Sunday, March 27, 2011

Good Window-Closing

As noted previously, a geologist who has made some accurate predictions said that a major earthquake would hit the West Coast during the past week. His "seismic window" closed last night, and we're relaxing a bit.

However, we're not putting away our bug-out bags just yet. The Pacific and North American plates, which meet at the San Andreas fault, aren't on that fine a timetable and don't know that the deadline has passed.

We'll continue the process of storing some emergency supplies outside away from our building. I'm backing up the files on our three desktop computers. I still need to take pictures of all the stuff in our house for an insurance claim that I hope will never have to be filed. Yes, we should have taken these steps many moons ago, but it's pointless to lament the past. The future---that is, increasing our chances of having one---is what matters.

The outdoor deck box has camping gear and emergency supplies.

Friday, March 25, 2011


The first American missiles were fired only a few days ago, and already the battle for Libya--or whatever the historians end up calling it--has bequeathed to the English language another euphemism for waging war. Kinetic military action is more benign than "incursion" or "invasion" and sounds more active than "police action." IMHO, however, it will not have a lot of staying power.

The phrase has been the target of mockery less than 24 hours after it was uttered, and not only from political opponents. Its too-cleverness engenders ridicule, which left unchecked causes lasting damage to the respect which every Administration needs in order to govern.

Another negative is the abbreviation for Kinetic Military Action. "KMA" has a different meaning in the urban dictionary. The mild vulgarity coincidentally has been used by Democratic politicians in some well-known examples.

We can't be too critical of NSA official Ben Rhodes for his coinage. "Kinetic" had already been used in Bush Administration briefings, and "kinetic military action" seemed to be a logical construction. It turned out to be a bridge too far.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

If You Strike the King You Must Kill Him

The United States has initiated military action in a third Middle Eastern country.

Let's acknowledge: 1) Colonel Qaddafi is a brutal dictator who has imprisoned, tortured, and killed many of his own people; 2) Libyan terrorist actions are known to have resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Westerners over the past 42 years; 3) If Colonel Qaddafi leaves office--voluntarily or not--many will rejoice and few will mourn; 4) President Obama's actions so far are within the bounds of the War Powers Resolution enacted during the Nixon Administration.

All that said, American policy toward Libya is a confusing muddle of objectives, methods, and resources. The President said "it is U.S. policy that Qaddafi needs to go." However, the military's orders fall well short of regime change: the United States is attacking Libya's air defenses and through the enforcement of a "no-fly zone" has curtailed Qaddafi's ability to slaughter Libyan rebels and innocents. The hard work of overthrowing Qaddafi will be left to the rebels, who lack the means and skills, and coalition partners, who probably lack the will.

If Qaddafi battles on and the coalition partners lose their resolve, what then? The President said on March 18th: "The United States is not going to deploy ground troops into Libya." President Obama has holstered the threat of sending the marines to the shores of Tripoli. We have struck the king and are leaving it to others to kill him.

When Saddam survived the first Iraq war, removing him later became much more costly. Let's hope that history doesn't repeat.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Second Wake-up Call

While California worry-warts are scooping up iodine tablets despite assurances that the radiation from Japan is negligible, IMHO a much greater concern is the warning from a former USGS geologist that a large earthquake will hit the West Coast in the coming week.

Jim Berkland, who predicted the 1989 Loma Prieta temblor, says that unusual marine animal behavior and "perigean" full moons (when the moon is closest to earth) are correlated with earthquakes. According to Mr. Berkland, we have recently experienced large fish kills in Redondo Beach and Mexico, while whales have been sighted near shore in San Diego; the theory is that animals are sensitive to the changes in the earth's magnetism that precede earthquakes.

Another Berkland predictor is the increased gravitational force caused by an approaching moon. Tomorrow, March 19th, we will see the closest (222,000 miles) full moon in 18 years. The seismic window will last from March 19th to March 26th.

Many scientists do not accept the perigean-moon earthquake hypothesis:
Scientists at NASA have stressed that previous perigees have not coincided closely with major earthquakes or tsunamis. The Indian Ocean tsunami occurred on Dec. 26, 2004, some 15 hours before the moon was full that month, but the moon was not approaching perigee at that time -- it was actually further away for that particular full moon. The earthquake in Japan occurred on March 11, and the moon was also not near full phase, nor was it particularly close. While the moon can create tides, those forces are too small to have much effect on the Earth's crust.
While we hope Mr. Berkland is wrong, we're spending a few hours stocking up on supplies and preparing for the worst. Our lack of preparation was exposed by last week's tsunami. How many wake-up calls do we need?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Japanese Way

During the 1970's and 1980's everyone in business studied the "Japanese way." Japanese companies ran rings around their competitors. They innovated, made the highest quality products, and charged a reasonable price. They first competed in, then dominated many of their markets.

Japanese companies peaked in the late 1980's. Since then they have found that staying on top is harder than getting there. To be sure, many still lead their respective markets, but in the global economy of the 21st century one needs more than hard work, attention to detail, and consensus to win consistently.

After the March 11th earthquake, tsunami, and potential nuclear meltdowns, the conversation about the transformation of Japanese business has become unimportant, if not irrelevant. The issue is survival, and if things play out as they should, recovery.

I have no doubt that the Japanese will rebuild and become stronger than ever. After World War II their culture demonstrated astonishing recuperative powers following devastation much worse than the 2011 quake.

The news clips may be as wrenching as those seen after any calamity, but noticeably absent are blame, self-pitying, and signs of civic disorder.

