Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween, 2013: Less is Good

15 minutes before it starts
Recently the number of trick o' treaters has been tailing off, but not this year. The nearby martial arts studio threw a Halloween party, and after it was over most of the kids decided that they weren't done yet.

Over 50 ghosts, goblins, witches, sorcerers, and super-heroes came to our door. Fortunately, we had the foresight to buy a 150-piece bag of assorted chocolate bars, and we only have a few pieces left that we'll be "forced" to eat in the next few days.

Less is good.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Just Science Fiction

One of the unanswered mysteries in 2001: A Space Odyssey: Why did the HAL 9000 supercomputer malfunction and murder nearly the entire crew on the trip to Jupiter?

In the sequel 2010: Odyssey Two it was explained that
HAL's crisis was caused by a programming contradiction: he was constructed for "the accurate processing of information without distortion or concealment", yet his orders.....required him to keep the discovery of the Monolith TMA-1 a secret for reasons of national security.
HAL's architecture was based on openness and transparency, but government higher-ups ordered HAL to conceal important information from the crew. HAL went through the computer equivalent of a psychotic break.

Forbes [bold added]:
In the case of Obamacare, the web site was made needlessly complex just in order to avoid this sort of transparency [as programmed into Medicare Part D]. There was probably fear in the White House that if consumers browsed plans and saw the list cost (without first knowing how much the government would subsidize their plan) many people would not return.
At the end of 2001 sole survivor David Bowman performs a "lobotomy" on HAL to save the ship. Bowman finishes the mission by operating everything manually. Human beings having such resourcefulness, however, is probably just science fiction. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

One Must Do What One Can

Dinner with new friends at Hope Lutheran Church, San Mateo
Diane brought two pork shoulder-blade roasts. Remembering how well her tenderloin was received last year, I asked her to double the amount. Kay brought salad, Irene cooked the squash, and I picked up dessert. But the pièce de résistance was the pork. The organizers at Hope Lutheran Church assured us that the few leftovers would be consumed by tomorrow.

Five families were served. The children played by the TV set and shot baskets outside. Tonight they will have a safe place to sleep.

The 31 congregations and synagogues who comprise the Home and Hope network don't have the financial resources or volunteers to alleviate the conditions of the thousands of homeless and hungry in the Bay Area. But they can help these 18 people, and they subscribe to the belief that one must do what one can. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Monday, October 28, 2013

Rushing Pell Mell

As computers assume ever more complex tasks, the improvements in scale, quality, and speed are highly visible, When computers do make mistakes, however, they are doozies.

Human beings are the final quality control nodes in almost every system, but skilled individuals who can recognize when something that is not on the checklist is going wrong are rare. Auto mechanics don't know how to set the timing with just a light bulb and a wire, they just need to swap out a circuit board. Engineers don't have a feel for logarithms because no one uses a slide rule any more. Accountants don't intuit financial interdependencies from years of working with present-value tables, they just push a button and the answer comes out.
Automation turns us from actors into observers. Instead of manipulating the yoke, we watch the screen.
As we rush pell-mell into the future, let's pray that the system won't make big mistakes. Soon there will be no one who can fix them or even recognize that mistakes are happening before it's too late. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, October 27, 2013

That's the Plan

An October ritual for most organizations is the wrap-up of next year's plan, and the church is no different. Churches ask for pledges during the stewardship campaign (the stewardship idea: we don't "own" anything, not even our bodies, and we are to be wise stewards of God's creation). Every year our family has maintained or increased its pledge, but next year we're going to cut back.

The most important reason is that my consulting income and work on startups (which I hope will pay off in capital gains down the road) is not yet at the level I earned as a full-time worker.

I also find that I am disagreeing more and more with church leadership about its identification with statism (see here). Freedom means that we're free not to give as well.

