Friday, July 31, 2009

Creating Tomorrow's Leaders

There are endless debates over which institutions belong in the top-ten or top-twenty list of colleges and universities. But there's only one criterion that matters: who do the best of the best want to mate with? With each other, of course.

The Ivy Connection is "a speed dating service only open to graduates of top universities." You make the grade if you're a graduate of these "Ivy plus" institutions:

Brown
Columbia
Cornell
Dartmouth
Harvard
Princeton
University of Pennsylvania
Yale
California Institute of Technology
Duke
Johns Hopkins
MIT
Northwestern
Stanford University
University of Chicago
Washington University in St. Louis

The Ivy Connection recently added:

UC Berkeley
Carnegie Mellon
NYU
Boston College
University of Notre Dame
Georgetown
UCLA

I realize times are tough, but UCLA? Once you cheapen your brand, you never get it back.

[OK, kidding, kidding.]

"Trauma" Makes It Nice

We’ve got to wait till September to see whether NBC’s new paramedic series, Trauma, will be a hit, but it’s already providing a much-needed boost to the San Francisco economy.
Penned by Dario Scardapane, the pilot is estimated to spend $7 million in San Francisco through the hiring of local crew, payment of local taxes, city services, and the patronage of local business.
The show will be expensive to produce. There will be lots of on-location filming, explosions, and action to watch on our new HD flatscreens (no, we haven’t bought one yet).

It doesn’t look like they’re too careful about watching their pennies: Justin Herman Plaza has been rented for the week for what can’t be more than a few minutes of air time. It must be nice to have a fat budget.

Why all the effort to put the injured in a rotor-less copter?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jerking My Chain

I've made a political contribution only once--it was to a Republican candidate, and he lost--and I've regretted it. No, not the expenditure but the after-effects.

Every day I've been on the receiving end of junk mail, e-mail, and fundraising phone calls. Today's e-mail subject line was: "ObamaCare Equals Government Funded Euthanasia." I suppose I can see the chain of logic that gets you to that conclusion, but c'mon guys, tone it down and quit jerking my chain.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Toxic Waste Disposal in San Mateo County

The weekend handyman begins projects and, if he’s successful, finishes half of them. Whatever his completion rate, one consequence is the steady accumulation of containers of toxic chemicals, many with unreadable labels. After years of procrastination I went through the garage and storage areas on the side of the house and filled three boxes. Now, the hard part: where do I take them and how much will it cost?

The county website wasn’t very user-friendly; it appeared that different materials had to be trucked to different locations. Figuring out how to do the right thing was above my pay grade, so I called the number (650-363-4718) and left my callback information. Although the voice on the machine didn’t ask for it, I also left my e-mail address. Three days later an appointment arrived in my AOL inbox: 11:45 on Saturday at 32 Tower Road, San Mateo.

I placed partially consumed cans of latex paint, solvents, cleaners, pesticides, sealers, stains, and herbicide in the van. It still wasn’t certain which items they’d take, but this was one project that would be seen through. I was determined make more appointments at different addresses until the van was emptied.

It was a 15-minute drive to 32 Tower Road, in the hills close to the intersection of Highways 280 and 92. Various San Mateo County buildings were also there, constructed before expensive homes were built nearby. Well, those homeowners knew the neighborhood they were buying into.

The workers were dressed from head to toe in white, protected by goggles and gloves. After verifying my appointment, they took every bit of the trash. I offered to help. No, sir, do not step out of the van. Lawyers govern everything we do.

I was pleased with how it all worked out. Not only did I not have to make a trip to another disposal site, the cost was zero. Despite budget cuts and the expense of running the facility, that the service would be free (to residents, not businesses) should have been obvious; the county wants to minimize the temptation to dump toxics in the sewer. Lawyers and economists govern everything we do. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

32 Tower Road

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Palpable Disdain

Let’s put aside the questions over whether a new national health care plan constitutes “socialism”, whether it will reduce or raise costs, or whether it will stifle innovation. These are all important issues, but I have another concern that is more mundane. Will this new government program work? On the basis of the government’s performance in other areas, no, it won’t….at least not for a long time.

Iraq: The 2003 invasion of Iraq took over a year to plan. Nevertheless, by 2007 it looked like the whole enterprise was going to be a dismal failure. Though military leadership and political courage turned the campaign around, the difficulties and delays make the Iraq war successful only under the rosiest of interpretations.

