Friday, December 31, 2010


They dangled the bait before me, and I took it.

Yesterday I went down to my friendly neighborhood stockbroker and converted some of the money in my regular IRA to a Roth IRA. Withdrawals from the former are included in taxable income, while Roth distributions are completely tax-free. Converting part or all of a regular IRA to a Roth counts as a taxable distribution, so during those few minutes I increased our 2010 tax bill by thousands of dollars. I won’t reap the benefit, if any, for many years.

A Roth conversion is a complex financial decision:
How much you gain from converting depends on your own economic situation, when you take Social Security, whether tax rates are increased, the general pattern of your marginal tax rates, and your ability to alter your future tax rates.
I executed the Roth conversion because of optimism. I’m hopeful that my fund and stock investments will increase by a lot (in the financial dictionary that's more than a smidgeon) and that my tax bracket, even in retirement, will be high for the “good” reason that high income would push me into a high tax bracket. [The “bad” reason would be that tax rates would go up on the same income brackets due to the government’s fiscal problems. Of course, if the situation became really dire, then the Roth distributions might be (double) taxed, and conversions in retrospect would appear dumb.]

Like I said, I’m an optimist. Happy New Year!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Merry Christmas

John Lennon famously stated that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Time has softened the edges of that pronouncement, and what seemed to be inflammatory now barely provokes. But was it true?

Playing with our new toy, Google's Ngram viewer, we find that it's no contest. Jesus wins hands down; references to Him far outstrip those to the Beatles, even in 1966 when John Lennon made the statement. Sorry about that, John.

Jesus is adapting just fine to the age of the Internet. Below is the digital story of the Nativity, which as of this writing has had over six million views. It's good for a chuckle.

Merry Christmas!

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Day Before

Wednesday I was bedridden. Yesterday I was able to move about, and this morning I'm almost back to normal. By tomorrow I should be ready to go to the morning service, which probably won't be crowded.

Most of the kids will participate in today's 4 p.m. Christmas Eve pageant, while the majority of the adults will attend the late-night service. (By fulfilling their religious obligation on Christmas Eve people will leave Christmas Day open for family, food, and fun.) Whether due to luck or prescience, I'm glad I signed up to usher tomorrow and not tonight.

So I probably just had a cold virus and not an infection. It's amazing how commonplace medical knowledge dwarfs what a trained physician knew 150 years ago. In 1860 bacteria had been discovered but were not thought to be a cause of disease, and viruses were completely unknown.

Speaking of the knowledge explosion, Google's new Ngram viewer permits us to chart word usage over time. Here are "bacteria" and "virus" from 1860 to 2000.

Ngram, like most things on the Internet, is both tool and time-waster. 2000 years ago Christians believe that man triumphed over death. At the beginning of the 21st century he has triumphed over boredom. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


In keeping with the season of resolutions here's another article on how to keep moving forward toward one's goals. The (familiar) tips that this reader gleaned from the WSJ column are:

1) Make a plan that consists of incremental steps toward the major goal.

2) Envision success and failure (e.g., how good you will look if you lost weight or how poorly if you gained weight instead).

3) Accountability to others helps discipline.

4) Give yourself a reward for success.

I've resolved (is that a meta-resolution?) to try some of these next year.

One of the commenters to the article wrote:
To follow through consistently, we have [to] acknowledge that willpower is apt to fail us, and we need to learn how to cleverly design and put ourselves into situations that "force" us to actually do whatever we intelligently decide we should do.
That is good advice. Signing up for music instruction forced me to practice before each lesson. Upping my 401(k) withholding percentage forced me to save for retirement. Happiness is achieved not by being free but by wisely choosing the shackles to which we are bound.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Men Who Stare At Goats

I'm thinking of scaling back our Netflix subscription. Rental DVD envelopes sit unopened for months, but we do use Netflix instant viewing (wi-fi or data connection required, but we pay for those already) on our iPads, TVs, and laptops. We would save $12 per month if we switched to streaming-only service. Streaming has proved fairly reliable even with our comparatively slow DSL connection; the Internet hasn't lately stuttered or stopped.

Why don't we watch more DVDs? The monkey mind hesitates to commit to a show for two uninterrupted hours. The monkey mind would rather flit back and forth between saved shows on the DVR, hundreds of live channels, and the Netflix instant queue.

Before making the switch I've resolved to make some headway on the DVD pile. I paid for the service, and by golly I'm going to get my money's worth. (Why don't I feel that way about my sparsely used gym membership? 'Tis a wonder.)

One movie that I liked was 2009's The Men Who Stare At Goats. It's a fictionalized version of the book about the U.S. Government's forays into psychic warfare. The big name actors--George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges, and Ewan McGregor--are able to resist mugging for the camera while spouting preposterous lines.

Ewan McGregor is the reporter outsider who gradually discovers the secrets of the highly classified government program while George Clooney plays his guide. In order to wage psychic warfare one has to have the mind of a Jedi, says the Clooney character. It took me a while to move past the joke (Ewan McGregor plays Obi-Wan Kenobi in three Star Wars movies) that is repeated several times but eventually found enough in the movie to like. Mildly recommended.

Saturday, December 18, 2010


Billionaires’ traits run the gamut: the world’s richest can be young, philanthropic, corrupt, ostentatious, and/or self-effacing. Perhaps the only thing they have in common with each other, besides their wealth, is that they are different from you and me.

One billionaire’s neighborhood Christmas-light show demonstrates just how different (sorry, iPhone and iPad users, it's in Flash):

Once we get past the reflexive criticisms—the energy consumption, think of all the sick and starving who could have been helped, and the usual clincher “what would poor Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus say?”—there’s a lot to like: 1) The show is seasonal, not a lasting monument to the billionaire's munificence and magnificence; 2) in a down economy it gives employment to people who can use the work; 3) it’s beautiful (remember to get past the reflexive criticisms).

One cannot be sure about motivations, but the display does appear to be a gift with no strings. Yes, there are “better” ways he could have spent his money but there are worse ones, too.

So accept it, say thanks, and enjoy.

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Right and Painful Thing

It’s a widely held belief that the people who were bilked by Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme lost everything. Thanks to the widow of an early Madoff investor, a sizeable chunk of the lost $20 billion will be returned to the victims.
The estate of Jeffry Picower, a major investor in Bernard Madoff's Ponzi scheme, has agreed to repay $7.2 billion to victims of the fraud in a settlement with the trustee overseeing the investment firm's bankruptcy and federal prosecutors in Manhattan, according to people familiar with the situation.
With such a large sum at stake, Mrs. Barbara Picower could have stalled this case for a long time. Given the fungibility of money and the length of their association with Bernard Madoff, an attempt to trace what part of the Picower estate was the fruit of the poisoned tree would have taken years. However, she quickly agreed to restitution.
"The trustee as a result of today's settlement will be in a position to make a distribution of approximately 50% of the estimated allowed claims in the liquidation proceeding," said David Sheehan, Mr. Picard's counsel. "Mrs. Picower is to be commended for coming forward and returning every cent she received from [Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities] to the trustee and the U.S. attorney."
The 2009 Forbes 400 list pulls a number out of the air--$1 billion—as the estimate of the late Jeffry Picower’s wealth. It was obviously well below the actual number. Nevertheless, $7.2 billion had to represent the bulk of the Picower estate.

