Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Very Civilized

I’ve observed civil marriage ceremonies while on business at city hall, but the first time I attended one on purpose was last Friday. Despite, or perhaps because of, the intimate setting and informality I found the brief event to be as moving as any big church wedding. All that matters, really, was the love and commitment of the couple and the joy of family and friends who were present then and who will be present throughout their lives.

The Deputy Commissioner of Civil Marriages said a few words about the solemnity and importance of the ceremony we were witnessing. Vows were made, rings were exchanged, and lips were kissed (more than once). A friend brought cupcakes to celebrate the occasion.

Afterwards I marveled to the groom’s father about how simple, how stress-free, and how right everything seemed. He smiled, as did we all. A half an hour after it began, it was over.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Next Health Food

The eighth annual Spam Jam was held in Waikiki this past weekend (h/t Jeanne Cooper). A tribute to Hormel’s processed preserved protein product , the Spam Jam is one event I’ve never attended—another item to add to my bucket list.

The fondness that current and former Island residents have for Hormel’s mystery meat has puzzled business analysts. No surprise from this quarter: laden with salt and fat, Spam overwhelms the brain’s dietary disciplinary safeguards, especially when combined with nostalgia for one’s Hawaiian childhood. (During the war GI’s introduced Spam throughout Europe and the South Pacific, and although the American army has mostly left, the love for Spam has not.) No surprise also that it hasn’t caught on in health-conscious California and other hoity-toity enclaves. [Bold added below.]
A 56 gram (2 ounce) serving of original Spam provides seven grams of protein, two grams of carbohydrates, 15 grams of fat (23% US Daily Value) including 6 grams of saturated fat (28% US Daily Value), and 170 calories. A serving also contains nearly a third of the recommended daily intake of sodium (salt). A 56 gram serving of Spam contains 767 mg of sodium, equivalent to approximately 2 grams of salt, indicating about 3.6% of Spam's mass is salt. Spam provides very little in terms of vitamins and minerals (0% vitamin A, 1% vitamin C , 1% calcium, 3% iron). It has been listed as a food that is a poor choice for weight loss and optimum health and as a food that "is high in saturated fat and sodium".
Hawaii is the leading State for per-capita Spam consumption.
Island residents consume more than five million pounds, or nearly three million kilograms, of Spam a year, an average of about six cans for every man, woman and child.
But don’t be so quick to sniff.
Residents of Hawaii have a longer life expectancy than any other American state, according to a [2007] study conducted by the Harvard University Initiative for Global Health and the Harvard School of Public Health.
Could Spam have hidden health benefits that science has yet to uncover? Perhaps a steady diet of Spam (washed down with Coca-cola for maximum effect) causes the body to absorb preservatives that will stave off bacterial activity. Who knows, but in a few years we may be adding a slice of pink pleasure to our daily regimen of C and E and other antioxidants. Stranger dietary reversals have happened. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Spam, eggs, and rice. (Brown rice is healthier.)

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dr. Evil* Would Be Impressed

Apple’s astonishing rise from the ashes of tech irrelevance has been chronicled endlessly. The story about Apple’s growth has become the story, pushing aside reviews of the shiny new iPad (hard to believe it was introduced only three weeks ago) and even the prototype of the new iPhone that was left accidentally (?) in Gourmet Haus Staudt, a Redwood City bar. With only a few minor stumbles Apple has churned out hit after hit (iBook/MacBook, iPod, iTunes, iPhone, iPad) year after year. Meryl Streep or the New York Yankees have been known to top last year’s performance, but try doing it every year for 13 years.

Logic says defying gravity can’t continue. Organizations reach a certain size, and growth has to slow, at least that’s what they used to teach in B-school. Apple is now the most valuable company in the Bay Area, leaving in the dust such titans as Hewlett-Packard, Cisco, Intel, and Google.
With the total value of its publicly traded stock at $224 billion [update: on Wednesday, April 21, 2010, the day after the earnings announcement, Apple is $235 billion], up 107 percent from a year ago, Apple now has a market capitalization greater than all but two companies in the United States, Exxon Mobil and Microsoft.
But the talk has really gotten frothy when people start projecting a $1,000 price for a stock that closed at $259 today. One analyst was willing to be quoted on the $1,000: does he realize that Apple’s valuation would be close to one trillion dollars!?!

I’m going to head down to Gourmet Haus Staudt for a few cold ones.

