Friday, August 28, 2009

Hawaiian Eye for Fashion

My high school (and college) classmate models appropriate courtroom attire for attorneys in the Honolulu Advertiser.
"For getting acquainted with a jury, I would wear a more colorful suit, to be more approachable and keep them awake, and maybe a skirt rather than pants," [Louise] Ing said. "I view skirts as being more traditional and conventional for women."
She's obviously ready for our class reunion next June...

Ostrich Land, Buellton

Ostrich Land is one of those places that is visited once, but probably only once. Nestled between Buellton and Solvang on the Central Coast, the tourist attraction raises emus and ostriches for the amusement of sightseers. We paid $4 each for two adult admissions, $1 for a bowl of feed, and $8 for a few ounces of ostrich jerky (from Texas) that tasted like beef. These ostriches aren’t bred for their meat—I wouldn’t have objected because these creatures were far from adorable and certainly not endangered---but for eggs and zoos.

The gift shop items, as well as admission tickets to the pens, were overpriced, but the owners have my sympathy. There were only a couple of other patrons when we were there, and the enterprise has high fixed costs with acres of valuable California land devoted to nothing but raising ostriches and emus.

Yes, the property could have been acquired decades ago when land was cheap, but opportunity cost can be a powerful incentive to switch to other uses. We’ve witnessed the driving force of opportunity cost close to home when a venerable race track made way for condos, restaurants, shops, and offices---nothing special about those except their high prices. I hope Ostrich Land remains viable, but don’t bet on it. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

This Wicked Market

Finance prof Meir Stetman has some useful tips about the psychology of investing. A few examples that resonated with me:
Goldman Sachs is faster than you:…..individual investors should never enter a race against faster runners by trading frequently on every little bit of news (or rumors).

Hindsight error leads us to think that we could have seen in foresight what we see only in hindsight. And it makes us overconfident in our certainty about what's going to happen.

Stop focusing on blame and regret and yesterday and start thinking about today and tomorrow.

Wealth makes us happy, but wealth increases make us even happier.
Related to the last observation is that memories of recent successes are more powerful than those of distant debacles. I am feeling chipper because stocks have recovered sharply from the March abyss. For example, two stocks that I own, Apple and Google, have climbed 90% and 40%, respectively, over the past six months.

However, as of this writing, prices (AAPL - $169; GOOG - $471) are still below their levels of one year ago.

And they’re well off their all-time highs (AAPL - $199.83; GOOG – $741.79) in 2007, as are some of my other investments. Rationally, I should not be feeling happy about my portfolio, which was higher two years ago, but I am.

Abusers know that, by merely letting up on beatings and deprivation, prisoners will feel grateful and even pleased about their improved circumstances. Forgotten are the long stretches of anguish, pain, and despair. And so this wicked market lures me back in. © 2009 Stephen Yuen

Friday, August 21, 2009

Why Ivy

Why we prefer Presidents who graduate from Eastern colleges:
The only two presidents who received a full college education in the West were Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon.

Immigration ABC's

In a light piece on the 50th anniversary of Hawaii's statehood, ABC News leads with a mis-lead:
Had President Barack Obama been born two years earlier, his eligibility for the presidency may have been an actual problem for him.
The writer is attempting to grab attention by hinting that the relation of President Obama's birth year (1961) to Hawaii's admission year (1959) could have raised a consitutional issue about his eligibility to hold office. But as every kid born in 20th-century Hawaii has been told, we can grow up to be President. Per the Immigration and Nationality Act:
Sec. 305. [8 U.S.C. 1405] A person born in Hawaii on or after August 12, 1898, and before April 30, 1900, is declared to be a citizen of the United States as of April 30, 1900. A person born in Hawaii on or after April 30, 1900, is a citizen of the United States at birth. A person who was a citizen of the Republic of Hawaii on August 12, 1898, is declared to be a citizen of the United States as of April 30, 1900.
[While we're on the subject of mildly amusing asides, "ABC" is widely known in Asian immigration circles as "American Born Chinese", an acronym I first encountered in the 1970's.]

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Stimulus Response

This summer I've done my part to stimulate the economy. Car repairs, several vacations, and multiple electronics purchases all put a dent in my savings account, but as a previous President advised, going shopping is my patriotic duty.

[Digression: the ex-President was mocked for merely talking about shopping, while his successor is lauded for passing out rebates on cars. One ($400 billion deficit) was a moron for spending too much, while another ($1.6 trillion deficit) is a genius. Good thing I got my MBA when I did; I don't understand postmodern economics.]

Some merchants are demonstrating how desperate they are for business by offering payment terms of three years or longer with no interest. (Only sign these agreements, dear reader, if you're absolutely sure you won't miss a payment, because the interest clawbacks are usurious.) So I've taken the merchants up on their offer and opened new lines of credit.

