Sunday, March 30, 2008

Sandwiches on Sunday

We arrived at the community center at noon, where 40 people were waiting. A woman approached eagerly, “Are you serving the fifth-Sunday hot meal?” I apologized for being a few minutes late but was pleased by the question. Larger churches in the area alternate serving on most weekends, and our small parish steps up to fifth Sundays of the month (four times a year). We try to produce quality dishes in quantity, and it appeared that our humble infrequent efforts were being remembered.

Diners and servers alike carried the food from the cars to the picnic tables. Through practice we can set up within ten minutes---first the table cloths, then the plates and forks at the start of the line, the lasagna, salad, and rolls in the middle, and the lemonade at the end. The crowd grew to 60 people by the time our seminarian was ready to bless the proceedings.

The eighteen volunteers, nine of them children and teens, scurried about serving the food, refilling cups, collecting utensils, and distributing the brown-bag meals for the diners to take home. Everyone was friendly and appreciative; there would be no repetition of last year’s incident.

I chatted amicably with a gentleman who had fallen on hard times. He was younger than I, but alcohol, injury, and years of exposure to the elements made him look much older. He was already a grandfather, yet he didn’t have a relation who would take him in. I had no words of wisdom that could fix his life and could only give him a sympathetic ear.

We cleaned the tables and trundled the dirty dishes back to the church. The satisfaction of a job well done was dampened by the difficult circumstances of the people we met. A world of unlimited needs---the core of both economic theory and Christian guilt.

Whenever I grow smug about my good works (and conveniently forget the other stuff), I think about much farther I have to go:
if any one would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well; and if any one forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. [Matt 5:40-41]
An impossible standard? Julio Diaz is an example of someone who can walk the talk.
He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

"He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, 'Here you go,'" Diaz says.

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, "Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you're going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm."
Read the whole thing. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, March 29, 2008

'Annual Minutes Disclosure' Scam

The Internet is a great medium for communication and commerce, but one drawback is that it is a rich playground for con artists. Scammers easily obtain information about potential targets, enabling them to tailor their pitches to heighten their probability of success.

A business acquaintance started a company last year and received an official-looking “Annual Minutes Disclosure Statement.” The two-page document cited various California corporation code sections and demanded payment of an Annual Fee of $125. (This is not a flagrant con, since the fine print at the bottom admits “This product or service has not been approved or endorsed by any government agency”.) The fee is set low enough so that it’s not worth asking one’s lawyer or accountant to look into the matter, and many small business owners will just pay the bill.

But the Internet is also such an outstanding research tool for the good guys that there’s often no need to call on a specialist. In less than 30 seconds I was able to pull up an advisory from the law firm of Morrison & Foerster:
Please be aware that many companies have recently been receiving fake forms that appear, on their face, to be the mandatory disclosure forms sent out by the California Secretary of State. In fact, they are thinly veiled business solicitations….

In the event that your company receives such a business solicitation, please forward it (including the envelope and all of its contents) to:

Susie Lorden, Associate Governmental Program Analyst
California Department of Justice/Office of the Attorney General
Consumer Law Section
110 West A Street, Suite 1100
San Diego, CA 92101

We’ll do our civic duty and forward the materials to the Attorney General’s office. I also take the time to forward phishing e-mails immediately to the relevant companies and authorities. In a decentralized world everyone must do his part to police the neighborhood.
[Update - October, 2009: the name and letterhead may change slightly, but it's still the same con.]

Thursday, March 27, 2008

No Cause for Alarm

At my annual physical yesterday the doctor told me that there was no cause for alarm, which gave me the same degree of comfort as a Homeland Security code yellow. I could be headed for the emergency room in ten minutes, but I didn’t have to panic right this second. Nothing to worry about, Steve, but you should get a colonoscopy this year because of your family history, and it would be nice to drop a few pounds. No, I haven’t joined a gym yet, doc, but thanks for asking.

One’s half-century marks the end of self-delusion. Body parts that once functioned reliably must now be treated with tender care, because replacements are often out of the question and at minimum are very expensive. And the sharp-as-a-tack mind that once impressed educated persons now can’t even win an argument against a teenager who believes that all human knowledge is contained in Wikipedia.

Economist Thomas Sowell questions whether John McCain has the stamina to be President:
Those of us who are in our seventies know darn well that we can’t do everything we used to do, as well as we used to do it….It is not just in physical tasks that age takes its toll. Even when our minds remain sharp, our energy levels are seldom the same, and that affects how long we can concentrate on a given day without taking a rest.
Foreshadowing Hillary Clinton’s 3 AM ad, Dr. Sowell wrote:
But a president of the United States has to be ready to take on any crisis that arises anywhere in the world, at any hour of the day or night. And if he has to deal with it around the clock, then he just stays awake around the clock to deal with it.
If she does win the Democratic nomination, I don’t see Hillary Clinton continuing to use the ad. It’s not because the majority of Americans prefer Senator McCain to be in charge, it’s just that older men are always up at 3 AM tending to emergencies of a personal nature. On the other hand, if you ask whether he's awake at 3 PM.... © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Monday, March 24, 2008

Under the Weather

As Punxsutawney Phil predicted, much of the rest of the country experienced winter weather through late March. In the oasis that is the Bay Area, skies for the most part have been clear and cool.