I wholeheartedly support voluntary direct aid to members of the community, sans politics, and next year intend to devote more time and treasure to those activities, both within and without the church. Anyway, that's the plan. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Saturday, October 26, 2013

164th Diocesan Convention

Graced with Light, by Anne Patterson, at Grace Cathedral.
As they did last year, delegates from 74 Episcopal congregations gathered at Grace Cathedral to conduct the business of the Diocese of California (summary here).

Like most corporations, non-profits, and other non-governmental entities, the Diocese is required to have an annual meeting to receive reports, elect officers, and vote on resolutions. Over the years it's been a challenge to avoid losing control over time, since every Episcopalian who loves to hear the sound of his or her own voice shows up at convention. (Your humble observer, a kindred soul to Chauncey Gardiner, just likes to watch.) The organizers are to be commended for strict enforcement of the two-minute speaking rule. (The bishop was exempt.)

The most spirited discussion concerned a resolution that would order the endowment manager to divest all shares in fossil-fuel companies, a tricky and somewhat costly proposition if one participates in a broad-based investment fund. A counter-proposal to invest new monies in alternative energies won the day, although everyone seemed to agree that being anti-carbon was a good thing. As for me, I sympathized with all the employees and retirees of Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, Philips Petroleum, and Occidental whose livelihood was lumped in with apartheid (divestment was a favorite method of expressing disapproval of South Africa in the 1980's). Fossil-fuel people won't debate, they'll just join the millions of others who have stopped coming.

So why do I stay? I've already stated my reasons, or maybe I'm just a creature of habit. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Friday, October 25, 2013

There's Always Next Year

Blue Shield Silver is the closest to what we have now,
and the net cost through Covered California will be half
of what we will pay next year.
The open enrollment period on my retiree health plan expires today, October 25th, when I have to decide whether to re-up for 2014 or take my chances on the California Obamacare exchange, Covered California. If we do choose Obamacare, however, we can't go back to our old retiree plan...ever.

On the one hand I can pay over $1,000 per month--my share of the cost, with my former employer kicking in a smaller amount--or pay a lot less through Covered California, provided I am willing to do or believe the following:

1) Manage our household income to be below four times the poverty rate (in our case that means capping it at slightly less than $79,000). This will enable us to a) limit the premiums to 9.5% (or less) of our income and b) receive a tax subsidy.

2) The extensive personal data that we will be entering into Covered California is secure.

3) The benefits and costs from the insurance company that we select are as described on the website.

The decision isn't close. We will stay on the insurance plan that we know, though we will pay thousands of dollars more. It's a matter of risk, but most of all it's a matter of trust---the fact that we trust health insurance companies more than the government to deliver on promises is a terrible indictment of our current system.

And there's always next year to change our mind. I'll be happy to be proven wrong. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Glitches, Icebergs, and Other Metaphors

On October 1st President Obama compared Obamacare's rocky start to problems that Apple encounters---and fixes--whenever it rolls out a new product [bold added]:
[On] every new product roll-out, there are going to be some glitches in the sign-up process along the way that we will fix....And we're going to be speeding things up in the next few hours to handle all of this demand that exceeds anything that we had expected. Consider that just a couple of weeks ago, Apple rolled out a new mobile operating system, and within days, they found a glitch, so they fixed it.
When Apple has a "glitch," even one as bad as last year's Apple Maps or the antenna problem in 2010, it fixes the problem or offers a substitute within a matter of weeks. The market eventually (re)embraces Apple's products as second to none in quality and aesthetics.

An Apple glitch is like the mole on Cindy Crawford's cheek: hardly
noticeable in light of other favorable attributes. (China Daily photo)
Commentators have been less forgiving in their metaphors. Peggy Noonan:
(WSJ Graphic)
The ObamaCare rollout is a disaster for the White House, not a problem or a challenge or an embarrassment, not a gaffe or a bad few weeks. [snip]

Asked whether Kathleen Sebelius should be fired, [former Obama chief of staff Bill Daley] said: "To me that's kind of like firing Captain Smith on the Titanic after it hit the iceberg." The Titanic. Some will see his comments as disloyal. Actually they were candid and realistic. Although in fairness, the Titanic at least had three good days, and Edward Smith chose to go down with the ship.
Then there's the Hindenburg:
Lisa Benson cartoon
Your humble observer is quite confident that will be "fixed" by the end of November. A website can be set up in less than an hour, and a feature like user registration can be added in less than a day.

