Monday, December 31, 2012

A Good Year

In 2012 I accomplished some of my goals but fell short on a number of others.

I traveled, renewed relationships, completed consulting projects, and put in more volunteer hours. I didn't exercise as much as I had hoped, nor did I clear much clutter or finish more than a few continuing-education courses.

Coming down with the shingles, a painful, but not life-threatening condition, was a valuable reminder to pay attention to personal health, the absence of which would make attaining other goals much more difficult. After four months the symptoms are nearly gone.

In the new year, in addition to the usual resolutions, I resolve not to feel guilty about not accomplishing them. Guilt can be a useful prod, but dwelling on failure detracts from life's pleasure.

Above all, thank you, dear reader, for sharing this journey with me. May our walk together continue a while longer.  © 2012 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, December 30, 2012

No Strings Attached

It was our fifth Sandwiches on Sunday in 2012. We had thought that there would be a low turnout during the week between Christmas and New Year's, but the 90 people we served, including 10 children, would be the largest number for the year.

I baked the entire package of Foster Farms chicken drumsticks, which, combined with the four trays that other church members brought, were enough to serve seconds.

Drumsticks over rice and cream of mushroom soup are easy to prepare.
Grace before meal is the only smidgeon of religion.
Our seminarian said grace, and we began piling the plates with chicken, rice, and salad. There was a minor hiccough because I forgot to bring the cups for the lemonade, but one of our volunteers was back in 15 minutes with a package of cups to make sure that all diners were adequately hydrated.

Fighting hunger are large government operations like food stamps and charities, like Second Harvest, that distribute tons of food each month. Nevertheless, there always seems a need for a program like Sandwiches on Sunday, where one can show up at the community center at noon on Sunday and count on getting a hot meal and a take-home bag lunch, no strings attached.  © 2012 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Fiscal Cliff is Not the Real Problem

The Government balance sheet
As Washington works through the weekend to avoid the fiscal cliff, U.S. News editor-in-chief Mort Zuckerman says that the current budgetary woes (the U.S. budget deficit for fiscal 2012 was $1.1 trillion) are dwarfed by the liabilities that the U.S. government is adding each year [bold added]:
Today the estimated unfunded total is more than $87 trillion, or 550 percent of our GDP. And the debt per household is more than 10 times the median family income.

.... the real annual accrued expense of Medicare and Social Security alone is $7 trillion. The government's balance sheet does not include any of these unfunded obligations but focuses on the current year deficits and the accumulated national debt.
The government balance sheet is not only less transparent, but misleading for not including material obligations (below information obtained from 2011 GAO report) that any private-sector entity would be prosecuted for omitting.

If there's one New Year's hope that your humble observer has for public governance, it's that legislators and the public have better information to gauge the consequences of their decisions. One place to start would be in government reports that are held to the same requirements that are demanded for the rest of us. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

Friday, December 28, 2012

Year-End Donations Frenzy

Dropped in the mail today
If one can cope with the stress of adding another item to the December task list, there are advantages to putting off donation decisions until the end of the year.

  • More information is available about one's tax, cash, and overall financial position.
  • Late changes to the tax law, both for the current year and future years, can be incorporated into the decisions.
  • Sometimes negative news hits charities that one is considering--too bad if a donation has already been made (the news need not be as bad as a scandal: maybe the charity has announced a public-policy position that one disagrees with).
  • Donors avoid the first-in bias, similar to that affecting interviewers of job candidates, of falling in love with the first person who walks through the door. I was favorably inclined toward, then decided against, a charity that helps wounded veterans when I matched it against similar organizations whose mailers came in later. (By the way, Charity Navigator is an invaluable research tool.)

    Last word: this is a serious subject, but approach it with a light heart. "God loveth a cheerful giver. [2 Cor 9]" © 2012 Stephen Yuen
  • Thursday, December 27, 2012


    Gus is an 11-year-old pug. Our friend rescued him from the shelter when he was three.

    Gus' fierce countenance belies his kind disposition. He greets strangers by rubbing their leg with the side of his body, perhaps something he learned from the cats he grew up with. During our one-hour visit, he was constantly on the move, running to each of us for an affectionate pat.

    Gus wants everyone in the group to stay together. When I went to the bathroom, he barked at the closed door until I opened it. When we finally got up to leave, he blocked the front door, and our friend had to pick him up. He cried mournfully at our exit.

    We met Gus for the first time today. I wonder how friendly he'll be when next we visit, now that he's gotten to know us. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Wednesday, December 26, 2012

    Well Worth the Effort

    Earlier this month author, columnist, and TV commentator George Will lectured at Washington University on religion and politics in American life (hat tip Ann Althouse). It's a sweeping overview that spends as much time in the 18th and 19th centuries as the 20th and 21st, but if one has 30-45 minutes to spare, the text is well worth the effort. Excerpts:
    Next comes perhaps the most important word in the Declaration, the word "secure." To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men." Government's primary purpose is to secure pre-existing rights. Government does not create rights. It does not dispense them.

    [Woodrow Wilson] criticized [the Declaration of Independence] root and branch, beginning with the doctrine of natural rights.

    His criticism began there precisely because that doctrine dictates limited government, which he considered a cramped, unscientific understanding of the new possibilities of politics. Wilson disparaged the doctrine of natural rights as "Fourth of July sentiments." He did so because this doctrine limited progressives'' plans to make government more scientific in the service of a politics that is more ambitious.

    Progressives tend to exalt the role of far-sighted leaders, and hence to exalt the role of the president. This, too, puts them at odds with the Founders.

    The words "leader" or "leaders' appears just 13 times in the Federalist Papers. Once is a reference to those who led the Revolution. The other dozen times are all in contexts of disparagement. The Founders were wary of the people's potential for irrational and unruly passions, and therefore were wary of leaders who would seek to ascend to power by arousing waves of such passions.
    William F. Buckley, Jr. wrote in 1955 that the purpose of his conservative magazine, the National Review, was to "stand[] athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it." After Mr. Buckley's passing, there are very few individuals with the heft and intellectual chops to stand against the tidal expansion of government and its overwhelming support from academia, entertainment, and mass media. One such voice is George Will; may he live long and prosper.

    Tuesday, December 25, 2012

    The Kingdom of this World, Transformed for a While

    The video was posted on YouTube two years ago, which makes it an oldie in the Internet era. It's still the best Christmas flash mob, in my humble opinion.

    Hope you had yourself a very Merry Christmas now.

    Monday, December 24, 2012

    The Wait Is Over

    The gifts are wrapped and waiting. On Christmas Eve the anticipation of Advent reaches its climax. On a cold, silent night the Light came into the world. Adeste fidelis.

    Sunday, December 23, 2012

    Good Tidings We Bring

    On a very stormy Sunday the caroling was nearly canceled. Once the singers arrived at their destination, the audience's welcome made them glad they came.

