Sunday, February 28, 2010

Cupertino Confab

CNET has an accurate recounting of the Apple shareholders’ meeting on Thursday. My only quibble is the writer’s emphasis on the “pointed discussion” surrounding Al Gore’s election to the Board of Directors. IMHO, there was not much controversy. Just one speaker, a white-haired gentleman whom CNET identified as Sheldon Ehrlich, spoke in a good-humored way about how the glaciers aren’t melting and how the former Vice President’s advice would hurt, not help, Apple. Polite silence greeted Mr. Ehrlich’s statement—I did hear chuckles, “that guy’s got [guts]”—but there was applause after another stockholder gave a rebuttal in support of Mr. Gore.

There were no startling revelations in the Q&As. The biggest? 25 stores are planned for China. Apple somehow rises above limitations that bedevil other companies. Apple is notorious for maintaining tight control over its technology and markets for monetary, security, and reliability reasons. It will be interesting to watch this secretive company expand its operations in a secretive society.

Other impressions and notes from the meeting on Thursday:

The average age of the attendees must have been 2-3x that of the average Apple user. Despite their gray hair the crowd isn’t tech-illiterate: half of them had iPhones. The audience had the look of upper-class California-casual: Dockers, pullover sweaters, comfortable shoes—but not Nikes or Adidas. The racial make-up was overwhelmingly Caucasian. Phrases overheard from the pre-meeting chatter: Fairchild, hypercard, Los Altos Hills, Palo Alto, iPad, golf. Many attendees appeared to be retired veterans of Silicon Valley’s first generation, the millionaires next door.

The room seats between 400 and 500 people and was filled by 9:45. I don’t know how many were in the overflow room(s). 9:55 a.m.– the Board enters and quickly fills in the front row, facing the stage. The men are wearing sports jackets, no ties. There is only one woman member, Andrea Jung, a fact which is remarked on negatively by some of the questioners later.

Steve Jobs is skinny but not emaciated; he moves energetically and his voice is lively. He turns the meeting over to general counsel Bruce Sewell , who keeps the business session moving. Speeches are made for and against Al Gore being seated on the board, and in favor of two separate environmental sustainability measures. Board recommendations to elect the slate of directors and to reject sustainability motions are approved. Apparently, Apple has a sterling environmental reputation but like everyone else,wants to do good voluntarily and not be compelled to do so.

One speaker in favor of sustainability stumbles over the title of Al Gore’s book, finally settling on “An Inconceivable Truth.” No one laughed.

The business session was over at 10:25, after which the management triumvirate of COO Tim Cook, CEO Steve Jobs, and CFO Peter Oppenheimer took the stage. Most of the questions were fielded by Steve.

On Tim Cook’s leadership while SJ was convalescing: “Tim took the helm and Apple didn’t miss a beat.” [applause]

With a $40 billion cash hoard why doesn’t Apple help the environment by investing in electric-car maker Tesla? “We were thinking of a toga party.” [laughter]

Why doesn’t Apple start paying a dividend? “Cash gives us security and flexibility. We want to take risks.” Apple wants to be able to “write a check for big and bold things” but if we take a leap we want to know that we can “land on the ground.”

On Google CEO and former-Board member Eric Schmidt’s access to Apple’s secrets: “Eric conducted himself appropriately and recused himself.”

Apple has more ideas than it can pursue. Why not license technology to others? TC: Apple is “not in the business of licensing ideas.” Apple “focuses on very few things” and puts all its efforts into those things. All of Apple’s product offerings could fit on one table.

Back to the dividend question, Steve makes some financial assertions. “Our stock price is based on our ability to continue growing. If we dividend out all our cash the stock price will be the same. If Apple buys back the stock, the price will be the same.” [A change in dividend or stock-buyback policy will send meaningful signals about Apple’s prospects, making share price changes extremely likely. Also, to claim that Apple will have the same market capitalization of about $180 billion whether or not it dividends $40 billion is doubtful, to say the least, but if that were true there’s no question that shareholders would be better off with the dividend.]

