Saturday, December 31, 2011

Happy New Year

Just like I did a year ago, I went to the stockbroker's office and executed a partial Roth conversion, deliberately triggering taxable income now in order to lower the tax bill in future years. One assumption behind that move is that investments in the Roth account will grow significantly, at least to such an extent that the conversion will be deemed in retrospect to have been worthwhile. Phrased more simply, I am an optimist.

I had one or two goals---resolutions, if you will---for 2011 that were accomplished, but the rest lay incomplete because of efforts that ranged from the desultory to the earnest college try. Nevertheless, I will put them on the New Year's list and try again.

I remain on speaking terms with loved ones, have reasonably good health, and have enough money to pay the bills. May you be blessed at least as much in the New Year.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Can't iPhone Home

iPhone users press the Home button throughout the day as they flip between applications. When it stops working, as mine did last week, the problem can be profoundly irritating. (If I wanted to move from making a phone call to, say, the maps application or the calendar, I would have to turn off the phone using the power button, then turn it on again.)

Several websites advised that the culprit was likely buggy software, so I went through the two-hour process of restoring the iPhone to its factory settings, then reloading apps, music, and photos. No luck, Home was still non-functional.

After some detective work, I am 99% sure the problem was the "free" MyATT app that had been installed earlier this month. The app did have some neat features---it analyzed data and voice usage on all four lines, showed when they could be upgraded, and made it easier to pay the bill--but the benefits certainly weren't worth the cost of disabling the Home key. After deleting the MyATT app on both the computer and iPhone, and again performing a Restore, the functionality is back.

I doubt I'll be installing any more apps from AT&T. This experience also confirms the general principle that one should not add programs to one's devices merely because they look cool; the programs should be useful and/or entertaining on at least an occasional basis.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

It's Hard to Play Soft

A ukulele artist takes it down several notches and gifts us with a quiet "Silent Night." Instrumentalists and singers know that it's very difficult to play softly and slowly, when every off-key note, scratch of the bow, or uneven breath is noticeable. Thanks, Jake, and Merry Christmas (from Tim's brother).

Christmas Reverie

The frost dusts the rooftops on this Christmas morn. I light the furnace and get the newspaper.

In the lagoon there are ducks who haven't gone south---it can't be that cold. Perhaps my sensitivity to low temperatures is a sign of advancing age. I must book another trip to the Islands soon.

But first I need to get ready for church. That, after all, is the Reason we have shopping, cards, caroling, and decorations.

Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The People's Republic Can't Keep the Lights On

North Korea at night via Ed Driscoll
They put off basic maintenance, they are distracted by goals having nothing to do with the primary mission, and they appoint bosses because of their political loyalty, not expertise. The lights went off in the People's Republic of North Korea long before their leader died, and the only heads that are rolling are not of those who are responsible but of those who complain. The contrast with the prosperous South is like night and day.

In San Francisco the lights flickered out on Monday at the Steelers-49ers game when much of the nation was watching. The comparison to North Korea may be unfair (and too delicious to pass up), but there is a larger point to be made.
Candlestick at night from EPSN

Candlestick Park is slated for oblivion. The aging power grid and conventional power generators may eventually end up on history's ash heap. But while we still need the old infrastructure it is the height of foolishness to neglect its importance, funnel resources to unproven technologies at its expense, and disparage the people and companies who make it work.

Dreamers who have never heard of the Second Law of Thermodynamics think we can beat our nuclear reactors into windmills and solar panels. Even if the self-proclaimed visionaries do know their physics, a basic IRR calculation on a $50 financial calculator should have given them pause. Now the bulbs are dimming all across America.

No product, no jobs, no cars in the Solyndra parking lot, a half billion dollars later.

Monday, December 19, 2011

The Jagged Line of Freedom

Jeb Bush, former two-term governor of Florida, wants to roll back statism:
In Washington, D.C., rules are going in the opposite direction. They are exploding in reach and complexity. They are created under a cloud of uncertainty, and years after their passage nobody really knows how they will work. [snip]

...we must choose between the straight line promised by the statists and the jagged line of economic freedom. The straight line of gradual and controlled growth is what the statists promise but can never deliver. The jagged line offers no guarantees but has a powerful record of delivering the most prosperity and the most opportunity to the most people. We cannot possibly know in advance what freedom promises for 312 million individuals. But unless we are willing to explore the jagged line of freedom, we will be stuck with the straight line. And the straight line, it turns out, is a flat line.
Unlike other vocal conservatives, Jeb Bush doesn't attribute sinister motives to big-government advocates. The gigantism of the state may even spring from the well-meaning attempt to protect capitalism's losers. But the cost to innovation and animal spirits has been too high.

Jeb Bush's conservatism with a velvet glove may just be what (and who) Republicans have been searching for. Four years ago the wounds were too raw for yet a third member of the Bush family to be part of the national ticket. In 2012 the circumstances are very different.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Making Lemonade

The car's in the shop again. I've been taking Sam Trans to Millbrae, then BART-ing to the City. The total cost for the round trip: $8.50 for BART and $4.00 for the bus. That's the ala carte price. Monthly passes can be more economical, but consultancy gigs don't require my presence in San Francisco every day.

The walk home from the bus stop takes me through the shopping center. The outdoor tables at the Middle Eastern pizza restaurant are filled with patrons puffing on hookahs.

During the winter the patio heaters alleviate the chill, and houses across the water have lighting displays.