TARP: The Troubled Asset Release Program allows the Treasury to purchase up to $700 billion of hard-to-sell assets from banks so that banks can continue lending. Although there is only sketchy reporting of how the funds have actually been spent, it is clear that much has been misdirected:
Many U.S. banks that got federal bailout money misused it, a special inspector general overseeing the government's financial rescue program said Monday.

While most of the 360 banks surveyed said the Troubled Asset Relief Program money they got from Washington helped them make loans or avoid a drop in lending, 40 percent said they also used the money to shore up their capital to protect against losses, Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general, said in a report. However, TARP does not allow banks to recoup losses already incurred on troubled assets.
Cash-for-clunkers: the $1 billion program (CARS) to jump-start auto sales and retire older high-mileage vehicles was supposed to start on July 1st. However, procedures were only released yesterday, July 24th.

I wonder how many months we’ll have to wait after its signing to find out how the vastly more complex and costly health plan will work. The uncertainty and confusion will freeze a large sector of our economy as we try to recover from a deep recession. Only a political class that has never had to manage a new-product introduction and lazily leaves the details to be sorted out later could show such palpable disdain for those whom they purportedly serve. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Friday, July 24, 2009

Caring, Justice, and Morality

The minimum wage goes up by 70 cents to $7.25 per hour today.

Tyler Cowen points out the benefit to employers for supporting an increase to the minimum wage though these same employers may already pay (well) above the minimum wage. And it’s not just the good publicity.
Note that I don't think that these employers are being dishonest in their support for "social justice" but I do think that it's easy to be in favor of the minimum wage when it doesn't cost you anything.

Indeed, these employers will benefit from an increase in the minimum wage because it will raise the costs of their rivals. This is why unions have typically been in favor of the minimum wage even when their own workers make much more than the minimum.
Good publicity, feeling good about yourself, and hurting your competitors. What’s not to like? I’d do the same thing if I were a businessman in that position. Yet it’s been known for decades that raising the minimum wage by fiat reduces the demand for labor, hence raising unemployment, especially among lower-skilled teenagers. This is yet another example of how individual actors will advocate their own best interest and reduce overall societal welfare.

I daresay we’ll see the same behavior and motivations manifested in the coming expansion of health care. Large employers, the vast majority of whom provide health care insurance for their employees, will support a mandatory health insurance or penalty tax on their competitors who don’t provide it. But the language will be all about caring, justice, and morality.

Monday, July 20, 2009

A Performance for the Ages

Unlike basketball and football, golf doesn't require one to be young to be played well. What Tom Watson did last week, however, was extraordinary. By finishing the British Open tied for first, he performed at the highest level of his profession over four days. Speaking as one who feels tired after 18 holes of casual golf, I can only have an inkling of the physical and mental demands that professional golf places on the 59-year-old Watson’s body.

Much has been made of his missed chances to make par and win the tournament on the final hole. I think it was his mind and body finally saying “no more”, evidenced by his painful bogey-filled performance during the four playoff holes. Chuck Culpepper of the LA Times writes:
From the man to watch across four days of 60-foot birdies and precise swings and savvy management, Watson became unwatchable in the playoff as his body went drained and his shots went awry. [snip] Surely, though, golf's ultimate turn of viciousness had to be that it took Watson, after four days of energy and vitality from one just seven weeks shy of 60, and then it left him out there for four last holes through which he suddenly looked absolutely 59 and completely sapped.
Falling just short showed Tom Watson to be mortal, not Superman. In a sense that cast into relief just how extraordinary his performance was.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Cellphone Purchase Blocker

My AT&T Cingular bill was $10 higher, so I flipped through the 13 pages looking for any unfamiliar items. A text-messaging-advice subscription had been added without my knowledge. Customer service representative Jason Orlando immediately reversed the charge and cancelled the subscription.

Jason said that these companies sneakily add charges to your bill by getting you to reply to a text message, to download a "free" ringtone, or by using other subterfuges.

At my request he e-mailed a "purchase blocker", which requires the user to input a four-digit PIN before a purchase can be made. This PIN does not change the way I buy iPhone apps.

Sigh, another four numbers to remember or write down, but I suppose the hassle is worth the benefit of preventing more companies from reaching into my wallet.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Landmark Quotation

Perhaps the most famous quote to come out of the Vietnam War was “we had to destroy the village in order to save it". These few darkly comic words captured the absurdity of the position in which the United States found itself in 1968. America’s intentions—to stop the spread of communism and to confer the blessings of democracy on the Vietnamese people—were noble, but as it poured ever more lives and treasure into Vietnam, these goals seemed not only elusive but impossible. The only way to win in Vietnam was to destroy it.

