Archive for September 2010

Why Are Democrats Promising to Raise Prices?

My new column is up at Forbes, and is on the Democratic push to raise the prices of Chinese goods (either through currency policy or tariffs).  This has to be one of the craziest campaign themes of all time -- please, let us raise your prices.

We should be thrilled that the Chinese government and its people see fit to spend their own money to subsidize lower prices for American businesses and consumers.  Last week, President Obama put substantial pressure on the Chinese prime minister to revalue Chinese currency, a revaluation that would have the effect of raising prices of all Chinese goods in the United States.  What possible sense does such a move make, particularly in a recession?

Christian Broda and John Romalis, a pair of University of Chicago economists, have been doing work on income distribution.  A couple of years ago they published a paper that showed how our measures of income inequality may be exaggerated because the metrics assume that both rich and poor experience the same rate of inflation.  In fact, the researches found, over the last decade or so the poor have seen much lower rates of inflation than the rich, in large part due to goods of the type imported by China and sold at Wal-Mart (another institution Democrats like to demagogue against).

Sadly, prices for low-income Americans could be even lower were it not for past protectionist measures.  When one looks at the goods that have the highest import tariffs, one sees the very same goods that typically make up a disproportionate share of the poor's purchases:  Tobacco, clothing, tires, auto parts, fruits and vegetables.  All of these have their prices raised 20-350 percent by import tariffs.

This means that at the same time Democrats have again raised issues of rising income inequality, they are trying to stop some of the most powerful forces at work mitigating these income differences.  There is no question that if Democrats are successful in changing China's currency policy and/or imposing new tariffs (taxes) on Chinese goods, prices will rise for all Americans, but particularly so for the lower income brackets that are supposedly the Democrats' constituency.

The most frustrating part of this whole effort is that it is aimed at a myth: the declining American manufacturing base.  In fact, American manufacturing output continues to hit new all-time highs "” despite the current recession, American manufacturing output today is still 40% higher than it was in 1990.

Italian Rail

After having my car hit 3 times in one week driving in Italy, I swore this time I would do it without the car.  So I tried rail.  I had almost as much trouble with rail as with driving.

First, never, ever, ever buy a Eurail pass for Italy.  It is way too expensive compared to the train fares.  Its a good deal in Switzerland, so I bought one for Italy before doing the research.  It became a running joke in Italy - every single Italian rail employee we had to show the pass to told us we should not have bought it.  So not only did I pay too much, but I got reminded of it twice a day.

Second, all but the smallest and shabbiest trains require advanced reservations, but these reservations are nearly impossible to make if you are not Italian, because the rail site has some kind of weird block on most all American credit cards (much about this around the Internet).  This means that I can't just have get-on-the train and go flexibility, I have to pick a train I want to use in the future and then stand in line at a rail station to purchase the ticket or reservation.    Lines do not move fast in Italian rail stations.

But the classic story comes from my minor infraction of rail policy that ended up costing me money.  I don't know if this is just government or if it they have a lot of problem with cheating.  Apparently, each day you are supposed to fill that days date in the next slot on your Eurail pass before you get on the train.  I forgot to on one trip, so the conductor insisted I owed a 50 euro fine.  Seriously.  I said, let me add the date right now, but she said no.  They had a couple guys lined up to throw us off in the next random Italian town if we did not hand over the money  (reminds me of this story in England).

I will say, once I calmed down, that in retrospect the lecture from the Italian state employee on why it is important to follow every single rule and to trust our betters in government that all the rules are for a good reason was almost worth the 50-euro price of admission.

It took me a while to figure out what they were afraid of -- I suppose if you did not write the date in advance, and the conductor never came by, you could get an extra day of travel.  Of course, I had paid extra money for a reservation on that particular train, so it was unlikely I was gaming the system (another reason not to get a Eurail pass in Italy, you still have to pay extra for nearly every train).  And it seemed odd that on a 2-hour train ride they thought it a real risk no conductor would come by, though on the very next day we took a 2-hour ride and there was no conductor, so I suppose it is possible.

In that latter case we were in a car where the AC failed on a hot day, and of course it was the only train we rode on the whole trip where the windows did not open.  No conductor took my ticket, but one did stand at the end of the car the whole trip turning away anyone who wanted to get an open seat in the next car -- after all, we were assigned a specific seat and sitting in another would be against the rules.