Car repairs can be inconvenient, but the lengthier commute that is forced upon the traveler can make one notice what's going on in the neighborhood.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Disaff- infected

The tents have been cleared, and the disaffected, disgruntled, and dyspeptic have left the premises. City sanitation workers are sterilizing the scene.

I don't agree with extreme environmentalists who believe that human beings blight the earth. However, I must admit that the plaza is looking a lot more appealing now that it's been emptied.

Could that have been the plot all along, acting the opposite (trashing the environment) of one's belief in order to provoke a reaction (tighter environmental restrictions) that will further the ultimate goal? That's like saying we should arm drug gangs in the hope that appalling gun violence will result in tighter gun control. No, no one would be that callous.

Monday, December 12, 2011

I'd Rather Be Skating

On weekdays the rink is mostly empty. Many skaters are walkups renting a pair on impulse--Eastern transplants recapturing joyous moments from their youth, tourists wanting a picture of skating(!) in San Francisco(!), and parents teaching their children what Mommy and Daddy did for fun as kids growing up in Michigan.

A few feet away the mood changes to resentment. Signs proclaim solutions to the economic malaise. The remedies invariably involve taking stuff away from politicians, bankers, and other fat cats who got rich through thievery, not hard work. Well, perhaps some did. Meanwhile, the occupiers sit on real estate next to pricey San Francisco office buildings that are filled with hard-working saps (who are doing well comparatively but, take it from me, are not in the 1%) who pay taxes so that police can protect the squatters, and workers can empty their port-o-potties.

The tents have been up for over a month. I suppose if I chose to sit around in the cold for weeks on end the anger would build in me, too.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Day of Infamy, 70 Years Later

[The following is an update of my post of three years ago.]

On December 7, 1941 Japanese bombers obliterated the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor. My father, a junior at William McKinley High, saw the silver planes flying overhead on that clear Sunday morning. He didn’t realize anything was out of the ordinary until he saw smoke rising from the Ewa (western) side of Oahu. My mother, a middle-schooler at Robert Louis Stevenson Intermediate, was preparing to go to Sunday services downtown.

It was a day that changed everything. Millions of Americans, including Dad and his six brothers, answered the call.

While the majority survived the War with life and limbs intact, hundreds of thousands did not, like my wife’s uncle who died somewhere over the Pacific. His body was never found.

Some found the armed services to be to their liking and made it a career, like my uncle who was the best auto mechanic I ever knew. Others, like my father-in-law, seized the opportunity offered by the GI bill and went on to college and jobs that they would never previously have considered.

At the U.S.S. Arizona memorial the names of the fallen are inscribed on the wall. Are we worthy of their sacrifice? Perhaps......if we preserve, protect, and pass on the gifts they have bestowed to us.

Monday, December 05, 2011

O Look, A Squirrel

My 401(k) has been invested in stocks of industrial companies. As of this morning it was up 4.4% for the year, in line with the performance of the Dow and above the NASDAQ. [Update: the indices were higher by another 0.6% to 1.1% today.] That may sound positive, but it's been a stressful ride.

Portfolios have swung +/- 10% in a few days. Individual stocks can be even more volatile, of course, but it's distracting when sharp ups and downs occur to diversified holdings consisting of more than a dozen stocks and mutual funds and when the daily market gain or loss is a multiple of one's paycheck.

Just yesterday the smart money was moving to euro investments because the Europeans supposedly had their act together much better than the Americans. That orthodoxy turned on a centime. The problems of the European currency now threaten to bring down the global financial system.

My advice for dealing with macro problems: play videogames, read escapist fiction, and watch football. It's better than worrying about problems one can't control.

[Update - 12/7: there's ego satisfaction, but not much else, when a major publication comes out with an article on this subject:
Picking winners during the past few months of uncertainty has proven difficult for most investors -- even the pros. While stocks are up 5% for the year, they've had an unsettling climb. Many investors have fled stocks for bonds, only to find that most bond yields are sinking and most bond fund managers are trailing their benchmarks thanks to bad bets on riskier issues. Even investments that are supposed to zig when the market zags, like oil and gold, have been moving much closer with stocks, making it difficult for investors to figure out the next step.]

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Big Red Ball

Since the Dawn of Man there has been an irresistible urge to run our fingers over large smooth objects.

I paused on my lunch break.

The holiday decorations at the old Southern Pacific building consist of mammoth red and gold balls placed in the middle of the walkway. Not mounted on a pedestal, they demand to be touched. The artist seems to be saying, stop, rouse yourself from your preoccupations, see and feel this colorful, massive object.

It soon will be Christmas, when something colorful and massive came into the world. Did you even stop to notice?

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

In Order to Get Better, You Must First Look Worse

The blue beetle has been stripped bare, with not even a gown to protect its dignity. Today I ordered replacement gaskets and moldings from a vendor in Southern California.

Next month I'll shop around for bumper restorers. I'd rather rechrome the German originals than buy replacements made in Brazil or China. Rechroming is expensive due to the skilled labor and powerful chemicals employed. I'm still hoping that this labor of love doesn't turn into a time and money sink, but the signs aren't promising.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Precious Bodily RFIDs

Our minds have been on food this weekend, but it won't be much longer before "mindful" food will be in our stomach, heart, and precious bodily fluids. Radio frequency identification (RFID) tags broadcast detailed information about objects to which they are affixed. The technology is already available--consider medical tracking--to put RFIDs into food.

In the name of food safety, nutrition, and stores management (smart refrigerators would sense when we are running low on eggs) a London engineer has advocated "Nutrismart" tagging. Of course, once we consume these tags, anyone with the right receiving equipment would know what we've eaten, where we've been and when, and other information that perhaps only our doctor knew. And there is no off switch to RFID like the GPS in our cellphone. What could go wrong?

