Monday, June 30, 2008

Gonna rock your body 'till Canada Day

Tomorrow, our neighbors to the north celebrate indepen... no; victo... no; agglomeration of its provinces into a federation in 1867. It's as good a reason as any to celebrate, I guess. So grab a cold Molson, hop on a Bombardier subway car or pop in a New Pornographers record to show our under-appreciated cousin up yonder some love.

To that end, here's Eugene Mirman with some interesting facts about Canada.

My car, my whip, my ride, my problem

Who wants to buy a nice used car so I don't have to park it for $500 a month in New York?

Nobody, apparently. Although I don't really need one, it's been nice to have my slick wheels out here, if only because I get to go to Culver's out in the burbs whenever I want. Three weeks ago, I put up ads on Craigslist, (for $40) (also not free) and the Reader. I've had a few calls, but nobody has even come to see the thing - I'm starting to get the feeling that nobody wants to buy a car that gets 26 mpg on the highway anymore. These are some of the responses I've had:

- Nice Midwestern-sounding lady: Called up on a Saturday morning, asked about fuel economy right off the bat, then said "I'll call you." Never called. Hussy.

- All-caps guy: Had the cash ready, but made a very, very low-ball offer in text-screaming like when one of your elderly relatives first learned how to use email. I waited too long to see if I could do better, and he lost interest. Just to rub it in, he told me in his final email that he thought the car was worth $500 less than his initial offer. Thanks, buddy.

- The Hoosier Loser: He had the same make and model I did and wanted to buy my car for his brother, who was moving into town. "I got a lemon last time I bought a used car, so I was wondering if I could take your car for a week to let my mechanic down her in Indiana take a look at it," he asked. Is this some sort of joke? "What if I give you a check for $1,000 as a deposit?" Then I have $1,000 and no car (my car is worth a significant amount over that). Great. Still, we arranged a time to meet. The next day, he called me up and spoke like a woman who drunkenly gave her number to a guy she was never interested in. "Umm, I can't make it today." Another time? "I'll call you." Good luck finding someone willing to surrender their car for a week.

- Blocked-number guy: He called, had lots of specific questions and didn't ask about the fuel economy. Unfortunately, I took the call when I was out of the house. He said he would call me back the next day to make a time to see the car. He never called. I thought he might have expected me to call him, but his number appeared blocked on my phone. Who are you, wonderful stranger, and do you still want my car? [makes "call me" hand gesture]

- Cheesehead tease: Wanted me to drive half of the way between my garage downtown and his office in Kenosha, Wisconsin, five hours after his call. He was supposed to quickly call back to settle on a parking lot in Gurnee to meet. He never called. I sense a trend.

- Broken-English emailer: Wants to see the car between 7 and 7:30. I waited in the car, bored out of my mind because I removed my iPod adapter and CDs during the painstaking cleaning process. No calls. Upon returning home, I get an email, timestamped 7:21, telling me he can't come. Thanks.

It's been three weeks and nobody has even seen the car. Today is the last day I have my garage space, so I'm giving in and bringing my car to CarMax, where they will make an offer 20% below what I should have got on the open market. But bar review is starting to seriously ramp up and I don't want to park outside and wash the car every time someone pretends to want to see the thing. It's good for the environment and the country that people are selling their cars and buying hybrids, taking transit or riding bikes, but $4 gas has made turned my car from a V6 beast with great acceleration and seat warmers to a white elephant mocking me as it gathers dust in its parking space. I'll try to comfort myself by thinking of it as taking one for the country.

Friday, June 27, 2008

(Click for full size.)

Take a look at this Google Maps satellite map of Camden, New Jersey's downtown. It is an example for every misguided "urban renewal" plan hatched in the last 60 years.

The best place to start is the rabbit-shaped spot right in the middle. It's dedicated to parking for downtown Camden, for the Stadium and Aquarium on the waterfront and for people commuting to Philadelphia across the river. Forget about carbon emissions or fuel consumption, the amount of space cars will take up if you let them is enormous. Not just do they need roads, they need places to be parked at home, at work and anywhere else you might venture. As a result, a lot of whatever used to be in that huge gray mass, for whatever reason, is blacktop.