    Enthusiasm more than makes up for inexperience. 
    Seniors make the best audience: they don't walk out of a performance.

    Saturday, December 22, 2012

    A Chaplain for Atheists

    Stanford gets a chaplain for atheists. Jonathan Figdor, holder of a Harvard Divinity degree, "is one of a growing number of faith-free chaplains at universities, in the military and in the community who believe that nonbelievers can benefit from just about everything religion offers except God."

    Interestingly, it was Stanford's religious community that insisted that atheists have their own ministry. Mainstream American Protestantism and Catholicism have come a long way from the holier-than-thou preachiness and the relentless proselytization that are grist for the media and entertainment mills. (When looking for a story the latter invariably find individual religious examples of intolerance and unconventional viewpoints to publicize, then ridicule.)

    Jonathan Figdor: "But atheist, agnostic and humanist students suffer the same problems as religious students - deaths or illnesses in the family, questions about the meaning of life, etc. - and would like a sympathetic nontheist to talk to."

    I'm old enough to remember when atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair was the "most hated woman in America." Times have changed. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Friday, December 21, 2012

    Today is a Gift

    Tomorrow is promised to no one.
    But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only. --- Matt 24:36

    Thursday, December 20, 2012

    Fear is Ascendant

    Fear controls our lives.

    Many of us fear bad or crazy people with guns, so we buy a gun ourselves. That protective behavior raises the fear quotient, because those who don't have guns fear everyone who has one, not just the aforementioned bad or crazy people. (It doesn't help in the gun debate, by the way, that opponents are calling each other stupid and evil. Anger and demonization of the other adds to the general meanness of civic discourse and leads to hardening of positions.)

    The fiscal cliff has been in the news. This colorful metaphor is most likely an exaggeration of what will happen to the economy under higher tax rates and reduced government spending. True, there are some sectors, like defense, that will fare much worse than others (and for whom the cliff imagery may be apt), but few economists are forecasting a widespread collapse or even a near-collapse like the one in 2008. These comforting rationalizations, however, mean little to the stock market, which has been dropping in recent days.

    Then there's the Mayan prophecy of doomsday on December 21, 2012 (if you're reading this after Thursday, hooray, mankind dodged another one).

    Your humble observer can't wait for these latest concerns to be resolved (or forgotten) so that he can go back to worrying about global warming, the war on terror, Iranian nuclear weapons, and the breakup of the Euro. Ah, the good, old, less-fearful days. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Wednesday, December 19, 2012

    The Last Thing on Her Mind

    The last group of packages, ready for delivery
    We've remarked before about Jill and her noble calling to spread Christmas cheer to shut-ins around the Peninsula. This year she and volunteers from the Model A and Thunderbird clubs, the Boy Scouts, and the local Episcopal church produced an all-time high of 934 "stocking-stuffer" bags.

    Other volunteers made the deliveries to Meals on Wheels, the VA Hospital, the San Carlos adult day care center, and hospice and homeless organizations.

    Large-scale charitable efforts during this time of the year get the publicity, but there are thousands of individual local acts of kindness that go unheralded. Of course, recognition is the last thing on their, and Jill's, mind.

    Tuesday, December 18, 2012

    We'll Get There

    As the country lurches (again) into the swamp of legislative and court battles over guns and gun control, workplace violence is down in the real world:
    Mass shootings are not less common than before, but fewer are employment-related. Of 20 this year, only one killer was a disgruntled co-worker. Learning has taken place. If laws haven't changed to help corral dangerous personalities or keep guns out of their hands, at least employers, who get to see people in their everyday interactions, have become wiser about personality and risk.

    Businesses turned to none other than the United States Postal Service on how to become alert to grievance nursers in their midst. Most important: Don't ignore employees who mutter threats. Police around the country teach the "Run, Hide, Fight" discipline to local businesses, developed by Houston cops with a Homeland Security grant. Half of employers now have violence prevention programs and workplace shootings are down by two-thirds since the early '90s.
    It's encouraging that workplaces, both private- and public-sector, have been able to implement measures that have reduced violence. Even greater wisdom and dedication will be required to protect schools, however, given the vulnerability of potential victims and the (presumed) fewer occasions to be alerted to the behavior of killers such as the Newtown shooter. We'll get there eventually, but "there" is years away.

    Monday, December 17, 2012

    Aloha, Senator Dan

    Two war heroes
    After my college graduation ceremonies were over, we took a car trip along the Eastern seaboard to the nation's capital. We gaped at the monuments and spent days walking about the Smithsonian. We toured the Capitol and took a peek at the offices of Daniel Inouye, our home state's then-junior senator. To our surprise, his secretary told us to come right in.

    Senator Dan recognized my father as a fellow graduate of McKinley High and reminisced about the McCully neighborhood. They shot the breeze about old times and old friends. We had arrived unannounced, and he spoke to us as if he didn't have anything else on his calendar. (It was the summer of 1973, and the national spotlight was beginning to focus on him and other members of the Senate Watergate Committee.)

    When he died earlier today, Senator Dan, as president pro tempore, was third in line to the Presidency. He had acquired enormous influence in the "world's most exclusive club", yet one never got the sense that he was owned by Washington. A staunch Democrat, Senator Dan had close Republican friends. He refrained from extreme partisanship, possibly costing himself a party leadership position in the Senate.

    "A remarkable American life," said Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky). Amen. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, December 16, 2012

    Mental Illness Definitions: Take Another Look

    After 13 years of deliberation, the American Psychiatric Association has made significant changes to its definitions of various conditions in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Examples:
    Hoarders: For the first time, hoarding disorder will be included as a diagnosis, meaning those who can't get rid of ephemera can now seek reimbursement for therapy

    The Bereaved: The previous DSM said those in mourning don't necessarily qualify for depression therapy or medication. DSM-5 eliminates that exclusion.
    Interestingly, what didn't make the list as a disorder was parental alienation syndrome (PAN) - "the difficulty kids feel after parents divorce". If it turns out that his parents' divorce was a contributing factor to Adam Lanza's commission of mass murder, look for enormous pressure to add PAN to the list.

    Parents would want mental-health professionals to perform, and insurance companies to pay for, the screening of the many thousands of children of divorce in the hope that a future massacre will be prevented, and it will be very difficult to dismiss these concerns. © 2012 Stephen Yuen
    [Update - 12/22: "We don't hear about the effects of fatherlessness, especially on young men. We don't hear that the most reliable predictor of crime is neither poverty nor race but growing up fatherless. We don't hear that a large majority of violent criminals were fatherless."]

    [Update - 6/14/13: The WSJ writes about the DSM-5's inclusion of caffeine intoxication and withdrawal "when they impair a person's ability to function in daily life." However, the DSM-5 website has less alarming phraseology:
    DSM-5 will not include caffeine use disorder, although research shows that as little as two to three cups of coffee can trigger a withdrawal effect marked by tiredness or sleepiness. There is sufficient evidence to support this as a condition, however it is not yet clear to what extent it is a clinically significant disorder. To encourage further research on the impact of this condition, caffeine use disorder is included in Section III of DSM-5.