More complex features, like enrollment with an insurance carrier, verifying taxpayer income and subsidies, and securing and encrypting data could take a lot longer than 45 days. However, because there is no published spec sheet the Administration will declare the project complete on November 30. The features that you or I are expecting, dear reader, will be in version 2.0, date to be determined. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Three Weeks Later

From President Obama's October 1st remarks on the government shutdown and the Obamacare rollout:
starting today, you and your friends and your family and your co-workers can get covered too. Just visit, and there, you can compare insurance plans side-by-side the same way you'd shop for a plane ticket on Kayak or a TV on Amazon. You enter some basic information, you'll be presented with a list of quality, affordable plans that are available in your area with clear descriptions of what each plan covers and what it will cost.

You'll find more choices, more competition and in many cases, lower prices. Most uninsured Americans will find that they can get covered for $100 or less. And you don't have to take my word for it, go on the website,, check it out for yourself and then show it to your family and your friends and help them get covered just like mayors and churches and community groups and companies are already fanning out to do across the country.

And there's a hotline where you can apply over the phone and get help with the application. Or just get questions that you have answered by real people in 150 different languages. So let me give you that number. The number is 1-800-318-2596 -- 1-800-318-2596. Check out, call that number, show your family and friends how to use it and we can get America covered once and for all so that the struggles that these folks have gone through and millions around the country have gone through for years finally get addressed.
Normally I would underline the phrases that events made ironic, but just imagine the whole passage as underlined.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Happy With Hamburger

The new, thinner, lighter, faster Apple tablet, the iPad Air, wasn't revolutionary but it was enough to stay ahead of the competition (reminiscent of the old joke that one doesn't have to run faster than the bear, one just has to run faster than the other guy.)

My iPad 2 is looking a little long in the tooth. Though it still works fine, I'll forego my daily latte and save up for the Air. It'll be WiFi only, though, with no data plan. Verizon costs $20 per month for 1 GB of data, which is plenty for e-mail and reading websites, but not for streaming video and advanced gaming applications. The iPad 2 will be taken on the road--if it's lost or stolen I won't feel too bad--while the Air will stay at home.

There's no reason to buy steak when one is happy with hamburger. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Monday, October 21, 2013

Anxious Weekend

After an anxious weekend the BART strike, chapter 2 (chapter 1 was in July), was apparently settled. The trains will roll again tomorrow after disrupting the daily schedules of hundreds of thousands of commuters who rely on BART. However, we're not out of the tunnel entirely because the agreement must still be approved by union membership next week.

The region's vulnerability to transit strikes has given rise to calls to outlaw them by some California Democrats. (Transit strikes have been banned even in such labor-friendly bastions as Chicago, Washington, D.C., and New York.) The San Francisco Chronicle says that it's time:
This strike may represent the most egregious and most counterproductive overreach by the unions. They and their consultants should have recognized in July that public sentiment was not with them.

Their obliviousness has brought the issue to the fore: Why should workers in a service so essential to Bay Area life and safety even be allowed to strike?
BART is fairly quick, reliable, and cheap, and, excluding the intra-San Francisco Muni system, far more people in the Bay Area rely on it every day than all other forms of public transportation. BART is also a good example of the danger of entrusting too much power to a single supplier, public or private, for-profit or non-profit.