It’s convenient to say that when we become rich we will do the right thing, but somehow many people never do. Wealthy people’s lifestyles, social standing, and identities become tied up with their net worth. Signing away 70-90% of that net worth likely was difficult for Mrs. Picower, but it renews our hope in humanity to witness someone rich and powerful doing the right and painful thing. © 2010 Stephen Yuen


I like to think that age confers not only wisdom but morality--as the appointment with one’s maker nears, morality starts winning (e.g., the Picower settlement) in the conflict between God and Mammon. It’s logical to believe that old people care less about the world and think more about eternity. But that would be wrong.

Another of my cherished myths has been exploded, and not just by elderly Ponzi schemer Bernard Madoff.
A grim category of crime is on the rise: senior-on-senior financial fraud [bold added]. According to regulators and prosecutors, there has been a significant increase recently in the number of cases in which older investors have been taken advantage of by elderly scam artists.
Seniors are easy prey.
Elderly investors are natural targets in part because they may be more susceptible to fraud. A 2008 study by researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology found that older adults are significantly worse than younger people at detecting whether someone who may have stolen money is telling the truth.

What's more, according to research by Harvard University economist David Laibson and his colleagues, the typical person's ability to make astute financial decisions peaks at about age 53, then wanes with each passing year; another study found that investing ability takes a steep drop after age 70.
Adding to elders’ vulnerability are the declining size and geographic dispersion of their families.

It’s in everyone’s interest (but the crooks’) to get not only their estates in order but also make arrangements such as powers of attorney and conservatorships to help wall off the thieves. But that involves money, time, planning, and perhaps, most difficult of all, frank communication between people who may not have been talking much.

It’s too easy to put this stuff off until the appointment day, when it’s too late. There may not be much stuff left. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Paying for Indecision

The Wall Street Journal highlights a phenomenon that has been creeping up on us for two decades but has exploded into visibility this past week:
Welcome to the world of the temporary tax code.

In the late 1990s, there were typically fewer than a dozen tax provisions that had just a limited lease on life and needed to be renewed every year or so.

Today there are 141.

Now Congress, taking up a deal worked out between the Obama administration and Republican leaders, is poised to turn the whole personal income-tax system into something of a temporary structure. [snip]

The U.S. will have no permanent regime governing levies on salaries, capital gains and dividends, the Social Security tax, as well as a slew of targeted breaks for families, students and other groups.
There are obvious reasons why the temporary tax regime has arisen. Politicians find it much easier to leave the tough decisions to the next guy, and partisans won’t let them sign on to long-term solutions that imply a permanent defeat for their position.

A tax code that is subject to wholesale, frequent changes has its own consequences to the economy, quite apart from the specifics of marginal rates and which items are taxable or deductible. Planning has always been difficult, but now it’s extremely so. Public companies that normally are putting on the finishing touches to next year’s plans now have to burn the New Year’s Eve oil to ready presentations to their Boards, presentations that will be rife with qualifications and caveats.

Companies have been criticized for sitting on hordes of cash and refusing to hire, spend, and expand, but executives know that they can be fired, if not disgraced and personally ridiculed, for making wrong decisions. If delay improves the quality of the decision-making or allows some of the uncertainty to clear, then delay it shall be. And not everyone is a mogul who risks only other people’s money.
Bill Wiygul, whose family owns four auto-repair businesses in northern Virginia, estimates he and his wife would pay at least $20,000 more in various taxes in 2011 if Congress doesn't address parts of the code, including the Alternative Minimum Tax. The AMT snags a growing number of filers each year, and while Congress regularly limits the number affected—and likely will do so again this week or next—this has so far been an AMT "patch," never a permanent fix.

Mr. Wiygul says he would trade an increase in tax rates for greater certainty if the pain was shared by all. "We are petrified," he says. "We would be more actively pursuing expansion opportunities if we felt like the climate was more certain."
As we used to say back in the Sixties, not to decide is to decide.


And now for something that has withstood the test of time...

When I first heard the Hallelujah Chorus, the audience rose to its feet, in keeping with a tradition that purportedly began with England's King George II in the 18th century. (When the monarch stood, everyone had to stand.)

The custom of rising when the Hallelujah Chorus is played may no longer be widely known or followed. But it may be that the food court audience was just startled by the unannounced performance. And surely it would have been awkward to set aside the nachos, hot dogs, and sodas and rise smoothly from one's plastic chair.

The contemporary audience wasn't impolite; in fact it applauded loudly at the end. Few at the shopping center may have heard of King George, but he was likewise a stranger to shopping malls and flash mobs. What we and he all felt in common was the surge of emotion when the chorus belted out "King of Kings" and "Lord of Lords" in Handel's many-parted composition. Hallelujah, indeed.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Outside the sports-memorabilia store we saw a large man signing autographs. It was retired 49er Bubba Paris.

Bubba is remembered for his battles with weight (he famously failed to report to camp below 325 pounds as ordered by coach George Seifert) and cheerful oversized personality, but he’s mostly known as the starting left tackle who kept pass rushers from crushing Joe Montana.

Most of the younger shopping center crowd passed him by---Bubba’s heyday was over two decades ago--but the over-forties snapped away with their cellphones. Bubba admired the picture from our iPhone camera and said he was disappointed by his EVO.

Stating that the EVO camera (8MP resolution) should not be worse than the iPhone4 (5MP), the tech-savvy member of our family adjusted the white balance, auto-focus, and other controls on his camera. Now the EVO performed like a champ.

Bubba let us touch his ring from Super Bowl XXIII—the one where the Niners beat the Bengals on a last-minute touchdown. It was huge, as was the man wearing it.

Noble Calling

Our December calendars are packed with shopping, writing cards, and traveling. But there are a special few who set aside some precious time to helping strangers. One such angel is Jill, who every year assembles gift bags for senior shut-ins.

On Thursday afternoon I stopped by Jill’s house. 500 “stocking stuffers” had already gone to day care centers and homeless shelters. Another 200+ destined for Meals on Wheels and retirement homes were being assembled by members of the Santa Clara Thunderbird Club and the local Episcopal church.

For ten years, in good times and bad, sickness and health, Jill has soldiered on. (Here’s my post from 2006.) Beginning in the summer she sets aside sections of her house to stocking-stuffer paraphernalia. While she shops for wrapping materials she is always reminding us that she can use paperbacks in good condition, candies, and personal items that hotels routinely put out for their guests. Jill is extraordinarily persistent and patient, as is her family for supporting her calling.

Jill said that she doesn’t want publicity. Too late. A reporter from a local-news website stopped by, took some pictures, and published an article.

