Free Beer!

Gotcha, but it’s very close to free. A few classmates and I have been working on the board of a local non-profit organization, Somerville Local First (SLF). SLF helps to build “a sustainable Local First economy by supporting and promoting locally owned and independent businesses, artists and nonprofits” in Somerville.

They’re hosting a fundraiser at the Foundry On Elm, a new restaurant and pub in Davis Square, on Wednesday, April 6th from 6:00-8:00pm. Tickets are only $20, and include a beer and wine tasting from 6:00-7:00pm and appetizers from 6:00-8:00pm.

Here are a few reasons you should buy a ticket soon:

1. 100% of the money goes to SLF, so you’d be supporting a good cause.

2. The beer is all from Pretty Things, a great new local craft “brewery” that I’ve previously written about. If you consider the ticket price to be a donation, then it’s free beer.

3. The Foundry On Elm’s gotten good reviews. Here’s an excuse to check it out.

4. Davis Square is a great area, and you probably don’t get out there often enough.

5. If you eat enough of the appetizers, it’s really dinner.

6. You’ll meet lots of interesting people from the community.

7. It’s probably going to sell out quickly.

Here’s the facebook event page, and you can buy tickets here.

Brewing Beer With Vanilla Beans

I was recently out in San Francisco, and went to the Thirsty Bear brew pub on Howard street. All of the beers I tried were pretty good, but their Golden Vanilla ale really blew me away. It had a cream soda taste –without being too sweet — and the vanilla was pleasant, but not overpowering. I generally prefer to brew and drink beers that stick with just the four primary beer ingredients — water, barley, hops, and yeast — but every once in a while it’s good to experiment. So my roommate and I decided we’d buy some vanilla beans and take a shot at a vanilla ale.

After doing some research, we learned that the best way to brew with vanilla beans is to use them to make a vodka based vanilla extract, then add the beans and the extract to the beer in secondary fermentation. So last week we started by brewing five gallons of this all-grain golden ale:

6 lbs Two Row
4 lbs Marris Otter
1 lbs American Caramel 60°L
1 oz Cascade (6.9%) – added during boil (60 min)
.25 oz Perle (6.1%) – added during boil (40 min)
.5 oz Czech Saaz (5.0%) – added during boil (20 min)
.5 oz Tettnanger (4.5%) – added during boil (5 min)
4.0 oz Lactose
WYeast German Ale

It’s a fairly standard ale recipe, with the exception being the lactose. Lactose is an unfermentable sugar, and can be used in the brewing process to add a hint of sweetness, which should complement the vanilla flavor.

We brewed the beer, waited a week for it to go through the primary fermentation phase, and then created the vanilla extract by taking four vanilla beans, slicing them the long way to expose the vanillin inside the pods, and then soaking them for 24 hours in a small amount of vodka. The vodka absorbs the flavor from each bean. Here’s what it looked like:

Today the beer was transferred from the primary fermentation carboy (glass jug) to a slightly smaller secondary fermentation carboy, and the extract and beans were added. We’ll wait a week for the beer to finish fermenting and soaking up the vanilla flavor, and then it will be bottled next weekend, and will be ready for drinking the following week. I’ll provide an update and review of the beer soon after.

On a side note, a number of people I’ve spoken with, especially friends who like to cook, were surprised to learn that the vanilla beans were pretty cheap. Just $2.95 for a pair. Apparently Whole Foods sells them for about $15/pair, so if you ever need some beans, just drop by the Modern Homebrew Emporium on Mass Ave in Cambridge.

Update: Here’s a link to the full vanilla ale recipe.

Turtle Calls

From, Americas turtlecalls leader:

the $2 turtlecall
america’s original turtlecall – i will try to get through at least three times and if i cannot i will leave a cool voicemail in my turtle voice

the $3 cheadlecall
this is a special turtlecall where i will call and pretend to be a turtle pretending to be don cheadle, who is a famous actor in american movies like hotel rwanda

the $10 super turtlecall
this turtlecall has advanced features like that i will keep calling until i do not get a voicemail, even if it takes weeks

a super turtlecall pushes your turtlecall to the front of the line for execution and for getting onto the internet for you to hear

also if your recipient never picks up or they hang up fast i will email you and ask you to give me another person to try

And here’s an example of a turtle call in action:

I may have just purchased one. Many more turtlecalls here.

Where Do MBA Students Live?

Before, during, and after school? The Financial Times has a great map showing this distribution by nationality. It’s a bit tough to navigate at first, but click the country you’re interested in, then click each of the radio buttons to see the geographic movement:

interactive map of MBA student country of origin and school

A few observations: Israelis don’t tend to go home after graduating, the Chinese do, and Dutch people rarely come to the US for school.