In A Recession, Obama Presses Chinese to Raise Prices to the Poor and Middle Class

Consider this story in the context of my previous post on the poor having a lower inflation rate due  in part of the effects of Wal-Mart and Chinese -made goods:

President Obama increased pressure on China to immediately revalue its currency on Thursday, devoting most of a two-hour meeting with China's prime minister to the issue and sending the message, according to one of his top aides, that if "the Chinese don't take actions, we have other means of protecting U.S. interests."...

The unusual focus on this single issue at such a high level was clearly an effort by the White House to make the case that Mr. Obama was putting American jobs and competitiveness at the top of the agenda in a relationship that has endured strains in recent weeks on everything from territorial disputes to sanctions against Iran and North Korea.

Democrats in Congress are threatening to pass legislation before the midterm elections that would slap huge tariffs on Chinese goods to undermine the advantages Beijing has enjoyed from a currency, the renminbi, that experts say is artificially weakened by 20 to 25 percent.

Somehow this was written with words like "competitiveness" and "artificially weakened" to hide the fact that what we are talking about is raising prices to American consumers (by as much as 20-25%, one infers from the last paragraph).  Not only would this make Chinese goods more expensive, but it would reduce the downward price pressure on goods made elsewhere.

Which of course is the whole point, because this is a narrow special interest issue putting a few vocal industries interests over those of the broader group of American consumers.  How many of us are consumers?  How many of us work for service and manufacturing and retail businesses that buy Chinese goods?   Now, how many of us work for a product business that competes directly with Chinese manufacturers?  The first two groups dwarf the second, but Obama is just as beholden to these interests as was Bush.

Phoenix Light Rail Fail

My column in Forbes is up for the week, and discusses the failure of light rail.  In particular, it focuses on Phoenix light rail, which has been hailed by the intelligentsia as a stirring success.  Which it is ... if you are willing to completely ignore its costs.  Saying that Phoenix light rail represents an example to be emulated is roughly equivalent to saying that an Aston Martin makes a sensible middle class family car.

One reason Phoenix is a particularly bad candidate for a light rail line is that our population is so dispersed, and there are not any obvious commuting routes.  Our downtown is a destination for very few, but even here the commutes, as shown on this distribution map, are from all over, hardly very good fodder for rail (the downtown is near the "phoenix" label).  More importantly, people work all over, so taking a suburban zip code, look at where people are commuting to from suburban 85032.   Again, all over.  Notice how few are going downtown (where the light rail line is -- downtown is toward the south about where the "phoenix" map label is).  In other words, people in Phoenix are driving from all over to all over.

Update: Now here is my idea of rail running in the streets, via Shorpy

Changing Flow of the Mississippi River

I thought this was an incredibly cool image, showing the changing path of the Mississippi River (in this case where it meets the Ohio).  (via Flowing Data)

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by water flow and erosion.  I remember spending a whole day on a woodside hill watching the evolution of an ad hoc stream of water, playing around with damming it in some places, creating new channels, etc.  When I went to the beach, I never built castles but attempted to build walls and channels to shape the way the tide flowed.  Since I am free associating, I also remember visiting a huge model of the Mississippi, I think near Vicksburg, that I thought at the time was the coolest thing on Earth.  Not even sure today if it still exists.

Both the Coke and Pepsi Party Support Presidential Authoritarianism

Time Management Disaster

Just when I was climbing on top of any number of issues at work, and was ready to start blogging again in earnest, Civ 5 was released yesterday.  Yes, it has all the time destruction potential of its older versions.  Some quick thoughts from a few hours of play

  • Beautiful interface.
  • The things that were removed (ie religions) are not missed
  • The only thing I don't like about the interface is that the new way of showing armies makes it harder to distinguish what type of troops they are.
  • Love the new combat system and the elimination of absurd stacks.  The new city defense system is a nice add as well.
  • More barbarians on the loose in the early game, but if they attack you no combat units (workers, settlers) they drag them back to their encampment and you can go and free the hostages
  • Early game very different -- not a headlong race to settle open space.  Early game city states change the early dynamics, for the better I think.
  • I like not having to build transports to send armies overseas.  This certainly will make oceans a less formidable barrier to conquest, which I think is good.
  • Can't comment yet about balance or unbalanced strategies, not far enough along, but am very happy so far.