Jill set aside some extra bags for us to give out when we go caroling in a couple of weeks. Like I said, an angel. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Most Valuable, I Dare Say

Steve Jobs is MarketWatch’s CEO of the decade. The decision wasn’t close, despite tumultuous events in the world of business: the Google (now worth $190 billion) initial public offering, the meteoric rise, plunge, and stabilization of Wall Street, the government takeover and management (some say mis-management) of the automotive, banking, and health-care industries, and revolutionary developments in medicine, transportation, warfare, and energy, not to mention the rise of China and India.

This humble writer has written about Apple and Steve Jobs before, so it’s unnecessary to do another post about Apple’s rise from the ashes.

Steve Jobs underwent a liver transplant in 2009 and now appears to be in good health. He is on the list to be Time’s Person of the Year.

Apple’s valuation was a mere $5 billion at the beginning of the decade and is now just shy of $300 billion. I don’t know if Apple will overtake Exxon/Mobil to become the most valuable company in the world, but I do know that the most valuable liver in history was the transplanted organ that Steve Jobs received from an unnamed young car-crash victim. Thanks to that person and his family, the world has been changed, and I dare say for the better. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Monday, December 06, 2010

Red Light Mean Lots of Green

San Mateo County has made “millions” from the operation of red-light cameras. Recent average monthly citations according to the Examiner are:

Daly City:         660
Menlo Park:     630
Millbrae:           343
Redwood City: 507
San Carlos:        53
San Mateo:      587

The fine is $381 for running a red light in the City of San Mateo. Simple multiplication reveals the importance of the program's revenue to the cash-strapped City, especially when measured against its payment of $6,000 per month to the equipment vendor.

As a cautious driver I don’t mind and even applaud strict, even-handed enforcement of traffic laws. But when the government has strong financial incentive to impose fines, it makes me deeply suspicious about whether the citations are imposed impartially.

Elsewhere on the City and County websites one finds that there are several convenient ways (Internet, phone, mail) to pay the ticket. Contesting a fine, by contrast, is an involved procedure. It can be costly in both time and money, and the (un)likelihood of prevailing swings many decisions in favor of shutting up and paying up.

As government acquires more power over our daily lives (is that really open for debate?) the temptation of people who work in government--not everyone, but surely many—becomes more overwhelming to use that power to enhance their own positions. People are not saintlier if they work in private industry; it’s just that businesspeople have more incentive to be nice because they can lose their customers tomorrow.

Self-interested capitalists treat their customers well in order to make more profits. Self-interested bureaucrats make more money by expanding their own responsibilities, which means raising revenue through taxes, fines, and fees. This idea, called the theory of public choice, is not new:

Public choice theory attempts to look at governments from the perspective of the bureaucrats and politicians who compose them, and makes the assumption that they act based on Budget-maximizing model in a self-interested way for the purpose of maximizing their own economic benefits (e.g. their personal wealth).

Unlike the consumer who can switch cell-phone carriers and gas stations on short notice, the “customer” taxpayer and fine-payer has little choice but to play by the rules of the bureaucracy. He must accept its decisions or dispute them at great cost. He may even be grateful if the decision doesn’t go against him completely. As a perspicacious writer said two years ago,

In a thousand ways great and small our freedoms are increasingly circumscribed. I keep an eye on the traffic cameras and slam on the brakes when the light turns yellow. I paint black water pipes white because my neighbor's sensibilities might be offended. I have to check with the city before taking down a fence or putting a new one up. Whether I drive my car every day or once a month, it must pass the same smog inspection every two years. I refrain from making (overly) snarky remarks on this blog and even in friendly e-mails because a comment made in haste could someday come back to haunt me. We have to file all sorts of forms and payments with various agencies, and they must be complete and on time.

We're light years away from living in a 20th century totalitarian state, but more of our actions than we realize are dictated by compulsory rules, whether putting on a seat belt, reaching or not reaching for a smoke or a drink, or paying a nanny. We'll cede more and more of our freedoms during the next four years, and the pity is that we won't even realize that it's happening.
&copy 2010 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Attitude of Gratitude

The warm afterglow of Thanksgiving has been slow to fade. Last Thursday, as many families do, we went around the table and talked about the things that we were thankful for. Yes, there are qualifiers for each item, but....we and most of our loved ones are in good health (and we have a health plan!), we are financially stable, and our personal relationships are good. Objectively speaking, our situations are not much different from those in previous years [other than the Giants winning the World Series after a 56-year hiatus!!], but our attitude is.

Cultivating an attitude of gratitude not only imparts happier feelings, it also creates a virtuous circle that is likely to improve our circumstances.
Adults who frequently feel grateful have more energy, more optimism, more social connections and more happiness than those who do not, according to studies conducted over the past decade. They're also less likely to be depressed, envious, greedy or alcoholics. They earn more money, sleep more soundly, exercise more regularly and have greater resistance to viral infections.

Now, researchers are finding that gratitude brings similar benefits in children and adolescents. Kids who feel and act grateful tend to be less materialistic, get better grades, set higher goals, complain of fewer headaches and stomach aches and feel more satisfied with their friends, families and schools than those who don't, studies show.
Regularly counting our blessings, like exercising, results in all kinds of beneficial effects. According to an academic study,
Those who listed blessings each week had fewer health complaints, exercised more regularly and felt better about their lives in general than the other two groups.
Yesterday I spoke to an executive who was resentful about the way he’s been treated by his company. He’s always made a lot of money, but cutbacks have resulted in him having to adjust his plans. What he’s most upset about is that, while he’s performed well and his employer appears to be recovering nicely from the recession, the “temporary” belt-tightening in his compensation plan now appears to be permanent.

I didn’t have anything to offer but sympathy, because I’ve walked his path before. If his company doesn’t make things better, he’ll have to. Meanwhile he’ll also have to deal with his feelings of disappointment and anger. Counting his blessings—a nice family and a nice house in a nice neighborhood—will help. He just needs to see them.
30 days after the event some of the happiness is still around in our house

Friday, November 26, 2010

It Was Easy

Anyone who's had experience preparing the Thanksgiving turkey can recount a personal horror story. Birds not properly defrosted, burnt skin, dry breast meat, lumpy gravy...the list goes on. Finally, after 30 years of failure and experimentation, I think I'm getting the hang of it.

I brined the turkey for a day--two days makes it too salty, a half-day doesn't season or moisten it enough--and roasted the 22-pound tom at 250 degrees for nearly six hours. Some cooks recommend that the heat be 325 degrees or higher because of concerns about bacteria, but I've found that the higher temperature makes the exterior flesh too dry, at least in our oven. When the temperature probe stuck deep into the thigh area measured 170 degrees, we were assured against illness (indigestion doesn't count).

Unable to resist tinkering with last year's recipe, I started the turkey breast-side down in order to brown the exposed back. Two hours was enough, and I turned the bird over. Waiting much longer risks the flesh becoming too soft and events taking a disastrous, er, turn.

Covering the bird with foil was unnecessary because the brine and lower roasting temperature kept the turkey moist. Basting with pan juices once an hour resulted in golden brown skin.

