the newspapers anymore as well as published reports from stamp magazines themselves. This is a tragedy since stamps provide so many benefits in geography, art, history, economics, categorization, collecting, and patience, foreign exchange, printing, and topical interests.

In honor of the snow day, I thought I should enumerate some trends I have noted from my reading of the literature. Dimson is seminal. There is a seminal paper on investment returns from stamps available that does for stamps what DMS and Fisher, Lorie and Ibbotsen have done for stocks. They report that the returns from stamps over the last 100 years have been about 2% a year worse than stocks and 3- 4% above bonds. Adjusted for systematic risk and standard deviation the returns are comparable to stocks. There are so many important and intriguing points covered in that paper that I must refer you to the original. However, a few that I noted are that stamps hardly have had a down year during the last 100. The cost of getting in and out is about 25%. The returns from high priced stamps are similar to those of low priced stamps. The boom years for stamps were 2008 and the late 1970s and like stocks these days they have a few 20 year periods where the returns have been flat especially during the early first and last 20 years of the 20th century. The market for collectible stamps is 10 billion a year, higher than the fine art market in total. The number of collectors is about 50 times higher in Germany per capita than in the US: 1 in 20 in Germany versus 1 in 1000. There are an estimated 20 to 50 million collectors in China. It was previously illegal to collect stamps in China under Mao so there is a surging demand especially for the old issues that none in China were allowed to buy. The price of many low priced issues in stamps has appreciated more than the high priced issues becuase people didn't take good care of them. A nice example are the first stamps issued in the US and the Columbia Expedition sets. The price to weight ratio of stamps is among the highest in the world and part of their value is their portability. The upside down fixed income "Sponsor" has bought 100 million worth of stamps and believes that their value is correlated with GNP. Dimson has a nice set of regressions showing the systematic beta of stamps about 0.2 when adjusting for various Fisher type effects in lags in pricing. (The Dimson and Spaenjarie article)

Stanley Gibbons has a nice index of the 100 rarest British stamps, which are the most collectible, as is their silver, and this correlates well with the Dimson estimates, even though there is much spurious lookback effect in it. There is general agreement that the current collectors in stamps are those who were introduced to it before the 70s and now have the income to augment their portfolios. Very few new collectors are coming in from the US and England. In view of the 25% transaction cost of buying and selling stamps, one could not recommend them as an investment. A good investor would never see his stamps because the values regrettably depend almost entirely with a range of 500% for the same stamp based on condition. Thus, only long holding periods like the 40 years that Dimson uses would seem appropriate. But in 40 years the demand from the kids of today would seem to be likely to be small because they don't collect now or even know what a letter is in many cases. If one were going to invest, one would probably confine his activities to German speaking lands and Asia, and England which still is the rule of the sea as far as collectibles goes and is likely to maintain that edge. One should not rule out the changing value of stamps as a hedge against increases in the service rate on gains and lifetime earnings. One would be interested readers' thoughts on this alternative asset.

Sam Marx comments:

Don't buy retail. Place classified ads in Linn's, bidding close to wholesale prices and/or join the NY Stamp Dealers Club and buy close to wholesale there. If you know stamps it is hard to lose money but the amount you can make is small compared to stocks. In my opinion, if you still want to get involved in this type of endeavor, coins are a better choice. Spilled coffee can destroy your stamp investment.

Alan Millhone commments:

A MMy stamp collecting began one Christmas when I was seven and my parents gave me a Coronet stamp album. I still have it and over the years have expanded my collection. Guess at heart I am a collector and the upsurge in values has been a side benefit. As in all collectibles condition is important. One never has to apologize when selling quality items. To date I have never sold anything from my collection. None of my grandsons have any interest in stamp collecting. My daughter collected some as a youth but quit. I look at stamps as little pieces of paper with bits of history printed on each stamp. Stamps are an excellent way for youngsters to learn about countries and where they are on the map. Something many youth cannot do today. As a youth I dealt by mail with HE Harris , Zenith and Garcelon stamp firms. Stamps could be used today in grade school as a teaching tool. Queen Elizabeth maintains the Royal Collection. Spink etc. has helped the Royals add to this most valuable collection since the Penny Black was introduced. I don't collect any modern stamps and the early US are beautiful esp. newspaper and periodicals. My best friend is Greek and we collect the early Hermes. I like to get out my stamps in the Winter months. I like early stampless covers of my area. Penny post cards and post cards depicting Checkers ( a cross collectible). Cut squares is another area I like and Trieste A and B and AMG-FTT. Stamps as you said is a yearly multi billion dollar business. Auction firms like Greg Manning is publicly traded and deals with collectors all over the world.

Rocky Humbert responds:

A slightly different way at looking at this is the fact that domestic postage rates have handily beaten inflation since 1958. Last February, I went "all in" and purchased a trove of USPS Forever Stamps. (My local postal clerk was perplexed, to say the least.) See: http://onehonestman.wordpress.com/2009/02/28/warren-buffett-deer-poop-and-postage ,  Yet if one extrapolates the trend of the last fifty years, this "investment" will handily beat CPI inflation going forward. The Chair's cited paper is interesting. Yet before drawing any conclusions, one should study how stamps have performed compared with other ephemera … such as private letters from Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, and Hank Paulson. Given the rise of email and the demise of private letters, one might speculate that collecting the written letters may have a historical significance and scarcity value in the future that bests the postage stamps? Details on the forever stamp: http://www.usps.com/communications/newsroom/2007/sr07_011.htm

Russell Sears writes:

While I do not know the first thing about stamps collecting, the Chair's story reminded me of my 3rd grade winter in Titusville, PA. It was close enough to Lake Erie to get hammered by lake effect snow. I would take all the money I owned, (under 15 bucks) and go to the bank and ask for rolls of pennies, nickels or dimes. Shift through them for collectible dates.

The wheat backed pennies, were still fairly common in change. While the silver nickels and dimes quickly grew scarce. The rare one I found were treasured, more than the bought silver. I can still grab a handful of coins shake them and tell you if one is silver.

The ladies at the bank were always gracious and used the machines to re-roll them when I returned a pile of pennies to the bank. Most likely because I was the rare customer on those snowy days, and it was always evident that I walked/ran that mile to the bank on entering.

However, my interest in stamps, now is for the art work. Stamps and their press have some of the best miniature work available.

Plus the interest in special commemorative editions always catch my interest after the press have stopped.
I think the interest in the 50 states quarters and bicentennial quarters may signal that these limited edition and artist designs may be the future of trading stamps, In this large volume nearly reproductive limitless world we live, uniqueness can thrive.

Victor Niederhoffer responds: 

I would add to the erudite Floridian's remark that the vigorish of 25% that Dimson notes, which is in line with or ever too small versus the reported P&L of Gibbons, does not take into account the grading differential where if you bring a stamp in to sell it's very fine but if you buy it, the condition is perfect and flawless, adding another 25% at least to the vigorish.

Alan Millhone comments:

On grading, perhaps a discussion of "slabbed" stamps and coins is warranted on grading services in business today.

Alston Mabry comments:

Does not take into account the grading differential where if you bring a stamp in to sell it's very fine but if you buy it, the condition is perfect and flawless, adding another 25% at least to the vigorish. Certainly reminds one of:

Strong Buy

Buy

Hold

Sell

Strong Sell

and the increase in churn thus promoted.

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