    Friday, December 14, 2012

    There Will Be a High Cost

    I have never owned a gun. The last gun I fired was in high school ROTC, and I doubt that I'll use one again. For me owning a firearm carries too much risk of an accident, of it being stolen, or, in the worst case, of me or someone I love being tempted to use it in a moment of weakness. Personal aversions writ large, however, often make poor social policy.

    Yes, the mass slaughter of innocents in Newton, Connecticut, would not have happened if guns were not available (the killer apparently acquired his weapons legally through his mother). But let's put eliminationism aside as a fantasy: not only would a comprehensive ban run afoul of the difficult-to-amend Constitution, there are already more than 300 million guns (non-military) in Americans' hands. A discussion about guns echoes the problem of illegal immigration: the cost of removing all prohibited people or objects already in place would not only be enormous but also transform society in a direction that very few people would want.

    The basic techniques used to protect large gatherings of people are well-known, and most of us have encountered them at airports and professional sporting events. Metal detectors and bag searches are the first line of defense. Within the perimeter, ubiquitous cameras and other sensor devices are monitored at a central location. Rapid-response security forces outfitted with weapons and communications equipment are the third leg of the stool.

    Because it would be economically impossible to establish a TSA-like system at each school and shopping mall, we are forced to consider counter-intuitive solutions, like more private citizens arming themselves and reducing, not expanding, the use of "gun-free" zones:
    some mass shootings have been stopped by armed citizens. Though press accounts downplayed it, the 2002 shooting at Appalachian Law School was stopped when a student retrieved a gun from his car and confronted the shooter. Likewise, Pearl, Miss., school shooter Luke Woodham was stopped when the school's vice principal took a .45 fromhis truck and ran to the scene. In February's Utah mall shooting, it was an off-duty police officer who happened to be on the scene and carrying a gun.

    Police can't be everywhere, and as incidents from Columbine to Virginia Tech demonstrate, by the time they show up at a mass shooting, it's usually too late. On the other hand, one group of people is, by definition, always on the scene: the victims. Only if they're armed, they may wind up not being victims at all.
    There are technological remedies that have been proposed, such as installing location monitors and/or remote shutoff receivers on firearms. However, such steps would be hard to accept in a culture that objects to Big Brother tracking its cars and TV viewing habits.

    Whatever solutions eventually arise to prevent future acts of evil, there will be a high cost, not only in dollars expended, but to our freedoms. Let's pray that the cost will be worth it. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Thursday, December 13, 2012

    Sunday Math

    The use of data analysis in the world of baseball was popularized in Moneyball, first the book, then the movie. Now the geeks are taking over the front offices in professional football (link requires SI subscription).
    Now nearly every team in the NFL has an analytics group, though most are as forthcoming as the CIA regarding the work these employees perform. [snip]

    Among those teams riding the stats wave are the Ravens, who announced in August that they'd hired a former NBA statistical consultant with degrees from Yale and Carnegie Mellon to lead their new analytics department. They're just now catching up to opponents like the Patriots, and the 49ers, who in 2001 lured Stanford M.B.A. Paraag Marathe from his consulting job at Bain & Co. to lead their analytics department.
    It's nice to know that the San Francisco 49ers are second to none in the analytics arms race:
    "There's one team right now that is applying all of this better than everyone else, and that is San Francisco," says [Jaguars executive Tony] Khan. He points to one 49ers play in Week 10, against the Rams: San Francisco faced fourth-and-one at St. Louis's 21-yard line, down 10 in the fourth quarter. The Niners went for it, converted and scored a touchdown two plays later. The game ended in a 24-24 tie. "Most people disagreed with that," says Khan. "But I've seen the chart they use. And certainly guys like [pioneering football statistician] Brian Burke agreed with what they did."
    Although the article is about football, the writer throws some love at the baseball Giants:
    Throughout professional sports, forward-thinking teams are engaged in an arms race for new technology that can lend them any advantage. The most progressive organizations have quietly begun incorporating video technology into their analysis: Fieldf/x, which tracks players' movements on the baseball field, has been a secret weapon for the world champion San Francisco Giants; and 10 NBA teams use SportVU, which can identify opposing teams' plays based on movements. NFL teams are starting to use similar technology: This year the Falcons, Giants and Jaguars began using GPS tracking technology on their players during practices. (The league prohibits it during games.)
    Note: The local basketball team, the Golden State Warriors, uses video-capture technology from Sportvu (aka Stats LLC). Perhaps Titletown will be here sooner than we thought. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Wednesday, December 12, 2012

    Number of the Day, Month, and Year

    Displaying a hitherto unknown degree of marketing creativity, the CPA education website offers a "twelve"-themed sale just for today. Discounts are offered in multiples of 12% on such page-turners as the "IFRS: What's New This Quarter?" and "Interactive Tax Checklists." Tempting, but I think I'll pass.

    I'm husbanding (oops--sorry about the sexist / pro-marriage language) deferring discretionary business expenses till 2013, when it will be important to keep one's adjusted gross income below certain thresholds to minimize both taxes and the reports that one is required file.

    Speaking of "12", the predominance of binary and octal systems in the computer age has quieted discussion of duodecimal counting methods, but it's fun to think about "dozenal" mathematics. Many repeating decimals in our base-10 system, such as 1/3 = .3333...., become terminating decimals (1/3 = 4/12 = 0.4) in base-12. If we were to adopt a base 12 system, 10 inches will make a foot, and 30 inches will comprise a yard, perhaps reducing, slightly, the insults Americans have to endure for not switching to metric.

    Most importantly, we will weigh much less: 200 pounds in base 10 becomes 148 pounds in base 12 (144+48+8). That's a discount most of us can get behind. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Tuesday, December 11, 2012

    The Primrose Path

    Seth and Mary 
    Our Foster City parish had been donating two boxes of food each year to the CALL Primrose Easter "Adopt-a-box" program, and the kids, emboldened by success, decided to spend Friday night assembling 3-5 boxes of food for the Holiday drive.

    They and their parents got into the spirit of the activity and filled eight boxes, which we took up to Burlingame on Tuesday morning.

    The small office on Primrose Avenue hummed with activity as recipients filed out with brimming shopping bags. We set the Holiday boxes down in a corner and watched the volunteers process requests. The Second Harvest Food Bank provides more than half of the food that CALL Primrose distributes. (Degrees-of-separation moment: Executive Director Mary Watt and I discovered that each of us had worked with the SHFB CEO.)

    The local economy is recovering, but there are too many people left behind. We can't improve their circumstances, but through CALL Primrose maybe we can brighten their holiday. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Monday, December 10, 2012

    Though It's About the Future: "We don't have music like that anymore."

