Breaking Bad Questions


Friends finally convinced me to watch Breaking Bad. Here are a few questions about the series, in no particular order…

Why do all of the meth customers seem to be in extremely poor health? The Wikipedia article on meth says that the drug was heavily used by the Germany military during World War II yet it is hard to imagine a fearsome or successful army of meth heads from Breaking Bad. The Wikipedia article says that Americans interested in losing weight took the drug all through the 1950s and 1960s. They weren’t called “meth-heads”. What makes meth circa 2010 so much more dangerous than meth circa 1940 or 1960? [This Washington Post article says that many meth users are "functional" so perhaps this is like peanuts, which have gone from "staple" to "poison" during my own lifetime.]

I got on the subject of Breaking Bad with a divorce litigator that I interviewed for a book project. She asked “Why does Jane [Margolis, Jesse's girlfriend, an attractive apparently healthy young woman,] get so excited about $500,000 in cash? If she wanted money without working she could just collect child support.” [Note that Jane lives in New Mexico, a state where unlimited child support is available and a couple of one-night encounters with high-income guys would have her at $500,000 in profits within a few years. (New Mexico courts will also order a father to pay for day care on top of child support, so she wouldn't actually have had to take care of any children.)] Regarding the risk that Jane would lose custody of profitable children due to her heroin use, the attorney said “Only if she came into the courtroom with a needle stuck in her arm.”

Similar question: Lydia Rodarte-Quayle seems devoted to a child and also to making cash via some means other than working. She lives in Texas, a state where child support is capped at about $20,000 per year (only a $10,000 per year profit over the USDA-estimated cost of having a child in the home). But instead of taking the risk of being involved with drug trafficking, why wouldn’t she simply move to Wisconsin, California, or Massachusetts and collect her millions through legal tax-free child support? [See the "Women in Science" article for more details on real-world child support profits.]

I was talking about the show with a friend from Israel and he said “When they’re setting up the meth lab under a commercial laundry on the show why don’t any characters mention the Ayalon Institute’s ammunition factory under a commercial laundry[, built and operated in the 1940s in Israel]?”

With a business executive friend we wondered “How is that Gus can kill his henchman Victor  and then be confident of hiring a replacement? Most legal American businesses struggle to recruit reliable help.” Why is it apparently so easy to find people to work in an illegal enterprise where there is a risk of imprisonment? [see my talent management consultant posting]

What do actual criminals do to launder illicitly earned cash? Walter and his wife have to run a car wash to launder a few million dollars. But don’t major drug operations make more money than that? Could they not just drive a lot of cash across the border and deposit in a bank in a countries where not as many questions are asked? What do real-world drug lords do with U.S.-generated cash? [I did a quick Google search and found this CBS News article about HSBC helped to launder billions (separately, the daughter of the top HSBC exec became a child support profiteer, working her 6-year-old daughter for about $600,000 per year (NY Daily News)). But the article doesn't say how it actually works. Do customers just back up a minivan full of cash to the bank's loading dock?]

And why didn’t Walter move himself and his family across the border after he’d made $20 million or whatever but before he’d been caught? He was able to get $11 million in cash into each 55-gallon oil drum. Couldn’t he have smuggled a couple of those across the border? At that point he and his family become tourists in one or more foreign countries. U.S. law enforcement might look for Americans spending beyond their legally declared incomes here in the U.S. but would the police in Germany investigate an American tourist who was paying for hotel rooms, groceries, and car rental in cash? How about the police in Argentina or Brazil?

Is making pure meth truly challenging? If the drug cartels that make a lot of meth are big and well-organized, as the media and government tell us that they are, why can’t they do as good a job as other Mexican manufacturing enterprises? Aren’t there Mexican pharma firms making drugs at least as complex as meth and to international standards of purity? If so, why couldn’t people who had worked in legal pharma in Mexico set up a factory making meth as good as what Walter and Jesse were making?

Why are these criminals always chatting on their phones, wired and mobile? Wouldn’t they be worried about wiretaps? At least take the trouble to speak in codes?

Finally, could it be that Breaking Bad will discourage young Americans and Mexicans from choosing crime as a career? None of the criminals on the show seem to be able to hold onto their savings or lives in the long run. Aside from missing out on a lot of excitement and a few spending sprees they all would have better off working at Walmart.