But Steve’s allowed to opine about finance, just as he can expound whatever he wants to about the environment. He’s made a lot of people rich, and if he wanted to say that the moon was made of green cheese everyone in the room would indulge him.

iPhone is a great videogame platform so why doesn’t Apple produce first-party software like Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft? “There are never enough great software engineers to go around.” With all the projects on their plate-- iPhone/iPad OS, Mac OS, iWorks, and iTunes-- 26,000 game apps shows that games are not a problem that Apple has to solve.

Steve seemed quite animated about Apple’s environmental record. SJ and TC: Apple was the first to demand that its suppliers eliminate toxic metals and chemicals from the products. Apple has conducted environmental audits of over 100 vendors, about half of whom said that no one bothered to audit them before. Apple has reduced its packaging equivalent to many cargo planes’ worth of shipments over one year. But Apple doesn’t publish comparisons with competitors like HP and Dell; that’s for others to do. [Steve’s irritation was in evidence. Apple is a leading corporation on environmental matters, but it’s never enough for the single-issue folks.]

Steve confirmed that Apple’s corporate facilities are no longer open to user groups. [Yes, there’s a price to becoming a big-time corporation.]

What is Apple afraid of, what keeps Steve Jobs up at night? “Shareholder meetings.” [laughter] Seriously, it was “stability in the world” and “things that are not in our control.”

After nearly an hour of Q&A, the meeting was over.

iPhone's strength is not its camera!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Lent

Lent, which began last week, is the season when Christians try to put aside their worldly desires in favor of improving their relationship with God and their fellow human beings. During Lent many Christians commemorate Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness by giving up activities that they find enjoyable.

For each believer the challenge is different. If they are serious, they will abstain from doing something that they particularly like. It could be eating chocolate, drinking a morning latte, playing videogames, shopping for clothes, or watching TV. By fasting or refraining from other pleasures Christians practice self-control in a world where instant gratification is more and more the norm.

During Lent the cross is draped in somber colors, and “alleluia” isn’t heard until Easter morn. The service begins with the Great Litany, five pages of text in the Book of Common Prayer, in which the Intercessor asks for God's help across the entire range of the human condition. In a limited-attention-span, attention-deficit-disorderly world it is initially uncomfortable to sit, listen, and concentrate on one thing for longer than a few moments, especially when it's not for work or school, but the effort for me is worth it. The mind, once freed from reacting to stimulus, first quiets then soars.

Below is the Great Litany of the Episcopal Church. I resisted the first minute's impulse to click away, and it began to draw me in. Don't bother if you're harried or otherwise pressed for time, however. You'll be disappointed.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Best Running Back I Never Saw (But Wished That I Had)

Mosi Tatupu has died. Mosi played for the New England Patriots during the 1980's and has been called the greatest running back ever to hail from the Hawaiian Islands.

It was my misfortune to have gone away to college and not to have seen him play for the buffanblu. To the Hawaiian postwar generation there was nothing more important than high school football, and it would have been a thrill to watch him run over Kam School, St. Louis, and Iolani defensemen.

In college I read accounts about his exploits in month-old copies of the Star-Bulletin and Advertiser. They had stories of Mosi plowing through the line of scrimmage with three defenders on his back, a man playing against boys.

Throughout his playing career Mosi Tatupu was everyone's favorite player.
“As a teammate, he was one of the best. He was one of those guys that made life fun whether it was in the locker room or on the practice fields," former [Patriots] quarterback Steve Grogan said. "He had a smile that radiated. The fans appreciated him because he was a lunchpail kind of guy and did whatever was asked of him — whether it was on special teams, on the goal line, in blocking or catching situations. I think Patriots fans really appreciated that.”
A popular high school coach, Mosi Tatupu at age 54 still had a lot to give. R.I.P.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Life Imitates a Movie (Again)

Politicians take credit for every good thing that occurs while they are in office, but last week’s statement by Joe Biden that the apparent victory in Iraq is “one of the great achievements of this administration” seemed to provoke apoplectic outrage in some of his opponents.