Houdini: Master Magician and Photoshop Editor?

Have you seen this photo?

Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt, 1914

Perhaps you’ve seen this version of it?

Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt, 1914

No?  How about the original?

Harry Houdini, Theodore Roosevelt and others, 1914

One of Harry Houdini’s greatest pieces of magic was making an elephant vanish on stage. A lesser known, but equally brilliant, trick involved making a group of passengers disappear from a photo. Nearly a century before magazine editors relied on Photoshop for every minor touchup, Houdini understood the importance of visuals. As you can see, the original photo was like any ordinary fan photo with a celebrity–an assorted group of people with former President Theodore Roosevelt and Houdini. Ever the publicity hound (and without the aid of photo editing software), Houdini edited the photo to remove the other people, create Roosevelt’s left arm, and recreate the background of the ship. All of a sudden, the photo showed two of the most famous people in the world, alone, together, as if they were close friends. It was brilliant marketing.

These photos come from my friend and associate Bill Kalush’s fantastic book called “The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America’s First Superhero.” If you caught an airing of “What is Magic,” one of the David Blaine specials I wrote and co-produced, Bill was the guy who shot David with a 22-caliber bullet (“the Bullet Catch”). I highly recommend reading his book on Houdini, which gives great insight into to the psyche of the magician and delves into his connection to the Secret Service. If you’re not really the book-reading type, then just wait for the movie adaptation currently in development by Summit Entertainment.

P.S. Despite what Sam may tell you, I am not a magician (although if I have had a few beers, I may do a few magic effects to pick up girls at the bar, but that’s neither here nor there).

Tax Advice From Greg Mankiw

Or not. Yesterday Professor Mankiw posted this on his blog:

Tax Fact of The Day

“The U.S. effective corporate tax rate on new investment was 34.6 percent in 2010, which was the highest rate in the OECD and the fifth-highest rate among 83 countries. The average OECD rate was 18.6 percent, and the average rate for 83 countries was 17.7 percent.”

Okay. He chose not to add any commentary, but he’s obviously implying that he believes the rate is too high based solely upon the fact that other countries have lower rates. I suppose that’s a reasonable starting point for a discussion. But his data is extremely misleading. Because the correct way to measure the tax burden on U.S. corporations is to look at what they actually pay, after accounting for all additional provisions in the tax law (i.e., loopholes). The effective tax rate.

So let’s take a look at that. From the New York Times:

So now the tax rate only seems to be unreasonable for a few select industries. What about corporate taxes paid as a percentage of GDP (i.e., the corporate tax burden relative to the size of the economy)? This is probably the best way to compare our effective tax policy with the policies of other OECD countries. Luckily, Ezra Klein had a great post answering this exact question late last year:

Consider this graph, which shows corporate tax rates against the OECD average. As you can see, we’re on the high side:


That’s the evidence for the conservative view. Our rate is about one standard deviation higher than the OECD average. But here’s the thing:

This confirms Mankiw’s data that the U.S. has higher tax rates. Ezra continues:

If you actually look at the amount of money our corporate tax raises, we’re about one standard deviation beneath the OECD average:


The reason is simple enough: Our corporate tax code is complicated. A lot of businesses, like S-corporations and partnerships, don’t pay corporate taxes. Others use loopholes and exemptions and deductions to push their actual rate way down. We could have a simpler code with lower rates that would raise more money.

So U.S. corporations actually pay 1 standard deviation below the OECD average, while U.S. tax rates are 1 standard deviation above the average. There seem to be two take aways from this. First, it’s obvious that we probably need either better tax laws, better tax collectors, or both. And second, maybe we should consider raising the rates (or lowering rates and eliminating loopholes, resulting in a higher effective rate).

Regardless, the conclusion is the opposite from what Professor Mankiw’s “Tax Fact of the Day” would have you imply. If anything, U.S. corporations don’t pay nearly as much as other OECD countries, and the advantage seems to be unfairly skewed by industry. As Ezra says: “We could have a simpler code with lower rates that would raise more money.” And then everyone wins.

Lots of Awesome Links

At least in my opinion. They’ve been piling up:

1. What a prank call proves about Wisconsin

2. “I don’t want to marry someone if I don’t have a job first”

3. The Wrong Answer to Climate Change

4. The Onion on Opting Out of Google

5. Who Doesn’t Love Stop Motion?

6. What Motivates Employees? (Not Money)

And these are from my Mom (she sends me lots of interesting stuff):

7. Find You Some Vinyl. It’s a new “search engine” exclusively devoted to finding the best deals on vinyl records, and here’s an article about it. It’s still under development, but it looks like it will be a great resource.