The downside, however, is that the trees have bloomed on schedule. The combination of a high pollen count and a virus that the youngster brought home from school nearly incapacitated me with sneezes that I couldn't stifle, a nose that wouldn't stop running, and a head that wouldn't stop throbbing. I had not had a bad week like this since I had restarted immunotherapy injections.

The new non-drowsy allergy medications were of little help, so I reached for the tried-and-true Benadryl tablets and Nyquil. The antihistamines dried me up and put me to sleep, not a useful side effect when one has to attend meetings. But I managed to prop my eyes open, made noncommittal remarks, and gave people the impression that I was paying attention.

Now that I'm feeling better I'm reviewing my notes from last week. If I stare at "Email biot prerq tchr" long enough, I may be able to divine its meaning. And if I can't figure it out, maybe it wasn't important. Little of what we do during the day truly is important anyway.

But There Was Something Important To Do Yesterday

“If you call yourself a Christian” is one of the most hackneyed and tiresome phrases that Christians have to listen to, because it’s always followed by some sort of scold. But it is true that if you call yourself a Christian you should rouse yourself from bed or your easy chair to attend service on Easter Sunday.

Recalling words from 2004:
While [Jesus’] birth is important, it was his death and resurrection two days after he was laid to rest that is all-important, which is why Easter, not Christmas, is the most important date on the Christian calendar. If it weren’t for the resurrection he would just be another prophet who said some profound things---enough to put together a $4.99 compendium of sayings at Barnes & Noble, but not much more.
We had a full house at our suburban church in Foster City. Over 150 people showed up, more than double our usual attendance, and the chime of bells and alleluias reverberated off the walls. Lenten sacrifice was over, and it was time to let loose.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Pretty Good Tree Doesn't Cut It

From the instructions for completing the Hawaii individual income tax return:
You may deduct up to $3,000 per exceptional tree for qualified expenditures you made during the taxable year to maintain the tree on your private property. The tree must be designated as an exceptional tree by the local county arborist advisory committee under chapter 58, HRS.
If an exceptional tree grows in the forest, but the "local county arborist advisory committee" doesn't see it, can it truly be exceptional?

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Obama Speech

Today Barack Obama gave a speech on race relations. That’s a lot like saying Lincoln gave a speech about a Civil War battle.

Speaking as one who disagrees with most of his policy prescriptions, I was moved and inspired. He began with America’s founding and his hopes that his campaign would be true to its principles. He talked about his personal history, and how the topic of race relations could not now be avoided because of the controversial statements (“God damn America”) by his long-time pastor, Jeremiah Wright. He said that Wright was wrong (hah) in many of his statements, but the Senator refused to reject the man:
As imperfect as he may be, he has been like family to me. He strengthened my faith, officiated my wedding, and baptized my children. Not once in my conversations with him have I heard him talk about any ethnic group in derogatory terms, or treat whites with whom he interacted with anything but courtesy and respect. He contains within him the contradictions – the good and the bad – of the community that he has served diligently for so many years.

I can no more disown him than I can disown the black community. I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother – a woman who helped raise me, a woman who sacrificed again and again for me, a woman who loves me as much as she loves anything in this world, but a woman who once confessed her fear of black men who passed by her on the street, and who on more than one occasion has uttered racial or ethnic stereotypes that made me cringe.

These people are a part of me. And they are a part of America, this country that I love.
We all have been there. In our work, homes, schools, and churches we live with the faults of other individuals, struggling with them, loving them, and refusing to abandon them (it’s hard for us perfect people, nicht wahr?). And as a lifelong Episcopalian, I certainly can identify with Senator Obama’s decision to continue his membership in his church despite profound disagreements with statements by its leadership.

On a regular basis we are treated to the spectacle of humiliated wives standing by wayward husbands who confess their misdeeds before the cameras. Don’t they have any self-respect, we ask? Why don’t they cut this guy loose and move on? But the easy choice---made easier because everyone would applaud it---is often not the right choice for their families.