It does seem the height of gall that the Vice-President claims credit for the triumph of policies that both he and President Obama opposed hammer and tong, but Republicans would be wise not to over-react. First, it's always possible they're being punk'd. Second, Mr. Obama and Mr. Biden’s antiwar positions are so well-known that none but their most blinded supporters would attach credulity to his claim of victory. Simply repeating the Larry King videoclip without comment will be damaging enough to popular judgment of the Administration’s judgment.

As for my own reaction, I turn as I often do to pop culture. At the very end of the quest-filled 1981 movie Dragonslayer the young hero Galen slays the monster. The king, a desiccated husk of a man who has seen his kingdom nearly destroyed, gets out of his carriage and feebly stabs at the smoking carcass.

The villagers cheer their “dragonslayer” ruler. Life, death, tragedy, and triumph have given way to absurdity. All Galen and his maiden friend Valerian can do is exchange a knowing glance, then move on with their lives. That's advice I'm going to try to follow until November, 2012.


Below is the YouTube link to the exciting last ten minutes of Dragonslayer.



© 2010 Stephen Yuen

One Beautiful Soprano

To a kid growing up in 1950's Hawaii, TV was a rare treat. Allowed to watch during the short window between homework and bedtime, I generally liked my parents' and grandparents' viewing choices.

However, when an opera came on I left the room. I didn't bother to look at the screen--the sound of a powerful soprano was enough to chase me away. Was it the content of the music or the hyper-sensitivity of a child's hearing? They sang in another language and covered their ample frames with strange costumes, but the bottom line was that I didn't care for the sound. In harsh contrast to popular songstresses such as Doris Day and Judy Garland opera-style music was boring and even grating.

That is, until I heard Kathryn Grayson, who sang beautiful melodies, spoke English, and as a bonus didn't look like she was heavier than the male lead. Ms. Grayson, who died [obituary and photo from the Washington Post] on Wednesday, didn't actually perform in operas until after she quit Hollywood in 1956. But she was the only operatic singer in movies that I enjoyed listening to, and for those pleasant memories I am grateful. R.I.P.

Monday, February 15, 2010

A Perfect Storm (But No Snow) in Vancouver

Yesterday we posted separately on Facebook and Twitter [Re-typing betrayed my lack of skills in social media. Didn't follow single entry only, one of the axioms of modern electronic data-processing]
It's triple-witching multi-culti day.

Gung Hee Fat Choy! Happy Valentine's Day! Today our church is also celebrating Fat Tuesday a couple of days early by feasting on jambalaya, red velvet cake, and assorted high-cholesterol comestibles.

We're now playing bingo. Which other (mild) vices may we indulge before Lent begins?
Pity the poor inhabitants of Vancouver’s Chinatown, who are tugged in even more directions. The Winter Olympics shortened the lunar new year festival and parade. And I’m sure the crowds made a seat at a decent restaurant impossible to find on Valentine’s night. Vancouver – a jewel of a city, but not so much this week.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Another Reason Not to Buy Toyota

The most reliable and useful car that I’ve owned is a 1990 Toyota Camry wagon. The Camry was free from major repairs until it was seventeen years old, the V6 engine still has plenty of power, and the flexibility of the wagon configuration allows us to cram more stuff in it than would first appear from its compact size. The cost back in 1990 wasn’t bad –about $16,000—and it gets 24 mpg overall. So what’s not to like?

My philosophy that a car is only transportation may have hurt me in the long run. Sure, I’ve saved lots of dough, but maybe my net worth would be higher today if I focused more on increasing income rather than worrying about expenses.