On a restaurant sign of the near-future: "Our food contains no pesticides, herbicides, hormones, or electronic devices."

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving

The 23-lb. turkey came out golden brown but ever so slightly overcooked; it took nearly eight hours for the oven thermometer to ping at 165 degrees. (Last year a bird of the same weight reached that temperature at the six-hour mark.) Ladles of gravy easily overcame the dryness, and you don't have to advise me twice.

I hope that you were able to dwell at least for a moment on the good things in your life, dear reader. Whatever your troubles may be, few of us would choose to live in a place and time other than the United States of America at the beginning of the 21st century.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Feature, Not a Bug

Photo from Forbes
Google continues to improve its mobile operating system at breathtaking speed. Android 4.0 will be installed on the Galaxy Nexus and will use facial recognition as one of the methods to lock/unlock the phone.
However, Google warns users this isn't necessarily the safest method for locking a phone. Case in point: I was able to unlock the phone by holding a photo of my face [bold added] up to its lock screen.
Stranger-thieves are unlikely to have pictures of the phone's owner, but parents and other relatives who don't want to steal the phone but merely peruse its contents may consider such easily bypassable security a feature, not a bug.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Tone It Down Through Sound

The stars of Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part I explain how sound can tone down an R-rated movie to PG-13 (text of interview requires purchase from Entertainment Weekly):
Robert Pattinson: It was really Kristen's fault it was going R-rated. [To Kristen Stewart] Your fancy moves--no one's seen moves like that in a PG-13 movie! [Laughs]The thing about ratings is, it's about noises.

Kristen Stewart: Like if his thrust coincided with my ohhhh--that's not okay.

Pattinson: If a sex scene is rated R, the first thing you do is take out the sounds and put music over it. Same thing if there's a horror scene; you take out the screams.

Taylor Lautner: Or in an action scene, if you're punching someone in the face you take out the sound effect of the fist making contact.
Take out the actual sounds, put in some music, then it's safe for kids. Like political commercials.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Man Knows Turkeys

William Shatner makes a timely public service announcement about the dangers of turkey fryers:
Shatner says in real life, he has burned himself, and almost burned his house down, as a result of mishaps stemming from deep-frying turkeys.
In 1989 William Shatner nearly killed off the Star Trek franchise when he wrote, directed, and starred in Star Trek V: the Final Frontier, universally judged to be the worst Star Trek movie ever.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Not All of Us Can

At last, the winnowing:
" Michael Bloomberg is my hero," Mr. Mills said. "He catapulted us out of all this lethargy. He threw out all the drunks, all the hypocrites, all the liars, all the people who were here for a little bit of fun, and brought us down to the people who are smart enough to get things done and really have something invested in this."
1) If you can't police yourselves, how can you police others?

2) Billionaire Michael Bloomberg, who is part of the .0001%, "is my hero." No irony there.

I'm Not Listening

"Banks got bailed out, we got sold out."
There's a lot to be angry about:

1) the banks, both commercial and investment, reaped enormous profits during the go-go years by taking risks that we now know to be reckless;

2) if the bankers had paid up or had gone out of business when the deals went bad, the system would have seemed fairer. But, we, the taxpayers, footed the bill.

3) now that conditions are better, bankers have resumed paying themselves handsomely and congratulating themselves on their smarts.



1) The Occupy protesters want to seize the "one-percent's" property because the rich got that way immorally according to the protestors' standards (but not illegally--go get them, I say, if laws have been broken);

2) The abrogation of property rights affects us all. I don't want someone taking away my 401(k) or my house because I meet someone's definition of being rich. "First, they came for the billionaires, then the millionaires, and then they came for me."

3) Filth--if any business operated under those conditions it would have been closed immediately by public health authorities--and violence--rape, murder, assault, robbery, and drug use--are rampant. [Update: here's a list of over 70 incidents - a few are speech "crimes" for which a Tea Partier would be pilloried, but most are actual crimes.] The banks may be bad, but I'll take that world over the one the protestors are offering. People admire, then follow, those who lead admirable lives.

4) Don't youngsters bear any responsibility for the choices they made in their education? In 2011 graduates who majored in computer science, mathematics, and the hard sciences have no lack of job offers in the Bay Area and are well able to service their student loans. Decades ago, in a bad economy, I took courses then a job in the non-fulfilling field of accounting. I had bills to pay. Following my passion when I didn't have any money seemed awfully self-indulgent.

5) If a protestor claims "we got sold out", I sympathize completely if she pays income taxes. But if she doesn't pay anything and the protest is about her government goodies getting cut, then I'm not listening.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Mumbling Through

We make fun of our leaders for their verbal missteps---George W. Bush's "nukular" and Barack Obama's "corpse-man" come to mind---but don't sneer too loudly or too often. Mockery originates from pride, and we know what pride precedeth.

Speaking of judgment, yesterday was my turn to read the lesson in church. Unfortunately, the lectionary pointed to one of those dreaded Old Testament passages that contained over a dozen Hebrew names. If it were just two or three, I could look them up in one of several Internet pronunciation guides. However, through sheer numbers (another dreaded OT book, BTW) the fourth chapter of Judges overwhelmed this strategy.
The Israelites again did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, after Ehud died. So the LORD sold them into the hand of King Jabin of Canaan, who reigned in Hazor; the commander of his army was Sisera, who lived in Harosheth-ha-goiim. Then the Israelites cried out to the LORD for help; for he had nine hundred chariots of iron, and had oppressed the Israelites cruelly twenty years.