After the probe pinged, the turkey was pulled from the oven and the next hour was spent making the gravy, spooning the stuffing, and carving the roast. The critics praised the result and helped themselves to seconds and even thirds. Was it hard to make, they asked. No, it was easy, said sincerely.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

It's All Garbage

Recology will replace Allied Waste as our garbage collection company in January. Today Recology distributed three new carts to each house in the neighborhood, and the service promises to be a great improvement.

1) No longer will we have to separate our paper, plastic, and cans into separate boxes. All recyclables go into the blue cart.

2) The carts have signs to remind us which materials go into each. The signs are laminated to resist weather.

3) The black cart they gave us looks durable and expensive. Now I won't have to shop for a new garbage can. (I'm noticing that procrastination can be rewarding; sometimes problems do go away.)

4) Every week--formerly it was every other--we can put the recyclables and greens by the curb. I have mistakenly brought out the containers on non-recycle day, or not put them out when I should have. (Looking at what the neighbors are doing is not 100% reliable, because sometimes they're wrong, too.)

Communication can still be improved. I was all set to start using the carts this week--opportune timing for the Thanksgiving trash--when a few clicks informed me that the service will start in January. Anticipation increases the excitement, I suppose.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Glug Glug

When I first heard a speaker use the phrase “deep dive” last month (as in “explore in depth the topic we are discussing”), I thought his choice of words was clever; it summarized succinctly what he was doing, and even people unfamiliar with the term knew what he was talking about. “Deep dive” has actually been floating around in the consulting dictionary for years and has begun to enter the mainstream on magazine covers and TV business channels.

Last week I reviewed our consultants’ 100+-page Powerpoint presentation on industry strategy and found the overuse of the term to be irritating. The report covered a variety of topics, and after introducing each one proclaimed that it was about to deep-dive into the subject. Just tell me what you found, for crying out loud, and let me decide if you’ve covered it adequately.

My entrancement, then disenchantment, with “deep dive” is a mild example of the Feiler Faster thesis, which states that information is absorbed at such a pace that reversals of fortune (in sports, entertainment, business, politics, etc.) can occur overnight. I hope the phrase sinks into oblivion.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Put Your Thumbs Down

When I first entered the world of business there were still clubs whose dining rooms discouraged explicitly commercial discussions. Notepads and pens were to be kept off the table, and ladies and gentlemen engaged in the art of conversation with each other because cellphones did not exist.

That societal aspiration has been obliterated. Three decades ago a movie that was purely a dinner conversation captivated the critics; now it’s nearly unknown to the under-30 crowd. No longer do we look attentively at our meal companions. Our focus is on the small glowing screen, fingers pecking messages to people whom we rarely meet face-to-face.

Last week we imposed a new family rule: when more than one person is at the table, the machines are shut off. We’re starting to rediscover each other, but we'll see how long that resolution sticks. (How well I follow my own dictate will be tested if there’s breaking news on time-sensitive investments.)

The advertising campaign for Windows Phone 7 amusingly illustrates some of the dangers of becoming too involved with our smartphones.

Microsoft's claim that its mobile product contains more "glanceable" information is questioned by the WSJ's tech writer, Walt Mossberg. Nevertheless, kudos to MSFT for a witty ad.

Monday, November 08, 2010


When Barack Obama and his fellow Democrats swept into office two years ago, they misread their mandate. A large majority voted for the Democrats in 2008 simply because they were not Republicans. Nearly everyone was tired of George Bush, tired of his wars (although Iraq did appear at last to be turning the corner) and fearful of a collapsing Wall Street. The 2008 Republicans did not deserve to be re-elected, and most independents and even many Republicans agreed. The GOP’s message of “I’m bad but the other guy’s worse” had predictable results. The Democratic wave that began in 2006 crested in 2008. The Democrats would probably have won anyway, but the fact that they had an attractive candidate sealed the deal.

The President and his party immediately began pursuing the liberal agenda: much greater government control of the economy, more government assistance for those viewed as “not rich”, and an end to the Iraq war. The voters, however, mainly wanted him to save the banking system from collapse and let the resilient economy recover like it normally does within 18-24 months.

All the President had to do was not make things worse. By November, 2010, with the economy and jobs on the upswing, the mid-term elections could well have made the Democratic Congressional majority even more lop-sided.

The large banks and Wall Street did survive—one cheer for that—but the pursuit of the liberal agenda birthed a health-care monstrosity filled with consequences unknown and unintended. The entire health-care sector and employers everywhere hesitated to hire as the citizenry tried to digest the health care bill. (Plopping 2,700 pages of far-reaching legislation into the economy’s midst is like Microsoft slamming 2,700 pages of code into Windows 7 without any testing.)

Once a derogatory meme takes hold—witness Gerald Ford and Sarah Palin's example—it becomes impossible to shake. The President’s supporters in the media are doing their best to tamp it down, but after the slow reaction to the BP oil spill and the failure of the stimulus package, the whiff of incompetence has become inescapable.

Saturday, November 06, 2010

I'll Start Tomorrow

A New Yorker article on procrastination: It explains a lot about why my open items get rolled forward for months. A few of the useful ideas and terms from the piece:
Procrastination is a basic human impulse, but anxiety about it as a serious problem seems to have emerged in the early modern era.

[Procrastination is] a powerful example of what the Greeks called akrasia—doing something against one’s own better judgment.

Hyperbolic discounting - as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals. [Example: movie rental lists, where for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films (that never get watched when the time comes)].

The divided self – we are composed of divided selves constantly “competing and bargaining” with each other. [Pleasure-seeking self wants to watch TV in the future, so will allow hard-working self to win in the present….sometimes.]

Weapons to combat procrastination: deadlines, bets (e.g., pay if don’t lose weight), divide long-term vague objectives (e.g., being rich) into nearer-term concrete achievements (e.g., save 6% of salary in 401k).
For all our contemporary insight it’s not clear that our understanding has progressed much beyond that of the ancients. They named the seven deadly sins (pride, greed, envy, lust, anger, sloth, and gluttony), four of which I have trouble with and without which my procrastination would be largely cured. Or it just may be the devil that overpowers my angelic self when it comes time to turn off the television or put the ice cream back in the refrigerator.

Where has the time gone? There are three things I was supposed to do today but (yawn) that nap looks inviting.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Shouts and Tears

There are few moments in life—including happy events like weddings and births—where joy is so overwhelming that shouts and tears mingle, the arms lift in triumph, and one has to jump up and down lest one explode. In living rooms, bars, restaurants, electronics stores and wherever there was a television set last night, Northern Californians gave themselves over to the moment.

Old-timers say the spontaneous outpouring reminded them of V-J day, which marked the end of history’s most terrible conflict. Last night’s World Series victory for the San Francisco Giants celebrated “just a game,” but to the many for whom baseball is a metaphor, a reverie, an escape, a reminder, and a bequest the event was a lifetime in the waiting.

When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, the future was pregnant with possibility. Some of the best players of the mid-century—and Willie Mays, who is on the short list of baseball’s greatest players ever—were on a New York Giants squad that had won the World Series in 1954. The Giants won the National League pennant in 1962 in the new Candlestick Park and lost a thrilling World Series to the Yankees in seven games, but no worries, with their talent everyone believed that they would soon get other opportunities. (The change in scenery didn’t bother their perennial National League rival, the Dodgers, who also moved west in 1958 from Brooklyn; the L.A. Dodgers beat the Yankees in the 1963 Series.) In the 48 years that followed until last night, the Giants had only two more chances, both unsuccessful, to win baseball’s crown.