Wal-Mart and Income Inequality

First, I have not doubt that income inequality--  in whatever way the folks who care about such things measure it -- has increased.  The analysis that has been making the rounds of liberal blogs show the rich "capturing a higher share" of total output.  The very terminology here reveals their faulty core assumption, treating wealth as a zero-sum that must be grabbed and fought for and can only be gained to someone else's disadvantage.  They always write about incomes as if GDP is a sort of natural fountain in the desert, and the piggy rich crowd in too close to get more than their fair share of water from the fountain.

This is silly.  Wealth is created from the minds of human beings, and there are human minds that create far more wealth than others, and are able to keep some of that wealth for themselves as a reward.  I say "some" because even the richest people tend to keep only a small percentage of the wealth they create.  Sum up the benefits we all get from our iPods and iPhones and iPads, and the total number dwarfs what Apple shareholders have made from these devices.

Anyway, the actual point of this post was to revisit the notion that there are different inflation rates for the rich and poor (via Carpe Diem) that may be skewing income inequality numbers

Using scanner data on household consumption of non-durable goods between 1994 and 2005, we document that the relative prices of low-quality products that are consumed disproportionately by low-income households were falling over this period. This implies that non-durable inflation for the 10th percentile of the income distribution has only been 4.3 percent between 1994 and 2005 (0.4 percent per annum), while the non-durable inflation for the 90th percentile has been 11.9 percent (1.0 percent annually), and 13.4 percent (1.2 percent annually) for the richest 5 percent of households in the sample (see chart above)."...

"A large literature has focused on the rising inequality observed in official statistics, but have mostly abstracted from the fact that these official measures are based on a single price index for a representative consumer. This assumption is not crucial in a world with a stationary relative price distribution or where an identical basket of goods is consumed by different income groups. However, using household data on non-durable consumption, we document that the relative prices of low-quality products that are consumed disproportionately by low-income consumers have been falling over this period.

This fact implies that measured against the prices of products that poorer consumers actually buy, their "real" incomes have been rising steadily. As a consequence, we find that around half of the increase in conventional inequality measures during 1994"“2005 is the result of using the same price index for non-durable goods across different income groups. Moreover, given that the increase in price dispersion does not seem to be specific to our sample or time period, the overstatement in the increases in inequality from official measures can be even more significant, changing our view of how progress has been distributed in recent decades substantially."

The price of a night at the Four Seasons has gone up more than the price of a shirt at Wal-Mart.

Wow

On the Radio Today

I will be on the radio today between 3-4 Arizona time (6-7pm Eastern time) talking about climate change.  Folks in Arizona can find it at 1100AM or listen streaming here.

Is GM's Equity Real?

There was a fair amount of blog reporting on GM's IPO papers, focusing on various outsized risks reported in those documents.   But for someone who has read a fair number of red herrings in the past, I can tell you these over-the-top risk statements are virtually pro forma.  The lawyers don't want any suits down the road about failure to disclose, so every risk up to and including getting kidnapped by evil trolls if you buy the offering are listed.

Via the Accounting Onion, I found an issues I have not seen well-reported.  Tom Selling argues that without some accounting shennanigans at its reorganization, GM's equity should be negative.   Reading between the lines, it does not appear that he is very confident that the SEC, which is a branch of GM's ownership group, will do much about it.

Incredible Thuggery, Courtesy of the Florida State Government

I had a real zoo of a week last week - one of those stretches I have every once in a while in business where new items were being tossed into my queue far faster than I could take care of them.

One of the most amazing was courtesy of the state of Florida.  Almost exactly a year ago, I submitted some backup data on my Florida revenues in 2006 to an auditor for sales taxes.  Such audits are entirely usual and routine (if irritating) and come up with some regularity.  There was no way the auditor could have figured out my tax submission from what I initially sent him - I would have to spend time explaining what different categories in my revenue reports and GL meant.  Further, I had data on seven locations which are divided in the tax reports into two county reports, but he did not have the data for which should go to which.

Well, I never heard from the guy for a whole year to clarify these issues.  Not sure what he was doing, but he was probably screwing up somehow, because on Friday his supervisor called me and told me that the statute of limitations was almost up on 2006 and they needed to complete the audit.  To this end, the auditor had submitted to her some mess of a set of numbers (see my comments above, he couldn't have done a correct job no matter how competent he was since he never asked me for all the information he needed).  I can see the guy rushing around trying to cover his ass having probably forgotten about it for a year.  Anyway, I told the lady that the statute of limitations was her problem, not mine, because her employee initially contacted me a year ago and had been sitting on the case all that time.