At that time Deborah, a prophetess, wife of Lappidoth, was judging Israel. She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment. She sent and summoned Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh in Naphtali, and said to him, "The LORD, the God of Israel, commands you, `Go, take position at Mount Tabor, bringing ten thousand from the tribe of Naphtali and the tribe of Zebulun. I will draw out Sisera, the general of Jabin's army, to meet you by the Wadi Kishon with his chariots and his troops; and I will give him into your hand.'"
When unsure about pronunciation, I followed the basic rules: 1) speak quickly; 2) slur the long and short vowels so that they can be interpreted either way; 3) sound and look like you know what you're doing.

Knowledge is power, but the appearance of knowledge is almost as good.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Nothing to See Here

Today's headlines are rife with sex scandals and sex crimes, the prospective collapse of the European currency and European economies, the crashing stock market (the Dow is down 400 points), and the occupation of urban centers by legitimate protestors or violent criminals, depending on one's perspective.

A deceptively sleepy countenance
In our quiet middle-class suburb of 30,000, however, it's another slow news day.

Last night Foster City elected three members to its five-person City Council. The tae kwan do teacher and Olympic medalist got in. Like current and former military men and football players, he radiates toughness. Fiscal and physical discipline, that's the ticket.

By 7:20 it warmed to 41.
Overnight temperatures have fallen to the 30's. After several days of trying to outlast the "temporary" cold spell, I re-lit the pilot light and let the furnace run a couple of hours. Our natural gas consumption has been reduced dramatically because of the tankless water heater installed three years ago. We have much less guilt, and our bills are a lot lower due to the graduated rate schedule, when we raise the thermostat.

A Foster City woman did float to the top of the national news, however briefly.
A Bay Area woman said she lost her sense of taste for more than a week after using a popular alcohol-free mouthwash....The Foster City woman said her sense of taste didn't return to normal until eight days after using [Crest Pro-Health Complete mouth rinse].
Maybe our City Council can look into this.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Shared and Unrushed

Once in a while it's okay to indulge, especially on one's birthday. I forsook the usual chicken or hamburger and went to the Lobster Shack in search of the Crustacean that I only allow myself once or twice a year. The lobster arrived bright red from the steamer. The dish was served with little adornment: butter and lemon, cole slaw, corn, and a plate of fries on the side.

Whole lobster is one meal that can't be rushed. The shell must be cracked carefully so that one doesn't splatter liquid on the dinner companions who aren't wearing bibs. The flesh must be teased delicately from the carapace. It tastes much better and is easier to dip in whole pieces than in shreds.

It took nearly an hour to clean out the claws, tail, and even some of the less meaty parts of the thorax. My dinner companion, who was done with her lobster roll, started nibbling on the legs. Certain experiences are made more pleasant if they're shared and unrushed.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011


Screenshot from iBooks "Steve Jobs"
I downloaded the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs and have been making my way slowly through the 927-page electronic document. At the pace of a chapter a day, I won't be done till mid-December.

The juicy bits--tantalizing hints about Apple's future products, Steve Jobs' opinions about powerful and famous people and the advice he gave them--have been well-publicized.

What's intriguing to me are the stories of the people and experiences that shaped him: the adoptive parents who inculcated their values, the birth parents who struggled with culture clashes (his father was Syrian) and economic hardship, the teachers who recognized his talents, the youthful nerds who competed and collaborated with him, and above all the unique confluence of engineering can-doism, risk-seeking capitalists, state-of-the-art science, and social informality that marked the soon-to-be-nicknamed Silicon Valley in the Sixties and Seventies.

More who knew Steve Jobs will undoubtedly write their first-hand accounts in the months ahead. We'll pay attention in the vain hope that we can better understand how Steve Jobs could combine vision and action unlike anyone we have ever known.

Because he was right so often about so many big things, his pronouncements have become revered as the closest thing we have to Scripture in these iconoclastic times. Steve even anticipated this development; he advised Tim Cook to never ask what would Jobs do but "to just do what's right."

Too late for that. Until the moment he left us Steve Jobs continued to see truths to which most of us are blind. "Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow."

The "Steve Jobs" display does remind one of the 1984 commercial, nicht wahr?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Diocesan Convention

Friday night mass at Grace Cathedral
It was a beautiful weekend in the Bay Area, and I spent it indoors. Every October members of 108 Episcopal churches in Northern California gather at Grace Cathedral for the Diocesan Convention.

Prayers are said, reports are presented, resolutions are made, and officers are elected. Given all the business that had to be conducted---the Diocese has 162 years of legal and procedural barnacles encrusting its activities---it was remarkable that we completed the agenda within the allotted nine hours.

Bay Area attendance has dwindled to a weekly average of 8,500 Bay Area worshipers. Bishop Marc called for renewal--we dare not call it evangelism!--by telling our story to the community. There is an ingrained reluctance and much Scriptural support against tooting one's horn, but in these cacophonous times one can't be completely silent. The church and church members perform many unpublicized acts of charity; some people in the wider community might be interested in joining the Church if they heard about them.

The spirit of comity pervaded the meeting hall, even during the contentious debate on Israeli settlements. The proposed Resolution called for "divest[ment] from all companies that enable the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and to boycott all products manufactured in Israeli settlements." The church would urge other organizations, such as the $236 billion California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), to liquidate investments in such companies, which included names like Boeing, Motorola, Caterpillar, and General Dynamics.