Next, we have the two parts of Camden out of the main lump that aren't parking. They're Campbell Field and the Adventure Aquarium. Both were built at huge taxpayer expense, both were "downtown" improvements and both failed miserably at bringing any development in a deeply troubled but geographically fortunate city. Think how that money could have been spent in the most dangerous city in America. The only problem is that you can raise money in the capitol to build a stadium, but the state won't help out to pay for a lot of the basic stuff that makes cities livable. Oh, and you'll need tons of parking for the suburbanites to park to see the attractions.

Third, there's the small matter of the highway streaking across town. From the old I-93 in Boston to the Cross Bronx in New York, interstates tear neighborhoods apart and choke off entire sections of town from pedestrian traffic. Crime-wise, no pedestrians mean few witnesses to street crime. Fewer witnesses mean more witness intimidation and lower conviction rates.

The residents of Camden to the north of 676 have to go under the highway or even around the toll booths to get to the PATCO train or the university. The obvious neighborhood to target for redevelopment (at least geographically) is cut off from the two places in town they might want to go.

What now? You can't well tear down the highway to the main bridge to Philadelphia, but some work could be done on that parking. There could be more multi-level facilities built (I see some already) or better yet more use of public transit to reduce dependence on parking.

Yet just like Baltimore, there are any number of other factors at play. A tax base is probably a prerequisite to solving any number of urban maladies, but the pathologies of life in a post-industrial secondary city won't be fixed by more pedestrian walkways and a couple of brewpubs.

I see decedents

I took Wills, Estates and Trusts less than a year ago. How come the last two days of Bar/Bri Wills was like a foreign language to me. Granted, the prof (who shall remain nameless) was a mumbler and didn't answer questions to anyone's satisfaction, but the E&E should have at least exposed me to some of these concepts. The NY distinctions aren't even that severe!

Earlier in the week, we did torts, which was similarly an eye-opening experience. My torts prof was a law and economics guy who spent most of the class time writing inscrutable matrices of numbers on the board and left trifling little concerns like elements and the mechanics of causation to the TA who, to his credit, did the best he possibly could in the little time he had during reading period. Thanks, prof.

On the other hand, con law was drilled into my head so thoroughly that I could do my crosswords in peace without having to fill in the blanks. Hopefully the MBE will all be equal protection and justifiability stuff.

Law schools aren't like schools of air conditioner repair - curricula vary, and that's a good thing. If that were the case, we'd all just take Bar/Bri and be done with it over one horrid summer (or winter). I feel like I learned a lot and took advantage of many opportunities afforded me by my school, but almost none of it is the least bit of use at the moment.

Researchers have found that taking courses that could help with the bar have no effect on passage rates. It took me half a summer to figure out why.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Rent Party

I've reconciled myself to renting an apartment in New York for the foreseeable future. As I listen to Chicago-based friends with visions of down payments and adjustable rate mortgages dancing in their heads, I will be wondering exactly what size of cardboard box a young associate's salary will buy in Manhattan.

Unlucky for me, Ezra Klein of The American Prospect notes that rental prices have stayed steady during the housing boom/bust:

In theory, the run-up in costs should've made it relatively more profitable for landlords to sell, thus depleting the rental stock, and forcing renters to stay competitive by paying more. That didn't happen, though I'm not sure why.

Kevin Drum takes a gander as to why:

A couple of guesses here. First, part of the housing bubble was caused by low interest rates, something that doesn't affect rental rates. In fact, low interest rates generally help to keep rental rates low. Second, the housing bubble took a lot of renters off the market: home ownership rates went up a couple of points and rental rates went down a couple of points. That kept pressure on landlords to keep rents low. Third, there might be a psychological effect, at least in the short term: as long as property prices are rising smartly, landlords might be willing to accept lower rental rates. You're more likely to accept a lower cash flow ROI if you think there's a big capital gain coming your way a few years down the road.