Well, I guess I was naive.  It turns out the statute of limitations is in fact my problem in the power imbalance that exists between me and the state of Florida.  She told me that, admitting she had no basis for doing so, she was going to file a lien against me for $40,000 in unpaid taxes as a "placeholder" to get in under the statute of limitations.  Yes, this would trash my credit and my legal standing and cause me no end of problems having a government lien on my company, but it would circumvent the horrible situation that when they actually did the work they should have done a year ago, I might owe taxes they could not collect.

Of course I told her this was BS and of course that got me about nowhere.  After a lot of time, I got one concession.  If I could prove I was clean by Monday, they would not issue the lien.  Well I spent all Friday, Friday night, and Saturday working up the analysis that is supposed to be their job, working on a 1 business day deadline because they had pissed away 250 business days sitting on my case file.  Completing the analysis, I calculated I under-paid taxes by just under $7.  We will see on Monday if I am able to battle back against this absurd thuggery.  By the way, we are being audited everywhere by local governments hoping to dredge up a few pennies from the couch cushions.  It is taking so much of my time that I actually chose to back off of bidding on a couple of new projects -- no time to spare.  So much for stimulus.

On the bright side, I have a lot of good stuff saved up to blog but I did not feel like it on Sunday.  Instead, I spent some time soldering switches and other trackwork on my n-scale railroad.  Made good progress, only about 3 more switches left to build on this module (the switches below are obviously before painting and adding wood ties.  Examples of finished work is here).

Update: By the way, I operate in red states and blue states and cannot detect any real difference in how arbitrarily I am treated by the state bureaucracy (with the exception of California, which stands alone at the top of the list of state bureaucracies that are a pain to deal with).  They differ in laws and tax rates, that often make red states more hospitable, but their bureaucrats are all about the same.

A Brief Political Observation

I know nothing about Christine O'Donnell and since I don't vote in the state of Delaware, I probably won't expend much effort trying to figure her out.  She is accused of being a flake and of making some crazy statements.  Again, I can't say one way or the other.  But I did have this thought:  Since when did making crazy, nonsensical public statements in the heat of a political campaign become a disqualification for a Senate seat held by Joe Biden for three decades?

Anti-Consumer Trade Policy

I have to reprint this Carpe Diem post nearly in its entirety.  Mark Perry does some editing on a Harold Meyerson WaPo article:

"This week, committees on both sides of Capitol Hill will plumb the conundrum of Chinese currency manipulation. The conundrum isn't that -- or why -- China is manipulating its currency: By undervaluing it, China is systematically able to underprice its exports, putting American (and other nations') manufacturing consumers and businesses that purchase China' cheap imports at a significant disadvantage. The conundrum is why the hell the United States isn't doing thinks it should do anything about it.

There are certainly plenty of senators and congressmen -- and Main Street Americans U.S. producers that compete with China -- who'd like to see the White House place some tariffs taxes on American consumers and businesses who purchase the underpriced low-priced Chinese imports. If the administration doesn't act, Congress may just consider mandating some tariffs punitive taxes against American consumers and business on its own."

More from Bureaucratic Hellhole Mono County

It is amazing how certain institutions remain true to their DNA.  I have already written twice about petty, mindless bureaucratic management in Mono County, California.  They have yet again surpassed themselves with absurd inflexibility.  I have occupancy licenses for each of our campgrounds there, about 12 sites.   We are entirely current and have been punctilious about paying our County taxes on all sites month after month for 10 years.

Then, recently, apparently they sent out renewals on the licenses that somehow did not get to our mail box.  So we missed the renewal deadline.   Of course their position is that we are still responsible for renewing, but realize I have 175 locations across the country with zillions of license registrations.  They admit we are entirely up to date on our taxes, we just did not submit the renewal fee for the licenses.  There is no approval or regulatory process with the licenses, its just a way for them to collect  a fee.

Well, without any second notice or phone call or any other such normal business courtesy, they canceled all the licenses.  I now have to fill out pages of license applications 12 times, and submit 12 penalty fees, all for a total cost of over $1,000 and hours and hours of my time.