With the carnage headlining the nightly news in 1968 CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America,” turned against the war. Although there were many battles and deaths to come, we didn’t know it at the time but the war was lost. But enough reminiscing.

The landmark quotation that defines this era may have been spoken by none other than Joseph Biden:
We have to go spend money to keep from going bankrupt.
Walter Cronkite has yet to weigh in.

[Update - 5/17/09: Walter Cronkite has died. The above post is in bad taste post facto. I apologize. Thank you, Walter. Many tried to fill your shoes, but no one did. Pax.]

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Barack at the Ballpark

The right-leaning blogosphere has spent the better part of the morning dissecting the President's appearance at the All-Star game. Personally, I thought that his easygoing conversation with broadcasters McCarver and Buck in the bottom half of the second inning showed him to be the archetypical regular guy whom I wouldn't mind having a beer with. The good-natured bantering about his White Sox jacket and bailing out baseball (BHO: "We're out of money.") showed the unscripted and unteleprompted President that I'd like to see more of.

Rush Limbaugh riffed on why President Obama really wore the White Sox jacket (to provide a ready explanation for the boos from the St. Louis crowd) and how he threw the first pitch "like a girl". Judge for yourself:



There's been some pushback from Obama defenders and even some conservatives that the focus on the President's pitching motion is silly. On the surface, of course, they're right, but not when viewed in the multi-year battle to take back the White House. Even when President Bush was at the height of his popularity, his mangled syntax, physical stumbles, and facial expressions were derided daily by comedians. Over eight years the regular mockery, combined with incessant media criticism and substantive failures, to be sure, made most people sick of him.

Republicans are at a disadvantage because the leading comedians are overwhelmingly liberal. David Letterman, Stephen Colbert, and Jon Stewart still choose to joke about Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney's miscues but largely ignore the rich lode of material produced daily by this Administration. It will be interesting to see whether the comics and their writers can continue to hold their fire for four years and stifle themselves, to use Archie Bunker's phrase. Rush continues to poke and prod, and who knows but that he may eventually get lucky and cause the comedic dam to burst. If it does happen, it could happen quickly. Then Barack will be nostalgic for this July day at the ballpark.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Something Important That's Done Well

It’s much easier to criticize than to create, especially when the topic is government. With government-provided services we can’t buy an alternative (police, firefighting) or can only obtain a substitute expensively (private education). If we’re unhappy about the state of affairs, we have to wait years to express our displeasure at the ballot box. People of all political persuasions know the feeling of being stuck and frustrated. That’s why it’s important to recognize government agencies when they do perform well, if only not to sour us on the whole enterprise.

Thanks to the visionary engineers of the 20th century and the ongoing management of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, many Bay Area residents are blessed with some of the best drinking water in the nation. From the 2008 report on water quality:
The sources of drinking water (both tap water and bottled water) include rivers, lakes, streams, ponds, reservoirs, springs, and wells. For the SFPUC systems, the major water source originates from spring snowmelt flowing down the Tuolumne River to the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, where it is stored. This pristine water source is located in the well-protected Sierra region and meets all federal and state criteria for watershed protection. Based on the SFPUC’s disinfection treatment practice, extensive bacteriological-quality monitoring, and high operational standards, the State has granted the Hetch Hetchy water source a filtration exemption. In other words, the source is so clean and protected that the SFPUC is not required to filter water from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.
84% of the tap water for our town of Foster City comes from the Hetch Hetchy. Clean running water adds immeasurably to the quality of our lives, yet it's easy to take for granted. Here’s one taxpayer who doesn’t. Salud!

The Devil We Know

Conor Friedersdorf lists three reasons to fix the problems in the health care system and three major concerns about the legislation being proposed to fix it.
I am convinced of the need for major reform in the health care sector, especially due to three arguments.

a) The current system is an economic drag insofar as it ties people to jobs they'd otherwise leave, discourages entrepreneurship, and otherwise lessens healthy risk-taking because people fear losing their insurance.

b) There is a moral obligation to ensure that every citizen has some minimum level of health care, in the same way that society has decided everyone should have some baseline level of food. I find it difficult to pinpoint what level exactly, but I suspect we're currently falling short of it.

c) I suspect the government can play a useful role pushing measures like electronic medical records that I doubt would happen absent a state coordinating role (including privacy protection measures). I'd be curious to hear the best arguments against those propositions.