A university study found that driving a Porsche 911 Carrera produced an immediate spike in the testosterone of male college students. The control car was a 1990 Camry wagon (!). The researchers also measured how much of the effect was due to “lekking”—driving a status car in front of other people—versus the experience of just driving it on an uncrowded road. It turns out that the effect due to being seen by others was slight; driving a Porsche has an “intrinsic” benefit.
One was a clapped-out 1990 Camry wagon with almost 200,000 miles on the clock. The other was a 2006 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S Cabriolet. During their drives in each car, drivers had saliva samples taken to evaluate changes in testosterone levels while in the lek (city driving with lots of witnesses) and out of the lek (on the highway, with nobody there to witness their driving). To eliminate testosterone level variations due to individuals slaking their need for speed, each student promised not to burst posted speed limits. [snip]

While driving a Porsche certainly sends signals of conspicuous consumption to the world, a 911 literally makes a driver more potent from a biological standpoint, whether or not there are witnesses to your possession of the car. A Porsche driver, science says, no matter where or how they drive, have higher testosterone levels than if they were stuck in a sedan. By driving a Porsche they become more potent competitors in the game of life, presumably upping their ability to continue to do whatever they were doing to enable them to procure a Porsche in the first place. One might argue that, rather than costing more because marketers tell us they're worth it, Porsches are expensive because our genes value them so highly. In so far as they give us a reproductive advantage, their value is an intrinsic quality.
I think I’ll mosey down to the dealership today. The red one seems to have my name on it... © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mickey Mouse Tech

Long after five generations of portable phones and answering machines have been consigned to the junkpile, the venerable Mickey Mouse pulse dialer lives on, unconnected, in an upstairs bedroom. Mickey Mouse survives because it's our one phone that can operate if the power goes off say, during an earthquake. As long as our landline has tone, we can dial out ("dial" for once may be interpreted literally).

I plugged Mickey into the jack and called the iPhone. It worked perfectly, just as it did 20 years ago. The communications people call it "POTS"--plain old telephone service--but plain can be beautiful. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

No Time Lost

Yes, I’m watching too much TV, but one fortuitous choice I’ve made is to avoid ABC’s Lost over its entire run. (There’s a member of the family who faithfully records all episodes, so I can’t avert my eyes entirely.) Now in its sixth and final season, all questions will be resolved. But just look at the questions:
What was the upshot of the kookie nuclear explosion Jack (Matthew Fox) masterminded to rewrite history and render the series' whole storyline moot? And what's the scoop with the dead John Locke (Terry O'Quinn) coexisting with his very-much-alive John Locke look-alike?
Thank goodness I didn’t invest any of my steadily shortening cranial telomeres in these conundra. Having snapped up Harry Potter and Battlestar Galactica chapters when they came out, I like a good mystery set in fantasy worlds as much as the next fanboy. But I’ve learned to invest the time only if the characters are compelling and their fictional universe is imaginative. Here’s the Lost word from a critic who’s disappointed with these final episodes.
Lost's fantastical elements, like the donkey wheel and the vanishing island and smokey and time travel, were once offset by the plausible-yet-surprising non-fantastical plot lines. This balance made the show somewhat palatable. But now the equilibrium is off because the relatively realistic bits are so predictable—run, Kate, run!So I give up. I'll leave it to Chad to fill in the many dotted lines of parallelism. Sayid the torturer now gets tortured! Ethan is back! And he's giving drugs to Claire again! And Claire is the new Rousseau, stalking baddies on the island and blasting them with her rifle! And Claire is pissed like Rousseau because her son was stolen by Ethan, who helped the young Ben steal Rousseau's son!
Again, thank goodness. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, February 07, 2010

This Week: Tim Geithner

Quick reaction to Treasury Secretary Geithner’s interview on ABC’s This Week:

Regardless of the question (unemployment, budget deficit and ballooning debt, business’ reluctance to borrow and invest), Sec. Geithner always asked us to refer back to where we were a little over one year ago when the financial system almost collapsed. Obviously, the point he was trying to make is that the situation may be objectively bad--unemployment at 10%--but it’s better than another Great Depression. To these eyes it’s reminiscent of the Bush Administration constantly referring back to the fear we felt after 9/11 and how we should be grateful to it that we haven’t been hit again (and I am grateful, by the way).