Can you imagine the outcry if the phone company or electric company or your landlord turned off service after one missed payment without any kind of second notice?  But of course these guys are the government so we can be sure that they are public-spirited, lol.  Seriously, they could not even turn the licenses back on with a payment, I have to start entirely from scratch with new applications.  This is like 14 days after the payment due date.  I called them 1 hour after receiving the 2nd notice to sort this out, but for these guys the second notice is a termination notice.  Nice.

The 1099 Landmine

The Senate will take a vote today to repeal the hugely onerous 1099 provision from the Obamacare legislation.   Good news, though Obama is opposed to the repeal as he feels (probably correctly) that it will open the floodgates to further repeals and amendments.  Which is pretty disingenuous, as one of the soothing memes he handed out when the legislation was being rushed through Congress was that there was plenty of time to amend and fix its rough edges.  How he needs to decide if he was lying about that, as Congress addresses a rough edge that had nothing to do with health care but created a huge and largely useless burden on businesses.  I know that this provision would really kneecap my business.

Meanwhile, small businesses are staring in horror toward 2013, when the 1099 mandate will hit more than 30 million of them. Currently businesses only have to tell the IRS the value of services they purchase from vendors and the like. Under the new rules, they'll have to report the value of goods and merchandise they purchase as well, adding vast accounting and paperwork costs.

Think about a midsized trucking company. The back office would have to collect hundreds of thousands of receipts from every gas station where its drivers filled up and figure out where it spent more than $600 that year. Then it would also need to match those payments to the stations' corporate parents.

Most Democrats now claim they were blindsided and didn't understand the implications of the 1099 provision"”which is typical of the slapdash, destructive way the bill was written and passed. As the critics claimed, most Members had no idea what they were voting on.

Democrats are trying to water down this repeal:

Yesterday the White House endorsed a competing proposal from Florida Democrat Bill Nelson that would increase the 1099 threshold to $5,000 and exempt businesses with fewer than 25 workers. Yet this is little more than a rearguard action in favor of the status quo; the Nelson amendment leaves the basic architecture unchanged while making the problem more complex.

Businesses would still have to track all purchases, not knowing in advance which contractors will exceed $5,000 at the end of the year. It also creates a marginal barrier to job creation"”for a smaller firm, hiring a 26th employee would be extremely costly. The Nelson amendment also includes new taxes on domestic oil production, as every Democratic bill now seems to do.

This analysis is dead on -- our company generally cannot predict exactly how much we will purchase from a specific vendor in a year, so we would still have to collect tax ID's from every single vendor, not knowing which would cross the hurdle.

Bill James on ... uh, about Everthing

Awesome article by Baseball guru Bill James about rule-breaking and the core of what makes America dynamic.

Japanese Life Expectancy May Be Overstated due to Zombies

Via Watts Up With That:

In another example of vital statistics being grossly distorted by a combination of poor record keeping and possibly people with a selfish agenda, it is being reported in the Guardian and elsewhere that possibly hundreds of thousands of people over age 100 in Japan are actually dead, but unreported. Investigations are now underway to determine how much of this problem is due to record keeping problems and how much to family members failing to report the deaths of their elderly relatives in order to continue to collect their pension benefits by fraudulent means.

There are more than 77,000 Japanese citizens reported to be over age 120, and even 884 persons AGED OVER 150 YEARS OF AGE, who are still alive according to government rolls.

While we in the US wouldn't bat an eye if we heard this story coming out of the Chicago area of Cook County, Illinois, given the number of dead people still actively voting in elections there, there are at least 230,000 people in Japan over age 100 who simply cannot be located by any means. This large centenarian population is largely responsible for the very high average life expectancy in Japan (currently listed by the World Bank as 82.6 years, more than four years greater than the US average of 78.4 years (this is including dead voters in Chicago)), as well as any senior citizens under 100 who are actually dead but have not been reported as such on government records.

Stuff [Race][Gender] Like

This is pretty interesting -- OK Cupid did a phrase-frequency count in its online dating ads and were able to sort them by race and gender, and then identify those phrases that the particular race-gender combination used most uniquely.  Its kind of amazing just how much the analysis might fit your stereotyped guesses.  Among many others, horseback riding, baths, and Jodi Picoult for white women, with Tom Clancy, Harleys and Soundgarden for white men.  Check it out here.  (hat tip Flowing Data)

Our Arizona Governor is Truly Lame

Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona has been insisting for MONTHS that immigrants have been beheading people in the desert.  I wrote about it here,  shande doubled down on the claim in way back in June.   She repeated the claim on a televised debate the other day, and got all the national attention on this idiotic claim that she deserves.  She has reiterated this close-to-outright-racist-paranoid-fantasy any number of times through the whole summer.  So it is grossly disingenuous for her suddenly to act like it was a one-time mis-statement:

Gov. Jan Brewer rose to national fame defending the state's immigration law and warning of rising violence along the U.S.-Mexico border, including a claim that headless bodies were turning up in the Arizona desert.