To soften its seeming one-sidedness, the Resolution was amended to acknowledge the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians to self-determination, statehood, safety, and security. Nevertheless, the Resolution was defeated, 171-144, in a show of hands. We live in one of the most liberal Dioceses in one of the most liberal Protestant denominations, but this one was too much to swallow. Other resolutions, which pertained to church matters, passed overwhelmingly.

After the convention adjourned, we passed by Occupy SF demonstrators marching along Sixth Street. There are many different ways, over and above mere working and consuming, that people choose to participate in civic society, and some of them were on display on this beautiful weekend in the Bay Area.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Remarkably Prescient

Siri, Apple's artificial intelligence system for the iPhone 4S, is one of the final building blocks necessary to realization of Apple's vision of computing. The "Knowledge Navigator" video was produced in 1987.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Year of Bottoming Out

Bishop Marc made his biennial visit last Sunday, and the church was packed. Turnout was impressive, considering that at the same time the 49ers were playing in Detroit in the NFL's game of the week. Perhaps it is true, as the Bishop said afterwards, that the decades'-long decline in Episcopal attendance has been arrested. On the other hand many of us do have TiVo.

Bishop Marc alluded to Herman Cain's 9-9-9 tax plan when he meditated on the "render unto Ceasar" Gospel passage. (I wonder if part of the inspiration came from Monday's tax deadline.) When we are first introduced to the story, we are struck by Jesus' cleverness in evading the questioners' effort to elicit an anti-government answer. But the passage goes deeper than that, said the Bishop. All things come from God, so we are not talking about parallel tax systems to divvy up the boodle (not his words--we in the pews have to use terms that we understand) but the nature of things, of wealth, and of ownership.

After he was done with the homily the Bishop welcomed a group of enthusiastic confirmees as full-fledged members of the Anglican Communion. I surreptitiously checked the football score on the iPhone; after falling behind 10-0 early, the Niners came back to take the lead 12-10 at the half (the final score was San Francisco 25, Detroit 19).

Perhaps this is the year that a lot of things take a turn for the better.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Simplification Isn't Simple

Last year's 46-page return.
Gradually clearing the clutter of our financial affairs, I managed to reduce our 2010 tax return by three pages. (Shrinkage could also have been correlated with less income in some activities.)

Today, October 17th, is the absolute deadline for filing 2010 income tax returns. The only way for us to file on April 15th would be if we were to divest ourselves of some investments whose records for the previous year aren't finalized until August. Getting out would be complicated, not to mention costly, from a tax and legal point of view.

If simplification were simple, more people would do it.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Upside Correction

Another reason to feel sanguine: after the two-week October rally, market indices and most balanced portfolios have climbed back to even for the year. For Apple investors like yours truly, our joy at being up 30% since December is not unadorned because of the death of the company's great and glorious founder. We await Tuesday's earnings call with both anticipation and trepidation.

The travails of the European Union were the prime reason for stocks' near-collapse over the summer. Last week's signs of cooperation among the major European powers, plus some reassuring noises from U.S. Treasury Secretary Geithner, seem to have stabilized markets. We are not out of the (Bretton) woods yet, but the euro's survival seems assured in the short term.

So enjoy the rest of this year. Next year, when the United States elects a President, promises to be exciting and not in a good way.

Friday, October 14, 2011

What a Difference a Year Makes

The Vaillancourt Fountain is going full blast. Water transforms the skeletal frame, infusing the plaza with life.

On this fall morning only a few tourists stroll by. Seagulls and pigeons abound, waiting for the lunch crowd. Pickings will be slim. Pedestrian traffic has been declining for years. And this is Friday, which has become a half-work-day or working-from-home day at many firms.

Last year around this time the Embarcadero was buzzing with sports fans as the Giants marched through the playoffs. Now it's back to subdued normalcy. Thank goodness---for productivity's sake.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Reason for Optimism

Despite wars, joblessness, and the crumbling of the global financial system, there is reason for optimism:
Lions (5-0) to host 49ers (4-1) in battle for … NFC supremacy?
--Sports headline in the San Jose Mercury News
No one thought that the NFL Game of the Week in mid-October would be the San Francisco 49ers vs. the Detroit Lions. Both teams finished with six wins and ten losses last year, and most experts at the beginning of the season predicted only modest improvement at best. The Niners and Lions exemplify how quickly fortunes can turn for the better (we are sadly familiar with how they can turn in the other direction).

The teams' recent success is of course attributable to their rosters of talented players, but the, er, lion's share of the credit has rightly gone to the coaches. In the Bay Area we read regular reports of how former Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh has instilled expectations of winning into a moribund San Francisco franchise. Detroit coach Jim Schwartz has been equally lauded.

The Great Man of History theory fell out of favor in the 20th century as thinkers became enamored by "-isms" that said individuals don't make much difference. But surely our lives would be poorer if Martin Luther King, Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk, or Steve Jobs had not lived. And on a much less important stage Jim Schwartz and Jim Harbaugh are showing that the theory lives on.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

"Without Steve Jobs, Where's the Excitement Going to Come From?"

...said a tech reporter on CNN last night.

In my lifetime a businessman's death had never merited the above-the-fold headline in the newspaper. Until this morning.

The passing of Steve Jobs was the lead story in not only the national dead-tree press but also the major TV networks and the most trafficked portals of the World Wide Web. (Here are the Steve Jobs bios from the NYT, the WSJ, and the LAT.)

Most of us who live in the Bay Area never met Steve in person, but we lived in his world. We bought Apple IIs and (sigh) Apple IIIs. Everyone knew someone who worked at Apple; we heard scuttlebutt about great secret stuff in the Cupertino labs. We switched to Excel, just because it came out on the Mac, when everyone else was using 1-2-3 spreadsheets on the PC.