We who live on the Peninsula are fortunate to have several commuting options to San Francisco: SamTrans express buses, CalTrain, BART, and, of course, one's own car. Diversification is good, because it means that you have a back-up plan. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Sunday, October 20, 2013

O, the Humanity (Reprise)

I cut a lot of slack to politicians when they make predictions. I may think that they're dead wrong when they claim, for example, that lower government spending or higher taxes are the way to solve the debt problem. But they probably aren't "lying", i.e. knowingly spouting something untrue; they may be indulging in wishful thinking---heck, they may even believe with all their heart in what they're saying.

But when politicians say something utterly false--and they know it--concerning past events, the normal reaction is to get angry (perhaps because people don't like the answer to "what kind of fool do you take me for?"). However, the explanations can be so laughable that their ridiculousness disarms us.

Every six months or so the Obama Administration is good for such a howler that I can't be angry at them.

September, 2012 - the attack on the American consulate in Libya, as well as uprisings across the Middle East, was due to an obscure YouTube video. President Obama, on 9/12/12:
"What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests."
May, 2013 - the IRS targeting of tea party organizations was the work of low-level agents in Cincinnati:
the IRS has identified two "rogue" employees in the agency's Cincinnati office as being principally responsible for the "overly aggressive" handling of requests by conservative groups for tax-exempt status
October, 2013 - the first reason (the President did list others later in his 10/21/13 press conference) that the Obamacare website doesn't work:
"the number of people who have visited the site has been overwhelming, which has aggravated some of these underlying problems."
An amateur video, Cincinnati IRS agents going rogue, and being so popular the website froze. Laughter being the best medicine, the President is correct about one thing: because of Obamacare many of us are feeling better already. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Lisa Benson cartoon

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Trouble Avoided

I drive this stretch of Highway 101 nearly every day. Because of the BART strike, I took another route. Thank goodness.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Edge of the World

(SF Chronicle 2010 photo)
One block from Camelot Fish and Chips is a street that made the national news three years ago.

Winter storms had eroded the foundations of buildings on Esplanade Avenue, and apartments were in danger of toppling down the cliffs into the Pacific Ocean. The buildings were evacuated and destroyed, and efforts have been continuing to defend other structures on Esplanade.

Sunset at Esplanade Beach, Pacifica
It may seem futile to battle nature, but New Orleans is being rebuilt after Katrina, and dikes have kept the North Sea from flooding Holland for over a thousand years. As baby boomers who are approaching retirement under Social Security, we don't need a thousand years, just 20 more perhaps to continue munching peaceably on fish and chips at the edge of the world.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Camelot Fish and Chips, Pacifica

Despite living on the Peninsula for over 30 years, we had never ventured into Camelot Fish and Chips. Because an errand gave us an opportunity to kill a few hours in Pacifica, we stopped at the 44-year-old-establishment.

The walls were covered with emblems of England. We sat beneath the album cover of A Hard Day's Night and surveyed the rules of cricket. A figurine of Henry VIII stared haughtily from the opposite wall.

The fish and chips were excellent. Other members of our party favorited (hey, that's a verb now) the crab cakes and shrimp. The seafood and potatoes were deep fried to a crisp, moist perfection; the cook said the potatoes took the longest to cook and were the hardest to get right.

Half-way through the meal we were full. We didn't leave any leftovers, but our actions had nothing to do with the clean-your-plate admonishment from our parents. We really must get to the coast more often. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

From Miles and Years Away

A few comments about tonight's budget deal and the main source of contention, Obamacare:

  • There was no serious danger that the U.S. Government would default on its obligations. Too many powerful constituencies of both political parties would not have let it happen.
  • It was obvious from the beginning that Republicans would be blamed for the government shutdown:
    Of the 124 stories broadcast on the ABC, NBC and CBS nightly newscasts about the shutdown from Oct. 1 through Oct. 15, the [Media Research Center] study found 41 blamed Republicans or conservatives for the impasse, 17 blamed both sides and none specifically blamed Democrats.
  • The good news for Republicans is that the 24/7 news cycle operates in their favor. By next week their missteps should largely be forgotten, and news coverage will begin in earnest on Obamacare's woes (website freezes, premium rate hikes, security flaws, lost applications, etc.).