But the claim has come back to haunt her after her stammering debate performance in which she failed to back it up and ignored repeated questions on the issue from a scrum of reporters.

Brewer has spent the time since backtracking and trying to repair the damage done from her cringe-worthy debate against underdog challenger Terry Goddard.

"That was an error, if I said that," the Republican told the Associated Press on Friday. "I misspoke, but you know, let me be clear, I am concerned about the border region because it continues to be reported in Mexico that there's a lot of violence going on and we don't want that going into Arizona."

That is as craven and mendacious a response as I have ever heard from a politician, and that is saying a lot (it had to be, to bet me worked up enough to blog from a seaside resort in Italy).

More Italy

After several more days and locations (Florence, Cinqueterre via Portovenere) I am left with one question:  Why is it that even supposedly elegant European hotels charging many hundreds of Euros a night for a room are oblivious to the quality of their beds?  I am getting tired of paying tons of cash for rooms with bed linens whose quality is measured in "grit" rather than "threadcount."  The beds are uncomfortable and the pillows are awful.   The blankets are sick polyester jokes that Motel 6 would be embarrassed to offer.  For the price of just one night's room rent I could go to IKEA and outfit the rooms better.  It's not like I am some spoiled princess-and-the-pea sleeper -- I stay in a lot of cheap hotels and I tent camp, for god sakes.  My camping equipment is more comfortable than these beds.  I routinely stay in $70 hotels in the US and never get beds or linens this bad.  Do they not care, or is this what Europeans all sleep on at home?

OK, rant over.  Florence was as great as it always is.  There is way too much stuff to do there ever to get bored, all within just a few minutes walking.   Unlike past visits, we entirely skipped the Uffizi and hit a lot of historic buildings we had missed before (e.g. Medici Palace).  I enjoyed it but if you are on your first visit, the Uffizi is a must.  Also saw a bit of above-average engineering, like this:

Seriously, I wonder if I could have -- without a)  any kind of materials strength data base; b) no structural steel or modern concrete; c) no CAD facility -- designed and built such a thing in the 1400s, even with the Pantheon as a go-by to copy.  Really remarkable.

In Florence, there is a famous bridge called the Ponte Vecchio which is actually covered in buildings:

You can't tell from this picture, but the bridge (open only to pedestrian traffic) is lined with at least 40 jewelry stores.  Seriously, each storefront has bout 6 feet of space, and every one had a window with zillions of gold trinkets.  It got me thinking about the paradox of choice.  It's not hard to buy into the economic theory that too much choice may inhibit purchase while walking along this bridge, though I am told most of these folks do very well (I have never bought into the paradox of choice as social theory -- the one that says people would be happier with fewer choices.  If this were true, we would all be emigrating to North Korea).

Speaking of pedestrian streets, one important takeaway from Italy has been that one should never assume a road is too narrow, even if it is no wider than your pantry door, for a vehicle to come racing through any second.  The other day I was in a really narrow alley I thought was foot-traffic-only when a bus(!) came screaming down the lane like a piston through a cylinder.  Only a well-located doorway got me out of the way, and even then the bus's mirror clipped my arm.

The last few days we have been staying at the port town of Portovenere on the Italian Riviera.

The town itself is attractive with a fair amount to explore for its size.  I experimented some with night photography from my room

I have some other exposures that I want to try with HDR software to try to bring out a bit more of the buildings.   The town was kind of fun on a Saturday night -- in addition to a couple of rowdy weddings, there were also a lot of BIG boats that came in for dinner in the evening.  Very nice (except for my bed).

Portovenere is a convenient gateway to the Cinqueterre, five absurdly picturesque downs laid down in about 1100 AD by Walt Disney to attract American tourists.  You may have not heard their names, but you have likely seen one or all of them the last time you were at an art fair in one of the photo exhibits -- here is one example (though they had the patience to wait for a time of day where the lighting was better, presumably in the early morning).