    I'm not too proud to admit that I'm enough of a geek to get goosebumps when the full-orchestral version of the Star Trek theme [flash required] plays on the stereo. (It could just be the appoggiatura.) "We don't have music like that anymore."
    For all of its visions of weird life-forms, "Star Trek" was at heart a drama about human beings. So creator and executive producer Gene Roddenberry elected to depict their emotional states through time-honored and accessible means—with instruments and orchestras, not synthesizers, theremins or other trendy electronic gimmicks.
    In the four-minute video below the late, aptly-named composer Alexander Courage describes how he put together the piece in one week and how it was taped in a single session. His solution to find an appropriate sound (the "swoosh") for the spaceship moving across the screen was especially inspired:

    Sunday, December 09, 2012

    December Hope

    Jerry's been a volunteer for over ten years.
    Last week we made dinner for 2012's last group of families who had been afforded temporary quarters through Home and Hope. We trundled the dishes up to the Lutheran church and arrived just as the first couple of families came to the dining room.

    Jerry grabbed a knife and immediately began carving the ham that Diane had roasted. Kay brought baked chicken thighs, Merle made vegetables, and Irene chipped in a salad. Nellie contributed a delicious bundt cake, while I, who had the least amount of kitchen skills, was tasked with bringing the ice cream, which I am proud to say was delivered to the freezer without incident.

    The 31 churches who are members of Home and Hope provide housing and food for two-week stints, after which the Home and Hope clients are shuttled to another church. There are gaps in coverage, because only 17 churches have sleeping facilities. It also puts a strain on some congregations to find volunteers who can stay overnight with the clients.

    We had a pleasant dinner and watched the kids play with the toys in the sitting room. I set out the ice cream and did the dishes. We all have different gifts. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Saturday, December 08, 2012

    Morgen, Morgen, Nur Nicht Heute

    203 pts, a personal record.
    I didn't think I would ever score
    A word higher than 194

    T'wasn't brilliance or persistence tough
    But a desire to avoid attacking the pile of stuff
    To do during this time of the year.

    Procrastination afflicts me with regret, fear
    And other negative emotion
    I just wish that work I would revere
    As much as my Scrabble and game-app devotion.

    Friday, December 07, 2012

    Day of Infamy, 71 Years Later

    [The following reprises my post of last year.]

    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.

    Thursday, December 06, 2012

    Tim Cook Speaks

    Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks to Brian Williams
    About television: "It's a market that we see that has been left behind.....It's an area of intense interest. I can't say more than that."

    About resuming manufacturing in the U.S.: "Next year we will do one of our existing Mac lines in the United States."

    About Apple's mission: "Our whole role in life is to give you something you didn't know you wanted. And then once you get it, you can't imagine your life without it."

    Okay, so the company isn't the same without the guiding hand of its founder. Yet, who other than Tim Cook should be at the helm?

    Bill Gates, whose once-dominant enterprise has been struggling just to hold onto second place, Google's Page and/or Brin who are brilliant but maybe a tad unfocused, Mark Zuckerberg, whose company has yet to fulfill the extraordinary promise of its IPO multiple, or John Chambers or Larry Ellison, both of whom are experts at marketing to businesses, not so much to consumers?

    Billionaire CEOs or former CEOs all, their companies' shares have not appreciated as much as Apple's since Steve Jobs died fourteen months ago.

    Wednesday, December 05, 2012

    One Problem Solves Another

    Anyone who has cassette tapes, floppy disks, or 8MM film should be concerned about the problem of data loss. Not only are the tapes, disks, and film deteriorating, but machines that can read the data are also increasingly hard to find. The phenomenon of obsolete media highlights the following general problem [bold added]:
    All interfaces and formats eventually die. Data storage consultant Tom Coughlin, founder of Coughlin Associates, calls it a fight against nature, saying, "the laws of thermodynamics are against you."

    Such a battle makes for a hazy long-term outlook. Will your data be accessible in 100 or even 50 years? Perhaps, but those data will likely be in different formats and will certainly be stored on different media than they are today. All modern-day technologies grow obsolete; either the hardware breaks or is replaced by something better, or new software takes over for the old, or both. In 50 years you may have a computer that can read PDFs, but you might have those PDFs stored on a medium the computer can't read. Or the opposite may happen, with data stored on a readable format but saved in long-gone file formats. The key to preventing either case is accepting the nonstop job of staying technologically up to date.
    The Popular Mechanics article says that there are no easy solutions. Data can be preserved by moving it to the latest media and backing it up in more than one location. That's a lot of work and conscientiousness demanded from a public that's used to computers making our lives easier, not more difficult.

    But Big Government may have a solution to the data-loss problem (it didn't set out to do that, of course).
    The FBI records the emails of nearly all US citizens, including members of congress, according to NSA whistleblower William Binney. In an interview with RT, he warned that the government can use this information against anyone. [snip]

    RT: You say they sift through billions of e-mails. I wonder how do they prioritize? How do they filter it?

    WB: I don’t think they are filtering it. They are just storing it. I think it’s just a matter of selecting when they want it. So, if they want to target you, they would take your attributes, go into that database and pull out all your data. [snip]

    [President Obama] is supporting the building of the Bluffdale facility, which is over two billion dollars they are spending on storage room for data. That means that they are collecting a lot more now and need more storage for it. That facility by my calculations that I submitted to the court for the Electronic Frontiers Foundation against NSA would hold on the order of 5 zettabytes [blogger's note: approximately 5 billion terabytes] of data.
    All your e-mails, including attachments, are preserved by the government. You can't access them today, but someday in a more open clime you or your descendants may be able to. So take the contents of your floppy disks, e-mail them to yourself, and take the disks and their drives to the electronic recycler. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Tuesday, December 04, 2012

    Future Taxes Affect Current Behavior

    Some sports talk hosts jumped to conclusions when they commented on the weekend sale of sports memorabilia. They opined that it was too bad that a retired sports great "had to sell" his awards "because he needed the money." The article begins:
    Ozzie Smith is considered one of the greatest, if not the best, defensive shortstop of all time, as evidenced by his 13 consecutive Gold Glove Awards.

    Those awards now belong to someone else.

    SCP Auctions announced Sunday that Smith sold the Gold Glove Awards from 1980-92 for $519,203.

    Smith also sold two World Series rings that were given to him as gifts from the St. Louis Cardinals. His 2011 St. Louis Cardinals' World Series ring sold for $51,364 and his 2006 ring went for $42,448.
    Ozzie Smith may or may not "need the money," a subjective assessment to be sure, but it's clear that if he or any other athlete intends to monetize some of their collection eventually, this is the year to do it. Capital gains rates will escalate under the "fiscal cliff" and are likely to go up after 2012 even if a compromise is reached. In addition, in 2013 an extra 3.8% surtax will apply to investment income, which includes capital gains, of individuals reporting $200,000 or couples reporting $250,000.