*Movie quote: (Number Two: 'Dr. Evil, wouldn't it be easier to use your knowledge of the future to play the stock market? We could literally make trillions!') "Why make trillions when we could make... billions?" - Dr. Evil, Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me [okay, it was really funny in the movie]

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Relieved and Guiltless

Some of the people in my circle have formed a very negative attitude about the Tea Party movement which is attracting adherents across America. Tea Partiers thus far don’t seem to have developed a fully consistent set of ideas (government’s too big, don’t raise my taxes, but don’t touch my Medicare); the movement shares many aspects of libertarianism but has a long way to go to become a governing philosophy.

But I am sympathetic to the view that government is growing much too large. This opinion is not so much ideological as it is pragmatic or “scientific”, that is, induced from personal experience. The services that government delivers, such as health care and education, are complex, but no more so than operating an airline or an oil company.

Public servants whom I’ve met mean well, but they’re not subject to the cruel discipline of the market place that forces them or their bosses to make hard choices or be out of business completely. Public sector layoffs do happen, but there is no practical possibility that my woe begotten State of California , for example, will declare bankruptcy and restructure the long-term contracts that are the source of much of its fiscal problems.

As government’s role expands from protector (police, fire) to provider, consumers are forced to obtain the goods and services they need by navigating a bureaucracy instead of shopping amongst competitive sellers. Members of our family have spent innumerable hours reading regulations and instructions, filling out forms, and trying to get through to a real person who will answer our questions. It’s frustrating to apply for the medical, education, unemployment, and other financial benefits for which we qualify. Often, we have given up.

[It’s common at this point to level the charge of hypocrisy against smaller-government advocates if they apply for government benefits. Well, these people may have wanted a world with lower taxes and lower spending, but they lost the argument. To me it’s not hypocritical to apply for Social Security benefits when they’ve been paying Social Security taxes for 40+ years or seek unemployment benefits when they and their employers have been paying Federal and State unemployment taxes. After the law is enacted, if a person, regardless of his position in the debate, pays his taxes, he gets to claim benefits.]

I digress. The real purpose of this meandering post was to celebrate the passage of another April 15th. If you think the benefits side of government is confusing, you should see its revenue/tax side. (I’ve written before about my frustration—here’s an example--regarding not the level but the complexity of the tax system.)

This year I had spent long days compiling our 2009 information and got the basic forms mailed by noon on April 15th. It was only in the late afternoon when I remembered a limited liability corporation (LLC) that I had created over a year ago. This LLC is a so-called “disregarded entity” for income tax purposes, but fees and forms still have to be filed. After they cash my check I know these pieces of paper are destined for the giant warehouse that we saw at the end of “Raiders for the Lost Ark.” However, if I ignore the rules it will doubtless be a black mark on my permanent record somewhere. [BTW, a “permanent record” on every citizen was widely believed to exist during the paranoid 50’s and 60’s; it was dismissed as an urban legend in subsequent decades. Who’s crazy now? (:-) ]

But enough caviling. For the past two nights I’ve slept the blissful sleep of the relieved and guiltless. It’s a beautiful Sunday in the neighborhood and 72 degrees F. I’m closing the laptop and going outside. I hope you, dear reader, do the same. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Monday, April 12, 2010

One for the Ages

This year’s Masters golf tournament on CBS was must-see (sorry, NBC) television: a glittering leaderboard that included champions from decades past, the return of the world’s top golfer from five months of scandal, and exciting golf conducted on the pristine Augusta National stage. At the end it became a memorable morality play.

Like many fans I initially tuned in to see if Tiger Woods still had his game. I was ambivalent about wanting him to win (a just universe requires a penalty to be paid, n'est-ce pas?), but I did expect to view the customary compensatory gestures by this behavior-challenged celebrity: remorse, humility, and, above all, the self-control that showed that he is sensitive to his effect on those around him.

Despite a visible effort Tiger could not conceal his frustration and anger at his golfing miscues, and he has always been an ungracious, if not sore loser. He has unmatched skills, but his act is wearing thin. Tiger’s the bad guy now. If he doesn’t change, at the end of his career the public may acknowledge him only grudgingly to be the greatest ever. He’ll be the Barry Bonds of golf.

Phil Mickelson’s triumph on one of sports’ greatest stages had moments that reality television can only dream of. Phil could have played a safe shot from under the trees on the 13th hole par-5, but he refused to protect his two-shot lead and risked a water landing by going for the green. The ball landed a few feet from the hole, “the shot of his life,” according to Nick Faldo, three-time Masters champion. The birdie just about sealed his win.