We dreamed big because of Steve. Sure, Hewlett and Packard started up in the garage, but H & P did it in 1939. The two Steves showed that garages still were magic in the '70's. Inspired by their example many Bay Area denizens quit their corporate jobs and tried their luck. Most of us failed the first time out, but having caught the bug and lost the fear, we kept trying until we did make it.

The kids of Apple doffed their ties early, quickly followed by the rest of the Valley. It took a couple of decades for business casual to conquer the final redoubts in San Francisco's financial district. You couldn't tell who was rich or important by the way people dressed, so you had to treat everyone as if they were a millionaire.

When Steve was fired in 1985, he looked like just another guy who had reached his level of incompetence.

After the ministrations of a series of conventional CEO's failed, Steve returned to a nearly bankrupt Apple in 1997 and initiated the most remarkable turnaround in business history.

All is sweetness and light now, but at the time he made some ruthless decisions that tested the loyalty of the Apple faithful. He killed the clone licensing program, thereby accelerating their demise. (A $2,000 Power Computing clone that I had purchased in 1994 was nearly worthless three years later, and $2K was real money back then).

The new iBooks and iMacs looked interesting, but familiar ports were gone, replaced by a newfangled Universal Serial Bus that required us to buy USB printers and other peripheral devices. And where was the built-in floppy disk drive (available only as an external extra)? How were we supposed to move data from computer to computer?

As the vastly larger PC universe adopted Steve's changes, we began to trust his vision. As Steve's judgment proved correct at each major fork in the road, our caution gave way to anticipation, then overwhelming excitement.

Of course we stood in line for the "insanely great" product that Apple was about to release--available on-line or in the Apple store in the next 30 days--but what we were really eager to see was which entire industry was going to be created, upended, or destroyed in the next couple of years.

Steve Jobs has been compared to Edison, Disney, Rockefeller, and post-Industrial Revolution business titans. Perhaps it's not too much of an overstatement to reach further back in history for the apt comparison---Steve Jobs was both visionary Oracle and young Alexander, who died with worlds left to conquer. R.I.P. © 2011 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

All Creatures Great and Small

Under azure skies priests from our local Episcopal church performed the annual Blessing of the Animals at the Foster City Dog Park. The Feast of St. Francis is celebrated by Catholics and Anglicans around the world to honor the patron saint of animals and the environment. The official date is today, October 4th, but we celebrated the Feast last Sunday, a fortuitous decision given the rains that began Monday.

A steady stream of four-legged creatures came forward. Dogs comprised the overwhelming majority. Young or old, large or small, calm or feisty, sure or unsure...all were welcome, just like their owners, to receive the laying of hands and a short prayer.

Cats were also well represented. As in previous years ladies from the Homeless Cat Network passed out brochures that promoted both the health and reduction of the population of feral cats. HCN's efforts to spay, neuter, feed, and adopt abandoned felines not only protect the cats but also the birds of the Bay.

There were no untoward incidents. Guinea pigs and birds were left alone by larger species. Two-legged animals cooed, stroked, and admired all the four-legged ones who were there. Nearly 800 years after his death, Francis of Assisi may be one saint who would be pleased at the works that have been done in his name.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Hale Nalu

Hale - home
Nalu - 1) Disappeared, lost; 2) Waves, surf.

One of the universal childhood experiences in Hawaii---at least when I was growing up---was camping underneath the stars. The mild temperatures and sounds of the ocean compensated for the lack of a mattress, and falling asleep was not difficult.

Not surprisingly, the warm climate also makes some choose homelessness as a rational response to the high cost of living, more than they would in other states:
As in other temperate places — like Santa Monica, Calif. — Hawaii’s climate is a draw to people looking to live outside. “I love it: free rent, free electricity,” said Sherri Watson, 43. “Who wants to stay in a bed-bugged shelter?”
I had a couple of hours to kill between my visit to the downtown government offices and a dinner near the University of Hawaii. Walking east ("Diamond Head" to Honolulu old-timers) along King Street, less than a mile from the Honolulu beaches, is a chastening experience. The sidewalks and roads needed repair, and many of the buildings could have used a coat of paint. But the most disheartening sights were the tents in the park.

One ray of hope is that the Hawaiian unemployment rate of 6% is well below the national average of 9%. Let's hope that the recovery of the tourist trade continues and the tents get folded up.

Along King Street I walked past two parks where the homeless pitch tents.

At King and Kaheka Streets

Honolulu Stadium Park

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Suddenly Important

September 21st has suddenly become an important date in the family scrapbook. My baby brother tied the knot today. Congratulations, Rich and Keli!

Risky Short Position

One of the drawbacks of getting older is the shrinking of body parts that we want to enlarge and the enlargement of those that we want to shrink. Muscles and neurons waste away, while cute button noses elongate to stalactite proportions. The overall effect is diminution: my old driver's licenses record the fact that I've lost nearly an inch in height over the past 20 years.

And, sadly,
The process accelerates with age, particularly after age 70. In one long-running study of more than 2,000 Baltimore residents, men lost an average of 1.2 inches between ages 30 and 70, and a total of 2 inches by age 80. Women lost an average of 2 inches between 30 and 70 and 3.1 inches total by age 80.
Above-normal height loss is an indicator of poor health.Osteoporosis increases the risk of hip and other bone fractures, and in men there is a correlation, as yet unexplained, between height loss and coronary artery disease. The future, more than ever, belongs to the thin, tall, and young.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Still Waiting

My Hawaii State ID card will expire in a few months, five years after I received it. Through no basis other than my incurable optimism I expected the renewal process to take much less time than it took to get the original ID. My expectations were misplaced.