    Collectors are cognizant of the tax cliff and appear to be taking some of their profits now. The article goes on to talk about sellers who are obviously not the original athlete-owners:
    Other historical sports items sold by SCP Auctions:

    --A Babe Ruth team sweater from around 1922 sold for $250,642.

    --A Lou Gehrig game-used bat from 1938 or '39 sold for $75,205.

    --A pair of Muhammad Ali boxing gloves used during his fight against Sonny Liston on Feb. 25, 1964, and another pair used during his first bout against Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971, each sold for $385,848.

    --Oscar Robertson's NBA MVP Award from 1963-64 sold for $177,632 and a Robertson 1960 U.S. Olympic team jersey sold for $121,324.

    --Paul Hornung's 1956 Heisman Trophy sold for $173,102.

    --Steve Wright's 1966 Super Bowl ring from the Green Bay Packers sold for $75,205.
    It wouldn't be at all surprising if government tax receipts go up "unexpectedly" at the end of 2012 despite slow economic activity.  A loaded gun sometimes can affect behavior more than a gun that is used. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Monday, December 03, 2012

    Not As Bad As It Used To Be

    The experience of going to the dentist for a check-up has improved to the point where it has almost become a pleasure. The technician covers the patient's eyes with tinted plastic and carefully explains what he's doing each step of the way. His tools are more precise and operate with much less vibration than they used to. There's little or no pain during the scraping, especially if one has been flossing and using an electric toothbrush.

    Without the distraction of smartphones and the Internet, the enforced isolation of the dentist's chair (where no conversation is possible) can bring on a meditative state. I've even dozed off for a few minutes. After the polishing, the dentist comes in to do a quick inspection.

    A Berkeley grad, former VW Bus owner, and child of the Sixties, Stan inquired about my VW Bug. I showed him pictures. He seemed pleased. Gleaming, just like my teeth. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, December 02, 2012

    Wilderness Worship

    Environmentalists have successfully lobbied the Federal Government to shut down a legal, 40+-year-old business that employs 30 people. Excerpts from the Mercury News:
    Interior Secretary Ken Salazar announced Thursday the Drakes Bay Oyster Co.'s operating permit will expire at Point Reyes National Seashore on Friday, returning Drakes Estero to wilderness.

    [Owner Kevin] Lunny said he is not sure what will happen to the company's 30 employees and the on-site housing where about half of them live.

    Also uncertain is the fate of some 8 million to 10 million oysters that are currently in the water, growing in various stages of development.

    The oysters would have a market value of about 50 cents each, but the last of them will not be ready to harvest for another two years, Lunny said.

    The oyster company — which made about $1.5 million annually — will have to remove its personal property from the lands and waters within 90 days. Salazar has asked the National Park Service to help the employees who are affected by the decision, including assisting with relocation, employment opportunities and training. Drakes Estero has been in commercial oyster production for nearly 100 years.

    Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune lauded the decision. "We're thrilled that after three decades this amazing piece of Point Reyes National Seashore will finally receive the protections it deserves," he said. "Once the oyster factory operations are removed, as originally promised ... this estuary will quickly regain its wilderness characteristics and become a safe haven for marine mammals, birds and other sea life."
    Let's give the environmentalists their due. Drakes Estero will probably look more beautiful without the oyster business (Reuters photo below).

    Economic arguments--the loss of 30 jobs, not to mention the permanent reduction in the supply of locally grown oysters valued in the millions of dollars--could not overcome the worship of the wilderness that now holds sway over much of environmentalism and now the Interior Department. From Wikipedia, a worshipful definition:
    Wilderness or wildland is a natural environment on Earth that has not been significantly modified by human activity. It may also be defined as: "The most intact, undisturbed wild natural areas left on our planet—those last truly wild places that humans do not control and have not developed with roads, pipelines or other industrial infrastructure."
    If a little wilderness is good, then it follows that more wilderness is better. That's why initiatives like draining the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that provides water to millions of Californians gain a respectful hearing.

    By the way, the measure to dismantle the Hetch Hetchy was rejected by 77% of San Francisco voters. The wilderness religionists are vocal, but they're not in the majority...yet. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Saturday, December 01, 2012

    High School News

    Sandwiched between news about the girls' volleyball team and an L.A. luau, the high school's newsletter has an article about an alumnus who went into politics. I'm glad they wrote about him---else, who would have known?

    With a feeling of nostalgia I read about the preparation for the annual February Carnival (where rides cost ten times the 25 cents I used to pay), the items on sale at the Bookstore (where I got my first job at the age of 11 and learned how to count back change instead of having it computed by an electronic cash register), and what's going on with my classmates' kids and grandkids.

    I still send the school a (small) check every year and get an acknowledgment back from J. When I saw him at the last big reunion, he appeared relaxed. The worry lines are less pronounced, and he's wearing the mantle of leadership well.

    The institution is prospering: a massive building program has transformed the campus, and its academic and athletic programs are highly regarded. When J. retires in a few years, he'll leave a legacy that anyone would be proud to have. That year's reunion I'll be sure to attend. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Friday, November 30, 2012

    Sorry, Alex, Your Time Has Passed

    Greg Cosell bears resemblance to Uncle Howard.
    Football analyst and NFL Films producer Greg Cosell said on KNBR this morning that there is no question that the San Francisco 49ers think Colin Kaepernick today is a better quarterback than Alex Smith:
    My guess is for people in the business this is not even a controversy. One guy is a significantly better passer than the other guy. To me there is not really an issue here. Kaepernick could obviously have a bad game anytime, because he's only played two games and he's inexperienced and there are things he hasn't seen.

    Could he have a poor game? Sure. But you're talking about dimensions in a pass game. One guy has every dimension you want throwing the football, the other guy is limited. This is really not news.

    Jim Harbaugh gets the job as the 49ers head coach. I guarantee that one of the first things he did in his preparation was he probably watched almost every throw Alex Smith has made in his career. That's what coaches do---they're nuts. This is the kind of stuff they do. So after doing that they draft Colin Kaepernick in the second round. That's step one.

    Step two is they play a season. They play a season in which Alex Smith throws the fewest passes of any 16-game starter.

    Step three: they try to get Peyton Manning in the off-season. Everything tells you that they believe Colin Kaepernick ultimately---and they didn't know if he could play until he played, but they know what his skill-set is, they know what his quarterback attributes are in relation to Alex Smith's quarterback attributes---Colin Kaepernick has the better quarterback attributes.
    Nearly everyone feels bad for Alex Smith, who has finally become a good NFL quarterback who had a decent shot at winning the Super Bowl. Barring injury or a series of horrendous performances by Colin Kaepernick he won't get that chance with the 49ers.  © 2012 Stephen Yuen
    Body language says it all: Alex and Colin (AP photo via SFGate)

    Thursday, November 29, 2012

    'Tis the Season

    Gift-giving, card-writing, tree-lighting, online-shopping.....the latest addition to the holiday list is delivery-scamming.