I am skeptical that I'll be able to support the plan progressives intend to put forth. This is due to three concerns.

a) Its cost. I'd bet a hefty sum that expanding coverage and the role the federal government plays in health care is going to significantly increase rather than decrease costs. Since we're already paying for costly foreign wars, generations of accumulated debt, a massive bailout, and other entitlements with rapidly rising costs, it doesn't seem like we're in a fiscal position to pile on more government spending.

b) Fear of excessive state power. It shouldn't be too difficult to imagine another Dick Cheney or Richard Nixon in the White House. Are we really comfortable assuming that the state will never use its role in health care to pressure political opponents, or collect frightening kinds of data, or politicize medical decisions more than is now the case? Isn't there any size and scope of government that progressives deem to be too big on prudential grounds? Why doesn't this put us there? Isn't it better for one among many health insurance companies to deny coverage, compared to one government run entity deeming something uncovered, as could happen if a public option drove some or most insurers out of the market? Health care is really important. Isn't it unwise to concentrate too much power over it in any one place, the federal government included?

c) Fear of lost innovation. I keep seeing the argument that America is the leading health care innovator, and that if our system looks more like what Europe has, there won't be anyone left making strides in research and development. I haven't seen a convincing rebuttal, though there may well be one. Links?
I agree with both principal points: the current system is deeply flawed, yet, based on the government's recent performance in the comparatively simpler task of reviving the economy, have no confidence that the cure will be better than the disease.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Give Me My Medicine

Medical science is advancing so quickly that it’s hard to keep abreast of developments.

In the U.K. the National Health Service recommends daily orgasms for teen health.

Swearing reduces pain.

Drinking alcohol can ward off dementia as well as heart disease.

President Obama’s health plan is having trouble getting through Congress. What’s the problem? If the plan will pay for our booze and sex and give us a cussing discount, the American people, including and especially Republicans, will support it overwhelmingly.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Shots Not Fired

It’s a sign of our over-protective and over-litigious times that my doctor now makes me pack an EpiPen®, an epinephrine injector that will open up the airways in the improbable circumstance that I go into anaphylactic shock. For years I have been taking immunotherapy injections for hay fever, and I wait in the office for 20 minutes to ensure that I don't experience a severe allergic reaction.

Twice in 15 years I've had severe itchiness and swelling after a shot, which manifested within 5 minutes of receiving the injection. In both instances the nurse immediately administered epinephrine that reversed the symptoms. The EpiPen I must now carry is to guard against a delayed reaction that has never happened before. Another medical expense ($50 is my co-pay portion), and another device to schlep around.

I asked if I could carry around a spare EpiPen that was ordered for another member of our family. No, we can't do that, and so our medical bills climb. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Injectors expire after 18 months and must be returned to the doctor for disposal (sharp needles and medication).

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Triumph of the Small

Technologists have predicted that the digitizing and globalization of information (digital convergence) meant that the tech / media wars were going to be fought over who dominates the living room TV (no, not the guy with the remote control but who presents him with his choices). It turns out that the battlespace may be over what goes into the front pocket of our jeans. iPhone users self-reported changes in their own behavior:
The more time iPhone users spend with their apps, the less time they spend watching TV, reading newspapers, using PCs and pretty much everything else.
TV’s are getting bigger, more beautiful, and cheaper. Today we are watching the big flatscreens, but in ten years maybe the living room will be library quiet as we each gently tap on our personal computing and communications devices.

Tsukiji at Ala Moana Center

I hardly ever go to buffet restaurants anymore. They’re bad for both waistline and pocketbook and bring out my worst instincts, as I’ve noted before.

On my last day in Hawaii, however, I was invited to Tsukiji at Ala Moana. Someone else was paying, and it would be impolite to refuse an invitation.

I did well by bellying up to the bar only three times. The first time up I went for a cold plate of sushi, shellfish, and salad. The second round, not eaten with as much gusto as the first, was devoted to hot dishes of seafood, chicken, and beef. And the third, well, what would be a fine meal without dessert?

Tsukiji is a worthy addition to Hawaii’s growing list of upper-end all-you-can-eat restaurants. Its selections are not as extensive as Todai’s, but the quality is similar. The raw fish was fresh and moist, and hot dishes are rich, flavorful, and not overcooked. The quantity and variety were enough to sate the heartiest appetite.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

Jackopalooza

It’s Jackopalooza at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The media wail-fest reaches its apex today at the Michael Jackson memorial service.

When an extraordinary artist passes from the scene, there is sorrow because we know that we’ll never see its like again. Even if he had lived, however, we had already seen Michael Jackson’s best moments. His personal demons had dissipated his talent, and MJ-in-his-fifties did not promise to be fabulous.

