Back on the bandwagon

Last week, I watched a full hockey game on TV for the first time since 1994. Two days later, I did it again. This week, I will continue to watch as the New York Rangers as they play in the Stanley Cup final for the first time since … 1994.  That’s right, I’m on the bandwagon.

Say what you will about fair-weather fandom, but it’s a boon for the NHL, the fourth-most popular pro sports league.  Madison Square Garden sells out in good years and bad, but big ratings from having a large-market team in the finals is a godsend.

Perhaps because there is a two-decade gap in my hockey knowledge, my mind naturally drifts back to ’94.  June was a scorcher, adding sopping humidity to all the problems of a boy in middle school. The Knicks also made the finals that year, so rooting for two local teams that usually underperformed was a special treat.

The Rangers won that year, but in the midst of their celebrations, and the Knicks’ battle against the Houston Rockets, was the genesis of the OJ Simpson saga, which would lead the headlines far after the sports excitement had warn off.

ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on that tumultuous period, June 17, 1994, does a great job capturing what it was like to follow all of those competing storylines, assembled in the quick-cut style of someone flipping through the channels.

(You see, children, before there was a guide on your digital TV, you had to watch each channel to see what was on it.)

You can watch it in full here:

Speaking of the Summer of ’94, The Wackness paints an interesting picture of teenagerdom in 1994 New York City.  It’s pretty much what I thought all of my friends’ older brothers were up to. Except for the drug dealing part.

Shipping container housing: No.

disaster housing

Finally, a cramped Brooklyn apartment I can get behind!

This dour-looking piece of architecture is the new Post-Disaster Housing Prototype on Camden Plaza East developed by the New York City Office of Emergency Management and the Department of Design and Construction with the help of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Given how many New Yorkers (myself included) live in flood evacuation zones, the concept of designing quick, dense housing for evacuees is very appealing.

Per the specifications, “The overall exterior dimensions [...] shall be within the maximum limits established for highway, rail and cargo ship transport.” Basically, a fleet of trucks, trains and boats show up with large pre-fab building blocks. They’re then stacked and put together on site. Boom! Housing.

However, given that this demonstration project has been under construction for over a year, I’m not convinced that it’ll be of much use when disaster strikes.

The mysterious and time-consuming machinations of municipal government aside, this is project is interesting because it is a high-end version of something people have been talking about for the last few years: shipping container housing.

Container shipping is subject to recurring boom and bust cycles; it takes a long time to add new capacity by building ships. Any slack in demand leaves excess capacity that still must be paid for and maintained. The somewhat bittersweet ending to Marc Levinson’s excellent history of containerization, The Box, details this very cycle. Sometimes, the market wants fast ships. Then the cost of fuel rises and slower, more efficient ships are of more value. Sometimes, the cost of shipping an empty container back from whence it came is so expensive that huge gluts build up in consumer nations. The price of a container varies widely from region to region. In short, the smooth operation of global container traffic comes with significant inefficiencies.

While we can’t do much about obsolete ships, the theory goes, but when container prices are low, some well-meaning NGO types can scoop some up and convert them into housing in places like Haiti. While the New York specs stress compliance with a tangle of housing and construction regulation, refugees and disaster victims would have their lot greatly improved by moving from a tent to a more solid structure. Cut out some windows, some utility hookups and maybe put on a deck. Strap on a solar panel if you’re feeling ambitious. Boom! Housing.

To this end, an organization called Green Container International Aid has a lot of bright ideas and pretty pictures, but not much in the way of results. GCIA’s projects are still nothing more than graphics with those see-through people you see in visualizations of as-yet-unbuilt construction projects. They are supposed live there, but are not so obtrusive that they block your view.

Whether it’s refugees or smartly-dressed people strutting through a planned airport terminal, there is something slightly creepy about that.