But what catapulted Phil Mickelson’s victory to greatness was the background against which it was achieved: his wife’s year-long battle against breast cancer. Amy Mickelson’s trips to Houston for treatment, the strain it placed upon the family and their three young children, and the subsequent discovery that Phil’s mother also had breast cancer would make it difficult for any normal person to function normally, much less achieve a ranking of second-best golfer in the world at the end of 2009.

The 2010 Masters was about growing old, marriage, life, and love. It was one for the ages. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

The shot of the day, by CBS.

Toxic in High Doses

My extended family has a genetic predisposition to gout, which is caused by the body’s inability to flush uric acid. Crystals build up in the joints, and the painful swelling in the knees and feet can immobilize the worst cases for a week. Gout has been around for centuries, and so has its treatment by colchicine, a plant derivative.

In 2009 the Food and Drug Administration granted an exclusive marketing license on this venerable medication to a company named URL Pharma.
The price rise is a consequence of a Food and Drug Administration effort to improve the safety of long-used but unapproved drugs, with a trade-off often made between drug affordability and safety. [snip]

"It's not a new product. It's been out for hundreds of years. To all of a sudden have to pay $125 or $150 a month, after it only cost $5 or $10 a month, [bold added] is a real problem," said Stanley Cohen, a Dallas doctor who is the president of the American College of Rheumatology.
URL Pharma conducted “scientific” studies that confirmed what doctors have long known about colchicine; it can be toxic in high doses and/or over extended periods. For its trouble URL Pharma was awarded with a regulatory shield that has enabled it to sue small producers, who have stopped production.

The sudden financial squeeze on gout sufferers can be hard on elderly patients on fixed incomes, like members of my family. Another example of what happens when a powerful government agency, meaning to do well, expands its reach into an area that had previously escaped its attentions.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010


One of our guinea pigs died the week before Easter. On a visit to treat an infection she was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Bubbles was extraordinarily patient. She endured chemotherapy injections and daily doses of prednisone and antibiotics without squirming. We hand-administered liquid foods for several weeks, and she appeared to regain her appetite for solids. On her second visit to Adobe Animal Hospital the doctors were surprised not only that she had survived but was acting livelier.

Alas, it was a false rally. One Friday evening her legs twitched uncontrollably, and she gasped her last before we could arrive at Adobe.

Bubbles was an intelligent guinea pig. She came running to her name and ignored our summons to other animals. She performed simple tricks and seemed to enjoy watching TV with us in the family room, purring her contentment.

Although I'm not sure about the theology, I like to think that she's frolicking in a peaceful meadow munching on her favorite sweet lettuce leaves. We'll miss her.

We held a short service for Bubbles. Her ashes sit on our mantle.

Tax Changes in the Health Reform Bill

Health reform legislation has made such major changes to the Internal Revenue Code (thankfully, none of these affect our 2009 filings due next week) that tax professionals may be forgiven for thinking that a tax bill with health features has just been passed.

The AICPA has published a discussion of the various tax changes and implementation dates in the Journal of Accountancy.

Generally speaking, for the same level of coverage you'll pay more (and it could be substantially more) through the tax system than less well-off citizens if you're a wealthy individual or large employer.

Most of us, rich or poor, large or small, will also have significant IRS additional reporting requirements.

Everyone will have his or her boon or bane from the legislation. One of my peeves, from a tax point of view, is the resumption of the 1970's distinction between "earned" and "passive"(here called "investment") income, in which earnings from capital will be taxed more heavily than earnings from labor. There is enough tax-structuring going on because of progressive tax rates; adding schemes that recharacterize investment income as earned income for wealthy individuals won't help economic efficiency. It will increase business for accountants and financial planners, though as a consultant who works in that area I suppose I should be grateful. © 2010 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, April 01, 2010

One Letter Can Change the Meaning

The following is not an April Fool's joke.

When Vice-President Biden excitedly called the just-enacted health reform bill a “big f------ deal,” the embarrassment was short-lived. The President said "Joe's comment" was "the best thing" that happened on the bill's signing date. Democrats are now glorifying the faux pas in a fund-raising T-shirt that proudly proclaims “Health reform is a BFD.”

The obvious Republican counter-T-shirt would be “Health reform is a BFUD”, as in “big [fouled] up deal.” It's possible for one letter to change the meaning entirely. © 2010 Stephen Yuen