    Do NOT click on the link to "Get Postal Receipt". (No, your humble observer has become less trusting in his old age and did not click.)

    Maybe it's a good thing that Proposition 34 (ending the death penalty in California) didn't pass. I voted for it, but have reconsidered. A quick, painless death is too good for these predators... © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Wednesday, November 28, 2012

    Not Titletown (Yet)

    The San Francisco professional sports picture is markedly brighter than it was six years ago, when each of its major sports franchises had a losing record. The Giants have won two World Series in the past three years, and the 49ers are considered one of the favorites for this year's Super Bowl.

    While the 49ers' success and their burgeoning quarterback controversy are the local focus of attention, the Golden State Warriors are quietly moving toward respectability. 20-year-old Harrison Barnes signaled that the winter months need not represent the cruelest season when he performed an electrifying dunk over 6'11" Timberwolves center Nikola Pekovic.

    Harrison Barnes, Stephen Curry, and other young players will be in the prime of their careers when the Warriors move to San Francisco. By 2017 San Francisco could add Titletown to the many other names (most of them complimentary) by which it is known. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Tuesday, November 27, 2012

    Business: the Unforgivable Sin

    Apple's stock seems to have bottomed, perhaps temporarily, at $525.62 on November 15th. Since then it's risen 11%. Knowledge of the Maps debacle (Apple discontinued Google Maps on September 19th) has not dampened enthusiasm for Apple's products:
    In the past 12 weeks, Apple’s mobile operating system has grown to now make up 48.1 percent of the U.S. smartphone market, just ahead of [Google's] Android at 46.7 percent.
    Despite the fact that customers have shrugged off the Maps problem, Apple's management hasn't been as forgiving:
    Apple Inc. pushed out an executive responsible for its mapping service about two weeks ago, according to people briefed on the matter, as the company tries to recover from the map service's rocky debut.

    The vice president, Richard Williamson, had been a senior leader with Apple's iOS mobile software team. During his tenure, he oversaw a variety of services, including at one point Apple's voice-activated assistant Siri.

    Mr. Williamson's boss, iPhone software chief Scott Forstall, was pushed out of Apple in October, also on the heels of the maps imbroglio.
    Both Scott Forstall and Richard Williamson have been heavily involved in some of Apple's most important successes over the past ten years. Nevertheless, in the top echelons of business, like in sports and entertainment, the key question is "what have you done for me lately?" Both are gone because they committed the one unforgivable sin--no, not failure, but embarrassing their employer. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Monday, November 26, 2012

    Cliff Notes

    After November 6th the indices dropped 5% but since have recovered most of their losses.
    It's a reasonable supposition that the November 6 election results were disappointing to the investors who hoped that a Romney victory would continue the favorable tax treatment afforded to long-term capital gains and dividends. Instead, avoidance of the "fiscal cliff" will now probably entail higher tax rates on capital gains (from November 11th: "the prospect of higher taxes on capital gains is prompting many to unload some of their winning stocks") and possibly much higher rates on dividends.

    Unsurprisingly, the equity indices fell for the ten days following the election but have since rebounded. The likely causes of this brightening outlook are favorable noises emanating from both sides in Washington, plus signs that growth has not stalled in China.

    Meanwhile, what is the small investor to do? One great feature of capital gains is that the timing of income recognition is largely under the control of the individual taxpayer. Barring situations where one has to sell, it's not unusual to hold well-chosen stocks for many years. The patient investor may be able to hold off realizing gains for four more years, when the Republicans stand an excellent chance of capturing not only the Presidency but Congress as well (remember how everyone was so sick of George W. Bush after eight years that the Democrats didn't really need a platform in 2008? I wouldn't bet against the country feeling the same way about Barack Obama and the Democratic Party in 2016.)

    Another strategy is to manage one's financial affairs to keep income below the levels where higher rates kick in. For example, one spouse may now choose to quit a good-paying job to stay at home with the kids and fill the traditional role of the wife to an executive (your humble observer is personally acquainted with many professional women and men who have opted for less money, less stress, and more time with their families).  Staying home is not a new phenomenon, but higher tax rates may finally sway some on-the-edge dual-income couples.

    For gains on capital assets that are not securities there is every indication that tax-planning deferral tools, such as Section 1031 exchanges, will continue in their present form. While the tax regime will be a bit more unfavorable, take heart, investors, history shows that you will figure out ways to adapt.  Which means, of course, that the higher receipts that the government will collect will be far short of what higher-tax advocates will expect, a surprise to no one but themselves. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, November 25, 2012


    Nine months ago
    My old college car is looking better after sanding and painting.  It still needs a lot of work; dozens of parts are unusable and need to be replaced.

    Rejuvenation hasn't been quick or easy, but at least it's possible. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about the car's owner....

    Saturday, November 24, 2012

    Why Does Senator Daniel Inouye Have Secret Service Protection?

    Two old pros who worked on Watergate in 1974.
    Answered via other questions and answers:

    Q: who's next in the line of Presidential succession, after the Vice President and Speaker of the House?

    A: The president pro tempore of the Senate.

    Q: What does the president pro tempore do?

    A: He* presides over the Senate in the absence of the Vice President, is the Senate's legal recipient of various reports, and serves on commissions and boards. (Obviously, the duties are largely ceremonial, but the office is third in line and it is in the Constitution.)

    *Male singular pronoun used for convenience only.

    Q: How is he elected?

    A: "Since the mid-20th century, it has been traditional for the Senate to elect the senior member of the majority party as president pro tempore."

    Q: Who is the current president pro tempore?

    A. Daniel K. Inouye, 88-year-old Democratic Senator from Hawaii. We have posted about Medal of Honor recipient Senator Dan before (here and here).

    Two sons of Hawaii grew up in the same middle-class neighborhood, albeit four decades apart, and are now important enough to be protected round-the-clock by the Secret Service. Last question: who would ever have believed it? © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Friday, November 23, 2012

    The Less-Trafficked Road

    Amazon customers can pick up their deliveries at
    some Radio Shack locations in the Bay Area.
    The shopping center lots were full on Black Friday, so we headed to downtown San Mateo where there was only light traffic. We stopped at the 4th Avenue Radio Shack (disclosure: I own shares of RSH) and picked up some batteries and a $40 label-maker that was on sale for $10.

    Radio Shack has been struggling like many other chains, and it's questionable whether it will survive the retail shake-out. One glimmer of hope is that Radio Shack can partner with companies who will view its 4,000+ North American locations as an exploitable asset. It's a dicey proposition, but perhaps the company's only path to survival.

    Thursday, November 22, 2012

    Happy Thanksgiving

    We sound like a broken record (what's that, grampa?) as we list the things that we have to be thankful for: our family, our health, our vocations and avocations, and our friends. But what we are most grateful for is that we were born in the greatest country in the world, where every person has the opportunity to seek his calling or worship as she pleases or speak his mind without fear of imprisonment.