Every San Francisco fan has his or her own story of hopes raised and dashed. We endured freezing night games at Candlestick to cheer Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, Jeff Leonard, and Mike Krukow. We rooted for admirable players of talent and character to win a ring, but they never did. After 52 years we learned to reconcile ourselves to things that will never be, like a Giants title.

From the days I first heard gravelly-voiced Lon Simmons broadcast Giants (and 49ers) games thousands of miles away to my little Sony transistor radio in Honolulu, I’ve waited, then stopped waiting, for this moment. With little warning it’s here, followed by the shouts and tears.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Numbered Days

I’m not a serious photographer who likes to fiddle with F-stops and interchangeable lenses. As I’ve written before, however, my Canon A620 has become dated; I hardly use it because its features are barely superior to those of my cellphone and certainly don't merit lugging around an extra device.

A new Canon, the S95, just may have the right mix of performance, price, and features, especially low-light capability. According to tech writer David Pogue, the S95 “can take amazing, sharp pictures in low light without the flash.” I’m gagging a little over the $400 price, so I’ll wait until the price comes down a bit. But the A620’s days are numbered.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Ah, Youth

After the all-night celebration following the Giants' National League Series victory, veteran Aubrey Huff gave advice to rookie Buster Posey as they headed back to the room. 

Huff: Don't think this happens every year, kid. 

Posey: Why not?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Giants Delusions

In a third inning filled with physical and mental miscues, the Giants kicked away their chance to win the National League pennant in front of their home crowd. The 4-2 loss to the Phillies last night was far from fatal, since the Giants have two more chances this weekend to win the deciding game. But they must do it in front of a hostile Philadelphia crowd against a team that has won a trip to the past two World Series and who some enthusiasts claim is one of the best teams of all time.

No one has ever made such an assertion about these Giants, whom few picked to even make the playoffs. But their pitching has kept them in most games, usually one-run nail-biters. The Giants blow leads, sometimes recover, then hold on for dear life in the ninth inning. After the euphoria of Wednesday’s 6-5 victory, the game 5 letdown has left some boosters despondent.

Here’s a chance for rationality to help Giants fans regain their balance. Let’s say that the Phillies are 3-2 (winning 60% of the time) favorites to win each game they play against the Giants. Combining the probabilities, the Giants are 40% + (40% x 60%) = 64% likely to win one of the next two games and go to the World Series.

Even if one thinks that the Phillies are 2-1 favorites in these home games—in other words twice as good as the Giants—the same calculation [33% + (33% x 67%)= 55%] still shows the Giants more likely to prevail than not.

Let’s stop now and not get too wonky about whether the probabilities are correct and whether the games are independent events. To paraphrase Mark Twain, let us have our delusions, Giants delusions, and statistics. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Not Your Grandma's Shopping Mall

“In our normal lives, you really can’t go up and touch someone’s genitals,” said Fernanda Bennett, the deputy director of the Nassau County Museum of Art on Long Island.
Speak for yourself!

(H/T Ann Althouse, who's referring to this NYT article.)

Monday, October 18, 2010

A Price Must Be Paid

Temperatures dipped markedly over the weekend, so it was time to fire up the oven for comfort food.

Costco had a new bake-and-serve offering--beans with pork-rib meat--that looked close enough to the genuine New England article. I picked up a package of brussels sprouts to accompany the main dish; it took but a minute to coat them with olive oil and garlic salt. The beans, sprouts, and a loaf of garlic bread were thrown into the oven, and there was a warm feeling of satisfaction as the family dug into the high-fiber, vitamin-loaded, and cancer-fighting meal.

Today there's another feeling, but luckily I don't have appointments with a lot of people.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Real Tax Deadline

A not-so-short stack
Yesterday, the end of the six-month extension period, was the real deadline for filing one's 2009 income taxes.

I had thought, because my income was down as an early retiree, that our financial life would be simpler. I was mistaken.

In our past life we had ignored sections of the tax code because we made too much money. Before you jump to the conclusion that we're rolling in it, dear reader, please realize that many deductions, credits, exclusions, and other incentives begin to phase out when income exceeds $100,000--and even lower levels. (Ask any Californian who makes $100,000 and who has a mortgage whether he or she feels rich.) Suddenly these provisions came into play and added calculations, pages, and mistakes that had to be corrected.

We were also late because of an all-too-common phenomenon in this economy: partnerships, Subchapter S corporations, and other pass-through entities were late getting statements to investors.

We got the numbers together, signed the returns, ran down to the post office to watch them stamp the postmark, and organized the files.

Time to get started on 2010's year-end tax planning...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Account-Ants

I like the WSJ's Peggy Noonan, but she doesn't like me, or at least my chosen profession.
[G]overnment increasingly forces us to become: a nation of accountants.

No matter what level of life in which you operate, you are likely overwhelmed by forms, by a blizzard of regulations, rules, new laws. This is not new, it's just always getting worse. Priests are forced to be accountants now, and army officers, and dentists. The single most onerous part of ObamaCare is the tax change whereby spending $600 on goods or services will require a 1099 form. Economists will tell you of the financial cost of this, but I would argue that Paperwork Nation is utterly at odds with the American character.

Because Americans weren't born to be accountants. It's not in our DNA!
Ms. Noonan goes on about how the rich and powerful elites insulate themselves against the rules and regulations they inflict upon the rest of society. The elites can hire "armies" of accountants.

No one likes filling out forms, even us account-ants. We know that the person who receives the form that we've painstakingly completed only cares about two things: whether we've paid the balance due at the bottom and whether all the questions have been answered. Accountants would rather use their talents to build planning models and help clients make decisions, not fill out pieces of paper designed by lawyers.

The new Form 1099 requirement to which Ms. Noonan refers is a particularly boneheaded piece of legislation. The current requirement to report over-$600 in annual payments to independent contractors does allow the IRS to catch some under-reporting, but the new law is a gross over-reach; it mandates the reporting of over-$600 annual payments to everyone. Payments to the local utility, the package delivery service, and the office supply chain-store must now be added up and reported to the IRS after the vendors' taxpayer ID numbers have been obtained. The problem is: the vast majority of corporate businesses report revenue based on accrual, not cash basis accounting.

Under accrual accounting revenue is recognized when the right to receive is established, not when payment is received. If the office supply store makes a shipment to you in December and grants you net-30 terms, it will report its December income in the current tax year while your 1099 will report a cash payment in January of the succeeding tax year. The 1099 will be useless in the tax audit of the office supply store.

One can go through the trouble of performing a lengthy reconciliation between the stack of 1099's (which don't separate the payments for shipments made for the current and previous years) and the store's sales register, but there are much more accurate and efficient ways for an agent to audit revenues. The new law imposes tremendous burdens on society without any benefit to the Treasury; it was clearly designed by people who have no idea how businesses, accounting, and control systems work.

