Monday, February 28, 2011

The New "Plastics"

From all reports (I haven't yet seen it yet) The King's Speech is well-scripted, well-acted and deserving of its Best Picture Oscar. But I suspect that, like 1981 winner Chariots of Fire, The King's Speech years from now will be regarded as merely an interesting historical piece.

At the 1982 Academy Awards Chariots of Fire won over Raiders of the Lost Ark, which turned out to be one of the most popular movies of all time (admittedly, popularity doesn't necessarily mean quality) and a movie whose lines and scenes are much more familiar to today's audiences.

43 years ago In the Heat of the Night, a suspenseful police drama with a race-relations subtext, beat out The Graduate for the Oscar. The Graduate, with its iconic scenes and song, is now #17 on the American Film Institute's top-100 list of all-time movies, much higher in rank than In the Heat of the Night.

One of the memorable lines from the Graduate consists of one word, "plastics", the counsel that a middle-aged man gives to the young Ben Braddock played by Dustin Hoffman. "Plastics" has now entered the lexicon as a representation, with more than a hint of mockery, of our tendency to distill the future down to ten words or less (in this case it's just one word).

Perhaps coincidentally the latest most-brilliant-career that a young person could choose is represented by the title of another 2010 Best-Picture nominee, The Social Network. But the advice to go into "social networks" would appear to be wise, at least here in the Bay Area. Social-networking companies like Facebook and Zynga are writing salary-and-bonus offers of $100,000 to $150,000 a year for new college grads .

O, to be young with a double E degree from Stanford. The world would be my oyster.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Stranded Friend Scam

Yesterday I received this message from a former business colleague:
Sorry I didn't inform you about my trip in Cyprus for a program, I'm presently in Nicosia Cyprus, and am having some difficulties here because I got robbed on my way to the hotel where i lodged,i lost my Cell phone, my wallet where all my money was and other valuable things were kept, Please i want you to assist me with a loan of (2,500 Euros) to sort-out my hotel bills and get myself back home.

I have spoken to the embassy here but they are not responding to the matter effectively,I will appreciate whatever you can afford to assist me with,I'll Refund the money back to you as soon as i return back home, let me know if you can be of any help. I don't have a phone where i can be reached. Please let me know immediately.

I was on my guard, but it did come directly from his e-mail address to mine. And Bob does travel quite a bit; the last I heard he was working for himself and didn't have an employer to bail him out. If he were indeed in those straits I would feel guilty if I didn't help him out. My reply, six hours later:
Bob, sorry so late to respond & sorry about your troubles. I can help USD 3,000. How can I get funds to you, perhaps pay off your hotel, buy plane ticket in your name, etc.?
Sent from my iPhone
His response came the next day:
Thank you so much for your concern towards my present situation, believe me this has been a very sad experience for me in a foreign land,i will explain things to you in detail when am back home. You can get the fund to me through any western union outlet around you with the information below.

Receiver's name: Robert _________
Address: 144 Limassol Avenue
Country.. Cyprus

I will need the Reference Number and others transfer details after you send the money.

Bob would surely have inserted a personal touch in a message to someone who was about to lend him $3,000. There was only a small chance that this request was legit. My next message was short:
Bob, I will send the funds if you can answer one question: what is the name of the deal that we worked on while you were in Colorado and I was in SF?

Sent from my iPhone
The ensuing non-answer confirmed that the whole thing was a ruse.
Hey Steve, i never believe you can be asking me this sort of question at this period when i need your help and you know what i have been going through here. Kindly let me know if you don't want to help me any more as you promised.


It turns out that the stranded-friend scam has been going on for at least two years. It had elements that lent plausibility: the hoaxer knew my name, Bob's name, and our e-mail addresses. Perhaps worse than other scams that prey on greed, its victims are acting on their desire to help an acquaintance.

I am attempting to reconnect with Bob to let him know that his e-mail account has been compromised. There's little chance that the culprits will be caught.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Netflix and Amazon

Today Amazon introduced its streaming-video service, a shot across the bow of Netflix. Amazon streaming video is free to Amazon Prime ($79 per year) subscribers, who get free standard shipping on most orders.

In a short test the service operated fine on my desktop PC. Amazon streaming video also works on Macs but as of this writing has no app for the iPad or iPhone like Netflix, so Amazon has some catching up to do.

Stock market indices are down 1-2% today because of Middle East and energy uncertainties, while Netflix is off 5% to $222. That shouldn't bother long-term Netflix shareholders, since their price has nearly tripled in one year. At these levels, despite its recent pullback, it's way too pricey for me.

But speaking as a consumer but not an investor in Netflix or Amazon, isn't competition wonderful?

Netflix shares have fallen more than Amazon's in the past week.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Unexpected Upgrade

Whenever I visit him, Dad asks me to take a look at his computer. It was running slow again, he said, despite my (deliberately) wiping his hard disk and reinstalling Windows last year. The grandchildren weren't the culprits, because they all now have their own computers and mobile devices.