[And yes I do recognize that the show is fictional and some of the above is likely just to make it more dramatic. An expat family living in a resort hotel in San Carlos de Bariloche and periodically dipping into their cash barrel to pay for hot chocolate wouldn't make for must-see TV.]

President Obama visits the Upper West Side of Manhattan for a fundraiser


A friend who lives on the Upper West Side send me this link to a video of President Obama traveling to a mansion for a fundraiser yesterday. The taxpayers bought gasoline and paid drivers for 41 vehicles according to a commenter on the post.

Profound thoughts on home alarm systems


A security-minded friend’s home alarm system thoughts…

I have, up until now, always delegated work on my alarms to professionals, but had enough with them, and so took over all of my systems. I can now program DSC and Napco. I wish I did it 5-10 years ago. Here is what I have learned:

1. All-in-one alarms have a fatal flaw in that, since the brains are in the keypad, you can just enter and smash them when they are still counting down but before they have called for help. SimpliSafe solves this by having the brains separate from the control panel.

2. For hardwired alarms, don’t put the “can” (metal box) close by the entry area. Same problem. Put it in a location that someone will have to pass by the (instant trigger) motion-detectors to get to it. Basement/attic or locked room.

3. If contracting with a professional installer for a hardwired alarm, ask in advance if they will use end-of-line resistors. These are so that the wire is monitored and will trip the alarm if it is either cut or shorted. It will also detect a broken line from a mouse-chew even on a normally-open circuit (such as a fire alarm). For full benefit, these resistors really need to be at the end of the line, and not in the control box (common shortcut – don’t let them do it).

4. Tell them in advance that you want the “master code.” They will probably say no, for “liability reasons.” In reality, they say no because that makes it too easy for you to have someone else service or monitor the system. Insist on it, and pick another installer if they won’t agree to give it to you. If you don’t get the code, you cannot replace them with someone else, you cannot sell the house with a working alarm either, as the buyer will also be at their mercy. If they go out of business, which is very common for alarm installers, you won’t be able to service it at all and will have to pay for a new system. I have bought three properties that have “come with alarms” but they all had to be replaced because no one knew the master code.

5. I would go so far as to tell installers up front that you only want to pay them to install the alarm and to give you the master code. They will kick and scream, and maybe refuse to work with you. That is because buying your own monitoring is under $11 a month, and they probably want to charge you $22 to $34 a month. If they won’t do it, call the next installer (unless you are fine with overpaying for service). You could save $2800 over 10 years.

6. ADT and others will have long-term contracts for service. This can be ok if you are getting a “free” or discounted system and do the math and it works out. You are financing the system this way. Just don’t do it without a master code, as you will want the option to drop them after the contract is up. Put a reminder in your phone for the date in the future that you will need to cancel it by. Also remember that the free systems only come with two door sensors, a single motion-detector, one keypad, and a speaker. Coincidently, my shed has two doors so it would be a good fit. That would not scratch the surface of a typical house. So there will be lots of up-charges.

7. You can self-monitor with an IP communicator from – but you should get the professional monitoring also for the insurance discount.

8. Real alarms cost a lot for the labor. Fishing wires takes time. Wireless saves money but can be annoying when the batteries die, and the big external sensors are not professional looking.

9. Use alarm yard signs and stickers to send Swiper to your neighbor’s house. Criminals are smart enough to recognize fake and generic stickers as a good chance of not being real. I bought genuine ADT signs on eBay because they have the most name recognition (at least that is what ADT told me when they called to try to get me to sign up). I don’t use ADT for real, but my monitoring is UL listed and the same thing for 1/3 the price. Actually mine is better, as I not only get the automatic police response, but also get text messages of events.