    On other days we can be complaining and critical, but not today. Cultivate the attitude of gratitude. Happy Thanksgiving!

    Wednesday, November 21, 2012

    Once More Into the Brine, Dear Fowl

    It only took a few minutes of preparation to boil the brine solution (salt, sugar, vegetables, onion, garlic, and herbs). After cooling overnight on the stove, it was dumped into a bucket containing the 20-lb. turkey and three trays of ice cubes.

    The turkey will be stored in the fridge until tomorrow morning, when it will be popped into the oven. It should be ready by halftime of the Cowboys game. Easy as (pumpkin) pie.

    Tuesday, November 20, 2012

    No Obvious Catalyst

    Apple shares have given investors a wild ride over the past five days. The stock had continued its downward drift since September , then reversed course mid-Friday. On Monday it rose $38.05 (7.2%) from the previous week's close.

    Sharp price adjustments are to be expected after new product announcements and earnings releases, but there was no obvious catalyst for Monday's action. Down 25% from the September high to last Friday's low, then snapping back almost 12%. If one is an Apple investor, one has grown accustomed to rapid price increases, and now decreases.

    As Nassim Nicholas Taleb says, volatility is here to stay, and we may as well learn to love it.

    Monday, November 19, 2012

    For Want of a $10 Part

    I didn't want our hot-waterless weekend to be extended any longer (see post below) and promptly called Noritz early this morning. It turned out that UPS was the culprit; despite the Saturday label the replacement part had sat in UPS' Anaheim distribution center over the weekend. Noritz refunded the surcharge for Saturday delivery, small compensation for the inconvenience of cold-water bathing.

    I've heard other people complain about UPS and will use FedEx if there's a choice. Such anecdotal evidence is unscientific to be sure, but isn't word-of-mouth how many of us pick doctors, car repairmen, and other service providers?

    The package arrived at 10 a.m., and Kevin was here by noon. It took him ten minutes to replace the igniter. He charged me only for the two hours that he spent diagnosing the problem on Friday. I told him I'll call him again if I need a plumber but I hoped I wouldn't have to. He laughed and was on his way.

    Sunday, November 18, 2012

    City Boy

    The igniter is the square black object in the middle
    Indoor plumbing is one of modern life's necessities; right behind it in importance is HOT running water. Our four-year-old tankless water heater stopped heating on Friday. An emergency call to a local plumber diagnosed the problem as a faulty igniter. The manufacturer promised to send it overnight so we could be up and running on Saturday. Alas, the package didn't come.

    We've made do with showers at the gym and boiling pots of water for lower-volume needs. The dishes and laundry are piling up. Overnight lows are in the 40's, and very cold water greets us in the morning. Monday, and the replacement igniter, can't come soon enough.

    Saturday, November 17, 2012

    Peace, Just Not There

    The Middle East once again threatens to boil over: Israel, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iran, Iraq---there's no conflict-free zone. Elsewhere, however, there are nascent signs of peace.

    Google and Apple are talking about resolving all litigation [bold added]:
    The companies have been exchanging proposals on using binding arbitration to reach a licensing agreement over patents that are essential to comply with industry standards on how phones operate. Such an agreement could lead to a global settlement of all of their patent disputes, Apple said in a Nov. 15 filing.
    Stocks rose on Friday after signals from both parties that the impasse over the "fiscal cliff" may be resolved:
    the top lawmakers emerged from the White House meeting, which lasted more than an hour, with uncharacteristic optimism that they would reach a deal in coming weeks. [snip]

    Leaders from both parties and aides to Mr. Obama said they agreed to make concessions to achieve a deal. For Democrats, that included a willingness to curb entitlement programs, such as Medicare. For Republicans that meant a willingness to raise tax revenue.
    Of course, the devil is in the details, but at this point any deal is better than no deal. Let's hope that the emotion surrounding Thanksgiving next week is one of gratitude, not fear or disappointment. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Friday, November 16, 2012

    Almost the Apocalypse

    It will be the end of the world when someone actually meets the starting bid (or more!).

    Of course, if Twinkies are selling for anything close to this price, then Hostess wouldn't be going out of business:
    Hostess Brands Inc., the 85-year-old maker of iconic treats such as Twinkies, Ding Dongs and pantry staples like Wonder Bread, on Friday said it would go out of business after failing to reach agreement on wage and pension cuts with its bakers' union.
    Like works of art whose value appreciates when the artist dies, Twinkies prices might well follow a similar path (although $8,000 is a mite ambitious). At least with all the preservatives used in their manufacture, an investor will have years to make his speculation pay off. © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Thursday, November 15, 2012

    Why Not, Aubrey?

    After the San Francisco Giants won the 2010 World Series, veteran Aubrey Huff advised then-rookie catcher Buster Posey.

    Huff: Don't think this happens every year, kid.

    Posey: Why not?

    Mercury News photo
    Buster Posey was the Rookie of the Year, suffered a season-ending injury in May, 2011 (the Giants missed the playoffs), then roared back in 2012 to start the All-Star game and lead the Giants to another World Series title.

    Today Buster Posey was named the winner of the National League Most Valuable Player award. And where was 25-year-old Buster on this special day?
    Posey, seeing the potential conflict on the award schedule, never asked if he could back out of the annual fundraiser for the Transitional Learning Center in Leesburg, Ga. His mother, Traci, teaches at the school for students with disciplinary and academic issues who haven't succeeded in other settings. Tickets for the dinner, billed "Come 'Steak' a Claim for Education," were $10. Raffle tickets were $1.

    "I figured we could make it work one way or the other," Posey said. "It turned out great having more family and friends around."
    Why not, indeed.

    Wednesday, November 14, 2012

    Late to the Party

    I've been helping a friend of mine test an iPad business app. The process is fascinating: app screens are storyboarded like in film production, and each screen has to be tightly defined in order to minimize programming costs and keep to the schedule. My modest role is to test-drive the app and check some of the calculations. Typically, my setup uses two computers (one Mac and one PC) and an iPad.

    I have been working in accounting and related areas for over three decades. This is a lot more fun. To be young again....

    Tuesday, November 13, 2012

    Benghazi: We Don't Know Anything

    After the 9/11 murder of four Americans in Benghazi, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice went on all the Sunday talk shows to lay the blame on an obscure video. The immediate reaction of many viewers was incredulity. Not only was the Innocence of Muslims hardly seen by anyone, the abundance of anti-Islam materials that has arisen since 2001 makes it hard to see why this particular low-budget excrescence was the catalyst for the widespread violence that roiled the Middle East, not just Benghazi.

    However, your humble observer could not accept the explanation of some Republicans either--that the video was (falsely) blamed because the Obama Administration was reluctant to admit that its foreign policy had failed. Both explanations are too easily discredited after a few days of Congressional hearings.