  • If the Republicans learned anything from this episode, they will make concessions during the next round of debt-limit negotiations in January and agree to fund Obamacare to a limited extent--perhaps the original 2014 projections made by the CBO when the law was passed in 2009. Republicans will appear reasonable, while the drip-drip-drip of Obamacare bad news could last into the November elections.

    Lest you think, dear reader, that I am rooting for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to fail, the opposite is true. We are in the 55-to-65 cohort whose premiums will be thousands of dollars lower under the exchanges (in order to get the subsidy we have to manage our income down, which is easily arranged!).

    It's just that anyone with any experience working in organizations could see this train wreck coming from miles, and years away. © 2013 Stephen Yuen
  • Tuesday, October 15, 2013

    O, the Humanity

    An e-mail from the Yale Club [bold added]:
    We regret to inform you that the event at NASA Ames Center featuring astrobiologist Dr. Lynn Rothschild has been indefinitely postponed due to the federal government shutdown. We'll keep you posted if the event gets re-scheduled.
    Don't those Congressional extremists know the pain they're causing?

    Monday, October 14, 2013

    Those Guys Were Something

    The end result
    It had been two years since the last sink-repair debacle, and memory lapse combined with hubris prompted me to try again. The HansGrohe faucets gleamed in the showroom, and these were on sale for a mere $99.

    It took an entire week, working several hours a day, to complete the job. The actual installation was comparatively easy. Removal of the old parts had to proceed carefully to avoid cracking the sink (like I did last time). Configuring a new trap and pipes underneath the drain, as well as finding and fixing a slight leak, took another several days.

    I had a hard enough time working with PVC pipe, and frankly, I can't imagine doing this with steel and copper pipe and acetylene torches, like our fathers did. Those guys were something. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, October 13, 2013

    The Endless Loop

    Two weeks should have been enough time to correct startup glitches, so I decided to check out the Covered California website, reputedly one of the most reliable of the Obamacare exchanges. an attractive home page...on to "getting covered"
    Getting covered: let's try the "Shop and Compare Tool" links.
    Oh-oh, we're back here again.
    You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike.

    Kidding aside, some links do work and it is possible to get to the Shop and Compare Tool.

    Whew! and to think that almost three years ago I was a worry-wart.

    Saturday, October 12, 2013

    The Punishment is Merciless

    A male business acquaintance tried to make conversation with a formerly svelte female colleague, asking "When is the baby due?" The poor guy took years of grief from the women executives for not perceiving that she had given birth two months earlier.

    Today at the doctor's office one young woman who had worked there for years was clearly showing, but I refrained from even a friendly comment.

    I have learned the lesson of my friend: friendliness yields little reward, and the punishment for making a mistake is merciless! © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Friday, October 11, 2013

    Ramen Dojo, San Mateo

    Garlic pork ramen
    At the Ramen Dojo there's always a wait. Because there are good, fairly inexpensive noodle joints elsewhere in the Bay Area (for example, Santouka in San Jose and Maruichi in Mountain View), we hadn't bothered standing in line. Today our curiosity finally prevailed, and we waited half an hour for a counter seat. (Ramen Dojo opens at 5:30, and we arrived at 5:45.)

    The delay was worth it. For about ten bucks you get a decent-but-not-huge-size bowl replete with ingredients: quail egg, pork, mushrooms, green onions, garlic, ginger, and lettuce. And, of course, the noodles and soup. RD likes to spice up its fare--"spicy ramen" is how it describes itself on the business card. Caution: even the "non-spicy" version was noticeably peppery.