I suppose that I should be grateful that accounting is not one of the jobs that will be disappearing over the next ten years, but I'm not happy that clients are miserable when they call us, and it's a self-inflicted misery that doesn't have to be.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Where A Comma Would Be Helpful

And because of the inevitable challenge studies on sex face in persuading people to respond honestly, the findings should be treated with some skepticism.

I had to read the above passage a couple of times to figure out the proper meaning. English is a marvelous language in which words can be adjective or noun, or noun or verb, depending on context. Here a comma placed after "challenge" would have been most helpful. Yes, good grammar generally forbids a comma after an introductory prepositional phrase, but it's allowed if the phrase is long.

Ambiguous writing may be a continuation of the Wall Street Journal's subtle campaign to stretch the brains of its readers.

Friday, October 08, 2010

It's As Much for Ourselves

A few days ago we discussed how studying material that is off-kilter in form and/or content stretches the brain. Reading handwritten letters can be discomfiting but it does stimulate learning.

Writing by hand can provide even more cognitive benefits. Neuroscience has confirmed what grade-school teachers have long known:
Writing by hand is more than just a way to communicate. The practice helps with learning letters and shapes, can improve idea composition and expression, and may aid fine motor-skill development….In children who had practiced printing by hand, the neural activity was far more enhanced and "adult-like" than in those who had simply looked at letters.
It’s my guess that brain-scan technology will confirm the theory of multiple forms of intelligence. When we challenge ourselves across a broad range--musically, physically, mathematically, artistically, socially—more neurons will fire and more screens will light up. Penning (versus keyboarding) a personal letter keeps our minds invigorated. We benefit ourselves as much as the object of our affection.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Plastic Control

My finances are in ok shape, and one reason is the discipline (one of the few that I’ve stuck to over the decades) of paying off credit card balances. It was difficult in the early years when we had seemingly unlimited spending needs, yet had to service mortgage, car, and student loans as well as put something aside for retirement. We managed by deferring gratification and living with old and partially working stuff. (Consequently our ongoing priorities now include simplifying our life and clearing the clutter, but that’s another discussion.)

Credit cards have compelling advantages, e.g., they help keep records, reduce the risk of carrying cash, and give customers bargaining power in disputes. But they need to be used in moderation like other controlled substances. Below is a handy list of 15 times when you shouldn’t use a credit card.
1. After midnight.
2. When you're near your credit limit.
3. When considering an extended warranty at the car dealership.
4. [left blank - sic!]
5. If you're paying off one card with another, and it's a habit.
6. At a flea market.
7. If you think you're building your credit history.
8. If you can't pay for half of the purchase with cash on hand.
9. When it's all about the rewards points.
10. When you think prices may drop.
11. To buy something from a website with an obscure foreign extension.
12. If you don't have a plan for paying it off.
13. If you're charging things that you used to pay cash for.
14. When you feel that you'll save money by purchasing something you want rather than need.
15. When the temptation for a big impulse buy strikes.
That’s good advice, especially #6 and #11. I once used a credit card at a small music store south of Market, and a series of small purchases hit within the next 24 hours. The credit card company, Discover, reversed the charges when I complained after receiving the statement, but the lesson was learned: I pay cash if I don’t know the merchant.

Speaking of Discover, I’m using that card more, even on under-$5 purchases at fast food restaurants, because they’ve, er, discovered a weakness that’s not on the list. Each use triggers an entry in a $1 million sweepstakes. Although my rational brain knows that the expected winnings are infinitesimal, I’ll now whip out the plastic, whereas I wouldn’t have bothered before. After all, how the devil do you think this could harm me? © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Blessing of the Animals, 2010

For the fifth year running we trundled tables, chairs, and dog biscuits to the Foster City Dog Park. Monday was the Feast of Saint Francis; it was time to honor the gentle patron saint of animals and the beasts who bring us joy.

Dogs comprised the majority of the petitioners, but there were cats and guinea pigs who also received the laying-on of hands. One of the priests was allergic to cat hair, so felines were diverted to the other member of the collared duo. (It was the only instance of discrimination that I have witnessed in the Northern California Episcopal Church.)

Ladies from the Homeless Cat Network passed out brochures that promoted the necessity to reduce the population of feral cats. HCN's efforts to spay, neuter, feed, and adopt abandoned felines not only protect the cats but also the other wildlife of the Bay.

In earlier years we had distributed flyers at the supermarkets and run ads in the community papers, achieving little success. This year we posted announcements on Craigslist and the Foster City electronic marquee. In the future we intend to try facewall-writing, tweeting, and other cutting-edge modes of communication. If there's only something we can do about stopping the rash from the cat hair....

A reporter from showed up.

Her article may be found here.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Grease is Good

Waste grease now sells for $1.90 (!) a gallon, and waste grease thefts are on the rise.

Prices may well continue to increase because the supply of grease is expected to go down due to the imminent bursting of the bacon bubble. Time to switch out of gold and into goo.

It's making connections like this that have enabled me to be the successful investor that I am.

Why We Should (Hand)Write

I'm behind on my reading, which puts me in good company, albeit an ever-dwindling minority. It stands to reason that the explosion of e-reading is a phenomenon that we should welcome. The iPad and Kindle enable us to read more, read more efficiently, and read more conveniently.

However, there's a downside. By making the physical act of reading too easy, with every letter "precisely defined," the new e-readers don't stretch our brains.
The literate brain contains two distinct pathways for making sense of words, each activated in different contexts. One pathway, known as the ventral route, is direct and efficient: We see a group of letters, convert those letters into a word and then directly grasp the word's meaning. When you're reading a straightforward sentence in a clear format, you're almost certainly relying on this neural highway. As a result, the act of reading seems effortless. We don't have to think about the words on the page.

But the ventral route is not the only way to read. The brain's second reading pathway, the dorsal stream, is turned on when we have to pay conscious attention to a sentence. Perhaps we've encountered an obscure word or a patch of smudged ink. [snip]

Familiar sentences rendered on lucid e-ink screens are read quickly and effortlessly. Unusual sentences with complex clauses and odd punctuation tend to require more conscious effort, which leads to more activation in the dorsal pathway. All the extra cognitive work wakes us up; we read more slowly, but we notice more. [bold added] Psychologists call this the "levels-of-processing" effect, since sentences that require extra levels of analysis are more likely to get remembered.
Among my most treasured possessions are handwritten letters from loved ones, many of whom are long gone. Their words may be plain, but the letters are not a quick read. When I was young and in a hurry I was mildly irritated, but now I savor every curly-cue, smudge, and cross-out. Sometimes the words were indecipherable, and I had to figure out the meaning in context with the rest of the sentence. My dorsal stream was being freed up.

Below is a handwritten letter from one of the Cambodian schoolchildren whom my church supports. Slower to absorb, but much nicer than a text message, nicht wahr?