Barack Obama has been criticized as being an empty suit who makes great speeches. But this is one speech where he decided against the easy path, refused to attack his opponents, and called us to join him in the next stage of the American experiment. I have immense respect for him. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Monday, March 17, 2008

Have We Got A Deal For You

Per James Lileks:
I’m worried less about a recession than inflation. I’m worried most about a recession, inflation AND a jolly round of trade wars, coupled with fragile banks, overcapacity, diminished consumer confidence and aggressive messianic collectivism. Something about that smells familiar. I love studying the thirties and forties, but not first hand.
During this campaign season the ghosts of past presidents loom, as the annoying baby boomers re-fight Vietnam, stagflation, and the Reagan tax cuts (thankfully, not Roe v. Wade, at least not yet). We've heard candidates compared laudingly or disparagingly to every President going back to Eisenhower, while the current incumbent has been called a latter-day Truman by his supporters and Herbert Hoover by his detractors.

Interestingly, no one has claimed the mantle of the greatest 20th century president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Is it because he is bane to conservatives and liberals alike by presiding over history's largest expansion of government and the last total war of unimaginable brutality? Or is it for trivial reasons like how a polio victim doesn't look good in a telegenic age or how we don't need to be reminded about Democratic ex-Governors of New York?

FDR made it acceptable to look to the government to solve our problems. As institutions look increasingly unstable, you can be sure that many will call for the public sector to take control over more aspects of our lives. Their mantra will be: yes, government can. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

And You Thought SOX Was Bad

The globally interconnected financial system has been referred to as a house of cards. Bear Stearns, the investment bank whose sudden and impending bankruptcy was threatening to crash the system (and whose chairman, Jimmy Cayne, is appropriately a nationally ranked bridge player), will be sold to JP Morgan Chase in a transaction backed by the Federal Reserve.
Bear Stearns Cos. agreed -- after prodding by the federal government -- to be sold to J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. for the fire-sale price of $2 a share in stock, or about $236 million. Bear Stearns had a stock-market value of about $3.5 billion as of Friday -- and was worth $20 billion in January 2007.
The diminution of Bear Stearns’ shareholder value by 99% (!!) over one year is Enron-like in rapidity. The subprime / foreclosure / credit crunch mess may ultimately include among its victims the accounting profession, which is suffering through its second debacle this decade.

Sarbanes-Oxley legislation was enacted at great expense to prevent more Enrons. More internal controls and stricter rules against off-balance sheet debt and profit recognition were put in place so that management couldn’t “cook the books”.

Yet Bear Stearns audited balance sheet of November 30, 2007 may as well be a work of fiction. $11.8 billion of book equity has melted to $236 million in a scant three months.

BSC's 10-K from (click image to enlarge)

One can understand the source of the accountants’ predicament—for example, fair value is a different measure in orderly versus fire-sale markets—and even sympathize, but I fear that the people and their representatives have stopped listening. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Palm Sunday, 2008

On Palm Sunday the Episcopal congregants roused themselves from their torpor and exited the church. Led by the cross, we marched around the block, commemorating the Lord’s entry into Jerusalem on a path strewn with palm leaves.

We listened to the story of Christ’s passion, how he was betrayed by those closest to him out of greed and fear. We felt his despair as he was abandoned by those he loved. And near the end of the play we joined with the crowd in yelling “Crucify him” and “Free Barabbas” in acknowledgment of our own sin and weakness.

This journey from triumph to tragedy and then to ultimate triumph is the best-known tale of Western civilization. On Palm Sunday we scarcely took notice of the clouds in the distance as we walked under the sunny skies, singing,
All glory, laud, and honor to thee, Redeemer King!
To whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring!

Friday, March 14, 2008

The War Within: Fear vs. Greed

This market is scary. 200-point swings in the Dow Jones Industrial Average are now commonplace, and Friday’s news that Bear Stearns, one of Wall Street’s “Big Five” investment banks, is in deep trouble has sent stocks into another tailspin. The announcement that JP Morgan Chase and the Federal Reserve have crafted a short-term rescue package doesn’t seem to have stanched the bleeding.

Tuesday’s injection of capital by the Federal Reserve triggered a 417-point rise in the Dow but has been forgotten as the index is now roughly where it was at the start of the week.

For businesses and individuals whose loans are coming up for renewal it’s an extremely nervous time. Even the healthiest companies use some debt to increase the rate of return to their shareholders. (If the business can borrow at 4% and invest at 8-10%, any CFO would have been derelict in his responsibility if he didn’t employ some leverage.) But some healthy ones are caught short by untimely maturities during a credit crunch.

Financial stocks are approaching the point where I can’t resist nibbling. For example, Citigroup (C), which I don’t currently own, is selling for less than $20 per share. Its dividend of $1.28 means that an investor could pocket over a 6% yield while waiting for the stock to recover. Even if the dividend is cut by a third to put the yield at 4%, that still beats the 10-year Treasury rate of 3.4%.