    We'll be back. The Ramen Dojo waiting line is as good a place as any to catch up on our e-mails. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Thursday, October 10, 2013

    Rescued from the Shredder

    A paean to the automobile shredding machine:
    The shredder stands as the singularly most important piece of recycling equipment ever developed. It is, among other things, the best and really only solution to managing the biggest source of consumer waste in the world today: the roughly 14 million American automobiles that are junked annually.
    The blue '67 Bug was destined for the shredder, but after the following video's graphic depiction I just couldn't bring myself to consign it to this fate.

    Fred's Garage (now run by his sons) in Redwood City has given
    new life to VW Bugs, Buses, and Karmann Ghias

    Wednesday, October 09, 2013

    A Plausible, Good Deal

    Peggy Noonan on the "strange shutdown":
    Republicans, who hate big government, are fighting to keep it open, and Democrats, who love big government, are fighting to keep it closed.
    The Republicans want to fund everything but Obamacare, which is a sacred cow to Democrats; hence the impasse.

    In the short run everyone in Washington is looking bad, and the Republicans are looking worse. If this goes on much longer, however, the majority of Americans may find that they're getting along just fine if Washington is closed. Big government advocates are running a huge risk: benefits and taxes both stopping looks more and more like a plausible, good deal.

    Tuesday, October 08, 2013

    An Exciting Winter

    A few months ago we noted how Bay Area fans are lucky to have contending teams in all major professional sports. We're doubly lucky in that the teams have exciting young players whose talents have attracted national attention: Giants catcher Buster Posey, Warriors shooting guard Stephen Curry, and 49ers running quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

    From seemingly nowhere (actually, the Czech Republic) now comes 19-year-old rookie forward Tomas Hertl to lead not only the undefeated San Jose Sharks but also the entire National Hockey League in scoring in the young season. But what got everyone talking was his four-goal night, the last being a spectacular between-the-legs shot that flummoxed the Rangers goalie.

    It's going to be an exciting winter.

    Monday, October 07, 2013

    Mend It, But Don't End It

    After four days of interviews I was finally excused from jury duty. I related to the court how a family member had been negatively affected by a similar case, and although I said that I could be fair, the defense did not think so.

    Not offended by their opinion of my (lack of) objectivity, I left the courtroom with a smile. The State would not capture the next six weeks of my life.

    My dismissal was easy to predict, but the decision took three-and-a-half days too long. So why did I and most of the hundred other good citizens put up with this process? Because each of us could imagine sitting in the same spot as the defendants, and we are not willing to dispense with the system that--for all its inefficiency, complexity, and mind-numbing procedures--protects us all. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Sunday, October 06, 2013

    Blessing of the Animals

    The line started forming at noon. Everyone, whether he or she had two or four legs, waited peaceably.

    This Sunday represented the eighth year that priests from the local Episcopal Church blessed pets and their owners in honor of animals' patron saint, Francis of Assisi.

    Ladies from the Homeless Cat Network again set up a table. HCN spays feral cats who live in the wetlands and sets up feeding stations to minimize their impact on Bay wildlife. HCN's efforts appear to be working; the number of feral cats has shrunk to less than 100.

    By two o'clock we were done, and we packed up the tables, chairs, and signs. Somewhere Saint Francis was smiling. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Saturday, October 05, 2013

    Traffic Avoided

    Beach next to the restaurant
    Six months after our first visit, we drove to Half Moon Bay for lunch at Barbara's Fishtrap. We refused to be misdirected by Apple Maps, which kept insisting that the restaurant was east of Highway 1 next to a school; we switched to Google Maps, which placed our destination accurately along the beach.

    At 1:30 p.m. on Friday the wait for a table was only ten minutes. (It's best to avoid Half Moon Bay on October weekends when the hordes descend on pumpkin farms; congestion peaks during the Pumpkin Festival on October 19-20.)

    Calamari and chips
    The fish and chips were as good as we remembered---hot, moist, and crunchy. The calamari was prepared in similar fashion and did not disappoint.