———— end of the posting that I cut and pasted from my friend’s Facebook page

[My experiment: A savage golden retriever puppy. The pit bull folks always say that pit bulls are sweet if treated gently and that any aggression in certain pit bulls is simply a result of being reared by criminals and other aggressive humans. If they're right it should be easy to train a female golden named "Crippler" to be a vicious attack dog. These photos on Google+ show the first day of her training (and also a friend's four-month-old Labradoodle who should become a fearsome guard dog with time). (If you're wondering about the name, it comes from a Simpsons episode:

[Mr. Burns sees one of his hounds limping and wheezing]
Mr. Burns: What’s wrong with Crippler?
Smithers: Oh, he’s getting on, sir. He’s been here since the late-’60s.
Mr. Burns: Ah, yes. I’ll never forget the day he bagged his first hippie. That young man didn’t think it was too “groovy”.)

source: IMDB)]

Feel better about your salary, #492


A friend in Manhattan was telling me about the three times that she has been afflicted with lice in her (moderately long) hair, an inevitable consequence of being a mother of three. “Combing lice and nits out of [the oldest daughter's] hair must have been a pain,” I said. The teenager has long and tightly curled hair. “We hire someone to do it,” she responded, “a professional nitpicker.” How long does it take? “About an hour.” How much does it cost? “Two hundred seventy-five dollars.”

[As it happens, this family is upper middle class (i.e., at best middle class for Manhattan), so I think this is the going rate for the service. This NY Times article from 1995 says that the rate at the time was about $30 per hour.]

Why you want to go to med school instead of vet school


A couple of recent news items:

  • Australian surgeon performs “intricate surgery” on a goldfish for a fee of 200 Australian dollars (about USD$179), including anesthesia. The surgery was a life-or-death issue for George the goldfish.
  • New York surgeon assists in a three-hour operation, performed by a different surgeon, and collects $117,000. Was the surgery for Peter Drier as valuable as it was for George the goldfish? The article says “Studies are limited but have generally concluded that after two years, patients who have surgery for disk problems do no better than those treated with painkillers and physical therapy…” [The total bill for Drier's surgery, including hospital fees, payment for the actual surgeon, and the anesthesia, was about $310,000.]

Both Scotland and the greater Boston area can remain part of their respective larger countries


A Scottish friend told me about the vote by Scotland to stay in the UK. I said “I think that the greater Boston area, which includes the southern New Hampshire suburbs, and thereby has about the same population as Scotland (4.7 versus 5.2 million), might also stay as part of a larger nation and not take up its own seat at the United Nations, set up its own military force headquartered at the Burlington Mall, establish embassies around the world, etc.” He did not appreciate the comparison…

Subway history: Don’t be early


While riding Boston’s Red Line I finished reading The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway. A critical lesson from the book is that you can’t get too far, either practically or financially, if you’re too early. Mass transit started in 1827:

Brower asked the coach-making business of Wade & Leverich in 1827 to design and build for him a vehicle that could hold twelve people [for trips up and down Broadway in New York].

But no other American city jumped on the experiment, and for a short period Boston and New York alone had these precursors to urban mass transit systems. While Americans were just getting used to the idea of riding with others, Brower began to hear of an even bigger, more lumbering vehicle taking over the streets of Paris and London. It was called an omnibus, and on a spring day in 1831, he introduced it to the streets of New York.

But before long more than a hundred decorated omnibuses were crowding the streets of the city, with names painted on the sides, from George Washington to Lady Washington to Benjamin Franklin. They were popular. And they caused complete chaos. For the individual owners of the omnibuses, nothing mattered more than the paying passenger. Drivers whipped their horses repeatedly to speed them past a competitor to the next potential fare, even if it meant a harrowing few seconds for those already on board. Grazing a lamppost to cut a corner or to cut in front of a rival was fair game, and pedestrians not paying attention could get maimed by a cornering horse or the trailing carriage.

By the 1840s the omnibus was not even a decade old on the streets of New York, Boston, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Albany, and Cincinnati. But already it was dying. A respected doctor and author named Asa Greene had made the routine challenge of crossing Broadway sound like a modern-day video game. “You must button your coat tight about you, see that your shoes are secure at the heels, settle your hat firmly on your head, look up street and down street, at the self-same moment, to see what carts and carriages are upon you, and then run for your life.” The street railway car carried more passengers, rode faster, and provided a quieter, smoother ride than the omnibus, and any fears that people had of its safety vanished once they climbed on board. The “age of the omnibus” that the newspapers had been so quick to herald only a few years earlier was over. The age of the street railway was here.

“We can travel from New York half-way to Philadelphia in less time than the length of Broadway,” The New York Tribune wrote.