But gratitude was and is easily subsumed by other emotions. Gratitude is fleeting and can’t be the basis of lasting loyalty (just ask a parent how often “you oughta be grateful” wins an argument). And it won’t win in November.

Saturday, February 06, 2010

Amusing Juxtaposition

[Note: this post has been re-written and slightly expanded.] Real Clear Politics amusingly juxtaposes two opinion columns. Blame the Childish, Ignorant American Public drips with condescending 'tude while Why are Liberals so Condescending? at least attempts dispassionate analysis.

Most conservatives, especially those who live in blue states, have gotten used to their positions being characterized as stupid, unscientific, racist, uncompassionate, sexist, hypocritical, and/or evil. The words have been used so often that they have lost their sting. Liberals who lazily use caricature as a substitute for thought would do well to realize that that approach leads to underestimating one's opponents.

(In case one wonders about the first author's political leanings, other examples of Jacob Weisberg's writings are Obama's Brilliant First Year and Ignore Fox.)

No Recognition

Speaking of liberal condescension, we are approaching the third anniversary of a prominent example-- Ellen Goodman’s column on climate change in the February 7, 2007 Boston Globe. Excerpts follow, with especially choice passages in bold:
By every measure, the U N 's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change raises the level of alarm. The fact of global warming is "unequivocal." The certainty of the human role is now somewhere over 90 percent. Which is about as certain as scientists ever get.

I would like to say we're at a point where global warming is impossible to deny. Let's just say that global warming deniers are now on a par with Holocaust deniers, though one denies the past and the other denies the present and future.

There are astonishing gaps between Republican science and Democratic science. Try these numbers: Only 23 percent of college-educated Republicans believe the warming is due to humans, while 75 percent of college-educated Democrats believe it.

This great divide comes from the science-be-damned-and-debunked attitude of the Bush administration and its favorite media outlets. The day of the report, Big Oil Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma actually described it as "a shining example of the corruption of science for political gain." Speaking of corruption of science, the American Enterprise Institute, which has gotten $1.6 million over the years from Exxon Mobil, offered $10,000 last summer to scientists who would counter the IPCC report.

This works for some. But a lot of social science research tells us something else. As Ross Gelbspan, author of "The Heat is On," says, "when people are confronted with an overwhelming threat and don't see a solution, it makes them feel impotent. So they shrug it off or go into deliberate denial."
Ms. Goodman and her ilk aren't wrong necessarily; the record snowfalls burying the Atlantic coast don't disprove anthropogenic global warming. But developments since her column was written--the falsification of climate data, the manipulation of computer models, the substitution of conjecture as fact about glacial and rain-forest recession--should at least merit an apology from her for the calumnies ["Holocaust deniers"] heaped upon those who had questioned the "settled science." But such an apology from a dyed-in-the-wool liberal is as likely as her recognition that the President's call for civility applies to her as well as conservatives.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Look Who's Transparent Now

The WSJ reports:
In a rare break from traditional military secrecy, the U.S. and its allies are announcing the precise target of their first big offensive of the Afghanistan surge in an apparent bid to intimidate the Taliban.
Military operations are now more transparent than deliberations on major domestic (e.g. health care) legislation. It's a strange new world.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Bay Area Standard Auto


What a difference a year makes. The Bay Area standard auto (Toyota Prius with Obama/Biden decal and No-on-8 sticker) is not looking quite as shiny today. It’s still superior to cars in our household, but none of mine were ever recalled. Careful, self, schadenfreude is an unworthy emotion when others lose their Fahrvergn├╝gen.