8. Could Biologists Avert the Next Banking Crisis?

Hollywood Tans

My good friend, Wayne Pritzker, is in a band out in Portland Oregon called Hollywood Tans. They’ve just been written up for the first time. From the Willamette Week:

“[SWEATY JUMP AROUND] Hollywood Tans plays guitar rock that revives its worn format (guitar, synthesizer, bass, drums, beards) with a near-lethal infusion of enthusiasm. Stylistically, I’d lump the band in the same category with Swim Swam Swum, though whereas the latter Portland guitar-rock institution distinguishes itself with technical ability, Hollywood Tans attains its uniqueness through a healthy regimen of mania. As I write this I am listening to the quartet’s cover of Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” for the fourth time straight. Hollywood Tans puts such love into that cheeseball standard it becomes epic. This band’s live show is going to be a workout.”

I’ve never seen them live, but this sounds like the type of band Wayne would lead. I have heard a few of their recordings, which are pretty sweet. Unfortunately, they don’t have a useful myspace page to link to (their page was last updated in 2009 and has no streaming music), so I’ve been “forced” to post a demo Wayne emailed to me a while back. I hope he doesn’t mind. This is the Frankie Valli cover the reviewer mentioned:

Death To Wedding Songs

Go on, feel free to listen again. If you like what you heard, and want to hear more, email Wayne, and tell him to update his myspace page.

The Death of the Music Industry

The Understatement has a great post on how, and how not, to evaluate recent trends in recorded music sales, and what they might mean for the industry. The post includes many interesting charts, and an explanation as to why Bain’s recent report on the topic is deeply flawed and misleading. But the most relevant chart is this:

When measured by inflation adjusted sales per capita, “the music industry is down 64% from its peak” and “45% from where it was in 1973” at the peak of vinyl. There are quite a few ways to view this. Many blame music piracy, which certainly has contributed to the decline. Or you could take a more optimistic view, and claim a cyclical pattern.

But what about Pandora? And similar music services like it. They pay royalty fees to the RIAA, but from what I’ve read, it sounds like they don’t pay much (I assume they’re included in the red digital slice in the above chart, but I don’t have access to the underlying data).

Here’s some information I found on

Pandora raked in $50 million in revenue in 2009, which the company hopes to double by the end of the year. Of that, it paid $30 million in royalties to the music industry as agreed to in the CRB rate settlement with performance rights organization SoundExchange.

That agreement calls for Pandora to pay either a per-stream rate for each song it plays or 25 percent of all revenue, whichever is greater. Pandora needs to generate 8 cents per user per hour to shift the royalty burden to the revenue-share model. Currently, it’s bringing in only 2 cents per user per hour.

I’m not complaining, but this really seems too good to be true. Pandora gets to pay a per stream rate or 25% of all revenue, whichever is higher. But guess what, Pandora, not the RIAA, has control over their revenue. Obviously, like all companies, they wouldn’t mind maximizing it. But they seem to have the ability to grossly undercharge for the benefits they provide, and then give a portion of what they collect (through both advertising and subscriptions) back to the RIAA. Although they’re currently paying the per-stream rate, it’s still not a lot of money compared with the amount of music that gets played by their 40 million users.

Pandora is thinking long-term here, and the company’s probably willing to sacrifice revenue in the short-term to build a very large user base that incorporates Pandora into their music listening routines (long-term revenue).

Radio used to mean an often fuzzy broadcast of music in a general genre with lots of annoying commercials and talk. With no way to skip songs. Now in a matter of minutes, I can custom tailor a few Pandora stations however I want, and be practically certain that I’ll like 90% of the songs the station plays, and I can skip the ones I don’t like. And the more I skip, the more accurate the station becomes.

Last year Pandora added commercials, which briefly annoyed me until I learned I could pay $30/year and have them removed all together. I didn’t even think about it. I used to spend much more each year buying albums.

This is cheaper, and most of the time, it’s a superior way to listen to music. You’re telling me I can create a radio station to play all of my favorite artists? And then every once in a while a song I haven’t heard before that is similar to my other musical tastes gets thrown in the mix? And this is free with commercials, and $30/year without? What’s the question again?

This seems to me to be the problem causing the trend. It doesn’t show up in the data because the data isn’t weighted by the quantity of music. When behavior changes, and people no longer need to own their music, the people who are in the business of selling music need to come up with a better way to rent it out. And $0.75 per Pandora user per year probably isn’t going to cut it.

Note: I even surprised myself when I realized I was writing a pro-RIAA post. But I’m just trying to be objective. And for once, it seems they’re getting the short end of the stick.