Perhaps the Pentium-4 Dell Dimension 3000's time had finally passed. But since Dad only uses his computer for web-surfing, two-year-old versions of Quicken and iTunes to manage his business and music, respectively, and the Garmin Forerunner to monitor his morning walks, it's wasteful to discard a machine that's still working.

I checked the memory, and an interim solution became obvious. The installed RAM was a mere 768 MB, and the Dell had capacity for 2GB. The memory cost about $70 from Amazon (the Honolulu Best Buy didn't have it in stock) and arrived in four days. It took a few minutes to swap out, and the PC speed improved moderately.

The purpose of this preamble, dear reader, is not to bore you with a pedestrian recounting of a common upgrade but to point out how improvements can lead to benefits originally unforeseen.

Throughout my visit Dad had been eying my iPhone 4. I showed him family photos, my music library, its e-mail and web-surfing capability, the maps, calendar, and contacts apps, and, of course, how to make a phone call.

On the day before I left, he asked me to go with him to Verizon to buy an iPhone. He understood from the salesman that his monthly wireless payment was going to rise from about $60 to over $100, but he could handle the $40, and really, at his age why hesitate at getting something that he wants and can afford?

I was surprised and pleased as I watched my 80+-year-old father playing with his new device. I know people younger than he who refuse to get computers, e-mail addresses, and cellphones.

But back to the original point of this post. In order to integrate his iPhone with his PC I had to download the latest version of iTunes. The additional RAM installed a few days earlier was helpful in running the program and transferring his music and photos to the new phone.

In the end it was a successful trip. I couldn't help the folks renovate an upstairs bathroom--leave that to the professionals--but I was able to help them a little with their tech stuff. We do what we can.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Doing Good By Looking Bad

In my middle-class California suburb with upper-class pretensions it's verboten to hang our clothes outdoors to dry. If the City was serious about reducing carbon emissions, it would encourage us to beat our dryers into clotheslines instead of putting on feel-good Earth-Day fairs.
The biggest way to cut the environmental impact of cleaning clothes, however, is to stop using a clothes dryer. Drying laundry outside on a line, [UK Merchant] Tesco says, will cut the carbon footprint of every load by a whopping 4.4 pounds.
In Hawaii the culture is more accepting. The warm weather and Island breezes are especially conducive to using clotheslines. In the span of three hours my load was dry.

Common sense should eventually prevail, and it may be sooner than we think when drying clothes the natural way stops being déclassé.

Without Peer

All the text that's fit to squint.
If the opening line of a book review is
Tyler Cowen’s e-book, “The Great Stagnation,” has become the most debated nonfiction book so far this year
then one almost has to buy the book, especially if it costs only $3.99. But note the "e-" modifier.

I don't have an iPad, so I had to download the book onto my iPhone. This was my first purchase using Amazon's iPhone Kindle app. The process was quick, but the reading is not. No speed-reader, I am nevertheless used to taking in larger blocks of data when I read. When reading non-fiction I like to glance down the page to see where the writer's argument is going.

Reading a book on the iPhone is akin to watching text dribble out of an old teletype machine. It .... just .... takes .... so .... long.

As for the book, I'm a third of the way through. Dr. Cowen argues that the rise of the United States until about 1970 was due to harvesting the low-hanging fruit of free land, exploiting known technologies (e.g. electricity, railroads), and educating a largely uneducated but very motivated populace. America's slower growth since then is due to the fact that we've run out of easy pickings.

I may post on the book again if its conclusions and/or prescriptions prove interesting. What I do know is that I'd rather be living today in the good old USA than at any other time or place in human history.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Happy Valentine's Day from Hawaii

Valentine's arrangement, including protea
It wasn't exactly "when I'm not near the one I love, I love the one I'm near," but I was 2,387 miles from home on Valentine's Day. So I bought flowers and peanut brittle for those whom I was near.

Disdaining the ready-made Valentine's Day arrangements, I purchased the flowers, vases, and candy from separate stores. One can get the recipients' favorite items at lower cost provided that there was enough time. There were no urgent appointments on the calendar.

The recipients were properly appreciative, and I had the opportunity to chat with them at length. For the first time in a long time I could stop and smell the roses.

Keen for Korean

Fried oyster plate and Gina's special. Total cost=$18.25

When I'm keen for good, cheap Korean I head for Gina's near Kaimuki High School. The fare is plentiful, fresh, and cheap; the most expensive plate lunch, the Gina's Special, costs $8.95. Accompanying the meat entree and rice are up to four vegetable selections. I'm particularly "ono" (hungry) for the local water cress that I grew up with. It's crisper and sharper than the leafy, limp version one finds in California markets.

I ordered the Gina's Special and a fried oyster plate that wasn't on the regular menu. The lady at the counter piled on the kim chee, bean sprouts, water cress, and taegu (salted codfish). It was more than enough for the three of us, and the leftovers provided lunch the next day.