Translucent refugees aside, it’s not that easy. It never is. Your everyday container is covered in chemicals and requires extensive retrofitting to be safe to live in. They also have low ceilings, so if you need to house Yao Ming and he refuses to take his Pharell-style hat off, you’ve got problems. Oh, and that nasty natural disaster that destroyed houses? It also destroys roads, container port cranes and rail lines. What capacity is still available is better used on containers full of building supplies, not empty ones with holes.

New containers are cheap and purpose-built units could be cheaper than retrofits. If the goal is to ameliorate the container glut and create housing, it probably won’t work. If you want to create emergency housing, you’re back to the decidedly non-sexy, decades-old concept of pre-fab structures. But nobody gets written up in design blogs for proposing the use of Quonset huts.

No sleep ’till Austin!

texasmoneyWell, not really. It’s still 7 days out, but I’m excited to head out with the Squishable crew for a few days of buzzwords, betas and brisket!

If you will be there, find me on my various social media outlets and we can scoop up some free promotional t-shirts together.

This place was so much cooler before I got here

A while back, I wrote about the annoying proclivity of certain segments of the commentariat to attack gentrification by looking back into the past with rose-colored glasses. Back then, they say, the lack of ATMs, retail and safety kept all those boring rich people out! They conveniently neglect to mention that residents of pre-gentrification neighborhoods were voting with their feet by the hundreds of thousands, leaving for greener pastures as soon as they could scrape together the cash to do so.

Justin Davidson’s great article in New York highlights how even the gentrifiers themselves have bought into the hype:

Even gentrifiers themselves are convinced they are doing something terrible. Young professionals whose moving trucks keep pulling up to curbs in Bushwick and Astoria carry with them trunkfuls of guilt.

I suppose the fastest route to local cred is to show up and immediately bemoan how things just aren’t the same anymore.

But isn’t this just the nature of cities, especially ones that attract migrants from around the country and the globe? Stasis is reserved for those tired Rust Belt cities where the old and poor die in place. Are the people of Flint, Michigan better off because they don’t have a Whole Foods? People are going to move around, from immigrant district to lower-middle class suburb to middle-class exurb, then sometimes back to the city as a new generation of gentrifiers.

Next, Davidson finds some research:

In 2005, Lance Freeman, a professor of urban planning at Columbia, examined national housing statistics to see whether low-income residents move more often once their neighborhoods start to gentrify. His conclusion was that they don’t. Mobility, he suggested, is a fact of American life, and he could find no evidence to suggest that gentrification intensifies it. Instead, it appears that many low-income renters stay put even as their rents go up. “It may be that households are choosing to stay in these neighborhoods because quality of life is improving: They’re more satisfied, but they’re dedicating a larger slice of their income to housing,” says Ingrid Gould Ellen, co-director of NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. There is an exception: Poor homeowners who see the value of their properties skyrocket often do cash out.

It turns out that decades of exodus left plenty of room for new residents and those who decided to stay actually prefer to live in a neighborhood with amenities! Who would have thought?

Perhaps this isn’t about actual concern over actual poor people. Perhaps it’s just the sort of “I was there before it was cool” posturing that has been around in various forms for decades, combined with a clear good-versus-evil narrative and obvious visuals.

Happy New Year! Now pay up.


Twenty Years ago, in 1994, I loved McDonalds. According to the noted burger experts at St. Louis Federal Reserve (see p. 10), a Big Mac cost $2.30. In 2013, a Big Mac will cost you about $4.56. Had the price risen by the same amount as official inflation, the price would have been about $3.50.

Thirty years ago, in 1984, the Radio Shack Catalog listed the Realistic MC-600 speaker set at $39.95. Today, you can get the same speakers with “some scratches or nicks” on eBay for $44. It doesn’t beat inflation, but that’s not too bad for consumer electronics.

The TRS-80 computer, featuring 16KB of memory and a “High-Resolution” monitor capable of displaying 16 lines of text, cost $999. That’s about $2175 today. My iPhone has 16GB of storage space, which is a little over a million times more than the RAM on the TRS-80.