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Pathetic Return

We will continue to keep a portion of our savings in U.S. Government debt. However, the returns on Treasury bills are pathetic. Last week our 90-day $10,000 T-bill earned a grand total of $3.41, less than a latte at the coffee shop. That's not one percent (1%) per year but closer to zero-point-one percent (0.1%).

A better return for the same risk can be earned through U.S. Savings bonds. We bought some many years ago for the kids and also received a few as gifts. Savings bonds are physical instruments with all their attendant risks. Owners have to keep track of them, and replacing lost or destroyed bonds can be a hassle. However, the rate differential over T-bills may be worth the trouble.

Savings bonds also are more flexible with regard to income taxes. The entire accumulated interest over the years is recognized when they are redeemed, which may not be painful if they are cashed out in a low-bracket year. Alternatively, a taxpayer can elect to recognize interest annually on the tax return, which can be useful in the case of a child who has little income but who will redeem them as a taxpaying adult. Every year we've been attaching a list of savings bond interest to our son's tax return, accompanied by the following statement:
Pursuant to IRC Section 454, taxpayer elected for the 19xx and later tax years to treat as income during the current year the increase in redemption price of U.S. Savings Bonds.
Yes, that's a hassle, too, but I'm sure he'll thank me for that later :)

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Re-entering the Fold

L to R: iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, Nexus One

After a month-long dalliance with Google's Nexus One
mobile phone--which I did like but did not love--I re-entered the Apple fold and signed a two-year contract for an iPhone 4. The Nexus had superior hardware to the two-year-old iPhone 3G that it replaced but in my humble opinion wasn't quite up to the i4. The fact that I prefer Apple's IOS4 operating system to Google's Android only made the decision easier.

Another disincentive to switch from Apple is that I had dollars invested in Apple's iTunes music, videos, and Applications. (I understand that there are solutions to converting from iTunes to Android and vice versa without losing my investment, but I didn't want to go through the hassle.)

All that said, if I were starting anew, I might well pick an Android phone like the Nexus One. I like the use of the "cloud", i.e., one can update one's calendar or address book in gmail, and all one's computers and mobile devices automatically have access to the new data on Google's servers. Also, the fact that web videos written in Flash cannot be viewed in the iPhone is somewhat irritating.

There are numerous mobile-product comparisons. Below is Gizmodo's:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Even More Tempting

On July 16th I opined (hoped) that Google shares had decent prospects, despite the company's second quarter earnings disappointment. I also thought that GOOG had more upside than AAPL, which I also own. Since then both stocks have increased more than 12%, outperforming both the Dow and NASDAQ.

Google's Android system for mobile phones continues to gain adherents. The latest rumor is that Facebook, which promises to have the hottest IPO since, well, Google, will introduce its own mobile handset.

Meanwhile Apple shares continue to rise into the ionosphere, as analysts fall over themselves raising their price targets into the high $300's. At those levels Apple will easily surpass Exxon-Mobil to become the most valuable company in the world.

As to when Apple will begin to look moldy I haven't the slightest idea. Several years ago I put in an Apple sell order at $70 but then pulled it back when a family member thought that it still had room to run. (In contract bridge one peek is worth two finesses, and in investments a woman's intuition is worth 100 pages of financial analysis.) I thought the iPod craze had run its course, which was arguably correct. I just didn't know about the phone and tablet computer sprouting in the lab.

Another and very recent example that one shouldn't look to me for investment advice is my experience with another Internet stock. Loving the company but nervous about its price-earnings ratio of 56, I took a small profit in Amazon a couple of weeks ago at $135 per share. AMZN immediately went on a tear and as of this writing is at an all-time high of $155.92 at a PE of 64.

Predictions that stocks will crash and burn look increasingly remote. Cash that earns a pittance burns a hole in my pocket as Amazon, Apple, and Netflix float ever higher. Thus the cruel temptress lures us to our doom. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Monday, September 20, 2010

Haunting Question

“The question that haunts every parent of a child with autism is, What will happen when I die?”

The Atlantic runs a portrait of the first autism patient (“Case 1 - Donald T. ”), whose condition was documented in 1943. The life of Donald Gray Triplett, now 77, gives hope to every parent of an autistic child. Donald’s parents have been gone over 25 years, and their son “has freedom, independence, and good health. All in all, life has turned out well for autism’s first child.”

Donald’s typical day in Forest, Mississippi, is “morning coffee with friends, a long walk for exercise, a Bonanza rerun on TV, and [a] short drive down Route 80 to get in some golf.”

Donald was blessed with parents of means. More importantly, they indefatigably pursued the best treatments of the day, pulling the plug when they didn’t work. His lawyer father’s 33-page letter to a psychiatrist about his 5-year-old son is the first detailed listing of the symptoms of autism . (It doesn’t say so in the article, but it’s possible that the senior Triplett would today be placed somewhere on the autistic spectrum.)

Donald’s brother, Oliver, looks after him, as do other members of the Forest community. It helps that an irrevocable trust (Donald cannot touch the principal) provides for his basic needs and that his housing--he lives in his parents’ house—is taken care of. Donald is high-functioning; he is proficient with numbers and has learned enough skills to interact with others on a day-to-day basis. (It’s likely, however, that most “normal” people can tell he is “different” within just a few seconds of watching or talking to him.)
Donald reached his potential thanks, in large part, to the world he occupied—the world of Forest, Mississippi—and how it decided to respond to the odd child in its midst. Peter Gerhardt speaks of the importance of any community’s “acceptance” of those who have autism. In Forest, it appears, Donald was showered with acceptance, starting with the mother who defied experts to bring him back home, and continuing on to classmates from his childhood and golfing partners today. Donald’s neighbors not only shrug off his oddities, but openly admire his strengths—while taking a protective stance with any outsider whose intentions toward Donald may not have been sufficiently spelled out.
Whether one agrees with Hillary Clinton’s statement, it’s very clear that it does take a village to look after adults with autism. It also is likely that these special people have a better chance at happy, fulfilling lives in the towns of “flyover country” instead of the urban jungle.

Interesting throughout.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Call I Won't Be Returning

More than half the calls we get on our home phone are from toll-free prefixes. We never pick them up. I don’t need a cold-caller to tell me what to buy or advise me which charities I should donate to. To that list of conversations non grata we should add collections agencies.

None of the 800/866 callers had the courtesy to identify themselves until this morning. The Takhar Group left its call-back number and said that we “must” contact them. The Takhar Group is a disreputable collection agency which complainants say engages in the following practices:
  • They call about nonexistent debts.

  • They call the wrong people.

  • They collect bills already paid off.

  • They refuse to provide proof of the debt.

  • They call people at their workplace.
  • The probability that we may have an unpaid bill somewhere, unfortunately, is not zero. Every year our household processes over a hundred medical, dental, and prescription invoices. Among the over-charges (which Blue Cross says are not the patient’s responsibility), double billings, deductibles, co-pays, and in-network and out-of-network reimbursements, it’s very difficult to determine what we really owe.

    After a medical procedure we have found it is best to wait at least 90 days for all the billings and insurance to sort themselves, then pay the balance at the bottom of the statement. We’ve been careful, but there have been a few bills that have taken over a year to work out with the doctor or hospital.