The most irritating step in the process is the "card activation". I called a toll-free number and was shunted to a live person who tried to conceal her Indian accent while she pressed me to buy credit-card insurance for a mere $9.99 a month. What's the point of saving on interest if you just give it back in fees? No, no, and no, I responded to ever more insistent questions that she recited from a programmed manual. Finally she gives up, activates my credit, and asks if I have any questions. When you want a conversation to end, don't do anything to prolong it. No. But thanks for allowing me to buy my new flatscreen TV.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Bing Boosted

Microsoft's search engine, Bing, has gained market share against its rivals:
Microsoft's search engine — renamed Bing as part of a June overhaul — ended July with a 8.9 percent share in the United States, up from 8.4 percent in the previous month, according to comScore Inc. Just before Bing's debut, Microsoft's search market share stood at 8 percent.

Google retained a commanding U.S. lead at 64.7 percent through July, down from 65 percent in June, comScore said. Yahoo's market share dipped to 19.3 percent in July from 19.6 percent in June.
Bing's boost isn't surprising. When Microsoft helpfully suggested that I upgrade my browser to Internet Explorer 8, the default search engine turned into Bing. I've manually changed it back to Google on our three PC's, but many users will hardly notice and go along.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Too Cheap

Dell builds good, cheap desktop computers. The Dell Dimension 4550 that we bought in 2003 is still chugging along. After I doubled its RAM to a now-paltry maximum of 1GB [per manufacturer’s specs, though others say it can be pushed to 2 GB], the Dimension is too slow to play the newer videogames and edit movies but is fine for web-surfing. The older members of the household find it to be perfectly adequate for most of their ossified needs.

The Dell Vostro 400 acquired in 2007 is significantly faster at 2.2 Ghz. Complaints about its speed by the gameplayers in the household were studiously ignored. Eventually the gameplayers sprung for a graphics card that seemed to do the trick.

One thing bugs me about the newer computer, though, that makes me reluctant to buy another Dell. The company no longer provides CDs or DVDs of the pre-loaded software. Instead, there’s a recovery section on the hard disk that the user supposedly can access by pressing cntrl F11.

There’s enough crud (of the electronic kind) that accumulates on the hard disk and causes the machine to slow noticeably over time, as well as freeze and crash. I’ve found over the years that, if I take the time to delete the entire disk and re-install the programs and data, the computer runs much faster. Last year I spent hours trying to access the recovery partition in order to do a clean re-install. No luck, and phone calls and e-mails to Dell didn’t do the trick.

Last week Windows XP became corrupted and the Vostro wouldn’t boot up. I won’t bore you, dear reader, with my false starts and amateurish workaround attempts. Eventually I sprung for a fresh copy of XP from Amazon, and after about eight hours the computer was up and running like new. I would have saved days and dollars if Dell had sent me backup disks. Yes, Dell builds good, cheap desktop computers, but there’s such a thing as being too cheap.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Weary of Pizzazz

Although California is among the bluest of blue states (Obama over McCain 61%-37% in the 2008 general election), Republicans are harboring hopes for 2010. The Chronicle quotes George Will:
"Although California is a blue state, it has had Republican governors for 30 of the last 43 years," he wrote. "The Republican revival nationally might begin here next year."
It’s no big secret why some may feel this way. After the Inauguration our problems weren’t solved; in fact they’ve gotten worse. Unemployment is over 10%, $20+ billion in State budget deficits have necessitated visible cutbacks in services (government offices are closed on Fridays), and individuals have taken huge hits to their net worth in real estate and financial assets. (Admittedly, the stock market recovery since March has improved investors’ mood to sour from panicky fear).

Unlike the Federal government, California can’t print currency, so further government expansion as a solution to its problems has hit a brick wall. Meanwhile, the private sector is shrinking as higher taxes and regulations have caused businesses to flee the State.

The high hopes of last year’s young and inexperienced dreamers have been tempered, if not dashed, by the real world. More government hasn’t made things better, and the party most closely identified with big government is dominant today but extremely vulnerable if conditions don’t improve.

However, generic conditions aren’t everything, we live in a personality-driven world. My personal tweet-takes on the candidates:

Jerry Brown (D) – State AG, former Oakland Mayor. Linda Ronstadt,‘70s tenure as Governor “Moonbeam.” Jesuit training, Lawyer. 2 years younger than John McCain.

Tom Campbell (R) – Business school dean, former Representative, socially liberal, economic conservative.

Gavin Newsom (D) – San Francisco Mayor, handsome jet-setter, 1st marriage to celebrity reporter, 2nd marriage to billionaire’s daughter. Gay-marriage advocate.

Steve Poizner (R) - State Insurance Commissioner, billionaire high-tech entrepreneur.

Meg Whitman (R) – ex-CEO of eBay, billionaire.