The editor of Scientific American could see that this wasn’t sustainable:

In 1849, Beach, by now sporting the skinny mustache that would become his trademark feature, lived a walkable distance from his office. And yet dodging the horses, the carriages, and the throngs of people each day turned his short walk from his office near City Hall to his house over on West Twentieth Street into a treacherous hour-long commute. After three years of listening to a parade of inventors promote their dreams to him, Beach decided it was time to share his own dream for his city, in an essay he published in Scientific American. “Nothing less than a railway underneath, instead of one above,” he wrote. “Railway life down stairs, instead of railway life up stairs. The idea is at least original, but anything except feasible, that is so far as the expense is concerned, for there would lie no difficulty in executing the work. To tunnel Broadway through the whole length, with openings and stairways at every corner. This subterranean passage is to be laid down with double track, with a road for foot passengers on either side—the whole to be brilliantly lighted with gas. The cars, which are to be drawn by horses, will stop ten seconds at every corner—thus performing the trip up and down, including stops, in about an hour.”

Beach wasn’t crazy-early by London standards. London opened a steam-powered subway in 1863. But it would be more than 50 years before a subway could be opened in New York City due to a variety of practical and political obstacles. Beach built a 312-foot demonstrator powered by air:

The design for the car was unlike anything people were riding on the streets above. It was much smaller than the horsecars, and upholstered seats lined the sides so that it felt like a comfortable lounge inside, with bright lighting and plenty of room to hold twenty-two people. The sliding doors closed with a whoosh. As for the fan, Beach knew that he needed one so powerful it could easily blow a car 120 feet long and fourteen feet wide down the tracks. He found it in Connersville, Indiana, where the P. H. & F. M. Roots Company had built a powerful fan to ventilate mines. The Roots Patent Force Rotary Blower, nicknamed the Western Tornado, was the critical piece to Beach’s pneumatic subway. At fifty tons, it was so big it took a train with five platform cars to deliver it from Indiana. It was discretely placed at the Warren Street end of the tunnel, and testing of it began.

The pneumatic subway worked. But Beach didn’t just want to impress the visitors he was planning to invite down. He wanted to dazzle them, not to mention distract them from any fears they might have of being underground with vermin and demons. He remembered the stories about how dark and miserable the London subway was. And he knew he had only one chance to convince New York that his subway was the future of transportation. He spared no expense, using more than $70,000 of his own savings to make sure the station was a place where people would actually enjoy waiting. The waiting room was enormous, more than 120 feet long, and it was lavish, with chandeliers, mirrors, a towering grandfather clock, a fountain with a basin stocked with goldfish, paintings, settees, and a grand piano.

After two years of operating his tunnel, Beach finally conceded that pneumatic propulsion was not the future, after all. Blowing such a huge volume of air required tremendous energy that was too costly to sustain, and too hard to control over great distances. Moving packages was one thing.

Reluctantly, Beach embraced the idea he had loathed at the start, and he proposed steam power for his tunnel. The smoke, steam, and sparks London was dealing with were all surmountable with engineering changes, he believed, and he couldn’t deny that steam was a proven power source. On April 9, 1873, legislators passed Beach’s subway bill again. But it was too late. He didn’t have investors lined up, and when the economy collapsed on September 18, 1873, triggering the country’s worst depression, far worse than Black Friday in 1869, Beach was done for good. Banks folded. Businesses went under. Millions lost their jobs and all their money in the panic of 1873. And New York, the nation’s financial and cultural capital, became a city full of the homeless and hungry, with more than a quarter of its people suddenly out of work. Even Boss Tweed finally was brought down. After his arrest in 1871, it took almost two years for prosecutors to convict him, but they did, and on November 19, 1873, he was sentenced to twelve years in prison. By then, Tweed’s most stubborn foe was bankrupt and exhausted. After operating his one-car, one-station subway for almost three years, Alfred Ely Beach, still only forty-eight years old, abandoned the dream he had pursued for a quarter century and began to rent out his tunnel to anyone who would pay him. It was a pathetic end to what was once a promising vision. The pneumatic subway tunnel was converted into a shooting gallery and then eventually into a vault to store wines. Unable to continue affording the upkeep of his tunnel, Beach sealed it up for good in 1874 and returned to his roots as the editor of Scientific American.