Forty years ago, in 1974, a ten-pack of Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum made history as the first item ever commercially scanned with a bar code reader. For 67 cents, consumer Clyde Dawson received 50 sticks of gum and a place in history.

Check that; he didn’t even get the gum – it went to the Smithsonian.

A ten-pack of gum delivered from Amazon (in a box tracked from the warehouse to your door by a barcode) cost $13.99. That’s $3.05 in 1974 dollars.

Fifty years ago, in 1964, $8 could get you a ticket for the lower stand reserve section of Yankee Stadium to see the Yankees and Cardinals in Game 5 of the 1964 World Series. St. Louis won that game 2-1 in 10 innings and went on to win the Series in 7 games. Last year, the Cardinals also played in the Series, but the cheapest seats to watch them in Boston cost $699.95.

Prices aside, sixty-Two years ago, in 1952, the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad’s train 269 picked up commuters in Mamaroneck at 8:18 a.m. and deposited them at Grand Central Terminal at 8:58, for a total trip of 40 minutes. Today, the Metro-North’s New Haven Line train 1229 picks Mamaroneckers up at 8:16 and arrives at GCT at 8:57. Those seven minutes come at the expense of skipping a few stops.

The story repeats itself over and over; how can everything rise faster than inflation?

For starters, it’s hard to get apples-to-apples comparisons for a lot of things. Hardly any item in the Radio Shack catalog can be purchased today outside of eBay. You can’t really compare a car made in the ’70s to one made today because you’d have to find a ’70s car with all the features of a modern model. This would be hard considering that GPS satellites hadn’t been launched and USB plugs hadn’t been invented. Most importantly, the sunken cupholder didn’t come into being until 1983.

Then there are issues with how inflation is measured. Official statistics track changes in the price of goods as monitored in thousands of stores across the country. How much weight each product is given is, at best, an educated guess. Fads, substitutions and different methods of buying can muddy up the waters.

What we’re left with is two sets of numbers. One set is the official Consumer Price Index, which shows an orderly rise in prices punctuated by periods of high inflation. The other, from our collective memories, are numbers that are meaningless in aggregate but very important psychologically.

When I first started riding the subway, the fare was $1.50. Every increase after that seems like an exorbitant expense foisted on me by a wasteful MTA, whether or not I’m actually spending less per ride counting for inflation. Like many aspiring geezers, I have it fixed in my head what things should cost. A bottle of soda should cost $1.25. No economist can tell me not to grumble when it rings up for $2.

Area Codes


Remember that episode of Seinfeld in which Elaine desperately tries to keep her 212 phone number lest she be pegged as a newcomer with an unfashionable 646 prefix?

Consider that problem solved. A new service,, will forward calls from a genuine 212 number to your real number, thus masking the shame of a 917, 646 or 347. Now callers will think that you … use a landline?

I can’t fault people for wanting to put their best foot forward, but do we really notice such things anymore? Mirroring this famous xkcd comic, my area code is a relic from years ago, when I purchased a phone in – horror of horrors – Baltimore. My born-and-bred NYC cred has not been damaged.

We’ve had speed dial for so long that the term is an anachronism; punching in the numbers individually should be called “slow dialing.” Only in the most sparsely-populated corners of the country can you still dial using only seven digits. Domestic long distance charges don’t really exist any more either, so there is no real reason to know any particular phone number (once you’ve entered it in your phone) any more than you need to know the IP address of this blog.


My First Million


That would be my first two million Indonesian Rupiah, which is worth all of about $200. My last shot at millionairehood was in Russia in 1996 when the ruble stood at about 5000 to the dollar. Inflation was galloping so quickly back then that savvy travelers changed their money in small increments every day after noon, when the exchange rates updated. I never accumulated more than about 500 grand at any one time.