Republicans Poizner and Whitman have had outstanding success in business but lack a well-developed public image. In 2010 this may be an advantage to an electorate weary of pizzazz and eager for a resume with results.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Points of the Triangle

Tigerhawk posts on the health-care debate:
Pick any two of widespread or universal coverage, lower or at least stable costs as a function of national income, and a wide-open system with plenty of capacity and rapid innovation. All three are not genuinely possible, at least not in this lifetime. If we want a diluted version of all three, we should concentrate on incremental improvements at the margin within our current system. There is much that could be done to save money without changing its essential character or returns to technological innovation, and we should do those things first.
The author is clearly referencing the project triangle, a simple and useful template for viewing many undertakings.

From Wikipedia.

My quick take on the points of the triangle vis-à-vis the nation’s health care system:

Good – check. America has a large chunk of the world’s best doctors and hospitals. We have available the latest medicine and equipment. Thanks to the Internet, we also have a (fairly) well-informed populace, which helps not only in the treatment of disease but also in the promotion of preventive care.

Fast – check. The development of emergency-room and trauma-center protocols has been remarkable. For non-life-threatening conditions there can be delays of several months. For diagnostic tests (e.g., mammograms, colonoscopies) whose urgency is open to question, it has been our experience that doctors display good judgment in determining from other risk factors whether a patient should be moved up in the queue. But that’s just us.

Cheap – Are you kidding? In 2007 “total [health care] spending was $2.4 TRILLION in 2007, or $7900 per person. Total health care spending represented 17 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).”

[note: above link to quote has vanished. Here's a link to updated statistics in 2011: "Total health expenditures on healthcare in the US reached $2.6 trillion as it grew 3.8% in 2009 and 3.9% in 2010."]

The majority of Americans have the majority of their health care expense paid for by their employers or the government. Most know that the current system is certainly not cheap, but, because of this cost-shifting (itself the source of additional waste), do not view health care as budget-bustingly expensive either.

However, for those who are not covered by insurance, a health event can be financially disastrous. To prevent such ruin to a minority of the population (that admittedly runs into the millions), we are proposing to re-make how we pay for health care from head to toe. The worry is that, if the government has too big a role in paying for health care, it could wreck the fast and good system that we do have, jeopardizing all.

Better to take incremental steps, such as handing out vouchers to people who can't afford health insurance and regulating more heavily (I grit my teeth to say this) the insurance companies to require them not to take into account pre-existing conditions when pricing their policies.

I know doctors who have long since passed the threshold of working out of financial necessity; they enjoy their work, take losses on Medicare and Medi-cal patients, and turn a profit because of higher private-insurance payments. If a single-payer system forces them into a loss position, many who can afford to will hang it up. And we’ll all be stuck in a system that will be less fast, less good, and still not cheap.

© 2009 Stephen Yuen

Friday, August 07, 2009

The Loveliness of Paris Streets

The compleat cyclist has 9 cameras, GPS, a computer, and a generator.

For those whom hard times make the prospects of a European trip remote, Google has begun extending its "Street View" to Paris and other European cities. For those who are fortunate to make the trip, turn off Maps and GPS. One of the joys of traveling to Paris is getting lost and dallying at a little cafe or museum not in the guidebooks. Progress isn't always progress.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Caltrain: Not What They Envisioned

Bay Meadows race track, next to Hillsdale station, has been torn down. New shops, residences, and offices will add hundreds to ridership.

Everyone I know who tries Caltrain likes the experience. The camaraderie with conductors and fellow passengers, the clacking of the wheels and tooting of the whistle, the luxury of snacking, dozing off, and feeling superior to drivers stuck on Highway 101, and the self-satisfaction from reducing one’s carbon footprint all contribute to the pleasure of commuting by train.

Satisfaction turns to horror about once a month when a train strikes a person or vehicle. And it’s even more tragic because many deaths are not accidental:
Caltrain had more suicides in 2008 — 12 — than any year in its history. From the launch of Caltrain in 1992 through 2008, 62 percent of the railroad's deaths were ruled to be suicides.
As a rider of twenty years, I’ve ridden on a train that struck an empty bus—no one was hurt—and another that killed someone. It makes little difference whether one is on the incident train or one following behind; one’s schedule is disrupted for a good part of the day.

When an accident happens, service up and down the line is halted for at least an hour. Many commuters have learned to adapt, but I’ve observed a decrease in the number of younger people whose jobs absolutely require them to start at a fixed time. Professionals and executives have colleagues or subordinates who can cover for them; junior workers who are trying to establish a reputation for reliability do not have such flexibility.

Caltrain suicides are especially difficult on the engineers and conductors, the former because they know they can’t stop 80-MPH tons of steel in time, and the latter who are first on the scene to assess the damage to flesh and bone. It’s a regular part of the job but surely not what they envisioned when they signed up. This year I’m making an extra effort to smile and engage the conductors in conversation (only if it appears they might welcome it, of course). © 2009 Stephen Yuen