Elevated trains started operating in Manhattan in 1878 (today’s High Line park is a remnant of that system, on a structure built from 1929-1934). The city hadn’t even figured out how to do power and communication lines:

By 1888, a sea of wires that stretched from pole to pole, rooftop to rooftop, filled the air over New York’s streets. The idea of burying lines in the ground had not yet been embraced, and so when New Yorkers gazed upward, their view was blocked by a dizzying collection of ugly black lines. In addition to Edison’s, there were wires from Bell Telephone, the Gold and Stock Ticker Company, the fire and police departments, private alarm companies, Western Union, and more. There was little incentive to share a power line, and so a single fifty-foot pole might carry a dozen or more wires. To no one’s surprise, the weight was often too much for the poles to hold, and they might snap and bring down dangerous live wires to the street. An attempt to legislate the crisis failed when the biggest companies simply ignored an order to put their lines underground and received no punishment.

Boston pulled slightly ahead of New York with a 1.5-mile long subway that opened in 1897 at a cost of $4.2 million (under the $5 million budget, unlike the Big Dig!). (The inflation calculator says that this would be $116 million today or $77 million per mile. Compare to the Second Avenue Subway currently being built in Manhattan at a budgeted cost of $4.45 billion for two miles, i.e., $2.23 billion per mile (29X the cost per mile).)

New York in 1904 finally opened a 21-mile system that was built for $35 million ($1.6 million per mile or $41 million per mile in today’s money or 1/54th the cost of the Second Avenue Subway project).

What made Beach too early with his idea? The electric motor hadn’t been perfected. That was done by Frank Sprague, though Thomas Edison got the credit:

If one man deserves more credit than he’s received for the birth of the subway, it’s Sprague. The London Underground was a remarkable breakthrough for mankind, but its greatest flaw was the reason it was not replicated for thirty years. Steam trains in underground tunnels made no sense. Only once Sprague perfected the electric motor and the multiple-unit control system could cleaner and quieter subways be built around the world. Sadly for Sprague, who died on October 25, 1934, the shadow of Thomas Edison proved difficult to escape, even after Sprague branched out on his own. The roots of the resentment Sprague felt toward Edison can be traced back to an article that appeared in The New York Sun in 1919. The writer, Edward Marshall, interviewed Edison about the electric streetcar. Marshall credited Edison with “the pioneer appliance of cheap, quick power street transportation in America. Naturally he is proud of it.” Sprague, who in the 1880s had led the fierce competition to electrify street railways, could not sit by quietly while Edison received what he believed was undue reward. Two weeks after The Sun article appeared, Sprague answered back with a long-winded response that ran in The Sun under the headline INVENTORS OF THE ELECTRIC RAILWAY: FRANK J. SPRAGUE PROTESTS AGAINST THE SHARE OF THE GLORY ASSIGNED IN AN INTERVIEW TO THOMAS A. EDISON. The dispute played out in the pages of The Sun over the next few months, two engineering greats demanding the other back off certain claims. Neither would. Sprague went so far as to take the fight to Congress, asking for a correction in the description of Edison’s work that was used in awarding him the Congressional Medal of Honor. It was to no avail. Only long after Edison’s death in 1932 and Sprague’s death two years later did a third party attempt to resolve the matter. Sprague’s widow, Harriet, his second wife, published a short biography, for which the title alone revealed where she stood: Frank J. Sprague and the Edison Myth.

(Note that Sprague’s son, not Sprague himself, was the founder of the electronic components manufacturer “Sprague”.)

Payment for surrogate mothers


The New York Times has been running a series of stories about surrogate mothers (latest). In a July 6, 2014 article the Times says that the expected compensation for the woman who carries the baby for 9 months is about $25,000 (range from $20-30,000). Meanwhile the agency that carries a filing cabinet and a Web site around gets $20,000 and the lawyers who carry a PDF or two get $10,000. So the surrogate mom who does all the work gets paid less than the bureaucracy of surrogacy.