Venture capitalists say that they bet on management over technology. I would bet on the character of the Japanese people. [By the way, I have an investment in a Japanese ETF that's gotten hammered. I'm not selling. Here's one article that suggests that it might be a good time to (cautiously) invest in Japan.]

Friday, March 11, 2011

Safe Over Sorry

Hawaii has suffered property damage, mostly to piers and boats, from the tsunami. No injuries or deaths have been reported. [Update: the Honolulu mayor has issued an all-clear statement.] [Sodden thought: I've seen too many movies where the worst happens after the politician or general says the danger has passed!]
The gauge at Nawiliwili Harbor showed a 2.1 foot surge; Haleiwa recorded a 3.6 foot surge; and Hanalei recorded 2.8 feet. The weather service says a gauge at Hilo Harbor showed a 2-foot surge. Kawaihae saw a 2.8 foot increase.
The videos of the destruction in Japan spooked nearly everyone who could have been in the tsunami's path. Last night (of course living in earthquake country we should have done this long time ago) we packed our bug out bags and reviewed our bug out lists. Fortunately, we didn't have to see whether our plans were going to work.

The news this morning showed that the damage in California paralleled that in Hawaii. Marine assets have been heavily damaged in Crescent City and Santa Cruz, but no persons have been hurt. [Update: a man who tried to photograph the waves near Crescent City has likely been killed.]

So what's with all the civil defense sirens, evacuations, and school closures--were they precautionary overkill? Perhaps this time. But one of these days we are going to have to implement those plans, and we have the suffering people of Japan to thank for reminding us do them.

Restless Night Ahead

Bay Area residents who have difficulty falling asleep will have real trouble tonight. The magnitude 8.9 earthquake that struck Japan last night produced a tsunami that destroyed wide swaths of farmland in northeastern Japan. The horrific videos are looping endlessly on the major channels.

If it does hit Hawaii, the tsunami is expected to make landfall in about three hours (2 a.m. HST). The ETA in San Francisco is currently 8:07 a.m. PST. Reasoning and experience suggest that the wave will have substantially dissipated by the time it reaches California. We do live on Bay flatlands, but the 25-mile distance between Foster City and the Golden Gate provides additional reassurance.

However, the probability that we'll have to evacuate isn't zero. I'll have to get up early, check what happened in Hawaii (the many relatives we have there are an additional source of worry), and pack people and materiel in the car if necessary.

Yes, it's going to be a restless night ahead.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

No Deferred Gratification Pour Moi

Flipping pancakes
The church decided to serve pancakes on Sunday night instead of Tuesday. It was a prescient choice, as more families showed up for dinner over last year. Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday, is traditionally the day when the larder is emptied of sweets. We had two opportunities--Sunday and Tuesday--to get our fill before the commencement of Lent, and we took advantage. On the real Fat Tuesday we sat down to a rich dinner at Mimi's Cafe, where I ended the evening with a triple chocolate brownie.

It seems to be human nature to sate base appetites when one is about to enter a period of deprivation (Mardi Gras - Lent, bachelor party - marriage, prisoner's last meal before the ultimate deprivation). As the saying goes, life is uncertain, so eat dessert first.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Eyes That Do Not See

Denting benearth the stars
The advantage of living in the same house for many years is that I know where everything is. There's no problem finding light switches in the dark or negotiating those poorly designed steps in the dining room or bed room.

The disadvantage of familiarity is that it's easy to miss changes in one's surroundings. Unlike our former neighbor, the new owners across the street often park their small blue car in the driveway, just opposite ours. I was in a hurry Sunday and backed out hastily with only a glance in the rearview mirror. The thud roused me from my preoccupations.

I knocked on the neighbor's door, apologized, and said I would pay for the damage. They'll get back to me in a few days.

As I drove to the destination the irritation at my stupidity quickly transformed into gratitude. What if there had been a kid on a tricycle? (There are no little kids in the surrounding houses, and I don't look for them.) At the cost of a few hundred dollars I got a valuable wake-up call.

Friday, March 04, 2011

When You're Out of Work...

the best attitude is to laugh about it (sorry, iPad and iPhone users, the video is in Flash).

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Old School

Yesterday was the deadline for filing Form 1096. (Nearly everyone receives various Form 1099s that report their interest and other income; Form 1096 is the cover sheet for the 1099 copies that the payor has to submit to the IRS.)

I bring out the typewriter a couple of times a year to type the 1096 and other government forms that I can't fill out online. The typewriter, like the rotary phone and the vinyl-record turntable, is a device that I used to use every day and could once operate with my eyes closed.

I made several false starts lining up the form on the platen. The letters printed outside the boxes, and I had to shred the results. Thank goodness I ordered extra forms (paper forms are not downloadable from the IRS website and are sent by mail.)

If my business grows, I would be required to file electronically, which is a small hassle setting up. That's one of the reasons I'm not aggressive about expansion--to me the headaches aren't worth the money.

So I don't mind using the typewriter, just as I don't mind writing checks manually and seeing customers and suppliers face-to-face. That makes my business less scalable and ultimately less profitable. Being old school won't make me wealthy, but at least I won't be unhappy.

On Wisconsin

I don't know why conservatives are getting so exercised about State Legislators not reporting for duty (who would want to emulate John Kerry?). Conservatives in the past have had this to say about lawmakers: "we'll pay them if they'll just stay home."

Not only are these guys not showing up, they're helping to stimulate the travel industry. So it's doubly good. They should be praised, not excoriated.