One can fill out the original or renewal form online, but one still has to show up in person, after making an appointment, to take pictures and present documents; filing online will cut the wait time to about 90 minutes. However, this avenue wasn't open to me, since the earliest appointment was in two weeks and I would be traveling in one week. [Aside: this is one of the biggest concerns about government-run health care--the cost is nominally low but everyone would be forced into long queues, though individuals may be willing to pay more to cut down the wait. Rightly or wrongly, people generalize from their experiences at the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, the Post Office, the airport, or even at the Tax Collector and ask, why would government be more efficient this time?]

It may not look so bad, but there are another 30 people past the door.
I'll spare you the details, dear reader, and just say that I entered the line at 1 p.m. and left with my new ID card at 4:30. In a small sign of progress the ID card won't have to be renewed for eight years. (Watch for my follow-up post in 2019.)

After document inspection, another wait for the photo.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ah, Chew

Red Fox Casino lavatory sign, Laytonville, California

When you use a word that can be either noun or verb, make sure your meaning is obvious.

The greater grammatical offense may be the use of scare quotes around "Do Not." Scare quotes are meant to convey irony or a meaning opposite from the plain text; they are a distancing mechanism. Somehow I don't think the writer means to be ambiguous.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

I'll Take It

I saw it on TV, like almost everyone else. I shuffled to the kitchen table with my cup of coffee and pushed the remote. The TV was set to Channel 11, NBC. It was 5:45 a.m. The Today Show was on; strange, normally it doesn't start till 7 a.m. on the West Coast.

The camera was fixed on the World Trade Center. Black smoke was pouring out of one of the towers. There were no jump cuts or commercials to distract the unblinking eye. Katie Couric's voice seemed dispassionate as she described how an airplane had crashed into the building. Surely it was a small plane and a horrible accident.

Then the second jet hit, another struck the Pentagon, and the towers fell. Other images are seared into our memories--the Pennsylvania field that became hallowed ground, the throngs who lustily cheered the deaths of thousands, flames and smoke everywhere, the weeping, the exhausted searching and the death of hope.

The fear gripped us for a long time. Not knowing has that effect. Who did it and why, how powerful were they, what's next, what should we do, what can I do?

Everyone--even those who were in charge of our government--can list major mistakes in the past ten years. All the criticisms have at least some plausibility: we waged war against the wrong people, maybe we shouldn't have gone to war at all, we mistreated prisoners, we had intelligence that was grossly wrong, we sacrificed too many of our civil liberties, we didn't pay the cost of the wars, and we are no farther along in being energy independent or securing the safety of Israel.

But if we are honest with ourselves, we will remember the worst of our fears:

1) we would be hit again and perhaps lose a major city; this event coupled with our response, could forever change the character of America;

2) if the attack were biological, we could lose much more than one city;

3) oil supplies would be disrupted, maybe cut off for a long time, and usher in a new Dark Ages;

4) Israel, surrounded by powerful enemies, could be destroyed.

5) A state of war would exist between the West and the Islamic world, which has over a billion people.

Ten years later none of these fears has been realized, yet victory, which we can't even define, seems as distant as it was in 2001.

I'll take it. © 2011 Stephen Yuen

Friday, September 09, 2011

Ala Wai Canal

Kapahulu Ave at 6:15 a.m
The early morning traffic has dropped off a bit since my last visit. Reduced congestion could be due to the slow economy or people taking off the week after Labor Day. Or it could be a mistaken extrapolation from a very limited obsevational sample.

Speaking of global warming, Wednesday night's debate was another attempt by "moderators" to pin the extremist tag on the Republican candidates for President. The candidates unanimously questioned the premises of the global warming crowd, making the Republicans non-scientific Neanderthals or, worse, Bible-thumping fundamentalists.

Fundamentalists of a different stripe say that I can't use incandescent bulbs because of the "settled science" that Edison's glowing invention will melt the ice caps. Reminiscent of the Middle Ages, only a specially trained priesthood can explain to the hoi polloi why a 60-watt tungsten is damaging to the environment while flying to a global warming conference in a corporate jet is completely okay. In a similar vein, the green geniuses at Google say that their data centers, which consume electricity equivalent to 200,000 homes, help the environment because otherwise people would drive to the library to look stuff up. Yes, that's the proper basis of comparison: think of the CO2 I would have emitted by driving to the library to research the Kardashians.

To clear my head I go for a walk along the Ala Wai Canal. This morning the waters were placid. Kayakers were suiting up near the Waikiki library. Homeless men were waking up on the wooden benches. Groups of tourists strolled leisurely, and I accelerated past them at 4 MPH. By the time I got to the intersection of Kapiolani and McCully, traffic was gridlocked. Maybe the economy is improving, after all.

Ala Wai Canal at 6:30 a.m.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Getting Out of Town

Tall Dango by Kaneko
Going on a trip focuses the mind. I finally tended to long-neglected tasks in the home office and the garden. There's still a lot left to be done, but both places are now a little neater.

I saw the doctor last week for a routine physical exam, eight months later than he had advised. Everything was okay, thanks for asking, but I needed to drop a few pounds. You're beginning to sound like a broken record, doc, and could you refill my prescriptions?