I have no idea either. Then again, urban property (like the condo two conversions within a block from my apartment) hasn't felt the housing bust nearly as much as the exurbs. For the moment, the cost of everything is rising so fast that a steady rent keeps a lot of people feeling more secure then homeowners at the mercy of interest rates.

In which I save the CTA from ruin

So you're getting pinched from high fuel prices, just like everyone else (except for your riders). Those buses get horrible mileage and the hybrid alternatives are far more expensive than their conventional counterparts.

We all know that running the air conditioning on full blast is bad for fuel economy. We also know that most of the newer, bendier, CTA buses are cooled to near-freezing. It isn't comfortable and it isn't efficient. Turn up the thermostat a little, save some cash you can put to the cleaning budget.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Coldplay on tonight's Daily Show

Yep, they still suck.

What's wrong here

The short answer: Movable Type needs to be completely re-installed because whenever the site
re-publishes the index pages (like the home page) it breaks down in the middle, leaving a blank screen.

The long answer: A series of expletives, followed by the short answer, followed by more expletives.

Monday, June 23, 2008

High finance for regular people, part 1

You've probably noticed the TV ads in which Chrysler promises purchasers of new cars that they won't pay over $2.99 for gas over the next three years, good for up to the first 12,000 miles each year. The Let's Refuel America promotion is done in conjunction with Pricelock, a startup that appears for the moment to have no other customers besides Chrysler. In exchange for other new car incentives, Chrysler gives you a special credit card that you can use at gas stations to get the special rate.

If it's done well, programs like this could revolutionize the way people budget. The premise itself has been around for centuries in the form of futures markets (for a succinct explanation, see Trading Places). However, using commodities exchanges to buy contracts for future delivery of fuel, food or anything else, you'll need experience in the markets, some way to receive and store what you've ordered and the need to buy in increments far greater than what any individual or family would need. For example, the New York Mercantile Exchange trades gasoline futures in increments of 42,000 gallons.

The big futures markets may be useless to you or me, but bigger players that have made wise plays can reap the benefit of locking in prices years in advance, making budgeting simpler and insuring against price jumps. Southwest locked in its price for jet fuel when it was far cheaper, a move that looks very savvy in hindsight.

But what about Joe Consumer? He's seen gas prices rise, mortgage payments explode and supermarket bills jump. Normally, the only response would be to cut back: take the bus and dump the arugula for iceberg. Southwest can fight instability, but regular folks with mouths to feed are left to twist in the wind. If Pricelock ever catches on beyond this Chrysler deal, it could be the beginning of something big: consumers could lock in prices for everything from gas to spaghetti.

The tale of the last quarter-century has been of one of a great risk shift from the highest levels of government and corporate America to individuals. Union membership is down, pensions are being replaced by 401Ks and the social safety net is being slowly dismantled. People can reap enormous benefits from, for example, managing their own retirement accounts. However, stability has its benefits and anyone who can give people the same peace of mind as the major players can potentially make a whole lot of money.

The two year itch

Northwestern Law has announced that they will now offer a two-year J.D. program in which classes start the summer before traditional 1L year.

This is an awful idea.

First, Northwestern just jumped from 12 to 9 in the U.S. News rankings. Why start this gimmick now, just as things are looking up?

Second, Northwestern is a small law school that prides itself on being a small community in which professors and students actually know each other. Creating a segment of the student body that runs on a different track can only wall off some of that community by having some students take an entire semester of classes before they get to meet anyone else in the school and then making them take extra classes so as to ensure they won't have any time to socialize.

Third, by making the two-years take an extra class each semester, the school is making it nearly impossible for these students to participate in journals, clinics and student groups. Given that law firms and judges in the market for clerks like these things. Since post-graduate placement is a large part of the U.S. News rankings, I can't see how this is good for the school's overall prestige.