I don’t think we’ve hit bottom yet, so there’s not an immediate urgency to buy Citigroup, Bank of America, JP Morgan, or Wells Fargo. But don’t wait too long; run your numbers, then put in a good-till-canceled order with your broker and sleep well knowing that you’ve bought a company that's too big to fail at a price that will look cheap five years from now. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Opioids Made Me Do It

WSJ columnist Lee Gomes writes how we’re powerless to resist the lure of the web. Clicking through sights and sounds at broadband speed
triggers a chemical reaction that makes us feel good, which in turn causes us to seek out even more of it.
The culprits are “opioids”, the brain’s pleasure-enhancing neurotransmitters.

Science has given us greater understanding about our human drives. If 6th –century Pope Gregory had had such knowledge, he might well have listed an eighth deadly sin that would make us stray from the virtuous life. From my post of two years ago:
Modern affluence allows us to sate nearly every appetite. Most Americans live free from hunger, crippling disease, and premature death. But 21st century man craves even more. Our minds need to be perpetually entertained, an eighth sin that the ancients would have listed if they had round-the-clock cable with 500 channels. Universal wi-fi, blackberries and cell-phones, and portable audio, video, and game players have banished boredom forever. Stimulation is available 24/7; life has become Las Vegas.
But resistance is futile. The modern approach is to acknowledge our essential nature, not fight it. For those who want all-Internet-all-the-time, a lifetime supply of opioids can be had for a one-time cost of under $200. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

The Chumby

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Part of the Rise in the Cost of Living

Political news junkies were worried about how to keep themselves occupied during the six weeks between the Texas/Ohio and Pennsylvania primaries.

Thank you, Eliot Spitzer, for coming to the rescue.

The Wall Street Journal brings its business perspective to the unfolding story: ("How the New Rich Are Changing the Oldest Profession"):
the wealth boom — and the explosion in the number of multi-millionaires — has created entirely new pricing levels for escorts. According to the complaint, the Emperors Club escorts charged between $1,000 and $5,000 an hour, depending on their “rankings.” Clients could also pay between $25,000 and $50,000 for a three-day visit. It may be the world’s oldest profession: but the prices reflect the new realities of wealth.

The "S" Word

What New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer did in the privacy of his hotel room is likely not a crime. What will do him in is structuring:
Spitzer, who made his name by bringing high-profile cases against many of New York's financial giants, is likely to be prosecuted under a relatively obscure statute called "structuring," according to a Justice Department official. Structuring involves creating a series of financial movements designed to obscure the true purpose of the payments.
Structured finance and structured investment vehicles are also some of the principal causes of a global recession and capital market sell-off. (“Complex structured products….are at the heart of the ongoing credit crunch.”)

On my to-do list: deleting the word “structure” from my c.v.

No, Mr. Hiring Manager, I’m not really familiar with those fancy terms, I'm just a poor accountant struggling to keep debits on the left and credits on the right.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Should Be A Snap

After calling Hillary Clinton “a monster”,
Samantha Power, an unpaid foreign policy adviser and Harvard professor, announced her resignation in a statement provided by the Obama campaign in which she expressed "deep regret."
This most recent incident not only confirms the lack of discipline in the Obama campaign, it points to the inclination of the candidate to hire in his own image (academics, lawyers), a potential weakness that I’ve noted before.

Barack Obama’s supporters look like America—if skin color is the criterion. But beneath the skin---the relations between people, and attitudes toward work, God, and country---there are a lot of people who haven’t yet joined this piper’s parade.

Will Senator Obama hunker down and hit back against the Clinton attack machine or will he continue his “new politics” meme and remain above the fray? It’s a tough choice. On the other hand, this should be a snap for a guy who knew all along what to do about Iraq and terrorism. © 2008 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Secular Sabbath

We’ve been off-line for nearly 72 hours. Our three-year-old DSL modem/wireless router finally breathed its last. I wasn’t about to break out the old dial-up equipment and hook it up. You can’t plug a regular phone line into most of the devices anyway.

I called AT&T and ordered a replacement modem---actually an upgrade. One wonderful aspect of tech is that replacement equipment is always faster and more feature-packed, although not necessarily more reliable. The new modem will arrive on Wednesday.

The withdrawal from the wired-and-wireless world wasn’t pleasant. Our hands shook like Ray Milland’s in Lost Weekend. But the weather was nice. I grabbed a cup of coffee and went outside. People were talking and strolling. They didn’t care about the Texas or Ohio primaries, the gay-marriage case being heard by the California Supreme Court, the credit crunch, NAFTA, or even $100-a-barrel oil. And for a couple of days I didn’t care either.

(I may have involuntarily tapped into the zeitgeist. A NY Times reporter writes about the movement to unplug for one day a week, a “secular Sabbath.”) © 2008 Stephen Yuen