At SFO I chuckled like a pre-teen when I saw two eight-foot ceramic sculptures next to the Delta gate. Yes, we who have trouble making a bowl in pottery class can't possibly imagine the difficulty of constructing ceramics larger than a human being, but the artist gave away the show by naming it "Tall Dango," supposedly referring to a round shape like a Japanese dumpling. But we know what he really meant, don't we, Dr. Freud?

The Delta flight to Honolulu was uneventful. A wailing toddler a few rows in front didn't help the atmosphere aboard the crowded 757-300, but the passengers all seemed to take it in stride. There, but for the grace of God, go all of us parents.

The tuna sandwich bought at SFO hadn't been quite enough, and the land of plate lunches was filled with temptation. We headed off to Zippy's for a late night repast. The "Zip pac"--chicken, teriyaki beef, and spam (of course)--was not on doc's list of recommended foods, but that was what his pills were for. © 2011 Stephen Yuen

Friday, September 02, 2011

(Another) Saturday in the Park

Aug 29th: at the bottom of the 7th the score is Astros 1, Giants 1.
Beset by injuries to many of their key players, the San Francisco Giants stumbled into September trailing the first-place Arizona Diamondbacks by six games. This weekend's three-game series against Arizona has the potential to break but not make the season, and Giants followers are filled with trepidation. In a glass-half-full moment of reflection, most fans should realize that we are doubly fortunate to have a contending team in September. There are pleasures to be savored by experiencing baseball in San Francisco, regardless of wins and losses.

The previous February Saturday we spent at AT&T Park we were in shirtsleeves and sunshine while much of the nation was buried in snow. This time a storm named Irene visited her wrath on the Atlantic coast while our Pacific Ocean for the nonce seemed aptly named.

We arrived at 3:30, two-and-a-half hours before the game was to start. Already the lines at each gate were over a mile long. The prospect of getting a bobble head doll of Giant ace pitcher Tim Lincecum seemed problematic.

Meanwhile, away from the lengthy queues was a sidewalk ceremony honoring two retired Giants. Jason Schmidt and Marvin Benard were being added to the Wall of Fame, the 47th and 48th players who either suited up for nine seasons with the San Francisco Giants or played five seasons with at least one All-Star appearance.

The decision wasn't close: the youngster forsook our dwindling chances of getting a Lincecum bobble head in favor of hearing and seeing Jason Schmidt, one of the dominant pitchers in baseball during his Giants tenure from 2001 to 2006. The former ace spoke fondly of his San Francisco memories, and the youngster's day was made when Jason Schmidt autographed the back of his ticket.

View of AT&T Park from the line waiting to get in
It took us 20 minutes to cross the 3rd Street bridge to get to the back of the line. Over an hour later we entered the gate. Lo and behold, there were still bobble heads left, and we were handed two of the precious boxes (it doesn't take much to make us happy).

I said to the youngster that the only way that the day could be better was if the Giants were to win, which they did, 2-1, when a single by Jeff Keppinger drove home Mark DeRosa for the winning run in the bottom of the 10th inning. The entire day was filled with lagniappes--an autograph, bobble head dolls, and a walk-off win--which when added to the sunny weather and an afternoon spent with friends was a very grand gift to us indeed. © 2011 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Je Suis Passé

Even if we're not thinking about Apples' remaking of entire industries, the evidence of technological disruption is all around us. Here's an amusing video of French second-graders trying to figure out the uses of ancient artifacts like floppy disks and rotary phones.

Comments: 1) It's been over 20 years since I heard it, but scratching a record with a phonograph needle is still tops when it comes to the most cringe-inducing sounds. 2) Laugh with the youngsters and not at them; how would you fare on a similar test, bucko, with 50-year-old farm tools? 3) Someday I'll bring my Apple III out of storage to astonish the kids with its 256K of RAM.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The King's Speech

Slowly making my way down the Netflix queue, the arrow finally pointed to the 2011 Best Picture, the King's Speech.

Since my tastes run towards car chases and space aliens that look great in spandex, I shoved the DVD into the player with very low expectations. This was going to be another British literary movie (Sense and Sensibility, Remains of the Day) that the cognoscenti said that I should see for my own good when my time would probably be better spent by washing the car or working on next year's taxes.

Surprise! I enjoyed the movie. Best Actor winner Colin Firth gave a convincing, sympathetic performance as the prince who wanted to hide from the world because of his severe stutter but reluctantly ascended to the throne when his older brother put personal desire before responsibility. Geoffrey Rush as failed-actor-cum-speech-therapist Lionel Logue fights not only the king's disability but multiple social barriers. We root for him to succeed where credentialed doctors and teachers failed.

The rest of the ensemble cast is a who's-who of contemporary British film. The only bit of casting that seemed a little jarring: whenever I saw Timothy Spall, who plays Churchill, the great man of the 20th century, I couldn't help but glimpse Wormtail, the rat-like villain of the Harry Potter movies.

The movie immerses us in the constitutional crisis triggered by Edward VIII's affair with American twice-divorcee Wallis Simpson. American eyes may view Edward's abdication as the apotheosis of romance--a man giving up the throne to marry his love--but most Britons saw it as the epitome of selfishness, a man shirking his duty in the face of the gathering storm over Europe. Both Edward and Mrs. Simpson are portrayed as petty, self-absorbed creatures preoccupied with the privileges of royalty but not its responsibilities. It is, after all, a British film.

Final thoughts: 1) "critically acclaimed" movies need not be boring; 2) the film's fastidious attention to period costumes and sets was crucial because today's audiences can readily detect inauthenticity; 3) too bad they couldn't work in a car chase over the London cobblestones--now that would have been something to see.