How did it get this way? Let’s look at a historical chart:



That big spike in the middle was the late ’90s Asian Financial Crisis. Before then, the exchange rate had crept up from 3.8 to the US Dollar in 1949. This pegged rate quickly fell out of whack and the black market traded at much higher rates. Decades of devaluation and inflation eroded the rupiah’s relative value, but a capital exodus, a collapse of the banking system and political instability during the last days of the long-serving president Suharto devalued the currency to about 10,000 to the dollar, where it has roughly settled ever since.

These days, things are more stable. Indonesian inflation was a reasonable 4.3% last year. The currency floats freely and there are no controls on inflows our outflows. Maybe one day they’ll make like Turkey and drop some zeroes, but in the meantime, it’s fun bragging about dropping four Gs on a soda.

Faces of regret


Have you ever noticed how all the men and boys on the haircut style poster you see at some barbershops all look like they’re overcome with regret and sorrow? Clearly, it’s not about their haircuts, which, aside from being quite spiffy, could never engender the kind of despondency clearly visible on their faces.  Take this guy:


This is the look of a man who lost a loved one and never said goodbye because of some petty argument the night before. His head, while covered in a stylish cut, is filled with biting words that can never been taken back.  Chin up, man! It wasn’t your fault!

The reports of imminent decline are greatly exaggerated

I found this Guardian article from November 2008, about a month after the events in this post. How’s this for a little bit of financial crisis non-stalgia?

Stanton Samenow, a psychologist and author of Inside the Criminal Mind, believes that social upheaval experienced during disasters or economic crises often leads to a rise in crime. ‘Look at what happened during Hurricane Katrina,’ he said. ‘Criminals take advantage of situations like that, of a societal breakdown.’ He added that reducing spending on law and order could actually cost the city more when the economic impact of crime is considered.

Bloomberg should think hard before cutting the ranks of the NYPD and other city services any further, as going back to the 1970s might be far more costly than he could ever imagine.

Those worries about a return to the Bad Old Days were widely held. Any day now, many thought, there would be graffiti on the subways, junkies staggering around Tompkins Square Park in lazy circles and abandoned buildings in flames lighting up the night.

Five years later, the bankers did just fine and almost all major crimes are down from 2008. Gentrification continues to plunge deeper into Brooklyn, Queens and Upper Manhattan.

Things could be worse.

Bad Bets

I’m still a little young to be reflecting on poor investment decisions made two decades ago, but my first such decision may be my worst. Last week, I went through some old boxes of stuff from a mini storage unit my folks decided to clear out. In those boxes, between the high school newspapers, floppy disks and foreign coins, I found a big manila envelope filled with dozens of these:


Those are sports card wrappers from the early 1990s. Back then, there were card shops almost everywhere and prices were rising so fast that card companies were churning out endless special sets and variations, and kids like me were gobbling them up like crazy. Back then, there was no Google, so if you wanted to know how many triples Ruben Sierra hit in 1989 (14!), you had to find his card. All summer long, my friends and I would buy, trade and talk baseball cards.

Beyond the social and informational aspects loomed the specter of that 1955 Mickey Mantle shoved into the spokes of your dad’s bicycle. Every American dad of that era had cards that would have been worth hundreds of thousands of dollars had they not been treated as disposable ephemera.

Thus, I kept wrappers. Anything thrown out could be of value.

Bad choice. The trading card market is a seventh of what it used to be in the early ’90s. The bubble crashed shortly after I stopped collecting. The 1994 baseball strike didn’t help, nor did the massive overproduction of the boom years. Since nobody threw their cards out, they never became as scarce as they used to. That wrapper in the upper left belongs to a complete set that sells for $14.99 on Ebay. a box of unopened packs of the ultra-premium 1992 Upper Deck series next to it can be had for $3.45.

The wrappers got tossed. They made me feel like someone who sunk his money into exurban Phoenix real estate in 2006 – pure bubble logic. But the cards, worthless as they were, I kept. There’s something to be said for nostalgia. Not to mention that little voice in the back of my head:

“Maybe everyone else will throw them out and you’ll be left with some valuable cards!”