I'll probably return to Gina's and grab a plate to take with me on the plane. If I were a thoughtful person, I would refrain from ordering the odoriferous kim chee in order not to torment my fellow passengers. Well, there's a limit to thoughtfulness. I'll never see those people again, and, after our trip back, they'll say that never is too soon.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Law is a Pussycat

Three years have elapsed since the sad tale of the tiger. Nothing has emerged to disabuse us of our first impression that the Dhaliwal brothers visited the tragedy upon themselves by provoking the tiger on Christmas Day, 2007. They didn't respect the majestic animal, which the police had to kill when it got loose, injuring them and killing their friend.

Yes, the San Francisco Zoo could have made the enclosure safer, and for that the Dhaliwal brothers received $900,000 in settlement.

The forensic evidence now seems to confirm the suspicion that the tiger was taunted:
A federal investigator says in documents obtained by The Associated Press that a tiger killed by police in 2007 after fatally mauling a teen at the San Francisco Zoo was likely provoked into leaping and clawing out of its enclosure.
The brothers caused the tragedy, their innocent friend (whose family received an undisclosed settlement) was killed, and they extracted a princely sum. Merry Christmas, guys.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Who's Going, Who's Staying, and When

We want this guy to leave, but we're worried what will happen when he does.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak clung to power Thursday, saying on state television that he'd delegate powers to his vice president but stopped short of the resignation demanded by hundreds of thousands of protesters massed in the center of the country's capital.
We don't want this guy to leave, and we're worried what will happen when he does.
Three weeks into a medical leave he took "to focus on my health," Apple Inc. Chief Executive Steve Jobs is staying closely involved in the company's strategic decisions and product development, according to people familiar with the matter. (snip)

Among products he is continuing to work on are the next version of the iPad tablet computer, expected out in the next couple of months, and a new iPhone, expected to be released this summer, said two of these people.
Finally, there's another guy about whose departure, if it happens in January, 2013, I'm not worried about at all. It's hard to envision how any half-way experienced manager, irrespective of ideology, could have done worse.

But we don't have to talk about that now. Besides, as recent events have shown, a lot can happen in two years to change our thinking.

Paradise Enough

Gray skies and rain greeted the Island visitors as they walked from the gate. The mid-60's temperatures were unusually cool, even during the winter.

Dad and Mom greeted me at the baggage claim. Their movements have been slowed due to age and illness--in fact we had to stop by the doctor's office before we headed home--but that somewhat banal observation can be made about most people I know.

The traffic into town was worse than I remembered. Potholes appeared prevalent, and tropical growth, especially on schools and other public property, seemed to be going longer untended. It wasn't decay exactly, but a slight dinginess that can likely be dispelled by a few days of sunshine.

It's not the outward paradise that I remembered, but I was home. That's paradise enough.

The apartment buildings on the right partially obscure Mt. Tantalus.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Saturday in the Park

While the rest of the nation was trying to dig out from under the snow to watch a football game, 40,000+ baseball fans showed up at AT&T Park to revel in the sunshine.

The free parking lot was filled when we pulled in at 10, but the city lot near the Bay Bridge cost only $6 on Saturdays and provided an inexpensive alternative. We left the jackets in the car--in San Francisco one always brings along a jacket or sweater just in case--as we noted others walking around in T-shirts and shorts.

The crowd massed at the gate, but everyone seemed good-natured and patient. We got in quickly; what sped things along was that there was no bag inspection as there is during the games.

I asked the youngster whether he wanted to wait two hours for an autograph. Noticing that none of the superstars (Lincecum, Posey, Wilson) nor some of his favorites (Baumgartner, Cain, Sandoval) were in the booth, he performed a quick cost-benefit analysis and declined. A chip off the old green eyeshade.

We wandered through the park. We tried out and fantasized about buying expensive seats. We jogged down the first- and third-base lines, sat in the Giants dugout, and stood on the pitcher's mound.

I had an extensive to-do list that had to be completed before my trip on Monday, but on this Saturday for four hours I could be eight again. I'll stay up late on Sunday and sleep on the plane.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Gung Hee Fat Choy

Early this morning I stuffed some red envelopes with folding green. On the Lunar New Year the married folk are supposed to give red envelopes to the less-lucky unmarrieds, especially the kids. I used to get quarters in my whippersnapper days, now if the bestower puts less than $5 in the envelope he looks cheap.

And why are the married the lucky ones? My unmarried acquaintances are jetting off to Europe every year and gorging themselves on cruise-ship buffets. The only sitters they need to engage are for their dogs and cats.

The ancient traditions need to be updated for 21st-century realities. And why bother handling paper money at all? Leave it to the people who invented credit default swaps to innovate in this area as well.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Rabbit, Rabbit

I remembered the only thing that my 11th-grade math teacher taught me and said “Rabbit, Rabbit” when I rolled out of bed this morning.
a person should say "rabbit, rabbit, white rabbit", "rabbit, rabbit, rabbit", "rabbit, rabbit" or simply "white rabbits" upon waking on the first day of each new month, and on doing so will receive good luck for the duration of that month.
The lucky Year of the Rabbit commences on Thursday, which should double the good luck. Time to throw caution to the winds and buy some stocks that I’ve been eyeing. Already the market has had its best January in 14 years, and I'm thinking (hoping) that it’s got more room to run.

Well, you know what they say about a fool and his money…..