    Once in the past decade an unpaid balance was shunted to a collection agency. The agent had no understanding of medical terms, much less the convoluted byways of medical insurance. I later resolved the matter by engaging with the doctor’s billing department. Having a collection agent in the middle of medical bills is about as beneficial as him handling the instruments in the operating room.

    Although I’ve made it a practice always to respond to inquiries, the Takhar Group’s call is one I won’t be returning.

    Friday, September 10, 2010

    Not Ready for the Bug-Out

    A distant conical haze marred the sky as we headed home on a clear Thursday evening. We turned on the radio, listening for a possible report of a fire. Our concern about the effect on traffic vanished when we heard the news.

    Blocks of homes in San Bruno were burning. Maybe an airplane had crashed. No, SFO responded that there were no planes missing.

    Perhaps a gas station blew up, but someone said there weren't any gas stations in the hills above San Bruno. The latter statement, too, proved false; a gas station next to the Lunardi's market did exist, but the gas station was undamaged and not the cause of the fire.

    A horrific and smaller-scale echo of the events, rumors, and speculation of nearly nine years ago, we were glued to the TV for information. The youngster's friend, Harry, lives on Trenton Drive. Harry's family evacuated their house, but luckily they live about three-quarters of a mile from the fire and their home was undamaged.

    The fuel source turned out to be a natural-gas pipeline, and in the days and months to come more questions will be answered. [Update - 9/12/10: four people are confirmed dead, and five are missing. The City of San Bruno has listed 37 homes destroyed.]

    Meanwhile, the San Bruno fire prompted a much-needed discussion in our household about bug-out emergencies. We are semi-prepared for a major earthquake, in that we can live for a week on supplies that we have stored securely. The advice for earthquake survivors, however, is to stay put.

    If there were a fire, tidal wave, or other disaster that allowed us only a few minutes to pack and leave, would we know what to throw in the car? Should we stay together or take all our cars? No answer is perfect, but this is one case where any decision is much better than inaction. May you, dear reader, never experience a bug-out situation, but please spend a few minutes thinking about what you are going to do. Your life may depend on it.

    Wednesday, September 08, 2010

    Peter Pan 360

    Tinkerbell and Wendy (book photo)
    The big white tent is coming down and the show is leaving town. Peter Pan 360, a 21st-century update of J M Barrie's century-old fable, closed its San Francisco run over the Labor Day weekend. I did enjoy its mix of acrobatics, special effects, and drama, but not as much as some enthusiastic reviewers.

    What I liked: 1) The rolling R's, clear diction, and dramatic presence of the British leads; 2) The creative use of puppets and machinery to animate Nana the Newfoundland dog and the crocodile, Hook's nemesis. 3) The acrobatics of "flying" on support wires and the choreographed transitions as the play resumed on land.

    Why I can't give it four stars: 1) the spotty quality of the secondary actors; 2) in a world where spectacle can be pulled up on home widescreens the CGI doesn't measure up to Avatar and the actors aren't Cirque du Soleil acrobats; 3) the adult ticket price of $80 to $120 is steep (it will be lower when the show moves to Orange County later this month).

    But these nits are more about my idiosyncrasies than this production. I know that I wanted more song-and-dance--I can't watch "Pygmalion" without hoping for a few numbers from "My Fair Lady." And live action is expensive, especially when situated on the expensive San Francisco waterfront. It was a pleasurable afternoon that I'll remember fondly, if not forever, but for quite a while. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

    Even from the back there's a good view

    Monday, September 06, 2010

    Belabored Day

    President Obama has proposed yet another spending program to goose the floundering economy, but this time the spending will be accompanied by tax breaks for business. The proposal has three components:

    Tax deductions: businesses would write off capital expenditures immediately instead of claiming depreciation deductions, i.e., spreading them over three to twenty years under current law.

    Tax credits: businesses would claim increased tax credits for research and experimentation expenditures.

    These measures, even if enacted by this Congress, will take years to boost the economy. They won’t budge the unemployment rate of 9.6 percent in 2010 and help Democrats up for election in November.

    If the economy does improve by 2012, President Obama will point to this proposal as justification for his re-election.   It’s designed to help him, not members of his party.

    To the extent a business can expand by investing in machines rather than people, increasing equipment tax breaks will hurt, not help jobs.  If it becomes relatively cheaper, a business will substitute capital for labor at the margin.

    History repeating:  the 1970’s tax code had high tax rates, partially offset by incentives to lower both the cost of labor (job tax credit, lower marginal rate on earned vs “unearned” income) and cost of capital (investment tax credit, accelerated depreciation).  The 1980’s promulgated the idea that business and individuals would better expand in an environment of lower tax rates and lower complexity (fewer specific tax breaks, i.e., let the tax code be neutral so that each business can decide its own mix of equipment and labor).

    Commentators have likened President Obama to President Carter. This proposal, as well as the current state of the economy, only buttresses that argument. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

    Wednesday, September 01, 2010

    A Good Walk Spoiled

    Golfer’s errant shot goes into rough. Next swing hits a rock. So far, so familiar--what follows not so much.

    Spark produced from club hitting rock. Brush catches fire, 12-acre blaze. 200 Orange County firefighters called.

    1) But what did he shoot?
    2) Rock would go farther if he kept head down.
    3) He really set the course on fire!
    4) Boy scout manual needs revision (“if two sticks not available, use five iron”).
    5) Sandtrap doesn’t look so bad now, huh?

    Photo from Yahoo News

    Tuesday, August 31, 2010

    Smidgeon of Religion

    We served 70 people last Sunday.

    The new guy was so hungry that his whole body shook. He wolfed down the chicken and rice as I ladled it onto his plate. We had enough for seconds, and I gave him another scoop. So it went on another Sunday in Redwood City.

    This is the ninth year of a local ministry to feed everyone who shows up at the Fair Oaks Community Center for lunch. Our church, along with three other Peninsula congregations, rotates responsibility for serving the meals. When it's our turn, we bring six or seven trays of entrees and four or five trays of salad to the center. A middle-aged couple from another church always shows up with a big pink box of doughnuts.

    Marge brought peaches for each bag
    On the way out each guest receives a bag lunch prepared by the parishioners of the nearby Catholic church. Marge from St. Pius was a little late with the bags. She thought that the sandwiches should be accompanied by fresh fruit, so she stopped by Sigona's Market, which charged her a greatly reduced price on 100 ripe peaches after she explained the need.

    We lacked a priest today, so it fell upon me to say the blessing, our only smidgeon of religion. We Episcopalians aren't used to praying in public, but it's easy if you remember that there are basically two things to say in a prayer.

    We forgot the large spoons, so we served with doubled-up eating utensils. The crowd, which started at 50 but grew to 70 by the end of the hour, was patient and friendly. That's what happens they see you working hard, stressed yet smiling.

    A well-dressed white couple whom I hadn't seen before thanked us for the meal. We thanked them for coming. At these occasions one must maintain iron discipline over one's thoughts, eyes, and words. There, but for the grace of God, go we all. © 2010 Stephen Yuen