    A fall afternoon, pleasant company and lunch by the seaside.  Life is good.

    Friday, October 04, 2013

    October 4, The Feast of St. Francis

    Today the Pope visited the tomb of perhaps the greatest post-New Testament saint, Francis of Assisi, the saint whose name he adopted.
    “He's great because he is everything. He is a man who wants to do things, wants to build, he founded an order and its rules, he is an itinerant and a missionary, a poet and a prophet, he is mystical. He found evil in himself and rooted it out.

    “He loved nature, animals, the blade of grass on the lawn and the birds flying in the sky. But above all he loved people, children, old people, women. He is the most shining example of that agape we talked about earlier."

    But he added: "I'm not Francis of Assisi and I do not have his strength and his holiness."
    Not to get all mystical, but St. Francis' spirit does seem to reside in those who take his name. May the Holy Father and the great City lying to the north ever continue to do so.

    Thursday, October 03, 2013

    One Banker Whom I Respect

    The Texas Monthly runs a profile of Dick Fisher, the CEO of the Dallas Federal Reserve bank. Known for his hawkishness on interest rates, he may be taken for a dyed-in-the-wool Republican, but in 1994 he ran as the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate against Kay Bailey Hutchinson.
    By all accounts, including his own, Fisher didn’t make much of an impression on the people of Texas. Hutchison was reelected in a twenty-point landslide
    Dick Fisher has surprises sprinkled throughout his resume. His father struggled to make ends meet, moving the family to China, California, Mexico and Florida during Richard's childhood. As a child, Richard spoke Spanish better than he did English. He worked summers at a greasy spoon, got a scholarship to prep school, and ended up in the Ivy League.

    By the time I met him in the 1970's--we were in the same study group--the transformation was complete. Always preppily dressed, he didn't have to tell anyone that he went to Harvard, he looked it. He was more "Ivy" than the other Ivy graduates in our class and was a straight arrow in appearance, attitude, and behavior when, frankly, most of us weren't.

    His classmates are honing their golf swings, but Richard appears to be working harder than ever.

    Wednesday, October 02, 2013

    I Won't Pay You, But You Must Pay Me

    It has been our experience that most people still do the ethical--and legal--thing by living up to their contractual obligations when dealing with struggling businesses. However, one need not be stupid about it; if the financially troubled business owes us and we owe them money, we "offset" receivables and payables and pay them the net amount, if any. (Landlords netting repairs and security deposit refunds are probably the offset example that is most familiar.)

    But offset is not allowed when the other party is the government:
    “Tax refunds will not be issued until normal government operations resume,” said the IRS. The IRS emphasized, however, that the underlying tax law remains in effect, and all taxpayers should continue to meet their tax obligations as normal.
    The IRS won't pay you, but you must continue to pay it or be subject to jail and/or fines.

    Those who advocate more government, as opposed to private-sector, provision of services are in for a rude shock when they discover that the devil they threw out is replaced by a devil that is far worse because it doesn't have to worry about losing you as a customer or your poor Yelp review. © 2013 Stephen Yuen

    Tuesday, October 01, 2013

    Not a Flash Mob

    Regular readers of this humble journal may have been expecting a few comments about the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare," whose insurance exchanges are going live today.

    For sheer waste and inefficiency, however, it's hard to beat the jury selection process. Today over 100 people had to listen with rapt attention to people like you and me drone on about their life experiences. Would it be too much to ask to schedule group 15-minute interviews with prospective jurors? The sessions could be videotaped for later analysis by prosecution and defense. That way each of us would only sacrifice half a day instead of a week.

    Why do we sheepishly put up with this? Because we have to. The judge issues bench warrants for no-shows, and bail amounts to tens of thousands of dollars.

    Except for military service where the opposite occurred, more and more "voluntary" acts of civic responsibility have become mandatory. In California we keep electing people who put these laws into place, so I guess we must like it. © 2013 Stephen Yuen