Despite love, adulation, riches, talent, and fame, Michael Jackson’s life did not appear to have many happy moments. His music brought joy to millions but only infrequently to himself. And for that I am sad.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Your Diet's Not Good Here

Most people would eat lightly after stuffing themselves the night before, but not me. Until this month I hadn't traveled to the Islands for three years. I had a pent-up craving for plate lunches and other 2,000-plus calorie meals.

It was pot luck at the old homestead. Having a large family meant that there would be plenty of food (if six guests each bring two dishes that will serve 20, well, do the math).

Clockwise from top left: haupia (coconut pudding), chicken with long rice, kalua pork, poi, three kinds of poke(octopus, crab, tuna), lomi salmon.

After dinner my nephew from Seattle passed out samples of home-made brew. The beer was (surprisingly) smooth. So he did pick up some skills while attending U-dub.

Waiola Shave IceBut there was still something missing. My younger brother and his lady friend, both living in California, had the answer. It was only a 15-minute stroll from the house to Waiola Shave Ice. WSI shaves the ice the way the natives like it---fine white flakes and not the coarse granules of the hideous snow cones served on the Mainland. Say what you will about him; the President has good taste.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Foster City Fireworks - July 4, 2009

The last 50 seconds of fireworks as seen from the Beach Park Bridge.

America: The Post-Independence Era

Lenders are not sentimental. They can’t afford to be, not if they want their money back. They look at the borrower’s collateral, how much cash flow exceeds debt service, history of living up to his promises, and many other factors. When the borrower starts talking about how some new, unproven schemes are going to (eventually) enable the loan to be repaid, the alarm bells go off. The borrower may think he’s instilling confidence, but lenders start holding back (not all at once because they have to protect their investment), all the while smiling and nodding.

China repeated its call that international trade be conducted with a new currency to replace the dollar. Dollars are obligations of the U.S. government, and China, the biggest holder of dollars, is signaling that future funds will not be advanced so readily.
In its annual financial stability report issued on Friday, China's central bank once again declared there were serious problems with the global monetary system's reliance on a single dominant currency - the dollar. An estimated 65 percent to 70 percent of China's $2 trillion in foreign exchange reserves, the world's largest stockpile, is held in dollar-denominated assets.

The People's Bank of China also warned the United States on Friday about its very expansionary monetary and fiscal policies.
India, too, holds hundreds of billions of dollars and has joined the cautionary chorus questioning the financial strength of the United States and its currency.

President Obama's supporters promised that he "ha[d] a comprehensive plan to put America back on its feet and restore our nation’s reputation." If this is the plan, it’s not working. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

The Enervation Bill

In other news China is unhappy about the energy bill just passed by the House. The bill will impose a U.S. tariff on Chinese imports because China does not limit greenhouse gas emissions. A secondary objection is that U.S. products, which will be subject to carbon taxes, will now be even more expensive to foreigners and lead to a bigger current account deficit, further weakness in the dollar, and degradation of China’s investment in U.S. Treasuries and other financial assets.

Of course, these economic issues are relatively unimportant and the energy bill is very important if all of the following propositions are true:

Rapidly Rising Temperatures: global temperatures will continue to increase, resulting in catastrophic changes (desertification, rising seas) that will occur “soon” (meaning, say, in 10 to 20, but not 100 years).

Greenhouse Gases are the Principal Cause: carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases are the most important causes (as opposed to sunspot activity or volcanoes, for example) of the temperature increase.

Efficacy of the Energy Bill: the bill that Congress will enact will be effective in limiting the production of greenhouse gases.

For what it’s worth, this humble observer---who freely admits that he is not a scientist and has no expertise in this area---doesn’t believe that the combined probability of all of the above is greater than 50% (for example, .9 x .8 x .6 = .432). This energy bill is likely to wreck our economy further based on an unconvincing chain of logic.

Also, it doesn’t help our standing with our lenders (see post above) to see that we’re engaged in such magical thinking. When religion spills over into business, investors grip their wallets more tightly. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, July 04, 2009

The Genius Cluster

Peggy Noonan recounts a conversation she had with historian David McCullough:
We chatted for a moment, and I asked him how he accounted in his imagination for the amazing fact of the genius cluster that founded our nation. How did so many gifted men, true geniuses, walk into history at the same time, in the same place, and come together to pursue so brilliantly a common endeavor? "I think it was providential," he said, simply.

Well, so do I. If you do too, it's part of what you're celebrating today.
It seems timely to repeat a familiar quote, purportedly by Bismarck: "God has a special providence for fools, drunks, and the United States of America."

Happy Independence Day!