    One can believe the worst of one man's motives, but surely not everyone in the CIA or the State and Defense Departments would fall on their sword for the President unless there were good national security reasons. For example, there have been rumors that assassinated ambassador Chris Stevens was linked to arms shipments to Syrian rebels, or that the CIA was running a secret prison in Benghazi.

    After the David Petraeus love triangle story took everyone by surprise less than a week ago, then mushroomed into a love-hexagon over the past few days, one thing is certain. We don't know anything.

    Monday, November 12, 2012

    Protection Racket

    A family member clicked on an email attachment, and the computer screen exploded with pop-up boxes. The Family PC had become infected with malware.

    The ironically named System Progressive Protection repeatedly warns that one's computer has been invaded by a virus. A credit-card payment to SPP would supposedly remove the "virus" but really just de-activates the bogus warnings. Worse, the protection payment itself opens up the victim to identity and credit-card theft.

    There are various legitimate programs that would eradicate SPP, but I didn't feel like purchasing and adding yet another program to our creaky five-year-old Dell Vostro. Because we had been regularly backing up the Dell to an external hard drive, it was possible to fix the problem the hard and perhaps better way.

    Erasing the internal drive and reloading Windows XP from a set of original 2002 CDs was fairly easy. However, it took three days to download and install the various updates, including lengthy "service packs", from Microsoft. After we reloaded other software, such as the Office (Word, Excel, PowerPoint) suite, the backup drive restored the data.

    The whole episode is not something we would go through voluntarily, but at least by clearing away leftover code and unused programs the PC is working better than it has in a long time. We won't have to replace it this year after all.

    [Note: Microsoft no longer supports Windows XP, and it's not clear how much longer the service packs and updates will be available for download. The Dell has maybe two more years of useful life.] © 2012 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, November 11, 2012

    Veteran's Day, 2012

    2011: your correspondent pays
    his respects at the National Cemetery
    of the Pacific, Punchbowl
    As the World War II generation leaves the scene, let's take every opportunity to honor their service. Give them a call, pay a visit, or buy them a coffee. Encourage them to talk about the old days, though maybe you'd rather be doing something else.
    Because we don't know when we will die,
    we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well.
    Yet everything happens only
    a certain number of times,
    and a very small number really.
    How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood,
    some afternoon that's so deeply a part of your being that you can't even conceive
    of your life without it.
    Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that.
    How many more times will you watch the full moon rise?
    Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.
    --Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky

    Saturday, November 10, 2012

    Still Going Strong

    Eugene Fama on too-big-to-fail (H/T Tyler Cowen) [bold added]:
    Basically, the institutions that are considered to be too big to fail have their debt priced as if it’s riskless, which gives them a low cost of capital and makes it very easy for them to expand and become an even bigger problem. Plus, everybody now accepts the assertion that they are too big to fail, which creates a terrible moral hazard for the management of these financial institutions. Business leaders won’t consciously tank their companies, but too big to fail will push them toward taking more risk, whether they realize it or not.

    I don’t think Dodd–Frank (the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act) cures that moral hazard problem. Even if lawmakers could devise the perfect regulation for such a cure, the chance that it will be implemented by the regulators in the way designed is pretty close to zero.

    The simplest solution would be to raise the capital requirements of banks. A nice place to start would be a 25% equity capital ratio, and if that doesn’t work, raise it more. The equity capital ratio needs to be high enough that a too-big-to-fail financial institution’s debt is riskless, not because of what is essentially a government guarantee but because the equity ratio is very high.
    In 1969 Fama, Fisher, Jensen and Roll wrote the seminal article on the efficient-market hypothesis. Lesser lights have won the prize; as Tyler Cowen says, give the man his Nobel.

    Friday, November 09, 2012

    Now That the Election's Over

    Now that the election's over we are likely, finally, to learn the truth about:

  • Benghazi
  • Obamacare's costs
  • End-of-year defense layoffs
  • FEMA's before-and-after performance on Hurricane Sandy
  • Unemployment statistics
  • Whether General Motors is really healthy
  • What the President meant when he said he would be "flexible" on missile defense

    Your humble observer believes that the President will wind up unscathed on at least some of these issues, so this post is not a criticism of him.

    The mainstream media turned a blind eye to these questions in the run-up to the election. Their neglect was a gross dereliction of its duty to help the electorate make informed choices.

    Reporters sometimes have to choose between their professed responsibility to discover and disclose the truth (please, no sophistry about the subjectivity of knowledge) and their personal politics. CPAs tabulate inventory counts that could unexpectedly lower their clients' earnings. Scientists report the harmful side effects of experimental drugs and possibly negate millions of dollars and years of research. Even lawyers, who have a primary responsibility to their clients, have a duty to disclose material facts that could help the other side.

    If the press had pursued these 2012 stories with even a fraction of the enthusiasm with which it pilloried the Bush Administration over Hurricane Katrina, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and the 5.5% unemployment rate in 2004, then it would be deserving of the esteem with which we regard most of our venerable professions. After its performance in 2012, it's doubtful whether the press will ever recover, and we all will be the poorer. © 2012 Stephen Yuen
  • Thursday, November 08, 2012

    Big Data Wins the Biggest Prize

    When Rush Limbaugh made fun of the Obama campaign dinner at Sarah Jessica Parker's townhouse, I laughed right along. It was the apotheosis of the Hollywood love-in for President Obama, ripe for mockery. It turns out that the Democrats were playing chess while the Republicans thought the game was checkers (the way things turned out a cute dog might have helped). Key to the President's re-election was
    a massive data effort that helped Obama raise $1 billion, remade the process of targeting TV ads and created detailed models of swing-state voters that could be used to increase the effectiveness of everything from phone calls and door knocks to direct mailings and social media.
    The dinner with Sarah, and its West Coast counterpart dinner with George Clooney, were not affectations but part of a well-thought-out strategy [bold added]:
    For the general public, there was no way to know that the idea for the Parker contest had come from a data-mining discovery about some supporters: affection for contests, small dinners and celebrity. But from the beginning, campaign manager Jim Messina had promised a totally different, metric-driven kind of campaign in which politics was the goal but political instincts might not be the means. “We are going to measure every single thing in this campaign,” he said after taking the job. He hired an analytics department five times as large as that of the 2008 operation, with an official “chief scientist” for the Chicago headquarters named Rayid Ghani, who in a previous life crunched huge data sets to, among other things, maximize the efficiency of supermarket sales promotions.
    Michael Scherer's article in Time is a fascinating read. Comments:

    1) The Republicans undoubtedly will create, if they haven't done so already, a similar big-data operation.

    2) The first important step, which began shortly after 2008, was the 18-month-long project to create a "mega" file that unified the many disparate Democratic databases. This means that work on 2016 has already begun (sigh).

    3) Holding the Presidency confers an enormous advantage. The incumbent party--whether Democrat or Republican--will have access to oceans of data not necessarily available to its opponent. It is nigh impossible to enforce privacy rules, especially since enforcement is done largely through self-policing. [Flashback: Big Data is the new Plastics.]