More than the towns, I enjoyed the walking trail in between, which is an attraction in and of itself.  It winds through wilderness and vineyards along the coast.  All through the vineyards I kept seeing what looked like a guide rail for some sort of gear-driven device.  The rail wound up and down the hills and through the vineyards.  I had assumed that it was some sort of irrigation system where the sprinkler moved along the rail (though I could not figure out how the water supply would work).  Then I found this absolutely awesome piece of steampunk-style tech:

It is hard to tell, but its a little one-person monorail that rides on the rail and pulls a couple of carts behind the "engine."  This is why I could not find any roads or really many trails in the vineyards -- they use these cool things to move about, do maintenance, and bring in the crop presumably.  And the rail does not run on the ground, but 4-5 feet in the air, so one can see over all the vines and brush.  Totally awesome.  And not a seatbelt to be found on it, which made me love it all the more.   I loved it so much, here is another shot head-on (sorry it is overexposed, I don't have the energy to edit it right now).

Thoughts on Milan

I don't promise posts every day or even any other day of the trip, but since I have a quiet moment, and my wife is writing in her diary, I thought I would post a few thoughts.

  • Milan is way underrated as a tourist spot, at least for a day or two.  It has the reputation of being a cold industrial town, and much of it may be that way, but the center of the city is quite nice to visit.  It was a legitimate rival to Florence and Venice in the Italian Renaissance.  Lots of good shopping, some good tourist sites, and the streets, particularly at night, are great to walk around.  The weather is wonderful, which helps.
  • Single impression I will hold from Milan:  Very attractive women dressed to the nines in chic outfits wearing 5-inch heels -- all while riding a bicycle.  They are all over the place.  And as for the overall rating for the lady-watching, I don't think any spot will surpass Buenos Aires in my book (with Beverly Hills probably as a #2) but Milan very much held its own in that department.
  • Stayed at the Park Hyatt on points (thank God because it is really expensive).  This is one great hotel, in a fabulous location with the best service I have ever received.
  • If you are coming to Milan, fly into Linate rather than Malpensa if you can -- the difference in time to the center of town is about an hour.
  • Milan is a great place to start your trip in norther Italy.  One can fly here from about any where in the world and they have fast, cheap trains that go everywhere in Italy.
  • Speaking of trains, don't ever, ever buy a Eurail pass for Italy.  I bought one out of habit (the Swiss pass is awesome) and because last time I drove in Italy my car was hit 3 times in 1 week.  But train travel in Italy is so cheap that the pass is not worth it, and almost every good train requires a reservation (and reservation fee) which defeats the "just walk on the train" advantage of the pass.  Also, as an American, the Trenitalia web site is endlessly frustrating, and won't accept most American credit cards, so the only way you can reserve a train in advance (which you must do) is to trudge to a travel agency or train station in Italy.  You can do it from a few US web sites but they add on huge fees.
  • The Cathedral (Duomo) in Milan was right next to our hotel and is the 3rd or 4th largest in Europe.  I found it kind of unexceptional, except for its size (and perhaps the beautifully sculpted front doors).  The interior highlight is probably the large stained glass windows (OK and the body of the saint lying in a room whose design looks like it was pulled right out of the haunted mansion ride at Disneyworld was interesting too).  However, there is one other thing unique about the Duomo that was fun -- you can go up and walk on the roof.  Not just go up in a tower, but walk all over the roof and in between the flying buttresses.  Great view and enjoyable

  • The Sforza Castle, for all its history, is about the bleakest and most overtly military building I have ever seen produced by the Italian Renaissance.  But probably appropriate for their history, given that the Sforza's were top generals to the Milanese Dukes before they took over the succession, and Milan was really home for the Renaissance era defense industry.
  • The Galleria Vittoria Emanuele is is a great Victorian-style glassed arcade near the Duomo.  The structure is cool but unfortunately there is not really anything inside to do it justice.

  • Took a lot of 3-shot photo series with a bracketing of low to high exposures so I could play with some new High Dynamic Range imaging software. This kind of scene above, with lots of texture in the buildings that gets washed out by the sunlight from the glass dome, hopefully will work well.  I will report on results.
  • On to Florence today, where we have a beautiful deck overlooking the Arno and Ponte Veccio and views from the rooftop restaurant all around Florence.  At least if the goofball in the black shirt would stop jumping in front of the camera.