The two-years will be just like the L.L.M.s: a group of people who are "just passing through." Good if you're in it for the money, bad if you're in it to cement a reputation as a top ten law school.

The one-point-above-passing guide to finding a bar exam study spot in Chicago

We're about halfway through Bar/Bri and the early slacking has given way to sample questions, mock essays and flashcards. I'll make the assumption that not many folks studying for the bar right now didn't exactly give their all on last semester's finals, so getting back to study mode is a little difficult, especially given summer weather.

After three years of warding off cabin fever by trying out coffee shops around town, I am proud to offer you, my loyal readers, a guide to finding a place to study for the bar in Chicago.

Your Law School's Library
Various locations

Sometimes you just want some comfort food. From that very first 1L assignment to that last mad dash over the finish line, your school's library has been there for you. Many law students have happy memories of the library - the hours upon hours of tedious reading and outlining aren't memorable, but the time you spent goofing off with your friends while you should have been working will be something you'll talk about at the reunion. Re-create the magic and pretend to be a naive law student again.

Pros: It's probably convenient to where you live and they probably haven't changed the combo on your locker yet.

Cons: Underclassmen will assume you flunked one of your classes and are making it up in summer school.

Argo Tea & Coffee
Various Locations near yuppies like you

Hip, but not too hip. There were two Argos when I moved here. Now there are ten, and I can see why. They're airy, the staff is friendly and the drinks are creative and tasty. Oh, and for some reason the rugelach is to die for. Take it from me - yid* tested, mother approved (no really, mom tried 'em and thinks they're great).

Pros: Attractive client base, bright space, the bathrooms have those really powerful hand dryers.

Cons: Tiny tables.

Atomix Cafe
1957 W. Chicago Ave., Ukrainian Village

For the ascetic, but not too ascetic Some people need an outlet, a big table and some light background music. Atomix lacks luxuries like free wi-fi and skim milk, but in return for giving up those luxuries, you get all the space you need and the too-cool-for-school hipsters that patronize the place will make it a point to leave you alone. Sometimes, I find the Internet to be a huge distraction, so I spent a fair amount of time hear during my law school career when I really needed to hit the books hard.

Pros: Paninis, bagels and people with ironic tattoos. When you're done, there are plenty of cool bars within walking distance.

Cons: You probably don't belong and everyone who walks through the door knows it. If you can deal with that, you should be fine.

Sip Cafe
1223 W Grand Ave., West Town

There is no way you're missing summer. A coffee shop with a garden in the back! Go out there to get your Vitamin D while learning how different your state's law is from the stuff you learned in law school. It's hard to lock yourself inside while the sun is shining, so why not get the best of both worlds?

Pros: Getting seasonal affective disorder in June is just lame. This is your last summer as a student, so treat it as such to the extent you can.

Cons: Even more remote than Atomix.

The Hidden Shamrock
2723 N Halsted St., Lincoln Park

Bar/Bri will drive anyone to drink, so you might as well save a trip. This bar has free wi-fi, huge tables and hardly a soul in it during the day. Why not share a few rounds with Mr. Conviser's mini outline and stop working when you can't read the small text anymore?

Pros: You can't complain about how bar review keeps you from going out.

Cons: This shows you can't pass the bar. Har-dee-harr-harr.

The El
High above the streets.

You are so friggin' hardcore. Growing up in New York, I've heard a few stories of people who studied on the subway. It makes sense in a strange way given that there are few distractions, plenty of light (except for limited areas) and if you go in the middle of the day on most lines, enough space. Studying on the El is probably best suited for flashcards and re-reading your notes, since there aren't any tables.

Metra may be a more appealing option, even though it's a bit more expensive. You'll have plenty of time to hit the books on the local to Kenosha.

Pros: It's close to public transit. Also, it's a good story to tell down the line if you want to impress people with how gritty and urban you are.

Cons: If you don't pick the right car, the smell can be distracting. Also, you may lose your hearing if you do it too much.

* That's one of those words you can't use unless it describes you.