Per month of pregnancy the surrogate mother is receiving about $2800. Yet, according to attorneys interviewed recently for a book project the typical price received from a potential child support defendant in Massachusetts for an abortion is $250,000 after two or three months of pregnancy (the profitability of a pregnancy and abortion varies from state to state depending on each state’s child support guidelines and the extent to which obtaining custody of a living child will be profitable). So the woman who seeks to get paid for having an abortion gets paid at least $83,333 per month of pregnancy, 30X as much as the woman who gets paid for having a baby. Add in the fact that surrogacy fees are income and therefore taxable while abortion fees are potential tax-free if considered to be payment for physical damage and/or a pre-payment of tax-free child support (see this Forbes article), the abortion retailer may actually be netting 50X per month of pregnancy compared to the incubation retailer.

I can’t figure out if these discrepancies are a sign of an immature or a mature market…

Prices in the Good Old Days


I’m still working through The Race Underground: Boston, New York, and the Incredible Rivalry That Built America’s First Subway,which has some good facts but pretty much no rivalry, much less an “incredible rivalry” as promised by the title. I’m thinking that the author called this book “Some notes on the history of a couple of American subway systems” and a marketing person at Macmillan decided that wouldn’t sell very well.

One thing that is interesting about the book are the prices from around 1900. Here are some excerpts:

The news that New York was about to build a subway spread fast. Two dollars a day for eight hours of work was good money for a laborer. Engineers, axmen, levelers, steelworkers, inspectors, cement mixers, masonry men, accountants, stenographers, diggers, and even messengers were all suddenly needed. At the Municipal Lodging House on First Avenue at Twenty-third Street, skilled and unskilled laborers from around the country began to flock in day after day in search of a cot to sleep on and a penny to earn. There would be thousands of men within a few days. A three-room apartment in New York, which rented for eight dollars a month, could be divided among three, four, or as many as six workers to reduce the cost. A dozen eggs was going for twenty-five cents, about the same for three tins of sardines, while a dozen pints of beer could be had for a dollar fifty. At the saloons, drafts were five cents, whisky shots ten cents. With those basics, a group of immigrant workers could be quite content, as long as they had paychecks to purchase them.

they would earn two dollars a day for ten hours of work, gouging a trench into the ground by swinging axes, picks, shovels, and hammers,

At Sherry’s on Forty-fourth Street and Fifth Avenue, the Carte du Jour offered Little Neck clams for twenty-five cents, filet of sole for forty cents, filet mignon for sixty-five cents, roast lamb for seventy, venison in a port-wine sauce for a dollar, and, the real splurge, chicken partridge for two dollars and fifty cents.

One thing that hasn’t changed is that some people prefer to pay whatever prices prevail with money that others have earned…

And it took barely a minute of operation for the first theft on the subway to be reported, when a West Side resident named Henry Barrett told police that he took the first train at 7:02 P.M. and that one minute later his $500 horseshoe pin with fifteen diamonds on it was gone.

Let’s see what kind of inflation rate we can get from the above numbers. Employers circa 1900 paid no benefits so the $2 per day/20 cents per hour rate is comparable to today’s full loaded cost for a worker. The New York Times in 2011 said that an unskilled construction worker was getting $58 per hour in total compensation (source). says that 20 cents from 1900 would be equivalent to $5.32 in 2011. So real wages have risen by 10X for unskilled construction workers in Manhattan, consistent with the findings in A Farewell to Alms about economic growth hugely benefiting the unskilled (though in this case they also got a boost from unionization).

The filet mignon that was 65 cents back then is perhaps $50 now. The Westegg calculator says that official government inflation numbers would result in a rise up to about $18 over the same period. How about rent? It was $8 per month for a three-room apartment. That’s $221 in today’s money, supposedly, not enough for one night’s rent of a single room in Manhattan! Another way to look at it is that a three-room apartment could be rented with 40 hours of monthly labor (there were no income taxes back then so the arithmetic is simple). Today the three-room apartment would cost at least $3000 per month? And an after-tax wage for an unskilled worker might be $10-$40 per hour? So now it costs between 75 and 300 hours of monthly work?

The best in-wall speakers?



The new house that I’m setting up doesn’t have space for floor-standing speakers or even, in most rooms, bookshelf speakers. That means we need to try to recover unused space in the walls with in-wall speakers. What do folks like? When I last updated I concluded that B&W speakers were the best choice. Is there anything else worth considering in the in-wall world? Some of the Monoprice speakers were okay, and they are certainly cheap, but they don’t justify cutting open walls.

Thanks in advance for any advice.

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